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Other books by Lois Tilton Vampire Winter Darkness on the Ice Betrayal: Star Trek DS9 #6 Accusations: Babylon 5 #2 [Back to Table of Contents]

WRITTEN IN VENOM Lois Tilton WILDSIDE PRESS Berkeley Heights, New Jersey • 2000 Copyright © 2000 Lois Tilton. All rights reserved. Written in Venom An original publication of Wildside Press P.O. Box 45 Gillette, NJ 07933-0045 www.wildsidepress.com FIRST EDITION [Back to Table of Contents]

This account is written in venom: bitter, burning, black. It sears each rune into the parchment. But more bitter still is the venom festering in my heart. This is not the tale as the skalds have sung it. The skalds are all Odinn's men. They are drunk on his words, they swallow the lies he pours into their drinking horns. They feast in his halls and lick up his spew like dogs. Odinn, my enemy, my brother-by-blood, you call yourself Allfather, and mortal men in their delusion worship you as a god—father of lies! But I know all your real names: Bolverkr the ill-doer you are truly named. Deceiver, gallows lord. The skalds have put your lies into my mouth. At your bidding, they call me the sin-sly, the trickster. No one dares speak the truth. It is buried here with me, bound to this stone with the ice-cold entrails of my murdered son. You took my son for yours, yes, you had your revenge. But Hel holds both of them now. And my time is coming. I know your Wyrd, my brother, who mingled my blood with his own. As the Norns foretold so long ago, your end will come in the jaws of the wolf. Then Asgard will fall, all the gold-roofed halls of the Aesir will lie in ashes, and Surtr's flaming blade will ignite the sky. An axe-age, a sword-age. Nothing you do can forestall it. A windage, a wolf-age. Your Wyrd, Odinn. None can escape, not even those who call themselves gods. The end of the world. Here I lie here until that time, bound beneath the serpent's dripping fangs. Often I think of you, my brother, in the jaws of the wolf.

But the venom! It burns! [Back to Table of Contents]

I I first met him when the world was young, born from the mating of fire and ice, when the hearthfires of Muspellheim were newly kindled. Muspell is Surtr's domain. His sword is a glowing brand. At its touch, the forests explode, the ocean boils. Where he walks, the ground bursts into flame, the stones shatter and melt beneath his feet. Ashes fill his footprints. In the northern reaches of the world the ice arose, mountains of ice, vast frozen glaciers that covered the mountains and filled the basins of the seas. This was of old the fastness of the Jotuns, the frost giants, whose beards were caked with hoarfrost and rime. I am a son of Muspell, the blazing south, the land of flames. My father was Farbauti, the cruel striker, the lightning. One day he saw green-needled Laufey on her fir-covered island. He struck, he consumed her, and from the ashes I was born: Loki, the bright one, the twisting, shifting light. For my gifts, Surtr favored me among all the sons of Muspell. I was the shape-shifter who could take any size, assume any form that I chose. I was young then, carefree and unscarred. I was handsome, clever, quick-tongued. None of the daughters of Muspell could resist the charms I lay on them, and I went from one to the next, igniting their desire, thrusting into the heat of their welcoming loins. Set above them all was Sinmora, wife of Surtr. Her eyes were smoldering embers, and a single glance from them was enough to leave me burning with lust. Oh, Sinmora! My memory of you is a

brand seared into my heart. You were the first, though others have been more faithful. We built her hall, my brothers and I did, and we ringed it with a wall of blue-glowing flames. Its name is Okolnir, the never-cold, and there are two great treasures kept there. The first is the great cauldron where Sinmora brews her incomparable mead, like ripe honey on the tongue and liquid fire smoldering in the belly. Oh, for a single drop of that mead now, when all I taste is bitter venom! The other treasure lies in her coffer, warded with nine unbreakable locks. There she keeps and guards Surtr's sword of flame, Laegjarn, the wounding wand. No power can withstand the one who wields it. It has been foretold from the beginning of time that one day the whole world will become a waste of blowing ashes at its touch, and how I await that day! It was Surtr's sword that brought about my downfall in a way, for word of it had spread, even as far as the frozen desolation of the distant north. I heard the howling of dogs one day as I passed close by Okolnir. As I came closer, I saw them straining at their chains: Gifr and Geri, the two vicious hounds chained on each side of Sinmora's doorway. Their white fangs snapped and bloody slaver dripped down from their jaws, they were so eager to give chase. In the distance I could see a figure fleeing the hall, a figure wrapped in a gray cloak with a hood pulled up over his head. Even then you sought to hide your face, Odinn, to conceal your crimes! A thief! I exclaimed and took up the pursuit in wolf-form. I loped easily after him, gaining ground at every stride, but when I was close

to overtaking the thief, he turned around and at once reared up to stand at bay. He swelled in size, and his cloak became the shaggy brown pelt of a bear. His maw gaped open in a roar, exposing white fangs and a slavering red tongue. I circled him warily in wolf-form, for I knew how a bear's powerful claws could tear me apart. Yet at the same time I was blazing with curiosity to know who this stranger was, for until that day I had always been the only shape-changer in Muspellheim, and I had never met another with this power that was mine. We faced each other, snarling, our hackles raised, yet I didn't dare attack because of his greater strength. At last the stranger dropped down to all fours and lumbered away again with a bear's rolling gait. I changed at once into falcon-shape and flew into the sky to follow, but as soon as he saw me above him he took the shape of an eagle and rose to the attack. It was a wild chase! Falcon and eagle, we wheeled after each other in the upper reaches of the sky. I could hear the wind booming in the powerful wake of his wings. I was swifter, more quick to turn, but I knew his massive talons were more deadly. One direct strike would have been the end of me. Who was this shape-changer? Where had he come from? Our chase took us far from the flaming lands of Muspellheim. Screaming, we tore at each other in mid-air, and our feathers drifted down onto the empty wastes of Midgard, the glittering white glaciers of Jotunheim. I kept trying to get above him, to stoop and strike at his eyes, but in our long flight we had gone to the ends of the earth and back again, and eventually I was exhausted. When at last we were both of us spent, we sank to the ground and

resumed our original forms. I watched the stranger mistrustfully, as he watched me. His hood was thrown back, and his gray eyes were piercing in their frigid intensity. They made me uneasy, yet his presence was like a cold rushing wind out of the north, filling me with a shivering sense of excitement. I knew somehow already that my life would never be the same again. “So,” he said finally, “who are you, shape-changer?" “My name is Loki, Farbauti's son. And who are you, shape-changer also? It should be my place to ask, you know. You are the stranger here, after all. The thief who fled from our hall." “I go by many names,” he answered evasively. “But for the moment, you can call me Gangleri, the wanderer, the way-weary." I laughed. “A long way, is it, to come thieving in Muspellheim? Tell me, Gangleri, what is it you were trying to steal? Haven't you heard that no one can penetrate the wards around Sinmora's hall?" “I've heard,” he said slowly, doubtless wondering how far he could trust me, a son of Muspell, “that she guards a sword named Laegjarn, a weapon no power can withstand." My eyes opened wide. “You meant to steal Surtr's sword! Oh, stranger, you don't know how lucky you are that you couldn't get past the dogs! Listen, thief, and know this. That blade is the heart of flame. The instant your hand closed around its hilt, the flesh would have burnt off your bones, and the bones turned to ashes. No one but Surtr can ever wield that sword, not even another son of Muspell. I would never dare even to touch it."

His brows lowered in a frown, for even then he could never endure to have his will thwarted. Even then he was plotting to escape his Wyrd. “Besides,” I said lightly, “why steal a sword when you could steal Sinmora's mead? Or better yet, her kiss?" He stood up and spoke scornfully. “Are all the sons of Muspell as frivolous as you? Or are you all just as cowardly and weak?" “Weak?” I stood up as well, thinking to give him a taste of my real power. Yet something stopped me, and I admit I was reluctant to challenge him again. There was something daunting about his presence, a kind of cold, irresistible force. I think that even then he had the power to lure souls after him, and had already taken a grip on mine. He was much larger than I, with broadly-muscled arms and thighs, and in that time of his youth his hair was shining fair, his eyes a piercing gray. He stood before me like a champion, almost—but, no, I will never call him a god. Let that name be reserved for the benighted mortals who worship him, for his armies of the slain. “Weak,” he said again, in a low voice that stung with its contempt. “There are only two kinds in the world, the weak and the strong. Power—power is everything! They think they can keep it from us forever! They think Odinn counts for nothing!" Odinn—so that was his true name! “Ah—they?” I wondered aloud. “The Jotuns, our fathers. The frost giants. They keep all the power for themselves, all the knowledge, everything!"

It was an unsettling thought, to consider beings that this Odinn would call giants. “And Surtr's sword? How would it solve your problem, then?" “We need some advantage. They are all sorcerers. They hoard the wisdom, the knowledge, for themselves! We have nothing, we have no halls of our own, no treasure, no wives. They keep the women for themselves, in their own halls. All because we have nothing like that sword. With that, we could take it all! No power can withstand it— that was the prophecy, wasn't it? No power can withstand the hand who wields it." Of course, I had no wife of my own either, but it had never been an unsurmountable problem. There were other men's wives everywhere, after all. As for power, unlike women, I hadn't ever felt the need. In this I was never like him. But Odinn's will never be the hand that wields Surtr's sword—that much I do know, that much was foretold. At the time, though, I only thought of my own amusement, to play with this stranger, to court adventure. This has always been my own Wyrd, that a peaceful life would never be mine. So I told him, “Stranger, I might help you if I could. I see that breaking into Sinmora's hall is a task not quite in keeping with your talents." “But not beyond yours, I take it? I suppose you could steal the sword yourself. Get past those cursed hounds and into the hall." I laughed. “I tell you, those hounds fed from my hands when they were pups."

“Is that the truth?” He seized my shoulders eagerly. “If you do this thing for me, Farbauti's son, I swear to you, no reward will be too great! There will be a place for you in my hall, by my side, forever! Never will I lift a horn to drink if there is not one in your own hand as well!" “No, wait! I can take you past the dogs and into Sinmora's hall, that much is no trouble. But steal Surtr's sword? No, I told you, not even a son of the flames can touch that blade! Besides, there's the prophecy, if you believe in that sort of thing, foretelling the future." He frowned. “What prophecy?" “The sword has never been unsheathed. The foretelling is: it will mean the end of the world if it ever is drawn." He cursed in obvious frustration, the frost giant's son, yet I felt he would have risked even the end of the world if it could bring him the power he sought. Such a grim tribe they must be in Jotunheim, I thought, not yet knowing the Aesir and their capacity for dark treachery. So heedlessly I told him, “There is yet another treasure in Sinmora's hall. She brews the finest mead in all of Muspellheim. They say,” I added slyly, “that it can bring inspiration. Wisdom. Perhaps even the solution to your problem." “Mead?” His tone was frankly puzzled. “You mean you don't brew mead up in the north?” I laughed. “No wonder you take no joy in life! Come back with me to Sinmora's hall! I'll show you what kind of a thief I am, and I'll wager that after

you've had a horn or two of Sinmora's mead, you'd trade all the ice in Jotunheim for a cauldron of her golden brew!" Oh, how carefree I was in those last innocent hours, how unsuspecting of the Wyrd that was mine! The way-weary stranger agreed reluctantly, so we took our shapes as birds again and rose into the sky. Odinn seemed to be carried along on the current of his own frigid wind, so strongly did the eagle fly. South we flew, leaving the lands of ice and snow behind us until we reached Muspell again, the land that cold can never touch. Outside the gate of Sinmora's hall the two hounds were still chained on guard. Gifr was curled up in sleep, but Geri leaped at the end of his chain, awake and alert. I scratched his chin, I rubbed the place behind his ears, then I told Odinn, “Follow me,” and led him past the vicious beast, who wagged his tail as I went into the hall. There near the hearthside was the cauldron, brim-full of foaming golden mead. I poured an overflowing horn of it out to Odinn and another for myself, to quench the burning thirst our long flight had given me. After a single swallow, Odinn's frown eased. Another, and he was laughing alongside me. “This drink is a wonder!” he exclaimed. “It makes the blood sing in my veins! Don't let me forget to bring some of it back to Jotunheim.” He took another deep drink. I saw that his tongue was loosened and thought to take the opportunity to learn some of this secrets. “Tell me, wanderer Gangleri, my friend, are the frost giants all shape-changers as you are? I must admit, I was surprised when I saw you shift into bearform today. I'd thought my own talent was rather more unique."

“Ah,” he said, wiping the foam from his golden beard and opening his cloak to show me the pelts wrapped around him, “here, do you see? Sorcery, a wise-woman's gift, the skins of a bear and an eagle. I can take their forms when I wear them. Of all my brothers, only Heimdall is a shape-changer from birth. He can take seal-form, but then his mothers were Aegir's daughters—the sea king. I've always figured that accounted for it." “Did you say mothers? How many does he have?" “Nine of them—all sisters. He's a fine fellow, Heimdall. Bright, shining face. Never sleeps. He can see a gnat jump in the air a hundred leagues away. Hear the blades of grass growing. You should meet him some day. I'd like you to meet all my brothers—Tyr, Honir, and especially my foster-son Thorr! You remind me a little of Thorr, with that red hair." “I got it from my father,” I told him. He clapped me on the back, forcing the breath from my lungs and making my ribs ache. “You know, Farbauti's son, I like you! You didn't steal the sword for me, but so what! This drink—this mead— is even better! I can almost feel the inspiration seething in me right now. It's almost as good as the water from Mimir's well, and it tastes a lot better!” He drained his horn and belched with satisfaction. “You can have a seat in my hall any time you want it! You have my oath on that." He put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me close against him. “In fact, I like you so well, I want to be your brother. Come! We'll mingle our blood together, you and I! An oath of brotherhood!” He pulled out a knife from his belt, but I took it from him, since he was

drunk and I didn't trust the steadiness of his hand. Heedless of any possible treachery, I made a cut into each of our forearms. The dark blood welled out, and we pressed our hands together, arm to arm, flesh to flesh, my blood to his and his to mine. Then, as we took our arms apart, I caught an instant's glimpse into his eyes, and I saw there a icy, calculating glint that made me shiver uncontrollably, touched with chill, although we sat in Muspellheim, the land of flame. For when we mixed our blood a part of me had passed into him, so that from that moment he could change his shape at will, and men in later times would call him Fjolnir, the manyshaped. While I stared at my blood-stained arm wondering where this suspicion had come from, this hint of cold calculation, he stood to leave. “You must come and visit my hall one day, my new brotherby-blood. Oh, don't worry, I'll have a hall of my own, sooner than you might think. And be sure to bring some of this mead with you when you come!" Then he was gone, on strong eagle-wings and a chill, furious wind. Odinn, my newly-won brother. [Back to Table of Contents]

II I could feel the cold burning in the scar on my arm. A storm was blowing through my soul, a storm out of the north. From the moment Odinn's blood had passed into me, I grew restless, dissatisfied. So he passed his curse onto me, so he altered my Wyrd and cast my doom ahead of me like a shadow. Though unlike my newfound brother, it wasn't power I sought—when have I ever lusted for power? And certainly I had no notion of challenging Surtr to usurp his place in Muspellheim. But his place in his bed, ah, now that was another matter entirely! It was true that the daughters of Muspell all had warm, embracing thighs, and they had been enough for me once, but no more. I found myself returning more and more often to the flame-ringed doorway of Okolnir, Sinmora's hall. Before, my lust for Surtr's wife had always been a harmless diversion. My brothers and I would compete for a favorable glance from those smoldering eyes, and I would excite myself imagining how a spark of my quick heat might ignite her. But the thought of Surtr's wrath had always been enough to keep me from any rash deed. No more. Heedlessly, I made my way into her bed. My breath blew hot into her ear. My hand burned between her thighs. I was young in those days, my looks were still bright and unmarred, and she responded as the straw to the flame. Ah, Sinmora! I was no more than a brief, bright amusement for you, was I? Yes, I was reckless, and I knew that my daring was part of my attraction to her. And it was true of me as well, that the risk made our passion so much more arousing. We even dared to couple in Surtr's own bed, where the danger brought a thrill beyond imagining.

I know it was my Wyrd, as the Norns would say, although at the time those three were unknown to me. I went to her bed again and again, defying fate, certainly defying common sense. Indeed, I think now that I courted disaster even more eagerly than I did Sinmora. I only wonder that it took so long before Surtr discovered us—oh, yes, in the very act, coupling so hotly we never heard the door of the bedchamber opening. Surtr's hot wrath erupted like a volcano. I leaped from Sinmora's bed only an instant before it burst into flame, while my sweet treacherous love cried out to her husband, “Oh my lord! He stole into my hall, he forced himself on me!" Lightning flew from Surtr's hand, exploding in midair. I dodged it, wildly, darting from one corner to another. I knew he could consume me, reduce me to ashes, even I, the son of the lightning! Sinmora watched the game from the safety of her bed, highly amused. I wondered how many other of her lovers she'd disposed of this way, and I even admired her heartlessness, it was so shameless and bold. I could only imagine how her husband would punish her after he had disposed of me, and even for a brief moment I envied him that pleasure. Yet I still strove to escape, and finally I flew in falcon-shape directly at Surtr's eyes, startling him so I could dart between his hand and the door with my tail feathers smoldering. Surtr's wrath pursued me with the swiftness of a wildfire, but my falcon's wings carried me north, away to the safety of Muspell's border, singed, blistered, exhausted, and utterly alive. The world was open before me, and I refused to look back on the sight of the home that I would never know again. Defiantly, I gloried in my exile

as I soared above the green world of Midgard. Here was an unexpected wonder! When I'd last flown over Midgard, in pursuit of the thief who named himself Gangleri, this vast, wide center of the world had been a desert waste lying between the frozen reaches of the north and the land of flames in the south. But now— forests had sprung up out of the land: ash, birch and oak, fragrant spruce and pine. The scent of trees woke my mother's blood within my veins, and I remembered that I was Laufey's son as well as Farbauti's, the forest as well as the lightning. I soared high on a rising current of air, but the woodlands stretched almost without limit, crowning all but the highest mountains. No mortals had yet scarred them with axe or fire, for this was the spring of the world when it was new and unspoiled, even as I had been unscarred. Rivers leaped down the sides of its mountains, and the ship-road, ocean, broke against its empty shores. As I flew north, I could see that the vast ice-sheets had retreated from this land, once part of the vast realm of Jotunheim. The rule of ice had been lifted. My scarred arm tingled with the memory of his chill touch—Odinn. The cold, strong wind that seemed to be blowing me northward! Abruptly, I wheeled around and flew south again, fighting the pull on my soul, which I now know was my own blood in him, calling to me, and his in mine, responding. Then in the far distance I could dimly see the massive trunk of the World Tree, a lofty ash, its crown lost among the clouds. It had sprouted from the spring named Hvergelmir, the seething cauldron, which had broken into life ages past at the place where the snow and ice borne on the northern gales met the hot breath of Muspell from the south. Its power is so deep and profound that even Odinn has

bowed to it. The spell compelling me was broken. I circled over the forests of Midgard, free in the currents of the sky. The World Tree was ancient, even then, yet this whole green world was young, as I was young and eager to explore the new wonder. I went out into it in wolf-form, trotting tirelessly through the green woodlands while the world's scents flooded into my brain. Joyfully, I brought down a hare, tore out its throat and lapped up the hot sweet savor of its blood. This was a life I could love! Days later, I came into the domain of a wild wolf-pack. Its leader confronted me, snarling, for my presence threatened his leadership. I was larger, more powerful, and he circled stiff-legged around me with bristling hackles. I felt the fur on my own back rise, and my nose caught the enticing musk of his females, eager to couple with the stronger. It was a fight to the death, and we both knew it. I sprang on him. My sharp white fangs ripped at his flanks, his belly. He died, whimpering, with his entrails ripped open, steaming on the ground. The rest of the pack crawled up to me with their tails held low, and I accepted their submission. I mated with all the females and watched their bellies swell with my pups. I led the pack through the forests at night, and together we brought down magnificent stags, sharp-tusked boars. Our muzzles were stained with their blood, black in the moonlight. We howled aloud in the joy of the kill. The pups grew. The old wolves died. I mated with the young ones and they had pups of their own. I lay in the sun and watched them wrestle each other over a scrap of hide, seeing their bellies grow round with milk and meat. They swarmed over me and nipped at my tail, growling in their small throats.

But when the moon rose at night, I saw their forms shift, standing upright on two legs. The sight disturbed me. I shook off the pack and trotted alone into the forest. I realized that the wolf-life was slowly claiming my soul. My memories of Muspellheim were fading. I loped along invisible trails, tasting the night's scents, searching restlessly for something I could not quite recall. Flames danced inside my eyes. I was Loki, the winds whispered, hissing through the branches of the trees. Loki son of the forest. Loki the bright one, the shape-shifter. But then my nose would catch the warm scent of my mates, and the whispers would die away as I ran back eagerly to the pack. As the years went on, the whispers faded, became ever harder to hear. I might have continued that way forever, immortal in wolfform, except that one night a figure appeared on the trail in front of me, cloaked and hooded in gray. Suddenly the fur rose on my back in recognition of a familiar threat. Then I was in my own form again, astonished to feel myself with two feet on the ground. Yet I think that after all that time the wolf-form had got into my blood and remained there, so I suspect from my children. So Odinn greeted me, “Wolf-brother! Farbauti's son! It's good to meet you again here in Midgard. And how is life in Muspellheim? Is the mead still brewing in Sinmora's hall?" “It may well be, but it's been a long time since I've had the pleasure of a horn of mead,” I told him, briefly relating the circumstances of my exile. He slapped me on the back with bellow of laughter. “Surtr's wife! Oh, I knew there was something I liked about you, shape-changer! You wouldn't steal his sword, but you'd climb straight into his bed

and futter his wife!" I winced at the force of his greeting. “What of you, my brother Gangleri? What brings you here to the forest? Are you still wandering? Still searching for a way to overthrow the frost giants?" His expression changed, it grew serious. “I told you I'd soon have a hall of my own, and now I do. There have been changes in the north. Great changes. Surely you must have noticed.” He swept his hand around us, encompassing the whole forest, the distant mountains. I began to understand. Great changes indeed. “You mean this is your doing? This whole green world?" “There was a flood,” he said coldly, “and many of the old giants were drowned. The ice is receding. Jotunheim has passed away. We have a new order now. The Aesir are in power." Then he grinned, almost warm in his invitation. “But come with me and see for yourself. I remember the promise I made to my brotherby-blood. For as long as you want it, you'll have a place in my hall. Particularly since you're no longer welcome in Muspell!" I knew it was true, I could never return to my birthplace in the land of flames. And I was weary, by then, of the wolf-form, the life of the wild pack. So I allowed myself this time to be borne away, northward to the new-founded domain of Asgard, enthralled at last, without even knowing it. **** I'll never forget my first sight of Odinn's realm. We came to it just at sunrise, and Odinn took hold of my arm. “Look!"

In the distance a bridge of glorious light arched into the sky, disappearing beyond the horizon. Strands of all colors made it up, the light fractured and polished like gemstones. It made me ache just to look on it, and it was painful when I finally had to turn my eyes away. Odinn glowed with a pride that I was all too willing to pardon at that moment. “We call it Bifrost, the shimmering way,” he said. “My brother Heimdall was its creator, and he stands watch at its foot, guarding the way into Asgard. We'll be meeting him there." Heimdall. I remembered that name. “Isn't he the shape-changer who can take seal-form? The one with nine mothers? You didn't tell me he could create something like this!" Perhaps he sensed my jealousy. Or perhaps he had even then a foreboding of the future, of the final battle when the prophecy declares that the two of us will fight to the death. Oh, I welcome the coming of that day, Heimdall, my enemy! Whatever it was, we detested each other on sight, Heimdall and I. The moment he saw me approaching the bridge he put his hand to his horn, ready to blow the alarm. Odinn intervened before he could bring the trumpet to his mouth. “Let's have a better welcome for my brother-by-blood from Muspell! This is Loki, Farbauti's son, and I've promised him an honored seat in my hall." “Son of Muspell,” Heimdall said, and the words were a curse in his mouth. “Brother, don't you remember the prophecy, that this bridge will fall on the day the sons of Muspell set foot on the span?" But when Odinn glared at him he stood aside to let me pass. And the

bridge, I will add, remained unfallen as I passed over it with his eyes on my back, as sharp as spear points. “I don't think he likes me well, this brother of yours,” I remarked to Odinn, rather nettled by this reception. “Never mind. This is our gate into Asgard, and Heimdall is our watchman, the guardian of the bridge. Thus it must be.” Odinn drew me along with him, overcoming any thought of objection with a rush of promises that Asgard held wonders beyond anything I had ever seen. “Asgard? So that would be the stronghold of the Aesir?" “As I told you, Jotunheim is a thing of the past. The Aesir hold the power here now—my brothers and I.” He sounded defensive, as well he ought, who had murdered his own father to gain his place. Just then we passed through the curtain of clouds, and I saw that we were standing on a broad plain, where magnificent halls could be seen standing, their roofs gleaming with beaten gold. “Welcome to Asgard!” Odinn announced, and I did have to admit, the place was an improvement over the frozen wasteland of the frost giants. Trees grew everywhere, bearing golden fruit, and the bright sky shone down on green meadows. “Look, on the hill there,” said Odinn. “My own hall, Gladsheim!" I frankly stared. This hall stood high above the rest, looking down over all of Asgard, and it was everything he'd promised, all burnished gold, the roof, walls, and doors. And this was to be my new home, where I would have an honored seat as Odinn's brother for as long as I wished. I was of course flattered and pleased.

“Where did you get it?” I asked, awestruck. “All that gold!" “Oh,” he said casually, “it came from the dwarves." “Dwarves?" “You don't know them? No, I suppose you wouldn't. They were born from maggots feeding on Ymir's corpse—he was the very first of the Jotuns, father of them all. On that account they belong to us. They live in caves in their own world Nidavellir, always burrowing in the ground like worms—digging, mining, seeking out treasure. They hate the light, direct sunlight is their bane. Don't ever trust them, especially not when gold is involved. But they do have a special skill with it, there's no denying. Such a shame that all that wisdom is wasted on those greedy, secretive, malicious little worms." “I see you don't care for them much. Then why did they gave you all this gold?" “They find it to their advantage to please the Aesir. They remember the flood,” he said enigmatically. He had many secrets, this new brother of mine, but there was something in Odinn's words when he spoke of the dwarves that made me pause, and I resolved to learn more of this matter one day. Just then my attention was distracted by the sight of huge figure coming into sight, entering Asgard not over the shimmering bridge but wading through one of the rivers that formed its outer boundary. “Thorr!” Odinn called to him. And to me, with a strange kind of pride, “Now you'll meet my foster-son Thorr. His weight would break the bridge if he tried to cross it. He is strongest of all the

Aesir!" As he came closer I could see that Thorr towered over Odinn, a huge, lump-faced clod with shaggy red hair and beard. Odinn introduced me cheerfully, announcing, “Here's my blood-brother Loki, come from Muspell to stay with us! Do you remember when I told you about the mead?" “You brought the mead?” the big dolt asked eagerly. “Well, no. I had to leave in a bit of a hurry,” I explained. “Oh.” Thorr frowned unhappily. “You know, Loki, you've always reminded me a little of Thorr, here,” Odinn said genially. At this, I drew in my breath in hot indignation. It was the red hair, of course, which distinguished Thorr among the Aesir, though it was common enough in Muspellheim. Certainly there could be no other possible point of comparison. The idea was laughable. This, though, was my introduction to the peculiar skein of relationships that made up the Aesir. Thorr's mother was Jord, wife of the frost giant Fjolsvid, but Jord was like the earth itself, she yielded fruit to any man who plowed her. Fjolsvid hated her redhaired whelp, beat him unmercifully and drove him from his hall. This was hardly unusual behavior among the Jotuns. Indeed, they were markedly unsuccessful at inspiring devotion among their sons, which was of course the cause of their downfall. Thorr came to hate them all with a single-minded passion—a single passion being all his mind could entertain at any one time. Jord later became Odinn's

first wife, and at that he took Thorr as his foster son, treating him always as his first-born. Odinn eventually raised him to second rank among the Aesir, even over his own brothers Heimdall and Tyr, for without Thorr's strength he could never have destroyed the power of Jotunheim. This is the truth, not the tale as the skalds have sung it: how Odinn and his brothers rose up against the evil rule of the Jotuns and created the Mid-earth out of their remains. The skalds are all his, they have swallowed all his lies, drunk as they are on the swill he calls the mead of poetry. Hear it now: how the world was born out of fire and ice at the beginning of time, when the spring Hvergelmir broke into life. Fog and mist rose up from it and froze again, congealing into a vast being in the form of a man. This was the origin of Ymir, father of all the Jotuns, whereby they are called the frost giants. Being first, he was most wise. Ymir created his children, molding together earth with his own substance, his frozen blood and spittle. Then he milked himself until his icy seed spurted, and when he kneaded it into the mixture, the forms he had shaped came to life, his sons and daughters. They were a witless, misshapen lot, these first Jotuns, with illfavored names like Buri, Bor, Bolthorn and Bergelmir. But Ymir coupled with his daughters and they gave birth to another generation that was more wise. Among these were the murderous spawn of Bestla, Bolthorn's daughter, who now call themselves the Aesir. Yes, as the skalds tell the tales you might believe they are entirely a different race, but here is the truth: that Odinn and his brothers were Ymir's sons, born like all the rest in the icy wastes of Jotunheim. But

Odinn was jealous of Ymir's wisdom, jealous of his halls and his daughters and his power. All of it he wanted for himself, and this is what had once brought him in the dawn of the world to Muspellheim in search of Surtr's flaming sword, which still resides in Sinmora's keeping, waiting for the end. But high above the halls of Jotunheim the river Iving flowed into a vast lake, held back by an ice-dam. It was Thorr, Odinn's foster-son, with his great strength, who hewed away the glacier and broke open the dam. The icy flood poured down on Jotunheim, washed away the giants’ halls, and Ymir was drowned. Odinn the parricide and his murderous brothers hacked the body of their father into pieces, and from it flowed nine rivers of blood into the empty waste of the Midearth. From this enriched soil sprang the forests I encountered when I fled Sinmora's hall and took the form of a wolf. The survivors of the Jotuns, led by Bergelmir, fled further into the north, to the outermost reaches of the world where they established a new stronghold, Utgard, and plotted cold revenge against the murderers. From that time, there was war between Utgard and Asgard, as there will be until the final battle destroys both races and sends the whole world up in flames. How I await that day! [Back to Table of Contents]

III Yes, the foundations of Asgard were built on murder and treachery. But at the time I knew none of this, only that Odinn's hall was a fine one, and he'd offered me a place there, the place I had forfeited in the home of my birth. I know now that it would have been better if I had remained a wolf in the green forests of Midgard, even at the risk of losing my soul entirely to the wolf-life. Better by far than life amid the malice and treachery of Odinn and his tribe. But as the Norns have said, no one can escape his Wyrd, and my thread had already been woven together with Odinn's. So I took my new seat in Gladsheim, a fine, lofty structure with a high roof supported by carved pillars of gold. There were benches and a broad table for feasting, and a fire always blazing in the hearth. Odinn honored me at first by seating me close to his hand, but I received a cold welcome from the rest of the Aesir, for Odinn's brothers were jealous of a stranger, and they feared the influence of Muspell. Heimdall, as I have said, detested me from the first moment. He has the gift to see the future, I believe, for it is foretold that we will be each other's death in the last battle of the world. With Heimdall, Tyr was the most influential of the Aesir, the eldest of them, the first-born of Bestla's brood, although Odinn even then was plotting to usurp his rightful place. Tyr was the thick-skulled warrior, Odinn always the schemer. By bringing me into his hall, Odinn managed to turn his brother's natural suspicions onto the stranger, the outsider. Who else was given the honored seat at

Odinn's hand? Who else was the new companion of all his journeys? Who else was always involved in his latest intrigues and conspiracies? So poor thick-headed Tyr would sit in the hall and gnaw his meat, staring in my direction and fingering the edge of his blade, while all the time his brother was working to undermine his influence and secure his own place as first of the Aesir. Of all of them, only Honir would speak to me in a civil manner, but Honir was Odinn's shadow, his voice was Odinn's echo. Still, he was a friend to me in those early days, and of all the Aesir he is the only one I will not seek to destroy at the end of time. This then was Asgard, my new home. I appreciated its wonders, yet after I first encountered the Jotuns I wondered that the domain of the Aesir could withstand their vastly greater strength, their sorcery. The answer lay in Odinn. Thorr was stronger, Heimdall's foresight and wisdom were deeper, Tyr was more skilled at war. But Odinn's unique power was to bind the souls of his followers and bend them to his own will. When he ordered, they obeyed. Even I had fallen under his spell, back in Muspellheim, when we took the blood-oath together. In stark contrast, the Jotuns were surly, solitary brutes, and each one was so jealous of his own power and wealth that he could trust no one, not even his brothers. Their strongholds were isolated, high in the desolate crags of Utgard which had escaped the devastation of Odinn's flood. Had they ever combined their forces I believe they could have ground Asgard into dust beneath their feet, but they were too suspicious of each other. They had no Odinn to unite them. Still, even as individuals they were powerful enemies, and the Aesir were always on guard against them, especially in those early days when their domain was new.

Yet it was not the Jotuns who threw down the walls of Asgard, it was yet another race of sorcerers unknown to me then, the Vanir. Now at this time the wives of the Aesir were the daughters of Ymir and the Jotuns, as graceless and crude as the earth they were formed of: Bestla and Jord and Fjorgyn were their names, and though they readily yielded fruit when they were plowed, there was no warmth between their lumpy thighs to heat a man's loins and excite his blood. In those days, how I bitterly missed the torrid and lusty daughters of Muspellheim! Then came the sorceress Gullveig to Odinn's hall and set it aflame. She appeared first to Heimdall at the foot of the bridge Bifrost. Farseeing Heimdall, who could see the grass growing in a meadow a hundred leagues distant—this was a sight new to his eyes. White her bare arms and twin serpents of gold coiled around them with flashing amethyst eyes. White her bare throat and a necklace of carved gold circling it. Tight her gown and girdled in links of gold to reveal all the lush roundness of her breasts and belly and hips. Brighter than gold her hair and plaited in a crown around her head. Gullveig her name, and such honeyed sorcery in her words that Heimdall the guardian was soon gulled and beguiled from his post at the foot of the rainbow-shining bridge, leaving the way to Asgard open and unwarded while Gullveig taught him what sweet pleasures can be found between a knowing woman's thighs. It was no armed band of enemies that invaded Asgard that day, only one woman, yet no war band could have more effectively sown confusion among the host of the Aesir than did Gullveig. The only thing I'd ever seen like it was the wolf pack when a bitch went into

heat and strolled among the frantic dogs with her tail held high and inviting, the scent of her musk driving them into a frenzy of lust while the pack leader snapped and snarled and slavered in his rage to keep her favors for himself. So Gullveig strolled through Odinn's hall with her golden ornaments gleaming in the firelight. It was Gladsheim's gold had drawn her there, for she loved the bright metal above all things, and Gladsheim was brave with it, gilded to the roof-trees and gleaming brighter than the sun. Odinn at first was as enthralled by her allurements as the rest of the Aesir, for he was always full of lust. He followed after Gullveig panting with it, exhausting his vigor between her thighs, yet such was her sorcery that as soon as he spent himself in her, his desire would rise again as if it had never been fulfilled. Yet Gullveig was more insatiable, and when Odinn's vigor finally flagged, she found Heimdall more than willing to take his place between her thighs again, and Tyr and Thorr and Honir—all the Aesir were her thralls for lust, and one by one she exhausted them, draining their vigor along with their seed. They contended with each other for her attentions, they brought her gifts of gold. Like wolves in a pack, they snapped and snarled, they strode stiff-legged across the hall and watched all the others with jealous eyes, in case one of them might take the favor that he sought himself. Tyr sharpened his sword, Thorr flexed his muscles, Heimdall glared at them all. And Odinn, the Allfather, found his hold over his brothers diminishing, for their passion for her set them against him as well as each other. Slowly his lust for power overcame his natural lechery, and Odinn began to brood over the situation. He confided to me, “This woman, this witch, she sets my brothers against each other, she disrupts the order in my hall. I supposed at first these were only the wiles of a

shameless woman, but now I wonder—is she using this sorcery against me?" “Why do you care?” I asked him. “What difference does it make if it's sorcery that brings the heat to your loins, or only the sight of a woman's bare white breasts? Don't you enjoy her? Isn't it good to plow the furrow between her thighs and sow your seed in that wellworked earth?" “But what price will I have to pay for that pleasure?” he replied. “What do we know of this witch? Who are these people of hers, the Vanir? What if they've sent her here to sow strife and dissention in my hall, to weaken my power? Look at my brothers! Heimdall no longer keeps watch against our enemies, Tyr lets his sword rust. Even Thorr thinks only of this woman and forgets his grudge against the Jotuns!" “Why don't you just send her from your hall, then?" “I would,” he said grimly, “but that I fear my brothers would abandon Asgard to follow after her." “Here's a solution,” I offered lightly. “What if I seduce her myself? Soon she would have no time to spare for any of the Aesir, and your problem would be solved!” Which was in a way a lie on my part, for the truth was that I was already so taken by lust for Gullveig that I planned to make her my own wife. Sigyn, you write these words for me now in the serpent's black venom, kneeling at my side. You gave me my sons. No one could ever want a better wife, more devoted, more loyal certainly than I deserve. You are the last, the best thing I will ever love. But

Gullveig—she was my first. It struck me like the lightning that gave me birth, my first sight of Gullveig with her white arms ringed with gold. I almost thought the heat of my desire would melt the girdle she wore around her wellshaped hips. Yet there were the Aesir following her as dogs trail after a bitch in heat. Nothing more certain that they would all turn on me if I tried to take her favor for myself. So I used their own lust against them, I took on Gullveig's shape to lead them away from her, first appearing here and then there, always disappearing at the last moment so that they cursed her for a witch— and if I had realized then what the consequences of my deceitful scheme would be! But I knew then only that I finally had her to myself, so I approached her with my brightest looks, I introduced myself: “My name is Loki, Farbauti's son, Odinn's brother-by-blood, and I bid you belated welcome to Asgard.” I brushed her hand with just the slightest touch of my fingertips, but enough, I was sure, to heat her blood. What I hadn't expected was the heat that flowed through me in return. “You're not like the rest of the Aesir!” she laughed. “I'm surprised to find a man with fire in his veins instead of ice!" “You're not afraid my touch will burn you?" “I've never yet known the fire that could consume me." Of course then we had to see how much heat we could generate together, and in short order our lovemaking had reduced her bed to smoldering ashes. From that moment, I was determined to have her

for my own, yet I knew I would have to step carefully with Odinn as my rival. What I failed to understand was the depth of his malice, that he would destroy a thing if he could not possess it for himself. So he spoke to me again, my treacherous brother, repeating his concerns about the Vanir, the witch's people. “What kind of sorcerers must their men be,” he demanded, “if their women have so much power? How can I protect Asgard against them? What I need is a weapon. And who better but you to bring it to me!" I protested, “I've told you, if you still have that notion about stealing Surtr's sword—" “No, not Surtr's sword. I need a weapon of my own, and I know where to get it. I want you to go to the dwarves." “The dwarves?” I wondered. “What weapons do they have?" “They have skills.” There was dark envy in his voice, and hate, for he could never endure that others could possess some wisdom that he did not. “They can make me a spear that will never miss its mark." “But why send me to bring it? What do I know about dwarves?" He fixed me with his gray eyes so that I felt as if a spear pierced my soul. “Because you're clever, my trickster brother. You can persuade them with that slippery tongue of yours." Oh yes, I was so clever, I utterly failed to see the treachery in his eyes. So I did what he asked, I left Gullveig in Asgard and I went to Nidavellir, to the dwarves in their dark caves—a malicious race in

truth, surly and mean, despite their great skill at wresting metal from the stones of the earth. I hate it underground, I hate the dark. Odinn knows this, of course, which is why he has me fettered here, in the deepest, blackest cavern near the gate of Hel's lightless hall. My journey to the realm of the dwarves took me almost as deep, to the smoke-filled cave where the sons of Ivaldi worked at their forge. These brothers were reputed to be among the most skilled of their race. “I've come from Asgard with a request from Odinn,” I announced. “Odinn can go bugger himself,” they told me without looking up from their work. “He'll get no more of our gold." I was not in a good temper from my long journey underground, and the prospect of returning to Odinn empty-handed did nothing to improve it. So instead of using my clever tongue to persuade him, I seized the dwarf by his beard and bent him down over the fire of his own forge. While he howled in pain, I hissed into his ear, “Listen, you little son of a maggot, you have one chance, just one, to keep the Aesir from flooding this cave and drowning you like a worm, and that's to forge the lord of the Aesir a spear that will bring victory with every cast! Or have you forgotten how your race was spawned from Ymir's waterlogged carcass?" The dwarf whined and nodded his singed head. The race is cowardly, among their other faults, and the memory of the flood was sharp in their minds. So the sons of Ivaldi went to work with hammer and bellows and tongs. The spear was ready before I would have thought it possible, and as

the dwarf thrust it into my hands (doubtless wishing he was putting the point through my ribs instead) I could hear a sullen, grudging pride in his workmanship. “Its name is Gungnir, the spear of victory, and it will never miss its mark." “I'm sure Odinn will be pleased and grateful for this gift,” I said smoothly. And indeed it was a work of high craftsmanship. Runes of victory were hammered into the iron, in intricate patterns that detracted nothing from its strength. But now that I was beginning to appreciate the dwarves’ skill, I was less satisfied with my own. Odinn had sent me to approach the dwarves with cleverness, not the same crude force that Thorr would have used. Perhaps I ought to try again. So instead of returning directly with my prize to Asgard, I sought out the forge of the brothers Sindri and Brokk. Next to the sons of Ivaldi, no others smiths among the dwarves had a higher reputation for fine metalwork. “Good day!” I greeted them cheerfully. They gave me a sour look, for all days are equally wretched underground, but I could see their greedy little eyes on the spear I was carrying. “I see you've noticed my spear. A fine piece of work, isn't it? A spear made for Odinn himself. He commissioned it specifically from the sons of Ivaldi, because he wanted the work to be the best. Have you ever seen craftsmanship to match it?" Their lips curled in scorn. “It's competent,” said Brokk. “Only competent? I suppose you could do better?"

