“Immortality, you say?” He turns his head, turns his lean, scar-pocked face, and looks at you through the cave-dark. Though he lies bound, immobile, atop those three ridges of stone, when you meet his gaze it is you who feels the captive.
You might flee — but it was your own will that brought you here, your own longing to hear his tales.
Loki. Liar. Accursed one, who so offended the gods that in the end Thorr, Lord of Storms, hunted him down and, at Odinn’s command, imprisoned him here, in this echoing cave, for as long as the Nine Worlds shall endure.
“Immortality,” he repeats, this time as though to himself. Then he laughs. “Somehow, when you spoke that word, the memory of Alviss the lovelorn dwarf leapt to my mind: a tale in which, I admit, I played but a small part.”
“This Alviss — ” you say, pausing as your voice flitters back to you from among the cave’s downward-jutting tooth-stones. “Did he win immortality, then?”
“Of a sort.” He laughs again, but with less mirth; the light of memory now burns in his eyes, and he says, “Let me tell you his story…
The night Alviss arrived, a handful of the Aesir — the clan of Odinn, All-Father, who made the Nine Worlds — sat at the great table of Val-holl. There we feasted, in the light and warmth of glad-making fires, savoring the best mead that ever was, and eating the juicy meat of the boar Saehrimnir, who is boiled every morning but comes alive again every evening none the wiser.
One-eyed Odinn sat at the table’s head, one hand resting on its gold-inlaid top. His beard was still black then, as was his hair, neatly bound at his nape. As ever, he sipped at his wine-cup but touched no food.
Though I’m no god, in those days I dwelt among the Aesir, at Odinn’s pleasure. I’d done him and all his clan some favors, and I amused them; Odinn thought so much of me that we’d sworn a troth of blood-brotherhood. Others of his kin liked me less.
Thorr Odinnson was away, hunting giants. The Thunderer had long ago vowed war upon the whole brutish, plunder-loving jotunn race — a war he mostly waged by his own hand. Whilst his son was afield, All-Father had called Thorr’s wife Sif to visit, along with their daughter Thrud. Sif, golden-haired Sif, cream-skinned Sif, took the lead in serving drink that night, now gliding to Odinn’s shoulder to pour a trickle of wine from a silvered jar into his cup, now motioning to her daughter, or to one of Val-holl’s host of thralls, to refill the mead-cup of another.
Thrud strove to mimic her mother’s grace, to serve swiftly yet draw no notice. But this last was no easy thing. The daughter loomed tall over the table, blonde-braided, casting an enormous shadow as she moved. Thrud had been born some fourteen years before: born, to nobody’s great delight, a giantess. Thorr’s mother had been a jotunn-woman, so it’s no surprise his spawn had giantish blood; but it was awkward, for his own pledge meant that from the moment of her birth he was, by rights, at war with his own daughter.
I’d emptied my mead-cup (spilled it, actually, while trying to juggle it together with an apple, one of my shoes, and the head of the boar Saehrimnir) so Odinn motioned at Sif to refill it. When All-Father looked away, Sif narrowed her eyes at me, then motioned to Thrud in turn. The girl took a brimming cup from the hands of a servant and set it before me. I think Sif would’ve spat in that cup if she’d had the chance, but with Odinn, her All-Father-in-law, right there beside me, she kept her spittle to herself. The night we first met, you see, I’d given Sif a haircut — for reasons I won’t tell of now — but too short for her liking. Both she and Thorr had flown into a rage; Thorr had since forgiven me, but Sif never did.
Just as I was sipping sweet froth from this new cup’s brim, a knock sounded upon Val-holl’s great doors, a knock that echoed from the high-vaulted ceiling, shingled in golden shields both inside and out. We’d expected Thorr’s return for some days now — the gold-graven back of his chair stood empty across from me, by the right hand of Odinn. But the Thunderer would never knock.
A moment later the door-warden called out: “All-Father and noble lords of the Aesir, may I present…the dwarf Alviss. ”
Odinn and I looked at one another with secret smiles. Dwarves oft came to Asgard in troops, as builders, but none had ever presented himself formally. A promising opportunity for fun.
“Let him come,” Odinn called.
