I am Ingibjorg. I am a giantess, a Queen and a stepmother. I have three sisters. They are all troll witches. I too am a troll witch and a volva. I am a priestess and I practice the old magic, the seidr, the rites of Freyja and Odin.
Many years ago, I married a widowed King. His first wife had been a great priestess. She died giving birth to her son Sigurd and was buried with full high ceremony, with her tools, her wand, and her staff in a great haugr outside the palace walls. I was much younger then, living in the forest with my sisters, learning my craft. Many said I had special powers. I was different from the other troll witches, who preferred their own company and that of the disir. I came from a deep place of heart knowing, and felt great compassion for the grieving townsfolk as they mourned their dead and dying.
I would sit on the Queen’s burial mound, and practice my seidr rites with my drum and rattle. Her mound was a powerful seat; I knew she was teaching me her great art and from there I could look out across the palace to the sea as I sang the songs of my staff, Arrowen. I often saw the King coming to mourn his wife. I wanted to hold him, to comfort him, but his grief was so deep, so strong, he would not see me through his tears. I would slip quietly away, back into the forest. There in my hut I’d dream of carrying the great sword Gunnfoder and riding the fabled horse Gullfaxi, the golden maned steed once given to Magni by Thor. This was in return for freeing him from the heavy leg of the giant Hrungnir, who’s skull Thor had crushed with his hammer in a fight to defend Odin during the argument over whose horse was the fastest: Sleipnir or Gullfaxi.
For ten years every morning, I would sit singing on the mound, until one day when the sea mists had rolled in enveloping the palace, I felt a presence behind me and a hand placed on my left shoulder. I could see the great ring of the King and I turned to look at him. When he gazed at me with his sad eyes, I saw a shift in his soul and knew then that I loved him with all my heart. His love for me was so strong that within a few days we were married. I was welcomed in the palace high on the hill overlooking the sea. I became stepmother to Sigurd, a bright, shining boy who loved me as he might his own mother. We would play together in the apple orchard and then follow the path that led into the woods where I would teach him what I knew of the secrets of the forest. How to listen to the wisdom of the trees when they whispered on the wind.
As Sigurd was growing into a young man, at times he could be wilful and stubborn. One dark day he would not go out hunting with his father. I urged him to go, after all it was his duty when the King called, but he refused to leave my rooms and hid himself away to sulk. So my sisters came to seek him out, the three giantesses out of the deep forest. Each one in turn demanded to see their nephew until the last sister, who sensed Sigurd's presence, cast a spell on him and he crawled out from under my bed with his face twisted and deformed. Looking at his reflection in my mirror, Sigurd was so horrified, the small boy in him buried his face in my gown, his hot tears wetting the blood red silk until it was stained with salt.
As I cradled him in my arms and sang soft, soothing songs, I told him how he could break the spell. I gave him three gold rings and a large ball of string, and told him to go deep into the forest, tie the string to the rings and roll the ball until it stopped at each troll witches’ wooden house. He must follow the string through the dense undergrowth until he could knock on their doors. My sisters would threaten to eat him alive, to boil his bones for stock, but if Sigurd gave them each a ring their hearts would soften, for their love of gold was greater than their love of bone. In return they would give him strength if he drank the mead from their horns. Should my wolf Ruttisdir appear at any point with tears in his eyes, then Sigurd must return to the palace immediately, as this would be a sign I was in trouble.
The King returned from his hunt, and on finding Sigurd gone, was utterly distraught. He would not believe my story and in a great rage accused me of practising dark magic; of wilfully giving Sigurd to my sisters as a sacrifice; of even disfiguring him with my own hands. He locked me in the highest tower with my staff, my drum, my wand and just a little food. At that moment my heart broke. A thousand shards fell on the stone floor and I could not piece them together. For a year and a day I sat in that cold stone tower singing to the sea mists and calling out to Sigurd to stay strong in the forest.
