Annotations: The Valkyrie

For those of you who are interested in how history, the sagas and my own storytelling combined in my novel The Valkyrie, here are some notes I wrote up using the Kindle version.

The main sources are The Nibelungenlied (sometimes called The Song of the Nibelungs), the Volsunga Saga (sometimes called the Song of the Volsungs), the Rose Garden of Worms (Rosengarten zu Worms), and the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda (especially the latter.) For a general history of the Burgundians, I turned most often to Burgundians in the Mist by Marc Comtois. Biographies of Attila and histories of the late Roman Empire and the Migration Period also cover some of this ground.

Part I – Fafnir

Chapter One > Page 3

Three hundred and twenty- seven years ago,

  • If you’re doing the math, this places the “now” of the book at around the middle of the 5th century CE (Hadrian ruled from 117 to 138 CE). For some reason, I find this question of “when is now?” crucial to know for past-tense books that have a narrator (so, broadly speaking, past-tense omniscient, or past tense first-person books, like this one.) With first person especially, I also need to know who the narrator is speaking to, whether that’s the reader or someone else. Answering that question for myself led me to the somewhat unusual direct-address POV structure of this book.

Chapter One > Page 3

I was a long time falling.

  • I’ve written a blog post about how Robin McKinley’s novel The Hero and the Crown influenced this book, particularly because her novel is the dragon book of my heart, so I knew that my dragon would be a descendant of hers. This is the first of many little nods to that book, although the line is also integral to my own novel. In The Hero and the Crown, there’s a scene near the end where Aerin falls for a very long time.

Chapter One > Page 3

wry face framed by short red hair,

  • This can be anyone you like, but for me, it’s Aerin (see note above.)

Chapter One > Page 4

golden hair of a girl, streaming as she floated, hands covering her face, her shoes kicking at nothing.

  • The other story that came to mind about an impossible fall was, of course, Alice. This doesn’t have to be Alice, but I liked the idea, in my own mind if nowhere else, that this void between worlds is a place where all the stories meet, where the women and girls who didn’t quite fit catch glimpses of each other.

Chapter One > Page 5

Westward wood for harming, eastward for healing.

  • My main source for Brynhild’s runic magic is the Sigrdrífumál, a section of the Poetic Edda, which lists the wisdom Brynhild imparted to Sigurd when he found her and cut off her mail. Here’s the line that inspired this (from Jackson Crawford’s translation of the Poetic Edda: “You should learn limb-runes/if you want to be a healer/and learn how to heal wounds./ Carve them on the bark/carve them on the needles of a pine/that bends eastward.”)

Chapter One > Page 5

carved the rune I needed.

  • The Tyr-rune looks like an arrow pointing upward. This also comes from the Sigrdrífumál (Jackson Crawford translation): “You should carve victory runes/if you want to have victory…. and name Tyr twice.”

Chapter One > Page 5

The Tyr- rune is for victory with honour, as Tyr kept faith with Odin in the war of the gods. Just as Tyr did Odin’s bidding, so your weapon will do yours.

  • This is a reference to the war between the Aesir and the Vanir, discussed in the Eddas. Odin is one of the Aesir and Freyja is one of the Vanir, which is why, in my novel, they mistrust each other.

Chapter One > Page 5

Gallows’ Burden

  • All of the names Brynhild uses for Odin are from historical sources. He had a lot of names. Well, the last one she calls him in this scene is her own.

Chapter One > Page 6

That was not long before Odin took a rune for himself, the god-rune.

  • This is Óss or Ansuz. It looks sort of like a capital letter F with the branches tilted downward.

Chapter One > Page 6

‘But how can Odin be the source of the runes,’ she asked me as we scrubbed our shields, ‘if Freyja came to Asgard knowing them already? Wasn’t that why the gods went to war in the first place, because Odin mistrusted Freyja’s magic?’ ‘I don’t know what stories the skalds tell in your father’s court,’ I spat. ‘They had it wrong, or you misunderstood. Odin found the runes first, of course. Freyja must have stolen them from him.’

  • One of the challenges of writing a retelling of stories that exist in several versions is that you have to either pick one, or find a way that they can all be true, or something in the middle. I made that choice as seemed best to me all the way along, but I left a lot of the old stories about the gods as uncertain or contradictory.

Chapter One > Page 7

It was the custom among the Valkyries to carve runes into our hands, give ourselves scars in remembrance of our fallen comrades.

  • This is my own invention, I’m pretty sure, unless it snuck into my subconscious from somewhere. I wanted Brynhild to be somewhat obviously different and intimidating in Midgard society, even after her exile.

Chapter One > Page 7

—Get up, Rota, wake up, lazy Gondul. I see you’re awake, Hrist.

  • The Valkyrie names are all taken from actual Valkyrie names in the sources, mostly from the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda. The characters I assigned to those names are my own inventions, though.

Chapter One > Page 7


  • This is a good spot to say something about names. I considered keeping the final “r” that occurs in the nominative case in Old Norse, which makes the names “Brynhildr”, “Sigurdr”, “Ratatoskr”, “Folkvangr” etc. But I decided that since English doesn’t treat cases in that way anyway, and since I was also drawing on the Germanic sources for some of the names, simplifying and anglicizing the names made sense.

Chapter Two > Page 9

Two kings fought on a green field. The young king was better, wiser, stronger. If he had lived, his people would have prospered. Odin eyed him like honey. He should have lived.

  • This dispute over the two kings, the exile, and other aspects of Brynhild’s story come from the poem called Sigrdrífumál.

