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Wayland Smith

Tobias Hill

Once there was a lord, young, strong and proud.

Among his own kind his name was Weland, and the dwarves in the hills called him Volund, but to our people - yours and mine - he was Wayland. So that is what I will call him.

Wayland’s people were the elves. Their skins were dark as the blackest ice. Their hearts were big and their lives were long, full of many loves and losses. And Wayland lived longest of any of them, and loved and lost most of all.

In his life Wayland had three loves. The first was hunting. The second was making. The last was for a woman with the wings of a swan.

All elves took joy in the hunt. In summer they rode out through the woods. In winter they ran on skis of bone. All the elves were skilled with horse and skis, but Wayland was most skilled of all. With his brothers he would go to hunt. They followed the tracks of wolves and elk. They fought with the white bears of the North. Their arrows were bright as the fish in the sea, and their hawks plucked a feast of birds from the sky.

All the elves delighted in song, but the songs that lifted Wayland’s heart were those of the anvil and the forge. He hunted for the secrets of making. He left his brothers and went alone to speak with the dwarves under the hills. For three years he lived with them, learning the secrets of their crafts.

He learned to make magical things.

He carved bells out of sea-ice that would not melt until they rang.

He cut skis out of whalebone on which a man might skate the waves.

He made armour of herring scales, as light as silk and strong as iron.

He wove a drinking horn of leaves, that brimmed with ale at a word.

He forged horseshoes that made no sound, and a sword that would never break.

In all this he found happiness.

When he had learned all the arts of the dwarves, he left to make himself a home. He built a hall in the Valley of Wolves, beside the Lake of Wolves.

One morning he went out to hunt and saw a woman by the lake. He hid among the trees to watch. The woman was white as Wayland was dark, and she had wings like a swan.

He watched her take off her wings and go into the lake to bathe. She moved out through the elk-sedge, which is so sharp it cuts the flesh. But the swan-woman moved through the blades of sedge as if they were as soft as meadow grass.

Wayland crept down to the lake’s edge and picked up the swan-woman’s wings.

‘Give me back my wings,’ the swan-woman said, but Wayland would not. ‘First tell me your name.’

‘Alwit,’ the swan-woman said. ‘Now give me back my wings.’ But Wayland could not. Alwit was so beautiful that he shook from head to foot.

‘Stay with me for seven years. Then I will give you back your wings.’

‘Promise?’ Alwit said, and Wayland promised, and Alwit wound her white arms around his neck.

So they lived as man and wife, beside the Lake of Wolves. At first, for all his promises, Wayland did not mean to give back Alwit’s wings. Then a tenderness grew in him. He came to love Alwit, and Alwit him.

When the seven years had passed she did not ask him for her wings. But in their eighth year she began to yearn for the woods and the skies. Flight was in Alwit’s blood, and freedom was in her hollow bones.

One day, in their ninth year, Wayland woke to find her gone. Beside him lay her gold arm-ring. Then he knew she had flown away. His heart broke with the loss of her.

Below his hall, above the lake, Wayland built himself a forge. Day and night he worked there, with Alwit’s arm-ring on his wrist.

From rich jewels rimmed with red gold he forged seven hundred arm-rings. Each was as fine as Alwit’s own. There was one for each month she was gone.

He kept the seven hundred rings on a rope he wove from sealskin. He tied the rope up with a knot the elves used on their ships at sea. And when each ring was finished, he sat alone and counted them, and thought of nothing but Alwit.

This was how he waited for his woman to come back to him.

Wayland was not alone in the world. Word got out of the elven smith who lived beside the Lake of Wolves. His swords and jewels were spoken of by all the peoples of the North. Kings and queens desired his work.

One of these was King Niduth, a man whose heart was bad with greed, like a fruit that rots from the inside.

One night Wayland went out to hunt, and Niduth came down with his men, into the Valley of Wolves. The men were all in mail, and their shields shone in the light of the moon. They leapt down from the horses, and crept into the hall by the gable-end.

