Snø Hvit

(Snow White)

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    Ice possessed this land once not long ago. Higher than the mountains the ice rose. Heavily it pressed down upon the land. Where once the mountains had met the sea the ice gouged out deep valleys. Where once there had been forests nothing grew. Where once there had been warmth only bitter cold dwelt.

    Then warmth returned to the land. Ice melted away in torrents and the sea rose to its proper station, filling the valleys, making of them the calm, deep, dark-water fjords. Forests grew back on the land, covering hills, valleys, and mountains with a thick, dark blanket. And a tough and determined people came into this still cold and gloomy land, this land of thrashing white rivers that tumble down steep mountains on their way to the sea.

    The Norse took the measure of the land and discerned its spirits. In the sun and the sky they saw a one-eyed man, all-seeing and all-wise, in his blue cloak. In the thunderstorm they discerned terrifying Frost Giants seeking to reconquer the land for their Ice Lords. And yet they also saw a great and mighty warrior standing alone against the cold foe: riding a rumbling chariot drawn by a pair of giant goats, with his red hair and beard whipping in the wind, he wielded a stubby-handled hammer that struck sky-spanning sparks from the Frost Giants’ empty heads. In the fire that warmed and occasionally destroyed their homes they recognized a capricious shape-shifting spirit: sometimes he was a friend to the Gods, but ultimately he would become their mortal enemy. In the land itself and the life that clothed it they envisioned the spirit of a beautiful woman, both poet and sorceress. And because life cannot exist without death, they also saw behind the woman a ghastly entourage, a weird sisterhood of living sarcophagi, eaters of the dead, Choosers of the Slain, the ghoulish Valkyries. Those gods and more dwelt in a grand fortress above the clouds and beyond the rainbow.

    Long did the Norse dwell in the land, not so much shaping the land to their needs as the land shaped them. Eventually they embraced the sea, slowly and tentatively at first, rarely venturing far from their fjords and bays. Then boldly, challenging howling winds and mountainous waves in open boats no larger than a house, they made themselves known to the world. Traders and Vikings, explorers and settlers, all enriched the land that had tempered and hardened them.

    In this land there was a small earldom ruled by Jarl Thorvald Hlodvisson and his wife, Countess Alof Gunnarsdottir. Together they ruled their earldom wisely and they were happy together. Indeed, their happiness lacked only one gift to be complete: in their hearts they yearned for a child to be their blessing and their heir.

    It happened one winter’s day that Alof was tending to her embroidery while riding with Thorvald in their wagon. She rocked to and fro in her seat as the wagon bounced and swayed, so moving with the familiar rhythm of the road that she missed not a single stitch. But then the wagon rode over a fallen branch and lurched and Alof pricked her finger with her needle. She cried out and the driver stopped the wagon. She shook three drops of blood from her finger onto the freshly fallen snow outside the wagon and watched as a raven landed on the snow to investigate.

    "There," she said, "is the sign that we seek. We shall have a child whose skin is so pale as to resemble the new-fallen snow, lips as red as my blood, eyes as blue as the sky, and hair as black and as shiny as the raven’s wings."

    And it came to pass, the following autumn, that Countess Alof gave birth to a daughter, to whom she gave the name Hildigunn. True to the sign, Fyrstinne Hildigunn Thorvaldsdottir had hair as black and as shiny as a raven’s wings, eyes as blue as a clear summer sky, lips as red as freshly drawn blood, and skin so fair that people took to calling her Snow White.

    Year by year the young fyrstinne grew. From her mother she learned all that a fyrstinne destined to be a countess must know and she learned more as well. From her mother she gained the grace that augments natural beauty. For fifteen years Snow White absorbed knowledge and skill as moss absorbs rain. Then came the winter of Snow White’s fifteenth year and her mother was lost.

    Countess Alof had gone away from the jarl’s farmstead on business too urgent for her to take her daughter with her. While she was gone a blizzard attacked the land. Stiff winds howled like demons and drove sleet before them as arrows of cold. As if it were the monstrous Fenris Wolf itself, the storm charged over the little earldom, seeking any living thing that it could then kill. Countess Alof never returned home and no sign of her was ever found.

    All in the little earldom and in neighboring earldoms mourned when the truth came to be known. For a year and a day no one in those lands allowed gladness to enter their hearts. But even the darkest night has its dawn, even the coldest winter its spring. Slowly happiness came back to the people as warmth came back into their land.

    In the spring of his daughter’s sixteenth year Jarl Thorvald married a woman from a faraway earldom. Fyrstinne Freythis Bjarnisdottir came from an earldom not well known to Thorvald’s people, though what little they had heard of the place made them feel ill at ease. Their illness of ease was not diminished by the fact that the wedding was conducted twice. At Freythis’ insistence, she and Thorvald were married under the old customs. At Thorvald’s insistence, they were also married under the new custom coming into fashion in the land.

    For many years emissaries from a new god had been coming into the land. They brought with them the claim that only their god and no other could have authority over the world and its people. Led by Konge Olav, the people gave heed to the claim and turned away from the old gods. The old gods grumbled at first, but slowly, reluctantly, they gave way. All-seeing Odin, mighty Thor, beautiful Freyja, brave Tyr, even wily Loki, all had known that this day was coming. They had believed that a great battle with powerful monsters and the destruction of the world would precede it, had believed that their own radiant, transcendent Baldur, murdered by Loki’s wiles and blind Hodur’s strength, would be resurrected from the realm of the dead to rule the new world that would rise from the ashes of the old. But they had long known that their time was limited, so they gave way before this strange and gentle god who had been murdered so much as Baldur had been. "He is so much like Baldur," they had said, "so let us give him his chance." And they withdrew.

    But not all were willing to let the old gods go so easily. The new countess, Freythis, had insisted on being married by the old custom because she was a seithkona, a woman adept at the spooky arts of the shadow worlds, which were the domain of the old gods. When she moved into the jarl’s longhouse she furnished her private chamber, at one end of the house, with strange, unseemly decorations. Among those was a mirror that she had treated with great care.

    To the unsuspecting it would appear to be a poor sort of mirror. Set in an elaborately carved wood frame that resembled the trunk of an ash tree shot through with wide gaps, it was an egg, the size of an ox-head, made of shiny black glass that cast back no reflection worthy of the name. One side of the egg was as flat and as opaque as a muddy pool. But under the ministrations of a skilled hex-weaver the flat part of the glass would clear to reveal scenes distant or near, scenes showing things both hidden and open. It stood in the middle of Countess Freythis’ chamber where she could approach it and call to it, as she had done for so many years, "Come Hugin! Come Munin! By Odin’s right eye! Through this dark glass the world I espy!"

    "Who dares to call upon the All-Father’s ravens?" the glass would reply.

    "I am Freythis Bjarnisdottir," she would say, "daughter of the moon, sister of Mimir, apprentice to the Norns. Show me the world through your eyes."

    "And what shall you see?" the mirror would ask.

    "The most beautiful woman in all the Norse lands," she would demand.

    Her mother had taught her to ask that question and she had felt a little silly the first time that she had put it to the glass. But then she had been astonished when the glass had shown her a girl of about her age, dressed as she was, standing in a room identical to her mother’s, and the most beautiful girl she had ever seen. Then she had reached up to touch the image and the image had reached up to touch the glass as well. Indeed, the image had copied her every move, her every expression, including the bright smile that had seemed to lift the corners of her mouth almost to her ears when she had recognized who she was seeing.

    Now Countess Freythis had come to an earldom strange to her. True, she had brought with her the familiar furnishings from her parents’ home, but she felt restless nonetheless. She wove eldrich spells to calm her heart. She gave herself time to grow accustomed to the new place she occupied and she gained acquaintance with the new people around her. Finally she went to the mirror and asked it the old question. Again she saw her own reflection, but as it turned out she had picked an exceptionally bad time to ask the question.

    At that very moment Snow White was picking berries from the vines that grew in profusion on one side of her home-meadow, vines that her mother had planted and tended. She was reaching for an especially large and ripe berry when she pricked one of her fingers on a thorn. A drop of blood fell from her finger.

    At that very instant the image in the mirror rippled and twisted, like a reflection in a still pond into which a rock has been thrown. When the mirror once again displayed a clear image, Freythis saw that she was staring at Fyrstinne Hildigunn, who was licking blood off a pricked finger. She felt a shock in her heart as if someone had just stabbed a dagger into it.

    "Liar!" she hissed at the mirror. "Show me the true answer to my question!"

    The mirror replied:

        "All the world and all that’s in it

        the Gods gave me the power to know,

        but of sly deceit they did deprive me;

        the truth is all I can show."

