Authors: Neil Gaiman
For Iselin and Linnea
The Fox, the Eagle and the Bear
The Night Conversation
At Mimir’s Well
The Gates of Asgard
Four Transformations and a Meal
HERE WAS A BOY
called Odd, and there was nothing strange or unusual about that, not in that time or place. Odd meant
the tip of a blade
, and it was a lucky name.
odd, though. At least, the other villagers thought so. But if there was one thing that he wasn’t, it was lucky.
His father had been killed during a sea raid
two years before, when Odd was ten. It was not unknown for people to get killed in sea raids, but his father wasn’t killed by a Scotsman, dying in glory in the heat of battle as a Viking should. He had jumped overboard to rescue one of the stocky little ponies that they took with them on their raids as pack animals.
They would load the ponies up with all the gold and valuables and food and weapons that they could find, and the ponies would trudge back to the longship. The ponies were the most valuable and hardworking things on the ship. After Olaf the Tall was killed by a Scotsman, Odd’s father had to look after the ponies. Odd’s father wasn’t very experienced with ponies, being a woodcutter and wood-carver by trade, but he did his best. On the return journey, one of the ponies got loose during a squall off Orkney and fell overboard.
Odd’s father jumped into the grey sea with a rope, pulled the pony back to the ship and, with the other Vikings, hauled it back up on deck.
He died before the next morning of the cold and the wet and the water in his lungs.
When they returned to Norway, they told Odd’s mother, and Odd’s mother told Odd. Odd just shrugged. He didn’t cry. He didn’t say anything.
Nobody knew what Odd was feeling on the inside. Nobody knew what he thought. And, in a village on the banks of a fjord, where everybody knew everybody’s business, that was infuriating.
There were no full-time Vikings back then. Everybody had another job. Sea raiding was something the men did for fun or to get things they couldn’t find in their village. They even got their wives that way. Odd’s mother, who was as dark as Odd’s father had been fair, had been brought to
the fjord on a longship from Scotland. She would sing Odd the ballads that she had learned as a girl, back before Odd’s father had taken her knife away and thrown her over his shoulder and carried her back to the longship.
Odd wondered if she missed Scotland, but when he asked her, she said no, not really, she just missed people who spoke her language. She could speak the language of the Norse now, but with an accent.
Odd’s father had been a master of the axe. He had a one-room cabin that he had built from logs deep in the little forest behind the fjord, and he would go out to the woods and return a week or so later with his handcart piled high with logs, all ready to weather and to split, for they made everything they could out of wood in those parts: wooden nails joined wooden boards to build
wooden dwellings or wooden boats. In the winter, when the snows were too deep for travel, Odd’s father would sit by the fire and carve, making wood into faces and toys and drinking cups and bowls, while Odd’s mother sewed and cooked and, always, sang.
She had a beautiful voice.
Odd didn’t understand the words of the songs she sang, but she would translate them after she had sung them, and his head would roil with fine lords riding out on their great horses, their noble falcons on their wrists, brave hounds always padding by their sides, off to get into all manner of trouble, fighting giants and rescuing maidens and freeing the oppressed from tyranny.
After Odd’s father died, his mother sang less and less.
Odd kept smiling, though, and it drove the
villagers mad. He even smiled after the accident that crippled his right leg.
Odd’s father would sit by the fire and carve, making wood into faces and toys and drinking cups and bowls.
It was three weeks after the longship had come back without his father’s body. Odd had taken his father’s tree-cutting axe, so huge he could hardly lift it, and had hauled it out into the woods, certain that he knew all there was to know about cutting trees and determined to put this knowledge into practice.
He should possibly, he admitted to his mother later, have used the smaller axe and a smaller tree to practise on.
Still, what he did was remarkable.
After the tree had fallen on his foot, he had used the axe to dig away the earth beneath his leg and he had pulled it out, and he had cut a branch to make himself a crutch to lean on, for the bones in his leg were shattered. And, somehow, he had
got himself home, hauling his father’s heavy axe with him, for metal was rare in those hills and axes needed to be bartered or stolen, and he could not have left it to rust.
So two years passed, and Odd’s mother married Fat Elfred, who was amiable enough when he had not been drinking, but he already had four sons and three daughters from a previous marriage (his wife had been struck by lightning), and he had no time for a crippled stepson, so Odd spent more and more time out in the great woods.
