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The Wonder-Book of Horses by  James Baldwin
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THE EIGHT-FOOTED SLIPPER

[38]

D
ID you ever hear of the curious riddle which old-fashioned people in the North used to tell one another on Wednesday mornings? It was something like this:

"Who are the two that ride over the rainbow? Three eyes have they together, ten feet, two arms, and a tail. And thus they journey through the world."

You can't guess it, and it will be of no use for you to try. But all those old-fashioned people knew the answer; and everybody repeated the question to everybody else, not as a puzzle nor to gain information, but simply because it was the custom, and therefore the right thing to do. In that respect it was like the briefer and more matter-of-fact riddle which people propound to one another nowadays: "It's a fine morning, isn't it?" But it didn't mean the same. The answer which everybody gave to everybody was this:

[39] "The two who ride over the rainbow are Odin and his steed Sleipnir. Odin has one eye, the horse two; the horse runs on eight feet, Odin has two; two arms has Odin, and the horse has a tail."

A horse with eight feet would of course have many advantages over the commoner kind that have only four. If a heavy load had to be drawn, only think what a wonderful leverage his long legs would give him! If a long journey were to be taken, how nicely he could hold up half of his feet and give them a rest while the other four were steadily jogging along! And then in racing and jumping, what an impetus all those legs, working together, would give him! Many tales are told of his prowess and of the feats which he performed, but I will repeat to you only one—the famous story of his journey to the underworld.

There was great grief in the house of Odin, for word had been brought that Balder, his best-loved son, was dead. Balder, the white, the pure, the good, the fair, had been treacherously slain, and all the world was in mourning. Who now would bring good gifts to men? Who would bless them with smiles and sunlight, as Balder had [40] done? Out by the shore of the sea the people had gathered to perform the last sad rites for the dead hero. Balder's own ship, the Ringhorn, had been drawn up on the beach, and in it were placed all the most precious things that had been his. The deck was piled with cedar-wood, and between the layers of sticks were placed gums and rich spices and fragrant leaves, and the whole pile was covered with fine robes, and a couch was made whereon to lay the body of the dead. Then Balder's horse, Gyller the Golden, was led on board, saddled and bridled as if for a long journey. His arms also were brought—his shield and sword and bow and quiver—and laid by the side of the couch. Finally the hero himself was borne to his last resting-place, and Nanna, his young wife who had died of grief, was laid beside him. The great ship was pushed into the sea and set on fire. Wrapped in flames and hidden by dense clouds of smoke, it drifted far away from the shore.

"Alas! alas! " cried the people, "what will become of us, now that Balder is dead—now that the sunlight is gone out of the world?" And they went to their homes weeping, and sat down in the darkness and cold, and could not be- [41] lieve that aught of joy would ever come to them again.

And other things sorrowed, too. The trees bent their heads, and the leaves upon them fell withered to the ground. The meadows doffed their green summer coats and dressed themselves in sober suits of russet. The birds forgot to sing. The small creatures of the woods hid themselves in the ground or in the hollow trunks of the trees. The cicadas no longer made merry in the groves. The music of the busy world was hushed. Nowhere could be heard the sound of the spindle or the loom, of ax or flail, of the harvesters' song, of the huntsmen's horn, of the warriors' battle-cry; but only the dull thud of the waves beating against the shore, or the wild whistling of the winds among the dead branches of the trees.

In the King's high halls Balder's mother lamented his untimely fate, and his sisters were beside themselves with grief. Odin, with his blue hood pulled down over his face, sat silent in the twilight and listened to the moaning of the sea. He was not only troubled because of the death of his son, but the sadness of the world oppressed him. What if the universal grief should [42] continue and joy never return? Frost and ice and darkness would at length overwhelm the earth, and the race of mankind would perish.

"We must bring lost Balder back to us!" he cried. "He must not stay in the gloomy halls of the under-world. And yet how can we persuade Hela, the pale-faced Queen of that region, to give him up? "

"Hela is deaf to prayers," answered one of his councilors; "and, moreover, she will be glad to keep the bright Balder in order that perchance some joy may be known to the dwellers in her own domains. And yet, mayhap, if some one of your own household shall go down and carry your prayers to her, she will relent and give him up."

"Ah, so she may!" cried the Queen-mother. "But who among his brothers will dare undertake so fearful a journey?"

"I will dare!" cried Hermod, Balder's younger brother. He was only a little fellow, but he was famous all over the world for the quickness of his movements and for his horsemanship. "I will go down to Hela's house with your prayers, if only I may ride Sleipnir, who is both fleet and sure-footed."