    Freythis picked up a hatchet and swung it at the mirror, as if to shatter the offending image, missing contact by a handsbreadth. Then she slammed the hatchet into one of the logs supporting the room’s roof. "Oh, no," she said with a trembling voice. "No, no, no, this must not be! If this is the truth," she snarled, viciously jabbing her finger at the image, "then we shall be obliged to change the truth. We will restore the proper order of things."

    "Ill fate spatters upon hands that spill innocent blood," the mirror cautioned.

    "Then we shall make certain that these hands" – her voice deepened and hardened as she held her hands up to the mirror – "do not spill the blood of that poor innocent creature."

    Like some ghastly spider, she wove her web with exquisite care. A shadowy thing contrived of spells and secret knowledge drawn from the cobbly realm where nightmares dwell, it soon ensnared a victim.

    A hunter who had recently come into the jarl’s household from Countess Alof’s home earldom and who still had loyalties to Alof’s family soon discovered that he was now the prey of the deadliest kind of predator. Quiet and invisible, it slithered about the earldom and slowly poisoned people’s thoughts, playing on their natural wariness toward outsiders. Little by little, hostility grew toward the web’s prey. After a time only the Countess’ protection was all that stood between the huntsman and violent death. It was then, when the huntsman was obliged to play the role that she had assigned him in her plan, that Freythis prepared her second trap.

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    The sun had already shown its face over the mountains when the huntsman and Snow White left her father’s farmstead and went into the forest. Freythis had been astonished at how easy this trap had been to set. But for months Snow White had begged the huntsman, her mother’s friend, to show her how to hunt in the forest. Now, at Freythis’ direction, the huntsman had agreed to take her with him and Freythis had readily given the expedition her blessing. Carrying her bow and a clutch of arrows in a quiver slung over her back, Snow White felt a happiness that she had not felt in over a year.

    Throughout the morning they had walked the animal trails through the forest, going ever farther away from the farmstead. Quietly the huntsman had pointed out the spoor of various animals to her.

    "Note how the animals leave trails for us," he had said to emphasize his point.

    Then he had shown her how to avoid leaving a trail that wolves might follow. He had been rather insistent on the latter lessons, pointing out that things other than wolves might follow a carelessly laid trail. At midday he paused in a small clearing.

    "This is where we must go our separate ways," he said, "and I must warn you not to return to your father’s farmstead."

    "Why?" Snow White asked. Suddenly she felt afraid.

    "This expedition was not meant to teach you to hunt," he said with a quavering voice. "The Countess has commanded me to kill you and to bring her your heart as proof that I have done as she demanded. My family and I will be killed if I do not fulfill her command. The Countess wishes to dine on your heart tonight."

    Snow White reached into her bodice and drew her dagger to defend herself.

    The huntsman held up empty hands. "Peace, Fyrstinne," he said. "By all that your mother loved, I mean you no harm. I shall slay a roe and take its heart to the Countess."

    "She will discover the deceit," Snow White said, not taking her eyes off the huntsman. "What then?"

    "By that time my family and I will be far out to sea," the huntsman said. "Already our knårr is being prepared and loaded." He started backing away from Snow White. "We have many places whither we can go to be safe," he continued. "I think that you will not be so fortunate, but I will not be the one to bring your life to an end. When I greet your mother in the Afterworld, I do not want to have your blood on my hands." Then he turned and walked rapidly down the trail.

    Snow White watched him until she could no longer see him among the trees. She looked around to see whether anyone else were present, then she resheathed her dagger, turned, and hastened up the trail. She didn’t know whither she was going; she knew only that she must go as far from her father’s earldom as she could and quickly. Remembering the morning’s lessons, she followed animal trails, walked across bare rock whenever possible, and several times walked up the middles of cold streams, all in order to frustrate any potential pursuers. Up hill and down hill she trudged through the forest, hearing only the rush of the wind sighing in the treetops. In a short time she was well and truly lost. She knew only in what direction her father’s earldom lay and she kept that direction behind her. Fear drove her forward.

    Rain began to fall. The forest roared with the sound of water coming down on the trees; water splashed and dripped everywhere. Snow White clutched her cape around her and looked for a place that would shelter her. She sought shelter under a tree and then ran to under the next tree along her path and then the next. Soon she came to a clearing and saw, set back under the trees on the far side, a small longhouse. From seeing the fallen branches and leaf litter on the ground around it, she guessed that it was abandoned. Nonetheless, when she approached it she called out to whoever might be inside. When she had called loudly several times and gotten no response she cautiously entered, hand on her dagger lest there be some unpleasant surprise awaiting her. She was mildly annoyed to discover that the doorway was so low that she had to stoop to enter.

    The house was empty but not, she quickly saw, unoccupied. Hot embers still glowed in the fire pit. She found the woodpile quickly enough and as she rebuilt the fire she called out to the spirits of the house to beg their pardon of her intrusion. She prayed that they would allow her to take only enough food and drink to quiet her appetites until she could properly ask the inhabitants for more.

    "Protect me in spite of my presumption," she said as the fire blazed up brightly.

    With a burning branch to light her way, she explored the house and found that she was, indeed, alone. She also found a plentiful supply of food in the cold room; from that supply she took a small piece of venison even though she was very hungry and even though she was very thirsty she took only enough mead to fill one of the small drinking horns that she found hung from one of the ceiling beams, a beam that was only a foot above her head. After heating the venison over the fire and then eating it and drinking the mead, she lay herself down on one of the benches along the front wall of the house and was soon asleep.

    She was awakened by the sound of people talking. The voices were coming closer and their owners soon came through the doorway. At first she took them to be boys, perhaps nine or ten years old. But then she saw how thick their muscles were, saw their long beards and mustaches, and recognized them as fully grown men, albeit remarkably short fully grown men. She was bewildered for an instant, then she noticed their close-set, squinty eyes and she recognized what they were.

    "You..you are dwarves," she said.

    "Jaso!" one of the dwarves said. "I am thinking now that you may be right, assuming, of course, that you are not a giant."

    "Well," Snow White said, "I have never thought of myself as a giant."

    The dwarf sighed. "There’s no help for it, then. We must be dwarves."

    "Surely, there’s nothing wrong with being dwarves," Snow White said. "The Gods shaped us all to fit our places in the natural order of things, so you have a role in nature that needs you to be small."

    The dwarves exchanged glances with each other and nodded in agreement. Then they began to perform a bouncy little dance about the fire and they chanted:

        "The Norsefolk look down and say the we’re six hands too small,

        but we could just as easily say that you’re six hands too tall.

        It helps to be small when we do our work in tunnels, caves, and holes.

        To dig our way deep within the Earth we need the build of moles.

Inside the mountains, inside the hills

we find the ore to feed our mills.

And if we need what we can’t find,

we make it with charms and spells combined.

        Deep beneath the forest floor, away from snooping eyes

        we extract the luminous metals and stones that gods and humans prize.

        From charms and spells buried deep beneath the ground

        we forged the chain with which the evil Fenris Wolf is bound.

        And from iron-gold that was in dragon’s blood annealed

        we made a thundering hammer for the mighty Thor to wield."

    The dwarves stopped dancing then and collapsed onto the bench along the longhouse’s rear wall, exhaustion showing on their wizened faces.

    Snow White clapped her hands in delight. "It is indeed noble work that you do," she said, "and all Humanity is grateful."

    "Yes," the dwarf who seemed to be the leader of the group said, "and Humanity’s gratitude is quite welcome to us." He turned to his companions and said then, "Now, who’s turn is it to provide us with food and drink?"

    Snow White then saw seven pairs of eyes turn their gaze upon her and the mouths below them curl up in hopeful smiles. "Well," she said, "I suppose I could do it. I have learned how to prepare simple meals." She got up from the bench on which she sat and put more wood on the fire. Then she lit a torch and went to the cold room to get the ingredients that she would need.

    Soon she had hung a large kettle over the fire, filled it with water, and, when the water had come to a boil, put big chunks of ox meat into it. As the ox meat boiled, she brought bread and cheese from the cold room and tapped a fresh keg of mead. She quickly discovered that the little men had appetites that she thought more appropriate to giants, but she went on providing food and drink as long as they wanted it, taking time now and then to satisfy her own appetite.

    After Snow White and the dwarves had eaten and drunk their fill, Snow White went to the lead dwarf, shook his hand, and said, "Takk for maten." Then she asked whether she might stay with the dwarves for a time.

    The lead dwarf said, "If you will cook and clean for us, then you may stay as long as you like." The other dwarves nodded their assent.

