I first met him when the world was young, born from the mating of fire and ice, when the hearthfires of Muspellheim were newly kindled.
Muspell is Surtr's domain. His sword is a glowing brand. At its touch, the forests explode, the ocean boils. Where he walks, the ground bursts into flame, the stones shatter and melt beneath his feet. Ashes fill his footprints.
In the northern reaches of the world the ice arose, mountains of ice, vast frozen glaciers that covered the mountains and filled the basins of the seas. This was of old the fastness of the Jotuns, the frost giants, whose beards were caked with hoarfrost and rime.
I am a son of Muspell, the blazing south, the land of flames. My father was Farbauti, the cruel striker, the lightning. One day he saw green-needled Laufey on her fir-covered island. He struck, he consumed her, and from the ashes I was born: Loki, the bright one, the twisting, shifting light.
For my gifts, Surtr favored me among all the sons of Muspell. I was the shape-shifter who could take any size, assume any form that I chose. I was young then, carefree and unscarred. I was handsome, clever, quick-tongued. None of the daughters of Muspell could resist the charms I lay on them, and I went from one to the next, igniting their desire, thrusting into the heat of their welcoming loins.
Set above them all was Sinmora, wife of Surtr. Her eyes were smoldering embers, and a single glance from them was enough to leave me burning with lust. Oh, Sinmora! My memory of you is a brand seared into my heart. You were the first, though others have been more faithful.
We built her hall, my brothers and I did, and we ringed it with a wall of blue-glowing flames. Its name is Okolnir, the never-cold, and there are two great treasures kept there. The first is the great cauldron where Sinmora brews her incomparable mead, like ripe honey on the tongue and liquid fire smoldering in the belly. Oh, for a single drop of that mead now, when all I taste is bitter venom!
The other treasure lies in her coffer, warded with nine unbreakable locks. There she keeps and guards Surtr's sword of flame, Laegjarn, the wounding wand. No power can withstand the one who wields it. It has been foretold from the beginning of time that one day the whole world will become a waste of blowing ashes at its touch, and how I await that day! It was Surtr's sword that brought about my downfall in a way, for word of it had spread, even as far as the frozen desolation of the distant north.
I heard the howling of dogs one day as I passed close by Okolnir. As I came closer, I saw them straining at their chains: Gifr and Geri, the two vicious hounds chained on each side of Sinmora's doorway. Their white fangs snapped and bloody slaver dripped down from their jaws, they were so eager to give chase. In the distance I could see a figure fleeing the hall, a figure wrapped in a gray cloak with a hood pulled up over his head.
Even then you sought to hide your face, Odinn, to conceal your crimes!
A thief! I exclaimed and took up the pursuit in wolf-form. I loped easily after him, gaining ground at every stride, but when I was close to overtaking the thief, he turned around and at once reared up to stand at bay. He swelled in size, and his cloak became the shaggy brown pelt of a bear. His maw gaped open in a roar, exposing white fangs and a slavering red tongue. I circled him warily in wolf-form, for I knew how a bear's powerful claws could tear me apart. Yet at the same time I was blazing with curiosity to know who this stranger was, for until that day I had always been the only shape-changer in Muspellheim, and I had never met another with this power that was mine.
We faced each other, snarling, our hackles raised, yet I didn't dare attack because of his greater strength. At last the stranger dropped down to all fours and lumbered away again with a bear's rolling gait. I changed at once into falcon-shape and flew into the sky to follow, but as soon as he saw me above him he took the shape of an eagle and rose to the attack.
It was a wild chase! Falcon and eagle, we wheeled after each other in the upper reaches of the sky. I could hear the wind booming in the powerful wake of his wings. I was swifter, more quick to turn, but I knew his massive talons were more deadly. One direct strike would have been the end of me. Who was this shape-changer? Where had he come from?
Our chase took us far from the flaming lands of Muspellheim. Screaming, we tore at each other in mid-air, and our feathers drifted down onto the empty wastes of Midgard, the glittering white glaciers of Jotunheim. I kept trying to get above him, to stoop and strike at his eyes, but in our long flight we had gone to the ends of the earth and back again, and eventually I was exhausted.
When at last we were both of us spent, we sank to the ground and resumed our original forms. I watched the stranger mistrustfully, as he watched me. His hood was thrown back, and his gray eyes were piercing in their frigid intensity. They made me uneasy, yet his presence was like a cold rushing wind out of the north, filling me with a shivering sense of excitement. I knew somehow already that my life would never be the same again.
