The all-father was the wisest of the Aesir, and he had given his eye for more wisdom.
He stood by the grave at the end of the world, and in that place he invoked the darkest of runes and called on old powers, long forgotten. He burned things, and he said things, and he charmed and he demanded. The storm wind whipped at his face, and then the wind died and a woman stood before him on the other side of the fire, her face in the shadows.
“It was a hard journey, coming back from the land of the dead,” she told him. “I’ve been buried here for such a long time. Rain and snow have fallen on me. I do not know you, man-who-raised-me. What do they call you?”
“They call me Wanderer,” said Odin. “Warrior was my father. Tell me the news from Hel.”
The dead wise woman stared at him. “Balder is coming to us,” she told him. “We are brewing mead for him. There will be despair in the world above, but in the world of the dead there will be only rejoicing.”
Odin asked her who would kill Balder, and her answer shocked him. He asked who would avenge Balder’s death, and her answer puzzled him. He asked who would mourn Balder, and she stared at him across her own grave, as if she were seeing him for the first time.
“You are not Wanderer,” she said. Her dead eyes flickered, and there was expression on her face. “You are Odin, who was sacrificed by himself to himself so long ago.”
“And you are no wise woman. You are she who was in life Angrboda, Loki’s lover, mother to Hel, to Jormungundr, the Midgard serpent, and to Fenris Wolf,” said Odin.
The dead giantess smiled. “Ride home, little Odin,” she told him. “Run away, run back to your hall. No one will come to see me now until my husband, Loki, escapes from his bonds and returns to me, and Ragnarok, the doom of the gods, tearing all asunder, approaches.”
And then there was nothing in that place but shadows.
Odin left with his heart heavy, and with much to think about. Even the gods cannot change destiny, and if he was to save Balder he would have to do it with cunning, and he would need help. There was one other thing that the dead giantess had said that disturbed him.
Why did she talk about Loki escaping his bonds? wondered Odin. Loki is not bound. And then he thought, Not yet.
Odin kept his own counsel, but he told Frigg, his wife, mother of the gods, that Balder’s dreams were true dreams, and that there were those who meant their favorite son harm.
Frigg thought. Practical as ever, she said, “I do not believe it. I shall not believe it. There is nothing that despises the sun and the warmth and the life it brings the earth, and by the same token there is nothing that hates my son Balder the beautiful.” And she set out to ensure that this was so.
She walked the earth and exacted an oath from each thing that she encountered never to harm Balder the beautiful. She spoke to fire, and it promised it would not burn him; water gave its oath never to drown him; iron would not cut him, nor would any of the other metals. Stones promised never to bruise his skin. Frigg spoke to trees, to beasts, and to birds and to all things that creep and fly and crawl, and each creature promised that its kind would never hurt Balder. The trees agreed, each after its kind, oak and ash, pine and beech, birch and fir, that their wood could never be used to hurt Balder. She conjured diseases and spoke to them, and each of the diseases and infirmities that can hurt or wound a person agreed that it too would never touch Balder.
Nothing was too insignificant for Frigg to ask, save only the mistletoe, a creeping plant that lives on other trees. It seemed too small, too young, too insignificant, and she passed it by.
And when everything had sworn its oath not to harm her son, Frigg returned to Asgard. “Balder is safe,” she told the Aesir. “Nothing will hurt him.”
All of them doubted her, even Balder. Frigg picked up a stone and whipped it toward her son. The stone skipped around him.
Balder laughed with delight, and it was as if the sun had come out. The gods smiled. And then one by one they threw their weapons at Balder, and each of them was astonished and amazed. Swords would not touch him, spears would not pierce his flesh.
All the gods were relieved and happy. There were only two faces in Asgard that were not radiant with joy.
Loki was not smiling or laughing. He watched the gods hack at Balder with axes and with swords, or drop enormous rocks on Balder, or try to strike Balder with huge knotted wooden clubs, and laugh as the clubs and swords and rocks and axes avoided Balder or touched him like gentle feathers, and Loki brooded, and slipped away into the shadows.
The other was Balder’s brother Hod, who was blind.
“What is happening?” asked blind Hod. “Will somebody please tell me what is happening?” But nobody talked to Hod. He listened to the sound of merrymaking and joy, and he wished he could be a part of it.
“You must be very proud of your son,” said a kindly woman to Frigg. Frigg did not recognize the woman, but the woman beamed when she looked at Balder, and Frigg was indeed proud of her son. Everybody loved him, after all. “But won’t they hurt him, the poor darling? Throwing things at him like that? If I were his mother, I would be afraid for my son.”
“They will not hurt him,” said Frigg. “No weapon can hurt Balder. No disease. No rock. No tree. I have taken an oath from all the things there are that can harm.”
“That’s good,” said the kindly woman. “I’m pleased. But are you sure you didn’t miss any of them?”
“Not a one,” said Frigg. “All the trees. The only one I did not bother with was the mistletoe—it’s a creeper that grows on the oak trees west of Valhalla. But it’s too young and too small ever to do any harm. You could not make a club from mistletoe.”