The dwarf entered and crossed the polished stone floor toward the table. All-Father’s table is a long one, and the Great Hall vast, so Alviss was yet some distance away; but he walked with a poise I’d not seen among his kind. He had a nose whose top, between small eyes, was thicker than its bottom, as though his maker had attached it wrong side up. His forehead was tall, and a forelock drooped over it like a wave cresting over a reef. When he reached the foot of the table he halted.
“Esteemed lords and ladies of the Aesir, noble rulers over all the Nine Worlds,” he said. “I am come as a suitor for the hand of Thrud, daughter of Asa-Thorr.”
It had been my intent to mock whatever came out of the dwarf’s mouth, and these words were most ripe for mocking, but so clear and unprepossessing was his speech that I found myself, regrettably, tauntless.
Alviss’s words caught us all unawares, but Thrud most of all. With serving-pitcher in hand, she stood next to her mother near the high table — or towered over her mother, I might better say. The blonde braids lent a slenderness to Thrud’s face, and her eyes were blue like the sea under a spring sun; among jotunns or men her beauty would’ve won wide fame and kingly suitors. But with Sif beside her, tall Thrud’s blonde looked dough-ish, the blue of her eyes dull, and her nose seemed more rugged, like her father’s, than shapely. And more, her head slumped forward from long habit of living amongst those half her size. Thrud’s wide eyes, now fixed upon Alviss, shone with curiosity and caution, but also with a hidden glimmer that I took for recognition.
Odinn was the first to find words; he leaned his bearded chin upon a thumb and a knuckle, and said, “Have you, now. So tell us, master Alviss: What is your lineage, and what mighty deeds have you done, that you judge yourself worthy of my granddaughter’s hand?”
The dwarf stood up straight, to show his head over the table’s end. “Alviss I am called, of the clan of Ivaldi. Our clan is remembered by the Aesir, I daresay, for the works we have done, the gifts we have given to All-Father and his kin.” At this he set his gaze upon Sif, upon her golden hair — golden hair I say, not as a poet might say it, but meaning the real metal sort, spun fine as silk, fine as hair, by cunning hands. Sif, in turn, glared at me; and I looked innocently back at Alviss, to complete the triangle.
Alviss went on. “For my own part, my name is known to all dwarf-kind for this: Nothing, whether below the earth or even above the heavens, is beyond my knowledge.”
This, at last, was too much. I laughed, and slapped the hard tabletop. “A bold claim! Very well, then, a test: just now, I’m clenching one ass-cheek. Tell me, o wise one, is it the right or the left?”
Alviss ignored my question; he stood stave-like, unmoved. “Hail, Loki, Laufey’s son, of Jotunn-heim. I know your history: The giantess Laufey was your mother, and I can see the cave of three chambers where she raised you, and the slanting sun-rays that brightened that cave’s mornings, and Orm, the black and gray serpent you kept as a pet in your childhood. And more, I know your father’s name, though you yourself do not. All your life’s tale I can see, even those parts which Time yet covers like a shroud, drawn back inch by inch with each moment’s passing.”
By now I’d stopped laughing. “You say, then, master Alviss…that you know my past, and my father…and my fate, too?”
“Not only yours. I know, too, the wyrd of every one of Odinn’s kin. Of gold-haired Sif. Of her husband Thorr, whose wrath, the thunder-stroke, burns hot as the face of the sun.
“I know the many names of Odinn: that he is called by some Much-Knowing, by others Fulfiller-of-Desire, or He-Whose-Speech-Resounds. Forgive my pride, All-Father, but I know, too, names you have yet to be given; one of these is He-Whose-Eye-Deceives-Him.”
“He-Whose-Eye…” Odinn leaned forward, his elbows weighing upon the gold-clothed table, his eye unblinking in the firelight. “None has ever named me so before,” he muttered. “None would dare, I think. And yet…I hear no tremor of deceit in your voice, master Alviss.” He paused, dragging his thumb-tip along his lips. “Come, join us at table,” he finally said. “I would hear more of your words, though something in them causes my heart to shudder.”
