I have no idea what I'm doing

Tag: fic: Loki: God of Outcasts (Page 1 of 2)

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.

« ||

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #29: Disappearance

Loki not being where he was meant to be was no longer a surprise.  He hadn’t bothered to show up to training, nor to their shared lessons for several days, but that wasn’t what concerned Thor.  He hadn’t seen Loki at banquet either.  Usually, he could catch Loki skulking around the shadows, or getting into fights in the courtyard, but Thor had not caught a single glimpse of him for far too long.

He knew there had been another argument between Loki and Odin, and on that assumed that perhaps Loki was still sulking in his chambers.  Thor let himself in, ignoring the guards standing watch outside his door, and found the antechamber and the hall beyond silent.  But Loki rarely spent time downstairs, unless he was looking for something in his endless mess.  The hall had become a hoarder’s den, stuffed full with all manner of things stolen and picked out of the trash, but it all sat ignored for the moment.  Thor climbed the stairs to the chambers above, finding it all eerily silent as well.

He opened the door to Loki’s bedchamber, expecting to find his brother hunched over a book, or sleeping lazily in bed.  But he found neither.  Loki’s chambers were completely empty.  The fire pit was cold, as it often was, giving Thor no clues as to how long Loki had been absent.  Thor stood in the middle of the room, looking at the stacks of books by Loki’s desk.  He had been working on something during their imprisonment, and Thor was curious to see what.  He stepped carefully around the mess on the floor and leaned over the desk to see Loki’s smudged-up hen scratch on the pages.  The ink on the pages was dry, and the well capped, so he clearly hadn’t been around recently.  The work on the pages recorded some convoluted and complicated working Thor could not make heads nor tails of, copied and translated from a dialect he’d never seen before.

Whatever it was, it left no clues.  Shaking his head, Thor stepped away from the desk and once more cast around the room, hoping for anything that might lead him in the right direction.  Something felt wrong about the entire situation, and standing in his brother’s cold bedchamber, Thor understood Loki’s unrelenting desire to solve a puzzle presented to him.  Loki had disappeared somewhere, and Thor needed to know where.

Not completely without options, Thor turned to leave.  Loki had his partners in crime, and if anyone would know what devious plot he was up to now, it would be them.  He didn’t know where to find either of them, but he knew Hogun’s step father, and Bragi was a good place to start.  Bragi mostly kept to himself, making him easy to find in his chambers.  It was a part of the palace Thor rarely visited, reserved for visiting chieftains and peace hostages.  Thor wasn’t sure whether he ought to knock, or let himself in, and stood outside the door for a long moment while he tried to decide.  Eventually, he settled on knocking, growing more and more impatient and uncertain as each second passed.  Finally, it wasn’t Bragi who opened the door, but his Midgardian wife.  Thor had seen her only a handful of times, and never so close.  Her presence took him by surprise, and even as she stepped out of the way to let him in, Thor found himself once again uncertain of what to do.

“Khulan, who is it?” Bragi asked from an adjoining chamber.

“It’s the prince,” Khulan said softly as she sat down on a long sofa. 

Her strange accent was even heavier than Hogun’s, making Thor realise he had no idea where they had come from before being brought to Asgard.

Thor stepped inside, watching as she picked up a small loom.  Before he could say anything, Bragi stepped into the main hall, half dressed with his hands stained in ink.  The whole scene was so eerily familiar, and yet foreign all at once that Thor could still barely find his voice.  He only watched as Bragi picked up a topcoat from the back of a chair as he stepped closer, quickly pulling it over his lean frame.

Thor never knew how he was meant to address Bragi.  The man was his uncle, but he wasn’t on Asgard as family.  It was Bragi who ought to have been Vanaheimr’s king—not Iri—but like Njörd and so many others, Bragi was a prisoner within Asgard’s walls.  It was the price of losing a war, and unlike Njörd and his children, Bragi understood his place on Asgard.

“Thor,” Bragi said, looking toward the door as he stopped a few paces away.  “What brings you here?”

For a moment, they both stood silently, staring at one another.  It was clear just from the confusion on his face that Bragi had thought his wife meant that Loki had paid him a visit.  Finally, Thor remembered what he’d come all the way down there for and cleared his throat.

“I’m searching for Loki,” he said.  “I thought he might be with Hogun.”

Bragi shook his head, and looked briefly to his wife.  Khulan offered no information, focused more on her weaving than what went on around her.

“Well, they’re not here,” Bragi said.  “You may have luck in the fallow fields.  The boy likes to hunt out there.”

Thor looked again to Khulan, realising where Hogun got his quiet brooding from.

“Thank you,” he said with a nod.  “I shan’t keep you longer.”

He turned to let himself out, wondering why Bragi knew more about where Loki disappeared to in the afternoons than he did.  Whether Loki chose to keep things from Thor deliberately, or this was a detail that had gone overlooked, Thor wasn’t sure.  But he knew where the fallow fields were, even if they didn’t seem like a particularly fun or interesting place to spend time, and headed out there.  As he walked out to the field, Thor couldn’t help but wonder if it was some sort of bizarre prank to send him all the way out to a barren field.  But as he reached the edges of it, he was surprised to see several figures out in the middle, clustered close together.  Thor jogged out to the group, already disappointed as he got closer.  He found Hogun, staring up at the sky, with two other boys Thor had never seen before sitting on the ground nearby.  As one of them noticed Thor approaching, he smacked the other, drawing his attention.  They both sat a little straighter, though neither bothered to move from where they were sitting.

A moment later, as Thor drew nearer, Hogun finally turned to glance briefly to Thor, before returning his gaze to the sky.

“Have you seen my brother?” Thor asked, unsure if he should even bother asking the two boys on the ground.

Hogun shook his head.  “I thought he was still locked up,” he said.

“No, he confessed and took all the blame,” Thor said, peering up to see what was holding Hogun’s attention.  “It seems that’s all my father wanted.”

Hogun hummed quietly, but said nothing.  Thor wasn’t sure what Loki saw in him, or why the other two were hanging around him either if the only conversation he could offer were vague grunts.

“Are you talking about Loki?” the larger of the two boys asked.

Thor turned to face him and nodded.  “Aye,” he said.  “I’ve not seen him for several days.”

The two boys looked at one another, both shaking their heads pensively.

“I last saw him trying to flirt with Kelda a few days back,” one said.  “It was painful to watch.  I had to leave before I died of embarrassment on his behalf.”

The other slapped his friend again.  “Alv!” he scolded.  Then he turned his attention back to Thor.  “He didn’t mean it, my lord.”

Thor shrugged.  He doubted Alv was wrong.  He’d never seen Loki so much as look at a girl, and had no reason to believe his brother would know what to do with one.

Before he could say anything further, Hogun raised his arm over his head as an eagle fell out of the sky.  Thor jumped out of the way and watched as Hogun fed the giant bird a scrap of meat, before fixing a hood over its head.  Suddenly he realised what Bragi had meant about hunting.

“That’s a fine animal,” Thor said.

Hogun nodded again, humming gruffly.

“Fandral may know where to find your brother,” Hogun said.

The slimmer of the two boys leapt up, quickly putting himself beside Hogun.

“I’ll take her back,” he said, holding his hand out for the bird.  “I’ll tell Volstagg you’re helping Thor.”

Hogun passed the bird over to his friend, both taking their time to make sure it was settled before Hogun stepped away.  Satisfied all was well, Thor gestured for Hogun to lead the way.  He knew so little about Loki’s friends, and was glad to have help tracking Fandral down.

He walked alongside Hogun, growing more and more anxious about the silence that spanned between them like a void.  But all Thor knew about Hogun was that he was Loki strange, quiet friend who barely seemed to know how to speak at all.  Ostensibly, they were even cousins, although his and Bragi’s positions combined meant they had been kept separated growing up.  At a loss, Thor stayed silent as well, paying careful attention to where he was being led.  Hogun did not lead him back to the palace, but into the city itself, walking a deliberate path along crowded streets to the docks.

“Loki wouldn’t come out here,” Thor said, looking back over his shoulder back toward where they’d come from.  “He can’t swim.”

“That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t come here,” Hogun said.

Though it wasn’t even Loki they had come to find.  As they shuffled through the crowd, Thor spotted Fandral working with a crew to offload a skiff at one of the docks.  Thor knew that Loki had not made many friends within the court, but he had thought that it was only some cruel rumour that he spent his time amongst peasants.  And yet, he recognised Fandral at once.

Shoving it all aside to be dealt with later, Thor stepped into the crowd, letting the crew work around him as he pulled Fandral off to the side.  Fandral looked up at him, startled at first, before he caught up and matched Thor’s pace to get out of the way.

“Curious seeing you here,” Fandral said.  He looked beyond Thor to Hogun, still standing far out of the way.  “What’s the trouble?”

“I’m searching for Loki.  Have you seen him?” Thor asked.

Fandral shook his head, and somehow Thor was unsurprised.

“Has he run off again?” Fandral asked.

Thor frowned, trading his confusion for concern.  “Perhaps.  Let’s hope that’s all it is.”

They were interrupted by a scarred and sun-leathered man stepping close to pull Fandral away.

“Get back to work.  I don’t pay you to stand around,” he said.

Thor glared up at the man, shocked at his gall.

“You pay him to do as he’s told, and I told him to come here,” Thor said, trying to make his voice sound bigger than it was.

To his absolute shock, the man only laughed.

“People up there might bow and scrape to your every word, highness,” he said, pointing to the palace.  “But until you sit on that throne, you’re no better than any of this lot down here.”

As he pulled Fandral away, Fandral only offered an apologetic shrug.  Thor watched him as he returned to his work, quietly seething about the blatant disrespect he had just been shown.  He was surprised again when a moment later, Hogun took him by the arm and began leading him away.  At first Thor resisted him, but there was no point in it.  He finally turned to follow Hogun, unsure where to go next.  Thor thought Hogun may have been leading him somewhere else, but they only wandered aimlessly through the market on the way back to the palace.  They wound up in the mead hall, though not to continue to search for Loki.  They both sat, facing one another across the table, insignificant and unnoticed amongst the crowd.  Thor didn’t know much about any of the people Loki called friends, and watching Hogun consider the situation, he wondered what else he didn’t know about his own brother.

He waited for Hogun to offer some insight, but none came.  Whatever Hogun was contemplating, he kept it to himself, again making Thor wonder what Loki got from his company.

But he didn’t need Hogun’s insight, whatever it was.  Thor suddenly realised that Fandral had said something, and that he had overlooked it as the situation on the docks got away from him.

“Fandral asked if he’d run off again,” Thor realised, suddenly understanding this wasn’t the first time Loki had disappeared without warning.  He sat up and looked around the mead hall, knowing what he searched for wasn’t anywhere nearby.  “I may know where he’s gone.”

Hogun stood as Thor did, following close as Thor now took the lead.  He couldn’t remember exactly where the gate had been, but he knew the direction it was in.  He and Hogun left the palace and scaled the wall into the woods beyond.  It felt like ages since he’d gone out in this direction, and he worried he might not be able to find the destroyed Dragon Gate again.  But sheer will and determination eventually led them to the familiar pile of toppled stone.

“What is it?” Hogun asked, slowing cautiously as they approached.

“It’s a gate.  To Jötunheimr,” Thor said.  “We found it last year.”

Loki had been the one to lead the way through before, but now it was Thor’s turn to take the lead.  He climbed onto the pile of stone and reached out for Hogun to follow.  He was surprised when Hogun took his hand and allowed himself to be led through.  They exited the gate into a familiar cave, though it was not as Thor had last seen it.  Evidence of Loki’s presence was apparent in the boxes and crates stacked up against the far wall.  Thor lifted the old skin covering the mess, finding much of what had been stolen from the keep.

“Loki, you are the worst,” Thor said, letting the skin fall back down again.

Behind him, Hogun laughed quietly.  Thor turned to him, unable to stop the hot wave of anger overtaking him.

“You think this is funny?” he asked.

Hogun shrugged and turned toward the cave’s entrance.  Aside from Loki’s mess, there was no sign of him within the cave.  Outside, a thick blanket of undisturbed snow made it clear no one had come or gone in some time.  Still, Thor stepped close to the cave’s entrance and peered out across the dark tundra.  In the low light, it was impossible to see anything, but Thor was convinced Loki was nowhere nearby.

“We should go back,” Hogun said.

Thor turned back to where the gate had once stood, nodding.

“Aye,” he said.

If Loki had truly come to Jötunheimr and was out on the tundra somewhere, it was time to get proper help.  Thor led Hogun back through to Asgard, trying not to stumble as they stepped back onto the uneven rock pile.  For a moment, the two of them stood in silence together, looking out toward the palace.  But there was nothing else to be done.  Thor didn’t know where else to search. 

Thor was familiar with irritation and frustration where Loki was concerned.  He was used to a certain feeling of helplessness, where his brother simply wouldn’t accept any.  But now, standing before the crumbled remains of a Dragon Gate as the suns hung low on the horizon, Thor was utterly and completely lost as to what to do.  He turned to Hogun, taking only a small amount of solace from the concern Hogun echoed back at him.  Loki’s friends were just as wild and reckless as he was.  If Loki’s latest stunt was enough to concern his band of mayhem-making misfits, then Thor knew he had every reason to worry.