They saw the horns and bells and swords, and the knotted rope of rings. Niduth was a cunning man. He studied the workings of the knot. He undid it, took off one ring, and tied the sea-knot up again. He thought if he stole just one ring the elf would never note its loss.

Wayland came back, tired from hunting. He made a fire to cook his meal. Around the hall the firelight shone on ironwork and polished jewels. It ran along the golden rings, and Wayland knew that one was gone.

On the furs beside the fire he laid out the rope of rings. He saw the sea-knot still in place. Few but the elves knew that knot, though Wayland had taught it to Alwit in their years together.

It came to him that Alwit had come to the hall, and finding him gone, had taken her ring as a sign that she had been and might return.

He sat, the rope across his knees, and waited for his swan-woman. The missing ring gave him a hope - a mad hope, so that for four days he did not sleep. But on the fifth night he grew deadly tired, and he lay back on the furs.

All that time, as Wayland waited, Niduth sat on his cold throne. The arm-ring was on him. He marvelled at the art of it, but soon his happiness soured. He thought of the great rope of rings, and all the rest of Wayland’s work, that gave delight to other men.

‘How much better it would be, if no one else could ever have the beautiful things Wayland makes!’ he said; and a thought crept into him.

‘If I can steal the smith’s gold, then I can steal the smith himself.’

Niduth went back to the Lake of Wolves. There was Wayland, deep in sleep, clinging to his dreams of Alwit.

Through the hall, like a wolf, Niduth came behind his men. Careful as hunters are, they raised up the sealskin rope. One by one they took the rings. When he had the last of them, Niduth tied the rope again, roundabout Wayland’s limbs, and swaddled him in furs. The men laid him on his own horse, shod with the shoes that made no sound, and while Wayland still slept they led him to Niduth’s hall, where he was bound in chains.

‘Who are you,’ Wayland said, ‘To chain me?’ - and his words rang out loud, so that the men drew back from him. Fear gave Wayland strength, and anger made tall.

‘I am Niduth, king of men.’

‘I am Wayland, lord of elves,’ Wayland said, but Niduth laughed.

‘Now you are mine, and lord of nothing! I have stolen your seven hundred rings, and I have stolen you. All that you are and make is mine.’

Next to Niduth sat his queen. Niduth was a cunning man, but his queen was wise. She knew the ways of the elves. She was versed in magic. She saw that it was anger which made Wayland stand tall. She whispered all this to her king.

‘This elf is young and strong, and we have angered him. Chains will not hold him long, for the elves know magic. To make him ours we must hurt him. Cut the strings of his knees, quickly, and then he will not stand so proud. Cut the strings of his ankles, and the magic will bleed out of him. Starve him, and his strength will fail him. Find an island for his prison - then he will never escape us.’

Niduth saw that his queen was right. Quickly he took Wayland’s sword and cut the strings at his knees and ankles. When the sinews of Wayland’s knees were split he could no longer stand, and when the tendons at his ankles broke he fell to the ground, and the magic bled out of him.

That was how Wayland was undone. Just as Wayland made bells from ice and mail from the skins of fish, so Niduth made something new of him. He would never ride with his brothers again, or run over the snow on skis of bone.

They bound his wounds to make him live and sat him in a ship. They rowed until the shore behind them seemed about to sink away. They landed at an island there, where nothing lived except the birds.

They built a forge. They stocked the forge with wood and sea-coal, jewels and gold. They left Wayland meat and drink, enough to last a man a day. Then they carried Wayland up, and laid him down, and rowed away.

All night Wayland lay there, under the stars with the forge beside him. He groaned in anguish and pain. Nothing heard him but the birds.

He did not grieve for the things that Niduth had stolen from him. The bells of ice and the horns of leaves - those treasures he could make again. The anguish that he felt was for the life that he had lost. He knew that he would never see his home or his brothers again. And worst of all was Alwit. If she ever came back for him - to live with him, as he had dreamed - then she would find the fire cold, and him gone, and no word of him.

