L E S S O N 4
Hello and Welcome
Never trust a friend.
And so I came to Asgard, where Odin introduced me to my new friends, the twenty-three Aesir and Vanir. All of them burnished, sleek, and well-fed, dressed in furs and silks and brocade, crowned in gold and gemstones, and generally looking rather pleased with themselves.
You’ve probably already heard of Asgard. The Worlds were already full of tales about its size; its magnificence; its twenty-four halls, one for each god; its gardens, cellars, and sports facilities. A citadel built on an outcrop of rock so high above the plain below that it seemed part of the clouds themselves, a place of sunlight and rainbows, accessible only by the Rainbow Bridge that linked it to the Middle Worlds. That’s the story, anyway. And yes, it was impressive. But in those days it was smaller, protected by its location—a cluster of wooden buildings surrounded by a palisade. Later, it grew, but at that time it still looked like a pioneer stronghold under siege—which was exactly what it was.
We met in Odin’s hall, a sizeable, warm, vaulted space with twenty-three seats, a long table set with food and drink, and Odin’s gilded throne at the head. Everyone had a seat but me.
It stank of smoke and ale and sweat. No one offered me a drink. I looked at the cold faces around me and thought: This club isn’t taking new members.
“This is Loki,” the Old Man announced. “He’s going to be one of the family, so let’s all make him welcome, and no picking on him because of his unfortunate parentage.”
“What unfortunate parentage?” said Frey, the leader of the Vanir.
I gave them all a little wave and told them I was from Chaos.
A second later I was flat on my back, with two dozen swords jabbing at the parts of me I’ve always preferred to keep intact.
“Ouch!” Unlike the rest of my newly acquired physical sensations, the pain thing wasn’t getting any more fun. I considered the possibility that this might be some kind of an initiation ceremony, more of a game than anything else. Then I looked at those faces again, the narrowed eyes, the bared teeth . . .
No doubt about it, I told myself. These bastards really don’t like me.
“You brought a demon into Asgard?” said Týr, the General’s war chief. “Are you out of your mind? He’s a spy. Probably an assassin, as well. I say slit the little rat’s throat.”
Odin gave him a quelling look. “Let him go, Captain.”
“You’re kidding,” said Týr.
“I said, let him go. He’s under my protection.”
Reluctantly, the hedge of blades was withdrawn from around Yours Truly. I sat up and tried a winning smile. No one around me seemed to be won.
“Er, hi,” I said. “I know it must seem strange to you that someone like me should want to hang out with people like you. But give me a chance and I’ll prove to you I’m not a spy. I swear it. I’ve burnt my boats by coming here; I’m a traitor to my people. Send me back, and they’ll kill me—or worse.”
“So?” That was Heimdall, a flashy type, with golden armour and teeth to match. “We don’t need a traitor’s help. Treachery’s a crooked rune that never flies straight, or hits the mark.”
That was typical Heimdall, or so I came to realize later. Pompous, rude, and arrogant. His rune was Madr, straight as a die, boxy and pedestrian. I thought of the mark of Kaen on my arm and said:
“Sometimes crooked is better than straight.”
“You think so?” said Heimdall.
“Let’s try it,” I said. “My glam against yours. Let Odin decide the victor.”
There was an archery target outside. I’d noticed it as we came in. The gods were predictably keen on sports; popular types so often are. I’d never used a bow before, but I understood the principle.
“Come on, Goldie,” I said, and grinned. “Or are you having second thoughts?”
“I’ll give you this,” he said. “You can talk. Now let’s see how well you perform.”
Aesir and Vanir followed us out. Odin came last, looking curious. “Heimdall’s the best shot in Asgard,” he said. “The Vanir call him Hawkeye.”
I shrugged. “So what?” “So you’d better be good.”
I grinned again. “I’m Loki,” I said. “Good doesn’t enter into it.”
We stood in front of the target. I could tell from his colours that Heimdall was sure of beating me; his golden smile radiated confidence. Behind him, all the rest of them stared at me with suspicion and scorn. I’d thought that I knew prejudice, but this lot redefined it. I could see them itching to spill some of my demon blood, even though it ran through the veins of a dozen or more of them. Heimdall himself was one of them—a bastard child of the primal Fire—but I could see he wasn’t about to celebrate our kinship. There are races that hate each other on sight—mongoose and snake, cat and dog—and though I didn’t know much of the Worlds, I guessed that the straightforward, muscular type would be the natural enemy of the lithe and devious type who thinks with his head and not his fists.
“How far? A hundred paces? More?”
I shrugged. “You choose. I couldn’t care less. I’m going to beat you anyway.”
Once more, Heimdall smiled. He beckoned two servants forward and pointed at a distant spot right at the end of the Rainbow Bridge.
“Stand the target there,” he told them. “Then, when Loki loses his bet, he won’t have quite so far to walk home.”
