THE FIRE HOSTAGE
Now when the lad who knew no fear at last found his way to the foot of the mountain, he saw that the land was littered all about with the bones of many men, a great army of skeletons, still clad in rusting mail and broken plate. What manner of place is this, he wondered, for if in life these warriors were honorably felled in battle, why had the host of Valkyries not come upon their milk-white steeds to bear them to Valhalla?
Laying his doubts aside, Garin set to stripping the corpses of knives and daggers with which he might hasten his ascent, finding, at last, a heavy double-headed battleax, a goodly thing for driving the blades into the rock. Nonetheless, in spite of all his effort, the climb was arduous and slow, for the mountainside was steep and treacherous, making it almost impossible to gain purchase on the sheer, unyielding face. Yet ever undiscouraged, the tireless youth made his way for many hours—a day and a night or so it seemed—until, pulling himself up onto a narrow shelf of rock, he saw that he was hardly further from the bottom than when he had begun, and that the ground below was still much nearer than the summit above.
Now there drew on an ominous and dreadful storm such as might unman the heartiest of heroes. Lightning arced from the low-brooding clouds that swirled about the mountain. Thunder broke in deafening roars, reechoing against the peak until the rocks themselves began to quail and quake as if in terror of the storm-god’s wrath. The loud reports spread out in all directions, far and wide, booming through the forests and valleys below like the mighty footfalls of a giant.
Undaunted even by this, Garin resumed the ascent, clambering upward through the very heart of the tempest until the clouds lay far below him, a churning maelstrom of murky mist and shadow, now and then illumined from within by sullen bursts of lightning, half-blurred beneath the roiling haze. Still on he climbed until, upon what must have been the dawning of the third day, the hero beheld a drear promontory, flat and barren save for an ancient stone circle, a shrine to some unremembered god, long fallen into disrepair. And yet, the youth could see at once that the place was enchanted, for among the pillars that still remained erect, a spectral conflagration blazed and flickered, unkindled and unconsuming, upon the very air itself.
‘Tis naught but an enchanter’s glimmer, he thought. But when he stretched out his hand to touch the fire, Garin found that it was surely real enough. Even so, from time to time the flames would appear to part, becoming transparent whenever the lightning flashed far below. Thus, for a fleeting moment, the circle inside the wall of fire would be illuminated. And there within, Garin spied the image of a beautiful maiden, reposing on a low stone couch, though whether in slumber or in death, he could not rightly say.
In truth, Garin had no words for what he saw—for though the lad knew vaguely of women, he had never beheld one so closely before. Could this be the cenotaph of some fallen heroine, he wondered, the grave-effigy of a valiant shield-maiden? Or, perhaps, an alter of the elder folk, set up in reverent homage to an ancient patroness of battle? Curiosity welled up within his heart like a ravenous hunger, and thus, drawn by a strange emotion he could not name, the boy tried to think of a way he might break through the ring of fire, and make his way to the maiden’s side.
Putting his back to the flames, his great sword drawn and ready, Garin began to wheel about like a weathercock, turning widdershins as he sought out the very warp and weave of the magic from which that wondrous conflagration had been conjured. Through the iridescent tongues of flame he struggled, even as a mariner might sail into the face of the wind. The fire seared and branded his flesh where it was exposed, but would not give way. So Garin began anew, circling in a deosil direction, against the grain of the spell. And though the fire barely burned him this time, neither would it yield nor part. Again and again he tried, seeking a path through the unearthly blaze, and each time the way was blocked.
Finally, waiting for a lightning flash from below, whence the wall of flame grew transparent as a pane of crystal, and ridding his mind of all thought save that of the beautiful damsel within, Garin burst through the fire into the midst of the circle.
And there outstretched before him lay a woman of surpassing loveliness and grace, neither of wood nor stone, but of flesh and blood, loosely involved from head to toe in a diaphanous shroud, which did not hide the simple linen shift she wore beneath. A beauty, tall and lithe of limb, her hair was the color of honey, the long silken tresses tumbling about her naked shoulders in supple disarray. Her hands were folded formally across her midriff, fingers entwined in regal repose. Her eyes were closed as if sleep hung heavily upon them, though her bosom did not rise or fall, nor was there any sound of breath upon her winsome lips.
But as he looked upon her, Garin, for the first time in his life, was seized by dread. “Better to face a score of dragons,” he said to himself, “or contend alone against a host of goblins, for in that case at least my arms would remember their skill, and I could strike at the heart of my foe. Yet, as it is, I can neither rush headlong into the fray nor turn about and flee.”
Thus, ever so cautiously, the lad reached forward with his sword, gently prodding the dormant vision before him. “Rise up and challenge me!” he cried, but the sleeper was not roused. Emboldened thus, using only the very tip of the blade, Garin lifted the shroud from the maiden’s face, gazing on that fair and fearsome countenance with childlike awe. After a moment he began to pull back the gossamer fabric that covered the rest of her body, slowly peeling it away as if it were no more substantial than a spider’s web, until, at last, it lay about her sides, a tattered remnant of the gauzy grave sheet that had imprisoned her.
