SIEGFRIED

Regin the dwarf beat his hammer rhythmically against the anvil, slowly forging a perfect blade. His wrinkled face, tanned by years at the forge, shone with pearls of sweat. He worked slowly and carefully, watched all the time by young Siegfried, to whom he was teaching the secrets of his craft. Many years ago, the boy's mother, Sieglinde, had been lost in the forest. She was just about to give birth to her son. The dwarf had rescued her, and later became the boy's tutor, teaching him to be a great warrior. He taught Siegfried the arts of battle and of hunting: how to track stags and kill wolves and bears. He gave him a spirited gray stallion to ride, and Siegfried became a fine horseman, galloping through the vast forests.

This morning, after his ride, Siegfried took less notice of his lessons than usual. He seemed preoccupied. When Regin asked what the matter was, the boy said he had heard strange sounds in the forest. Regin at once forbade Siegfried to return to the place where he had heard the noises. It was unlucky. But the next day, the boy rode there again. The noises were louder this time, but he could not see who or what was making them.

Siegfried admitted to his disobedience and asked Regin to explain. Realizing that he could not hide the truth from his pupil, the dwarf told him that a great dragon, Fafnir, lived there, guarding a hoard of fabulous treasure. The hoard contained a gold ring and a magic helmet that brought wealth and immortality of life to whoever owned them. But nobody who had tried to fight the dragon had ever come back.

Seeing that his warning could not deter young Siegfried, Regin decided to reveal another secret. For months, at his forge, he had been working on one weapon: a sword, broken into three, which only long hours of painstaking work might repair. This, he explained, was Siegfried's father's sword. It had been broken in his last, terrible battle, a few months before Siegfried was born. That was why Siegfried had never seen his father.

Before Siegfried's father had owned it, the sword had belonged to Wotan, most powerful of the gods. The sword had magic powers, and its name was Nothung. Siegfried took the hammer from the dwarf, and set about finishing the work. After several days, the pieces were joined invisibly. The blade was stronger than it had been before.

Siegfried set out for the dragon's lair. He could still see no sign of the beast, but he could hear its voice - snarls that would freeze the blood of the most hardened knight. As he pressed forward, Siegfried's horse sensed danger: - it stopped and refused to go further.

Prudently, Siegfried took heed of his horse and turned back to fetch Regin and Nothung. The dwarf had long expected the moment when his foster son would go to fight the dragon. He had been preparing Siegfried for this battle since he was born. The old dwarf was suddenly afraid: was the sword really strong enough? Would Siegfried be the victor in this fight to the death?

Fafnir, deep in his lair, watched the road in silence. He had sensed an intruder. At last a young knight, riding a fiery gray stallion, appeared on the way to his cave. Though he was very young, he seemed confident; he carried a shining, strangely - wrought sword.

At his side marched an ancient, red-faced dwarf - an old acquaintance. "Regin!", breathed the dragon. "I've got him at last!" Pretending not to notice, the dragon let the new challenger approach. The young knight dismounted and sprang to the attack. But his blows were ineffectual. The sword simply slipped off Fafnir's armored skin.

Then Fafnir felt a stab of pain as the youth stabbed his shoulder. Enraged, he drew a deep breath, then let out a torrent of fire. The dwarf, and the horse, caught in the flames, died at once - but Siegfried got away. Though badly burned on his face and arms Siegfried ignored the pain: he had seen his two best friends die horribly. He was fired with anger. Death held no terror for him - all he wanted now was vengeance.

Slowly Fafnir drew near, determined to go for the kill. He drew a deep breath. Flames played around his mouth. Siegfried stood firm, praying to the gods to help him in his struggle. He raised his magic sword Nothung. Lightning flashed from the blade; the bolt sped across the cave, and knocked the dragon down. Blinded and shocked. Fafnir rolled on his back and beat his claws against the empty air. Siegfried moved in for - the final blow. The dragon never rose again.

Siegfried thanked the - gods for their help and, amazed to be alive, kissed the blade of Nothung, drenched in the dragon's blood. At once he felt his own blood stir and started: he could understand the language of the birds.

Siegfried bathed his whole body in the dragon's blood. His skin became hard and thick - like leather, impossible to wound. But he did not notice a leaf fall on his back, covering part of his skin. That spot would remain soft and vuInerable. Siegfried took the magic ring and helmet. Then he asked the birds to tell him the best way out of the dragon's unlucky lands.

From then on, Siegfried led a wandering life, full of adventure. Birds and fish helped him on his way, over freezing lands and tumultuous seas. At last he reached a mysterious island. On it lived a young woman called Brunhilde, who was a Valkyrie, a handmaiden of the god Wotan. She slept on top of a high mountain, under a spell cast by Wotan. Her bed was surrounded by a curtain of flames. But Siegfried found a way through it to her side. He kissed the Valkyrie on the lips and woke her up. The two young people fell in love and shared many happy and adventurous days, until, at last, Siegfried fell in battle.

His enemy's sword pierced the spot which the leaf had covered when he bathed in Faffiir's blood.

From: Myths And Legends Of Dragons
By: Gilles Ragache
Illustration: Francis Phillipps