Odin All-father often spent many months wandering the world in disguise, and no one knew where he went, not even his fellow gods. It was in one such season that Frigg went into the nursery early in the morning. Frigg looked into the cradle where she had put Baldr to sleep the night before and saw that he had been replaced with a changeling.
It was a very good changeling, in all outward aspects exactly like Baldr. It smiled the same sunny smile, and made the same cheerful warbling noises when it saw Baldr’s mother. But Frigg, who’d never had to lose an eye to see far, took one look at it and knew the changeling for what it was.
She went outside her hall, called all the gods of Asgard to her, and showed them the changeling child. “This,” she said, “is not Baldr the Bright. Someone came into my hall in the night and stole my son and put this creature in his place.” She asked the gods if any of them could tell her who had done this.
None of them knew who the culprit was. They were still holding council when Loki walked into the courtyard, stretching and yawning, and very surprised to see them all assembled at so early an hour. One by one they turned around to stare at him.
“Loki,” they said, “what happened to Frigg’s son?”
Loki looked at the changeling and said, “Why, Baldr has turned into a changeling. He takes after his father!”
But they threatened him and tried to make him tell the truth, and finally Loki said, “But I had no hand in this! Look at this straw in my hair – I swear I spent the last three weeks in an unused stable, sleeping out my terrible hangover.”
But although this was quite plausible if you knew Loki (in as much as anything about Loki was ever plausible), they didn’t believe him. Some, like Tyr and Freyr, wanted to kill him on the spot, but they were reminded by wiser gods that no such thing could happen without Odin present to act as lawspeaker. They decided, however, that they were well within their rights to exile Loki from Asgard, so they dragged him to the great, high walls and threw him down from the battlements to the place where they usually emptied their chamber pots. Bruised and much annoyed, Loki made no move to leave, but instead remained where he was, yelling abuse at them until his throat was raw.
After a while, Thor said, “Shouldn’t we have asked him where Baldr is before throwing him out?” but they all agreed that Thor (although a great warrior and defender of Asgard) was simply a bit dim. Now that they had exiled Loki, they could not drag him inside again to question him, because none of them were allowed to let him through the gates.
Frigg said nothing to all this, but merely frowned at the distant horizon. “She must be thinking of her husband,” they said, which was true, although her thoughts were quite different from what everyone supposed them to be – which was always the case with Frigg, who said very little and thought very much.
Loki remained sitting on a big boulder below the walls for three days and three nights, cursing the Aesir and bemoaning his fate, and telling the bees and the butterflies that he was quite, quite innocent.
On the fourth day at dawn, the great gates of Asgard opened and Thor came out, carrying Mjölnir and leading his chariot goats by their bridles. When he found Loki still there, listlessly sitting on the boulder and making daisy chains of wildflowers, Thor went to him and asked, “Do you regret your folly?”
“Oh yes,” Loki said. “I should have drunk more mead and remained in my bale of straw for another week. None of this would have happened.”
“No,” Thor said. “I mean, do you regret that you stole Baldr.”
“I know,” Loki sighed. “But Thor, why would I steal Baldr? I have more children than any of the Aesir save Odin. If idiots like Tyr didn’t go sticking their hands where they didn’t belong, I would not know how to feed them all.”
“But,” Thor said, feeling quite up to reasoning with Loki, “all your children are monsters, and Baldr is exceedingly fair.”
Loki frowned. “Is Jormungand not the greatest of wyrms, and Fenris the fiercest of wolves? Is it not true that all men will love Hel in their time? And isn’t Sleipnir the best of all steeds, worthy of Odin himself? I would say that my children are all very good at being what they are.”
It was all true, what Loki said, and yet, as was so often the case with Loki’s words, all wrong. But Thor did not know how to tell him that. Instead, he asked, “So you insist you’re innocent?”
“By my word, Thor, I have stolen many things in my time, but I’ve never robbed a cradle. Though, if you asked me to steal Baldr back from whoever has taken him, I think that would be a grand idea.”