At Odinn’s bidding, three servants brought a thick block of carved wood. They set it upon an empty chair, and helped the dwarf up onto this seat. Yet he still sat a full hand’s-width shorter than any other at the great table, and Thrud, opposite Alviss, towered over him like a spruce over a squat bush. She looked sidelong at All-Father — trying to measure his mood — then looked back at the dwarf. Thralls set mead and pork before Alviss, but he made no move to touch them.
A hush; the smell of wood-smoke. At last I broke the silence. “If you’re comfortable, Alviss, I think we all have ears for what you would tell.”
“With your indulgence,” he answered. “As I’ve said, I know stories beyond number. But there is one tale which, though trifling when weighed against the fate of the Aesir, has ensnared my mind, and bound it as with cords of the purest silver. This story concerns the good lady Thrud.” As he uttered the name, Alviss’s voice quavered, and he managed only a brief, shy glance up at her before lowering his eyes.
The dwarf cleared his throat. “I was among those chosen to build this noble hall,” he began, “though you may not remember my face; it is not thought shapely even among my own kin. Yet the nights I labored here linger etched in my mind, and one night above all.
“I was in the midst of shaping the images upon that roof-beam of ash.” Alviss pointed to a beam spanning the hall’s middle, overhead: now gilded, glittering red in the firelight, it sang with carvings of the world’s creation at the hands of Odinn and his brothers; of victories in wars more ancient than human memory; and of the Aesir overseeing the raising of Val-holl.
He went on. “I was in the hills a short walk from here, alone, chiseling the ash-bole at the place where I’d felled it. Enrapt in my craft, I suddenly felt someone’s eyes upon me. I looked around in the bright moon-glow, yet saw no-one; so I returned to my task. But the feeling grew stronger, and, stealing glances about me, at length I spied a figure watching from behind a boulder. By her height I guessed it to be Thrud. Long she watched, thinking herself unseen; but I watched her, too, with hidden glances. She was…” and here words failed him.
I looked at Thrud, and saw her face redden. She lowered her head and moved off, toward one of Val-holl’s side-doors.
Alviss watched her; then he looked down at his own hands and went on. “I had nearly finished my work, and the night was old, when I paused. I intended merely to close my eyes for a moment before going off to my underground quarters for a good day’s rest, but in my weariness I fell sound asleep.
“I awoke suddenly to the horrible fear that I was out in the open, with dawn upon me: daybreak, dread enemy of my kind, which at its touch hardens our clever hands and our stout bodies into stone, never to stir again. My heart pounded like a deep war-drum, and my breaths were icy bursts in my chest. But my fear was unfounded.
“When I opened my eyes, it was to the twilight of a small cave, not far from where I’d been working. Someone had carried me, slumbering, to this place; and more, had laid a pile of straw beneath my head and covered me with a woolen blanket. Such comforts are unknown to my people — we sleep away the cruel sunlit watches of the day upon limestone pillows — so I knew in that moment it was the lady, fair young Thrud, to whom I owed my life.
“This kindness weighed upon my mind. I longed to thank her, but though I’m a prince and reckoned wise among my own, I thought any words from my ill-shapen mouth an affront to a daughter of the most high Aesir. Muted by humility, I carved my thanks there.” He pointed now to the far end of the same beam. Its final image showed a tall, radiant woman bearing a small figure gently in her arms. I had ere then taken this to glorify Frigg, Odinn’s wife, who guards over childbirth and motherhood, but now I saw by its queer starfish-shaped feet that the figure was no human child.
“Val-holl all built,” Alviss went on, “I returned to my homeland. This memory followed me there, though, and the memory of Thrud’s face above all: the spore of it spread like a mushroom patch through my thoughts, sprouting into something more than gratitude. Still I fought to forget, as all my kin agreed I must. They needed no gift of foresight to see how weighted were the dice against one highborn as Thrud ever binding herself to one like me. The very thought bespoke madness.
“But not time nor labor nor drink could dispell this aching want; it grew stronger, rather, until it ached through my whole being. At last I resolved to make this journey, though Fate stand like a bulwark between me and my hopeless hope.”
As Alviss finished, Thrud came to him, bearing a full mead-cup. She set it down beside the other untouched cup. When she pulled away, her sleeve brushed Alviss’s shoulder; but he stared stubbornly at the table through all this.
