Listen! Who can hear the sound of grass growing? The sound of wool on a sheep’s back, growing?
Who needs less sleep than a bird?
Who is so eagle-eyed that, by day and by night, he can see the least movement a hundred leagues away?
Heimdall and Heimdall and Heimdall.
But who could tell it was Heimdall, that figure on the seashore? The guardian of the gods left his horn Gjall safe in Mirmir’s spring; and he left Gulltop, his golden-manned stallion, behind the stable door; and he strode alone across the flaming three-strand rainbow bridge from Asgard to Midgard.
It was spring and time for sowing. The god walked away from Bifrost over soft green ground and soon he came to the edge of the earth. All day, as the sun fled west from the wolf, he picked his way along the wavy line where the soil meets the deep sea.
At nightfall Heimdall approached a decrepit turfed hut. The evening air was quite still, but the shack was so rickety that it looked as if it might collapse if the eagle-giant Hraesvelg gave one flap of his wings. Heimdall knocked and swung open the roughly hewn door. He had to stoop to get under the lintel and over a pile of sacking on tot the shining marl floor. It took Heimdall a moment to adjust to the rank, smoky gloom; his eyes smarted and he retched. Then he made out a trestle table, a bench, more sacking heaped in one corner, a kind of cupboard leaning against a crumbling wall and in the middle of the room the crouched figures of Ai and Edda, Great Grandfather and Great Grandmother, facing each other across the fire.
“Am I welcome?” asked Heimdall.
“What is your name?” said Ai.
“Rig,” said Heimdall.
“You are welcome,” said Edda.
So the god joined Ai and Edda. He spoke honeyed words, as he well knew how, and in no time he had won the best position by the fire. From time to time he peered hopefully into the pot hanging over it. After a while, Edda got to her feet. She shuffled to one corner of the stinking hut, poked about, and dumped a loaf of bread on the table. It was not fully leavened, and was gritted with husks. Then the old woman unhooked the pot of thin broth and put that on the table too. The three of them sat on a rough bench and ate what there was to eat. There was one who was by no means satisfied.
After their meal, Ai and Edda and their guest were ready to lie down and sleep. Again the god spoke honeyed words, as he well knew how, and in no time he had won the best position in the middle of the bed, with Ai on one side of him, Edda on the other. For three nights the god stayed with Great Grandfather and Great Grandmother. Then he thanked his host and hostess for their hospitality and went on his way.
Every day the tow stallions, Arvak Early Waker and Alsvid All Swift dragged the chariot of the sun across the sky. And Day himself rose at ease round the world; the shining mane of his stallion Skinfaxi lit up earth and Heaven. But then Night tightened the reins of her mount, Hrimfaxi, and each morning the face of the earth was dewy with foam from his bit. The strength of summer weakened and the length of the days shortened. So grim winter showed his fist, full of frost and snow and ice, and wrestling winds.
Soon nine months had passed and Edda gave birth to a son. He was sprinkled with water and his mother swaddled him. He had raven hair, and Ai and Edda called him Thrall.
If Thrall was less handsome than might be desired, he was certainly striking and all of a piece. From the first, his skin was wrinkled; his hands were chapped, his fingers were stubby and his knuckles were knotted. His face was, in a word, ugly. His back was twisted and his feet looked too large for him.
Nevertheless, Thrall was strong, and as the years passed he made good use of his strength. Day in, day out, and all day long, he sweated in the forest, gathering wood. He bound up bundle after bundle of faggots, and carted them home for burning.
When Thrall was a young man, a girl who was his equal in every way came to his hut. She was bow-legged; the soles of her feet were damp and discolored; her sun-burned arms were peeling; and she had the squashed nose of a boxer. Her name was Thir the Drudge.
Thrall like the look of Thir, and Thir liked the look of Thrall. In no time the two of them were sitting near the fire side by side, with eyes on for each other. And in a little more, they had prepared a bed- a bolster and hair blanket- and all evening they sat whispering.
