Dwarf’s Ransom (21,814 words) by LokiOfSassgaard
Fandom: Thor (Comics), Thor (Movies), Norse Marvel
Rating: Teen And Up Audiences
Warnings: Graphic Depictions Of Violence
Relationships: Loki & Odin (Marvel)
Characters: Odin (Marvel), Original Male Character(s), Old Loki
Summary: When his brothers go missing, a young dwarf is sent out to find them. Instead of his brothers, he finds a Jötunn vagabond and a young king whose reputation is known across the realms.
Somehow, his day only gets worse from there.
The weather was typical for the realm; wet, windy, and blisteringly cold. The waters where the three unnamed rivers converged to form Silver River roiled and frothed, threatening to drown any who dared travel by boat that day. Or indeed, any other day, for a calm day on Niðavellir was rare. A day with sunshine was completely unheard of.
Jari had travelled for weeks, taking the underways for most of his journey, but those underways all stopped just east of Dragon’s Pass where Silver River turned back around in its course to empty into the sea. For the last week of his journey, Jari travelled above ground on worn paths, taking shelter in whatever small caves or dens he could find along the river, until finally he came upon the first sights of the city ahead. He was soaked through to the bone, weary, and only halfway through his quest. His pack was nearing empty, but he would finally have the opportunity to resupply after days of careful rationing. Only barely able to muster up the spirits to carry on, Jari followed the path of the river to the wide bridge that spanned the first of the three unnamed rivers. Without the great clock’s chimes to mark the hour, Jari could not tell the time of day, beyond that it was day, but still he trudged on. Four Rivers was where he had been sent, and it was Four Rivers that lay ahead of him.
Four Rivers was an unusual city for the dwarven realm. It sat close to the gate leading to Midgard, and had been largely built by the men of that realm. As Jari walked into the city, he slowed his pace to marvel up at the hugeness of everything around him. Rather than being dug into a mountain, it towered above the ground, built to the comfort of the men who came to the realm, rather than the dwarfs who lived there. Horses the size of gryphons were rode through the streets, their riders oblivious to anyone else on the road. The men themselves were bigger than Jari had ever expected them to be, twice as big as any dwarf in every way. The houses they built were all of wood, with tall, pointed roofs that were covered with grass and thatch. One building in the centre of the city towered above all else, reaching toward the sky, with every part of it slanted or tilted in one way or another. As it reached higher, it also became smaller with each step, until at the very top, it was little more than a tower with a pointed top.
Jari forgot about everything else as he stared up at the structure, feeling smaller than he had ever felt in his life. He had been warned before he agreed to take up this task that the world of men was different than anything he had ever experienced, but he had not thought it would be quite as different as it truly was. He marvelled, both at the building itself and the task it must have been to build such a thing, not hearing the running horse coming up behind him until he was pulled away from it. He stumbled and fell back against the wooden side of a building, reaching for the sword on his hip as he spun round to see who had thrown him. The man he found next to him hardly seemed to even know he was there. His orange hair was plastered to his head by the rain, and as he craned about to peer down the road at the horse and its rider, the red and black ink of tattoos showed under his loose tunic, where his neck met his shoulder.
“You shouldn’t stand in the street. It’s a good way to get killed, you know,” he said suddenly, scratching at one of his pointed ears.
Jari raised his sword to him, but the stranger hardly seemed to notice that either.
“What brings you out of your fortress and into the city?” asked the stranger, turning away from the street to frown at Jari’s sword.
“What makes you think I was brought here at all?” asked Jari.
The stranger slapped his blade away and stepped closer under the eaves. “Who do you think you’re going to maim with that pocket knife?” he asked.
Unsure how to respond, Jari looked away and sheathed his sword.
“And if you were from Four Rivers, you wouldn’t be so distracted by the hof to nearly get yourself killed,” the stranger said.
Jari shrugged, admitting that point. “I suppose. What is it?”
“Where men go to talk to their gods.” His tone seemed to suggest he thought the whole idea wasn’t worth anybody’s time. “Do you have silver?” he asked suddenly.
If this man behaved like all men, Jari wasn’t sure he could finish the task put to him. He felt like he had missed a step in the conversation, and struggled to keep up. If speaking to all men was like speaking with this man, Jari wasn’t sure what he would do.
“Yes,” he answered.
The stranger nodded and grabbed Jari again to turn him in the direction of the door to their left. “Good. Then you can buy me a drink and a bed in exchange for saving your life.”
“I suppose that’s fair,” said Jari, managing to shrug off the stranger and walk inside under his own power.
He was surprised by the alehouse on the other side of the door, and again stopped in his tracks. The existence of the alehouse itself was no surprise at all, but the sheer scale of it was more than Jari had been prepared for. The tables were almost as tall as he was, and if he wanted to sit on a chair, he would have to climb to do so. The men in the alehouse all seemed even larger in their drunkenness, but the stranger from the street was taller still than the rest of them, if none the wider. Some of the other men watched him warily as he walked through the crowd to the counter, though their obvious discomfort was lost on the object of it. Jari followed him through the alehouse, staying close to avoid being lost or trod on by drunkards who weren’t paying enough attention.
“Sigrid, two horns and a room,” the stranger called out.
“You aren’t getting nothing. You still owe me from last time!” a dark-haired woman shouted as she rushed over. Jari could barely see her from where he stood behind the counter, but he could see enough of her to know she was angry.
He’d been told before that women of other realms had no beards, but it was truly a strange sight to see. There were other women in the alehouse as well, walking through the crowds to deliver horns of ale or sell their own services, but Jari tried not to look at them too much to avoid gawping at their bald faces.
“No, no. It’s being paid for,” said the stranger. He picked Jari up right off the ground and sat him on one of the high stools against the counter, before clapping a heavy hand against his shoulder. “This gentleman here has agreed to pay for it, in exchange for services rendered. Now, please. Two horns and a room. And the bag you’ve stolen from me.”
Sigrid turned her face toward Jari, but kept her gaze on the stranger. “You’ve agreed to pay for this, have you?” she asked.
“I. Yes, I have,” he said, wondering what exactly he had actually agreed to.
Sigrid nodded and turned away, muttering, “Filthy Jötunn bastard,” as she left.
Jari looked up at the stranger again, beginning to suspect he was about to be conned out of all his coin before the night was through. The stranger caught him staring and frowned.
“What?” he asked.
“I thought Jötuns were all— well, I suppose everyone in here is big, but I thought they were supposed to be even bigger,” Jari said. Like all children, he had heard tales of giants from the common realms, big enough to step on houses and flatten forests. This man was tall, but not nearly big enough for any of that.
Jari expected him to be offended by the remark, but instead he laughed. “Oh, you are new, aren’t you?”
Sigrid returned with a large bearskin bag, and held her hand out over the bar. “Five silver,” she said. “For what he owes me already, plus the two horns and tonight’s room.”
Having expected some sort of scheme to rob him, and feeling like it was too late to back out now, Jari dug into his purse and pulled out the silver coins, handing them over. With the coins in hand, Sigrid nodded and handed the bearskin bag back over to the stranger. “I’ll get you your drinks and your key,” she said.
“I do appreciate your help,” said the stranger, digging through his bag. “Of course, had she not taken my bag in the first place, I’d have been able to pay her without…” He waved his hand vaguely above the counter. “All this.”
He dropped the bag to the floor and passed three silver coins across the bar to Jari.
“What’s this?” Jari asked.
“I asked for the ale and the room. The back rent was an unfortunate necessity, but not your burden to bear.” He said as Sigrid returned, handing them each a horn of ale.
“And you, trickster. One night,” she said, brandishing the key at the stranger. “After that, I don’t want to see your snake face in here ever again.”
He smiled and reached for the key, but Sigrid pulled it away and handed it to Jari instead. “Up the stairs. Number’s on the door,” she said.
Jari nodded, taking the key. “Thank you,” he said, still feeling more than a little dazed at everything.
The smell and stickiness and the way everyone in the alehouse seemed to be shouting at one another was familiar, but even up on the stool, Jari still couldn’t shake the feeling that he would be trod on by any of the wandering, drunken men in the building. He looked over to the stairs, finding them at least a reasonable obstacle to climb, and not nearly as treacherous as some of the stairs of his own home city. It reminded him that he had a task beset to him, though now that he was in the city, he realised he hadn’t the first clue where to start. The thought crossed his mind to ask the man next to him, but Jari felt more and more distrustful of him with each passing minute.
“What did she mean by that?” he asked as the stranger drank.
His question seemed to shock the stranger, making him cough into his horn and sputter ale. “By what?” he asked.
“Either trickster or snake face. Take your pick,” Jari said.
The stranger smiled, and it wasn’t one Jari thought he liked. It was wolfish and insincere, with entirely too many sharp teeth showing.
“I suppose it’s all one and the same, really. One joke goes a bit too far, and then suddenly nobody wants you around.” He shrugged and drank from his horn again as if Jari hadn’t asked his question at all.
Nothing he’d said made Jari want to believe him. He knew he’d heard that kenning before, but he couldn’t imagine it being unique to just one person. Nor could he remember who it had belonged to in the story he’d once heard. He thought that perhaps he was just being paranoid, and that being too far from home and under the open sky for so long had begun to make him see things that weren’t there. After all, the man had saved him, and repaid him the extra three coins for the owed rent. Perhaps, he thought, the woman running the place simply held a grudge.
He decided he was just going to ignore it all and finally drank from his horn. The ale was sweeter than what he knew from home, but no less strong for it. He held the key to the room upstairs, but the stranger seemed to be in no hurry to leave just yet, so Jari took his time. He began to watch the alehouse, taking in its similarities and differences from what he knew. Though everything was bigger, it was no louder or livelier than the mead hall at Rötgart. Men talked and shouted, sang and even danced as they drank their coin away. And it wasn’t just men, Jari realised. Though he had not noticed it before, at least half of the patrons were dwarfs as well, blending in and hidden amongst their larger tablemates. They were all mingled together, singing and shouting with one another like it made no difference. Jari had never seen men step foot within Rötgart, but here it mattered not whether one was man nor dwarf, it seemed. It made him wonder whether the old stories were true, and whether Four Rivers was truly to blame for the curse, or if it was just a convenient excuse. He looked toward the ceiling as if he could see the sky beyond it, and imagined the dark clouds, by then surely black as ink as night fell that never vanished or faded.
Jari pushed the thought from his mind and went back to drinking his ale and watching the room. His drinking partner seemed content to keep to his own business, as much as his own business was shouting at the landlady and being shouted at in turn. His attention was only diverted from harassing the woman when the door to the street opened again and a rough, sturdy fellow stepped inside. He stopped at the door, zeroing his attention to the stranger beside Jari.
“Loki, I thought you were banned from this place,” he said, walking forward.
“Three times. Working on the fourth,” the stranger called Loki said, leaning against the bar and grinning widely.
Jari thought he recognised that name from somewhere, but like the names Sigrid had used, he couldn’t place it. It wasn’t a name used often by dwarfs, leaving the question to where he’d heard it before an uneasy mystery. Almost as uneasy as the feeling he got watching the distance between the two men close.
“And what brings wise Odin to this realm?” asked Loki, looking suddenly rather shocked. “Or is it someone else today? I can never keep up.”
The man called Odin shook his head. “I’d say it hardly matters now, with your big mouth in the room.”
Loki kept grinning, winking when he noticed Jari watching him.
“Kvasir’s dead,” Odin said without preamble. He stood next to the long counter as he looked over the crowd in the room like he was looking for something. From where he sat, Jari could see that the man was missing an eye, but the wound was old and long-healed. Jari half wanted to ask how it had happened, and would have if not for the matter of conversation to which he was not part.
“The rumours are true then,” Loki said. “Perhaps it’s fate that I’m here.”
Odin turned his attention back to Loki, glaring fiercely. “If you think you’re getting your hands on the mead, you should perhaps think again,” he warned.
Loki held his hands up and shook his head. “Mead? There’s mead to be had as well? No one told me.”
Before anything else could be said, Odin had one arm around Loki’s neck, though Loki seemed more concerned with not spilling his drink than being strangled to death. “I don’t want your filthy mead anyway,” he said, crowing with laughter. “It’s probably crawling with bugs and worms!”
He twisted himself around easily, moving so that Odin’s arm around his neck instead rested over his shoulders. Loki leaned his head on Odin’s shoulder and looked up at him with a fond, tilted gaze. “Your man’s long gone by now, surely. You may as well stay for the night and head out fresh.”
