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Introducing an instant classic―master storyteller Neil Gaiman presents a dazzling version of the great Norse myths.

Neil Gaiman has long been inspired by ancient mythology in creating the fantastical realms of his fiction. Now he turns his attention back to the source, presenting a bravura rendition of the great northern tales.

In Norse Mythology, Gaiman stays true to the myths in envisioning the major Norse pantheon: Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki―son of a giant―blood brother to Odin and a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator.

Gaiman fashions these primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds and delves into the exploits of deities, dwarfs, and giants. Once, when Thor’s hammer is stolen, Thor must disguise himself as a woman―difficult with his beard and huge appetite―to steal it back. More poignant is the tale in which the blood of Kvasir―the most sagacious of gods―is turned into a mead that infuses drinkers with poetry. The work culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and rebirth of a new time and people.

Through Gaiman’s deft and witty prose emerge these gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to duping others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again.

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			New York • London





			An Introduction

















A Glossary


			It’s as hard to have a favorite sequence of myths as it is to have a favorite style of cooking (some nights you might want Thai food, some nights sushi, other nights you crave the plain home cooking you grew up on). But if I had to declare a favorite, it would probably be for the Norse myths.

			My first encounter with Asgard and its inhabitants was as a small boy, no more than seven, reading the adventures of the Mighty Thor as depicted by American comics artist Jack Kirby, in stories plotted by Kirby and Stan Lee and dialogued by Stan Lee’s brother, Larry Lieber. Kirby’s Thor was powerful and good-looking, his Asgard a towering science fictional city of imposing buildings and dangerous edifices, his Odin wise and noble, his Loki a sardonic horn-helmeted creature of pure mischief. I loved Kirby’s blond hammer-wielding Thor, and I wanted to learn more about him.

			I borrowed a copy of Myths of the Norsemen by Roger Lancelyn Green and read and reread it with delight and puzzlement: Asgard, in this telling, was no longer a Kirbyesque Future City but was a Viking hall and collection of buildings out on the frozen wastes; Odin the all-father was no longer gentle, wise, and irascible, but instead he was brilliant, unknowable, and dangerous; Thor was just as strong as the ; Mighty Thor in the comics, his hammer as powerful, but he was . . . well, honestly, not the brightest of the gods; and Loki was not evil, although he was certainly not a force for good. Loki was . . . complicated.

			In addition, I learned, the Norse gods came with their own doomsday: Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, the end of it all. The gods were going to battle the frost giants, and they were all going to die.

			Had Ragnarok happened yet? Was it still to happen? I did not know then. I am not certain now.

			It was the fact that the world and the story ends, and the way that it ends and is reborn, that made the gods and the frost giants and the rest of them tragic heroes, tragic villains. Ragnarok made the Norse world linger for me, seem strangely present and current, while other, better-documented systems of belief felt as if they were part of the past, old things.

			The Norse myths are the myths of a chilly place, with long, long winter nights and endless summer days, myths of a people who did not entirely trust or even like their gods, although they respected and feared them. As best we can tell, the gods of Asgard came from Germany, spread into Scandinavia, and then out into the parts of the world dominated by the Vikings—into Orkney and Scotland, Ireland and the north of England—where the invaders left places named for Thor or Odin. In English, the gods have left their names in our days of the week. You can find Tyr the one-handed (Odin’s son), Odin, Thor, and Frigg, the queen of the gods, in, respectively, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

			We can see the traces of older myths and older religions in the war and the stories of the truce between the gods of the Vanir and the Aesir. The Vanir appear to have been nature gods, brothers and sisters, less warlike, but perhaps no less dangerous than the Aesir.

			It’s very likely, or at least a workable hypothesis, that there were tribes of people who worshipped the Vanir and other tribes who worshipped the Aesir, and that the Aesir-worshippers invaded the lands of the Vanir-worshippers, and that they made compromises and accommodations. Gods of the Vanir, like the sister and brother Freya and Frey, live in Asgard with the Aesir. History and religion and myth combine, and we wonder and we imagine and we guess, like detectives reconstructing the details of a long-forgotten crime.

			There are so many Norse stories we do not have, so much we do not know. All we have are some myths that have come to us in the form of folktales, in retellings, in poems, in prose. They were written down when Christianity had already displaced the worship of the Norse gods, and some of the stories we have came to us because people were concerned that if the stories were not preserved, some of the kennings—the usages of poets that referred to events in specific myths—would become meaningless; Freya’s tears, for example, was a poetic way of saying “gold.” In some of the tales the Norse gods are described as men or as kings or heroes of old, so that the stories could be told in a Christian world. Some stories and poems tell of other stories, or imply other stories, that we simply do not have.

			It is, perhaps, as if the only tales of the gods and demigods of Greece and Rome that had survived were of the deeds of Theseus and Hercules.

			We have lost so much.

			There are many Norse goddesses. We know their names and some of their attributes and powers, but the tales, myths, and rituals have not come down to us. I wish I could retell the tales of Eir, because she was the doctor of the gods, of Lofn, the comforter, who was a Norse goddess of marriages, or of Sjofn, a goddess of love. Not to mention Vor, goddess of wisdom. I can imagine stories, but I cannot tell their tales. They are lost, or buried, or forgotten.

			I’ve tried my best to retell these myths and stories as accurately as I can, and as interestingly as I can.

			Sometimes details in the stories contradict each other. But I hope that they paint a picture of a world and a time. As I retold these myths, I tried to imagine myself a long time ago, in the lands where these stories were first told, during the long winter nights perhaps, under the glow of the northern lights, or sitting outside in the small hours, awake in the unending daylight of midsummer, with an audience of people who wanted to know what else Thor did, and what the rainbow was, and how to live their lives, and where bad poetry comes from.

			I was surprised, when I finished the stories and read them as a sequence, to find that they felt like a journey, from the ice and the fire that the universe begins in to the fire and the ice that end the world. Along the way we meet people we would know if we met them, people like Loki and Thor and Odin, and people we want to know so much more about (my favorite of these is Angrboda, Loki’s wife among the giants, who gives birth to his monstrous children and who is there in ghost form after Balder is slain).

			I did not dare go back to the tellers of Norse myth whose work I had loved, to people like Roger Lancelyn Green and Kevin Crossley-Holland, and reread their stories. I spent my time instead with many different translations of Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, and with the verses of the Poetic Edda, words from nine hundred years ago and before, picking and choosing what tales I wanted to retell and how I wanted to

tell them, blending versions of myths from the prose and from the poems. (Thor’s visit to Hymir, for example, the way I tell it here, is a hybrid: it begins in the Poetic Edda, then adds details of Thor’s fishing adventure from Snorri’s version.)

			My battered copy of A Dictionary of Northern Mythology, by Rudolf Simek, translated by Angela Hall, was always invaluable, continually consulted, eye-opening, and informative.

			Huge thanks go to my old friend Alisa Kwitney for her editorial assistance. She was a fabulous sounding board, always opinionated and forthright, helpful, sensible, and smart. She got this book written, mostly by wanting to read the next story, and she helped me make the time to write it in. I’m incredibly grateful to her. Thank you to Stephanie Monteith, whose eagle eyes and Norse knowledge caught several things I might have missed. Thanks also to Amy Cherry at Norton, who suggested that I might want to retell some myths at a lunch on my birthday eight years ago, and who has been, all things considered, the most patient editor in the world.

			All mistakes, conclusions jumped to, and odd opinions in this volume are mine and mine alone, and I would not wish anyone else blamed for them. I hope I’ve retold these stories honestly, but there was still joy and creation in the telling.

			That’s the joy of myths. The fun comes in telling them yourself—something I warmly encourage you to do, you person reading this. Read the stories in this book, then make them your own, and on some dark and icy winter’s evening, or on a summer night when the sun will not set, tell your friends what happened when Thor’s hammer was stolen, or how Odin obtained the mead of poetry for the gods . . .

			Neil Gaiman

			Lisson Grove, London,

			May 2016




Many gods and goddesses are named in Norse mythology. You will meet quite a few of them in these pages. Most of the stories we have, however, concern two gods, Odin and his son Thor, and Odin’s blood brother, a giant’s son called Loki, who lives with the Aesir in Asgard.


			The highest and the oldest of all the gods is Odin.

			Odin knows many secrets. He gave an eye for wisdom. More than that, for knowledge of runes, and for power, he sacrificed himself to himself.

			He hung from the world-tree, Yggdrasil, hung there for nine nights. His side was pierced by the point of a spear, which wounded him gravely. The winds clutched at him, buffeted his body as it hung. Nothing did he eat for nine days or nine nights, nothing did he drink. He was alone there, in pain, the light of his life slowly going out.

			He was cold, in agony, and on the point of death when his sacrifice bore dark fruit: in the ecstasy of his agony he looked down, and the runes were revealed to him. He knew them, and understood them and their power. The rope broke then, and he fell, screaming, from the tree.

			Now he understood magic. Now the world was his to control.

			Odin has many names. He is the all-father, the lord of the slain, the gallows god. He is the god of cargoes and of prisoners. He is called Grimnir and Third. He has different names in every country (for he is worshipped in different forms and in many tongues, but it is always Odin they worship).

			He travels from place to place in disguise, to see the world as people see it. When he walks among us, he does so as a tall man, wearing a cloak and hat.

			He has two ravens, whom he calls Huginn and Muninn, which mean “thought” and “memory.” These birds fly back and forth across the world, seeking news and bringing Odin all the knowledge of things. They perch on his shoulders and whisper into his ears.

			When he sits on his high throne at Hlidskjalf, he observes all things, wherever they may be. Nothing can be hidden from him.

			He brought war into the world: battles are begun by throwing a spear at the hostile army, dedicating the battle and its deaths to Odin. If you survive in battle, it is with Odin’s grace, and if you fall it is because he has betrayed you.

			If you fall bravely in war the Valkyries, beautiful battle-maidens who collect the souls of the noble dead, will take you and bring you to the hall known as Valhalla. He will be waiting for you in Valhalla, and there you will drink and fight and feast and battle, with Odin as your leader.


			Thor, Odin’s son, is the thunderer. He is straightforward where his father Odin is cunning, good-natured where his father is devious.

			Huge he is, and red-bearded, and strong, by far the strongest of all the gods. His might is increased by his belt of strength, Megingjord: when he wears it, his strength is doubled.

			Thor’s weapon is Mjollnir, a remarkable hammer, forged for him by dwarfs. Its story you will learn. Trolls and frost giants and mountain giants all tremble when they see Mjollnir, for it has killed so many of their brothers and friends. Thor wears iron gloves, which help him to grip the hammer’s shaft.

			Thor’s mother was Jord, the earth goddess. Thor’s sons are Modi, the angry, and Magni, the strong. Thor’s daughter is Thrud, the powerful.

			His wife is Sif, of the golden hair. She had a son, Ullr, before she married Thor, and Thor is Ullr’s stepfather. Ullr is a god who hunts with bow and with arrows, and he is the god with skis.

			Thor is the defender of Asgard and of Midgard.

