The Chieftain’s Daughter

There was once a great chieftain, kind and fair and loved by all, including his daughter, and only child. He was a wise man who lived longer than anyone expected and while there was much mourning when he passed away it surprised no one.

The chieftain’s daughter Ranveig prepared her father’s body; for seven days she and her servants prepared for the burial. Cleaning the body, sewing new clothes and gathering the possessions the chieftain had most loved so that these might be buried along with him to use in the afterlife. On the seventh day, the chieftain was carried from his home to the great grave mound. The men carried their lord, ensuring that his shrouded body was lifted and lowered three times in three different directions. When the chieftain’s body was laid in the mound, they placed iron on his chest, a pair of scissors providing protection from any malicious spirit returning. Around him were things of great value: golden goblets and dishes, armbands, torcs and helms, and many swords and daggers decorated with intricate designs in praise of the gods. They placed a shield then, across his body, before covering him with rocks, soil and sod. When this was done the mourners gathered in the great hall for the sjaund, the feast to honour the dead.

The people gathered around the door of the hall and there awaited Ranveig. When she appeared, two large men of the village lifted her three times above the lintel of the doorframe, as was the tradition, for in this way the future could be foretold.

“What did you see?” the villagers asked. They all followed the chieftain’s daughter to the Lord’s chair at the end of the great hall.

Ranveig had been raised to be sensible, logical and fair. She sat, smoothing her funeral dress as a gold goblet of mead was brought to her. She took a sip before speaking. “I saw a mountain shrouded in mist. The mountain shook and great rocks crashed down the side. Three trees stood and were crushed by a huge boulder rolling down the side of the mountain. After this the vision ended.” She took another sip. 

There were mutterings in the crowd and one man asked, “But what does it mean?”

The young woman shook her head. “I know not, but this is not the time to discuss it. My father’s spirit awaits its feast!”

“And mead!” someone shouted. A great noise went up in the hall and the daughter ordered the food and drink be served. The smell of roast boar filled the hall as a great platter was carried in and over the next few hours all manner of beast and fowl were served, along with more mead and beer.

Later in the night one of the servants started to argue with a man from another valley who had come to pay his respects. “Your lord was great but mine is the greater of the two!” the visitor claimed.

The servant, by now quite drunk, and angered by the visitor’s insult, roared back, “My lord was much better than yours, you dog! He was a great warrior and as fair a ruler as any man has ever seen! And he had more gold than any man in Iceland, as befitted his station!”

The men continued to argue drunkenly, and barely noticed that three strangers dressed as traders had entered the hall and were secretly listening to the fight. “My brothers, this is the opportunity that brought us to this valley. Tomorrow at midnight we will go the grave of this chieftain and steal his gold. What need has a dead man of gold? When we are done we will never need to work again.”

The following night the thieves met by the chieftain’s grave, wearing their darkest cloaks so as to remain hidden. Silently they removed the rocks and sod until the gold that had been buried with the lord could be seen through the dirt. Each of the three men had a sack with him and each took enough gold to fill their own sack. They hastily covered the mound, then snuck away with their stolen gold. No one would know that they had been there.

The next day the chieftain’s daughter visited her father’s grave and noticed that the turf had been disturbed. Dismissing it as animals, she knelt beside the cairn and spoke to her father of her sorrow at losing him. As she spoke she thought she saw a haze hovering over the mound but she dismissed it, believing it to be an illusion caused by her grief and exhaustion. But when a young bird dropped from the sky onto the grave, cold and dead, this was an omen she could not ignore.

Ranveig announced her suspicions to her household when she returned. “There is a draugr in the village. I tell you this so you might be prepared.”

Most of the household listened, preparing charms and offering prayers to the gods for protection, but even the conscientious were not spared the draugr’s wrath. One evening a local shepherd was brought before Ranveig in the main hall. His face was grey and he stumbled as he was helped to a stool near the hearth. He gulped down the mead that was brought to him, muttering incoherently, eyes scanning the room wildly. After three cups he came to his senses enough to speak. 

“My brother and I were tending our sheep, I went in search of a lamb that had wandered away.” The words caught in his throat. “I found the lamb and returned to my brother.” The man’s hands shook so greatly that the mead spilled over the sides of the clay cup he grasped. “When I arrived in his field he . . . . they . . . .”

Ranveig knelt before the man. “Please, you must tell us what happened.”

The shepherd nodded. “The sheep were gone, dead. Their bodies were torn and scattered, some were missing their heads, others had their insides hanging from their stomachs. And my brother, I found him too.” He stopped and took a deep breath. “His arms, they were ripped from his body.” The man looked at those who surrounded him in the hall. “As were his legs.” He held up his hand and shook his head, unable to continue. 