"So," he said finally, "who are you, shape-changer?"
"My name is Loki, Farbauti's son. And who are you, shape-changer also? It should be my place to ask, you know. You are the stranger here, after all. The thief who fled from our hall."
"I go by many names," he answered evasively. "But for the moment, you can call me Gangleri, the wanderer, the way-weary."
I laughed. "A long way, is it, to come thieving in Muspellheim? Tell me, Gangleri, what is it you were trying to steal? Haven't you heard that no one can penetrate the wards around Sinmora's hall?"
"I've heard," he said slowly, doubtless wondering how far he could trust me, a son of Muspell, "that she guards a sword named Laegjarn, a weapon no power can withstand."
My eyes opened wide. "You meant to steal Surtr's sword! Oh, stranger, you don't know how lucky you are that you couldn't get past the dogs! Listen, thief, and know this. That blade is the heart of flame. The instant your hand closed around its hilt, the flesh would have burnt off your bones, and the bones turned to ashes. No one but Surtr can ever wield that sword, not even another son of Muspell. I would never dare even to touch it."
His brows lowered in a frown, for even then he could never endure to have his will thwarted. Even then he was plotting to escape his Wyrd.
"Besides," I said lightly, "why steal a sword when you could steal Sinmora's mead? Or better yet, her kiss?"
He stood up and spoke scornfully. "Are all the sons of Muspell as frivolous as you? Or are you all just as cowardly and weak?"
"Weak?" I stood up as well, thinking to give him a taste of my real power. Yet something stopped me, and I admit I was reluctant to challenge him again. There was something daunting about his presence, a kind of cold, irresistible force. I think that even then he had the power to lure souls after him, and had already taken a grip on mine.
He was much larger than I, with broadly-muscled arms and thighs, and in that time of his youth his hair was shining fair, his eyes a piercing gray. He stood before me like a champion, almost -- but, no, I will never call him a god. Let that name be reserved for the benighted mortals who worship him, for his armies of the slain.
"Weak," he said again, in a low voice that stung with its contempt. "There are only two kinds in the world, the weak and the strong. Power -- power is everything! They think they can keep it from us forever! They think Odinn counts for nothing!"
Odinn -- so that was his true name! "Ah -- they?" I wondered aloud.
"The Jotuns, our fathers. The frost giants. They keep all the power for themselves, all the knowledge, everything!"
It was an unsettling thought, to consider beings that this Odinn would call giants. "And Surtr's sword? How would it solve your problem, then?"
"We need some advantage. They are all sorcerers. They hoard the wisdom, the knowledge, for themselves! We have nothing, we have no halls of our own, no treasure, no wives. They keep the women for themselves, in their own halls. All because we have nothing like that sword. With that, we could take it all! No power can withstand it -- that was the prophecy, wasn't it? No power can withstand the hand who wields it."
Of course, I had no wife of my own either, but it had never been an unsurmountable problem. There were other men's wives everywhere, after all.
As for power, unlike women, I hadn't ever felt the need. In this I was never like him. But Odinn's will never be the hand that wields Surtr's sword -- that much I do know, that much was foretold.
At the time, though, I only thought of my own amusement, to play with this stranger, to court adventure. This has always been my own Wyrd, that a peaceful life would never be mine. So I told him, "Stranger, I might help you if I could. I see that breaking into Sinmora's hall is a task not quite in keeping with your talents."
"But not beyond yours, I take it? I suppose you could steal the sword yourself. Get past those cursed hounds and into the hall."
I laughed. "I tell you, those hounds fed from my hands when they were pups."
"Is that the truth?" He seized my shoulders eagerly. "If you do this thing for me, Farbauti's son, I swear to you, no reward will be too great! There will be a place for you in my hall, by my side, forever! Never will I lift a horn to drink if there is not one in your own hand as well!"
"No, wait! I can take you past the dogs and into Sinmora's hall, that much is no trouble. But steal Surtr's sword? No, I told you, not even a son of the flames can touch that blade! Besides, there's the prophecy, if you believe in that sort of thing, foretelling the future."
He frowned. "What prophecy?"
"The sword has never been unsheathed. The foretelling is: it will mean the end of the world if it ever is drawn."
He cursed in obvious frustration, the frost giant's son, yet I felt he would have risked even the end of the world if it could bring him the power he sought. Such a grim tribe they must be in Jotunheim, I thought, not yet knowing the Aesir and their capacity for dark treachery.
