It came to me in a whisper from an Alf. I was making my offerings to the landwights, to the alfs and wights of the grove and stream when an Alf who usually dreamed in a throne like old tree that squatted atop a boulder the stream had dug a deep path around whispered to me.
“If you sought knowledge, you should return tomorrow. There is a salmon you might catch who holds all you would know, and more beyond”
I was surprised and froze at the whisper. The Alf had always seemed somewhat neutral. The wights of the lands and waters had grown quite friendly with repeated offerings and gatherings, but the old Alf seemed to watch with the sort of aloof regard that reminded you not all intelligences worked at all the way that mortals did, nor judged by any standards we might ken. The salmon of knowledge was a thing I had long known about from the old tales. Sought by many, and caught by Fionn mac Cumhaill, it had fallen into the well of knowledge and knew all things. Legend has it that the bard Finnegas sought it, but it was caught by Fionn who cooked it for him. Burning his fingers on the fish removing it from the fire, he sucked the juice of the fish from his fingers, and thus when his finger was in his mouth, he would share the wisdom of the fish, yet the bard who consumed the rest received nothing, for it was given fully to that person who first tasted it. Well, I learned from the lore and would not be sharing the catching or cooking of it, for I would have that knowledge that was implied by the alf as winnable from the salmon.
The next day was bright and fair, I worked nights so the day was mine anyway. The morning sunshine was burning off the fog over the shaded stream and the laughter of the private school girls on their way to the high school in their kilts and blazers was a fine mix with the bird song of the poor daft bastards who believed the sun in the sky, not the patches of snow on the ground about spring being in the air.
I was no fisherman by choice, save by grenade when field expedient food was required, but my father and grandfather had drilled it into me, and my own daughters took to it like it was somehow in the blood, just sleeping utterly in myself. I had a flask of fishing coffee (at least one third Lambs Navy rum by volume, and strong enough to raise the dead), and enough sandwiches to keep me going all day, assuming my fishing went as badly as my fishing generally went (save when using hand grenades, which is not permitted for civilians and not acknowledges as practiced by the military).
My lure was the best money could buy, and yet the salmon that seemed to flash jauntily past every few minutes did no more than brush the line itself as it taunted me in its repeated passes. I took a splash of my coffee and poured it into the swift moving stream and asked the wights of the stream to favour my efforts. The salmon shot through the dark cloud of my coffee in the water like a torpedo on final acquisition, then pivoted faster than a starling in flight to pass through the could a second time, jaws agape to take the wisps of rum soaked coffee.
“Well, the little bugger might be wise after all. Given the choice between fish eggs and rum, I would go for the rum too” I muttered.
Reeling in, I dipped my lure in my coffee and cast over the deepest part of the hollow, where the sunlight caused it to flash like gold as it arced towards the deep shadows over the water. The salmon rose like a hurled spear and took the bait whole in his mouth so strongly I was almost pulled into the water by the force as my reel howled as the line spooled out.
I weigh in at close to three hundred pounds, and routinely toss around skids and barrels four to five hundred without a second thought, so my surprise when I had to brace my legs hard against the alf’s boulder and lean back to retain my rod was justified. This was a damned salmon not a swordfish or a shark!
My rod was far heavier than was needed for local fishing, being intended for coastal fishing and bigger prey, but I swear I had to let the salmon make way several times lest I snap the rod in two. We battled for over an hour, myself swearing like the soldier I was, and the salmon repeatedly leaping into the air about head height to show his knife silver form in the sparkling sunlight to taunt me.
Soon a few people had stopped at the walkway above to watch the battle, an old man, and a trio of high school girls. I think my ravings were amusing to them, as the girls were giggling, and the old man’s rasping laugh was the counter point of an actual fisherman watching what was clearly the saddest excuse for an attempt he had yet seen.
I was about ready to keel over, my hands no longer had feeling enough to work the reel, they were fatigue clumsy like seal flippers, and my back was screaming in pain as my chest heaved like a blacksmith bellows from the effort no salmon should be able to draw from me, I felt like I had a sea lion on the hook not a salmon, yet every flash of its jumping form showed it not much longer than a sword, and lean for it. I couldn’t understand at all when it turned and ran directly towards the shore, my line going slack so fast I struggled to reel it in without fouling.
