I have no idea what I'm doing

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Loki: God of Outcasts | Tales of Yggdrasil: Niðhöggr

They had known to expect the heat, but they had not expected it to be quite as hot as it was.  At first, Fenris thought it might have been the shock of travelling so quickly from trudging through knee-deep snow, to trudging across dry, red dirt under Múspelheimr’s twin suns.  But he soon realised that Múspelheimr was just plain hot.  Hotter than he had ever been told to expect.  There was no shock involved, and he could have spent his entire life within the realm and it would still be too hot.  It was as if he had fallen asleep before the fire, and was in the throes of a fever dream, unable to wake and throw his blankets off.

But he knew it was real, because his brother trudged along beside him, every bit as sweaty and miserable.  Jörmungandr had tied his hair in a messy knot on top of his head to escape from some of the heat, but it wasn’t long before the fair, freckled skin on his neck began to grow red.

“Either someone will see your ears and murder us for them, or your neck will grow so red, you’ll catch fire,” Fenris said, glancing at him sideways.

Jörmungandr took a deep breath, tilting his head back until it fell limp.  “If I did catch fire, I don’t think I’d even notice,” he said heavily.

The suns above them had not moved across the sky since their arrival to the realm.  Sól and Ljót rose and set only once a year, baking the realm for half of it, and freezing it in their absence for the other half.  The entire realm was red, as if on fire and ever burning, with no water for miles to quench the flames.  Large, painted mountains loomed in the distance, but gave no landmark to the unfamiliar traveller, stretching on endlessly across the horizon.  Fenris and Jörmungandr hadn’t seen a road since crossing the gate from Midgard, and had not seen food or water since leaving Jötunheimr.  Everything on the realm was dead and dry, unwelcoming to even those few who did live there.

“We should go back,” said Fenris, struggling for breath.  “Apologise.  Perhaps he’ll even let us live.”

“Or perhaps he would slay us on sight,” said Jörmungandr.  He swayed in his steps, nearly stumbling to the ground, and leaned against Fenris to regain his balance before distancing himself again so they both might breathe easier.

“It would be better than dying in this endless furnace,” Fenris said, trudging on along.

“Shut up,” Jörmungandr said as he stopped.

Fenris kept walking, knowing that if he stopped, he might never be able to start walking again.  “Either way, my death will be on your hands,” he said.

“Shut up,” Jörmungandr said again, peering off to their right.  He shaded his eyes with his hand and squinted against the suns, trying to find something that wasn’t there.  “Do you hear that?”

Fenris stopped and listened as well, realising he could hear something or someone moving and grunting in the distance.  He stepped closer to Jörmungandr and looked out over the desert toward where his brother was gazing.  He thought he could even see movement in the distance, though everything seemed to swim and dance strangely on the realm.  He had many times seen water in giant pools, only to find nothing but dry, cracked land when they later reached the spot.

“It’s a boar,” he said, barely able to make out its shape as it shimmered in and out of view.

“Not only that, it’s alive.  If we follow it, it may lead us to water,” Jörmungandr said, already walking toward it.

“Or we can eat it,” Fenris said, feeling tired and off-balance from both heat and hunger, though he wasn’t sure which would kill him first.

He followed after his brother, finding a renewed energy he hadn’t had in him two minutes before.  The wind was against them, and tracking the boar from upwind made the already difficult task even more strenuous.  Every time they got close, it would run ahead again, nearly disappearing in the phantom mist.  By the time they could see a squat, clay house in the distance, they had tracked the boar for what felt like half a day, if not more.  Though they were no strangers to midnight sun, Fenris still wasn’t sure how much he could trust his own sense of time.  He didn’t know if they had been in Múspelheimr for four days or four hours, and didn’t know how much longer they were likely to have to travel before finding one of the realm’s few cities.

At first, Fenris thought the water he saw in the near distance was more of the illusive shimmering, but it kept its form as they drew nearer.  The boar walked along the edge of the lake, snorting and grunting as it pressed its snout to the ground and dug into the dirt at the water’s edge.  But Fenris forgot all about the boar and rushed toward the water instead.  He dropped at the bank, but as he scooped up the murky water in his hands, Jörmungandr slapped his hands and spilled the water.

“Don’t drink it,” he said, looking back to the boar.

“Why?” Fenris demanded, his throat aching with the effort of speech.  “Why should I wait? So you can have the first drink, and suck the lake dry?”

Jörmungandr still watched the boar.  “Why would an animal trek across a desert to water, but not drink it?” he asked.

It was a fine question indeed, but Fenris couldn’t understand why he was being asked it.  “What?” he asked.

Jörmungandr pointed to the boar.  “It doesn’t drink.  Look.”

Fenris looked toward the boar as his brother knelt down beside him.  Jörmungandr dipped his fingers into the lake and brought them up to taste them, only to immediately spit the small amount of water back out again.

“Saltwater,” he explained.

Fenris tasted the water as well, nearly gagging as it touched his tongue.  He thought perhaps there was more salt than water in the lake as he tried to scrape it from his tongue with the back of his hand.  Whimpering helplessly, he looked over to his brother, and then back to the boar.  He was tired and he was exhausted, but he could think of no other option for them, unless they wished to die under the suns of Múspelheimr.  For a moment, he looked out over the lake as he weighed his options.  The water spread clear to the horizon and beyond, shimmering in the sun.  No waves played on the surface, and none broke on the shore.  It was still like a pond, but as big as a sea.  It may as well have been a sea of glass for all the use it was to them.

“I’m having it,” Fenris said suddenly, getting to his feet and shedding his clothes as quickly as he could.  If the boar couldn’t lead them to water, it could at least feed them.

“Brother, you’re not thinking clearly,” Jörmungandr said, though he did nothing to stop him.

Fenris gathered what strength he had to make the change, and found it more painful and drawn out than usual.  The wolf was the only form he knew, and assuming it as exhausted as he was took more strength than he was used to, twisting his body and changing his bones.  Ordinarily, it was a matter of seconds to shift his body’s shape, but exhausted and starving, it took much longer than that.  When the change was complete, he fell over onto his side just to breathe and watch the boar as it dug around the water’s edge.  Before it got too far away again, Fenris forced himself to his feet and ran, stretching sore and tired muscles to the point of pain.  On four long legs, he was faster than the boar, and easily outpaced it.  But the boar had tusks, and when it realised it could not outrun its pursuer, it turned to fight.  It lunged and snapped, and had it faced an ordinary wolf it might have prevailed.  But though Fenris was smaller than an ordinary Jötunn wolf, he was smarter and able to confuse the boar and wrestle it off its feet before digging his sharp fangs into the beast’s soft neck.  It squealed and kicked and fought even as its life drained from it, refusing to go easily and wearing Fenris out even more.  Not waiting for it to die, Fenris tore from its flesh, letting the boar’s warm blood quench his thirst.  As the boar’s life faded and ended, Fenris gorged himself on it, not hearing his brother approach until he dropped Fenris’s clothes to the ground.

“You vomit and complain every time you do this,” he said as he sat down on the hard ground.

Fenris’s mouth was so full of his kill, he could barely growl in retort.

“We should at least cook it,” Jörmungandr said.

This time, Fenris did growl before tearing another chunk of meat off with his teeth.

Shaking his head, Jörmungandr got back up and walked around, picking up dried scrub and brush from the ground around them.  There wasn’t enough to build a lasting fire, but it would be enough to cook some of the meat if he built the fire close enough to where the boar lay.  While Jörmungandr busied himself with that, Fenris forced himself away from the boar.  It was easy to eat too much and risk bursting his stomach when he changed back, and avoiding it was a trick he had never quite managed to master.  Certain he had again overdone himself, he lay on the ground and watched as his brother built a small fire and cooked the boar as well as he could with the weak flames he was able to nurture on dried grass and scrub.

“It must drink something,” Jörmungandr said eventually as he cut a strip of meat from the boar.  As he ate, he looked out over the lake thoughtfully.  “It can’t drink the saltwater, surely.”

Fenris grumbled, determined not to vomit despite the almost painful tightness in his belly.  He couldn’t speak in this form, but even if he could, he didn’t think he’d want to.

“You’ve done it again, haven’t you?” asked Jörmungandr.

Fenris grumbled again, and Jörmungandr laughed and reached out to scratch him behind his wolf ears.  Not even having the energy to snap at him for it, Fenris only grumbled again and swatted at him with one paw.

“Who’s a good puppy?” Jörmungandr asked, ruffling Fenris’s fur.

This time, Fenris snarled and snapped at him before he squirmed away as far as he could and let himself bake under the suns.  His dark fur only seemed to make the suns’ heat even hotter, so he rolled over onto his side and changed back into the form of a man, holding his stomach and trying not to be sick.

“Can we go home?” he asked sickly.  “This place is worse than any punishment Þrymr could deliver.”

“No.  Not yet,” Jörmungandr said.  He looked out to the mountains in the distance as the fire burnt itself out at his feet.  “We could go try to lodge with the woman Dad fancies.”

“We can’t go to Asgard,” Fenris said, wondering why his brother thought Odin’s wrath as a better thing than Þrymr’s.

“No, not our stepmother, you idiot,” Jörmungandr said.

“Well, I’m not staying with the trolls,” Fenris said.

Jörmungandr sighed tiredly.  “Not her either, you fool.  The The elf woman.”

Fenris thought about it for a long moment.  “I thought he married her.”

“No.  Not the one he bought.  The one with the farm,” Jörmungandr said before Fenris could say anything further.   “What the hel’s her name?  She threatened to cut your bollocks off because she thought you were fucking her goats.”

“Oh, yes.  Her,” he said, suddenly remembering the strange relationship the father had with the woman.  “I never fucked her goats.  I fucked her sister.”

Jörmungandr rolled his eyes and tore more flesh from the boar.

“Yes, she’s always been kind to us,” Fenris said, ignoring the fact that he was being ignored.  “She might even give us work.”

“I never said I wanted work.  I just said we could go there,” Jörmungandr said bitterly, trying to coax the fire into cooking the side of the boar just a little more before it snuffed itself out completely.

Fenris could feel his skin beginning to burn as he lay on the ground.  He could see the freckles on his shoulder, and wondered if it was just his imagination, or if he was actually getting more of them.  Moving sluggishly and with the knowledge that if he stayed where he was for much longer he may not regain the strength to rise again, Fenris slowly trudged over to the salty lake and fell onto his back into the water.  It was warm, and did little to cool him, but he stayed there all the same.

“We need to move,” Jörmungandr said suddenly.  “Fenris, get dressed.”

“We can wait until nightfall,” Fenris argued, wondering how many months until Múspelheimr would see such a thing.

“Fenris, get your furry ass out of the water and get dressed,” Jörmungandr said urgently as he leapt to his feet and began scattering the remains of their fire.

Fenris could hear the desperate terror in his brother’s voice, and with it found a new bout of energy.  He quickly climbed out of the water, trying to shake himself dry and rub the salt off his skin.  As he scrambled to find all of his discarded clothes, Fenris noticed a man in the distance, calling out as he walked along the lake.  He couldn’t hear the words being shouted across the desert, but even from the distance, he could see the unmistakable shape of large, sweeping horns atop the man’s head.  Suddenly, Fenris remembered the house in the distance, and felt every ounce of Jörmungandr’s panic.  It had not occurred to him until that moment that the boar did not drink from the lake because it had a ready supply of fresh water somewhere else.  And the person who controlled that water was now walking straight toward them.  Worse, he was no man at all.  He was a giant, and Fenris had had quite enough of giants for the day.

“You don’t think?” he asked, struggling to pull on his breeches.

“I do think, which is why we must leave,” Jörmungandr said.

Their scrambling had attracted the attention of the man, and soon his pace had quickened toward them.  As he ran along the bank and drew nearer, Fenris realised their assailant was bigger than any giant he had ever seen on Jötunheimr.  He looked around frantically, unable to remember where they had come from.  The desert was an endless, flat sprawl, offering little protection or shelter.  Even if they did manage to outrun the giant, they would not be able to hide.  Having few other options, they simply picked a direction and ran.  But their flight only incited the giant further.  He ran after them, gaining on them quickly with long strides.  Fenris wished he had not changed back from his wolf form, knowing he’d have been able to out pace the giant on four legs.  But he didn’t have the time to waste, and when the giant caught up with them, he picked them both up off the ground by their necks and held them up to his face.

Fenris and Jörmungandr struggled against his grip, slowly choking from the weight of their own bodies.  Fenris managed to grab onto the giant’s wrist and pull himself up enough to allow himself to breathe, and looked up at the giant who meant to murder them.  He had hair like a pony’s mane, long and black, with the sides shorn and showing tattoos on his blood red skin, and a long scar that reached almost to his eye.  On the same side, his horn was bent and crooked from repeated breaks.  The same horn that was right above Fenris’ head, and which could easily crack his skull open if the giant chose to.  If Fenris had seen the man’s face before, he would never have followed the boar in the first place.

“Troll children,” he spat.

“We’re not trolls,” Fenris said, struggling to hold on.

“Have you run out of livestock to kill in your own realm, that you’ve had to come here to do it?” asked the giant.

Fenris looked to his brother, but Jörmungandr was too busy trying to keep breathing to say anything.

“We didn’t know it was yours,” Fenris pleaded.  “We can pay.  We have gold.”

“I don’t want your filthy troll gold,” the giant shouted as he threw both of them to the hard ground.

Fenris knew he should run, but he couldn’t even find his feet.  His throat burned even more than it had before, and he had no strength left in his arms at all.  Beside him, Jörmungandr choked and coughed into the dirt as he struggled to find his breath again.

When the giant turned away, Fenris thought he might actually leave them.  He dodged out of the way of the giant’s long tail as swung it around, and for one glorious, shining second, he thought they might be able to get away from this new problem.  But it was a short-lived relief. The giant only turned away to grab a large stone from the ground before raising it into the air and stepping closer again.

“No, wait,” Jörmungandr said, struggling to get up and pull Fenris with him.  Fenris stayed on the ground, trying to shield his face with his arms.

“It’s just a boar.  We can replace it.  We’ll bring you two,” Jörmungandr insisted desperately.

“That sow gave me a new litter every morning.  Since we won’t be having boar tonight, my daughters will have to settle for troll,” the giant said.  “Did you kill it before you raped it, or after?”

Knowing he couldn’t run, Fenris curled up as tightly as he could, covering his head with his arms.

“I didn’t fuck the pig!” Fenris said, daring to look up at the giant.

“Goats!” Jörmungandr shouted suddenly.

Fenris was so startled, he forgot he was trying to protect himself, and looked up at his brother.  Jörmungandr seemed to have startled and confused the giant as well.  He stood there, holding his stone and looking between the two of them.

“What would I want with goats?” the demanded.

“Björn’s goats,” Jörmungandr said, looking to Fenris again.  “You’ve seen it.  After he kills them, he brings them back.  We can get you that magic.”

“Yes!” Fenris agreed.  

He doubted that they actually could, since Björn’s talent with magic was minimal at best.  But if they could convince the giant they could get it, they could at least escape; flee to Niðavellir or Álfheimr and put Múspelheimr far behind them.

“You expect me to believe that?” the giant asked, laughing.  “I’d rather eat troll.”

“No, we can,” Jörmungandr insisted.  “Just let us go, and we can bring it back to you.”

The giant shook his head.  “You must think I’m stupid,” he said, raising his stone again.