			There are many stories about Thor and his adventures. You will encounter some of them here.


			Loki is very handsome. He is plausible, convincing, likable, and far and away the most wily, subtle, and shrewd of all the inhabitants of Asgard. It is a pity, then, that there is so much darkness inside him: so much anger, so much envy, so much lust.

			Loki is the son of Laufey, who was also known as Nal, or needle, because she was slim and beautiful and sharp. His father was said to be Farbauti, a giant; his name means “he who strikes dangerous blows,” and Farbauti was as dangerous as his name.

			Loki walks in the sky with shoes that fly, and he can transform his shape so he looks like other people, or change into animal form, but his real weapon is his mind. He is more cunning, subtler, trickier than any god or giant. Not even Odin is as cunning as Loki.

			Loki is Odin’s blood brother. The other gods do not know when Loki came to Asgard, or how. He is Thor’s friend and Thor’s betrayer. He is tolerated by the gods, perhaps because his stratagems and plans save them as often as they get them into trouble.

			Loki makes the world more interesting but less safe. He is the father of monsters, the author of woes, the sly god.

			Loki drinks too much, and he cannot guard his words or his thoughts or his deeds when he drinks. Loki and his children will be there for Ragnarok, the end of everything, and it will not be on the side of the gods of Asgard that they will fight.



			Before the beginning there was nothing—no earth, no heavens, no stars, no sky: only the mist world, formless and shapeless, and the fire world, always burning.

			To the north was Niflheim, the dark world. Here eleven poisonous rivers cut through the mist, each springing from the same well at the center of it all, the roaring maelstrom called Hvergelmir. Niflheim was colder than cold, and the murky mist that cloaked everything hung heavily. The skies were hidden by mist and the ground was clouded by the chilly fog.

			To the south was Muspell. Muspell was fire. Everything there glowed and burned. Muspell was light where Niflheim was gray, molten lava where the mist world was frozen. The land was aflame with the roaring heat of a blacksmith’s fire; there was no solid earth, no sky. Nothing but sparks and spurting heat, molten rocks and burning embers.

			In Muspell, at the edge of the flame, where the mist burns into light, where the land ends, stood Surtr, who existed before the gods. He stands there now. He holds a flaming sword, and the bubbling lava and the freezing mist are as one to him.

			It is said that at Ragnarok, which is the end of the world, and only then, Surtr will leave his station. He will go forth from Muspell with his flaming sword and burn the world with fire, and one by one the gods will fall before him.


			Between Muspell and Niflheim was a void, an empty place of nothingness, without form. The rivers of the mist world flowed into the void, which was called Ginnungagap, the “yawning gap.” Over time beyond measure, these poisoned rivers, in the region between fire and mist, slowly solidified into huge glaciers. The ice in the north of the void was covered in frozen fog and pellets of hail, but to the south, where the glaciers reached the land of fire, the embers and the sparks from Muspell met the ice, and warm winds from the flame lands made the air above the ice as gentle and as comfortable as a spring day.

			Where the ice and the fire met the ice melted, and in the melting waters life appeared: the likeness of a person bigger than worlds, huger than any giant there will be or has ever been. This was neither male, nor was it female, but was both at the same time.

			This creature was the ancestor of all the giants, and it called itself Ymir.

			Ymir was not the only living thing to be formed by the melting of the ice: there was also a hornless cow, more enormous than the mind could hold. She licked the salty blocks of ice for food and for drink, and the milk that ran from her four udders flowed like rivers. It was this milk that nourished Ymir.

			The giant drank the milk, and grew.

			Ymir called the cow Audhumla.

			The cow’s pink tongue licked people from the blocks of ice: the first day only a man’s hair, the second his head, and the third day the shape of a whole man was revealed.

			This was Buri, the ancestor of the gods.

			Ymir slept, and while it slept, it gave birth: a male and a female giant were born from beneath Ymir’s left arm, a six-headed giant born from its legs. From these, Ymir’s children, all giants are descended.

			Buri took a wife from among these giants, and they had a son, whom they called Bor. Bor married Bestla, daughter of a giant, and together they had three sons: Odin, Vili, and Ve.

			Odin and Vili and Ve, the three sons of Bor, grew into manhood. They saw as they grew, far off, the flames of Muspell and the darkness of Niflheim, but they knew that each place would be death to them. The brothers were trapped forever in Ginnungagap, the vast gap between the fire and the mist. They might as well have been nowhere.

			There was no sea and no sand, no grass nor rocks, no soil, no trees, no sky, no stars. There was no world, no heaven and no earth, at that time. The gap was nowhere: only an empty place waiting to be filled with life and with existence.

			It was time for the creation of everything. Ve and Vili and Odin looked at each other and spoke of what was needful to do, there in the void of Ginnungagap. They spoke of the universe, and of life, and of the future.

			Odin and Vili and Ve killed the giant Ymir. It had to be done. There was no other way to make the worlds. This was the beginning of all things, the death that made all life possible.

			They stabbed the great giant. Blood gushed out from Ymir’s corpse in unimaginable quantities; fountains of blood as salt as the sea and gray as the oceans gushed out in a flood so sudden, so powerful, and so deep that it swept away and drowned all the giants. (Only one giant, Bergelmir, Ymir’s grandson, and his wife survived, by clambering onto a wooden box, which bore them like a boat. All the giants we see and we fear today are descended from them.)

			Odin and his brothers made the soil from Ymir’s flesh. Ymir’s bones they piled up into mountains and cliffs.

			Our rocks and pebbles, the sand and gravel you see: these were Ymir’s teeth, and the fragments of bones that were broken and crushed by Odin and Vili and Ve in their battle with Ymir.

			The seas that girdle the worlds: these were Ymir’s blood and his sweat.

			Look up into the sky: you are looking at the inside of Ymir’s skull. The stars you see at night, the planets, all the comets and the shooting stars, these are the sparks that flew from the fires of Muspell. And the clouds you see by day? These were once Ymir’s brains, and who knows what thoughts they are thinking, even now.


			The world is a flat disk, and the sea encircles the perimeter. Giants live at the edges of the world, beside the deepest seas.

			To keep the giants at bay, Odin and Vili and Ve made a wall from Ymir’s eyelashes and set it around the middle of the world. They called the place within the wall Midgard.

			Midgard was empty. The lands were beautiful, but nobody walked the meadows or fished in the clear waters, nobody explored the rocky mountains or stared up at the clouds.

			Odin and Vili and Ve knew that a world is not a world until it is inhabited. They wandered high and low, looking for people, and they found nothing. At last, on the rocky shingle at the edge of the sea, they found two logs, sea-tossed, that had floated there on the tides and been cast ashore.

			The first log was a log of ash wood. The ash tree is resilient and handsome and its roots go deep. Its wood carves well and will not split or crack. Ash wood makes a good tool handle, or the shaft of a spear.

			The second log they found, beside the first on the beach, so close to the first log they were almost touching, was a log of elm wood. The elm tree is graceful, but its wood is hard enough to be made into the toughest planks and beams; you can build a fine home or a hall from elm wood.

			The gods took the two logs. They set the logs so they were upright on the sand, the height of people. Odin held them, and one by one he breathed life into them. No longer were they dead logs on a beach: now they were alive.

			Vili gave them will; he gave them intelligence and drive. Now they could move, and they could want.

			Ve carved the logs. He gave them the shape of people. He carved their ears, that they might hear, and their eyes, that they might see, and lips, that they might speak.

			The two logs stood on the beach, two naked people. Ve had carved one with male genitals, the other he had carved female.

			The three brothers made clothes for the woman and the man, to cover themselves and to keep them warm, in the chilly sea-spray on the beach at the edge of the world.

			Last of all they gave the two people they had made names: the man they called Ask, or Ash Tree; the woman they called Embla, or Elm.

			Ask and Embla were the father and the mother of all of us: every human being owes its life to its parents and their parents and their parents before them. Go far enough back, and the ancestors of each of us were Ask and Embla.

			Embla and Ask stayed in Midgard, safe behind the wall the gods had made from Ymir’s eyelashes. In Midgard they would make their homes, protected from giants and monsters and all the dangers that wait in the wastes. In Midgard they could raise their children in peace.

			That is why Odin is called the all-father. Because he was the father of the gods, and because he breathed the breath of life into our grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents. Whether we are gods or mortals, Odin is the father of us all.


The ash tree Yggdrasil is a mighty ash tree, the most perfect and beautiful of all trees: also the largest. It grows between the nine worlds and joins them, each to each. It is the biggest of all the trees there are, and the finest. The tops of its branches are above the sky.

			It is so large that the roots of the ash are in three worlds, and it is fed by three wells.

			The first root, and the deepest, goes into the underworld, to Niflheim, the place that existed before other places. In the center of the dark world is the ever-churning spring, Hvergelmir, so loud it sounds like a roaring kettle. The dragon Nidhogg lives in these waters, and it is always gnawing at the root from below.

			The second root goes to the realm of the frost giants, to the well that belongs to Mimir.

			There is an eagle who waits at the highest branches of the world-tree and who knows many things, and a hawk, who perches between the eagle’s eyes.

			A squirrel, Ratatosk, lives in the branches of the world-tree. It takes gossip and messages from Nidhogg, the dread corpse-eater, to the eagle and back again. The squirrel tells lies to both of them, and takes joy in provoking anger.

			There are four stags who graze on the huge branches of the world-tree, devouring the foliage and the bark. There are uncountable snakes at the base of the tree, biting at the roots.

			The world-tree can be climbed. It is from this tree that Odin hanged himself in sacrifice, making the world-tree a gallows and himself the gallows god.

			The gods do not climb the world-tree. They travel between the worlds using Bifrost, the rainbow bridge. Only the gods can travel on the rainbow; it would burn the feet of any frost giants or trolls who attempted to clamber up it to reach Asgard.

			These are the nine worlds:

			Asgard, the home of the Aesir. This is where Odin makes his home.

			Alfheim, where the light elves live. The light elves are as beautiful as the sun or the stars.

			Nidavellir, which is sometimes called Svartalfheim, where the dwarfs (who are also known as dark elves) live beneath the mountains and build their remarkable creations.

			Midgard, which is the world of women and men, the world in which we make our home.

			Jotunheim, where the frost giants and the mountain giants wander and live and have their halls.

			Vanaheim, where the Vanir live. The Aesir and the Vanir are gods, united by peace treaties, and many Vanir gods live in Asgard, with the Aesir.

			Niflheim, the dark mist world.

			Muspell, the world of flame, where Surtr waits.

			And there is the place named after its ruler: Hel, where the dead go who did not die bravely in battle.

			The last root of the world-tree goes to a spring in the home of the gods, to Asgard, where the Aesir make their home. Each day the gods hold their council here, and it is here they will gather in the last days of the world, before they set out for the final battle of Ragnarok. It is called the well of Urd.

			There are three sisters, the norns, who are wise maidens. They tend the well, and make sure that the roots of Yggdrasil are covered with mud and cared for. The well belongs to Urd; she is fate, and destiny. She is your past. With her are Verdandi—her name means “becoming”—and hers is the present, and Skuld, whose name means “that which is intended,” and her domain is the future.