Chapter Two > Page 10


  • Helheim is one of the lands of the dead, ruled by Hel. One thing that is tricky for everyone writing Norse mythology today is that the Marvel version has a slightly different family tree than most of the traditional stories. Traditionally, Hel (or Hela) is Loki’s daughter, not Odin’s, and Loki is not Odin’s son. However, I hasten to add that even the old stories are contradictory, so there’s no such thing as “correct” — but when you’re writing something based on the old sources, you have to keep in mind that 21st century people are coming to those stories from several directions.

Chapter Two > Page 10

The ultimate right to decide is mine.

  • One way I identified and empathized with Brynhild is that I used to be an editorial writer at a newspaper, which is an interesting position because you’re paid to make judgments and arguments, but since you’re speaking on the newspaper’s behalf, it’s always subject to the veto of the newspaper’s ownership.

Chapter Two > Page 12

‘What lies to the east?’

  • A note about geography: the main location in this novel is Vormatia, which is one old name for what is now Worms, Germany. The mountain where Fafnir has his lair is not far from there. So I figure Brynhild fell somewhere in what is now the western edge of Germany, or the eastern edge of France, or maybe Luxembourg.

Chapter Two > Page 12

Son of a Bitch,’

  • Some readers get “thrown out” of historical fiction by swear words, which is a very interesting phenomenon to me! Swear words are some of our oldest, and in fact, “bikkju-sonr” is attested as an insult in Old Norse, so this is as accurate to the period as anything in this novel.

Chapter Two > Page 13

My god is a wild god,

  • I think there’s an echo in here of C.S. Lewis’s description of Aslan as not being a tame lion, although I’m not sure how Lewis would feel about that.

Chapter Two > Page 13

How I wanted to be that girl again, the one who believed Odin was the source of light and love.

  • Even though Brynhild’s story of supernatural creatures seems so distant and strange in many ways, the experience of losing faith is something I think many of us can understand still.

Chapter Two > Page 15

the language of birds.

  • The language of birds and its role in this story comes from the Poetic Edda. I had to think a bit about how to make them talk, though. I listened to bird call recordings and tried to make the cadence of the sentences fit the common calls of each species, although crows and ravens get a bit more flexibility.

Chapter Two > Page 15


  • In the Eddas, Ratatosk is the squirrel who runs up and down the world tree, Yggdrasil.

Chapter Two > Page 16


  • In some sources, Fafnir is referred to as “dreki” (dragon), and in some, as “ormr” (worm). Lindworms are not as written about as dragons are, these days, so I decided to go with that version, to help keep that monster alive.

Chapter Two > Page 18

But the rune I’d carve on my fingertip

  • The thorn-sleep comes straight from the Norse sources, but in those stories, it’s seen as Odin’s curse on Brynhild. As a very tired middle-aged woman, the idea of sleep as a curse rather than a strengthening gift seemed off to me — and it’s so common in fairy tales, including Sleeping Beauty (which may be partly inspired by the Brynhild cycle, given that she pricks her finger.) There’s a part later in the Volsunga saga that suggests Brynhild uses sleep as a tool (she’s said to have been sleeping for seven nights, and a character says “She isn’t sleeping. She’s preparing plots against us.”) So I thought I’d have a little fun and ask whether there might have been another explanation behind the story of Brynhild and her long sleep.

Chapter Two > Page 18


  • You may notice that Brynhild sometimes uses compound metaphorical expressions, which are meant to recall the old poetic technique of “kennings.” Since she’s so much older than Gudrun, I wanted her to use a slightly different vocabulary.

Chapter Three > Page 19

our city,

  • I struggled with what to call the city, which is now called Worms. I wanted the readers to understand that the story has a foot in actual history, but I didn’t want to lose the somewhat fairytale like quality, and besides, the word Worms could be confusing in a book that features Fafnir! One old name for Worms was Borbetomagus, but bleh, that’s ugly. Vormatia is less common but it’s in a few sources. I found some maps of the city around this time, and the landmarks like the pottery kilns and the Domus and the temple of Mars are all taken from those maps. It was a city before the Roman Empire took it over. It’s just inside the Empire at this time; the border is not far to the east, over the Rhine. The small Burgundian kingdom with Vormatia at its heart is, somewhat uneasily, inside the Empire. That’s all historically accurate.

Chapter Three > Page 19

fish sauce

  • Garum, or fermented fish sauce, was basically the ketchup of the Roman Empire.

Chapter Three > Page 20

Mainz to Speyer,

  • Another struggle. I could have used older names for Mainz and Speyer, to go with Vormatia, but one reason I wanted to mention them is to help the reader understand that hey, we’re in Germany, so older names wouldn’t have done that. It’s somewhat plausible that something like the modern names were coming into existence at this time or not too long after.

Chapter Three > Page 20

Hunnish king Octar.

  • The basic outline of the story of Octar and the Burgundians, Attila and Bleda is roughly taken from real history. The Huns did have a tradition of having two kings at this time.

Chapter Three > Page 22

rose garden;

  • Gudrun had to have a rose garden, because one of the old stories about her is The Rose Garden of Worms.

Chapter Three > Page 24


  • Ludgast and Lothar are names taken from old Germanic sources, but the characters are my own invention. They play a role in the story that is mostly played by Dietrich von Bern in the Nibelungenlied and the Rose Garden of Worms and other Germanic sources. But I didn’t want to have Dietrich, because he is a big figure in folklore in his own right and it would be hard to make him a secondary character. Besides, he’s based on a king named Theodoric, which is a problem… the old stories were not that concerned with historical accuracy, and happily put “Etzel” or Attila, and “Dietrich”, or Thedoric, in the same story, even though Theodoric was born after Attila died. Since I was anchoring my story in the Attila part of history, I had to jettison the Theodoric part of history.

Chapter Four > Page 26

Heva, a woman my family had enslaved in a battle before my birth.