“You need only the bones, and we left those unbroken.  My brother and I will go to Björn to find how to bring the boar back, and return here with that magic,” Jörmungandr said with a confidence that made him sound like their father.  He hardly seemed to notice the stone at all.

The giant turned and looked back toward what was left of the boar.

“And until then, there still remains plenty of meat for supper,” Jörmungandr pointed out.

The giant sighed and grabbed both of them by the necks again and dragged them across the desert, back to the boar.

“Pick it up,” he demanded, dropping them again. “Wasteful, filthy trolls.”

He stood over them as they lifted the torn and mangled remains of the boar.  They had not eaten much of the large animal, but if the rest of the giant’s family were all as big as he was, the boar alone may not have been big enough to feed them all.  Fenris looked to Jörmungandr as they carried the beast across the desert, but his brother seemed just as lost for ideas of escape as he.

The house in the desert was squat, for a giant’s house, and dug halfway into the ground.  There were no windows, and outside it was a large steel kettle with a tight lid, and iron pipes leading back into the house.  Jörmungandr and Fenris took the boar inside, walking precariously down large steps.  Inside, the air was considerably cooler, with no fire burning in the empty hearth, or windows to let in the heat from outside.  On the other end of the house, four women — one older than the rest — braided one another’s hair.  The older of the four looked up at the as they entered and frowned, quickly turning her consternation to her husband.

“Ægir, what have you brought into this house?” she demanded.

“Trolls,” he said, pushing Jörmungandr and Fenris toward the centre of the room.  “They’ve killed our boar.  I’ll kill one tonight and make the other fish until it drops dead.”

“We can bring the boar back,” Fenris insisted.

“We know Björn of Asgard.  He has this magic,” Jörmungandr said.  “All you need are the boar’s bones.  Strip them and dry them, but do not break them.  We can go to Björn and learn his magic and bring it back here to you.”

Ægir laughed.  “Yes, I know Björn.  Slayer of giants.  Isn’t that what they call that little halfbreed whelp?” he asked.

Jörmungandr grit his teeth as he pulled off his tunic.  The Jötnar of Múspelheimr were still Jötnar, and had many of the same rituals as their cousins from Jötunheimr.  Ægir had more bands tattooed around his forearms than could easily be counted, and so many crests and totems on his bare chest that he had run out of room in the usual places and wore some on his scalp.  If he didn’t believe their words, he would at least have to believe what he saw.  Jörmungandr wore his sister’s band on his right arm, and his brother’s wolf and his father’s fox on his chest.  And on his side, he wore Björn’s hammer.  Ægir stood silently, staring at the image of Mjölnir as Jörmungandr stared back up at him defiantly.

“Rán,” Ægir said finally, barely looking away long enough to address her.

She got up and walked closer, looking first to Jörmungandr, and then to her husband.  The two of them looked at one another for a long moment, having a silent conversation in the way of married couples.

“I would rather not eat troll,” Rán said finally.

Ægir nodded.  “Where’s Bára?” he asked.

“Outside, watering the horse,” Rán said.

“Fetch her,” said Ægir.  “And tell the rest to get ready to go to the lake.”

Rán nodded and left, and it was only then that Jörmungandr put his tunic back on.  He continued to glare up at Ægir, making Fenris wish he could do something to ease the situation without making it worse or getting himself killed.  But all he could do was stand there and watch the two of them size one another up.

“One of you stays,” Ægir said finally.

“I will,” said Jörmungandr before Fenris even had the chance to consider the choices.

Ægir turned his attention from Jörmungandr to Fenris then, making him wish he was still being ignored.  “If you do not return with this magic, he dies,” Ægir said simply.

Fenris nodded stiffly.  “And when I do, we both go free,” he said, trying not to make it sound like a question.

“Only if you bring the magic, and the magic works.  On the entire boar,” Ægir said.

Fenris nodded again, knowing what Ægir meant.  As an ordinary boar, it was just as useless to him and his family as a dead boar.  Fenris could barely tell where Ægir’s tattoos began and ended, but even if half his family was living, he still had many mouths to feed.  Before Fenris could say anything to assure Ægir he would return with the magic, the door opened again and a young giantess stepped inside.  She was only slightly shorter than her father, and her head was completely shorn on one side, while her dark hair on the other was braided tightly against her scalp so it fell neatly behind her neck.  Like her mother, she wore only a thin, linen wrap that stopped at her knees, but her dark skin kept her from burning beneath the hot suns.

“Father, what is that?” she asked, standing near the stairs.  She stared at Jörmungandr and Fenris, making no effort to conceal her disgust with their presence in her home.

“Bára, fetch your sword.  Take this runt to Asgard,” Ægir said, pointing to Fenris.

Bára still stared at Jörmungandr and Fenris.  “Why?” she asked.

“They killed the boar, and they claim they can restore it.  Either you return with that magic, or prepare to eat troll and fish until winter,” Ægir said.  He picked up the boar and slung it over his shoulder as he walked to the door.  “If the troll tries to escape, kill it.”  He walked back outside, slamming the door behind him.

Bára finally looked away from Jörmungandr and Fenris to look at the spilled blood on the floor where the boar had been.  “When I said I was tired of boar, this is not what I meant,” she said with a sigh.  She turned her glare back to Fenris and tugged hard on his shoulder.  “Come, troll.”

Fenris followed after, expecting her to walk out into the desert toward the gate, but instead she walked around behind the house to a small stable behind it.  She took up one of the few swords leaning in a corner and buckled the belt around her waist as if she were preparing for battle.  Its blade was a long as Fenris was tall, steel gleaming in the sunlight.

She walked inside the stable, toward the massive horse that lived there.  Fenris looked up at the beast and stepped back from it as far as he could without leaving the stable.

“Two things,” he said as Bára began dressing it.

“What?” she asked tersely.

“One.  My father has a pony, and it’s too big for me to ride.  I’m not getting on that,” he said, pointing straight at the horse’s face.  “And two, how do you propose to get it to Asgard? It won’t fit through the gate.”

Bára stopped with the blanket halfway on the horse.  “Is this the truth, troll?” she asked.

Fenris stalled uncertainly.  “You’ve never been to the gates?” he asked.

“I’ve never had reason,” said Bára.  “Surely they open, as gates do.”

Fenris shook his head.  “Well, I suppose you could get it through if you smashed the arch, but if you went around smashing gate arches, you’d wind up with elves being devoured by white bears, and dragons burning up dwarfs, and Norns know what else.  If you had gryphons here, you wouldn’t even have had a boar for us to kill.”

“What’s a gryphon?” asked Bára.

“It’s a mountain cat that someone put wings on,” Fenris answered simply.  “They like to eat horses and people, but will settle for anything on legs.”

Perhaps not horses like Bára’s, but she didn’t know that.  She looked to her horse warily and put the blanket back where she’d taken it from.  “Then we walk,” she decided.

“Do we have anything to drink?” asked Fenris, knowing what had caused the entire mess in the first place.  His throat still burned, and the longer he stood under the suns, the more tired he could feel himself growing.

Bára hesitated thoughtfully before taking two large water skins and filling them from the horse trough.  Rather than offering one to Fenris, she tied them both to her belt and walked back out to the desert.

“Where’s mine?” Fenris asked.

“This will keep you close,” Bára said.

Fenris rolled his eyes and followed.  “You must think so little of us,” he said, not needing the incentive to do as he promised he would.  Not when his brother already had an axe held over his head.  “Damn giants go around squashing us like ants.  If they don’t decide they’d rather screw our women instead.”

“Has society fallen so far on Jötunheimr that it’s now common to bed trolls?” asked Bára.  “I always thought it was trolls who stole Jötunn women.”

Fenris groaned tiredly.  “At least I don’t have a tail,” he said.

 Bára looked down at her tail, frowning deeply.  Then, she strode on with an even faster pace. 

“Stop talking, troll,” she said.

“I’m still not a troll,” Fenris said, reaching up to scratch at the whiskers that grew on his chin and gave away his lies.

He walked behind Bára as they journeyed back across the desert to the gate to Midgard.  The suns beat down on them, and soon Fenris found his steps coming as uneasily as they had when he walked with his brother.  He was still tired and parched, and being back out in the heat only brought it all up to the surface again.

“I need water,” he said, sitting heavily on the ground.

“How much farther is it?” asked Bára, looking ahead over the endless desert.

“Don’t know.  Don’t care.  Water,” Fenris said.

Bára looked down at him, first with incredulity, and then with alarm.  She knelt in front of him and placed her hand over the side of Fenris’ face, grimacing when her palm dragged over his whiskers.  Fenris wanted to pull back, but she tilted his head up to look at his face, holding onto him tightly.

“Here.  Drink,” she said, handing him one of the water skins.

Knowing there was another full skin, and more beyond that once they reached Asgard, Fenris drank greedily.  He drained half of the water skin, wetting the front of his tunic in the process, before finally gasping for air and leaning back on his elbows.  His throat and chest still burned, but it was a comfortable burn, and one he welcomed.  He handed the skin back as he caught his breath and looked out over the distant mountains on the horizon.

“Where do you get the water?” he asked, only then realising he had not been given saltwater.

Bára hesitated before answering, as if not sure she should tell him at all.  “My father has found a way to make ale from the water in the lakes.  Before we brew, half of the clean water goes to the animals,” she said.

“So you live off of boar and ale?” asked Fenris.  He pulled himself up to his feet and stretched his aching muscles, wondering how long it would take him to grow tired of boar every day.

“We sometimes eat fish, but it’s dry and salty.  People die from eating too much of it,” Bára said.

Fenris watched one of the phantom pools glimmer in the distance before continuing toward the gate once more.  He wondered what fish on Múspelheimr must be like, to survive in a realm that never saw rain except for once every few years.  Jötnar were hardy, and survived much that would kill even the Æsir.  If the fish of the realm were unsafe for even Jötnar to eat, they must have been the deadliest creatures in all the realms.  Fenris wondered if Ægir would feed Jörmungandr fish, and if not, what else his brother might have to eat if it took too long to fetch the magic from Björn.

They walked across the desert in silence after that, while the suns stayed on their stationary perch high above the realm.  But Fenris realised that even though the suns stayed still, the moons did not.  They moved across the sky just as they moved across Jötunheimr’s sky, marking the passage of the days.  They had moved from one end of the horizon to the next, and as they fell out of view behind the mountains, Fenris began to fear they had gone the wrong way; that in his confusion, he had travelled in the wrong direction and got them lost.  He couldn’t remember how long it had taken them to trudge across Múspelheimr, but trudging back with Bára seemed to have taken twice as long.  Though, he wondered how much of that was the heat and exhaustion confusing him.  He did not remember which direction the moons had been travelling before, because he had not thought to look.

He tried to ignore it and the burn in his chest as he focused on taking each new step.  Two dark birds circled high above, as if waiting for Fenris and Bára to drop dead mid-stride, but they didn’t stay for long.  They soon flew off toward the horizon, disappearing in the distance.

Not long after, Fenris could see the gate up ahead through the shimmering air.  Despite being a realm of giants, Múspelheimr had few large beasts roaming its surface.  The gate leading to Midgard wasn’t much of a gate at all, but rather two large pillars of carved stone, with no arch connecting them.  The pillars of stone stood barely taller than Fenris, in their own way still serving as a marker for the gate on the other side.

“You lied,” Bára said.  “Have you told any truth today?”

“I have told nothing but truth today,” Fenris said, knowing he should have expected her reaction.  Giants were stubborn, and once they had an idea, they would let go of it for nothing.  Fenris had known this all his life.  He stepped toward the gate, but didn’t cross it.  “You’ll want to duck.”

Without another word, he stepped through the gate to the crossing point on Midgard, savouring the cool air on the other side.  Several moments later, Bára followed him through the low stone arch, clipping her head against it as she crossed.  She looked up at it accusingly, and then with wonderment as she realised where she was.

The crossing point sat on top of a small hill within a valley, surrounded on all sides by tall trees.  Soft, green grass covered the ground beneath their feet, moving in the gentle breeze, while Midgard’s single, yellow sun hung low on the horizon, casting long shadows over the valley.  Bára looked around her with wide eyes, hesitantly bending over to touch the ground.

“What is it?” she asked, plucking some of it up.

“Grass,” said Fenris, looking around the ring of arches and trying to decide what to do next.  “You can eat it, if you like.  Animals do.”

Bára cautiously put one of the blades into her mouth, and spat it back out again.

“I never said it would taste good,” Fenris said, laughing.

“Are all trolls as foul as you?” she asked, spitting onto the ground.

“I am not a troll,” said Fenris, wondering which gate he might have to travel through to find his father.  But he could have been anywhere, and Fenris knew it, though Loki would have surely known either where to find the magic Fenris and Jörmungandr had promised, or known how to forge it long enough to escape.  The odds of finding him were slim, and Jörmungandr wouldn’t have much time before Ægir grew impatient.  Their father liked to hide away for months at a time, returning with new treasures and new bounties on his head each time.

“Come on then.  We’re going to Asgard,” he decided reluctantly.

Bára stepped back, looking at each of the gates around them.  “You mean to actually travel there?” she asked.

“How else do you propose to speak to Björn and fetch his magic?” asked Fenris, stepping toward Asgard’s gate.

“It is forbidden,” Bára insisted.

“Not much I can do about that.  We’ll just have to be careful,” Fenris said, not sure how they’d actually manage that when all on Asgard knew his face, and Bára was obviously Jötnar.  He knew just as well as Bára what waited on the other side of the gate, but he also knew they hadn’t much choice if they wished to see their families survive.

Bára looked toward the sky and shook her head.  “No.  I won’t go,” she said.  “How many moons does this realm have? You have until the last moon rises.”

Fenris looked to the setting sun, knowing any answer he gave to that question would backfire.  “One,” he answered honestly.  “And you’ll give me until it sets.”

Bára looked up again and nodded.  “Very well.  If you do not return by then, I will return home and tell my father you only meant to escape.”

“Fine.”  Fenris stepped through the gate to Asgard and found the realm shrouded in the darkness of night.  As he walked along the wooded path, he briefly considered going to Odin himself, but did not look forward to the inevitable trouble that would follow.  Nor could he even be certain Odin would help, even if he did know the magic.

Instead, Fenris followed the path to the city, keeping as close to the shadows as he could.  Björn’s house was near the edge of the city, with a large pen for his goats to destroy and escape from.  They were Jötunn goats, the size of Æsir ponies, and they bleated loudly and rushed to the high fence as Fenris approached.  They jumped and thrashed their heads, knocking their horns against the fence and kicking it with their front hooves.  Before Fenris reached the fence, the door to the house opened and Björn stepped outside, brandishing a large stick.

“Shut up, damn you,” he shouted, slamming the stick against the fence.

Fenris stepped out from his hiding place in the shadows, wondering if the goats would have kicked up the same racket if he hadn’t approached.

“Björn,” he called out.

Björn stopped and looked up sharply to Fenris.  “What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I need your help,” Fenris said, stepping closer to the light.

“You should not be here,” said Björn, looking around for witnesses.  “If Odin knew—”

“Then don’t tell him,” said Fenris.

Rather than respond, Björn took Fenris by the shoulders and roughly guided him inside.  His house was warm and dry, but not stifling and oppressive like Múspelheimr had been.  Fenris allowed himself to be led inside and away from the door, giving Björn’s wife a toothy grin.  Járnsaxa rolled her eyes and shook her head, but said nothing as Björn and Fenris walked to the other end of the house, away from the children, asleep together on a small bed.

“What are you doing here, Fenris?” Björn asked quietly, looking back over to his family while they ignored what was happening.

