Page 39 of Norse Mythology

He said it beneath his breath, but he could have sworn that the Midgard serpent heard him. It fixed him with its eyes, and the next gout of poison came so close to Thor that he could taste it on the ocean air. The poison sprayed his shoulder, and it burned where it touched.

Thor simply laughed and hauled again.

Somewhere, it seemed to Thor, in the distance, Hymir was babbling and grumbling and shouting about the monstrous serpent, and about the sea rushing into the rowing boat through the holes in the bottom, and about how they would both die out here, in the cold, cold ocean, so far from dry land. Thor did not care about any of this. He was fighting the serpent, playing it, letting it exhaust itself thrashing and pulling.

Thor began to pull the fishing line back onto the boat.

The Midgard serpent’s head was almost within striking distance. Thor reached down without glancing away, and his fingers closed around the haft of his hammer. He knew just where the head of the hammer would need to strike to kill the serpent. One more heave on the fishing line and—

Hymir’s bait knife flashed, and the line was cut. Jormungundr, the serpent, reared up, high above the boat, then tumbled back into the sea.

Thor threw his hammer at it, but the monster was already gone, vanished into the cold gray waters. The hammer returned, and Thor caught it. He turned his attention back to the sinking fishing boat. Hymir was desperately bailing the water from the bottom.

Hymir bailed the water, and Thor rowed the boat back to shore. The two whales that Hymir had caught earlier, at the prow of the boat, made the rowing harder than it normally would have been.

“There’s the shore,” gasped Hymir. “But my home is still many miles distant.”

“We could make land here,” said Thor.

“Only if you are willing to carry the boat and me and the two whales I caught all the way to my hall,” said Hymir, exhausted.

“Mm. All right.”

Thor jumped over the side of the fishing boat. A few moments later, Hymir felt the boat rising into the air. Thor was carrying them on his back: boat, oars, Hymir, and whales, carrying them along the shingle at the edge of the sea.

When they reached Hymir’s hall, Thor lowered the boat to the ground.

“There,” said Thor. “I brought you home, as you requested. Now I need a favor from you in return.”

“What is it?” asked Hymir.

“Your cauldron. The huge one you brew beer in. I want to borrow it.”

Hymir said, “You are a mighty fisherman, and you row hard. But you are asking for the finest brewing kettle in existence. The beer that is magically brewed in it is the best of beers. I will only lend it to someone who can break the cup I drink from.”

“That doesn’t sound very hard,” said Thor.

They ate roast whale meat for dinner that night, in a hall filled with many-headed giants, all of them shouting and happy and most of them drunk. After they had eaten, Hymir drained the last of the beer from his drinking cup and called for silence. Then he handed the cup to Thor.

“Smash it,” he said. “Smash this cup, and the cauldron in which I brew my beer is yours as my gift to you. Fail and you die.”

Thor nodded.

The giants stopped their joking and their songs. They watched him warily.

Hymir’s fortress was built of stone. Thor took the drinking cup, hefted it in both hands, then threw it with all his might against one of the granite pillars that held up the roof of the banqueting hall. There was an ear-splitting crash, and the air was filled with blinding dust.

When the dust settled, Hymir got up and walked over to what was left of the granite pillar. The cup had gone through first one pillar, then another, breaking them into tiny fragments of stone. In the rubble of the third pillar was the drinking cup, a little dusty but quite undamaged.

Hymir held his drinking cup above his head, and the giants cheered and laughed and made faces at Thor with all their heads, along with crude gestures.

Hymir sat down at the table once more. “See?” he said to Thor. “I didn’t think you were strong enough to break my cup.” He held up the cup, and his wife poured beer into it. Hymir slurped the beer. “Best beer you will ever taste,” he said. “Here, wife, pour more beer for your son and for his friend Veor. Let them taste the best beer there is and be sad that they will not be taking my cauldron home with them, and that they will never again taste beer this good. Also, they will be sad that I need to kill Veor now, for my cup remains unbroken.”

Thor sat at the table beside Tyr and picked up a lump of charred whale meat and chewed it resentfully. The giants were raucous and loud, and now were ignoring him.

Tyr’s mother leaned over to fill Thor’s cup with beer. “You know,” she said quietly, “my husband has a very hard head. He’s stubborn and thick-skulled.”

“They say the same of me,” said Thor.

“No,” she said, as if she were talking to a small child. “He has a very hard head. Hard enough to break even the toughest of cups.”

Thor drained his beer. It really was the best beer he had ever tasted. He stood up and walked over to Hymir. “Can I try again?” he asked.

The giants in the hall all laughed at this, and none of them laughed louder than Hymir.

“Of course you can,” he said.

Thor picked up the drinking cup. He faced the stone wall, hefted the cup once, twice, then turned swiftly on his heel and smashed the cup down on Hymir’s forehead.

The fragments of the cup fell one by one onto Hymir’s lap.

There was silence in the hall then, a silence broken by a strange heaving noise. Thor looked around to see what the noise was, and then he turned back and saw Hymir’s shoulders shaking. The giant was crying, in huge, heaving sobs.