			The norns will decide what happens in your life. There are other norns, not just those three. Giant norns and elf norns, dwarf norns and Vanir norns, good norns and bad, and what your fate will be is decided by them. Some norns give people good lives, and others give us hard lives, or short lives, or twisted lives.

			They will shape your fate, there at Urd’s well.


In Jotunheim, the home of the giants, is Mimir’s well. It bubbles up from deep in the ground, and it feeds Yggdrasil, the world-tree. Mimir, the wise one, the guardian of memory, knows many things. His well is wisdom, and when the world was young he would drink every morning from the well, by dipping the horn known as the Gjallerhorn into the water and draining it.

			Long, long ago, when the worlds were young, Odin put on his long cloak and his hat, and in the guise of a wanderer he traveled through the land of the giants, risking his life to get to Mimir, to seek wisdom.

			“One drink from the water of your well, Uncle Mimir,” said Odin. “That is all I ask for.”

			Mimir shook his head. Nobody drank from the well but Mimir himself. He said nothing: seldom do those who are silent make mistakes.

			“I am your nephew,” said Odin. “My mother, Bestla, was your sister.”

			“That is not enough,” said Mimir.

			“One drink. With a drink from your well, Mimir, I will be wise. Name your price.”

			“Your eye is my price,” said Mimir. “Your eye in the pool.”

			Odin did not ask if he was joking. The journey through giant country to get to Mimir’s well had been long and dangerous. Odin had been willing to risk his life to get there. He was willing to do more than that for the wisdom he sought.

			Odin’s face was set.

			“Give me a knife,” was all he said.

			After he had done what was needful, he placed his eye carefully in the pool. It stared up at him through the water. Odin filled the Gjallerhorn with water from Mimir’s pool, and he lifted it to his lips. The water was cold. He drained it down. Wisdom flooded into him. He saw farther and more clearly with his one eye than he ever had with two.

			Thereafter Odin was given other names: Blindr, they called him, the blind god, and Hoarr, the one-eyed, and Baleyg, the flaming-eyed one.

			Odin’s eye remains in Mimir’s well, preserved by the waters that feed the world ash, seeing nothing, seeing everything.

			Time passed. When the war between the Aesir and the Vanir was ending and they were exchanging warriors and chiefs, Odin sent Mimir to the Vanir as an adviser to the Aesir god Hoenir, who would be the new chief of the Vanir.

			Hoenir was tall and good-looking, and he looked like a king. When Mimir was with him to advise him, Hoenir also spoke like a king and made wise decisions. But when Mimir was not with him, Hoenir seemed unable to come to a decision, and the Vanir soon tired of this. They took their revenge, not on Hoenir but on Mimir: they cut off Mimir’s head and sent it to Odin.

			Odin was not angry. He rubbed Mimir’s head with certain herbs to prevent it from rotting, and he chanted charms and incantations over it, for he did not wish Mimir’s knowledge to be lost. Soon enough Mimir opened his eyes and spoke to him. Mimir’s advice was good, as it was always good.

			Odin took Mimir’s head back to the well beneath the world-tree, and he placed it there, beside his eye, in the waters of knowledge of the future and of the past.

			Odin gave the Gjallerhorn to Heimdall, watchman of the gods. On the day the Gjallerhorn is blown, it will wake the gods, no matter where they are, no matter how deeply they sleep.

			Heimdall will blow the Gjallerhorn only once, at the end of all things, at Ragnarok.



			Thor’s wife was the beautiful Sif. She was of the Aesir. Thor loved her for herself, and for her blue eyes and her pale skin, her red lips and her smile, and he loved her long, long hair, the color of a field of barley at the end of summer.

			Thor woke, and stared at sleeping Sif. He scratched his beard. Then he tapped his wife with a huge hand. “What happened to you?” he asked.

			She opened her eyes, the color of the summer sky. “What are you talking about?” she asked, and then she moved her head and looked puzzled. Her fingers reached up to her bare pink scalp and touched it, exploring it tentatively. She looked at Thor, horrified.

			“My hair,” was all she said.

			Thor nodded. “It’s gone,” he said. “He has left you bald.”

			“He?” asked Sif.

			Thor said nothing. He strapped on his belt of power, Megingjord, which doubled his enormous strength. “Loki,” he said. “Loki has done this.”

			“Why do you say that?” said Sif, touching her bald head frantically, as if the fluttering touch of her fingers would make her hair return.

			“Because,” said Thor, “when something goes wrong, the first thing I always think is, it is Loki’s fault. It saves a lot of time.”

			Thor found Loki’s door locked, so he pushed through it, leaving it in pieces. He picked Loki up and said only, “Why?”

			“Why what?” Loki’s face was the picture of perfect innocence.

			“Sif’s hair. My wife’s golden hair. It was so beautiful. Why did you cut it off?”

			A hundred expressions chased each other across Loki’s face: cunning and shiftiness, truculence and confusion. Thor shook Loki hard. Loki looked down and did his best to appear ashamed. “It was funny. I was drunk.”

			Thor’s brow lowered. “Sif’s hair was her glory. People will think that her head was shaved for punishment. That she did something she should not have done, did it with someone she should not have.”

			“Well, yes. There is that,” said Loki. “They will probably think that. And unfortunately, given that I took her hair from the roots, she will go through the rest of her life completely bald . . .”

			“No, she won’t.” Thor looked up at Loki, whom he was now holding far above his head, with a face like thunder.

			“I am afraid she will. But there are always hats and scarves . . .”

			“She won’t go through life bald,” said Thor. “Because, Loki Laufey’s son, if you do not put her hair back right now, I am going to break every single bone in your body. Each and every one of them. And if her hair does not grow properly, I will come back and break every bone in your body again. And again. If I do it every day, I’ll soon get really good at it,” he carried on, sounding slightly more cheerful.

			“No!” said Loki. “I can’t put her hair back. It doesn’t work like that.”

			“Today,” mused Thor, “it will probably take me about an hour to break every bone in your body. But I bet that with practice I could get it down to about fifteen minutes. It will be interesting to find out.” He started to break his first bone.

			“Dwarfs!” shrieked Loki.


			“Dwarfs! They can make anything. They could make golden hair for Sif, hair that would bond with her scalp and grow normally, perfect golden hair. They could do it. I swear they could.”

			“Then,” said Thor, “you had better go and talk to them.” And he dropped Loki from high above his head onto the floor.

			Loki clambered to his feet and hurried away before Thor could break any more bones.

			He put on his shoes that let him travel through the sky, and he went to Svartalfheim, where the dwarfs have their workshops. The most ingenious craftsmen of them all, he decided, were the three dwarfs known as the sons of Ivaldi.

			Loki went to their underground forge. “Hello, sons of Ivaldi. I have asked around, and people here tell me that Brokk and Eitri, his brother, are the greatest dwarf craftsmen there are or have ever been,” said Loki.

			“No,” said one of the sons of Ivaldi. “It’s us. We are the greatest craftsmen there are.”

			“I am assured that Brokk and Eitri can make treasures as good as those you can.”

			“Lies!” said the tallest of the sons of Ivaldi. “I wouldn’t trust those fumble-fingered incompetents to shoe a horse.”

			The smallest and the wisest of the sons of Ivaldi simply shrugged. “Whatever they make, we could do better.”

			“I hear that they’ve challenged you,” said Loki. “Three treasures. The gods of the Aesir will judge who made the best treasure. Oh, and by the way, one of the treasures you make needs to be hair. Ever-growing perfect golden hair.”

			“We can do that,” said one of the sons of Ivaldi. Even Loki could barely tell them apart.

			Loki went across the mountain to see the dwarf called Brokk, at the workshop he shared with his brother, Eitri. “Ivaldi’s sons are making three treasures as gifts for the gods of Asgard,” said Loki. “The gods are going to judge the treasures. Ivaldi’s sons want me to tell you that they are certain you and your brother Eitri can’t make anything as good as they can. They called you ‘fumble-fingered incompetents.’”

			Brokk was no fool. “This smells extremely fishy to me, Loki,” he said. “Are you sure this isn’t your doing? Stirring up trouble between Eitri and me and Ivaldi’s boys seems like the sort of thing you’d do.”

			Loki looked as guileless as he could, which was amazingly guileless. “Nothing to do with me,” he said innocently. “I just thought you ought to know.”

			“And you have no personal stake in this?” asked Brokk.

			“None whatsoever.”

			Brokk nodded and looked up at Loki. Brokk’s brother, Eitri, was the great craftsman, but Brokk was the smarter of the two, and the more determined. “Well, then we’ll be happy to take on the sons of Ivaldi in a test of skill, to be judged by the gods. Because I have no doubt that Eitri can forge better and craftier things than Ivaldi’s lot. But let’s make this personal, Loki. Eh?”

			“What do you have in mind?” asked Loki.

			“Your head,” said Brokk. “If we win this contest, we get your head, Loki. There’s lots of things going on in that head of yours, and I have no doubt that Eitri could make a wonderful device out of it. A thinking machine, perhaps. Or an inkwell.”

			Loki kept smiling, but he scowled on the inside. The day had started out so well. Still, he simply had to ensure that Eitri and Brokk lost the contest; the gods would still get six wonderful things from the dwarfs, and Sif would get her golden hair. He could do that. He was Loki.

			“Of course,” he said. “My head. No problem.”

			Across the mountain, the sons of Ivaldi were making their treasures. Loki was not worried about them. But he needed to make sure that Brokk and Eitri did not, could not possibly, win.

			Brokk and Eitri entered the forge. It was dark in there, lit by the orange glow of burning charcoal. Eitri took a pigskin from a shelf and placed it into the forge. “I’ve been keeping this pigskin for something like this,” he said.

			Brokk just nodded.

			“Right,” said Eitri. “You work the bellows, Brokk. Just keep pumping them. I need this hot, and I need it consistently hot, otherwise it won’t work. Pump. Pump.”

			Brokk began to pump the bellows, sending a stream of oxygen-rich air into the heart of the forge, heating everything up. He had done it many times before. Eitri watched until he was satisfied that it would all be to his liking.

			Eitri left to work on his creation outside the forge. As he opened the door to go out, a large black insect flew in. It was not a horsefly and it was not a deerfly; it was bigger than either. It flew in and circled the room in a malicious way.

			Brokk could hear the sound of Eitri’s hammers outside the forge, and the sounds of filing and twisting, of shaping and banging.

			The large black fly—it was the biggest, blackest fly you have ever seen—landed on the back of Brokk’s hand.

			Both of Brokk’s hands were on the bellows. He did not stop pumping to swat at the fly. The fly bit Brokk, hard, on the back of the hand.

			Brokk kept pumping.

			The door opened, and Eitri came in and carefully pulled the work from the forge. It appeared to be a huge boar, with bristles of gleaming gold.

			“Good work,” said Eitri. “A fraction of a degree warmer or cooler and the whole thing would have been a waste of our time.”