“I need your goats,” Fenris said.

“My goats?” asked Björn.

“Yes,” said Fenris.

“No.”  Björn stepped back, offended.  “What makes you think I would give you my goats?”

Fenris shrugged.  “You don’t seem to like them very much,” he reasoned.  Björn did not seem impressed, but Fenris wasn’t going to let that stop him.  “And it’s not the goats I need.  I need their magic.  Which I assume means I may have to kill one of them.”

“No,” Björn repeated.

“They come back,” Fenris said.

“You won’t sway me on this.  I will not give you either of them, no matter how foul they are,” Björn said.  And then he shrugged casually.  “Besides.  I don’t know how the magic works.”

“They’re your goats.  What do you mean you don’t know?” asked Fenris.

Björn shrugged again.  “They came to me like this.”

“Well, what do you do to make it work?” asked Fenris.

“I strike them with Mjölnir,” Björn said.  It was information that was completely useless, since Fenris knew he was never going to get Mjölnir from Björn, no matter what he tried.

“Then come with me,” he said.

Björn laughed.  “Whatever you’ve done, I’m certain a blow from Mjölnir would only make it worse,” he said.

He was right, and Fenris knew it.  The magic was not in Mjölnir, but in the goats.  Otherwise, every creature and being Björn struck with the hammer would rise as quickly as it was struck down.  Fenris would have to find whatever had brought the magic to them, and he would have to do so before Bára returned home.  Fenris sighed and turned away, not sure what to do.

“Does Odin know this magic?” he asked, not sure if he was feeling desperate or hopeful.

“I’m sure he does.  But you know what happened the last time someone tried to take information he did not wish them to have,” Björn said.

Fenris nodded.  “Aye,” he said.

Somehow his father was exempt to nearly every law on Asgard, but that exemption did not follow to Fenris or Jörmungandr.  Jötnar had been barred from Asgard for generations, but for reasons only Odin knew, he had made a single exception.  Not looking forward to being flayed, or worse, Fenris turned back toward the door.  He stopped at the threshold just long enough to turn back around and nod to Járnsaxa.

“Good evening,” he said.

Járnsaxa nodded back and offered a thin smile.  “I would leave, if I were you.  He never truly sleeps, and he will find you here.”

Knowing she spoke the truth, Fenris left the house and ran back up the road, keeping to the shadows as much as possible.  Björn was no help, and Odin wasn’t an option.  Not knowing what else to do, Fenris turned away from the gate and ran deeper into the woods.  The house was difficult to find in the dark, away from the road and hidden far back into the trees, but Fenris knew these paths well.  Loki had frequently smuggled him into Asgard when they were young, and he still remembered many of the secret places.  He found the house in the woods beyond the palace grounds, with faint fire glow flickering through the cracks in the door, and walked toward it.  He knocked, knowing the door would be locked, and uncertain if he would even be welcome.  But it was the last place he knew he could turn.

The door opened, and Fenris’ stepmother peered out, clearly exhausted from tending to the house by herself.  She smiled warmly when she saw him, but her smile soon faded as she looked behind him.

“Where is your brother?” she asked.

“We did something bad,” Fenris said bleakly.

Above him, hidden in the trees, Fenris heard the rustling of feathers.  He looked up, trying to find the source, but all he could see was blackness, with the occasional star shining through the dense canopy.

“Come inside,” said Sigrid, looking up as well.

She tugged him inside and shut the door, locking it behind them.

“He’s watching,” she said as she stepped closer to the fire pit to tend to the flames.

Fenris looked around the house, and already knew the answer to his question before he asked it.  “Is my father here?”

Sigrid shook her head.  “No.  He has not been home for weeks.  You know how he is.”

“I do,” said Fenris.

She sighed, and for a moment Fenris thought he was about to get an earful over something.

“How is your mother?” Sigrid asked instead.

Fenris considered the question.  “Prone to melancholy. My uncle’s wife is with child again.”

Sigrid looked at Fenris sadly and nodded. “Children should bring happiness, and it’s unfortunate when they do not,” she said.

Fenris shrugged, unsure what to say.  He looked over to the bed Sigrid should have shared with his father, struck suddenly by the realisation that it was the only bed their house would ever see.  Standing there near the door, Fenris felt the weight of his own exhaustion, and sat down on a bench along the wall.  While he rested, Sigrid disappeared into the cellar underground, returning with a large horn of ale and some cured meat.

“Tell me, Fenris.  What have you done, and where is your brother?” asked Sigrid, handing both to him.

Fenris told her, and she listened patiently, sitting on the bench beside him.  Even before he finished, Fenris thought Sigrid might know some information that might help him, but she remained silent until he finished, even listening to Fenris telling her about leaving Bára at the crossing point, and Björn refusing to help in any way.  She passed no judgement, even knowing Fenris had brought these problems on himself.  Sitting there with her in the dark, telling her how he had caused so much harm, he could see why his father had married her.  How he must have fallen in love with the way she offered comfort just by listening.

“Björn wouldn’t know that magic,” she said once Fenris fell into silence with a shrug.  “It’s ancient, from a time before Odin’s reign.”

She paused just long enough for Fenris to feel the rising panic in his throat.

“What do you know of the old gods?” asked Sigrid.

Fenris shook his head.  “Do you mean the time of Bor’s reign?” he asked.

“No.  There are gods older than Yggdrasil, who rose and made power from nothing.  They planted the seed that laid Yggdrasil’s roots, and created the paths we travel between the realms,” Sigrid said.

Those gods, Fenris did know, though he had never heard any call them gods.  They had other names, as varied as their power, but never gods.

“Niflheimr?” he asked.

“You’ll find this magic there, but it will not be easily given,” said Sigrid.

Fenris stood still, half expecting Sigrid to offer him another way.  Instead, she fetched him two furs and one of Loki’s large bows.  She strung the bow with little effort and gave it to him, along with two dozen arrows he hoped he wouldn’t have to use.  As he struggled to find a way to carry all of it, Sigrid disappeared to the cellar again, before bringing up a bottle of ale and more of the cured meats.

“I can’t hit anything,” he said, getting the bow over his shoulders so he could wrap the rest in one of the furs.

“Then travel swiftly.  It can be done in a day, if you stop for nothing.”  Sigrid kissed him on the cheek before opening the door to let him out.

As he left the house, Fenris looked up to the branches above, but saw nothing watching him.  Knowing it didn’t mean he was alone, he ran back toward the gate as swiftly as he could.  Once he was back on the road, he looked up to see a dark bird flying between the thinning branches above.  He knew its brother wasn’t far behind, but rather than trying to look for it, Fenris ran even faster.  He came to the gate, not knowing whether the ravens would follow him through, and ran to Midgard.

“Odin knows I was there,” he said, only realising after he spoke that Bára was gone.  He looked around the crossing point, hoping to find her nearby, but the valley was empty.  More than that, something seemed wrong about it.  He looked to the sky, realising he had spent more time on Asgard than he’d thought.  The sun had set and risen again, and Midgard’s lonely moon was nowhere to be seen.  Fenris dropped everything to the ground and ran back through the gate to Múspelheimr, cursing its sky and soil for existing.  Once on the other side, he didn’t stop.  He ran back in the direction he and Jörmungandr had first gone.  He would not let himself think about what might happen if Bára returned home before he could reach her.  He ran as fast as he could, ignoring the burning in his throat and lungs, and the hot suns baring down on him.  It was a long distance to run, from the gate back to Ægir’s home, but it was an even longer distance to walk, and soon he spotted Bára slowly making her way back home.  He ran until he caught up with her, reaching for her skirt to get her attention.  But his fingers were too numb to grasp anything, and his legs too tired to carry him any longer, and he fell into the dirt at her feet, panting and heaving for breath that wouldn’t come.  His vision swam and greyed as he struggled to sit up, but it seemed that none of the air he breathed even reached his lungs.

“You came back,” Bára said, surprised.

Fenris nodded weakly and tried to speak, but he couldn’t find his voice.

“Do you have it?” asked Bára.

Fenris tried to speak again, managing barely more than a croak before falling heavily to the ground as he shook his head.  Bára crouched down and helped him sit up, pulling him by the back of his tunic.

“Are all trolls as fragile as you?” asked Bára as she handed him the remaining water skin.

Fenris drank greedily, trying not to choke.  “Not a troll,” he said breathlessly when he was done.

“Do you have the magic?” Bára asked again.

This time, Fenris shook his head.  “Didn’t have it,” he said, still panting heavily.  “Know where to get it.  Need time.”

“You don’t get any more time.  My sisters don’t have any more time,” Bára said.

Fenris shook his head again.  “I need more time.  Killing my brother won’t help your sisters.  Give me the time I need and I can put this right.”  He thought of his mother, back home on Jötunheimr, and how Jörmungandr’s death would destroy her.

“No,” Bára said.

“Will your father honour his word?” asked Fenris.  “Will my brother be safe as long as you’re with me?”

Bára nodded.  “Yes, but not for long,” she said.

“Then let me honour my word before he goes back on his,” said Fenris, pulling himself up against her weight.  “I know where to find the magic.  I just need time to get there.”

“Where?” asked Bára.

Fenris emptied the water skin and handed it back.  “Niflheimr,” he said grimly.

“You’re mad,” Bára said.  “I will not go to Niflheimr any more than I will go to Asgard.”

“Then your sisters will starve,” Fenris told her plainly.  

He didn’t wait to see if she would follow him, and started walking back to the gate.  He knew she would follow eventually.  When she caught up with him, neither of them said anything as they walked back to the gate in silence.  On the other side, Fenris found the skins and the bow Sigrid had given him, all exactly where he had dropped them.

“He would have skinned me alive,” Fenris said quietly as he shouldered the bow and handed Bára the furs and ale.

“What?” asked Bára.

Fenris shook his head and looked around at the gates, eight of them, for the eight realms bordering Midgard.  He tried to think back on the maps he had seen his father draw.  Few knew the passages between realms like his father, but Loki was not there to guide him now.

“Which one is it?” asked Bára, looking down at the furs Fenris had given her as if she had never seen such things.

“That one,” Fenris said distantly, pointing to his left.  “But it’s not Niflheimr we need to go to.  This gate is too far north.  Or south.”  He couldn’t remember it clearly enough.  He knew Yggdrasil did not start at Niflheimr, but had roots that went even deeper.  Niflheimr and Midgard were the trunk, the higher and common realms were the branches, and the lower realms were the roots.  But to get to where that first seed was planted, one had to go beyond Niflheimr, to her shadow realms.

“Worms and termites that dig in the soil,” Fenris recited to himself, trying to remember the words.

Bára watched him curiously.  “What nonsense are you talking about now?” she asked.

Fenris waved his hand to silence her so he could think.  “The termites dig into the tree, making the soil sick and barren.  The worms feed the tree…Svartálfheimr,” said Fenris, tapping his fingers against his leg with each word.  “The gate to the Norns is through Svartálfheimr.”

“What?” Bára asked again.

Fenris stepped close to the Svartálfheimr gate and turned to face Bára again.  

“This gate to Niflheimr is too far from its shadow realms.  To walk to Nornheimr would take months,” he said, putting his father’s riddle into plain words.  “But if you go through Yggdrasil’s roots, which tangle over one another, it’s quicker.  Niðavellir’s gate is closer to Nornheimr, but getting there from its Midgard gate is deadly.  Svartalfheimr’s is still deadly, but faster by both measures.”  

He remembered the maps, watching his father draw them and write cryptic directions to the paths he wished to keep secret.  Loki knew paths between all the realms, even without gate travel, and he had recorded all of it, even though he wished to share none of it.

Fenris turned to smile at Bára, finding her far less than amused.  “You’ll want to put one of those on,” he said, pointing to the furs.

Bára found the larger of the two and draped it over her shoulders, using the brooch that was pinned into it to attach it in front of her neck. It was barely long enough to reach her hips, still leaving her legs bare to the weather.  She didn’t seem to mind, so when she looked ready enough, Fenris nocked an arrow and cautiously stepped through the gate to Svartálfheimr.  On the other side, it was dark and cold, as a light snow drifted down from the grey sky.  Bára followed after him, gasping loudly as she stepped through.  Fenris let himself smile as he scanned the area as best he could, letting her puzzle over the cold and toe at the snow with her sandals.

“Just you wait,” he said.  The trees around them were all empty and quiet, so Fenris lowered the bow and unstrung it, and reached for the second fur.  Rather than wearing it, he laid it onto the ground and put the bow and arrows on top of it.  Acting quickly, he undressed, piling his clothes in with the bow and the rest of the supplies Sigrid had given him.

“What are you doing?” Bára demanded, holding her fur tightly around her shoulders.

Fenris pulled off his shoes and tossed them down with the rest.  “I don’t know where to go from here.  I’ll find it more easily if it can smell it.”

Not giving Bára the chance to question him, he pulled off his breeches and changed right there in the snow, growing thick fur and sharp teeth, and taking on a form that was much better suited for skulking around tall trees.  As a wolf, he had the qualities of a wolf.  He could see better though the snow, and he could hear and smell the forest for miles around them.  He sniffed the air, and then the ground around the gate, walking a wide circle around it.  He could smell nothing familiar, but there was something different.  Something that smelled like tracks leading away from the gate and to the east.  Assuming it would lead him somewhere, Fenris followed it, keeping his nose buried in the snow.  Behind him, Bára picked up his makeshift pack before following him, keeping one hand on her sword.

The path wove through trees, meandering as if lost.  As the sky darkened and the light faded, Fenris looked up to his companion and gave in to his exhaustion.  He looked around for any sort of shelter, but saw only trees and snow.  While Bára was twice his size, and he was accustomed to the cold, they would both freeze if they did not find somewhere warm to sleep.  He began walking in wide circles again, hoping to find any kind of den large enough for the two of them, but all he found was flat ground and towering conifers.  When he heard the clicking of stone against steel, he turned back to find Bára trying to build a fire on wet branches.  Before he could tell her it was a fruitless effort, the branches caught and flame rose up from the wood.  He leapt forward and dropped down to the ground beside the fire as Bára continued to build it up with low branches she pulled from the trees.  When the fire began to grow too big, she pulled Fenris back by the scruff of his neck and sat down on the cold ground next to him.

“Can all trolls do this?” she asked, watching him warily.

Fenris grumbled, trusting she knew what he meant to say.  He lay down on the ground, hesitant to change back.  He stayed warmer as a wolf, and could help keep Bára warm as well, if she would be willing to share space with him.  He watched the fire crackle and dance as Bára fed it more branches.  He knew she was cold, and she was hungry, and she was far from home, so he offered her the comfort of silence, letting her forget he was there with her while she rummaged through the supplies Sigrid had sent with them.  She found the meat, but eyed it warily and let it be.  It was his fault she was there and he knew it, but if she was too proud and disgusted by the idea of what he offered, Fenris thought she might deserve to go hungry for the night.