I pulled the salmon from the stream with a joyful cry and it flashed in the sunlight like burnished silver before it flared bright as flame and my arms suddenly sagged as I held suddenly not a salmon, but a dripping wet, and fully naked pale skinned man.
I cried out and jumped back in shock, my hands dropping the reel and going for the long heavy knife at my belt in reflexive response to the threat that radiated off this man like heat off a burning tank.
The girls cried out “My god!”
To which he replied “Absolutely!”
The old man croaked out in surprise “You’re a man!”
To which the apparition glanced slowly down his torso to below and whistled in appreciation “I seem almost overqualified, don’t I?”
The details of his features registered, he looked like an actor made popular in recent Marvel comic movies, but when he turned to flash a fox bright grin at me, my eyes caught his and for a second I saw…….him bound screaming to a rock, the never rotting flesh of his own sons binding him, the agony of their death howling through his skin in never dulling horror, even as his weeping wife struggled to catch the dripping venom from the serpent bound over his eyes…….him laughing as he fastened a bridal veil on a red bearded giant, whispering how he looks easily as pretty as Sif did in it….him wandering with the same red bearded man and a tall one eyed old man in deep blue cloak through hall after hall, in mortal lands and beyond, through ages only some of which I recognized. I knew suddenly who it was, the salmon I had caught.
“Loki” I whispered.
“In the flesh!” He laughed
His voice lost all humour, and he placed a finger on the tip of my blade and looked me right in the eye and asked lightly.
“Am I going to have to kill for a cup of that coffee, or did my blood brother remember to teach you something of hospitality before setting you free in the world like an actual grown up?”
Sheathing my blade was reflex, because my brain was not up to thought at that point. I filled my cup full from the thermos, and was about to warn him that it was hot, when the foolishness of telling the god of fire about the risks of burning himself stopped my tongue from further foolishness. I handed it to him and he drained it in a long pull, unselfconsciously preening as the three girls descended in a giggling knot, cellphone camera’s out to surround him.
Pouring the last splash out he made a bow that would have put a dancer to shame and intoned regally
“For Har, as the cup will not be brought to me that is not also brought to him”
He looked over his shoulder at me as he strolled happily towards the school girls “He can find his own fangirls though, there are limits to even hospitality”
I watched in something between awe and horror as he chatted with the girls, and soon was dressed in the plaid kilt of one girl who had had leggings concealed underneath it, and the blouse of another who had a T shirt from gym strip as back up. The kilt and blouse were both too small on him, and he left it half buttoned like the cover of a bad bodice ripping romance novel as he posed for picture after picture with the girls, letting them claim kisses as boldness and shyness both flared in them as they went full fangirl on what they thought was a man who played a god, and was in fact a god who played a man (who played a god, because only for Laufey’s son does that make sense).
He sent them off to school finally with a flirtatious swat on their bottoms, and ridiculously overdone blown kisses, which left them blushing and giggling in a star struck herd. He struck a pose right out of a pirate movie from the forties for their final look back, before turning to the old man and telling him sternly “Let this be a lesson for you, when you go fishing, you had best be careful lest something far darker than you be fishing as well. In your case, I would suggest chocolates and wine, as while it might not stop Ran from taking you, it might remind her the word has more than one meaning”
The old man, bowed and bolted with the look of a man who sees the cage to the tiger enclosure opening and him still uneaten, and would be through it before second thoughts were had about letting him go. That left me sitting by my fire, not with the salmon of knowledge, but with Loki, Laufey’s son, a god of my folk, but not one who I had enough relationship with to be in any sense protected.
He held out his cup, and I filled it again. He sat by the fire and gestured for me to join him. I took a hit directly off the thermos, as I really needed it at that point.
“So, you sought the Salmon of Knowledge, and caught myself, more the Salmon of Irony if the truth be told, but I have all that pretty, and not so pretty knowledge you wanted. Except you wanted it for free, and my doesn’t that sound like a good idea!”