Surely she still lives, Garin thought, and it was true, for there was no sign of corruption upon her flesh; her voluptuous limbs had not wasted as one in death, nor had mortality cast its withering shadow o’er her rosy cheeks. And yet, for all, she did not stir.
He came close then, inclining his ear to listen at her lips, but no sound did she make. After a short while he turned his face to hers, softly blowing upon her mouth, but no sign did she offer in return. He gently pressed his lips to hers, willing the maiden to respond as he shared his breath with her, but still she would not be awakened.
I’ve come too late, he thought, stepping back that he might take in the sight of her more fully. It was then he noticed that one of the sleeping beauty’s perfect breasts lay bare, for the gown she wore had fallen open as he cut away the shroud. And before he knew what was happening, Garin’s mutinous manhood had risen up within his breeches, growing painfully tumescent at the thought of her unveiled pulchritude.
And so, driven by youthful lust, intoxicating as the first taste of new wine, the boy returned and knelt beside the maiden once again, leaning down to kiss her fair, firm breast, and run his curious fingers through her hair. The gods are cruel to lead me to such an end, he thought. How now am I to be satisfied? His lips and tongue then freely roved about her comely curving shoulders, ascending the alabaster column of her neck, until they found her mouth a second time. “Farewell,” he whispered, “Would that I had known thee in life.” Thus he sighed and murmured, too addled by thoughts of desire to notice that the woman’s lips were warm and yielding where they ought only to have been rigid and cold.
At last, weary from the many labors of the arduous hours gone by, Garin laid his head upon that welcoming bosom, meaning to rest a little while. Yet, strange it was, for at that very moment, he thought he heard the beating of the damsel’s heart.
“How can this be?” he said. Still, pressing his ear more closely to her breast, he attended with all his might. And there it was again, a mortal cadence, muffled and slow, yet adamant withal. “Surely, it must be a dream!”
No sooner had the words left his lips, than the maiden started up on her stony bier, drawing in a great gulping breath. “And what would you know of dreams?” she said, wrenching the sword from Garin’s hands. “Explain yourself, presumptuous mortal!”
The woman held the sword to his throat, edgewise, a little way beneath his ear. She asked again: “Who is he that wakens me so boldly?”
“I am Garin, the son of Lotharing and Lorne,” he stammered, struggling to master his fear, “and I have come many leagues seeking this place. With the aid of the gods themselves I forged the very steel you hold now in your hands, and with it, too, I’ve slain a fearsome dragon, winning for myself a great hoard of riches beyond measure. For three days and three nights by my counting I clambered up this alpen crag, breached the ensorcelled ring of flame, and found you here as if bewitched, enthralled in deathlike slumber.”
“Truly?” The maiden leveled the sword at Garin’s chest. “Are you the hero, sir, whose coming my father foretold?”
“The Father of All,” she replied. “Wotan himself.”
“How now?” said Garin. “Whence came you, a daughter of the mightiest of gods, to this bleak and unexalted plane? Wherefore have you been spellbound upon this low and lonely rock?”
“I am called Feurgeisel,” she said, “that is, Hostage of the Fire, though long ago I bore a nobler name, before I was imprisoned here for defying the will of my father. Once I was among the company of Valkyries, who bear the bodies of the honored slain from off the field of battle. But I chanced to fall in love with one of my mortal charges, a warrior of matchless mettle and manly prowess. So it was that I plucked him from harm’s way when Fate had justly decreed his death. I could not endure the thought of so low and inglorious a doom for such as he, to be stabbed in the back by a cowardly dissembling foe. Love blinded me to duty, and so I was imprisoned for my crime within this cell of mystic flame.
“Yet I begged my father, e’er he abandoned me to my penance, one day to send a hero who might pass through the fire and win me to himself. And such love was in great Wotan’s heart that he granted his wayward child this boon.”
“And so have I come,” said Garin, “and so would I have you now.”
“Mayhap you shall,” replied the Valkyrie, still brandishing the sword. “Yet one more test remains ere you prove yourself that champion of whom the bards shall sing.”
“And what test is that?”
“A simple thing, indeed, for such as you,” she smiled. “Only vanquish me in single combat, whence I’ll gladly give myself to you. Overcome my immortal body by dint of strength and skill, and it shall be yours to do with as you will.”
“Aye?” Garin moved quick as lightning, dancing aside to dodge the blade, and, in a single dizzying turn, seize the Valkyrie about the wrists. And now they contended, strength for strength; Wotan’s daughter desperate to keep hold of the sword-hilt even as the son of Lotharing would strive with all his might to wrest it from her grasp.
