They could see the king of the giants, sitting on the highest chair, at the end of the hall. They crossed the hall, and then they bowed deeply.
The king had a narrow, intelligent face and flame-red hair. His eyes were an icy blue. He looked at the travelers, and he raised an eyebrow.
“Good lord,” he said. “It’s an invasion of tiny toddlers. No, my mistake. You must be the famous Thor of the Aesir, which means you must be Loki, Laufey’s son. I knew your mother a little. Hello, small relation. I am Utgardaloki, the Loki of Utgard. And you are?”
“Thialfi,” said Thialfi. “I am Thor’s bondservant.”
“Welcome, all of you, to Utgard,” said Utgardaloki. “The finest place in the world, for those who are remarkable. Anyone here who is, in craft or cunning, beyond everyone else in the world is welcome. Can any of you do anything special? What about you, little relative? What can you do that’s unique?”
“I can eat faster than anybody,” said Loki, without boasting.
“How interesting. I have my servant here. His name is, amusingly enough, Logi. Would you like an eating competition with him?”
Loki shrugged, as if it were all the same to him.
Utgardaloki clapped his hands, and a long wooden trough was brought in, with all manner of roasted animals in it: geese and oxen and sheep, goats and rabbits and deer. When he clapped his hands again, Loki began to eat, starting at the far end of the trough and working his way inward.
He ate hard, he ate single-mindedly, he ate as if he had only one goal in life: to eat all he could as fast as he could. His hands and mouth were a blur.
Logi and Loki met at the middle of the table.
Utgardaloki looked down from his throne. “Well,” he said, “you both ate at the same speed—not bad!—but Logi ate the bones of the animals, and yes, it appears he also ate the wooden trough it was served in. Loki ate all the flesh, it’s true, but he barely touched the bones and he didn’t even make a start on the trough. So this round goes to Logi.”
Utgardaloki looked at Thialfi. “You,” he said. “Boy. What can you do?”
Thialfi shrugged. He was the fastest person he knew. He could outrun startled rabbits, outrun a bird in flight. He said, “I can run.”
“Then,” said Utgardaloki, “you shall run.”
They walked outside, and there, on a level piece of ground, was a track, perfect for running. A number of giants stood and waited by the track, rubbing their hands together and blowing on them for warmth.
“You’re just a boy, Thialfi,” said Utgardaloki. “So I will not have you run against a grown man. Where is our little Hugi?”
A giant-child stepped forward, so thin he might not have been there, not much bigger than Loki or Thor. The child looked at Utgardaloki and said nothing, but he smiled. Thialfi was not certain that the boy had been there before he had been called. But he was there now.
Hugi and Thialfi stood side by side at the starting line, and they waited.
“Go!” called Utgardaloki, in a voice like thunder, and the boys began to run. Thialfi ran as he had never run before, but he watched Hugi pull ahead and reach the finish line when he was barely halfway there.
Utgardaloki called, “Victory goes to Hugi.” Then he crouched down beside Thialfi. “You will need to run faster if you have a hope of beating Hugi,” said the giant. “Still, I’ve not seen any human run like that before. Run faster, Thialfi.”
Thialfi stood beside Hugi at the starting line once more. Thialfi was panting, and his heart was pounding in his ears. He knew how fast he had run, and yet Hugi had run faster, and Hugi seemed completely at ease. He was not even breathing hard. The giant-child looked at Thialfi and smiled again. There was something about Hugi that reminded Thialfi of Utgardaloki, and he wondered if the giant-child was Utgardaloki’s son.
They ran. Thialfi ran as he had never run before, moving so fast that the world seemed to contain only himself and Hugi. And Hugi was still ahead of him the whole way. Hugi reached the finish line when Thialfi was still five, perhaps ten seconds away.
Thialfi knew that he had been close to winning that time, knew that all he had to do was give it all he had.
“Let us run again,” he panted.
“Very well,” said Utgardaloki. “You can run again. You are fast, young man, but I do not believe you can win. Still, we will let the final race decide the outcome.”
Hugi stepped over to the starting line. Thialfi stood next to him. He could not even hear Hugi breathing.
“Good luck,” said Thialfi.
“This time,” said Hugi, in a voice that seemed to sound in Thialfi’s head, “you will see me run.”
“Go!” called Utgardaloki.
Thialfi ran as no man alive had ever run. He ran as a peregrine falcon dives, he ran as a storm wind blows, he ran like Thialfi, and nobody has ever run like Thialfi, not before and not since.
But Hugi ran on ahead easily, moving faster than ever. Before Thialfi was even halfway, Hugi had reached the end of the track and was on the way back.
“Enough!” called Utgardaloki.
They went back into the great hall. The mood among the giants was more relaxed now, more jovial.
“Ah,” said Utgardaloki. “Well, the failure of these two is perhaps understandable. But now, now we shall see something to impress us. Now is the turn of Thor, god of thunder, mightiest of heroes. Thor, whose deeds are sung across the worlds. Gods and mortals tell stories of your feats. Will you show us what you can do?”
Thor stared at him. “For a start, I can drink,” said Thor. “There is no drink I cannot drain.”