“I could,” Sindri boasted flatly. I grinned to myself. I had them! “That would take proof. Or are you afraid of a small wager, to match your work against the craft of Ivaldi's sons?" Sindri squinted. “You want us to make a spear—like that—but better, of course?" I shook my head, for I had another idea entirely. “Odinn only needs one spear, and this one is good enough. No, what I had in mind was something else, something that would really display your artistry. Something in gold, possibly." Brokk snorted, “Gold! That's Odinn for you! Always gold." In fact, I had in mind a different, more agreeable recipient, for Gullveig loved gold above all else, and I meant to bring her back a gift for our wedding. But I knew that dwarves could never resist a wager, and indeed Brokk had to ask me, “What are the stakes?" “Winner takes all,” I said glibly, for they hadn't asked who would be the judge. Whatever happened, I knew I couldn't afford to lose Odinn's spear. “Done!” At once the dwarf brothers set to work, Sindri working the metal and his brother pumping the bellows at the forge. I watched those sweaty, muscular arms work, tirelessly, unflagging. Sindri poured the molten red metal, a sight that reminded me sharply for an instant of my lost home of Muspell, where the fountains flow with lava. A few moments later the smith straightened and held up a gleaming arm-ring. “Here! Its name is Draupnir, and every ninth

night it will give birth to eight new rings of its own weight." I strove with difficulty to keep my expression straight. The ring was a masterpiece, nothing less. What a gift it would make for Gullveig, who so loved gold! How I could imagine her face lighting up with delight as I placed it around her arm. And how she would reward me for it. “Well,” Brokk demanded truculently, “there's no question, is there, whose workmanship is best? I'll just take that spear now." Quickly, I pushed the ring up onto my arm, keeping a tight grip on Odinn's spear. “Not so fast! It's Odinn who'll have to be the judge. As soon as he makes his decision, I'll let you know.” In an instant I was gone, running up from the cave faster than the bandy-legged dwarves could give chase. As soon as I reached the clean open air of Midgard I howled out loud, laughing in joy at the success of my scheme. Yet all too soon my tone would change to rage and grief, for Odinn's capacity for treachery was far greater than mine. I should have been warned by the sight of Odinn's eyes when I handed him the spear Gungnir. I should have known that cold glint of malice meant nothing good. “Victory!” he exclaimed, tracing with his finger the runes incised into the blade and shaft, and I failed to hear the menace in his voice. “I thought I knew what the dwarves were capable of, but this ... this is even more than I hoped for!" Then I went to Gullveig with the arm-ring Draupnir to offer it to her

as a wedding gift, and the way her face lit up with joy was everything I had hoped for. We fell on each other in a blaze of lust, and so heated was our lovemaking the gold pillars of Gladsheim almost melted from it. They waited until I had finally left her. I wasn't there, I didn't witness it, but I can imagine how you took the lead, my brother, with your new spear in your hand to give you courage. Was she really such a threat to your power—one lone woman? I heard the cries, the screams, and I came running back, thinking the Jotuns or some other enemy were attacking Asgard. The door of Gladsheim was flung wide open, and there in the center of the hall I could see— Gullveig, my wife, spitted from crotch to throat on Odinn's spear. Yet still she lived, so strong was her power. I cried out, I ran into the hall, thinking only that I had to get to her, save her. But Tyr held me back, he laughed at my struggles while Odinn and the rest dragged her to the fire-pit and propped the spear on either side of it to roast her like a spitted boar. The smoke rose up, the flames crackled and danced. I howled and cursed and sobbed as I watched her start to burn. Her body twisted on the spear until the smoke thickened to hide the sight from me. All night she burned while I struggled in Tyr's cruel implacable grasp, blinded by my tears. The fire burned low at last, and the flames died down. But then from the Aesir came a gasp of dismay and disbelief. For as soon as the fire died away, it revealed Gullveig, still pierced by the spear but otherwise whole. I

remembered then what she had once told me, that she had never yet known the fire that could consume her. But Odinn was in a rage, and he commanded the Aesir to build the fire up again, twice as high, and when the flame as was as hot as Sindri's forge they flung her back into it. Now hope made my pain even more sharp, that Gullveig's sorcery might again prove more powerful than the fire! Still held helpless, I watched until I could no longer make out her shape through the smoke and flames. That second time they burned her, that second time the flames finally died away, and again I cried aloud, for there she was, still unburned and whole! But Odinn would not be thwarted in his malice, and he ordered the Aesir to bring all the firewood in Asgard to his hall. He even broke up Gladsheim's feasting table and benches to add to it. Then the pyre was lit again, and this time the heat was so fierce that none of them could endure to stay inside the hall. I was dragged out with them, though I could still see through the doorway, in the white heart of the blaze, a dark figure slowly writhing as the fire consumed her. I waited through slow hours of torment until once again the flames finally died, but this time it had been too much, and she could not survive the burning. Odinn strode into the hall and knelt down next to the fire-pit. He lifted a gleaming object from the blackened form among the ashes. It was the arm-ring Draupnir, forged by Sindri with such skill that it had emerged unmarred from the flames. Smiling with grim satisfaction, Odinn pushed it onto his own arm and left the smoke-blackened hall. Then at last Tyr released me, and I stumbled, blind with tears, to

shed them onto my wife's charred remains. But as the ashes washed away, I could see something lying inside the ruined cage of blackened bones, and I picked it up carefully. One part of Gullveig, at least, had not been consumed by the fire. Her heart still remained intact. Reverently, with my own heart aching, I lifted it from the hearth and brought it to my lips. A faint shock ran through me as it touched my mouth, and I could feel something changing within me. My mind seethed like a cauldron of foaming mead, my fingers tingled with sensation. This was power! Trembling with it, not pausing to think, I quickly consumed the entire heart. Immediately I convulsed, overtaken by change. I was the wolf again, but now I knew my name: I was Fenrir, the Fenriswulf, and vengeance was my only purpose—Odinn's death. I could almost feel my jaws closing around him. I howled my hate aloud, and the halls of the Aesir echoed with it. Yes, my brother, this was the power you sought, and you left it behind in the ashes! You spurned it for gold! I returned soon enough, trotting into Odinn's hall in wolf-form, but for once my brother-by-blood did not know me. He has never known the wolf. I could see the confusion in him when he first caught sight of me entering his hall, the way his fingers tightened around the shaft of his spear. Is it Loki? How can it be? I grinned, exposing my sharp white fangs. I sat on my haunches in the center of the hall and called out, “Greetings, Odinn, Allfather, my father's brother!" At that, his brows lifted. “You know me, wolf, but I don't know you. What is your name?"

“My name is Fenrir, Loki's son, the Fenriswulf. My mother is Angrboda—brooding anger." “Loki's son!” Odinn exclaimed as if he understood the mystery that had perplexed him. “My father is grieving for his wife's death, so he sent me to take his place for a while among the Aesir in Odinn's hall." None of the Aesir appeared to be glad to see me there. I heard Heimdall muttering, “Bad enough to have the son of Muspell in the hall, but his spawn is worse! He's going to cause trouble, I can tell. Did you hear his mother's name, Angrboda? This wolf has bad blood on both sides." “I don't know who's going to feed him,” Honir said nervously. “I'm certainly not going to stick my hand anywhere near those fangs." But Odinn said sharply, “I gave my word to Farbauti's son. His son has a place in my hall, whether the rest of you like it or not." But it was next to Tyr that I took my place in the hall, and Tyr who tossed the remains of a haunch from Odinn's feasting table in my direction. I snapped it down in a single bite, and from that moment Tyr was the only one of the Aesir I allowed to feed me, though indeed he was the only one who dared. I knew there would finally come a time, a reckoning. For I will never forgive how he held me while my wife Gullveig burned. [Back to Table of Contents]

IV Odinn soon had more urgent matters than a wolf to concern him, for the Vanir, Gullveig's people, were enraged with her treatment in Asgard. They demanded wergild, but the price the Vanir demanded for Gullveig's murder came to more gold than even the dwarves possessed. Now I understood why Odinn had insisted on obtaining Gungnir, why he'd waited until the spear was forged before he turned on Gullveig. He had never intended peace. He had never intended even to defend himself against an enemy attack. In the middle of the negotiations, without any warning, he stood up and hurled Gungnir at the Vanir, an irrevocable declaration of war. Such was his envy of their sorcery that he would take on a new enemy while the Jotuns still roamed freely beyond Asgard's walls, brooding on vengeance of their own. But he miscalculated, being vastly overconfident of his power, even wielding the spear of victory. The two forces met in open warfare on the plain named Vigrid, where the final battle between the Aesir and all their enemies is destined to take place. Yes, the Aesir were warriors, I'll grant them that much. And brave enough, if bravery were sufficient for victory. The Vanir had no one to equal Tyr's skill at sword-play or Thorr's strength, and indeed the spear Gungnir never failed to hit its mark, as the sons of Ivaldi had promised. But the Vanir battle-magic was equal to the Aesir strength. Odinn might have Gungnir, but his enemies all had weapons of equal potency. They trampled the battlefield and forced Odinn's forces into

retreat, taking vengeance for Gullveig as I rejoiced with every blow they struck. The day came at last when the Vanir battle-sorcery breached Asgard's walls. Under their assault, the stones tumbled and splintered, the foundations crumbled away. Only Bifrost still remained standing, the shimmering bridge. This was owing perhaps to Heimdall's fierce defense, but I think that even the Vanir could not bring themselves to pull down such a wonder as the rainbow way. Yet elsewhere all Odinn's lands lay open and unwarded. Now, I thought, now he will regret the murder of my wife! The mood of the Aesir's war-council was grim that night. “It's over,” Tyr said bleakly. Thorr nodded, unable to speak, but no one could have expected him to say anything important, anyway. Honir cried, “We've lost! Our walls are thrown down and we can't defend this place now! Brother, we have to beg the Vanir for terms!" But Odinn's cunning hadn't left him, nor his boldness. He lifted his head sharply at Honir's words. “You're right, my brother! We can't defend this place any longer." “Then we give up?" “No. We attack." Quickly, he outlined a plan that, had it failed, would have meant the end of Asgard forever. Under cover of darkness the host of the Aesir deserted their own halls, abandoning the ruined walls, and gradually

circled behind the forces of the Vanir. They took the road to Vanaheim, their stronghold, which now stood undefended with all its warriors encamped beside the ruined walls of Asgard. Odinn and his followers attacked, broke through the walls of Vanaheim and took the Vanir wives and children captive. Each side now occupied the other's halls. The situation was grim. But by that time both forces were weary of the long fighting, and it was clear that if the war went on it would lead to nothing but ruin for both sides, until only the Jotuns would be the survivors. So a Thing was held to make peace at last, and to seal the peace, the members of both sides each spat into a crock. Many spells were uttered over it, and runes carved into it by the Vanir, who knew such sorcery. Then a man stepped out of it into the middle of the assembled company. His name was Kvasir, and he possessed the combined wisdom of both the Vanir and Aesir. Even more, he knew the secret of brewing mead! Out it poured from the crock which had given birth to him, and Odinn was the first to reach out his drinking horn to fill it with the golden liquor. At the feast that followed, both Vanir and Aesir got magnificently and gloriously drunk. Thorr fell into a profound, snoring stupor. I lapped the mead with my wolf's tongue from the puddles where it had spilled onto the floor. My head whirled. Kvasir's mead was as potent as anything Sinmora ever brewed in her cauldron. When I finally woke I was Loki again, with a throbbing pain inside my skull. The wolf was gone, yet he would one day return to Asgard. Before the Vanir returned to their own land, the leaders agreed on an exchange of hostages. Odinn agreed to send his brother Honir to

Vanaheim, and in exchange the Vanir gave him Njord, who brought with him to Asgard his twin son and daughter, Freyr and Freya— lechery and lust. Others of the Vanir soon came to dwell among the Aesir, and from them they obtained new wives, more pleasing to them than the daughters of the Jotuns. Odinn married Frigg, who knew all the secrets governing birth, and Thorr won Sif, whose golden hair flowed to her feet like a shimmering cloak. Yet the name of my wife Gullveig, the cause of the hostilities, was soon all but forgotten in both Asgard and Vanaheim. Only in my heart is her memory still alive. Though I would learn much later that she had never forgotten me, even in death. **** In this new order of things in Asgard, I had to take a lower place in Odinn's hall while the new Vanir guests took the seats of honor next to him—Njord and his twin spawn. Njord had fathered them on his own sister, a custom of Vanaheim that the twins had honored from the moment Freyr discovered what use his prick was besides dribbling piss down his leg. Though I suspect it was his whore of a sister who taught him. They were both favorites of the Aesir, and Odinn so favored Freyr that he built him a new hall in Alfheim, almost as magnificent as his own. Yet all that this favor taught him was to covet more. One day Odinn came to me to say, “Brother, you know how we all honor Njord's son. I've seen how he admires the gold arm-ring Draupnir that you brought me back from the dwarves. Perhaps you could persuade them to forge a gift or two for Freyr." A momentary rage washed over me, and I felt the pull of the wolf

within, trying to break free. Had he forgotten already how he had taken Draupnir from the charred bone of my murdered wife's arm? But at the same time there was a thrill at hearing him call me once again, “brother.” So far I was under his thrall at that time. “You know I don't like the dwarves,” I said reluctantly. “Who does? But obviously you have a way to get the best of them. You got them to make my spear, my arm-ring. That crafty brain of yours can think of something else, I'm sure. And it would help convince the others that you belong here with the rest of us, when we could have used your help during the war.” Thus he added threat to flattery to make sure that I would do his will. And in fact, despite myself, a scheme was forming in my mind, another way to trick the surly dwarves. “All right,” I agreed, “I'll do it, I'll go to the dwarves again. But I'll need to take Draupnir with me." Now it was Odinn's turn to look sour. He pushed the ring up on his arm in a possessive gesture. “Don't worry, I won't lose it. I need it for bait, that's all." Grudgingly, he pulled the ring from his arm and I tucked it away safely into the pouch at my belt. Then I took the dank slippery passage down to Nidavellir, to the caves where the long-bearded sons of maggots work at their smoking forges. I found the sons of Ivaldi first—not hard with the din they were making with their hammers, enough to make a troll's head ring. They greeted me with the usual hospitality of their race. “Here it's Odinn's

messenger come again. I suppose he wants to steal more of our gold!" In answer I pulled out the ring Draupnir, holding it casually up in the air so they could admire its workmanship. “Odinn has no need of your gold. Just look at this ring. Every nine days it produces eight more of its own weight. We all have one or two like this up in Asgard. Odinn himself wears one on each arm." The dwarves’ eyes lit with eager greed, and I was forced to keep holding Draupnir high up out of their reach—no difficult task. But I knew I didn't dare lose Odinn's treasure. “Now this particular ring was cast by Sindri and Brokk,” I went on now that I had their attention. “They're an unpleasant pair, and I don't care to have more dealings with them if I can help it. But you see, when Freyr admired Odinn's arm-ring, the Allfather told him any one of the dwarves would be able to make him a gift of almost equal quality. Of course, if you think you're not up to the task, I'm sure I could find some other smith to take it on." “Absolutely not,” they both said at once. “We'd be honored to make a gift for the noble Freyr! And its workmanship will make Sindri and Brokk pull out their beards with jealousy!" “Not a ring,” I warned them. “We don't really need more rings in Asgard. This should be something different, something unique that Freyr can be proud of and show off to the other Vanir when they come to feast in his new hall in Alfheim." “We guarantee it,” they promised with almost pitiful eagerness.

So I waited while they set to work with their pounding and clanging. It wasn't long before they had finished, and they came back to me, black and sweaty from the forge, with proud grins on their ugly faces. “This is the ship Skidbladnir,” they boasted. “As you see, it will fit folded into a pouch on your belt. But unfolded it will hold the whole host of the Aesir on its deck, and as soon as its sail is hoisted, the winds will come to fill it and carry Freyr wherever in all the nine worlds he wishes to go." Despite myself, I was impressed, and I promised to deliver their gift to the noble Freyr. But instead I hurried to the cave where Sindri and Brokk had their forge. Their welcome was even less enthusiastic than it had been before. “Look, it's the trickster!” snarled Brokk. “I don't suppose he's come to pay off his debt—I don't see him bringing us the spear Gungnir." “Perhaps you two overestimate your own talents,” I answered sharply, for of all their race, these two were almost the worst for surliness and greed. “Now, this ring—” I twirled it casually around my index finger, but I snatched it away as their filthy, forge-stained hands grabbed for it “—the Aesir admit it's a pretty trinket, of course. But just you look at the gift the sons of Ivaldi have produced for Freyr!" I took out the ship Skidbladnir and displayed it to them, enjoying the sight of their faces with the jaws dropped in bitter envy. “Lucky for you two, I did manage to persuade Odinn to give you another chance to redeem yourselves. Or don't you think you can match the craftsmanship that went into this ship? You can always give up the bet, you know." They growled and muttered resentfully, but their pride in their

smithcraft was at stake, and at last they agreed. Once more Brokk went to work at the bellows while his brother took up a pair of tongs and started to draw out fine lengths of gold wire. Finally they stood before me with their treasure proudly in their hands—it was named Gullinbursti, a boar with bristles of shining gold. “He will carry Freyr faster than any horse, over land or sea or through the air,” Brokk declared. It was a magnificent treasure indeed! Both gifts were certainly much more than the lustful Freyr deserved, but I was satisfied that I'd fulfilled my mission for Odinn and could count on his favor again. Quickly I tucked the boar into my pouch and left the loathsome underground realm of the dwarves, promising the two brothers that the Aesir would judge the value of the gifts and make their decision known in due time. Freyr, of course, was pleased with his gifts, and he boasted about them all over Asgard. Then naturally his harlot sister Freya was instantly consumed by jealousy and lusted for dwarf-made treasures of her own. Freya—Asgard's favorite whore. Her womanhood is a gate that opens to any man who knocks there. It's no secret why Odinn favors her—after all, she's borne him a daughter—but he hasn't been alone on that well-worn road between her thighs. Sessrumnir is the name of her hall, the hall of many seats, all carved and inlaid with gold. All this, for one who had come to Asgard as a hostage, with nothing. But she was never satisfied. Always she had to have more. I made her a simple proposal. All I asked was a night or two in her bed, and in exchange I'd bring her back the finest treasures from the dwarves underground, the gold she so craved. It wasn't as if I were

demanding so much—just a taste or two of what she'd given every other man in Asgard. In answer, she laughed—she laughed aloud in my face. She needed no help from Loki's tricks to fill her hands with the dwarves’ gold! I could have told her, better than Freya have had me in their beds and not complained of it afterward. Who was she to turn down Loki, Farbauti's son, Odinn's blood brother? Who was she to deny me? Yet she did. On a moonless night she crept out of her gate with her naked body hidden under a cloak. I followed on a marten's soundless feet, across the shimmering bridge to Midgard and below to Nidavellir, into the realm of the dwarves. A dull, fitful glow emerged into the night from the deep recesses of their caves—the light of the forge. I could see its reflection in Freya's eyes, naked greed. I felt a sudden, uncontrollable urge to see her burn, writhing in a pool of molten gold. She made her way through the clammy tunnels to the forge of the Brisings, four brothers each more squat and loathsome than the one before, who looked up with open mouths as she came into the red, flickering light of their cave. “I want a necklace,” she breathed, “a necklace of gold. And it must be the most beautiful object any woman in all the nine worlds has ever clasped around her neck." I could see the dwarves’ throats bob as they tried to swallow down their desire, but the avarice of that race is almost as strong as their lust. “We can make such a necklace,” the eldest of them told her, “but what of the price?"

Her lips curved into a smile as her hand went to the clasp that held her cloak. It dropped to the floor of the cave and the naked glory of her flesh shone so bright that it dimmed the glow of the forge. “This is my price,” she breathed, rotating her hips in an obscene invitation. “Yes,” the dwarf croaked, so overcome with desire that he drooled into his beard, “yes, if you lie with each of us for one night, we'll make you a necklace just as you describe." So for four nights Freya rutted one by one with the filthy, longbearded sons of maggots, while the three not so engaged worked in a powerful frenzy fueled by lust. I can tell you that it was hardly a fine sight to watch her buck and hump and writhe, sweating, crying out her passion, scoring their backs with her nails to spur them to greater effort. They rode her and she rode them in turn, her soot-streaked breasts bobbing and jumping with every wanton thrust of her hips. Oh yes, she would couple with these maggots, but not with Loki, who had proved he could warm Sinmora's bed, and Gullveig's. Certainly, I thought slyly while I watched with my marten's eyes from the back of a tunnel, the jealous Odinn wouldn't approve her current choice of lovers. No, he wanted the Vanir whore for himself, although he tolerated, as he must, her lapses among the Aesir. But her fornicating with the dwarves would be quite another matter, I was sure. The Allfather hated them as much as I did. I grinned with my marten's sharp teeth as I contemplated his reaction when he learned the price she'd paid for her shining new necklace. And I would be the one to make sure he did learn it. At last the smiths were finished with their work, which took a great deal longer than it might have, under different circumstances, and they reverently came up to Freya, bearing the treasure they'd created

for her. She jumped up from the bed and exclaimed with awe and delight, for the necklace was wrought of the finest strands of pure gold, woven into intricate braids and patterns that shimmered in the red light of the forge. In my own reluctant opinion, it surpassed the work of Brokk, Sindri, and the sons of Ivaldi altogether. Standing naked in the firelight, she clasped it eagerly around her white neck so that it lay against her breasts, and the sight of her wearing it made me ache with desire, for such was its power to make men lust to possess whoever wore it. The dwarves were visibly in the same state, but, quickly, ignoring them, she wrapped her cloak around her gleaming nakedness and left the cave, taking her prize back to her own hall in Asgard. By the time I returned, following her, my plan was devised. Care would be necessary. I'd told Odinn again and again that the Vanir bitch was a whore, but he would never believe me without proof. I was only trying to stir up trouble, he claimed. All right, I thought, now I would have proof. When I had the necklace in my hand, he would have to listen. I approached the gate of Sessrumnir cautiously. Quite unlike its owner, Freya's hall was supposed to be impossible to penetrate. But this only made it more of a challenge to one of my skills. After all, I was Loki, master of shapes! I took the form of a moth, then a fly, looking for a single crack I could use to slip into the hall. Finally as a gnat I managed to find a place in the golden thatch of the roof that I could wriggle through. There she slept naked in her bed of gold, with her white thighs parted even in sleep, exposing that well-traveled passage into her belly that so many had used—all but Loki. At the sight of her, my lust threatened to explode. I could take her, I realized, as she slept there

unaware. Before she knew what was happening, I could light such a fire below that golden thatch as would leave her bed a molten puddle on the floor. Let her scorn me then! But as she tossed her head in sleep her hair fell away from her throat, and the glint of the necklace stung my eyes, the shimmering wonder of the twisted, braided gold. I had to possess it! Nothing else at that moment could matter. Unfortunately, the clasp was at the back of her neck, lying underneath her as she slept on her back. As a gnat, I buzzed into her ear, and she tossed her head, but not far enough to expose the clasp. Then I changed myself again, into a flea, and bit down savagely on her tender white skin, trying to draw blood. She rolled over to her side, and I could reach the clasp. With my own nimble fingers I reached down and unfastened it, sliding it away, and she never wakened more than enough to sigh. I had it! Holding my prize, I imagined clasping it around Gullveig's white neck, the look of pleasure on her face as she exclaimed at my gift. How she would have loved it, how magnificent it would have looked against her flawless white skin! How she would have rewarded me! It came to me then that it would be a mistake to show such a treasure to Odinn, who would only take it from me as he'd taken the arm-ring Draupnir. No, I decided suddenly, this prize would be my repayment for that loss, for Gullveig's death, for all the many insults I'd suffered in Asgard. I clutched the necklace tight. Mine now, my own. Silently, I crept to Freya's door, drew back the bolts and slipped outside into the night. I caught my breath as the moonlight made the

necklace shine with subtle, intricate new patterns. It was mine! But the glint of gold in the moonlight caught another eye, the only eye in Asgard that never slept—Heimdall, curse the ice in his cold veins! He saw me standing in Freya's gateway, and his suspicious mind at once assumed the worst. The peal of his horn rang through the night, waking all Asgard, and I fled before Freya could realize what she had lost. But Heimdall jumped onto his swift horse Gulltoppr and raced after me. He cut off my escape, and at last he trapped me on the clifftop with nowhere to run. I glanced down at the foaming breakers crashing against the rock so far below, then back up at my enemy bearing down on me. His teeth were bared in a gleaming grin, and he was drawing his sword. “There's no way to escape your crime now, son of Muspell,” he sneered. “Think again, son of Ymir!” I replied, laughing. Then I dove backward into the sea. The water closed over my head as I transformed to the shape of a seal, swimming strongly even with the necklace in my grasp. Only too late did I realize my error, for I should have recalled that Heimdall was born of the sea, that the daughters of Aegir were his mothers. He pursued me in the same seal-shape, gaining distance while my hold on the necklace slowed me down. But I refused to let go of my treasure, not even to save myself. By the rocks of Singasteinn he caught me. We fought there in sealshape with the waves breaking against the sharp-edged rocks, threatening us both with death. I was handicapped by my grip on the necklace, and while I snarled and tried to shake him off, he tore into

my flesh with his sharp white teeth. My blood stained the sea-foam. I writhed and snapped at him, but he savaged me without mercy until at last I could no longer hold onto my prize. The Brisings’ necklace slid away from me and started to sink down to the sea-floor. We both dove quickly to retrieve it before it was lost, but I was too weak from my wounds. I crawled onto the slimecovered rocks to lick my torn flesh while my enemy swam back to shore to return his prize to Freya's wanton white neck. It isn't hard to imagine the reward he received there. [Back to Table of Contents]

V My wounds healed, but it was my pride that was hurt above all. Heimdall made sure that all Asgard knew how I'd attempted to steal Freya's necklace and failed. It was the failure that galled the worst, and the fact that Freya had spurned me. Why did I remain in Asgard where I was scorned, where my wife had been murdered at Odinn's command? Even at the time, I understood vaguely that it was his power, the strange attraction that he had over me, the hold he had on my soul that had bound our Wyrds together since the moment we exchanged our bond of brotherhood. Fenrir, I think, has always known how it must end, but it took Loki much longer to recognize my brother as my enemy. But at that time my humiliation and hurt had made me reckless, and I burned to avenge myself, if not on Freya, then on any of the Aesir. That was the mood I was in when I happened one day to take notice of Thorr's wife Sif. Thorr was Odinn's foster-son, his pride, who had brought down the floodwaters of icy Iving onto Jotunheim. Of all the Aesir, he had the strongest hate for the whole race of frost giants, and he spent much of his time roaming the frozen northern wastes of Utgard, hunting them. It was no secret that he hoped to find his mother's first husband Fjolsvid there, to avenge the beating the brute had inflicted on him as a child. But all the while he was gone, his lovely bride Sif was left alone and neglected in her bed. This, clearly, was an opportunity meant for Loki. Oh yes, she was a charming thing, Sif the daughter of Vanaheim, but her real glory was her hair, ripe gold like a wheat field and so long it flowed and

rippled down her back as far as her feet. I let it run shimmering through my fingers. “I'd like to see you wearing this—and nothing else at all,” I whispered hotly into her ear. She blushed, she shook her hair down to hide her face. “You know that I'm Thorr's wife. In fact, you really shouldn't have come here when you knew he was gone." This was only a token protest, I was certain. I could already sense the growing warmth of desire between her thighs. “But why should you be neglected, just because Thorr takes it into his thick head to go off north murdering giants? You don't suppose he sleeps alone on these trips of his, do you?" Her golden eyebrows made a frown. “What do you mean?" “I mean he kills the Jotuns, yes, but it's a different matter with their daughters and wives. Who do you suppose gave him that magic iron belt and gloves he brought back from Utgard a few seasons ago?" “Why, he told me he took them from the body of a giant he'd killed." I laughed. “He took them from the hand of Grid, a daughter of giants. She gave him more than that, too, I can tell you. And she's not the only one. I've heard that Jarnsaxa's latest whelp has red hair. Now I swear to you that I've never been in bed with Jarnsaxa, and who else has red hair in all of Asgard or Utgard?" Thus I coaxed and seduced Sif, reminding her subtly that if she happened to bear a red-haired bastard as the result of our meetings,

everyone would naturally take it to be Thorr's own. So at last she let her gown drop to the floor at her feet and stood clothed only in the golden curtain of her hair. I parted it and went into her, and I swear that her only cause for regret was how long she'd waited before giving in to my persuasion. After that first time, she came to me eagerly. I can only imagine what delight her bed-sport with Thorr must have been—like rutting with a bull seal, I suppose. I ignited passions within her she'd never known were possible. It was wonderful to hear her sharp cries as she pleaded for me not to stop before her pleasure was complete, and never did I fail her in that task. It was well for a while, as long as Thorr was still away decapitating giants in Utgard. But when her husband returned, Sif grew cold and distant. “You mustn't speak to me in that way again,” she insisted. “In fact, it might be best if you stopped coming to visit our hall." I took her arm and pulled her close to me, whispering sharply into her ear, “Don't tell me you didn't enjoy it! Just ten days ago you were howling like a forest cat in heat, begging for more. What will you do for pleasure without Loki when your thick-skulled husband leaves you again?" But she jerked her arm away and glared at me with frozen blue eyes. “Don't you forget, son of Muspell, that I'm Thorr's wife, and he could twist your neck from your shoulders with one hand. You're only welcome here in Asgard, Farbauti's son, for as long as Odinn tolerates your tricks." As if she were not herself a daughter of the Vanir, so recently Asgard's enemies!

Once again I was spurned, and all I could imagine was Thorr in my place between Sif's soft white thighs, wallowing and heaving in his clumsy lust. I burned with frustration and tried to quench it with mead. One night when I was frankly drunk, my reckless jealousy overcame me. I crept on silent marten's feet into Thrudheim, Thorr's hall, and entered Sif's bedroom. There she lay asleep with her husband sprawled next to her, snoring like a boar. I meant to repay her for the way she'd treated me, I burned with wounded pride. So it was her pride I took, her greatest treasure, her hair. I cut it off and left it lying on the floor beside her bed, like a carpet of gold. It was, with hindsight, not the wisest deed I have ever done. Sif woke the next morning with her glory cropped short like a stubbled wheat field after the harvest. She wailed and she screamed, waking Thorr. “My hair!” she cried. “Loki did it! I know he did!” And like all wives when their sins have been discovered, she made sure to declare her own innocence to her husband, insisting, “While you were gone this last time, he kept coming to our hall, trying to get me into bed. I refused, of course, and this is what he's done in revenge, because I spurned him! Oh, my hair!" Well, it was a believable story, and Thorr swallowed it whole, as simple as he was. He came roaring and bellowing into Gladsheim, kicking in the door with a single blow. In his wrath, his face was a darker red than his hair. “Loki! You low, sneaking son of Muspell, I'm going to cut off your manhood and shoved it down your throat! I'm going to gut you like a chicken for the spit! I'm going to wrench your head from your lying neck!"

I dove from my bed and tried to disappear, but he grabbed me in mid-air before I could shape-change. With one hand, he held me up off the ground with my feet kicking, throttling me until I could barely croak, “There must be some mistake." “No mistake. Only you could sneak into Thrudheim without being seen. Only you would be mean enough to cut off Sif's hair just because she's a virtuous wife and resisted your seducing ways. Don't you dare to tell me otherwise!" A single glance into Thorr's reddened, murderous eyes was enough to make me choke on my protest. It was Sif's virtue he wanted to believe in. I swallowed painfully. “It was a mistake. A joke, that's all! I was drunk.” I squirmed helplessly as his fingers tightened around my throat. Black spots started to swim in front of my eyes. “Listen, Thorr. No, don't! I'm sorry, all right? I didn't really mean it." “Sorry, are you? I'll show you the meaning of sorry! Sif hasn't stopped crying since she woke up and saw her hair all over the floor." I was desperate. “I'll fix it! I swear I will!" He held me in the air, kicking and choking. Then, slightly, very slightly, his hold on my throat loosened. “What do you mean, you'll fix it? You have magic that can make Sif's hair grow out again the way it was?" “Well, not exactly—” My breath was cut off. I could hear the bones crack in my neck. I thrashed and struggled for breath to speak, to save myself. Finally I croaked in a tortured, strangled whisper, “ The

dwarves!" Thorr hesitated. Then he let go. I dropped to the ground with a bruising thud. “Talk." “You know how the dwarves can work with gold. It would be easy for them to make new hair for Sif. Think of it—hair of gold, real gold!" “It would be hard and cold." “No! I swear, it would be warm and soft, just like Sif's own. You wouldn't be able to tell the difference. And think how proud she'd be. No other woman in Asgard would have hair like hers, not even Freya." Thorr's thick-boned forehead furrowed with the unaccustomed effort of thought. “All right. If the dwarves can make her hair again—just like it was. But I want a gift for myself, too, as wergild—something like that spear you brought back for Odinn. That was nice. Otherwise, there won't be a hole on all the nine worlds deep enough for you to hide in and escape me." I had never meant to go back to the realm of the dwarves, but now once again I had no choice. It galled me that I would be bringing back golden hair for Sif—she deserved to lose more than her hair after the way she'd treated me. But I'd sworn, and I was bound by my own word to replace what I had shorn away. The sons of Ivaldi weren't pleased to see me, insolent maggots that they are. “Whatever you want this time, Odinn's lackey, you can look for it elsewhere."

“At the forge of Sindri and Brokk? Well, they forged the boar Gullinbursti for the noble Freyr. Probably they'd do a better job, anyway." “Go where you will. Anywhere but here." “Or perhaps the Brisings will fulfill my commission. They were paid well for their trouble when they wrought Freya's necklace. You might have heard the price they earned for it. But I see you're not interested, so I'll tell the Aesir we'll have to look elsewhere." The sons of Ivaldi looked at each other, for the tale of the Brisings’ necklace was common among the dwarves, and I could see the lechery alight in their malicious little eyes. I had them! “Freya?” they exclaimed. “This gift is for her?" “You understand, it has to remain a secret. Freya is jealous of Sif's hair, which is as fine as gold. She sits all day in her hall, wearing nothing but her necklace, combing her own hair and thinking how fine it would be if it were real gold, living gold, as soft and warm as Sif's. She'd do anything for hair like that, or so she told me when she sent me here to ask you." “She'd reward us? As the Brisings were rewarded?" “For hair exactly like Sif's. But, of course, there are only two of you, when there were four of the Brisings. I suppose that would mean she'd have to pay each of you ... twice. I'm sure she would be that grateful." “Yes, grateful,” they leered at each other, then made for their forge

so fast they tripped over each other's feet on the way. It would be amusing, I thought as I watched them set out their tools, to see them come to Asgard to claim Freya's favors as their payment. But they worked quickly, drawing out the finest gold wire to the length of Sif's hair. In a short time it was finished, and when I stroked the rippling golden length I could have sworn I was running my fingers through Sif's own glory once again. “I'll take this to her at once,” I said, folding it away in my belt. “I'll let Freya know it was made by the sons of Ivaldi, and you'll have your reward as soon as she sees how well you've wrought." Now there was Thorr's gift to find, and for that I went again to the forge of Sindri and Brokk, who had made the arm-ring Draupnir. “So,” said Brokk unwelcomingly, “you've finally come to pay your debt, Trickster." “Pay?” I laughed contemptuously. “The fact of the matter is, I've persuaded the Aesir to give you one more chance. Your gifts were acceptable, of course. But the sons of Ivaldi have done better. See, here's the golden hair they've just made for Sif. Now, can you match that?" Sindri shook his head. “That's twice you've fooled us with that trick. Not a third time." But Brokk held up his arm. “Wait.” He turned to me, “Does that mean the sons of Ivaldi win the prize?" I shrugged in unconcern. “Of course." “Then we'll do it, one more time. Winner take all, right?"

“Those were the conditions." “Well, that's not good enough for me. I want to raise the stakes. I want your head, Trickster, if we win." “My head?" “That's right. You'll have to stake your head that our forge can't produce the finest treasure of all for the Aesir." I hesitated, but then my hand went to the fall of golden hair I carried concealed beneath my belt, and my fingers seemed to flow through it as if it were alive. “So be it,” I declared confidently, “I'll take that wager. The task this time is to make a gift for Thorr, a weapon, something to equal Odinn's spear Gungnir." “Done,” Brokk said quickly—too quickly in fact for my liking. “Come, brother,” he turned to Sindri, “we have work to do." “All right, we'll do it. You go to the bellows, and whatever you do, don't stop pumping until I'm finished." I watched him carry a huge lump of black iron to the forge. To keep up my confidence, I stroked the golden hair in my belt, but I was frankly worried this time. If they won the bet, Brokk would have my head. But if they didn't produce a gift good enough to appease Thorr, he would rip me in half. Nervously, I watched the forge, while the hammer rang and the sparks flew and Brokk's thick knotted muscles labored ceaselessly at the bellows. Neither of them were watching me. Unseen, I transformed myself into a fly and landed on the back of Brokk's hand. I bit, he flinched and

cursed, but never paused in his rhythm at the bellows. I landed on his neck, all running with black-streaked sweat, and bit again, harder this time. He cursed and shook his head like a dog, but never faltered in his stroke. Finally I landed on his face and stung him on the eyelid, so hard that the blood ran down, blinding him. This time he bellowed in rage and pain, swatting at the fly, and for one instant the bellows ceased to blow. At the forge, Sindri cursed horribly. “What are you doing there? I told you to stay with the bellows!" “Well, a fly just bit me!" “A fly? Curse you, Brokk, the thing might well be ruined!" At that I took my own form again, more confident. After a few moments more, Sindri came out from the forge, carrying a heavy object in his hands. I could see that it was a hammer. “This is Mjollnir,” he said, “and its handle is a little bit short, but I think Thorr will appreciate its virtues." I took it back to Asgard with little concern for the safety of my head, for certainly this object could never win the bet. It was only a hammer. A plain-looking, black iron hammer with no ornament, no potent runes wrought into its surface. I almost worried that Thorr would reject the gift. But first there was Sif, waiting in front of the Aesir assembled to see what treasure I had brought this time from the dwarves, hoping no doubt to see me humiliated once again. I confidently swept forth the shining flow of gold to settle it onto her head, and at once it took root there, so like her own hair she exclaimed aloud in joy.

“That's the wergild you owe Sif,” Thorr rumbled threateningly, “but there's what you owe me as well." “That's right. And here it is.” I was less sure of myself this time, but I pulled the hammer from my belt with a show of pride. “Its name is Mjollnir. You can break in the heads of quite a few giants with this thing, I imagine." He took it from my hand and hefted it experimentally, testing the balance. I watched with a certain anxiety while a strange, deadly light ignited behind his eyes. Then I heard, unmistakably, the sound of thunder. The rest of the Aesir looked at each other questioningly. They had heard it as well. Thorr took a breath. “This,” he declared, “is the weapon that will defeat our enemies the Jotuns!" Odinn gripped his arm. “Are you sure?" “Yes! It will never fail me. Anything I strike will be destroyed, and no matter how hard I throw it, or how far, it will come directly back to my hand!" In demonstration he hurled the iron hammer. This time the thundercrack was deafening. As we watched, it spun in the air, flying in the direction of distant Mount Hekla, so far it was almost lost from sight. There came a sudden explosion of smoke and flame from the mountain. The earth shook and roared with it. And when we had all regained our feet and our hearing, there stood Thorr with Mjollnir once again in his hand.

“Now we can destroy them!” he bellowed, and the rest of the Aesir cheered so loudly that I feared the noise might be heard as far deep in the earth as the caverns of the dwarves. [Back to Table of Contents]

VI There had been much feasting and celebration in Asgard with the peace and all the weddings, yet Odinn's heart remained dark and cold. He had new, powerful allies, he had new weapons, but the walls of Asgard were still a heap of rubble, leaving all the halls of the Aesir exposed to the vengeance of their enemies the Jotuns. That, before all else, must be his greatest concern, yet it would be a vast undertaking, since it was obvious that the new ramparts must be built taller, thicker, stronger than before. Not a single stone had been left standing on another, and the size of the task was daunting. Thorr grumbled that it would be an age before Asgard was ready for another war. He settled the hammer Mjollnir over his shoulder and strode away to the north to break the skulls of giants. Without his strength, the progress on the walls soon declined to nothing, for the rest of the Aesir had grown soft living in their golden halls, feasting on roast boar and swilling mead. Not too long after Thorr's departure a stranger rode into sight of Bifrost, a burly fellow with a sack of tools slung behind his saddle. He paused at the foot of the bridge to survey the broken fortifications, obviously in the early stages of repair. When challenged by Heimdall, he said, “It looks like you've got quite a construction job underway, don't you?" Heimdall glared at him forbiddingly, blocking the way. “And what business is it of yours? This is Asgard, stronghold of the Aesir." “Not much of a stronghold, is it, with the walls in that condition?” The stranger held up his hand to forestall Heimdall's quick-tempered reply. “Look, I'm a mason. Walls are my business. From what I see

here, you could use my help. More than likely, if you'd had the services of a good mason in the first place, you wouldn't have this problem now." Heimdall slowly sheathed his sword, acknowledging reluctantly that the stranger made some sense. He waved him across the bridge. “Perhaps you'd better speak with Odinn about all this. He might decide to hire you for the job." The Allfather was suspicious of the mason's offer. “You claim you can rebuild the walls by yourself? That's a lot of work for one man." “True. But I do have my horse to help haul the loads of stone. I think I can manage the job in a year." From my place at the rear of Odinn's hall, I listened to this exchange and noticed that this hairy, bearded stranger had the look of the Jotuns about him. But I had nothing against the race, personally. I came closer, full of interest to hear more. Odinn's brows rose at the mason's claim. “One man to raise these walls again—in a year? Stranger, you expect me to believe you?" “Here's my guarantee. I'll work for a year—for nothing. If, at the end of that time, I haven't finished the job, you won't have to pay me anything." “And your price if you do?" “Well, then I'd expect to be well-paid. My price is Freya. I want her for my wife." Odinn roared his outrage, echoed by the rest of the Aesir, none of

whom were willing to relinquish their time spent between Freya's open thighs. Njord and Freyr, who had her first and more often than the rest, rose up in protest at the insult to their daughter and sister. But to me, it was the opportunity to take revenge on the Vanir whore, to be rid of her at last. Let her go with the giant and take her joy with him in the icy halls of Utgard. Odinn's piercing gray eyes caught me out. “Brother, what do you think? Should we accept this mason's offer or not?" I thought quickly. “The man is a fool,” I told Odinn. “Lust for Freya must have rotted his wits. No one could rebuild those walls in a year, not single-handed. Each one of those stones is larger than he is. So we have nothing to lose by agreeing to pay his price. He'll never win his wager, and we'll have the advantage of a year's work from him, for nothing." There's something in what you say,” Odinn agreed thoughtfully. “But the risk worries me. A year is a long time. What if he does manage to finish the walls? We'd lose Freya. We can't just sell her to some stranger." Why not? I thought to myself. She's sold herself for a necklace, and for a lot less. “What about nine months, then?” I suggested. The mason agreed. “Nine months it is! I'll do the job in just nine months—I'll finish by the first day of summer!" Now I was certain that he must possess some secret, some advantage

he was hiding from the Aesir. No one but a fool would take such an offer, otherwise. “There! You see?” I whispered to Odinn. “The man is a fool, demented by lust! This is a wager we can't lose! Don't bargain any more, or we'll get less work done on the walls." “All right,” said the Allfather at last. “Nine months it is. But you have to work alone, with no help." “Except for my horse, Svadilfari." “The horse. Oh yes, all right." So it was agreed. But the next day, when the mason began work, it was clear that the stallion Svadilfari was more than he seemed. When the Vanir broke Asgard's first wall, the massive blocks of stone had tumbled down onto the plain of Ida, where they'd lain ever since, overgrown and sinking back into the earth. It would have taken all the strength of any ordinary horse to haul a single one of them up to the building site. But the mason harnessed Svadilfari to a sledge and proceeded to heap onto it stone after stone, until the pile rose higher than nine men's heads, each standing on top of one another. This stranger was no weakling, I observed to myself, more certain now than ever that he was one of the Jotuns in disguise. Then he went to his horse's head and urged him forward with a word. I held my breath as the beast's huge hooves dug into the earth. Muscles bunched under his shaggy coat. Hot breath came steaming from his nostrils. And the sledge began to move, slowly at first and then faster, even as the stallion mounted the hill. The load behind him made the sledge groan with its weight, towering over both man and horse as if they were hauling an entire mountain behind them.