One morning, as the sun was shining through the small window, nine guards opened the heavy door and escorted me to the palace courtyard, where a large stake surrounded by wood for a great fire had been erected. The King would not look at me, but spoke through his men, who accused me of treason and the murder of the royal prince. I called out to Ruttisdir to find and send for Sigurd. The guards tore at my red dress, stripped me naked, and tied me tightly to the stake. The wind was cold and my heart heavy. I remembered the look of the King when we first laid eyes upon each other. This was not the man I had married. The grief for his first wife had worn so far into his bones that an old mistrust and rage still sat in the marrow, eating away at his love for me until he would have me killed. I called on Freyja, I called on Odin to free me.
At the moment the fire was to be lit, the gates to the courtyard sprung open. A handsome young man riding the wild golden horse Gullfaxi with a woman sat astride clinging on to his golden mane, galloped towards us. Without dismounting, he drew his great sword Gunnfoder and sliced off the heads of all nine guards with its sharp blade. This was Sigurd and his bride-to-be Helga. His father broke down in tears of joy and quickly ordered my release. The King felt ashamed that he had not believed me all those months ago. He fell on his knees, begging for forgiveness as he buried his face in my blood red gown, until his tears stained the silk with salt. I said I would give him my answer after the marriage feast.
In the great hall, Sigurd and Helga told their tale of how the last giantess had returned him to his full strength and beauty, and told him to go to a lake where he would find Helga sitting in her boat. She had taken him home where she turned him into a bundle of wool to hide him from her over protective and possessive giant father. The shape shifting worked. As soon as her father had gone out believing the smell of men was indeed just the smell of wool, Helga turned Sigurd back into his human self. They played games of hide and seek in the dark shadows, as young would-be-lovers do. In a secret room at the back of the house, Sigurd found the sword Gunnfoder, complete with a magic twig, a stick and stone. Helga explained that throwing the twig would cause a forest to leap up and striking the stone with the stick would make a violent hailstorm fall from the sky. On the jewelled hilt of the sword, carved in runes, were the words:
“He who rides this horse and wears this sword will find happiness.”
There, lying in the corner of the room was a sleeping horse, with a golden mane as lush and as thick as the silk woven from strands of sunbeams by the Norns. Sigurd knew this was Gullfaxi; he had to have this horse and sword as somehow it would lead him to his marriage with Helga. He asked her if he could ride Gullfaxi. Reluctantly she agreed as long as it was just one circle around the lake. Sigurd lept into the golden saddle with Gunnfoder at his side and galloped at great speed across the lake shore, then on towards the hills and mountains beyond.
When Helga’s father found her crying by her boat, he stormed after Sigurd with great giant steps. Sigurd could sense he was gaining ground, so threw the twig behind him and up sprang a thick forest. The giant swiftly sliced down the trees with blade of his axe, hot on Sigurd’s heels. So Sigurd took the stick and struck the stone, unleashing a great hailstorm which killed the giant instantly as the sharp ice stones struck his head. Sigurd returned to collect Helga, and it was at that point Ruttisdir found them with tears in his eyes, so they rode faster than the wind back to the palace just in time to rescue me from the fire.
As the marriage feast rolled on into the night, my heart remained heavy. I longed to bury my face into Gullfaxi's golden mane, so I left the celebrations and found my way to the stables. As the great horse pressed his soft nostrils into mine I knew then I was not going back. As much as I had once loved the King, his betrayal had struck at my core. It was time to leave this palace, take Gunnfoder and Gullfaxi, and ride out to my own freedom. I hitched up my red silk gown, and rode faster than the wind over hills and mountains without a single glance back, until I found this abandoned stone tower. Close to a stream, at the edge of a wood, with a view out to sea and the mists when they rolled in, it was the sanctuary I sought. I draped the rooms with my own rune tapestries, mounted Gunnfoder above the fireplace, and began to practice my seidr once more. I had Gullfaxi, Arrowen, my drum and Ruttisdir for company. I have sat here all these years since, weaving my tales for those that will listen.
“She who rides this horse and wears this sword will find happiness.”
I am done with the grief of raging kings.
This tale is my reworking of an Icelandic story which appeared as ‘The Horse Gullfaxi and Sword Gunnfoder” in the Crimson Fairy Book (1903), complied by Andrew Lang. Cover picture, a painting by Edward Munch, as photographed in Oslo Museum of Fine Arts. Drawings by H.J Ford from the Crimson Fairy Book. Chimeres by Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan Bouveret