Odin laughed quietly and pulled himself away. “And help you harass the dwarfs? Haven’t you grown out of that yet?” he asked.
Loki rolled his eyes and shook his head. “I’m not harassing the dwarfs. I’m harassing Sigrid. I think she’s warming up to me. She hasn’t even thrown anything today.”
“Yes, and in ten years, you’ll have yourself a third wife,” Odin said.
To that, Loki raised his horn. “How do you think I wore down the first two?” he asked.
“So that’s what brings you here? Harassing poor women who have work to do?” Odin asked.
“Absolutely not. I’m here with my friend, uh.” He frowned and looked to Jari. “What’s your name?”
It took Jari a moment to realise he was being addressed. “Jari. Of Rötgart,” he said.
“I’m helping my friend Jari of Rötgart do his uhm.” Loki looked to him again. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve come looking for my brothers,” Jari answered.
Loki nodded. “I’m helping my friend Jari of Rötgart find his wayward brothers, and bring them home safely,” he said. He looked back to Jari, nodding uncertainly. “We are taking them home, yes? Or are we finding them to murder them?”
“Of course I mean to take them home!” Jari spat, slamming his horn against the counter and spilling his ale over the sides. But Loki only grinned and nodded.
If Odin was convinced of that story, he didn’t show it. “I have matters of my own to tend to. Stay out of them and make things easy for a change.”
“But of course.” Loki grinned at him again in a way that was entirely unconvincing.
Jari watched Odin as he disappeared into the crowd, wondering if he might be better off finding somewhere else to be. Though, leaving the hall would almost certainly put him in danger of running into the prowling gryphons which the city was especially vulnerable to. He knew he was safer inside, at least until daybreak when he could set off again to find Fjalar and Galar, wherever they had wandered off to this time.
After several hours, and thrice as many drinks, Jari finally stumbled down from his seat and looked to the key in his hand. Loki noticed him, and after finishing his drink in one, picked up his bag and nodded toward the stairs.
“Rooms are this way,” he said, nodding toward the stairs.
Loki led the way on uneven legs, finally stopping in front of one of the doors. He took the key from Jari, being more easily able to reach the lock, and opened the door. The room beyond was small and cold, with two beds and little else inside, and smelled strongly of piss and who knew what else. The window looked out over the alley below, lit dimly by lightstone lanterns that had begun to fade with age.
“Same room every damn time,” Loki grumbled as he tossed his bag to the corner. With some effort and the creaking of nails being torn from wood, Loki managed to shove the window open to air out the room.
“Won’t something get in?” asked Jari.
Loki looked out the window. “What could possibly get through that? You’d barely fit,” he said.
“You know why we dwarfs live underground, don’t you?” Jari asked him, debating bashing him over the head with something if he didn’t close it again.
But Loki did close it, rolling his eyes all the while. “Fine, we’ll sleep in a pissy room,” he muttered.
He waved an indifferent hand at Jari and turned his back to him as he began to undress for bed. He threw his tunic and boots aside with his bag, revealing the tattoos Jari had caught a glimpse of out on the street. His arms were almost entirely covered in black and red. On his left arm, Jari could see what looked to be a serpent curling and twisting around from his elbow up to his shoulder, with its head on Loki’s chest. On his right arm was a wolf in the same position, its claws outstretched and reaching his neck. He had bands around both his forearms, and two ravens circling one another on his right side.
If he had any more than that, Jari never saw. He kept his breeches on and climbed into bed, falling face-down onto the hard mattress, slightly too tall to fit. Like everything else in the hall, the beds were designed for men, and were tall and long, though apparently not long enough for a Jötun. Jari didn’t trust the people around not to try to rob or murder him in the night, so he kept his clothes on, setting only his boots and sword aside before climbing up onto the bed. Laying in it felt like lying in the middle of an empty room. Looking over at Loki with his feet hanging off the end and one hand on the floor, already snoring into the flat pillow. Until stepping foot in Four Rivers, Jari had not realised how far from home his journey had already taken him. Even sleeping in caves and empty dens felt familiar, but a city above the ground, visible to the sky wasn’t something he had been prepared for. He had packed only enough to get him to the city, where he knew his brothers often wound up. In the morning, he would resupply for the journey home and set out into the city to find Fjalar and Galar.
“Of bloody course you snore,” he grumbled as he settled under the thin blankets and rolled over to face the wall.
Loki only continued to snore.
The sky was barely light when the door to the hall opened. Jari sat up in an instant, surprised to see the landlady standing at the threshold. She waited there long enough for Jari to grow suspicious, but before he could say anything, she threw a shoe at Loki. He pushed himself up slowly, his face half covered in drool, and looked around in confusion.
“What was that for?” he asked with a yawn.
“Pay for another night or get out,” Sigrid demanded.
Loki yawned again and looked out the window. “Ymir’s tits, woman. Give us until midday.” He propped himself up so he could turn around and face her, but if it was a staring contest he was after, he had no hope. Sigrid wasn’t going to be swayed.
“If you’ve messed that bed again, you’ll be paying for it,” she warned as she turned to stomp off back downstairs.
“I didn’t—” Loki twisted to look around at the bed. “Quit blaming it on me!” he shouted after her.
He collapsed back onto the bed for as long as it took to sigh and grumble some more before he hauled himself to his feet.
“Come on, Jari of Rötgart. Let us take our leave of this unwelcoming place and find those brothers of yours.” Still yawning, Loki started digging through his bag, finding a fresh tunic that fit him more closely.
Jari nodded and climbed back down to the floor. “I didn’t expect you to come along,” he said, not entirely sure he wanted the company.
“Well, where would you begin to look?” asked Loki, and while his words may have been mocking, his tone was not.
Jari thought about Loki’s question, realising that even though he was already growing troublesome, he had a point. He didn’t know where his brothers liked to spend their time when away from Rötgart, beyond the vague instruction of seeking them out in Four Rivers.
“I… I don’t know,” he admitted.
Loki stuffed his bag full of whatever would fit in it, even taking the pillow from the bed he’d slept in. “I am right here,” he said arrogantly.
“And you’re some sort of seer, are you?” asked Jari.
“No,” said Loki slowly. “But I am known well enough in these parts to be banned from entering a fair few establishments. You could always start by asking me, since they seem the sort I might have crossed paths with.”
Jari wasn’t sure what annoyed him more; that he hadn’t thought of it first, or that Loki was right. Spending a moment pretending to have not heard the suggestion, Jari pulled on his sword and his boots.
“Fjalar and Galar Grettasson,” Jari said. “They like to come out this way to cause trouble, and we’d just as soon they came home before the trouble comes to find us.”
Loki nodded. “I do know those names. And possibly the dwarfs they belong to.” He stood and opened the door. “Let’s go, before the old bat charges us another night.”
He stuffed the rest of his things into his bag and slung it over his shoulder, waiting on Jari to grab up his own small pack and follow him out. As they walked down the stairs and back out to the empty alehouse below, Jari wondered how he might best lose his new companion without causing any more trouble. But it seemed that Loki was determined to cause trouble anyway. He looked around the empty alehouse, and seeing only one man asleep at one of the tables, Loki leapt over the counter and stole two bottles of wine from beneath it and shoved them into his bag before rushing outside. Unsure what else to do, Jari followed Loki outside to the street, keeping under the eaves as much as possible to avoid the road, still swampy and slick from the previous day’s rain. Loki took him only several buildings down the way to the large stables, where he stopped to piss in the alley before going inside.
He said nothing to either of the men loitering near the front counter, only nodding as they both quickly got up and rushed to get busy. Jari watched them leave, but was quickly distracted by the horses when he spotted them. These weren’t the small ponies in Rötgart’s stables. The horses here were as tall as the men who tended them, and some even taller. Jari tried to peer down the wide aisle, hoping he might catch a glimpse of a more suitable mount, but stall after stall was occupied by giants of horses.
But the horse that was led back out to the road was the largest creature Jari had ever seen. Its shoulder was taller than the men who brought it, though it was easily led. It was completely black, as if no light could even touch it, with its long, woolly mane over its face, and the same long, woolly hair covering its hooves.
Most terrifyingly of all, the horse was dressed to ride. Loki took the reins from the stable hand and paid each of them a silver coin.
“Agmundr,” Loki said fondly, giving the horse a sturdy pat on the side of its neck.
“You going to tell me this beast knows where to find my brothers?” Jari asked, already fearing Loki’s answer.
Just as Jari expected, Loki looked down at him incredulously. “No. We need to ride a bit to get there,” he said.
He secured his bag to the horse’s tack, and then without warning or permission, Loki picked Jari up off the ground and planted him on top of the horse. The animal shifted and moved beneath Jari, making him realise that a fall from such a height may actually kill him. And if it didn’t, being trod on by the beast after certainly would.
Without any apparent concern for any of it, Loki hauled himself up onto the saddle without knocking Jari off, and slid up behind him. Where he sat in front, there was little room for Jari to sit comfortably. The horse was too wide for him to hold his legs out, and he sat too close to its neck to try to sit with his legs to one side. He scrabbled about frantically, grabbing hold of the saddle’s pommel with small fingers, only to be surprised when Loki wrapped one arm around him and held him tight. Even then, when he started the horse moving down the road, Jari still scrambled for purchase. Giving up on the saddle, he gripped Loki’s sleeve instead, grateful that he had not sent the monstrous beast charging, and instead only walked it at a leisurely pace. It took him getting over his initial panic before he realised the smoothness of the gait, and the calmness of the animal beneath him. He hadn’t been thrown on top of some unbroken stallion, for which he supposed he should have been thankful.
Behind him, Loki laughed as he looked out at the street ahead. “There are few ponies kept here, and none are for sale, I’m afraid,” he said.
Though it wasn’t a thought immediately on his mind, Jari wasn’t surprised to hear this information. Everything else at Four Rivers had been built to the comfort of men, so why should the mounts be any different. Especially when ponies were so easily picked off from above when brought above ground. A problem, he suspected, Loki rarely faced with a horse that stood as tall as he did.
“Where are we going?” asked Jari to take his mind off everything else.
“There’s gold mining up the north fork. If you want real trouble, that’s where you go,” Loki said. “Nothing happens in Four Rivers, unless you’re interested in selling your wares to Midgard or taking the company of a woman for the night. Few dwarfs live here. They all go up the forks to the mines, and either retire with their riches, or drink them away in the city.”
When put like that, it sounded exactly like Rötgart, only on a different backdrop. It was the first truly familiar thing Jari had heard or seen in days.
“Where do you live?” Jari asked.
Loki shrugged. “Nowhere. Everywhere. Wherever I want,” he said.
He began looking around as they came to the riverbank, following it upstream as they made their way northward. Loki crossed over the bridge to the highway on the other side of the river, away from the crowded streets and low eaves of the city. Even on the other side as he sped up his horse, he seemed to expect something.
Wary of gryphons and wolves, Jari reached for his sword, ready to draw it and strike at a moment’s notice. Whatever Loki was looking for, it didn’t seem to be anywhere near, and soon he pulled Jari even closer against his body and broke the horse into a swift run. Suddenly, Jari forgot all about gryphons and wolves and the other foul beasts of Niðavellir’s surface and thought only of holding on as tightly as he could, and not being bounced right off the saddle. Slowly, as they passed over the rolling grey landscape toward the mountains in the near distance, Jari began to relax and trust both his riding companion and his horse. Even at speed, the horse ran smoothly, and sharing the saddle seemed to be something Loki had experience with. He knew how to hold Jari so he moved with the horse and saddle, rather than being bounced on top of it again and again and again. Still, Jari sat as still as he could, nervous about being on top of the biggest horse he had ever seen, along with the biggest rider he had ever seen.
The river led the path up the hills, where dead and dying grass slowly became huge boulders rocky outcrops. The road narrowed as they approached the large, steel gates that marked dwarven cities in their rightful place, underground. The gates stood opened, guarded only by one sleeping dwarf, who barely even stirred as the giant horse and its riders strode past him.
Once inside, Jari saw that the city was no city at all. There were small shacks and huts built along the base of the high cliff face, all clustered around a large cave entrance. Loki climbed off his horse and led it, with Jari still riding it, into the cave to the stables. The horses there all looked weary and over-worked, but Loki didn’t seem to have any reservations about leaving his there. He led it off to one side, tying its reins to a post, rather than leading it into a stall.