            The three thieves, who believed they had gotten away with their crime, dismissed the tales of destruction as the delusions of superstitious villagers. They laughed and enjoyed their riches, mocking the dead chieftain though they had been taught as children that this would bring misfortune. One night the eldest of the thieves was stumbling alone along a deserted road. He had been visiting a distant cousin in a nearby valley and they had had much to drink. Singing and giggling to himself, he did not notice that a cold fog had descended on him as he walked, nor did he notice the foul stench that surrounded him. As he neared his own rented lodgings the cold air had finally sharpened his senses and he became aware of thunderous footsteps following him. Turning, he saw an enormous shape advancing quickly and tried to get away. The draugr had taken the form of the dead chieftain but it made a mockery of the man the lord had once been. It wore the chieftain’s clothes but the body was so bloated and putrid that the clothes had torn at all the seams and were stained dark with the draugr’s excretions. The creature’s flesh was dark blue, its eyes glowed white and its weight had grown so dense that the ground shook with every step it took. The thief began to run but he was still drunk and stumbled, falling onto the cold ground. He looked up and saw that the huge shape was now towering over him, five times the size of any man, and was rocking back and forth, shrieking. Scrabbling in the dirt and now mindless with fear, the thief screamed in agony as the draugr fell upon him, crushing him so badly that his organs split through his skin and fell onto the ground. In this way the first thief died

            The second thief, after hearing of his friend’s death, decided to return to England. He booked passage on a ship which would sail in three days’ time and readied his belongings, including the dead chieftain’s gold. The evening before his voyage he made sure a dagger was close, for he now slept with a weapon. He had felt a sense of unease all day and now that the night had come his feeling grew worse. Despite his disquiet the second thief fell into a deep sleep, and was thus unaware of the draugr in his room. The draugr closed its dead white eyes and flew into the thief’s dreams, showing the man death and fear and the end of all things. When the thief failed to show at the dock the next day to board the ship a servant was sent to his rooms, where the criminal was found dead in his bed, a look of terror on his face.

By now the third thief was aware that something was coming after him but was still arrogant and believed that his fellow-conspirators had been weak. He snuck into each of their lodgings and took all of the gold that they had taken from the dead chieftain’s grave, storing it along with his own share in the cellar of the house he rented. He barred the doors, covered all of the windows and had a local shaman give him tokens of protection to hang on trees around the property. Nothing would gain entrance to his home, living or dead. The draugr, seeing what the last thief had done, stood outside of the house and in the old tongue roared a curse at the man. Howling as he finished he flew off into the night. Inside the house the thief shivered in fear but emerged the next morning alive, if a little disoriented. He went down to the river to bathe himself, laughing at his own superstitions and fear. But when he undressed the smell that suddenly came from his own body nearly overpowered him. Looking down at his arms he saw nothing but patches of rotting flesh, pus and corruption dripping from each wound. His entire body was covered in sores, some with small wriggling maggots burrowing deeper. He ran to the shaman who told him that this was old magic and impossible to cure. In despair the last thief ran back to the house. He had to do something and decided he would cure himself. He heated the dagger that had been by his bed and when the weapon was red hot he sliced the bad flesh from his arm, leg and torso. The pain made the thief cry out and he lost consciousness. When he awoke he saw that the wounds were worse than before and again tried to cut the infection out with his knife. Again he passed out. The next time he woke he was delirious, the agony excruciating. He thought of his gold and knew he had to survive but there was nothing the thief could do. When they presented his body to the chieftain’s daughter he had only a single small wound on his arm. All of the gold that had been taken from her father’s grave had also been collected from the last thief’s rooms.

One of Ranveig’s advisors spoke. “The draugr has had its justice; it has claimed the lives of the men who stole from it yet it still remains with us. Is there any man in the valley who will help us to secure the creature?”

No one spoke, all were terrified of the beast. The chieftain’s daughter stood and addressed the villagers. “I will do it, I will return the draugr to his grave. It was once my father and the responsibility is mine. I require a few men to help me.”

The daughter first ordered that her father’s grave be opened, that all of the sod and rocks be removed, and that the gold that had been taken by the thieves be restored. She then changed to her warmest clothes and sat waiting by the grave until nightfall. As the light dimmed the haze she had seen her first night at the grave returned and the smell of decay embraced her. She stood and turned. The draugr was before her, enormous and dripping fluid onto the ground.

“I say out loud that I have respect for the draugr before me. The draugr before me is a mighty warrior whom many will sing of. I cower before the great draugr and while I am unworthy to address the draugr I request the powerful draugr allow me to speak with my deceased father.”

The draugr listened to the words of the daughter but was unmoved. It roared and took a step toward her. She gathered her courage and yelled over the noise. “Father!  Help me, please!” The draugr stumbled and swayed. “Father, I miss you and think of you every day!” Again the draugr swayed, holding out a decaying arm to steady itself and howled in pain. Ranveig took a step towards the creature and whispered, “Father, I love you.” When the draugr stumbled again, the chieftain’s daughter rushed at it with an iron knife. Nothing could kill a draugr but the iron would hurt it. The beast fell backwards into the open grave, screaming and grasping at the knife lodged in its chest. Ranveig acted quickly: she jumped into the grave after the draugr and using the same knife she sawed off the thing’s head. It was only when she saw the light fade from the pale white eyes that she climbed out and ordered the grave to be refilled.

To this day songs are sung of the chieftain’s daughter, of her bravery and of the great love she had for her father.

Copyright Kelly Evans

%d bloggers like this: