A Riddle in Snow
by Matthew C. Lucas
A STEEL COLORED SKY, billowing wave after wave of snow. The forest draped in white, perfectly still. A child, wrapped in seal skins, mounted high on a mottled gray pony, her eyes smoldering. Her name was Asa.
"Giddup!" She gave the animal a kick in the ribs.
The pony hardly felt it, but surged an extra half-step through the drift, if only to oblige its little master. Ripples of steam rose from its flanks, and its nostrils flared with every breath. The pony shook its mane.
The best it could manage was something near a trot. Every direction they turned, it seemed, took them into the teeth of an icy wind and another mound of snow. The rolling banks glimmered with an amber hue. The shadows from the trees surrounding them grew long, spindling and knobbed, like ancient fingers clutching after fading light. Far away, a wolf howled.
She turned to look over her shoulder. There was the man, bound and tied to the back of Asa's saddle with a long leather cord, still keeping a leisured pace, still regarding her with the same bemused, dark eyes. Asa frowned to try and look coy; it was a mask she had often practiced before her silver mirror.
It was the only thing Asa could think to say, and it came out more of a command than a question. The man smirked. He blew snowflakes from his mouth and replied,
"I'm quite well, thank you for asking."
His voice was much too deep for his stature, but there was a musical ring within it that reminded Asa of a harp she had once heard strummed over a kettle drum. The man wore nothing but a saddle blanket that was draped loosely around his shoulders. Though he never seemed the least bit cold. Nor at all bothered by the fact that he could not remember his name.
"That's not what I meant," she said.
"You've gone and led us in circles."
The man lifted his bound hands and laughed.
"How exactly did I manage that?"
"You should have said something, pointed out the way."
"I'm the one who's lost, remember? Besides, I thought you said your people were the lords of all these lands."
Asa's face flushed, but she could not bring herself to check his insolence. Their conversations had been much like this. Sharp, almost familiar, a sudden gale of words, and then silence. But everything he said somehow struck her as charming. When he laughed, the merriment in his face spread like warm mead, as it was doing now. Asa blushed, her lips smiled, in spite of her willing them not to. She quickly straightened herself in her saddle to look taller.
"I thought you would at least have had some idea where we were going. It's your home after all. Otherwise, I never would have helped you find your way."
The man inhaled deeply and leaned his face back to let the flakes fall upon his brow.
"You've been a tremendous help to me already, Asa Stormdotter. If your aid must come to an end now, I'll not speak ill of you, but count myself as blessed for having traveled a few miles with such regal company. I'll take my leave of you now if you wish it."
"I didn't say that."
The crunch of snow beneath their feet grew louder. Far away, the wolf baled again. The pony's body shook nervously.
"But, look, you really don't have any idea where you're from?"
"Ah. Where I'm from. . . . Well, I believe it was someplace high. Yes, very high. And quite far. The bridge seemed to go on forever. It was a wondrous journey, as best I can recall."
"A bridge?" Asa brought the pony to a halt. "You should have said something sooner. There's only one bridge around here, the stony one over the gorge. My father burned all the other ones down."
"How fortunate for us."
Asa's cheeks dimpled as she pursed her lips in thought.
"It's too far to reach before nightfall," she said. "We'll have to make for my father's hall. Spend the night there." She stole a glance of the stranger out of the corner of her eye. "Not together, of course."
"I would be honored to be your guest," he bowed.
Beyond the line of trees, a second wolf had joined the first. Then a third. They were gathering; or perhaps they were hunting. The sound drifted across the snow. The pony whinnied once more. Asa turned for the path back to her home and picked up the pace.
The two of them marched through the forest as fast as they could go now, the girl urging on her pony with the man keeping up behind her, clasping his deer hide blanket carelessly. Despite the hard riding, Asa could not keep her eyes very long from the stranger, whose features seemed to keep shifting in the storm, subtly, like the banks of snow around them. The hills and ravines drew past in a twilit haze. She went by them without a thought, without a care. Only once did they pause, when the man halted as if to listen for something in the wind. He smiled, nodded to himself, and pressed on again
It was not until they had traveled another mile that Asa noticed. The wolves had fallen silent.