The Aesir were of course concerned, observing this feat of strength, but I assured them, “Don't worry, at this rate the beast will rupture itself from the strain and drop dead within the first month." But by the time Svadilfari reached the crest of the hill he was scarcely winded, and after the mason had unloaded the blocks from the sledge, the stallion was fresh and ready for another load. Day after day they worked, the horse hauling the stone and the mason trimming the blocks and setting them back into place. It had been the end of one summer when they began. But as each day waned more and more quickly, the walls rose higher, even thicker than they had been before the Vanir brought them down. By the time winter came to an end, Asgard's new ramparts were more than half-way complete. And the days were growing longer. Freya came to Odinn to complain. “You've sold me to this filthy lout without my consent! I tell you, I won't go with him to live in some drafty cold hut in the middle of nowhere!" “I've sworn,” he warned her. “I've given my word." “Oh, surely you can find some way out of that!” That cursed necklace gleamed around her white throat. The crimson tips of her breasts showed through the sheer fabric of her gown. She pressed herself against him, her hips ground lewdly against his, her lips nibbled at his neck, while her hands were everywhere on his body. In a single motion he lifted her up against him, and while her legs wrapped tightly around his waist he carried her off to his own bedchamber and slammed the door shut behind them. Listening to the rhythm of their coupling from the other side of the

door, I began to have an uneasy feeling that my bargain was not quite as secure as I had hoped. When Odinn finally opened the door and led out Freya, glowing like her own necklace, I knew I was doomed. He spotted me before I could make my escape. “Loki! Trickster! It was all your idea, to make this bargain. ‘A wager we can't lose.’ That's what you said. Well, now we're close to losing Freya, and it's all your fault! No, don't give me any of your lies. Everyone in Asgard knows how you hate her, just because you couldn't trick your way into her bed." I tried to remind Odinn that he'd asked for my advice, that I hadn't forced him to agree to the mason's conditions. But no, whatever went wrong, it was always Loki's fault. “At least the walls will be finished,” I argued. “Isn't that the most important thing? Isn't one woman a reasonable price to pay? The mason isn't asking for your spear, or Thorr's hammer." But Odinn was implacable. He declared with cold menace, “I will not let Freya go. You got me into this bargain, Trickster, now you'll find a way to get me out of it! If he manages to finish that wall, I'll bury you under the stones!" So I had to find a way to save the whore Freya, who strutted through all the halls of Asgard waving her rump like a mare in heat. There, without thinking, I'd fallen into the answer! It was the horse, the stallion, who was responsible for the mason's success. But how much work could he get out of a stallion in rut? And Freya would be my model! On the day before the first day of summer, as the walls of Asgard

stood near completion, the mason was leading Svadilfari out of his stable when a mare appeared on a hill just beyond the walls, a mare in heat. I whinnied, I kicked up my hooves and lifted my tail enticingly to expose the open passage between my thighs. The scent of my musk reached the stallion's flaring nostrils, and he reared up, trumpeted his lust, and snatched the bridle from his startled master's hand. He charged up the slope, snorting, nostrils flaring, with his huge engorged organ couched like a lance below his belly. With a coy flip of my tail I ran, light-footed and swift, away into the trees with Svadilfari at my heels. The mason lumbered after him, bellowing furious curses, but the stallion's whole attention was on my churning rump. I led him a tireless chase away from Asgard's unfinished walls. Near sunset he caught up with me, reared up and clamped hold of my neck with his huge yellow teeth. I bucked, I kicked, but he bore me down, he reared up on his rear legs to mount me and drove deep into my belly. His seed gushed into me. When he was spent, I was left trembling and sweating. My legs felt weak with the aftershock, my insides were raw. I had never more desperately wanted to return to my own form. But when I tried, I realized just how thoroughly I'd tricked myself, for I was unable to change back to my own shape, not until the foal inside me was born. Oh, how the Aesir would laugh! To see Loki the trickster, the seducer—caught at last, pregnant by the giant's stallion! But my ruse had worked. The next day, the first day of summer, Asgard's gate still stood unfinished. The mason labored throughout the long day, and sweat shone on his bulging muscles as they strained

to shift the immense blocks of stone and put them into place, but his labor was in vain. When the sun finally set, there was still a gap in the wall wide enough that Thorr could have driven his chariot through it. Odinn stood by with a cold smile on his lips and his eyes gleaming as he surveyed the nearly-finished walls. “The time is up,” he told the mason, “and the work we agreed on is still undone. The Aesir owe you nothing." The mason seemed to swell with rage. He threw down his chisel at Odinn's feet, and where it struck the ground a rift opened in the earth, so deep it could have buried a man. Odinn stared at it for a moment in silence. The giant had revealed himself by a show of his real strength. “So,” said Odinn grimly, “As I supposed, you were our enemy all along." Then from out of Thrudheim's gate strode Thorr, and thunder boomed as the hammer Mjollnir whirled through the air to bury itself in the giant's skull. Thus did the Aesir pay the mason his wages, and instead of Freya for his bride, he would now enjoy the cold embrace of Hel. But I could not bear for anyone to witness my humiliation, so I left Asgard to live alone until my foal was ready to be born. [Back to Table of Contents]

VII I never will forget the agony of that birth. I lay on the ground while my body tore itself apart from within. Svadilfari had been too large, his foal would be too large for me to bear. There was no escape from the torment inside me, and I feared it would never end except with my death. Then at last it was over. The foal slid out of me and stood on his eight trembling legs to nuzzle my belly for his milk. I felt a strange stirring of pride, for I saw that my foal, Svadilfari's foal, Sleipnir, would be the best and fastest of horses. So it came to pass. He can bear his rider over land, sea or air more swiftly than any of the horses of the Aesir. And he alone can endure the road to Hel's domain, deep into chilly Niflheim. Best of all, I found I could take my own form again at last. I rejoiced to stand on my two legs and feel my manhood hanging there between them, where it ought to be. With the colt trotting at my side, I returned again to Asgard in the foolish hope that I would finally receive a just reward for my efforts on the Aesir's behalf. Heimdall scorned Sleipnir when I led my son over Bifrost Bridge. “So it's you, Trickster, back again. Is that the sort of horse they breed in Muspellheim? Does it need eight legs to keep from falling down?" But this time Odinn's vision was better than his watchman's, and he recognized the worth of my colt from the first. “A fine animal,” he said, running a hand along Sleipnir's flanks. “This gift will go a long way to making up for the trouble you've caused, Trickster." For a moment I was stricken speechless. The trouble I'd caused! And

what of the trouble I'd endured—raped by that brute of a stallion, forced to bear his foal, trapped in a mare's body for a year! Oh, the ingratitude of the Aesir! Now Odinn intended me to give up my colt, my son. But before I could say a word to protest, he whispered, low and harsh, “Or perhaps the Aesir would be interested to learn of his parentage. His mother's name." Pride stopped my words. Thus it was that Odinn acquired his famous mount, the eight-legged gray horse Sleipnir, who would carry him across so many battlefields in Midgard and even down the treacherous path to Hel's domain. My only consolation was Heimdall's jealousy when Sleipnir defeated his stallion Gulltoppr in a challenge race nine times around the new-built walls of Asgard. For a time, then, Odinn seemed to favor me again. I was given one of the high seats the next time there was feasting in Gladsheim, to honor Idunn, daughter of the Vanir. Idunn's gift to the Aesir was a most welcome one, for the golden apples that she grew in her orchard would keep them forever young and strong. “We were growing old,” the newly-youthful Allfather declared to me as he swallowed a horn of mead. “We were growing soft and slack with all this feasting and sitting in halls. Now I feel the way I did when the world was young and we did great deeds! I need to fare out once more into the nine worlds!" “We'll have to name you Gangleri again,” I told him, and well indeed had he named himself the wanderer, for from that time when his youth was renewed he was always roaming the worlds, constantly spying against his enemies.

“And you can wander with me, my brother." At those words I was glad, for I was eager to have his favor back. Better to travel with Odinn than to sit in Asgard enduring Heimdall's cold suspicion, Tyr's threats and Freya's scorn. Thus I first entered the lands of the frost giants and learned once more how quickly Odinn's treachery could surface under his mask of brotherhood. The Vanir had cast Honir out of Vanaheim, so he was our companion on the journey when we came down out of the ice-covered mountains of the north into a dry and desolate land where only scrub could take hold and grow. The ground was rough and covered with sharp, protruding rocks that cut through the soles of our boots. When we finally saw a foaming mountain stream rushing down into a valley, we followed it with eager thirst. There on the banks of the river we came on a herd of aurochs, and so ravenous we were after our journey through that wasteland that we killed the largest bull for our meal, never thinking whose land and herd we might be trespassing on. Odinn and Hodir skinned and quartered the beast while I made a fire beneath a gnarled old oak tree, breaking off the deadwood from the lower branches. We spitted the haunches and put them on the fire to roast, and soon the odor of searing flesh nearly tempted me to revert to wolf-form and tear it raw from the carcass, so I was impatient for it to be done. Odinn and Honir were no less starved than I was, and after a restless hour we pulled the joints out of the fire, eager to sink our teeth into the roasted meat. But it was raw, cold and raw. Odinn spit out his piece and cursed. “What's wrong here? This meat should be done by now!"

I built the fire up higher, and we put the joints reluctantly back onto the coals. After another hour we were sure it would be cooked, but once again the meat was raw and cold. By now Odinn was in a rage with frustration and hunger. “There's something going on here, and I mean to find out what it is! This fire was your making, son of Muspell. Is this another one of your tricks?" So it was, that at the first hint of trouble, I was always the one accused, simply because I was the stranger. I protested indignantly that this was no trick of mine, and that I was as hungry as they were. Honir ventured to touch a fingertip to one of the coals, but at once he snatched it back, blistered. “This is some sorcery, working against us,” Odinn insisted darkly, for he was always suspicious of sorcery that was not his own. “A good guess!” came a voice from above, startling us all. We looked up, and there was an eagle perched in the top of the oak tree, watching us and mocking our efforts to cook the meat. I went pale, for this bird was immense. Odinn in eagle-form would have been no match for it, as much as he had overwhelmed me in falcon-shape when we first met in Muspell. “This is my land,” he told us, “and my tree. Did you ask my permission to use my wood to make your fire?" Odinn's jaw muscles clenched as he grated his teeth. “What will it take, then, for permission to cook our meal?” he demanded. “We're hungry, and we've been waiting too long already!" “Well, as it happens, I'm a little bit hungry myself,” the eagle replied. “So if you let me eat my fill of your ox, there, I'll allow your

fire to cook it." Odinn wasn't happy about this bargain. He hated to be put at a disadvantage, and he whispered to us, “This is obviously some frost giant and a powerful sorcerer. No good will come of any bargain we make with him.” But we were all starving, so we agreed to the eagle's proposal. At once he cried out and flew down to the fire, snatching up all four quarters, both rumps and both shoulders, leaving nothing at all for the three of us! In a hot rage, I picked up a branch from the center of the fire and swung it at the thieving bird, but instead of striking him, I was yanked up off my feet and into the air, for the eagle had the stick held firmly in his claws, and I couldn't let go of the other end, no matter how I tried. It was sorcery, as Odinn had warned us, and now the giant eagle had me in his grasp. At once he began to fly up into the mountains, bearing me far away from my companions. I twisted and turned, trying to break free or change to some other shape, but it was no use. The eagle's power had me bound. It wasn't long until I thought my arms would be yanked from their sockets. The wind tore the breath from my lungs. Then the eagle dove toward the ground, with me hanging from his claws. I smashed into the rocks, and he flew low, dragging me so I hit every sharp stone and outcrop. My legs were bruised and bleeding, shards of gravel were embedded in my flesh. It was agony! I couldn't stand the pain. I admit it, I've never been able to stand much pain. Odinn knows this. He makes it a point to know everyone's weaknesses. Do you not, my brother?

I cried out to the eagle and begged him for mercy. But he only laughed and flew lower until I dragged across the ground. He dragged me for leagues and endless leagues, over the roughest terrain, over the icy surface of the glaciers, laughing aloud at my cries of suffering. Then he rose slightly, just enough to raise my dangling body clear. “You've had enough?” he taunted me. “Yes!” I cried, for the skin had been scraped from my body, and I was raw. “Well, I might just let you go, but only if you swear to bring me a slight trifle out of Asgard. There is one little item I've had my eye on for a while." My torment had made me heedless. “Anything!" “Do you swear?" When I hesitated to bind myself with an oath, he flew lower again, dragging me through a thick tangle of brush and thorns until I cried out in despair, “Yes, I swear it! Anything!" The eagle laughed again in malicious triumph. “Good! All I want is Idunn's basket of golden apples! And of course, you should bring the girl along with them, too." My heart sank in dread, for some might say Idunn's apples were the most valuable treasure in all Asgard. Eating them had returned the Aesir to youth. But what other choice did I have? Odinn had abandoned me to my fate, and besides, I'd given my oath. “All right!” I agreed quickly when the eagle started once again to

drop toward the broken surface of the earth. “I'll do it! I swear!" “Bring her out of Asgard in seven days. I'll come to the foot of Bifrost at midday!” Then suddenly I was falling freely to the ground. It happened too quickly to let me change myself in time to some other shape, and this last impact was the most painful of all. Battered and bleeding, I made my solitary way back to Asgard. Odinn had already returned by the time I reached Gladsheim, and he welcomed me back to his hall with little concern for my welfare. Indeed, he had wagered on it. “You see, Tyr,” he said to his brother, “I told you he could get out of anything! He escaped with his skin out of the bed of Surtr's wife!" Tyr glared in my direction, for my return had lost him a bet. The rest of the Aesir had even less sympathy for my plight, and they laughed at the bruises and scabs on my legs and back. At that moment, my resolve hardened, and any misgivings I might have had about abducting Idunn and her apples faded from my mind. They would pay for laughing at Loki, Farbauti's son! Idunn was young and innocent then, for only a virgin could pick the golden apples of youth. Perhaps she was the only one of the Aesir who knew nothing deceit and treachery. I only had to wait until I found her by herself, strolling through Asgard's peaceful meadows. “Idunn!” I called out to her. “I've been looking for you!" “Oh,” she said, lowering her eyes modestly, “it's you." I was nettled by her reception, but I didn't show it. “Yes, it's me. Idunn, I'm sure you know I was in Midgard just recently..."

“Yes, I'd heard." As who hadn't? My latest humiliation was a public joke. Yet I went on, “Well, while I was there I saw the most extraordinary thing! I couldn't believe it! I thought such apples only grew here in Asgard, on your own tree!" “Apples? What kind of apples?" I grinned inwardly. “Golden apples! A whole grove of them, so bright it looked like the trees were glowing with their own light! Of course, I thought of you at once. Idunn must see this, I told myself. I would have told you about them sooner, except it took me a while to return from Midgard." “Of course, I understand,” she said, all sympathy now. “Do you suppose,” I wondered, “that they could be the same kind of apples as yours? Exactly the same?" “Oh, no, I'm sure they couldn't be! I grew my own trees, myself, from seeds!" “But suppose, just suppose, they are. Don't you think that could be a problem? The grove is right on the border of Utgard, where the giants live. Certainly it would be dangerous to have the apples of youth falling into the hands of our enemies." “Oh, why you're right, that would be dangerous! You should tell the Allfather about this right away!" “Yes, I should,” I agreed quickly. “If of course they really are the apples of youth. But I didn't want to disturb the Allfather until I knew

for sure about the risk. What if they turned out to be just ordinary apples? I'd look foolish again. So I came looking for you, instead." “For me? But why? What can I do?" “I thought it would be best if you looked at them first. Who better than Idunn to see if these are really the golden apples of youth, or just ordinary yellow apples? All you'd have to do is see them for yourself. Then I wouldn't have to disturb the Allfather with a false report." “Why yes, you're right, I could do that. Can you take me there, can you show me the right place?" “Of course I can take you.” I paused. “Maybe you'd better bring a basket of your own apples, too, for comparison. Just to be sure." “Yes, that's a good idea! I'll fetch my basket right now." “I'll wait right here for you. As soon as you bring the apples, we can be on our way." She agreed to meet me on the other side of Bifrost, where I knew the eagle would be coming at midday to take her. But before that, I had time to do some picking of my own. “Come, I told her, “take my hand and I'll lead you to the place." It was so simple. One moment, my hand was lightly on hers. Then next, I'd bent over to touch her lips with my own. My powers hadn't weakened. I could feel the heat of my desire flowing from my body into hers and building up between her thighs. “No!” she cried weakly as I went into her, “no, I mustn't!"

But I covered her protests with my mouth and quickly did away with her virginity. I swear, after the first moment, she didn't miss it in the least, and I gave her a full share of pleasure in exchange. Women were never meant to be virgins, I've always believed, and I was proving this to Idunn yet again when a dark shadow of wings fell over us, and I heard the eagle screaming in his rage. I sat up from her, grinning, as he dropped to the ground and took his true form. As Odinn had suspected, the eagle was one of the frost giants, a powerful sorcerer named Thiazi. Idunn tried snatch up her gown to cover her nakedness as he screamed, “What do you think you're doing, Trickster?" “Fulfilling my bargain, as we agreed,” I said smoothly. “Here, as you see, I've brought the apples, and the girl with them. There was nothing in my oath to say I couldn't take a little bite of my own, first." Well, he bellowed and he roared, but he could do nothing, for I had indeed kept my word as we agreed. Let a frost giant try to out-trick Farbauti's son! He had the apples, but now that Idunn was no longer a virgin, he would never get any others from her. At last he changed back to eagle-form and seized up the girl to carry her away, for she was his prize and he refused to abandon her, no matter how diminished its worth. They were always a greedy, grasping race, the Jotuns. Unfortunately, I had underestimated Heimdall's vigilance. He'd seen Idunn crossing his bridge, and, suspicious-minded as always, followed after her. As soon as he saw Thiazi in eagle-shape carrying Idunn away, he raised the alarm, and before I knew what was happening, I was seized and dragged before Odinn.

The Aesir were in a frenzy. Not that they cared all that much for the virgin Idunn, but without her apples, their newfound youth and vigor would soon fade again. Freya was wailing into her mirror that her face was starting to wrinkle already. Heimdall struck me across the face, knocking me down to the floor, heedless of the bruises I already had. “Son of Muspell!” he cursed at me, “Schemer! Trickster! You've sold our youth to our enemies!" “I had no choice!” I protested. “He forced me to take an oath! He would have battered me to death against the rocks!" “Oh, he forced you, did he?” said Odinn in a state of cold wrath. To lose Idunn's apples was bad enough, but so much worse to lose them to Thiazi, who'd already bested him once before. The fact that I had been the one to pay the eagle's price meant nothing to him. But I was angry now, too. “Yes, he forced me to swear! I couldn't break my oath. And you saw him carry me away that day, but what did you do to save me? Nothing, that's what! You stood there, you and your lackwit brother Honir! Or did you sit down to enjoy your feast while you watched him drag me across the rocks? You had two whole quarters of beef apiece, didn't you, and no Loki to share it with!" But Odinn cared nothing for justice, or taking his share of the blame. He twisted my arms behind me until I thought they would break. I struggled, but it was no use. His strength was overwhelming and I couldn't take another shape while he held me fast, such was his power. “I'll bring her back!” I finally cried desperately. “I swear, I'll bring the girl back—and the apples, too!" His grip loosened only a little. “So you swear, do you, wolf-

brother?" “I do! I swear it! I'll go to Utgard and find Idunn, I'll bring her back with me!" “You'd better. Because if you don't, it doesn't matter whether you come back or not,” Odinn said menacingly. “I'll find you, wherever you hide. I'll find you, and I'll feed the scraps of you to the wolves." I believed him. The cold power in his eyes left no doubt. “I'll do it!” I gasped. “Just let me go." At last he did, though Heimdall warned him not to trust me, even when I'd given my oath. “Listen,” I said, rubbing the blood back into my arms, “I'll do what I promised. But I could do more. Would you like to have Idunn back, and put an end to Thiazi, too?" The lust for vengeance came alive in Odinn's eyes, and he agreed to what I proposed. My shoulders ached, even more than when Thiazi had tormented me, but I changed into falcon-shape and flew northward, into the icecovered mountains of Utgard at the end of the earth. There Thiazi had his hall, Thrymheim, high on the peak of the most desolate crag in all the nine worlds. It was covered with snow even in the height of summer, and the freezing wind blew constantly around its foundations. Thiazi, in eagle-form, soared overhead, circling slowly over his domain. I waited, crouched in the meager shelter of a stunted fir, until I saw him fly off in the direction of the fjord to hunt fish. A smaller shape flew with him, his cruel and spiteful daughter Skadi, my bane.

At once, I darted in through the window of the hall, where Idunn sat crouched in front of the fire. She saw me, and let out a cry, “You! Oh, don't touch me!" “Yes, it's me, Loki. No, don't run away! I've come to take you away from here, back to Asgard." She turned back, with hope and doubt mixed in her eyes. “There's just one thing,” I told her. “Once condition. Before I take you back, you must swear that you won't mention what we were doing before Thiazi came. The Aesir might misunderstand." She blushed as a virgin would. “But they'll all know! Only a virgin can pick the apples." “Oh, they can find another virgin somewhere, I'm sure. Even in Asgard. What's the difference? Look, Thiazi had you too, don't tell me he didn't.” She blushed again, more deeply. “There, you see. So why not just let the giant have all the credit for taking your maidenhead? Tell the Aesir he raped you. No one will believe he didn't. So, do you swear? Or would you rather stay here and share Thiazi's bed forever?" “I swear,” she said, and I sighed with relief. The next part was the most difficult. Despite what lies the skalds may tell, I am no sorcerer. I've never cared to pay the price that such knowledge demands, the price that Odinn has paid all too willingly. A shapechanger, yes, but that gift was one I was born with. Yet for this purpose, Odinn had taught me the runes and spells, and now I spoke them, transforming Idunn and her basket into a nut small enough to carry easily in my falcon's claws.

Clutching her tightly, I flew as fast as I could, but it wasn't long before the giant and his daughter returned to their hall and found their pink-cheeked captive missing. At once Thiazi changed into eagleform and came after me. I had already experienced the strength of his wings, and now I learned how fast he could fly. I heard the thunder of his wingbeats as he began to overtake me. Still holding Idunn safely, I drove myself to the limit of my speed, passing over the mountains and forests that lay between Utgard and Asgard. But Thiazi was even faster. At last Asgard's walls came into sight, with the giant eagle close behind me. I could almost feel the clutch of his talons at the moment I crossed over Asgard's rampart. But the Aesir were ready, and they set light to a huge pile of wood heaped against the inner wall. I darted through the rising smoke, and Thiazi, behind me, was flying too fast to stop as the flames exploded. His wings were set alight, and he went up in a screaming, cursing blaze, while I lighted on the ground, coughing from the smoke and exhaustion. And there was Idunn with her basket of apples, as I'd sworn she would be, safe if not quite intact. “So, Trickster!” said Odinn grimly, “you did it again. We have our maiden and her apples back, and one less frost giant in the world to trouble us!" He slapped me on my sore, aching back as if this had been all his plan from the beginning. That night in Gladsheim there was another feast in celebration of Idunn's return, but I decided to absent myself from the hall before the matter of her missing virginity could come up in conversation. [Back to Table of Contents]

VIII Whenever there was feasting in Asgard, there was always mead, and there was poetry and song. The one inspired the other. The mead came from Kvasir's crock, and the songs from those who drank too much of it. There was power in song, of course, but also a lot of overblown praise of Odinn and his deeds, most of it lies. There was mead and there were songs at Odinn's wedding to Frigg, and I was soon as drunk as everyone else in the hall, though, unlike some, I never used this as an excuse to inflict bad verses on the other guests. When I woke beneath the table, it seemed there was a furious battle underway in the hall, the sound of swords and shields clashing. As my senses cleared, I realized that the din was coming from outside. All around me the Aesir and Vanir were getting unsteadily to their feet, groping for their own weapons, wondering who was attacking the hall. I wasn't happy when I saw who stood there at Gladsheim's door, defiantly beating her spear against her shield. She was armored all in mail with a longsword slung on her belt and a helmet covering her head, but even though I'd last seen her in eagle-form, screaming curses as her father burned, I could never have forgotten that voice— Skadi the huntress, daughter of Thiazi the frost giant. By striking her shield with her spearshaft she was issuing a challenge to combat, demanding vengeance for her father's death. Not a sight I welcomed. I drew back from the crowd of Aesir, for combat with Skadi was the last of my desires, and I could clearly hear her calling out for “that shape-changer, that trickster,” even though my hand had never shed a drop of Thiazi's blood. It was entirely clear to me that the giant had brought his own fate upon

himself, abducting Idunn and carrying her off to his icy hall. She screeched, “My father's blood was shed! He was murdered by cowardice and treachery. Which of you is going to pay with his own blood? Or should I just start at the beginning and chop you down one by one?” As my ears rang from her voice, she waved her sword to show her intent. Odinn's hand closed around the haft of his spear, Gungnir, and Thorr lifted the hammer Mjollnir in a familiar murderous gesture. Good, I thought, you can impale her, break her skull, and let us all have some peace! Then Kvasir stepped forward, and his voice was all conciliation and peace. “Thiazi's daughter,” he said, taking her hand gently in his own, “we are all weary here of war and strife. Peace is good, and a fine feast, and a brimming bowl of mead. Will you not consider wergild in compensation for your loss?" “What do you offer?” she demanded, still screeching like a wareagle. Kvasir turned to Odinn. “Gold,” Odinn said at last, “We'll pay her Thiazi's weight in gold. That's a generous offer, and more than she deserves." Far more, I thought. Skadi had no case for wergild. But she rejected the generous offer with a snort. “Gold? Do you take me for a dwarf? Can I hammer gold into a decent spearpoint? Or the blade of a sword?"

I hate a bloodthirsty woman. “What will you have, then?” Odinn asked with rising impatience. “I need a husband. None of the men of Utgard please me.” More likely, I thought, they all had fled at the sight of her face and the sound of her voice. But she went on, “I'll take a husband from the Aesir as wergild for Thiazi's murder—but one of my own choosing. And I have one more condition. My heart has turned to stone since my father's death. One of you has to make me laugh. Otherwise, the price is blood." Better it were her own blood, I thought, silently urging Odinn to reject this offer, to send the woman on her way. But he was deep in thought with that expression that means he thinks he's being clever. I was about to slip away while I still had the chance when he announced, “I agree. You may choose a husband from the Aesir, but you must choose him from the sight of his feet alone, without seeing his face." She looked for a moment at the assembled Aesir, then agreed. The unmarried men all went behind an upraised table, so that only the lower part of their legs was visible. Skadi glanced down the row of hairy ankles, then pointed to the whitest, smoothest pair. “That one. I'll have that one for my husband." It was Heimdall, I thought gleefully, imagining the watchman of the Aesir trying to break through the stone-girt passage between Skadi's muscular thighs. I could have wished him no fonder mate. Finally, one of Odinn's schemes had worked out to please me. But then Thorr lifted up the table and there was an outbreak of astonishment and mirth among the rest of the Aesir, for it was Njord who stood there

as the one chosen, the father of Freyr and Freya, and Skadi's new husband. Her face turned dark in displeasure. This was clearly not the choice she had intended. But Odinn declared in satisfaction, “You've got your husband, Thiazi's daughter, and I wish you joy of him. Your claim is met." “Not quite,” she reminded him grimly. “I still haven't laughed." Odinn glared at her, then his arm pointed in my direction. “Trickster! You were responsible for this whole situation, you were the one who stole Idunn for the giant. Now you can pay your debt!" I protested bitterly, “Was I the one who butchered the giant's cattle? Was it my fault that we'd trespassed on his land? None of this would have happened but for your leadership!" He ignored me and ordered Thorr, “Bring the trickster over here!" Thorr obliged with a grip on my neck. “This problem is all your doing,” Odinn hissed under his breath. “Now, either she laughs or it'll be your blood she spills." It wasn't justice. Who cared about my blood, shed by Thiazi? What wergild did I get for all my pain when the eagle-giant dragged me across all the stones in Midgard? Oh, I exerted myself to make Thiazi's hateful daughter laugh. I danced, I jumped, I told jokes, but nothing could lighten the scowl on her hewn-granite face. Odinn's own face looked just as grim, and I had no doubt that he would sacrifice me. I wondered desperately,

what kind of humor did they have in Utgard? Maybe I should pretend to slip and fall in a heap of dung—that might amuse her. Just then I saw out of the corner of my eye a goat wandering past the hall. It was Thorr's, one of the pair that pulls his chariot—a badtempered, stinking beast with a filthy beard hanging down from its chin. I despised myself as I went over to the animal, swaggering fullbellied in imitation of its master Thorr. I flexed my muscles and tightened my belt. Then I took a cord and made as if to harness up the goat, tying one end to the beast's beard. I fumbled the job clumsily, pretending to be drunk. The Aesir all roared with laughter, all except Thorr, but Skadi sat with a face of ice and stone, fingering the point of her spear. Suddenly I was seized from behind by a huge fist. “Sky-traveler,” Thorr growled, “I see you don't know the right way to harness a cart to the beast. Let me show you how.” He jerked down my trews and slipped a noose in the other end of the cord around my stones. The Aesir howled in laughter at my humiliation. Then Thorr took a whip and cracked it against the goat's rump, calling out “Hup! Let's go!" The filthy beast bleated and bucked. I jumped and screeched, stumbling awkwardly after it as the cord pulled tight around my sensitive parts. I tripped over my own trews, bunched around my ankles, and tumbled directly into Skadi's oversized lap. Startled, she let a single exclamation of surprise escape her lips— but it was a laugh. As quickly as I could, I restored my dignity while the laughter of the Aesir filled my ears. “Your wergild is paid,” I snarled, and I believe the hate in my own eyes matched the hate in hers. From that time we

were always bitterest enemies, and the worst of the pain I suffer now is due to her malice. The Aesir all went together back into the hall to celebrate a second wedding, and much more mead was spilled, more ribald songs were sung. But I could take no pleasure in the feast, though Odinn slapped my back and told me he had never laughed so hard in all of his life as when he thought the goat was going to make a gelding of me. “I knew you could do it! If anyone could thaw shatter that face of stone, it would be you, Trickster! Oh, how I pity Njord tonight!" He poured more mead into my cup and I drank it down, but nothing could extinguish the flaming pain of the injustice and humiliation I had suffered at his word. [Back to Table of Contents]

IX There was no feast in Asgard without Kvasir. There was no feasting in Asgard without the gift of Kvasir's mead. No quarrel could last in Kvasir's presence, for he was born of reconciliation and he had no enemies. He was honored in every hall for his wisdom, and Odinn sought him out constantly, trying to learn more from him, for he was obsessed with gaining any secrets that would give him an advantage over the Jotuns and his other foes. Even I could find no real quarrel with Kvasir, except that his attempt to make peace with Skadi had been the cause of my shame. He was perhaps too good to live in the nine worlds, and certainly too good to live long in Asgard. It was the dwarves that were the end of him, the twisted, blackhearted little worms. Everyone had warned him about their spiteful, envious ways, but he would never believe evil of anyone—not even of Farbauti's son from Muspell, although I knew that Heimdall and Tyr had done their best to poison Kvasir's heart against me. But Kvasir had heard of the dwarves and their remarkable skill with metal, and he wanted to see their marvels for himself, in case he could learn some new wisdom from them. So he made his way down into their dark domain of Nidavellir, and there he came eventually to the hall of two brothers named Fjalar and Galar, the worst of their black-hearted race. They invited the unsuspecting Kvasir to feast with them, but all the while they were scheming to steal his wisdom for themselves. Kvasir, of course, supplied the mead, and when his head was light and frothing from it, the dwarves each picked up a knife and plunged

both blades into his heart. His blood gushed out of his body, but the devious dwarves were prepared with a deep cauldron they had named Ordorir to hold the priceless liquid. When the cauldron threatened to overthrow, they brought two more crocks, Son and Bodr, to make sure they didn't lose a single drop of Kvasir's blood. For it was the mead of wisdom itself. A single sip brought the intoxication of true inspiration, the gift of wisdom and of poetry. For a while the two dwarves kept their dark secret to themselves, but their happiness seemed incomplete without others to envy them. Their only friend was the giant Gilling, and one day when he came to visit in their cave, they bragged about their treasure until Gilling was furious with envy. “One drink,” he begged them. “Just one drop, so I'll know if this mead is what you claim.” He refused to leave the cave until they had unsealed the cauldron Ordorir and dipped out one single shining golden drop for him to taste. But as soon as the taste of Kvasir's golden blood blossomed on his tongue, the giant could never rest until he had more of the mead. But Fjalar and Galar had already regretted that they had given away their most precious secret. When Gilling came to visit them again to get himself another drink of the mead, they welcomed him with false smiles. “We were just going fishing,” they said, “and afterward we'll baste our catch with mead. Why don't you come along with us? You can row the boat, and that way we'll be out to sea and back in half the time." Eager for the mead, Gilling agreed and bent his back to the oars. When they were far out onto the ocean, Fjalar stood up as if he were

preparing to cast his line into the water, but instead he leaped onto the gunwales and rocked the boat until it capsized. Gilling splashed desperately, for he couldn't swim, but the treacherous dwarves righted their boat and rowed quickly back to shore, leaving the giant there to drown. Gilling's old wife came to their cave when she heard of her husband's death, and she wept so hard and so long the two dwarves feared they would drown in the flood of tears. “Would it help,” Fjalar asked her with false sympathy, “if you could see the place where his body washed ashore?" Gilling's wife agreed that it might. So the dwarves led her to the top of a cliff where the waves crashed onto the broken rocks at the foot. There the ocean's current had brought the giant's corpse, smashing it against the broken rocks. “Oh Gilling, my poor husband,” she wailed aloud. But while she was kneeling down at the top of the cliff, Galar struck her from behind, and her body tumbled down to land in the crashing waves next to her husband's corpse. But Gilling had a son named Suttung, who was wiser than his parents. When he learned of their death he suspected foul play, and he knew who the murderers must have been. He tore open the earth above the dwarves’ den with his bare hands, ripping the rock asunder until their hall stood roofless and exposed to the open sky. He seized them up, Fjalar in his right hand and Galar in his left, he squeezed their necks until the eyes almost popped from their sockets, and waded out into the ocean. A rock stood exposed at low tide, green with weed and slime. There he pinned the two dwarves, weighting them down with stones so they could scarcely breathe. “Now we wait for the tide to come in,” he said coldly.

The dwarves whimpered as the seawater rose to cover the rock, they started to beg as it washed into their mouths with each movement of the waves. “It wasn't our fault,” Fjalar wailed. “Gilling found out about our most valuable treasure and he was going to murder us for it, so you see we had to kill him first—in self-defense!" “If you spare us, if you let us go, we'll show you where it is, we'll give it to you!” Galar added. “Let it be our wergild for your father!" Suttung considered the proposition. “Just what is this treasure?” he asked. “Golden mead—the mead of wisdom! Kvasir's heartblood.” And the dwarves told Suttung everything they had done. When the giant realized what a prize they had offered him, he carried them back to their hall, where he made them reveal the hiding place of Kvasir's blood. He took the cauldron and both crocks under his arms and carried them to his own hall, deep within the mountain Hnitbjorg, the locked rock. There in the heart of the mountain he had a secret room where he put the mead for safekeeping. Then Suttung called his daughter Gunnlod. “Here is the greatest of my treasures,” he told her. “Guard it day and night without closing your eyes. Nothing can help you if you lose a single drop.” And he locked the door and left her alone with his wealth. **** All of this took place in Utgard, far from Odinn's hall. But he has always had ways of learning what goes on in all the farthest reaches of the nine worlds, for he has his spies, the two ravens who sit at his

seat and whisper into his ears. All Asgard grieved at the news of Kvasir's death and mourned his loss. But Odinn brooded for a long time over the mead of wisdom and swore he would have it back. He sent Thorr and Tyr to batter down the newly-rebuilt walls of Fjalar and Galar's hall and drag them back to Asgard, but when he had the murderers kneeling at his feet they swore that the giant Suttung had already taken every drop of Kvasir's blood. “He called it wergild,” Fjalar sniveled. “He named it compensation for his parents’ death." “That's justice, isn't it?” I remarked. “After all, you murdered them both." But Odinn said sharply, “Quiet, Farbauti's son. Kvasir was mine. His wisdom was mine. His blood is mine by right." “Yes,” I warned him, “but I've hear that Suttung is a powerful sorcerer. He must have the mead locked away and guarded with runes and spells. How will you even find a way into his hall?" I'd wondered if he might ask me to find the way for him, as he'd done on other occasions before, but this time Odinn kept his own secrets, saying only, “The Jotuns still defy me everywhere with their sorcery. I must have the wisdom to fight them, no matter what the price! And now I've lost Kvasir!" I never did care for those black moods of his. Perhaps he no longer trusted me. Perhaps he was planning another betrayal. He certainly had some dark plan in mind. So when he left Asgard and crossed

over Bifrost I took the form of a moth and followed after him on silent wings. Perhaps he could have discovered my true form behind that shape, but he never even took notice of something as lowly as a moth. I followed him unseen. Now the World Ash had sprouted at the spring Hvergelmir at the beginning of time. It has three roots: the first and deepest is sunk in Niflheim, the cold gray land of the dead. The second had grown outside Asgard's walls, in the land that had been Jotunheim before Odinn loosed the flood. A well stands there, and its waters have always been supposed to confer wisdom, but Mimir, its guardian, exacted a high price for every drop. I followed Odinn to Mimir's Well, where he stood staring down into the water. I wondered what he planned. Mimir stood at the other side of the well, as old as time. “So,” he said to Odinn, “you have come at last. I knew one day you would have to." Odinn nodded silently. “You have come before and always gone away without what you desire. This time are you finally ready to pay the price?" Again Odinn nodded, and I saw how his jaw was set, with grim determination. Mimir held out his hand. Then Odinn jammed his thumb into his own eye. He wrenched it out without a cry and placed it into Mimir's outstretched palm. The ancient seer closed his fist around it. “The price of wisdom,” he whispered.

Odinn knelt at the side of the well, and his blood ran down his face into the water. Dipping in his hand, he took up a single palmful and brought it to his mouth. His head fell back. He gasped. I had a sudden vivid memory of how I had felt at the moment I put Gullveig's heart in my mouth. Then Odinn stood abruptly back onto his feet and strode away without looking back, but I had seen his one remaining eye, and it shone with a new, baleful light. The next day he left Asgard in the gray cloak he had been wearing when I first spotted him outside Sinmora's hall. The hood of it was pulled far up over his head to hide his missing eye. Again I followed unseen in the silent shape of a moth, a long journey, north and east into the desolate land of Utgard. But instead of going directly to Suttung's stronghold as I'd expected, he walked a day's journey to the east until he reached a meadow owned by the giant's brother Baugi, where nine thralls were hard at work mowing the hay. The thralls were sweating with their effort under the hot summer sun, and they stopped work at the sight of a traveler coming into view. “Who are you, stranger?” they asked, holding their scythes ready, “and what are you doing here on our master's land?" “My name is Bolverkr,” he answered, “and I travel where I will." Bolverkr. Ill-doer. Oh, truly named, my brother! But Bolverkr was nothing but friendly that day as he said to the sweating thralls, “Your scythes are dull. As it happens, I have a whetstone with me, and I'd be glad to sharpen them for you."

The thralls accepted eagerly, for this meant a pause in their labor, and they handed over their blades. One by one, Bolverkr honed the iron with his stone, and when he was finished with them, the scythes cut effortlessly through the tough grass. The thralls exclaimed as the hay piled up at their feet. “We must have that whetstone! With it, we could finish the whole field before dark!" Bolverkr watched with a slight grim smile on his face as each of them offered him a higher price for the stone. Their rivalry turned to quarrel and then to strife. Jostling each other, their scythes still in their hands, the thralls seemed to be overcome by a strange sudden frenzy, a murderous madness. One man, on his knees, struck out at another with his scythe. The wounded thrall stumbled backward into a third. Blood spattered the uncut grass. As I watched in fascination, they hacked at each other with their newly sharpened blades until a harvest of death covered the hayfield. Then Bolverkr strolled through the broken grass and picked up the whetstone from among the scattered corpses. All this I watched from the head of a tall stalk of grass at the edge of the meadow, for I still had the shape and size of a moth. So this was the wisdom he had drunk from Mimir's well, this was the knowledge he had bought with his own eye! But what was his purpose in all this killing? What did the deaths of these nine thralls have to do with taking back Kvasir's mead? I followed him as he strode away through the waving uncut hay, on his way to Baugi's farmstead. “I'm traveling through this country,” he told Suttung's brother, and I'd welcome a meal and a place at your hearth for the night."