“We should tell my father,” Thor said.  “Who knows.  Perhaps he’s been sent to scrub the dungeons.”

Hogun hummed lowly, obviously disagreeing.  Still, as Thor began the trek back to the palace, Hogun followed alongside him in silence.  The walk back seemed as though it took all day, and when they finally found Odin in his hall, Thor found himself unable to continue.  His tongue fell like lead in his mouth, and even as Odin looked up at the pair of them in confusion, Thor couldn’t make himself take the next step.  Not until Hogun nudged him forward, once again leading him around as though he had any right.  Thor was so shocked by it that it brought him back round to the present, forcing him to take a deep breath.

“Father, have you seen Loki?” he asked.  “It’s been days since either of us have seen him.”

Again, Hogun hummed, making a vague noise of agreement.  Odin took a deep breath then, sitting more heavily in his seat as Frigga made her presence known.

“His guard reported him missing two days ago,” Frigga said.

Thor hadn’t even noticed her in the room until she spoke up.  She sat in the far corner, weaving by lamp light while Odin worked, but now neither of them were concerned with the tasks before them.

“And he’s slipped his guard before,” Odin said.  “Am I to turn the entire realm upside down every time he runs off?”

“For your son, yes,” Frigga said, standing.

Hogun tried to back away, but Thor reached out to stop him.  As much as he too wanted to flee the scene, they hadn’t been dismissed, and were now prisoner to another one of Odin and Frigga’s outbursts.

“I have parties searching every corner of the realm,” Odin said.  “There’s only so much we can do.  He’s learned that infernal dark elf magic, and even Heimdall can’t see him.”

Thor realised that Odin didn’t know.  Odin wasn’t as worried as he should have been, because he assumed Loki would still be more or less where he ought to be.

“Father, I don’t believe Loki is on Asgard,” he said, speaking loudly and quickly so he wasn’t drowned out.

At his words, both Odin and Frigga turned silently to him, as a whole new tension gripped the room.  The weight of their expectations was crushing, and there was little Thor could do to get out from under it.

“And what do you know that I do not?” Odin asked after a long moment.

Thor looked to Hogun.  To expose Loki would undo their own work, and only cause more trouble later.  Thor knew he had to be careful with how he led Odin to the correct path.

“He’s found a way to Jötunheimr,” Thor said finally.  “I know he goes there, because he took me once.”

Frigga looked as though she might fall ill right there.  She looked at Thor, and then at Odin again.

“It’s dark winter on Jötunheimr,” she said.

“I know damn well what it is!” Odin shouted.

Again, Hogun tried to back away, but Thor grabbed him by the wrist to keep him there.  Thor didn’t want to be there any more than Hogun did, but he didn’t dare walk away either.  And it was just as well, because Odin picked that moment to turn his outrage to the two of them.

“You knew about this, and said nothing until now?” Odin said.

“I didn’t think he’d go back,” Thor said.  “I didn’t know he was that stupid.”

It wasn’t the right answer, and now Odin was furious.

“And you?” he asked, turning to Hogun.  “How long have you known about this?”

For all he clearly wanted to leave, Hogun didn’t even flinch beneath Odin’s ire.

“I knew nothing until this day,” he said.

Odin growled as he turned his back to them and strode away.

“Both of you, out of my sight,” he commanded.

Not wasting another second, both Thor and Hogun turned to flee, and did not stop until Odin’s hall was well behind them.  Together, they stood in the corridor, both staring at one another until finally Thor turned to face Odin’s hall again.

“He’s known for two days, and he hasn’t done anything,” Thor said.

He wanted to be sick.  He thought about all the countless times he’d had to reassure Loki that he was more to their father than an inconvenience.  For all his jokes and jests that he was the one who was truly wanted, Thor knew Loki had never truly believed it.  And now he worried Loki may have been right.  Now he worried that Odin’s threats to lock Loki up in the dungeon may not have been as empty as Loki claimed.

“We should tell Heimdall,” Hogun said suddenly.

Thor looked at him, realising Hogun was right.  Heimdall was looking on Asgard.  If Loki were lost or hurt on Jötunheimr, he wouldn’t keep himself hidden.  But he would only be seen if Heimdall knew where to look in the first place.

Together, they both ran through the palace and to the front gates.  Night had fallen as they reached the Rainbow Bridge, which sang and glowed beneath their feet as they ran along its entire length to Heimdall’s observatory at the far end.  Thor had walked and ridden the bridge’s length before, going with Odin and Frigga to other realms.  But this time the bridge seemed endless.  The more they ran, the further away Heimdall’s observatory seemed.  Finally, they reached it, both hoarse and heaving as they stumbled inside.  Heimdall turned to both of them, turning a frown to them as they struggled to regain their composure.  The galaxies in his eyes shone brightly from beneath his helm, giving him the impression that he could both see straight through Thor, and was not even looking at him at all.

“Are you looking for Loki?” Thor asked, finally standing.

He stepped closer to the edge, daring to stand by Heimdall’s side.

“I have searched for two days,” Heimdall said, turning to face the void once again.  “Loki has found a way to hide himself from my gaze.  I can see every blade of grass within the realm, but I see no sign of him.”

“Have you tried Jötunheimr?” Thor asked.

Heimdall again looked down at Thor.  “I have seen none come nor go from Jötunheimr, and granted no such passage,” he said.

Thor shook his head.  “He takes a Dragon Gate,” he said.  “The one to the north of the palace.”

Heimdall immediately shifted his gaze across the void, his face twisted in a deep concentration as he searched.  He did not hide his thoughts well, allowing his concern and frustration to deepen by the second.  Thor turned to Hogun, wishing he had something hopeful to say, but somehow knowing Hogun wouldn’t care for any false hopes.

“There is a village near the old gate,” Heimdall said.  “I do not see Loki there.  Nor do I see him in Utgard.”

“What does that mean?” Thor asked.

“It means I must search the entire realm,” Heimdall said.

For a moment, Thor didn’t dare speak the question that rose.  But his need for answers won out.

“And what if he’s not there?” he asked.

“Then I will search the other realms,” Heimdall said.

Thor nodded.  It wasn’t quite the answer he wanted, because he had not quite asked the right question.

“The magic he uses,” he asked.  “Do you know what it is?”

“I do not,” said Heimdall.  “It’s one I have never before encountered.”

Heimdall looked down at Thor again, as an uncomfortable silence fell over them.

“Nor do I know what drives this magic,” Heimdall said.  “If it is something Loki must maintain himself.”

He wasn’t saying it, and Thor wasn’t asking it.  The real question.  Whether Loki would remain hidden if he were injured, or worse.  If Loki might be dead somewhere, lost forever because the magic he used to hide himself hid even his corpse.  Thor knew nothing about magic, but all three of them in the observatory that moment were thinking the same thing.

They all stood silent for a long while, waiting as Heimdall searched every corner of every realm.  Thor looked out over the void, not turning away once until the rising sound of armoured footsteps rose from behind.  He turned to see a pair of Einherjar entering the observatory, and hoped it meant good news.

“This one,” one said, pointing to Hogun.

Hogun stood a little bit taller as he frowned at the soldiers.

“What is this?” Thor asked on his behalf.

“He’s wanted for questioning,” the other soldier said.

“I’m going with,” Thor said, stepping forward.

Neither said anything as Thor walked alongside them.  The Einherjar took Hogun to a chamber above the dungeons, where a dozen others had been brought.  Thor spotted Freyr first, looking like he could murder every man in the room.  And then, he noticed Fandral shortly after.  He sat in the corner, letting his nerves show plainly in his ever action.  Thor sat next to him, understanding what the purpose of dragging Hogun off had been.

“Don’t let them see your fear,” Thor said quietly to Fandral.

Fandral looked at him, doing nothing to correct himself.

“If they know you’re afraid, they’ll think you have something to hide,” Thor said. 

He knew Fandral had nothing to do with whatever had happened to Loki.  Fandral was nothing more than an easy scapegoat, and he clearly knew it as well.

Finally, Fandral nodded, and tried to school his face into something more neutral.  He looked up at Hogun, and after a moment, nodded toward him.

“What’s he doing here?” he asked.

Thor looked around the chamber, realising then that Fandral was the only Asgardian present.  Everyone else was Vanir, or in Hogun’s case, raised by one.  Thor could see what Odin was thinking, and prayed it was not true.

“My father does not seem to believe that Loki ran off,” Thor said quietly.

“Oh.”  Fandral nodded awkwardly, looking around again.  “Great.  Fantastic.”

He took a deep breath, and nodded again, this time more slowly.

“I thought it was something else.”  He looked pointedly to Freyr, drawing Thor’s attention in the same direction.

Freyr had not spoken so much as a word to Thor since they found him in the orchard with his sister.  He knew from the way Freyr glared back at them that his thoughts were in the same place.

“No,” said Thor.  “Not this time.”

He looked over the crowd again, knowing none of them would have been foolish enough to do what they were suspected of.  Peace with Vanaheimr was already so tenuous, and war with the realm would strip every peace hostage within Asgard of their status and protection. 

No.  Thor knew Loki’s disappearance had nothing to do with Vanaheimr.  This was Odin giving the appearance of exhausting all his options within Asgard before accusing Jötunheimr.

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #28: Magic

Loki woke violently to a loud crash and chaos.  He lay across Thor’s chest, who woke with an equal measure of confusion at the intrusion.  Once Loki had cleared off his bed after his tantrum the previous night, they had gravitated there, and it was there he and Thor had eventually fallen asleep.  Fandral lay sprawled out at their feet, no longer snoring quietly, while Hogun had claimed the sofa for himself.  The four of them all looked up, bleary and confused as Odin himself led a pair Einherjar into Loki’s bedchamber.  As Odin glared around the room, one of the guards picked up the jar that had been left by the fire pit and brought it to his nose.  A moment later, he handed it off to the other guard.

“Cinder,” he said.

The other guard gave it a sniff and chuckled briefly, before setting the jar down on Loki’s desk.  Odin did not share their amusement.  Instead, he pointed straight at Loki, and then gestured toward the stairs.  As Odin saw himself out, one of the guards stepped forward and pulled Loki to his feet.  With an iron grip around his arm, he dragged Loki toward the door and down the stairs, barely allowing him to keep pace.  As Loki grabbed onto the guard’s hand to better steady himself, he realised he had lost his glamour in the night, and was now completely revealed as what he truly was before everyone.  For a moment he thought he ought to conceal himself, but it was too late.  The damage had been done, and he was too busy focusing on not losing his balance completely. 

As they reached the hall below, Loki looked up at Bror and Geiri, both standing with a third guard, while Odin watched from a distance.  While Bror and Odin discussed something quietly, Geiri was digging through one of the boxes, pulling out stolen library books and dusty old leathers.

“It’s all the same trash he’s been keeping in here,” he said, tossing a book aside.

“And he was here all night?” Odin asked.

“The night watch never reported seeing anyone come or go,” Geiri said.

The other guard led Thor into the hall as well, with Fandral and Hogun trailing close behind. 

“And them?” Odin demanded, pointing at Thor.  “How do you explain this, if no one was seen entering?”

Thor shifted, looking back at Fandral behind him.

“I brought them,” he said.  “We scaled the wall so we wouldn’t be seen.”

Odin glared at him, and Loki knew he didn’t believe a word Thor said.  Thor’s pathetic lie had given them all away, and that would be the end of it.  Still, Loki remained silent, even as Geiri continued to dig through his boxes.

“You’re certain you saw no one as well?” Odin asked, turning to the third guard.

The guard threw an odd glance to Fandral before shaking his head.  “No one, Allfather,” he said.  “It was quiet all night.”

Loki realised he must have been the guard Fandral had managed to chase off while they were clearing out the keep.  Though why he lied about it, Loki didn’t know.  He could have told Odin the truth and given Odin all the evidence he needed.  Still, Loki said nothing, letting the strange scene play out before him.

Shaking his head, Geiri gave up and finally stepped away from the pile of boxes and crates.  He was lying too, and Loki knew it.  They had made it less obvious that their loot had been piled up in the hall, but Loki had not yet hidden it completely.  Geiri have to have seen some of it as he dug through boxes and crates full of pilfered and stolen goods.

“Unless you’re looking for whoever’s been raiding the kitchens, there’s nothing here,” Geiri said, handing a jar of fermented shark to one of the guards.

The guard looked at it, frowned, and immediately put it down.

“Frost giant gruel,” he muttered.

Loki held his tongue and glared silently at the guard.  Meanwhile, Odin glared at everyone else, before gesturing to Thor and the others.

“Return him to his chambers and them to their mothers,” he said.  “I want Thor and Loki both under full guard until this is settled.”