    Snow White smiled and said, "I would like that very much."

    One of the dwarves got up from the bench then and picked up Snow White’s bow and quiver of arrows from where she had lain them. He climbed up onto the bench where Snow White had rested, hung the bow and quiver on the wall, and said to her, "Now you are part of our household."

    Then the dwarves curled up on their bench and went to sleep. Snow White laid herself down and, using her cape as a blanket, also went to sleep.

    Outside, in the dark of a moonless night, faint lights flickered in the forest, lights that can only be seen out of the corner of the eye. Ghosts of things from a long vanished past prowled among the trees. Ætherial hunters they were, with a viciousness that mere humans cannot comprehend. The big one resembled an oversized lizard, but it stood and walked on its hind legs and its forelegs were shriveled to uselessness. So large was it that the head of the tallest Norse warrior would come only to its knee. Lumbering creature though it seemed to be, it moved through the forest with a grace that hinted at a potential for great speed. Other, smaller creatures, looking very much like the big one, but only the size of a tall man and covered in feathers, scampered through the forest. Occasionally they made high leaps and slashed at invisible foes or prey with large sickle-shaped talons. These spectral creatures made no mark upon anything, left no footprints, made not so much as a whisper of sound, but they were, nonetheless, dragons enough to protect the dwarves’ treasure...and their new houseguest.

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    To say that Countess Freythis Bjarnisdottir was an unhappy woman would be to understate the case considerably. First her most precious possession granted her stepdaughter pride of place over her, then the huntsman she had ensnared to solve the problem betrayed her and escaped her net, and now this! What should have been a powerful vengeance charm had turned out to be nothing more than a mere toy.

    It had been an inspiration of which she was quite proud, even if she couldn’t let anyone know about it. She had made a leather bag in the shape of Fyrstinne Hildigunn and painted an image of the girl upon it, then she had taken exquisite care in weaving the spell and impressing it onto the bag. Filled with air, like the goatskins used to aid people in swimming across rivers, the bag hung from a rafter by a noose around its neck. A wooden block tied to its feet gave the bag some weight. Barely able to contain her excitement, Freythis had then punched the bag viciously until she was panting and sweating from the exertion. Brushing a damp strand of hair out of her face, she had then called upon her enchanted mirror to show her what Snow White was doing at that instant and she had been astonished...shocked...enraged to see that, instead of writhing in pain, Snow White was attending to some mundane chore as though she had not a care in the world. Unable to believe that her spell had failed completely, she stared at the image in the mirror, gave the bag a backhanded slap across the face, and saw that Snow White did not so much as twitch.

    "How," she asked in a trembling voice, "did my spell fail?"

    The image in the mirror rippled into chaos and then cleared to show Freythis a view of Snow White waving to the dwarves as they left to go to work in the morning.

    "Dwarves!" Freythis growled. "How dare they interfere with my plans?!" Drawing her dagger, she turned to the bag. "Well, you’re of no use to me now," she said as she poised to slash the bag open. But then she paused, thought again, and put her dagger back into its sheath. Since her husband had forbidden her to beat the serving girls, she had no target upon which she could inflict her rages. She could at least beat up this helpless effigy, however unsatisfying that might be.

    "What am I to do now?" she muttered.

    "Perhaps you should consult your special friends?" the mirror suggested.

    Wearily she agreed that the idea was a good one. As tired as she was, she was already on the road the mirror pointed out. She bid the mirror good-bye as she sent it back into its sleep, then she prepared for a special journey. She piled up cushions and blankets on a space on the floor, then she bathed herself, put on fresh clothes, and arrayed herself with a style of jewelry that no proper Norsewoman would ever knowingly wear. Then she was ready.

    She used her feet to pound a drumbeat on the floor and she turned in a swaying dance. Spells wafted on the air like smoke and she inhaled them all. The room went dark for her as the trance took her and swooned her onto the pile of cushions and blankets that she had set for herself.

    She awakened lying upon a bed of moss under a tree. In the trees around her the wind sighed a strange music. She looked around to memorize the place, rearranged some fallen branches to mark the place as insurance of finding it again, and went to the trail that she had known was there. It was a short walk up the trail to the broad home-meadow of the farmstead that she sought.

    Larger than any home in all the Norselands, the main longhouse sat on top of a low knoll. Freythis saw the broad, thick planks of its walls and the thick support beams made of cloudy amber veined with gold and the roof thatched with bundles of silver reeds. The entrance was so high and so wide that she felt like a child when she walked through it. Immediately before her, as she came into the long hall, she saw, in the main fire pit, clear amber flames, seemingly frozen, holding up a black glass egg larger than a man. On the opposite side of the fire pit, against the rear wall, a high seat was occupied by a young man with black hair and beard, a black patch over his right eye, and a sky-blue cloak wrapped loosely around him. Perched on the high seat above the man’s shoulders, two ravens with stars twinkling faintly in the black of their feathers stared at her.

    "Warm greetings and welcome to you, Freythis Bjarnisdottir!" Odin said.

    "Thank you, Lord Odin," Freythis said. "A god’s greetings are always a blessing and a welcome to Æsir Garden is a fire on a winter’s night."

    A blonde woman, more beautiful than any woman Freythis had ever seen, stood by the high seat and idly stroked the heads of a pair of housecats the size of ponies. "Warmth and a blessing to sooth a troubled heart, we hope," she said.

    "Thank you, Lady Freyja," Freythis said. "My heart is indeed troubled, for I have been humiliated by an un-avenged insult."

    "A humiliation that is unintended is not properly an insult and may be forgiven," Freyja said. "Surely you cannot believe that Hildigunn intends to make you less than she is."

    "There is truth in what you say," Freythis said, "but it is a truth for lesser mortals. I am a jarl’s wife and a seithkona, so I must demand a higher standard of respect. How can I properly wield authority to serve my jarl and my gods if I am an object of mockery?"

    "Take your vengeance upon those who mock you, for they are your enemies," Odin said. "But Hildigunn is not your enemy."

    "She is a comfort to those who wish to see me diminished," Freythis protested. "How can I be effective as your rear guard against the bell-ringers if my authority is eroded?"

    "We are grateful for your support," said a young man whose countenance was so radiant that he seemed to be emitting his own light, "and we will reward you richly when the proper time comes. But we are indeed withdrawing from the Norselands and we ask that our supporters allow the Christians’ god to take our place."

    "But Lord Baldur," Freythis cried, "it should be you sitting upon the high seat of the world after Ragnarok!"

    "That is what we once believed," Baldur said, "but fate has dealt us a surprise. This Jarl Jesus Jehovasson has come seemingly from nowhere. Even the Norns cannot explain him. But he has more supporters than we ever had, so I, for one, will not stand against him."

    Murmurs of reluctant agreement filled the hall.

    "Will no one stand with me, then?" Freythis pleaded.

    "Against your real enemies, we will stand with you always," said a heavily muscled young man with bright red hair and beard. "In this case, though, I believe that you tread the path that lies on the border between honor and dishonor. Upon that path we do not wish to tread."

    "We have trodden that path too often ourselves in past times," said a raven-haired woman with no eyes. When she moved her transparent-black membranous cloak made strange swishing sounds that sent chills up Freythis’ spine. "It is my opinion," the woman continued, "that it is our past fondness for that path that has offended Justice and opened the Norse world to the bell-ringers’ god. Unforgiving Fate now obliges us to withdraw ourselves from the Norselands."

    "Then I must tread that path alone," Freythis said a little sadly.

    "Tread it carefully," a young man with chestnut-brown hair and beard said. He held up his right arm in a gesture of caution and Freythis saw that the air seemed to sparkle and shimmer in an outline of its missing hand. "Justice exacts a heavy price from those who insult it, however noble or pure their motives, however right they believe themselves to be."

    "We are not unsympathetic to your cause," Freyja said. "But we understand that you are mortal. You are fated to blossom, then to wither and die. To see a younger mortal blossoming as you are beginning to wilt must be a hard thing to endure. It is indeed a heavy price for you to pay, but it is the price you pay for life itself. Our advice is to make your life worthy of its price."

    A man-sized praying mantis made of pale wood offered Freythis a drinking horn filled with mead. She accepted the horn and took a deep draught from it, then returned the horn to the mantis. "I offer my gratitude for your hospitality and for your wisdom," she said. "May we all prosper together!" Then she turned and left the hall.

    She went back down the path she had followed to get to the Gods’ longhouse and no sooner had she re-entered the forest than she heard a rustle of leaves in the bushes to her left. When she looked she saw a young man whose black beard had been trimmed into a neat goatee.

