Odin inclined his head. “Loki is right,” he said. “You have no right to cut his neck.”
Brokk was irritated. “But I can’t cut off his head without cutting his neck,” he said.
Loki looked pleased with himself. “You see,” he said, “if people thought through the exactness of their words, they would not dare to take on Loki, the wisest, the cleverest, the trickiest, the most intelligent, the best-looking . . .”
Brokk whispered a suggestion to Odin. “That would be fair,” agreed Odin.
Brokk produced a strip of leather and a knife. He wrapped the leather around Loki’s mouth. Brokk tried to pierce the leather with the tip of the knifeblade.
“It’s not working,” said Brokk. “My knife isn’t cutting you.”
“I might have wisely arranged for protection from knifeblades,” said Loki modestly. “Just in case the whole you-can’t-cut-my-neck ploy did not work. I am afraid no knifeblade can cut me!”
Brokk grunted and produced an awl, a pointed spike used in leatherwork, and he jabbed it through the leather, punching holes through Loki’s lips. Then he took a strong thread and he sewed Loki’s lips together with it.
Brokk walked away, leaving Loki with his mouth sewn up tight, unable to complain.
For Loki, the pain of being unable to talk hurt even more than the pain of having his lips stitched into the leather.
So now you know: that is how the gods got their greatest treasures. It was Loki’s fault. Even Thor’s hammer was Loki’s fault. That was the thing about Loki. You resented him even when you were at your most grateful, and you were grateful to him even when you hated him the most.
THE MASTER BUILDER
Thor had gone to the east to fight trolls. Asgard was more peaceful without him, but it was also unprotected. This was in the early days, shortly after the treaty between the Aesir and the Vanir, when the gods were still making a home for themselves and Asgard was undefended.
“We cannot always rely on Thor,” said Odin. “We need protection. Giants will come. Trolls will come.”
“What do you propose?” asked Heimdall, the watchman of the gods.
“A wall,” said Odin. “High enough to keep out frost giants. Thick enough that not even the strongest troll could batter its way through.”
“Building such a wall,” said Loki, “so high and so thick, would take us many years.”
Odin nodded his agreement. “But still,” he said, “we need a wall.”
The next day a newcomer arrived in Asgard. He was a big man, dressed as a smith, and behind him trudged a horse—a stallion, huge and gray, with a broad back.
“They say you need a wall built,” said the stranger.
“Go on,” said Odin.
“I can build you a wall,” said the stranger. “Build it so high that the tallest giant could not climb it, so thick that the strongest troll could not batter through it. I can build it so well, by placing stone upon stone, that not an ant could find space enough to crawl through it. I will build you a wall that will last for a thousand thousand years.”
“Such a wall would take a very long time to build,” said Loki.
“Not at all,” said the stranger. “I can build it in three seasons. Tomorrow is the first day of winter. It would only take me a winter, a summer, and another winter to build.”
“And if you could do this,” said Odin, “what would you ask in return?”
“I need little enough payment for what I am offering,” said the man. “Only three things. First, I would like the beautiful goddess Freya’s hand in marriage.”
“That is not a little thing,” said Odin. “And it would not surprise me if Freya had her own opinions about the matter. What are the other two things?”
The stranger grinned a cocky grin. “If I build your wall,” he said, “I want the hand of Freya, and I also want the sun that shines in the sky by day, and I want the moon that gives us light at night. These three things are what the gods will give me if I build your wall.”
The gods looked at Freya. She said nothing, but her lips were pressed together and her face was white with anger. Around her neck was the necklace of the Brisings, which shone like the northern lights as it brushed her skin, and her hair was banded in gold, which was almost as bright as the hair itself.
“Go and wait outside,” said Odin to the stranger. The man walked away, not before asking where he could find food and water for his stallion, which was called Svadilfari, which means “one who makes an unlucky journey.”
Odin rubbed his forehead. Then he turned and looked at all the gods.
“Well?” asked Odin.
The gods began to talk.
“Quiet!” shouted Odin. “One at a time!”
Each of the gods and the goddesses had an opinion, and every one of them was of the same opinion: that Freya, the sun, and the moon were all too important and too valuable to be given to a stranger, even if he could build them the wall they needed in three seasons.
Freya had an additional opinion. She felt that the man should be beaten for his impertinence, then thrown out of Asgard and sent on his way.
“So,” said Odin the all-father, “we are decided. We say no.”
There was a dry cough from a corner of the hall. It was the kind of cough intended to attract attention, and the gods turned to see who had coughed. They found themselves looking at Loki, who stared back at them, and who smiled and held up a finger as if he had something important to divulge.
“It is worth my pointing out,” he said, “that you are ignoring something huge.”