The Einherjar all nodded, and the two from upstairs began leading Thor and the others out of Loki’s chambers.  Loki stayed where he was, only able to stand silently without any defense for himself.  Loki realised, watching his friends be led away, why the guards lied.  Loki had told Bror and Geiri what they were up to.  They knew before it had even happened, and ignored him.  If Geiri had found any of the stolen items in Loki’s chambers, it was proof they had not done their job and stopped them.  The other guard hadn’t just seen Fandral near the keep.  He had allowed Fandral to distract him somehow, rather than doing his own job.  All of their heads were on the chopping block for what Loki had done.

“They didn’t do anything,” Loki said once the door was closed and he was more or less alone with Odin.  “I got the cinder from the market.  I didn’t think it would be that bad.”

“Silence,” Odin said.  “I don’t know how you’ve done this, but I will learn the truth.  And when I do, you will be punished.”

“Done what?” Loki asked.  He knew exactly what he was being accused of, but thought his odds of getting out alive might be best if he claimed ignorance about the whole thing.

“Done what?” Odin echoed.  “Do not insult my intelligence, and I won’t insult yours.”

He began making strides toward the door, giving Loki barely any warning to step out of the way.  At the last moment, Odin stopped before Loki, grabbing him by the chin and pulling on him so he could see Loki’s face.  Loki only then remembered what he had done to his eye, though he offered no explanation for it.  Finally, Odin let him go with a sharp hum and continued on his way.  As Odin left, Loki remained in the hall, surrounded by three guards who had all lied about what they had seen the night before to protect themselves.

“I’m sorry,” Loki said, not knowing what else to say to them.

He walked out of the hall, intending to head back to his bedchamber.  Before he even reached the stairs, the guards began talking as though he weren’t even there.  Knowing he should ignore it, Loki stopped to listen.

“How do you stand this post?” the unfamiliar guard asked.  “Guarding that thing all day.”

“Norns, he’s just a boy,” Bror said.

“And when he grows up, then what will he be?” the guard asked.

A moment later, he too strode from the hall, stopping when he saw Loki still standing below the stairs.  They stared at one another for a long moment, and Loki could see the fear in him at being caught.  Not shame.  Not embarrassment.  Fear.

“When I grow up, I’ll be the power behind the throne,” Loki said, staring unflinchingly at the guard.  “Then what will you be?”

The guard fled, followed by laughter from Geiri and Bror.  As they walked through to the door, Bror shook his head.

“When you grow up, you’re going to be a pain in the backside,” he said, clapping Loki on the shoulder.

Loki didn’t think there was anything funny about it.  Even in front of Odin, their disrespect was brazen.  He watched as Geiri and Bror retook their posts outside, and then looked back to the hall, stacked and cluttered with things stolen from all over the palace.  What he’d said was true.  He would be the power behind the throne.  Thor would wield Gungnir one day, but it would be Loki he deferred to.  Loki had never thought he wanted that job until that moment.  But he knew then nothing he could ever do would gain Asgard’s respect.  Nothing he could ever do would gain him the status he was owed.  But he could gain Asgard’s fear.

Freyr didn’t respect him, but he was a fool if he didn’t fear Loki.  Sif didn’t respect him, but she wore her terror plain on her face every time they breathed the same air.  If the entire realm feared him the same way, he wouldn’t need their respect.  If the entire realm feared him the same way, he could do as he damn well pleased, whatever that was.  He wouldn’t have to sneak around and worry about being caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to do, because none would dare hold him accountable.

He was done making potions for Thor, and learning tricks for sneaking around.  He might not have been able to win in a fight, but he could make damn certain nobody wanted to fight in him the first place.  And that started with the mess in his hall.  He returned to it, and began digging through the boxes, pulling out every book he could find, and sending them all upstairs to his bed.  It took him several hours to find every book buried in the mess, and he didn’t stop until he was certain he’d found them all.  When he returned upstairs, he went not to the bed, but to his shelves, and pulled down every grimoire and blank tome he had there.

The first thing he was going to do was catalogue every single book, every language, every spell he’d accumulated.  If he was going to learn everything he’d hoarded away, he first had to know what he had ahead of him.  He stacked the blank books by his desk, and then found every quill and ink well in his possession.  Already, he knew it wouldn’t be enough, but he could always send for more.  With everything out and ready, he moved the books from his bed to another pile by his desk, and added to it every grimoire and tome from his shelves.  Looking at it all, it was a massive undertaking.  But he’d be locked in his chambers for some time to come, giving him plenty of time to work through everything.  Odin was stubborn and unrelenting in his punishment, but Loki could just as easily match it.

He started first by going through the books one by one, page by page, and making a ledger of everything.  Magic for travel and concealment was often recorded next to potions and healing herbs, with little organisation or structure.  Each book was drafted by some other sorcerer before him, collecting his knowledge as he came to it.  What Loki intended to do was sort it, organise it, and structure it.  So he flipped through page after page, listing each spell’s use and which skills it required as he came to them.  By the time Geiri brought him his supper, Loki had realised there were rules nobody had ever bothered to explain to him.  He knew there was Jötunn magic, and Vanir magic, and Álfar magic, but he had never understood the difference.  His teachers had always implied that a spell or glamour might have been Álfar, because it came easy to the Álfar.  But what Loki began to see was something else entirely.

A spell wasn’t Álfar just because it came easy to the Álfar.  It harnessed an entirely separate energy, channelled and directed in a way that made entire facets of magic unobtainable to anyone who couldn’t harness that energy.  It wasn’t that there was a knack to Álfar or Jötnar or Vanir magic.  It was all a different magic entirely.

Loki knew seiðr came easy to him.  It always had, even before he knew what it was.  But though it was limited, anyone who bothered to learn it could use seiðr, just as anyone who bothered to learn how could read runes. But Loki saw something else as he catalogued spell after spell, book after book.  Even though the same end result could often be achieved through different methods, there were many that were unique, and only achieved through one source.  Loki could light a spark with seiðr, but he could not conjure great flames with it as the Eldjötnar could.  But as Ljósálfar and Dökkálfar magics were often two sides of the same system, Loki wondered just how different Eldjötnar magic was to what he knew so innately.  He paused to look at his hands, already battered and scarred from so many failed attempts at dangerous spells.  Without any effort at all, Loki formed ice crystals on his fingers, bright white against the dark blue of his skin.  As the crystals melted in the warm air, Loki looked at the scars over his fingers, faint and faded with time, but still there; evidence of a barely averted disaster before he even knew he had this power.

He remembered so little from it, but as he stared at his fingers, he grew confident that he had not conjured those flames with seiðr.  He had not intended to start a fire, and the crux of seiðr was intent.  He again summoned ice, paying close attention to where that energy came from.  He had never bothered to pay any attention to it, and none of his teachers had ever known the first thing about Jötunn magic.  It was simply a part of him, which came as naturally as breathing.  But as he summoned the ice, letting it grow on his fingers, he thought he could feel something.  It was almost like making a fist, and feeling a muscle in his arm tense.  Something separate, but obviously connected.

He let the ice melt again, and then focused not on that, but on the sensation he felt as he’d conjured the ice.  He stared at his hand, trying to flex this hidden muscle again.  It was there, and he could feel it.  He thought not of ice, but of fire, trying to keep intent far away from the equation.  He resisted the ice that tried to form on his fingers, reaching for something else.  Something destructive and dangerous.

Then, suddenly, a flash of orange enveloped his fingers.  He had only a moment to be startled at what he had done, before he felt the heat on his skin.  Shouting loudly, he shook his hand and snuffed the flames, leaving his skin scorched, but unburnt.  But he realised he should have expected that.  He had ice in his veins.  He was made for the cold.  Just because he could conjure fire didn’t mean his body could handle it.

Still, he tried again, reaching into some hidden part of himself.  The flames came easier this time, and this time he was prepared to snuff them out before he burnt himself.  He tried again, finding it again easier to conjure the flash of orange on his fingers before shaking himself free of it.

“What the hel are you doing?” Fandral asked, startling Loki.

He hadn’t heard Fandral approach, and finding him lurking in the door sent a panic through him.  Loki looked down at himself, exposed and vulnerable in his true form, and quickly disguised himself.  Even though Fandral had seen him as he truly was, he didn’t like the idea of anyone seeing him like that.  But Fandral seemed more interested in the enormous stack of books all around Loki, which soothed him somewhat.

“I think I may have broken the universe,” he said, looking back down at his hand.

Fandral only looked confused.  He looked at Loki, and then shook his head and looked back at the books.

“You’ve seriously read all of these?” he asked.

Loki looked at the books as well.  “Not yet, but I’m going to,” he said.

He wasn’t sure why Fandral was there, but he realised an opportunity when he saw it.

“You can help me do this,” he said.  “I’ll get it done more quickly, and you can practise your runes.”

Fandral stepped closer, bending over the desk to see what Loki had been copying down.

“What is this?” he asked.

Loki grabbed a new blank book and a fresh quill and ink well, handing them all over to Fandral.

“I’m making a record,” he said.  “So I know what I have, and what I should read next.”

He grabbed another book from the pile that had yet to be copied, and handed it over as well.  Fandral looked at him dubiously, but listened as Loki explained exactly what he needed to do.

Even with Fandral’s help, it took days to catalogue every spell within Loki’s library of grimoires.  But if Loki had anything, it was endless days with nothing else to fill his time.  He broke the monotony by arranging everything stacked in his hall, figuring out what he had to work with.  Anything stolen from Eldred’s shop, he hid away in places none on Asgard would ever find.  He had found many such places while exploring the old map, hidden away in forgotten corners of the realm. 

Fandral and Hogun would occasionally be allowed to pay him a visit, but never Thor.  He too was no doubt locked up in his chambers, paying the price for a crime nobody could prove.  Sometimes Fandral would visit alone, and Loki would allow himself to take a break when Fandral wanted his attention in other ways.  But it was the time spent alone Loki preferred.  With everything catalogued and his hall cleansed of evidence, Loki could begin the true task at hand.  He threw himself into his studies, ignoring everything else.  He learned to conjure fire without getting burnt by the flames.  He learned to tolerate fire he did not conjure, though it was draining and difficult.  He learned to conjure ice that did not melt in the flames, and how to shape and form it to his will.

The elves used magic for trickery, and Loki liked that even better.  Shadows could not only be hidden in, but travelled through.  He could step into one and out of another with much greater ease than it took to turn one step into ten.  But even that trick had its uses.  Walking through the shadows let him travel short distances, which was all well and fine.  It let him sneak out of his chambers at night, allowing him to spend a few hours with Fandral around other hidden parts of the palace without being spotted.  He came to crave those stolen moments, and the praise that came with them.

But Loki knew there was more to discover.  If he could turn one step into ten, why not twenty?  Why not a hundred?  And if he could turn one step into a hundred, what was stopping him from walking the very boughs of Yggdrasil itself?

Loki had found Dragon Gates that led to other realms, but so far none had taken him to Midgard.  None had taken him to the one place he wanted to go most.  He started small, testing his abilities.  He had taken a gamble when Eldred’s shop had been raided, stepping blindly into the alley to catch up with Bror.  It had been foolish and dangerous, but Loki now knew what he had done wrong.  He couldn’t just take a step and hope that he’d wind up in the right place.  He had to know with certainty where he was going.  Sight magic still pained him, breaking something in the back of his mind each time he tried.  He would look out over Asgard, finding some secluded place where no one would find him.  He would then grab onto it and take that step, travelling across the entire realm in an instant.

It got easier each time, and as it got easier, he travelled farther and farther.  Once it became no trouble at all to fling himself to the other side of Asgard, he tested a more dangerous journey.  Asgard was small, and once he’d reached the very limits of what the realm had to offer, there was no more room to test himself.  He needed something bigger; something to present a new challenge to overcome.  The dwarves had been kind to him, so he first tried to take himself to the marketplace in Rötgart.  It was difficult to see from the distance, but he could see it, vague and distorted though it was.  But the only way to know for certain was to try, so he took that step.  Immediately, he wished he hadn’t.  He stumbled and tripped, and fell onto his face as soon as his feet touched stone.  Loki managed to pull himself up to his hands and knees as his stomach turned inside out, and before he could stop himself he vomited on the ground before him.  He barely noticed the startled and disgusted shouts around him, and wasn’t even certain where he was until a pair of hands took him by the arm.

“Up you get,” a gruff voice said.

Loki looked up at the voice, not recognising the dwarf beside him, bald on the top of his head, with what hair he had left worn long and loose.  Loki wiped his mouth with his hand, struggling to find the strength to rise all the way to his feet.  The dwarf beside him couldn’t help much, beyond keeping him from collapsing again.

“Norns, it’s a wee giant!” the dwarf said suddenly.

“How the hel do you know that?” Loki asked, trying to ignore that he’d been called a giant at all.

The dwarf tried to haul Loki to his feet, giving him the drive to force himself to stand.

“I know a giant when I see one,” the dwarf said.  “Never seen one fall out of the walls though.”

Loki turned to see where he’d come from, finding the cavern wall immediately behind him.  He’d misjudged, almost dangerously so.  He couldn’t believe he’d been so lucky.  Before he could say anything about it, his stomach turned inside out again and he nearly fell over on his feet, stopped only by bracing himself against the wall. 

“Let’s get you somewhere you can fall over without causing a scene,” the dwarf said.