    "Well," the man said, "it seems that you are in need of my particular skills in this case."

    "Loki," Freythis said, "why is it that I am always relying on you?"

    "We understand each other," Loki said. "We are alike, you and I."

    "How so?" Freythis asked.

    "Our minds are not befuddled by the sound of bells ringing in the land," Loki said. "The Others...are not so fortunate. If their wits had not been scattered like birds by the bell-ringers’ clangor, they would never have abandoned the Norselands to a god who allows himself to be killed rather than take vengeance upon those who insult him."

    "Would that we could change that fact," Freythis said. "But it seems that we cannot."

    "True enough," Loki said. "But a prize like the Norselands should not be given cheaply. We only honor our land and ourselves by exacting a suitably heavy price for it. Your efforts to exact that price are under-appreciated. I will show proper appreciation by offering my help in your case against Hildigunn. Come and I will explain how I believe that you can circumvent the excessive requirements of Justice without overtly insulting Justice."

    Together then they walked down the path to the bed of moss through which Freythis’ spirit would leave the spooky world of the Gods and return to her body in the material world and as they strolled Loki explained his plan.

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    The sun smiled warmly down on the home-meadow of the dwarves’ house one cool spring day and its rays, flittering through the leaves of an oak tree, shed a fluttering light on Snow White as she tended a cauldron of boiling water set upon a fire in the forecourt of the house. There, where the wind could easily sweep away the smells that arose from the water, she stood with a long pole and put each dwarf’s dirty clothes into the cauldron, stirred them about, and then fished them out. After rinsing the clothes in a tub of cooler water, she hung them on a rack to dry. She was just putting the last suit of clothes into the cauldron when she saw an old woman carrying a large basket walking up the trail toward the house. She noticed that the woman’s black cloak was frayed and mended in places and that the woman looked as worn as her cloak. Nonetheless, the woman came up the trail at a jaunty pace.

    "Warm greetings to you, Husfreyja!" the peddler woman called cheerily to her.

    "And to you as well," Snow White called back. "Welcome to Dvergenesbakken! Your feet have found a rarely trodden path. I would ask that you rest a time and speak with me of how things go in the places that you have seen. And if you have come here with a purpose in mind, perhaps you will tell me how I may help you in fulfilling that purpose."

    With a wave of her hand the woman drew Snow White’s attention to the basket that she was carrying. She pulled back the cloth that covered it and displayed a collection of brushes and combs. "Every woman wears a crown that proclaims a nobility that transcends mere political conceits," she said sweetly. "I bring what every woman needs to minister to that crown." She took a comb from the basket and showed it to Snow White. "Such an angelic face as yours should be framed by a proper halo," she said, holding up the comb. "Let me show you how easily it can be done."

    Snow White saw the comb glitter strangely in the light and consented to let the woman comb her hair. Gently, tenderly, almost lovingly, the woman slid the comb into Snow White’s hair and then took her hand off it. No sooner had she taken her fingers off the comb than Snow White felt dizzy, felt the world seem to spin around her, found herself unable to breathe, and fell to the ground. As Snow White’s eyes glazed over, staring at nothing at all, the woman knelt by her, gripped the hilt of her dagger, and muttered with a quavery voice, "Oh, would that the Gods grant me leave to finish the job!"

    With a grunt, the woman stood up. Her face seemed to melt and then reform into the features of Countess Freythis. She whistled a call that no bird in the Norselands would recognize and a short time later a leather bag in a shape crudely suggesting a horse floated out of the forest and came to her. Careful to leave no trace of her visit, she mounted the air-filled steed, took the reins in hand, and rose into the sky.

    Like an eagle she soared high above the forest, high enough that no one on the ground would discern that she was not a bird. As she approached her home she descended rapidly into a part of the forest into which people, for no identifiable reason, feared to go. She hid her sky-horse in what appeared to be a shrine and then hastened to her private chamber to confront her mirror.

    "Show me the most beautiful woman in all the Norselands!" she commanded.

    Light quivered in the glass and the mirror cleared to reveal Snow White lying motionless on the ground while birds hopped around on the ground around her and squirrels scampered over her.

    "Oh, my mistake," Freythis said with a giggle. "Show me the most beautiful breathing woman in all the Norselands!"

    The image in the mirror rippled into chaos and then cleared to show Freythis a reflection of herself.

    "Oh, yes," she said, clapping her hands in delight. "That is really so much better."

ahgefhgb

    When the dwarves returned home that evening they saw Snow White lying limp and motionless in the forecourt of their house. Ironthorn ran to her and examined her.

    "She’s not breathing," he said. "She must be dead."

    "But I see no blood," Silverleaf said. "There are no wounds upon her and no sign of sickness. What could have killed her?"

    "She was washing our clothes when she died," Goldwasp pointed out. "Perhaps that had something to do with it?"

    "But, but," Tinsparrow stammered, "washing our clothes never killed her before now. Why did it kill her this time?"

    "Oh, this is merely a rough guess," Ironthorn said, "but I’m thinking that one of your honkers got caught in your trousers and was only released by the boiling water to kill anyone hapless enough to be standing nearby. The Gods know that they have made us stop breathing on any number of occasions."

    "Did not," Tinsparrow said.

    "Yes, well," Coppervine said, "the inescapable fact is that she is dead and we must send her to the Land of the Dead."

    "Agreed," Ironthorn said, "but we can’t send her looking like this. We shall have to wash her face and hands and brush the dirt off her clothes. And we should comb her hair so that she will present a proper appearance to the Ruler of the Afterworld."

    "Right," Goldwasp said. "And we can use this comb to do it." He reached for the comb stuck in Snow White’s hair and pulled on it, but it would not come free; it pulled the hair with it. "That’s strange," he said. "It doesn’t want to come away from her hair." He gripped the comb with one hand and with the other hand pulled the hair free skein by skein. When he pulled the last skein free the comb came away with a jerk.

    Snow White gasped, shuddered, then drew a deep breath, blew it out, and drew another. Panting as though from running, she blinked her eyes and sat up. "Oh, I must have fainted," she said. She looked around as though trying to find something. "Where," she asked, "where is the old woman who was here with me?" Then she noticed the sun’s rays coming through the trees at a shallow slant and saw that the fire under the cauldron had burned out. "My goodness!" she said. "I’ve been asleep all day!"

    "We-e-e-ell, slightly more than asleep," Silverleaf said.

    "Hunh," Ironthorn snorted. "Slightly more than slightly more than asleep, I would say. You gave every appearance of being quite dead."

    Goldwasp showed the comb to Snow White. "Is this yours?" he asked. "I don’t remember ever seeing it before now."

    "No," Snow White said, "it’s not properly mine. It belongs to the peddler woman who was here this morning. I gave no payment for it, so it can’t be mine." She looked around as if trying to find something. "But if she is not here, why did she not take the comb with her?"

    "The comb was the cause of your ceasing to live," Quicksilverrain said. "Perhaps in taking away your life the woman gained the payment she sought?"

    "But who would want to kill our Hildigunn?" Leadgoat asked in astonishment.

    "My stepmother," Snow White said. "I was fleeing her attempt to have a hunter kill me when I came to your house. But this woman was not my stepmother."

    Goldwasp made a show of sniffing the comb and said, "I smell seithr. You do understand, I trust, that a seithkona can alter her appearance. For a short time she can appear to be an entirely different person. I’m guessing that the hunter’s failure to kill you...."

    "Actually, he refused to kill me," Snow White said.

    The dwarves exchanged raised-eyebrow glances.

    "Indeed!" Goldwasp said. "In any case, I am assuming that she has decided that she must do the dirty job herself. Whom else could she trust with such a task?"

    "Well," Ironthorn said, "we must beware of her tricks, then." To Snow White he said, "You must not accept gifts from strangers, however appealing they may be."

ahgefhgb

    Summer smiled warmly upon the land. In the trees birds sang happy songs and the sun’s light danced gaily on the meadow in front of the dwarves’ house. By the entrance to the house the dwarves had erected a loom and now Snow White sat before it as gentle breezes played tag around her hair. Using the yarn that she spun at night, she was weaving a blanket for Silverleaf.

    Shadow fell across the meadow as a cloud drifted in front of the sun. Snow White merely glanced up for an instant and then went back to her weaving. Nimbly she sent the shuttle sliding between the separated warp yarns, pulling the weft yarn taut as she caught the shuttle on the opposite side of the growing blanket. She slid a batten between the warp yarns and tamped the weft firmly into place, then gently kicked the treadle to lower the raised warp yarns and to raise the lowered ones. She had developed a smooth rhythm that made time pass quickly. So intent was she on her weaving that she almost failed to notice that she had a visitor.