“We won’t be here long. Come on,” he said, holding his hands out.
Jari was growing sick of being picked up and held and carried like an infant. He glared at Loki and looked around for an alternative way off his giant horse, and when he saw none, he tried to slide off the other side. The stirrups were too far down for him to reach, and he fell into the straw and muck below, spooking the horse into almost trampling him. As he scrambled away, he saw Loki walk around the horse with his hands up in despair.
“I was trying to help you,” he said with a sigh. “To prevent that.”
“I don’t need your help,” Jari growled as he got up. He slapped as much of the muck off of him as he could, but most of it was stuck for good.
“You obviously do,” said Loki. He cocked a thumb at his horse. “I was given Agmundr because he was the smallest one the old man had to offer. Most men can’t even mount him without help.” He bent down to help Jari clean himself off, wiping the straw and grime from his clothes.
“Next time, take the help,” Loki told him when he stood back up.
He led the way back out to the camp that was built with dwarfs in mind, rather than men, and with buildings smaller than many of those at Rötgart’s port. Men might have been able to have stepped inside, if they were short men and didn’t mind bending over, but Loki didn’t even bother trying. He kept to the thoroughfare, looking around though the busy crowd as they walked from one end of the camp to the other. Finally, Loki pointed to a long, narrow building near the end. “In there,” he said, nudging Jari toward it.
“What the Hel are you doing here, Silvertongue?”
Jari turned to see a small group of dwarfs stopped behind them, holding their pickaxes over their shoulders. Loki turned to them as well and smiled. “Looking for my friend’s brothers. Have you seen them?” he asked.
“Piss off,” said the dwarf in front, before spitting at Loki’s feet.
“They’re about this tall,” Loki went on, holding his hand out to his hips. “Probably got a beard.” He tugged on his own scraggly excuse for a beard.
The miners shook their heads and began to walk off in the other direction.
“No?” called Loki after them. “Thank you anyway.”
When he turned back around, he shook his head and rolled his eyes. “Bastards,” he grumbled. He looked down at Jari and nudged him back toward the building. “If they’ve been here, they’ll have been in there. Go on. I’ll keep asking out here.”
Not entirely sure how much he trusted Loki with that task, Jari left him anyway and walked inside what he soon realised was a very basic mead hall. The dwarfs drinking inside all turned to look at him as he entered, giving Jari the very real feeling he shouldn’t be there at all.
“I’m, uh. I’m here looking for somebody,” he said, but before he was even finished, attention was off him and back on drinks and discussion of the mines. But there was something very different about the attitude of the dwarfs here, and the attitude of the dwarfs in the mead hall back in Rötgart. Jari had the very real feeling he was neither wanted nor welcome there, and not for the first time, wondered if he was being subject to an elaborate hoax. He began to wonder if he’d been led out to some mining outpost, and abandoned for the fun of it, or if Loki had even worse plans than that.
“You going to order something, or you going to leave?” asked a dwarf with a dragon tattooed on his bald scalp.
“I. No. I’m looking for my brothers. Fjalar and Galar Grettasson,” Jari said, stepping further inside.
There was another uncomfortable silence before someone else finally spoke up. “Yeah. They were here, about a week ago. Left with that damned know it all. Glad to see the back of that one.”
Jari was almost surprised to hear it. By the time he realised what it meant, the dwarf who had answered him had gone back to talking about the mines with his table mates.
“Did they say where they were heading?” asked Jari sharply.
The other dwarf glared at him. “North,” he snapped. “Anything else?”
Jari glared back at him, but turned away. He had something to go off of at least, and didn’t want to add any further risk of getting himself stabbed. “No,” he said as he walked back outside.
He found Loki still standing nearby, arguing with another group of angry, spitting dwarfs. “No, you’re mistaken. You’re thinking of someone else,” he said.
“You need to get out, before something unfortunate happens to you and your friend,” said one of the dwarfs, looking straight at Jari.
Loki looked over his shoulder at him and nodded. “Well, we wouldn’t want that, would we?” he asked. He inclined his head just enough for Jari to catch on, and realising what was happening, Jari nodded back.
“Well, this has been lovely, but we’re on our way now. If you’ll just excuse us,” said Loki.
He tried to step forward, but the dwarfs blocked his way, holding their pickaxes in front of them like they were ready to strike. Shaking his head, Loki walked a wide circle around them, and waved for Jari to follow. None of the dwarfs struck out at him as he passed, but he hurried all the same, having a strong suspicion he wouldn’t be welcome back in this camp again. He walked alongside Loki as they made it back to the stables, and this time when Loki lifted him onto his horse, Jari let him without arguing. Loki quickly climbed on behind him and rode out of the cave and back to the road.
“What did you find?” he asked once they were well out of range from the camp.
“They were here. They left about a week ago,” said Jari, looking back toward the camp and wondering what business his brothers would have had there. “They were with someone else,” he remembered suddenly.
“Who?” asked Loki.
Jari shrugged. “Didn’t get a name. Just some ‘damned know it all’ was all I heard.”
Loki suddenly looked pained. He buried his face in his hands and groaned loudly. “No. This isn’t fun now.”
Jari wanted to tell him that it was never meant to be fun, but he held his tongue. Loki clearly knew something he didn’t, and Jari wanted to know what it was.
After a few moments, Loki inhaled deeply and sat up in the saddle again, looking straight at the road ahead. “Did you find where they went?” he asked, sounding like he might have already suspected the answer.
“North,” said Jari. “That’s all I got.”
Loki nodded. “Of course,” he said, spurring his horse on again to travel further into the mountains. “Of course they went north.”
“What’s north?” asked Jari.
“A few things,” said Loki, still looking straight ahead. “Only one place worth visiting, though, and only then if you have a death wish.”
Jari was suddenly filled with a deep feeling of dread. Between leaving Four Rivers and making it to the camp, something had gone very badly wrong, but Jari didn’t know what. Worse, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to know.
Together, they rode in silence as they crossed the rocky, desolate terrain. It might have been a slow, difficult journey if not for the hard road worn into the ground. Loki’s horse seemed to be adept with the landscape, stepping confidently even among the loose stones that sometimes littered the road after falling from the rock faces above. Jari held on to the saddle, wishing there was a better way to ride such a massive creature. After the ride from Four Rivers, and then again from the camp, he began to feel stiff and sore in his lower joints. If he sat on that saddle much longer, he felt as if he might just split apart at the hips.
“As soon as we’re over the ridge, we’ll find you a pony,” Loki said, moving back on the saddle as far as he could and giving Jari more room. “We can walk, if you like.”
Jari almost said yes. The only thing that stopped him was the size of the horse, because while it was difficult to ride, it was much faster than walking. Realising he hadn’t any idea where his brothers had gone, beyond to the north, Jari was glad to have the ride.
“No, I’ll live,” he said, trying to turn in the saddle to hang both his legs off one side.
Loki shifted again, letting Jari lean against him to keep his balance.
“If they’ve gone where you think they’ve gone, how long do you expect the ride to be?” Jari asked as he stretched out his legs as best he could.
“Days,” Loki said.
“You’re right. I’m not riding this thing all the way there,” Jari said.
Loki laughed quietly and pulled Jari into a tight embrace against his stomach as he set his horse faster along the road. Riding sideways felt much more precarious at a run, but Jari was starting to believe Loki didn’t actually want to see him come to harm. Though Jari still doubted he could trust Loki with much, he decided to trust him to keep him on the saddle.
“Oh, yes, I thought so,” Loki said, laughing once more.
“Thought what?” asked Jari. He could see Loki looking ahead to something, but all Jari could see was the horse’s head in front of him.
Before too long, the horse slowed again, and Jari could hear a second set of hoof beats against the road. He turned around as best he could without falling off, seeing Loki’s friend from the night before riding beside them.
“I don’t suppose you’ve learned anything new and exciting?” Loki asked.
Odin nodded grimly. “Kvasir went to Jötunheimr with two dwarfs. It’s likely he was killed there.”
“So we heard about Jötunheimr,” Loki said. Jari wasn’t sure if he was imagining the strangely bitter tone to his voice.
“What did we hear, exactly?” he asked.
Loki sighed. “Your brothers seem to have killed the keeper of Asgard’s knowledge. And apparently there’s mead involved, but we haven’t heard anything about that yet. I don’t think.” He looked back over to Odin. “Have we?”
“You are not getting the mead,” Odin said.
Jari felt his blood go cold. He had been sent to retrieve his brothers before they did anything regrettable, and now two people were accusing them of murder. Two people Jari was more and more certain he should have recognised as time went on, but Niðavellir took so little concern in the affairs of other realms that he only ever heard vague snatches of information here and there. He couldn’t even name any of the kings of the other realms.
“What will happen to them?” he asked lowly.
“They’ll be executed,” said Odin. He didn’t even sound like he had to think about it.
“Executed? Must you?” asked Jari, struggling to turn around to face him.
He was surprised when Loki shrugged. “They did slay a god, it seems,” he said indifferently. “A god nobody liked, but still a god.”
“Nobody likes you either, and you’re still a god,” Odin said.
Loki snorted, taking offense. “I never asked for it. That was all you. ‘Let’s go to Midgard. It’ll be fun. We can impress the men as they crawl about in the mud’.”
“You weren’t complaining at the time,” said Odin, laughing.
“At the time, I was glad to be anywhere that wasn’t rutting Jötunheimr,” Loki grumbled.
Jari listened to the conversation, awestruck. He suddenly realised why he recognised their names, and why he had heard them in the first place. He was riding with dangerous, spiteful beings, who started wars and killed for fun. Who lied and stole and cheated their way across the realms, and he had followed them blindly because he thought they might help him find his brothers. They, who intended to execute Fjalar and Galar once they found them. He tried to escape, though he didn’t know where he would go. Back to Four Rivers, perhaps. He might have to stop in the mining camp for the night, but even that seemed a safer alternative than travelling with his current companions. The ground was hard and the drop from the saddle was long, but if Jari could avoid being trod on by Agmundr’s massive hooves, he thought he might survive it.
“You’re losing your dwarf,” Odin said as Jari tried to slip away.
Loki pulled him back onto the saddle and tightened his grip again.
“We need to find him a pony,” Loki said, trying to settle him on the saddle.
“There’s a village beyond the pass,” said Odin. “We may want to make use of it when we get there.”
Loki looked up and nodded. “Yes, I think you may be right.”
Jari still tried to escape, but Loki held onto him with a powerfully strong grip. If Jari could just break free, he could jump down off the saddle and run away, back down the mountain and away from Odin and Loki.
“Jari,” Loki said with a sigh. “I don’t know what you’re doing, but look at the sky.”
“Why should I look at the sky?” Jari demanded, still squirming to get away. “You talk so openly about slaying my kin, and then behave as if it’s just a trivial matter. I won’t travel with you. Put me down.”
“Look at the sky,” Loki repeated. “Night will be falling soon. Even if you reach the camp before dark, they won’t let you stay. Not after you were seen there with me. My fault, I’m afraid.”
Jari did look to the sky then, and saw that it was getting darker. He couldn’t see the sun through the cover, but he could see grey becoming black in the east, and realised Loki was right.
“We’ll stay in the village,” Odin said. “But we have to be quick about it.”
Jari stilled and nodded, not knowing what else he could do. “Aye,” he said.
They rode hard after that, rushing to beat the sun down the pass. Loki’s horse seemed more agile on the uneven terrain than Odin’s did, despite its size. He would bound ahead, slowing when Odin fell out of sight behind them, only to rush forward again when he finally caught up. Had they not had to keep stopping to make sure Odin had not fallen too far behind, Jari was certain they could have made the village by nightfall, but they remained on the road even as darkness consumed the realm. They lit lanterns to light their path, having to slow even further to keep their horses from stumbling in the dark.
When they came to the sound of running water, Loki and Odin both stopped and held their lanterns high. They looked around the high cliff face to their right, carefully scanning for something they couldn’t see.
“There,” Odin said suddenly, pointing to the rocks.
Loki rushed over to join him, stopping before a large gate hidden amongst the stone. The three of them dismounted their horses and stepped close as Odin pounded against the giant steel gate, sending the sound ringing up through the mountains above. At first, Jari thought they would receive no answer, but when Odin pounded on the gate a second time, a door at the bottom swung open, and a tired, worn dwarf peered out at them.
“What?” he asked.