Thor scratched his beard. “It wouldn’t be stealing, now would it? Baldr belongs to us.”
“See? Then how could I have stolen him?”
This made sense, at least to Thor. “Very well,” he said, clapping Loki on the shoulder, “then we shall both go in search of Baldr!”
First, they went to Jötunheim, because Thor said, “It’s always the giants. They love stealing from us.”
“You see,” Loki replied, “I’ve always thought a bartering system would put an end to all the fighting between the Aesir and the giants. The Aesir love giant maidens, and the giants love the women of the Aesir, and most wives I know are always unhappy with the husband they have. I’m sure it is the same with the light Elves and dark Elves and Ogresses. It wouldn’t work with the dwarves, of course. No one wants to marry a dwarf, and all the dwarves I know are married to their treasures.”
Thor shook his head vigorously. “I would not trade Sif for a giant!”
“Oh, that’s all right. We could always trade you as Sif,” Loki said, and laughed. He was the only one who never trembled at Thor’s wild gaze, and it never failed to amuse him to think of the time Thor had to dress up as Freya to reclaim his hammer from the amorous giant Thrym.
“You agreed never to speak of that matter again,” Thor grumbled.
But even after knocking down every door in Jotunheim, they still didn’t find Baldr.
As they left Jötunheim, the road passed a field strewn with rocks. On one of the rocks sat a giantess. She wasn’t very large for her kind, but as ugly as the night was long. She looked very grim, as if she might deny them passage.
Thor stopped his goat-drawn chariot to remark on her presence. “Perhaps she will ask us a riddle.” This was something giants often did, and while usually Thor didn’t make a fuss and just killed any giant who got in his way, it would be very rude to kill someone who challenged you to a contest.
“Yes,” Loki said, his bright sharp teeth glinting in the pale sun of Jötunheim, “and she only has one eye, too. Do you know who this is, Thor?”
“I do not need both of you asking me riddles,” Thor grunted. “By my word, I have never seen a woman so grim, or I would remember. Even your daughter Hel is fairer than she.”
Loki laughed and jumped off the chariot. “Why, Thor, stop insulting my family! This woman is my sister!”
He went up to her without fear. But as soon as she saw him, she said in a horrible voice, “If you wish to pass, you must answer me a riddle!”
This was the riddle the giantess put to Loki:
A greedy fiend is invited to every hall, but the guest sleeps in the dirtiest pit. He eats all, but drinks not a drop of water. He is feared, but men crowd around him. His touch is painful, but his face is fair. Every man may own him, but he has no master. He is mother to weapons and brother to war. He leaves when the house that shelters him has turned to ash.
“That’s easy,” Thor shouted from the chariot. “It’s fire! Every child could answer your riddles, beggar’s daughter!”
But Loki bowed to her and said, “Sister, your riddle honors me. Let me return the favour.”
And he questioned her thus:
Who is the king who walks in rags? What has the lying tongue of a poet, the stomach of a drunkard, the brain of a rabid dog, the seeing eye of a fool, the blind eye of a seer, the neck of a murderer, the heart of a stone, the blood of a giant, the virtue of a whore, and the curses of a witch? Who daily sends away his thought and his memory, and yet is called wise by all? Who has a blind son, a mute son, and a deceived son? And who then lost the only son who was fair?
“Now that,” Thor said, who had come to join them when he saw that the giantess was armed only with words, “sounds more like flyting to me than riddling.”
“I can never remember which is which,” Loki said, grinning at the giantess. “Both are artful ways to tell the truth.”
“Brother,” the giantess said, “what are you two looking for?”
“I am exiled from Asgard unless I find the brother of Thor,” Loki explained. “Baldr the Bright has been stolen and replaced with a changeling child. Would you know anything about that, oh wise sister?”
“Not I,” she said, “but not far from here there is a well of truth, and a Norn lives there who can tell you your future. If you are meant to save Baldr, she will tell you where to find him.”