Baugi looked the stranger up and down, assessing the strength of his arms. “You wouldn't be a farmhand, would you, looking for honest work?" “Well, I've done this kind of work and that. I've reaped a few harvests in my time, I will say." A harvest of death, I thought, hovering in the light beyond the farmhouse door. A harvest of blood. “You seem strong enough, I can see that. Look here, stranger. I used to have nine thralls to mow my hayfield, but today some evildoer came by and killed all of them. Nine men! I need to hire more for the job before the harvest is ruined. If you take on the work, you can name your own price." I thought I could see the strange baleful fire glinting in Bolverkr's single eye. “If I can name my own price,” he said, “hear this. I'll work for you this summer until your hay is all mowed and in the barns. Then, at the end of that time, I'll name my price." Baugi frowned, for the bargain was clearly not to his liking. How could he know what price this stranger would ask, or whether he could pay it? The elves in particular were known for that kind of trick. “You mean you'll do the work of nine men?" “That's what I just said. If I fail, if one stalk of your hay remains unmowed, you'll owe me nothing. Is it a bargain?" I could see Baugi calculating. It was plain he doubted that Bolverkr

alone could do the work of his nine thralls, in which case he would have to pay the stranger nothing. And there were no other farmhands to be had in the middle of the harvest season. He had no other choice. “All right,” he agreed at last and swore a solemn oath to pay Bolverkr whatever he would ask. But I could see that Bolverkr's smile was the same that I'd seen on his face when he picked up the fatal whetstone from the bloodstained meadow only that morning, and I knew that Baugi had made a bad bargain, one that might cost him his life. The new farmhand began work at daybreak, and never had hay been mowed so quickly as it was in Baugi's meadow. Bolverkr's sharp scythe swept through Baugi's grass, and the hay piled up behind him in sweet-smelling rows. From earliest light until sunset he worked, all throughout that long day of high summer, truly doing the work of nine men. Before the sun set the hay was all piled safely into Baugi's barn, ready to feed his cattle through the long harsh winter to come. Not a single stalk had been left behind. So far Bolverkr was as good as his word. The giant stared at the bountiful harvest, gnawing on his beard. “As we agreed,” Bolverkr said, “the harvest is safely in. Now I'll name my wages, whatever I choose." “I remember,” Baugi growled reluctantly. “My price is this: I've heard that your brother Suttung has a special

cauldron of mead, the mead of wisdom. I'd like a taste of that mead." Baugi shook his head. “I know of the mead, of course, but it belongs to my brother, not me. No one else knows where it is but his daughter Gunnlod, who guards it for him. He's never so much as given me a drop." “That may be so,” said Bolverkr, “but you swore an oath to pay me whatever I asked, and what I ask for is a drink of Suttung's mead." Baugi pulled on his beard again. “I can't pay you what I don't possess!” he shouted irritably. “Then you'll have to find a way to get it for me, won't you, to fulfill your oath." The giant cursed and protested, but he was trapped by his own word. He led Bolverkr by a hidden path to the face of the mountain Hnitbjorg, Suttung's stronghold. “Here we are,” he said, panting from the climb, “here's Suttung's hold, where he keeps the mead. But as you can see, there's no way in. We've had all the trouble of this journey for nothing." Watching from a rock outcrop overhead, I remembered Gangleri's earlier attempt to break into Sinmora's hall and steal Surtr's sword. I wondered if Bolverkr would be more successful this time, with all his hard-earned wisdom. I wasn't disappointed. Bolverkr reached confidently into his belt and pulled out a drill. “Here,” he said, “this is the auger Rati. If you take it now and drill a hole into the mountain, I'll count your debt paid."

Again Baugi grumbled and cursed, but there was no other way out, so he pressed the auger's bit against the face of the rock and started to turn it, grinding away at the hard black granite of the mountain. The sun rose high in the sky, and Baugi sweated. Blisters formed on the palms of his hands. At last he pulled the drill bit from the hole. “There!” he said, exhaling breathlessly, “I'm through!" “Then,” said Bolverkr, “your debt is paid." “Good,” said Baugi. “Now I can kill you without going back on my oath. He stabbed at him with the deadly point of the auger, but at that instant, Bolverkr turned himself into a snake and dove into the hole. I watched while Baugi stamped the ground and cursed, but Bolverkr was beyond his reach, and finally the giant gave up and started down the path back to his own farm, vowing never to hire a stranger again. When he was gone, I followed Bolverkr down the hole into the secret heart of the mountain. The auger Rati had penetrated directly into the center of Suttung's stronghold, the hidden locked room where his daughter Gunnlod guarded Kvasir's blood. Gunnlod was a daughter of Jotunheim with plump red cheeks and a broad backside seated on a chair of solid gold. At the moment I first saw her, her face was flushed red, because standing before her was a lusty young stranger with yellow hair and beard. His hearty good looks were marred only by a missing eye. “Who are you?” she gasped, “and what are you doing here?" His white teeth flashed. “My name is Bolverkr, and I've come here for you, Gunnlod. All throughout Utgard, whenever anyone praises a

maiden's good looks, everyone else says, ‘Yes, but she's no beauty compared to Gunnlod, Suttung's daughter.’ So, you see, I had to come and see for myself.” He came closer, looking down at her, and touched his palm to the coarse skin of her cheek. “And now I see that what they say is true." She blushed, she simpered, and he soon had her down on her back with her legs spread wide to admit him between them. I didn't begrudge him the material as he had to work with, but his manhood performed heroically, for he had good cause. For three days and nights he plowed her like a fertile field, until she was overflowing with his seed. And still she wasn't satisfied, she begged for more. “Please have pity on a lonely maiden! My father has me locked up in here to guard his treasures, and I haven't seen so much as a man in years!" But crafty Bolverkr wiped his forehead with a shaking hand. “I'm willing, love, but this is thirsty work! I need something to restore my energies. Do you have any beer, or mead, possibly? What about that cauldron over there?" “Oh, that? Yes, take however much you want!” She giggled and stared eagerly at his crotch for signs of his manhood rising to its task again. “I certainly want you to restore all your energies!" “Just one sip,” Bolverkr promised, “or perhaps three.” And with one immense gulp he drained the cauldron Ordorir. A second swallow emptied the crock Bodn and finally the third jar, Son. Then, with his gullet brimming with the mead of wisdom, he once again took the form of a snake and slithered out through the tunnel, followed by the sound of Gunnlod's shrieks that she had been deceived. Outside, he transformed himself to eagle shape and took wing.

Within Hnitbjorg, the giant Suttung heard his daughter's outraged screams and looked his window to see the eagle aloft. His wisdom recognized a shape-changer at once. Screaming rage, he spoke the spells to take the eagle-form himself. He flew high above the mountain, but Bolverkr had already taken the lead, and the giant couldn't overtake him. Kvasir's mead was gone, and poor abandoned Gunnlod sobbed alone in the heart of the mountain, ruined and betrayed. **** Once back at Asgard, Odinn took back his own form and name, spewing the stolen mead back into a huge cauldron that stood in his hall. Amid all the rejoicing of the Aesir, Frigg entered the hall with Odinn's newborn son in her arms, born while the Allfather was locked in sweaty combat with Suttung's daughter. He held the child high as a prize of victory. “I name you Bragi, the skald!” he announced, “and poetry will forever be your drink!” Then, laughing, he poured the mead between the infant Bragi's lips. Thus was the world cursed with poets and their lies. As for Gunnlod, she had a beating from her father and Bolverkr's bastard nine months afterward, but when the giant came seeking him to pay compensation for her lost maidenhead, the Aesir insisted there was no one of that name at Asgard, nor had there ever been. [Back to Table of Contents]

X But Gunnlod's pain lay in the future. Mine was closer at hand. As Odinn's feast neared its end, there was a disturbance at the door of Gladsheim, a loud pounding at the timbers, someone demanding admission to the hall. “What's this all about?” Odinn bellowed. I was curious myself, but only until I caught a glimpse of the short, squat figure swaggering insolently into the hall. It was the dwarf smith Brokk. “I've come for judgment!” he demanded. My heart felt suddenly heavy as lead. Matters did not bode well for Farbauti's son. My hopes sank further when Odinn took his place in his high judgment seat—this was one of his latest pretensions: the Allfather dispensing justice. “Who are you, stranger,” he intoned solemnly, “and for what cause do you seek judgment?" “My name is Brokk the smith, and I seek judgment against your messenger there, with the flaming hair and the slippery tongue." All eyes turned instantly in my direction as the vile dwarf went on, “Three times we wagered, to prove which smith has the greater skill —my brother and I or the sons of Ivaldi. Three times we produced gifts for the Aesir. Now I ask you—which of us has won the prize? My brother and I created Draupnir, the ring I see now on Odinn's arm, the boar Gullinbursti as a gift for the noble Freyr, and finally Mjollnir, the hammer there in Thorr's belt."

Odinn shot me a dark look full of wrath. “And what stakes did you agree on?" The dwarf's eyes glinted maliciously. “The stakes were originally winner-take-all, on the honor of the Aesir. But they were raised for the third round of the bet. Your messenger there wagered his own head." The Aesir assembled in Gladsheim all laughed at my expense. But looking at Odinn, I wasn't able to share in their amusement. In years past he would have spitted this impertinent dwarf on his spear, but lately he was trying to build up his reputation for wisdom and justice so that men would call him Allfather and worship him. And what would he more easily give up—his treasures, or Loki's head? “Don't forget,” I cried out desperately, “the other gifts, made by the sons of Ivaldi. What about the invincible spear Gungnir, or Sif's golden hair, or the wondrous ship Skidbladnir? What can compare in craftsmanship to these?" But the dwarf was stubborn. “That's right, what about them? I demand judgment, Odinn. That was our wager, made in your name. Which is the greatest treasure? Which smiths have wrought the best?" The Aesir looked at one another, then Odinn, Freyr and Thorr consulted together briefly, the three who had received the gifts from the dwarves. Odinn rose from his seat. I swallowed in dread. “It is the judgment of the Aesir that the hammer Mjollnir is our most valuable treasure,” he declared. “It is our ultimate weapon against our enemies the Jotuns. The dwarf Brokk along with his brother wins the wager, and

Loki must forfeit the stakes." “No! Wait!” I protested, but Brokk was already dancing up and down, singing, “Loki's head! Loki's head! It's mine!" I flew to escape, but the hateful son of a maggot cried out, “Stop him! He's getting away!” and Thorr's huge red-haired hand pinned me to the wall. I struggled, but his strength held me fast in my own form. Brokk was rubbing his hands together with malicious anticipation. “I'd like to borrow a sword if I could. Or maybe an axe. It doesn't matter if it's a little bit dull." Caught in Thorr's unyielding grip, I appealed to Odinn. “You can't let him do this! It was you who sent me to the dwarves! All these treasures you owe to me!" “Did I force you to wager your own head?" “Well, no, but—" “My word has been spoken. Dwarf, Loki's head is yours." Someone among my enemies within the Aesir finally did give Brokk a knife—Heimdall, I'm sure of it, or possibly Tyr. Both of them would have loved to see me lose my head. The leering dwarf stood next to me, looking up and testing the edge of the blade with his thumb. “Bend his head back a little, will you?” he asked Thorr, who obliged him. I closed my eyes in despair. There I stood, helpless, my neck bent back and exposed to the blade. My neck... “Wait! Odinn! Allfather!"

He held up his hand for the proceedings to pause. “Wait,” I gasped, “I did stake my head, it's true, but the wager said nothing about my neck! Under the terms of our agreement, he can't touch my neck!" Odinn thought for a second—oh, you enjoyed seeing me squirm and sweat, didn't you, my brother? Then he laughed aloud. “Loki is right, dwarf. You're entitled to his head and you can do what you will with it, but you can't touch his neck." Brokk scowled. Malice twisted his ugly face Then he nodded. “So be it. At least I can make sure he doesn't tell any more lies.” He pulled a leather thong out of his belt, and a viciously sharp awl. “Hold him fast,” he ordered Thorr. Out of all the assembled Aesir, I could see no hope of mercy, no one willing to help me. In Thorr's grasp it was useless to struggle. Brokk pierced my lips with the awl, then roughly dragged the leather thong through the bleeding puncture. Again he did it, and again, sewing my lips shut, drawing the leather thong tightly into cruel, intricate knots. Tears ran down my face from the pain, but I refused to cry out and add to the enjoyment of the Aesir watching my torture. There was no pity, not for Loki, Farbauti's son. “You can't talk your way out of this one, can you, Loki?” Heimdall taunted me. At last Brokk stepped back, smirking as he surveyed his finished work. Thorr's arms released me and I stumbled from the hall, halfblinded with tears. I tripped over something, fell onto my knees. Then I felt a touch on my arm. Soft. A voice. “What have they done to you?"

I blinked away the tears and saw her. A girl, no great beauty, with light brown hair done up in braids. Her eyes were soft and filled with kindness, the only real kindness ever shown to me in Asgard. Sigyn, I will never forget how you knelt down with such gentle distress and concern on your face and asked me, “Does it hurt? Can I help?" I nodded in mute misery, and you quickly took a pair of small scissors from a purse at your waist and began to snip at the knotted thong to draw it from my swollen lips. “Keep still,” you warned me when I flinched, “this might hurt." But in fact your fingers were as gentle as swansdown, and your kindness made the pain endurable. At last it was done, and I touched my lips with my tongue and tasted blood. I couldn't form the words to thank you, my mouth was so swollen and painful. That final humiliation was too much for me to bear. I stumbled to my feet and ran once again, until a howl of anguish burst from my throat. In shock and surprise I knew myself. I was Fenrir again. I was the wolf. [Back to Table of Contents]

XI The wolf had grown vast! Before, when I was last in Odinn's hall, my head came up only to his waist. Now my jaw was almost level with his shoulders, and if I'd stood up on my hind legs, I could have easily borne him to the ground under my weight. The Aesir, when they saw me, were seized with fear. The scent of it made me slaver with bloodlust. I could almost feel my jaws closing on their flesh. “We ought to drive him off,” Heimdall muttered darkly with a hand on his sword. Thorr shrugged. A wolf, no matter how large, was no concern to him. “If he makes trouble, I'll bash in his brains with my hammer." “He's Loki's son, isn't he?” said Freyr nervously. “How could he help but to cause trouble?" Odinn shook his head sharply. “Do I have to repeat myself? This is the son of my brother-by-blood, and he has a place in my hall.” Was it guilt you felt, my brother, for the way you betrayed me to the dwarf? But underneath I could scent his fear, as sharp and rank as the rest of them. Only Tyr of all the Aesir was truly unafraid of the wolf, and he was still the one who fed me when none of the others dared. So I gnawed on the bones he fed me, lying under Odinn's table or at his hearth, my yellow eyes following him everywhere. I hadn't forgotten. Fenrir would never forget. Soon Odinn began to have disturbing dreams, dreams of his own death. On those nights, the fear-scent came thickly from his

bedchamber, and I could hear him groan aloud. Yes, dream, I would think from the floor beside the hearth. Dream of my vengeance. And in the morning I could hear him consulting in whispers with Frigg, “Do you think it could be a prophecy?" For above all the forms of wisdom, the Aesir valued prophecies. It had been a prophecy which had sent Odinn on his futile journey in search of Surtr's sword, another which predicted Bifrost would fall under the feet of the sons of Muspell. All these seemed to foretell some great disaster to come to the Aesir. In his relentless search for wisdom and power, Odinn had sacrificed his eye at Mimir's Well, he had journeyed into Utgard in disguise to learn the secret runes of the frost giants and steal Suttung's mead. But it was never enough for him, driven as he was by his secret fears. “I have to know,” he would whisper to himself from his high seat. His face had grown lined, and there were dark hollows under his eye sockets. With his gray beard, he looked terribly old, despite the apples of Idunn, the trees tended now by her daughters. “My Wyrd. I have to know what it is. How else can I forestall it?" You fool, my brother, will you never learn—no man can forestall his own Wyrd, no man can escape it, even if ignorant mortal men may call him a god. Of all the sources of knowledge in the nine worlds, Yggdrasil is foremost. The World Tree has three roots, each watered by its own spring. The deepest sinks down to Niflheim, the land of the dead, who hold much timeless wisdom, yet the road there is the hardest to take. Mimir's Well is not so deep, but the knowledge to be gained

from this spring, however great, does not extend to the future. The third root, which lies under Asgard itself, is watered by the Well of Urd and tended by the Norns, as old as time. The fate of the whole world is theirs to know, from the beginning of time until the end of the nine worlds, but no one else, not even Odinn, has ever been allowed to drink from those waters. Oh, how he thirsted for it! Time and again he would bring gifts to the Norns, asking for only a single drop from their well, but the Norns would not be moved. Often they would prophesy, but it was only at their own will. Odinn went to them in secret when the black dreams began, hoping the Norns would reveal what they meant, but he returned to Gladsheim in a foul mood. He had learned nothing. The Norns refused to speak. In his hall, he threw a sheep's shoulder blade at me and shouted, “What are you staring at, wolf?” he shouted, but I only cracked the bone with my teeth and lapped the marrow, while my eyes never left him. I savored his torment. Finally he took the desperate step of seeking out some of the oldest and wisest among the Jotuns, who were said to have knowledge of the future. He wrapped himself in his gray cloak, pulling the hood down low over his single eye, and he took the name of Gangrad. In this disguise he passed into the cold, desolate domain of the frost giants. Glaciers crept down the valleys there, and the ice covered the land. Nowhere were there trees, not even the sparse tufts of grass that grew on the tundra in Midgard. Odinn strode through the wasteland until he came to a hall of raw stone, carved into the side of an ice-capped mountain.

This was the hall of Vafthrudnir, the son of Bergelmir, most ancient and wisest of all the Jotuns still living. The giant was feasting there when Gangrad entered his hall. “Vafthrudnir!” the stranger bellowed. The giant stood up. He towered over the impudent Gangrad. He had a whole roasted sheep in one hand and an ox in the other, its grease running down his chin into the gray beard which reached to his waist. “Who are you, stranger, to burst into my hall this way?" “My name is Gangrad, and I've heard that Vafthrudnir is first among the Jotuns for wisdom. I've come to pit my own wisdom against him!" The Jotunn's laughter shook the mountain. “In that case, well come, stranger! Take a seat at my hearth. Pour a horn of mead to quench the thirst from your journey." The contest began. First Vafthrudnir posed his questions, which Gangrad answered easily: naming the stallions which draw Day and Night across the face of the world, and other such lore valued by the races of the north. The giant was grudgingly impressed by the extent of his visitor's learning. Then it was Gangrad's turn. “Tell me, Vafthrudnir,” he said, “if you're so wise and you know all the answers: who was the first-born of the giants?" “Ymir was first-born, out of the ice that came from the spring Hvergelmir. Buri was his first-born son, and Bor his, but they were all murdered by the treacherous race of the Aesir." “Well,” said Gangrad, “I see that you know the past, but what of the

future? That's not so easily learned." “Past and future, it is one and the same to me, I know it all." “Tell me then, Vafthrudnir, if you so know much: what is Odinn's Wyrd? How will he meet his end?" The giant paused. Then he said in a voice like doom: “Odinn will meet his end in the jaws of the wolf." Gangrad trembled at these words. “How do you know all this, Vafthrudnir? How do you know the future? Have you spoken with the Norns?" “No, not with the Norns. Those gray ladies keep their secrets too well. But I've traveled far throughout the world, my friend Gangrad, and I've spoken with many different races. All in the end make their way to Hel's domain, down in the foggy realm of Niflheim. They wait there for the end of time, which never comes, and past and future are all the same to them." “You mean you've learned your wisdom from the dead?" The giant acknowledged it. “Time is endless in Hel's domain. The dead forget nothing, they know what has been and what is to come. What we consider the future is all part of eternity to them." “I see, Vafthrudnir, that your wisdom is greater than mine. I still have much to learn. Perhaps, some day, we can meet again and see who is the wisest then." “That day will come,” said Vafthrudnir gravely, “when you can tell me the words you spoke in your dead son's ear as you lay him on his

funeral pyre. Until then, I will say no more." Gangrad pulled the hood of his cloak back over his face and left Vafthrudnir's hall. He had heard what his Wyrd was to be, but he was far more troubled by this knowledge than he had been before. **** The words continued to haunt Odinn even after he returned to Asgard: the jaws of the wolf. He would sit for hours in his high seat, staring down at me where I lay at his fire, and my yellow eyes met his single gray one without blinking. For I was Fenrir, the Fenriswulf, and he was my Wyrd as I was his. Fed from the scraps of the Aesir's table, I had continued to grow at an enormous rate. Soon I could stand on my four feet and look directly into Thorr's eyes. The Aesir were ever more fearful in my presence. “Get rid of him,” I overheard Heimdall whisper, “Loki and his son. Kill them both.” But since the founding of Asgard there has been a prohibition on shedding blood within its walls, and no one wanted to desecrate the ground by spilling mine. Yet Odinn was always watching me, and I knew his thoughts: the jaws of the wolf. So matters went on, as he brooded over his fate and I continued to grow. Then, one day, I saw a group of the Aesir approach me carrying an iron chain. Tyr was at their head, but Odinn, I noticed, was not among them. “What's this?” I asked my enemy. “Why do you bring this chain? Do you think it can hold me?"

“This chain is called Laeding, and its maker claims that it's the strongest chain in the world. We've been looking for a way to test his claim. Now, if anyone can break it, you surely can, Fenrir, as strong as you've grown. How would you like to help us win this wager?" I snorted in scorn. Their plot was so pitifully obvious. But I inspected the chain. It was thick, and so heavy that Tyr could barely lift it, but I gloried in my size and strength, and in my pride I thought I could break it easily enough. “All right, I'll try it,” I agreed, and Tyr began to wrap the chain around my neck and legs, until I was bound so securely I could barely move. “Are you finished?” I asked then, and I shook myself vigorously. Laeding's links burst apart. “It looks like you win your bet,” I told them. Odinn would have to do better than that to be rid of me. In nine days the Aesir were back, this time with Thorr the one carrying a chain half again as heavy as the first, forged all of adamant. “This chain is Dromi,” he told me, “and the smith has wagered that no power in the world can sunder its links. Would you like to try again, wolf?" I looked at the chain Dromi and sniffed it cautiously. It was clearly stronger than Laeding, but still I thought I could break it. “All right,” I agreed again and waited until they had me fast. I stretched, I strained, and Dromi's links shattered as if they were made of glass. “Is that the best your smith can do?” I taunted my enemies. They withdrew, looking worried, quite unlike men who have just won a

bet. Nine days passed, then nine more. When another nine days had gone, the Aesir confronted me again. This time Heimdall held what seemed to be no more than a ribbon, as light and smooth as silk. “This is Gleipnir,” he said, with a tone in his voice that should have warned me. “This time the smith has wagered his own head that you can't break the fetter. My hackles rose as I sniffed it, for I caught the loathsome scent of dwarves, and though I hated them I had a great respect for their skill. This was a more subtle trap. Surely such a thin, flimsy ribbon couldn't hold Fenrir! And the thought of one of the hateful dwarf smiths losing his head was too much of a temptation. “Is the smith Brokk?” I wondered. My enemy lied. “Yes, Brokk was the smith, and he wagered his own head on his skill." The lust for revenge still burned in me, yet caution made me hesitate. “What? Are you afraid?” Heimdall taunted me. “Can't you break a flimsy ribbon?" “It smells of dwarves,” I growled. “It smells of magic and treachery." Then Tyr stepped up to me, closer than any of the others had ever dared to do. “Don't you trust the Aesir? Haven't we fed you, given you a place at our hearths? This is just a friendly wager!" “A friendly wager. All right, what if I can't get free this time? Will

you unfasten me? Do you swear it?" “Of course we will,” Tyr said after a moment. I still was uncertain. He had hesitated. Why? “What will you swear on, then? Your own head, Tyr? Will you prove your good faith by staking it on this wager?" “Don't you trust our word?" “As you gave your word to the mason who rebuilt Asgard's walls?" I saw Tyr take a deep breath, as if he were steeling himself for some great ordeal or trial. “I'll swear on my right hand, then. I'll place it in your mouth, between your jaws, to prove our good faith that we will set you free if you fail to break this fetter. Will that satisfy you, wolf?" And I agreed. Though I should have been warned when I saw how Tyr turned pale as I opened my jaws and he saw the gleaming sharpness of my teeth. But he was always brave, Tyr the warrior, if not always wise. So he laid his hand inside my jaws and slowly, I closed them until my teeth pressed into his flesh, not quite piercing the skin. He winced, and I could smell the sharp scent of his fear-sweat. Working quickly, the rest of the Aesir wound the ribbon around me, wrapping me up like a spider does a fly, but all the time I was watching Tyr's face. Not for an instant would his eyes meet mine. I should have been warned, I should have understood by then how deep the Aesir's treachery could run.

At last they finished, and Gleipnir held me fast. I stretched. My muscles strained against the ribbon, but I could not so much as move. My neck swelled, but Gleipnir only pulled itself tighter around me. I expanded my chest until I thought my ribs would snap and my lungs would burst, but the ribbon held, and I knew I was trapped. Panting and trembling from the effort, I turned my head until I faced Tyr I couldn't speak aloud without releasing my grip on his hand, but I knew my request was clear. Release me now. The Aesir were silent. Not a one of them came forward to undo my bonds. And sweat was rolling down Tyr's face, which had gone more pale, as white as Heimdall's. Then I knew for certain it was treachery. With a snarl, I bit down, shearing through the bones of Tyr's wrist, and his blood fountained from the stump. But I was still held fast by the ribbon Gleipnir. Thrashing in a helpless fury, I rolled on the ground, I twisted and writhed, but no matter how I strained, I couldn't free myself from this bond. The Aesir had to be careful to avoid my snapping fangs. They dragged me to a boat waiting at the shore of the lake named Amsvartnir. The boat nearly capsized under my weight, but the Aesir rowed me all the way to the rocky island of Lyngvi, where they had a chain waiting, already driven deep into the roots of the mountain. So sure they had been of trapping me. So confident in their treachery. I struggled still, snapping furiously, until Heimdall snatched Tyr's sword from its sheath. He wedged it into my open mouth, the pommel against my lower jaw and the point through the roof of my mouth. “This is your payment for Tyr's hand."

The pain! I howled aloud in my torment, making the mountain shiver with the sound. But the Aesir left me chained on the island to suffer alone, to wait until the end of time. They can hear me howling still, as far as the distant halls of Asgard, reminding Odinn that his Wyrd is still to come. The jaws of the wolf, my brother. I wait for that day. [Back to Table of Contents]

XII I returned to my own form, wounded and sore, on the island of Lyngvi. My mouth tasted of blood. Transforming to falcon-shape, I escaped that place and returned to Asgard, swearing that Odinn had betrayed me for the last time. I had returned for vengeance, the lust for it burned in my veins. I would not rest until Asgard was a smoking pile of ashes at my feet. So I vowed to myself as I soared high over Bifrost. The golden roofs of the Aesir's halls gleaming below me. I can't imagine what I would have done if Sigyn hadn't seen me first. Sigyn, my loyal wife, the mother of my murdered sons, the only good thing ever to come out of Asgard. Age after age you've knelt at my side, sharing my suffering, keeping the serpent's venom from burning my face as well as you can. My existence would be unendurable without you. I had seen my face reflected in the water of Amsvartnir, and I knew the unmarred good looks of my youth were gone. My mouth was twisted and scarred now with the marks of Brokk's awl. Any maiden who looked on me now would turn away in disgust. Any maiden but Sigyn. She ran toward me, crying out, “Oh, you're back! I'd been looking for you. Are you all right now?" I wanted to turn away so she wouldn't be able to see my scars, the ruin of my face. But the kindness in her voice dissolved the bitterness in my heart. A tender finger brushed my scarred lips. I asked her for her name.

Asgard marveled at our marriage. For her sake, I swallowed my anger and took my place again in Odinn's hall. For her sake, I forgot for a while my vows of vengeance and made peace with my enemies among the Aesir. Few of them ever dared to mention my son the wolf, just as I always looked away from the stump of Tyr's wrist. It was an uneasy truce, but I had Sigyn to make me content, and for a long time that was enough. I even became Thorr's frequent companion on his giant-killing expeditions. As to how all this came to be, it began early one morning when the big lout dragged me out of my bed, bellowing that his precious giantkilling hammer was gone and I must have stolen it. “Loki! You low, crawling son of Muspell! This time you've gone too far! This time your lying tongue won't be able to save you!" His red hair and beard were all wild and tangled with his rage. His anger at the loss of Sif's hair had been nothing to his wrath at waking to find Mjollnir lost. It was only the intervention of Sigyn that saved my neck, but my loyal wife pulled his hands away from my throat and insisted that I had been there in bed beside her all night, and how dare he break into her bedchamber, and what in all the world was he shouting about, anyway? He was then abashed and let me go, and while I sat regaining my breath and wondering if my voice was gone forever, the big dolt explained that he had woken up just a few moments ago, reached for his hammer, and found it missing. “You're sure you didn't take it? Was it another one of your cursed tricks?” He frowned suspiciously, despite Sigyn's presence.

I shook my head, not quite ready to try my voice. “You swear?" I croaked, “Yes, I swear." His frown was confused now. The Aesir at least acknowledged that Farbauti's son honored his sworn word. “Then who did? Someone must have taken it! It's gone!" “Well,” said Sigyn, “I'm sure we don't know, but my husband will be more than glad to help you find it. Won't you, Loki?" So of course I had to agree, although I did mutter to Sigyn, “You see how it always is? Who would the Aesir find to blame if they didn't have Loki?" Well, it was perfectly clear, to me at least if not to Thorr, that it was the Jotuns who had the most to gain by Mjollnir's disappearance. So I took falcon-shape and flew off to the north and the east, searching all over Utgard for the missing hammer. Of all the giants I encountered, none admitted taking it, but many of them laughed at my questions and said, “Well, Trickster, you'd better ask Thrym about that.” As if it were some kind of famous joke throughout Jotunheim. So I flew to Thrym's domain and found him out in his fields, trimming the manes of his mares and braiding gold collars for his vicious pack of hounds. It was a peaceful scene. I landed, and he greeted me with a laugh. “Well, it's the lad from Muspell, Farbauti's son, isn't it? You've had a long trip, from the looks of your feathers! Tell me, how are things in Asgard? How are

the Aesir, how are the elves?" “Not so well. It seems that someone has stolen Thorr's hammer, and the big fellow isn't taking it too kindly." His face hardened. Thorr's love for the Jotunn race was returned in kind. “That's just too bad. I've got Mjollnir hidden eight leagues deep in the earth, where no one will ever find it. It's gone for good unless the Aesir send Freya here to be my bride." It was beginning to vex me—all the Jotuns always plotting to get that harlot as their bride, yet never did they take her. Good riddance to her, I would have said, and worse luck to them. But I knew the Aesir wouldn't see it that way. So I flew back to Asgard and gave Thorr the news, what ransom the giants were asking for his hammer. He pushed his way into Sessrumnir and Freya's bedchamber, where she sat naked except for her necklace, admiring the view in her mirror. “Get dressed,” he said shortly, “and you'd better put on a bridal veil, too. We're going to Thrym's hall to get my hammer back." “What!” That screech shattered mirrors all over Asgard. “If you think for one instant that I'm going to marry some hairy, flea-ridden giant just for that ugly iron hammer...” She was so furious she couldn't find words. Ripping the necklace from around her white throat, she threw it at Thorr's head, and all the links flew apart when it struck the floor. “Now look what you've done! Out! Get out of my hall!" Thorr retreated. “Now what? Didn't Thrym say he wouldn't give Mjollnir back unless he could marry Freya? What can I do if she

won't go?" “That he did,” I replied. “What I suggest is we let Odinn handle this." So a council was held in Gladsheim, with all the women there defending the wailing Freya, even Thorr's own wife Sif. The dauntless Aesir didn't dare suggest she should sacrifice herself for Asgard's sake—or perhaps they were thinking of their own lusts going unsatisfied with her loss. Then I made my suggestion, “We could dress up Thorr as a bride and drape a veil over his face. He could pretend to be Freya long enough to recover the hammer." Thorr bellowed in outrage, as bad as Freya in his own way, “What? Me, dress up like a woman! And have all the Jotuns think I'm Thrym's catamite? Would I be warming his bed at night, kissing his bum?" I took a step backward, for I thought for a moment that he was going to strangle me right there in front of all the assembled Aesir. To my surprise, Odinn agreed with my plan. “He's right, foster-son. Which is worse, a little humor at your expense, or the fate of all Asgard?" So the women carried Thorr off to Vingolf, their hall, and brought out the largest gown they could find, stitching and cutting and letting out seams. He had to shave off his beard, of course, at the sound of his howling I felt that I had at last got proper vengeance for my humiliation at Skadi's hands. In the end he stood there, swathed and

skirted, beringed and veiled for inspection. “I don't know,” I said doubtfully. “Even for a daughter of Jotunheim, there's something wrong." “Pull the veil down lower,” Heimdall suggested. “Maybe he should wear two veils?" “It needs something more,” Frigg said thoughtfully. “Something ... of course! The necklace! No one will think he's Freya without the necklace!" “Exactly!” I exclaimed. Freya started up her noise again when she heard what we wanted, but this time Odinn was firm. “Would you rather go yourself? And be Thrym's bride?" “But I just got the dwarf to fix the clasp!" “Good. That saves us the trouble. Now hand it over and stop causing delays." So the necklace was clasped around Thorr's not-very-white neck, straining the clasp. Suddenly he looked a lot better. It was the power of the necklace. The dwarves were skilled at their craft, even I have to admit. Odinn took me aside. “Go with him, Trickster. Maybe your quick tongue can make this trick work. We can't rely on Thorr's wits, or all Asgard is doomed." Thus it was that I drove Thorr's chariot into Utgard, dressed as a

maid, almost as foolish-looking as Thorr. I whipped the goats to their full speed and made good time, pulling up at last at the gate of Thrym's hall, which was all decked out for a wedding feast. The news of our arrival had traveled ahead of us. “Don't clench your fists like that,” I whispered sharply to Thorr. “And pull your veil closer. If he gets a good look at that face, we're done for." “Somebody will pay for this,” he growled under his breath, but I kicked him into silence as Thrym came up to greet his bride. “It's the daughter of Njord!” he exclaimed in greeting. “How long I've waited! I have gold-horned cattle in my barns, and black oxen, and jewels beyond counting in my chests. I've lacked nothing but Freya to be my bride, and now I have her at last! My joy is complete." And it would be brief, too, I added silently to myself. Thrym handed his bride out of the chariot and let her into the feast that was already laid on the table in his hall. Coming behind them, trying not to trip on my own skirts, I noticed him pinch her once on the rump, and I almost choked on my laughter there and then. It was a bountiful feast, I'll grant Thrym that. Oxen had been roasted, and boars and venison, and there were platters of salmon as well. And in the center of the hall was vast deep cauldron full of foaming golden mead. The bride immediately took up a horn and poured the contents down her throat, emitting a most unbride-like belch. Then she led her

bridegroom to the table, where a tray of sweets was set out for the women. She tossed it down her throat, then devoured an entire roasted ox and eight whole salmon. She washed it all down with mead, horn after horn. I watched as Thrym's eyes went wider and wider. “Ah, poor Freya!” I exclaimed, trying to draw his attention away from the sight of his ravenous bride. “For eight days and nights she hasn't been able to eat a crumb, so excited she's been about her wedding night! No wonder she's so hungry right now!" Just then Thrym's sister came into the feast and headed straight for the bride. “My dear new sister-in-law! I just know you're going to like it here! And I'm sure we'll become such good friends. Oh, what beautiful rings you have, all gold! I do love gold, you know. Just give me one or two, for friendship's sake, to your new sister." At this demand, Thorr's eyes burned red with balefire, and Thrym drew back at the sight. “Oh, poor Freya!” I exclaimed again. “For eight days and nights she hasn't been able to sleep a wink, so excited she's been about her wedding night. Why, look at her eyes! They're all red and bloodshot. I'll bet you can't wait to get her into your bed,” I added slyly, with a wicked leer. “Bring the hammer!” he bellowed eagerly. “The Aesir have brought their part of the bargain, and I'll do no less. Then we can get on with the wedding!" A pair of his thralls brought up the hammer, staggering under its weight. But as soon as Thorr caught sight of Mjollnir, he snatched it

up with his right hand, ripped away the veil with his left, and started swinging. He took Thrym's head off with his first blow, and smashed his greedy sister's with the next. So much for her new gold rings. Then he started in on the wedding guests, who were now screaming and trying to rush from the hall. As for myself, I just tried to keep out of his way. Thorr in a killing rage is not too careful about who he hits. But it was a relief to get out of my skirts at last. After that, there was a feeling of fellowship between the two of us, and the matter of Sif's hair was forgotten by mutual consent. I was his companion on a number of other giant-killing journeys, some more successful than the rest. Someone with brains, after all, had to be along to keep him out of trouble. We went to the wild country where Geirrod lived with his two hideous daughters Gjalp and Greip. Thorr had some notion of futtering the daughters, but one look at them was enough to make him change his mind. When he turned down their advances, they tried first to drown him, and then to crush him to death, but Thorr's strength was greater. He brought down the rafters of the hall, crushing father and daughters all together under the falling timbers. For relief, afterward, he visited his old mistress Grid, who had given him his iron belt and gloves on an earlier visit. Grid was always well-pleased with Thorr's manly powers, and she presented him nine months later with his red-headed son Vidar. But I only wanted to return to Sigyn and my own hall. Still, I went with him one more time when he decided to visit the

Utgard-lord named Loki. “You're joking?” I asked when I first heard the name. “I'm not. That's what they call him." Well, this was reason enough for me to want to go, to see the frostgiant who bore my own name, so we set out in the famous goatchariot, the same smelly beasts pulling it, along with Thorr's servant Thialfi to do the cooking and keep camp. Thorr was getting soft to need a servant, I thought to myself, but I said nothing. We traveled quite a way, until it seemed that we had come to the end of the world. Only the sea stretched, menacing and gray, out into the distance until it merged with the clouds. We stood there on the edge of a sheer black cliff that dropped abruptly to the jagged shards at the bottom, where the waves rushed in to break and boom against the rock. I turned to Thorr. “Are you sure this is the place?" “From here we go by sea,” he said shortly, and led the way down a narrow ledge to a small cove, quiet only in comparison with the turbulence on the other side of the cliff. There a boat was moored, and we climbed in. Thorr took the oars without argument from me. We rowed until the cliff behind us was lost from sight, and then farther out over the endless sea. At last the clouds ahead began to take on solidity, and later still they became land. I disembarked gratefully, resolving to make my journey back to Asgard in some other form, anything but endure that trip again by sea.

The country was typical for Utgard, bleak and barren rock. We trudged across the wastes, growing more weary and hungry with every step. Our provisions had already run out by the time we climbed into the boat. Thorr could never restrain his hunger. That was another vow I made myself, to bring my own supplies the next time and keep them hidden from him. Sunset came, and we were still making our way through the badlands. In the darkness, the footing grew more treacherous, until we were tripping over rocks at every step. I was limping from a wrenched ankle. Then Thialfi, who had sharp eyes, called out, “I think I see a mountain. And some kind of cave up ahead!" It was a peculiar kind of cave, I could see when we got there. The doorway was round, and the walls inside were rounded, too. But it was shelter, at least, so we crawled inside, lay down, and fell into a dead sleep. Dawn came, and the sunlight woke us. We crawled out. Then my mouth dropped open, for what Thialfi had taken for a mountain in the darkness was the shape of a man, lying on his side asleep. “Look,” I nudged Thorr, and judging from his expression he was astonished as I was. The closer we came, the larger the man seemed to grow. “I've seen giants before,” I said, “but this is another matter altogether." By his silence, I gathered that Thorr agreed. About then, the giant stirred and woke. He shook his head, muttering, “Now where is that glove? Oh, I must have dropped it back there." I looked back in that direction, and there was the glove. I swallowed

hard. It was the seeming cave where we'd spent the night. “You!” shouted Thorr just then. “Can you help some travelers who've lost their way? Do you know the way to Utgard-Loki's hall?" The giant looked around and finally down, where he saw us. “Well! As it happens, that's where I'm going. My name is Skrymir. Why don't you just come along with me?" We agreed to that and set off. During the afternoon, I bagged a couple of rabbits with my sling, and we were all looking forward to roasting them over the evening's campfire. But Skrymir noticed Thialfi carrying the game and said, “Look here, I've got my own provisions in my bag, why don't I just carry yours with them?" We traveled until near nightfall again, then set up our camp. “I'm going to take a short nap,” Skrymir announced, “so I'll let you fellows take care of the dinner and supplies.” He handed us the bag and was almost immediately snoring under a nearby oak. “I'm starving!” Thorr exclaimed, and neither Thialfi or I had an argument with that. But no matter how he tried, Thorr couldn't undo the knot holding shut the giant's bag. Raging with hunger, he tried to break the thong apart, but that was impossible, too. “I've had enough of this fellow,” he growled. He took his hammer from his belt, raised it, and brought it down on Skrymir's head. The giant twitched slightly in his sleep. Thorr stared in astonishment at his head, then at Mjollnir. He raised the hammer again, bringing down two-handed. The giant muttered something, stirred and went back to sleep.

“This isn't possible,” said Thorr in disbelief. Nothing before had ever withstood a blow from Mjollnir. If this was the strength of the giants these days, I thought, Asgard had better look to its defenses. Thorr struck again, so hard I thought the earth would crack open, but Skrymir only lifted his head with a mild curse. “Acorns falling on my head.” Then he went back to sleep again. At that we gave up and spent the rest of the night with our bellies cramping from hunger. Despite Skrymir's remark, there weren't even any acorns on the ground we could have eaten. “Well,” the giant exclaimed when he woke the next day, indecently cheerful after his sound night's sleep, “it's only a few leagues now to Utgard-Loki's hall. Just keep heading east, and you'll be there before noon. I hope you enjoy your welcome." And with that, he strode off toward the north and soon disappeared from sight behind the hills. “I thought he said he was going to this hall himself,” Thorr growled suspiciously. “Now he goes off that way. And with our game in his bag, too." But we had no choice but to go the way he had pointed out for us. Utgard-Loki welcomed us to his hall, which was large and rich in a crude way, though his greeting was not quite so warm after he heard Thorr's name. But when he heard mine, he grinned openly. “Well, it's my namesake, the Asa-Loki! Welcome to Utgard!" I didn't like the thought of being named for this giant. “In fact,” I told him, “I'm not of the Aesir, though I do have a place in their hall. Muspellheim was my birthplace."