Odinn looked into the eyes of each of the Aesir one by one, save Sif — she stood with arms crossed and pressed the gaze of her glacier-blue eyes like a spear at the dwarf. But after a moment, she looked away and tilted her head, as though hearing a distant sound. Alviss tilted his head in much the same way, at the same moment.
All-Father looked at me last. Having seen agreement all around, he finally spoke: “My bold young Alviss.”
Alviss said nothing.
“The girl’s father, Thorr, will judge this in the end,” Odinn went on. “But though your suit is without precedent, I find no cause to deny you. You’ve shown your wisdom to be of the first order, worthy even of a seat among the Aesir.” Now he smiled at Alviss. “Of course, you knew this would be our judgment…”
“I did,” said the dwarf.
His withdrawn look, though, sparked a hot annoyance in me. “Come, Alviss! You’re to rise above every one of your hole-dwelling kind, and gain a lovely bride to boot, yet no smile? Or are you afraid a glimpse of your crooked teeth might harden Thrud’s heart?” I threw him my most rascally grin.
He looked over his shoulder, at Thrud. They exchanged smiles — Alviss’s fierce with longing, Thrud’s hesitant — and in that quiet moment it seemed that those two, dwarf and jotunn-girl, were alone in vast Val-holl.
“This…now…is happiness,” Alviss finally murmured. “I can ask no more of life than this.”
Then his smile faded, and he said, “Now one comes who will have much to say in this matter.” A rumbling, distant before, drew nearer: the sound of a great chariot, whose wheels shook the heavens as thunder.
“My father,” said Thrud.
“My husband,” said Sif, holding the dwarf’s now-fearful gaze.
Heavy footfalls on the stone steps. Then the doors burst open with a resounding clang, and Thorr, Lord of Storms, came in. His red hair and beard, windblown, jutted at wild angles.
“Mead!” he said, and thralls scurried off to the storehouse. The Thunderer stomped his way up the long hall, nodded a greeting to Odinn, and thrust his mighty hindquarters into his seat, across from me. Then Sif came to her husband. She laid an urgent hand upon his shoulder and whispered to him, glancing now and again toward Alviss.
When she’d finished, Thorr spoke.
“So, father, now you open your table to dwarves? Perhaps my goats should sup with us too, eh, Loki?” He laughed heartily, but the look in Alviss’s eyes had frozen all my mirth. Two thralls brought out Thorr’s enormous iron drinking-cup, veined with gold. The Thunderer drained this tankard in one long draught, as Sif whispered again in his ear.
Odinn spoke. “Son, we all — even shrewd Loki — have found this dwarf well-mannered and exceedingly wise.”
“Wise?” said Thorr. “So he must be — why else should a creature’s head so outsize his body?” He looked to me again as he laughed. “But if your wit’s so sharp, dwarf, why leave it to my father to speak for you? Has wisdom swelled even your tongue beyond use?”
Alviss breathed deeply, and raised his eyes to meet Thorr’s. “No, my lord. Whatever my flaws, my tongue is able. I say to you, noble Lord of Storms, that I love your daughter, and would beg of you her hand.”
Thorr’s burst of laughter was so fierce, the gilded pillars trembled. But this time no smile lit his face, and I could count his pulse in a vein swelling above his red-furred brow. Then he stood, and hurled his empty tankard across the table, over the dwarf’s head — with a groan it smashed, as though its iron had melted, against the shield-clad wall.
“Come with me outside, dwarf. Your ill-thought jest has earned you this: I’ll dash your brains out on a rock and feed your carcass to my father’s wolves.” The wolf Freki, drowsing just by my feet at his master’s side, half opened his eyes at this and twitched his ears cannily.
Now Odinn, too, arose. “Thorr,” he said, in a measured, hard voice. “You misspeak yourself. When our last peace was made, you swore, as we all swore, never again to stain this land with spilt blood.”
Then he sat down, and Thorr did the same. All-Father’s voice fell to a sharp whisper. “In Thrud’s fate, your voice must speak the last word. But I tell you this dwarf’s foresight could be a source of great strength to us.”