			“Good work you too,” said Brokk.

			The black fly, up on the corner of the ceiling, seethed with resentment and irritation.

			Eitri took a block of gold and placed it on the forge. “Right,” he said. “This next one will impress them. When I call, start pumping the bellows, and whatever happens do not slow down, or speed up, or stop. There’s fiddly work involved.”

			“Got it,” said Brokk.

			Eitri left the room and began to work. Brokk waited until he heard Eitri’s call, and he started to pump the bellows.

			The black fly circled the room thoughtfully, then landed on Brokk’s neck. The insect stepped aside daintily to avoid a rivulet of sweat, for the air was hot and close in the forge. It bit Brokk’s neck as hard as it could. Scarlet blood joined the sweat on Brokk’s neck, but the dwarf did not stop pumping.

			Eitri returned. He removed a white-hot arm-ring from the forge. He dropped it into the stone cooling pool in the forge to quench it. There was a cloud of steam as the arm-ring fell into the water. The ring cooled, moving rapidly to orange, to red hot, and then, as it cooled, to gold.

			“It’s called Draupnir,” said Eitri.

			“The dripper? That’s a funny name for a ring,” said Brokk.

			“Not for this one,” said Eitri, and he explained to Brokk what was so very special about the arm-ring.

			“Now,” said Eitri, “there’s something I’ve had in mind to make for a very long time now. My masterwork. But it’s even trickier than the other two. So what you have to do is—”

			“Pump, and don’t stop pumping?” said Brokk.

			“That’s right,” said Eitri. “Even more than before. Do not change your pace, or the whole thing will be ruined.” Eitri picked up an ingot of pig iron, bigger than any ingot that the black fly (who was Loki) had ever seen before, and he hefted it into the forge.

			He left the room and called out to Brokk to begin pumping.

			Brokk began to pump, and the sound of Eitri’s hammers began as Eitri pulled and shaped and welded and joined.

			Loki, in fly shape, decided that there was no more time for subtlety. Eitri’s masterpiece would be something that would impress the gods, and if the gods were impressed enough, then he would lose his head. Loki landed between Brokk’s eyes and started to bite the dwarf’s eyelids. The dwarf continued to pump, his eyes stinging. Loki bit deeper, harder, more desperately. Now blood ran from the dwarf’s eyelids, into his eyes and down his face, blinding him.

			Brokk squinted and shook his head, trying to dislodge the fly. He jerked his head from side to side. He contorted his mouth and tried blowing air up at the fly. It was no good. The fly continued to bite, and the dwarf could see nothing but blood. A sharp pain filled his head.

			Brokk counted, and at the bottom of the downstroke he whipped one hand from the bellows and swiped at the fly, with such speed and such strength that Loki barely escaped with his life. Brokk grabbed the bellows once again and continued to pump.

			“Enough!” called Eitri.

			The black fly flew unsteadily about the room. Eitri opened the door, allowing the fly to escape.

			Eitri looked at his brother with disappointment. Brokk’s face was a mess of blood and sweat. “I don’t know what you were playing at that time,” said Eitri. “But you came close to ruining everything. The temperature was all over the place at the end. As it is, it’s nowhere near as impressive as I’d hoped. We’ll just have to see.”

			Loki, in Loki shape, strolled in through the open door. “So, all ready for the contest?” he asked.

			“Brokk can go to Asgard and present my gifts to the gods and cut off your head,” said Eitri. “I like it best here at my forge, making things.”

			Brokk stared at Loki through swollen eyelids. “I’m looking forward to cutting off your head,” said Brokk. “It got personal.”


			In Asgard, three gods sat on their thrones: one-eyed Odin the all-father, red-bearded Thor of the thunders, and handsome Frey of the summer’s harvest. They would be the judges.

			Loki stood before them, beside the three almost identical sons of Ivaldi.

			Brokk, black-bearded and brooding, was there alone, standing to one side, the things he had brought hidden beneath sheets.

			“So,” said Odin. “What are we judging?”

			“Treasures,” said Loki. “The sons of Ivaldi have made gifts for you, great Odin, and for Thor, and for Frey, and so have Eitri and Brokk. It is up to you to decide which of the six things is the finest treasure. I myself will show you the gifts made by the sons of Ivaldi.”

			He presented Odin with the spear called Gungnir. It was a beautiful spear, carved with intricate runes.

			“It will penetrate anything, and when you throw it, it will always find its mark,” said Loki. Odin had but one eye, after all, and sometimes his aim could be less than perfect. “And, just as important, an oath taken on this spear is unbreakable.”

			Odin hefted the spear. “It is very fine,” was all he said.

			“And here,” said Loki proudly, “is a flowing head of golden hair. Made of real gold. It will attach itself to the head of the person who needs it and grow and behave in every way as if it were real hair. A hundred thousand strands of gold.”

			“I will test it,” said Thor. “Sif, come here.”

			Sif rose and came to the front, her head covered. She removed her headscarf. The gods gasped when they saw Sif’s naked head, bald and pink, and then she carefully placed the dwarfs’ golden wig on her head and shook her hair. They watched as the base of the wig joined itself to her scalp, and then Sif stood in front of them even more radiant and beautiful than before.

			“Impressive,” said Thor. “Good job!”

			Sif tossed her golden hair and walked out of the hall into the sunlight, to show her new hair to her friends.

			The last of the sons of Ivaldi’s remarkable gifts was small, and folded like cloth. This cloth Loki placed in front of Frey.

			“What is it? It looks like a silk scarf,” said Frey, unimpressed.

			“It does,” said Loki. “But if you unfold it, you will discover it is a ship, called Skidbladnir. It will always have a fair wind, wherever it goes. And although it is huge, the biggest ship you can imagine, it will fold up, as you see, like a cloth, so you can put it into your pouch.”

			Frey was impressed, and Loki was relieved. They were three excellent gifts.

			Now it was Brokk’s turn. His eyelids were red and swollen, and there was a huge insect bite on the side of his neck. Loki thought Brokk looked entirely too cocky, especially given the remarkable things Ivaldi’s sons had made.

			Brokk took the golden arm-ring and placed it in front of Odin on his high throne. “This arm-ring is called Draupnir,” said Brokk. “Because every ninth night, eight gold arm-rings of equal beauty will drip from it. You can reward people with them, or store them, and your wealth will increase.”

			Odin examined the arm-ring, then pushed it onto his arm, up high on his biceps. It gleamed there. “It is very fine,” he said.

			Loki recalled that Odin had said the same thing about the spear.

			Brokk walked over to Frey. He raised a cloth and revealed a huge boar with bristles made of gold.

			“This is a boar my brother made for you, to pull your chariot,” said Brokk. “It will race across the sky and over the sea, faster than the fastest horse. There will never be a night so dark that its golden bristles will not give light and let you see what you are doing. It will never tire, and will never fail you. It is called Gullenbursti, the golden-bristled one.”

			Frey looked impressed. Still, thought Loki, the magical ship that folded up like a cloth was every bit as impressive as an unstoppable boar that shone in the dark. Loki’s head was quite safe. And the last gift Brokk had to present was the one that Loki knew he had already managed to sabotage.

			From beneath the cloth Brokk produced a hammer, and placed it in front of Thor.

			Thor looked at it and sniffed.

			“The handle is rather short,” he said.

			Brokk nodded. “Yes,” he said. “That’s my fault. I was working the bellows. But before you dismiss it, let me tell you about what makes this hammer unique. It’s called Mjollnir, the lightning-maker. First of all, it’s unbreakable—doesn’t matter how hard you hit something with it, the hammer will always be undamaged.”

			Thor looked interested. He had already broken a great many weapons over the years, normally by hitting things with them.

			“If you throw the hammer, it will never miss what you throw it at.”

			Thor looked even more interested. He had lost a number of otherwise excellent weapons by throwing them at things that irritated him and missing, and he had watched too many weapons he had thrown disappear into the distance, never to be seen again.

			“No matter how hard or how far you throw it, it will always return to your hand.”

			Thor was now actually smiling. And the thunder god did not often smile.

			“You can change the size of the hammer. It will grow, and it will also shrink down so small that if you wish, you can hide it inside your shirt.”

			Thor clapped his hands together in delight, and thunder echoed across Asgard.

			“And yet, as you have observed,” concluded Brokk sadly, “the handle of the hammer is indeed too short. This is my fault. I failed to keep the bellows blowing while my brother, Eitri, was forging it.”

			“The shortness of the handle is a minor, cosmetic problem,” said Thor. “This hammer will protect us from the frost giants. This is the finest gift I have ever seen.”

			“It will protect Asgard. It will protect all of us,” said Odin with approval.

			“If I were a giant, I would be very afraid of Thor if he had that hammer,” said Frey.

			“Yes. It’s an excellent hammer. But Thor, what about the hair? Sif’s beautiful new golden hair!” asked Loki slightly desperately.

			“What? Oh, yes. My wife has very nice hair,” said Thor. “Now. Show me how to make the hammer grow and shrink, Brokk.”

			“Thor’s hammer is better even than my wonderful spear and my excellent arm-ring,” said Odin, nodding.

			“The hammer is greater and more impressive than my ship and my boar,” admitted Frey. “It will keep the gods of Asgard safe.”

			The gods clapped Brokk on the back and told him that he and Eitri had made the finest gift that they had ever been given.

			“Good to know,” said Brokk. He turned to Loki. “So,” said Brokk. “I get to cut off your head, Laufey’s son, and take it back with me. Eitri will be so pleased. We can turn it into something useful.”

			“I . . . will ransom my head,” said Loki. “I have treasures I can give you.”

			“Eitri and I already have all the treasure we need,” said Brokk. “We make treasures. No, Loki. I want your head.”

			Loki thought for a moment, then said, “Then you can have it. If you can catch me.” And Loki leapt high into the air and ran off, far above their heads. In moments he was gone.

			Brokk looked at Thor. “Can you catch him?”

			Thor shrugged. “I really shouldn’t,” he said. “But then, I would very much like to try out the hammer.”

			In moments Thor returned, holding Loki tightly. Loki was glaring with impotent fury.

			The dwarf Brokk took out his knife. “Come here, Loki,” he said. “I’m going to cut off your head.”

			“Of course,” said Loki. “You can, of course, cut off my head. But—and I appeal to mighty Odin here—if you cut off any of my neck, you are violating the terms of our agreement, which promised you my head, and my head only.”

			Odin inclined his head. “Loki is right,” he said. “You have no right to cut his neck.”

			Brokk was irritated. “But I can’t cut off his head without cutting his neck,” he said.

			Loki looked pleased with himself. “You see,” he said, “if people thought through the exactness of their words, they would not dare to take on Loki, the wisest, the cleverest, the trickiest, the most intelligent, the best-looking . . .”

			Brokk whispered a suggestion to Odin. “That would be fair,” agreed Odin.

			Brokk produced a strip of leather and a knife. He wrapped the leather around Loki’s mouth. Brokk tried to pierce the leather with the tip of the knifeblade.

			“It’s not working,” said Brokk. “My knife isn’t cutting you.”