    Out of the forest and up the trail to the dwarves’ longhouse came a woman whose chestnut-brown hair was beginning to go gray. She wore a simple dress with a blue-and-white checkered pattern and she carried a large basket. "Good day to you, Husfreyja!" she called out cheerily as she approached the loom.

    "And to you as well," Snow White called back. "Welcome to Dvergenesbakken! Your feet have found a rarely trodden path. I would ask that you rest a time and speak with me of how things are in the places you have seen. And if you have come here with a purpose in mind, perhaps you will tell me how I may help you in fulfilling that purpose."

    With a wave of her hand the woman drew Snow White’s attention to the basket that she was carrying. She pulled back the cloth that covered it and displayed a number of leather corsets neatly stacked inside it.

    "Woman was made with a shape that draws Man’s gaze and enhances his interest in the fulfillment of her desires," the woman said sweetly. "But clothing such as yours often hides that shape. Though it is pretty, it frees men’s eyes to wander. This garment, though," she said as she lifted up a corset whose leather had been worked with intricate Runic patterns, "keeps the manly gaze firmly fixed where it belongs. Perhaps you would like to see for yourself?" she said as she held the corset out to Snow White.

    Silence fell over the meadow and a chill breeze blew, but Snow White only noticed the Rune patterns seeming to writhe across the leather like ripples on a pond. She took the corset and wrapped it around her waist to see how it would look. No sooner had she brought the edges of the corset close together across her belly than the woven thong dangling from one of the eyelets began to move, weaving itself back and forth across the gap between the edges and through the other eyelets before Snow White could react. As the thong pulled itself taut Snow White felt dizzy, felt the world seem to spin around her, found herself unable to breathe, and fell to the ground. Her eyes glazed over, staring at nothing at all, and the woman knelt by her, gripped the hilt of her dagger, and muttered with a quavery voice, "If only the Gods would grant me leave to finish the job!"

    With a grunt the woman stood up. Her face seemed to melt and then reform into the features of Countess Freythis. She whistled a call that no bird in the whole Norselands had ever uttered and a short time later her air-filled leather horse floated out of the forest and came to her. Careful to leave no trace of her visit, she mounted the floating bag, took the reins in hand, and rose into the sky.

    Like an eagle she soared high above the forest, high enough that no one on the ground would discern that she was not a bird. As she approached her home she descended rapidly into a part of the forest into which people, for no identifiable reason, feared to go. She hid her sky-horse in what appeared to be a shrine and then hastened to her private chamber to confront her mirror.

    "Show me the most beautiful woman in all the Norselands!" she commanded.

    Light quivered in the glass and the mirror cleared to reveal Snow White lying motionless on the ground while birds hopped around on the ground around her and squirrels scampered over her.

    "Oh, my mistake," Freythis said with a giggle. "Show me the most beautiful breathing woman in all the Norselands!"

    The image in the mirror rippled into chaos and then cleared to show Freythis a reflection of herself.

    "Oh, yes," she said, clapping her hands in delight. "That is really so much better."

ahgefhgb

    That evening the dwarves returned home and saw Snow White lying limp and motionless be the loom in front of the house. Goldwasp ran to her and examined her.

    "She’s not breathing," he said. "She must be dead."

    "But I see no blood," Ironthorn said. "There are no wounds upon her and no sign of sickness and no strange combs in her hair. What could have killed her?"

    "Let’s look," Silverleaf said, "and see whether there is anything on her that does not belong to her."

    Tinsparrow pointed to the corset and said, "I’ve not seen that before now. Perhaps that’s the source of the spell that has stilled her life?"

    Leadgoat pulled the thong from one of the eyelets, but it leaped out of his grasp and threaded itself back through the eyelet, pulling itself tighter than before.

    Goldwasp examined the corset and its thong, then he pulled his knife from the scabbard hanging from his belt and cut the thong at its midpoint. Glittering sparks gushed from the cut and two of the dwarves quickly pulled the halves of the thong through the eyelets and out of the corset.

    Snow White gasped, shuddered, then drew a deep breath, blew it out, and drew another. Panting as though from running, she blinked her eyes and sat up. "Oh, I must have fainted," she said. She looked around as though trying to find something and then she noticed the sun’s rays coming through the trees at a shallow slant. "My goodness!" she said. "I’ve been asleep all day!" She looked at the dwarves and then said slowly, "I haven’t really been asleep, have I?"

    Seven solemn faces slowly wagged from side to side.

    "She did it again!" Snow White said angrily. She picked up the corset, looked at it, and then slammed it onto the ground.

    "How was that possible?" Tinsparrow asked. "You had warning."

    Snow White scrunched her face as if she had bitten into something sour and said, " She called to my desire to appear attractive to men."

    "And it ran to her like an untrained puppy," Goldwasp said, "and let her do what she wanted."

    "Perhaps," Ironthorn suggested, "you should keep your desires on a leash until you have trained them fully."

    "You must not allow your desires to run wild whenever they are awakened," Quicksilverrain said. "Then your enemy will not be able to trick you."

ahgefhgb

    Capricious breezes scampered through the forest. They picked red, orange, and yellow leaves from the trees and strewed them over the forest floor. And some of them snatched wisps of smoke coming from the oven in front of the dwarves’ house and spun them into the treetops.

    Snow White pounded dough in a wooden bowl. Again and again she folded the dough over and punched her fist into it. When the dough felt ready to her she lifted it out of the bowl and set on a board next to other loaves like it. Seeing that one of those loaves looked as if it had risen properly, she put it on the broad end of a wooden paddle, slid it into the oven, and with a jerk on the paddle left it on the oven’s inner shelf to bake.

    Out of the forest and up the trail to the dwarves’ longhouse came a young woman who seemed to be only a few years older than Snow White herself. Her deep red hair cascaded thickly down her back and she struggled to carry a large basket. "Good day to you, Husfreyja!" she called out somewhat out of breath. "A pleasant day for baking, I see."

    "Good day to you, Traveler, and warm greetings," Snow White replied. She cast a wary gaze over the stranger. "Welcome to Dvergenesbakken! Your feet have found a rarely trodden path. I would ask that you rest a time and speak with me of how things go in the places that you have seen. And if you have come here with a purpose in mind, perhaps you will tell me how I may help you in fulfilling that purpose."

    "Thank you for your kind hospitality," the woman said as she set her basket down and sat on the long bench that Snow White had been sitting on. "I do, indeed, need to rest. And perhaps I could beg of you a little water to quench my thirst?"

    Snow White brought the woman a drinking horn filled with mead. "I would not offer something as common as water to a guest who has come so far," she said. "Whithersoever you are going, you have a long journey ahead of you," she added.

    "Yes," the woman agreed as she sipped the mead. "I must take these apples," she pointed to her basket, "to the market in Trollenesvik."

    "That is a long journey," Snow White said, "and with such a heavy load!"

    "Truly so," the woman said with a sigh. "It is a hard task, but my family needs the silver that these apples will bring."

    "Must you sell your apples in Trollenesvik?" Snow White asked.

    "No," the woman said, "but there’s no market closer."

    "I have some silver that I can trade," Snow White said. "It may not be as much as you would get in Trollenesvik, but it will save you a hard journey and bring a special treat to my hosts."

    "That would be a great kindness," the woman said. "But surely you would not purchase goods on mere faith."

    Snow White agreed that she would not.

    "I always insist that my buyers examine my wares thoroughly before the transaction is made," the woman said and she took an apple from her basket. She held it up to the light and then handed it to Snow White.

    Snow White looked the apple over, marveling at its deep red color. She inhaled the fruit’s aroma and felt the firmness of the apple’s flesh under the skin. "I have never seen such attractive apples," she said as she handed the apple back to the woman.

    Smiling and holding up the apple, the woman said, "We take pride in the care that we give our apples as they grow." She drew her dagger and sliced a thin wedge out of the apple. "But the strongest test of a fruit," she said, "is in the tasting." She offered the wedge to Snow White.

    Snow White took the wedge and sniffed at it, savoring the aroma anew. She commented on how white the apple’s flesh was and then slipped the wedge into her mouth. Abruptly her mouth snapped shut and she was unable to open it. She felt dizzy, felt the world seem to spin around her, found herself unable to breathe, and fell to the ground. Her eyes glazed over, staring at nothing at all.

    Working quickly, lest she be discovered, the woman coaxed a small golden snake from her basket and lifted it onto Snow White’s arm. After hesitating a heartbeat, the snake slithered onto Snow White, wrapped itself around her arm, and froze into place as a gold arm-ring.