Odin gestured to Jari and Loki. “My companions and I are travelling north. We need shelter for the night.”
The dwarf held his own lantern up to better see their faces, scowling at their lot. “Your giant stays outside,” he said before stepping out of the way to grant passage to Jari and Odin.
Behind them, Loki threw his hands into the air and walked back out to his horse. Saying nothing to argue these terms, Odin led his own horse through the door. He nodded graciously to the dwarf, and turned to face Jari.
“You don’t want to stay out there,” he said.
Jari pointed back at Loki. “What about him?” he asked.
“He’ll be fine,” Odin said. “Or he won’t, but I wouldn’t count on such luck.”
Hoping Odin was right, and not wanting to be left out as well, Jari rushed inside and followed alongside Odin as they were led to a small stable. The village sat inside a natural cavern, with a steep, sloped floor and a high ceiling. The dwarf at the stables took Odin’s silver and his horse, leading it back to an area that was barely big enough to house the animal.
“Are any of these ponies for sale?” asked Odin, looking at a small brown one by his side.
The dwarf looked back at him, and then to the pony. “They can be,” he said as he climbed up onto a ladder to undress the horse. “We’ll talk in the morning.”
Odin nodded and turned to leave, guiding Jari along with him. They were led away from the stables and to a small room nearby, barely big enough for Odin to stand.
“Thank you,” said Odin to their guide.
The dwarf nodded to him and left. Not sure what else to do, Jari sat down on one of the beds against the wall and pulled out the rest of his dried meat. He had expected to find his brothers in Four Rivers, or to at least have returned there after going to the camp, and had not had a chance to resupply before being dragged away. As he ate, he wondered if Loki had made the same error.
“Why did he have to stay out?” Jari asked.
He watched Odin unpack some bread from his own supplies, behaving as if nothing was wrong at all.
“He’s Jötunn,” said Odin simply.
“I had noticed that,” said Jari. “Rather hard to miss, actually.”
“Jötnar are no more welcome in other realms than dwarfs are in Asgard. Even if he is only half-giant, he’s still Jötunn,” Odin said.
Jari bristled. “What do you mean, no more welcome than dwarfs in Asgard? Are you saying you’d have me run out?”
Odin levelled a flat look at him. “You would not be allowed to cross Asgard’s borders alive.”
Jari was no longer hungry. He stood to face Odin properly, with his fingers itching to grab his sword and drive it straight through the man before him.
“Then what right have you in Niðavellir?” he demanded.
“I have every right,” Odin said.
“You have no right. Have you even any proof to offer for this murder you claim my brothers committed? Have you even a corpse? You don’t even know where the man died.” Jari demanded.
Odin sat impassively, still eating his bread like nothing was wrong. “I need no proof,” he said.
Jari had to stop himself from taking up his sword. The urge to do so was almost too strong to resist, but instead he turned and walked out of the room, slamming the door behind him. Not caring about the stares he got from those few dwarfs out in the forecourt, Jari found a dark, secluded corner and sat there on the ground. It wasn’t comfortable and it wasn’t warm, but it was away from Odin. He understood now why Niðavellir had cut off contact with the other realms as much as possible, and why many regarded Four Rivers as the cause of whatever curse had blighted their land. Jari knew not what he would do in the morning, but he knew he could not continue to travel with Odin. Somehow, he would have to break free of him and make his way north on his own; retrieve his brothers before they could be slain with no trial or witnesses.
Jari slept very little that night, and when he did sleep, it was fitfully and unrestful. Each time he woke again, Jari looked up at the room Odin slept in, finding the door shut with no indication whether he was still inside. When Jari could sleep no more on the hard cave floor, he got up and made his way back to the main gate. He found a different dwarf guarding the door this time, though this one seemed no more interested in her work than the dwarf before her had.
“What time of day is it?” he asked her.
She nodded to a low-burning candle on the table beside her. “Nearly dawn,” she said.
Jari nodded. “Thank you,” he said. Casting one my glance in the direction of Odin’s room, Jari rushed back to the stables. Odin’s horse was still in the back, lying halfway in the aisle between stalls. For a brief moment, Jari wondered if he might have been able to pay the stable keeper to sabotage the horse in some way, but he did not want to see Odin’s wrath come down upon him should he somehow catch up.
“I need a pony,” Jari announced to the empty stables.
The stable keeper muttered and shuffled out of a room hidden off to the side.
“Three gold,” he said, rubbing his hands over his face. “Four if you need a saddle.”
Jari had never purchased a pony before, but he knew extortion when he saw it. “Four? Of course I—”
Not having time to argue, Jari emptied his purse of his silver and handed it over. The other dwarf didn’t even bother to count or hand back any that might have been paid in extra before he pocketed the coins and led Jari to the nearest pony. Jari had never dressed an animal to be ridden before, and for a moment, he worried he might have to work out how to do it on his own. But the stable keeper dressed the pony for him before handing it over.
“That all?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Jari.
He glanced over again to make sure he wasn’t about to be caught up by Odin and led the pony back across the forecourt to the gate.
“Leaving already?” the dwarf at the gate asked as she got up to open the door.
“Yes. Please. Hurry,” Jari said.
The guard gave him a suspicious look, but opened the door anyway. Without another word, Jari led his pony out to the road, waiting for the door to close again before he tried to climb into the saddle. As he tried to pull himself up, the pony started to walk forward, throwing Jari off balance. Twice he nearly fell to the ground before finally managing to pull himself up. The ride atop the pony was much more comfortable than it had been on Loki’s massive horse, but no easier to handle. The pony kept trying to rear up and walked in tight circles, despite Jari’s best efforts to stop it. He pulled hard on the reins, but it didn’t seem to help. The pony still circled and snorted, and soon Jari realised, had attracted the attention of something else. He heard the footsteps on the loose rock, but couldn’t see what stalked him any more than he could calm the pony. Suddenly, Jari saw heavy black fur right beside his face as the pony turned into the beast. Jari reached for his sword, but before he could draw it, the pony stopped still as the reins were ripped from Jari’s hands. It was only then Jari saw beyond the fur to the one who wore it like a cloak. Loki stood before the pony, having to bend over to pull the reins down and stead it.
“Where’s Odin?” asked Loki, looking over Jari’s shoulder.
“I will not travel with him,” Jari spat angrily.
It seemed to surprise Loki, but he neither argued nor tried to defend his friend. “Fair enough,” Loki said as he stood.
He led the pony down the road, taking him to another small cave where he had apparently spent a very cold and wet night. Leaving Jari on the road, Loki returned to the cave to retrieve his gear and his horse. Jari could see the broken remains of one of the wine bottles on the ground, though it didn’t seem Loki had even bothered to light a fire during the night. As he brought his horse back out to the road, he still wore the pelt on his shoulders, clasped in front with a heavy silver brooch, though his bag seemed no lighter for it. After quickly making sure everything was secured and packed away, Loki mounted his horse and led the way up the road.
“Ease up on the reins,” he said, looking down at Jari as the pony started fidgeting again. “Don’t pull. You’re confusing the creature.”
Jari held his hands out stiffly in front of him, giving the reins as much slack as he could. The pony stopped trying to walk backwards, but Jari was still no more confident on top of it.
“What if it throws me off?” he asked.
“Try not to land on your head,” Loki said dryly.
As they rode, they came to a swift stream and followed alongside it. The terrain was still steep and difficult, but rock slowly gave way to grass and mud once more. The horses slipped and slid in the muck, more than once almost falling or getting stuck in it. Finally, Loki got off his horse and started to lead it along the stream. Assuming Loki knew what he was doing, Jari followed his example. Once again, he worried about being trampled as he tried to walk in front of an uncertain pony. He watched Loki nearly lose his own footing, and decided he was much better off trying to lead a pony than he was trying to lead Loki’s horse.
As the stream bent back to the west, it was joined by more streams, and soon the ground began to harden and even out. They retook their mounts and continued to follow the stream as it turned into a river. At what Jari guessed must have been around midday, Loki stopped at the edge of a forest and got down to examine Jari’s saddle.
“Did they give you a spike?” he asked.
“A what?” asked Jari.
His question was answered a moment later when Loki pulled a short, iron rod from the side of the saddle. Loki frowned at it, as if it wasn’t quite what he wanted, before driving it into the ground. There was a ring on the top of the spike, which Loki used to tie the horses to.
“They’ll pull that right out,” Jari said.
Loki motioned to it. “Try,” he said invitingly.
Jari got down off his pony and walked to the spike, but when he pulled on it, it stuck to the ground as if it were driven straight through to the core of the realm. He tried again, pulling with both hands and throwing all of his weight into it, but it would not come unstuck.
“How?” he asked.
Loki grinned and pulled an unstrung bow from the side of his own saddle. “Look at the runes,” he said, pointing.
Jari bent to read what was stamped into the side of the spike. They weren’t words, but a spell, he realised. It wasn’t one he knew, but it was enough of an answer that he was able to guess. When he looked up again, Loki had strung up his bow and held a handful of arrows in one hand.
“I don’t know about you, but I could eat a bear right now,” Loki said.
“Maybe not a bear, but aye,” Jari agreed. He hadn’t eaten all morning, and realised he hadn’t had the chance to restock when he left the village.
“Can you build a fire?” asked Loki.
“Do that. There’s grain in my bag. Feed the horses.” Loki took off his pelt and folded it over Agmundr’s back and dropped his bag on the ground before walking into the trees and leaving Jari alone.
Suddenly feeling vulnerable and exposed, Jari almost followed after Loki into the woods, but he resisted. He went for Loki’s bag and opened it, finding more inside it than should have been possible, yet it weighed no more than Jari’s own small pack when it was full. He dug through it, careful not to disturb anything else Loki might have inside it that he didn’t want disturbed, finally finding a heavy sack of grain near what he guessed was the bottom. The grain was heavier than the bag that carried it, but Jari tried not to think about that as he opened the sack and found a large wooden bowl inside. Looking down at the bowl, and then at the horses, Jari scooped out a large pile of grain before each animal. He didn’t know how much was appropriate to give them, but he assumed that they would eat their fill of what he put down. They seemed happy with it, so Jari returned the grain to Loki’s bag and started gathering firewood and moss. Everything was wet both inside and out, but when he brought the flint and steel to the moss, he still managed to get a spark. It took almost an hour for that spark to be fanned into a fire, and by the time the flames began to rise, Loki walked out from the woods with a deer over his shoulders.
“It’s not a bear, but it should do,” he declared.
Jari watched him walk to the river to begin cleaning and gutting the deer. “I expected something smaller, if I’m honest,” he said.
Loki laughed. “We can’t live on rabbit, and I’m terrible at fishing,” he said.
Not one to complain, Jari built the fire bigger while Loki made quick work of the deer. When he was done, Loki pulled an old hatchet from his saddle and returned to the woods. Before long, the deer was lashed to a crude spit.
“The last time I did this,” Loki said, poking at the cooking meat with an iron skewer, “it was too wet and cold to start a fire. By the time I finally got it going, someone had come along stolen the deer.”
Jari wasn’t sure if he was meant to laugh then, but he couldn’t stop himself. “Just walked right up and took it, did he?”
“Right after he helped get the fire going,” Loki said, laughing as well.
“Amazing,” said Jari.
Loki poked at the deer some more and turned it over the fire. “I suppose these last few weeks have been your first experiences with camping.”
“They have,” Jari admitted. “I can’t exactly claim to have been prepared for it.”
“Have you been to any of the gates?” asked Loki, looking straight at him as he spoke. Something about his gaze was oddly cold, making Jari unsure if he should even answer. At the same time, he didn’t want to ignore the question either.
“No,” said Jari after a long moment. “I’ve never had the cause.”
Loki smiled, wide and sharp. It made Jari feel like he was being stalked by a wolf. “Then you’ve never seen the sky,” Loki said.
It was not what Jari had expected. Nor was it an accurate assessment, he thought. “Then what do you call that?” he asked, pointing up to the heavy grey clouds above.
Loki glanced upward. “Weather,” he said. “Niðavellir has no sky. It never has, and it never will.”
“Well, whatever it is, at least it’s dry right now,” Jari said, looking up again at the grey and black clouds rolling high above. “For the moment.”
“And where we’re going?” Jari asked cautiously.
“Jötunheimr,” Loki told him.
“That’s where you’re from?” asked Jari. Loki nodded. “Can you tell me about it?” Jari asked.