He was the Salmon of Irony, the last phrase rang in my bones like a toning bell. I had sought knowledge unearned, as if it could be had without price. If there is no price in the earning, the cost paid in the end is always a thousand fold more terrible. Ask Frey the price of shorting a single gold piece for the price of a blade, it cost the Vanir the war, and himself his freedom. Ask our ancestors the price of trading their freedom for the promise of salvation for free, a thousand years of hatred, oppression, and ignorance we were still trying to crawl out from under.
His voice continued almost casually
“I mean my brother simply went to the well and got some, then to a tree for some more, and dropped by for a quick pint for inspiration to cover what hadn’t been thought of yet, so I guess you are following in his footsteps wanting something for nothing”
I burned with the shame of it, for I knew the tales he spoke of. Odin traded his eye for a sip from the well of wyrd, not to drink deep, but only for a sip did he trade half of all he would ever see. Upon the world tree Yggdrasil did he hang himself by the neck and impale himself with his own spear. Nine days and nights he hung, sacrificed himself to himself to follow the tree where it led to all the worlds above, and to all the worlds below, through the lands of the living and the dead, through the primal fire and ice and roaring gap of nothingness to gain the knowledge of the runes. To Gunlodd the giantess did he go in the lands of his enemies, win past them with guile and seduce her sweetly that he might steal from the giants the mead of poetry, for himself yes, but to share with us as well. In each case, he paid the price demanded to take what was needful. No art of his did he use to escape the price, nor to heal its harm. Knowledge is valued based on the price paid and wielded with the wisdom found in its earning. To have knowledge unearned is to have a weapon you have not the wisdom to wield, there is no chance it will serve you well, and every chance you will destroy what you would build or preserve with its use. I was a fool of epic proportions.
I handed over two of my sandwiches and set to chewing the other ones myself as we sat in companionable silence.
“Half a loaf, and half filled cup, full friend found” Loki quoted happily
“Although the egg salad is nicer than just the bread, and the coffee is spot on m’boy. So now that you are a full friend found, what wisdom shall I grant you, what ancient and forbidden knowledge can I give to you to make your mortal existence just a little more interesting before you keel over and find out what’s really next”
I remembered a quote from Hellenic lore, but it holds true for most of our saga’s as well, even where my own lord is concerned (or especially where the Victory Father is concerned, his gifts have bad records).
“Whom the gods would destroy, they first grant wishes” I muttered
A booming laugh sounded in the glen, and a murder of watching crows and ravens answered in raucous chorus as Loki turned to me and raised one elegant eyebrow.
“Not as completely stupid as you look are you? I begin to see why he bothered with you, dimly anyway. Well boy, you caught me, what would you like from me. All the knowledge of the gods, of the Jottuns, of the living and the dead, of what was and what will be are mine to know, even if they shouldn’t be. What would you have of me?”
As he spoke, the shadows of the glen drew around us, and he shone in the sunlight as the only thing not ringed in shadow, even the fire seemed to flicker in the gathering gloom until only he was clear and the rest of the world only dimly perceived.
“I ask you accept the hospitality of my fire, accept this offering of coffee and sandwiches, and my praise for the gift of your company this day. This I ask and no more.”
His eyes were cold and flat like a shark’s. I stared into them and felt myself being weighed and measured. No power I had, no knowledge, no weapon, no art would turn his will aside, whatever it was. My heart hammered in my chest, but I allowed myself no fear, only the resolution to face what came, as I had brought this upon myself by my choice and would not run from its consequences.
“Done!” He grinned, and I was free. His eyes now alight with mischief, the earlier glimpse of his true depth hidden beneath the easy japes of the fool.
Leaping nimbly to his feet, he dove into the stream, ignoring it was in no sense deep enough for a man to dive at that point, and broke the water as a silver salmon to knife upstream with a speed a torpedo would envy.
I realized he had taken the clothes with him when he transformed. He could take clothes with him when he changed shape, which means he appeared here stark naked because he chose to. I burst out laughing, somehow, it seemed to be almost no surprise.
I would bring another offering to this alf. He may have given me the opportunity to destroy myself, but he also gave me the chance to learn, even this late. Knowledge must be earned if it is to be owned, that which you have for free owns you, for you did not earn the ability to wield it, nor to know its consequences. I knew little, yet what I had, I earned.