That night was not the last that Thrall and Thir slept together. They had a cluster of contented children. The names of their sons were Fjosnir the Cattle Man and Coarse Klur; Hreim and Kreggi, the Shouter and The Horse Fly; Kefsir the Concubine Keeper and Stinking Fulnir; Drumb the Clot and Gross Digraldi; the sluggard Drott and Leggjaldi whose legs were thick as tree trucks; Lut who hunch-backed and ashen-faced Hosvir.
These ten sons shored up the structure and repaired the fabric of the hut. They spread loads of dung over the land surrounding it. They took their turn as goatherds and at rounding up the pigs. They all dug for peat.
Thrall and Thir also had daughters. There were oafish Drumba, Dumpy Kumba and hefty-thighed Okkvinkalfa; the best you could say about Arinnefja’s nose was that it was homely; there were noisy Ysja and Ambott the Servant; Eikintjasna looked like a peg of oak; Totrughypja was clothed in rags; and bony Tronubeina had legs as long and skinny as a crane.
These were the offspring of Ai and Edda; and from these children stem the race of thralls.
Heimdall continued his journey. He took the shortest way to the next farm, and walked up to the door in the blue hour, just as the light was fading. The god knocked and entered. In the middle of the room, a fire flickered, and sitting near it Heimdall saw Afi and Amma, grandfather and Grandmother.
Afi had a length of wood laid across his lap and was chipping at it with a knife, shaping a weaver’s beam. The knife’s blade and the pool of white shavings at his feet gleamed in the gloom. Afi’s hair was combed and curled over his forehead; he had a trimmed beard. And his clothes-his leather jacket and breeches-were no less well but than his hair.
Amma was unwinding flax from a distaff, spinning thread. She stretched and she reached, absorbed in her work. She wore a band round her head and her liver hair was knotted in a bun. She wore a simple frock and a shawl round her shoulder, secured by a handsome clasp.
“Am I welcome?” asked Heimdall.
“What is you name?” asked Afi.
“Rig” said Heimdall.
“You are welcome,” said Amma.
So the god joined Afi and Amma. He spoke honeyed words, as he well knew how, and in no time he had won the best position by the fire. From time to time he peered hopefully into the pot hanging over it. After a while, Amma stopped working and got to her feet. She padded across the room to a stout oak chest and took out a loaf of rye bread, and a gob of butter, and knives and spoons, and arranged them on the table too. Them the three of them sat to eat.
After their meal, Afi and Amma and their guest were ready to lie down and sleep. The god spoke honeyed words, as he well knew how, and in no time he had won the best position in the middle of the bed, with Afi on one side of him, Amma on the other. For three nights the god stayed with Grandfather and Grandmother. Then he thanked his host and hostess for their hospitality and went on his way.
Every day the tow stallions dragged the sun across the sky, and Day himself rode at ease round the world. But then Night tightened the reins and her mount, and each morning the face of the earth was dewy with foam from his bit. Summer’s strength weakened, the days shortened. So grim winter showed his fist, full of frost and snow and ice, and wrestling winds.
Soon nine months had passed and Amma gave birth to a son. He was sprinkled with water and his mother swaddled him. His cheeks were ruddy, he had bright eyes, and Afi and Amma called him Karl. Karl was quick to grow, and he was well built and strong. In time he learned how to drive oxen with a goad, and how to fasten the share and coulter to a plough; he discovered how to build huts and barns — how to dig the foundations, and erect a wooden frame, and lay the turf, and pitch a roof; he became a skilful cartwright.
When Karl was a young man, his parents found him a wife as much to their liking as to his — the fair daughter of a freeman living near by. On the appointed day, the bridal party brought her in a wagon to Karl’s own farm. She wore a goatskin coat and a veil, and keys jangled at her waist. So Afi and Amma won a daughter-in-law. Her name was Snör. Karl and Snör equipped their farm and arranged things to their liking. They exchanged rings, and laid a colorful counterpane on their bed. That place became their place; it became home.