			“I might have wisely arranged for protection from knifeblades,” said Loki modestly. “Just in case the whole you-can’t-cut-my-neck ploy did not work. I am afraid no knifeblade can cut me!”

			Brokk grunted and produced an awl, a pointed spike used in leatherwork, and he jabbed it through the leather, punching holes through Loki’s lips. Then he took a strong thread and he sewed Loki’s lips together with it.

			Brokk walked away, leaving Loki with his mouth sewn up tight, unable to complain.

			For Loki, the pain of being unable to talk hurt even more than the pain of having his lips stitched into the leather.

			So now you know: that is how the gods got their greatest treasures. It was Loki’s fault. Even Thor’s hammer was Loki’s fault. That was the thing about Loki. You resented him even when you were at your most grateful, and you were grateful to him even when you hated him the most.


Thor had gone to the east to fight trolls. Asgard was more peaceful without him, but it was also unprotected. This was in the early days, shortly after the treaty between the Aesir and the Vanir, when the gods were still making a home for themselves and Asgard was undefended.

			“We cannot always rely on Thor,” said Odin. “We need protection. Giants will come. Trolls will come.”

			“What do you propose?” asked Heimdall, the watchman of the gods.

			“A wall,” said Odin. “High enough to keep out frost giants. Thick enough that not even the strongest troll could batter its way through.”

			“Building such a wall,” said Loki, “so high and so thick, would take us many years.”

			Odin nodded his agreement. “But still,” he said, “we need a wall.”

			The next day a newcomer arrived in Asgard. He was a big man, dressed as a smith, and behind him trudged a horse—a stallion, huge and gray, with a broad back.

			“They say you need a wall built,” said the stranger.

			“Go on,” said Odin.

			“I can build you a wall,” said the stranger. “Build it so high that the tallest giant could not climb it, so thick that the strongest troll could not batter through it. I can build it so well, by placing stone upon stone, that not an ant could find space enough to crawl through it. I will build you a wall that will last for a thousand thousand years.”

			“Such a wall would take a very long time to build,” said Loki.

			“Not at all,” said the stranger. “I can build it in three seasons. Tomorrow is the first day of winter. It would only take me a winter, a summer, and another winter to build.”

			“And if you could do this,” said Odin, “what would you ask in return?”

			“I need little enough payment for what I am offering,” said the man. “Only three things. First, I would like the beautiful goddess Freya’s hand in marriage.”

			“That is not a little thing,” said Odin. “And it would not surprise me if Freya had her own opinions about the matter. What are the other two things?”

			The stranger grinned a cocky grin. “If I build your wall,” he said, “I want the hand of Freya, and I also want the sun that shines in the sky by day, and I want the moon that gives us light at night. These three things are what the gods will give me if I build your wall.”

			The gods looked at Freya. She said nothing, but her lips were pressed together and her face was white with anger. Around her neck was the necklace of the Brisings, which shone like the northern lights as it brushed her skin, and her hair was banded in gold, which was almost as bright as the hair itself.

			“Go and wait outside,” said Odin to the stranger. The man walked away, not before asking where he could find food and water for his stallion, which was called Svadilfari, which means “one who makes an unlucky journey.”

			Odin rubbed his forehead. Then he turned and looked at all the gods.

			“Well?” asked Odin.

			The gods began to talk.

			“Quiet!” shouted Odin. “One at a time!”

			Each of the gods and the goddesses had an opinion, and every one of them was of the same opinion: that Freya, the sun, and the moon were all too important and too valuable to be given to a stranger, even if he could build them the wall they needed in three seasons.

			Freya had an additional opinion. She felt that the man should be beaten for his impertinence, then thrown out of Asgard and sent on his way.

			“So,” said Odin the all-father, “we are decided. We say no.”

			There was a dry cough from a corner of the hall. It was the kind of cough intended to attract attention, and the gods turned to see who had coughed. They found themselves looking at Loki, who stared back at them, and who smiled and held up a finger as if he had something important to divulge.

			“It is worth my pointing out,” he said, “that you are ignoring something huge.”

			“I do not think we have overlooked a single thing, troublemaker of the gods,” said Freya tartly.

			“You are all overlooking,” he said, “that what this stranger is proposing to do is, to make no bones about it, quite impossible. There is no-one alive who could build a wall so high and so thick as the one he described and have it finished in eighteen months. Not a giant or a god could do this, let alone a mortal man. I would stake my skin on it.”

			At this the gods all nodded and grunted and looked impressed. All of them except for Freya, and she looked angry. “You are fools,” she said. “Especially you, Loki, because you think yourself clever.”

			“What he says he can do,” said Loki, “is an impossible task. So I suggest this: we agree to his demands and to his price, but we set him stiff conditions—he may have no help building his wall, and instead of three seasons to build his wall, he has but one. If on the first day of summer any of the wall is unfinished—and it will be—then we pay him nothing at all.”

			“Why would he agree to that?” asked Heimdall.

			“And what advantage would that give us over not having a wall at all?” asked Frey, Freya’s brother.

			Loki tried to suppress his impatience. Were all the gods fools? He began to explain, as if he were explaining to a small child. “The smith will begin to build his wall. He will not finish it. He will work for six months, unpaid, on a fool’s errand. At the end of six months we will drive him away—we might even beat him for his presumption—and then we can use whatever he has done so far as the foundations of the wall that we will complete in the years to come. There is no risk to us of losing Freya, let alone the sun or moon.”

			“Why would he say yes to building it in a season?” asked Tyr, god of war.

			“He may not say yes,” said Loki. “But he seems arrogant and sure of himself, and not the kind to refuse a challenge.”

			All the gods grunted, and clapped Loki on the back, and told him that he was a very crafty fellow and it was a good thing that he was crafty and on their side, and now they would get their foundations built for nothing, and they congratulated each other on their intelligence and their bargaining ability.

			Freya said nothing. She fingered her necklace of light, the gift of the Brisings. This was the same necklace that had been stolen from her by Loki in the form of a seal, when she was bathing, and that Heimdall had fought in seal form with Loki to return to her. She did not trust Loki. She did not care for the way this conversation had gone.

			The gods called the builder into their hall.

			He looked around at the gods. They all seemed in good humor, grinning and nudging each other and smiling. Freya, however, did not smile.

			“Well?” asked the builder.

			“You asked for three seasons,” said Loki. “We will give you one season, and one season only. Tomorrow is the first day of winter. If you are not finished on the first day of summer, you leave here, unpaid. But if you have finished building the wall, as high and as thick and as impregnable as we have agreed, then you will be given everything you have asked for: the moon, the sun, and the beautiful Freya. You may have no help in building your wall from anyone; you must build this wall alone.”

			The stranger said nothing for some moments. He stared away into the distance and seemed to be weighing Loki’s words and conditions. Then he looked at the gods, and he shrugged. “You have said I may have no outside help. I would like my horse, Svadilfari, to help me haul the stones here, the stones I will use to build the wall. I do not believe this to be an unreasonable request.”

			“It is not unreasonable,” agreed Odin, and the other gods nodded and told each other that horses were good for hauling heavy stones.

			They swore oaths then, the mightiest of oaths, the gods and the stranger, that neither side could betray the other. They swore on their weapons, and they swore on Draupnir, Odin’s golden arm-ring, and they swore on Gungnir, Odin’s spear, and an oath sworn on Gungnir was unbreakable.

			The next morning, as the sun rose, the gods stood to watch the man work. He spat on his hands and he began to dig the trench into which the first stones would go.

			“He digs deep,” said Heimdall.

			“He digs fast,” said Frey, Freya’s brother.

			“Well, yes, obviously he is a mighty digger of ditches and trenches,” said Loki grudgingly. “But imagine how many stones he will have to haul here from the mountains. It is one thing to dig a trench. It is another to haul stones many miles, unaided, and then to place them, one stone upon the next, so tightly fitted that not an ant could crawl between them, higher than the tallest giant, to make a wall.”

			Freya looked at Loki with disgust, but she said nothing.

			When the sun set, the builder mounted his horse and set off for the mountains to gather his first rocks. The horse dragged an empty stone-boat behind it, a low sled that it pulled across the soft earth. The gods watched them leave. The moon was high and pale in the early winter sky.

			“He will be back in a week,” said Loki. “I am curious to see how many rocks that horse can haul. It looks strong.”

			The gods went to their feast hall then, and there was much merriment and laughter, but Freya did not laugh.

			It snowed before dawn, a light dusting of snowflakes, a presentiment of the deep snows that would come further into the winter.

			Heimdall, who saw everything approaching Asgard and who missed nothing, woke the gods in the darkness. They gathered by the trench the stranger had dug the previous day. In the gathering dawn they watched the builder, walking beside his horse, coming toward them.

			The horse was steadily dragging a score of blocks of granite, so heavy that the sled made deep ruts in the black earth.

			When the man saw the gods he waved and called good morning cheerfully. He pointed to the rising sun, and he winked at the gods. Then he unhitched his horse from the rocks and let it graze while he began to manhandle the first of the granite blocks into the trench he had already dug to receive it.

			“The horse is indeed strong,” said Balder, most beautiful of all the Aesir. “No normal horse should be able to drag rocks that heavy.”

			“It is stronger than we imagined,” said Kvasir the wise.

			“Ah,” said Loki. “The horse will soon tire. This was its first day on the job. It will not be able to haul that many stones every night. And winter is coming. The snows will be deep and thick, the blizzards will be blinding, and the way to the mountain will be difficult. There is nothing to worry about. This is all going according to plan.”

			“I hate you so much,” said Freya, who stood unsmiling beside Loki. She walked back to Asgard in the dawn and did not stay to watch the stranger build the foundations of his wall.

			Each night the builder and the horse and the empty stone-boat left for the mountain. Each morning they returned, with the horse dragging another twenty blocks of granite, every block larger than the tallest man.

			Each day the wall grew, and by evening it was bigger and more imposing than it had been before.

			Odin called the gods to him.

			“The wall is growing apace,” he said. “And we swore an unbreakable oath, a ring-oath and a weapon-oath, that if he finishes building his wall in time, we will give him the sun and the moon and the hand in marriage of Freya the beautiful.”

			Kvasir the wise said, “No man can do what this master builder is doing. I suspect that he must be something other than a man.”

			“A giant,” said Odin. “Perhaps.”

			“If only Thor were here,” sighed Balder.

			“Thor is hammering trolls, away in the east,” said Odin. “And even if he were to return, our oaths are mighty and binding.”

			Loki tried to reassure them. “We are like old women, getting ourselves all worried about nothing. The builder cannot finish the wall before the first day of summer, even if he is the most powerful giant in the land. It is impossible.”

			“I wish Thor were here,” said Heimdall. “He would know what to do.”

			The snows fell, but the deep snow did not stop the wall-builder, and it did not slow Svadilfari, his horse. The gray stallion pulled his sled, piled high with rocks, through snowdrifts and through blizzards, up steep hills and down again, through icy gorges.

			The days began to get longer.

