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The Riddles of Horn

Loki staggered through the halls of Bilskirnir with a large barrel of ale in his arms. Thor had been in a very downcast mood all morning and Loki was anxious to lighten his temperament. The sky was dark and menacing and stabbed by lightning and torrential rain, reflecting the Thunderer’s mood. Thor sat in his great hall on the high seat between the main pillars of Bilskirnir. He held out a cup gratefully as Loki proffered the ale.

Thor sighed deeply, “Why does everything have to go wrong at once ?”.

“Never rains but it pours eh ?” Loki giggled. Thor glared at him meaningfully but Loki carried on undaunted, “Just sort out the worst problems first, it is all a question of priorities !”.

“Sometimes it can be difficult to choose what to tackle first”, the Thunderer replied, “hop up here and see for yourself”. Loki scrambled up onto the high seat and the walls of Bilskilnir melted away, all the nine worlds were laid out before him.

“It must be the giants again” thought Loki and he gazed towards distant Jotunheim. Sure enough there was a great force of Frost giants rallying to attack, sharpening swords and brewing spells to send icy weather to the world of men. “So ?” said Loki, pretending to be unconcerned by the numerous giants, “There is only a couple of hundred of them, you will be back in time for lunch !”.

“Look again” said Thor. “More giants” thought Loki ? He looked again towards the borders of Midgard. In many places the enemies of men and gods were creeping in, blighting land and cattle. The ogres, trolls and dark elves were invading Midgard. Loki was sobered by the sheer scale of the problem: it would take Thor months to repel all these creatures. “Er, how about starting with the giants ?”, he suggested.

“It gets worse”, prompted Thor, “look again”. Puzzled, Loki searched the heart of Midgard and at first saw nothing unusual; just the loves and toil and petty hatreds that made up the world of men. Then he saw what was concerning his friend. In Sweden two huge armies had assembled and prepared to join battle over the peaceful farmland. The country would be devastated, crops trampled, stores stolen, cattle slaughtered, women raped and men killed as they tried to defend their holdings. The sheer number of massed warriors told Loki that this was the war gods’ doing. He glanced at Valhall and winced at the sight of the valkyries preparing the loom of death.

“Do you really want to take on Odin ?” asked Loki.

“I have got to do something”, Thor replied angrily, “the farmers are desperate, a hundred shrines have been reddened with blood and they look to me to save them, but how can I ? If I do not deal with that giant army, more lands than Sweden will suffer. You will just have to delay the battle until I return”.

“Me ?” cried Loki in horror.

“What’s this ? I ask YOU to stir up trouble and you refuse !”. Loki stared at Valhall, at the hordes of valkyries at Odin’s command. They would weave their foul cloth from the intestines of human corpses chanting a thousand spells, then they would carry their battle banner over the armies and every warrior in Sweden would be driven wild with bloodlust. Odin would cast his victory spear and claim the souls of the dead. Loki could never match such magic, unless…… He smiled as an idea formed in his mind. Thor saw the cunning look in Loki’s eyes, “You see an answer?” he asked.

“Yes, I think I do”.

“Good”, said Thor, “I leave this sorry business in your hands – don’t fail me”. Thor strode down the hall calling for his servants to fetch out his chariot. Loki slipped down from the high seat, ran to his chamber and shook out his feather cloak. He threw it over his shoulders and shot through the window in falcon form.

Loki flew to Sweden and sought out the battle camp of the Swedish king. He concealed himself amongst the tents and transformed himself into a young and attractive woman. Satisfied with his appearance, Loki strolled boldly towards the royal court. King Atli was debating terrain and tactics with his chief warlords. The earth before him had been cleared and was covered with scratched marks, hills, rivers, lakes and tally marks showing the numbers of the warbands. He frowned with concentration, trying to make sense of the crude and unfamiliar map.

His attention was broken utterly by the approach of a woman whose beauty held him utterly spellbound. Her long golden hair flowed loose in the light breeze and glowed in the sun. She wore gold and jewels and walked with a bearing that showed nobility. She wore a thin linen dress which left nothing to the imagination. King Atli didn’t ask who she was or where she had come from – he didn’t care. He took her hand and led her away to his tent, shouting for a bondsman to fetch wine.

Far away, in Valhall, Geirahod the valkyrie cursed at the loom: twelve warp threads had snapped and the skull that had weighted them lay rocking from side to side on the floor. She snatched up the skull and ran to the battle god, “someone is working against us”, she said.

Odin took the skull from her hands and fingered the broken intestine threads. “It is Loki”, Odin answered, “that interfering rascal. He thinks he can distract the kings if he blinds them with lust”. He handed back the skull. “Mend the web and drain all desire from King Grim. He will attack as planned and King Atli will be forced to fight”. Geirahod returned to the loom and replaced the broken threads with strands of mistrust and hatred, and beat up the bloody fabric with her sword.

Loki left the court of King Atli well pleased with his efforts. Atli was besotted with love and his head was full of a woman’s prattling on the evils of war. Loki took his falcon form again and flew off to the Danish camp. Again he took on the appearance of a beautiful maiden and walked gracefully to the kings council. King Grim glanced up at the apparition of loveliness before him and scowled at her. “;Begone”, he growled, “this is neither the time nor place for women”.