  • We have some documentary sources about the laws of the Burgundians and alas, like many people in Europe at this time, it seems they did sometimes take slaves in war.

Chapter Four > Page 28

Auda, queen of the Burgundians, was not yet fifty, and her hair fell in honey- coloured curls from the pinned mound on her head.

  • In the Norse sources, Gudrun’s mother is the sorceress Grimhild (stick a pin in that for later.) In the Nibelungenlied, Gudrun is called Kriemhild, and her mother is called Ute or Oda (which is interesting because Swan Lake, the story of Odette, has some similarities to Brynhild’s story…) That beginning O sound in the Germanic languages is often rendered as AU in the Norse ones — so for example auðr can mean desolate or wealthy, and anyway at some point late at night I made up my mind that she would be named Auda.

Chapter Four > Page 31

Gunnar and I followed the teachings of Arius, as we’d been taught by our mother.

  • A lot of Germanic Christian peoples at this time were followers of what is referred to today as “the Arian heresy” or “Arianism.”

Chapter Four > Page 32

Beyond the cluster of river- houses at the far end of the bridge was the open plain, with a few horse- tracks across it, leading to guardtowers on the Empire’s frontier.

  • These are the “limes”, the border defences of the Empire.

Chapter Four > Page 33

That was Zerco, but I didn’t know his name then.

  • Zerco was a real member of Bleda’s court and he had an interesting life.

Chapter Four > Page 34

‘My brother is dead!’ Attila shouted.

  • Attila and Bleda really did rule together until Bleda died, but while some traditions say Attila killed his brother, we don’t really know how he died. This sequence in the novel is mostly me weaving a plot to connect history, the old stories, and the story I wanted to tell.

Chapter Five > Page 37

Dancwart, Eckart, and Sinold

  • These are all characters who appear in the Nibelungenlied, so there’s a little nod to the sources here, although Fafnir killing them is specific to my novel.

Chapter Five > Page 37

At that, of course, Hagen was down on the ground, pulling his beloved Volker back, out of the cloud of poison.

  • Hagen and Volker are characters in the Nibelungenlied and Volker is indeed a minstrel or bard, and Hagen’s close comrade. I haven’t come across any other versions in which they’re lovers, but it didn’t feel like much of a stretch.

Chapter Five > Page 38

Nothing and nowhere.

  • If you haven’t listened to the audiobook version, it’s worth it just to hear India Shaw-Smith deliver this line. I got shivers.

Chapter Five > Page 40

She lifted the Rhine.

  • This particular moment is my invention, although this character’s magic is key to several versions of the story. It’s also a little nod to Tolkien, who also has a river rise through magic. Tolkien was very directly influenced by the Eddas and by Fafnir in particular.

Chapter Five > Page 41

after all, we had seen bronze rings on its arms and that terrible helm on his head, the red- stoned ring through his nose.

  • The Helm of Awe comes from the sources. I had to have some nod to a ring because it’s so associated with Sigurd/Siegfried, but I wanted to de-emphasize it a bit and have it be a little different than a magic finger ring, because I wanted to focus elsewhere and because those stories (especially through Tolkien) are so well known. The red stone is also a bit of a callback to a dragon scene in The Hero and the Crown.

Chapter Five > Page 43

Burgundian law is clear on the matter of inheritance: in the absence of living sons, a daughter inherits everything from her parents.

  • The Lex Burgundionum, the law of the Burgundians, has come down to us in a 9th century version and codified just a few generations after this. I have it in English translation. There are many references to the traditions of the people, so it seems reasonable to assume that the law in that code is similar to what would have been the law in King Gunnar’s time. It does indeed give inheritance to daughters.

Chapter Five > Page 45

As soon as my mother was able to give her blessing, I would send a messenger to Ravenna, to Galla Placidia, regent of the western Empire.

  • I found myself regretting that I couldn’t find a way to get Galla Placidia, regent of the Empire, into this novel in more than a passing way. She is such a fascinating figure.

Chapter Six > Page 48

He looked at me then as though I were a miracle he’d performed, as though he had done me a kindness when he cut my armour and woke me from my enchanted sleep.

  • The assumption Sigurd makes here, that he has rescued a maiden under a spell, is the version of this story in the Poetic Edda and elsewhere. The key points — the thorn-sleep, the cutting of the mail, the conversation about runelore — all come from the Eddas.

Chapter Six > Page 49

My old horse, my dear Grani, was walking towards me, head down.

  • Grani is the name of Sigurd’s horse in the sources.

Chapter Six > Page 51

‘Yes. From my foster- father’s halls. It is some distance from here. His name is…’ I thought of a name for home. ‘His name is Heimar. Who are your people?’

  • There are versions of the story in which Brynhild comes from a court and has a foster-father. It didn’t really fit in with the other versions I was drawing on, so this is a little nod to those stories. Brynhild is, like many characters in these stories, a bit of an amalgam: sometimes she’s a sorceress, sometimes a Valkyrie, sometimes a princess, sometimes a queen, depending on which version you read and from where. I tried to give her all those roles to some degree. There’s a possibilty she was influenced by a Merovingian queen named Brunhilda, who feuded with another queen. But since that historical Brunhilda lived about a hundred years after King Gunnar and Attila, and in a different kingdom, she couldn’t really have a place in this novel.

Chapter Six > Page 52

I dipped my non- scarred fingertip in and traced the beer- runes on the back of my hand: ansuz, laguz, uruz. Then I dipped again and traced the laguz on the neck of the flask, and the naudiz, the need- rune, on my fingernail.

  • The beer-runes are all taken pretty closely from Sigrdrífumál.