≈ ≈ ≈
With the last glow of daylight fading away, they came to the outskirts of her village, the man and Asa. She stopped at the first hut on their path and demanded a change of clothes from the old couple that dwelled there. The owner scuttled through all of his possessions until he came across a pair of breeches and a threadbare tunic, his finest, which Asa declared horrendous. But she took them both all the same without a word of thanks. Her companion put the clothes on, looking both amused and mildly disgusted, and offered that he had never smelled a finer scent of must. Asa doubled over in a peel of laughter.
"Come on," she said clutching her side. "My father's hall is just beyond this hill."
With his new ill-fitted clothes, the stranger ambled beside Asa with the leisurely gait of a man coming home for his supper. They made their way along a winding, broken path, a route Asa's pony knew even where it had disappeared. The animal's footfalls squelched in the muddy sleet as they clambered up higher to where the trees grew thin. A few huts and a smith's forge dotted the hillside like drab mushrooms peeking through a field of darkening gray. At last they reached the very top where a great stone hall loomed over them.
The walls were massive in their breadth and intimidating with wood framing adorned by carvings of fearsome animals and runes that no one could read anymore. A few wisps of smoke twirled from between the slats of its thatched roof, which quickly vanished within the falling snow.
The girl hopped off her mount and grasped the man's hand to lead him to the doorway. She was practically skipping. She would have dodged past the only other person lingering outside in the snow, a sodded old man with a rusted sword dangling from his belt. He hobbled around in circles, clapping his arms around his shoulders to keep warm. But the stranger lingered to stare into the sentry's face. He asked how the old man was feeling.
"I'd be better if I was layin' indoors," the guard chattered.
"Well," replied the man, as if he was sharing a joke, "I suspect you'll be there soon enough, and for long enough."
The guard, who was still addled by a jar of mead he had pilfered, wasn't sure what to make of this peculiar fellow, standing in nothing but an ill-fitting shirt and trousers and laughing like an idiot, but he supposed he was harmless enough. Little Asa was smitten with him, that he could see plain enough. Better leave them be. The guard wished them both a good day, and the stranger responded,
"And you as well, my friend. What's left of it for you."
The guard scratched his beard. How a man could keep such high spirits with a night coming on like this was a puzzle. He grunted at the two of them and was about to set back on his march, but now there was a tightness beginning to pull in his chest and arms. And his head felt queer. Maybe he had better sneak off back to his bed, he thought. Warm himself up, just until he felt settled again.
Asa and the stranger had already forgotten him by the time she forced open the door to the hall. The place was filled with a stench of burnt wood, meats, and the musk of men. The warmth of a roaring fire and dozens of bodies pressed together enveloped them. Leading her companion by the hand, Asa barged through a ring of her father's warriors, most of them far more drunk than the guard, who roared good-naturedly at their king's only daughter. She didn't pause to return any greeting, but marched straight across the length of the hall, past a fire pit piled high in the center of the room, to the throne atop a dais. She threw her head back and called out to her father:
"I've brought a guest!"
An enormous man shifted in a well-worn leather chair braced by four pillars of stag antlers. His throne creaked loudly, as if in protest to the movement of the weight it bore. Hrothgar, the king, was a mournful-looking mound of flesh. His nose had become bulbous, and his feet often swelled and pained him to walk upon. He found himself squinting at people lately, as he did now, to glare down upon his daughter.
"What was my daughter doing in the forest, near nightfall, in the midst of a storm?" his gravelly voice demanded. There was warning in his tone, and all the men fell silent. Only the clink of plates and cups and the crackle of a burning log collapsing in the fire pit broke the stillness. Asa's face beamed at her father as she answered,
"Out collecting things."
Hrothgar held a hand to his beard and stifled a laugh. She was always collecting odd little bric-a-brac, which she would show off for a day or two, lose interest, and move on to something else. No doubt, this beggar she had brought with her would be much the same.
"And this stranger you've collected, what's his name?"