“A source of…strength, Father?” Thorr gripped the edge of the table and squeezed, smiling. His thumb drove into the hard stone, and it cracked and crumbled. Then he raised his arm, and sprinkled a fistful of granite on the floor like bread crumbs. “I never knew strength was a thing we lacked.”
He and Odinn stared at one another, until finally Sif leaned over and whispered once more into her husband’s ear. Thorr nodded, and smiled a grim smile.
“Very well,” he said. “It seems you’re all agreed on the creature’s great wisdom. But surely I might judge my would-be son-in-law’s worth for myself.”
I felt hope at hearing this, and said, “By all means! Test him with anything — anything! — and you’ll soon see the mettle of his mind.”
Thorr nodded. “Right you are, Loki! Well, then, Alviss, let’s walk outside awhile and talk, and you’ll have the girl’s love, if you can answer all that I ask.”
Thorr and Alviss left the hall. Thrud moved shyly to follow, but at a sharp glance from Sif, she stopped short. Thrud’s fingernails dug at the neat end of one of her braids. Then Sif went after her husband, through the great doors, and I followed them out into the chill night, eager to ask the dwarf certain things myself.
Down the white stair we walked, then off the road onto a dark path between lofty pines, whose branches whispered in the night. Thorr stumped along, with Alviss to his right hand and Sif behind him to his left. The Thunderer’s voice was stiff with a formality I’d never heard in it before.
“Now tell me Alviss, for I deem you know, what the Earth is called, in all the wide worlds.”
Alviss kept his eyes upon his own starfish-shaped feet, padding over pine-needles. “It is called Earth among men; the Vanir, who dwell beyond the Sea, call it Crossing of Ways. The jotunns name it All-Green, and the elves name it Burgeoning. The mighty Aesir call it Mud.”
“Then tell me, Alviss,” Thorr went on, “for you must know, what the sky is called, in all the wide worlds?”
“‘Tis called Heaven among men, and High-Arched among gods. The Vanir name it Wind-Weaver, and the jotunns The Upper World. To the elves it is Fair Roof, but we dwarves call it Dripping Hall.”
“And tell me, Alviss, for surely you know…” Thorr carried this on at length; and when he hesitated, Sif would slip forward and fill his ear with hushed words.
After a goodly stroll we returned, and we three, Thorr, Sif, and I, sat upon rocks by the roadside not far from Val-holl’s steps. But Alviss stood all the while, on his bare feet. The Lord of Storms was relentless, and he granted no pause for my own questions. Alviss, of course, never once failed to answer.
I listened in growing boredom, and for a time I even nodded off in the night-breeze, but as a dull glow spread behind the eastern hills I roused myself. “Thorr, my friend, surely you’re satisfied? By now the dwarf’s proven his knowledge of naming thrice over.”
“Good Loki,” said Sif, “our daughter is dearer to us than all the jewels ever unearthed by dwarves. Give my husband the time he needs.”
She spoke sweetly, but her eyes were cold as the seas of the far North in winter, when the sun is away. Now her aim was clear to me. I began to object, when Thorr said, “Loki! Would you trade angry words with my wife, friend? Hold your peace.” As he finished, thunder rumbled in the offing. I remembered with a shudder what the fullness of Thorr’s ire looked like; I thought on how teeter-tottery was my place among the Aesir. And I fell silent.
Thorr went on. “So Alviss, tell me, for I deem you know, what names has the moon, in all the wide worlds?”
Alviss sighed, and looked to the west. “It is called Moon among men and Mild Light among gods. The jotunns name it Speeder, and the dwarves call it Splendor.” His gaze lingered upon the westering moon, and I saw that he knew, that he’d known — of course he’d known — before his feet ever reached the threshold of Val-holl. “The elves call it Teller of Time,” he finished.
Thorr glanced at the sky and smiled. “Now tell me, Alviss, for in your great wisdom you surely know, how is called the sun, in all the wide worlds?”