Chapter Six > Page 59

If we dug a pit, and waited until he was overhead, I could stab upwards with a spear.’

  • The story of the pit is taken from Fáfnismál in the Poetic Edda.

Chapter Six > Page 60

High, low, turning the blade, a wrath- blow from above at an unseen enemy.

  • I’ve studied only very little swordfighting at a novice level, but I liked the idea that one of the terms that comes down to us from German schools of medieval swordfighting, the Zornhau (“wrath blow” or “rage strike”) would be familiar to Brynhild.

Chapter Seven > Page 62

Hind Mountain

  • Hindarfjall in the Poetic Edda.

Chapter Seven > Page 65

He would leave me on the ground for the shadowy Disir to carry off to Folkvang, Freyja’s ghostly fields.

  • The Disir are not as well known today as the Valkyries, but they, and Freyja and her afterlife of Folkvang, comes from the same sources.

Chapter Eight > Page 75

‘That’s where I touched you,’ I whispered, and looked down at my palm, the one that had been caked with blood before I washed him. I held it to the burn on his back, not quite touching him, checking that it was indeed my palm print.

  • In the Nibelungenlied, the dragon’s blood makes Sigurd invulnerable, except for one spot on his back where a liden leaf fell (in my novel, Brynhild’s hand takes the place of the leaf.)

Chapter Eight > Page 77

  • I stripped, pulling off my broken mail shirt, my tunic and trousers. One toe in. It was mercifully cold, not as thick as I’d expected. I sat on the edge, stretched out my legs, held my breath and slid in. The blood came up to my nose and I felt for a moment that I was drowning in the stench of it. We have sworn to tell each other everything, love. What can I tell you about those moments? I felt no magic, only the blood. Corpse- perfume always smells like what it is and nothing else, even when it’s fresh. My stomach revolted as I pulled my hands out, covered in clots like baby eels, and daubed the cold blood on my face, my head.

Note – Chapter Eight > Page 77

  • I spent a ridiculously long time pondering what a pit full of blood would look and feel like after a little time had passed. One of those moments when being a writer is weird.

Chapter Nine > Page 79

Here and there we could see the half- shapes of half- things, melted and fused: the boss of a shield, the face plates of a helmet, a sword, and a scythe and a ploughshare.

  • I thought a lot about why dragons hoard gold. In many dragon stories (including Tolkien’s), the hoard is a curse because of the greed and paranoia it engenders. Dragons are a bit like magpies in a lot of stories, just attracted to shiny things. Since greed isn’t a big theme in this novel, but violence is, I went a slightly different way with my dragon hoard (and I avoided a literal curse on the gold, trying to put the focus more on actions and consequences, which could be seen as a curse). I wanted a suggestion that the metal is something Fafnir feeds on in some way, that it has some relationship with the poison he breathes, but it’s not really something I ever make clear. I wanted some elements of Fafnir to remain questions.

Chapter Nine > Page 86

‘Fafnir’s heart,’ he said.

  • Fafnir’s heart plays a role in the Edda — Regin does want it, and Sigurd does burn his finger or thumb.

Chapter Nine > Page 88

‘He said Regin somehow made everyone believe the gods had killed Otter,’

  • The story of Fafnir and Otter and the gods comes from the Volsunga saga.

Chapter Ten > Page 99

Somehow, he’d learned the language of the birds.

  • In the Edda, Sigurd learns the language of birds from burning his thumb on Fafnir’s heart (this has always reminded me of Finn Mac Cool gaining wisdom by burning his thumb on a salmon). The idea that he picked it up from Brynhild is my addition (but since Sigurd asks Brynhild to teach him wisdom, in the Edda, it made sense to me). In the Edda, the birds tell him that Regin is not to be trusted, and they also tell him to go find a mountain encircled by fire in which a valkyrie is sleeping. In the Nibelungenlied, though, Brunhild is a queen across the sea who challenges her suitors to feats of strength. Again, a lot of the decisions I made in the novel are attempts to combine different versions in a way that felt coherent — and that made sense to me when looking at the story from Brynhild’s perspective. I wanted to talk about what courage and heroism look like, from different angles.

Chapter Ten > Page 102

When I got there, I paced the length of Fafnir’s wall and I threw up a protection of my own all around the mountaintop: a wall of flame.

  • As with the thorn-sleep, I wanted the wall of fire to be something Brynhild had done, rather than had done to her.

Part II – The Rose Garden

Chapter Eleven > Page 105

When I was a child, a noblewoman named Maren took up residence at the top of a tower a half- day’s ride away from Vormatia.

  • Maren is my invention, but stylites — saints who went up on the tops of towers — were very much a thing.

Chapter Eleven > Page 111

You can climb a branch all the way to heaven, my mother used to say, but it needs an invitation first.

  • I definitely had Jack and the Beanstalk in mind here!

Chapter Eleven > Page 112

A slick of bees crawled up from the forest floor, over my body and into a skep. Another swarm dripped down from a nearby branch.

  • Beehives built into empty trees are real things, and skeps are real things. The story about Gudrun and the honey is my own, as far as I remember!

Chapter Twelve > Page 114

A month after the lindworm came, we celebrated the feast of Pentecost. We garlanded the cows and goats and drove them through the streets and out through the gates to further pastures, although that year they would be kept as close as possible and guarded by armed men.

  • It’s a bit tricky, researching Christian practices of the 5th century, at least as a layperson, but this is based on the place of Pentecost in the calendar in the early middle ages.

Chapter Twelve > Page 116

‘You want someone with more fashionable theology,’ I said. ‘A trinitarian.’ ‘I want someone who is not a heretic. Whose teachings are in line with the rest of the Empire.’

  • This is, again, a reference to the Arian heresy.