“Muspellheim or Asgard, wherever our guests come from, we have a custom here in my hall. Before we sit down to the table, we have games and contests to whip up our appetites. What would you like to compete in, namesake?" Well, my belly was empty after two days in the wilderness without provisions, so I thought I was being very clever when I said, “I'll bet there no one here in this hall who can eat faster than I can!" “We'll see about that." The contest was set up quickly, a long trough was put up on the table and filled with meat. There was a grinning giant standing at the other end. “This is Logi,” my not-namesake announced. “He's got quite an appetite today. We'll just see which of you eats the fastest." So Logi started in on one end and I on the other, shoving meat into my mouth with both hands, ripping the meat from the bones with my teeth, chomping, swallowing, never stopping even to breathe. We met fairly in the middle of the trough, and though my belly was aching and threatening to spew, I figured I'd come out of the contest well enough. My half of the trough held nothing but bare bones. Then I stared in disbelief, for I saw that the giant Logi had consumed meat, bones, and even the trough itself. The spectators yelled and jeered. “It looks like you didn't do well enough, namesake,” Utgard-Loki declared with a grin. Next it was Thialfi's turn, who lost three heats out of three in a footrace with a young giant named Hugi. And finally the contest came

to Thorr. “I see it's up to me to uphold the honor of Asgard,” he growled. I only groaned, for I feared my stomach was going to split open. Thorr's first bout was a drinking contest. In that at least, I thought, he should have no rivals. Utgard-Loki called for a horn to be brought into the hall. It was large, so long it took four thralls to carry it, and the end wasn't even in sight. But Thorr just licked his lips thirstily, for it was full to the brim with foaming mead. “Now, our custom,” said our host, “is to give this horn to guests who want to drink our health. A really thirsty man can finish it off in a single swallow, a good drinker in two. So Thorr ought to be able to drain it in at least three tries. Thorr rumbled threateningly and picked up the horn. He drank, pouring the golden liquid down his throat. I could see his voice box moving up and down as he swallowed, swallowed, swallowed. At last, with a huge sigh, he put down the horn. His jaw dropped. The level of the liquid was just short of the brim. “I had heard,” said Utgard-Loki regretfully, “that Thorr of the Aesir was a drinking man. This is disappointing." Thorr's eyes went red. “I'll show you drinking!” he bellowed. “Give me back that horn!" Twice he drank again, but each time he only managed to lower the level in the horn only by a small margin. By this time, I had decided I wasn't going to die of a ruptured gut and

had regained a little of my senses. I drew Thorr aside and whispered to him, “Listen, this has got to be sorcery at work in all of these contests. We should get out of here as soon as we can." “I won't let them get the better of Thorr, sorcery or not,” he bellowed, and strode up to challenge Utgard-Loki. “So, you've gotten the better of me once, but I'll take another chance. What other games have you got to offer me?" “Well, sometimes the lads take their turns lifting up my cat from the hearth. You might try that. I'd offer you something more of a challenge, but if that was all you could do with the horn, we'd better stick to something simple." Thorr glared balefully at him, then strode over to the hearth. UtgardLoki's cat was not small. It stretched across the hearth, and I could not spot the end of its tail. Thorr grasped it under the belly and raised it up, but the beast's feet still dangled down to the floor. It was a large cat. Thorr grunted under its weight, and lifted it up over his head. He stretched his arms as far apart as he could, still holding the cat's belly, but no matter how he strained, the best he could do was raise one paw off of the floor. “You'd better rest now,” said our host. “Forget rest!” Thorr yelled. “I'll take you on directly, man to man. We'll wrestle, that's what!" I cursed silently, even though I had never met a man who could best Thorr in wrestling, but I was sure now that this was sorcery, and that is always a different matter.

“I don't know,” said Utgard-Loki regretfully. “I might hurt you. In fact, don't be insulted, but I don't think any of the men in my hall would wrestle you now, after that last performance. They have their pride, you know." “You're just afraid I'll wrench off their necks." “Not so. I'll tell you what. My old granny Elli there in the corner by the fire isn't so bad at the sport. If you can throw her, maybe some of the others will change their minds about taking you on." “Forget about it,” I whispered urgently, grabbing for Thorr's sleeve, but he shrugged me off, stubborn as always. The old giantess hobbled out from her place at the hearth and she and Thorr grappled. They swayed one way, locked together, and then the other way. Suddenly Thorr was flipped backwards and landed hard. He lay on his back, gasping, stunned, and the rest of the company turned away to their drinking, ignoring him. Nothing was said of any more contests. We went to our beds that night weary and sore. “Are you leaving so soon?” our host asked in the morning. “Yes, I'm afraid we should.” I looked around. There was no one else in the hall. “Tell me,” I asked quietly, “they were good tricks. How did you do it?" He laughed. “I'll tell you if you promise never to come back to these lands. Because, the truth is, you Aesir were almost too much for me!" I promised, and he said, “Well, in your contest, Logi was really

wildfire. So of course he could burn through the trough as well as the meat. In the footraces, your lad Thialfi was competing against Hugi —Thought—and of course nothing is faster than thought." “And Thorr? Who did he really contest against?" Utgard-Loki shook his head. “He really gave us trouble. The other end of that horn reached into the ocean. I think you'll find the sealevel considerably lower when you get back to your boat. The cat was actually Jormungandr, the serpent who circles the entire world." “No wonder he couldn't lift it off the ground." “When he raised one paw from the floor, I couldn't believe it." I was grinning. I couldn't help myself. “And the old woman?" “Elli is old age. When she gets her hands on a man, she'll always make him stumble in the end. And, oh, by the way, I was the giant Skrymir, too. I wanted to see what you were like before I let you into my hall. Here, do you see that saddle-back mountain with the three deep valleys?" I glanced through the door, saw them, and nodded. “Those valleys weren't there before the other day. They are the dents Thorr made with his hammer when he thought he was aiming at my head. I never slept under that oak tree." I laughed out loud. “You're a trickster, all right, namesake! But I think we'd better be on our way back to Asgard before Thorr decides he wants to compete again." The skalds have told enough of these tales of Thorr's adventures,

although I've noticed that in one way or the other they always try to blame me for everything that went wrong. Loki the trickster, Loki the sin-sly was always my name. It was that way among the Aesir, too, though I endured it for the sake of Sigyn and our sons. Watching them grow, with Sigyn at my side, I thought I might almost be content. But at night in my dreams I howled in my fetters, gagged by the sword impaling my jaws. And often when I woke my mouth was filled with blood. [Back to Table of Contents]

XIII Odinn's nights were as disturbed as my own. He couldn't sleep. Prophecies haunted him. The jaws of the wolf. Ever-fertile Frigg was heavy again, and the Norns had spoken: Frigg would bear twin sons, one light and one dark, and the Wyrd of one would be tied to the fate of all Asgard, indeed, of all the nine worlds. “Prophecies,” I muttered to myself. “All this sweating to learn the future. Odinn goes all the way to the far reaches of Utgard to learn his fate—and why? So he can try to evade it. So he can find out who to betray." Sigyn heard me, and tried to soothe away my bitterness, as she always did. “The Allfather is anxious about his sons. Isn't that natural? Won't you be, when the time comes?" It was a few moments before I understood her meaning. My sons. She was going to bear me sons. My joy soared. Yet what if I had known their fates, so long ago? Could anything I did have changed what was bound to happen? How many times I've asked myself that question! But the attention of all Asgard was on Frigg's swollen belly, ripe enough to split open. Twice nine months she had carried them, and when they were born at last the prophecy was fulfilled: twins they were, one light and one dark. Odinn held one in each hand for a few moments, staring into the red, wrinkled faces of his newborn sons. Then he hurried away with them to the Well of Urd, followed by all the Aesir. I had never before seen the Norns, though I knew they were old, as old as time. I'd expected them to be shriveled, wrinkled, white-

haired and bent over with age. But they were timeless. Their faces were smooth and blank, their eyes milk-white, as if they were blind. They were dressed alike in hooded gray robes that hid the shape of their bodies. They were daughters neither of the Jotuns or the Vanir. Mimir has said they were never born, that they simply stepped out from the spring Hvergelmir when the world was made, and have not changed since. The spring itself, the Well of Urd, was another surprise, for it was no more than a still, shallow pool in the earth. Its waters shone white, white as milk. The Norns had been bending down to dip up the water and pour it over the root of the World Tree, but at Odinn's approach they stood together between him and the spring. I could see his eye glint at the sight of it, the water of knowledge, always beyond his reach. Yet he never dared defy the Norns, who held his fate. “We were expecting you, Allfather of the Aesir,” said the eldest of the Norns. This was Urd herself, Fate embodied. It is Urd who looks into the water of the pool and sees there the Wyrd of every being in the world, the fate that nothing can alter. No one, not even Odinn, can look directly into her eyes. “Now, let me see your sons." She took the twins in her ancient, withered hands and glanced briefly into the face of the darker. “No, this is not the one, but his Wyrd is grim. I will say no more." As Odinn scowled, she turned to the lighter twin. “This is he. This is the one." Her sister Verdandi added, “His fate is tied to the fate of all the nine

worlds. As long as he lives, the Aesir will rule in Asgard and the world will be green." The third Norn, Skuld, completed the prophecy: “But if he should die, then the power of the Aesir will come to an end. Asgard will fall, and the ashes from its burning will cover the whole nine worlds and leave everything in the cold and the dark." At those words, Frigg wailed aloud, but Odinn stood in grim silence. They named the dark twin Hodr, and his fair-haired brother Baldr, the shining lord. From the very first he was indulged with whatever he desired. His mother Frigg was frantic for his safety, knowing his death meant the end of the Aesir, and she hovered protectively over him with every step he took. But it wasn't enough, it would never be enough, not if all Asgard watched him day and night. I watched him, too, but with different thoughts. It would have been so easy. In the form of a serpent, a quick poisoned bite. An accident while hunting. A sudden fall from the topmost height of Bifrost. Then would come Odinn's end, the end of Asgard and all the Aesir. The vengeance I had sworn. Except that Sigyn was a daughter of the Aesir, and now Asgard would be the home of my sons. By tying myself to them, I had bound myself to share Asgard's fate. So Baldr grew up unharmed, and I lived for a long while as one of the Aesir, outwardly a loyal follower of Odinn. My own sons were born soon after Odinn's. They were twins as well, one light and one dark. We named them Vali and Narvi. Narvi was his mother's favorite, but the dark-haired Vali was mine. After they were born, I stopped going out on so many adventures and travels with Thorr and the Aesir. Instead, I took my sons to the forest

and taught them to hunt, Narvi with the bow and Vali with the spear. I was almost content, but greater knowledge had brought the Allfather no greater peace. He brooded constantly over Baldr's fate, and the words of the Norns echoed in his mind day and night. If Baldr should die, the Aesir would fall. Just as he had destroyed Jotunheim, so Asgard would be destroyed. The whole world would be laid waste in ashes. For all the hard-won wisdom he had gained, for all the risks and sacrifices he had made, he could find no way to avert this doom. “I need to know more,” he would mutter to himself, staring deep into the untouched depths of mead in his horn. But even Kvasir's mead couldn't bring him the wisdom he needed. The Norns were silent, and as always, none of his gifts could persuade them to say more than they already had. “I need to know more.” It became an obsession with him, to learn how he could prevent the destruction of Asgard and his own death. So at last he did a desperate thing, a terrible thing, more terrible even than when he sacrificed his own eye to Mimir's Well. I had been dreaming once again of the wolf. I was trying to seize and swallow the moon, but the sword between my jaws was gagging me. It was a relief to wake to a moonless night. The wind had risen, driving the clouds before it. In the dim light of the stars, I saw the unmistakable figure approaching Bifrost. He was mounted on Sleipnir, wrapped in his hooded cloak and bearing his spear. I wondered, what evil was he planning now? So I left my own bed, I left my wife and sons asleep in my hall to follow him as I had before, silent and unseen in the form of a moth,

constantly fearful that he would turn and see me behind him. But he rode on with his purpose fixed, and Sleipnir tore across the shimmering bridge with the speed of the wind, heading toward the desolate land of the east. I was hard-pressed at first to keep up with him. But something in Odinn's urgency had communicated itself to the night, and I was soon carried along in his wake. We came at last to a great rift in the earth, where the rocks were all fractured and broken. From below came the deep roaring thunder of water, and the air was thick with mist and spray. This was the primal spring Hvergelmir, headwaters of the eleven mighty rivers that burst out from the rift and flowed in all directions across the plain. Here the World Tree Yggdrasil had sprouted at the birth of time, a tall ash with branches that reach high into the upper reaches of the sky and a trunk that nine times nine men could not span with their arms outstretched. All the world shelters beneath its branches, and the three springs that watered its roots are the wells of all knowledge. As we approached, the tree loomed ever larger above me until its topmost branches disappeared into the darkness of the clouds. I did notice that the ancient ash was rather worn. A herd of deer had stripped away much of its bark, and from time to time I thought I could hear the crack of wood as the dragon Nidhogg gnawed at its roots from below. Odinn dismounted from Sleipnir and stood at the foot of the tree. I saw then that he carried a rope as well as his spear. His face beneath his hood was grim and terrible. He began to chant a spell, barely audible above the roar of Hvergelmir's waters, but I was certain I had heard the name of Hel. Suddenly he spun around, and I could see his single eye glinting in

the starlight. I knew he had seen through to my true form. “So there you are, brother. Somehow I knew it would be you." Discovered, I resumed my own form, scars and all. “You knew I would follow you?" “I knew someone would. But it's fitting, don't you think, that it was you?" “I'm not sure what to think." “The Norns aren't the only ones who know the fates of things to come, did you know that?” He told me then of his secret visit to Vafthrudnir's hall. “It was one of those times you were missing from Asgard, sulking or something, or I might have asked you to go with me. The old giant knows the future. He's even learned what my death will be." “I suppose that's some kind of comfort." “I wouldn't say so. But Vafthrudnir told me his secret. He learned the future by speaking to the dead who feast at Hel's table. Past and future are all the same to them in that place. This is the only way,” he said, to himself more than to me. “I must know more.” Then he turned to me and handed me his spear Gungnir. “Here, hold this for me." He'd knotted a noose into one end of the rope. He threw the other end over the lowest branch. I stood at the foot of the tree while he slowly settled the noose over his head and pulled it tight. Then he put the other end of the rope into my hand. “I think I can rely on you for this, brother, more than any other."

My throat felt strangled. I stared at the rope in my hands. Vengeance, I thought, vengeance at last. Oh, how long I had waited for a moment such as this! How much I had endured! And now, with Odinn's life held literally in my sweating hands, I couldn't move. The voice of the wolf was telling me: No! This isn't the time! This isn't the way it has to be! Then the balefire from Odinn's eye struck me, terrible in the darkness, and I pulled hard on the rope. The noose around his throat jerked tight. I could hear him choking as I hauled again on the rope, using all my weight to lift him off his feet. He thrashed wildly, struggling for breath, his heels kicking in the air, fighting for life despite his will. Once again I pulled on the rope, lifting him higher before I tied it off and left Odinn hanging, strangling. The tortured noises from his throat were all I could hear in the night. Then I caught a glint from Gungnir's blade, the spear forged for Odinn by the dwarves. He'd given it to me, but for what reason? The shaft fit easily into my hands. I held it, knowing he must have brought it for this, given it to me for this. I took a breath and plunged the point upward, deep between Odinn's ribs. He jerked once, and his struggling ceased. He hung motionless from the tree. It was as if the world's heartbeat paused for an instant. Then the earth below me quaked. The World Tree shuddered, and from its branches came a vast flock of ravens bursting out, crying aloud in their strident voices, keening Odinn's death. The wind rose out of the north and battered me to the ground. It screamed through the branches. Across the sky it drove the cloud-wrack, blotting out the stars, and I thought I could hear the voices of captive, tortured souls swept away by the storm.

But when I looked up at Odinn's body it hung motionless from the tree, and his blood dripped slowly from the wound in his side, forming a shallow puddle. Odinn's soul was borne away to Hel, the wind died. I stood up again, shaking. He had paid the ultimate price. What wisdom would he find now? What evil bargain would he strike with the ruler of the dead? I couldn't follow him—not on that road he had taken. But suddenly, seeing Sleipnir standing where Odinn had left him, I remembered that there was more than one path down into Niflheim, where the dead feast with Hel. I approached the horse, but he side-stepped skittishly. He was Odinn's mount now, not mine. But I stroked his nose and whispered into his ear, “Come, my son. I bore you once, now you can bear me in return." I swung onto his back, and he snorted steam from his nostrils. I could feel his muscles bunch under my knees. I kicked him into a run, and the sound of his eight hooves was like thunder in the night. “We have a long night's ride ahead of us!” I cried, but his pace never broke or faltered. Past the World Tree we rode, away from the place where Odinn's body hung, down through the rift into the underworld. Sleipnir ran day and night without stopping. We crossed the eleven rivers that flow from Hvergelmir, the Elivagar: Svol, Gunnthra, Fjorm and Fimbulthul, Slid and Hrid, Sylg, Ylg, Vid, Leipt, and finally Gjoll, the river of ice that flows past Hel's gate. Its bank is called Nastrond, the Corpse Strand. A dragon was crouched there, glowing pale in the dim light, and it lifted its head to hiss a warning as we thundered past.

A bridge spanned the banks for the dead to cross over, but Sleipnir's eight legs took him directly across the ice. Shards of it flew from his hooves. Then at the end of our journey we stood before the gates of Eljudnir, Hel's vast and dismal hall. I dismounted uneasily and told Sleipnir to stand fast. Then I took the form of a corpse-beetle and scuttled under the doors. There were many such as I in this place, all burrowing into the rotting flesh of the numberless corpses. The eyes of the deathlings were all fixed and staring, except when they were empty sockets. They wandered without direction or purpose. But I saw nothing of Odinn. I passed through the cheerless rooms of the dead until I found Hel on her high seat. The skalds in all their ignorance have declared that the ruler of the dead is my daughter, but this is another slander, another lie. Hel is far older than I am. Only the Norns are more ancient. She is as old as time, as old as death. Hel's face even has a pale, cold beauty, but her belly is dark and livid, like a corpse's where the blood has pooled. Her lower body is skeletal, and her feet are rotted stumps. She is death. And there sat Odinn on the seat next to her. An angry raw scar was around his neck and a deep wound in his side where I had pierced him with the spear. I crawled closer, hidden among the litter of bones at her feet. “It's been a long time since I entertained one of the Aesir,” she was saying. “Not since your war with Vanaheim. That was a fine feast you laid for me then." “So you do enjoy war, then?"

“Of course. War, murder, famine, plague—all of them fill my hall. Old age is my most faithful servant, though. Nothing escapes her in the end." “Not all of us are mortal men,” Odinn protested. Hel smiled knowingly and didn't answer him. Odinn looked unsettled for a moment. “I hope you did appreciate my sacrifice, at least?” he asked. “Oh, yes. It pleased me greatly. I'm more than willing to grant a favor in return." “I need to know the course of events to come. To see into the future." “Nothing could be easier if you stay here with me. You would have an honored place at my table, lord of the Aesir." Odinn looked startled and suddenly fearful. “The spells I used, the runes—they ensured my return." “Oh yes, your spells worked well enough. But the paths of time only flow together down here in my domain. Only the dead can see what is to come." “Then grant me the power to speak to the dead. Give me the power to raise them from their graves and force them to reveal the future." She agreed to it. “Your time on the tree has earned you that much." So she taught him the runes and the spells, all the potent sorcery to compel the dead from their rest. Odinn insisted on summoning a seer

right away, to test his new wisdom, so he carved the dread runes on a piece of human bone and spoke the words Hel had taught him. Slowly, from among the gathered dead, a half-rotted figure came to approach Hel's seat. She was cursing and moaning, “Who calls me here? Who disturbs my rest? May the dead have no peace?" “Speak, and answer my questions,” Odinn demanded. “Tell me of the future. Tell me if Baldr will die." The corpse moaned. “Baldr will die. That is his Wyrd. All Asgard will weep at his funeral feast. His brother will bear his body to the pyre, and there will be sacrifices laid at his feet and at his side. Odinn will place his own arm-ring Draupnir on the dead body of his son. The nine daughters of the sea-lord will toss their white scarves as the flaming ship sets out on its journey to Hel. “Now, go away and leave me in peace. I will say no more." “You will say more,” Odinn insisted. “I have the power to compel you. Now speak and answer my questions. Tell me of the fate of Asgard after Baldr's death. Will the Aesir fall?" The corpse groaned. “An axe-age, a sword age—shields will be shattered. A wind-age, a wolf-age—the world will be broken. “First the whole earth will be ruined by war. Sons will lift their arms against fathers, fathers slay sons. Brother will turn on brother, wives leave their hearths and lie with their own sons, brothers will part the legs of their sisters. “Then the dread winter will cover the world and hold it in a grip of ice. Bitter winds will drive the snow to darken the sun. All Midgard

will shiver at its dying hearth. “The earth itself will shake. The seas will rise up and pour over the land. Trees will be uprooted and the mountains themselves will quake and come falling down. The World Tree itself will shiver. Every chain and fetter will break. The wolf will run loose, howling, seeking Odinn's blood. “War will come to Asgard. Heimdall will sound his horn at the approach of the enemy. The sons of Utgard will gather in the north, and the sons of Muspell will advance from the south with Surtr at their head, wielding his flaming sword. Odinn will meet them on the plain named Vigrid, bearing his spear Gungnir. This will be the Aesir's final battle. “Now, go away and leave me in peace. I will say no more." “You will say more. I have the power to compel you. Now speak and answer my questions. What will be the fate of the Aesir in this war? Will Asgard fall? And Odinn, what is his Wyrd?" The corpse groaned more loudly. “The Aesir will be overwhelmed. Thorr will die, and Freyr. Tyr and Heimdall will fall alongside their enemies. Odinn will die in the jaws of the wolf, as it has been foretold. “Then Surtr will fire the halls of Asgard with his sword of flame. The fires will rise as high as the sky, and the ashes from that burning will cover the whole world. Ashes ... nothing but ashes,” she moaned. “Now, go away and leave me in peace. I will say no more." “You will say more,” Odinn insisted again. “I have the power to

compel you." But Hel stood up at her seat. “No,” she told Odinn. “Enough.” As he sank back next to her, visibly shaken, there was a slight smile on her death-pale face. “Well, have you heard what you came to hear? Does your future please you?" He turned to her bleakly. “I would have preferred another fate.” His voice rose. “Is there nothing that can be done, no way to prevent what I've just heard?" Hel shook her head in amusement. “You asked to know the future and now you reject it. Don't you know that no man can evade his own Wyrd?" But from my place on the floor among the shards of bone, I could see the glint in Odinn's eye, and I knew he would never accept the doom just foretold. Somehow he would plot and scheme to avoid it. He turned again to Hel. “I have a thought. It may be that we could strike a bargain to the advantage of both of us." “Oh? And how is that? You've already had the reward for your sacrifice. It would be well that you did not ask for more." “You know I have the power to stir up warfare among the living. I can turn nation against nation, race against race, even brother against brother. Think of it! Your domain would be filled with their bodies. The slain would crowd into your hall as never before. The harvest of peaceful old age would dwindle away." “And what would be your gain in this bargain?"

“If you grant it to me, I would search the battlefields for the slain. They would be mine—only the ones who die bravely with a weapon in their hand, facing their enemy. I would build a hall for them in Asgard, a hall of the slain, and every warrior would strive for a place on the feasting bench there. But all the rest, they would belong to Hel." “A fine thought, all that killing,” Hel said thoughtfully. “But why should I give you even a part of the slain, when they will all be mine by the end of time, whether they fall in battle or otherwise? No, this bargain is one-sided." Odinn frowned. “Then what would be your price for what I ask—the pick of the slain warriors?" Hel leaned back in her seat and looked around her hall. Everywhere the dead stumbled and fell, all in various stages of decay. Many were no more than bones. They were not a cheerful company or an attractive one. “A husband,” she said finally. “A bridegroom from the Aesir, one of my own choice. Someone ... pleasant to look on.” She smiled. “You gave Njord to Skadi, daughter of the frost giant Thiazi. Certainly I could ask for the same, in exchange for what you ask." “So be it, then. A bridegroom of your choice. And the choice of the battlefield is mine." “Agreed,” said Hel. “Now, I believe your nine days on the tree are at an end. You can return to Asgard to build your hall for the slain. But heed my warning now. You have visited my hall once. The next time you come, you won't leave so easily."

Odinn stood and quickly left her presence. Then Hel, with that same faint mocking smile on her face, glanced down to the bones at her feet. “And you, my other guest—did you hear what you came for as well?" Embarrassed to be discovered, I took my own form, glad for once that the scars twisted my mouth, knowing Hel would never choose a bridegroom as marred as I was. I sat down next to her in the seat Odinn had just left. “You must know he means to cheat you, and cheat his own Wyrd. That is always his way with a bargain." But of course she had known his purpose, for Hel is the wisest of all beings. “The one who means to evade his own Wyrd will only find it on a path he does not expect, one of his own making. Whatever he does, his chosen warriors will all be mine again in the end. I only let him use them for a short while. “But tell me, son of Muspell, what is he to you, your brother or your enemy?" “Both. My brother-by-blood and my worst enemy. Time and again he's betrayed me, and I've sworn to have my revenge." “Whatever the cost?" I hesitated. My life in Asgard lately had been full of reasons to be content, with Sigyn and my sons. Could I give all that up for the sake of revenge? But if Asgard were truly doomed to fall, then nothing I did would alter that doom. And the wolf's pain howled in my mind every night to remind me of Odinn's treachery. “I've sworn it. Whatever the cost."

“But doesn't your oath forbid you both from shedding each other's blood?" “True. Yet it was foretold that he will die in the jaws of the wolf." “And when the wolf kills him, then Loki will have his vengeance on Odinn, isn't it so?" It didn't surprise me that she knew my deepest secret. “You are wise. But of course, if the prophecy is true, then none of this can happen as long as Baldr is alive." “Yes,” she said, still smiling, “as long as Baldr is alive. And he will be the brightest and fairest of the Aesir, or so they say." “A fine bridegroom. But only if Odinn keeps his word." Her smile suddenly resembled the grin of a skull. “I think that between the two of us we can make sure he keeps his word, Farbauti's son." So Hel and I made a bargain of our own, that sealed Odinn's fate, and the fate of his son, and the fate of all Asgard and al the nine worlds. And with my own doom, I sealed my sons', as well. Whatever the cost? Hel had asked me, and I agreed. But that part of the future was hidden from my sight. I didn't know. I swear, Sigyn, I swear I didn't know. [Back to Table of Contents]

XIV Odinn returned from Hel with his new, grim purpose. He summoned all the Aesir to Gladsheim and addressed them from his high seat: “Now I am the lord of the dead, the lord of the gallows. “Nine days I hung from that windswept tree, nine days and nights from that ancient tree of which no man knows the roots. I was pierced with the spear. I was the sacrifice, as others will be sacrificed to me. “No one came to comfort me there. No one brought a horn to quench my thirst. I fell down into the domain of Hel. “There I learned new wisdom. My sacrifice was rewarded. One spell bought me many spells. One rune earned me many runes. “I gained power in Hel's domain. I learned her secrets, to raise the dead and compel them to speak. I learned spells to blunt the weapons of my enemies, to break any fetters that might bind me. I can stir up men to hatred and strife or root it out of their minds. “I am lord of the hanged. My new name is Death-blinder. “I have wisdom that no one else has ever possessed, except only the Norns, who are as old as time. I have power now greater than the wisest sorcerers among the Jotuns. “Here is what I learned in Hel's hall: if Baldr dies, there will come a battle, with all the enemies of Asgard pitted against us. The sons of Utgard will advance from the north, the sons of Muspell from the south. We will meet them on the plain of Vigrid, and I will lead my

forces into battle there. Gungnir, the spear of victory, will be in my hand. And behind me will march a vast host, all the best of the fallen warriors of Midgard. “This is the bargain I made with Hel. Asgard will not fall! My army will drive back our enemies!" Odinn my brother: lord of lies, deceiver! So this was how you planned to defeat your own Wyrd, to pit an army of the dead against the foes of Asgard. Had it come to this: that you believed your own lies? Had the loss of your eye blinded you to the truth? All of the Aesir stood astonished at Odinn's words, but they could hardly doubt him, since he stood before them with the mark of the gallows rope around his neck and the wound from the spear in his side. The balefire in his eye glowed in challenge. There was no one among them, not even Thorr with all his strength, who could have defied him. Tyr stood sullenly in a corner rubbing the stump of his right wrist with his other hand, for the wolf had taken his sword-arm. Freyr could not raise his head for shame. He'd only recently traded his rune-spelled sword as a bride-price for his new wife Gerd, and now he dreaded telling Odinn how he had lost it. He would miss that sword when it came time to cross blades with Surtr, I thought with no little satisfaction. Only Frigg spoke up, his wife. “But ... none of this can come to pass if our son Baldr doesn't die! Isn't that so?" “This is true, and of course we hope he will live forever. But if the worst happens, we have to be prepared. The fate of Asgard depends on it."

You lied to her, too, didn't you, brother? Baldr's Wyrd was already known to you. Odinn lost no time recruiting a crew of thralls, dwarves, outlawed giants, and even mortals from Midgard to erect a new hall which dwarfed all the others in Asgard. Its name was Valhall, the hall of the slain. Its rafters were spears. It was roofed with shields. Shining sword blades lighted it. There were five hundred and forty doors, each one wide enough for eight hundred armed warriors to pass through side by side. Its outer gate was named Valgrind, standing high above the bank of the roaring river Thund. Only warriors who could wade through the torrent would be worthy of entering there. The Aesir were stunned when they saw the rows and rows of empty benches. Who would sit in this place? Where could Odinn find so many warriors? But Odinn said nothing to them. He drew his gray hooded cloak up over his head and set off over Bifrost into the green country of Midgard. The Mid-earth had once been an empty land, with only wolves and bear roaming the forests. But mortal men had settled there in recent times, clearing the trees and erecting their own wooden halls. They were farmers and fishermen and hunters. For the most part, they lived in peace among themselves. But Odinn meant to change that, to introduce war into Midgard. Disguised as a wanderer, with his cloak wrapped around his face, he entered the halls of the mortal lords and sat next to them at their hearths. He whispered in their ears and stirred up strife against their neighbors. He gave them weapons: swords and spears and shields,

ring-mail and helmets, all forged by the dwarves and marked with runes promising victory. Promising it to both sides, arming one against the other. But whichever side won, he made sure they would dedicate the spoils of their victory to Odinn. To their god. They called him lord of battles, lord of victory. To worship him, they began to hang their battle-captives. The trees hung heavy with that grim harvest. These souls were Odinn's gift to Hel, destined for her hall, but Odinn whispered with them for a long time before he released them to join her at her table. He corrupted the skalds of Midgard. He poured his own mead of poetry into their horns. Oh, how they worshipped him for that gift! At the hearthfires of the mortal lords they would tune their harps and sing of the glories of Valhall, where the warriors who met brave deaths in battle would sit at Odinn's hand on benches of solid gold and feast every night without end, how they would swill mead from never-empty cauldrons and eat the flesh of never-consumed roast boar, how white-armed maidens would wait on them. Oh, how much better to feast with Odinn than with Hel, and no mention made of the cost. The mortals rushed off eagerly to war, and soon smoke arose from burning villages and spilled blood soaked fields that had formerly known only peace. All Midgard heard the keening of widows, the bitter cry of orphans, the laments of men enslaved. But Odinn strode across the battlefields with the balefire alight in his eye, and he would cast his spear over the hosts gathered there, driving them on to war. The wolves and the ravens were his followers. Their feast was his worship. The benches of Valhall began to fill with dead warriors. “It goes

well,” he said, seeing the ranks of deathlings in the hall filling their horns with mead. “These are my chosen champions, the Einherjar." I said nothing, but I remembered the sight, the first time I had met one of Odinn's dead warriors as he stared up bewildered at the grim gate Valgrind. Odinn's cold wind had blown this man weary and wounded from the battlefield where he died. For this prize he had given up all that was sweet and good in life. So short a span, and now he had thrown it all away. The ways of mortals were unfathomable to me. But Odinn was quite pleased with his new reputation as a god. Gladsheim wasn't enough for him any longer, and he built a new hall for himself: Valaskjalf, the shelf of the slain. He had a high seat there where he could sit and watch out over Midgard, observing the progress of his wars. “Come, brother,” he said to me one day, “Let me show you how they worship me in Midgard. My brother Honir is joining me. We can travel together again, the three of us, as we did in the early days of the world." Had he forgotten, I wondered, how he and Honir stood watching as the giant Thiazi in eagle-form dragged me away, never lifting a hand to help? Had he forgotten the mockery the Aesir made of me afterward? All the old resentments rose up again, the pain as raw as ever, and the wolf within me struggled to break free. The temptation was almost overwhelming. What if I ignored all the prophecies? What if Odinn died at Loki's hand and not in the jaws of the wolf? But inside me something howled and demanded that the

vengeance must be his, not mine. I swallowed blood. The wolf was still bound. It was not yet time. But I was Loki, and wit was my weapon. And it occurred to me that death wasn't the only form revenge could take. So I came with him on the journey. Honir came with us, Odinn's weakling brother. The Vanir had long since returned their hostage. They found even less use for him than the Aesir had. But Odinn enjoyed his company, so the three of us set off one bright morning over the shimmering bridge into Midgard, searching for new battlefields for the father of victories to harvest. After we had traveled for a while the forests dropped away to lower, wetter ground. We were starting to think of finding something to eat, and at the bottom of a waterfall my sharp eyes had spotted a movement among the reeds at the edge of the water. There was a large otter just dragging a fine-sized salmon out of the pool. “There's our supper, at least,” I thought to myself. Taking a smooth stone from my belt pouch, I fitted it to my sling. The stone flew toward the otter and struck the creature in the head, dropping it next to the fish. “Well,” I said, for I was pleased with myself, “two with just one stone!" I went over to the bank and took the fish in one hand and the otter in the other. It was surprisingly heavy, and the rank flesh did not promise good eating, but at least I would have its glossy pelt as my prize. I hung it from my belt and gave the fish to Honir to put in his game bag. We went on then, and soon found we were heading into a wide wet

fenland where broad shallow rivers flowed slowly out to the sea. It was a flat land, covered with tall waving grasses and reeds. Honir, with his long-legged stride, took the lead. The ground beneath our feet was a soft peat, and a single misstep from the path would have us up to our knees in a black, clinging muck. Overhead, birds rose into the sky, keening out as we passed by their nests hidden in the reeds. There was no other sign of life. Odinn was in an increasingly bad temper. The fens seemed to stretch on forever, and there were no villages here, no kings he could tempt into attacking their neighbors. It was a land of utter peace. “This is a foul place,” he complained as sunset finally came on. “No houses, not even a dry spot to lay down to sleep." Just then Honir, taller than the rest of us, called out, “I think I see smoke, a house up ahead." The smoke had come from a fisherman's hut built of reeds on a high hummock of dry land. Racks of dried and smoked fish surrounded it. The sight was heartening. We would at least have dry beds for the night. Calling out to whoever was inside, we splashed across the shallow water and up to the door. The dwarf who opened it glared at the three of us, all up to our knees in muck. “Who are you? What are you doing here?" “We're travelers,” said Odinn, giving himself the name of Gangrad, and we'd like shelter for the night."

“Shelter, and a meal, too, I don't suppose." “We've caught our own meal,” I said. “All we need is the use of your hearthfire to cook it." Grudgingly, the dwarf, who called himself Hreidmar, opened the door and stood back for us to enter. I grinned at him with good cheer as I stooped to pass through the low doorway, and I handed him the bag I'd taken from Honir. “Here,” I said, “a big salmon, plenty for everyone!" But Hreidmar's eyes had gone to the dead otter in my belt. He went pale, then quickly turned his face away from me. As Odinn, Honir and I settled down at the hearth, he hurried away back into another room of the hut. When he emerged a few minutes later, his expression was grim and set. “Eat and sleep,” he said shortly, “but tomorrow you must be gone." “A poor welcome to guests,” Odinn growled, but Honir and I persuaded him to ignore the fisherman's surliness. This was his home, after all, and we, though guests, were uninvited and clearly unwelcome. Honir cleaned our fish and spitted it to bake at the hearth, but Hreidmar took the body of the otter, saying his daughters would skin it. I shrugged and let him go—a strange character and not a pleasant one, our host. We would be well gone from this place in the morning. After finishing the fish, we settled at the hearth to sleep. With my eyes half-closed, I thought I heard a strange, low droning sound. I struggled to raise my head, to see where it was coming from, but the effort was too much. My body felt like lead, and I couldn't move my

arms or my legs. In a helpless panic I realized this was sorcery. A spell of binding was on me! A sharp kick in my ribs rolled me over onto my back, and I could see Hreidmar standing over me, with two younger dwarves behind him. Their faces were vengeful. Hreidmar held out the skin of the otter I had killed. “Murderers!” he screamed. “This was my son!" Odinn, lying next to me, as helpless as I was, bellowed, “What do you mean, murderers? What are you talking about?" “This was my son Otr! This was his pelt! He took this form every day to bring us fish!" My heart sank, and I cursed my bad luck. I had killed a shapechanger wearing his magic pelt, and now his family had us in their power. Of course they would want revenge. Odinn was protesting, “Well, how could we have known what he really was? All we saw was an otter, like any other beast. At least, let us pay wergild for his death!" Hreidmar's face was dark with wrath, but his two sons whispered to at least ask what we would pay. “Gold,” said Odinn quickly, “as much as you ask for." I could see greed flickering in the eyes of Otr's brothers. “Where is this gold?” one of them asked suspiciously. “Well, not with us, of course. But we have it, I swear,” Odinn

assured them. “Just let us go, and we'll be back with it as soon as possible." Hreidmar's laugh was bitter and mocking. “You'll have to do better than that, murderer! Once you leave this place, I'll never see you or the gold again." Odinn turned to me quickly, with the balefire lighting his eye as he hissed under his breath, “This is your doing, Trickster! You were the one who killed the otter!" Then my heart chilled as he protested aloud to Hreidmar, “All right, then, if you won't take my word, you can take hostages. I'll leave one of my companions here as surety for my return.” Oh, yes, I knew which one of his companions he meant! You wouldn't have hesitated to sacrifice me, would you, my brother-by-blood? Or your own birth-brother Honir, either, if it had come to that, if it meant saving Odinn. But Hreidmar's was alert to Odinn's treachery, and he shook his head. “I'll take hostages, but you'll be one of them, One-eye. Listen, for this is my price. Here is Otr's pelt. I want it filled with gold, then covered with gold, until not so much as a whisker still shows. That's the wergild I'll take for my son's death." He glanced back and forth between Honir and me, and then spoke a word that loosed my bonds. “You, with the scarred mouth. You can bring back the gold. Your traveling companions will wait here with us." “This dwarf wants gold,” Odinn whispered coldly to me as I got to my feet. “Well, go get his ransom from his own tribe. And get it

quickly!" I went toward the door without looking back. I was in no hurry at all, and I only hoped that Hreidmar would give him a long and unpleasant wait until my return. Once again Odinn had shown me the extent of his treachery, but this time I would strike back, and gold, the gold he loved so well, would be my weapon. His own greed would be his downfall. There was gold, of course, gold in plenty at Asgard, but Odinn's order to take it from the dwarves had given me the germ of my plan. I crossed over the fens quickly in falcon-shape and flew out above the deep green waters of the ship-road, ocean. There Aegir and Ran had their halls beneath the waves near the island of Hlesey. Taking the form of a salmon, I plunged down into the depths of the sea, swimming through the waving beds of kelp that grew on the ocean floor. Ran's hall was made all of drowned men's bones, decorated with scallop shells and pearls. Fish swam in and out through her gates. “Loki,” she said frowning, recognizing me in salmon-shape, “what brings you here? What kind of trouble are you making now?" It was only one more insult, another I would repay some day, I promised. I'd never given Ran a single reason to hate me, but her nine daughters had given birth to my enemy, Heimdall, and that was enough. “Odinn needs your help,” I said shortly. “A sorcerer has him bound and held hostage against my return." Ran raised her pale brows. “What do you need from me?"

“Your magic net—your drowning net. I need it to save Odinn." Reluctantly, she handed it to me, warning, “If this turns out to be another of your tricks, son of Muspell..." But I was already away, swimming strongly to the surface with the net floating behind me. No one could ever escape from that mesh, no matter what sorcery he possessed. Ran could have drowned Odinn himself if it had pleased her, which was possibly one reason the lord of the Aesir rarely went to sea. But I had another use for it now. I went quickly with the net in my arms to waterfall where I had killed the otter. Behind it, a deep crack in the rock led to Nidavellir, the underground domain of the dwarves, and the lair of one dwarf in particular. Of all that foul race, the richest was a black-bearded, crookbacked maggot named Andvari, but he was also the most skilled sorcerer, so I had brought Ran's net to even the contest with him. His cave was the darkest and most damp of all I had known, and I found myself soon in water up over my knees. Andvari's dwelling place was deep belowground, on an island in the center of a pool. The waters of that pool were deep and black, and even darker shapes moved slowly below its surface. But on the island Andvari stood crouched over the flickering red fire of his forge, and molten gold shone and spattered in the darkness as he worked. “Andvari!” I called out. “I've come with a message from the Aesir!" The dwarf raised his head and snarled at me. “The Aesir can go futter themselves! I've got no love for Odinn and his thieving tribe!"

I admit that under most circumstances that was a sentiment I would have shared. Grinning to myself, I called back across the water, “Odinn didn't ask you to love him, Andvari. He just needs your gold to pay wergild for Otr's death!" “Let him pay the wergild with his own gold, then! Let him melt down the golden benches in that new hall of his, the one full of dead men!" I shook my head. “Odinn would rather have your gold, Andvari. Time after time you've ignored his requests. This time he means to have his way." Andvari smiled evilly. “Very well, then, Odinn's messenger! Come across the water and fetch it for yourself!" At his words, I thought I could see some dark movement beneath the black water of the pool. But I had come foreknowing and prepared. Without a warning, I cast Ran's net, and it flew across the water, catching the dwarf in its mesh. Oh, he cursed and thrashed, he twisted and kicked, he hacked at it with his knife, but he couldn't break free. Slowly, I began to drag the net toward the water. Trapped in the net, Andvari struggled, but I called out to him, “Do you know whose net this is, dwarf? Ran lent it to me. Now do you want to discuss Odinn's gold?" “Yes!” he screamed at last, when I had dragged him almost to the water's edge. “Odinn can have the gold!"