Loki nodded, allowing himself to be led away.   As they walked down the path, Loki turned to see the small group of dwarves that had gathered around trying to figure out where he had come from, and who had to clean up his mess.  He felt like he ought to have apologised for that, but by the time it occurred to him, they were too far away.

“You got a name, boy?” the dwarf asked.

Loki looked back at the dwarf, still feeling dazed and uneasy. 

“Loki,” he answered, realising a moment too late that he should have lied.

It didn’t seem to matter.  If the dwarf recognised him, he didn’t say anything to the fact.

“Well, you just sit tight with Uncle Skafiðr until your folks come looking for you,” the dwarf said.

Skafiðr led him into a tavern near the port, getting him settled at a table near the door before wandering off again.  The tavern was built for travelling merchants and sailors, so Loki at least fit at the table without feeling enormous and ridiculous.  With his head still spinning, Loki leaned heavily against the table and watched people come and go.  When Skafiðr returned, it was with a heavy tankard of something that reeked of grain and yeast.

“What’s this?” Loki said, looking into it.

“That’ll put hair on even a giant’s chest,” Skafiðr said as he settled onto the bench next to Loki.

Curious despite everything, Loki shrugged and drank.  It was bitter and thick and tasted like bread that had been allowed to go sour before going into the oven.

“Gods, it’s like piss,” Loki said, pulling it away to look back into the tankard.

Skafiðr laughed, nearly spilling some of his own beer.  Wanting something in his stomach, and not wanting to be completely rude, Loki ignored him and drank more of it.

“I had Jötunn smallbeer once,” Skafiðr said.  “Never been so sick in my life.  What do they even brew it with?”

Loki shrugged.  “I wouldn’t know,” he said.  He took another drink, wincing at the taste.  “I was raised on Asgard.  Ale’s awful there too though.”

Skafiðr laughed again, but he looked at Loki in a way he didn’t like.  As if he was now studying him for something.

“I didn’t think the Southern tribes got involved in all that,” the dwarf said.

Loki looked down at himself, realising the confusion his disguise had caused.

“Oh.  No, they didn’t,” he said.  “I was born in Utgard, but it’s… complicated.”

He frowned, unsure how much he should give away, especially since the dwarf hadn’t seemed to recognise him at all.

“War usually is,” Skafiðr said.  But he seemed to be forming his own conclusions, and Loki was happy to let him.  “So what’s all this business falling out of the walls?  You run away?”

Loki shook his head.  “No.  Well.  Sort of, I suppose,” he said.  “I wanted to see if I could.”

He could see Skafiðr holding his tongue against something, but Loki didn’t have to try very hard to imagine what he wasn’t saying.

“I’m well looked after.  Truly, I’m more of a fancy pet than anything,” Loki said, growing more and more to believe that it was true.

Skafiðr nodded.  “That’s good,” he said.  “You’re lucky.  I’ve heard stories from over there.  Men worked to death, and women sold to the highest bidder.  Asgard acts all high and mighty, but it’s the worst place to be if you aren’t one of them.”

Loki knew Skafiðr spoke the truth, even if it was a truth swept under the rug and never spoken aloud.  He tried to figure out how old Skafiðr was, but this was only his second time ever seeing a dwarf in person, and he had no idea what his guess should even be.

“Have you been to Asgard?” he asked.

“Once,” said Skafiðr.  “After Utgard was sacked.  I saw children in chains, and babes ripped from their mothers’ breasts.  Sold off as more of them ‘fancy pets’ I imagine.”

Loki’s thoughts drifted to Kelda and her mother, and to Skaði, all lucky enough to have landed within the court like him.  But he knew there were others who weren’t nearly as lucky.  Others who had been chained in quarries and mines, or worse.  Loki had never seen them with his own eyes, but he didn’t need to.  Enough of his teachers had spoken to him as though he were Asgardian to let him know exactly how Jötnar outside of the palace were treated.

“Is it true Niðavellir’s a free realm?” Loki asked.

Skafiðr nodded.  “Aye,” he said.  “If a dwarf can’t do his own work, he’s no use to anybody.  That’s why I thought you’d come here.”

“Oh.  No.  It was an experiment, was all,” Loki said, shaking his head.  He looked around, but the tavern was completely enclosed underground, with no windows even facing the gangway outside.  “What time of day is it?  I think I’ve had enough of falling out of walls, and should probably take the gate back home.”

Skafiðr hummed, nodding strangely.  Loki wanted to defend his position, and his family, but he didn’t dare give too much of himself away.

“Front gates should still be open,” Skafiðr said.  “Or you can catch a ferry to Vanaheimr if that gets you closer.”

“Oh, I did that last time.  No, thank you,” Loki said.  “I’d much rather walk.”

Still, Skafiðr looked at him oddly.  “If you’d rather head north, there’s a gate to Jötunheimr.”

He now had Loki’s full attention.  He knew better, but he couldn’t help himself.  His curiosity simply got the better of him, and he conjured his map and a charcoal pencil.

“Where?  Show me, please?” he asked, unrolling the map onto the table.

“Where in the hel did you get that?” Skafiðr asked suddenly.

“I found it.  By rights, it’s mine,” Loki said, looking over Niðavellir on the parchment.  There were several gates north of Rötgart, and none Loki had marked off yet.

Skafiðr started to speak, but then stopped abruptly and looked over the map more carefully.  “They let you learn your runes?” he asked.

“I told you, I’m very well looked after,” Loki said.  He looked up at Skafiðr, watching as he tried to reconcile what he knew with what was sitting before him.

“Right,” Skafiðr said finally.  He pointed a stubby finger at an X far in the north of the realm.  “This one.  It leads to one of the Southern tribes.”  He looked over the map some more, before pointing at another X on Jötunheimr.  “Hvararharm.”

Loki nodded and wrote that down.  “And what’s it called where the gate here is?” he asked.

“Golden River,” Skafiðr said.

He watched Loki mark it down, and as soon as he was done, Loki sent the whole thing away again.

“You’ve seen that map before?” Loki asked.

Skafiðr shook his head.  “Once.  But the man who drew it was the wrong sort of popular.  The sort that made more enemies than friends.”

“Do you know why he was executed?” Loki asked.

“He spilled blood in Gladsheimr,” Skafiðr said.  “If you ask me, it was a convenient excuse to execute a giant.  I heard they chained the poor bastard down and poisoned him.”

Loki looked down at his beer.

“You knew him?” Loki asked.

Skafiðr shook his head.  “No.  But he was friends with my cousin.  Poor bastard was never the same after that.”

Loki wanted to ask more.  He was so close to having the answers he needed, but he knew this was not the time nor the place to ask.  He’d have to get his answers elsewhere.

“I have to get home,” he said, standing up as he put the tankard down.  “Thank you.  For everything.”

Skafiðr nodded, staying in his seat while Loki left the tavern.  He walked back toward the front gates, finding them open and the sky above dark with storm clouds.  Eager to get back home without making a fool of himself once more, Loki ran through the gate back to Asgard, and only once he was back in the realm did he slip through hidden paths back to his chambers.

He needed to be let out.  He needed information.  He was tired of being lied to, and he needed to know why nobody would tell him the truth.  Determined to get the story one way or another, Loki snatched the old book from the drawer in his desk and walked down the stairs to his front door.  He pulled it open and stepped out into the hall to face Bror.

“I need to speak to my father,” he said.

Bror looked up at Geiri, and after a moment they both nodded.  Bror led the way, taking Loki through the palace until they found someone who knew where Odin was.  They found him, alone in his chambers, with maps and scrolls scattered out over a table.  He looked up as Loki walked in, his expression turning sour.  Loki didn’t care.  Odin had done far worse to him than just shoot him dirty looks, and he’d survived all of those just fine.

“Have you finally come to confess?” Odin asked.

“No,” Loki said, choosing to gamble on a weak suspicion.  “I want to know who you named me after.”

Odin’s sour look only deepened, but Loki still didn’t care.  He opened the record book to the page with the old man’s death and tossed it down onto the table.

“It’s him, right?” he asked, looking not to the book but at Odin. 

Odin looked down at the book, and his expression turned from sour to anger.

“Where did you find this?” he asked, picking the book up and slowly flipping through the pages.

“The library,” Loki said.  “I checked it against the official record, and he’s not in there at all.  Why was he erased?  And why is so much else missing?”

He didn’t care how angry Odin got.  He was beyond caring about Odin’s anger.  He had been lied to, and he was going to find out why.

“You named me after him.  I want to know why,” Loki said, unmoving under the weight of Odin’s stare.  “Tell me what I want to know, and I’ll tell you what you want to know.  Who was he?”

Odin looked up from the page, still radiating anger.  Then, he nodded just once and gestured to the chair across the table.  Loki nodded in return and sat, hoping Odin didn’t see him trying not to explode as the full weight of what he was doing crashed down upon him.

“So,” said Odin, closing the book and setting it aside.  “What have you come to tell me?”

“You first,” Loki said.  “I know he was executed.  I know he spilled blood in Glasheimr.  And I know the witch in the woods had something to do with him.”

He knew his father’s tricks well.  If he gave Odin the information he wanted, he’d have Loki dragged out again before ever upholding his end of the bargain.  Loki watched as he mulled over the entire situation, waiting in silence.  He had all day, while he knew Odin had other things to do, and lacked the luxury of patience.

Finally, Odin sighed and nodded once more.

“So I see you’ve met his sons,” Odin said.

“I’ve met a lot of people,” Loki said, unable to escape the feeling that Odin was still trying to dodge his questions.  “But you didn’t erase him for having sons.”

“No,” Odin said.  “I struck him from the record because I had no choice.  His death led to war and ruin.”

“Was he important?” Loki asked.

“He was to me,” Odin said.  “We shared blood through oath.  Treaties with Laufey and Surtur were still being negotiated.  He was executed without a trial, and for it Laufey sent more warriors.”

Loki considered everything.  Something still didn’t seem right.  Somehow, Odin was still lying.

“You didn’t execute him,” Loki said.

Odin shook his his head.  “No,” he said.  “That deed fell to another.”

Still, it made no sense.  “So why erase him?” Loki asked.

Odin took a deep breath, and for a moment Loki worried he might try to dodge more questions.

“It was part of the treaty with Laufey,” Odin said.  “Both Asgard and Jötunheimr would forget his involvement with either realm.”

Loki nodded slowly.  Something was still missing, but he had more of a picture than he did just an hour earlier.  And then he was struck by knowledge he already possessed, and never thought to question.

“That was the day you decided to keep me,” he said, looking straight at Odin.  “Wasn’t it?”

Odin nodded again, once and slowly.  “Yes,” he said.

“And you gave me his name to scorn Laufey,” Loki said.

Odin didn’t respond, but he didn’t need to.  Odin had a Jötunn infant in his possession, and suddenly every reason to keep him.  He had an infant in need of a place and a name, and was driven to fill both needs out of anger and spite.

“I have one more question,” Loki said.  “And I want honesty.”

He looked across the table at Odin, almost praying Odin might refuse to agree to such a demand.  Instead, Odin nodded again, and Loki was trapped.  He took a deep breath, trying to build up the nerve to listen to an answer he knew he didn’t want to hear.

“If not for the agreement, what would have done with me?” Loki asked.

He watched Odin’s own expression fall, and Loki knew the answer before Odin even spoke.

“You were to be sold,” he said.  “To a sorcerer in need of an apprentice, with your fate relying on how well you could be trained.”

Loki nodded.  The idea that he was to be given away to some childless couple was a charming fantasy when he was younger, but it wasn’t one that held up.  Not when his title as prince couldn’t even keep him safe.

“Very well,” Loki said.  He took a deep breath, knowing it was his turn to uphold his end of the bargain.  He couldn’t face Odin directly, and turned his gaze toward the table as he spoke.

“The merchant arrested from the market has been fencing items for me for several years,” he said.  “I paid him with whatever gold I had, as well as favour on your name.  When I found your wine cellar, I began paying him in Jötunn spirits.  He made more gold from one bottle of wine than from an entire order from me.”

He could hear Odin breathing from across the table, somehow making even a simple act sound angry.

“And when we hear that a thrall has poisoned his master, I suppose you’re the man to blame?” Odin said.

Loki started to defend himself, but stopped short.  He had never considered the wine and mead he’d provided Eldred would be used as poison.  He’d thought it was bought by wives who couldn’t get drunk on the ale their husbands brought home.  Instead of defending himself, Loki nodded.

“Yes,” he said.  “I suppose so.”

“And the keep?” Odin asked.

Loki nodded again.  “I took it,” he said.  “All of it.  I had no help.  You won’t find any of it, and I’m not giving it back.”

“You expect me to believe you had no help in emptying an entire building?” Odin asked.  “I’ve seen you struggle with carrying a handful of books.  But in one night, you carried off that man’s entire store?”

“No,” Loki said, finally looking up at Odin.  “I walked into the keep, and when I walked out, and it was empty.”

He could see Odin’s anger rising again, but instead of being frightened by it, his anger only sparked Loki’s own anger to rise.

“You expect to bargain on a lie?” Odin asked.