Chapter Twelve > Page 117

‘An arrangement that was made a generation ago with a usurper, a traitor whose skull still grins on a wall-pole in Ravenna.’

  • Some of the sources for the Burgundians and the Huns within the context of the Roman Empire at this time are Priscus, Prosper and the Chronica Gallica.

Chapter Twelve > Page 119

The Gunnar who returned to us was not quite the brother I’d known before.

  • This storyline, of Gunnar going missing, is my invention, and it’s partly to explain his motivations later in the story. I’ve also always been fascinated by the idea that dragon-poison (or lindworm-poison), including of the psychological varieties, works on people on very personal ways. I don’t know what exactly happened to Gunnar during the time he was away.

Chapter Twelve > Page 120

Gunnar, Hagen, and Volker were in the bathhouse, sitting on the bench that ran around the edge of the water in the warm room.

  • It’s one thing to read, in a dry encyclopedic way, about a Germanic tribe that was given a kingdom to rule inside the Roman empire, but it’s another to think through what sort of culture and daily life that creates for the elites of that tribe. How do they eat their meals? Do they use bathhouses, like the Romans do? There are some clues in historical sources, but to a big degree, I had to make educated guesses.

Chapter Twelve > Page 121

I didn’t miss having suitors.

  • The story of the suitors is mainly taken from The Rose Garden of Worms, a medieval manuscript, but it’s also a little nod to the story of Penelope.

Chapter Thirteen > Page 123

My mother oversaw the brewing of beer.

  • In the Volsunga saga, Gudrun’s mother gives Sigurd a drink of magical beer that makes him forget about Brynhild so that he’ll marry Gudrun instead. This sequence in the novel mashes up that story with the story of the combat and suitors in The Rose Garden of Worms.

Chapter Thirteen > Page 124

‘Alexandria, from a plant Hypatia once used as an example in her teachings, brought to me by Synesius in the year of the consulship of Theodosius and Valentinianus.’

  • Hypatia was a renowned female philosopher who died in about 415 AD.

Chapter Thirteen > Page 127

‘All my power comes from the river,’ she said softly, raising her hands. ‘I know every inch of the Rhine as though it were my own body. I sigh with it at night and sing with it in the mornings. When I shape stone, wood or metal, I shape it as a river shapes it, bending it to the pressure of my will. When I speak to the wind, it is as the roaring of water. That’s the truth of my magic.’

  • This explanation for why Auda has magic is my own invention. One of the challenges of retelling old stories in the 21st century is that it helps to have some idea about how magic works in the world of the novel, and why some people can wield it and others can’t, and what wielders can and can’t do with magic. In the old stories, for the most part, all we know is that she’s a witch-queen.

Chapter Thirteen > Page 129

Hagen kept rubbing hand and forefinger together in the way he had when he was playing tafl or training a new swordsman.

  • Tafl basically means “board” or “table” in Old Norse, so “tafl” is like saying “board games.” I play hneftafl, often called “Viking chess” with my kid (he usually wins.) Games of pieces on wooden boards, usually based on war in some way, were common across Europe. There’s a reference later in the book to a game called “brigands”, which would be something similar to hneftafl.

Chapter Thirteen > Page 130

‘This is Sigurd of Xanten,’

  • The idea that Sigurd (or Siegfried) comes from Xanten comes from the Nibelungenlied.

Chapter Thirteen > Page 131

But when he came close enough, I saw the ring forged onto one crossbar at the hilt. The ring with the red stone, which had hung from the nosepiece of the helm.

  • If you look up “migration period ring-swords” you can see a lot of examples of swords with rings forged onto the hilt like this. There are rings that play parts in the old sources, but the importance of a special magic ring to the tale of Siegfried/Sigurd comes to us mainly via Wagner. So I didn’t want to really have a magic ring at the centre of my story, but I liked the idea of a ring-sword, which would be historically accurate, and which would connect Sigurd to the terrifying Helm of Awe (which may still be having an effect after Fafnir’s death.) The idea of a trophy from a dead dragon having a deleterious effect on its killers is also a nod, again, to The Hero and the Crown. And that’s pretty much the extent of the idea of a cursed hoard in this novel.

Chapter Thirteen > Page 131

She swore on the old gods that she would only marry a man who could show that he had no fear and could ride through the wall of fire and best her in feats of strength.

  • The idea that Brynhild’s demand for feats of strength was a male misinterpretation of her just trying to get a creep to back off felt very satisfying.

Chapter Thirteen > Page 133

Do you know what I thought of, in that moment? You.

  • This link between Gudrun’s dream (coming up shortly) and Brynhild’s oath is my own invention, although both of those things come from the sources.

Chapter Thirteen > Page 134

There was a small rumble in the crowd, and wide eyes. I kept my own gaze on Lothar. I lied: ‘Three nights ago, I dreamt about a wonderful falcon, a golden bird, more noble than any other. As it returned to my arm, an eagle came out of the sky and tore it to pieces. I know now that if I marry, my husband would come to no good end.’ There was silence, and people looked at each other. Finally, I got up the courage to look at my mother. Wonderful woman that she was, she nodded sagely, like none of this was new to her. ‘And how do we know this falcon refers to a husband?’ Lothar asked. I spread my hands. ‘What else could a woman dream about?’

  • The dream comes from the Nibelungenlied.

Chapter Fourteen > Page 139

I walked around the room, pouring my mother’s beer into every cup. It smelled just a little grassy; she brewed it with myrtle, yarrow, rosemary, and God knows what else.

