Page 42 of Norse Mythology

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“My, my,” said the kindly woman. “Mistletoe, eh? Well, truth to tell, I wouldn’t have bothered with that either. Much too weedy.”

The kindly woman had begun to remind Frigg of someone, but before the goddess could think who it was, Tyr held up an enormous rock with his good left hand, held it high above his head, and crashed it down on Balder’s chest. It disintegrated into dust before ever it touched the shining god.

When Frigg turned back to talk to the kindly woman, she was already gone, and Frigg thought no more about it. Not then.

Loki, in his own form, traveled to the west of Valhalla. He stopped by a huge oak tree. Here and there pendulous clumps of green mistletoe leaves and pale white berries hung from the oak, seeming even more insignificant when seen next to the grandeur of the oak. They grew directly out of the bark of the oak tree. Loki examined the berries, the stems, and the leaves. He thought about poisoning Balder with mistletoe berries, but that seemed too simple and straightforward.

If he was going to do harm to Balder, he was going to hurt as many people as possible.

III

Blind Hod stood to one side, listening to the merriment and the shouts of joy and astonishment coming from the green, and he sighed. Hod was strong, even if he was sightless, one of the strongest of the gods, and usually Balder was good about making certain that he was included. This time, even Balder had forgotten him.

“You look sad,” said a familiar voice. It was Loki’s voice.

“It’s hard, Loki. Everyone is having such a good time. I hear them laughing. And Balder, my beloved brother, he sounds so happy. I just wish I could be part of it.”

“That is the easiest thing in the world to remedy,” said Loki. Hod could not see the expression on his face, but Loki sounded so helpful, so friendly. And all the gods knew that Loki was clever. “Hold out your hand.”

Hod did so. Loki put something into it, closed Hod’s fingers around it.

“It is a little wooden dart I made. I will bring you close to Balder, and I will point you at him, and you shall throw it at him as hard as you can. Throw it with all your might. And then all the gods will laugh and Balder will know that even his blind brother has taken part in his day of triumph.”

Loki walked Hod through the people, toward the hubbub. “Here,” said Loki. “This is a good place to stand. Now, when I tell you, throw the dart.”

“It is only a little dart,” said Hod wistfully. “I wish I were throwing a spear or a rock.”

“A little dart will do,” said Loki. “The tip of it is sharp enough. Now, throw it there, like I told you.”

A mighty cheer and a laugh: a club made of knotted thornbush wood studded with sharp iron nails was swung by Thor into Balder’s face. The club skipped up and over his head at the last moment, and Thor looked as if he were dancing. It was very comical.

“Now!” whispered Loki. “Now, while they are all laughing.”

Hod threw the dart of mistletoe, just as he had been told. He expected to hear cheers and laughter. Nobody laughed, and nobody cheered. There was silence. He heard gasps, and a low muttering.

“Why is nobody cheering me?” asked blind Hod. “I threw a dart. It was neither big nor heavy, but you must have seen it. Balder, my brother, why are you not laughing?”

He heard wailing then, high and keen and awful, and he knew the voice. It was his mother who wailed.

“Balder, my son. Oh Balder, oh my son,” she wailed.

It was then that Hod knew his dart had hit home.

“How terrible. How sad. You have killed your brother,” said Loki. But he did not sound sad. He did not sound sad at all.

IV

Balder lay dead, pierced by the mistletoe dart. The gods gathered, weeping and tearing their garments. Odin said nothing, save only, “No vengeance will be taken on Hod. Not yet. Not right now. Not at this time. We are in a place of holy peace.”

Frigg said, “Who among you wants to win my good graces by going to Hel? Perhaps she will let Balder return to this world. Even Hel could not be so cruel as to keep him . . .” She thought for a moment. Hel was, after all, Loki’s daughter. “And we will offer her a ransom to give us Balder back. Is there one of you who is willing to travel to Hel’s kingdom? You might not return.”

The gods looked at each other. And then one of them raised his hand. This was Hermod, called the Nimble, Odin’s attendant, the fastest and the most daring of the young gods.

“I will go to Hel,” he said. “I will bring back Balder the beautiful.”

They brought forth Sleipnir, Odin’s stallion, the eight-legged horse. Hermod mounted it and prepared to ride down, ever down, to greet Hel in her high hall, where only the dead go.

As Hermod rode into darkness, the gods prepared Balder’s funeral. They took his corpse and they placed it on Hringhorn, Balder’s ship. They wanted to launch the ship and burn it, but they could not move it from the shore. They all pushed and heaved, even Thor, but the ship sat on the shore, unmoving. Only Balder had been able to launch his ship, and now he was gone.

The gods sent for Hyrrokkin the giantess, who came to them riding on an enormous wolf, with serpents for reins. She went to the prow of Balder’s ship and she pushed as hard as she could: she launched the ship, but her push was so violent that the rollers the ship was on burst into flame, and the earth shook, and the waves were terrifying.

“I ought to kill her,” said Thor, still stinging from his own failure to launch the ship, and he grasped the handle of Mjollnir, his hammer. “She shows disrespect.”

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