Before he could say any more, Loki snatched up the copied record from the table between them and sent it away, hiding it where no one would ever find it.  Instead of saying anything further, Odin glared down at Loki.

“I walked into the keep, and when I walked out, it was empty,” Loki said again.  He sat back in his seat and crossed his arms over his chest.  “You tell me you want me to learn magic, and then you give me teachers who don’t know half of what I know.  I’m supposed to be some great sorcerer, and you won’t even let me train properly.”

There was something about the way Odin looked at him then, that made him want to back away.  Something hard and possessive.

“If none of the teachers I have given you are good enough, who should be teaching you?” Odin asked.

Loki shrugged.  “Let me in the library’s basement,” he said.

“No,” Odin said at once.

“Then I’ll find my own way in,” Loki said.

“I’m quite certain you’ll try,” Odin said. 

He continued to look at Loki, as though he were staring right through him.  Still, Loki didn’t dare move.

“You can keep what you’ve taken,” Odin said.  “As well, I will continue to turn a blind eye to your dealings in the market.  But you will not use my wine or my gold to pay for it.  Nor my name.  Are we clear?”

Loki tried to figure out what Odin was trying to tell him.  “So you’re restoring my allowance?” he asked.

“Was I unclear when I said you would not use my gold?” Odin said.  “You wanted to be disinherited, so you have it.  I’ve allowed you to keep your name and title, but this is what you asked for.  Break Asgard’s laws again, and you will be held accountable when you’re caught.”

Loki turned it all over in his head, still trying to figure out what Odin was trying to tell him.

“And if I’m caught practising forbidden magic?” he asked.

“On this matter only, I will look the other way,” Odin said.  “Asgard needs a sorcerer, and if you’re truly prepared to take this role, it’s yours.  But it comes at the price of my protection.”

Loki nodded slowly.  He wasn’t sure how much Odin’s protection had amounted to so far, but if giving it up entirely was the price of his freedom, it was a small price to pay.  And yet, Odin seemed entirely too willing to just hand his freedom over for such a small price.

“Very well,” Loki said.  “When Thor takes the throne, I’ll assume my role beside him.  Until then, my time is mine.”

Odin nodded, and that seemed to be the end of it.  Loki nodded back and stood, but he didn’t get far before Odin spoke once more.

“Are you forgetting something?” Odin asked.

Loki looked at him, taking a moment to realise what Odin wanted from him.

“The record?” he asked.  He nearly retrieved it, but stopped himself and shook his head instead.  “It wasn’t part of the deal.  I think I’ll keep it.”

He watched Odin settle into a deep frown before turning to leave.

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #27: Heist

Loki didn’t wait long in his chambers.  He had to find Thor, and tell him what had happened.  It was for Thor that he had been in the marketplace at all, and now everything was ruined.  Sneaking out of his chambers was an easy task, but getting into Thor’s was much more difficult.  He kept to the shadows and secret paths, but as he got to Thor’s chambers, it was just in time to see him also being led in by guards.  Loki quickly slipped away again before he was seen, and decided to take a different path.  Thor’s chambers were open and exposed, making them difficult to sneak into, but Loki had his ways.  He made his way outside, and then making sure he wouldn’t be seen, began to scale the palace walls.  There was little to hold onto, but if Loki could concentrate hard enough on keeping his weight off his feet, he seemed less likely to fall.  It didn’t make him weightless, but it did keep his feet from slipping off of the small, rough outcroppings in the stone walls.  Several times, he felt like he’d nearly lost it all and fallen, but he kept his grip with his fingers and made his way further upward.

“Help me!” he called out as he reached Thor’s terrace.

“Loki?” Thor called back from somewhere in the room.

“Yes, help,” Loki said, struggling to reach the ledge to pull himself over.

A moment later, Thor leaned over the rail, doing a terrible job at helping.

“What the hel are you doing out here?” he asked, looking around.

“Getting ready to fall.  Help me up,” Loki said, struggling to maintain his grip.

Finally, Thor leaned over the rail and helped pull Loki up.  Loki got himself up onto the rail, staying where he could easily escape if he needed to.  His feet dangled down as he sat, his legs too short to reach the ground, letting him swing them lazily.

“Why are you in jail?” he asked, still ignoring Thor’s question entirely.

“Because I told father about the potion,” Thor said.

Loki threw his arms into the air so hard, he nearly fell off the rail.  “You told him?” he asked.  “What the hel have I been wasting my time on then, just for you to do that?”

“They were talking about locking you in the dungeons,” Thor said.  “I had to say something.”

Loki wanted to scream.  “Yes, they say it!  They’ve never done it,” he said.

Thor wore an expression of monumental stupidity while he tried to catch up.  “What do you mean, they’ve never done it?” he asked.

Trying very hard not to shout and give them away, Loki buried his face in his hands.

“They have this argument twenty times a year.  I’ve heard it many times,” he said.  “Father has these great plans for me, but they’ve all fallen apart, and they’re both angry about it.  Now all they ever do is fight.”

Thor stared at him for a long moment before finally growling in frustration and turning away.  “Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked.

“Because you were already in jail for terminal stupidity,” Loki said.  He shrugged, and looked down at the ground below.  “But you’ve probably got me out of jail, so I guess I should be thanking you.”

“Shut up,” Thor said.

“So, I don’t suppose you’ll be needing that potion now after all?” Loki asked.

He watched Thor puff up like he was going to shout, but it didn’t last long.  He quickly deflated and shook his head.  “I don’t think the potion would be a good idea,” he said.

Loki was glad to hear it.  “Good.  Because the man I go to for my supplies is in the dungeons, and everything he owned is going to be locked away somewhere.  And probably burned.”

Thor looked up at him.  “Why is he in the dungeons?” he asked.

“Because the potion I was making for you is horribly forbidden, and half of stuff I had to use for it needed to be smuggled into the realm,” Loki said.  “Where do you think I was getting my books?”

Thor said nothing.  He looked away, and then at the floor.

“I was going to ask you to help me steal what we can tonight, before Father orders it all destroyed and it’s lost forever,” Loki said.

“I…” Thor said.  He looked toward the door.  “You shouldn’t.  Just leave it be,” he said.

“I rutting well will not,” Loki said.  “It might be years before I find another fence.  What the hel am I supposed to do until then?”

Thor didn’t answer.  It was his fault, and he didn’t answer.  Loki wasn’t even sure how it was Thor’s fault, but he would not have had to steal so much to pay the old man back if it weren’t for Thor’s potion.

Whatever answer Thor had never came.  Heavy footsteps beyond his door caught both of their attention, and before Loki could be caught, he allowed himself to fall backwards off of the railing.  He could momentarily hear Thor calling after him, but it was a brief moment, interrupted by Loki hitting the ground harder than he’d expected.  He lay there in the dirt for a long while, struggling to breathe as he watched the sky up above.  Slowly, his lungs started working again, and he hauled himself back to his feet, uncertain about his next move.  He wouldn’t ask Thor to help him.  The task was too important, and he couldn’t trust that Thor wouldn’t give them away and get them into even more trouble.  But Loki had other people he knew he could trust, and he knew where to find them.  He left the palace grounds, heading out to the empty field where Fandral and Hogun spent most of their afternoons.  While Hogun watched the skies, tracking his bird high above, Fandral sat in the grass near him, smacking the ground with a stick.  As Loki approached, he saw that Fandral was not in the tattered rags he normally wore.  His tunic was new and fitted to him, held snug around his waist with a belt.  Letting himself grin at the sight of it, Loki sat down next to him.

“Good.  He found you,” he said.

Fandral struggled for words for a few moments, looking down at himself, and then back to Loki. 

“I was told it couldn’t be refused,” he said.  “I can’t afford to pay you back.”

Nobody had fixed his hair yet, but now the shaggy, ungroomed look almost seemed intentional.  If Loki didn’t know better, and if not for the smudge of dirt on the side of Fandral’s face, he would have almost looked like he belonged somewhere.

“Then you can pay me back tonight,” Loki said.

Fandral looked at him in a way Loki didn’t entirely understand, smirking oddly.  Ignoring it, he pressed forward.

“You too, Hogun,” Loki said.  “My fence was raided today, and his entire stock brought to the palace.  I need to get to it before it’s burned.”

“To give it back?” Fandral asked.

Loki shook his head.  “He’ll be lucky if he ever sees the light of day again,” he said, trying to ignore his own guilt over it.  “I need to get it because I don’t have another fence.  It took me ages to find him.”

“You want us to break into the palace to steal forbidden items?” Hogun asked.

“Yes,” Loki said.  “If you choose not to help me, I’ll go at it alone.  But it needs to happen tonight.”

Fandral looked at Loki, and then up at Hogun, frowning.  “You expect us to haul an entire shop’s worth of forbidden loot out in the dead of night, without being seen?”

“No,” Loki said, shaking his head.  “I’ll do the hauling.  But I’ll need someone to keep watch, and to help me get it packed in a way that I can haul it.”

When the other two didn’t respond, he sighed and got up, not certain he’d been successful at all.

“If you want to help, meet me outside the stables when the sun goes down.  We’ll have a few hours to get it all done,” he said.

Neither answered him, so he turned to head back to the palace and plan his heist.  He was surprised when he heard Fandral get to his feet and rush to catch up with him.

“I’ll see you at training,” he called back to Hogun.

Hogun grunted in response, but said nothing about being left alone.  But Loki wasn’t thinking about Hogun.  He looked up at Fandral, confused about his sudden change of heart.

“You’re going to help me?” he asked.

“Well, you can’t go alone,” Fandral said.  “If you think you’re going to haul crates with those skinny little arms, you’re more insane than I thought.”

“I have my ways,” Loki said.

They made their way back to Loki’s chambers, heading through the corridors to his front door.  As they reached the guards, Bror and Geiri both looked down at him, plainly shocked to see him, and it was at that moment Loki remembered he was supposed to be locked inside.

“What the hel are you doing out here?” Bror asked.

Loki looked over at Fandral.  “Planning a heist,” he said.

Bror blustered for a moment, before throwing Loki’s door open.

“Get back in there before I lose my post,” he said.

Fandral began laughing uncontrollably as they walked into Loki’s chambers.  The door slammed shut behind them as they made their way up the stairs and to Loki’s bedchamber.

“You can’t just tell him that,” Fandral said.

Loki began laughing as well.  “I’ll tell him whatever I want.  Nobody believes a word I say anyway.”

“You’re mad,” Fandral said.

Loki shrugged and sat down on the sofa, collapsing into it hard enough to make it creak.  Fandral joined him a moment later, sitting close enough to make the room suddenly feel too hot.  Loki shifted uncomfortably, unsure if he should get up or offer a distraction.

“You haven’t got your books with you,” he said, suddenly very aware of where his hands were.

“I didn’t think expect to need them today,” Fandral said.

Loki nodded.  “Oh,” he said, feeling slow and stupid.

Fandral was in his space, crowding close against Loki and making him feel incredibly small.  He wasn’t sure why he had expected Fandral to have followed him back to the palace, but now his reasons were abundantly clear, and Loki wasn’t going to refuse him.  This time, there were no games.  Fandral wasn’t coy about pushing Loki onto his back, or about crawling on top of him.  Again, Loki had expected Fandral to kiss him, and again Fandral didn’t.  Feeling a bit more brazen himself, he tried to lean forward to start, but Fandral quickly pulled away.

“Don’t do that,” he said.  “I’m not a girl.”

“Oh,” Loki said, once again feeling rather stupid.  “Sorry.”

He settled back again as Fandral moved between his legs, as though to mount him, and Loki froze in confusion.  He was surprised when Fandral started rutting against him, and wasn’t entirely sure what he was supposed to do in return.  Loki could feel Fandral hard in his breeches, pressing uncomfortably against the inside of his hip as he breathed heavily against Loki’s neck.  He tried to move along in time with Fandral, but all his mind could focus on was the how stupid he felt about the entire thing.  But Fandral seemed to be enjoying himself, so Loki figured he must have been doing something wrong.  He tried to find a more comfortable way to be, but with two layers of leather between them, comfort did not seem to be an option.

Then, Fandral sat back up and quickly unlaced his breeches.  Loki took a cue from him and did the same, finding it difficult to pull them down far enough to free himself while Fandral still took up so much space between his legs.  Then Fandral was on top of him again, this time using his hand on both of them as he rutted against Loki.  Loki quickly forgot all about feeling stupid or uncomfortable as he finally began to grow hard at the touch.  It was easier to move along with Fandral, and he tried to get more from him.  It wasn’t long before Fandral finished with an almost startled sound, and stilled on top of Loki, leaving him even more confused as well as frustrated.

“Uh,” Loki said, wishing he knew what to do.

Fandral looked down at him, and then sat up to brace himself on one hand.

“Oh,” he said.

He finished Loki with his hand, holding his body over him and watching his face.  Fandral had a way of putting him on display, and Loki hated it, but he didn’t hate it enough to put a stop to it.  As soon as Loki spilled his seed, Fandral pulled his hand away and sat up, already putting himself together.  It took Loki a moment longer to gain control of himself and find a way to clean himself off before lacing his breeches back up.