    "Let’s see if those stupid dwarves can save you now," the woman said as her face seemed to melt and then reform itself into the features of Countess Freythis. She whistled a call that no bird in all the Norselands would ever recognize and a short time later her air-filled leather horse floated out of the forest and came to her. Taking the reins in hand, she lifted the basket of apples onto the air horse’s back, mounted the floating bag, and rose into the sky.

    Like an eagle she soared high above the forest, high enough that no one on the ground would discern that she was not a bird. As she approached her home she descended rapidly into a part of the forest into which people, for no identifiable reason, feared to go. She hid her sky-horse in what appeared to be a shrine and then hastened to her private chamber to confront her mirror.

    "Show me the most beautiful woman in all the Norselands!" she commanded.

    Light quivered in the glass and the mirror cleared to reveal Snow White lying motionless on the ground while birds hopped around on the ground around her and squirrels scampered over her.

    "Oh, my mistake," Freythis said with a giggle. "Show me the most beautiful breathing woman in all the Norselands!"

    The image in the mirror rippled into chaos and then cleared to show Freythis a reflection of herself.

    "Oh, yes," she said, clapping her hands in delight. "That is really so much better."

ahgefhgb

    That evening the dwarves returned home and saw Snow White lying limp and motionless by the long bench near the oven. Goldwasp ran to her and examined her.

    "She’s not breathing," he said. "She must be dead."

    "But I see no blood," Ironthorn said. "There are no wounds upon her and no sign of sickness. I don’t see any strange combs in her hair and she’s not wearing a corset. What could have killed her?"

    "Let’s look," Silverleaf said, "and see whether there is anything on her that does not belong to her."

    Tinsparrow pointed to the gold snake-shaped arm-ring and said, "I have not seen that before now. Perhaps that’s the source of the spell that has stilled her life?"

    Leadgoat reached for the arm-ring and leaped back when it moved as if to strike, bared its fangs, and hissed at him. "Well, it’s certainly bespelled," he said.

    Coppervine ran into the house and shortly thereafter came out again carrying silver tongs. He knelt by Snow White, reached toward the snake arm-ring with the tongs, and began to hum a strange little tune. Gathering around Coppervine and Snow White, forming a loose circle, the other six dwarves began to hum the same tune. Slowly the snake partly unwound itself from Snow White’s arm and rose up, swaying with the tune. With calm deliberation, Coppervine used the tongs to grip the snake behind its head. Falling limp, the snake slid off Snow White’s arm and dangled from the tongs. Coppervine laid the dead snake and the tongs on the ground.

    "She’s still not breathing," Silverleaf said. "She’s not waking up as she did those other times."

    Gently prodding her, Goldwasp said, "Perhaps she is truly, finally dead this time?"

    Tinsparrow wiped a tear from his cheek. "We must put her in a good place to wait for Lady Hel to come for her," he said sadly.

    So they made a place for Snow White to rest before beginning her descent into the Afterworld, the Land of the Dead. They laid her upon the bench where she had slept and put her blanket over her. Then they set to work on a sad task that sorely tested their skills.

    They made the boat’s keel and ribs of spell-woven gold that had the texture and warmth of oakwood. At the bow the keel curved up and the wood-like texture faded into the scaly texture of a great dragon’s skin. Looking as if it were ready to strike a venomous blow, the prow bore the shape of the head of a dragon with its fangs bared. From sheets of flawless amber the dwarves carved the planks to form the boat’s skin and they tied the planks to each other and to the boat’s ribs and keel with golden cords. They carved more amber sheets into flooring for the little boat and from silver with the texture of birchwood they formed a steerboard and attached it to the boat. Last, they made a lid to cover the boat, made it in sections from sheets of clear crystal shot through with shimmering threads of gold and ruby, shaped the sections into curves that resembled rising flames.

    One day, when winter’s cold first began to bite, they carried the boat into their house. They put blankets and pillows into it. Then, with tears running down their cheeks and dripping off their mustaches, they laid Hildigunn Thorvaldsdottir into the boat and slowly, reluctantly, section by section, placed the lid on it. On the saddest day in their lives they picked the boat up, carried it into their treasure room, and laid it atop a pile of silver nuggets, positioning it as though it were cresting a glittering swell.

    For days the dwarves mourned. Time and again, one or another of them would recall from memory some pleasant encounter or funny incident he had enjoyed with Snow White and her spirit danced again in the dwarves hearts. Then slowly, one by one, the dwarves went back to their work.

ahgefhgb

    At times the dwarves would bring the product of their labors to their treasure room for storage or they would go to the treasure room to draw out some treasure to form into objects that they could trade to the Norsefolk or offer as gifts. Some of those times they would glimpse shadows inside the gold-and-amber boat.

    Once they saw clearly; at least, they believed that they saw clearly. What looked to them like a great owl perched on the pillow by Snow White’s head seemed to be whispering into her ear. At the dwarves’ approach the owl raised its wings and leaped into the air, passing through the crystal lid of the boat as it took flight and then turning transparent and fading as a ghost.

    Once again they saw clearly; at least, they believed that they saw clearly. What looked to them like two ravens, black as night with torchlight creating the impression of stars where it glinted off their feathers, seemed to be whispering into Snow White’s ears. At the dwarves’ approach the ravens raised their wings and leaped into the air, passing through the crystal lid of the boat as they took flight and then turning transparent and fading as ghosts.

    And once yet again they saw clearly; at least, they believed that they saw clearly. What looked to them like a dove, translucent white like ice, seemed to be whispering into Snow White’s ear. At the dwarves’ approach the dove raised its wings and leaped into the air, passing through the crystal lid of the boat as it took flight and then turning transparent and fading as a ghost.

ahgefhgb

    Slowly, majestically the sky marked the elapse of time. Day after day the sun trudged up the east side of the sky and then climbed lazily down the west side. As days went by in their dozens the moon displayed Odin’s Wink. In the course of a dozen such winks the pictures that the stars made on the night sky drifted through a complete cycle. One night, just after sunset, the picture known as Thor’s Goats would be on the eastern horizon, just rising into the sky. Night after night the picture would appear ever higher on the sky as darkness fell over the Norselands, already high above the world when the sun went down. Then it would be on the west side of the sky at sundown, night after night appearing ever closer to the western horizon, as if it were pursuing the sun. Then it would be gone, only to reappear on the eastern horizon at sunset after the elapse of six Odin’s Winks. Once, twice Thor’s Goats completed a sky cycle and then once again.

    Winter came and cold silence filled the land. At that time all take comfort in what warmth they can find and all cheer each other with celebrations and gifts. For the seven dwarves of Dvergenesbakken celebration was cut short by a commission. Dreams came to them, dreams as vivid as if they were awake, and showed them what they were to create with their skills. When day came and filled the land with pale light they set to work, digging for the metals they needed, smelting them, and then working them with the appropriate spells, which they obtained from tapping the roots of the world.

    From iron they made a simple coffin. They made it and then carried it to a place near their home. They leaned it against a large rock next to a hidden doorway into the Afterworld and left it there.

    From silver they made a dozen knives and spoons. Ornate patterns worked into the metal gave the only clue that these utensils carried within them spells that would destroy any poisons in the food they touched or came near. These the dwarves put into a wooden sea chest.

    From gold they made a belt of links that did not interlock with each other. Spells threaded through the links held the belt together and ensured that no enchanted garment or ornament would come upon its wearer’s body. This the dwarves put into the wooden sea chest.

    From copper – ah, from copper they made a hawk. They covered it with finely wrought feathers and filled it with spells. On its chest they embossed the sigh of Thor’s Hammer. Fast and powerful, it would ensure that no weapon or attacker flying through the air would reach its owner. This the dwarves put into the wooden sea chest.

    From tin they made a small school of arm-long fish. As with the hawk, their innards were filled with spells. No enemy attacking from water would prevail against their owner. These the dwarves put into the wooden sea chest.

    From lead they made a snake. First they melded the lead with a spell so cold that it made the metal ring with the clarity of a bell. Then they formed it into a snake three paces long with the thickness of a man’s wrist. They covered the snake with Runes, in shades of gray, instead of scales and filled it with spells. Evil intent toward its owner was the snake’s prey and the snake’s venom was strong enough to kill any spell that mere humans could weave. This the dwarves coiled up and put into the wooden sea chest.

    From quicksilver, at last, they made a cat. Liquid creature with lightning speed, it was filled with spells that would lead to anything that sought to endanger its owner. No substance, no seithr, no sorcerous evil could withstand its slashing claws. This the dwarves put into the wooden sea chest.