			Dawn came earlier each morning. The snows began to melt, and the wet mud that was exposed was thick and heavy, the kind of mud that clings to your boots and drags you down.

			“The horse will never be able to haul those rocks through the mud,” said Loki. “They will sink, and he will lose his footing.”

			But Svadilfari was sure-footed and implacable, even in the thickest, wettest mud, and he hauled the rocks to Asgard, although the stone-boat was so heavy it cut deep gashes into the sides of the hills. Now the builder was hauling the rocks up hundreds of feet and manhandling each rock into place.

			The mud dried and the spring flowers came out: yellow coltsfoot, and white wood anemones in profusion—and the wall being built around Asgard was a glorious, imposing thing. When it was finished it would be impregnable: no giant, no troll, no dwarf, no mortal would be able to breach that wall. And the stranger continued to build it with relentless good humor. He did not seem to care if it rained or it snowed, and neither did his horse. Each morning they would bring the rocks from the mountains; each day the builder would lay the granite blocks upon the previous layer.

			Now it was the last day of winter, and the wall was all but completed.

			The gods sat on their thrones in Asgard, and they spoke.

			“The sun,” said Balder. “We have given away the sun.”

			“We placed the moon in the sky in order to mark off the days and the weeks of the year,” said Bragi, god of poetry, moodily. “Now there will be no moon.”

			“And Freya, what would we do without Freya?” asked Tyr.

			“If this builder is actually a giant,” said Freya, with ice in her voice, “then I will marry him and follow him back to Jotunheim, and it will be interesting to see whom I hate more, him for taking me away or all of you for giving me to him.”

			“Now, don’t be like that,” began Loki, but Freya interrupted him and said, “If this giant does take me, and the sun and the moon, then I ask only one thing from the gods of Asgard.”

			“Name it,” said Odin all-father, who had said nothing until now.

			“I would like to see whoever caused this calamity killed before I go,” said Freya. “I think it only fair. If I am to go into the land of the frost giants, if the moon and the sun are to be plucked from the sky and the world plunged into eternal darkness, then the life of the one who got us to this point should be forfeit.”

			“Ah,” said Loki. “The apportioning of blame is so difficult. Who remembers exactly who suggested what? As I recall, all the gods share equally in this unfortunate mistake. We all suggested it, we all agreed to it—”

			“You suggested it,” said Freya. “You talked these idiots into it. And I will see you dead before I leave Asgard.”

			“We all—” began Loki, but he saw the expressions on the faces of all the gods in that hall, and he fell silent.

			“Loki son of Laufey,” said Odin, “this is the result of your poor counsel.”

			“And it was as bad as all your other advice,” said Balder. Loki shot him a resentful glance.

			“We need the builder to lose his wager,” said Odin. “Without violating the oath. He must fail.”

			“I don’t know what you expect me to do about it,” said Loki.

			“I do not expect anything from you,” said Odin. “But if this builder succeeds in finishing his wall by the end of tomorrow, then your death will be painful, and long, and a bad and shameful death at that.”

			Loki looked from one god to the next, and in each of their faces he saw his death, saw anger and resentment. He did not see mercy or forgiveness.

			It would be a bad death indeed. But what were the alternatives? What could he do? He did not dare to attack the builder. On the other hand . . .

			Loki nodded. “Leave it to me.”

			He walked from the hall, and none of the gods tried to stop him.

			The builder finished placing his load of stones on the wall. Tomorrow, on the first day of summer, as the sun was setting, he would finish his wall, and then he would leave Asgard with his wages. Only twenty more granite blocks to go. He clambered down the rough wooden scaffolding and whistled for his horse.

			Svadilfari was grazing, as he normally was, in the long grass at the edge of the forest, almost half a mile from the wall, but he always came when his master whistled.

			The builder grabbed the ropes that attached to the empty stone-boat and prepared to hitch it to his great gray horse. The sun was low in the sky, but it would not set for several hours, and the disk of the moon was pale, but it was there, high in the heavens, as well. Soon both of them would be his, the greater light and the lesser, and Freya the lady, who was more beautiful than either the sun or the moon. But the builder would not count his winnings before they were in his hands. He had worked so hard, and so long, for all the winter . . .

			He whistled for the horse again. Odd—he had never needed to whistle twice. He could see Svadilfari now, shaking his head and almost prancing in the wildflowers of the spring meadow. The horse would take a step forward and then a step back, as if he could scent something enticing in the warm air of the spring evening but could not tell what the scent was.

			“Svadilfari!” called the builder, and the stallion pricked his ears up and moved into a swift canter across the meadow, heading for the builder.

			The builder watched his horse head toward him, and he felt satisfied. The hoofbeats pounded across the meadow, doubling and redoubling with the echoes that bounced from the high gray granite wall, so for one moment the builder imagined that a whole herd of horses was coming toward him.

			No, thought the builder, just one horse.

			He shook his head and realized his mistake. Not one horse. Not one set of hoofbeats. Two . . .

			The other horse was a chestnut mare. The builder knew she was a mare immediately—he did not have to look between her legs. Every line of her, every inch of her, everything about the chestnut was female. Svadilfari wheeled as he ran across the meadow, then he slowed, and reared, and neighed loudly.

			The chestnut mare ignored him. She stopped running, as if he were not there, and she put her head down and seemed to be cropping the grass as Svadilfari approached her, but when he was within a dozen yards she began to run from him, a canter that became a gallop, and the gray stallion ran behind her, trying to catch her, always a length or two behind, nipping at her rump and tail with his teeth, yet always missing.

			They ran across the meadow together in the creamy golden light of the end of the day, the gray horse and the brown, sweat glistening on their flanks. It was almost a dance.

			The builder clapped his hands loudly, and whistled, and called Svadilfari’s name, but the stallion ignored him.

			The builder ran out, intending to catch the horse and bring him back to his senses, but the chestnut mare seemed almost to know what he intended, for she slowed and rubbed her ears and mane against the side of the stallion’s head, and then ran, as if wolves were after her, toward the edge of the forest. Svadilfari ran after her, and in moments they both vanished into the shadows of the wood.

			The builder cursed, and spat, and waited for his horse to reappear.

			The shadows lengthened, and Svadlifari did not return.

			The builder returned to his stone-boat. He looked into the woods. Then he spat on his hands, took hold of the ropes, and began to haul the stone-boat across the meadow of grasses and spring flowers, toward the mountain quarry.

			He did not return at dawn. The sun was already high in the sky by the time the builder returned to Asgard, hauling the stone-boat behind him.

			He had ten stone blocks on the stone-boat, all he could manage, and he was hauling and heaving the stone-boat and cursing the stones, but with each heave he got closer to the wall.

			Beautiful Freya stood at the gateway, watching him.

			“You have only ten stone blocks with you,” she told him. “You will need twice that many bricks to finish our wall.”

			The builder said nothing. He carried on hauling his blocks toward the unfinished gateway, his face a mask. There were no smiles, no winks—not any longer.

			“Thor is returning from the east,” Freya told him. “He will be with us soon.”

			The gods of Asgard came out to watch the builder as he hauled the rocks toward the wall. They joined Freya, stood about her protectively.

			They watched, silently at first, and then they began to smile and to chuckle, and to call out questions.

			“Hey!” shouted Balder. “You only get the sun if you finish that wall. Do you think you will be taking the sun home with you?”

			“And the moon,” said Bragi. “Such a pity you do not have your horse with you. He could have carried all the rocks you need.”

			And the gods laughed.

			The builder let go of the stone-boat then. He faced the gods. “You cheated!” he said, and his face was scarlet with exertion and with anger.

			“We have not cheated,” said Odin. “No more than you have cheated. Do you think we would have let you build our wall if we had known you were a giant?”

			The builder picked up a rock one-handed and smashed it against another, breaking the granite block into two. He turned to the gods, half of the rock in each hand, and now he was twenty, thirty, fifty feet tall. His face twisted; he no longer looked like the stranger who had arrived in Asgard a season before, placid and even-tempered. Now his face looked like the granite face of a cliff, twisted and sculpted by anger and hatred.

			“I am a mountain giant,” he said. “And you gods are nothing but cheats and vile oath-breakers. If I still had my horse, I would be finishing your wall now. I would be taking the lovely Freya and the sun and the moon for my wages. And I would be leaving you here in the darkness and the cold, without even beauty to cheer you.”

			“No oath was broken,” said Odin. “But no oath can protect you from us now.”

			The mountain giant roared with anger and ran toward the gods, a huge lump of granite in each hand as a club.

			The gods stood aside, and only now the giant saw who was standing behind them. A huge god, red-bearded and muscular, wearing iron gauntlets and holding an iron hammer, which he swung, once. He let go of the hammer when it was pointing at the giant.

			There was a flash of lightning from the clear skies, followed by the dull boom of thunder as the hammer left Thor’s hand.

			The mountain giant saw the hammer getting rapidly bigger as it came hurtling toward him, and then he saw nothing else, not ever again.

			The gods finished building the wall themselves, although it took them many more weeks to cut and haul the last ten blocks from the quarries high in the mountains and drag them all the way back to Asgard and place them in position at the top of the gateway. They were not as well shaped or as well fitted as the blocks the master builder had shaped and placed himself.

			There were those of the gods who felt that they should have let the giant get even closer to finishing the wall before Thor killed him. Thor said that he appreciated the gods having some fun ready for him, when he got home from the east.

			Strangely, for it was most unlike him, Loki was not around to be praised for his part in luring away the horse Svadilfari. Nobody knew where he was, although there were those who spoke of a magnificent chestnut mare seen on the meadows beneath Asgard. Loki stayed away for the best part of a year, and when he showed up again, he was accompanied by a gray foal.

			It was a beautiful foal, although it had eight legs instead of the usual four, and it followed Loki wherever he went, and nuzzled him, and treated Loki as if he were its mother. Which, of course, was the case.

			The foal grew into a horse called Sleipnir, a huge gray stallion, the fastest and the strongest horse that ever there had been or ever there would be, a horse that could outrun the wind.

			Loki presented Sleipnir to Odin as a gift, the best horse among gods and men.

			Many people would admire Odin’s horse, but only a brave man would ever mention its parentage in Loki’s presence, and nobody ever dared to allude to it twice. Loki would go out of his way to make your life unpleasant if he heard you talking about how he lured Svadlifari away from its master and how he rescued the gods from his own bad idea. Loki nursed his resentments.

			And that is the story of how the gods got their wall.


Loki was handsome, and he knew it. People wanted to like him, they wanted to believe him, but he was undependable and self-centered at best, mischievous or evil at worst. He married a woman named Sigyn, who had been happy and beautiful when Loki courted and married her but now always looked like she was expecting bad news. She bore him a son, Narfi, and shortly afterward another son, Vali.

			Sometimes Loki would vanish for long periods and not return, and then Sigyn would look like she was expecting the very worst news of all, but always Loki would come back to her, looking shifty and guilty and also as if he were very proud of himself indeed.

			Three times he went away, three times he—eventually—


			The third time Loki returned to Asgard, Odin called Loki to him.

