Part 2 – A Tale Of The Black Fox

Far later, after the meal had been eaten and the young men had left, Olgrim was still troubled by the strange apparition.  He let the embers on the fire go to ash and began to drift to sleep.  There was no scraping of limb against his roof this night.  Only a faint glimmer of radiance from the waxing, high moon crept along the walls and floor.  Huddled beneath three layers of fur, Olgrim entertained his mind by cycling variations of herbs, berries and flowers that could be added to his latest batch of honey wine.

He was jarred from dozing by a breezy, frigid clatter.  The shutters were cast open as a wind – icy and moist with a hint of coming hail – whirled in and suddenly flared the dying coals anew.  Olgrim sat bolt upright and his fingers automatically wrapped around the cold oak handle of his axe.  Then another breeze swept through the room and the longhouse door was cast wide open.

Silhouetted in the doorway by the radiance of the moon, against the sharp backdrop of black branches and glimmering white icicles, stood a figure wrapped in a stygian cloak.

With a swaggering nonchalance the elfin phantom walked into the orange halo of the rekindled fire and shut the door behind him.  Hands the color of moonlit snow poked from beneath sagging sleeves.  Soft footfalls pattered across the floor as the stranger wordlessly moved towards the window.

Olgrim picked himself up from his straw bed and backed against the nearby wall.

“Stranger, who are you?”

A quick wave of a slender, almost feminine hand shushed the brewer – who had managed to raise his axe so that the blade caught up an aurora of orange and red.  The cloaked figure closed the shutters and turned around to face Olgrim.

“Answer me!”  Olgrim glared at the intruder, the seeming indifference in its stride doused his normal armful swiftness.  The brewer’s eye followed the icy tracks that led from his doorway to where the figure now stood.   Each damp frosted splotch looked less like a sandal mark and slightly more akin to the print of a large four toed, paw.

“You…”  Olgrim’s accusation rasped out as he narrowed his eyes.  “What are you, beast?”

The specter pulled away its hood.  His face was not a monstrous visage or skull-like grimace; it was fine boned with small, close eyes and a pointy, drawn jaw and nose.  Thin, white shoulder-length hair hung down in loosely bound locks but there was no sign of wizening or weather-ruin in the man’s complexion.

“Me?”  The man replied dramatically.  “Who else would it be?  Did you think you had run me off?”

“Who by Odin are you?  And how dare you break into my house!”

“Ah… funny you should mention that name.”  The figure now knelt low, cloak folds pooling like abyssal rivulets.  He poked the embers until low crests of blue and purple rose up.  A pale hand waved slowly above the quiet kettle and the man in black sniffed the vapors with an expression of dreamy longing.

Olgrim shook his head, assuming he would awaken or perhaps the man would simply vanish.  But he was awake and the intruder still sat before his kettle, absently stirring the long handle of the spoon.

“Feel fortunate you know less of the ways of The Terrible One than do I.  And what of hospitality?  A stranger needing shelter on this deadly cold night is not welcome beneath your roof?”

“This house is only for the sons of men; not barging witches and night-walkers.”  His axe had unconsciously lowered; there was no sense of threat from this interloper.  “If you ask for shelter and a morning meal then again I say, who or what are you, stranger?  Are you some poison elf?”

“No elf am I, Brewer.  And I will not stay until day.  But my name you can guess.  You would know me by many titles: Balder’s Bane, The Yew Man or Father of the World-Eater.”

“Ahhh…” Olgrim’s eyes widened and his mouth went slack.  “Deceiver among gods!”  Olgrim spat on the floor.  “Why do you haunt my door?  What cursed vision brings you to me?”

Loki grinned and laughed through clenched teeth, his eyes fixed on Olgrim.  “Do not believe all that the skalds sing, Brewer.  I am no more wretched than any other who sits in The Feasting Hall.”  He snorted. “Our intrigues are not the child’s tales that men relay.  I am among the Aesir and now gift you with my company.  This is no vision.  I stand before you in flesh!“

“What do you want from me then?”  Olgrim plopped down cross-legged on a straw mat, opposite Loki.  His axe remained across his knees.

“You drive the blade straight, Brewer.  You don’t wilt in awe of my presence.  Impressive.  I tell you why I’ve come.  Because I travel the land searching for the Mead-man of the greatest skill to afford him great renown.”

“And you come to me?  As an animal?  Why all the games?  Or can you not help but make fools of those who cross your path?”