As night fell, he could hear the woods around them begin to wake.  Even Bára heard it, as she looked around with her hand on her sword.  Fenris knew there were wolves in these woods, as well as mountain cats and bears.  The snow muffled sounds, and this close to the fire, Fenris’s wolf eyes could see little more than bright light and dark shadow.  With the fire as large as it was, Fenris could only smell smoke, until the wind shifted.  There was something else near them as well.  Something Fenris couldn’t see or hear, but there all the same.  He jumped to his feet and growled a warning as the mountain cat leapt out from the night.  It was sleek and heavy, grey fur with black spots, and almost twice Fenris’s size.  Fenris dodged out of the way, but not quickly enough.  Its long claws caught his haunches and pulled him off his balance and to the ground again.  He tried to roll out of the way, but the mountain cat stayed on him, having teeth and claws, where Fenris only had teeth.  He tried to kick it off of him with stiff legs, but the mountain cat was like water, twisting around him while it pinned him down.  It tried to go for his neck, but Fenris bit and kicked enough to keep it unsteady.  He tried to get out from under the mountain cat and away from its claws, but every time he moved, its claws found purchase in his skin again, tearing him open to bleed him out on the snow.  He could feel himself growing slower with each moment, knowing it was a losing battle, but still refusing to give up.

Suddenly, the cat went stiff above him.  It jerked and twitched, as if possessed, before finally falling limp on top of him.  Fenris managed to scramble out then, only seeing Bára once he had freed himself from beneath the mountain cat.  She pulled her sword from the side of its neck, making Fenris realise that some of the blood on him wasn’t his.

Most was, though.  He fell down by the fire again with a pathetic yelp.  The snow around the fire was trampled and covered in blood that still fell from Fenris’s sides.  He knew he could stem the flow if he could change, but he wasn’t sure he had the strength to do so.  He tried to wait to gather up what little he had, but the more he waited, the less time he had to fix his wounds.  He forced the change, twisting flesh and bone back to the form of a man as the pained whimpering of a wolf became the anguished cries of a man.  When he was done, he sat naked in the snow, still bleeding in places, but not as badly.  Suddenly, something wet and heavy was dropped over him, and it wasn’t until Bára pulled the fur around Fenris’s shoulders that he realised she had skinned the mountain cat.

“Will you die?” she asked.

Fenris shrugged and looked down at his thigh.  The skin had tried to knit back together where the mountain cat’s claws first caught him, but the wound was deep and refused to close fully.  He had dozens more cuts and gouges in his arms and chest, but they had all been smaller, and had mostly closed over when he changed.

“If I change back, it should heal,” he said, pulling the fur tighter around him.

Bára nodded and began cutting apart the mountain cat.  Despite their size, mountain cats didn’t have much for good meat on them, but it was still meat, and apparently more appetising than what Fenris had brought.  Bára cooked the pieces by putting them directly into the fire, letting it sit on top of the wood as it burned.

“If I’d known it belonged to someone, I wouldn’t have killed it,” Fenris said suddenly, pulling the fur tighter around his shoulders.

Bára looked at him, her red skin almost glowing in the light of the fire.  “I know,” she said.  “Most people do not normally make habit of killing someone else’s livestock.”

“Oh, so I’m people now?” asked Fenris.

Bára looked away suddenly, focusing intently on the cooking mountain cat in the fire.

Fenris laughed.  “I won’t tell anyone,” he said.

He got up to find his clothes and dress, finding the chill of the ground against his skin far more pronounced when he wasn’t covered in fur.  As he reached to pull on his breeches, he caught Bára watching him again.  At first he thought she was about to mock, until he realised where she was looking.  He paused to look at the single band around his right arm, before he let his gaze slip to the many tattooed on Bára’s.

“You only have one,” she observed.

Fenris pulled on his breeches and sat back down to wrap his feet.  “One is all I need,” he said.

“Who is it?” asked Bára.

Fenris wondered if he should answer, but decided there was little gained from refusing her question.  “My sister,” he said.  He looked back over to Bára, unable to count the bands on her arms.  “Who are yours?”

Bára looked down at here arms, running her fingers over the black bands etched on her skin.  “Sisters as well.  And two brothers.  My father’s only sons,” she said.

“Ymir’s tits,” Fenris said quietly.

Bára reached into the fire, quickly pulling out one of the mountain cat’s haunches, crisp and burnt.  She handed it to Fenris, but it was too hot for him to hold, so he dropped it to his feet to cool.  They sat in silence, with only the sound of the fire between them.  Fenris was exhausted, and felt heavy and tight from the effort of staying awake, but he didn’t dare fall asleep.  They were still easy prey for the creatures that roamed Svartálfheimr’s forests.  Hoping it might help wake him, he pulled some of the meat free from the haunch at his feet and ate it.  Mountain cat meat was bitter and tough, but Fenris was tired and hungry enough to ignore it and eat anyway.

“Does the night come so swiftly on all the realms?” asked Bára.

Fenris looked up to the dark sky as he chewed.  “It depends on the season for most.  And where you are on the realm.  Niðavellir has no seasons.  Nor does Niflheimr.  Asgard and Midgard have four.  The days grow longer and shorter on the rest of the realms, sometimes lasting months if you live where it’s cold.”

“Isn’t Jötunheimr nothing but cold?” asked Bára.

“No, not all of it.  Our summers are very green, but very short.”

The answer only seemed to confuse Bára further, but Fenris didn’t know what else to say.  He ate as much of the meat as he could stomach before curling up in the furs as tightly as possible.

“Sleep,” said Bára.  “I can keep watch.”

Fenris yawned loudly.  “I’d rather not wake up dead,” he said.

Still he lay down on the cold ground and watched the fire while sleep overtook him.  When he woke in the morning, the fire still burned lowly.  The meat was all gone, and their tracks from the previous day had all been covered by new snow.  Bára sat near the fire, still awake and poking at the coals with a stick.  Fenris wondered if she’d slept at all during the night, or if the Jötnar of Múspelheimr slept with their very slow suns, hibernating for half the year like giant bears.

Fenris looked around the camp, unsure where they had come from and where they were going.  In fresh light, the area looked completely different.  He looked up to the sky, but thick clouds still hung above them, giving him no indication of which direction they should travel.  Still stiff and bruised from the night before, Fenris quickly undressed and changed back into the wolf, remaining acutely aware of every injury the mountain cat had delivered.  He spared just enough time to sniff at the deep gashes on his leg to make sure they had healed enough to begin travelling again before getting up to sniff around their camp site.  He had to make several passes in a large circle, trying not to limp as he walked, before he picked up their trail back to the gate, and the one they were following away from it.  Once he was certain he had found it, he alerted Bára with a low bark and began following the trail.  Before following him, she kicked out the fire and scattered the coals into the snow and gathered up Fenris’s clothes and supplies.

Even under the snow, he could still pick up the scent of some sort of trail.  Only able to hope it was the trail they needed, he followed it, keeping his snout buried to get as close to the ground as possible.  The snow only fell in occasional flurries, but there was still enough of it on the ground to slow their progress.  Several times, Fenris lost the trail and had to circle around again before he could smell leather and sweat once again.  He knew he was spending too much time in his wolf form when he began to become distracted by the scent of a deer that had crossed the path a day before.  He tried it ignore it the first two times, but when it happened for a third, changed back and quickly dressed, keeping his eyes ahead in the direction the trail had been leading them.  Though it meandered through the trees, it did lead a fairly straight path, which gave Fenris hope that it was the right one.

“Is something wrong?” asked Bára as Fenris pulled on his shoes.

“It should be just a while more,” he said, stretching the muscles in his neck before taking his father’s bow.  He used one of the arrows mark the path, holding it up so it covered their tracks in the snow when he looked down its shaft.  He turned his head, holding the arrow as straight as possible and looked the other way, toward where their target should be.

“If this is the right path, we should be close,” he said, following the point of the arrow and walking as straight as he could through the trees.

“If?” asked Bára.

Fenris shrugged.  “I’ve never been here before,” he said.

He ignored her sighing behind him and kept walking.  The sky above them slowly brightened as morning turned to day.  Even without the ears of a wolf, Fenris could hear something tracking them, unseen in the trees, and picked up his speed as much as he could.

“Please don’t let me die on Svartálfheimr,” he said quietly, realising he was praying to the same gods he sought out.

“What is that?” asked Bára, pointing up ahead.

Fenris peered through the trees, expecting to see another mountain cat, or a prowling wolf.  Instead, he saw something tall and slender standing in the distance.  It took him a moment to realise it wasn’t a being, but a gate.  The gate to Niflheimr.

“Quickly,” he said, breaking into a run and eager to be away from Svartálfheimr.  He could hear something following them as they ran toward the gate, but he kept his eyes straight ahead and didn’t look back.  They ran through the gate, Bára having to duck awkwardly through it, to a wide open plain covered in rime and snow.  Fenris ran several long strides away from the gate before stopping to turn back to it, but the creature that had followed them on Svartálfheimr seemed reluctant to follow them through the gate to Niflheimr.  Whatever had followed them on Svartálfheimr likely knew to be wary of what lay beyond the gate.  Heavy winds blew across the frozen plain, kicking up frozen pellets of frost and ice like sand.  Shielding his eyes from it, Fenris looked to the sky, straining to see the sun behind the patchwork clouds that rolled across the sky.

“We need to go south,” he said uncertainly, unable to tell which direction the sun was going.

“You know where to go on this realm, but not the other?” asked Bára as she bundled into her furs.

“Trees start at the bottom.  We need to get to the roots,” said Fenris.

He thought he might have better luck finding the right direction if he changed into the wolf again, but the wind blew so hard and the air was so cold that he could barely manage to make himself move, let alone undress.  His mother may have been Jötunn, but he had inherited his father’s complexion and intolerance to cold.  He could change without first removing his clothes, and had done so in the past, but the clothing never survived the process.  If he did that now, he would be either stuck as the wolf, or forced to conduct business naked and cold.  Bundling into his fur, he looked back to the sky again.

“South is this way,” Bára said suddenly, walking away from the gate.

Fenris looked to her, and then back toward the sky.  “How do you know?” he asked.

Bára paused and looked up as well.  “Because the sun is rising, which makes that east,” she declared.

Fenris squinted against the light, but couldn’t see the sun moving at all.  “You’re making that up,” he said, following after her anyway.  He knew they wouldn’t find shelter out there on Niflheimr’s tundra, and getting to Nornheimr was their only chance of surviving the night.

“No more than you,” said Bára wryly.

“There’s one more gate,” Fenris said, shaking his head.  “We must find that before night falls.  Unless you can build fire from nothing, we will freeze.”

“No more than frost giants can control the snow,” Bára said, casting a sideways glance toward Fenris.

“I’m not a giant either, in case you missed that,” he said, rolling his eyes.

He trudged on, bracing himself against the wind as it picked up again.  The tundra spread endlessly in all directions, covered in a layer of hard frost and snow that broke beneath their feet as they walked.  Bára’s sandals provided little protection against the cold, and the fur she wore over her shoulders billowed out behind her in the wind, offering little protection from the cold.  Fenris thought he might have been able to move quickly if he took on the wolf form, but Bára was still slow, and would be slowed eve further by having to carry everything as well.

Suddenly, she stopped and reached for her sword.  Fenris stopped as well, expecting to see danger ahead, but he saw nothing but tundra and a herd of reindeer.  Looking back up at Bára, braced for a fight, he realised how strange the animals must have appeared, with their huge, sweeping antlers, and roaming in the sprawling herd.  Laughing, Fenris reached out to stay her hand.

“They’re reindeer,” he said.  “We have them at home, and use them for pack animals and food.  Only ours are twice the size.”

“You can eat them?” asked Bára.

“Yes,” said Fenris, taking a moment to realise what she was actually asking.  “Oh.  Yes, of course.”

He dropped his furs and raised his father’s bow, struggling to line up a shot.  The bow was big in his father’s hands, and massive in his own, and the draw was so heavy, Fenris thought it might pull his arm right off.  Before his shoulder snapped, he loosed the arrow, sending it twisting and tumbling through the air before landing awkwardly in the middle of the herd.  The reindeer all scattered away from it, but it didn’t seem as if he’d hit anything, so he tried again.  He couldn’t pull the arrow back far enough to aim properly, and again the arrow sailed gracelessly through the air, this time at least striking a young buck in the flank.  the wound wasn’t deep enough to kill it, or even cripple it, and it ran awkwardly away from the herd, trying to jump away from the pain from the arrow.

“I am terrible at this!” Fenris declared, dropping the bow to the ground with the furs.  He quickly undressed, keeping his eye on the reindeer so he didn’t lose it in the scramble.  When he changed into the wolf, he lost sight of the reindeer anyway, but he had the advantage of being able to smell its blood on the air.  He ran through the herd, trying to confuse the reindeer and separate out the wounded one again.  He knew he didn’t smell like a wolf, but he still smelled like a predator and threw the reindeer into panic.

Suddenly, the herd began moving in the other direction, doubling back in their tracks and heading back toward him.  Just as confused as the reindeer, he tried to find his buck again.  When he heard Bára shouting, and saw her swinging her massive sword over her head, he realised what was happening, and used it to get the buck away from the herd.  It jumped awkwardly, still kicking its hind legs as it ran out to the open tundra.  Here, Fenris was able to catch up with it, and in only a few swift bounds, was on top of it with his teeth in its neck.  He twisted and pulled, pulling flesh from its neck until it fell out from under him.  He got up as Bára approached, bending over it with her sword.  Leaving her to do with the reindeer as she pleased, Fenris ran back to gather his clothes and gear from the snow, dragging it all into a neat pile before changing back.  He dressed quickly, hopping up and down while he wrapped his feet and put his shoes on first.

By the time he was done, Bára came back with the reindeer slung over her shoulders and her fur wrapped around her waist.  A faint steam rose off the reindeer where it had been cut and torn open, making Fenris suspect Bára had more than one reason for wanting to kill one.  Fenris bundled back up in his furs and picked up his father’s bow before leading the way back along their path.  The sun was beginning to dip in the sky, and with it the winds had begun to pick up even harder.  He looked around, worrying about Niflheimr’s other creatures.  Bears that would track them for the easy meal, and then kill them for the sport.  Though they were smaller on Niflheimr than they were on Jötunheimr, the great white bears were still large enough to kill giants.  Even as a wolf, Fenris would not stand a chance against one.

“We need to hurry.  Now we’ll have bears after us, and we will not survive the night,” he said, trying to pick up the pace as he stomped through the rough snow.  “It shouldn’t be much farther.”

“How do you know where you’re going without knowing where you’re going?” asked Bára, readjusting the reindeer on her shoulders.  It was big enough to weigh her down, and her pace had slowed as she tried to watch her steps through the snow.

“My father travels,” Fenris said, scanning the tundra for anything that might have been a gate.  “He’s made maps of the Dragon Lines between realms, and found many paths that aren’t on any other maps.”

“Does he take you with?” Bára asked.

Fenris shook his head.  “He used to, but not these days,” he said.  “I’ve seen his maps, but he left when I was a boy.”

“You’re lucky,” said Bára with a strange authority.  “Trolls eat their young.”

“I’m not—” Fenris inhaled deeply and rubbed his face with his free hand.  “I’m not a troll.  My father is not a troll.  He’s a half-giant and a bastard, but he’s not a troll.  It comes from my grandmother, but she doesn’t know how far back it goes, and it doesn’t breed out easily.  My grandmother managed to convince her husband she was as elf.  It worked, right up until my uncle started growing a beard.”

Bára made a strange sound, but Fenris couldn’t decipher it.  “You have an uncle?” she asked.

“Two.  One lives in Utgard, and the other lives with my mother and grandmother to tend the farm,” Fenris explained, scratching at the sharp whiskers that were in desperate need of shaving before he stepped foot back on Jötunheimr.