Loki stayed quiet for some time after. “It’s summer there now, where the gate is. The gate sits in the warmer part of the realm, so we should have easy travel, depending on where your brothers went after that. If they went very far south, we may be in trouble.”
Jari nodded. It wasn’t what he’d been asking about, but it was good to hear all the same. “Your friend made some implications last night. Some rather unpleasant ones.”
“Ah,” said Loki, nodding. “Yes, that. You won’t find many friends there, but you’ll be more welcome than me.” He ran his hand down the side of his face and through his short beard, pulling on it while he looked back at the fire.
“But you’re from there,” said Jari.
“Yes, I am. Which is why I try to be anywhere else, if I can help it,” said Loki. He poked at the fire with his skewer, and then at the meat again, though the motions seemed idle. “There are no realms giants are welcome, save their own. The same extends to half-giants, though we have no realm. You can breed it out, of course. If you’re able to find someone willing to lay with you, but not everything goes away so easily.”
“So, that’s why you wander,” Jari said quietly.
Loki smiled again, though it wasn’t a cheery smile. “I started running as a boy, and I never stopped,” he said.
He poked at the meat again before using his knife to cut a piece away. He gave the first cut to Jari before taking his own and sitting back on the grass. It was the first hot meal Jari had had in days, and as much as he wanted to savour it, he couldn’t. It had been too long since he’d had anything that wasn’t dry and stale, and he devoured what he was given before he could stop himself. He might have felt ashamed for it, if not for Loki behaving the same way, stopping only to retrieve the second wine bottle from his bag. As Jari cut off another piece from the roasting deer, he heard approaching hoof beats. He turned to see who came upon them, and when he saw Odin atop his horse, Jari felt his blood grow hot. He turned to Loki, but before he could even begin to accuse him of subterfuge, Loki shrugged.
“We need him,” Loki said, resigned.
“We don’t,” Jari argued.
“We do,” said Loki as he cut off another piece of the deer for himself. “They’ll speak to him. They’ll spit on you, and I shouldn’t even show my face. I like my face, and I’d like to keep it.”
Jari felt a sour burn in his stomach, though he wasn’t sure who he should have been angrier with: Loki for his deception, or himself for falling for it. He watched as Odin stopped his horse with theirs and dismounted. As he neared their fire, Jari drew his sword and pointed it straight at Odin.
“It’s ours. Get your own,” he growled.
Next to him, Loki laughed loudly, almost falling over onto the grass.
“I’d do as he says,” Loki said. “I don’t know what you said to him, but I don’t think he liked it.” He took a long drink from his wine, struggling not to laugh and choke on it.
Odin shook his head, but kept his distance. “We haven’t time for this anyway,” he said.
Loki sighed heavily and looked to the sky. “I suppose you’re right. But we’re not the ones who slept late.”
He got up and kicked out the fire before taking down the spit and cutting the deer from it. Loki packed it onto Jari’s pony, and when everything else was packed away, he untied the reins from the spike and pulled it from the ground as easily as one unsheathes his sword.
They followed the river north through a wide valley as the day went on. Other small rivers and streams flowed into it from the mountains, and by the time they stopped to make camp, the river they followed was nearly a mile wide.
They camped in the woods, sheltering under the trees from the rain that began to fall with the night. Twice, Jari heard something prowling around in the darkness around their campfire, and even Loki and Odin seemed unable to sleep while being watched as they were.
“It’s not a gryphon. Or a dragon,” Loki said at one point, looking out beyond the light from the fire. “But it is big.”
His words were not comforting.
They left their camp at daybreak, all three of them eager to get away from whatever beast lived in those woods. The river continued north through another pass. The once mile-wide river narrowed again as it cut a steep ravine through the mountains, until it was small enough for a man to step across.
“Did the river fork?” asked Jari as they led their horses along a narrow path beside the stream.
“No, it’s all in there,” Loki told him, looking down at the dark water. “I imagine it goes straight down for miles.”
Loki cringed and stepped away from the water’s edge, and stopped long enough to pull a lantern from his gear. Opening the top, he pulled one of the stones from the cage and dropped it into the stream. Jari watched as the blue glow was swept away by an impossibly swift current, disappearing downstream as it sank and its light faded from view.
“What in the Nine?” Jari muttered.
“Don’t fall in,” Loki told him.
Jari kept as close to the ravine wall as he could as they followed the river through the mountains and back out to another wide valley. Almost immediately, the river opened up into a huge lake that seemed to go on for miles in all directions. They rode along the bank as night fell, finding nothing but wide open spaces with no options for shelter.
“We ride through the night,” Odin declared as the lake narrowed and the river began to flow north once again.
“I say we camp,” Loki said, yawning loudly. “You can stay up and watch all night.”
The idea of camping out in the open beside the lake was not an appealing one, but Jari couldn’t bring himself to disagree with Loki. “I can’t go on,” he said, feeling like he could fall over at any moment.
“I’m tired. My dwarf’s tired. The horses are tired. We’re camping,” Loki said. He slid off his horse and onto the ground, taking the spike with him and driving it into the dirt, killing any argument there.
They had no firewood with them, but there were enough trees and fallen branches nearby to work with. Rather than wrestling with the flint and steel, trying to get it to light grass and moss that was too wet, Loki built the fire with magic, lighting their pit instantly by spitting on it. With the last light from the sun still filtering through the clouds, Loki fell back into the grass and buried himself with his fur cloak to sleep. Jari found sleep more difficult to come by, even as tired as he was and with Odin staying up to watch. He tried to lie down and sleep, but every time he did, some new creature would howl or screech out in the distance. When the screech came from above, Jari almost sprang to his feet and ran into the darkness. It woke Loki, sending him straight to his horse to retrieve his bow and string it up. He stayed on his feet, prowling around the edge of the fire’s glow, but Jari wasn’t prepared for a fight. Having nowhere else to hide, he covered himself up with Loki’s cloak, hoping that if any animal did find them, it would pass him over for something already dead. He watched as Odin unpacked his horse and sent it running on his own into the dark valley. Soon, whatever had been above them chased after the horse instead, going after the bigger meal. Loki walked a few more circles around the camp before returning to his cloak and lying down underneath it next to Jari. Since Loki did not seem to mind him being there, Jari stayed where he was, unashamed to admit that he was too scared to leave. While Loki was quick to sleep again, Jari couldn’t calm himself enough to close his eyes. He could only lay there under Loki’s fur cloak, listening to the sound of the nearby river, and the insects and croaking toads near the bank. His thoughts kept going back to the creature flying in the air above them, and its unmistakable cries. It had been a gryphon, and there was no doubt in Jari’s mind about it. He was miles from home, where no-one would ever think to find him, and had barely escaped with his life. If he died on Niðavellir’s surface, he would have no grave or tomb. There wouldn’t even be anything left of him to bury.
While Jari tried to sleep, night drifted on and faded into morning. As the last embers of their fire died out, Loki and Odin both walked to the water to bathe, but Jari stayed where he was. Now that it was time to get going again, he suddenly felt more tired than he had the night before. He managed to fall asleep finally, only to be awoken what felt like only seconds later, though the lightness of the sky suggested they had let him sleep much longer than that.
“If we leave now, we may not have to ride through the night,” Loki told him as he gathered up his cloak.
Jari responded with a rumbling groan.
“We can rest properly once we’ve crossed the gate,” Loki told him before taking his cloak and bow back to his horse.
As Jari forced himself to his feet, he realised a new problem. They were once again down to only two horses. Neither Loki nor Odin were small enough to ride Jari’s pony, and even if they had been, Jari couldn’t easily ride Loki’s horse. And worse, they had three horses’ worth of gear to pack onto the two remaining animals. Loki crammed what he could into his bag, but it would still be a difficult ride. When they were ready, Loki pulled the spike from the ground and mounted his horse, helping Odin up behind him.
“We follow the river north for another day,” Odin said. “Cross at the next pass and keep following it until the fork. We should reach the gate by midnight.”
Loki nodded. “Hooray,” he said flatly before setting his horse off at a run.
Jari hadn’t expected such a hard start, and struggled to get his pony to keep up with Loki’s horse. He suspected Loki was only holding back to keep from leaving him behind entirely, and had it been only him, he could have made the journey in half the time it had taken them. They rode hard until Jari’s pony could no longer keep up, and stopped only long enough for a quick breakfast of the previous day’s deer while the horses were rested and watered. Then it was more hard riding, following the curves of the river where the terrain was even.
They came to the next pass as the sky began to darken once more. Again, the river narrowed to a fraction of its size as it carved its way through the rocks, turning somehow into a small mountain stream. They followed its path, taking a narrow stone footbridge across to the other side. While Loki’s horse was led easily across, Jari’s pony resisted. He tried to keep it from fighting back, lest it fall into the water and drown, or worse throw him in, but he wasn’t sure what to do. Finally, Odin took over out of a lack of patience, taking the reins and covering the pony’s face with his own cloak. He led it across the bridge, and continued to lead it as they followed the path through the mountains. Night fell before they were out of the pass, and even though Jari hated to be travelling at night, he wouldn’t want to camp where they were either. There was barely enough room to walk, let alone sleep, and he couldn’t imagine rolling over to fall into the bottomless river they walked beside.
The river again opened into a wide lake as they came out of the pass. Rather than stopping, they rode along its banks as they had last time, following it until it drained into a river once more. Suddenly in the distance ahead, Jari could see a golden light near the riverbank.
“Someone’s camping out here,” he said, pointing.
“No, that’s the gate to Jötunheimr,” Odin told him. Even he was starting to sound tired, making Jari wonder if they had intended to stop for the night once they crossed the gate.
They rode toward it as fast as they could, eager to put Niðavellir behind them. Again, Jari realised he would have to find some way to lose Odin once they found his brothers’ trail, or else find a way to flee from him once they found Fjalar and Galar.
When they came to the gate, Loki stopped unexpectedly and got down off his horse again. The gate itself seemed to be little more than two pillars of stacked stone, but between them a thin sliver of brilliant orange light glowed on the ground, as if coming from underneath a closed door.
“I need five minutes,” Loki said as he dug around in his pack.
“You can do that on the other side,” Odin said impatiently.
“I am doing it now.” Loki pulled what he wanted from his bag and crouched down at the water’s edge. In the dim glow from their lanterns, Jari watched in horror as Loki took a pair of shears and cut off what little excuse for a beard he had and threw it into the river.
“What are you doing?” Jari demanded.
“It’s just not enough that I risk my life by daring to be half-giant,” Loki said bitterly as he scrubbed his face with a cake of soap, bringing it to a thick lather on his skin. “No, my great-grandfather Whatever had to go screw a troll. So much fun for the rest of us. I do hope he enjoyed himself.”
He shaved his face completely bare, paying close attention to the odd stray patches that tried to grow along his jaw. When he was done, he dried his face and untied the braids from his hair, letting it fall loose over his ears. All the while, Jari could hear him grumbling about something, but his words too quiet to hear. Finally, he got up and took Agmundr’s reins, before turning to face Jari.
“You’ll want to lead it through,” he said.
Nodding, Jari stepped down off his pony and followed Loki through the gate. There wasn’t anything to tell him the magic that made the gate work had happened, aside from the arrival itself. It wasn’t like instantly stepping from one realm to the next. The gate seemed instead to lead into a path that slowly took him somewhere else. Slowly, the darkness was overtaken by field that was so bright, Jari felt like he was standing directly in front of a roaring forge. He stumbled backwards, suddenly blinded from the light he’d stepped into. As he blinked the sight back into his eyes, Jari was astounded to see an endless sea of blue above them, brighter and more intense than any sapphire he had ever seen in the mines. High above them, in the midst of it, something was on fire. It hung there, burning away without drawing any screams of terror from anybody.
“What the Hel is that?” Jari demanded, looking around at the scrubby green grass around them, with sprawling mountains far on the horizon in all directions. It was warm there as well, he realised. Warm and humid in a way Jari had never known in his life.
“Welcome to Jötunheimr,” Loki announced.
“What is it?” Jari asked.
Loki laughed, while Odin sighed impatiently. “That is sky,” Loki said. “And wait until you see it at night, my friend. If you’re lucky, at night the sky dances.”
Jari stood stunned, transfixed on the images around him. Rolling, green tundra, and a city off in the distance, sprawled out along the edge of a lush forest.
“You what?” he asked, not understanding a word of what had been said.
“I propose we camp,” Loki said, clapping Jari hard on the shoulder.