Loki paused, hardly believing Grim’s lack of interest. He muttered a love charm under his breath and walked up to the king until Grim had a birds eye view of a perfect cleavage. Grim bellowed furiously, “didn’t you hear me woman, begone !”. The king struck out, sending Loki wheeling.

Loki staggered off. “This is ridiculous” he thought, “what am I doing wrong ? I bet Freyja doesn’t have this kind of trouble seducing mortals !”. Suddenly Loki grinned: he knew how to reach Grim’s cold heart. He returned to his falcon guise and flew off to Vanaheim.

Night had fallen when the weary falcon alighted on the roof of Sessrumnir, Freyja’s shining hall. There was only one magic power that could aid Loki now – Brisingamen, the necklace of the Vanadis. Loki did not dare ask the goddess to aid him, like Odin she stood to gain much from the battle and would claim the best of the dead warriors. His only hope was to steal it while she slept. The falcon soared around the hall searching for an entrance but Sessrumnir was so well built that there wasn’t a gap big enough for Loki to squeeze through. Finally Loki found a small crack high among the roof shingles. He turned into a flea and crawled inside.

Loki was familiar with Freyja’s hall and he crept quickly to the goddess’s chamber. Freyja was sleeping on her back with the necklace fastening out of reach. Loki turned back into a flea and bit her. She moaned in her sleep and rolled over, allowing Loki to gently remove Brisingamen. Once again the falcon took to the skies, this time with the precious necklace in its claws.

Loki flew straight to the camp of King Grim, aware that he had little time before Grim marched on the Swedish army. As morning broke, Loki changed back into the guise of a beautiful maiden and approached the king’s tent. Loki wore Brisingamen and revelled in the power that coursed through him. The valkyrie’s spells faded like the mist when Grim woke and saw the beautiful woman before him.

In the halls of Valhall the valkyries screamed with rage as every thread on the loom broke simultaneously and the skulls clattered to the floor. Odin stared at the loom in amazement and knew that only one power could have undone all the valkyries’ spells. Odin called for his horse – he would have words with Freyja.

In Vanaheim the halls of Sessrumnir shook as Freyja woke to find her jewels missing. Freyr, Skadi and Heimdall came running and vowed to help her find the thief. Furious, Freyja wove charms and soon deduced Loki’s guilt. The Vanir gods gathered their steeds and started a thorough search of the nine worlds for the Trickster. Freyja, wild with rage, urged her battle-boar forward and scanned the world below for any sign of her quarry.

No sign of Loki was found for days, even when Odin and his valkyries joined the hunt. It was Heimdall who spotted him eventually, hiding in the snows of the northern wastes, almost invisible in the form of a white hare. Heimdall rushed to grab him but Loki turned into a great bear and raked his claws at the Vanir god. Heimdall also changed into a bear and the two gods growled and fought and the ice shook as they stamped their shaggy paws. The battle alerted the other gods and they soon arrived to help Heimdall trap Loki.

Greatly outnumbered Loki fled, turned himself into a salmon and leapt into a mountain river. The gods made a great fishing net and dragged the waters for their quarry. Loki tried to escape by leaping over the net but Freyr caught him and held him so strongly that Loki could not wiggle free. The gods dragged Loki to a cave and tied him securely. Freyja screamed at him again and again, “What had he done with her precious necklace ?” Loki ignored her threats and refused to answer.

Eventually the Vanir tired of threatening the stubborn god and left Loki to languish in the dark cave. Skadi tied a snake above his head to drip venom on his naked body, in the hope of speeding his return to reason. Only Sigyn, Loki’s faithful wife stayed with him and held up a bowl to catch the poison.

In Sweden the warriors went home to their farms and families. Loki had used the strongest of magic and with Brisingamen lost, no-one could incite the kings to battle. Weeks passed and Sigyn wept at Loki’s plight and begged him to swallow his pride and return Brisingamen. Many times the cup was filled with poison and the loyal wife turned aside to empty it while Loki writhed in pain.

After three moons an old woman came upon the cave. She was hideous and bent, her lips and hands scarred from spinning. Her clothes were filthy. Her back was burdened by a huge burden of flax and a wooden flax knife. She gazed into the darkness and, intrigued by the sight she saw inside, she came in to investigate.

The old woman hobbled up to Loki and peered down at him with rheumy eyes.”You look like you could use some help” she said, smiling with amusement.

“What can you do old crone ?” growled Loki. His back ached from the hard bed and he was in no mood for pleasantries.

“You are bound with magic”, the old woman rubbed the bonds with her finger, “I have some skill with such enchantments”. Loki looked hopeful. “;But”, she added, “I would only help you if you deserve your freedom. Tell me, why should I release you – what good qualities do you have ?”.

“Few can match my wits” Loki replied.

“A contest of riddles then ? If you can answer nine of my riddles I will set you free”.