"He doesn't remember. Doesn't remember where he's from, either. He says he's a riddle! Have you ever heard of such a thing?" Asa laughed; her companion joined her.
Hrothgar's face grew dark. The merriment of his child was something he indulged. But levity from an uninvited guest before his very throne? It bordered on mockery. Hrothgar's eyes narrowed at the stranger. Whoever he was, Hrothgar did not like the look of him.
"Your name," Hrothgar demanded of him.
The man drew up to his full height, squared his shoulders, and replied in a clear voice,
"I think I've had many, good king. Which would you like?"
"The one your whore of a mother gave you."
"Ah, sadly, she never shared that with me. I never really knew the woman. Though I'm told she was uncommonly tall and thin."
Hrothgar had heard enough. He motioned over his shoulder for his shieldman, Ulof, who emerged from the shadows behind the throne. The thump of Ulof's heavy boots resounded through the floor as the warrior drew a long sword from his scabbard. He went straight for the stranger.
"Father, no!" Asa screamed.
She ran to place herself between Ulof and her companion, holding her arms out wide, which the stranger found terribly amusing. Ulof clasped her by the shoulder and picked her up as easily as if he were moving a chair out of the way. Asa shouted louder, helplessly. Ulof was about to thrust the point of his sword beneath the man's chin, but then he held his hand.
The stranger was almost crying with laughter, as a thin trickle of blood ran down his neck to the hem of his shirt. Ulof paused, not from Asa's frantic tugging at his arm, but from the shock of seeing a man overtaken with mirth before he was about to be run through. It was something Ulof had never seen, never even heard of, and the hardened fighter found it strangely unsettling. He looked back over his shoulder, confused. It gave the man just enough time to catch his breath.
"I apologize, Hrothgar Storm, king of these parts. My manners at feasts were never what they ought to be. Perhaps I said something out of turn. But how can you ask me to give you what I've lost? Your lovely daughter had it right when she said I am a riddle. You'll have to answer your own question if you would ask, who am I?"
"I already know who you are." Hrothgar pinched the bridge of his nose. He hocked deeply and spat. "You're a bard," the word dripped with disdain from Hrothgar's mouth, "a vagabond. A useless, homeless louse scrounging for a meal. I don't care for your kind. I'd just as soon see a bard's entrails as listen to his pretty lies."
"I couldn't agree more," the man nodded and wiped his eyes. "I never heard a bard who got a story right. And most of their tales are way too long, tedious. They should all be put to death."
Asa looked aghast. She addressed her father defiantly.
"You can't kill him just because he doesn't know who he is. He is our guest. Ulof put that sword away, and bring him a seat."
Poor Ulof was torn, but Hrothgar finally yielded, and gestured for Ulof to fetch a chair.
"Well, bard," Hrothgar growled as the man settled down onto a stool, "whoever you are. You may stay since you are my daughter's guest. But you'll get no food or drink from this hall unless you earn it. Go on, then."
The man's eyes arched in question.
"A story," Hrothgar demanded. "A bard must give a song or a story for his meal. That's the way of it, isn't it?"
The man grinned. "I believe it is. I am no bard, sir, but I will gladly share a story with you all. Something of a riddle, actually. I think you will enjoy it. Perhaps it may settle your other questions as well."
Hrothgar clicked his tongue and nodded knowingly. "I thought as much. Your kind always craves the grand introduction. Fine. Make it a good story, tell us your name however you like, and I'll see that you're served a choice flank of meat and all the ale your scrawny body will hold. That shouldn't cost me much."
The men in the hall guffawed at their king's joke. Then they drew closer, eager to hear the nameless man, since Hrothgar's hall, while ample in food and drink, was rarely indulged with entertainment.
"Keep your food," the man smiled, "measure the cost however you like."
With that, the man placed his hands on top of his knees and cast a searching gaze around the hall. Asa sat cross-legged close by his feet, staring up at him in wonder. Everyone else glared at the stranger. The firelight inside seemed to fall, while the man's sonorous voice rose like embers into the ceiling above.
