Long after the Golden Age, it was still very early in the cycle of time. And long after the war between the Aesir and the Vanir, the wall around Asgard that the Vanir had razed with their battle-magic remained a ring of rubble, deserted, the home of eagles and ravens.
The gods were anxious that the wall should be rebuilt, so that Asgard would be safe from evil-doers, but none were eager to take the heavy burden of rebuilding on their own shoulders. This is how matters stood for some time until, one day, a solitary figure on horseback cantered over the trembling rainbow, and was stopped by the watchman Heimdall.
“I’ve a plan to put to the gods,” said the man
“You can tell it to me,” said Heimdall warmly. He had felt curious as he watched this man approach from a hundred miles off, and smiled, showing his gold teeth.
“I’ll tell all the gods if I tell at all,” said the man from his saddle. “The goddesses also may be interested.”
Heimdall showed his teeth again in a less friendly manner and directed the man across the Plain of Ida to Gladsheim.
So the gods and goddesses gathered in Gladsheim. Their visitor tied up his stallion and stepped forward under the shining roof, to the middle of the hall. He was surrounded by Odin and the twelve leading gods, each sitting in his high place, and by a throng of gods and goddesses.
Odin eyed him piercingly. “We are all here at Heimdall’s bidding. What do you have to say?”
“Only this,” said the man. “I’ll rebuild your wall round Asgard.” There was a stir in Gladsheim as the gods and goddesses realized there must be rather more to the builder than met the eye.
“The wall will be much stronger and higher than before,” said the builder. “So strong and high that it will be impregnable. Asgard will be secure against the rock giants and the frost giants even if they barge their way into Midgard.”
“However,” said Odin, aware that conditions would soon follow.
“I’ll need eighteen months,” said the builder. “Eighteen months from the day I begin.”
That may not be impossible,” said Odin, the Alert One.
“It is essential,” said the builder.
“And your price?” asked Odin slowly.
“I was coming to that,” said the builder. “Freyja as my wife.”
The beautiful goddess sat bolt upright and as she moved to Necklace of the Brisings and her golden brooches and armbands and the gold thread in her clothing glittered and flashed. None but Odin could look directly at her, Freyja, fairest of goddesses, more beautiful even than Firgg and Nanna and Eir and Sif. And as she sat erect, the outraged gods all around her were shouting, or waving their arms, deriding the builder, dismissing the builder.
“That’s impossible,” shouted Odin. “Let that be an end to it.”
“I’ll also be wanting the sun and the moon,” said the builder. “Freyja, the sun and the moon: that’s my price.”
Loki’s voice rose out of the hubbub. “Every idea has its own merits. Don’t dismiss it out of hand.”
All the gods and goddesses turned to look at the Sly One, the giant Farbauti’s son, and wondered what was passing through the maze of his mind.
“We must give this plan a thought,” said Loki reasonably. “We owe our guest no less.”
So the builder was asked to leave Gladsheim while to gods and goddesses conferred. And when she saw that he gods were no longer ready to dismiss the idea out of hand but wanted to discuss it in earnest, Freyja began to weep tears of gold.
“Don’t be so hasty,” Loki said. “We could turn this plan to our own gain. Supposing we gave this man six months to build the wall…”
“He could never build it in that time,” said Heimdall.
“Never,” echoed many of the gods.
“Exactly,” said Loki.
“So what would we lose by suggesting it?” said Loki. “If the builder won’t agree, we lose nothing. If he does agree, he’s bound to lose.” Loki slapped his sides and rolled his eyes. “And we’ll have half our wall built free and for nothing.”
Although the gods and goddesses were a little uneasy about taking Loki’s advice, they could see no way to fault the Trickster’s scheme. Indeed several of them wished they had thought of it themselves.
“Six months!” said Odin, when the builder had come back into Gladsheim. “If you build the wall within this time, you can have Freyja as your wife, and take the sun and moon too. Six months.”
They builder shook his head, but Odin continued, “Tomorrow is the first day of winter. You must agree that no one will come to help you. And if any part of the wall is still unfinished on the first day of summer, you forfeit your reward. Those are our terms, and there are none other.”
“Impossible terms,’ said the builder, “and you know it.” He paused and gazed at Freyja. “But my longing,” he said. “My longing…” He gazed at Freyja again. “Then at least allow me the help of my stallion Svadilfari.”
“Those are our terms.” said Odin.
“And those are mine.” said the builder
“Odin, you’re too stubborn.” protested Loki.
“And there are none other.” said Odin firmly.
“What’s wrong with allowing him the use of his horse?” shouted Loki.
“How can it possible affect the outcome? If we refuse, there’ll be no bargain, and we’ll have no part of the wall at all.”
In the end, Loki’s argument prevailed. It was agreed that the builder should begin work on the next morning and have the sue of his horse. Odin swore oaths to this effect in from of many witnesses, and the builder also asked for safe conduct for as long as he worked on the wall. He said he was anxious in case Thor, who was away in the east fighting trolls at that time, should return home and fail to see matters in the way the other gods had done.
Long before Early Waker and All Swift set off on their journey across the sky, the builder started work. By the light of the new moon, he led Svadifari down over a sweeping grassy shoulder and past a copse to a place where the bones of the hill were sticking out, chipped and twisted. There were huge hunks and chunks and boulders of rock there, stuff that looked as thought it would last as long as time itself. The builder brought with him a loosely meshed net which he harnessed to is stallion and spread out behind him. Then he began to heave and shove massive slabs on to the net. He gasped and grunted-amongst the gods only Thor could have matched his strength. After some time he had levered and piled up a great mound of rock behind Svadilfari. Then the builder gathered up the net ends in his horny hands, as though he were folding a sheet, and bellowed.
