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Norse Mythology(11)
Author: Neil Gaiman

“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?”

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