≈ ≈ ≈
"Do you know how the gods came to be immortal?"
"Not this one again,: Hrothgar rolled his eyes. "That's an old story, even Asa's heard before. The goddess Idunn harvests her golden apples for the gods she favors. So long as they eat of them, they live forever."
"Nonsense," the man waved his hand dismissively. "Whoever heard of mighty Death fleeing from fruit? No, no, my good king. That's not how it came to be at all. Let me tell you the real story."
The man's eyes shifted in the smoke and dimness of the hall. The elements of his face seemed to move as he spoke. It was like watching a father, then his son, then his brother and cousin, all passing before you in the blink of an eye.
"Long ago, in Asgard, Odin, whom you call All Father, Thor, the glorified blacksmith, and clever Loki—"
"The trickster," Hrothgar interrupted. There was a murmur of assent from his men. For the first time, the stranger seemed annoyed, but it passed quickly.
"Some have called him that, yes, but never before to his face. Anyhow, Odin, Thor, and Loki had gathered in Asgard's greatest hall, Valhalla. They were feasting, as they often did in those glorious old days. Yet, their mood was somber that night. For they had heard that Death was riding fast from her realm in Hel. It was rumored she had crossed the enchanted bridge of Bifrost and had already passed through the borders of their world. And although the walls of Asgard were built high and strong, they knew that nothing could keep Death at bay when she comes to claim someone. Who was she coming for? What could be done? It was all Odin could talk about that night, for, in truth, he was always like a doting grandmother, fretting about something or other. He asked the same questions again and again, long into the feast. Little did he know how soon he would have his answer.
"For his words were cut short by a mighty crash followed by a blast of cold air that raced through the hall. The fires went out. Valhalla's oaken doors were lying on the ground, shattered to pieces. And there, in the middle of the hall, stood Death."
At that, the man rose from his stool and spread his hands. His eyes were sparkling with barely suppressed glee. Every man gathered there sat in perfect stillness, completely spellbound.
"She was a horror to behold," he continued, "a great clattering skeleton with scraps of blue skin clinging to her bones. There was this fog all about her, like mist, only it was black, and frigid. She was heads taller even than Thor, but garbed in a shroud, and a stench—oh, the stench! Not to be crass, but it was like a dead man's bowels letting loose.
"Odin was the first to come to his senses; it was his hall, after all. But he sounded like a frightened little girl when he spoke: 'Who-who-who have you come for?' he squeaked.
"Death's whisper echoed all around them and filled him with dread: 'I have come for two. You, Odin . . . and your son, Thor.'
"Now in that moment, Loki was thrilled, and if only he had just held his tongue, made himself inconspicuous, he might be the All Father of the gods today. But alas, she heard his tiny peep of a squeal of joy, and then Death turned to him and said, 'I think I'll take you as well, since I'm here,' much to Loki's dismay, as you can imagine.
"Then Thor huffed himself up and tried to sound important. 'Are we mere mortals that you've come to fetch? Are we not gods?'
"'So what?' was her reply, 'Your kind dies no different than anyone else.'
"Well, the great oaf was stunned, completely stunned out of his senses. Thank goodness there was Loki who thought quick enough to save all three of their hides. 'Surely,' Loki argued, 'as we are indeed gods, gods who have furnished you so much fodder, so very many souls over the years, surely you would grant us leave to at least test your claim?'
"She could not deny the justness in what he said. And so Death gave each one the right to challenge her in a duel.
"First came Odin. He chose a contest of knowledge. So Death sat down with him, and the two traded questions about all sorts of deep and imponderable things. Where did the worlds first spring from? What was there before them? What will come after? How wide can a man's finger grow before it becomes a thumb? Long into the night's fire, they quizzed one another about such banalities that no one in his right mind would ever care to know about. Yet neither could stump the other. You see, while Death had traveled wide and far, Odin was always reading books. I suppose they saved him that night. For after a long while, Death grew irritated, threw up her hands, and declared she had had enough.