“Good,” I said. “I knew you'd come to see my point of view. Now, bring the gold over to this side of the pool." I twitched the net to release him. Grumbling and muttering under his breath, the dwarf gathered up the gold and loaded it into a small boat tied to a small pier at the edge of the island. There were coins and ingots and raw lumps of metal. There were arm-rings and cups and shimmering chains. With each load, the boat sank deeper into the water of the pond. “Don't forget any of it!” I called out to him. “Odinn needs a lot of gold—enough to stuff Otr's pelt and cover it, tip to tail." At last the dwarf stepped into the boat, and the dark water lapped against the topmost strakes. Carefully, while I stood casually twirling Ran's net, Andvari poled the laden boat across the pool. I examined the treasure while he stood there sullenly watching me. Gold, more than enough gold to cover poor Otr's pelt. I smiled down at Andvari, whose ugly, black-bearded face was twisted with hate. This was all working out exactly as I could have wished. But just as I finished my count, I caught a glimpse of something gleaming in the dwarf's tightly clenched fist. “What's that?” I jerked his right hand toward me and forced it open. There on his finger was a ring. It was made of woven strands of gold, each one finer than a single strand of Sif's hair, twisted into patterns more intricate than the Brisings had wrought into Freya's necklace. And carved into the margins were runes of power. It was a great prize, a fine treasure, equal only to Draupnir, the armring Odinn had taken from Gullveig's charred bones. Remembering his treachery, I knew he wouldn't be able to resist it.

“The ring,” I demanded. But Andvari closed his fist again. “No, you can have anything you want, all my gold, but not this ring." I showed my teeth. “But what Odinn wants is all your gold—and this ring! Most especially this ring. Now take it off your finger, or I'll wrap you in Ran's net and throw you to your pets there in the pool. I trust you haven't fed them lately." He darted, as if he were trying to run away, but I was quicker, I tripped him, and as he lay on his face on the damp stone, I wrenched the ring from his finger, stripping no small amount of skin along with it. While he moaned and cursed, I dropped it into the pouch at my belt. Then, using the spell Odinn had taught me when I carried Idunn from Thiazi's cave, I transformed the rest of the loot into a golden apple and grasped it in my falcon's claws. “Farewell, Andvari! I'm sure Odinn will send you his thanks, one day!" “I curse Odinn,” he screamed back, spitting in furious, thwarted rage. “A curse on him and whoever wears that ring! A curse on your stolen gold!" I flew swiftly back to the fenlands, eager to see Odinn's eye when he caught sight of my treasure. Not for any price would I have placed that ring on my own finger. I had too much faith in Andvari's power as a sorcerer, and in the depth of his hate. If ever a ring were cursed, I carried it with me that day. Hreidmar was waiting impatiently by the door of his hut, staring up

into the sky as if he were expecting me. I dropped to the ground and resumed my own form. He glared at the apple I was holding. “Well, stranger, if that's all you've brought, I suppose you've come back to share your companions’ fate! Noble of you, I'm sure, but stupid, too." “Don't be too eager,” I warned him. “First, let me see my two companions. For all I know, you slit their throats while I was gone, or threw them into your stew pot." Ill-tempered, he called into the hut for his sons, Regin and Fafnir, to bring out the prisoners. Odinn and Honir blinked in the sudden light as they were led out, bound. They looked rumpled and uncomfortable, which pleased me. “Did you bring the gold?” Odinn demanded. “See for yourself.” I said the words he'd taught me, and instantly the yellow apple was transformed into a mound of treasure as high as my knees. Coins rang as they spilled down its sides. Hreidmar inhaled sharply, his sons pushed forward to gape at the sight. Odinn raised his brows. “Well done, brother! Where did you get it?" “From the dwarves, as you said to do.” Then I leaned closer to whisper into his ear and sharpen his curiosity, “And one more special item, I'll show you later." Now Hreidmar was bringing out Otr's pelt. He lay it fur-side down on the ground and began to stuff the gold inside. Two handsful of coins should have filled it, or three at the most, but Hreidmar continued to fill the pelt with gold while the pile diminished alarmingly. Odinn looked worried. “This is more sorcery,” he whispered.

At last the skin bulged full, and Hreidmar turned to his captives, smirking. “That's the first half of your payment—the pelt is stuffed. Now I'll see if the rest will cover it.” He started to pile the remaining treasure on top of the gold-stuffed skin. Otr was buried in a grave-mound of gold, but when the last shining chain from the pile had been heaped over him, Hreidmar cried aloud in triumph, “Not enough! See there—a whisker still uncovered! Your wergild isn't enough, murderers! Now your blood will pay for Otr's death." He and his two living sons approached us, each carrying a fishgutting knife honed to a vicious edge. Desperately, Odinn turned to me, “Loki, the gold thing you had in your belt—show it to him!" I hesitated, knowing that Hreidmar had outwitted me with his greedy sorcery. Then, slowly, I brought out the ring. Avarice flared into life in Hreidmar's eyes at the sight of it. “I must warn you,” I said solemnly, “that there is a curse on whoever wears this ring. For that reason I kept it apart from the rest of the treasure." But Hreidmar ignored my warning. He seized the ring from my hand and placed it on his own finger, dazzled by the intricate, twisting patterns Andvari had wrought into it. “Then our ransom is paid,” Odinn demanded impatiently. “Yes, yes! Take your things and leave this place!" Balefire flashing in his eye, Odinn snatched up Gungnir. I could see his knuckles tighten around the spear's shaft, and I held my breath, waiting for him to violate his sworn promise as he had so often in the past. Then he shook his head. “No. Let the curse do its work."

So we left Hreidmar with his treasure and two his sons Regin and Fafnir, and I could see the lust for gold coming alive in their hearts. “I think this journey wasn't entirely wasted, after all,” Odinn said prophetically as we left the fenlands. “Wherever you got that cursed ring, I can tell it will work my will in Midgard." But from time to time he turned his eye on me, and it was full of dark suspicion. Just whom had that curse been meant to fall on? [Back to Table of Contents]

XV I came back to Asgard determined again to avoid Odinn's company on his journeys. Let him have his curses and his wars. I would journey though Midgard myself, in the company of my sons. Vali and Narvi were quickly growing into manhood. I had brought them up to be hunters, and now I began to take them on long journeys into the forests to seek out game. These woodlands had changed in the long years since I'd escaped from Muspell and Surtr's wrath. The trees that had been young when I'd roamed the game trails in wolf-form were now thickly covered with moss and gnarled with old age. Many of them already lay fallen and slowly rotting on the forest floor. An age, I thought, since I was young, and perhaps I hadn't been wise in everything I'd done. And if things had been otherwise, I might have spent my life hunting in those forests, while the wolf suffered and howled in his bonds until he was finally forgotten. Narvi was showing promise as a shape-changer. He loved to soar high over the trees in hawk-form, his bright eyes seeking out the movement of prey below. I could sense the same power in Vali, but he refused to make the change. “I can't explain it,” he would say, shaking his head. “I've tried, but it frightens me. As if there's something inside me that wants to be loose, something I couldn't control." My dark son. My favorite. “It doesn't matter,” I assured him. “You have many other skills."

The winter days are dim and short in most parts of Midgard, and the nights come on all too quickly. We were out hunting that night, and it grew fully dark in the forest long before we reached our camp. Against the black canopy of the sky, it almost seemed that we could reach up and touch the bright, cold-burning stars. It was a night so still our breath hung like a mist above our heads. The frozen crust crunched beneath our skis, cracking under our weight. The limbs of the fir trees hung heavy with their burden of snow. Slowly, the moon rose, a shining white light that made the ice crystals sparkle. Something made the hair on the back of my neck prickle. I held up my hand for silence. Behind me, Narvi and Vali stood motionless on their skis, almost not daring to breath. They sensed the presence, too. He came out of the stark shadows of the trees, padding so lightly that the snow crystals scarcely broke under his paws—a lean gray wolf, eyes gleaming green in the moonlight. A wolf. But more than a wolf, something within me knew. I slid forward, reached out a hand to him. Quivering, he sniffed me, then bounded away into the trees. I waited, and a moment later he stepped forth again, but now in human form with a cloak of wolfskin wrapped around his lean, naked body. His green eyes blinked in bewilderment up at the moon. “I know you,” he whispered, but it was a question. Then he was a wolf once again, and he disappeared into the forest shadows. Vali took hold of my arm. I could feel him shaking. “What was he?" “A brother of yours, in a way,” I replied. Suddenly I felt the touch of a cold wind. I spun around, awkward on

my skis, and for a fleeting instant caught sight of another shadow among the trees, the hooded shape of a man. Then it was gone, but the feeling of unease remained. In the far distance, the wolves began to howl, summoning their pack-brothers to the kill. I winced in pain, tasting my own blood in my mouth, and Vali cried aloud. He was shaking uncontrollably. But Narvi's eyes were wide with excitement. “Father,” he asked me after we had gotten back to our campsite and were warming ourselves next to the fire, “what do you mean, ‘a brother of yours?’ That wolf-man?" I glanced at Vali, who was staring into the flames. “When I was younger, I lived here for a while in that form. My pups were born, and some of them had the power to change. The one we saw tonight must have been sprung from that seed.” I shook my head. It was a strange, unsettling thought. How many generations had there been between us? But Narvi was frowning. “Father, I've never seen you take the wolfform." “No. Nor should you take it, either, for any reason. You know I've told you this before, and I have good cause.” I thought of that shadowy, hooded figure in the trees, and I shivered again. “Take any other shape, but not that one." “My brother has dreams, sometimes—of wolves." We both looked uneasily at Vali where he sat by the fire, but his eyes were fixed on the shivering flames, and I don't know whether he heard us or not.

But that night my dreams and memories gave me very little sleep. The next day the sky was cloud-covered, and the night as well, hiding the moon, for which I was relieved. The wolves were howling again, and I thought I could recognize the voices of more than one pack. We followed the cries into a valley where the trees had been thinned by the axes of mortal men. I paused, catching the scent of human blood, and signaled my sons to be cautious. From the clearing beyond us came snarling and the sharp sound of snapping bones. As we came closer we saw that the snow had been trampled and stained with blood. The scent of it, the scent of death was heavy here. Dark wolf-shadows slunk beneath the trees at the edge of the clearing and turned to face us, growling in warning. I drew in my breath sharply. Where the wolves were circling, beyond the black, blood-spattered snow of the clearing, corpses revolved slowly at the end of their ropes, hanging stiff and frozen from the branches of the trees—the torn bodies of mortal men. Their ragged empty eye sockets had already been torn by the carrion birds, and their lower limbs savaged and mauled by the wolves. While I watched, one of the pack leaped up and tore off a leg at the knee, carrying it back away deeper into the shadows. “What is it?” Narvi asked me, his voice tight with shock. He had seen killing of course, but never this, never anything like this. “War,” I answered shortly. “And the losers sacrificed to honor Odinn, the father of victory.” As if to prove it to myself, I walked across the clearing to the closest victim. The wolves shrank back from my presence. Yes, there was the wound where the spear point had been driven into the man's ribs. Odinn was already taking advantage of the terms of the bargain he'd made with Hel. These

victims had died by the spear, not the rope, so they belonged now to Odinn, by the terms of the agreement. My brother-by-blood, lord of the slain, lord of the spear. The gallows-god. I looked away from the hanged man. “He feasts tonight in Odinn's Valhall,” I said grimly. “All these warriors do." From the north, the wind picked up with a sound like lost souls crying. The wolves shrank back into the trees. Yes, they could sense his presence, too. “Come,” I said to my sons. “Let's go home." But I was uneasy knowing that Odinn had seen the wolf-man that night in the forest. Those shape-shifting children of mine are shy, wary creatures, and I knew that only my presence had drawn that one out of hiding on that moonlit night. But now Odinn knew for certain of their existence, and I feared what he would do. For all that I had promised myself to avoid him, I knew I had to find out. It was a bear-form he took, one that I'd seen him use before, when I chased him from Sinmora's hall in Muspellheim. Now I followed him unseen through the white winter forests of Midgard until he came to a rough-built wooden hall, a small garth hewn out of the surrounding wilderness. The bear's heavy shoulders rolled with muscle, his muzzle lifted to sniff the air. In the byre, the cattle shifted nervously, trampling dung and straw under their split hooves. But the bear ignored them, and with a blow of his powerful forepaw split open the door to the hall and padded inside. Maidservants ran screaming, a man-thrall advanced nervously on the beast with a spear in his hand, but the bear swatted the weapon aside and laid the

man's guts on the floor with a single stroke of his claws. At the hearth stood a woman by her loom, frozen in terror—the householder's wife, or possibly his daughter. Perhaps the bear knew which. Looming over her, head brushing against the roof, mouth gaping, the bear put his paws on her shoulders and brought her down to the floor. There by her own hearth he took her, not as a beast would couple with its mate but as a man with a woman, brutally, growling low in his throat when his seed entered her belly. When it was done, he lumbered away, leaving death behind him, but new life as well. I came back in autumn for the birth as a cold harsh storm tore the clinging brown leaves from the oaks and threw them at the hidden face of the full moon. The child clawed his way into the world, tearing the mother in his passage, screaming with maddened rage. This was the first of the berserks, Odinn's blood-maddened mortal sons. Bjorn, he was called, after the bear, and he grew quickly into a man of immense size, with wild, thickly-matted chest fur, unkempt hair and beard. He was outlawed before he was fourteen for murdering two of his father's thralls in a senseless fit of rage, but there was no mortal man who dared stand against him. The axe was his weapon of choice, but he was equally deadly with sword or spear, or even his huge bare hands. In combat, a battlemadness came upon him and his eyes blazed red with balefire. He frothed at the mouth and splintered the wooden rim of his shield with his teeth. In that state, he killed well over two hundred men, in battle and out, before he was cut down at last and Odinn welcomed him gladly into the ranks of the champions in Valhall.

Not an pleasant life, but others of his kind came after him, Bjorn's sons, for rape had come as easily to him as killing—they were like his father in that, too. Thus warfare became even more horrible in Midgard, and the wolves forgot the ways of the hunt, full gorged as they were on the battle-dead. [Back to Table of Contents]

XVI Except for such uneasy reminders of a grim fate, things were well with me and my twin sons. But it was otherwise with Odinn's twins, Hodr and Baldr. The prophecy of the Norns had singled Baldr out. To the Aesir, he was the young lord, the fair one, the bright one. Nothing was too good for him, nothing could be denied him. Whatever he desired, it was his. Oh yes, he was handsome to look on, to see him swaggering across the fields of Asgard, gleaming with gold, as if he were the sun himself. And following in his shadow, his darker brother, ignored by everyone. No one gave gold rings to Hodr, no one heaped praises on him, although Hodr was a harper second only in skill to his brother Bragi the skald. It first caught my interest when they were still children. Each of the boys had a new harp, and Bragi was teaching them both to play, although of course Baldr's harp was inlaid with precious ivory and had strings of gold, while Hodr's was plain wood, though lovingly polished to a fine gloss. This was in Gladsheim, where the Aesir were assembled to feast and drink away the emptiness of their days. I heard the sound of harpsong, and I stopped briefly, thinking it was Bragi playing. I'll grant that Odinn's son is a decent harper, even though I can't abide his poetry. But it was a boy I saw, sitting next to him on the harper's bench, dark hair falling down to hide his face as he bent over his instrument, his strong fingers compelling the music from the strings. I paused to listen, thinking already this lad was a master of the harp. But when he was finished Bragi merely nodded, saying, “Very good,

Hodr. Now, your turn again, Baldr." The fair-haired boy took up the same song, but it was clear that his skill was no match for the other's. His fingers stumbled over the golden strings, the notes jangled and jarred my ears. With each mistake the boy's scowl grew deeper, until I thought to myself, yes, this is truly Odinn's son. At last, mangling a chord so badly it made me wince, he cursed in frustration and threw his harp across the hall, where it crashed into a bench and splintered with a clash of snapping strings. “That harp was no good! Here, give me yours.” Then he snatched away his brother's instrument and began the song again, while Hodr, unnoticed by anyone else, walked away. Now, this was an opportunity. I left the hall and went after the boy, followed him to where he stood next to a pond, throwing stones into the water, watching the ripples spread. “I liked your harping, there in the hall. Bragi has one worthy student, at least,” I offered. He looked at me doubtfully. Praise was a rare enough gift already in his young life. “My brother is better, of course." I made a rude sound. “You know he's not! A troll could make better music than the noise Baldr tortures out of that harp." Shocked, he laughed. No one had ever spoken of Baldr that way. “Do you know who I am?” I asked him then. He nodded, lowering his eyes. “You're Loki, Farbauti's son from

Muspell. My father's blood-brother. I'm not supposed to trust you." Now it was my turn to laugh. “Well, then, don't trust me, by any means. But I'll tell you this. I have two boys of my own, you know, not much younger than you are. I was planning to take them hunting tomorrow, out in Midgard where the game is wild. You can come with us if you like." His face lit up, then fell. “I don't know if Baldr will want to go." “I'm not asking Baldr, I'm asking you." So it began. No, I won't claim that my motives were altogether pure, making a friend of my enemy's son. My brother's son. But I do know that no one had ever needed a friend more than Hodr. And I swear to this—I didn't know, then, just what that was foredoomed to happen. I never meant for any harm to come—not to Hodr, not to that boy or my own. Narvi and Vali were soon fast friends with Odinn's son, and we all spent many long days together in the forests of Midgard, learning the ways of the hunt. I would have kept him with me longer, but it was Odinn's ambition for his sons to be warriors and fight alongside his champions in Valhall. Hodr easily mastered the skills of sword-play, for the boy was strong and he yearned for his father's approval, ever denied him in his brother's shadow. Baldr, too, burned to be a warrior with all his heart, yet there was the prophecy, that Asgard would fall after his death, and all the world would be buried in ashes. The Aesir all knew that Odinn had made a bargain with Hel, they

supposed it was to save his son's life, but he'd never revealed the exact details to anyone. They all assumed that Baldr's foretold death would occur in the final battle against Asgard's enemies. But it was Frigg who took the matter at last into her own hands. Ever since his birth she lay sleepless at night with worry, terrified every time her favorite son suffered the slightest scratch. But at the same time she couldn't endure to see him denied his wish to shine on the battlefield. So she harnessed up her cats to her chariot and rode out into the nine worlds. From every creature there she took an oath that it would never do harm to Baldr. Not only the Aesir swore, but all the elves, light and dark, the dwarves in their caves belowground, and the race of mortal men in Midgard. She even went to the giants in Utgard, who had no reason to love the Aesir, but the end of all the worlds was too horrible to risk, and they took the oath along with everyone else. Frigg didn't stop there. She took the oath from every kind of beast: the bears and the wolves, the serpents and the spiders, oxen, horses and sheep, the whales in the sea and the eagles of the air. And more: she went to the plants and had them swear—the oak and the ash, the hemlock and aconite—all vowed to do Baldr no harm. But Frigg still wasn't done. She had water swear, and fire, and all the stones on earth. Every metal, copper and iron, even silver and gold. And the weapons: every spearpoint, sword-blade, arrowhead. Every knife, every scythe, every pitchfork. In the end Frigg was convinced that nothing in all the world would harm her favorite son, for they had all sworn: every earth-thing, seathing, sky-thing.

So Baldr became a warrior. Tyr was his teacher, and Odinn had him armored all in gold—mail, helmet and sword-belt. His weapons were forged by the most skillful of the dwarves. Thus arrayed he strode out onto the battle plain Vigrid to enter into the combat with the best warriors in all Midgard. Of course, he was the victor in every contest, since the weapons of his enemies had sworn not to do him harm. “It doesn't seems fair,” Hodr confessed to me once, “the way he takes on all the best warriors. They fight well, of course, but they might as well be weaponless. Still, they all fight their way to the forefront of the host to meet him, as if it were some high honor." “Does it matter?” I wondered. “After all, Odinn's warriors have already met death." “True,” Hodr confessed. “But to die over and over again—it must be a horrible thing. To feel a spearhead pulling out your guts. They cry, you know, with the pain before they die again. Sometimes it takes them a long time. Every day they have to die, yet every day they rise to fight again. I think it must be a dreadful fate to be mortal." I raised my eyebrows. “But you fight, too. You put your spear into their bellies at least as often as Baldr does. Doesn't it bother you?" “Sometimes.” His dark young face was troubled. He stared down at his hands, turning them on his knees—strong, long-fingered hands with calluses from both the harp and the sword. “We have to be strong to defend ourselves when the final battle comes. But Baldr..." I prompted him, “Of course, it's different for you. Even Odinn's sons can be killed."

With one exception, which there was no need to mention, not between us. Hodr said quietly, “I've always wondered what it would be like. What would happen. Would I just find myself back in Valhall afterwards, only like all the rest of them?” He shook his head. “What must it be to die?" He was too melancholy. “They have their Wyrd, and we have ours,” I said. “Come, play me something on your new harp.” It was a gift of mine, an instrument of plain, polished wood, but it was elf-made, and it would never strike a false note. I'd paid for it in good gold, not wanting any more curses, not for Hodr. We were seated together on a bench outside one of Valhall's doors. From within came the din of resurrected warriors feasting, striving as always to empty the bottomless cauldrons of mead that Odinn served them, doubtless to help them forget their pain. Beyond, the grass of Vigrid plain lay trampled and stained with their drying blood, but in the morning I knew it would be green again, as the wounds of the dead warriors would be healed. “You play well, Odinn's son,” came a voice from behind us, and I looked up to see one of the deathling warriors standing there, his fair face flushed from the heat of the feasting hall. From the looks of his weapons and armor I took him to be a king's son, but such were commonplace in Valhall. Odinn didn't care to fight alongside thralls. Hodr invited him with a nod to join us on the bench, and the dead warrior sat next to him, listening to the harpsong. “Don't they have harpers inside at the feast?” I asked after a while. “I don't care for their songs,” the deathling replied shortly.

Hodr stopped playing. “What is your story, warrior? What song should I make for you?" This is the tale we heard: “My name is Vikar Haroldsson, and my father was the king in our land. He was good lord, a generous one, and there were always warriors eager to enter his service. “One of his jarls was named Storvik. I was too young to remember him, but the tales say he was a berserker, one of those with the battle-madness. I know he had many enemies. No one wanted to be his neighbor, so his steading was in some isolated place by the shore. One night his enemies came down on him and set his hall on fire. They burned alive, Storvik and his men. Only his son Starkad was saved from the flames. “My father took Starkad into his own hall and fostered him there. It was his duty, as Storvik had been his own man. We grew up as brothers, but he was taller than me, and stronger, by the time he was six years old and I was nine. “That was the year the war came to our land. My father's enemy was named Herthjof. He killed my father and took the high seat for his own. He fostered me in his hall, the hall that had been my father's, but he gave Starkad to a man of his named Grani, an old one-eyed warrior who lived far out on a lonely island named Fenring. There were only the two of them there, Grani and Starkad, living in a hut as squalid and dark as any thrall's. “For years I served Herthjof, but in secret I practiced with weapons until I became a man and could lead an army to avenge my father's

death and take back the kingship." Vikar paused, looked at us, one and the other. “What else could I do while my father's killer was alive and his kingdom in his hands?" Neither of us could answer. After a moment he went on, “The first man I sought out to help me was my foster-brother Starkad. I took a boat to the island Fenring. Starkad was black with ashes from the hearth where he slept, his hair was long and matted, and his beard. He looked like a caged beast. But when I gave him weapons and armor, he told them up like a trained warrior. Old Grani had done his job. “We left that night on my ship, and as soon as I had gathered together enough followers, we attacked Herthjof. In the fighting, I saw that Starkad had the battle-madness. His eyes glowed red, and he threw away his shield, screaming that nothing could touch him. He ran ahead of the war-host, howling like a crazed beast. Half of Herthjof's army ran at the sight of him. He mowed through warriors like wheat, even with wounds on him that would have crippled any other man. “I'll never forget the sight of him, coming back through the war-host, covered with blood, stumbling like a drunken man, holding Herthjof's head up aloft on his spear. He'd torn it off with his bare hands. “But now I was the king, so I gave Starkad the seat across from me at the table and all the honors due to a champion, as so he was. But he wasn't an easy man to have in my hall. He drank too much, he always abused the thralls and raped the maidservants. I had to pay wergild for more than one death at his hands. He was a poet, too, but he was

always so drunk he could never remember the verses of his own songs. After a while, I came to believe he must have been cursed. “Not too long afterward, a storm came up while we were at sea. The ship was driven onto the rocks and wrecked, and half the crew drowned. All of us who survived crawled onto the rocks, only halfalive. The island where we were wrecked was almost bare rock. There was barely enough wood to make a fire as night came on. We were all terrified and praying to the gods. “Starkad had always been a worshiper of Odinn. Now he said that the storm must have been sent by the Allfather, that we would have to sacrifice to him if we wanted to be saved. I'd seen enough of Starkad's sacrifices to Odinn and I wanted none of it, but rest of the men were afraid of him, and they agreed that the gods must be paid. So Starkad took out the rune-sticks, and we all cut our forearms and dipped the sticks into the blood. He cast them, and the lot fell on me." Up to this point, the dead warrior had spoken in a controlled, almost emotionless voice. Now he shuddered, and the words failed him. “Odinn has always favored kings, and the sons of kings,” I remarked. “Aye,” said Vikar bleakly, but he recovered the voice to resume his tale. “I was afraid. I'd never worshipped Odinn, and I didn't want to die that way. I pulled out my sword. ‘You won't hang me, Starkad,’ I told him. ‘And if you murder your king it will be outlawry for every man here.'

“But Starkad ... the battle-madness was in his eyes, and I could see that the rest of the men were afraid to resist him. I was the king, but it was Starkad they would follow. He took me aside, and he whispered, for my ears alone, ‘Odinn has given me great gifts, brother, but now the payment is owing. His price is the life of a king.’ But he seemed to reconsider then. ‘Maybe a token sacrifice will be enough.' “I agreed, for it seemed to me that I had no other choice. Starkad took me to a sapling growing out of a crack in the rock, no more than a twig, and not as high as my own head. Then he put the noose around my neck and made the other end fast to a branch. He had a reed in his hand instead of a spear, and as he struck me in the side with it, he said, ‘Now I give you to Odinn.' “But the moment he spoke those words, the reed had changed to a spear with a broad iron point driving in between my ribs. I started to scream, but the noose around my neck jerked tight and pulled me off my feet. The sapling grew. To the size of a tree. They left me hanging there. A sacrifice to Odinn." The dead warrior's voice choked, and he was silent again for a moment. “Since then, I've been here in Odinn's hall, and every day I have to relive that moment when the spear took my life. Every day I die again, always from the spear. The pain is never any less. “Starkad was outlawed, and he wandered for years, a viking, a berserker. Death followed in his footsteps. But in the end he was no less mortal than any man. Tonight he sits at Odinn's side in Valhall. And tomorrow—tomorrow on Vigrid plain, I know he'll seek me out

again." The deathling could say no more, but I pitied him his fate. Hodr made a song from Vikar's tale, but I know he never sang it in Valhall. Perhaps the skalds remember it, but the skalds are all Odinn's men, and their songs are lies. [Back to Table of Contents]

XVII It was for Hodr's sake that I started to frequent Valhall, witnessing the nightly feasts of the slain. Odinn demanded that his warrior sons take their place at his table, although Hodr never had the seat across from him. That honor was reserved for Baldr, or certain favored champions such as the berserker Starkad. Odinn never ceased bringing new warriors to join his host. Daily the numbers of the Einherjar grew, champions crowding next to one another on the gold benches draped with ringmail. Swords stood against the walls, their polished steel surfaces blazing with light— the torches of the champions. It was a spectacle, the warriors all in their armor, helmets making their features fierce, weapons at their sides. No one went unarmed in Valhall. Odinn presided from his high seat, and the mead flowed ceaselessly while every night the roast boar was borne into the hall, spitted on a spear. Two ravens perched on his shoulders, swollen with the flesh of the slain. Each day they flew out over Midgard to spy out the places where strife was brewing among mortal men. And at his feet sat the two wolves named Freki and Geri, who trotted constantly at his heels when he walked among the harvest of war. They had followed him from the battlefield and never left him again. All of this was just as the skalds had sung in the halls of the mortal kings, an eternity of feasting at the table of their god. Bragi sat there at Odinn's side, and his songs all glorified battle and death, stave after tedious stave: Swordblade struck on shieldrim Strife around them singing

Dauntless on the deathfield Warriors dare their foemen. Hear the warhound baying For the blood of warriors. See the spearheads glitter! Strike against the shieldstay. With blade they fared all bloody Their thirsty spears were blackened The bloodsoaked ground they trampled, The torn and broken bodies. Oak of Odinn falling Fell and fearless warriors Harvest of the waraxe The wolfpack howls the deathsong. Tiresome stuff. It pained me that the wise Kvasir's blood must be wasted on it, but this was what Odinn wished his warriors to hear. The songs would go on for hours, celebrating bloodshed, pain and death. Hodr, after a time, refused to bring his harp to the place. But the faces of many warriors were pale as they listened to the verses, and they would drink Odinn's mead until they fell senseless beneath their benches, for they knew what they had to face the next day, and every day until the end of the world. Each morning the golden-crested cock Gullinkambi would crow from Valhall's rooftops, waking the dead warriors from their meadsodden dreams. Then they would file out through Valhall's five hundred forty doors, weapons in their hands, out onto the field of Vigrid. There, every day, they were forced to do battle with each other, reliving their final hours on the earth, dealing and receiving wounds that were healed again by the time Odinn's horn summoned them to the nightly feast. Many were the blood-feuds brought to

Valhall. I think that more than one dead warrior came to long for the peace of Hel's domain and curse the day he had heeded the harping of the skalds. But not all had come willingly to Valhall, as I had learned already from Vikar's tale. Odinn had thrust his spear between Freya's open thighs, and from the union came his daughters the Valkyries, the choosers of the slain. He had them armored all in bright gilded mail, with helmets of gold and spears in their hands. He gave them warlike names: Shaker, Mist, Axe-time, Raging, Warrior, Might, Shrieking, Host-fetter, Screaming, Spearbearer, Shieldbearer, Planwrecker. Their touch was death for any mortal man. At night when the feast was laid and the roast boar carried into the hall, they would pass among the Einherjar, pouring out mead into their horns. But later they would ride behind Odinn, blowing a cold wind of death across Midgard. Their mounts were all Sleipnir's get, bred out of a dark storm. Screaming, they descended on the battlefields where the hosts of the slain lay, choosing the best warriors from among them. Mortal men soon learned to hide behind the bolted doors of their halls when they heard the sound of that wind pass by in the night, for it meant destruction and death were in the land, and no one was safe. But soon even mortals came to join the ranks of the Valkyries, shield-maids and the wives and daughters of warriors. Oh, how the skalds loved those maidens of battle! Oh, the tales they told of them! Their listeners would have to believe that every mortal shield-maid was a valkyrie, or any king's daughter. I can still recall some of these tales: Hervor was the first of the mortal valkyries, whose bloodstained

hand wielded the cursed sword Tyrfing. It was Odinn who brought that sword into being. Each time it was drawn, it drank a life, whether friend or enemy, it did not matter. Its stroke could not be arrested, and the wounds it caused would never heal. Victory rode in that blade, but also death, never sparing its wielder. It was a dwarf-made sword, with a hilt of gold and a poisoned blade. Durin and Dvalin forged it for Odinn, who was then using the name Svafrlami. He had trapped them aboveground and threatened to expose them to the deadly touch of the sun, the bane of all that race, until they forged him such a blade. He gave Tyrfing first as a gift to the berserker Arngrim, who used the blade to send many warriors to join Odinn in Valhall. Arngrim had twelve sons, all battle-mad like himself, and when the old berserker finally was dispatched to Odinn's hall, Angantyr, the oldest, inherited the blade. Angantyr fell at last with all his brothers on the island of Samsey, and they were buried together there in a single mound, with the cursed sword Tyrfing laid at the berserker's side. Bur Hervor the shield-maid was Angantyr's daughter. She was determined to have revenge for her father's death. At night, when the dead lay uneasy in their graves, she came to the island of Samsey. The grave-mound of the berserkers was ringed with balefire, but Hervor passed through the phantom flames and chanted the spells to wake the dead and compel them to speak: “May your ribs writhe with worms, may your barrow be an anthill

where you rot, unless you speak with me, sons of Arngrim, all girt with battle-gear, keen blades at your sides and bright spears stained with blood. Death has made you cowards, but I have kin-right here. I come for the sword made by Dvalin. Why should dead hands hold that blade?" Angantyr rose, stiff in the grasp of death, to answered her, “Daughter, why do you call down such curses on your kin? Are you mad, to wake the dead? Run, while you can, to your boat, and leave this place of ghosts." But Hervor answered him back, “It will take more than ghosts and cold flames to make me leave this place before I hold Tyrfing in my hand." “That blade is cursed,” Angantyr said. “Listen to me, daughter. You know the dead can see into the future. I tell you, that sword will be your bane, and the death of your sons and their sons after them. Let it lie here in the grave where it can do no more harm." “I want vengeance,” she answered. “What do I care for my sons yet unborn, or what quarrels they might find after my death? Yield me the sword, Angantyr. I have no fear of curses. Or do you doubt that I'm warrior enough to wield it?" “No other woman would go to a grave-mound at night, armored as you are, daughter. No one else would dare wake the dead as you have done. Here, take the sword and fare well with it. But I fear the curse, even if you do not." So spoke the berserker's ghost. And of course, those events came to pass, even as he had foretold them. Hervor's vengeance brought that

evil-working blade back into the world and the curse on all of her line, brother killing brother, not once, but in every generation. All of which the skalds delighted to relate, in boring, bloody detail. But Odinn brought Hervor to Valhall and gave her a valkyrie's armor, and from that time on she rode with him to the battlefields to call the slain and bring them to his hall. Another of Odinn's foster-daughters was Sigrun, who never took a blade in her own hands, but brought many good men to death nonetheless, including her own father and brothers. She was the daughter of Hogni, who had promised her in marriage to a king's son named Hodbrodd. But Sigrun loved a warrior named Helgi, and she persuaded him to go to war to win her for his own. The forces met at a place named Frekastein, the wolf-stone. Hodbrodd was there, with his father and brothers, and Hogni with his sons as well, to defend his honor. There Helgi with his band of berserkers overcame them all. Hodbrodd was slain and all his kin, but worse, Sigrun's own father Hogni fell and all her brothers but the youngest, a boy named Dag. It was a great slaughter, a raven-feast. After it was done, Helgi came to Sigrun with his sword all running with blood. “Sigrun, I fear you will weep when you hear what I have to say, for all your kin lie dead. Our swords have claimed their lives. Your father and brothers fell at my hands. Never were there braver fighters. But this was their Wyrd." Sigrun walked the battlefield until she found Hodbrodd's bleeding body lying while his life ebbed away. She spat on the dying man's

face. “Now your arms will never hold Sigrun, Hodbrodd! Your father and brothers lie dead, the wolves will gnaw their bones." Helgi spared Sigrun's brother Dag, who swore an oath of loyalty to his sister's husband. But in secret Dag made sacrifices to Odinn, seeking revenge. Odinn answered. He lent Dag his own spear, Gungnir, and at a place called Fjoturlund that spear took Helgi's life. When Sigrun learned this news, she screamed at her brother, “Oathbreaker! Mad wolf! Helgi spared your life and you swore an oath to serve him. I curse you, brother. May the ship that carries you home refuse to sail, may your horse refuse to bear you there! May your sword fail you in battle!" “If you want to cast blame,” Dag told her, “look for Odinn—the weapon was his." Dag paid wergild to Sigrun for her husband's loss, but she sat every day and wept at his grave, crying aloud that she would never be happy again until she met with him in death. One night a maidservant came running, calling out that there were warriors riding near Helgi's grave. Sigrun ran to the barrow where her lord was laid, and there was Helgi, his armor torn where it had been pierced by Odinn's spear. “Death has left you so cold!” she cried. “Your armor is all stained with your blood! How can I comfort you, my love? How can I ease your pain?" The dead warrior spoke, “Oh Sigrun, you've already eased my pain, comforting the dead with your tears. They fall on my grave like bitter rain."

“Let me lie with you, Helgi, here in your grave! I'll sleep in your cold arms as I used to lie with the living man." Helgi replied, “No living woman can sleep with the dead. I have another road to ride, a road of blood to Odinn's hall." Despite his words, Sigrun flung herself into the grave, and for her love of death Odinn took her with him on Sleipnir's back, and ever after she rode to the battlefields with the father of the slain and comforted her lover in Odinn's hall. But Helgi has said he would have rather lived and seen her raise his sons. [Back to Table of Contents]

XVIII I hadn't traveled again with Odinn in Midgard since our ill-fated adventure at Otr's falls. I hadn't wished to look at the slaughter he bred there. But he came to me one day with a greeting and calling me brother. “Come with me to Midgard. I have something to show you there." I preferred in those days to avoid his company altogether, and I made some excuse, that I'd promised to take the boys hunting. He scowled then, and I saw a warning glint of balefire in his eye. “I think you should make other plans, then. The beginning of these events was your doing, now you should witness the end." Given little choice, I crossed over Bifrost with him, contenting myself with a rude gesture in the direction of Heimdall's gleaming new hall. The false cheerfulness was back in Odinn's voice as he explained what had come to pass since our last ill-fated journey. “You remember the dwarf Andvari and his gold—the ransom you brought for me as wergild for Otr's death? You remember that ring, in particular? The curse on it?" “I suppose I recall there was a curse. Andvari claimed there was a curse on the ring,” I answered warily. Already, I didn't like the direction this conversation was taking. “It was a curse indeed. Hreidmar had reason to wish soon enough that he'd never taken that ring from me. His greed was soon enough his bane. His sons demanded their share of the gold, but Hreidmar kept it all for himself. Not even a single coin for Otr's brothers, not one arm-ring to split between them. Regin was angry with his father,

but it was Fafnir who waited in the dark and struck his sword through his back." I admit, I was starting to find this tale interesting, despite myself. I had little liking for Hreidmar, almost as little love for him as Odinn —only I had even less trust in my brother-by-blood. “The curse didn't wait long to begin its work, then, did it?" Odinn was pleased to see my interest. “After Hreidmar was dead, then Regin, of course, demanded his half of the gold, but Fafnir refused. He told his brother, why should he share the treasure when he'd taken all the risk to gain it?" Curiosity snared me. “Who has the gold now? And the ring?" “Fafnir has it still. The gold, the ring, and the curse, as well. So greedy to keep it from his brother, he took the form of a dragon and guards his hoard at a place called Gitnaheath." “And Regin?" “He waits. For a champion great enough to slay the dragon and win the gold for him. And for this.” From beneath his cloak, Odinn pulled out a sword. The hilt gleamed with gold. The blade—looked hungry. I drew away slightly, recalling the tales I had heard. “Tyrfing?" “Not quite. I think you might say—a brother of Tyrfing. I call it Gram, but I think it will have other names before the end of time." We had gone well into Midgard by that time, into the deep shade of an oak forest. Ahead, I could see one tree that rose up over the rest, a lord among trees. And in the clearing below it was a broad-roofed

hall where men were preparing for a feast. “We're invited?” I asked doubtfully. “I need no invitation here. You recall my son Sigi?" It was hard indeed to recall all Odinn's mortal sons, most of them berserks and each more evil than the last. “Is this the one you got on the mortal shield-maid? The one who was outlawed for murder?" “And he became a king, later. This is the hall of his grandson, V olsi. V olsi's mother was Ljod, one of my valkyries. Good blood here, a line of warriors, the V olsungs. I expect much from them. Now I bring this—” he touched the hilt of the sword beneath his cloak, “as a gift for one of his sons." He pulled his hood lower as we approached. “V olsi has ten sons. This is his daughter Signy's wedding feast. Her new husband, drinking over there beneath the tree, is named Siggeir. And that one, the young giant with the yellow beard—that one is Sigmund, lastborn of the Volsungs, Signy's twin. “Is he a berserk?” I wondered. “No, something even more. Now, watch!" I kept back unseen as he strode into the hall among the feasting mortals. Clearly, from the way they drew back, they recognized him for what he was—their bloodthirsty god. There was a sharp intake of breath from every man when he drew the sword Gram and held it up over his head, pronouncing: “Whoever draws out this sword shall have it as a gift from me!” With a single thrust he drove the blade

into the heart of the oak at the door of Volsi's hall. Instantly the men were on their feet, benches overturned, and rushing out after him, but Odinn had already disappeared from their sight. Then, shoving each other, they crowded around the tree—the V olsungs and Siggeir and his men. The bridegroom, a heavyset, thick-browed warrior, was the first to shoulder his way to the sword, and V olsi, his host, called to the rest to stand back and give him room. Siggeir's fist closed around Gram's hilt. He braced his feet wide at the foot of the tree and strained to pull the sword free. From where I watched with Odinn, invisible to the mortals, I could see his face turn dark red with the effort, the muscles in his arms stand out. At last, out of breath, he dropped back, cursing, accepting defeat but grudgingly. Now V olsi stood forward and took his turn, then, one by one, the rest of his sons. None of them could even loosen the blade from the trunk of the tree. Last of the ten was Sigmund. “Your champion?” I asked Odinn. “Just watch." The young warrior took hold of the sword's golden hilt, set his feet, and pulled. With a sound of tearing wood, the blade pulled free of the oak. The hall of the Volsungs rang with cheers. “So this is your champion. Will he inherit Fafnir's gold, then, and the curse with it?"

But Odinn shook his head. “Matters aren't quite so simple as that. There, look at Siggeir." The bridegroom's face was dark with envy and rage. From a passing thrall he snatched a horn of mead and poured half of it down his throat, then kicked the man away with an order to bring him more. “An unpleasant guest,” I remarked. “Yes,” said Odinn. There was eagerness in his single eye, a look that made me wary of him. The wedding feast continued, but there was a new, black mood among the guests. Siggeir continued to drink heavily, and he ignored his bride. Finally he leaned across the table and challenged Sigmund. “That sword. I'll pay you for it, in gold. Nine wide arm-rings I'll give you for it. No sword ever cost so much." Sigmund refused. “You had your chance at the sword as well as I did. Clearly, the gods meant it for me, and I won't sell it, not for all the gold you can offer, not for all the gold in the world." This answer was not in the least to Siggeir's liking, but there was nothing he could do, there as a guest in V olsi's hall. Finally, as the fire died out, he took his bride away to her bed. In the morning, Signy's face was bruised, her lower lip split. Siggeir's own expression was still sullen and envious. V olsi frowned when he saw how his daughter had been treated, but he said nothing, even when Signy warned him that her husband was planning treachery, that he would do anything to possess the sword Gram, Odinn's gift.