To Fandral, it was as though nothing had happened, and Loki supposed that was how it was supposed to be.  What they were doing was just as bad as what they had caught Freyr and Freyja doing in the orchard just a day earlier.  If they were caught, there would be no end of punishment.  Loki wasn’t so stupid that he didn’t know that much.  Again, Loki knew he should have done something to stop whatever this was going on between them.  Fandral was taking advantage, though perhaps not in the way Loki had been warned. 

And yet, Loki wasn’t sure it was a bad thing.  He hadn’t disliked what they had done, and even if they weren’t supposed to do it at all, Loki saw no reason to stop.  After all, he did plenty of things he wasn’t supposed to be doing at all.  But he didn’t know how to move forward from it, so he sat down, careful to put some distance between them.

“So, where’s this stuff you need help lifting?” Fandral asked suddenly.

Loki shrugged, not entirely sure where to look.

“I’m not sure,” he said.  “If I had a guess, near the dungeons.  There’s a keep there, where everything that’s taken from the prisoners is held.”

“Oughtn’t we go scout it out?” Fandral asked.

“No,” Loki said slowly.  He shook his head, toying with a different idea.  “We’d be seen.  But I may be able to look from here.”

He finally looked over at Fandral, wondering how many bad decisions he could make in a single day.  Fandral looked at him, confused but not asking the questions he clearly had swimming about in his head.

“I might need your help,” Loki said, sliding down to the floor.

“With what?” asked Fandral.

“The last time I did this, I broke something in my head, fell to the floor, and woke bleeding from my nose,” he said.  He shoved the table forward, making more room for himself.  “Just… don’t let me hit my head if I fall over.”

“What?” Fandral asked.  He dropped down to the floor as well, sitting close to Loki.

“Don’t touch me.  I need to concentrate,” Loki said.

He waited for Fandral to move away before he closed his eyes. 

“It’s Vanir magic,” he said.  “But I’m not Vanir, so it’s quite difficult to pull off.”

He took several deep, steady breaths, and focused on the keep where he thought Eldred’s collection might be stored.  He first pictured it in his mind, and then reached out toward it.  He could feel something straining in the back of his mind, but he ignored it and kept reaching out.  Soon, he could see not just the image he imagined, but movement in the keep.  It was hazy, as though a deep fog had covered the area, but Loki could see it well enough to see several guards hauling boxes and crates into the keep, tossing them carelessly aside.  Loki couldn’t hear anything, but he wondered how many things had broken in the transport.

But it was enough.  He let go, and at once felt as though he’d been punched in between the eyes.  Groaning, he covered his face with both hands, and tried to keep breathing.

“Did it work?” Fandral asked, holding his hand on Loki’s shoulder.

Loki nodded.

“Is it there?” Fandral asked.

After a moment of just breathing, Loki nodded again.  He let himself whine through the pain, even though it didn’t really help.  After a moment, he rubbed his hands against his face and dropped them into his lap.  He knew it would all pass in time, but it never seemed to get easier.

“Oh, gross.  Your eye’s red,” Fandral said.

“What?” Loki asked.

He got up, ignoring the way his head felt like it would spin right off, and stepped up to the looking glass on his wall.  He expected to see that he’d lost his glamour, but that wasn’t the case at all.  Something had burst in his left eye, filling it with blood.

“Oh hel,” he said, afraid to touch it. 

He wondered if he should have sought a healer, but then he’d have to explain himself, and that never went well.

“Maybe you can blame it on Freyr,” Fandral said.  “Say he gave that to you when he gave you that black eye.”

Loki frowned at his reflection.  “Who says it was Freyr?” he asked.

“It’s always Freyr,” Fandral said.  “When did it happen?”

“Last night.  After we left the mead hall.”  Loki shrugged at himself and sat back down on the floor.  “I don’t think he’ll do it again.  I think I finally found something he’s afraid of.”

Fandral leaned back against the sofa.  “Oh?” he asked.

Loki took a moment to answer, looking straight at Fandral while the silence hung between them.

“I told him I’d tell his mother what we saw him doing,” Loki said finally.  “So don’t spread it around.  It only has power as long as it’s a secret.”

“Who would I tell?” he asked.  He shrugged and plucked at his tunic.  “It’s a fancy costume you’ve given me, but I’m afraid that’s all it is.  I don’t exactly belong here.”

Loki snorted.  “Well, that makes two of us.  Hogun too, I guess.  But he doesn’t seem to mind.”

“That fellow is messed up,” Fandral said.  “Damaged beyond repair, if you ask me.  So, yes.  Hogun too, I guess.”

It wasn’t funny, but Loki laughed all the same.  He knew so little about Hogun, but it was enough to know that Fandral was right.  Whatever had happened on his home world had broken him, and that’s just the way he was now.

“You ought to go to training,” Loki said, eager to figure out his plan for that evening.  “It’ll be less suspicious if you don’t miss it.”

For a moment, he thought Fandral would refuse.  And then he nodded and stood up.  “Meet you back here after?” he asked.

Loki took a deep breath, thinking about it.

“No, I can get out of here faster alone,” he said.  “By the stables, after nightfall.  We’ll have to be quick and quiet, and that’ll get us close enough to get ready.”

Fandral nodded again, slowly as he thought over everything.  “If we get caught, what kind of trouble are we looking at?” he asked.

Loki took a moment to think about that as well.  Then he shrugged.  “I made you do it,” he said.  “After all, you’re not exactly in a position to refuse, are you?”

“No, I suppose not,” Fandral said.

He smiled lazily and turned to toward the door, leaving Loki alone to think about what he was about to do.  He knew that if it went wrong he’d lose a lot more than his allowance, but he also knew he hadn’t much choice.  Not when so many other similar merchants were sure to close up their doors in the wake of Eldred’s arrest.

He didn’t have much a plan, because he didn’t need much of a plan.  The whole thing would hinge on how quickly they could get to the keep and get out again without being seen.  But still his mind raced with every possible way things could go wrong.  He worried it might be a trap, set for him or anyone else who might want to steal the supply.  But he couldn’t just leave it.  It would be destroyed, or someone else would steal it, and Loki wouldn’t be able to progress.  Especially not if Odin intended to find him a new teacher who insisted on only talking about what Loki already knew.

He waited for the suns to begin to set, and then began getting himself cleaned up and ready to go.  He made sure not to wear anything that would make noise, trading his leather breeches for a woollen pair, and leaving his belt on his bed.  Once the last shred of light finally left the sky, he slipped out his window and onto the slanted roof, running along it to the next tower.  As he climbed through the window, he was surprised to find himself with company.  For a moment he thought he’d been caught, until he recognised the figure in the shadows as Thor.

“What the hel are you doing here?” he asked quietly, picking up his pace as he carried on his path.

Thor joined him, walking quietly alongside him.  “You need help.  I’m not going to let you do something this stupid alone,” he said.

They ran along together, taking longer paths through dark shadows and forgotten corridors.  As they rounded a corner, Loki spotted Fandral and Hogun hiding beneath the eaves at the stables, tucked away against the wall.

“You brought them?” Thor asked.

“Like you said, I need help,” Loki said.

He checked to make sure nobody was around to see them, before running across the open space to the stables.  As they caught up with Fandral and Hogun, the four of them ducked inside so they could be better hidden while Loki divulged the rest of his plan.  The four of them crouched low in a corner, away from view unless anyone decided to go for a late night ride.

“The keep isn’t far from here,” Loki said.  “I don’t know how much they have stored in there, but we’ll have to be fast.  We’re not hauling anything out, but I need you to make sure everything is packed into as few crates as possible.”

“If we’re not moving it, how are we getting it all out?” Hogun asked.

“I’ll take care of that,” Loki said.  “But we need someone to stand guard in case a patrol comes by.”

“I’ll do that,” Fandral said.  “Most of them know me.  I can probably distract  them long enough for you lot to escape.”

Loki nodded, and then pointed to Thor and Hogun.  “You two need to pack, and quickly.  Everything you can.”

He looked at Thor, knowing he didn’t have to say much else.  Thor nodded, understanding exactly what Loki was asking.  Hogun, he knew, would simply do as he asked and not comment on what he saw.  After a moment, they all stood, and Loki took the lead.  He checked to make sure the coast was clear before sneaking out of the stables and continuing down the dark path that led to the dungeons.  It wasn’t a direct route, even with short cuts.  They dodged patrols by doubling back on their path and picking different routes, eventually finding themselves at the far end of the kennels.  The hounds were already yowling and braying, so Loki took a chance and ran past, using their noise as cover.  The keep was on the other side of the kennels, unguarded, but locked.  With the other three behind him, Loki pressed his hand against the door and felt deep inside it, trying to suss out the mechanism.  It was a mechanical lock, which was easier to deal with using just a bit of force.  It clicked heavily, and the door opened beneath his weight, leading to pure darkness.  Thor and Hogun quickly stepped inside, leaving Fandral out to stand watch, and Loki made sure the door was closed and locked behind them before he conjured a light so they could see.  It was a weak spell that hung in the air at the centre of the room, but one he didn’t have to concentrate on while he wore himself thin with the real task at hand.

At first, he helped pack what he could, moving bottles and jars and books from one crate to another, stuffing it as full as he could.  When it could hold no more, he grabbed it with both hands, took a deep breath, and sent it away.

By then, Thor had prepared another crate and handed it over to Loki.  It wasn’t difficult magic, but he had to concentrate on moving so many things at once, again and again and again.  He soon had to stop to catch his breath, unable to keep up with the pace he had set.  But he looked around, and seeing more empty crates than full, he was determined to grab every single item in the keep.  Even if it didn’t belong to Eldred, he wanted it all out of spite.  None of this would have happened if Odin had just let him have what he needed in the first place.

“Pack them heavier,” Loki said quietly.

“Are you sure?” Thor asked.

Loki nodded, and then stepped close to grab the next one.  “I want to get out of here,” he said.

He sent the next crate away, and then began helping packing more to give himself a break.  His entire body felt tired from the effort, but he refused to quit.  The heavier crates were  harder to move, but there were fewer of them as they made sure they were packed as full as they could be.  To give himself another break, Loki checked over all the empty ones, stacking them to one side to better see how much was left.  It wasn’t many, and soon they were down to only four, and then three, and then two.  With the last one, Loki had to struggle to breathe before sending it away.  It was as though he had run all day without a break.  Every muscle hurt, and his brain and lungs were exhausted.  He leaned against Thor for a moment, not caring that Thor held him up so he could stand better.

“Can you make it back?” Thor asked.

Loki nodded.  “I need a minute,” he said.

He breathed deeply, knowing he didn’t have a minute.  After a moment, Thor moved, nudging him forward.  Loki took the cue and extinguished his light before moving toward the door.  Before he unlocked it, he leaned against it to listen to anything that might be on the other side, but he heard only silence.  Just to be sure, he knocked on the door twice, and waited.  A moment later, he was met with two more knocks, so he unlocked it and carefully cracked it open.  Fandral stood on the other side, nodding quickly.  Wasting no time, Loki let the others out before locking the door again to cover their tracks. 

This time, he let Thor lead, trusting he’d remember the way back.  Still struggling to catch his breath, he held back with Fandral as they ran past the kennels.

“Someone came by, but I convinced him I was looking at the dogs and chased him off,” Fandral said.  “Where is everything?”

“It’s taken care of,” Loki said.

They ran back to his chambers the same way they had come, through dark alleys and hidden paths, and then along the roof into the hall beneath his bedchamber.  It had been cluttered before, but now it was packed with crates and boxes he’d have to hide elsewhere, and quickly.  But before he even thought about it, he collapsed onto the first bare patch of floor he came to, trying not to die.

“Oh,” Fandral said, looking around the mess.  “Right.  Of course.”

Loki tried to laugh, but he didn’t have the energy.  He stayed on the floor for a long while as the other three arranged everything to make more space, and to make their actions less obvious to anyone who might have cause to come inspecting Loki’s belongings.  Thor instructed the other two on how to arrange it so it blended in with all the trash Loki had stolen from elsewhere in the palace, making it look like the same pile of junk that had always been there.

“Thanks,” Loki said as he forced himself to sit up.

They were finishing up, having arranged everything into stacks of crates and boxes that would take some time to go through, but which also left enough room that nothing seemed like a new addition.  Loki got to his feet, feeling a bit better now that he’d been able to just rest.

“I put a few more upstairs, but not many,” he said, pointing toward the ceiling.

Eager to get somewhere more comfortable, he left the hall and headed for the stairs, with the others following behind.  The crates he’d put in his bedchamber were scattered over his bed, which he remembered doing, and hated himself for doing it all the same.  He started digging through one of them to make it easier to stack up elsewhere, finding it full of plants and herbs he didn’t recognise.

“What’s this?” he asked, holding up a jar of chunky white roots.

Hogun stepped forward and took it, holding it up to the light.

“Hemlock,” he said, handing it back.  “You chew on it.  My stepfather likes it.”

Not quite sure what that meant, Loki set the jar aside while Hogun picked out another.

“You smoke this one,” he said.  “In a pipe.”