Loki nodded and seized her by the arm. “Why don’t you lead the way, sister? You know I enjoy your company, and would be sad to lose sight of you.”
She glared at him from her one terrible eye, but did not refuse him.
They came to a deep forest, and had to leave Thor’s chariot behind to travel further. Both Loki and his sister were silent as they marched beneath the dark firs, but while her silence was grim, his was smug and content whenever she looked at him. At sundown, when the red orb of Sol hung low and distended between the trees, like a woman going to childbed, they came upon a pond that look blood-red and fathomless in the evening light.
Thor shifted uncomfortably, gripping his hammer tighter.
“We wait for the twilight hour when Sol and Mani share the circle of the sky,” the giantess said, “that hour which is nearly upon us. And then the one who wishes to pose a question should make a sacrifice.”
Loki crossed his arms, staring darkly at the red pool. “I think we could accomplish as much by using our own eyes and ears to search for Baldr in the here and now, rather than trying to learn his future fate.”
Thor nodded. “And this is a bad kind of magic you want us to work, Sister of Loki. The Norn who lives here is a dark and bloody Norn.”
Loki clapped him on the shoulder. “Just what I was thinking, my friend! Let’s go somewhere more pleasant!”
But Thor grabbed him by the scruff of the neck. “That is not what I meant. There is no fight I would run from, but this sort of magic is not men’s work. You’ll do fine, though, since that has never kept you from doing anything.”
Loki shot him a betrayed look. Now it was his sister who was smiling smugly at him, displaying her gruesome sharp teeth.
At last, the moon crept over the horizon, the sun sunk behind it, and Thor and the giantess dragged Loki to the water to look at his pale red reflection. “An eye,” the giantess hissed into his ear. “She wants an eye.”
Loki squirmed and shivered in their grip, and begged them both to reconsider. He begged his sister especially, as prettily as he could, but she would not yield. So he made himself small, very small, the size of something that could sit in your palm, and he made himself dark and hairless and hard-skinned, and he gave himself eight legs and eight eyes. Thor withdrew his hand in surprise, but the giantess picked up the little black spider and smiled as it sat on her hand. “Now,” Loki said with a thin, clicking voice, “I have eyes to spare.”
And he plucked out a tiny black eye and threw it into to the pond.
The water rippled as though he had thrown a great rock, and the ripples turned to shudders, as though the pool was boiling, and steam rose from the dark water. “Be a man again,” the giantess commanded, “for this spider will die come winter, and I want to know your future further than that.”
Loki obeyed her, although with a dark look. Both his bright eyes were whole still when he stood before them as a man again, but there was a small, bleeding cut on his left temple where he had plucked out his spider eye.
“Now ask your questions,” he said to them. “I’ve done enough.”
“No,” his sister said. “You must ask them.”
And when he saw that she would not budge, and that Thor was frozen on the spot with wary fear, Loki became desperate, and tried to turn himself into a sparrow to fly away. But she seized him by his shock of fiery hair before he could change his shape and dunked his head into the water, and held him down, thrashing, until he was nearly drowning. Then, at last, he stopped fighting. His shoulders sagged, his fingers dragged in the mud, and he exhaled his question into the water: “What is my future, spirit who dwells here?”
And the Norn’s cold fingers touched his face as she told him his secrets.
At last, the giantess softened her grip, and when he remained limp in the water, she pulled him out and into her arms and made him breathe again. “Tell me,” she said, greedily, as he sputtered and gasped. “What did the Norn say?”
Loki’s gaze had turned bitter as poison. “I didn’t want to know,” he whispered hoarsely. “I never wanted to know.”
She shook him. “Tell me.”
He turned his wet face away from her. “Go to Hel.”
Loki would not move again after this, and Thor, feeling guilty without knowing why, carried him away from that place. It was no hardship, Loki seemed to weigh no more than a twig, no more than a small branch of mistletoe. His sister followed them like a tall, grim shadow, her hands clenched on her staff.