			“I have dreamed a dream,” said the wise old one-eyed god. “You have children.”

			“I have a son, Narfi. A good boy, although I must confess that he does not always listen to his father, and another son, Vali, obedient and restrained.”

			“Not them. You have three other children, Loki. You have been sneaking off to spend your days and your nights in the land of the frost giants with Angrboda the giantess. And she has borne you three children. I have seen them in the eye of my mind as I sleep, and my visions tell me that they will be the greatest foes of the gods in the time that is to come.”

			Loki said nothing. He tried to look ashamed and succeeded simply in looking pleased with himself.

			Odin called the gods to him, with Tyr and Thor at their head, and he told them that they would be journeying far into Jotunheim, to Giantland, to bring Loki’s children to Asgard.

			The gods traveled into the land of the giants, battling many dangers, until they reached Angrboda’s keep. She was not expecting them, and she had left her children playing together in her great hall. The gods were shocked when they saw what Loki and Angrboda’s children were, but that did not deter them. They seized the children, and they bound them, and they carried the oldest between them, tied to the stripped trunk of a pine tree, and they muzzled the second child with a muzzle made from knotted willow, and they put a rope around its neck as a leash, while the third child walked beside them, gloomy and disturbing.

			Those on the right of the third child saw a beautiful young girl, while those on the left tried not to look at her, for they saw a dead girl, her skin and flesh rotted black, walking in their midst.

			“Have you noticed something?” Thor asked Tyr on the third day of their journey back through the land of the frost giants. They had camped for the night in a small clearing, and Tyr was scratching the furry neck of Loki’s second child with his huge right hand.


			“They are not following us, the giants. Not even the creatures’ mother has come after us. It’s as if they want us to take Loki’s children out of Jotunheim.”

			“That is foolish talk,” said Tyr, but as he said it, even though the fire was warm, he shivered.

			Two more days of hard traveling and they were in Odin’s hall.

			“These are the children of Loki,” said Tyr shortly.

			The first of Loki’s children was tied to a pine tree and was now longer than the pine tree it was tied to. It was called Jormungundr, and it was a serpent. “It has grown many feet in the days we have carried it back,” said Tyr.

			Thor said, “Careful. It can spit burning black venom. It spat its poison at me, but it missed. That’s why we tied its head to the tree like that.”

			“It is a child,” said Odin. “It is still growing. We will send it where it can harm nobody.”

			Odin took the serpent to the shore of the sea that lies beyond all lands, the sea that circles Midgard, and there on the shore he freed Jormungundr, and watched it slither and slip beneath the waves and swim away in loops and curls.

			Odin watched it with his one eye until it was lost on the horizon, and he wondered if he had done the right thing. He did not know. He had done as his dreams had told him, but dreams know more than they reveal, even to the wisest of the gods.

			The serpent would grow beneath the gray waters of the world ocean, grow until it encircled the earth. Folk would call Jormungundr the Midgard serpent.

			Odin returned to the great hall, and he ordered Loki’s daughter to step forward.

			He stared at the girl: on the right side of her face her cheek was pink and white, her eye was the green of Loki’s eyes, her lips were full and carmine; on the left side of her face the skin was blotched and striated, swollen in the bruises of death, her sightless eye rotted and pale, her lipless mouth wizened and stretched over skull-brown teeth.

			“What do they call you, girl?” asked the all-father.

			“They call me Hel,” she said, “if it pleases you, All-father.”

			“You are a polite child,” said Odin. “I’ll give you that.”

			Hel said nothing, only looked at him with her single green eye, sharp as an ice chip, and her pallid eye, dull and spoiled and dead, and he saw no fear in her.

			“Are you alive?” he asked the girl. “Or are you a corpse?”

			“I am only myself, Hel, daughter of Angrboda and of Loki,” she said. “And I like the dead best of all. They are simple things, and they talk to me with respect. The living look at me with revulsion.”

			Odin contemplated the girl, and he remembered his dreams. Then Odin said, “This child will be the ruler of the deepest of the dark places, and ruler of the dead of all the nine worlds. She will be the queen of those poor souls who die in unworthy ways—of disease or of old age, of accidents or in childbirth. Warriors who die in battle will always come to us here in Valhalla. But the dead who die in other ways will be her folk, to attend her in her darkness.”

			For the first time since she had been taken from her mother, the girl Hel smiled, with half a mouth.

			Odin took Hel down to the lightless world, and he showed her the immense hall in which she would receive her subjects, and watched as she named her possessions. “I will call my bowl Hunger,” said Hel. She picked up a knife. “This is called Famine. And my bed is called Sickbed.”

			That was two of Loki’s children with Angrboda dealt with, then. One in the ocean, one to the darkness beneath the earth. But what to do with the third?

			When they had brought the third and smallest of Loki’s children back from the land of the giants, it had been puppy-sized, and Tyr had scratched its neck and its head and played with it, removing its willow muzzle first. It was a wolf cub, gray and black, with eyes the color of dark amber.

			The wolf cub ate its meat raw, but it spoke as a man would speak, in the language of men and the gods, and it was proud. The little beast was called Fenrir.

			It too was growing fast. One day it was the size of a wolf, the next the size of a cave bear, then the size of a great elk.

			The gods were intimidated by it, all except Tyr. He still played with it and romped with it, and he alone fed the wolf its meat each day. And each day the beast ate more than the day before, and each day it grew and it became fiercer and stronger.

			Odin watched the wolf-child grow with foreboding, for in his dreams the wolf had been there at the end of everything, and the last things Odin had seen in any of his dreams of the future were the topaz eyes and the sharp white teeth of Fenris Wolf.

			The gods had a council and resolved at that council that they would bind Fenrir.

			They crafted heavy chains and shackles in the forges of the gods, and they carried the shackles to Fenrir.

			“Here!” said the gods, as if suggesting a new game. “You have grown so fast, Fenrir. It is time to test your strength. We have here the heaviest chains and shackles. Do you think you can break them?”

			“I think I can,” said Fenris Wolf. “Bind me.”

			The gods wrapped the huge chains around Fenrir and shackled his paws. He waited motionless while they did this. The gods smiled at each other as they chained the enormous wolf.

			“Now,” shouted Thor.

			Fenrir strained and stretched the muscles of his legs, and the chains snapped like dry twigs.

			The great wolf howled to the moon, a howl of triumph and joy. “I broke your chains,” he said. “Do not forget this.”

			“We will not forget,” said the gods.

			The next day Tyr went to take the wolf his meat. “I broke the fetters,” said Fenrir. “I broke them easily.”

			“You did,” said Tyr.

			“Do you think they will test me again? I grow, and I grow stronger with every day.”

			“They will test you again. I would wager my right hand on it,” said Tyr.

			The wolf was still growing, and the gods were in the smithies, forging a new set of chains. Each link in the chains was too heavy for a normal man to lift. The metal of the chains was the strongest metal that the gods could find: iron from the earth mixed with iron that had fallen from the sky. They called these chains Dromi.

			The gods hauled the chains to where Fenrir slept.

			The wolf opened his eyes.

			“Again?” he said.

			“If you can escape from these chains,” said the gods, “then your renown and your strength will be known to all the worlds. Glory will be yours. If chains like this cannot hold you, then your strength will be greater than that of any of the gods or the giants.”

			Fenrir nodded at this, and looked at the chains called Dromi, bigger than any chains had ever been, stronger than the strongest of bonds. “There is no glory without danger,” said the wolf after some moments. “I believe I can break these bindings. Chain me up.”

			They chained him.

			The great wolf stretched and strained, but the chains held. The gods looked at each other, and there was the beginning of triumph in their eyes, but now the huge wolf began to twist and to writhe, to kick out his legs and strain in every muscle and every sinew. His eyes flashed and his teeth flashed and his jaws foamed.

			He growled as he writhed. He struggled with all his might.

			The gods moved back involuntarily, and it was good that they did so, for the chains fractured and then broke with such violence that the pieces were thrown far into the air, and for years to come the gods would find lumps of shattered shackles embedded in the sides of huge trees or the side of a mountain.

			“Yes!” shouted Fenrir, and howled in his victory like a wolf and like a man.

			The gods who had watched the struggle did not seem, the wolf observed, to delight in his victory. Not even Tyr. Fenrir, Loki’s child, brooded on this, and on other matters.

			And Fenris Wolf grew huger and hungrier with each day that passed.

			Odin brooded and he pondered and he thought. All the wisdom of Mimir’s well was his, and the wisdom he had gained from hanging from the world-tree, a sacrifice to himself. At last he called the light elf Skirnir, Frey’s messenger, to his side, and he described the chain called Gleipnir. Skirnir rode his horse across the rainbow bridge to Svartalfheim, with instructions to the dwarfs for how to create a chain unlike anything ever made before.

			The dwarfs listened to Skirnir describe the commission, and they shivered, and they named their price. Skirnir agreed, as he had been instructed to do by Odin, although the dwarfs’ price was high. The dwarfs gathered the ingredients they would need to make Gleipnir.

			These were the six things the dwarfs gathered:

			For firstly, the footsteps of a cat.

			For secondly, the beard of a woman.

			For thirdly, the roots of a mountain.

			For fourthly, the sinews of a bear.

			For fifthly, the breath of a fish.

			For sixth and lastly, the spittle of a bird.

			Each of these things was used to make Gleipnir. (You say you have not seen these things? Of course you have not. The dwarfs used them in their crafting.)

			When the dwarfs had finished their crafting, they gave Skirnir a wooden box. Inside the box was something that looked like a long silken ribbon, smooth and soft to the touch. It was almost transparent, and weighed next to nothing.

			Skirnir rode back to Asgard with his box at his side. He arrived late in the evening, after the sun had set. He showed the gods what he had brought back from the workshop of the dwarfs, and they were amazed to see it.

			The gods went together to the shores of the Black Lake, and they called Fenrir by name. He came at a run, as a dog will come when it is called, and the gods marveled to see how big he was and how powerful.

			“What’s happening?” asked the wolf.

			“We have obtained the strongest bond of all,” they told him. “Not even you will be able to break it.”

			The wolf puffed himself up. “I can burst any chains,” he told them proudly.

			Odin opened his hand to display Gleipnir. It shimmered in the moonlight.

			“That?” said the wolf. “That is nothing.”

			The gods pulled on it to show him how strong it was. “We cannot break it,” they told him.

			The wolf squinted at the silken band that they held between them, glimmering like a snail’s trail or the moonlight on the waves, and he turned away, uninterested.

			“No,” he said. “Bring me real chains, real fetters, heavy ones, huge ones, and let me show my strength.”

			“This is Gleipnir,” said Odin. “It is stronger than any chains or fetters. Are you scared, Fenrir?”

			“Scared? Not at all. But what happens if I break a thin ribbon like that? Do you think I will get renown and fame? That people will gather together and say, ‘Do you know how strong and powerful Fenris Wolf is? He is so powerful he broke a silken ribbon!’ There will be no glory for me in breaking Gleipnir.”

			“You are scared,” said Odin.