Karl and Snör had a cluster of contented children. They called their first-born Hal the Man, and their second Dreng the Warrior. And their other sons were Hold the Landowner, the freeman Thegn, and Smith who was a master of every craft; Breid was broad-shouldered and Bondi was a yeoman; when he grew up, Bundinskeggi always wore his beard well trimmed; Bui and Boddi owned a farm and a barn; Brattskegg had a clipped beard too and like his eldest brother, Segg was manly. Karl and Snör also had ten daughters. Their eldest they called Snot the Serving Woman. There was Brud the Bride, slender Svanni and proud Svarri, fair Sprakki and womanly Fljod; Sprund was a proud as her sister Svarri; Vif was born to make a good wife, Feima was bashful and Ristil, the youngest, as graceful as any woman.
These were the children of Karl and Snör; and from these children stem the race of peasants.
* * *
Heimdall continued his journey. He took the shortest way to a hall near by and, in the late afternoon, strode up to it. Its wide doors faced south, and on one of the posts was a great wooden ring, intricately patterned.
The god knocked and entered. He strode through the long passageway into the hall where the floor was newly strewn with rushes.
In this spacious, gracious room, the god saw Fathir and Mothir, Father and Mother. They sat gazing into one another’s eyes; then they touched, just finger ends.
Unaware of their visitor standing and watching, Fathir busied himself twisting a new bowstring, sharpening arrows, and working the shape of the carved elm bowshaft itself.
Mothir, meanwhile, sat and considered her slender arms. She smoothed her pleated chemise and drew the sleeves down to her wrists. Her dress had a train. She wore a flowing blue cape, and a charming cap, and on her breast were two oval brooches. This lady was pale-skinned: her brow was fair, her breast gleaming, and her neck was more white than new-fallen snow.
“Am I welcome?” asked Heimdall.
“What is your name?” asked Fathir.
“Rig” said Heimdall.
“You are welcome,” said Mothir.
So the god joined Fathir and Mothir. He spoke honeyed words, as he well knew how, and in no time he had won the best position by the fire. Mothir lost not time. She took out an embroidered linen cloth and laid it over the table. She brought white loaves of finely ground wheat; bowls worked in sliver filigree, full to the brim with cheese and onion and cabbage; well browned pork and horse and lamb; nicely turned partridge and grouse. The pitcher was full not of mead or ale but wine, and the goblets were made of solid sliver. Then the three of them sat to eat. They ate and drank and talked until after dark.
After their meal, Fathir and Mothir and their guest were ready to lie down and sleep. The god spoke honeyed words, as he well knew how, and in o time he had won the best position, in the middle of the bed. Fathir slept on one side of him, Mothir lay on the other. For three nights the god stayed with Fathir and Mothir. Then he thanked his hot and hostess for their hospitality and went on his way.
Every day the two stallions dragged the sun across the sky, and Day himself rode at ease round the world. But then Night tightened the rein of her mount, and each morning the face of the earth was dewy with foam from her bit. Summer’s strength weakened, and the days shortened. So grim winter showed his fist, full of frost and snow and ice, and wrestling winds.
Soon nine months passed and Mothir gave birth to a son. He was sprinkled with water and wrapped in silk. He had fair hair and color in his cheeks and the look in his flowing eyes was a grim as a snake. Fathir and Mothir called him Jarl. Jarl was quick to master skills. He learned how to hold and hoist a shining shield, and to wield a lance. Like his father, he twisted bowstrings and shaped bowshafts loosed quivering arrows. He rode; he unleashed hounds. He learned the art of sword-play, and could swim across sounds.
* * *
One day, unannounced, the god walked out of the forest of slender sliver birches that stood near the hall. He strode down to the building and found Jarl there, sitting alone.
“Jarl,” he said.
“You are welcome,” said jarl.
“I’ve brought you a gift,” said the god.