So heedlessly I told him, "There is yet another treasure in Sinmora's hall. She brews the finest mead in all of Muspellheim. They say," I added slyly, "that it can bring inspiration. Wisdom. Perhaps even the solution to your problem."
"Mead?" His tone was frankly puzzled.
"You mean you don't brew mead up in the north?" I laughed. "No wonder you take no joy in life! Come back with me to Sinmora's hall! I'll show you what kind of a thief I am, and I'll wager that after you've had a horn or two of Sinmora's mead, you'd trade all the ice in Jotunheim for a cauldron of her golden brew!"
Oh, how carefree I was in those last innocent hours, how unsuspecting of the Wyrd that was mine!
The way-weary stranger agreed reluctantly, so we took our shapes as birds again and rose into the sky. Odinn seemed to be carried along on the current of his own frigid wind, so strongly did the eagle fly. South we flew, leaving the lands of ice and snow behind us until we reached Muspell again, the land that cold can never touch.
Outside the gate of Sinmora's hall the two hounds were still chained on guard. Gifr was curled up in sleep, but Geri leaped at the end of his chain, awake and alert. I scratched his chin, I rubbed the place behind his ears, then I told Odinn, "Follow me," and led him past the vicious beast, who wagged his tail as I went into the hall. There near the hearthside was the cauldron, brim-full of foaming golden mead. I poured an overflowing horn of it out to Odinn and another for myself, to quench the burning thirst our long flight had given me.
After a single swallow, Odinn's frown eased. Another, and he was laughing alongside me. "This drink is a wonder!" he exclaimed. "It makes the blood sing in my veins! Don't let me forget to bring some of it back to Jotunheim." He took another deep drink.
I saw that his tongue was loosened and thought to take the opportunity to learn some of this secrets. "Tell me, wanderer Gangleri, my friend, are the frost giants all shape-changers as you are? I must admit, I was surprised when I saw you shift into bear-form today. I'd thought my own talent was rather more unique."
"Ah," he said, wiping the foam from his golden beard and opening his cloak to show me the pelts wrapped around him, "here, do you see? Sorcery, a wise-woman's gift, the skins of a bear and an eagle. I can take their forms when I wear them. Of all my brothers, only Heimdall is a shape-changer from birth. He can take seal-form, but then his mothers were Aegir's daughters -- the sea king. I've always figured that accounted for it."
"Did you say mothers? How many does he have?"
"Nine of them -- all sisters. He's a fine fellow, Heimdall. Bright, shining face. Never sleeps. He can see a gnat jump in the air a hundred leagues away. Hear the blades of grass growing. You should meet him some day. I'd like you to meet all my brothers -- Tyr, Honir, and especially my foster-son Thorr! You remind me a little of Thorr, with that red hair."
"I got it from my father," I told him.
He clapped me on the back, forcing the breath from my lungs and making my ribs ache. "You know, Farbauti's son, I like you! You didn't steal the sword for me, but so what! This drink -- this mead -- is even better! I can almost feel the inspiration seething in me right now. It's almost as good as the water from Mimir's well, and it tastes a lot better!" He drained his horn and belched with satisfaction. "You can have a seat in my hall any time you want it! You have my oath on that."
He put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me close against him. "In fact, I like you so well, I want to be your brother. Come! We'll mingle our blood together, you and I! An oath of brotherhood!" He pulled out a knife from his belt, but I took it from him, since he was drunk and I didn't trust the steadiness of his hand. Heedless of any possible treachery, I made a cut into each of our forearms. The dark blood welled out, and we pressed our hands together, arm to arm, flesh to flesh, my blood to his and his to mine.
Then, as we took our arms apart, I caught an instant's glimpse into his eyes, and I saw there a icy, calculating glint that made me shiver uncontrollably, touched with chill, although we sat in Muspellheim, the land of flame. For when we mixed our blood a part of me had passed into him, so that from that moment he could change his shape at will, and men in later times would call him Fjolnir, the many-shaped.
While I stared at my blood-stained arm wondering where this suspicion had come from, this hint of cold calculation, he stood to leave. "You must come and visit my hall one day, my new brother-by-blood. Oh, don't worry, I'll have a hall of my own, sooner than you might think. And be sure to bring some of this mead with you when you come!"
Then he was gone, on strong eagle-wings and a chill, furious wind.
Odinn, my newly-won brother.
Copyright © 2000 by Lois Tilton