Bára fell silent again, and it was a silence Fenris wasn’t too eager to break.  Instead, he focused on keeping his footing and watching for signs of a gate leading away from Niflheimr.  His father’s map marked the time it should have taken to walk between the gates, but it was time measured by the gait of a mountain pony.  Or, Fenris suspected, by some entirely arbitrary measure known only to his father.  Hoping they hadn’t passed the gate, Fenris paused and looked behind them, but what he saw was no gate.  With the wind howling in his ears and his attention occupied by everything else, he hadn’t noticed that they were being followed until he saw the great white bear walking behind them in their tracks.  It had kept a wide distance, but now that it knew they had seen it, the bear began to run toward them.

“Run.  Now,” Fenris said, turning back around to flee from the bear.

Bára reached for her sword again, but turned to run instead when Fenris darted past her.  “Running now!” Fenris said.

Bára struggled to follow, holding on to the reindeer as she tried to run through the snow.

Taking an arrow, Fenris turned and tried to run backwards while lining up his shot, but he couldn’t aim at all, and could barely pull back the string.  When he loosed the arrow, it fell short, landing ahead of the bear before being smashed under its massive paws.  Fenris tried again, but once more, the arrow fell short, as well as flying wide, landing nowhere near the bear.  As he nocked the third arrow, he stopped and pulled the string back as far as he could, until his arms and back sung with the strain.  When he loosed the arrow, the string caught his forearm and tore through the sleeve of his tunic and his arm.  Howling from the sudden shock off searing pain, Fenris jumped and nearly threw the bow, forgetting all about the bear.  It wasn’t until he heard it roaring and thrashing that he looked up and saw his arrow in the bear’s eye, but not deep enough to have killed it.  It pawed at the arrow and shook its head around, trying to dislodge it, but all it managed to do was break the shaft.  Suddenly remembering there was a bear and forgetting about the searing pain in his arm, Fenris turned to run again, catching back up with Bára.

“Drop the deer!” he shouted.

Bára turned to look at the bear as it charged back for them.  She frowned as if she was about to weep as she dropped the deer to the ground and went for her sword again.

“These things eat whales.  Run,” Fenris said, trying to pull her along.

Fenris had hoped that dropping the deer would have distracted the bear, but it ran right past the carcass and continued to pursue the two of them.  Now it wasn’t just hungry; it was furious.  Fenris and Bára ran as fast as they could across the stark plain, unable to see details of the terrain in the fading light on an all-white landscape.  It wasn’t until Fenris felt the ground go out from under him that he realised they had come to a sharp drop.  He rolled and tumbled down the steep slope, losing his arrows and his furs as he fell.  Once he finally stopped at the bottom, he stood up to see Bára suffering similarly, losing her sword and furs, and leaving her only in the thin linen skirt and wrap she had been wearing.  Fenris picked up the bow from where it had fallen nearby and sighed with relief that it was still in one piece, and hadn’t been damaged.  He unstrung it, hoping to keep it in one piece, and looked up at the ledge where they had left the bear.  He expected it to leave them, but after sniffing around at the top, it leapt down as well, sliding down the slope on its belly.  Not waiting to see if it would make it to the bottom without falling, Fenris and Bára began running again.  Without being weighed down and tangled in furs, Bára was able to run faster, and quickly overtook Fenris.  He thought she might leave him behind to feed the bear, and tried to push himself as hard as he could.  Suddenly, Bára reached out and took Fenris by his tunic collar and began pulling him along, so fast he could barely keep his footing.  He looked back to the bear, seeing it gaining on them again, the broken arrow still stuck in its eye and its face half covered in blood.  When Fenris looked back ahead to see where they were going, something caught his eye in the distance, standing tall and still far to their left.

“There,” he said, pointing.

Bára paused just long enough to see where to go before picking up Fenris and throwing him over her shoulder.  With each stride, her shoulder dug into his belly, knocking the air from him and making him want to be sick.  He watched the realm as it receded away from him, bouncing and rocking about as Bára ran.  The bear still chased them, roaring and thrashing its paws at them as if it could reach them.  It wasn’t close enough, but it soon would be.

“Faster,” Fenris managed with what little breath he had.

The bear gained on them, and was soon within slashing distance.  It struck its massive paw out at them again, barely missing Fenris’s face.  He closed his eyes, expecting his next breath to be his last, and suddenly felt the air around them change from windy and icy to warm and humid.  He opened his eyes as the bear roared behind them, its head and one of its arms stuck through the gate, while the rest of it was unable to fit through the stone arch.  It roared and slashed, even as Bára dropped Fenris to the ground well out of its reach.  Trying to ignore it, Fenris dropped the bow again and wrapped both his arms around his abused stomach, trying to catch his breath.  He looked down at his arm, finding it bleeding sluggishly, with a fist-sized bruise around the burn from the string.  Hissing, he pulled his sleeve back down and tried to ignore it.

“Where are we?” asked Bára, looking up to the blackness above.

Fenris looked up as well and managed to smile.  “Nornheimr,” he said, watching Bára in the faint light that permeated the realm.  “We made it,” he said, looking at the bear that still tried to force its way through the gate.

“So this is what you meant,” said Bára, watching the bear as it flung its head from side to side and slashed its giant paw at them.  “Can it break the gate?”

Fenris forced himself to his feet and nodded.  “Yes, probably,” he said, picking up his father’s bow again.  “The gates aren’t there to allow travel.  They keep things like bears from travelling.”  He stepped back, hoping the gate held on both sides.

He began walking away from the bear, trying to figure out where to go from there.  He soon came to a dark wall of rough stone and realised they were in a large cave.  He ran his hand over the stone, and brought it away to find his skin glowing faintly.  He realised then what he was seeing.  Lightstone.  Fine grains of it, like sand shimmering in the rock.  He smiled and wiped his hand on his chest, and looked over to Bára.  She too ran her fingers over the stone and rubbed them together curiously until the glow faded.

“Do you not have this?” he asked.

Bára shook her head.  “No.  What is it?” she asked.

“Lightstone.  I thought it was only found on Niðavellir.  The dwarfs mine it in huge boulders, and use it to make lanterns.”

He looked at the walls, glowing just enough to give off light without showing anything of the dark stone.  Nornheimr was old, and any resource found there was sure to be old beyond usefulness.  The lightstone in these walls could never be used for a lantern, and resembled the grit that was left at the bottom after the stones had broken apart and dissolved in the water after years of constant use.  The humidity in the air was just enough to make the tiny grains glow without destroying the mineral completely.  Fenris wondered how bright these caverns must have been when the lightstone was new, and how long the stone would keep glowing in the walls.

Bára looked up curiously, gazing at the high ceiling above as she walked down the narrow cave.  Looking back toward the gate, Fenris began following the cave away from it and the bear.  The light from the stone in the walls was just enough to see by, but not enough to see well.  The cave floor was rough and uneven, making their pace slow as they followed a path forged by nature.  Soon, the air began to dry, while a brighter light shone up ahead.  They quickened their pace, coming to a large cavern bathed in an impossible orange glow.  Large roots like ancient stone pushed their way through cracks in the ceiling and walls, twisting around one another before burying themselves in the ground again.  Fenris and Bára stood in awe as they looked upon Yggdrasil’s roots.

“This place is scared,” Bára said lowly.

“Yes,” Fenris agreed.

“We should not be here.  This is forbidden,” Bára said.

Fenris didn’t answer, but he knew she was right.  Few people dared to travel to Yggdrasil’s roots and fewer still would admit to having done it.  Fenris knew they should turn and walk away; find some other way to pay his debt to Ægir, but he couldn’t find the strength to move.

“Sisters, look.  They’re here,” said the voice of a young maiden, echoing off the cavern walls like a strange song.

“So they are,” said another voice.  “Step closer, children.  We wish to see your faces.”

Fenris looked up to Bára, unsure if they should.  Seeming similarly hesitant, Bára stayed still as well.  She looked at Fenris, and for the first time since leaving Múspelheimr, she looked truly afraid.

Inhaling deeply and nodding, Fenris stepped forward slowly, waiting for Bára to follow.  They each took several steps forward before the entire cavern changed before them, filling with trinkets and fur rugs that hadn’t been there a moment before.  Large oil lamps burned in the ground, lighting up the entire cavern floor to ceiling.  In the middle of the cavern, three women lounged on piles of fur. 

“Oh, look at them.  So frightened.  How precious,” one of them said, laughing and tossing her hair back over her shoulder.

“Verdandi, be kind,” said one of the other, a young girl barely old enough to be a woman.  “They’ve travelled far to be here with us today.”

Fenris watched them, unsure what to expect from them.  He felt like he should say something, but his entire throat felt heavy and tight, and he could not find his voice.

“I want to see his teeth,” Verdandi declared, getting up and walking straight to Fenris.

He wanted to run, but he couldn’t.  When Verdandi stepped before him and touched his face with one hand, his entire body tensed up.  She giggled again as she pulled his lips apart with her thumb, showing his overly-sharp canines.

“Skuld, I simply must have one,” she said.

“No,” said the girl.

Verdandi ignored her, already pulling back Fenris’s hair to expose his ears, and then dragged her fingers across his freckled cheek.  

“Look at his spots,” she said.  “And he shaves his beard.  How adorable,” she said, running her thumb over his chin.

Fenris tried to back away as she lifted the hem of his tunic and cooed.  “Look at how furry he is.  I am keeping him,” she said.

She tangled her fingers in the hair on Fenris’ belly, drawing a startled yelp from him as he stepped back and pulled his tunic down to cover himself.

“Verdandi, let him be,” Skuld commanded as Fenris pulled his tunic back down over his stomach.

Verdandi pouted and returned to her seat.

“All your pets die anyway,” said the third sister, an old woman weathered by time and magic alike.

“Don’t be so bitter, Urðr,” Verdandi said.  “He’d be easier than the dragon.  We wouldn’t even have to chain him.”

“You would still forget to feed him,” Urðr said.

“Both of you be silent,” Skuld said.  She sat up in her seat to address Fenris and Bára properly.  “You have come to ask a request,” she said, looking at Fenris.

He nodded weakly struggling to find his voice.  “I—Yes, I have.”

Skuld smiled almost matronly.  “So ask.”

He looked back up Bára, but found no help there.  Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself before speaking.  “I killed an animal that was not mine to kill.  People will die because of it.”

“And you want us to undo this?” asked Skuld almost mockingly.

Fenris nodded weakly.  “Yes,” he said, fearing he knew her answer already.

Skuld laughed.  “Do we look like gods of death to you?” she asked.  “Child, we are the gods Odin and his Æsir pray to.  We do not undo actions.  We make sure they come to pass.”

“What?” asked Fenris.  “But we came all this way.”

All three of them laughed now. “You slaughtered that boar because we wished you to,” said Skuld, sitting back in her seat again.

“No.  You can’t just make things happen,” Fenris argued incredulously.  He looked up to Bára again, but found her backing away as she watched him argue with Fates.

“We know you, Lokasson,” said Skuld, still laughing lowly.  “And we have decided that it’s about time for a war of giants.  The last one was ever so fun, after all.”

“Why?” Fenris demanded.  “Who benefits from war?”

The Nornir sisters only laughed harder.  Feeling suddenly trapped, Fenris turned to run, away from their illusion and out of the cavern.  Once back in the dark, he sat on the ground and just tried to breathe through the harsh pounding in his chest.

“Why won’t they help?” he asked, running his hand through his matted hair.

Bára followed him out, and kept walking toward the gate.  “I suppose that’s that, then,” she said distantly.

“Why do they expect anyone to go to war?” asked Fenris.  “Who would go to war for us?” He looked down at his father’s bow still in his hand and tossed it to the ground in disgust.  “Even he loves his bows more than he loves us,” he said.

Bára made a sound that almost sounded like a laugh.  “Why were you told to come here?” she asked.  “Perhaps the person you asked got confused, and thought boars were judged at death.  You know how the Æsir are.”

“I don’t know,” Fenris grumbled.  He picked up a stone to throw at her, but he dropped it when he heard through her sarcasm moments later.  He thought back to everything he had been told, both by Sigrid and by the Norns.  Sigrid had not meant him to speak to the Norns at all, but to another old god.  To a god of death.

“We went the wrong way,” he realised aloud.

Bára stopped and turned to look at him.  “What?” she asked.

Fenris stood, picking up his father’s bow again.  “We went the wrong way.”  He looked back to the Norns, knowing they were listening even now.  “Will you start a war to save your sisters?” he asked, already knowing his own answer.  “Will you save them from starvation, to risk them dying in battle?”

At once, Fenris could see the weight of the situation fall over Bára.  She looked back toward the Norns as well, the conflict plain on her face even in the dark.  She did not answer right away, taking time to consider her options.

“Is there no other way?” she asked.

Fenris shook his head.  “No,” he said.

“Are you sure this will work?” Bára asked.

Fenris shook his head again.  “No.”

She sighed deeply and nodded.  “Where do we go?” she asked.

Fenris looked around.  “The roots tangle.  We go the other way,” he said, hoping he was right.

They wasted no time, running back toward the gate to Niflheimr, and beyond.  The bear was gone, but it wasn’t that gate they needed to travel through.  They followed the cave as it turned and meandered, without branching off once.  Finally, they came to a second gate, carved from a single black boulder.  On the ground in the arch, a sliver of gold light shone through from the other side, but it was all of what awaited on the other side that they could see.  Fenris left the bow behind, knowing it would be safer there, and nodded to Bára before stepping through to a large cavern on the other side.  The air was hot and almost misty with humidity, letting the giant lightstone boulders in the cavern walls glow brightly.  Huge roots again pushed through the cracks and fissures in the stone, twisting and turning amongst themselves before digging back into the ground, where thick, verdant grass and wildflowers grew, wilting from the heat and lack of sunlight.  Beside him, Bára reached for a sword she did not have and stepped closer to the cave walls beside them.

“What is this place?” she asked.

Fenris stayed close to the gate, ready to dive back through if he needed.  “Helheimr,” he answered.

Something began to rumble from high above, making the entire cavern tremble.

“I smell a Jötunn runt,” a voice said, deep and loud.

Suddenly, a giant red dragon leapt down from a cavern high above, spraying fire at the ground before landing in the bed of embers.  Fenris and Bára both stood against the stone pillars of the gate, watching the dragon Niðhöggr wind his way through the roots.  He had a long, serpent-like body, with two arms beneath large wings, which he used to pull himself along the ground.  On his head was a crest of bony spines like a crown, flaring off his long, pointed face.  There was no room for him to stretch his wings, so he crawled up close to Fenris and Bára, grinning a toothy, dragon grin.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve fed off the living,” he said, flicking his forked tongue out at them.

“We’ve come to you for help.  You must hear us out,” Fenris said.

Niðhöggr laughed, a deep rumble that came from his chest.  “I am bound by no laws,” he said.

“Then you’re no god,” Fenris argued.  “Gods are bound by more laws than any.”

Niðhöggr laughed again.  “And why should I help you?” he asked.

“Because you’ve already taken my sister.  I will not let you take my brother as well,” Fenris said bitterly.

Niðhöggr flicked his tongue out again before inhaling deeply, filling his chest with air.  But rather than spew fire at them, he laughed and began to slither away through the roots.  “Jötunn runt does not taste as good as giant, but I take what I can get,” he said.

As he pulled himself away, Fenris saw the grass that sprung up in his wake, sprouting small yellow and white flowers that bloomed and blossomed within seconds.  Fenris looked up to the top of the cavern, finding no light from above that would feed the grass on the floor.  He looked back to Niðhöggr, watching in a terrified awe as the dragon sprouted life wherever it dragged its massive body.