Loki nodded eagerly, “Yes, ask what you will”.

The old woman asked:

I see a wagon with one wheel, the wheel turns with no horse to pull it but the wagon never moves. Housewives revere it and make offerings of corn. How can this be ?

Loki answered:

You see a mill wheel turned by the stream

The old woman asked:

I see a woman loved by a child, the woman never speaks to her, feeds her or protects her from harm, but the child loves her as much as any mother or sister. How can this be ?

Loki answered:

You see a doll.

The old woman asked:

I see a woman, quiet she is and gentle, and stays by her wool box in the hall. Yet her deeds give men courage on the battlefield. How can this be ?

Loki answered

The woman is a seamstress and made her lord’s battleflag.

The old woman asked:

I see an army, far they travel and loot gold from beautiful halls. I see a single woman seize their treasure and carry it away. How can this be ?

Loki answered:

The army are bees collecting nectar – the woman has taken their honey from the hive The old woman asked: I see a maid with a veil of blue, she dwells in a fair place. Men come and drag her away, beat her and tie her with ropes. Freyja bears her name. Who do I see ?

Loki answered:

That is ‘Horn’ the flax plant that men harvest for women’s weaving

The old woman asked:

I see a golden child astride the rooftree. She spins and her thread falls to the ground. Who do I see ?

Loki answered:

That is the sun with its rays that light the earth

The old woman asked

I see an old man lying in a cradle, loud he laughs at the women’s crooning. Who do I see ?

Loki answered: You see an elf. His kin have stolen the mothers’ child.

The old woman asked

I see a famous man. He severs Earth’s girdle with the anvil’s friend. He is aided by a fellow with a golden ring. Who is this companion ?

Loki answered:

That is the bull that Thor used as bait for the Earth serpent

The old woman asked:

I see ring of fire, the greatest of treasures. Empowered by passion and won by love. Where lies this prize ?

Loki answered:

That is Brisingamen that was bought from the dwarfs for four nights of caresses. Freyja did wear it… until recently

”What do you mean ?”, the woman asked surprised.

“Freyja has lost her necklace” Loki replied.

“Oh that is a shame, if you cannot answer my last riddle I cannot free you. What a pity when you tried so hard”. The old woman shuffled sadly towards the cave mouth while Loki agonised over whether or not to tell his secret. He could not return Brisingamen until Thor returned from his battles on the borders of Midgard, but this kind old woman ? – maybe he could let her in on his plans. Just then Sigyn was forced to turn away and empty the bowl of poison and the relentless drops burned into Loki’s flesh. Loki could take it no longer and called the old woman back, “wait, I know where it is !”.

“You do ?” asked the old woman. “Yes”, Loki replied, “I stole it to prevent war in Midgard – it is in Sif’s care”.

“Then I can release you” the old woman said coldly. She ripped away Loki’s bonds as if they were made of cobweb and grabbed him by the shoulders, hauling him upright. Loki whimpered in terror as the old woman shape-shifted into Freyja, her fierce angry eyes only inches from his own.

“And now, we can go and retrieve Brisingamen, yes ?”. Loki nodded desperately.

“No need” said a voice from the cave mouth. Freyja spun round with the naked Loki still in her grasp. Sif stood in the sunlight with her golden har gleaming with a carved casket in her arms. Her husband, beside her, grinning with undisguised amusement. Sif came forward and held out the casket. Freyja dropped the miserable, aching Loki to the floor and eagerly prised off the lid. She sighed with relief to find Brisingamen sage within and quickly fastened the necklace back around her neck.

Still angry Freyja whirled back to the pitiful figure of Loki, who was being helped to his feet by his loyal wife. “You will regret crossing me Loki !” cried Freyja. She gave Thor a cold, meaningful look and with a flurry of falcon feathers the Vanadis was gone. Loki watched the falcon’s flight sadly, his heart aching from Freyja’s scorn.

“I think you owe me a very big favour” he said to the Thunderer.

“You are right there”, Thor agreed and took Sigyn’s hand, “may I escort you home, may lady ?”. Sigyn looked puzzled and then smiled as she understood. “Don’t worry Loki”, Thor added, “Freyja won’t neglect you for long”. There was a blinding flash of light and Loki and Sif were left alone in the cave. Sif gently massaged Loki’s aching limbs and he marvelled at the sweet smell of the golden hair that cascaded over him. And Loki thought no more of the Vanadis.

(This story is a complete mish-mash of the old myths. The theft of Brisingamen is related in the Sorla Thattr. Odin is furious that Freyja (apparently his wife in this version) has given her body to four dwarves for the necklace, he sends Loki to steal it from her and then forces her to make reparation for her infidelity.

The battle between Heimdall and Loki over possession of the necklace is mentioned briefly in Snorri’s Edda. Loki’s punishment is given in the story of the death of Balder, which states that he will be bound until Ragnarok. Loki’s affair with Sif is mentioned in Lokasenna in the Poetic Edda.

The battle in Sweden, Freyja’s riddles and Thor’s involvement are my own additions)

First published in The Wain Yule 1998 – Issue No. 7

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