At the edge of the forest, Thor made a fire and slaughtered one of his goats, carefully putting the bones into a bag where no wild animals could drag them away, so he could resurrect it come morning. He set the meat to roast over the flames. Meanwhile, Loki and the giantess sat on opposite sides of the fire, Loki curled up with his head resting on his knees, his sister upright and stiff, her hungry, one-eyed gaze never leaving her brother.
When the meat was good, crispy on the outside and dripping red juice, Thor sat down next to Loki, offered him the choicest piece of meat, and said, “I’m sad that we won’t be able to save little Baldr, too. But there’s no use in starving ourselves before we go to Hel’s dark hall, where hunger is the only dish. Eat, Loki.”
Loki looked up, wiped his face, and laughed softly. “Thor, you may not be bound to me by oath and blood, you may not be my match in wits, nor I yours in courage, but a curse on my name if you aren’t the wiser of us, now that I have had words with a Norn.” And he took the meat and ate it hungrily, almost forgetting to chew.
“No one has ever called me wise,” Thor said. “You’re mocking me.”
“When there was giant before you, Thor, have you ever thought of the ones who might stand behind him? When there was a fair maiden, have you ever wondered if there might not be one fairer? If someone put a riddle to you, have you ever thought there might be two answers? And if you knew the answer, have you ever sought to change it? Do you ever lie sleepless, do you ever think of tomorrow before today is done? You know that one day, we all will feast in my daughter’s desolate realm, but does it spoil your appetite now? Believe me Thor, I have never in my life aspired to anything but to be as happy as you are. And up until now, I was doing very well.”
Thor swallowed and looked at him in astonishment. “You look like Loki, you eat like Loki, but you sound almost like my father.”
“Oh,” Loki said. “We must change that!” He gathered his thoughts for a moment, trying to think of a cheerful tale. Then between the flames he spied the haggard, gloomy face of the giantess, and he smiled, wickedly.
“Thor, did I ever tell you how your father gained his wisdom?”
The giantess frowned. Loki’s smile widened.
“No,” said Thor, “but everyone knows what he did.”
“Oh yes,” Loki said, stretching like a cat. “Oh yes, everyone knows how he hung himself high in the Tree of Life, playing dead for nine days, with a spear in his side like a stuck pig.” He waved the goat’s meat on its stick for emphasis. “And you know that he wasn’t alone in the tree. There were four deer grazing on its branches, an eagle at the top, a dragon below the roots, and a squirrel racing from the dragon to the eagle all day long, up and down, spreading rumours and slander and mischief between the two. That squirrel is called Ratatosk, and he’s a good friend of mine. On the ninth day, I came to visit Ratatosk, and to my astonishment found Odin All-Father hanging in the tree, stiff as a smoked ham, and Ratatosk rubbing his whiskers in glee because he couldn’t wait to tell me all about it. So I joined him on a high branch, and he chattered along, of this and that, and of runes, and wisdom, but mostly of outrageous lies. And as I listened to him, I noticed that the more Ratatosk spoke, the more often All-father twitched and groaned, as if the words were being driven into his brain like red hot iron pokers. And I said to Ratatosk, ‘You know what would be a great game to pass the time? A contest! But not a boring one, about wisdom, or honest speech, or secret names. Let’s have a contest of lies!’ And so we did, telling one lie after another, each more grand than the last, trying to best each other and laughing while we did so. Below, in the tree, All-father moaned and shivered, and at last, just as I was about to tell Ratatosk about a wolf so big he’d swallow the moon instead of howling at it, Odin screamed and fell down from the tree. And that,” Loki finished with a flourish, “was how he learned the secrets of magic.”
Thor was about to tell Loki that this was the worst kind of slander when, across the fire, the giantess shifted, relaxing slightly, and her wide mouth stretched slowly into a smile. “But brother,” she said, “you haven’t finished the tale.”