[43] Gray Sleipnir was at once led out and saddled with the greatest care; and food and drink were given him, enough for eighteen days. Then Hermod, booted and spurred, sprang upon him and rode fearlessly away along the shadowy highroad that leads toward the land of the stern-faced Hela. Nine days through mists and fogs, nine nights amid darkness and unseen perils, did the good steed gallop steadily onward; and his eight iron hoofs, clattering upon the rocky roadway, roused strange echoes among the barren hills and frowning mountain passes. Nine days and nine nights did bold Hermod sit in the saddle with his face bared to the chilling winds and his heart set firm upon his errand. Many were the sad-eyed travelers whom they overtook, all journeying toward the same goal, but not one did they meet returning. And pale specters flitted in the air above them, and ogres grinned in the darkness, and owls hooted from the clefts of the rock. But none of these things could frighten Sleipnir; for were not the mystic runes of Odin engraved on his teeth? And no terror could make Hermod falter; for was not his errand one of love and mercy?

At length, having passed through a dark and [44] narrow valley where there were many unknown and fearful things, they came out upon a broad plain which is the beginning of the great silent land. A dim yellow light illumined the sky, and the air seemed soft and mild, and a restful peace abode there. But no sound of any kind was heard; even the striking of Sleipnir's hoofs upon the pavement was noiseless; and when Hermod tried to sing, he found that he could not hear his own voice. On the farther side of the plain they carne to a broad river that flowed silently toward the sea. It was the river Gjol, and across it was the long Gjallar Bridge, a narrow roadway roofed with shining gold. Here Sleipnir slacked his pace, and Hermod found that the great silence had been left behind. At the end of the bridge was a gate behind which stood a maiden named Modgud, whose duty it was to take toll of all the travelers who passed that way.

"Who are you," she asked, "who ride so heavily across the frail Gjallar Bridge, and what kind of beast is that which you bestride?"

"I am Hermod, of the house of mighty Odin," was the answer; "and this beast is Sleipnir the Glider, the fleetest and the wisest of all horses."

"Why do you ride so hard, and why are you so [45] wondrous heavy?" asked the maiden. "Never have I seen this golden bridge shake and sag as it did under your weight. Only yesterday five thousand passengers were crowded upon it at once, and yet it trembled not in the least. Surely you are not the kind of man that should travel this road. There is too much color in your face, and too much strength in your arm. Why do you ride into the land of Hela?"

"I am on my way to Hela's halls to find my brother Balder," answered Hermod. "He has but lately passed this way, and I doubt not but that among all the multitudes who have given you toll you remember him."

"Indeed, I do remember him. Two days ago he came, riding his good steed Gyller the Golden, and his sweet-faced wife Nanna was beside him. Never before did such brightness cross this river; never before did beauty such as his pass over into the land of Hela. If you will promise to bring him back this way, I will lift the gate and allow you to ride on, for I see you have nothing to give me for toll."

"I promise," said Hermod. "But which way shall I ride to find Hela's halls?"

"The way lies downward and northward," [46] answered Modgud. "It is not far, and you cannot miss the road. Farewell!"

Hermod gave the word to Sleipnir, and the horse galloped swiftly onward down the steep way that the maiden had pointed out. In a little while they came to the walls of a huge castle that stood gloomy and dark among the hills. On the outside was a deep moat filled with water. The drawbridge was up and the gate was shut. Hermod tried to call to the watchman, but the sound of his voice died away before it left his mouth. He looked around in the hope that he might attract the notice of some one in the towers or on the walls. But there was not a soul in sight. At length he dismounted and gave Sleipnir a good breathing spell, while he measured with his eye the distance to the top of the castle wall. Then he stroked the horse's gray mane, read the runes on his teeth, and whispered them in his ear. At last he carefully tightened the saddle-girths and remounted.

"Good Sleipnir," he said, "you have borne me thus far, and have not failed me. Stand me in stead this one time, I bid you. Let those eight long limbs of yours be wings as well as legs!"

Then, at a touch of the spur, Sleipnir sped [47] with lightning swiftness down the narrow roadway toward the edge of the moat, and in another moment was flying through the air right over the gate and into the courtyard beyond. It was a wonderful leap; but then it was a wonderful horse that made it. No sportsman's trained hunter ever cleared ditch and hedge with half the ease and grace that great Sleipnir cleared the high wall of Hela's castle. Safe within the courtyard, Hermod alighted and tied the horse to an iron post that stood by the side of a fountain. Then, seeing that all the doors were open, he walked boldly in without asking leave of anyone, and made his way to the long banquet-hall where Hela and her guests were feasting. Whom should he see, sitting in the foremost seat at the Queen's right hand, but his brother Balder! The light which shone in Balder's countenance and glittered in his eyes shed a soft radiance over the entire hall, such as its gloomy walls had never seen before; and the faces of the guests were wreathed in smiles, and the Queen herself seemed to have forgotten all her sternness. Hermod, unbidden though he was, was welcomed very kindly, and a seat was given him at the table. All that evening he mingled with the guests in the hall. He talked with his brother, or told wondrous stories in the hearing of the Queen, but not once did he speak of the business upon which he had come.