    Then, as suddenly as they had begun, the dreams stopped. Night was no longer a restless time for the seven dwarves. Again they could sleep soundly and play host to gentler dreams.

ahgefhgb

    All the Norselands greeted spring with a warm smile. Trees that had borne the snow on their bare branches put on fine green cloaks. Dot by flowery dot the spirit of color painted the meadows. High above the land the lark sang the first song of the year and other birds soon followed his lead, filling the land with sweet, gentle waves of music. Freed from winter’s icy grip, streams splashed gaily down the mountainsides to the deep, brooding fjords. Travel became easier and people who had the need to do so left their homes to conduct business in faraway places.

    Among the travelers that season was a young jarl, handsome and strong. He came to Dvergenesbakken leading pack horses that were laden with new clothing for the dwarves along with boots, belts, and leather aprons to protect their other clothes when they worked at their smelter or forge. He had dismounted his own horse before entering the dwarves’ home meadow and he called greetings to the dwarves as he came to their house.

    Goldwasp returned the greetings and welcomed the young jarl to Dvergenesbakken. "This is the first time that we have seen you not coming with your father," he commented.

    "My father dwells now in the Afterworld," the jarl said sadly. "He voyaged thence when the snow was still deep upon the land."

    "He dwells now near the Gods, we trust," Ironthorn said.

    "That is our hope," the jarl said. He exchanged more courtesies and hand clasps with the dwarves and then unloaded his cargo.

    Dancing with delight, the dwarves examined the goods that the jarl took from his bundles. They held up each item and commented on the workmanship that was evident in its making. When they had examined the last item they led the jarl to their treasure room to prepare the contracted payment.

    Light glittered off piles of gold, silver, rubies, amber, and other precious gems. Wealth enough to make every Norseman a jarl lay in piles and yet the young jarl could only gaze upon the translucent boat rising upon a wave of silver. Picking his way among the piles, he approached the boat and let out a gasp of amazement when he saw its contents.

    "She is so beautiful," he said, "like the spring after a hard winter."

    "Jaso?" Leadgoat queried. He peered into the coffin, then turned to the other dwarves and shrugged.

    Giving the coffin a quizzical look, Goldwasp said to the jarl, "We must defer to your judgement in this matter. Women’s beauty is a subject of which we know little."

    "I mean no offense," the jarl said, "but I believe that no jewelry that you can make will compare to her."

    "We did not know that we guarded such a treasure," Ironthorn said. Carefully he removed the section of the coffin’s lid that lay over Snow White’s face.

    Following the jarl’s lead, the dwarves gathered around the opening and peered into the coffin.

    "Ah! She bears the sweet fragrance of apples," the jarl said.

    Coppervine sniffed the air in the coffin. "So she does," he said. "But whence did she get it? No apple trees grow near here."

    "Perhaps someone brought it to her?" Silverleaf ventured to guess.

    Goldwasp pinched the bridge of his nose and let out a groan. Then he reached into the coffin. "Pardon my fingers," he said as he gently pried Snow White’s mouth open. Finding the piece of apple lodged between her tongue and palate, he pulled it loose and removed it.

    Snow White drew a deep, shuddering breath, then sighed and opened her eyes. A look of frosty consternation began to form on her face but quickly melted into a smile when she saw the jarl leaning over her. She sat up and the look of consternation returned in full form as she examined her dress.

    "This is my dress," she said, pulling at it, "but it fits poorly."

    "You’ve had time to grow," Ironthorn said.

    Consternation turned to awe and horror as Snow White caught full sight of her coffin.

    "You put me into a burning boat that does not burn," she said as she stroked one of the amber planks.

    Unable to meet her gaze, the dwarves stared at the floor in embarrassment.

    "We believed that you were truly dead this time," Goldwasp said.

    "We could not find what was stopping your life this time," Silverleaf added.

    "But we were not certain," Leadgoat said.

    "So we made a funeral boat of stones," Coppervine said.

    "But we did not kindle the glowing wind that would have blown you to the Afterworld," Tinsparrow said.

    "Now this kind jarl led us to the thing that was stopping your life," Quicksilverrain said.

    "Then," Snow White said to the jarl, "it is you as much as my friends that I must thank for restoring my life to me." She accepted his proffered hand and allowed him to help her climb out of her coffin.

    For several days the jarl remained at Dvergenesbakken as the dwarves’ guest. Strangely, though, the hosts left their house almost every day to work in their mine, as if they were ignoring their guest. With nothing else to do, the jarl spent the days talking to Snow White, even helping her with her chores.

    At night, after eating their dinner, the dwarves brought out their musical instruments and played while Snow White sang. As she sang her voice became a knårr sailing upon a sea of music, driven forward by the spirit that moved within her. And like a knårr, it transported her listeners to a faraway place, one in which their souls could find peace. The jarl felt that he could spend the rest of his life on such journeys and he would not regret it, but a jarl has obligations that he cannot neglect.

    When the time came for the jarl to leave his heart began to hurt and he knew that he could not bear to leave Snow White behind. He was a strong warrior and brave: to protect his people and his land he would stand boldly against any enemy. But when he asked Snow White to come to his jarldom and to merge her life with his as two streams become a river, he trembled like a Frost Giant facing the wrath of Thor.

    For fairness’ sake, it must be said that Snow White trembled too. She understood that she would be taking leave of a familiar shore and setting sail upon an unknown sea. Like her Viking ancestors before her, she took a deep breath and shoved her boat into the water: she accepted the jarl’s offer of marriage.

    After a night of celebration with the dwarves the betrothed couple left Dvergenesbakken to go to the jarl’s home. It was a sad time for Snow White and the dwarves as much as it was a happy time and many tears fell. Among the gifts that the dwarves bestowed upon the couple was a strangely decorated wooden sea chest.

    Angry eyes watched from a great distance as Snow White and the jarl rode their horses through the forest down to the fjord where the jarl had left his boats and his men. Only the soft clop of the horse’s hooves on the trail broke the silence of the forest, only that until the couple came to a wide clearing.

    They heard the whir of wings, but before they could react a giant eagle had knocked Snow White off her horse and sent her sprawling in the middle of the meadow. Sword in hand, the jarl dismounted his horse and stood over Snow White, preparing to defend her as the frightened horses retreated back into the forest. Soaring above the trees, the demon eagle wheeled about for another attack.

    At that very instant the lid of the wooden sea chest opened and the copper hawk came out like a flash of lightning, hitting the eagle with a sharp crack. Blood and feathers splattered across the sky above the meadow and shortly thereafter smoking pieces of eagle made soft thuds as they hit the ground. High above the clearing the hawk circled, looking for any more aerial threats. Then it descended. Back into the sea chest went the hawk and the lid closed behind it.

    Hate-filled eyes watched Snow White and the jarl remount their horses and continue on their way. Soft breezes capered among the trees and made a sound like the rushing of a stream. Squirrels scampered up and down the trees and around the bushes and chattered at the horses.

    Suddenly Snow White and the jarl heard a rumbling growl and their horses reared up in fear. Ahead of them, blocking the trail, a giant wolf snarled at them. Behind them a second demon wolf blocked their retreat and two more wolves threatened them on their flanks. As Snow White and the jarl dismounted their horses and prepared to defend themselves the wooden sea chest opened and a liquid, silvery streak flashed out of it. A little cloud of bloody mist and fur blossomed suddenly with a loud thump and fell to the ground where the first wolf stood. The other three wolves started to back away.

    At that moment a bear, taking advantage of the confusion, charged out of the forest and knocked the jarl down, sending his sword skidding out of reach. The jarl crawled backward, trying to reach the sword, but the bear loomed over him, ready to pounce. Then the bear jerked as an arrow flashed into its mouth and cut deeply into the back of its throat. Another thump shook the leaves on the trees as the jarl watched the bear sway and then fall dead. A third thump sounded as the jarl looked behind him and saw Snow White standing with her bow, a second arrow nocked and ready to shoot. Both of them looked to whence a fourth thump came and saw the remains of the last demon wolf settling to the ground. They caught only a glimpse of a silvery feline something seeming to flow into the sea chest, pausing only to lick blood off one of its paws. And then the lid on the sea chest closed. Snow White and the jarl remounted their horses and continued on their way.

    Eyes red with rage watched as Snow White and the jarl rode their horses out of the forest and came to a quiet fjord. Two dragon-prow boats were drawn up on the shore and their crews camped nearby. As soon as they saw their jarl coming, the men broke camp and loaded the horses and their baggage into the boats. Soon Snow White and her jarl were standing just behind the prow of the leading boat as twelve strong men rowed it down the fjord.