  • If you have read this far, it will probably not surprise you that I went down a rabbithole at this point about the ingredients made to brew ale in the late Roman Empire, and whether to call it ale or beer (those words have undergone quite the dance over the centuries), and what it might have tasted like. Since they didn’t use hops at that time, I even thought about trying various brands of gruit, to get a sense for it. Yes, for one paragraph.

Chapter Fourteen > Page 139

There was something dragonish about it, this blood-red glow within a sickly green skin.

  • I’ve seen pictures of Roman green glass like this.

Chapter Fourteen > Page 142

‘No, I drank it,’ he said. His face looked serious for a moment. ‘I have– I know some ways of preventing harm from drink. I don’t want you to think that I suspected poison. It’s just a habit of mine. I do it every time I drink.’

  • Sigurd doesn’t use the runes this way in any of the sources, as far as I know, although Brynhild does teach them to him, so he should!

Chapter Fifteen > Page 150

Those nights in the hall on the mountaintop were lonely. Lonelier than I had been in my first nights in the open.

  • A note for my fellow writers or writing process nerds: this point in the plot is one reason I used the first person past for this book. It’s so useful for skimming over the passing of time quickly and naturally. I used third person present for The Embroidered Book, which also has a lot of time skips, but it was tricky to always situate the scene and catch the reader up. Narrators help with that! It wasn’t the only reason for my choice with this book, but it was one.

Chapter Fifteen > Page 152

The sound and movement this raven was making doesn’t mean a word– or rather, it means so many words that it means only itself. It means listen, a beginning, a story, a warning.

  • I think of this as the ravenish version of “hwaet.”

Chapter Fifteen > Page 155

I caught a glint of light beside the man: his naked sword, lying beside him where he slept. I couldn’t make sense of it. In case of attack? A concealed knife would be easier and quicker than leaving a weapon out for the attacker to pick up. It made me wonder how soft he was, and what his life had been like.

  • This detail about the sword is from a poem called Sigurtharkvitha en skamma, and it goes like so in Jackson Crawford’s translation: “Sigurth, that famous Hun [don’t get me started]/laid a naked sword/his sharp weapon,/between them in bed./ He never did kiss that woman,/he never did hold her/in his arms. Sigurth remembered/she was promised to Gunnar.” While I understand the symbolism, on a practical level, the sword doesn’t make any more sense to me than it does to Brynhild — although the poem goes on to talk about how Brynhild fantasized about Sigurd, so maybe it was for Sigurd’s protection from her!

Chapter Sixteen > Page 159

‘You have saved us,’ you whispered in my ear, before leaving a kiss to cool on my cheek. I kissed you too, but it was mostly air; I missed the moment, not knowing the customs.

  • There are two passages in the Nibelungenlied that first got me rethinking the relationship between Gudrun/Kriemhild and Brynhild, who are rivals and enemies in the stories. First, when they met: “They drew back their headbands with white fingers, and kissed one another through love.” Then later, “All this time, Brunhild kept not her eyes from Kriemhild, that was, certes, fair enough, and of brighter hue than the gold she wore.” This is from Margaret Armour’s translation, which Tolkien used.

Chapter Eighteen > Page 166

It was the dog. Vigi, as Sigurd called him.

  • The dog’s role in this story is my own invention.

Chapter Eighteen > Page 170

His friends were drunk; they hooted, and called him unmanly, and said his wife had hung him from the wall like a dirty shirt.

  • The word “unmanly” here is, in my mind, the English translation for “argr”, which is an Old Norse insult. There is a lot of fascinating scholarship about Viking ideas about gender roles and sexuality, which do not map precisely onto modern ideas.

Chapter Eighteen > Page 170

They clapped him on the back and offered to bring him somewhere better, but he threw them off and went into his room, and his friends stumbled away.

  • I thought for a long time about how to handle this part of the story. In the Nibelungenlied, Gunther tries to have sex with Brunhild on the wedding night, but she fights back, defeats him and tie him up. Then Siegfried goes in and violently subdues Brunhild so that she won’t refuse Gunther any longer. It would have been a very different book if I had made Gunnar and Sigurd rapists, and I feel that there are enough stories about the sexual assault of women in historical fiction and fantasy, thanks very much. In my headcanon as regards my novel, imagining this as the “real” story, the buddies who are watching all this happen at a distance are spinning their own stories from their own gaze about what’s happening in the marriage bed, and about the relationship between Gudrun and Brynhild, and that is how we got the somewhat distorted stories that came down to us.

Part III – Battle-Cries

Chapter Nineteen > Page 177

A person, leaning against the far wall of the fountain, facing away from me. Despite the long black hair, I knew at a glance it wasn’t you; the hair was thin and lank, for one thing. And that slouching posture. Everything about that person was long, from the folded arms to the pointed toes of the black leather shoes.

  • I am not a strong visualizer, and I don’t tend to “see” what I’m describing when I write, but there are exceptions. This is an exception: I saw this scene in my mind from the moment I started writing this novel, for some reason.

Chapter Nineteen > Page 177

Loki shrugged and put one hand to her round belly with a sly smile. ‘I’ve been busy.’ ‘I can see that. Rolling around in the stables again?’

  • Loki is usually referred to as male in the Poetic Edda, but there are some references to his fluidity. For example, in Thrymskvitha, Loki comes up with the idea to dress Thor in a wedding dress to carry off a scheme, and Loki volunteers to go with Thor as “a serving-woman”, although there’s no reason why *Loki* should have to pretend to be something he’s not, since Thor’s the one pretending to be Freyja. He’s also given birth at least once, in the form of a mare, in Gylfaginning. And in Voluspa en skamma we find this: “Loki ate a woman’s heart/he found it/half-burned/on a burning linden tree./ Loki became pregnant/from that dead evil woman,/and from their child/come all the troll-women.” (Jackson Crawford translation.) So it felt quite possible to have a pregnant Loki, and/or a female Loki, and since he is such a well-known character who brings so many reader expectations with him, I felt that a change of gender would help make this Loki integrate into the novel without overpowering it.