“Aye, it’s safe here,” Odin agreed.
He helped Loki unpack and feed the horses while Jari still stood stunned in the grass. As he slowly took in everything around them, he turned to notice the gate behind them. This one was marked by two carved wooden posts, but there was no light between them that Jari could see. He wondered if maybe the gates only went one way, and if there was another they’d have to find to return home.
“I’m going to scout ahead. See if anybody in Hvararharm saw Kvasir while he was here,” Odin said, snapping Jari out of his daze. He knew that if Odin went on ahead, he would find Fjalar and Galar first.
“No, I think you’re going to stay here with us,” Loki said unexpectedly.
“It would save time if I went now,” Odin argued.
“No. Brother, I have seen your methods of justice, and in this instance, I must insist against it,” Loki said, stepping into Odin’s path and using all of his size to block the way forward. “What’s done is done. Kvasir is dead, and no amount of haste will change that. And having been personally offended by the bastard more than once, I daresay he may have even deserved it.”
Odin glared up at Loki, and for a moment, Jari thought Odin might dare to strike Loki.
“One night,” Odin said instead.
Loki nodded. “One night,” he agreed. “And we leave together.”
Finally backing down, Odin took the water pouches from their gear and walked off in the opposite direction of the distant city. Jari could only assume he knew where to find water, if his intent hadn’t actually been to just walk away to be angry.
“Why did you say that?” asked Jari while Loki tied the horses.
“Because he will kill them when he finds them,” Loki said. “If your brothers did murder Kvasir, they murdered the most hated man in all of Yggdrasil; even more-so than me. I’d say they deserve the head start.”
“We’re not going to find them, are we?” asked Jari, suddenly realising it to be the truth.
Loki sighed. “I don’t know. Are they smart enough to keep running, or do you think they would have stopped?”
Jari shrugged. If his brothers were foolish enough to kill a god, he couldn’t possibly imagine they were very smart at all.
“He won’t stop,” Loki said plainly. “There’s more to this story I haven’t been told, and whatever it is has driven him mad with wrath. You need to be prepared to go home empty-handed, unless you intend to spend the rest of your life hindering his progress.”
Jari nodded and sat on the ground, not sure what he had to do. He had come so far already, and didn’t want to stop now. He couldn’t. He knew they were close, and he only needed a few more days, and a bit of luck to get them back home to Rötgart in one piece. They could hide there, away from Odin’s reach. Jari just had to get to them first.
“So they’ve seen this sky too, then,” he said, looking back up at it.
“They may be under it right now.” Loki smiled and sat next to him, leaning back and closing his eyes. “How many dwarfs do you think could say that?”
It was an odd thought that made Jari laugh. He wondered how many dwarfs were on Jötunheimr then, and how many were outside, looking at a sky most dwarfs would never be able to dream of. There were a few clouds off toward the horizon, but even those were a pure, bright white high in the sky. They weren’t dropping rain on anybody. It was an oddly pleasant thought that Jari was happy to dwell on.
The two of them fell asleep next to one another in the grass, which itself was so unlike the grass that grew on Niðavellir. It was springy and soft, more like moss than anything. And while it wasn’t shelter, it hid them from view enough to give the illusion of shelter. By the time Jari woke again, Odin had returned, and sat smoking a pipe several meters away. The sky had turned from blue to an explosive mix of reds and oranges and pinks as the sun dipped below the distant mountains.
“The sky’s on fire!” Jari shouted, unable to figure out why Odin wasn’t as alarmed as he was.
“It’s not on fire,” Odin told him.
“It is,” Jari insisted.
Beside him, Loki sat up and looked around. “Sunset,” he said with a yawn. “It’s supposed to happen.”
“This happens every day?” Jari asked.
Loki shrugged. “Better than rain every day.” He yawned again and got up to find what was left of the deer and his wine.
They weren’t able to light a fire in the grass, but the evening was warm and the air was calm. The three of them ate together as the fire faded from the sky, and bright pinpricks of light began to shine against a darkening backdrop. Above the eastern horizon, two large, glowing round bodies slowly climbed higher, casting the field in a pale blue light. Even without their lanterns lit, there was enough light to see by, though the details were still shrouded in shadow. Jari wanted to ask what the objects in the sky were, but it seemed with each passing minute, more and more of the tiny lights began to appear above them, and Jari found himself unable to speak for a long while.
Then, just as Loki predicted, the sky began to come alive and dance with a swirling mixture of greens and blues and reds roiling around like enormous snakes. They were so bright, they blotted out the smaller pinprick lights above, outshining their brilliance effortlessly.
Something about it seemed to shake the smaller lights loose. One of them streaked across the sky and Jari jumped, half expecting it to fall right on them.
“What was that?” he asked, looking around to see where it had gone.
“Someone whose death failed to please Aldís and Arndís. Niðhöggr eats well tonight,” Loki said. He pointed up to the two round bodies above the horizon.
“Goddesses?” asked Jari.
“Guardians. Jötunheimr has no gods,” Loki told him. “If a Jötun’s death is good, he is reborn on Aldís’ Plain. If not…” He shrugged and tossed his empty bottle across the field.
Jari hummed appreciatively and watched the sky, transfixed by the vastness of it. He didn’t know how long he stared, gasping every time another streak of light tore across the sky, or when he had fallen back asleep, but when he woke again at dawn he was next to Loki under his cloak once more. Jari slowly got up and stretched his back, both eager to get going and reluctant all at the same time. The morning air was brisk, but not cold, so Jari took the opportunity to find the stream Odin had filled their sacks from to clean up. He only had the clothes he had left home with, but being able to bathe at least made him feel somewhat refreshed. By the time he returned, Loki and Odin were both up and repacking the horses.
“See, there he is,” Loki said, pointing.
“The deal was we left together,” Odin said sourly, directing all of it to Jari.
“You always get like this when you don’t get your way. Shut up and get on the horse,” Loki said as he climbed atop Agmundr.
Odin climbed on after him, never taking his attention from Jari. Jari tried to ignore it as best he could as he climbed into his own saddle. They rode to the city, but before they reached the gates, Loki stopped and got off his horse.
“Make sure he comes back for me,” Loki said to Jari, pointing at Odin.
“Come back for you?” asked Jari.
Loki snorted. “I’m not going with you,” he said as he walked toward the trees that climbed so high, Jari could barely see where they stopped. Suddenly, he stopped and turned to face them again. “Oh, yes. And bring back some ale.”
“Why?” asked Jari.
“To drink,” Loki said plainly, before disappearing into the trees.
The city of Hvararharm was equally awe-inspiring. Jari felt like an insect as they rode beside buildings that were so big, they blocked out the sun. There were few people out in the early morning, but those that were outside glared down at Jari and Odin as they rode. And they were tall, with skin the colour of hard ice. Jari had thought Loki was tall, but the Jötnar in this city made Loki look like a child. Some wore their hair shaved on the sides, or dyed unnatural colours. None of them wore beards. It was such an odd sight to behold that Jari had to stop himself from staring at them, and soon found himself staring instead at the back of his pony’s head.
“What have you brought that here for?” one of them asked from where she sat beside her door.
Jari looked around in confusion before realising she had meant him.
“I’m looking for two more of his kind,” Odin said. “They were travelling with a man. They may have stopped here within the last week.”
The giant laughed. “I know who you are, Wanderer. And I won’t say another word to you.” She picked up the bird she was plucking and took it back inside, slamming the massive door loudly.
“That could have gone better,” Jari said.
Odin glared at him again with his single eye, and Jari looked away. There was another giant across the street that glared not at Odin or Jari, but at Agmundr.
“Who’d you steal that pony from?” he asked before spitting on the ground.
“We’re looking for two dwarfs,” Odin said, ignoring the question.
“What the Hel would I know about dwarfs?” asked the giant before walking away.
“He said they’d talk to you,” said Jari as he watched the giant leave.
“Talk, yes. He never said they’d be helpful.”
Together, they wandered through the city, finding giants no friendlier than those they had met when they first started their search. Jari found himself spit on and kicked at while Odin ignored him and asked his single question again and again, receiving the same unhelpful responses from anyone he asked.
“I can’t imagine they were ever here,” Jari said after dodging a hammer to the head.
“Someone saw them. They’re just not admitting it,” Odin said, determined to keep pressing on. But Jari was done.
“You keep asking. But if it were me, I’d have got as far away from a place like this as possible. I think your brother has the right idea about this place.” Jari turned his pony around and began making his way through the growing crowds in the streets, darting past the giants as quickly as he could. He didn’t look back, even as he finally found the road that led back out of the city and away from the giants. Jari rode until he came to the spot where he thought Loki had left them, though he could see no sign of him anywhere.
“You in there?” he called into the woods.
He still couldn’t hear or see Loki anywhere, so Jari got down off his pony and walked into the trees.
“I wouldn’t go in there if I were you,” Loki said suddenly from behind him.
Jari jumped at the sound of his voice and spun round to glare at him. “Why?” he asked.
Loki looked past him and frowned. “I think there’s a bear in there.” He looked around and frowned even harder. “Where’s my horse?”
“Damned if I know,” Jari said, going to fetch his own pony before it wandered off.
“Where’s my ale?” Loki asked.
“I didn’t get any,” Jari said stiffly, ignoring Loki’s obvious disappointment. “My brothers weren’t here.”
Loki looked back toward the city. “Are you sure?”
“They’re not suicidal,” Jari said as he climbed back into the saddle.
Loki laughed loudly. “That makes three of us,” he said.
Jari looked back at the city before shifting his attention toward the gate to Niðavellir, invisible in the distance. “They like to disappear like this. If they’ve been here before, they’d have gone in the other direction this time.”
Loki looked over his shoulder toward the gate as well and nodded. “That’s what I’d do,” he agreed. He clicked his tongue while he thought, still staring off into the distance. “I don’t often come out this far south, but I do believe we’re near the sea.”
“What’s that mean?” asked Jari.
Loki took the pony’s reins and began to lead it back toward the gate. “There might be a fishing village?” Loki tried with a shrug.
They travelled slowly, which allowed Odin to catch up with them just before they reached the gate. Since he said nothing as he re-joined their group, Jari could only assume it meant he found nothing on his search. Loki paid him little attention as he left Jari to return to Agmundr and attempted to climb into the saddle as if it were not already occupied.
“What are you doing here again?” Odin asked.
“Nothing. Move,” Loki said as he forced himself up onto the saddle in front of Odin, nearly knocking him off.
With all of them back on horseback, they picked up speed, riding across the gently sloping plain until they could smell saltwater on the air. They came to a stream and followed it south, though none of them seemed confident in the direction they’d picked. It seemed likely that Fjalar and Galar knew where they were going, while Jari and his companions were simply travelling on a hunch, following an unknown stream to an unknown destination.
“What’s that?” Loki said suddenly, pointing up ahead.
Jari tried to lift himself in his saddle to see over the pony’s head, but he couldn’t get high enough. When Loki picked up speed toward whatever it was he’d found, Jari followed with a pounding feeling of dread in his chest. As the breeze blew in from the sea, Jari could suddenly smell the unmistakable stench of rotting flesh as they drew upon a very shallow grave by the side of the stream.
“Well,” said Loki as he and Odin got down off the horse. “Now we know for certain that he’s dead.”
At his feet lay a man, barely buried in the mud. It wasn’t any man Jari recognised, but he still knew who it was without having to ask. Just like he knew his brothers had been the one to murder him.
Odin bent to search him, pulling him out of the mud and up onto the dry bank. Kvasir’s throat had been slit from ear to ear, as if to drain him completely dry. It was not an accidental killing. His brothers—if they were truly the man’s killer—had meant this man dead. Jari could only sit atop his pony and watch in horror as Odin stripped Kvasir of anything valuable.
“Shall we leave you?” Loki asked.
Odin was silent for a few moments. “No,” he said finally. “We haven’t the tools to bury or burn him anyway.”
Jari wanted to ask why Odin would go through so much trouble over a man he didn’t even care enough about to bury, but he didn’t want that attention on him. Not when Odin might demand a blood price from him that he would not wish to pay. Even Loki seemed uncomfortable with the situation as Odin climbed back onto the horse, but the three of them all remained silent. Their ride toward the sea went slowly, but soon they could hear the water breaking on the shore ahead. As they rode along the surf, they came upon broken planks and canvas as it washed up on the shore, spread out for a mile in each direction.