He showed Jarl a bundle of staves carved with sign and coloured red.
Jarl stared at them; he had never seen such things before.
“These are the runes. This is the magic that Allfather learned when he hung on the tree Yggdrasill.”
Jarl looked at the god, hen at the runes, than at the god again.
“Do you know the words against pain of the mind, pain of the heart, pain of the body?”
Jarl shook his head slowly.
“Do you now the words that put water on a fire? Do you know the words that put the sea to sleep?”
All that day, the god explained the secret meaning of the runes to Jarl and Jarl felt excited and ready. He thought all his life had been waiting for this moment.
“I have one more thing to tell you,” said the god, as the light failed.
“What is that?” asked Jarl.
“My son.” The god took Jarl into his arms. “You are my son,” he said. And he explained how he had visited the hall so long before. “You are my son; and as I am Rig the King, so will you be Rig the King. Now is the time to win land, to win great age-old halls, and command a host of followers.”
The god looked piercingly at Jarl, his son, then turned on his heel, and walked out of the gleaming hall into the darkness.
Jarl did not need to be told twice. He thought his father’s words explained to him what he had always felt but could not name. He was filled with a sense of release and purpose.
At once Jarl left the hall where he had lived since the day of his birth. He rode through the dark forest, and over passes between frost forbidding crags; and in a place of difficult of access, he established his own hall. He gathered a group of loyal retainers.
Jarl shook his spear and brandished his shield; he spurred his horse and dealt death blows with his sword. He brought his followers to battle and stained the soil red. He slew warriors and won land. Before long Jarl owned no less than eighteen halls. He won great wealth and was generous to his retainers. He game them ringer-rings and armbands, both of gold; he gave them precious stones; and he gave them horses lean and fleet of foot.
In time Jarl sent messengers over the boggy ground to the hall of the chieftain Hersir. And there, on Jarl’s behalf, they asked for the hand of his daughter, Erna. She was fair-haired and long-fingered, and accomplished at whatever she put her mind to.
Hersir was delighted. After Erna had made proper preparation, the messengers escorted her to Jarl’s hall, wearing a wedding veil. And she and Jarl lived most happily together.
Jarl and Erna had a cluster on contented children. They called their first-born But the Son, and their second Barn the Child; there was Jod the Child and Athal the Offspring; Arvi was an Heir and Mog another son; there were Nid and Nidjung the Descendants, Svein the Boy, and kinsman Kund; the youngest was Kon, a nobly born son. Soon all the boys learned to play and swim. As they grew older, they tamed beasts, and made circular shields, shaped shafts and shook spears.
But Kon the Young learned from his father the runes, the age-old meanings. In time he was able to blunt a sword blade and put the sea to sleep. He understood the language of the birds, he could quell flames, and quieten cares — the raging mind and aching heart of an unhappy man. He had the strength of eight men.
Kon and Rig-Jarl shared their secret understanding of the runes, and Kon was even more subtle and wise than his father. He believed it would be his right, too, to be called Rig the King; and he soon won that right.
One day Kon went riding in the gloomy, dark forest. Now and then he reined in his mount and loosed an arrow at a luckless bird. Other birds he lured from their perches, and listened to them.
A crow sat on a branch over Kon’s head. ‘Kon,’ it croaked, ‘why do you spend your time seducing birds to talk to you? You would do better to set out on your stallion and show daring in battle.’
Kon listened carefully to the crow’s counsel. The darkness seemed to fall back from the clearing where he stood, and to wait in the wings.
‘Who have halls more noble than yours?’ continued the crow. Who have won riches greater than yours — gold and jewels and precious ornaments?’
Kon did not answer; he clenched his fists.
‘Who are more skilled than you at steering their ships over the reach of the sea and the stinking saltspray?’
Still Kon did not answer.
‘Dan and Danp, Dan and Danp, Dan and Danp,’ sand the crow. It looked sideways at Kon. ‘They know what it means to temper their weapons with the blood of enemies…’