“Keep him distracted,” Fenris said quietly, looking back at the gate.

“How?” asked Bára.

Fenris shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Throw stones at him if you have to.”

He slipped through the gate and wasted no time once he was on the other side.  He changed as quickly as he could, leaving his clothes beside the gate before crawling back through it on his belly.  Bára had already walked away from the gate, making sure to draw Niðhöggr’s attention away from Fenris.

“I don’t do favours for giants,” Niðhöggr said.  “I don’t do favours for anybody.  What fool has filled your head full of such pretty lies?”

“Then what kind of god are you?” Bára demanded.  “You are no god.”

Hoping the dragon did not recognise the scent of a shape shifter, Fenris crawled along the edge of the cavern, keeping to as many shadows as he could.  The air was thick with the scent of acid and rot, making Fenris’s eyes and nose burn as he crawled through the taller grasses and weeds that survived the dragon’s fiery breath.

“Why should I help you if it means I will starve?” Niðhöggr said.  “I will feast on every giant and Jötunn runt slaughtered in his home while he sleeps.”

Fenris watched Bára move along the other wall, keeping the dragon distracted so Fenris could creep up to him.  He watched the wild flowers by Niðhöggr’s scales bloom and wilt, and he knew exactly what he had to do.  Not even sure if it would work, he lunged out and caught one of Niðhöggr’s large belly scales in his teeth.  The dragon screeched and thrashed, throwing his tail about in the small spaces and twisting his massive body, trying to crush Fenris.  Not letting go, Fenris pulled hard, tearing the scale loose.  Blood fell from the wound, burning Fenris’s face and paws and almost blinding him.  All he could smell was the acid spice of dragon’s blood as it filled his nose and burned him from the inside out.  He ran in a panic, not having time to plan his escape, and instead cut a straight path for the gate.  He could hear Bára shouting, and the sound of stones bouncing off scales as he ran.  His mouth burned, and he could feel the blood on the dragon scale tearing apart his tongue, but still he ran, not stopping until he was on the other side of the gate.  As soon as he crossed, Fenris collapsed on the ground, unable to breathe from the burns inside his mouth and throat.  He couldn’t tell if the blood had fallen in his eyes, or if the pain in his mouth and throat was so great that he couldn’t see from it.  He lay there in the dark, knowing this was where he would die.  When Bára ran through the gate as well and picked him up, he cried out in pain so loudly, he almost choked on it.  Once again slung over the giantess’ shoulders, he could feel her running along the hard ground.  It felt like an eternity before she dropped him again, packing his paws and face with cold snow that both soothed and burned.  She buried his nose in it, and tried to pack it into his mouth without choking him on it.  He knew he was whimpering pitifully, but he couldn’t make himself stop as she tended to his burns.

Suddenly, Fenris felt her prying his mouth open and tearing the flesh from his tongue as she pulled the scale out from between his teeth.  He cried out again, unable to stop even as more snow was packed into his mouth.  After a few moments, he felt himself being picked up again before he didn’t feel anything at all.  The next thing he knew, they were moving, but it didn’t feel like he was being carried on her shoulders.  There was something strangely familiar to the way he could feel himself moving; a steady, even rhythm of step, but he wasn’t able to figure out what it was before he lost consciousness again, letting the darkness consume him.  The next time he woke, it was hot, and someone had their hands in his mouth again.  He tried to bite down, but it hurt and he could hear himself cry out  and yelp with a pain that would not cease.

“Hush, stupid,” he heard someone say, realising several moments later that it was Jörmungandr who spoke.  He was the one who had his hand inside Fenris’s mouth, coating his tongue in something thick and sticky.

Fenris realised he was still as a wolf, and that he did not know where he was.  He opened his eyes and looked around, but he did not recognise the house he was in.  He and Jörmungandr were on the floor in a corner, surrounded by jars of herbs and salves that were all being shoved into his mouth one by one.  Once he realised what was being done, he recognised thee taste of their mother’s magic on his tongue, though there was something different about it.  Something that tasted hot and dry and unfamiliar.

“Who bites a dragon?” Jörmungandr asked, finally taking his hands away.

Fenris could only whimper, too exhausted and in pain to even protest when Jörmungandr began petting his head.

“You stupid, stupid puppy,” Jörmungandr said lowly, stroking him behind his ears.

Fenris tried to stand, but his paws burned when he touched their pads to the hard ground.

“No.  No, no,” Jörmungandr said, easing him back down again.  “None of that.”

Fenris whimpered quietly and let himself be gently guided back to the ground.  He managed to lift his head well enough to see the room around them, finding it dark and quiet.  There were no windows to let in any light, and no lanterns or hearth lit to see by; only the light that filtered through small slits in the ceiling.  It was enough for Fenris to recognise the house they were in as Ægir’s, though he could not find the giant anywhere.

Through the darkness, he could see another figure moving hurriedly toward them.  Bára crouched down next to them and handed a wrapped parcel to Jörmungandr.

“Take him and go,” she said, picking up Fenris in her arms as she looked over her shoulder to the dark and empty house.

“What?  Why?” asked Jörmungandr, standing quickly.  He looked down at the parcel in his hand and carefully unwrapped it before looking up at Bára again.

“I couldn’t do it,” she said shamefully.  “My father is preparing the boar now.  You must go before he comes back.”

Bára quickly made her way to the door, with Jörmungandr rushing to gather a small pack and follow after.  She paused at the door, peering out before rushing around to the other side of the house to the stables.  There was a reindeer in the shade as well, kicking at the dust mournfully.  When it saw them approach, it began kicking and thrashing, but Bára put Fenris down on the ground and used her size to subdue the deer.

“It’s female, you know,” Jörmungandr said distantly.

“Whatever it is, you must take it and go,” Bára insisted.  She tied a makeshift bridle to its face, blinding it with cloth around its eyes so it could no longer see.  She brought the reindeer out of its stall and put it in Jörmungandr’s charge while she picked Fenris back up and put him on the deer’s back.

“I must go help.  I’ll keep him distracted as long as I can, but hurry,” she said.  She looked out at something Fenris couldn’t see and sighed.  “My sisters will die either way, but this way, there will be no war.”

Fenris tried to bark at her, but the pain in his throat only made him choke.  Sparing him only a passing glance, Bára rushed out of the stables and back out to the desert.  From his spot, draped over the back of the deer, Fenris could see his brother inspecting the parcel Bára had given him.

“The reindeer is female,” he repeated.  He looked at its covered face and sighed.  “What do you say, little brother?  Shall we start a war?”

He looked down at the parcel again, and crept out of the stables, peering across the desert to where Ægir roasted boar bones on a pyre.  Fenris and Bára had broken sacred laws to retrieve the scale, and using it would break countless more laws.  To cheat death was at the discretion of the gods, and the gods alone.  To steal that power from the gods would inflame the ire of all other realms.  There wasn’t a king or jarl in all of Yggdrasil who would not have tried to cheat death if given the opportunity, and all would go to war for that power once they learned how to obtain it.

Jörmungandr quickly dashed out of the stables.  Fenrir could hear the door to the house opening and closing twice before Jörmungandr returned again, conspicuously lacking the parcel Bára had given him.  Ægir would find the dragon scale in some convenient place, no doubt, starting the war Bára had tried to avoid.

Jörmungandr pulled Fenris off the reindeer’s back and backed the reindeer into its stall again.  Making sure it was locked where it belonged, Jörmungandr took up his pack, and carrying Fenris over his shoulders, crept out of the stables.  They could see Ægir far on the other side of the house, standing before a large fire in the desert.  With his back turned to them, Jörmungandr slunk away, running as fast as he could back toward the gate.  Fenris watched Ægir as they left, waiting for him to turn back to see them fleeing.  But his attention was kept away from them as he dried the boar’s bones for a ritual he would not be able to complete.

As they left Ægir’s farm behind, Fenris kicked and squirmed until Jörmungandr let him down.  He ached and burned in ways he had never before known, but he needed to change.  They were too slow with Jörmungandr carrying him, and he knew his feet had been undamaged by the dragon’s blood.  If nothing else, walking upright would at least be less painful than being carried over his brother’s bony shoulders.

The change hurt and burned, tearing and twisting already abused flesh.  He tried not to cry out as his throat became inflamed all over again, but once he was done, he felt better for it.  The change always helped heal injuries, if he had the strength to force it.  His hands were still badly burnt, but he could feel his throat open up as he breathed deeply through his mouth.  Jörmungandr handed him his clothes from the pack, letting him change as slowly as he needed to, and helping him into his tunic when he couldn’t grip it properly.

“Do you think it will work?” asked Jörmungandr.

Fenris shrugged.  “If it doesn’t, there won’t be a war,” he said hoarsely.  “Perhaps that’s what we should pray for.”

“You put too much faith in the other realms caring about what a few giants in the desert do,” Jörmungandr said.

Fenris struggled to keep pace alongside his brother as they walked back toward the gate.  “And a dark elf once insulted Bor, and he killed every last one of them for it.  Put nothing past the Æsir, brother.”

The two of them slowly trudged across the sand, moving slowly as Fenris struggled to keep his footing.

“It’s a shame.  If I had been thinking, I’d have made sure she took a male as well,” Fenrir said.  “Perhaps I’ll return and bring them one.”

“And make more work for your lovely maiden, and make her learn to milk a reindeer?” Jörmungandr asked, adjusting the pack over his shoulder.  Only then did Fenris realise the pack also had their father’s bow attached, and he allowed himself a sigh of relief he hadn’t realised he needed.

“She is not my lovely maiden,” Fenris said, looking back toward the direction of the farm, now just a dot on the horizon.  “But perhaps I shall teach her.”

Jörmungandr snorted.  “You are just like Dad,” he said, continuing on the path toward the gate to the crossing point at Midgard.

Fenris shrugged again.  “What?” he asked.  “Someone will need to teach them.”

Jörmungandr laughed and looked up to the sky.  “Let’s leave this realm.  I hear there’s rain in Four Rivers.”

Nodding, Fenris followed, looking forward to a realm of cold misery for a few weeks.

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To Dare Hope

To Dare Hope (8,049 words) by LokiOfSassgaard

Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: Thor
Rating: Teen
Warnings: Major Character Death
Characters: Thor, Loki

Summary: Finding his brother pale and lifeless was becoming all too familiar, and never got easier.

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Sins of the Flesh

Sins of the Flesh (7,727 words) by LokiOfSassgaard

Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: Thor
Rating: Explicit
Warnings: Rape/Non-Con
Pairings: Loki/Tentacles
Characters: Loki

Summary: Loki finds a new pet.

And then the new pet finds Loki

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Ours to Keep

Ours to Keep (Word Count TBD) by LokiOfSassgaard

Chapters: 4/?
Fandom: Thor, Loki (TV)
Rating: Explicit
Warnings: Underage, Dubcon
Pairings: Loki/Sylvie
Characters: Loki, Sylvie, Thor, Angela, Odin, Frigga

Summary: After Bor’s death, the entire family manage to make it into town for the will reading. It’s only been a few months since Loki had a close call with a car accident he probably should not have survived, which only adds to the tension of having too many people in a house with not enough beds.

But the funny thing about death is it has a way of unveiling all sorts of secrets, whether or not they have anything to do with the deceased. And for Loki and Sylvie, this has the potential to be catastrophic.

Note: This fic is being posted as a kinkmeme fill.  It may get edited at a later date.


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Starve to Death with Dignity

Starve to Death with Dignity (Word Count TBD) by LokiOfSassgaard

Chapters: 3/?
Fandom: Thor
Rating: Explicit
Warnings: Rape/Non-Con, Violence
Pairings: Loki/Freyja, Loki/Sif, Loki/Fandral, Loki/Others
Characters: Loki, Thor, Freyja, Odin, Sif, Fandral

Summary: Loki doesn’t know what’s worse: the measures he has to take so he doesn’t rut himself to death, or the fact that rutting himself to death seems like an acceptable option.

Note: This is an early draft.  It has not been edited, and has barely been spellchecked.  It will be edited at a later date before being posted to AO3.

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The Cat’s Away

The Cat’s Away (2,694 words) by LokiOfSassgaard

Chapters: 1/?
Fandom: Thor (Movies)
Rating: Explicit
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Relationships: Loki/Sif (Marvel)
Characters: Loki (Marvel), Sif (Marvel)

Summary: It all starts when a mission takes Thor away from Asgard for longer than expected.

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what brother have I?

what brother have I? (29,135 words) by LokiOfSassgaard

Chapters: 2/2
Fandom: Thor (Movies)
Rating: Explicit
Warnings: Rape/Non-Con
Relationships: Loki/Thor (Marvel)
Characters: Thor (Marvel), Loki (Marvel)

Summary: Thor has lost his fucking mind

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no brother of mine

no brother of mine (13,946 words) by LokiOfSassgaard

Chapters: 2/2
Fandom: Thor (Movies)
Rating: Explicit
Warnings: Rape/Non-Con
Relationships: Loki/Thor (Marvel)
Characters: Thor (Marvel), Loki (Marvel)

Summary: Thor knows he’s right. Loki only needs a little nudge.

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When the Dust Settles

When The Dust Settles (Word Count TBD) by LokiOfSassgaard

Chapters: Ongoing
Fandom: Thor – All Media Types, Marvel
Rating: Teen And Up Audiences
Warnings: Creator Chose Not To Use Archive Warnings
Relationships: Jane Foster/Thor
Characters: Thor (Marvel), Loki (Marvel), Jane Foster (Marvel), Tony Stark, Verity Willis, Sif (Marvel)

Summary: When Odin banishes both Thor and Loki to Midgard, the plan seems simple at first—find Mjölnir and get home. After alienating those who try to help them, it becomes clear that getting back to Asgard won’t be as simple as finding a fallen hammer in the desert. Stranded in a realm that has forgotten their gods, Thor and Loki must prove their worth to return; a tricky task when they’ve been left no clear instructions of what their father wants from them.

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Key Largo

Key Largo (Word Count TBD) by LokiOfSassgaard

Chapters: Ongoing
Fandom: Loki: Agent of Asgard
Rating: Explicit
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Relationships: Loki (Agent of Asgard)/Verity Willis, Lorelei/Sigurd
Characters: Loki (Marvel), Verity Willis, Lorelei (Marvel), Sigurd (Marvel), Eloise Willis

Summary: Before she met Loki, Verity rarely left the house. She did make one exception, however: a yearly trip with her mother, on a typical destination vacation.

This year is no exception. Except for the part where her mother is absolutely convinced that she and Loki are dating.

Not only is this idea in her mind to stay, she is completely unaware that Verity’s new social group consists solely of a bunch of ancient Norse criminals, all living secret lives as hipsters with too much disposable income.

Somehow, Verity knows this is going to be nothing short of a week from hell.

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I have no brother

I have no brother (11,869 words) by LokiOfSassgaard

Chapters: 2/2
Fandom: Thor (Movies)
Rating: Explicit
Warnings: Rape/Non-Con
Relationships: Loki/Thor (Marvel)
Characters: Thor (Marvel), Loki (Marvel)

Summary: Thor knew it was only a matter of time before Loki submitted

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Work (200 words) by LokiOfSassgaard

Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: Thor (Movies)
Rating: General Audiences
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Characters: Thor (Marvel), Loki (Marvel)

Summary: It was Loki’s idea, but somehow Thor caught the consequences.

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Waiting (300 words) by LokiOfSassgaard

Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: Thor (Movies)
Rating: General Audiences
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Characters: Loki (Marvel), Thor (Marvel)

Summary: Nebulously connected to Tarbell Course in Magic. Just Loki waiting on Thor’s slow ass to show up like he said he would.