“I feel the trembling weakness of your limbs,” said Garin.“I hear the panting sighs of fatigue upon your troubled breath. The fire of defiance has gone out of your eyes, whence now they wax with fear. Mayhap I shall not need to fight you at all.”
“Oh glorious All-Father! What have you done?” cried Feurgeisel. “Can it be that I am mortal?”
No sooner had the words parted from the blushing maiden’s lips, than Garin overcame her last defense, turning her wrists aside until at last the sword became too heavy for her to bear. With no other choice left to her, Feuergeisel dropped the blade, and bowed her head in maidenly submission.
The boy raised her clenched wrists to his lips and kissed them hungrily. Still, he hesitated to do more, not knowing what to make of this new-won prize, the like of which he had never beheld. Nor did Feuergeisel yet understand the ways of a mortal woman’s heart, for it is intuition above all else that sets the children of Midgard apart from those who dwell above. Thus, waiting upon him patiently, by and by she looked up into his eyes with dread and wonder. And as she gazed upon him, a strange spirit rose within her, whence she knew at last what she must do.
Slowly, she pulled his hands to her bosom, leaning forward so that he might savor the firmness of her unimprisoned breast. With that, the lad released her wrists, and thrust his fingers wantonly beneath the drooping fringe of her bodice, the better to probe the camber of that still half-veiled orb. His trembling palms were moist against her soft enfevered flesh, his fingers curious yet uncertain. Thus, heeding her new-found mortal senses, the maiden laid a gentle hand upon his burgeoning loins, and so began to work the laces of his leathern breeches, whence in a little while his ample manhood was released, drawn inch by inch into the open air.
“Oh, brave and wondrous sight!” the Valkyrie sighed. “Truly only the greatest of heroes could wield so worthy a weapon!” So saying, she bowed her head to lay her lips upon the lurid shaft, anointing it with kisses like a supplicant at the feet of some dread lord. Bold Garin could do naught but gasp and moan as Feuergeisel pleasured him thus. And so it was that desire at last overcame uncertainty, and, firmly seizing her by the shoulders, he began to bull his way into the maiden’s mouth, thrusting forward with his thighs till, with a deep groan, he sped and spent upon her thirsty palate.
“How now!” he cried. “I am undone! For you have disarmed me a second time!”
“Not so,” said Feuergeisel. “See? Brave and unbroken stands thy blade, wanting for naught but a sheath to call its own.”
“And where,” said he, “am I to find a proper scabbard?”
“Here, my lord,” Feuergeisel replied, standing boldly before him as the shift fell about her feet. “Come, lie down with me and try it—” she drew his hand to the place of which she spoke “—no doubt ‘twill make a goodly fit.”
And so they lay together, the hero and his Valkyrie, limbs ever tightly entwined as they wrestled and writhed, delving the pleasures of earthly love, joying in one another’s strength. Garin might well have conquered with his hungry mouth alone, while Feuergeisel, beguiling him with sighs and kisses, eagerly led the lad to all the hidden treasures of her maiden flesh. Their hips and thighs were as the wind and waves, rolling and swelling, arching and falling, the hero moving easily within his love, as she for her part eagerly rose to meet his sure, unhurried thrusts. Again and again, they melted in the fiery forge of bliss, one into the other, dying in delight, to be reborn, yet only half-cooled, to a still more adamant desire.
“Oh, what a thing it is to be mortal,” cried Feuergeisel, “for I never knew the power of such enjoyment could be contained within mine own unworthy limbs, like some hidden treasure waiting to be found!”
“Nor I,” said Garin, leaning over to kiss her breasts again, blowing upon her jewel-like paps, as one might work a bellows to bring a fire to full and fulsome heat. “’Tis true, before I came unto you I knew naught of dread, yet now you’ve shown me a thing even mightier than fear.”
“Love!” she whispered.
“Aye,” said Garin. “And a favorable omen from the gods it is, for with it we are both set free indeed. Thus, shall you no longer be the lowly hostage of the fire; but I shall call thee Siegrid, for, in truth, you are my beauty and my peace, my glorious victory and my happy rest. What say you, fair one?”
“I like it well, my lord,” said Siegrid, drawing him into her restless, yearning arms. “And I would have that blade of yours once more within its scabbard!”
“You are a young lad’s dream come true!” he said. “But look! Do you not see?”
“What, my love?”
“The sun!” He pointed upward to the sky. “The sun has come out at last! How could I have failed to notice it, but that my eyes were dazzled by an even greater wonder!”
And thus, the twilight that had so long oppressed the land was broken by the brightness of a new day, and the sorrows of Midgard were, for a time, forgotten. Some say it was the father of the gods, great Wotan himself, smiling upon the union of his own dear daughter with so worthy a hero as Garin, the lad who knew no fear. Some say the two of them still dwell quite happily together within that enchanted wheel of flame upon the mountainside, where, eternally young, they pass the time with tales and songs, making love with that same wonder and delight as when first they met.
Read Part 1 here
Read Part 2 here