At once Svadilfari bowed his head. He dug his shoes into the earth and began to haul. Mustering his vast strength he dragged the whole quaking mound up the slope. And as day dawned, the builder and his stallion, guffing in the freezing air, brought their load up beside the old broken wall of Asgard.
When the gods and goddesses stirred from their halls, they were astonished and disturbed to see how much rock Svadilfari had hauled up the hill. They watched the mason smash the boulders, and shape them, and set them in place while Svadilfari rested in the shadow of the growing wall; and such was his strength, they began to think that the mason could only be some giant in disguise. But then the gods looked at the great circuit of broken wall that remained; they reassured each other that they had in any case got the best of the bargain.
Winter bared its teeth. Hraesvelg beat his winds and, outside Asgard, the cold wind whirled. The land was drenched by rainstorms and pelted with hailstones, then draped in snow.
The giant mason and his horse gritted their teeth and worked at the wall. Night after night Svadilfari ploughed the long furrow past the corpse to and from the quarry. Day after day the mason went on building. And as the days grew longer, time for the mason, and for the gods, grew shorter.
Three days before the beginning of summer the mason had almost completed the circuit of well cut and well laid stone, a sturdy wall high and strong enough to keep any unwelcome visitor at bay. Only the gateway had still to be built. The gods and goddesses were no more able to keep away from the wall than moths from a flame. They stared at it for the hundredth time; they talked of nothing but the bargain.
Then Odin called a meeting in Gladsheim. The high hall was filled with anxious faces and fretful talk. Freyja was unable to stem her tears-the floor around her was flooded with gold.
Odin raised his spear and his voice over the assembly: “We must find a way out of this contract,” he shouted. “Who suggested we should strike this bargain? How did we come to risk such an outcome: Freyja married to a brute of a giant? The sky raped of the sun and the moon so that we shall have to grope about, robbed of light and warmth?” Several gods and then every god looked at Loki, and Odin strode across the hall floor towards him. He took a firm grip on the Trickster’s shoulders.
“How was I to know?” protested Loki. “We all agreed.”
Odin tightened his grip and Locki winced.
“We all agreed!” yelled Loki.
“Who suggested the mason should be allowed to have the use of his horse?” Odin asked. “You got us into this trouble and you must get us out of it.”
There was a shout of agreement from all the gods.
“Use the wrap and weft of your mind, Loki. We have some plan. Either the mason forfeits his wages or you forfeit your life.” Odin squeezed Loki’s flesh and sinews until the Sly One, the Shape Changer, dropped to one knee. “We’ll take it all out of you, bit by bit.”
Loki saw that Odin and the other gods were in deadly earnest. “I swear,” he said. “No matter what it costs me, I’ll see to it that the builder loses the wager.”
That evening the mason led Svadilfari down toward the quarry with a certain spring in his step. It seemed to his as to the gods and goddesses that he would finish the wall within the agreed time, and win rewards rich not only in themselves but also in the sorrow their loss would bring to the gods. He sang a kind of tune, and small birds took shelter in the gloomy copse and listened to his song. Not only the birds. A young mare pricked up her ears and listened intently. Then, when Svadilfari and the mason drew close enough, she sprang out of the thicket. She kicked her heels in the air and, in the moonlight, her flanks shimmered.
The mare pranced up to Svadilfari. She danced around him and whisked her tail and Svadilfari began to strain at the long rein by which the mason was leading him.
Then the mare whinnied invitingly and headed back towards the copse. Svadilfari started after her with such a thrust the he broke the rein. He galloped behind the mare into the copse, and the mason lumbered after Svadilfari, shouting and cursing.
All night the two horses gamboled, and all night the enraged mason tripped over roots and tree stumps in half the light. He hurled abuses, he chased shadows, and the light had begun to grow green in the east before Svadilfari returned to him.
So no stone was hauled from the quarry that night and the mason had to make do with the little left over the day before. It was not nearly enough to build the first part of the gateway and he soon knew that he would no longer be able to complete his task in time.
Then the anger churning inside the mason erupted. He burst out of his disguise and stood before the watching gods and goddesses – a towering brute of a rock giant in a towering rage.
Now that the gods knew the builder was indeed a giant, they revoked their oaths about his safe conduct without a second thought, and sent for Thor.
“A trick!” shouted the rock giant. “Tricked by a gang of gods! A brothel of goddesses!”
Those were the mason’s last words. Then Thor paid him his wages, and they were not the sun and the moon. A single blow from the hammer Mjollnir shatter the giant’s skull into a thousand fragments and dispatched him to the endless dark of Niflheim.
A number of months passed before Loki the Shape Changer was seen in Asgard again. And when he returned, ambling over Bifrost and blowing a raspberry at Heimdall as he passed Himinbjorg, he had a colt in tow. This horse was rather unusual in that he had eight legs. He was a grey and Loki called him Sleipnir.
When Odin saw Sleipnir, he admired the cold greatly.
“Take him!” said Loki. “I bore him and he’ll bear you. You’ll find he can outpace Golden and Joyous Shining and Swift, Sliver-maned and Sinewy, Gleaming and Hollow-hoofed, Gold Mane and Light Feet, and outrun whatever horses there are in Jotunheim. No horse will ever be able to keep up with him.”
Odin thanked Loki warmly, and welcomed him back to Asgard.
“On this horse you can go wherever you want,” said Loki. “He’ll gallop over the sea and through the air. What other horse could bear its rider down the long road to the land of dead, and then bear him back to Asgard again?”
Odin thanked Loki a second time and looked at the Sly One very thoughtfully.