Odd loved the spring, when the waterfalls began to course down the valleys and the woodland was covered with flowers. He liked summer, when the first berries began to ripen, and autumn, when there were nuts and small apples. Odd did not care for the winter, when the villagers spent as much time as they could in the village’s great
hall, eating root vegetables and salted meat. In winter the men would fight and fart and sing and sleep and wake and fight again, and the women would shake their heads and sew and knit and mend.
By March, the worst of the winter would be over. The snow would thaw, the rivers begin to run and the world would wake into itself again.
Not that year.
Winter hung in there, like an invalid refusing to die. Day after grey day the ice stayed hard; the world remained unfriendly and cold.
In the village, people got on one another’s nerves. They’d been staring at each other across the great hall for four months now. It was time for the men to make the longship seaworthy, time for the women to start clearing the ground for planting. The games became nasty. The jokes
became mean. Fights were to hurt.
Which is why, one morning at the end of March—some hours before the sun was up, when the frost was hard and the ground still like iron, while Fat Elfred and his children and Odd’s mother were still asleep—Odd put on his thickest, warmest clothes, stole a side of smoke-blackened salmon from where it hung in the rafters of Fat Elfred’s house and a firepot with a handful of glowing embers from the fire; and he took his father’s second-best axe, which he tied by a leather thong to his belt, and limped out into the woods.
The snow was deep and treacherous, with a thick, shiny crust of ice. It would have been hard walking for a man with two good legs, but for a boy with one good leg, one very bad leg and a wooden crutch, every hill was a mountain.
Odd crossed a frozen lake, which should have melted weeks before, and went deep into the woods. The days seemed almost as short as they had been in midwinter, and although it was only midafternoon it was dark as night by the time he reached his father’s old woodcutting hut.
The door was blocked by snow, and Odd had to take a wooden spade and dig it out before he could enter. He fed the firepot with kindling, and tended it until he felt safe transferring the fire into the fireplace, where the old logs were dry.
On the floor he found a lump of wood, slightly bigger than his fist. He was going to throw it on the fire, but his fingers felt carving on the small wooden block, and so he put it to one side, to look at when it was light. He gathered snow in a small pan, and melted it over the fire, and he ate smoked fish and hot berry-water.
It was good. There were blankets in the corner still, and a straw-stuffed mattress, and he could imagine that the little room smelled of his father, and nobody hit him or called him a cripple or an idiot, and so, after building the fire high enough that it would still be burning in the morning, he went to sleep quite happy.
DD WAS WOKEN BY
something scratching against the hut. He pulled himself up to his feet, thought briefly about tales of trolls and monsters, hoped that it wasn’t a bear, then opened the door. It was daylight outside, which meant it was late in the morning, and a fox was staring up at him, insolently, from the snow.
Its muzzle was narrow, its ears were pricked
and sharp and its expression was calculating and sly. When it saw that Odd was watching, it jumped into the air, as if it were trying to show off, and retreated a little way and then stopped. It was red-orange, like flame, and it took a dancing step or two towards Odd, and turned away, then looked back at Odd as if it were inviting him to follow.
It was, Odd concluded, an animal with a plan. He had no plans, other than a general determination never to return to the village. And it was not every day that you got to follow a fox.
So he did.
It moved like a flame, always ahead of him. If Odd slowed down, if the terrain was too difficult, if the boy got tired, then the fox would simply wait patiently at the top of the nearest rise until Odd was ready, and then its tail would go up, and
it would flicker forward into the snow.
Odd pressed on.
There was a bird circling high overhead.
, Odd thought, and then it landed in a dead tree, and he realized how big it was and knew it was an eagle. Its head was cocked oddly to one side, and Odd was convinced it was watching him.
He followed the fox up a hill and down another (down was harder than up for Odd, in the snow, with one bad foot and a crutch, and several times he fell) and then halfway up another, to a place where a dead pine tree stuck out from the hill like a rotten tooth. A silver birch tree grew close beside the dead pine. And it was here that the fox stopped.
A mournful bellow greeted them.
The dead tree had a hole in one side, the kind
that bees sometimes inhabit and fill with honeycomb. The people in Odd’s village would make the honey into the alcoholic mead they drank to celebrate the safe return of their Vikings, and the midwinter, and any other excuse they needed to celebrate.