"She pointed a bony finger at Odin All Father and hissed, 'You've won this night, Odin. Although some of your questions were less than fair . . . . Still, I will not claim you today. You may live a little longer. But know this: when the day comes that your wits fail you, when your great learning sheds no more light, then I will come back for you.'
"Then she turned to Thor. He stood tall, drew his hammer, Mjölnir, and challenged her to fight.
"'Of course he wants to fight,' Death sighed to herself, 'the big ones always have to make it physical.'
"With a cry, Thor brought his hammer down upon her, but to his shock, she flicked the thing aside like some annoying gnat. Then Death grappled him around his chest, and the two wrestled right there on the floor of Valhalla. The walls shook. There was fire and ice. The flagstones beneath them froze, then melted, and then split in two. They made quite a mess of the place. But neither could best the other. At last, Death grew tired of the fight, so she withdrew, muttering that if he wanted to live so bad, then well enough.
"As she got back to her feet and straightened out her shroud, Death scowled at Thor.
"'It's getting late, so I'm calling this a draw. But know this, Thor. When the day comes that your great strength fails you, when your prowess in battle is blunted, when you stop biting your opponents to gain an unfair advantage,' she winced and rubbed one of her rib bones, 'on that day, I will come back for you.'
"Then, finally, came Loki.
"'Come along,' Death commanded. 'At least the night won't be a total waste."
"'I'm afraid I can't,' Loki answered her, 'from the way you are barely dressed, and how you treated Thor just now, you've clearly come to take a man to your bedchamber. But I tell you I am not the least bit inclined. Not for all of Asgard. Not for all the treasure in all the worlds. Certainly not at your request. If I must beat you, so be it. I will learn about silly things like my brother, Odin, or train to jump up and down like a bull in heat, like my brother, Thor. Anything to keep you clothed and far from me. For I tell you, I've done many things I'm not proud of, but here,' he gestured towards her awful body, 'here I draw a line.'
"Death was speechless. But Loki had only begun. He taunted her unrelentingly. He wove insult after insult upon the specter, each one a masterful turn of words, and Thor and Odin were soon hooting and laughing all over themselves, while Death could only stand there, glaring from her eyeless sockets and gritting her teeth.
"When Loki saw that she would not hear another word, he deftly switched to Odin. And then, right there in his hall, Loki made great fun of Odin, and then Thor, and then both of them at the same time, at one point comparing them to an ox and a one-eyed sow trying to couple, so that, at last, even Death, Death herself, broke a smile. A breathless chuckle escaped from her fleshless lips. And Loki knew he had beaten her, in his way.
"Death rose from her seat, still grinning, and pointed to Loki.
"'Many men have laughed at me, but none ever made me laugh—until tonight. Loki, my friend, you bring merriment and fun wherever you go; you make the worlds worth destroying. I think from now on I shall be your companion. I'll travel along with you when the mood strikes me. Or at least until you bore me. So long as you remain a clever, interesting fellow, I will not claim you for my own, but will content myself with whoever we may come across.'
The man closed his eyes for a long while, then opened them, a serene expression on his face.
"And there you have it, oh King. The true answer to how the gods live forever. There's another answer in here as well, if any of you care to guess the question."
The man sat back down, cast a bemused glance towards his audience, and folded his arms across his chest, as if waiting expectantly. Hrothgar's hall had fallen completely still. Some of the men sitting toward the back wall were discretely getting up from their tables to flee outside into the cold. Others buried their heads in their hands. Asa could only sit in awe of the man, a figure that seemed to glow in a wreath of smoke and firelight, at once older than her father, then as young as she. At last, Hrothgar broke the silence, but could barely make himself heard:
"Wh-what became of Loki and Death? Did she ever, uhm, tire of him?"
The stranger's laughter filled the hall.
"Excellent question!" His eyes glanced up toward the ceiling before they fixed on the king. "No, I'm pleased to tell you that Loki is alive and well, and remains one of Death's dearest friends. I would say they're inseparable. Even now. Wherever he goes, she follows."
- Copyright 2017, Matthew C. Lucas
(first published in Bards & Sages Quarterly, Vol. IX, Issue 4, Oct. 2017)