“No. When Odin lay in the high grass, and you came to see if he was dead, he took a deep breath, and he started laughing, silent at first, because his throat was crushed, but then he shook so hard with his laughter that the tree of worlds itself trembled, and the rustling of its branches was the sound of Odin’s laughter. He was laughing because he knew what you had done, and he knew that all the runes he had learned were nothing but lies, meaningless lies, and yet they had the power to move and change and shape the world. And when he opened his eyes, and saw you sitting in the tall grass, he said to you, ‘Loki, be my brother.’”
Loki narrowed his eyes at her, and didn’t reply. Thor, meanwhile, scratched his beard, and frowned, and said, “Come to think about it, my father never told anyone how you came to be blood-brothers.”
“Oh,” Loki said, “my sister lies. That is quite another story.”
“Which you will tell me, and it will be just as big a bundle of lies.”
“Oh, bigger!” Loki got up, smiling and cracking his knuckles, because this was a story to tell in motion, almost a dance. He began with a far, sweeping gesture, a mockery of solemn tales of the dawn of time. “A long time ago, all the Aesir began to look for wives. And because there were not many women among them, they soon turned their desire towards the maidens of Jötunheim. This one sitting there, you know, is a bad example, but many of them,” he brushed his hair from his face and preened, “are born exceedingly fair. The gods came to Jötunheim nearly every day, stealing the fairest of the crop, and all who were able to fight fought them, but it was no use. I was the youngest child of my parents, a runt, too weak to fight and too small to bear children, and they were always telling me how useless I was.
‘You’re no son of mine,’ my father said in the height of his disgust, and my mother joined him, saying, ‘You’re no daughter of mine, either - but I wish a god would come and steal you!’ So I took the only things that were my own – a net I had made from some string, and a knife I had forged from scraps of metal – and went out into the forest. I put down the knife in the high grass, and waited until a magpie came down, attracted by its silver glint, and then another, and another, and I started counting them, one for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told, eight for wish, nine for a kiss, ten,” Loki hurled the fat-drenched stick into the fire where it burst into crackling sparks, “for a bird you don’t want to miss! I threw the net over the bird and cut its throat, and its blood turned the white of its pied feathers all dark, and from that day on it was always mistaken for a raven.”
“I thought a little bird like that would be dead if you slit its throat,” Thor objected.
“Oh, you can’t kill a thought so easily, not even a little magpie thought,” Loki smirked. “Its brother soon came hopping along, that one was called Memory, and it was blood-dark already from all the things it had seen. I told them both: I will have you for lunch if you do not tell your master that in this shady glade, the fairest of maidens awaits him, fairer than all the maidens of Jötunheim. And they flew home to bring the message. I had to wait but three days before an old man came shuffling onto the glade. He had a wide-brimmed hat that he wore drawn deep into his face, and he seemed to be so feeble that he had to lean heavily on his staff. ‘Maiden,’ he said, in a wheezy voice like this, ‘do not fear me, I am but an old wanderer. Are you all alone in this glade?’ And when I told him that yes, I was all alone, he laughed, and shook off his age and his frailty, and stood before me as Odin All-father, ruler of Asgard, grim and fierce to behold.”
Loki scowled, giving such a fair imitation of Odin that Thor could not help but laugh.
“‘You are fair,’ he said, ‘I will have your maidenhood, and you shall be my wife!’ but I jumped up from my carpet and said, ‘Never!’ and turned myself into a snake in the high grass to slip away unseen. But he turned into a long-beaked crane to stalk me on tall feet. So I turned into a little red vixen, to snap his long white neck, but when he saw me coming, he flapped his wings and laughed, ‘You shall be my wife yet,’ and turned into a hunting dog, with ears all bloody red. I turned tail and over my shoulder yipped ‘Never!’ and turned myself into a huntress, brandishing a whip. The dog jumped back and whimpered in fear, but not for long, because in a blink he turned into a king, with a crown all gold and red, and said, ‘Everyone has a master, and I will be yours!’ ‘Never,’ I said, ‘not if you know nothing better than a king!’ and I became a creeping sickness, weakening his flesh, but he turned himself into a fever, so I became a dream, and said to him, ‘Never never.’ I was already floating away when he stepped into my light-footed path and looked me in the eyes and said, ‘I am death, the end of all things, I am old age, I am fear, I am worry, I am the future, impossible to deny.’ And in an instant, my flesh turned solid and my bones turned heavy, and I dropped to the ground, sober and sad. Quickly, Odin tied my hands and feet, and he threw me over his shoulder to carry me home to Asgard.”