Chapter Nineteen > Page 179

An effect of the small black dots around her mouth, scars from where it was once sewn shut, a long time ago.

  • A story told in Skáldskaparmál.

Chapter Nineteen > Page 180

‘You’re the god of mischief, not the god of warnings.’

  • One of my favourite things about Loki as a figure is the idea of good trouble, that mischief is necessary.

Chapter Nineteen > Page 180

Plant a beanstalk.

  • The second reference to Jack and the Beanstalk in this book. I suppose since the book begins with a fall from one world to the another, it’s natural to think about stories of climbing up, too.

Chapter Nineteen > Page 181

‘Roman legions, not Roman men. I meant what I said.’

  • It was indeed a Roman/Hun army that attacked the Burgundian kingdom in 436. It’s easy to forget that Attila was once treated by the Roman Empire as a mercenary (or an ally, depending on when and who you asked).

Chapter Nineteen > Page 182

‘Ride east,’ I said.

  • A little echo of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings here.

Chapter Nineteen > Page 182

We might not be able to choose who wins and loses, but we can choose the battlefield. If we must fight, then let’s fight far from the children and old people. We can choose who dies.’

  • There’s a line in the Volsunga saga where Brynhild foretells that her destiny is to summon armies into battle. So I had to have her summoning armies into battle!

Chapter Nineteen > Page 183

‘My father used to tell the story of the girls at the mill.

  • This story is told in the Old Norse poem Grottasöngr.

Chapter Nineteen > Page 187

I told myself that Midgard was littered with hills and caves and lakes named for Odin, and it meant nothing.

  • The mountains east of the Rhine are indeed called the Odenwald, which might be etymologically linked to Odin/Wotan, and there are stories there that link certain places to parts of the Nibelungenlied.

Chapter Twenty > Page 191

Befuddled, I glanced towards the guards set at the entry to the courtyard and saw them smirking. They thought we were two jealous women, squabbling over Sigurd. They didn’t understand anything.

  • Here again, we get a little glimpse at how the Nibelungenlied and the Volsunga saga could have evolved from this story.

Chapter Twenty > Page 193

Gunnar and Hagen were prone to butting heads out of love, and now Gunnar was greeting Sigurd that way too, and sending him away that way.

  • Viggo Mortensen used to do this to his colleagues on the set of The Lord of the Rings.

Chapter Twenty-One > Page 197

It was Eir who had taught me all of this, long ago.

  • The Norse conception of the self as composed of different parts or elements, some of which can live on after death in different ways or forms, comes from multiple Old Norse sources. It was somewhat difficult to decide how the afterlives should work in this book, from a pragmatic perspective, given that there are characters of various beliefs in the book and at least some of those beliefs are validated by what we see happening. While I wanted to have some coherence, I also wanted to leave some room for interpretation and uncertainty.

Chapter Twenty-Two > Page 201

A draco: the bronze head of a dragon, with a long golden silk tail rippling out behind it. One of the Empire’s standards.

  • These were real devices. Very creepy.

Chapter Twenty-Four > Page 208

fought by the book.

  • A little echo of “you kiss by the book” in Romeo and Juliet.

Chapter Twenty-Five > Page 214

We had heard stories in the mead hall, about the dead whose minds stayed on Midgard, a world that could not easily accommodate the thoughts of the dead.

  • The draugar, as a concept, come from various Norse sources. Tolkien’s barrow-wights are descendants of the idea. They don’t come into the Nibelungenlied or the Volsunga saga, as far as I remember; their use in this battle is specific to my novel.

Chapter Twenty-Six > Page 225

With Sigurd missing, and you in search of him, that left Gunnar, Hagen, Volker and me to take care of the politics.

  • This section of the plot took a lot of hard thinking. The Nibelungenlied and the Volsunga saga diverge pretty sharply about what comes next, especially when it comes to Gudrun and Attila. I had to decide which of those stories I wanted to echo, as I wrapped up my own plot, including the overarching storyline that I’ll talk about a bit later…

Chapter Twenty-Six > Page 226

Flagellum dei.

  • This was indeed a nickname for Attila.

Chapter Twenty-Seven > Page 230

knowing Sigurd, they were words about how he was a hero whose songs would be sung for centuries.

  • I feel a lot of sympathy for Sigurd, despite his mistakes.

Chapter Twenty-Seven > Page 231

I didn’t see Gunnar fall.

  • The historical king Gunther seems to have died around the time of the Roman/Hunnish attack on his kingdom in 436/437. In the Nibelungenlied, he doesn’t die at this point in the story; Kriemhild/Gudrun becomes his enemy and later takes revenge on him. In the Volsunga saga, Attila has him thrown into a pit full of snakes. Gudrun tosses her snake-covered brother a harp (as one does) and Gunnar manages to play it with his toes, succeeding in putting all the snakes to sleep — except for one, which bites him and he dies.

Chapter Twenty-Eight > Page 234

Sigurd’s death

  • In the Nibgelungenlied, the rivalry between Kriemhild/Gudrun and Brunhild threatens the friendship between Siegfried and Gunther. Hagen decides to do Gunther a favour, and asks Kriemhild about Siegfried’s vulnerable spot. In the Volsunga saga, the rivalry leads Gunnar to feed wolf meat to his brother Guthorm, who stabs Sigurd. In both cases, the stories consider the death fo Sigurd/Siegfried to be Brynhild’s fault for being so jealous and difficult, even though the men carry it out.