“I come to you.  And I believe you are the worthy one.  If I announce my contest and ply my needs to the world…  Every mead-stirrer and half borne horse-lover’s son would appear with a bid and his homemade piss water.  And so would the enemies of the great hall come from their icy peaks and dank caves, come to curse the mead that is to be made.  So I walk in secret to make my choice.”

Olgrim raised one bushy eyebrow with suspicion.  “And you come to me at last?”  He nudged a smoldering pine log with his bare toe.

“No, I come to you as the best.  I decided after tasting your mead that you are the brewer I need.”

“Here.”  Without a sign of movement a wan, long hand thrust something at Olgrim from across the fire-pit.  Oddly corpse-like fingers held a drinking horn whiter than any Olgrim had ever seen; it bore no flecks of black and was free of even the slightest grain or striation.  In the rolling red shadows a lustrous and slightly effervescent draught of aromatic liquid gold could be seen shimmering within the horn.  “This is why I come to you.”

“Is that my mead you stole?”

“No… no…”  Loki again let out a hissing laugh.

‘I was simply sampling your brew.  To make sure you are the man I seek.  This… This is a recipe all my own.  Taste it, Master Brewer.  Tell me, what do you think?”

Olgrim reached over the low flames and touched the tepid curve of the horn, then jerked away his hand.  He reached out again, fingers reluctantly brushing the smooth vessel.

“What do you fear, Brew Master?  It will surpass your own creations?  That I poison you?  Take it of your own free will.  If I wanted you harmed I would only have to will it and wolves and ravens would be at your door…”

Finally Olgrim clasped the vessel – soothing as if the wine inside had been long mulled – and brought it to his nose.  The aroma was thick and steamy, vaguely mineral in nature and hinting at spring blooms and bursts of spicy fruit from far away lands.

“Taste it, Brewer.  Advise me as an expert.  It is not often a Sky-God beckons counsel with the mortal world.”

Olgrim hesitated then took a small sip of the honey liqueur.  It poured down his throat: warming, bursting with a cycle of flavors from earthy iron to the sharp foreign coriander.  Predominant beneath all were shots of flower and luxurious swaths of rich, syrup-like sweetness.  Without hesitation Olgrim gulped down the full horn its very bottom.  He exhaled and shook his head – allowing the warmth of the brew to pour out from his gut and into his limbs.  His head swam slightly; a dreamy euphoria had been stoked in the north-man’s heart.

Loki smiled broadly and took the horn from the mortal’s slackening hand.  “Is it… acceptable?”

“It is…  It is…”

“A drink fit for the gods?”

“Aye…”  Olgrim focused his shaky vision through the thinning narcotic veil.  “It is a grand mead.  The best I’ve tasted.  But do you come just to boast of your mastery?”

“Nay, brewer.  I come to offer you a gift and ask of you, aid.”

Suddenly Olgrim’s head snapped clear.  In detail he recounted the tales of the skalds; he remembered each of Loki’s fell deeds and dubious trespasses.  “What is that you ask of me?  And why bring me a gift?”

Loki answered.  “Is it not obvious?  You are the master mead brewer of the land.  You see, I have been tasked by Him,” the trickster rolled his eyes and raised his palms up in derisive piety.  “To create a mead fit for a mighty Thing in the feast hall.  And I need the help of a master smith of the bee’s gold.”

“You ask me to brew a drink for the All Father’s Table?”

“I ask your assistance on the recipe and the gathering of ingredients.  Some of the rarer bits are beyond my reach.”

“But what can a man acquire that the gods can not?”

“Despite our cloaks of sky and fists strong as ancient trees, we are more like you than we care to know.  Even the mightiest among us can find our boots bound with thorns on certain trails.”

“So there are things I can know that a god can not?”

“Do you not remember your skald tales, mortal?  It was old Vala who spoke the words to Odin himself, ‘all ye holy kindred’.  For we and you are kindred in spirit.  Does not Odin claim the strongest warriors among men for his personal guard?  Did not his wife wager with men and their wives for clannish favor?”

“I see…”  Olgrim slowly nodded his head, grasping the reality of his strange visitation.  He realized that he was shivering; he was without a shirt and his blankets had gone to the floor when he had arisen to confront the intruder.  And now the shock of the invasion and the infusion of the honey’s soothing warmth were leeched away by the winter air.

“What do you say brewer?  Need you a day to think on this proposal?”

Olgrim shivered slightly and pulled the houndstooth sheets across his shoulders.  “What is it that you need me to get for you?”

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