Loki paced a few steps, and then he sat down, and lowered his voice. “There was a feast, but before long, Odin grew so impatient in his passion that he picked me up again and carried me to his chamber. ‘You’re my wife now,’ he said, ‘wedded before all the gods, so there is no point in resisting me further’ he said as he threw me on the bed and undressed before me. His head was clouded with desire, or he would have listened when I said, ‘You’ve wedded me, but you still haven’t won our game.’”
Loki leaned back on an elbow, and he smiled in a way that would have made Freya seem bashful in comparison. His breath had quickened, and he was playing with the laces of his breeches. He was no god of fertility, nor of blind raging lust, but a god of idle thoughts and wandering hands, and the way he laughed when he met his companions’ eyes, throaty and shameless and low, made Thor turn away with a shudder, cursing under his breath.
“He embraced me, and I embraced him, and knowing what I was about to do, I had to clasp a hand over my mouth not to laugh. My plan was this: I would disgrace the ruler of Asgard to teach the Aesir a lesson, so they would stay away from the maidens of Jötunheim forever. So when we were both naked and flush against each other and trembling with lust, I turned myself into a man. But as I lay there in his arms, naked, without a weapon, it occurred to me that I hadn’t planned any further than that, and that now Odin would kill me and there was nothing at all I could do – “
Just then, the giantess interrupted him. “But Odin’s mind is ever racing, even in moments of passion, and it took him only a moment to see what you had done and why. He had never in his life met anyone who could match his wits like this. His body still sang in exhilaration from the chase of shapes, and he never felt more powerful.”
“He also was less discriminate in his lust than I thought,” Loki added, grinning. “And I decided that I would be fine as long as he finished what he’d started before he struck me dead. I may have said so to him. I said, ‘I’ve brought dishonor to your bed already, I would hate to die before I’ve seen what you’ll do to a man who braves your sheets.’”
“But he did not strike you, or choke you, or bash your skull against the wall, but he laughed, and he kissed you, my fair brother, and turned himself into a woman and said, ‘Now I’ve won the game.’”
Loki’s eyes widened in surprise, and then he lowered them, smiling to himself. He walked around the fire and knelt next to his sister, looking up at her. “And did win the game when he did that,” Loki said fondly.
“Because in that moment, I realized that here was the one being in all creation who could match me in a game of shapes, and outwit me, and who did not know shame, and who would kiss me when he should have strangled me. And I abandoned my plan, and my loyalties to Jötunheim, and said to Odin, ‘I will be your wife, my Lord, or your husband, or whatever you wish, I will be your serving maid, or your beast of burden, or your dog, if you will but have me, for I love you.’”
Loki shook his sleeve and produced a small rusty blade that looked old and ill-made, and put it into her hands. She took it, and as she touched it her hands seemed to grow smaller, and less rough, and her whole body shrank, so that when she picked up his hand and turned up his palm, hers were not bigger than his. “But Odin said, ‘I will not have you for a wife, or a husband, or a serving maid, or a beast of burden, and I keep two wild wolves for hounds already. But I will have you as my brother.’”
The rusty blade cut slowly, but blood welled up in Loki’s palm. He took the knife calmly, and cut her hand as well, and when they clasped hands, the giantess turned into a man Thor knew well. “And so they always will be,” Odin said. “Brothers.”
“Of course,” Loki said, turning to Thor, “that story was a lie.”
Thor gnashed his teeth in frustration when he saw that his father had once again played a trick on him. “The two of you! A drunkard’s dreams make more sense than you do!”