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what sister have I?

what sister have I? (8,085 words) by LokiOfSassgaard

Chapters: 2/2
Fandom: Thor (Movies)
Rating: Explicit
Warnings: Rape/Non-Con
Relationships: Loki/Thor (Marvel)
Characters: Loki (Marvel), Thor (Marvel)

Summary: Thor just cannot get enough

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Blaze (1,511 words) by LokiOfSassgaard

Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: Thor (Movies), Thor (Comics)
Rating: General Audiences
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Characters: Thor (Marvel), Loki (Marvel)

Summary: Thor and Loki graduate to real horses. It goes about as well as can be expected

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no sister of mine

No sister of mine (8,184 words) by LokiOfSassgaard

Chapters: 2/2
Fandom: Thor (Movies)
Rating: Explicit
Warnings: Rape/Non-Con
Relationships: Loki/Thor (Marvel)
Characters: Loki (Marvel), Thor (Marvel)

Summary: After putting Loki in his place, Thor wishes he hadn’t been quite so effective.

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Tick (381 words) by LokiOfSassgaard

Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: Thor (Movies), Thor (Comics)
Rating: General Audiences
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Characters: Thor (Marvel), Loki (Marvel)

Summary:  Once again, Loki was nowhere to be found. Heimdall could not see him, Frigga worried after him, and Odin wanted to strangle him.

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Seven and a Half Minutes

Seven and a Half Minutes (3,808 words) by LokiOfSassgaard

Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: Thor (Movies), Thor (Comics), The Avengers (Marvel Movies), Captain America (Movies)
Rating: Teen And Up Audiences
Warnings: Major Character Death
Relationships: Steve Rogers & Thor
Characters: Steve Rogers, Thor (Marvel)

Summary: Seven and a half minutes. It was a number Steve Rogers would never forget to matter how hard he tried. He could live another hundred years, and still that number would occupy a place in his mind.

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Isla Nublar (2022)

Isla Nublar (Edited and Updated) (Final Word Count TBD) by LokiOfSassgaard

Chapters: Ongoing
Fandom: Thor (Movies), Jurassic Park – All Media Types
Rating: Mature
Warnings: Graphic Depictions Of Violence
Relationships: Darcy Lewis/Loki
Characters: Darcy Lewis, Loki (Marvel), Jane Foster (Marvel), Thor (Marvel)

Summary: The trip to Costa Rica was years in the planning, but now it’s finally happening. Two couples on a ten-day trip over Christmas, to the world’s most exotic resort and theme park.

What Darcy didn’t plan for was her boyfriend breaking up with her only weeks before the once-of-a-lifetime, non-refundable trip. It’s just a good thing she knows someone else who wasn’t even invited. Her new date for the trip may be going out of his way to be as obnoxious as possible, but he’s not even close to the worst thing about this vacation from hell.

Loki/Darcy fake dating, Odinson family drama, and dinosaur carnage.

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Tarbell Course in Magic, vol 2: How To Please Your Audience

Tarbell Course in Magic, vol 2: How to Please Your Audience (Word Count TBD) by LokiOfSassgaard

Chapters: Ongoing
Fandom: Thor (Movies)
Rating: Explicit
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Relationships: Darcy Lewis/Loki, Fandral/Loki (Marvel)
Characters: Loki (Marvel), Darcy Lewis, Thor (Marvel)

Summary: Darcy had thought she’d hit the jackpot; that the opportunity that fell into her lap would change her life forever.

It did, just not as she was expecting. While Darcy struggles to balance her personal and professional relationship with Loki, he struggles to adjust to life in a foreign country after alienating any support network he might have had.

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Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #1: Beginnings

The battle had been long and bloody, faring many casualties on both sides.  But now it was finally over, and he could go to the temple to pay his respects and pray for the slain of that day.  In a Jötunn temple, Odin Borson, The Allfather, King of the Æsir, was to show his honour and respect to both sides.  It was not only the Æsir and Vanir warriors whose deaths created widows and orphans.  The Jötunn warriors also had families of their own; wives and children, just like any of the Æsir, and it was for them Odin wished to pray.  The final battle of that great war may have been on Jötunn soil, but it was not the Jötunn people’s cause.  It was their king, Laufey, whose greed and indifference knew no equal; Laufey who had declared war on Yggdrasil herself and invaded the world of men.  It was Laufey who had fled in cowardice when the Æsir and the Vanir so easily overtook the palace walls, leaving its men to die and its women to mourn.  It was Laufey who left his slaves and thralls open and exposed to serve as a wall between himself and Odin’s forces.

It was Laufey’s temple upon which Odin trespassed, deep within the citadel.

Odin had ordered his men to guard the entrance to the temple, and to send away anyone trying to enter.  Not that Odin believed anyone would wish to enter in the wake of battle.  Not the soldiers who fled, nor the slaves and thralls who hid in the corners and ruins nearby.

But even with the final battle ended, the war would still not be declared over for some time.  There was still much to do, and Odin’s army was busy with the tasks of tallying the dead and transporting the wounded whilst Odin himself sought out the temple.  He expected to find a scattered few within those frozen walls, seeking sanctuary.  And he did—slaves stolen from other realms, and Jötunn servants alike, and Odin did them the courtesy of pretending not to notice as they fled from his presence.  What he didn’t expect to find, and yet found all the same was a screaming Jötunn infant on the altar, placed as though for an offering.  As soon as he laid eyes upon the boy, Odin could see why he had been left, naked and unguarded.  Though his own experience with Jötunn children was limited, he still recognised this one as much smaller and more frail than most.  The boy was darker in skin than most Jötnar, and smaller than even many Æsir infants.  But what the boy might have lacked in size, he made up for in spirit.  He wailed loudly and threw his tiny limbs about, demanding attention from those around him.  He may have been small for a Jötun, but he had fight.

Odin knew what the child was, and picked the boy to get a better look all the same.  Small, screaming, left exposed in Laufey’s temple, with only a scrap of cloth to protect him from the cold.  The boy had not been left by accident.  He had been placed, deliberately, where his mother must have known he would be found.  The woman, whoever she was, must have known the child would not have immediately died of the cold.  Even half-breeds were tougher than that, as the boy’s tiny size betrayed.  He had been left for a quick death at the hands of the invading army; a quick death his mother surely could not bring herself to provide.  An older child might make a useful thrall, but an infant would need a wetnurse and years of care before it became useful.

And yet, as Odin watched the boy calm in his grasp and shift his colour, he knew there was use beyond measure in the child. 

Such a small child might have been allowed to live if born to peasants, but within the citadel it was clear why he had been left.  Small children were often borne of slaves and war brides, undesirable and unlikely to survive Jötunheimr’s harsh winters.  Laufey’s subjects may have been forbidden to aid the child as Utgard lost resources to the war, but Odin was bound to no such law.  He had seen enough death for one day, and would not stand to see an innocent babe fall victim to such a cruel practise. 

He knew exactly what the child was, and wasted not a moment longer in considering his next move.  Concealing the child in his cloak, Odin ordered his soldiers to search the rest of the temple, to leave Laufey’s slaves and their children behind and search out any cowards who might have hidden away from battle.  Men would take war brides, but not from the temple.  Leaving Týr in command, Odin made a swift return to Asgard, making no mention of the child he found.  He knew of only one nursing woman he could trust to care for the child and not speak of him to anyone else, and went immediately to her.  The boy wailed throughout the entire journey by Bifröst, short though it was, and settled again only as Odin reached the Rainbow Bridge itself.  He met Heimdall’s gaze at the observatory, standing tall and silent with the knowledge that the gatekeeper had seen.

“You saw nothing,” Odin said.

Heimdall nodded.  “Of course not, Allfather” he said.  “There is a battle to watch over.”

Odin nodded once, sharp and curt, and began the ride across the bridge toward the palace.  He thought by the time he reached it, the boy had fallen asleep within his cloak.  Moving quickly before the boy woke again, Odin strode with purpose through the palace.  He walked into Frigga’s chambers unannounced, and at the sight of his wife with their own infant son at her breast, he knew he was making the right decision.  His heart lifted just at the sight of them.

This was right.  Not just for the boy, but for Asgard.

“My queen,” he greeted as he approached the royal bed.

Frigga looked up at him, her eye immediately drawn to the squirming bundle he carried. 

“What have you there?” she asked.

Odin gently sat next on the edge of the bed and kissed his wife.  He presented the infant, calm after the journey across the across the Rainbow Bridge, but not yet asleep after all.  Within the safety of Odin’s cloak, he had reverted back to his natural form of blue skin and ruby red eyes, but as soon as he saw the Æsir woman peering down at him, his form slowly changed again.

For a moment, Odin could see the sadness in his wife.  She tried to hide it, but she was not fast enough.

“And whose is this now?” she asked.

That she had not outright rejected the child was somehow more than Odin had expected.  For a long moment, the two looked at one another, Frigga exhausted from motherhood, and Odin exhausted from war.  Silently, they fought a battle of their own, and it was Frigga who relented first, finally nodding.

“I found him in the temple,” he explained as Frigga moved the infant Thor so she could take the Jötunn boy from her husband.

The Jötunn infant clutched at her with hands that were tiny even by Æsir standards.  Had the boy been Æsir, Odin still may have doubted his chances.  But even in his small size, the boy possessed a powerful and dark magic.

“A halfbreed,” Odin said, watching as Frigga arranged herself and both infants.  “He may be Laufey’s.  I’m almost certain of it.” 

Frigga’s expression fell to alarm as she returned her gaze to Odin.  “You took the son of your rival?” she asked.

Odin watched the boy squirm and change his colour in Frigga’s arms.  He could change his colour easily, but did not hold it well.  It was powerful magic, and even though he had no control over it, the boy seemed to have an instinct for seiðr.

He didn’t even have to think about his response.  “He would have died if I hadn’t.”

Not from exposure.  Even a halfbreed would not have succumbed so quickly.  Had he been discovered by anyone else, he would have been thrown against a rock.

“If this boy is Laufey’s, he will want him returned,” Frigga warned.

“If this boy is Laufey’s, he was left to die,” Odin said, skirting around the truth he knew.  “He is small, and Jötunheimr is starving.  There are no resources to feed a child there.  Especially if his mother wasn’t Jötunn herself.” 

War bride or slave, one thing Odin knew for sure was that the boy’s mother was not Jötunn.  He was far too small, and far too powerful.

Frigga studied Odin for a long moment before finally nodding.  Knowing the truth in her husband’s words, she brought the boy to her breast.

“Be careful,” Odin warned.  “His teeth haven’t yet cut, but they still have a hard bite.”

Frigga looked down at both boys, settling them in her lap as best she could.  “What are your plans for him?” she asked.

Odin looked down to the boy at Frigga’s breast, not quite blue and not quite pink, but still shifting between the two without rhythm.  Not for the first time since finding the child, Odin thought that with the right training the boy could be an asset to Asgard.  A powerful sorcerer in Asgard’s court could be a far better weapon any any army if wielded correctly.  Asgard had not had a sorcerer since Buri’s reign, but in time the role would be restored.  It was a dangerous line of thought, but one Odin could not banish from his mind.  The boy was a gift from Yggdrasil herself, and he would not see it squandered.

“Find him a home,” he declared.  “A family who will care for him and raise him well.  And in time, train him.”

“What do you—Oh!” Frigga grasped at her breast in shock.  “You were not wrong.  He is a very eager child.”

For the first time in far too long, Odin allowed himself to smile.  Too much time on the battlefield away from his wife had hardened him in ways that, until that moment, he thought irreversible.  But the sight of Frigga with their son in her lap along with the boy Odin had rescued from Laufey’s temple warmed him.  For the first time in more than a season, Odin felt hopeful that things might once more return to normal.

“I’m sure any would be, if put in his place today,” Odin said.  “Challenging Fate and winning is no easy task.”

Frigga smiled warmly as she ran gentle fingertips over the boy’s head.  Odin watched this, knowing that she would not treat the boy any differently than she would their own son.  Even as he nursed, the Jötunn boy was still fighting, struggling against the sleep that threatened to fall upon him.  He no doubt had just as trying of a day as Odin himself, but he still wanted to see more of it.  Odin could not help but think that if this were his own son, he would be proud to be his father.

“What do you plan to name him?” Frigga asked, breaking the contemplative silence that had befallen the bedchamber.

“I don’t think that is our decision to make,” Odin said.  “Let his new family name him.”

Frigga looked down at the boys and nodded.  “Of course.”

The days passed, and with each that came and went, Odin drew no closer to finding a suitable home for the son of Asgard’s fallen enemy.  The boy was born to a king and no ordinary household would be worthy of him.  With each day that passed, Odin could see his wife grow more and more attached to the boy.  And if Odin might allow himself, he would have admitted the same.

Occasionally, the thought crossed Odin’s mind to keep the boy, and raise him within the palace.  But it would have to be done in secret for his own safety.  A secret that would be impossible to keep as long as he fought against Odin’s own magic.  And yet, as he entertained these thoughts, one name above all others stood out.  The only name suitable for a child who spat at Fate and came out the victor.

He had placed a glamour on the boy to make him appear Æsir and preserve the secret of his parentage from the nursemaids, but it made the boy fussy and intolerable.  He would cry and kick and flail until the glamour was finally removed, which Odin finally did to have five minutes of quiet.

  After too many days of such battle, Odin tried a different approach.  He placed a spell upon the boy instead, designed to only hide his form in the presence of anyone other than himself or Frigga.  The boy still railed against it whenever the change was forced upon him, and the sheer volume at which he complained was often enough to drive the nursemaids away.  As soon as the false form was released, the boy would return to his quiet, wide-eyed curiosity of the new world around him.

Only an infant, and already he knew how to speak his mind.  It was an admirable trait indeed, and Odin once more felt a sense of misplaced pride for the boy.

By the time the treaties with Jötunheimr had been signed, Odin realised that the boy’s fate had already been decided from the moment he was in Odin’s arms.  There truly was no finer fit for the son of a king, bastard or not, than within the palace itself.  There, he would be protected and free to learn and use the gifts bestowed upon him at birth.  He would have all of Asgard’s resources to hone his craft.  In time, he would be sharper than any blade, ready to be deployed at Asgard’s command.

Having made his decision, Odin found Frigga with one of the nursemaids, attempting to bathe and clothe the infants.  While Thor regarded the event as a game to be won at all costs, splashing the women and kicking everything within his reach to the floor, the Jötunn boy regarded it as torture.  His screams echoed off the walls as he fought against even the slightest touch by the nursemaid, and grew even louder when she tried to introduce the water to his skin.

Odin walked into the chambers and took the Jötunn boy from the nursemaid, dismissing her.  Thanking Odin, she fled.  No sooner had she left the room, the boy quieted and ceased his unholy thrashing as the blue pallor returned to his skin.

“Loki,” Odin declared.  “It is a strong name for a Jötun, and this is a strong child.”

Frigga looked up from where she was still struggling to convince Thor to be still long enough to be dried.

“You said it was not for us to name him,” she said, and whether she was sad or hopefully, Odin could not quite tell.

Odin could see something else in her eyes as she looked up at him; a subtle dread that came from so much loss already.  Without a name, he was not their child.  Not their burden to bear.  Not hers to be loved.

“Thor is to be presented to the court on Midwinter’s Day,” Odin said, moving the soap out of the way before it could be kicked to the floor again.  “And when that happens, he shall be presented with a twin.  His younger.”