I said nothing, but only smiled.
The servants set off. They took their time. Meanwhile I lay down on the grass and pretended to have a little nap. I might even have slept a little, if Bragi, the god of music and song, hadn’t already been working on a victory chant for Heimdall. To be fair, his voice wasn’t bad, but the subject matter wasn’t entirely to my taste. Besides, he was playing a lute. I hate lutes.
Ten minutes later, I opened one eye. Heimdall was looking down at me.
“I’ve got pins and needles,” I said. “You go first. Whatever you do, I promise I can do better.”
Heimdall bared his golden teeth, then summoned the rune Madr, aimed, and fired. I didn’t see where the rune struck—my eyes weren’t nearly as good as his—but I could see from the flash of his golden teeth that it must have been good.
I stretched and yawned.
“Your turn, traitor,” he said.
“All right. But bring the target closer.”
Heimdall looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“I said, bring the target closer. I can hardly see it from here. About three dozen paces should do.”
Heimdall’s face was a study in confusion. “You say you’re going to win—against me—by bringing the target closer?”
“Wake me up when you’ve brought it,” I said, and lay down for another nap.
Ten minutes later, the servants returned, carrying the target. I could see Heimdall’s strike now, the rose-red signature of Madr stamped right in the bull’s-eye. The Aesir and the Vanir all clapped. It was a fairly impressive shot.
“Hawkeye Heimdall wins,” said Frey, another handsome, athletic type all gleaming with silver armour. The others seemed inclined to agree. I guess Frey was too popular for them to contradict him—or maybe it was the runesword balanced suggestively at his hip that made them want to stay friends with him. An elegant piece, that runesword. Even at that early stage I found myself wondering if he would be as popular without it.
Odin turned his one eye upon Your Humble Narrator. “Well?”
“Well—not bad. Birdbrain can shoot,” I said. “But I can beat him.”
“It’s Hawkeye, actually,” said Heimdall, between clenched teeth. “And if you think you’re going to win by standing right next to the target—”
“Now we turn it round,” I said.
Once more, Heimdall looked confused. “But that would—”
“Yes. That’s right,” I said.
Heimdall shrugged and gestured to the two servants, who obediently turned the target around so that the bull’s-eye was on the back.
“Now try to hit the bull’s-eye,” I said.
Heimdall sneered. “That’s impossible.”
“You’re saying you couldn’t?”
“No one could.”
I grinned and summoned the rune Kaen. A fiery rune, a quick rune, a shape-shifting, clever, crooked rune. And instead of shooting it straight at the target, as Heimdall had done, I flicked the rune to one side, send- ing it into a wide curve to double back on itself, ricochet, then strike the bull’s-eye from behind, obliterating Madr in a blaze of violet. A trick shot, but a nice one.
I looked at the Old Man. “Well?” I said.
Odin laughed. “An impossible shot.”
Heimdall snarled. “A trick,” he said.
“Nevertheless, Loki wins.”
The other gods were forced to agree, with varying degrees of grace. Odin clapped me on the back. Thor did too—so hard, in fact, that he nearly knocked me over. Someone poured me a cup of wine, and from the first mouthful I realized that this was one of the few things that made my corporeal Aspect worthwhile.
But Heimdall stayed silent. He left the hall with the dignified walk of a man with a serious case of piles, and I knew I’d made an enemy. Some people would have laughed it off, but not Heimdall. From that day on till the End of the Worlds, nothing would ever make him forget that first humiliation. Not that I wanted to be friends. Friendship is overrated. Who needs friends when you can have the certitudes of hostility? You know where you stand with an enemy. You know he won’t betray you. It’s the ones who claim to be your friends that you need to beware of. Still, that was a lesson I was yet to learn. Then, I was still hopeful. Hopeful that in time I might be able somehow to prove myself, that one day, they might accept me.
Yes, it’s sometimes hard to believe that I was ever that innocent. But I was like a puppy who doesn’t yet know that the people who have adopted him will keep him chained in a kennel all day and feed him nothing but sawdust. I find it takes a little time to learn that kind of lesson. So, until then, remember this: Never trust a friend.
About the author: Joanne Harris (MBE) was born in Barnsley in 1964, of a French mother and an English father. She studied Modern and Mediaeval Languages at Cambridge and was a teacher for fifteen years, during which time she published three novels, including Chocolat (1999), which was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp.
Since then, she has written fourteen more novels, two collections of short stories, and three cookbooks. Her books are now published in more than fifty countries and have won a number of British and international awards. She is an honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and has been a judge for the Whitbread Prize, the Orange Prize, the Desmond Elliott Prize, and the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science. She works from a shed in her garden, and lives with her husband and daughter in a little wood in Yorkshire.
For more on Joanne Harris and her work, you can visit her website here. You can also follow her on Twitter.