They slept around the fire, but in the small hours of the night, when the moon was making its honey-slow descent, Loki rose on silent feet and took out the ill-made knife. A single hard thrust drove it through Odin’s blinded eye, deep into his skull, killing All-father in an instant. Slowly, Loki pulled the blade out again, careful not to burn his fingers on the blade, which had turned white hot in the furnace of Odin’s brain. Then he snuck over to Thor, who snored in undisturbed slumber, and with nimble fingers unlaced his garments and bared his chest. He counted his ribs, and slipped the knife in between the right ones as if the skin and flesh were butter, and pierced Thor’s mighty heart.
Loki sat by him until his skin felt cool to the touch, and the night weakened in the east, and then he dragged both bodies to the fire. The flames jumped onto them as if they were made of tinder wood, crackling and hissing and dancing merrily, and Loki laid himself down between his dead companions, bedded his head on the red coals, and sleepily said, “To Hel we go, faster than on Sleipnir’s back.”
When Thor woke, he found himself in the strangest place. There were many people there, more than he had ever seen in any hall, and yet there seemed an infinite number of chairs still unoccupied. The tables were laden with food, the goblets brimming with drink, and light filled the hall. It seemed to spring from every nook and corner where a shadow should have been, and it reflected from all the faces around him.
Next to him, Loki sat on a bench.
“Where are we?” Thor said in wonder. “I thought I went to sleep in a dark wood, but here I am in this bright hall – and what is that sweet sound? What is that scent in the air that makes my mouth water? Who are all these people? I think they must all be gentlefolk! And there, that woman on the throne –how lovely is that lady to behold! Her dark complexion seems to me fairer than that of Freya herself! Did we by chance stumble into a moving feast of the elves?”
“The dish that smells so sweet is called Hunger, the song your ears delight in is Despair, the light that dazzles your eyes is Gloom, the gentle folk feasting here are the deadly departed, and the lady who rules this house is my daughter,” Loki said. “We are Hel’s guests tonight, because we died in our sleep.”
“But then why do I feel so merry?”
“You always had a hardy constitution,” Loki said with a shrug, and turned back around to watch the bard.
Thor climbed to his feet, and found that the bard who so captured all eyes in the hall was none other than his father. Odin sat with a lyre, his tall frame bent around the instrument, his beard nearly touching the strings, and his fingers hardly moving. “I have never heard my father sing,” Thor said softly.
“Then listen closely,” Loki advised. “It’s the only song he’ll ever perform.”
Odin’s voice was clear and strong, and every word, to Thor’s uncouth ears, sounded not just right, but more than right. It sounded like the first time that word was ever spoken, it sounded as if, from this moment on, it could only be repeated as a pale reflection of its perfect use. And yet, he could hardly understand the song. It seemed to be a song of loss and fear and death, a song of pain and despair, a song of the final night, the endless winter, a song of destruction. But before he could puzzle out a meaning, the words seemed to shift, to change, to drift along a whispered undercurrent, carrying him away...
A sharp snapping of fingers brought him back to the present, and he found Loki leaning over his shoulder and whispering into his ear, “Remember, it’s all words. Just magic. They don’t mean a thing.”
But all around them, in the vast hall, the merry people had gone to sleep, resting their heads on the table and each other’s shoulders, and even Lady Hel sighed in soft slumber, a smile on her face. With the faintest of clicks, Odin put the lyre down on the floor.
“As softly as you can,” Loki advised, “follow us.”
Being quiet was one thing the God of Thunder was not very good at. But he found that even as he knocked down plates and bumped into benches, the sleeping dead did not wake. At the end of the hall, Loki held up a curtain for him, and at last, with a final thumping step, Thor made it out of the hall, and found himself in a lady’s chamber.
“Now,” Thor said, attempting a whisper, “what’s all this about? I’m a simple god for upright people, and I won’t join you two in your mischief.”
“While you slept, Loki and I agreed on a wager. He claims that we can leave Hel unscathed.”
