WINTER HAD LOST ITS HEART.
Every day the stallions Arvak and Alsvid rose earlier to haul the Sun’s chariot across the sky, and quietly the snow pulled back from the valleys and plains of Midgard. Small choirs of birds sang and Odin, Loki and Honir were to leave Asgard and resume their exploration of the worlds.
Early one morning the three gods crossed Bifrost. Talking and laughing they spring-heeled into Midgard, and Odin and Loki had to stretch their legs to keep up with swift Honir.
Suddenly a late snowstorm assaulted the travelers. They shrugged their way through thick wet flakes that tangled and danced and spun and flew in every direction till that wild onslaught ended as abruptly as it had begun; the sun boomed through layers of shapeless cloud, filling it with fierce yellow light; and then there was only the orb of the sun, the expanding acres of pale blue sky, and the blue and green levels of open Midgard.
The three gods followed the course of a river towards its head. And in the afternoon, they walked up under a waterfall. They strode into the thunder, through the spray-diamonds, and stared into the maelstrom.
Then Odin spotted an otter stretched out on the scraggy bank not fifty paces from them; he pointed it out to Loki and Honir. The otter’s eyes were shut. Feeling blessed and rather drowsy in the afternoon sun, it had just begun to eat a salmon it had caught in the waterfall.
Loki pursed his lips. He bent down and picked up a fist-sized stone, took aim, and threw it as hard as he could at the otter. The stone hit the animal on the head and killed it outright.
“Well, then,” shouted Loki, struggling back to Odin and Honir with the salmon under one arm and the limp otter under the other, “what do you say to that? Two for the price of one?”
The three companions were all equally delighted: Loki at his ‘ prowess, and Odin and Honir at the prospect of a good meal that evening.
They climbed up the steep bank beside the waterfall and continued on their way up the narrowing river valley.
The sun had already been drawn out of sight, and it was half-way to dark when the gods saw a farm only a little way ahead of them. Smoke lifted from its chimney. They quickened their step and gave thanks for their good fortune.
“Can you give us lodgings for the night?” Odin asked the farmer Hreidmar. “We’ve no wish for a dew-bed”
“How many are you?” said Hreidmar.
“There are two others outside” Odin replied. “And we can pay for our beds with food. We were in luck today and there’s enough for everyone.”
“For my sons as well?” said If Hreidmar. “For Fafnir and Regin? And for nay daughters Lyngheid and Lofnheid?”
“Enough for everyone,” said Odin airily.
Then Hreidmar nodded without much enthusiasm, and Odin went to the door and called to Loki and Honir.
“Here we are,” said Honir.
“And here’s our supper,” said Loki cheerfully. “I bagged them both with one stone.”
When Hreidmar saw the otter draped under his nose, he stiffened. For a moment his eyes glazed; then he turned and walked out of the room.
“What’s wrong with him?” said Loki.
Odin shrugged. “A cool welcome is better than a cold night,” he said.
“I’m not so sure,” said Honir.
“No,” Odin replied. “You never are”
Hreidmar walked down the low passage, punching the turf walls, and found Fafnir and Regin. “What do you think?” he said. “Your brother Otter is dead.”
“Dead?” exclaimed the brothers, leaping up.
“Dead. And what else do you think? His murderers are our guests for the night”
Fafnir and Regin were outraged and swore to avenge Otter’s death.
“There are three of them and three of us,” said Hreidmar, “so we’ll have to surprise them. Each of us must take one when I give the nod. One has rather a fine spear and might be better off without it; and one has strange shoes and could be better off barefoot; I see nothing harmful about the third. Ill use my magic – Ill chant spells to weaken then. I’ll sing a charm to bind them.”
* * *
Fafnir and Regin did just as their father said. The three of leaped on to their visitors, and the farmer-magician Hreidmar weakened their resistance so that Odin lost his spear Gungnir, and Loki was relieved of his sky-shoes. When the three gods lay on the ground, bound hand and foot, Hreidmar shouted, “My son, you’ve lulled my son. I’ll kill you all for vengeance. You’ve killed my son.”