			The great beast sniffed the air. “I scent treachery and trickery,” said the wolf, his amber eyes flashing in the moonlight. “And although I think your Gleipnir may only be a ribbon, I will not consent to be tied up by it.”

			“You? You who broke the strongest, biggest chains there ever were? You are scared by this band?” said Thor.

			“I am scared of nothing,” growled the wolf. “I think it is rather that you little creatures are scared of me.”

			Odin scratched his bearded chin. “You are not stupid, Fenrir. There is no treachery here. But I understand your reluctance. It would take a brave warrior to consent to be tied up with bonds he could not break. I assure you, as the father of the gods, that if you cannot break a band like this—a veritable silken ribbon, as you say—then we gods will have no reason to be afraid of you, and we will set you free and let you go your own way.”

			A long growl, from the wolf. “You lie, All-father. You lie in the way that some folk breathe. If you were to tie me up in bonds I could not escape from, then I do not believe you would free me. I think you would leave me here. I think you plan to abandon me and to betray me. I do not consent to have that ribbon placed on me.”

			“Fine words, and brave words,” said Odin. “Words to cover your fear at being proved a coward, Fenris Wolf. You are afraid to be tied with this silken ribbon. No need for more explanations.”

			The wolf’s tongue lolled from his mouth, and he laughed then, showing sharp teeth each the size of a man’s arm. “Rather than question my courage, I challenge you to prove there is no treachery planned. You can tie me up if one of you will place his hand in my mouth. I will gently close my teeth upon it, but I will not bite down. If there is no treachery afoot, I will open my mouth when I have escaped the ribbon, or when you have freed me, and his hand will be unharmed. There. I swear, if I have a hand in my mouth, you can tie me with your ribbon. So. Whose hand will it be?”

			The gods looked at each other. Balder looked at Thor, Heimdall looked at Odin, Hoenir looked at Frey, but none of them made a move. Then Tyr, Odin’s son, sighed, and stepped forward and raised his right hand.

			“I will put my hand in your mouth, Fenrir,” said Tyr.

			Fenrir lay on his side, and Tyr put his right hand into Fenrir’s mouth, just as he had done when Fenrir was a puppy and they had played together. Fenrir closed his teeth gently until they held Tyr’s hand at the wrist without breaking the skin, and he closed his eyes.

			The gods bound him with Gleipnir. A shimmering snail’s trail wrapped the enormous wolf, tying his legs, rendering him immobile.

			“There,” said Odin. “Now, Fenris Wolf, break your bonds. Show us all how powerful you are.”

			The wolf stretched and struggled; it pushed and strained every nerve and muscle to snap the ribbon that bound it. But with every struggle the task seemed harder and with every strain the glimmering ribbon became stronger.

			At first the gods snickered. Then the gods chuckled. Finally, when they were certain that the beast had been immobilized and that they were in no danger, the gods laughed.

			Only Tyr was silent. He did not laugh. He could feel the sharpness of Fenris Wolf’s teeth against his wrist, the wetness and warmth of Fenris Wolf’s tongue against his palm and his fingers.

			Fenrir stopped struggling. He lay there unmoving. If the gods were going to free him, they would do it now.

			But the gods only laughed the harder. Thor’s booming guffaws, each louder than a thunderclap, mingled with Odin’s dry laughter, with Balder’s bell-like laughter . . .

			Fenrir looked at Tyr. Tyr looked at him bravely. Then Tyr closed his eyes and nodded. “Do it,” he whispered.

			Fenrir bit down on Tyr’s wrist.

			Tyr made no sound. He simply wrapped his left hand around the stump of his right and squeezed it as hard as he could, to slow the spurt of blood to an ooze.

			Fenrir watched the gods take one end of Gleipnir and thread it through a stone as big as a mountain and fasten it under the ground. Then he watched as they took another rock and used it to hammer the stone deeper into the ground than the deepest ocean.

			“Treacherous Odin!” called the wolf. “If you had not lied to me, I would have been a friend to the gods. But your fear has betrayed you. I will kill you, Father of the Gods. I will wait until the end of all things, and I will eat the sun and I will eat the moon. But I will take the most pleasure in killing you.”

			The gods were careful not to get within reach of Fenrir’s jaws, but as they were driving the rock deeper, Fenrir twisted and snapped at them. The god nearest him, with presence of mind, thrust his sword into the roof of Fenris Wolf’s mouth. The hilt of the sword jammed in the wolf’s lower jaw, wedging the jaw open and preventing it from ever closing.

			The wolf growled inarticulately, and saliva poured from its mouth, forming a river. If you did not know it was a wolf, you might have thought it a small mountain, with a river flowing from a cave mouth.

			The gods left that place where the river of saliva flowed down into the dark lake, and they did not speak, but once they were far enough away they laughed some more, and clapped each other on the back, and smiled the huge smiles of those who believe they have done something very clever indeed.

			Tyr did not smile and he did not laugh. He bound the stump of his wrist tightly with a cloth, and he walked beside the gods back to Asgard, and he kept his own counsel.

			These, then, were the children of Loki.


Thor, god of thunder, mightiest of all the Aesir, the strongest, the bravest, the most valiant in battle, was not entirely awake yet, but he had the feeling that something was wrong. He reached out a hand for his hammer, which he always kept within reach while he slept.

			He fumbled around with his eyes closed. He groped about, reaching for the comfortable and familiar shaft of his hammer.

			No hammer.

			Thor opened his eyes. He sat up. He stood up. He walked around the room.

			There was no hammer anywhere. His hammer was gone.

			Thor’s hammer was called Mjollnir. It had been made for Thor by the dwarfs Brokk and Eitri. It was one of the treasures of the gods. If Thor hit anything with it, that thing would be destroyed. If he threw the hammer at something, the hammer would never miss its target, and would always fly back through the air and return to his hand. He could shrink the hammer down and hide it inside his shirt, and he could make it grow again. It was a perfect hammer in all things except one: it was slightly too short in the handle, which meant that Thor had to swing it one-handed.

			The hammer kept the gods of Asgard safe from all the dangers that menaced them and the world. Frost giants and ogres, trolls and monsters of every kind, all were frightened of Thor’s hammer.

			Thor loved his hammer. And his hammer simply was not there.

			There were things Thor did when something went wrong. The first thing he did was ask himself if what had happened was Loki’s fault. Thor pondered. He did not believe that even Loki would have dared to steal his hammer. So he did the next thing he did when something went wrong, and he went to ask Loki for advice.

			Loki was crafty. Loki would tell him what to do.

			“Don’t tell anyone,” said Thor to Loki, “but the hammer of the gods has been stolen.”

			“That,” said Loki, making a face, “is not good news. Let me see what I can find out.”

			Loki went to Freya’s hall. Freya was the most beautiful of all the gods. Her golden hair tumbled about her shoulders, and it glinted in the morning light. Freya’s two cats prowled the room, eager to pull her chariot. Around her neck, as golden and shining as her hair, glittered the necklace of the Brisings, made for Freya by dwarfs far underground.

			“I’d like to borrow your feathered cloak,” said Loki. “The one that lets you fly.”

			“Absolutely not,” said Freya. “That cloak is the most valuable thing I possess. It’s more valuable than gold. I’m not having you wearing it and going around and making mischief.”

			“Thor’s hammer has been stolen,” said Loki. “I need to find it.”

			“I’ll get you the cloak,” said Freya.

			Loki put on the feathered cloak and he took to the air, in falcon shape. He flew beyond Asgard. He flew deep into the land of the giants, looking for something unusual.

			Beneath him, Loki saw a huge grave mound, and sitting on it, plaiting a dog collar, was the hugest, ugliest ogre of a giant he had ever seen. When the ogre saw Loki in falcon shape, he grinned a sharp-toothed grin and waved.

			“What’s up with the Aesir, Loki? What’s the news from the elves? And why have you come alone into the land of the giants?”

			Loki landed beside the ogre. “There’s nothing but bad news from Asgard, and nothing but bad news from the elves.”

			“Really?” said the ogre, and he chuckled to himself, as if he were extremely pleased with something he had done and thought himself remarkably clever. Loki recognized that sort of chuckle. Sometimes he did it himself.

			“Thor’s hammer is missing,” said Loki. “Would you know anything about that?”

			The ogre scratched his armpit, and he chuckled once more. “I might,” he admitted. Then he said, “How’s Freya? Is she as beautiful as they say?”

			“If you like that sort of thing,” said Loki.

			“Oh, I do,” said the ogre. “I do.”

			There was another uncomfortable silence. The ogre put the dog collar down on a pile of dog collars and began to plait another.

			“I have Thor’s hammer,” the ogre told Loki. “I’ve hidden it so deep beneath the earth that nobody could ever find it, not even Odin. I am the only one who could bring it up again. And I will return it to Thor if you bring me what I want.”

			“I can ransom the hammer,” said Loki. “I can bring you gold and amber, I can bring you treasures beyond counting—”

			“Don’t want them,” said the ogre. “I want to marry Freya. Bring her here in eight days from now. I’ll return the hammer of the gods as a bride-gift on Freya’s wedding night.”

			“Who are you?” asked Loki.

			The ogre grinned and showed his crooked teeth. “Why, Loki son of Laufey, I am Thrym, lord of the ogres.”

			“I have no doubt that we can come to an arrangement, great Thrym,” said Loki. He drew Freya’s feathered cloak around him, then stretched his arms and took to the skies.

			Beneath Loki the world seemed very small: he looked down at the trees and the mountains, tiny as children’s playthings, and the problems of the gods seemed a small thing also.

			Thor was waiting for him in the court of the gods, and before Loki had even landed he found himself seized by Thor’s huge hands. “Well? You know something. I can see it in your face. Tell me whatever you know, and tell it now. I don’t trust you, Loki, and I want to know what you know right this moment, before you’ve had a chance to plot and to plan.”

			Loki, who plotted and planned as easily as other folk breathed in and out, smiled at Thor’s anger and innocence. “Your hammer has been stolen by Thrym, lord of all the ogres,” he said. “I have persuaded him to return it to you, but he demands a price.”

			“Fair enough,” said Thor. “What’s the price?”

			“Freya’s hand in marriage.”

			“He just wants her hand?” asked Thor hopefully. She had two hands, after all, and might be persuaded to give up one of them without too much of an argument. Tyr had, after all.

			“All of her,” said Loki. “He wants to marry her.”

			“Oh,” said Thor. “She won‘t like that. Well, you can tell her the news. You’re better at persuading people to do things than I am when I’m not holding my hammer.”

			They went together to Freya’s court once more.

			“Here’s your feathered cloak,” said Loki.

			“Thank you,” said Freya. “Did you find out who stole Thor’s hammer?”

			“Thrym, lord of the ogres.”

			“I’ve heard of him. A nasty piece of work. What does he want for it?”

			“You,” said Loki. “He wants to marry you.”

			Freya nodded.

			Thor was pleased that she seemed to have accepted the idea so easily. “Put on your bridal crown, Freya, and pack your things,” he said. “You and Loki are going to the