“Shipwreck?” asked Loki.
Odin hummed in a way that didn’t sound promising and got down off the horse. He looked up the coast to the village in the distance, and then out to sea. It was difficult to tell what hidden dangers may have laid beneath the surface, but the coast was flat and smooth in both directions, with a beach of small, brightly-coloured pebbles.
“Seems an odd place for it,” Loki said, giving voice to Jari’s own thoughts. “Odd time of year too.” He rode further up the coast, only to turn around and come back shortly after.
“The ship was sunk deliberately,” Odin said, dragging several long planks up onto the beach. At first, Jari wasn’t sure what he was supposed to see. They were wrecked planks from a wrecked ship, until he noticed the way the planks were broken; hacked apart with a hatchet or an axe.
“So what are you saying?” Loki asked.
“That something here isn’t right,” Odin said.
“Well, yes. Besides that,” Loki said.
He began walking down the beach, looking out over the water. Jari wanted to leave. Something about the place felt wrong, and every part of him knew he should not be there. If he stayed, something terrible and unspeakable would happen. Rather than following Odin, Jari rode up the way Loki had briefly gone. There was a small jetty between them and the village, and Jari rode toward that. He didn’t want to meet any more giants or hear what any of them had to say, but he had to go somewhere. Jari could hear Loki riding behind him, and he wished he would leave. Unlike Odin, Loki had no stake in this, and had no reason to be there beyond his own amusement. Jari hated that without him, he would not have made it as far as he had. He hadn’t known where to go, or who to talk to, or even what questions to ask. He might have been able to figure some of it out on his own, but he’d have never found the gate, or likely even survived the ride to it. And he hated Loki for it all the more.
As he came to the jetty, he got off his pony and walked out across the rocks. At first, he thought it might have been the light on the water, or part of the wrecked ship, but Jari realised he could see something else at the end of the jetty. Something that moved in the water unlike a stone, but didn’t move right with the water either. He walked closer, careful not to fall into the crashing waves, realising before he even got there what he had spotted. Jari saw the hair first, with the blue and silver threads braided in. He felt unable to breathe as he ran as fast as he could down the jetty, and fell to his knees before the grey and bloated bodies submerged beneath the rising tide.
“Damn you!” Jari shouted, slamming his fists against the water that had drowned his brothers. “Damn you both! Damn you!”
He shouted and cursed until his throat was raw, and he had no voice left to curse with. He had come so far, over such dangerous roads to save his brothers, only to find someone else had tied them to a jetty and left them to their deaths. And somehow, he knew it was their fault. They had brought this upon themselves, through whatever foul dealings had brought them to Jötunheimr in the first place.
Jari didn’t look up at the sound of quiet footsteps behind him, nor did he bother to look at Loki as he sat down on the rocks. Loki said nothing for a long time, and just left Jari to his grief.
“You said I’d have to prepare to go home empty handed,” Jari accused, still not able to look at him.
“I did,” said Loki regretfully. “Though this is not what I had in mind when I said it. Still, you have found them, in a way, and for that much you should be grateful.”
“It’s not natural,” Jari said. He looked at Fjalar’s bloated face beneath the water, and wondered how long his brothers had been tied to these rocks. “Dwarfs shouldn’t be above ground. Especially in death.”
“Then we’ll bury them,” Loki said simply. “Find a place. I’ll find the tools.”
Without another word, he got to his feet and walked back to shore. Jari watched as Loki and Odin spoke for a short while, before they both climbed atop Loki’s horse and rode toward the village. He knew very well that they could easily leave him behind, but Jari didn’t care. And while he would have expected as much from Odin, somehow he trusted Loki to come back, if only because he was only there for his own amusement.
Forgetting about Loki and Odin and the alien realm he was on, Jari began cutting his brothers free. He dragged them both along the jetty and laid them out on the beach next to one another. This was news he would have to take home with him. It would have been one thing to have gone home without being able to find Fjalar and Galar, but now he had to return home with the news they had been buried in unmarked graves on some nameless Jötunn beach. The burden of it was so heavy, Jari didn’t even have the energy to move his brothers above the tide mark, where their graves were less likely to be disturbed. Instead, he sat beside them, wondering what could have possibly been worth their fate; what they could have done that was so terrible. Somehow, Jari knew the wrecked ship played into it. If they were drowned on a jetty, there would have been a reason for it. Which only left Jari wondering what their reason might have been for sinking a ship and murdering a god.
Loki and Odin returned as the sun neared the horizon, with Odin carrying two shovels. When Loki got down, he tied both horses to the spike before approaching Jari, bottle of ale in his hand.
“Here?” he asked, pointing with the bottle.
Jari shook his head and pointed up to the grass. “I couldn’t do it,” he said shamefully.
Loki nodded and bent to pick up Galar. “Odin, get the other one,” he said.
“This is a waste of time,” Odin said instead.
Loki punched him hard in the shoulder. “Help, you miserable bastard,” he said.
Jari could tell there was more Loki wanted to say, but held back for whatever reason. Likely, for Jari’s sake. Jari couldn’t even watch as Odin and Loki carried his brothers up the hill to where the grass grew, and he had to force himself to get up to watch them be buried. Jari didn’t even know what he should say. It had all happened so suddenly that Jari could hardly believe any of it had happened at all. He said nothing as his brothers were buried by strangers, and still had nothing to say long after the deed was done. Even as Odin grew patient to leave, Jari remained silent.
“We should go. Get this over with,” Odin said.
Loki pushed one of the shovels into his hands. “We lose nothing by letting him grieve. Perhaps you should go bury your friend,” he said.
Odin looked from Loki to Jari before nodding and walking back toward the stream. When he was gone, Loki sat beside Jari on the grass and offered him the ale. Jari resisted for a moment, but took it, drinking greedily.
“You know something,” Jari said when he was done.
Loki nodded. “I do. Though I’m not sure you want to hear it.”
Jari already suspected he knew what Loki wasn’t telling him. “I want to hear it,” he said.
Loki nodded again. “Your brothers lured one of the men from the village out to sea. We don’t swim very well, and when they sank his boat, he drowned.”
“There were witnesses?” asked Jari.
“No,” said Loki. “But they confessed it loudly, before murdering the man’s widow. To that, there were witnesses. Your brothers stole something from Kvasir, and Odin suspects the man who killed your brothers may have taken it from them as weregild. He intends to go to the man’s farm to claim it back.”
Jari stared ahead at his brothers’ graves, wanting to know what sort of man would do this to them. “I would see him as well. Take me,” he said.
“It was a just killing,” Loki said. “He was the murdered couple’s son, and he had every right.”
“No. A just killing would have been to put them under the axe. Not leaving them to slowly drown, after claiming a blood price,” Jari shouted, getting to his feet. “You will take me when you go.”
“I wasn’t going to go at all, but I will go with you, if you wish it,” Loki said.
Jari didn’t. Not until he realised the alternative would be to go with Odin as his only company. “Yes,” he said, looking away again.
They waited for Odin to return before riding back inland, following an invisible path west. When they came to a sprawling grove, they tied the horses again and walked through the trees until they came to the edge of a farm being worked by Evlish and Vanir thralls. They watched as the men harvested the grain in the lazy way thralls worked when the master was away.
“Now what?” Loki asked as he crouched low to the ground. “Perhaps you can kill one and take his place. I could use a vacation from your sour mood.”
Unexpectedly, Odin got up and walked out toward the thralls as they worked.
“No, wait. That’s a terrible idea. Don’t actually do it!” Loki called after him. He laughed loudly enough to catch the thralls’ attention, before Odin called their attention to himself.
From the distance, Jari couldn’t hear what he said to them, but soon they all drew close to listen. Suddenly, Odin threw a whetstone into the air and stepped back. As the thralls all scrambled to be the first to get it, their scythes came down on one another, until one by one, they all fell dead in the field. Loki cackled riotously at the sight, barely able to hold himself up. Unexpectedly, Odin ran back to join them in the trees and silenced Loki with a hand over his mouth. No sooner had he done it, the door to the farmhouse opened, and a young girl stepped outside. They could hear her scream from across the field as she darted back inside, soon after replaced by an older man. He walked out to the field to find the dead thralls bleeding on the crops, and after briefly looking around, he found the whetstone on the ground. He threw it far across the field, and swearing, began to drag the dead workers away. As he worked, a second man walked up the path from Hvararharm, and after shouting loudly, helped the other clean up the mess.
“I’ll wait until nightfall before going to their house,” Odin said. “I should be able to convince them to let me stay if I help finish the field tomorrow. That should give me enough time to find the mead.”
“What is this mead?” asked Loki.
“What about us?” Jari asked, not caring about any mead.
Odin looked down at him. “You stay out of sight. Both of you,” he said, directing the last to Loki.
“Oh, yes. Because I’m the trouble maker here,” Loki said. “For once, I had nothing to do with this.”
Odin ignored him as they watched the two men clean up Odin’s mess and go back inside. As the sky fell completely dark, Odin got up and walked back through the trees and out of sight. Soon, he had circled around the grove and walked up the path to the house. There was just enough light for Jari to see him talking to one of the men before being taken in and disappearing inside. He waited and watched after that, not sure how much time Odin needed to do what he had gone in to do. Eventually, the lights from the house dimmed, and Jari realised they had all gone to sleep. Even Loki was already snoring away beside him, and Jari knew he would not have a better chance. He got up and moved quietly across the field, watching both the house and over his shoulder to be sure no one was watching him. As he reached the door, it swung wide open as one of the men stepped outside.
“Dwarf!” he shouted. He darted to his left toward the wood pile, but Jari was closer and got there faster, and pulled an axe free from its chopping block. Its haft was too long to be comfortable, but he swung it anyway. The blade caught in the man’s hip, cutting deep into the bone. He screamed as he tried to back away on a leg that would not hold him, but Jari swung again, catching him on the side of his neck. The man fell from beneath his blade, where Jari left him as he made his way inside. The second man made it to the door as Jari did, and without thinking, Jari swung for him as well. This man was more prepared than his brother had been, but his sword barely slowed the axe as it fell into his chest. Jari pulled it out and swung again, making sure the man was dead.
“You killed my brothers. Now I’ve killed you,” he said. He spat on the man at his feet and turned to see Loki standing in the path, holding his hands on his head and gaping.
“Well, I suppose I should have seen that coming,” Loki said, looking at the dead man on the floor.
“You were meant to be watching him!” Odin shouted from the other end of the house.
Loki only shrugged. “You never said that,” he said.
“Look what he’s done now!” Odin shouted, pointing to the dead man on the floor. “Look at the trouble he brings us!”
“Brothers for brothers. I’d say that’s fair,” Loki said, strangely calm.
It didn’t feel fair to Jari. These men’s deaths wouldn’t bring back his brothers, and now someone else would be mourning them and coming after him.
“Get him out of here,” Odin commanded. He began searching through the house, throwing anything that could be thrown. He left no corner ignored, becoming angrier and more violent with each minute his search continued. Finally, he found a door in the floor that led to a small larder beneath the ground, and from it, it pulled three large jars full of a dark red liquid.
“What is that?” Loki asked flatly. “If that’s what I think it is, please put it down.”
Odin did, but only long enough to open them.
“No, don’t you do it. That is blood from a person,” Loki said, pointing at Odin as he turned awkwardly away. “Oh, gods.”
Odin brought one of the jars to his mouth and drank greedily. Loki wretched and gagged, leaning against the wall for support as Odin drank all three of the jars dry. When he was done, he walked back through the house and pulled the girl from wherever she had been hiding.
“Get him out of here,” Odin repeated, pointing an angry finger to Jari. “I’ll take care of this mess of his, and he should consider it a favour.”
“Gladly,” said Loki with a heavy voice, before gagging again. “As long as I don’t have to see you do that ever again. Come on.” He grabbed Jari by the shoulder and led him back out across the field and into the trees.
Jari still carried the axe with him as they went, feeling too numb to even drop it. When Loki finally took it from him, he stopped strangely, as if surprised at what he saw.
“White steel,” he said, holding it up in the pale moonlight so it glinted like silver. “This isn’t supposed to leave the realm.” Rather than tossing it aside, Loki tied it to his saddle with his bow.
“Where are you going, now this is done?” asked Jari.
Loki looked down at him. “Taking you home,” he said. He looked over at Jari’s pony and sighed. “If you ride behind me, can you hold on and not fall off?” he asked.