Loki took it, realising suddenly what Hogun meant, and his curiosity quickly got the better of him.

“I have one,” he said.  “I don’t know where I got it, but it’s on that shelf there.”

He pointed to a shelf across the room, and it was only a few moments before Thor’s curiosity got the better of him as well.  He grabbed the pipe and brought it over, handing it to Hogun.  Hogun seemed to know what he was doing as he packed it when the dried herb.  While he did that, Thor lit a small fire in the pit in the middle of the floor and used it to light a matchstick.  Once Hogun was done with the pipe, they all joined Thor around the fire pit.  Hogun took the smouldering matchstick and showed them how to smoke the pipe, taking a long puff from it.

As soon as it was lit, the air was filled with a strong odour, which only got stronger as Hogun exhaled the smoke.  He passed the pipe over to Fandral, though Fandral was hesitant to take it.

“Ymir’s tits, the whole palace will know what we’re up to,” he said.

Loki laughed, feeling like it might have been true.  And then he remembered something else he’d been told.

“Oh!” he said, getting up and rushing over to the crate he’d got earlier in the day.

He pulled out the dragon’s blood, understanding now what Eldred had meant about it.  He found the smallest piece of resin in the bag and fished it out, taking a long moment to figure out what to do with it.  On its own, it had a distinct odour, but it wasn’t powerful enough to mask anything else.  Realising the intent must be to burn it, Loki turned round to inspect his options.  The fire Thor had started hadn’t spread through the entire pit, but there was charcoal still along the edges from previous evenings.  Loki quickly fished a piece out and grabbed a small cauldron from one of his shelves, using the two to create a makeshift burner.  Once he got the charcoal smouldering, he carefully put the dragon’s blood on top of it, letting it burn and melt slowly. 

The dragon’s blood smelled of spice and dust, but seemed far less incriminating that the smell from the burning herb.  Loki set the cauldron aside, and soon it overpowered everything else in the room.  Finally convinced, Fandral re-lit the pipe, but when he tried to copy Hogun, he choked and wheezed violently.  The others all laughed at him, offering little help as he bent forward and leaned heavily against the floor.

“You’re all terrible,” he said, before he started coughing again.

Curious to see for himself, Loki took the pipe and tried it.  He wasn’t sure what he expected, but somehow was still surprised that hot, burning smoke in his lungs was not something he enjoyed.  Much like Fandral, he coughed and choked on it, and when Thor did the same, they were all left struggling to catch their breath as they tried to both cough and laugh at the same time.  The only one not desperately choking for air was Hogun, who was clearly no stranger to what they had found.

The pipe came to Loki again, and this time he tried it a bit more delicately.  He still coughed as he tried to exhale the smoke, but not as badly.  As he watched Thor try again, Loki began to wonder what he was supposed to be getting from all this.  Still, he kept playing the game, if nothing else getting a bit better at not wanting to cough up a lung every time it was his turn.  When he tried to pass it on to Thor again, he realised something was wrong.  Thor was staring into the fire, his head tilted oddly.

“Thor,” Loki said, nudging him.

Thor looked up at him, frowning as though pulled out of some deep thought.

“What’s wrong with you?” Loki asked.

Thor shook his head.  “You ever just look at the fire?” Thor asked.

Loki looked at the fire.  Even small, it was hot against his skin and he wanted to move away, but for some horrible reason, this was where everyone chose to sit.

“It’s fire,” he said.

Fandral started laughing, and Loki wasn’t sure what was funny.  He looked at Fandral, watching him slowly descend into some sort of madness, and then looked over at Hogun, who had reached a whole new level of disconnected from everything around them.

And then he knew.

“You have got to be rutting kidding me,” Loki said.

He looked down at the pipe still in his hand, and wondered if there was anything he hadn’t been cheated out of by being Jötunn.

“Well, I hope you’re all having fun,” he said.

According to Fandral, this was hilarious.

Loki got up and moved away from the fire before he got sick.  It felt rude to be bitter about it, but he couldn’t help the sting of jealousy over once more being left out.

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #26: Raid

Thor may have said there was plenty of time, but with the rate things were going, he’d be wed with six children by the time Loki figured out the potion he’d been tasked with brewing.  He knew it would be difficult, but each step of the process had failed at least a dozen times.  When ready, it was supposed to be a bright, translucent red.  What Loki had was not that.  It was thick and dark and reeked of wet, burning dog.  Like so many other failures, it went out the window into the garden below to become somebody else’s problem, while Loki returned to the tome to try to find where he had gone wrong this time.

It had to be the mallow root.  It was a finicky substance and seemed to have next to no margin of error in its preparation.  Determined to get this right out of little more than spite by this point, Loki got up to start again.  He picked up the box where he kept his cache of dry components for the project, only to find the hadn’t enough mallow, nor resin.  Loki stared into the box for a long moment, hoping more might appear for him, but none did.  His desire to not be seen in public still wearing evidence of his encounter with Freyr quietly battled with his desire to figure out this stupid potion, and eventually the potion won.  Sighing to himself, Loki put on his false form and dressed quickly, taking little care to make sure he was presentable.  He dared to check himself in the mirror to at least make sure his hair wasn’t all over the place, but it wasn’t his hair that was the problem.  Freyr’s ambush had left his face bruised and scraped where he’d been pressed into the wall, but trying to hide those bruises always seemed to look worse somehow.  Resigned to looking like the easy target he was, Loki focused instead on his hair.  He liked it long, and wore it down to his shoulders.  It hid his ears and in his mind at least, made him look older.  But it was reaching a length where all it wanted to do was curl wildly, sticking out in all directions except for over his ears.  If not for the oils in his hair, it might have worked.  It might have been okay.  Except his hair looked greasy and dirty, and wanted to stick together and tangle. 

There was no winning that day.  Wanting to not look like a complete mess, he tied his hair back into a short tail and fetched his knife and coin purse.  Dressed and put together, Loki fetched another box from the small closet that held all the things he didn’t want anyone else to see.  He checked the box, making sure none of the bottles had been damaged since he’d stolen them, and put it in the middle of the floor where he could easily retrieve it when he needed it.

Bror followed him as he left his chambers, keeping pace far enough behind him that Loki could have lost him if he took a corner quickly enough.  But he allowed Bror to follow, not entirely trusting Freyr to accept Loki’s threat for what it was.  With Bror as his shadow, Loki left the palace and the grounds, making his way to the marketplace.  Whether Bror knew what Loki did there, he wasn’t certain.  But it was clear that he knew enough.  He never followed Loki all the way to the small shop, staying close enough to be heard if he was needed, but far enough away that he wasn’t seen skulking about under the eaves.  Loki left him behind and let himself into the shop, finding its front room empty except for the clutter of inventory.

“Eldred, where are you?” Loki called out.

He leaned against the counter, listening to the old man bump and scrape about in the back.  A moment later, Eldred pushed through the heavy fur that blocked the door, smiling wickedly at Loki.

“I thought it was about time I’d see you again,” Eldred said. 

His gaze fell to the bruises on Loki’s face, but he said nothing.  Instead, he nodded and dropped a heavy crate onto the counter.  Eager to take a look, Loki hopped up to sit next to it, peering inside.

“I’m out of mallow and firesap,” he said.

“Mallow and firesap,” Eldred echoed.  “How many times are you going to fail at this before you give up?”

“Until I get it right,” Loki said, already picking through the box Eldred had brought him.

Eldred laughed.  “How silly of me.” 

He slipped out from behind the counter to peruse the supply of jars and boxes stacked deep on the shelves.  While he pulled down what Loki had come for, Loki found a wax-lined skin bag and peered into it.  At once, he was assaulted by a heavy, cloying spice that stuck to the inside of his nose and made his eyes water.

“What is this?” he asked, quickly closing the bag as he tried not to cough.

Eldred peered over as he set two large jars down on the counter.

“Ah, you’ll like that.  Fermented dragon’s blood,” he said.

Loki dared to peer inside again, finding jagged red stones that looked like crystals.  He carefully pulled one out and held it up in front of a lantern.  The dragon’s blood shone a deep red against the light, seeming almost to sparkle and shimmer.  Light and tacky against his fingers, it didn’t seem to have any special properties beyond the heavy smell which he now clearly recognised as dragon’s blood.

“What’s it used for?” Loki asked.

“Oh, many things,” Eldred said.  He opened one of the jars and began pulling out handfuls of the soft, stringy roots inside.  “For boys your age, mostly making sure your parents don’t smell what you’re up to.”

Loki didn’t quite understand, but he laughed anyway.  He put the dragon’s blood back into its bag and put the bag back in with the rest.

“I’ve brought you something as well,” Loki said, making room beside him. 

He summoned the crate from his closet, setting it carefully onto the counter.  At once, Eldred stepped forward and began looking through the bottles.  It wasn’t much, only half a dozen, but Loki knew the quantity didn’t matter much.

“I can’t take any more for a while,” he said.  “They’ll be taking inventory soon, for the harvest.  But I can get more after.”

Eldred nodded, looking over each bottle in turn; Jötunn wines Loki had stolen from Odin’s stores.

“I’d complain about these damn embargoes, but the sad truth of it is they’re keeping me in business,” Eldred said, setting the last one back down amongst its mates.

“I’ve found a way to Jötunheimr without using the Bifröst,” Loki said, moving closer to his own box to pick through some more.  “I’ll keep exploring my options there, and may be able to bring you more variety.”

Eldred nodded.  “Very good,” he said.  “Very good, indeed.”

He returned to picking out roots and resin from his jars, divvying both up into small parcels.  With both carefully wrapped in parchment, he placed them at the top of Loki’s box and stepped back to let him hide it all away.  With the box out of the way, Loki slipped back down onto his feet and looked around the room to see if anything else caught his eye.  Nothing did, so he turned back and shrugged.

“What do I owe you?” he asked.

Eldred clicked his tongue and looked back into the box of wine.  “Oh, I’d say you’ve earned a bit of credit for this,” he said.

Happy with that answer, Loki nodded.  As he turned to browse the shelves a bit more intently, a racket arose from outside.  Shouting and the clanging of armour signalled nothing good, and Loki quickly concealed himself in the shadows along the wall.  Not even a moment later, the door to the shop burst open, and three Einherjar soldiers pushed their way in.  Loki held his hands over his mouth and nose to muffle his own breathing as he watched them all stride toward Eldred.  For a moment, it seemed as though Eldred might try to turn and flee, but then his eyes fell on the crate of wine the same instant one of the soldiers noticed it.

“What have we got here?” the soldier asked. 

He pulled out one of the bottles and frowned at it.  All were silent as the question of the wine hung unanswered in the air, until the soldier turned and handed the bottle off to one of the others.

“Poison,” he said.

He turned back to Eldred and drew his sword.  “Make this easy on yourself,” he said.

Eldred looked straight at Loki, where he still stood hidden, and turned toward the back room.  He flung the hide aside as he disappeared, all three Einherjar leaping over the counter to follow him.  Loki couldn’t see what happened beyond the curtain, but he could hear the shouts and scuffle and turned to slip out through the front door.  Before he opened it, he paused just long enough to listen through it, and heard at least two more Einherjar outside, plus their horses.

He was trapped.  Loki was certain the entire shop would be tossed once Eldred was in chains, and he’d be found, hidden from sight but not invisible and not incorporeal.  He had to get away.  And fast.

But something else pulled at him, even as he cast around the small room for any other options.  Eldred’s entire supply would be burned.  Some of it, like the mallow and firesap, was sold at a dozen other shops on the same street.  Other herbs and resins were smuggled in from other realms, illegal to even possess on Asgard.  And it was those Loki knew he’d run out of next.  Loki quickly looked around the shelves for anything he recognised, and took whatever he could reach without making noise.  With half his attention on the scuffle behind the curtain, and the other half on the Einherjar outside, he barely even paid mind to the jars and bags and small crates he snatched up, sending every last one of them to his hiding place in the palace.  Eldred shouted and thrashed, and something crashed heavily to the floor with the sound of breaking wood, and Loki knew he was out of time.  He couldn’t go through the door, and the shop had no windows to keep the light from destroying some of the herbs and resins that lined the shelves.

With no other options, Loki tried to picture the streets and alleys outside.  He had never stepped to a place he could not see, and the thought of getting stuck inside a wall, or another person, made his stomach do a flip.  But he could hear Eldred being dragged to his feet and out of the back room.  There were no other options, and no time to plan.  Screwing his eyes shut, Loki stepped forward, leaving the shop and stumbling into an alley.  His stomach heaved as a blinding white light filled his vision and pierced his skull, but he couldn’t stop.  Bror stood only a few strides away, watching the commotion from the distance with nervous anticipation.

“Let’s go,” Loki said, struggling to keep his breath as he stepped forward.

Bror turned to him, relief plain on his face.  He reached out to Loki, and with a hand on his back, led him away from the shop and onto the main road.  Loki panted heavily through his mouth, fighting the urge to vomit right there on his toes as he was pushed along quickly away from the chaos.

“I need to speak to my father,” Loki said, breathless and weak.

Nodding, Bror picked up his pace.  Loki struggled to keep up, keeping his focus on the palace that towered high above the rest of the city.