“As usual,” Loki sighed, “you skip right ahead to the ending. For a muse, my brother, you have very little respect for the spinning of tales. Let me tell the story to your sons.” And he went to a cradle that Thor hadn’t noticed before, and lifted a sleeping child into his arms. The little boy was bright all over, like snow and gold and polished wood, and when he woke, he did not cry, but made noise of sleepy delight, grasping at Loki’s fiery hair.
“The story begins with you, little one,” Loki said, and plucked a flame out of his hair, planting it on Baldr’s nose. “At your birth, your father was absent – let’s hope he was there at your conception. What was he doing while all of Asgard celebrated? He roamed the darkling woods, seeking for the flaw in the world’s perfection. And he found it, he found it in a völva’s cup, and what a dreadful tale it was. A tale much concerned with endings. He learned that your death, godling, would be the first of those endings, their beginning, we might say. So he thought, long and hard, about how to prevent all those endings. He thought so long that he missed your first spring, your first summer, your first autumn, your whole first turn of seasons. Soon he realized that the one place where death would never find you, bright one, would be Hel. So he stole you from your cradle, put in your place a changeling child, mounted Sleipnir and rode down to Hel with you in his arms. But the moment he put you in her cold grey arms, something changed. My daughter, lover to all, must ever be barren and childless, as are all the rest of my offspring. But when she laid eyes on you, she knew joy, she knew laughter, she knew that wild, greedy thing we call love. This, Thor, is why you saw her hall so transformed.”
“An unexpected side-effect,” Odin said, “but not unwelcome.”
“But then, when he realized that we had gone looking for Baldr, and that there was a chance, however small, that we might succeed, doubt once again gnawed at your father’s heart. He is a dog with a bone, and that bone is called Worry. What if fate was not averted? So he came to us in disguise, and led us to a Norn to see if my fate had changed. But I’ll only ever tell one of you.” And he whispered into Baldr’s ear, too soft for them to hear. Baldr giggled, patting at the flame on his nose, and Loki nodded.
“And now,” he grinned, “we should really get going, or we will encounter the fury of Hel when she sees that we’re stealing her joy from her.”
“But we’re dead,” Thor protested. “You said so. We’re in Hel!”
“Did I?” Loki shrugged. “Then you’d better forget it. I will teach you how.” He looked Thor up and down and then sighed, “Actually, forget that. Just drink this.”
The wineskin Loki gave him seemed to hold no more than a cupful of mead, but no matter how long Thor drank, and how much he swallowed, there always seemed to be more. And it was strong, burning his tongue and scratching his throat. He couldn’t feel any effect but that it made his limbs and lids heavy, and after a while, he had to sit down, and then, he sprawled on the floor, and still the mead flowed. “Oh,” Thor said, “this drink is divine!”
This taken care of, Loki shifted Balder onto one hip and stepped closer to Odin. “Remember,” he said, “to fly, you have to forget about falling, to be a stone, you have to forget about softness, to be a fish, you have to forget how to breathe air, to be a man, you have to forget that you’re a woman, to be a god you have to forget you're a giant, to tell the truth, you have to forget you’re telling lies, and to live, you have to forget you’re dying.”
“I cannot,” Odin said regretfully. “You know that I cannot.”
“Then your last option,” Loki said and kissed him, “is to remember everything and be mad. That always worked for us.”
And whatever else happened after that, they could never recall, because it was frenzy and fever and dark, wet oblivion.
The next morning, four gods woke in Asgard, and none of them remembered that they were dead. Odin woke, dry-mouthed and with shaking hands, feeling exhaustion in every bone, as if he had lain all night in a seizure. Thor woke to blinding headache, moaning all day long while Sif scolded him for keeping bad company. Loki woke feeling refreshed and blameless and up to some new mischief, and wondered if it would be funny to put a squealing pig into blind Hödr’s arms and tell him it was his little brother. Little Baldr awoke as he always did, with a sunny smile, laughing in delight.