The dwarf shivered. “‘Tis called Sun among men, and Everglow among jotunns. The elves name it Fair Wheel. The just and noble Aesir call it All-Bright. And among my brethren, the dwarves…” Now Alviss gave me the oddest look, as though remembering something that was yet to come. Then he turned his eyes into the pine-woods, and a wry, ridiculous smile, like a child’s, spread across his face.
At this instant a sliver of sun burst over a hilltop, and when its rays struck his skin, Alviss stiffened. The flesh of dwarves is wan, but as the sunlight soaked into it, that flesh dulled even further, to white, then to a stony gray.
I nodded my head for a moment. Then I rose. “Among my brethren, the dwarves…” I brushed past Thorr with eyes downcast and laid a hand on the still-warm stone that had been Alviss’s shoulder. “…it is called Dvalin’s Doom.”
In the pine-wood behind me, where Alviss’s stone eyes still gazed, I heard the shuffling of feet. I turned, and saw a tall figure walking away between the trees, the ends of her neat blonde braids now all unraveled. Then she was gone. Neither Thorr nor Sif spared any glance that way.
Then Odinn came out, and stood on the uppermost stair in the long morning shadow of his hall, and spoke to Thorr: “He might have been of much use to us, whether you chose to give him Thrud’s hand or no.”
“Of use?” said Thorr. “He can yet be of use.” His hand encircled Alviss’s stone neck, and he picked up the stiff dwarf-shape with one hand and carried him to the base of the white stair. There Thorr knelt, and scooped out two handfuls of hard ground. He thrust Alviss’s feet into the holes and packed gravelly earth around the dwarf’s ankles to brace him upright, with that fool’s smile carven forever across his face.
Thorr looked up at his father, then at me. “Wise Alviss shall stand here as a warning to any — dwarf, jotunn, or mortal man — who would mock the majesty of the Aesir.”
“And so ends the tale of Alviss,” he says. He shifts on those stone ridges where he lies bound, in the dark of the cave. “Yet another in Thorr’s unending string of victories, and perhaps the only he ever won using words. I wondered for years whether, risking Thorr’s rage, I might by some trick have saved that luckless dwarf and gotten him alone, to ask my own questions.
“But he knew what was coming. Of course he knew. Alviss didn’t come to Val-holl to be saved; he came to have his moment, and then to die. And both these things he did well.”
“So he did achieve immortality, of a sort,” you muse.
“I jested when I said so before,” he answers. “Alviss is dead. I, on the other hand, have won immortality, an enviable gift, as you can see.” He shifts again, stretching as best he can against his bonds, trying in vain to steal some comfort from that hardest of beds. “But when that look passed between us, before Alviss died, something changed in my own mind.”
You hesitate, afraid the question might be foolish. “You don’t mean you gained some of Alviss’s…foresight?”
“No. All I can see of past or future is what my imaginings can shape from this cave’s gloom. But at that moment, I saw something Alviss never could; and this, I think, is why he looked at me so oddly. In my mind’s eye, now, I still see the stone shape of a dwarf standing at the foot of Val-holl’s steps, the wind smoothing his features away grain by grain, for as long as the Nine Worlds shall endure.”
“Yet I also see that these Nine Worlds, carefully crafted so that gods should forever reign, and men should forever worship, and women and dwarves should forever serve, and those who offend the gods should forever be punished — that these Nine Worlds made by the gods can be unmade, and a new world built upon their fallen bones. Alviss had his day, the day he faced his test, and I will have mine.”
Then he looks up into the shadows between the tooth-stones of this dripping hall, and an impish smile, like a child’s, spreads across his face. “That day is coming, Alviss; I swear it,” he says. “It is coming.”
|David A. Hewitt was born in Germany, raised near Chicago, and spent eight years in Japan studying classical Japanese martial arts. A graduate of the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Popular Fiction MFA program, he currently teaches English at the Community College of Baltimore County, but has at various times worked as a freelance translator of Japanese, a martial arts instructor, a cabinetmaker’s assistant, a pizza/subs/beer delivery guy, and a pet shop boy. His short fiction has previously appeared in the 2012 AD anthology published by Severed Press and earned an Honorable Mention in the “Writers of the Future” contest, and his translation credits include the Japanese animated series Gilgamesh and Area 88, and the animated feature Blade of the Phantom Master.|