But there was no bloodshed that day in V olsi's hall, and Siggeir sailed away with his new wife back to his own domain. Yet even I, with no one to whisper the future into my ears, knew it wasn't over between him and Sigmund. “You'll see,” Odinn promised me. “This will prove interesting." And of course it did, to one whose tastes ran to treachery and murder. No more than a year later, Siggeir invited the father and brothers of his wife to a feast in his own hall. Despite Signy's warning, V olsi made the journey to Siggeir's realm. But the very night of their arrival, Siggeir attacked the guest-hall, violating all guest-laws. V olsi was killed and all ten of his sons taken captive. The sword Gram, of course, Siggeir took for his own. He would have tried its edge first on the V olsungs, Sigmund and his brothers, except that his wife Signy came to him, weeping, to beg for their lives. “They should have thought of their lives when they defied me,” he answered. “Well, if you must kill my brothers then, at least do it one at a time. I can have them a while longer that way." Siggeir laughed. “A cruel kind of mercy, wife. But as you wish it." So he brought the V olsungs in chains to the edge of the forest and chained them fast to a massive log, all ten brothers helpless together. “There,” he said to Signy, “you can come and visit them every day

now, to see whatever is left." “Watch, now. This will be interesting,” Odinn whispered again to me. Even when I thought I'd measured the extent of his treachery, he could always surprise me. These V olsungs were his worshipers, his descendants, his chosen ones. Yet this was the fate he plotted for them. Suddenly the hackles rose on the back of my neck, and pain stabbed through my mouth with a sharp rush of warm blood. A huge she-wolf had come out of the forest, and I knew, without question, that here was a changer, and not one of my own get. His, then, surely. Odinn's. My fingernails dug into my palms, and I felt them as claws. Sweating desperately, I fought against the change. I must not be Fenrir, not here, not now. Odinn must not know, must never know, that the wolf's father was the wolf himself. Not until the end. I glanced over at Odinn, who was watching the she-wolf approach the chained and defenseless men. He laughed softly to hear their prayers—to him. Futile prayers. “Let them save themselves,” I heard him laugh. So Odinn, their god, answered them. With an inner struggle, I brought myself back to myself again. For an instant, his eye turned in my direction and I shivered under its touch. He knows, I thought suddenly, in terror. No, how could he? How could he not? “She chooses,” Odinn whispered beside me, and I turned again to watch the scene in front of me. Yes, the wolf was snuffling at the prisoners. I could see the white gleam of her fangs, the red of her tongue.

“She's yours, isn't she? One of your get?” I asked, hoping for some explanation, but this time I received none. Chained to the log, shackled hand and foot, the V olsungs were lying absolutely, utterly still. Suddenly the wolf growled softly and lunged for one man's throat. His cry was cut off by a gout of blood. The rest of the V olsungs cursed and cried aloud, strained at their chains, desperately struggling to free themselves, but they were helpless to prevent the sharp teeth from savaging the body of their brother, tearing open the soft hot cavity of his belly. The scent of blood and death made me reel with bloodlust and hunger. The wolf in me was still too close. I turned away. But Odinn watched on until only scattered bones were all that remained of Volsi's son. Signy came in the morning and wept again at the sight of what the wolf had done. Then she comforted her surviving brothers as well as she could, bringing them water and food, although none of them had much of an interest in it, for which I can hardly blame them. That night the wolf came again, and again another of the V olsungs lost his life. And the night after, and again the next night, until on the ninth morning only the youngest of the brothers remained alive among the bones and empty chains—Sigmund, her twin. Understandably, the ordeal had left him haggard, yet as we watched Signy feeding him I thought I could see a spark of grim determination still alive. This was the one, I recalled, chosen by Odinn to receive the sword Gram. “Is this the end you chose for your champion?” I asked him, but Odinn still would say nothing, only, “Wait until tonight."

So we waited, while Sigmund, chained to the log, sat alone, silent, staring into the shadows of the forest. His jaw was tight, set in determination. And when the moon rose, the wolf came for the tenth time, padding on silent feet, heavy-bellied with men's flesh. Her eyes gleamed cold green in the moonlight. Sigmund's, meeting them—had I seen a flash of red? Odinn, beside me, avid, intent. The wolf came closer, panting, her nose twitching. She sniffed at Sigmund's feet, his crotch, then around his face. Slowly, Sigmund opened his mouth. The wolf licked cautiously at his face. “What does he have in his mouth?” I whispered to Odinn, but he waved me impatiently to silence. Suddenly there was a sharp yelp of pain. Sigmund had taken hold of the wolf's tongue with his own teeth, and the creature was struggling to free herself, snapping furiously at his face but unable to close her jaws on her tormentor. No matter how she pulled and writhed, Sigmund refused to loose his grip. Back and forth the wolf shook herself, howling now from the pain, straining against the log, shredding the wood with her claws. Then it happened, the log split under the strain of the maddened beast's struggles, and Sigmund's chains flew free. The wolf flew backward, the man on top of her, flailing with his chains. There was a wrenching howl of agony, and the man stood, blood covering his face, with a dripping red gobbet of flesh clenched in his teeth. He had torn the wolf's tongue from her mouth. The animal writhed on the ground, choking in her own blood, while

Sigmund spit out her tongue, gasping for breath. I could see now that his face was ripped open, his arms and chest all bleeding. “Have you ever seen anything like it?” Odinn asked me, but I made no answer. Now, from the direction of Siggeir's hall, I could see a figure approaching—Sigmund's twin sister, carrying something bundled under her cloak. Somehow, this was no surprise. She had probably watched all along while the rest of her brothers were killed and eaten, failing the test. Yes, surely, this was a daughter of Odinn! “Brother!” she cried aloud, rushing into his arms. The two embraced briefly, then Signy pulled away and took the sword from her cloak: the cause of all this misery and death. Sigmund reached for it slowly, then held it tight. “On this blade I swear vengeance,” he whispered hoarsely. “Yes,” his sister hissed, “but first you have to get away from this place before he realizes you're still alive.” With a cloth, she was wiping away the blood from his wounds, cleaning them as well as she could. He would bear the scars for the rest of his life, I could see, if he lived long enough for them to heal. “Hide in the forest,” she went on, working briskly, roughly. “I'll bring food whenever I can." “You'll help me, then?" “To kill him? Our father's murderer? Yes!” She lowered her head briefly and held her palm against the mound of her belly. “I swear it on the life of my own son—and his." “Good. Then I'll wait for word from you.” He held the sword Gram

out in front of him. “Odinn won't abandon me." Oh, you fool! I wanted to cry aloud, but I didn't dare, not with Odinn himself next to me, watching. Instead, I said to him, “I really don't quite see what all this has to do with Andvari's gold. It looks to me as if this sword of yours is enough curse for any mortal to bear." But all he said was, “In time, my brother. You'll see, in time." Time, for mortals, passes with the quickness of the seasons. Sigmund hid in the forest surrounding Siggeir's hall, an outlaw, subsisting on the leavings his sister smuggled out from her husband's table and what game he could trap in his snares. In the meantime, Signy bore a son, then another. Each one at the age of five she sent to her brother hiding in the forest. He tested them, sewing their jackets to their bare skin and other such ordeals to prove the mettle of young warriors, but Siggeir's sons were both lacking in bravery. He buried the young failures in the forest, a small measure of vengeance on their father Siggeir. “I can do it alone, without help,” he argued, but Signy disagreed. Without disclosing her plan to her brother, she turned to the arts of sorcery—a daughter of Odinn in that, too. With the whisper of a spell, her blond hair turned darker, her thin, pinched lips grew full, her breasts swelled and strained against the lacing of her bodice. Glancing into a mirror, she whispered, “Yes!" Thus disguised, she hurried into the forest to the noisesome hut where her brother Sigmund hid. The deed was done there, and she named the result Sinfjolti, a lad whose berserker blood was evident even before he was five years old. When Signy sent her son to his

father in the woods, Sigmund set him the usual tests, but the boy was entirely fearless, and pain meant nothing to him. Like a pair of wolves, then, the two of them roamed the forest, evading Siggeir's hunters, until Sinfjolti's skills as a warrior were equal to his bloodthirsty nature. Odinn was most happy with Sigmund's son and often followed him in raven-shape, for wherever Sinfjolti went, there was bound to be carrion in his wake. Many a warrior came to Valhall on the end of his spear, even before Sinfjolti had grown a man's beard. But Sigmund never forgot his mission of vengeance, and when Signy's son was finally grown, they came together to Siggeir's hall and threw their lighted torches onto the thatched roof. Inside the hall, the men began to burn while Sigmund and Sinfjolti waited outside with their weapons ready to take on any who broke out of the flames. But when a figure appeared at the door, it was Signy, their sister and mother. “Come,” Sigmund cried out. “Come away with us now. You don't have to stay with Siggeir any longer!" She shook her head, flames reaching out for her, snatching at her unbound hair. “No, I've had my revenge on Siggeir now, but I'm his wife. His sons are all dead, and I'll die at his side, as a wife should.” She went back into the burning house. Sigmund shook his head, but Sinfjolti only shrugged. “Let her go, then. Let her burn if she wills it." So the surviving V olsungs went back to the land where Sigmund's father had ruled and took back his kingdom, which was quite enough work to keep their swords red with blood for years to come. The blade Gram did its work well. When their own kingdom was

regained, they turned on their neighbors, and Odinn was well satisfied with the carnage they wrought. He was most pleased with Sinfjolti, who liked to spend his idle seasons in viking when he wasn't busy harassing his father's enemies. Sinfjolti, I thought, would certainly inherit the honor of wielding Gram, but in that even Odinn's foreknowledge of the future failed him, at least this once. Sigmund married a number of times, wearing out wives in quick succession as he got more sons on them. But there was one, named Borghild, who took a strong dislike to her husband's berserker heir Sinfjolti, especially after he murdered her brother in a quarrel. Sigmund, defending his favorite son, offered his wife wergild, and she was forced to accept, but behind his back she planned her own revenge. At her brother's funeral feast, she brought Sinfjolti a horn of mead with her own hands, pretending to be appeased. “Drink,” she urged him, “and make peace." “Yes, drink, my son,” Sigmund echoed her, having taking this advice much in advance. But Sinfjolti could smell the poison in the mead. “Father, the drink is bad,” he protested. Borghild mocked him, and Sigmund roared drunkenly, “Drink, curse you, if you have the courage of a Volsung!" So Sinfjolti drained the horn, and instantly he fell dead on the table before his father's eyes.

“So much for your champion. Hel will have him now, not Valhall,” I remarked to Odinn, who pushed me aside, snatching up his cloak. Sinfjolti, his favorite, the champion destined for the head of the high table in Valhall, had died without even a weapon in his hand. We had been watching the events from his seat in his new hall, Valaskjalf, where nothing that happened in all the world was hidden from him—or so he claimed. In a fit of frustrated rage, he mounted Sleipnir and clattered across Bifrost into Midgard. I followed, for I had seen too much not to wish to carry it through to the end, whatever it might be. In Midgard, in Sigmund's kingdom, there was great grief. The bereaved father (and new-made widower, for he had struck off Borghild's head) lifted the body of his dead son in his own arms to carry him to the burial place of the V olsungs. It was the custom among their race to place their dead in a ship, which was then set on fire and sent out to sea. But as Sigmund took him there, a thick fog rolled in across the land, and in a while he had lost his way. Suddenly, in front of him, the ground ended, and he was looking out at the dark cold water of a fjord. Then out of the fog came a voice. A one-eyed old man was there in a boat, bent over the oars with a hood pulled down low over his face. “I can row you across!” he called out. Sigmund agreed, but when he had laid Sinfjolti's corpse in the boat, the water rose almost to the topmost strakes. “Too full, too full!” the old man said. “I'll have to row him across and then come back for you!"

Sigmund agreed, and the boatman pushed off into the fog. “You think you can get away with this?” I asked Odinn as he took the body from the boat. “I thought you and Hel made a bargain." “You can keep your thoughts quiet, Trickster,” he snarled. “Sinfjolti belongs to Valhall. He belongs to me." But my words had stung him, and we both knew it. “Well, at least Sigmund still lives,” I said in mock consolation. “Of course, Sigmund is getting old, isn't he? Men his age tend to die in their beds, not on the battlefield. It would be a shame if you lost them both." Not long afterward, Sigmund took another wife, a young woman named Hjordis. The old warrior's manhood didn't fail him, and in due time Hjordis began to swell with a child in her belly. Being sure of an heir now, Sigmund embarked on another of his endless wars. But the old man's time had come. In the heat of the battle, a one-eyed warrior appeared in the ranks of his enemies, armed with a spear. Sigmund beat his way through the press of the fighting to meet him, but when the sword Gram struck the shaft of the warrior's spear, the sword blade shattered. His men called for him to pull back, but Sigmund struck their hands off him, declaring aloud, “Odinn has given my victory, now he gives me my death. My place in Valhall is waiting for me!" Sigmund's enemies were more than willing to send him there, dealing him his deathblow before his loyal followers could drag him dying

from the field. They brought Hjordis to him, heavy-bellied with her child, and Sigmund struggled to speak his last words, “Save the shards of the sword Gram. One day they will be reforged for my son." “So it goes on?” I asked Odinn, raising an eyebrow doubtfully. Would he ever tire of the endless slaughter? “Have you forgotten Andvari's curse? No, this tale isn't finished yet." So Sigmund joined the host of the Einherjar in Valhall, while in Midgard a new hero was born, and his mother Hjordis named him Sigurd, to honor Odinn's line. Ever after, Odinn continued to insist that he had planned events exactly that way all along, and I never dared to gainsay him, not until now. But at least I wasn't surprised when, as Sigurd grew into his manhood, the dwarf Regin entered the scene, Regin the son of Hrdeimar, whose brother Fafnir now possessed Andvari's gold. The dwarf became his trainer in swordcraft, but he also filled his mind with thoughts of treasure that a brave warrior could win for himself. It was to Regin that young Sigurd brought the shards of the sword Gram to be reforged, since even mortal men knew of the smith-craft of the dwarves. “This is no ordinary blade,” the dwarf exclaimed slyly when Sigurd brought him the shards of steel. “It was my father's. He left it to me, broken like this. No one else has been able to reforge it. No ordinary smith."

“No, this is dwarves’ work, all right. Or the gods'. I don't know if I should even touch it." “You have to!” Sigurd wailed, pleading like a child. “My uncle foretold that I'd do great deeds in my life. How can I be a champion without a champion's sword?" Presumably, I thought sourly, a champion did not require much of brains. No one could ever call Sigurd clever. Regin grinned, pretending to examine the pieces of the sword. “Well, perhaps I could try to fix it,” he told the boy. “But then you'd have to do a task for me in exchange. Oh, I promise you, it will be a deed worthy of a champion." Sigurd promised, and the sword Gram was brought back to life, so sharp it could cut a tuft of wool drifting on the surface of the water, so strong that Sigurd, testing it, sliced in half the very anvil on which it had been forged. “Satisfied?” Regin demanded, and when Sigurd nodded that he was, “Well, now, then we can talk about this small task I have in mind." “What is it? I have revenge to take, you know, on the sons of the man who killed my father." “Your vengeance can wait. I've waited for mine more mortal lifetimes than you could believe.” Then he finally explained to Sigurd how a dragon had killed his father and stolen his treasure, which was Regin's rightful inheritance. And how he had waited all this time until he had met a warrior with just the right qualities of a dragon-slayer.

Or just the right sword, I added to myself. At the notion of a dragon to fight, Sigurd brightened visibly, and he promised he would attend to the matter as soon as he had killed the sons of King Hunding, his father's enemy. With that, Regin had to be content. They set sail to do battle then, but they were only a day out to sea when a storm came up suddenly, threatening to drive their ship against the cliffs. Sigurd's oarsmen strained desperately to pull away, but the waves and the tide were against them. Then, from the clifftops over their heads, a voice was heard, and the hooded figure of a man standing there, the icy wind whipping his cloak. “The voice called out, “If you want to escape the storm, take me on board!" So it was done, and as soon as the stranger was on board the ship, the winds died down. “Who are you?” Sigurd asked, awed by his command over the storm. “Your father the V olsung called me Hnikar when we fed the ravens together on the battlefield." Hnikar, I thought. The spear-thruster. But I would know my brotherby-blood under any name. Sigurd's awe only grew. “You fought with my father! Tell me, Hnikar, what kind of battle-plans did he use? What are the signs that the gods will favor a man in combat?" “The best signs are when a warrior sees a black raven on his road

into battle, or if he hears the howling of a wolf. A bad sign is if he stumbles with his sword in his hand. But as for battle-plans, I can give you the best advice you if you let me sail with you to meet King Hunding's sons on the field." So the forces met with Hnikar as Sigurd's war-counsel, and the ravens and the wolves were certainly glad of the outcome. The sons of King Hunding were utterly defeated, but the heir to the kingdom, a man named Lyngvi, was taken alive. “I'll dedicate him to Odinn,” Sigurd announced, knotting a rope into a noose, but Hnikar held out a hand to stop the hanging. “I'll show you another way that will please Odinn just as well. Give me your sword." It was the spear-thruster himself who cut the blood-eagle into Lyngvi, slicing away the ribs from each side of his spine, then wrenching them open like the spread wings of a bird, exposing the pink throbbing lungs. This was a way of killing a man and marking him for Odinn that Sinfjolti had devised, not being a man to delay to look for a rope in the heat of a killing rage. But Sigurd, when it was done, went away to be sick on the sand. “So, tell me, Hnikar,” I remarked, “how do you like your new hero? Will he do as a replacement for Sinfjolti?" “He'll do well enough,” Odinn replied, yet he was visibly displeased. When at least the sons of king Hunding were defeated, Sigurd returned with Regin to his own kingdom, where they began

immediately to scheme to take Fafnir's gold. From the sound of Regin's advice, more than one warrior had already failed in attempting the task. “His scales make him invulnerable, except on his underside. His breath is venom, and so is his blood. It will burn through even your armor." Sigurd frowned, testing the edge of Gram with his thumb. “This sword will be his bane." “So it will,” Regin agreed. “But still, you can't afford to be foolish. What I suggest is to dig a pit across the path he takes to the water. Disguise it well, then hide inside. When the dragon passes overhead, thrust up into his belly with your blade." “It hardly seems very brave to hide in a pit,” Sigurd protested, but when he came to Gitnaheath and saw the size of Fafnir's track down to the water, the dwarf's advice suddenly seemed better. Sweating under the afternoon sun, he labored digging out his trap while Regin departed on some mysterious errand he refused to explain. What a fool, I was thinking, to trust that dwarf. I glanced around the heath. Odinn was nowhere in sight. He’ followed after Regin, I supposed. Both of them searching out the place where Fafnir had hidden his hoard. Then I laughed as an idea came to me. Soon an old, one-eyed man came along the path, bent over his staff. The hood of his cloak was pulled down over his head. “Quite a trap you've got there,” he remarked to the hard-working Sigurd. “I suppose you know there's a dragon on this heath, and he uses this path to go to water?" Sigurd nodded shortly, out of breath from his unaccustomed labor.

“Not a bad plan,” said old man. “Except for one thing. What are you going to do, trapped down in that pit, when the dragon falls down and crushes you, and his blood fills it up? Didn't anybody warn you that it was poison?" Sigurd bit his lip. Clearly he'd overlooked this flaw in Regin's plan, and he didn't really care to be trapped up to his knees in dragon venom. The old man sighed. “Of course, if you were to dig a couple of trenches at right angles to your pit, the venom would flow away, and you could escape." Sigurd's face lit. “Yes! It would, wouldn't it! Thank you, grandsire.” He bent once again to his digging. As for me, I'd resumed my own form and was resting under a nearby tree by the time Odinn returned to check on his progress. “What's that?” he demanded when he saw the trenches leading away from the main ditch. “It looks like a hole in the ground to me,” I said, opening one eye and pretending indifference. “Isn't the dragon coming yet?" “Why don't you just keep quiet and watch,” he said irritably. So I did, and in due course Fafnir the dragon did come along up his path, his body stretched out to its full length, eighteen times a man's height. I had to admit, he was an impressive sight, scales of gold and green all glistening from the water. “He's certainly changed since we last met. He was only a dwarf-maggot then, now he's a full-grown

wyrm." “Can't you ever be quiet?” Odinn snapped. The dragon was over Sigurd's pit now, first his neck, then his belly. “Strike, you fool!” Odinn hissed impatiently beside me, “strike before you get to the tail!" And as if he'd heard, Sigurd drove the sword Gram directly up into the dragon's vulnerable white belly. The huge wyrm reared up as he felt the blade slice into his vital organs. He writhed in his deathagony, the thrashing of his tail splintered the trees alongside the path. His entrails spilled out from the wound in his belly, and his blood, the black venom that hissed as it struck the earth. Sigurd leaped out of the pit to escape it, and the dragon cried out, hissing in his pain, “You've killed me, mortal!" “Sigurd, Sigmund's son, has killed you, Fafnir! Now your treasure belongs to me!" “Fool! That gold will be your bane, as it was mine!" “Well, if it is, then I suppose it will be my Wyrd,” Sigurd said. “After all, cattle die, kin die, even I must die one day. But the name a man wins for himself will live on forever." “Fool!” Fafnir hissed again, but more weakly as his lifeblood flowed into Sigurd's pit. “Regin was my brother. He betrayed me for the gold. Do you think he'll let you have it now?" But Sigurd didn't heed his last words, for at that moment Regin came striding down from the heather where he'd been hiding while his

brother's death-struggle went on. He called out cheerfully to Sigurd, “You did it! Like a real champion! Sigurd Dragonsbane, that's what they'll call you! Such songs the skalds will sing! And of Regin, who forged the sword Gram to do the deed!" “Oh, you should have been here, Regin! You should have seen it. One blow! Like this!" He demonstrated, but the dwarf ignored him. Regin bent down over Fafnir's body. The bright ophidian eyes were already turning dull with death. “So you thought you could steal my inheritance, did you, brother?” he whispered to the dragon. He took out his own blade then and began to hack at the wyrm's flesh until he had drawn out the dark, blood-dripping heart. “Now all the gold is mine,” he whispered, “and more, besides." Sigurd looked on, frowning in bewilderment. “What are you doing, Regin?" “This is the dragon's heart, boy. It's poisonous, as you can see, but there's a curse on it, too. If it isn't destroyed by fire, the curse will strike you, since you were the one who struck the deathblow." “You didn't say anything about a curse!" “It didn't seem important at the time. Look, why don't you build a fire and take care of this thing while I go look for the gold.” He grinned at his befuddled champion. “The treasure. I think I know where it might be hidden." “Well, all right, I suppose.” Sigurd frowned doubtfully, but he built

up a fire and shoved the dragon's heart into it with a stick, mindful of Regin's warning. Odinn, unseen as always, followed after the dwarf, leaving me to wonder at the complexity of plots going on in this place. It was clear to me that Odinn was less than pleased with his champion and that he intended, somehow, to take Fafnir's gold for himself. The ring, too, possibly. But who did he mean to die here— Sigurd, Regin, or both? In the meanwhile, Sigurd sat glumly in front of the fire, prodding the dragon's heart with his stick, watching as the heat made it sizzle and pop. A drop of fat shot up and landed on the back of his hand, and he absently licked it off. You fool! I thought irritably, don't you know what that is? Don't you know the power of a serpent's heart? Quickly, I took the shape of a nuthatch and flew into the branches of a tree over his head, where a flock of the birds were roosting. “There sits Sigurd,” I said aloud, “the slayer of Fafnir, the champion. He's cooking the dragon's heart, but if he were wise he would eat it. Then he would know from the speech of birds that Regin the dwarf plans to betray him, now that the dragon is dead. If he were wise, he would kill Regin and take the whole treasure for himself." Sigurd's mouth fell open, and he stared up at the branch where he had heard birds speaking to him, then down at the dragon's heart blackening on the fire. With the stick, he dragged the heart out of the ashes and carefully, for it burned his tongue, gnawed down every bit. Just as he had finished, Regin came down the path. There were gold arm-rings from his elbow to his shoulders, chains hanging heavy around his neck, rings on every finger. “Look!” he exclaimed to

Sigurd. “The gold! Otr's ransom! I've got it at last! My inheritance!" “You betrayed your brother, and now you think to betray me, too,” said Sigurd. With a single stroke of the sword Gram he cut off the dwarf's head. It rolled to his feet, staring at him in astonishment, but Sigurd bent down to pick up a gold chain that had fallen from the severed neck. “I earned this, after all,” he said out loud. “I was the one who took the all risks. Why should he have the gold?" I almost laughed aloud at the sight of Odinn's face, coming down the path behind Regin, seeing the dwarf lying headless, his plans all in disarray. “So Andvari's curse falls on Sigurd now, I suppose,” I said slyly. “I must say, Regin didn't enjoy his gold very long." “No, he didn't,” Odinn muttered darkly, fixing me with a suspicious eye. At any rate, Sigurd had little joy from his treasure either, for what remained of his life. I understand he had an ill-fated meeting with one of Odinn's valkyries, not long after he took possession of the ring. But, frankly, I soon lost interest in the matter. Sigurd was boring, and Odinn's champion would have to look out for himself without more of my help. For I had more serious problems to concern me, back in Asgard. [Back to Table of Contents]

XIX My sons had by this time grown to young manhood, and Odinn's as well. It was a bright day in spring when Hodr came to me with a light in his eyes I'd never seen there before. He clasped my arms in his hardened, warrior's hands. “Uncle! I've met her! The girl I want to marry! Her name is Nanna, Nep's daughter. I was playing the harp, out in the forest by myself. I thought I was alone, but she came up and sat down next to me. And then...” He blushed, a thing I'd never seen him do, and asked shyly, “Do you think it's possible, to know just by looking at someone that she's the one you want to spend your whole life with?" I thought of the first time I saw Sigyn, the gentleness and compassion she showed me. “I know it is,” I told Hodr. Sigyn had overheard, and she came running out to fold him in a hug, as fond of him as one of her own sons. “You must bring her here to meet us,” she told him firmly. “Let me see, what should we give her as a bride-gift at your wedding?" The moment I saw them together, I knew Hodr had found his true match. Nanna was not the greatest beauty in Asgard, but a man can find golden hair and white thighs anywhere. What he needs in his true wife is something more valuable and more rare. The most fortunate day in my life was the day I met Sigyn, and her loyalty is all that sustains me now, in my torment. So I rejoiced for Hodr, that he had found his wife. Nep, her father, was more than pleased to give her to a son of Odinn, and the time for the wedding feast was fixed.

Until that time, Baldr had never given any notice to Nanna. There were more beautiful maidens both among the Aesir and mortals, although they were no longer maidens after Baldr had his way with them. No fathers ever complained, for it was considered an honor to bestow their daughters on Odinn's most favored son. But he'd never glanced a second time at Nanna until the day he learned she was to be Hodr's bride. Suddenly her soft gray eyes were more lovely than any other maiden's eyes, her arms were whiter, her small body more desirable. The thought of his brother having even one thing he had never possessed before him was unbearable to Baldr. He followed her and finally caught hold of her one day outside her father's hall. He pulled her into the concealment of a grove of trees and started to pull open the bodice of her gown. Nanna pushed him away, a thing that had never happened to Baldr. She protested that she was his brother's intended bride. Her refusal was unbearable to him. Never had he been thwarted in anything he craved. Now this girl was refusing him, and for Hodr's sake—Hodr, who had given way to him in everything since the moment of their birth. No, he would have her, and he would have her now. In the grove behind her father's hall, he tore off Nanna's gown, he forced apart her white thighs that had never been opened by any man, and stole the maidenhead that had been promised to Hodr. Bruised and weeping, with her clothing torn, Nanna ran to her father's hall, crying that she had been raped. At the sight of his daughter's state, Nep reached immediately for his weapons and demanded to know the man who had done this to her. But as soon as he heard Baldr's name, his sword arm fell. “Baldr? Odinn's favorite

son? He wanted you? Why, I can't challenge Baldr—I've sworn an oath! Come, it wasn't as bad as all that, was it?" But it was another matter when Hodr learned what had happened to his bride. By that time, Odinn had given Baldr his own hall, Breidablik, broad splendor. Hodr came to Breidablik's gate with his naked sword in his hand, kicked open the door, and raged into the hall. A balefire glowed in his eyes, so that for the first time he truly had the look of Odinn's son. There sat Baldr at his hearthside, surrounded by gold and treasures, an unclothed female on his lap and another curled at his feet. He had a horn of mead in his hand, and he raised it to his brother in a mocking salute, for of course he knew why he had come. “Brother! Welcome! Have a drink with me!” He gave a nudge with his foot to the girl on the floor. “Here, you can have this one, I'm finished with her." But when they caught a look at Hodr's face, the women ran naked from the hall, not even snatching up their clothes. “All my life,” said Hodr, advancing coldly on his brother's seat, “all my life I've had to walk in your shadow. You were the favorite, the one singled out by the Norns. You had first choice of everything, I had your leavings. Wasn't it enough? Did you have to take my bride, too?" Baldr grinned, “Why, if you still want her, brother, she's yours! I'm finished with her.” For as always with him, after one bite the fruit was no longer so sweet.

But Hodr kicked the bench out from under him, so Baldr fell backward, spilling his mead onto the floor. “This time you've gone too far, brother. This time, you're not going to get away with taking what's mine. You owe me a debt now that can only be paid for in blood." Baldr scrambled to his feet. “Then it will be your blood, my brother.” His teeth were bared in a deadly smile as he went for the sword hanging above his hearth—it was a smile familiar to many warriors feasting at Valhall's table. Hodr waited with his sword already in his hand, for he wouldn't attack an unarmed man. Baldr rushed at him. His weapons were all dwarf-forged and deadly, but Hodr had the greater skill. He beat the attack aside. The two brothers faced each other, each measuring his opponent—Hodr cold and deadly furious, Baldr's face growing grim as he realized that Hodr was in earnest and meant to try to kill him. “Oathbreaker!” he cursed. “You'll be outlawed from Asgard for this! You swore never to do me harm." “Oathbreaker, brotherslayer,” Hodr agreed, advancing on him with deadly intent. “Let them outlaw me, then. It will be worth it if I have your blood on my hands. You've already taken the only thing I cared about." Neither brother was wearing armor or helmet, but the disadvantage was Hodr's, for although he was willing enough to shed his brother's lifeblood, it was otherwise with his sword. Like all things on earth, his weapons had sworn to Frigg never to harm her more favored son. With every cut, with every thrust, his blade turned away from his brother's flesh.

Slowly the grin returned to Baldr's face and he pressed his advantage over his brother. “I think tonight our father will have one more dead warrior feasting in his hall,” he taunted Hodr. It was a feast of weapons-play there in Breidablik. Odinn, with his love of battle, would have rejoiced to witness it. One-handed Tyr had taught both his students well. Hodr had attacked boldly at the beginning, but the invulnerable Baldr gradually took the offensive, forcing his brother back. The ringing of steel was loud in the hall as their blades clashed. Baldr's servants had fled in terror. Benches were overturned, ruin made of the precious hangings of Breidablik, but the two brothers fought on. Such a holmgang had never before been seen in Asgard, where the shedding of blood had been forbidden since its founding. Once, twice Baldr's blade tasted brother's blood, yet Hodr grimly ignored his wounds, determined to fight on to the death if it need be, but never to yield. Nor would Baldr have offered it. His teeth gleamed in a wolf's snarl as he saw his brother begin to weaken. Hodr's right forearm was cut—his sword-arm—and it was red with his blood. Desperately, he switched the weapon to his left hand, but Baldr only pressed him harder, scenting defeat. At last, in a sweeping backhand slash, his sword gashed his opponent across the forehead, down across his eyes, and Hodr fell. Baldr stood over his fallen brother, wolf-grin on his face, while red blood ran down his blade onto the floor, the drops splashing one by one. A dark pool of it spread slowly from Hodr's wounds, but the wounded man still breathed. For a moment Baldr had hesitated, but that was enough. A single serving thrall had crept back into the hall, hearing the clash of sword-play cease. When he saw his master's

sword raised for the death-stroke, a gasp of horror escaped him. “Lord! No! Remember the Aesir's law! Already you've shed blood here!" Grudgingly, Baldr threw down his weapon. “Go call my mother,” he ordered the thrall, “and her handmaiden Eir, the healer. As you can see, my brother has fallen and hurt himself." They came to bear Hodr away, and Eir bound up his wounds. Sigyn sat at his bedside when Frigg would not, spooning broth into his mouth. I think he would have rather turned his face to the wall and waited there to die, for Baldr's swordstroke had blinded him. But Sigyn would not allow it, and from that moment, he lived in a bitter darkness. Odinn, when he learned that his sons had fought each other, was outwardly enraged that the ban on shedding blood in Asgard had been broken, but his all blame fell on Hodr, who had first brought weapons to his brother's hall. Perhaps in secret he hoped that the prophecy he'd learned in Hel was wrong, and that the oath Frigg had taken from all the world truly meant that Baldr would not die. For he knew as well as anyone that Hodr was the better warrior. All Asgard, certainly, believed that Frigg's oath-taking had been effective, and they rejoiced that they would escape the doom foretold by the Norns. As for Hodr, he was all but forgotten. Only Nanna seemed to remember that he existed. She hid inside her bedchamber, weeping day and night without cease. When it came out that she was with child, Nep took up his courage at last and went to Odinn, demanding a settlement for his daughter's loss and shame, that she was bearing a

bastard. Odinn frowned at his demand. “What she needs is a husband." “True, Allfather, but who will marry her now, carrying another man's child? Your son..." “Yes, my son.” Odinn's summoned Baldr to stand before the high seat where he passed judgment. “Well, you've raped your brother's bride, and now she's carrying your bastard. Her father wants to know what wergild I'll pay. Or will you marry her yourself?" Baldr had never intended, in raping Nanna, more than a few moments’ pleasure for himself. But now he felt himself cheated of his full measure of vengeance, his brother's death, and he saw a new way to make him suffer. A grin of malice appeared on his face. “All right, I'll have her,” he announced. Nep agreed gladly, for this match was beyond anything he had hoped for—his daughter to marry the young lord Baldr, Odinn's favorite son! The wedding feast was held in Valaskjolf, and all the host of the Einherjar were there to feast the bridal couple. I refused to attend the feast, nor would Sigyn or our sons. But we all heard that when Nanna wouldn't cease her weeping, they had to drape the bridal veil over her face to hide her tears. [Back to Table of Contents]

XX Hodr was a long time recovering, both from his wound and from Nanna's loss. “I wish I'd died,” he told me. “Better to die fighting like a warrior than live like this, a blind man." But those were Odinn's words, and I hated to hear Hodr speaking them. “The dead have lost their chance for revenge,” I told him. “Only the living can claim it. With their friends to help them." At these words he sat up in his bed for the first time since his wounding. “Do you mean this?” he asked me. “I swear it. I have my own sworn vengeance to take. But the time has yet to come. For now, I wait." If I was his friend, and my wife and my sons, Hodr lacked for others in Asgard. He learned to walk again, to make his way through the shadows of his blindness. Once again he took up his harp and played for the warriors of Valhall, laments for their lives cut short, for the green world they had forever lost, for the ones whose tears had fallen on their graves. In time, the blind harper became a familiar figure of scorn in Asgard and the warrior Hodr was all but forgotten. In the meantime the Aesir loved Baldr all the more, for they believed his mother had averted their foretold doom by making all things take their oath to spare his life. It became a game with them, to spar with him, to tempt that fate. They would cast their spears at him and watch then veer harmlessly away. Whatever weapons they tried, Baldr could never be hurt, so that they believed Asgard would endure forever.

Only Odinn said nothing. Still he ranged across the battlefields of Midgard with his bloody-handed daughters, in search of more dead warriors to fill the empty benches of Valhall. Only Odinn, who had heard the dead speak, knew the truth that the final battle would come in the end. Nanna bore her child, and he was named Forseti. But Baldr's sleep became troubled after his son's birth. Shadows chased him in his dreams, and black shapes. Their breath was cold. He fled from their touch, but the road led down, down into the darkness and the cold. The arms that embraced him were bone, and the stench of decay lingered on the lips that pressed themselves against his. “My death,” he whispered, “I see my death. Hel waits to embrace me." Frigg, his mother, was so concerned by Baldr's dreams that she went about all the nine worlds, insisting that every being renew the oath it had taken to spare her son. “You won't die,” she told Baldr. “I won't allow it." Even Odinn was troubled, doubtless recalling the bargain he had struck with Hel so long ago, that he would give her a bridegroom from the Aesir. Too late, he regretted that he had cheated her of Sinfjolti, who was of his own blood. Yes, it's risky enough to bargain with Hel even when you don't mean to cheat her. I watched him pace back and forth in Valaskjalf, brooding over the strife-torn world of Midgard, but even from that vantage point he couldn't see down into the domain of Hel. He would have to travel

that dark road himself once more. He stole out of Asgard in the depths of night, the wind driving the clouds to hide his passing. Sleipnir's hooves were the thunder. All the dead stirred uneasily in their graves at the approach of their lord. Down he rode, down the cold and lifeless roads of Niflheim, the realm of mist and fog. But where Sleipnir could go, there I could follow, unseen. Odinn rode hard, past the frigid rivers of the underworld, until finally he came to the icy floodwaters of Gjoll. Beyond the bridge loomed the dark gates of Hel's hall. But as he spurred Sleipnir forward, a figure came forward to stop him, a maiden all draped in black. Beneath her veil, her face had the pallor of death. “Go no farther,” she warned. Sleipnir reared up, his iron-sharp hooves slicing the air. Balefire flashed from Odinn's eye, glowing bright red in that dim and gloomy place. His voice echoed loudly, “Do you know who I am? Get out of my way and let me pass! I have business with Hel!" “Yes, I know who you are, Odinn, lord of the hanged, lord of the spear. What do the mortals call you—the gallows god? Nine days you hung from the oak, nine days you spent in Hel's domain. Once, and once only, you passed out of these gates. But not a second time, no, not even for you, Odinn, will the gates open twice to let you go. Hel demands a bridegroom from the Aesir—will you be the one? Are you willing to take your son's place?" Oh, his curses were terrible to hear, there at Gjoll-bridge, but Odinn

did not dare pass. Instead, he turned Sleipnir around with a vicious pull at the reins and set his face back again to the worlds of the living. At the very border of Niflheim he dismounted, strode through the gray fogs that gathered at that place, a low, forbidden spot where evil creatures dwelled who dared not seek out the light of the sun. No doubt he knew them well, for he made his way unerringly through the murk until he came to a mound where cold balefire glowed fitfully, marking the presence of a grave. I could tell that the woman buried there was a seeress—no mere mortal. It took the strongest of his spells, the most potent runes, before the earth of the mound began to crack open. The deathling was no more than blackened bone after her years in the grave. She stirred and moaned, and her curses stirred the hair at the back of my neck. There was something uncannily familiar about her voice as she spoke, “The snow covered my grave, I was drenched with rain, I was soaked with dew for seasons beyond counting. Who comes now to disturb my bones? Who dares drag me from my graverest?" “I dare, by the power of my spells. Now cease your curses, witch, and answer my questions. I have much I need to know. So tell me, and tell me now—what is Baldr's fate? How will he die?" “The fatal branch will be Baldr's bane. Now, I've told you what you asked, and I'll say no more." “You will say more,” Odinn insisted, grinding his teeth with rage and frustration. The dead, I've observed on a number of occasions

before this, don't always provide the clearest answers, despite the spells that compel them to speak the truth. Plainly, they resent being dragged from their graves and put to these questions. And this was no ordinary deathling. Odinn was impatient. “You'll answer my questions, witch, until I know what I need to know. What branch are you talking about? Who will be his killer? Tell me, is it the son of Muspell? Is Loki the one?" My heart almost froze within me. He knows, was all I could think. But the seeress's words surprised me. “A brother's hand on the fatal branch, the bane of Odinn's son. Now, leave me to my silence. I will say no more." “You will say more. You can be silent when you've answered my questions. Which brother do you mean?" I almost laughed at that. No man ever had more sons than Odinn, the Allfather. Half of Asgard was his get. He couldn't possibly kill them all, just to save one. Thorr was his foster-son. Even the Aesir would protest at that. “Odinn's son will hold the fatal branch,” the dead seeress said again, deliberately enigmatic. And then, “Odinn will travel to Vestrsalir. There in the western halls he will lie with the maiden Rind, and she will bear him a son named Vali. Upon his vow, he will never wash his hands nor comb his hair until Baldr's killer is laid at the foot of his funeral pyre. Now I've spoken all that I will, and I'll say no more, so leave me to my grave."

“Curse you, witch! I need to know—what is the name of Baldr's killer?" But balefire glowed from the empty eye sockets of the corpse, and the dry voice hissed, “Curse me not, Odinn. Oh, yes, I know you! Three times you burned me! Now take your questions away and leave me to my grave. I'll say no more, not for all your runes and spells. Not until Loki breaks his bonds and the wolf runs free! Look for me then, Odinn, on that last day!" At those words, the grave-mound closed and the balefire sprung up around it, higher than ever. Furious, Odinn threw his rune-sticks onto the ground, but he didn't dare invoke his spells to wake her a second time. This deathling had proved his match. In a cold storm of rage, he mounted Sleipnir and rushed away. And I—a cry of grief welled up in my throat until it almost burst out in a howl. I knelt there at her grave, shaken, unseen, with tears running down my face for Gullveig, my wife, daughter of the Vanir, burned three times in Odinn's hall. How had she come to be buried here in this evil, desolate place? Sigyn, I swear it, I could have no better wife than you! But still, I wept for Gullveig and cursed Odinn's treachery as bitterly as if the pain of her murder was still fresh in my heart. For it was. For it always had been. I knew she hadn't lied, could not have lied. The spells that compel the dead to speak compel the truth. Yet she had defied him, she had twisted her answers to evade and deceive her enemy. Had she sensed my presence somehow and tried to warn me? To protect me from Odinn's suspicions?

I had to think. Baldr would die. That much was foredoomed. Still shaken by her presence, I tried now to recall her exact words: the fatal branch will be Baldr's bane—a brother's hand on the fatal branch. Not Loki's hand, no. Odinn had suspected me, but her answer had been clear on that point—it would be a brother's hand that dealt Baldr his deathblow. And now I knew which brother it would be. Hodr's hand. His revenge. And my eyes and hands to guide him, if need be, for so I had promised him, so I had sworn. In the fog surrounding me I could hear the whispers of wraiths and the rustling presence of evil things gathering, but I ignored them. There were so many questions I wished to ask: What bonds would Loki have to break? I knew at least that she still cared for me, even in death. But she wanted only peace. So I left her at last, there in the land of mist and death, while my tears cooled slowly on her gravemound. [Back to Table of Contents]

XXI Shortly afterward, Odinn left on another journey. To Vestrsalir, I thought. To the maiden named Rind, to get himself another son. But I saw no need to follow him there. It was Hodr I needed to speak to. “He's had another prophecy,” I told him. “There's no doubt, now. Baldr is doomed. His dreams are real. Hel wants him for her bridegroom." A harsh, angry chord came from Hodr's harp. “How? Tell me how he dies!" “A brother's hand on the fatal branch." Hodr stood up, ignoring the harp, which almost fell from his bench to the floor, but I caught it for him. “'A brother's hand.’ Does that mean me? Am I the one? Curse those seers, why do they have to talk in riddles?" “You'd better be glad of the riddles,” I warned him. “If it's supposed to be you, be glad she made sure that Odinn didn't know. Remember Fenrir, his fate, all because of words in a prophecy. ‘The jaws of the wolf.’” His face was grim. “No, he wouldn't hesitate, would he, to kill one son. Not to save all Asgard.” He sat down again, groping for his harp. I handed it to him, and he touched the strings again, playing a war-song as if it were a lament. “There was more to the prophecy,” I said told him slowly. “There will be an avenger born, who won't rest until Baldr's killer is dead."