“What does he mean?” asked Odin.
“Otter was our brother,” Fafnir said.
“The finest of fishermen,” said Regin.
“He had the likeness of an otter by day,” Fafnir said. “All day he lived in the river and beside the river.”
“And brought his prey to our father.”
“A supply of fresh fish.”
“We didn’t know this,” said Odin. “If we had, Loki would never have killed him.”
“Dead is dead,” said Hreidmar.
“We didn’t know this,” Odin said again. “Do you think we’d have come straight to his father’s farm? You must at least give us a chance to pay a ransom before killing us.”
Hreidmar looked down at his three visitors and said nothing.
“I speak for the three of us,” Odin said. “We’ll pay as much as you demand.”
Hreidmar thought for a while. “That would be fair,” he said, “if you were to keep to your word. You must swear an oath — and if you break it, you will all pay with your heads.”
Then the three companions swore that they would raise as much as Hreidmar asked.
“All right,” said the magician, turning to Fafnir and Regin. “Where are Lyngheid and Lofnheid? Have them flay Otter and bring me his skin again.”
Fafnir and Regin obeyed their father, and then Hreidmar laid out Otter’s handsome skin beside the fire. “First you must fill this with red gold,” he told the gods, “and then you must cover it with red gold into the bargain. It must be wholly covered. That is the ransom for the death of my son.”
“So be it,” said Odin. And he rolled over until he was close enough to Loki to whisper in his ear.
Loki listened carefully and then he said, “Let me go for the gold. Let me go, and hold the other two as hostages.”
So Hreidmar untied Loki’s bonds and, with a snatch of a look and a jeering laugh that left Hreidmar and his sons and even Honir uneasy, Loki threw open the door and ran out into the night.
* * *
Loki had left his sky-shoes in the care of the magician and, in any event, he was in no great hurry. He knew Hreidmar had nothing to gain by killing Odin and Honir and everything to win by waiting for his return with the red gold; and he was not especially averse to the thought of mighty Odin and long-legged Honir lying for a while, bound hand and foot. He dawdled all the way across Midgard to the island of Hlesey.
There, Loki visited Aegir and Ran in their hall on the sea bed. “The gods are in danger,” he told Ran breathlessly. “Odin himself lies bound, Odin and Honir, and only your net can save them.”
The wife of the sea god opened her cold pale eyes very wide.
“Lend me your drowning net. I can use it, and not to snare men but to save gods.”
When Loki had talked Ran into parting with her net, he left the hall beneath the waves quickly in case she changed her mind, and headed for the world of the dark elves.
Loki picked his way down a chain of dripping tunnels and through a maze of twilit chambers, until he came to a massive cavern. Its roof was supported by columns of rock thicker than tree trunks, and its corners were still and dark. A little light, however, filtered into the middle of the cavern from a vertical shaft in the roof, and showed Loki what he had come to see: a large silent pool, filled with water that seemed to spring from nowhere and flow nowhere.
Loki spread out Ran’s finely meshed net and cast it into the pool. He dragged it and pulled it up and there, furiously lashing and writhing, was a large pike snared in the net.
Avoiding its nasty teeth and the equally nasty look in its yellow eyes, Loki took hold of it. “First,” he said, as he gave the pike a horrible shaking, “you’ll change shape.”
“Change shape,” echoed the cavern.
Then there was no pike but the dwarf Andvari in Ran’s dripping net. Loki disentangled him, keeping a firm hold all the while on the back of his neck.
“What do you want?” whined Andvari,
“You want,” said the cavern.
“What I want is all your gold. Otherwise I’ll wring you out like a piece of washing. All your gold.”
“All your gold,” boomed the cavern.
Andvari shuddered. He led Loki out of that echoing chamber and down a twisting passage into his smithy. It was hot and smoky but well fitted out, and well-stocked with gold that gleamed in the firelight. The dwarf spread out his hands and shrugged.
“Gather it up,” said Loki, kicking a gold nugget.