“A Jötunn name for an Asgardian prince.”  Frigga gave Thor a hard look, which did nothing to still him.  “And you think this time it will work?”

“He is not a replacement,” Odin said. 

“No more than Thor, you mean,” Frigga said.  She stood tall, meeting Odin in the eye, picking a fight he did not care to have.

“If that is how you see him, what fault is that of mine?” Odin asked.

He once more contemplated his decision as he watched the infants.  Thor was still no closer to being dry or clothed, and the Jötunn boy had begun to examine Odin’s beard by tugging on it.

“Select two nursemaids whose confidence you trust without question,” Odin said.  He surveyed the situation before him one final time before deciding this was the correct thing to do.  “The rest, as well as the midwife, will be paid in gold to leave the realm and never speak the truth.”

Frigga finally wrestled Thor into a thick linen cloth, which was about as good as the situation was likely to get for some time.  Odin could tell by the way she puffed herself up that she did not entirely agree.

“And what about him?” she asked, nodding to child in Odin’s hands.  “He cries every time his form is hidden by your magic.  Do you expect to hide this forever?”

For a fleeting moment, Odin almost thought he could.  It might not be easier, but it would be safer.  But to do that, he would have to hide it from everyone, including the boy himself.  If he did that, and the secret ever came out, he would earn an eternity of resentment, dooming his plan for the boy to fail.  Odin knew only abstractly what it was to be Jötunn from what he had seen of his own mother, but he still knew that such a lie being revealed would cause chaos and ruin within the palace.  To deny this boy that knowledge of himself would make Odin no better than the father who left him in the ice.  He might have given the child a chance at life, but that life would be a lie.  And he knew precisely what came from such lies.

The boy would have to be raised to love Asgard in spite of being Jötunn.  The secret would eventually get out.  No matter what Odin did to hide it, no secret stayed hidden forever.  And when that day came, the boy would have to know without question that he belonged in Asgard.

“No, I don’t think that’s right,” Odin said, finally.  “He’ll be kept away, seen only by the nursemaids.  He’s small, and frail, and his mother worries for his health.  When the boy is old enough to understand the need for secrecy, he can be allowed out of the nursery.  But for now, this is a secret that needs to be kept.”

A long silence fell between them, broken only by the infants squirming and babbling in their arms.

“I trust your decision in this, husband,” Frigga said finally.  “But he still needs to be washed.”

Allowing a small smile to grace his features, Odin nodded and removed the tiny hands from his beard.

“Behave, boy.  I’m going to name you so your mother can wash you,” he said.

The boy still pulled at Odin’s beard and made as if he wanted to eat it, making Odin’s task all the more difficult.  He performed the ritual with little ceremony, sprinkling water on the boy and whispering his name and a blessing into his forehead.  With Loki named, Odin turned back to Frigga and passed the squirming infant over to his wife.  He lingered in the chamber as she bathed and clothed the boy, already contemplating a permanent solution to the problems the immediate one would surely cause.

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Loki: God of Outcasts | Tales of Yggdrasil: Dwarf’s Ransom

AU in which Odin is mostly-honest, Thor is still a spoilt brat, and Loki still deserves a smack in the mouth. Or, that time the MCU was inhabited by the comic versions of Thor and Loki.

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 blue 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 Grettisson,” 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 Grettisson,” 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. 

“You know,” Loki said, pausing before going any further.  “I often wonder if anyone in these backwaters are aware Bestla is of Jötunheim as well.”

It wasn’t a name Jari recognised, which he realised might have proven Loki’s point.  “Who?” he asked.

Loki grinned, sharp and wolfish.  “Odin’s mother.”

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. 

“Who is he?” Jari called, realising it was a question he should have asked earlier.

Loki appeared again at the mouth of the cave, leading Agmundr out with him.

“His brother is Asgard’s king,” Loki said.  “But you didn’t hear it from me.”

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.

Jari nodded.

“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.”

Loki laughed, as if there was something Jari didn’t know.  “And hopefully that’s how we’ll find it where we’re going.”

“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.  It’s easier, of course, if it’s your mother who’s Jötunn.  If it’s your father, gods help ye, and pray for magic.”

Jari looked at him carefully, not entirely certain what the difference was.  “So, that’s why you wander,” he 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.  The man’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 the man of anything valuable.

“Shall we leave you?” Loki asked.  He stood by with his hands on his hips, frowning at the entire scene.

Odin was silent for a few moments.  “No.  Leave him for the ravens,” 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.

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Loki: God of Outcasts | Ragnarök: The Cycle Works Thus

Laufey knows his sons to all be dead.  Loptr, they never expected to survive the winter, but to have him taken by the enemy is little more than an insult to Jötunheimr.  Laufey mourns the loss of his children.  He mourns the loss of his wife.  He mourns the destruction of his realm.  It makes him bitter and angry, every bit the monster the Æsir paint him to be.  He doesn’t care.  The Æsir are the monsters here.  Laufey is just an old man who has lost everything.

Years pass.  Jötunheimr wastes away.  Laufey grows to hate everything.  He is old and tired and resentful the day he learns Odin has exiled one of his own sons, and to Jötunheimr of all places.  He doesn’t know the finer details, and he doesn’t care.  He just wants the creature found and brought before him.  Laufey doesn’t know what he’ll do once he has the boy, but it will probably end in death, with the ruined body sent back to Asgard for Odin to see.

The boy is eventually found, and he’s no boy at all.  Has so much time passed that Odin’s sons have themselves grown to be men, weathered by time and war?  And when Laufey sees the man standing before him, held straight and regal and unflinching, Laufey howls in rage.  He would recognise his own scion anywhere, even after so much time.  This is a mockery, a trick.  Above all, it is completely unfair.  All the hate he has toward Odin and Asgard boils over.  The child he should have raised was stolen, given a false name, a false skin.  He’s so furious with Odin and with the Norns and Yggdrasil herself that Laufey strikes his long-missing son dead without hesitation.  He’s already mourned.  Loptr died ages ago.  Laufey only exorcised a ghost.

The war is being lost.  As soon as Odin’s soldiers step foot on Jötunheimr’s soil, there’s no hope.  All will die.  All will be destroyed.  Even his children will not be spared.

Laufey cannot help a sickening sense of familiarity as he hides his wife and children away in the palace.  At the last instant, he changes his mind and tells them to flee.  Go anywhere.  Leave Utgard and don’t return until the stench of the Æsir has finally faded.

They never return, and Laufey knows he gave them all a death sentence.  Jötunheimr crumbles.  Laufey mourns.  He grows bitter and hates everything.  This too feels familiar, though Laufey is beyond caring.  It’s not until an interloper is captured outside Utgard and brought before him that Laufey doesn’t so much find everything familiar, but feels like he remembers this all happening before.  He would recognise the man before him anywhere, and all the rage, all the anger and hate that he knows he’s felt before come surging back.  How dare Odin?  How dare he?

Loptr—Loki, he’s called now.  Laufey remembers that as well—is just as angry with Odin as he.  He wishes to overthrow Odin.  Laufey could not agree more.

Neither survives the siege on Asgard, but neither does Odin.  It’s a victory Laufey takes to his grave.

The Æsir come early.  Laufey doesn’t know why he thinks they are early, but they are.  Fárbauti is still in labour with Odin and his Einherjar land on Jötunheimr.  Helblindi and Býleistr are not yet old enough to fight, but they take up arms all the same.  The Einherjar are indiscriminate killers.  They see a Jötun with a sword and strike him down, regardless of his age or size.

Fárbauti perishes as well, though it isn’t a blade that kills her, but her own labour.  In the chaos of the battle, preparations were rushed.  It was all too much for her.

The boy survives, just barely.  He was going to name the boy Loptr, but he changes his mind at the last moment, and chooses Loki instead.  He doesn’t know why, but Loki feels familiar.  It feels right.

He doesn’t mean to, but he blames the boy for Fárbauti’s death.  If not for him, Fárbauti might have survived Asgard’s siege.  Instead, Laufey is left with a sickly, small child that does nothing but cry.  Even the wetnurses don’t know what to do with him.  More than once, Laufey considers smashing the child’s head on a rock, but he never seems to get round to it.

The child never ceases his fussiness, but he does eventually grow.  He’ll always be tiny; always be weak.  He’ll be no warrior, and as an heir and scion, he’s pathetic.  But he’s the only child Laufey has left.  He tells the boy not to wander off, but Loki is so small, he slips away easily.  It’s only a matter of time before he slips away and is never found again.  The entire palace is torn apart under the assumption that Loki slipped somewhere and got stuck.  Eventually, it’s decided that he slipped away and the cold tundras of Jötunheimr claimed him.  He was ever so small, and his ability to keep himself warm never did seem to mature.

Laufey thought he’d done all his mourning after the war.  He thought, should his pathetic heir ever come to harm, he’d be grateful for the release of the responsibility of caring for such a sickly child.  He mourns all the same.

It’s not until later—much later—that he hears about Odin’s sons causing trouble for the Nine Realms, and one of them is called Loki.  Odin never did have a son called Loki, did he?  No, he always has.  Laufey remembers it, but he doesn’t remember it quite like this.  After that, he keeps a close eye on Asgard’s affairs.  Odin’s two eldest sons cause a lot of problems for him, and that at least pleases Laufey.  Some part of him pretends that this son of Odin, this Loki causes chaos in the name of Jötunheimr.  It’s a childish fancy, and one that Laufey keeps to himself, but he keeps it all the same.

And then Loki comes to Jötunheimr and begs audience with Laufey.  And in that instant, when the Æsir boy steps before the throne and shows no apprehension, no wariness of being in a realm of giants and monsters, Laufey realises the fate of that sickly boy he lost.  Loki stands before him now, as a young man.  He’s still small, but he’s bigger than Laufey ever expected the boy to grow; tall even for the Æsir.  He has a proposal for Laufey, and Laufey, of course, accepts.

The invasion does not go as planned.  Laufey lives long enough to see Loki clapped in chains and thrown into a dungeon, but even then, Loki doesn’t seem like he’s lost.  There’s more to it.  Laufey only wishes he could live to see the fruits of the seeds they’ve sown.

This time, Laufey remembers more clearly.  At first, he thought it all a vision, but no.  He recognises it for what it is: an endless cycle.  Ragnarök has come and gone and come and gone again, and Laufey alone remembers.  But still remembering is not enough to save them.  Still, he’s left with only a screaming, sickly runt of a child for an heir, and this time, he does blame Loki.  He forbids Loki to leave his rooms without the strongest supervision.  He metes out the strongest punishments when the boy disobeys him.  He can’t stand that of all his children, it’s only ever this one to survive the war.  Laufey hates him for it.

Loki still manages to sneak away, and there are times when Laufey wishes he would stay gone.  But he cannot let Odin take what is his again, even if he would rather not have the burden himself.  Anyone but Odin, and yet, it’s always Odin.

And then one day, Loki calls Laufey a coward.  Laufey hits him so hard he flies from his seat.  He’s so angry with the boy that he lets himself be baited into what can only be an ambush.  Odin drives his sword into Laufey, but it’s not yet over.  Laufey lives to see his son carried away by the Æsir king.  And then, as he lies bleeding in the snow, the boy returns.  But it’s not the boy at all.  It’s the man the boy will eventually become, and Laufey recognises him as such.  Laufey doesn’t know what to expect from this meeting, but it definitely isn’t for Loki to take up a dropped sword.  Just before the blade crushes Laufey’s skull, he wonders if Loki remembers as well.

The Æsir are late this time.  Laufey doesn’t know what exactly it is that dictates their movements, but sometimes they stray from the set course of events.  Fárbauti gives birth and survives, though the boy likely won’t live through the winter.  Helblindi and Býleistr want to take up arms, but Laufey refuses to let them.  He has a plan this time.  One that will surely succeed.  It’s folly, but he doesn’t admit it.

When he hears that the Æsir are marching on Jötunheimr, he sends Fárbauti and the children to the temple to cower with the slaves and commoners.  Fárbauti, queen though she is, obeys his orders and hides where surely Odin would not trespass.

And still, something goes wrong.  Odin does enter the temple, but not until the aftermath of the battle.  And what he finds is an infant, abandoned in the cold.  Helblindi balked at being made to hide away from battle and ran into the fray, taking Býleistr with him.  Fárbauti left Loki behind to collect her older sons.  Loki would be safe in the temple, guarded by the laws of war.  Outside its grounds, all were fair game.

Again, Laufey has lost all and he rages.  He would march on Asgard and reclaim his stolen heir at once if he thought there was a way to reach that realm.  But there isn’t.  The only way into Asgard is the Bifröst, and Heimdall lets no-one pass.

And so Laufey retreats back to the familiarity of loathing and seething hatred and can only wait for the cycle to complete itself.  When three of his soldiers find a way into Asgard, he knows what’s coming.  He sends them to their deaths, knowing it’s a fool’s mission, but he wants to see how it all plays out.

When Loki comes to him again, it’s as one king to another.  Loki always seems to have schemes, and while they never go as planned or as promised, this one is far too good for Laufey to refuse.  Loki offers him the opportunity to slay Odin once and for all.  He accepts without thinking.

It’s almost no time at all before the Bifröst is opened and Laufey granted access to Asgard.  The realm is stifling in its heat, but Laufey doesn’t care.  Odin lies sleeping somewhere in the palace.  Finding the All-father is a simple matter of following Loki’s directions through the palace.  Just as promised, Odin lies prone, spread out for the taking.  His death is so close Laufey can almost taste it.

He doesn’t expect the strike to his back, but even more of a surprise is Loki proclaiming himself the son of Odin.  But Laufey knows the truth.  He is Laufeyson, and he is king.  At least Laufey does not live long enough to see Odin return to the throne.  With this, he is able to die with the knowledge that he is the sire of a king.  At long last.

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Loki: God of Outcasts

Loki: God of Outcasts (Final Word Count TBD) by LokiOfSassgaard

Chapters: Ongoing
Fandom: Thor (Movies), Thor (Comics)
Rating: Explicit
Warnings: Graphic Depictions Of Violence, Major Character Death, Underage
Relationships: Fandral/Loki (Marvel), Loki (Marvel)/Other(s)
Characters: Loki (Marvel), Thor (Marvel), Odin (Marvel), Laufey (Marvel), Frigga | Freyja (Marvel), Sif (Marvel), Hogun (Marvel), Fandral (Marvel), Volstagg (Marvel), Original Characters, Old Loki

Summary: What if one decision over 1000 years ago was made differently? Rather than being fed lies and made an unwilling party to them, the narrative changes and Loki is raised knowing he is Jötunn. But Asgard is no place for an abandoned Jötunn runt.

AU in which Odin is mostly-honest, Thor is still a spoilt brat, and Loki still deserves a smack in the mouth. Or, that time the MCU was inhabited by the comic versions of Thor and Loki.

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Void Chickens

Void Chickens (2,174 words) by LokiOfSassgaard

Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: Loki (TV 2021)
Rating: General Audiences
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Characters: Kid Loki (Loki TV), Classic Loki (Loki TV), Loki (Marvel), President Loki (Loki TV), Sylvie (Loki TV), Alligator Loki (Loki TV), Boastful Loki (Loki TV)

Summary: The void is a dead world, outside of time. Dull, grey, and lifeless. Except for the flock of vibrant, blue birds that seem to follow the Lokis around as they travel about the surface.

It takes a while, but Kid Loki works out what they are, though maybe not precisely where they come from.

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