The next morning, when he thought that Hela was in her pleasantest mood, Hermod asked whether Balder might not ride home with him to his sorrowing mother, whose heart would be broken if he did not return.

"Does she weep for him?" asked the Queen.

"Yes, and not only she, but my father and his counselors, and our brothers and sisters—all the household of Odin weep."

"There are so many such households that, if weeping availed anything, I should soon be deprived of all my subjects. There is no home that does not weep for its loved ones."

"But all mankind weeps for Balder."

"All mankind? Well, if that be true, there is some reason for your request, but not enough."

"All living creatures mourn for him," added Hermod.

"Indeed! But I should weep if you were to take him away from me. Do things that are lifeless also grieve for him?"

"Truly they do. The very rocks shed tears, as [49] do also the mountains and the clouds. There is nothing that does not weep."

"Do you know that this is true? Will you swear it?" asked the Queen, earnestly.

Hermod hesitated. "I am quite sure that it is true," he finally answered. "But, not having seen everything, I cannot now make oath to it."

"I will tell you what I will do," said Hela. "Do you return to your home, and let Odin send into all the earth and find out for a truth whether everything really weeps for Balder. If he shall find that this is the case, then come to me again, and I will give your brother up. But if a single thing shall refuse to shed tears, then Balder shall stay with me."

Hermod was not altogether pleased with this answer, but he knew that it was useless to plead any further with the Queen, and so he took leave of her, and made ready to return. Balder took from his finger a precious golden ring, and gave it to him to carry to Odin as a keepsake; and Nanna sent a kerchief of green and some flowers to her mother. Then Hermod mounted good Sleipnir again and rode back, along the fearful way, out of the land of Hela, and came on the tenth day to Odin's palace.

[50] There was, of course, still greater grief in the King's household when it was seen that Hermod returned alone. But when he made known the conditions on which Hela would give Balder back to them, all were glad, for they felt sure that, at the worst, it would be but a few months until they should see his bright face again.

And so messengers were sent into all the world, praying that everything should weep for white Balder. And everything did weep—men and beasts and birds, trees and plants, rivers and mountains, sticks and stones, and all metals. At the end of a year the messengers returned, very glad to report the result. But just before reaching Odin's halls they passed the mouth of a cavern wherein sat a toothless old hag named Thok. They asked her kindly to weep for Balder. She shook her head, and mumbled between curses:

"Bah! Why should such as I weep? Little good did he ever do me; little good will I do him. Go and tell him to stay where he is."

The joy of the messengers was turned to sadness, and with bowed heads they went up the hill whereon Odin's palace stood, and told the whole story.

When kind Hela heard, however, that not any- [51] thing save the wicked hag had refused to weep for Balder, she was moved to be better than her word. For she consented that Balder, for six months in every twelve, might gladden the earth with his presence. But during the other six she would keep him in her own halls. And this is why the sun shines, and the trees are green, and the birds sing, and men rejoice from April to October, for that is the season of Balder's stay with them; but during the other months the sun seldom shows his face, and all things are silent and sad, because Balder has gone back to the under-world.


But we must not forget the good steed Sleipnir. Although he never made another journey to the under-world, there was scarcely any part of the earth to which his long legs did not sometimes carry him; and especially in the far North he was a familiar figure long after Odin had gone from the earth.

In some parts of Sweden the old horse had, until quite recently, a troublesome habit of running through the harvest fields and making sad tangles of the standing grain. But by and by the cunning farmers learned a trick that saved [52] them from all further trouble. As soon as the oats or barley was tall enough they would cut and tie up a fair sheaf of it, and lay it high up on a fence where the frolicsome old fellow would be sure to see it before getting into the field.

"Ah! how kind the dear farmer is to provide this sheaf of sweet barley for me," Sleipnir would say to himself. "I really cannot have the heart to tangle his grain." And then he would gallop away to the next farm. Wednesday night was—and still is, for all I know—his favorite time for visiting the fields; for Wednesday, as you know, is Odin's day. And that, I suppose, is the reason why people always selected Wednesday as the best time in the week for puzzling one another with the question:


"Who are the two that ride over the rainbow?"


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