An enormous brown bear had its front paw caught in the hollow of the pine tree.
Odd smiled grimly. It was obvious what had happened.
In order to get at the pine tree hollow, the bear had leaned its weight against the birch tree, bending it down and moving it out of the way. But the moment the bear had pushed its paw into the hole, it had taken its weight off the birch, which had snapped back, and now the bear was profoundly trapped.
The animal bellowed once more, a deeply
grumpy bellow. It looked miserable, but not as if it were about to attack.
An enormous brown bear had its front paw caught in the hollow of the pine tree.
Warily Odd walked towards the tree.
Above them, the eagle circled.
Odd unhooked his axe from his belt and walked around the pine tree. He cut a piece of wood about six inches long and used it to prop the two trees apart; he did not want to crush the bear’s paw. Then, with clean, economical blows, he swung the blade of his axe against the birch. The wood was hard, but he kept swinging, and he had soon come close to cutting it through.
Odd looked at the bear. The bear looked at Odd with big brown eyes. Odd spoke aloud. “I can’t run,” he said to the bear. “So if you want to eat me, you’ll find me easy prey. But I should have worried about that before, shouldn’t I? Too late now.”
He took a deep breath and swung the axe one last time. The birch tree tipped and fell away from the bear, who blinked and pulled its paw from the hollow in the pine tree. The paw was dripping with honey.
The bear licked its paw with a startlingly pink tongue. Odd, who was hungry, picked a lump of honeycomb from the edge of the hole, and ate it, wax and all. The honey oozed down his throat and made him cough.
The bear made a snuffling noise. It reached into the tree, pulled out a huge lump of comb and finished it off in a couple of bites. Then it stood up on its hind legs and it roared.
Odd wondered if he was going to die now, if the honey had just been an appetizer, but the bear got down on all fours once more and continued, single-mindedly, to empty the tree of honey.
It was getting dark.
Odd knew it was time for him to head for home. He started down the hill, and was almost at the bottom when he realized that he had absolutely no idea where his hut was. He had followed the fox to get here, but the fox was not going to lead him back. He tried to hurry, and he stumbled on a patch of ice, and his crutch went flying. He landed face-first in the hard snow.
He crawled towards his crutch, and as he did so, he felt hot breath on the back of his neck.
“Hello, bear,” said Odd, cheerfully. “You had better eat me. I’ll be more use as bear food than I will be frozen to death on the ice.”
The bear did not seem to want to eat Odd. It sat down on the ice in front of him, and gestured with its paw.
“You mean it?” said Odd. “You aren’t going to eat me?”
The bear made a rumbling sort of noise in the back of its throat. But it was a gloomy noise, and not a hungry noise, and Odd decided to chance his luck. The day could not get stranger, after all.
He clambered onto the bear’s back, holding his crutch with his left hand and clutching the bear’s fur with his right. The bear stood up slowly, making sure the boy was on, then set off at a fast lope through the twilight.
As the bear sped up, the cold went through Odd’s clothes and chilled him to the bone.
The fox dashed ahead of them, the eagle flew above them and Odd thought crazily, happily,
I’m just like one of the brave lords in my mother’s ballads. Only without the horse, the dog and the falcon.
And he thought,
I can never tell anyone about this, because they won’t believe it. Because even
wouldn’t believe it
Snow fell from branches as they brushed past and stung his face, but he laughed as they went. The moon rose, pale and huge, and cold, cold, but Odd laughed some more, because his hut was waiting for him, and he was an impossible lord riding a bear, and because he was Odd.
The bear stopped in front of Odd’s hut, and Odd half climbed, half fell from the beast’s back. He pulled himself up with his crutch, and then he said, “Thank you.” He thought the bear nodded its head in the moonlight, but perhaps he imagined it.
There was a crash of wings, and the eagle landed on the snow a few feet from Odd. It tipped its head on one side to stare at Odd with an eye the color of honey. There was nothing but darkness where its other eye should have been.
He walked up to his door. The fox was already
waiting there, sitting like a dog. The bear padded up to the hut behind him.
Odd looked from one animal to the other. “What?” he said testily, although it was obvious what they wanted.
And then, “I suppose you had better come in,” he said. He opened the door.
And they came in.