Chapter Twenty-Nine > Page 246

Then another shift, another drop, another shift, and I fell into nothingness. For a very long time, I drifted downward into blissful darkness with no fire in it, my arms still folded on my chest, the smell of my own death in my nostrils.

  • In the Nibelungenlied, Brynhild just vanishes from the story midway. In the Norse sources, she dies and lies on Sigurd’s funeral pyre, after making a kickass speech.

Part IV – The Tower

Chapter Thirty-Two > Page 264

She nodded. ‘I asked them to. The ones who left were the most vulnerable, the old people, or those with young children who didn’t want them to be taken by Attila to serve in his army. I knew I could protect Vormatia, but there was no one to protect the families looking for safety on the road. They’ll take our songs, our laws, our stories. The wind carries me news of them. They are safe on the road, so far.’

  • Historically, the Burgundians did go west after they lost their kingdom on the Rhine. For unclear reasons, the Empire let them resettle in what is now France, which is why that region is called Burgundy.

Chapter Thirty-Two > Page 266


  • Ingund doesn’t come from the sources at all.

Chapter Thirty-Two > Page 268


  • Grimhild is the name of Gudrun’s mother in the Volsunga saga, but the similarity to Brynhild’s name made it not ideal for my purposes, unless there was a reason for the person to choose it. And since Gudrun is called Kriemhild in the Nibelungenlied, it seems likely that the two characters have been conflated at times. (It’s all a tangle.) I liked the idea of Gudrun becoming a witch and thus becoming her mother, in some sense. There is a place near Worms called Grünstadt. Incidentally, Grimhilde was the name Disney used in comics for the evil queen in Snow White.

Chapter Thirty-Three > Page 269

The Hel-Ride of Brynhild

  • Helreith Brynhildar (the Hel-ride of Brynhild) is an Old Norse poem about Brynhild’s journey to the underworld after she burns on Sigurd’s pyre.

Chapter Thirty-Three > Page 271

Everyone knows you can’t walk to the land of the dead without the right shoes.

  • Years ago, I saw spiked shoes in a museum that had been found in a coffin, to help the dead person walk on the ice of the underworld, and the idea stuck in my mind. There are references to “Hel-shoes” in the Norse sources, too.

Chapter Thirty-Three > Page 272

The giantess was gone.

  • In the Norse poem, Brynhild talks to a giantess in the underworld.

Chapter Thirty-Three > Page 277

Garm doesn’t usually drag me things for no reason, so I was loath to send you back to Midgard before I got a sense of you.

  • Garm, the hound of Hel, comes from Norse sources. His role here and most of what Brynhild does in this chapter, though, is my invention.

Chapter Thirty-Four > Page 280

Two pathways in the rye field crossed, making a wide circle, and in that circle a dozen people sat on stones, talking with each other. They were people of all kinds and ages, staring down at a pattern of bones cast upon the ground. One of them, a man of middle age with a beard and old-fashioned Frankish dress, looked up at my approach.

  • This section, I think, owes something to The Hounds of the Morrigan, by Pat O’Shea. In that book, two modern-day children find themselves in a mythological landscape talking to people out of old stories, and the people and their activities are not always fully explained. I have always loved that about that book: that eerie sense of things going on, outside of time, at the edges of the story.

Chapter Thirty-Four > Page 285

‘Attila will make his stand at a place called Maurica,’

  • The historical Battle of Maurica, or the Battle of the Catalaunain Plains, took place near Troyes. Fellow readers of The Hero and the Crown will understand why the echo of Maur the dragon tickled me, but it’s coincidence.

Chapter Thirty-Four > Page 288

‘He has seen a vision, of a terrible battle in which he will die.

  • The idea that Odin has seen Ragnarok, the great doom of the gods, is not my own invention, of course, but the idea that his fear of Ragnarok is driving the events of the story of Brynhild is my own way of tying together all the disparate stories of this cycle.

Chapter Thirty-Four > Page 292

Freyja looked sceptical. ‘I don’t see how that’s possible.’ ‘That brings me to the second thing,’ I said. ‘I would ask you to talk to Hel.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘And just when I was starting to think you had a head on your shoulders.’

  • Sometimes things come up, when you’re writing a book, that surprise and delight you, and the little glimpses of the relationship between Freyja and Hel was one of those things for me with this book.

Chapter Thirty-Six > Page 300

At that, she was confused, and made a face. The kind of face only a fifteen-year-old can make, while talking to an adult who makes no sense. Then she understood, and said, ‘Oh no! I won’t take my own life. I’ll take his.’

  • Some sources say that Attila died at his wedding feast when he was marrying a girl named Ildico, and some even say that Ildico poisoned him. (He definitely seems to have died painfully after a feast, whether poisoned or not.) In fact, Gudrun/Kriemhild is probably inspired by Ildico in some way, because she marries Attila and, in the Volsunga saga, she kills him. So this is the novel’s way of connecting those dots.

Chapter Thirty-Six > Page 304

‘I don’t intend to. Give me my cloak.’

  • There’s a story about Brynhild having a swan coat taken from her at a lake, which make have been an influence on swan lake, and definitely influenced the way I wrote her final meeting with Odin.

Chapter Thirty-Six > Page 307

Odin sniffed, as though he didn’t like the smell.

  • Some people can smell ants, apparently. I am not one of them.

Chapter Thirty-Seven > Page 309

this tiny boat.

  • In the Volsunga saga, Gudrun goes to sea after taking her revenge on Attila.

Chapter Thirty-Seven > Page 310

The gold that lay at the bottom of the Rhine belonged to a story that was over, and I wanted to leave it behind.

  • According to legend, the treasure won by Siegfried/Sigurd is still at the bottom of the Rhine.