Tears filled his eyes then, and he cursed Niduth with all his heart. He felt for the strength of his youth, and wept to know that it had left him.

Morning came. Wayland crawled to the island’s peak. Niduth owned all he saw, land and sea, as the king owned him. Broken as his body was, there was no escape for Wayland.

Each day the king’s men came. With them they carried meat and mead - but if they found no jewelled treasures, freshly forged for their king, then they left Wayland nothing. And sometimes no one came at all, for King Niduth warred with other men, wanting land from them, and sometimes he forgot his smith, imprisoned out at sea.

Then Wayland would watch the birds, and the fish below the rocks, and he would grind his teeth, biting the flesh of his hands just to taste the sweet and salt of meat.

Seven years Wayland worked, making all that Niduth desired. Day and night he ran the forge, crafting treasures, lovely things. But he took no joy in them, because he worked for Niduth’s pleasure.

Only two things did he have which Niduth never stole from him. One was his love for his swan-woman. The other was his anger.

Every day, at the forge, he brooded on the wrongs done to him. Every night, in his sleep, he dreamed of revenge on the king. And then at last the day came when he woke and saw the manner of his vengeance.

Out of fishbones Wayland made a trap, the kind that hunters weave. With the trap he caught a young bird. He ate the bird and from its bones he wove himself a second trap.

Just as Wayland had caught Alwit, so now he caught the birds. He ate their meat and grew stronger. He used their bones for traps and kept their feathers for himself - the white plumes of the snow-geese and the pinions of the sea-hawks. Every night he worked with them, fashioning and forging them into a pair of giant wings.

From the rocks he made himself a blade. He chiselled it and knapped it and hid it with his great forged wings. Then he waited for his chance.

Now a day came when Niduth’s sons sailed out to Wayland’s rock. One prince was fair and one was dark, but both were born with their father’s heart. The greed in them was like a hurt which never let them rest or sleep.

Wayland hid. From the trees he watched the boys race to the forge. All around it treasures lay, fresh and shining from the flame. Just as their father had done, so the princes stole the hoard, filling their cloaks with gold, bickering over jewels.

Then Wayland crawled out of the trees. Low and silent he came, catching the princes unawares. Quickly Wayland struck them down, and killed them with his stone blade.

He dug a grave behind the forge and buried the bodies there. He took their heads and lit the forge. He carved trinkets from their teeth. He made a brooch out of their hair. And he dipped their skulls in silver, and fashioned them into drinking cups.

The next day Niduth’s men came. They found the jewels Wayland had made, all fresh and shining by the forge, and they took them back to please their king. Niduth took much delight in them, and wore the trinkets and the brooch; and late into the night he drank from the silver cups.

Soon enough, Niduth grew worried for the sons he loved. He sent out many riders, but no word of the boys came back to his hall by the sea.

‘The elves are wise,’ the queen said. ‘There is that smith who works for us. Go and ask Wayland what he knows.’

So it was that Wayland saw Niduth, coming to him at last, across the sea. He knew then that his revenge was done. He put on his mantle of wings, and as Niduth came up to the forge, Wayland leapt into the sky.

‘Who are you,’ Wayland cried, ‘To chain me?’

‘I am Niduth, king of men.’

‘I am Wayland, lord of elves,’ Wayland said, and Niduth this time did not laugh.

‘Where are my sons, my only sons?’

‘Their bodies lie under your forge. Their teeth are the trinkets that you wear. Their skulls are the cups from which you drink,’ Wayland said, and Niduth wept.

‘My heart is my worst enemy! My greed has lost me those I loved. My sons are cut down before their prime, as you were cut down in yours. Smith, you have had your revenge. I beg you, take your freedom. Be gone. Leave me to my grief.’

Then Wayland flew away. He beat a path up through the sky, beyond the fire-heat of the forge, beyond the reach of men, to find his love, his swan-woman, in the free ways of the sky.

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