    Swiftly the boats moved over the smooth water. When they came to a bend in the fjord the jarl saw a black boat coming up the fjord under a black sail. It seemed to exude a foul odor and its dragon-headed prow seemed to be alive, swaying from side to side though the boat didn’t sway at all. Fearsome warriors, half man and half wild pig, stood in the vile boat, some waving swords and spears while others launched arrows toward the jarl’s boats. Several arrows plooped into the water next to the jarl’s boat and, even though the jarl and his men were quick to bring their weapons to hand and she had her own bow and arrows, Snow White felt a cold dread quivering deep inside her.

    Suddenly the lid of the wooden sea chest flew open and the tin fish leaped out of the chest, over the side of the boat, and into the water. Distracted by the flashes of silver, the pigmen watched as the tin fish swam rapidly to their boat and struck the starboard side. Geysers of foaming white water erupted from the places where the tin fish struck the boat and shot high into the air. Thunder shook the fjord and boomed off the cliffs rising above it. Like an animal in pain the black boat’s dragon prow writhed and shrieked and the boat listed to its starboard side.

    One of the pigmen fell into the water, then squealed, shrieked, and thrashed frantically as the water boiled and burned around him. Terrified, the other pigmen strove to get away from the water that was coming into their boat. Some climbed the mast, their added weight causing the boat to list even faster. Shrieks, squeals, and howls echoed throughout the fjord and then faded to silence. Soon all that was left of the attacking force were ripples, some bubbles, and a thin layer of smoke hovering just above the water’s surface.

    Like spawning salmon, the tin fish leaped out of the water and into the sea chest. After watching in wide-eyed wonder as the lid of the wooden chest closed itself, the jarl’s men put their hands to their oars and resumed their journey. Rowed and under sail, the two boats came quickly to the jarl’s realm and to his home overlooking a well-sheltered bay.

    As she climbed out of the jarl’s boat and walked up the hill to the great longhouse, Snow White was welcomed with warm smiles.

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    Soon gifts began arriving from people who could not attend the wedding themselves. Among the gifts came a robe woven of gold and silver threads. With a happy smile, a serving girl brought it to Snow White in her private room and held it out to her. Before Snow White could take the robe, a golden tendril, like that of a grapevine, reached out from her belt and touched the fabric. With a soft hissing, crackling sound the robe turned to black dust that crumbled in the serving girl’s hands. Then the black dust sparkled and vanished, leaving a terrified girl trembling before Snow White.

    "Don’t be afraid," Snow White said. "It was not meant for you and you will not be harmed."

    "Pu- punished?" the girl asked.

    "No, of course not," Snow White said. "You did nothing wrong." And she spent some time comforting the frightened girl.

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    To honor his father, the jarl chose to have an old-style wedding. As this would be one of the last such weddings, The Gods Themselves accepted the invitation. Thus it was that the human guests were treated to the sight of Odin, wrapped in his blue cloak, arriving on his eight-legged horse. They enjoyed the booming rumble of the thunder chariot drawn by two giant goats as Thor and his wife arrived. They marveled at the two giant cats drawing radiant Freyja in her chariot of silver. Other gods emerged from hidden doorways in the forest and walked to the wedding while others drifted out of the sky like falling leaves.

    Thor himself conducted the wedding, calling upon a skald to recount the story of the Fenris Wolf and of the Gods’ binding of him. When the old story of the betrayal of trust and its horrible price had been refreshed in the hearers’ minds, Snow White and her jarl took the Oath of Odin. One at a time, each put their right hand into the gaping mouth of a giant carved-stone wolf and swore loyalty to the other. Thor pronounced himself satisfied with the bond thus created and everyone went to the main room of the longhouse to eat.

    Somewhere in a storage room a wooden sea chest opened its lid and a snake made of lead and spells slithered out and onto the floor. The snake wove its way to the main room of the longhouse and meandered among the guests. No one noticed it, except The Gods, and they left it alone. Among the guests the snake came to a teen-aged girl with long blond hair. It wrapped itself around her like a vine growing around the trunk of a tree. It went face to face with the frightened girl, opened its mouth, and deployed its fangs in preparation to apply a venomous bite.

    Caught by surprise, Snow White, her jarl, and all of the guests stared in astonishment. At first Snow White tried to think of how to get the snake off the girl.

    Sensing Snow White’s bewilderment, the girl looked to her and pleaded with her to help. She cried out a plea that nearly broke Snow White’s heart. But Snow White paused and waited a bit. The snake merely threatened the girl and showed no signs of actually preparing to carry out its venomous strike. In any case, no one could reach the girl in time to save her if the snake did strike. The girl began to cry and begged The Gods for help, but then her features melted and reformed into the snarling features of Countess Freythis.

    Just then an elegantly dressed woman, her face hidden behind a wooden mask, came into the hall and strode to the high seats. Behind her the seven dwarves paced, holding their arms above their heads to hold up an iron coffin. The woman stopped before the jarl and Snow White and, as the dwarves set the coffin on end on her left side and held it up, she removed her mask.

    She had been a beautiful woman once, that much was clear. But now her face bore the colors of death, bloodless white and gangrenous black. She gazed out of eyes clouded over as in death.

    The jarl and Snow White got up off their seats and knelt before her and all of the other guests knelt as well. Even the Gods knelt down in the presence of Death.

    "You are welcome in our home, Lady Hel," the jarl said.

    "I doubt the truth of that," Hel said with a wry smile. "But your kind and generous words please me," she continued in tones that echoed the sorrow of a thousand funerals. "Sadly," she went on saying, "I am incapable of bringing a gift for the celebration of this marriage; I can only offer fair exchange." She gestured toward the coffin and Goldwasp opened the lid.

    Countess Alof Gunnarsdottir lay in the coffin with her hands crossed over her waist, lying with her eyes closed as if she were asleep. Ironthorn took her left hand and her eyes fluttered open. Guided by Ironthorn and looking around in bewilderment, Alof stepped out of the coffin, then, seeing that she was in the presence of nobility, she curtsied to the jarl and Snow White.

    Suddenly comprehending the meaning of Hel’s "fair exchange", Countess Freythis let out a strangled cry as her eyes widened in horror. She looked around desperately, pleadingly, to the Gods, but none moved to stop Leadgoat and Coppervine, who picked her up, carried her to the coffin, put her into it, and closed the lid, pausing only to allow the lead snake to slither free. Hel nodded to the jarl and Snow White in acknowledgment of their reception, then replaced her mask, turned, and strode out of the hall with the dwarves following her, carrying the iron coffin over their heads.

    Coming to her full senses, Alof said to the jarl and Snow White, "I am Countess Alof Gunnarsdottir, wife of Jarl Thorvald Hlodvisson."

    Holding her arms wide to embrace the Countess, Snow White said with a warm smile, "And you are also my own dear mother."

    Alof reciprocated the embrace, then pulled back, holding Snow White at arm’s length to look at her. "Hildigunn?!" she said.

    Snow White smiled shyly and nodded, tears beginning to run down the sides of her nose.

    The two women embraced again, then Alof pulled back again to look her daughter over a second time. "Have I been gone so long?" she asked.

    Snow White nodded.

    "Uff!" Alof said. "Uff da! Your poor father must be frantic with worry!"

    Snow White smiled. "He will be happy to see you again," she said.

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    And what happened to the seithkona’s black mirror? For its part in the plot against Snow White it was put under a horrible curse. Oh, it was a terrible curse! It was a curse you would not wish upon your worst enemy! It was utterly dreadful! You would be appalled if you knew what it was. It’s just too frightful to describe. Oh, all right, I’ll describe it.

    The mirror was placed in a drab sitting room where old warriors came to wait for the Angel of Death to call them and it was condemned forever to display the same visions of a band of hapless tempest-tossed travelers from a foreign land. At the beginning of each such vision strange music would play and a minstrel would sing:

    "Come gather ‘round and listen well to a tale of a ‘sorcelled trip,

    of what befell seven hapless folk aboard a tiny ship.

        The mate was an Irish sailing man, a master of the boat.

        His labors on the Menhow all ensured that she would float.

    The Schipp-herd of the Menhow, a seasoned sailor was he.

    Five passengers set sail one day for three days at sea, three days at sea.

        A mighty witch brewed up a storm and the tiny ship was caught.

        ‘Gainst wind and wave the fearless crew’s efforts came to nought.

    Now cast up on an unknown shore by dint of a sorcerer’s guile,

    Geoghegan and the Schipp-herd too, the wealthy laird and his wife,

    the courtesan, the Philosopher and Marie the Nun, all lost on Geoghegan’s Isle."

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