Andvari scrambled around, cursing and moaning. He made a pile of discs and chips and splinters and small bars of red gold, of objects already made and objects half made. Loki looked at the stack and was well satisfied.
“Is that all?” he said.
Andvari said nothing. He stowed the gold into two old sacks; it filled them both. Then, grunting, he dragged them across the smithy and stood with them in front of Loki.
“What about that ring?” said Loki, pointing at the dwarf’s closed right hand. “I saw you hide it.”
Andvari shook his head.
“Put it in the sack,” said Loki.
“Let me keep it,” begged Andvari. “Just this ring.”
“Put it in the sack,” said Loki.
“Let me keep this, just this,” pleaded the dwarf. “Then at least I’ll be able to make more gold again.”
“I have no need of more,” said Loki, “and I’m going to strip you to the bone.” He stepped forward and, knocking aside one sack, forced open Andvari’s fist and seized the little twisted ring. It was marvelously wrought and Loki slipped it on to his own little finger. “What is not freely given must be taken by force,” he said.
“Nothing was freely given,” Andvari replied.
Loki shouldered the sacks and turned towards the door of the smithy.
“Take that ring!” yelled the dwarf. “My curse on that ring and that gold! It will destroy whoever owns it.”
Loki turned round and faced Andvari. “So much the better,” he said.
“No one will win joy with my wealth,” shouted Andvari.
“If,” said Loki, “if I repeat your words to those about to get this gold, then, Andvari, your curse will come to pass.” And with that, Loki turned round again and, with oaths and spells in his ears, made his way out of the world of the dark elves and into Midgard.
* * *
“You took your time,” said Odin. Honir said nothing; he looked rather fearful.
“Hard won and well won,” said Loki. He dumped the sacks of red gold in front of his companions. “And what do you say to this?” he whispered, showing Odin the twisted finger-ring which he had wrenched from Andvari.
Odin blinked, and marveled at its subtle beauty. “Give it to me,” he said.
“At last,” said Hreidmar as be walked into the room, followed by his two sons and two daughters. He nodded, and Fafnir and Regin cut Odin and Honir free from their bonds.
Slowly and stiffly the two gods stood up. They flexed their muscles, they rubbed their hands together, they looked at their chafed wrists and ankles.
“Well then?” said Hreidmar.
“You must stuff the skin yourself,” said Loki, “or you’ll never be satisfied.” He emptied one sack on to the ground and the magician stowed piece after piece inside Otter’s skin. He filled it so that it was plump and taut, bursting from top to tail.
“Now we’ll cover it completely,” Loki said, opening the second sack and pouring another mound of metal over the marl floor. While Honir held Otter’s skin upright, snout down, Odin and Loki heaped the gold around it. They built Otter a barrow of gold.
“So,” said Odin, with the satisfaction of a job well done, “come and look for yourself, Hreidmar! We’ve covered the skin completely.”
“The magician walked round and round the stack. He walked round it again. He examined the gold inch by inch. “Here!” he said. “Here’s a whisker! This must be covered and hidden. Otherwise, I’ll hold that you’ve broken your oath – and that will be the end of our understanding.”
Loki looked at Odin and Odin looked at the twisted ring on his little finger. He sniffed and drew it off and placed it over the single whisker showing. “Now,” said Odin loudly, “we’ve paid Otter’s ransom in full.”
“You have indeed,” said Hreidmar.
Still rather unsteady on his feet, Odin lurched across the room to where his spear Gungnir was propped up in the corner. And Loki fell on his sky-shoes and at once put them on. A sense of their own strength surged within them. They looked at Hreidmar and Fafnir and Regin with no great liking.
“Listen carefully!” said Loki. “That ring and all that gold was made by the dwarf Andvari. I only wrested it from him with his curse. “Loki paused. “And what he said I say; what he said will hold.” Loki’s voice was low and compelling. “Take that ring! My curse on that ring and that gold! It will destroy whosoever owns it.”
Odin looked at Loki. His eye glittered and Loki smiled crookedly. Then Honir took one step and was at their side. The three companions stepped out of the farmhouse into the welcoming spring air.