“I do not think we have overlooked a single thing, troublemaker of the gods,” said Freya tartly.
“You are all overlooking,” he said, “that what this stranger is proposing to do is, to make no bones about it, quite impossible. There is no-one alive who could build a wall so high and so thick as the one he described and have it finished in eighteen months. Not a giant or a god could do this, let alone a mortal man. I would stake my skin on it.”
At this the gods all nodded and grunted and looked impressed. All of them except for Freya, and she looked angry. “You are fools,” she said. “Especially you, Loki, because you think yourself clever.”
“What he says he can do,” said Loki, “is an impossible task. So I suggest this: we agree to his demands and to his price, but we set him stiff conditions—he may have no help building his wall, and instead of three seasons to build his wall, he has but one. If on the first day of summer any of the wall is unfinished—and it will be—then we pay him nothing at all.”
“Why would he agree to that?” asked Heimdall.
“And what advantage would that give us over not having a wall at all?” asked Frey, Freya’s brother.
Loki tried to suppress his impatience. Were all the gods fools? He began to explain, as if he were explaining to a small child. “The smith will begin to build his wall. He will not finish it. He will work for six months, unpaid, on a fool’s errand. At the end of six months we will drive him away—we might even beat him for his presumption—and then we can use whatever he has done so far as the foundations of the wall that we will complete in the years to come. There is no risk to us of losing Freya, let alone the sun or moon.”
“Why would he say yes to building it in a season?” asked Tyr, god of war.
“He may not say yes,” said Loki. “But he seems arrogant and sure of himself, and not the kind to refuse a challenge.”
All the gods grunted, and clapped Loki on the back, and told him that he was a very crafty fellow and it was a good thing that he was crafty and on their side, and now they would get their foundations built for nothing, and they congratulated each other on their intelligence and their bargaining ability.
Freya said nothing. She fingered her necklace of light, the gift of the Brisings. This was the same necklace that had been stolen from her by Loki in the form of a seal, when she was bathing, and that Heimdall had fought in seal form with Loki to return to her. She did not trust Loki. She did not care for the way this conversation had gone.
The gods called the builder into their hall.
He looked around at the gods. They all seemed in good humor, grinning and nudging each other and smiling. Freya, however, did not smile.
“Well?” asked the builder.
“You asked for three seasons,” said Loki. “We will give you one season, and one season only. Tomorrow is the first day of winter. If you are not finished on the first day of summer, you leave here, unpaid. But if you have finished building the wall, as high and as thick and as impregnable as we have agreed, then you will be given everything you have asked for: the moon, the sun, and the beautiful Freya. You may have no help in building your wall from anyone; you must build this wall alone.”
The stranger said nothing for some moments. He stared away into the distance and seemed to be weighing Loki’s words and conditions. Then he looked at the gods, and he shrugged. “You have said I may have no outside help. I would like my horse, Svadilfari, to help me haul the stones here, the stones I will use to build the wall. I do not believe this to be an unreasonable request.”
“It is not unreasonable,” agreed Odin, and the other gods nodded and told each other that horses were good for hauling heavy stones.
They swore oaths then, the mightiest of oaths, the gods and the stranger, that neither side could betray the other. They swore on their weapons, and they swore on Draupnir, Odin’s golden arm-ring, and they swore on Gungnir, Odin’s spear, and an oath sworn on Gungnir was unbreakable.
The next morning, as the sun rose, the gods stood to watch the man work. He spat on his hands and he began to dig the trench into which the first stones would go.
“He digs deep,” said Heimdall.
“He digs fast,” said Frey, Freya’s brother.
“Well, yes, obviously he is a mighty digger of ditches and trenches,” said Loki grudgingly. “But imagine how many stones he will have to haul here from the mountains. It is one thing to dig a trench. It is another to haul stones many miles, unaided, and then to place them, one stone upon the next, so tightly fitted that not an ant could crawl between them, higher than the tallest giant, to make a wall.”
Freya looked at Loki with disgust, but she said nothing.
When the sun set, the builder mounted his horse and set off for the mountains to gather his first rocks. The horse dragged an empty stone-boat behind it, a low sled that it pulled across the soft earth. The gods watched them leave. The moon was high and pale in the early winter sky.
“He will be back in a week,” said Loki. “I am curious to see how many rocks that horse can haul. It looks strong.”
The gods went to their feast hall then, and there was much merriment and laughter, but Freya did not laugh.
It snowed before dawn, a light dusting of snowflakes, a presentiment of the deep snows that would come further into the winter.
Heimdall, who saw everything approaching Asgard and who missed nothing, woke the gods in the darkness. They gathered by the trench the stranger had dug the previous day. In the gathering dawn they watched the builder, walking beside his horse, coming toward them.