“Do you think I fear my own death?” Hodr asked me. “What use is it to live like this? The one thing in my life I ever really wanted, the one person, was Nanna. Now she's Baldr's wife, her son is his. They made me take wergild for blinding me. I'll willingly sleep with Hel, if that is the price of my revenge!" It was his Wyrd, I saw then. And unlike his father, he was making no effort to evade it. As for my own fate, it was still unclear to me, even then. “This fatal branch, do you know what it means?” Hodr asked impatiently. “No. But it must exist—somewhere. Baldr's bane. And whatever it is, I'll find it for you." “Baldr's bane,” he repeated thoughtfully, fingertips on the harpstrings. “That would make a good song.” Then he turned his blind face to me. “Find it for me, Loki. Whatever it is, find me Baldr's bane." In due course, Odinn returned from his journey to the west, bringing with him a child, a boy he had named Vali. Vali was my own son's name, but it was a common one, after all. He was an uncouth child, Odinn's newest son, with his hair all tangled and his fingernails black, but he followed Baldr around Asgard with the devotion of a hound. Soon he was sleeping by the ashes of the hearthfire in Breidablik, his brother's watchdog. His brother's avenger, if Baldr had only known. “He's the one,” I warned Hodr. “According to the prophecy, he will

neither comb his hair or wash until his brother's death is avenged." “So be it,” he said. “As long as I kill Baldr first." “So be it,” I agreed. There was one way, I knew, that I could learn what the enigmatic fatal branch might be, out of all the objects in the world that had sworn to spare Baldr harm. I took the form of an old woman, a crone and a witch, and I hobbled to the gates of Fensalir, Frigg's own hall, for I knew she would reveal her secrets to another woman when she would keep them hidden from a man, perhaps even from Odinn. “Good day, old mother,” she greeted me. “Here, take a seat by my hearth. I know how old bones can feel the cold." “Oh, they ache indeed,” I agreed. “Though sometimes a cup of warm mead can take the pain away for a while." Frigg took the hint and ordered her maidservant to bring me a cup. I slurped it noisily, then wiped away the droplets from the bristles of my upper lip. “Now, what brings you all the way to Asgard?” Frigg asked. “Dreams.” At that word, Frigg's lips compressed with worry. Oh yes, I had her attention now. “Troublesome dreams. I saw the halls of the Aesir all in ruins. Ashes everywhere. And beneath the ashes— blackened bones. Such a terrible sight! There was no one left alive to weep for the dead. “And I saw more. There was a wolf that swallowed the sun, and another that bit at the moon. All was darkness.

“And I saw more. Hel's domain, deep in Niflheim, the land of death. Hel had a bridegroom in her bed, and his face was more fair and white than any other man's. It was Baldr's face, oh, I'm sure it was! I remember me what the Norns said when he was born, so long ago! This means the end of the Aesir, the end of the whole world! So I said to myself, Thokk, I said, you must go warn the goddess Frigg, his mother. She'll know what to do to save the young god Baldr." Frigg had turned pale on hearing my horrifying revelations, but she smiled and said, “I thank you, old mother, for your warning, but I'm sure there's no reason for you to be troubled. My son Baldr is safe, I promise you." “But how can you be sure? The Aesir have enemies, don't they? And the world, it can be a dangerous place. I know. I gave birth to nine sons, and none of them still living. Only me left, all alone in my old age. Such a sorrow it is to lose a son. I know." “I'm sorry for your grief, old mother, but I can assure you, Baldr will come to no harm. Here, just look for yourself." She led me to a window overlooking the green fields of Ida, and there in front of Gladsheim had gathered a throng of the Aesir, all laughing. “There, now, do you see that young man standing against the wall? See how the others are throwing stones at him? Look at him laugh! The stones can't harm him. Nothing can. I've taken an oath from every object on the earth." “Well, goddess, that's all very well when it comes to stones, I suppose. But what about a sword or an axe, in the hands of a giant, maybe?"

“All the weapons have sworn." I frowned. “Yes, but what about fire? What if he burns? Or water? He could drown, you know. One of my sons drowned. He was out fishing, he was, and a storm came up all of a sudden—just like that! We found his body washed ashore the next day. All white he was, like the sea had washed him clean." “I really am sorry for your loss, old mother, but fire and water have given their oaths, too." “Well, what about a ... branch, then? He could forget to duck down while he was riding and hit his head on the branch of a tree." Frigg sighed. “I assure you, old mother, I took an oath from every kind of tree. The oak, the ash—" “How about the rowan? That's a tricky kind of tree, the rowan-tree." “Yes, the rowan, too. I took an oath from everything. There was just this one small bush sprouting against the west wall of Valhall— mistletoe, I think its name was. It was much too young and weak to bother with. It could never do Baldr any harm." Gladness rose up in me then. That was it, it had to be—the fatal branch, the one thing in all the world that Frigg had overlooked in her frantic attempt to avert Baldr's Wyrd. I quickly raised my bent and aching bones from the bench at Frigg's hearth. “Thank you, goddess. You've made my heart easy now. I hope this means the last of those dreams. It's hard to sleep at my age, you know." “I'm sure it is, old mother. And I appreciate your concern. Do drop

by another time and have another cup of mead." As soon as I was out of sight, I retook my own form and hurried to Valhall. On the west side of the wall there was an oak tree growing. The thick, gnarled branches stretched over the roof of the hall. And high up on one of those branches—yes, there it was, a light green plant, growing on the oak itself. The mistletoe. The fatal branch? I climbed up for a closer look. I admit, at first I did have doubts. I could certainly see why Frigg had considered this sprout no danger to her favored son. It was pale and weak-looking. A few hard white berries were clinging to the tips of the brushy twigs. But despite my misgivings, I pulled the mistletoe from the oak where it had grown. When I brought it to Hodr he held the branch doubtfully in his sensitive hand. “This is Baldr's bane?" “This has to be it. Frigg was sure. She took an oath from every kind of tree or shrub, everything but this mistletoe." “It's the only chance I have, then.” He sounded resigned to whatever would happen, life or death. “Listen,” I said, “do you remember Vikar's story? How Starkad hanged him from the sapling that grew into a tree?" “But that was Odinn's work—sorcery!" “Yes, exactly. And who are you but Odinn's son?" “I don't know. I've never had much to do with sorcery. It always seemed unclean, somehow."

“Neither have I, when I could avoid it. But, after all, I've been with Odinn for more years than I care to think about. I've picked up one or two tricks along the way. Certainly we ought to be able to transform this twig into something a little more deadly." Hodr laughed, and it was a painful, bitter sound. “Perhaps I could trade one of my eyes to Mimir for some of his wisdom. It worked for Odinn." As I well remembered. But without my brother's sources of wisdom, we experimented, breaking off small side branches and twigs and trying whatever spells we could remember between us. In the end we had a branch, straightened out to the length of an arrow, hardened with spells and sharpened at one end to a deadly point. “So this is my weapon of revenge. It doesn't seem like much,” Hodr said doubtfully, rolling the shaft between his fingers. “It will be enough, if this is truly Baldr's bane. Don't forget the prophecy. The Norns foretold his fate, from the day of his birth." “Yes, and no man can escape his own Wyrd. Is it my Wyrd, then, Loki, to murder my brother? What if I held back? Would his death come in spite of me? Do none of us have any choice in our own fates?" How often I've wondered the same thing, if some evil destiny had placed me in Odinn's path that morning so long ago in Muspellheim. But you can't change the past, no matter how you might regret it. Was it no different with the future? “If you're not sure you want to do this—"

“No. I've waited too long.” In a lower voice, “I've lived too long. This is all I have left." “Tomorrow, then? If the Aesir play their game?" “Tomorrow." That night in our bed I made love to Sigyn with such hot ardor that she was worried. “I know you, Loki. I know when you're planning something rash. Tell me, what is it? Another trip with Odinn, with Thorr?" “No, nothing like that.” I lay quietly for a while, next to the mother of my sons. “Listen,” I said to her at last, “if anything should happen to me, I want you to remember that you've been the best thing in my life. I thank you for it, and for my sons." I wouldn't tell her more, no matter how she pleaded. Sigyn, was it your Wyrd to love me? Are the Norns that cruel? The next morning, when the cock Gullinkambi crowed to summon the dead warriors of Valhall to their endless battle, I concealed the mistletoe shaft under my cloak and went out among the company of Asgard. It wasn't long until a throng gathered around Baldr. He was armed, and as always, someone suggested using Baldr for spear practice. I glanced through the crowd until I found Hodr near the back of it, with his harp cradled under his arm. Casually, I made my way in his direction, calling out a friendly greeting here and there, painfully aware of the mistletoe's sharpened point jabbing me in the ribs.

Suddenly, just as I reached Hodr, a pair of hostile black eyes looked up into mine, and I shivered with foreboding. The berserker-child Vali was staring up at me, frowning under the dark tangle of his hair. I turned away quickly, too quickly, glancing to see if Hodr had seen —but of course he hadn't. I thought for a moment to warn him but decided to say nothing. Hodr's Wyrd or Hodr's choice, it was not for me to interfere. “Well, Hodr!” I exclaimed, so anyone around me could hear. “It's good to see you here with all the Aesir, enjoying their game. Here, why don't you join in? Everyone else is casting their weapons at Baldr." “For one thing, I wouldn't know where to aim. And besides, I don't have anything to throw. I don't carry weapons any more, now that I'm blind." “Well, I can stand next to you and guide your hand, if you'd like. And as for a weapon—here, this arrow should do. It isn't much, but at least you can join in the sport with the rest of the Aesir." I put the mistletoe shaft into his hand and led him through the crowd, saying, “Here, let Hodr have his turn!" They all made way, and when Baldr saw his brother standing at the mark, he laughed in scorn. “Well, now look at who wants a turn! Come, brother, cast your weapon! Do your worst! You failed to kill me once before, but maybe you'll have better luck today!" Hodr was pale, but his jaw was set. The mistletoe dart was in his hand. I stood beside him and faced him toward Baldr, guiding his aim.

His arm went back, the arm of a warrior that had not forgotten all its strength or skill. The shaft flew true, straight at Baldr, and pierced through his eye, all the way to his brain. With a shudder, he fell. The bright young god, the hope of Asgard lay dead on the ground at Hodr's feet. A few of the Aesir were still laughing, not yet realizing this wasn't some joke, that the invulnerable Baldr had been killed. Then, from the back of the crowd, came an animal howl of raw grief. It was the child Vali, and as he crouched over Baldr's corpse, the onlookers realized at last what had happened, that their favorite was actually dead. Suddenly I was seized from behind and pulled back. “You! This was your doing, son of Muspell! I saw you guide his hand!" Heimdall my enemy. I struggled to shake free of his grip. “What do you mean? How could I know this would happen? Everyone else was throwing things at Baldr. Everyone always does. You could see it yourself!" His curse was interrupted by a low, snarling sound. The child Vali was standing up from Baldr's body, pulling his sword free from its sheath. “No!” I shouted as he advanced on Hodr, “stop him!" A few of the Aesir hesitated. One or two stepped forward to stop him, for they remembered it was forbidden to shed blood within Asgard's walls.

Then a voice. “Let him do the deed he was born for." Odinn. His single eye watched as one son approached the other with the sword in his hand, but Hodr made no move to defend himself, or even to escape. Vali lunged, plunging the blade low into Hodr's belly. He hacked furiously at his victim in a berserker's rage, but he was young and inexperienced for his task. Hodr's death did not come easy. He had met his Wyrd, the Norns would doubtless say. [Back to Table of Contents]

XXII The first cries broke into the shocked silence of the gathering. In a moment all the Aesir were lamenting the tragedy of Baldr's death. Thorr wept, and Tyr, and even Heimdall, finally releasing me. Vali wept, kneeling between the bodies of his brothers, brushing the tangled hair away out of his eyes. The berserker rage seemed finally to have left him. The women, running to the scene, keened and wailed aloud, supporting Frigg, who had fallen across Baldr's body, tearing at her hair and face and clothes in her grief. All Asgard wept, even I, but the tears that ran down my face were mourning for Hodr's brief, unhappy life. Of all the Aesir gathered there, only one voice was silent, only one single eye was dry. Wrath and balefire gleamed where there were no tears to be seen. I realized that he was glaring in my direction. Suspicion glared from his eye, and my heart went cold. He knows, I thought yet again. Hodr lies dead, Vali has already avenged his brother, but Odinn knows who guided the blind man's hand. In the meantime, the Aesir were lifting Baldr's corpse and reverently carrying it away for burial. Who will bury Hodr? I wanted to ask, but fear kept my mouth shut. I had to force myself not to run, to flee, for that would have been an admission of guilt. So I was close enough to see Odinn call one of his sons to him, the boy named Hermod, admired by all the Aesir for his boldness and courage. “Hermod my son, this is a great deed I'm asking from you. A champion's deed. Ride for me to Hel. Tell her that Odinn asks what ransom she will take for Baldr. Tell her this: I'll pay any price to have him back in Asgard. Any price she asks. Take Sleipnir. No

other horse can carry you on that dark road." Even in my grief, I almost laughed aloud. So now my brother thought to cheat Hel of her bridegroom, promised so many years before. Why don't you ride yourself to Hel, Odinn, my brother-by-blood? Why don't you pass through those gates again and offer yourself in Baldr's stead? But I said nothing. I still didn't have the courage to face my own Wyrd, whatever it might be. So while Hermod mounted Sleipnir and spurred him down the cold dark road to Hel, the rest of Asgard prepared for Baldr's funeral. His body was washed and dressed in his finest clothes—they laid him out in so much gold it almost hurt the eyes to look at him. Then they put him on a bier—of gold, it goes without saying. Four of the Aesir took him on their shoulders, Thorr and Tyr, Heimdall and Freyr, whose knees almost buckled under the weight. They bore him to the strand where his ship Hringhorn was already drawn up and waiting for him. All Asgard was there to mourn Baldr: the Aesir and the elves, the Valkyries and all the host of the Einherjar, the slain warriors of Valhall. The foam-white daughters of Aegir rose from the sea to weep for him and wave their white scarves in the air. Even the gulls, screaming overhead, seemed to be keening for him. The wood for the pyre was already laid in the ship, soaked in oil, and the pallbearers bore him there for his last voyage. They brought treasures to lay next to him: gold, of course, rings and chains, gold cups and plate, all the gold that had filled Breidablik. And amber

and ambergris, silver and bronze, all the kinds of precious jewels. They laid his arms beside him, and his golden helmet. They brought him his harp and the drinking horn he'd used at his table. Grim-faced, Odinn himself presided over the funeral sacrifices. A dog was killed, and a cock and an ox. Finally they brought out Baldr's own horse and put it to the sword on the sand in front of the ship. All of these sacrifices they lay at his feet, filling Hringhorn with his grave-goods. I caught my breath as one other sacrifice was brought forth to be added to the heap: Hodr's body, with the blood of his deathwounds still clotted and black. “Let Baldr go to Hel with his killer at his feet,” said Odinn coldly, and no one had the courage to object. Not even I. There was a pause, and everyone looked up to see a second bier being borne down to the ship. Then the weeping began again, for it was Nanna who lay there dead, dressed in her finest gown and adorned with gold. “She couldn't bear to live without Baldr,” Frigg cried aloud. “Her heart broke from grief." And if any of the Aesir doubted the truth of those words, they kept silent. But in my own heart, I was glad that Hodr had been spared this final loss. They lay Nanna at her husband's side, not at his feet, but at least, I thought, she and Hodr were together at the end. Last of all, Odinn stepped forward. He took his own arm-ring Draupnir and placed it on Baldr's arm, then leaned forward to whisper into his ear—it was the secret the old giant Vafthrudnir had confounded him with, so very long ago. Now that prophecy, too, had been fulfilled.

He took hold of Frigg, who was clutching the prow of the ship, weeping, and dragged her back away from the shore. All the Aesir stepped into the shallows alongside the ship and took hold of the gunwales to push it out to sea for its final voyage. At the last moment, the torch was put to the pyre, and the oil-soaked wood burst into blazing life. Odinn called the winds, and they took hold of Hringhorn's sails to bear Baldr away on a ship of flame. It was the richest funeral that was ever held in Asgard, and the most drenched in blood. **** The skalds have told of Hermod's ride, while all the rest of Asgard mourned for Baldr. How he rode for nine days and nine nights through dales dark and deep down the cold dim roads to Hel's domain. The skalds, of course, neglect to mention the number of times he got lost, not being familiar with the way. It was no great difficulty for me to catch up with him, for by then I knew that road well. Hermod came at last, as Odinn his father had before him, to the icy torrent Gjoll, and he rode up to the bridge there to be stopped by its maiden guardian. “Who are you, riding here on the roads of the dead? What brings you to Hel's domain while the blood still runs red in your veins?" “I am Odinn's son Hermod, sent her by my father to seek out my dead brother and speak to Hel for his release. Tell me, has he come down this road?"

“Many men have come down Hel-road. Two sons of Odinn were among them. One on horseback, the other not. One with his wife. Which do you seek?" “I come for Baldr. Odinn is asking Hel to ransom him back to him." The maiden shook her head. “I can not speak for Hel. But the gate to her hall is beyond this bridge. Pass if you will, but only this once, if you ever wish to return to the world of the living." Hermod turned pale, but he turned Sleipnir's head toward Gjollbridge and Hel's dark hall beyond. I grant him this much—he was bold enough. He rode straight through Eljudnir's unwelcoming gates without hesitating. I followed behind him, unseen, even by the dead. As soon as the gates were behind him the deathlings began to gather around, clutching at the head of his horse, reaching out for him with their cold, bloodless hands for a single touch of warmth, of life. Their eyes were blank and hollow, and they had no words to speak. They knew no sorrow there in that place, but no joy either, only the stretch of time without end. Hel's high seat was empty. Deathlings wandered through the hall, eyes staring at nothing, going nowhere, seeking nothing. “Where is Hel?” Hermod asked them, one after the other as they clustered around him. “I need to speak with her now." But this was a place where time did not exist, neither now or then, and the dead said nothing, they only shook their heads mutely and turned their faces to some other sight. Hermod rode through the endless ways, seeking for someone who would guide him.

Suddenly he spotted a familiar face, then another next to that one, and he jumped from Sleipnir's saddle, about to cry out in relief—but the greeting died in his throat, for this was his murdered brother Hodr. The wounds Vali had made still gaped open, black with clotted blood. Beside him stood Nanna, her hand in his. They were together, but there was no gladness in their eyes, there in that place without joy. “Brother,” Hodr said at last, “what brings you here? This is no place for the living." “Odinn sent me here to speak with Hel. Can you tell me where she is? And Baldr—is our brother here with you now?" Hodr's face lost all expression when he heard Baldr's name. Beside him, Nanna took a step closer, held his hand a bit tighter. On her throat, the bruises were visibly livid where Odinn's strangling cord had taken her life. I have no doubt that Hermod saw them. He turned away. But Hodr's voice flat and blank as he said, “Baldr lies with Hel now. He lies in her bed, as her bridegroom." Hermod was resolute, despite his growing unease, and all he answered was, “Well, then I'll have to wait." So he did, on a bench in the center of Hel's hall, where the dead sat at their joyless feast and the drinking horns poured out only dust. He looked straight ahead and spoke to no one. I watched Hodr, recalling how many times we had spoken of the dead champions in Valhall, and whether it might be better to dwell with Hel instead. Did he regret his choice now, when it was too late?

Then at last the ruler of the dead emerged from her bedchamber, leading her new bridegroom by the hand, and Hermod went even more pale at the sight of her corpselike face. Baldr's eyes were empty after with the horror he had just endured—would endure each night forever, unless Odinn had his way. The dead, I now understood, were not always free from suffering, after all. Hermod got to his feet. “I come from Asgard in Odinn's name to beg you to return Baldr to us. Everywhere in the world the people are mourning him. The weeping never stops. Even the sun has gone dim from grief. Baldr was the only hope of Asgard, of all the nine worlds." But Hel was unmoved. “The world came out of nothing, the world will return to nothing in the end. Only death endures forever. And time. I have more than enough of that here. I need no more." “But you can prevent it. Only let Baldr ride back with me, and Asgard will never fall." “Odinn rules in Asgard, and Odinn made a bargain with me, long ago. He promised me a bridegroom.” She placed her hand fondly on Baldr's thigh, and I saw the dead man shudder. But his features, though pallid in death, were as beautiful as ever. “I like this husband of mine. I don't care to give him back." Hermod swallowed hard. “Odinn has sent me to say this: he will pay anything, any ransom for his son. You can see that he has sent you his own arm-ring Draupnir, the greatest of all his treasures. Will you take it as Baldr's price and let him leave this place?" She lay her hand on the arm-ring Draupnir that Baldr still wore,

“Yes, it is a fine treasure.” She sat up straighter, and Hermod's face brightened with sudden hope. “I tell you this, son of Odinn, I'll keep this gift of his. And I'll make this bargain. If what you say is true, if all the world really does shed tears for Baldr's return, then I will let him go back to the world of the living. But everything in all the nine worlds must weep for him: every earth-thing, every sea-thing, every sky-thing. If only one being sheds no tears, then Baldr stays here with me as my bridegroom. Forever. Is it agreed?" “It is agreed,” Hermod said quickly, for he was eager to be gone. He mounted Sleipnir, taking the road back up to the bright and living lands. Then Hel laughed. “And you, my unseen friend, what do you think of my bargain?" I took my own form. “Do you always know when I am here?" “This is my hall. Nothing happens here that I don't know, that I don't allow. You should be sure to remember that." “Oh, I will. And I also recall we made a bargain, too, that time so long ago. I'm glad to see that you keep your word." “You were right,” she said, “Odinn did try to cheat me of my due. And now again. He promised me a husband, and now he wants to take him back. I owe you for your warning, Farbauti's son. But are you certain you're satisfied? Is there something more you want?" I hesitated, for the son was dead, but the father yet lived. And seeing Baldr seated there on the bench next to Hel, shuddering still, I could almost feel pity for him. Almost. But another glance at Hodr's dead

face restored my resolve. This was Hodr's vengeance, not mine. He had paid too much for Baldr's death. I couldn't rob him of it. “I'm satisfied.” Then I grinned, and my old spirit of trickery returned. My shape changed to that of an old, bent woman, my voice went creaking and high. “Old Thokk will weep dry tears for Odinn's son, and Hel will keep her bridegroom with her in her hall forever." I turned to go, but before I got as far as the gates, she stopped me. “One thing more, Farbauti's son. I believe you've seen my gatewarden, Modgud, on your way through my gates. Do you recall her words?" Suddenly I froze. The warning echoed inside my skull, as I had heard the maiden give it to Odinn and then to Hermod: that only once can the living pass through Hel's gates and out again to the world under the sun. But I had gone through twice, never thinking! Hel grasped my arm. Her chill touch made me shudder, and I thought, this—this was what Baldr must endure. Again at that moment, I pitied him. “Modgud will not let you pass.” She paused, while fear crept through me like the touch of death. “I will, though, this one last time." “I thank you for it." “Just so you remember, Farbauti's son, who rules here." No, I will never forget. Even now, when my pain is everything and I think I can't endure it any longer, I still shudder when I recall the touch of her cold, rotting hand.

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XXIII I told myself that I had gone too far now to turn back, that the deed was done and with Baldr's death the ruin of the Aesir was accomplished—my vengeance at last for all Odinn's betrayals, my return for all the evil he had done in the world. I had kept my word to Hel. Frigg seized on the hope brought by Hermod, and she sent out into the whole world, begging from every person and object that had taken the oath to spare Baldr harm, to weep for him, to weep for his return. And they all wept, as they had sworn: every earth-thing, every sea-thing, every sky-thing. Even the mistletoe wept for grief, that it had been used in its innocence to take Baldr's life. The whole world wept until the messengers came to the old woman Thokk, crouched in her hut over her meager fire. “Go away,” she told them. “Get out of my hut. Old Thokk will weep dry tears for Odinn's son. I liked him not alive, I like him no better dead. Hel has him now, so let her have joy of him." Thus it was that Baldr never returned from the dead, and Odinn lost his favorite arm-ring into the bargain. Vengeance for you, Gullveig , I thought to myself. The first payment of your wergild, so long owing. Loki returned to live among the Aesir and await the end. I could tell no one what I'd done, not even Sigyn, whose eyes in those days were often shadowed with sadness, who knew that my secret was heavy, whatever it might be. How much did you guess, Sigyn, even then? While you kept silent, what were you thinking I had done? Odinn, I knew, suspected ... something. How could he not? How

could he forget how many times he'd betrayed me? But he'd taken his vengeance on Hodr now, and he seemed to be satisfied. Matters went on in Asgard as they always had, except that his efforts to bring new warriors for Valhall's host were even more urgent, now that Baldr was dead and the final battle must be at hand. And yet ... matters went on as they always had. The horns never sounded to announce that last battle, so long awaited in Valhall. The enemies of the Aesir were not seen assembling on the battle plain of Vigrid. It isn't finished yet. I was becoming my own prophet. There is more suffering to come. And that suffering must be mine. I still think sometimes: what if I'd done nothing? Would I still be drinking mead at Odinn's side in Gladsheim? Could I have spared myself this torment?" It was the same question Hodr and I had asked each other before he took the fatal step toward his Wyrd. I'd seen him at Hel's table, and still I didn't know the answer. I mentioned my doubts to Sigyn. “Sometimes I think we're no more than toys in the hands of the Norns—or whatever power arranges our fates. Just as Odinn toys with the lives of those poor mortals who call him a god and imagine he can do no wrong." It was Gullveig's last prophecy that I couldn't forget: Not until Loki breaks his bonds, and the wolf runs free.

Was my Wyrd hidden in those words? So at last I did a thing I had never thought to do. I went to the Well of Urd. To the Norns. The three guardians of the Well stared at me with their milk-white, seemingly unseeing eyes. Then the first, Urd herself, said, “Here is Loki, Farbauti's son, come to learn his Wyrd. The knowledge will bring him what he seeks, and torment besides." Then the second, Skuld. “The end of Asgard will not come until he breaks his bonds. To break his bonds, he must first be bound." I felt fear make my hackles rise. “There is no use trying to keep my secret from the Norns. There is nothing you don't already know. Loki is Fenrir, and he is already bound.” For every night I still felt the wolf's pain as I struggled to break free from the fetter Gleipnir. Every night I tasted my own blood where Tyr's sword still pierced my mouth. Then the third Norn, Verdandi, answered, “Fenrir is already bound. Loki must yet be bound." They would say no more. They had no need to say more. I knew my Wyrd. I had only to find the courage to face it. But, Sigyn, I swear, I didn't yet know the worst. I didn't know. In the end, I think it was the wolf who decided, for he never stopped howling to be free. For Fenrir's sake, Loki must accept his bonds. It was foretold.

There was a banquet of all the Aesir, not at Gladsheim but at Aegir's hall, nearby the sea. Aegir had brewed a vast cauldron of mead, enough even to quench Thorr's thirst, but when I arrived at the hall, Odinn's foster-son was late for the feast. The rest of the Aesir were cheerfully drunk. I was drunk, too, as I had to be, to work myself up to what I meant to do. No, I don't brag of my courage. I know myself too well for that. I came to the door of Aegir's hall, but two of his servants tried to block my way. I knew I couldn't let myself be thwarted now. It had taken me long enough to build up my resolve, and I might never find the courage again, for the Norns had promised me torment as well as revenge. But my next step was ill-omened, for when I brushed one of the servants aside, he tripped and broke his neck against the wall. I hadn't meant to do it, but it was done. Then I asked the surviving servant, “What are the Aesir talking about in there while they swill their mead? Do they have anything to say about me?" The man had courage. He looked me in the eye and said defiantly, “The Aesir are talking about their weapons and their strength in battle. And they have plenty to say about you, none of it good. If you plan to go in there, Trickster, just to stir up strife, you'll find it in Aegir's hall. Maybe more strife than you can handle! Heimdall is in there, and Tyr. Neither of them love you, son of Muspell!" “Be careful, if you don't want to end up like your fellow there,” I warned him. “Now stand away from the door."

The warmth and aroma of the banquet struck me as I went inside the hall, the rich sweet odor of mead, the rich smoke from the oxen turning on the spit—all that good cheer, but none of it meant for Loki. And everyone knew it. There was a sudden, embarrassed silence as they saw me standing there. Drinking horns paused. I forced a smile onto my face, a smile I knew was twisted, for my lips still bore Brokk's scars. “Here I am at last, and you've started the feast without Loki! Isn't anyone going to bring me a horn of mead? Aren't you going to offer me a seat? I've come a long, weary way, and I'm thirsty!" Indeed, it was true enough. My throat was dry. It was Bragi who answered, Bragi who had favored the lesser harper over his more talented brother. “There is no more room on the benches, not for you, Trickster. You aren't welcome here." Odinn was listening, frowning but silent. I turned in his direction, although this was Aegir's hall, not his. “What do you have to say, Odinn, my brother-by-blood? I recall an oath we took, so long ago, that I would always have a place near you, and you would never drink a horn of mead unless I had one as well. Is this how you keep your oaths, Brother? Is this how you value your sworn word?" Balefire flared from his eye, and I could hear his teeth grinding together all the way across the hall. With ill-will, he said to his bastard son Vidar, “Get up, move over and make room for the wolf's father. Maybe if he sits down and drinks, we won't have to hear any more from him."

Vidar stood up and brought me a horn. He filled it himself from the cauldron Aegir had brewed. I took a long swallow, took a breath. The next words I spoke would seal my doom. I raised my horn. “So I wasn't invited. Well, here I am nonetheless. So let's drink! Good cheer to you all—except of course to Bragi over there. Is that you, Bragi, already drunk, already senseless under Aegir's table?" The skald of the Aesir tried to keep from making trouble in Aegir's hall. “All right, Loki, if you think you have some quarrel with me, then fine, I'll admit the blame, is that all right? Just be quiet and I'll give you wergild if that's what you want—a horse or a sword, if you feel you deserve it for some slight of mine. Or an arm-ring, if that won't satisfy you." No, he couldn't buy peace so easily. I was there to make war—a war of words and insults. “Oh, so you have a sword, do you, Bragi?” I mocked him. “And a war-horse, too? No one would know it from the way you hang back every time there's a fight." He half-rose from his seat. “I'd show you how I can use a sword if we weren't gathered here in peace in Aegir's hall!" “No!” cried his wife Idunn, “please, Bragi, don't answer him back, don't get into a fight! Aren't we all kindred here, after all?" I turned on her. “Enough, Idunn! You of all people shouldn't talk about kindred. Didn't you open your thighs for your brother's murderer? But then, you'll open them for anyone, won't you? I should know, for I was there first." Yes, I know I was cruel, and that was perhaps the cruelest barb of any I cast that day. Idunn's face went red with shame, but she put her

hand on Bragi's arm to restrain him in his anger. “Don't listen to him. Don't do something you'll regret later. Both of you have probably had to much to drink." But Gefjon saw fit to put in her own words. “I don't see why any of us here should have to stand for Loki and his insults!" Inwardly, I thanked her. Gefjon—another whore, one of Freya's breed, although for a while she'd been Idunn's replacement, the short time she was still a virgin. “Enough, Gefjon! Do you want insults? It doesn't take any effort to insult you! Should we show all the Aesir how quickly you open your legs any time some lad dangles a necklace in front of your face?" Odinn had had enough and tried to stop me. “Loki, what's the matter with you? Have you gone mad, insulting Gefjon and Idunn this way?" But I was only getting started. “Enough fine words from you, my brother! Do you love peace so much? Is that why you steal the victory from the most deserving warriors and leave them lying dead on the battlefield?" “So I may have done, for the sake of Asgard. But at least I haven't gotten myself pregnant as you did—giving birth, just like a woman!" “Is that so? Then should I tell the Aesir how Odinn got himself into Rind's bedchamber after she turned him down? You disguised yourself as her old chambermaid, and locked yourself in with her. Tell me, does young vengeful Vali know how you raped his mother?" “Both of you should be quiet. There are some secrets best forgotten,” said Frigg uncomfortably.

“Enough, Frigg! Do you want to talk about secrets? Aren't you the one who lay with your husband and his brothers, all in the same bed?" “Oh!” she wailed. “You wouldn't say such things to me if my son were still alive. Baldr would shut your foul mouth!" Now we had come to it. “Oh, yes, Baldr!” I said recklessly. “Your favorite son. But he'll never come home again, will he? He's warming Hel's cold bed these days instead of sleeping with Hodr's bride. And do you want to know why? Do you want to know who made that marriage for him? I'll tell you if you ask!" But Freya stood up to keep anyone from that question. “Shame on you, Loki! To say those things to Frigg when she's suffered the loss of her favorite son!" “Enough, Freya! Is it you, talking of shame, you whore? Is there any man in this hall who hasn't opened your legs?" “Lies! And you'll be sorry for them, Loki, believe me! You'll wish you'd never opened your mouth!" “Shut up, Freya! Even your own brother has had you! Tell me, does he like the way you fart in bed? All Asgard can smell it when Freya's got a man at work plowing her furrow!" Njord stood then to defend his shameless daughter. “At least she's a woman who sleeps with men. Not a man who gives birth like a woman." “Enough, Njord, so we hear from you at last! How did you like it

when the giant Hymir's daughters pissed straight into your mouth? Did it taste as good as Aegir's mead? Before you start insulting people, you'd better just remember that you came here to Asgard as a hostage." “I came here as a hostage, but now I hold an honored place among the Aesir, as does my son. That's more than you can claim, son of Muspell!" “Oh, yes. I know your honored son Freyr. You got him on your own sister, didn't you? No wonder your daughter is such a whore, with the example you've set her!" All the years of bitterness, the insults and mockery I had endured in Asgard, came rushing out of me. I could no longer hold it back, I was drunk with it. Tyr's turn was next. “War-leader of the Aesir, why don't you ask Fenrir how well you keep your sworn word? Or have you forgotten how you lost your right hand?" “I may have lost a hand, but you lost your son the wolf. Here I am in a fine hall drinking mead, but he lies howling in his fetters, gagged with my sword!" “At least I know who my sons are, which is more than I can say for you. All Asgard knows who lay with his wife, but Tyr never saw a penny of wergild for it." “If you don't shut your mouth, Loki, you'll end up chained like the wolf, or worse,” said Freyr. “Oh, do you want to fight me now, Freyr? Haven't you forgotten how you sold your sword for a woman's favors? But Baldr is dead now,

and you'll regret that sword when the final battle comes and you have to face the enemies of the Aesir empty-handed. Be careful, Freyr, on the day the wolf breaks his bonds!" Heimdall cursed me. “You're drunk, son of Muspell! Why don't you fall down and drown in your own spew, your own poison words? Then we'd be rid of you at last." Then Skadi pushed her way to stand in front of the rest, with hate twisting her face, Skadi, worst of all my enemies, my bane. “If I had my way, deceiver, you'd be bound like the wolf, bound with the icecold guts ripped out of your own son." I shivered with a sense of foreboding, but I had gone too far to back down from my Wyrd. “The Aesir may bind me as you say, but nothing can change the fact that it was my idea to kill your father Thiazi. We burned him, Skadi, in front of Asgard's walls. None of your curses can bring him back." There was a rippling of gold from the back of the room, and then Sif came through the throng of the Aesir, all of them on their feet and cursing at me. Her hair rippled down her back, her hair of pure gold. She came to me and handed me a horn brimming full of fragrant mead. “Loki,” she said quietly, “let there be peace now. Some of the Aesir may have harmed you in the past, but surely you don't have cause to hate everyone here." I took the horn from her, drained it in a single swallow. Oh Sif, faithless twice, to your husband and then the lover you betrayed him with. “I never hated you, Sif, when I had you in your bed. Only when you left me afterward and went back to your husband. Tell me, though, which one of us could set your body on fire with only a

touch? Which of us left you begging for more?" There was a bellow of wrath from the back of the hall, and a crash that made the tables and benches all shake. I knew that voice, there was only one voice as loud as that in all the world: Thorr. “You shut your filthy mouth, Loki you liar, or my hammer will shut it for you!" Here was a better target for my tongue. “Ah, the brave and mighty Thorr, back at last from his adventures. Don't worry, there's enough mead left, even for you. But I wouldn't say too much about your hammer. I remember when we went to visit Utgard. You hid inside the giant's glove, and your mighty hammer couldn't even dent his skull! I'd worry, Thorr, if I were you, when the wolf swallows Odinn and turns on you next!" A single hammer blow reduced the table in front of me to splinters. Thorr took another step in my direction. I saw his face dark red with rage, and my resolve faltered. I jumped up onto a nearby bench, out of Thorr's way, and raised the horn Sif had given me. “To Aegir and his fine mead! It's been a good feast, my friends! I hope you remember it when the fire burns this hall and the only thing left is ashes! The time is coming soon, because Baldr is dead, and there was one creature in all the nine worlds who wouldn't weep for him. Is there any one of you who doesn't know who it was? “The final battle is coming! I'll meet you all on that day!" [Back to Table of Contents]

XXIV It was my shame, that at the last moment, my courage failed me. It wasn't my death I feared, but the pain. I ran, I flew, taking falcon-shape, but I knew I had truly gone too far at last, casting the Aesir's hate back into their own faces, admitting my part in Baldr's death. Odinn could never forgive me now, could never allow me to escape his vengeance. They hunted me down. I took shape after shape, trying to evade my pursuers, but Odinn knew me too well, knew me in any form. I took salmon-form finally, hiding deep in a pool below Franang's falls, hoping that I would be concealed by the foaming white water. But the Aesir came after me there with Ran's drowning net. I was finished then, I knew it in my heart, and they dragged me from the pool. Thorr's huge hand seized me from the net. I struggled, thrashing wildly, and for a moment I thought Thorr had lost his grip, but then his hand closed again around my tail where it tapers, and I was taken. With a spell, Odinn returned me to my own form, still held fast in Thorr's grasp. I closed my eyes, waiting for my punishment, hoping only that it would be over quickly. I wouldn't beg for mercy. I thought I had resolve enough for that, at least. But I wasn't prepared for the depth of their malice. I didn't realize just how much my enemies hated me. There was a noise from the forest, the cracking of brush, and my eyes flew open. Skadi the huntress had come, and she had my sons with her, Vali and Narvi. They were both bound, both struggling, and

terror was in their eyes. “No!” I strained in Thorr's grip, but he only held me tighter. “I'm the one you want! Let my sons go! They're innocent! They've done nothing!" Skadi only laughed. Tyr said, “Innocent, are they? With your blood, Loki? Innocent, like your other son, the wolf? Who will have to face these two in the last battle if we don't kill them now?" “We shall see who's innocent,” said Odinn grimly. He had two sticks in his hand, each carved with a rune, and as he touched them to the heads of my sons, he spoke a spell. Vali shuddered. He twisted in the hands of those who held him. “Father!” he cried aloud, “Help me!" But I was held helpless, as I had been so long ago when they took Gullveig from me. I could only watch the hair rise on my son's neck and become coarse gray fur, his teeth lengthen into fangs and his hands grow claws. Vali, my son, my blood. This was his lifelong terror, the fate he had feared without knowing why. His Wyrd. The wolf thrashed and snapped in his madness. “Bind him tighter, chain him! Kill him!” shouted the Aesir. “No. Let him go,” Odinn ordered. I stared at him in sudden new dread. “No!” I started to protest, but it was too late. The wolf Vali turned on his helpless brother. One son savaged the other, tearing open his belly. Narvi sank to his knees, moaning, dying, clutching at the entrails that spilled out of him. All

while I watched, until Vali, with a howl that cut through me like a sword, bounded away into the forest. My sons. Oh, my sons. I wept, I cursed, I howled aloud in my grief, but the Aesir were without pity. Then I heard another cry, and I started to struggle again, anything, anything to keep Sigyn from seeing this sight. I cried aloud, “No! Don't let her come any closer! Do what you will to me, but don't let her see this!" “Did you spare Frigg the sight of her sons lying dead?” Odinn demanded, and they let Sigyn through, they let her see Narvi, her fair son, her favorite, dying. That was the worst of it, Sigyn kneeling there on the forest floor with Narvi's bloody head cradled in her lap. Worse than all the torments I've endured since, that one sight. From that moment, I was numb to whatever else they did to me. Skadi tore my son's entrails from his body, ignoring his mother's anguish, and the rest of them bore me to this place, this cave deep in Niflheim where the icy Gjoll flows through on the way to Hel. They set three rocks upright and bound me to them with the entrails of my dead son, as hard as iron, as cold as ice. One under my knees, another under my hips, and the third under my neck. My enemies the Aesir did this to me—Tyr, Freyr, Bragi, Heimdall, Thorr. Odinn, my brother-by-blood.

But my punishment was not yet enough to satisfy Skadi's thirst for vengeance. Into the cave she brought a serpent and hung it above my head, above my face. Its mouth gaped open. I watched, helpless to move, as the first drop of venom gathered at the tip of one fang. The drop clung there, shimmering, black. Then it fell. The skalds say that when I writhe in my torment, I make the earth shake. They do not always lie. [Back to Table of Contents]

XV An age I have lain here, bound as it was foretold, waiting for the end. Sigyn is always with me. Her face is wet with tears, but they are shed for our lost sons, not for me. She holds a bowl above my face to catch the serpent's venom, and with it she writes these words. They burn the parchment. Sigyn, I swear, I didn't know. An axe-age, a sword-age, the prophecies say. Baldr is dead. Odinn will die. A wind-age, a wolf-age. Loki will break his bonds. The wolf will run free. All your enemies will gather, Odinn: the Jotuns, the dwarves. They will march on Asgard from the icy wastes, from out of the underworld. They will rise out of the sea, all the monsters of the deep. The dead will set sail in Hel's pale ship. And from the south, the sons of Muspell, Surtr at their head and his flaming sword in his hand. He will burn Asgard, and the ashes will cover all the nine worlds. The sun and the moon will grow dark. The world will be cold and desolation. It has all been for nothing, all the death, all the treachery. No hall full of dead warriors will be able to save you when the last battle comes. Your Wyrd was already spoken, long ago. Listen, my brother. Do you hear the wolf howling?

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