Jari wasn’t sure that he could, but he nodded all the same. “What’s wrong with mine?” he asked.
“It’s too slow,” Loki told him, untying the pony and letting it go. “Agmundr can ride to Four Rivers in two days. If we go through Midgard and Vanaheimr, the journey from here to Rötgart can be done in five.”
It sounded like a lot of hard riding and little rest, but Jari nodded again. Suddenly, Loki picked him up and put him on the saddle, before climbing on himself. Loki waited just long enough to make sure everything was secure before running his horse back toward the gate and straight through it, without stopping to lead it through. It was day on the other side, though the sky was dark and heavy rain fell over the realm. The weather and slippery mud on the riverbank didn’t seem to bother Loki’s horse as it rushed upstream to the lake. Even as they came to the narrow pass, Loki kept riding. Agmundr seemed to almost skip across the wet, rocky path, jumping over obstacles and finding the easiest trail. Jari held tightly to Loki, not daring to look down at the stream beside them, lest seeing its calm waters made him fall into it.
Loki stopped when they came to the valley, sparing only enough time to feed and water the horse while he and Jari ate from their deer. When they got back onto the horse, Loki took a length of rope and tied it tightly around both their waists. Jari realised, as night began to fall, that Loki intended to ride through it. Though, if he thought Jari would be able to sleep, he was much mistaken. They rode by lantern light after that, while creatures prowled around them in the dark. Twice, Jari heard the screeching cries of gryphons above them, but Loki kept going until they reached the second pass. Jari thought for sure Loki would stop to wait until the sky was lighter, but he continued on despite the darkness. Every time the horse leapt suddenly or turned sharply on the path, Jari was certain they were about to fall into the water, but it never happened. Loki’s horse was sure-footed and swift, and seemed to know the ground beneath his hooves as if he had travelled this path a thousand times before.
Day broke on the horizon as they came out of the pass, and again, Loki stopped by the river to tend to Agmundr and to give himself and Jari a chance to briefly rest. Jari watched the horse, thinking he might have been too tired to see properly.
“Are there goats here?” he asked, looking at the cloven prints in the mud.
“Not even Jötunheimr has goats that big,” Loki said as he tended to the horse.
Jari looked back down at the prints and realised their size. He also saw the lack of C-shaped prints in the mud. Their earlier tracks had all been washed away by the rain, but there were no new tracks from the return journey. Jari looked up at Agmundr, seeing nothing goat-like about him.
“What kind of horse is this?” he asked.
Loki walked around to Agmundr’s side and lifted one of his cloven hooves to show Jari. “Jötunn mountain pony,” he said before helping Jari up into the saddle again.
They carried on again, and as they rode, Jari wondered how events might have changed if he hadn’t got a pony of his own. If they hadn’t had to go at his and Odin’s pace to get to Jötunheimr. Might they have caught up with his brothers before they were killed? Or were they already dead by the time he met Loki?
They reached Four Rivers at dusk, but Loki didn’t stop there, instead riding around the city and to the east. There, they came to another gate, this one a carved stone arch. On the other side, they stepped into the middle of a ring of stone arches, eight in total, in the middle of a grassy plain surrounded by mountains on all sides. Each arch was carved from a single stone, and decorated with intricate animals, all twisting and twining around one another. Each arch was different, and must have been decorated with animals unique to the realms they led to, Jari realised.
Loki took them through one of the other arches, which opened onto a tall mountain overlooking a wide fjord, with the sun high above in the pale sky. Jari no longer knew which days were the proper ones anymore, but they rode until nightfall all the same. When they came to a lake, Loki tied his horse and set a proper camp. It was the first bit of real rest Jari had been afforded since arriving in Jötunheimr. Even if he wanted to dwell on all that had happened over the last few weeks, he didn’t have the energy to stay awake to do so.
He woke to another two days off riding with little rest. It was a path Loki seemed to know well, and one that took them over a volcanic plain. Agmundr kicked up black ash and sand as he ran across it, him and Loki knowing where the safe paths to the other side were. As they passed over the new realm, Jari wished he could have seen it under better circumstances. He wished he had time to appreciate it, like he had his first night on Jötunheimr. Even then, he wished he’d got to see more of Jötunheimr. All his life, he had only known what was within his mountain home. Now, after seeing what lay just beyond their gates, he thought he could understand why Fjalar and Galar liked to wander off like they had. There were old tales, of a time before when travel between realms happened more freely. Tales of adventure and glory that had long been forgotten on Niðavellir. Jari wondered if maybe that glory was still found elsewhere, and if that was what his brothers sought when they left Rötgart.
Suddenly, Jari wanted to taste that glory for himself, even though he knew he couldn’t. His place was in the mines, and he would soon have to return there.
At the end of the second day of almost continuous riding, Loki brought them to a city on the sea. Making it clear that this was where Loki intended to end the ride, he left Agmundr in the stables before wandering out to the heart of the city. Some people here seemed wary of his presence, but Jari was also reminded of the alehouse in Four Rivers, with the way many of the people they passed on the streets seemed resigned to Loki’s presence amongst them.
“Come here often?” asked Jari.
Loki laughed tiredly. “There are people I come here to do business with. Not as often as I used to, however.”
This city seemed older than Four Rivers; sturdier. Many of the buildings were built with stone, or at least had high stone foundations. Even the street they walked along was paved in cobblestone, rather than the muddy dirt roads of Four Rivers. Soon, Jari realised he was being led to the sea. The port was alive with activity of sailors and merchants coming and going, loading and unloading their ships. As they walked down the gangway, Loki muttered something to himself about sail colours, before finally stopping at a ship laden with crates of apples and bags of potatoes.
“Are you going to Rötgart today, my friend?” Loki called out.
The captain of the ship was a dwarf Jari thought he might have recognised. He looked up to Jari and Loki and nodded.
“I suppose you’re needing a lift?” he asked.
“Not today. My friend, however, does,” Loki said, nudging Jari forward toward the ship.
The ship’s captain nodded and stepped forward. “I’m not a ferry, boy. But just this once,” he said, holding out his hand.
Loki paid him in Jötunn gold. The coins were as big around as the dwarf’s hand, but he pocketed them without checking to be sure they were real.
“Listen to Andvari,” Loki told Jari. “When he tells you do to something, do it.”
Jari nodded, eyeing the ship nervously. “You’re not going?” he asked.
Loki shook his head. “I have business to attend to. He’ll take you home.”
“Thank you. For everything,” Jari said.
Loki smiled oddly, like there was some secret Jari didn’t know. “Don’t thank me yet,” he said before turning away, leaving only with a parting wink to Andvari.
“You coming or going?” asked Andvari once Loki had left.
Jari nodded again and tried to figure out how to step into the ship. “Coming, yes,” he said. He managed to hold onto the side and pull himself in, though not without nearly falling into the water below. The rocking motion in the water made him feel like he was about to fall over, so he sat down before he could make too big of a fool of himself. Andvari still laughed at him, but Jari figured it was better to be laughed at than to be laughed at after falling on his backside.
Before too long, the crew of rowers boarded the ship, and Jari was told to sit at the prow, out of the way. As they left port, the rocking of the boat became even worse, making Jari want to be sick. He hugged his knees as they went out to sea, ignoring the way the sky rocked precariously above them. So preoccupied was he with not losing what little he’d eaten that day, Jari didn’t even notice anything amiss until he heard the splash of water to his left, and saw Andvari was gone, and the rowers had all brought in their oars. When the ship lurched hard to one side, Jari thought for certain he had been led to some horrible trap. But then the sky and sea changed all around them, and Jari recognised the effects of going through a gate. That this one was apparently under water made no difference. The realm they were in now was Niðavellir, and there was no doubt about it. Rain fell hard from the sky, threatening to fill their boat and sink it. As one of the rowers pulled a giant pike from the sea, the others all quickly raised a greased canvas over the ship to keep the rain out. Not sure what to do, Jari tried to just stay out of the way as much as possible.
When the pike shifted and twisted back into Andvari, he quickly pulled his breeches back on and lifted his head out from under the canvass to guide the rowers across rough seas. Soon, the rain stopped falling on them, and Jari could hear the sounds of commerce all around him. The rowers quickly pulled the canvas back again, revealing them to be in Rötgart’s port.
“Out. Quickly,” Andvari barked, shooing Jari away.
Climbing out of the ship was no easier than climbing in, but Jari managed to make it onto the pier without making too much of a fool of himself. Around him, the ship was quickly unloaded and Andvari was paid by the merchant the goods were delivered to. Somewhere in the distance, a bell rang loudly, echoing over the cave walls that made up Rötgart’s port.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Tide’s going out,” Andvari said as he and his rowers got back into the ship. “That means it’s time for us to go.”
Without another word, they undocked from the pier and ventured back out to the rain. Jari stayed where he was, watching the few other boats still in port leave the same way. He had only been up to the port a few times, and never during daylight. Watching the tide rush out from the cave, he suddenly understood the scrambling hurry to leave. The water quickly drained from the cave, and in less than half an hour, the piers were useless to anyone, jutting out from stone high above the thrashing waves. Jari sat and watched until the tide receded completely, showing the cave floor far below. All around him, shops at the port closed up, having no use when they were cut off as they were.
By the time Jari got up to make his way back home, the sky had darkened. The little of it he could see from the pier was black and empty, and Jari realised he already missed the stars. He thought of Aldís and Arndís in the Jötunn sky, and wondered if they only ushered Jötunn souls, or if they had accepted Fjalar and Galar onto their plane. Or if they had rejected them, and sent them instead to feed Niðhöggr at Yggdrasil’s roots.
As he reached the door to his mother’s house above the forge, Jari decided he would spare her that much sorrow when he delivered his news.
After only a week in the mines, Jari realised he’d come to hate it. He hated the monotony and the tedium. Always the same stories and the same faces. Always the same grey walls. No gold or gem bright or big enough brought him the joy it once had. He found himself wandering out to the port at night, rather than to the mead hall. Despite the level of the tide, the port was always quiet at night. The seas were too dangerous to pilot in the dark, and none were foolish enough to try. It afforded Jari some much-needed quiet that he couldn’t get elsewhere in the city. Even going back to his mother’s made him feel sick and restless. He sometimes wondered if he was imagining the feeling that she blamed him for Fjalar and Galar’s deaths. Sometimes, he didn’t think he was imagining it at all. When his father had gone to fetch them in the past, he always brought them home alive. Jari couldn’t even bring them home.
He wished he could leave again, but he didn’t know where he would go. Few ships took passengers back to Vanaheimr, and he could never seem to find Andvari again during the rare chances he got to look. He supposed he could have gone back to Four Rivers. Maybe take the gate to Midgard. But he didn’t want to return to Four Rivers. There was nothing for him there, and he wouldn’t know where to go once he got to Midgard anyway.
So he went out to the port and watched for stars that weren’t there. He wondered if Niðavellir had its own guardians, hidden behind the clouds. He wondered what they would have been called if they were there.
As he wondered, he was surprised by footsteps approaching him from behind. When he turned, he was met with one of the old smiths who seemed determined to keep working until Ragnarök.
“Ivaldi,” Jari greeted.
“I thought I’d find you out here,” Ivaldi said. He held a large parcel, wrapped in a heavy wool cloth. Though in the darkness, Jari couldn’t tell what it might have been. “Some eternal pain in my bollocks has asked me to give something to you,” he said, handing over the parcel.
Jari took it, looking up at Ivaldi and searching for any more information. Getting none, he knelt down on the peer and unwrapped the parcel. As the lightstone lamp caught the blade with a silver shine, Jari felt his breath leave him.
“White steel,” Ivaldi said. “It’s forbidden to take it from Jötunheimr. So naturally, you find the stuff everywhere.”
“So I’ve been told,” said Jari as he picked up the axe. It had a new haft, thicker and shorter to better suit dwarven hands, but he recognised the long, curved blade. It had felt heavy and unwieldy when he’d used it on Jötunheimr, but now it only felt right. “Thank you,” he said lowly.
Ivaldi laughed. “Use it well. And don’t get caught with it,” he said before turning to leave again.
Jari looked down at the blade, wondering what had possessed Loki to give it to him. He had murdered two men with it, and now it was presented as a gift. For a moment, Jari almost wanted to hurl it into the sea, until he caught the runes stamped into the inner curve of the axe’s blade. Silverblade. Jari ran his fingers over them, realising the axe was meant as a message, and one he was all too eager to answer.