“Stop!” said Utgardaloki. “We have seen enough, great Thor. You cannot even defeat my old foster mother. I do not think any of my men will wrestle you now.”
Thor looked at Loki, and they both looked at Thialfi. They sat beside the great fire, and the giants showed them hospitality—the food was good, and the wine was less salty than the mead from the giant’s drinking horn—but each of the three of them said less than he usually would have said during a feast.
The companions were quiet and they were awkward, and humbled by their defeat.
They left the fortress of Utgard at dawn, and King Utgardaloki himself walked beside them as they left.
“Well?” said Utgardaloki. “How did you enjoy your time in my home?”
They looked up at him gloomily.
“Not much,” said Thor. “I’ve always prided myself on being powerful, and right now I feel like a nobody and a nothing.”
“I thought I could run fast,” said Thialfi.
“And I’ve never been beaten at an eating contest,” said Loki.
They passed through the gates that marked the end of Utgardaloki’s stronghold.
“You know,” said the giant, “you are not nobodies. And you are not nothing. Honestly, if I knew last night what I know now, I would never have invited you into my home, and I am going to make very certain you are never invited in again. You see, I tricked you, all of you, with illusions.”
The travelers looked at the giant, who smiled down at them. “Do you remember Skrymir?” he asked.
“The giant? Of course.”
“That was me. I used illusion to make myself so large and to change my appearance. The laces of my provision bags were tied with unbreakable iron wire and could be undone only by magic. When you hit me with your hammer, Thor, while I pretended to sleep, I knew that even the lightest of your blows would have meant my death, so I used my magic to take a mountain and put it invisibly between the hammer and my head. Look over there.”
Far away was a mountain in the shape of a saddle, with valleys plunging into it: three square-shaped valleys, the last one going deepest of all.
“That was the mountain I used,” said Utgardaloki. “Those valleys are your blows.”
Thor said nothing, but his lips grew thin, and his nostrils flared, and his red beard prickled.
Loki said, “Tell me about last night, in the castle. Was that illusion too?”
“Of course it was. Have you ever seen wildfire come down a valley, burning everything in its path? You think you can eat fast? You will never eat as fast as Logi, for Logi is fire incarnate, and he devoured the food and the wooden trough it was in as well by burning it. I have never seen anyone eat as quickly as you.”
Loki’s green eyes flashed with anger and with admiration, for he loved a good trick as much as he hated being fooled.
Utgardaloki turned to Thialfi. “How fast can you think, boy?” he asked. “Can you think faster than you can run?”
“Of course,” said Thialfi. “I can think faster than anything.”
“Which is why I had you run against Hugi, who is thought. It does not matter how fast you ran—and none of us have ever seen anyone run like you, Thialfi—even you cannot run faster than thought.”
Thialfi said nothing. He wanted to say something, to protest or to ask more questions, when Thor said, in a low rumble, like thunder echoing on a distant mountaintop, “And me? What did I actually do last night?”
Utgardaloki was no longer smiling. “A miracle,” he said. “You did the impossible. You could not perceive it, but the end of the drinking horn was in the deepest part of the sea. You drank enough to take the ocean level down, to make tides. Because of you, Thor, the seawater will rise and ebb forevermore. I was relieved that you did not take a fourth drink: you might have drunk the ocean dry.
“The cat whom you tried to lift was no cat. That was Jormungundr, the Midgard serpent, the snake who goes around the center of the world. It is impossible to lift the Midgard serpent, and yet you did, and you even loosened a coil of it when you lifted its paw from the ground. Do you remember the noise you heard? That was the sound of the earth moving.”
“And the old woman?” asked Thor. “Your old nurse? What was she?” His voice was very mild, but he had hold of the shaft of his hammer, and he was holding it comfortably.
“That was Elli, old age. No one can beat old age, because in the end she takes each of us, makes us weaker and weaker until she closes our eyes for good. All of us except you, Thor. You wrestled old age, and we marveled that you stayed standing, that even when she took power over you, you fell down only onto one knee. We have never seen anything like last night, Thor. Never.
“And now that we have seen your power, we know how foolish we were to let you reach Utgard. I plan to defend my fortress in the future, and the way that I plan to defend it best to is to ensure that none of you ever find Utgard, or see it again, and to be quite certain that whatever happens in the days to come, none of you will ever return.”
Thor raised his hammer high above his head, but before he could strike, Utgardaloki was gone.
“Look,” said Thialfi.
The fortress was gone. There was no trace of Utgard-aloki’s stronghold or the grounds it was in. Now the three travelers were standing on a desolate plain, with no signs of any kind of life whatsoever.
“Let’s go home,” said Loki. And then he said, “That was well done. Brilliantly deployed illusions. I think we’ve all learned something today.”
“I will tell my sister that I raced thought,” said Thialfi. “I will tell Roskva I ran well.”