“You hurt?” Bror asked.

Loki shook his head a bit more violently than he meant to.

“No,” he said.  “I’m fine.”

The sour pit in his stomach started to fade as they walked on, and once he was able, Loki began running toward the palace.  Bror kept pace behind him, his armour clanking and clattering with each step, drawing attention to both of them as they rushed through the gates and toward the throne room.  As Loki came upon Odin quietly discussing something with his guards, he was rocked by a sick sense of familiarity with the situation.  He had stood in this precise place before, bringing dire news to Odin before anyone else could bring it first.  Odin looked up at him, and for a moment Loki thought he could see his father’s disappointment, but he ignored it, hoping he was wrong.

“Leave us,” Odin said to the guard.

With a nod, the guard stepped away toward the door.  Knowing he’d need the backup, Loki held his hand out and beckoned for Bror to stay.

“Did you send a raid into the market?” Loki asked, still painting.

Odin looked down at him, his one eye narrowed suspiciously.

“I know of no raid,” he said after a moment.

Loki looked at him for a long moment, and decided he believed his father.  He nodded, working on catching his breath.

“The man I buy my supplies from,” Loki said.  “He was raided and arrested.  What will happen to him?”

Perhaps what Thor said was true.  All his teachers got banished sooner or later.  And every time, it seemed as though it was Loki’s fault.

He and Odin looked at one another for a long moment, Loki dreading the answer to his question.

“It depends on what is found in his possession,” Odin said finally.

He knew.  Perhaps not the full details, but somehow Odin knew exactly what sort of supplies Loki was dealing in.  Loki didn’t know how Odin knew, but it was plain that he did.  Loki looked over his shoulder to Bror and took a deep breath.

“I take him mead and wine,” Loki said, forcing himself to meet his father in the eye.  “He sells it to war brides and thralls.  And in turn he finds me what I need for my studies.  Supplies other merchants can’t obtain.”

Odin huffed.  “And here I thought you were stealing it to drink,” he said.

Loki shrugged.  “Some of it,” he said. 

He knew he was in trouble either way, but Loki hoped to fend off the worst of it by admitting to what he could.  Perhaps if Odin didn’t have to find anything out later, Odin would mete his punishment all at once, and the threat of more wouldn’t have to hang over Loki’s head.  With a deep breath, Odin turned to the throne.  He sat heavily, letting the room hang in silence.  Finally, after a long moment, he nodded.

“I don’t believe Asgard needs an execution for something as petty as smuggling,” Odin said.

Somehow, his words lifted a weight from Loki’s chest.  And yet, he knew this wasn’t to be a mercy.

“He’ll be sentenced to the dungeons,” Odin continued.  “And if what you say is true, everything recovered from this raid will be returned to the palace and burned.  Not even you or your associates are above the law in this.”

Loki nodded.

“As for you,” Odin continued.  “I can’t have my sons supplying Asgard’s black market dealers from within this very palace.  Return to your chambers until I decide what to do with you.”

Loki nodded again, knowing that being jailed was nowhere near the worst punishment Odin could have conceived.  Odin would make him sweat until the true punishment came.  He turned and expected Bror to follow and escort him, but Bror stayed where he was.  Turning back toward Odin, he could see the matter was not done.  Instead, it was one of Odin’s own guards who walked with Loki from the hall.

Odin waited for a long moment after Loki had left before sitting forward on the throne to address Bror.

“You were there?” Odin asked.

Bror nodded.  “I was, Allfather,” he said.

“Inside?”

Something didn’t seem right.  He expected to watch the man balk and struggle to find an excuse for himself, but Bror only shook his head.

“No, not inside.  The old man won’t do business with him if I’m there,” Bror said.  “I wait outside, down the road a bit.  I don’t know what they do, but I know he takes me with in case of trouble.”

Loki had chosen Bror specifically, though why, Odin still had not worked out.  That they both admitted their part in whatever scheme this was only further confused the entire thing.

“Who struck him?” Odin asked.

Bror shook his head.  “He got into another scrape last night.  With one of the other boys.  That’s all I know.”

That much, Odin believed.  With so much to deal with on top of everything else he already had stacked before him, Odin dismissed Bror back to his post and contemplated what to do next.  Loki needed guards not only to keep him safe, but to keep him out of trouble, and Bror clearly was not up to the task for either.  The man only seemed to encourage and enable Loki’s casual mayhem, and now he’d allowed the boy to be present during a raid.

And yet, Odin knew that if he removed Bror from his post, he would never hear the end of it.  Loki would not allow him to.  And removing Bror from his post would ultimately mean removing one of the few people who both knew and could be easily compelled to divulge Loki’s secrets when necessary.  But Bror wasn’t the only keeper of Loki’s secrets, nor the only one who could be compelled without threat of force.  There were others who might know more than they realised, and Odin would not be left in the dark.  He left the throne room, striding with purpose through the palace until he found Frigga in her garden, sharing a bottle of wine with several other women.  As soon as Frigga saw Odin approach, she turned to the women, holding her hand out in front of her.

“You’d better leave us.  This looks grim,” she said.

Odin gave them all space as they stood and walked away, leaving the two of them alone beneath the shade of one of the large trees.  Only once they were truly alone did Frigga look up at Odin, barely suppressing a sigh.

“I don’t like that face,” she said.

Odin hummed.  “No, I don’t suppose you should,” he said. 

He stepped closer, looking at the discarded cups of wine, and the bottles by Frigga’s feet.  Bottles from Odin’s own store, because it apparently wasn’t enough that his son should be stealing from him.  Already too tired and worn thin to deal with it, Odin ignored what he saw.

“Our son was nearly caught up in a raid in the city,” Odin said.

A pall came over Frigga, before she quickly steeled herself.  “What was he doing in a such a place?” she asked

That she hadn’t for a moment even questioned which son was almost disappointing.  The boy had grown so far beyond control already that there was simply no doubt at all which son the matter concerned.

“Dealing in smuggled goods,” Odin said.  “And paying for them from my wine cellar.”

Frigga moved her feet, blocking the bottles on the ground with her gown. 

“If you gave him an allowance, he wouldn’t have to do these things,” Frigga said. 

“He knows what he needs to do,” Odin said. 

Frigga huffed, shaking her head and turning away.  “He’s just a boy.”

The discussion was not going where Odin had hoped it would, and Frigga’s stubborn insistence on hiding Loki behind her skirts only rose Odin’s ire.

“So when you wish to take things from him, it’s for his own good, but when I do, it’s cruelty and malice?” he asked.

Frigga spun back round to face him, her own anger rising to meet his.  “I don’t want to see him hurt,” she said.  “You’re the one who wants to lock him in the dungeons.”

“No?” asked Odin.  “Then perhaps he tells his mother that which he will not tell me.”

Frigga shook her head again, stubbornly refusing to offer anything forward.

“I saw him again, just now,” Odin said.  “Bruised from yet another fight his guard says he lost.  If you wish not to see him hurt, then what would you say we ought to do about that?  He does go to you after these things, does he not?  After all, he’s just a boy, and you his mother.”

Frigga said nothing, her jaw clenched tight against her own voice.  For a long moment, they both glared at one another, neither able nor willing to bend to the other’s view.

“Then perhaps you know what purpose he has with smugglers?” Odin said.  “Since no one wants to tell me that either.”

“It’s my fault,” Thor said suddenly.

They both turned to see him standing in the archway to the garden, watching them both with a wary apprehension.

“I asked him to make me something,” Thor said stiffly.  “He said it’s forbidden, but I told him he had to.”

Odin looked back to Frigga, then to Thor again.  They both wore their uncertainty plain on their faces, fidgeting with their fingers while Odin waited for more.

“What is he making for you?” Odin asked when Thor did not offer forward the information.

Thor hesitated for a long moment.  He glanced back to his mother, and then averted his gaze entirely.

“A potion,” he said finally.  “To make Sif fall in love with someone else.”

Odin could not believe what he was hearing.  That Loki would so brazenly do such a thing was hardly a shock, but for Thor to have asked for it was such a wild admission that he could only believe it.

“To what ends?” he asked.

Thor shrugged.  “I don’t want to marry her,” he said.  “You can’t punish me for what she did.  You already punished Loki for it, and it wasn’t his fault either.”

“You think this is punishment?” Odin asked, forgetting all about Frigga and stepping closer to Thor.  “No, dear boy.  This is not punishment.  This is your place, and you will learn it.  You are my son—my heir—and you have duties to this realm, and all of Yggdrasil.  There will be no potion, because whether you wish it or not, she will be your queen.”

Behind him, Odin could hear Frigga making a small noise in disagreement, but he ignored her.

“What if I don’t want to be king?” Thor shouted suddenly.

“It matters not,” Odin said.  “You will be king, and one day you will understand why.”

Thor stood like he was ready to fight, but Odin was not in the mood for mayhem from two of his sons at the same time.

“Guards!” he shouted.

A moment later, two Einherjar appeared behind Thor.  Odin waved a hand to him, already turning away.

“Take him to his chambers.  See he doesn’t leave,” he said.

He ignored the sounds of Thor being dragged away, focusing instead on Frigga and her silent protest.  She shook her head almost imperceptibly.

“Is it your intent to turn both of them against you?” she asked.

“I’ll not hear another word about it from you, either,” he said.

Too exhausted for any of it, and wondering how he had missed Thor’s rising disobedience, Odin turned to leave.  He was no more informed than he had been before he’d heard of the raid in the market, and now seemed to have more questions than answers.

He had to tighten his leash on both of them.  Starting, it seemed, with Thor.

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #25: Mead Hall

Thor climbed the stairs up to Loki’s bedchamber, expecting to find him in the dark, pouting about something.  Training had become a thing of the past for Loki, but now he wasn’t attending meals either.  It was as though he’d disappeared as soon as he removed himself from the line of succession, and where Loki was concerned, that only meant bad things.

Instead of finding Loki alone in the dark, Thor came upon laughter as he opened the door.  Loki sat on the floor near the fire pit, crushing something up with a mortar and pestle while Fandral and Hogun lazed sprawled out on the bed, sharing a bottle of wine between them.  Several books lay spread out on the bed, but they had clearly been forgotten in favour of whatever was going on now.  For a moment, Thor just stood in the doorway, trying to make sense of the scene before him.  Why Loki was on the floor.  Why the other two were up on his bed.  Why the whole room reeked to the Nine Skies.

“What the hel are you fools you doing?” Thor asked, stepping inside to look for the source of the smell.

Even with all the windows uncovered and allowing the evening breeze in, the smell hung on the air like grease, getting inside Thor’s nose like it would never come out.

“We’re about to go raiding.  What to come?” Loki asked, still pounding away at whatever he was playing with.

“Raiding who?” Thor asked.  “And what is that?”

“Freyr,” Loki said.  “And one of the eggs broke.”

“What eggs?” Thor asked, looking around for any more clues as to what was going on.

On the bed, Fandral giggled quietly.  “The eggs we’re going to throw at Freyr,” he said.

Thor leaned out one of the windows, hoping to breathe some clean air.  The three of them were clearly drunk, and though Thor saw nothing wrong with that as a concept, he knew again only bad things would come of it.

“He’s going to kill you,” Thor said.  “You’re half his size, and he’s going to kill you.”

Loki snorted, setting his project aside.  “Want to bet?  I’ve been learning some new tricks.”

He stood up and began searching for a pair of boots that would be better for running than his sandals were.

“Tricks you’re not supposed to use on anyone else?” Thor asked.

He shook his head, wondering how Loki had survived as long as he had.

“This raid is idiotic.  Not suicidal,” Loki said.  Then he stood up, suddenly concerned with something.  “I wouldn’t even know how to do them on anyone else.  Could I?”

Fandral laughed again, drawing laughter from Loki in turn.  He pulled on some clean socks, and then his boots, making sure they were tied tight.

“I’m not taking your bet because you’ll cheat,” Thor said.  “But I do want to see this all go horribly wrong, and Freyr grind you into the dirt.  If I’m not allowed to help, I can at least laugh at you when it happens.”

Even Hogun laughed, brief and low.  Ignoring Thor’s empty predictions, Loki got back to his feet and carefully picked up a basket from beside the bed.  While he made sure nothing else inside was broken, Fandral and Hogun both rolled off the bed and onto their feet, Hogun bringing the wine with him, both taking a moment to steady themselves.  Casting only a quick smirk toward Thor, Loki led the way down the stairs and out toward the corridor.  Outside, his guards watched and shook their head, clearly in these asinine plans.  Ignoring them, Loki glanced around in either direction, as though he might find Freyr lurking around a corner nearby, and then nodded.

“He’s usually in the gardens right now, isn’t he?” he asked.

Fandral nodded slowly.  “Gardens or mead hall,” he said.

They began making their way down to the gardens below, Thor following along as he rolled his eyes.  They checked the mead hall first, stepping inside just long enough to see he wasn’t present, before turning toward the gardens.  There were certain areas they knew he wouldn’t be, which they skipped altogether, and others they took a bit more time to search.  But Freyr was not in any of the places he usually haunted after banquet, and they were quickly running out of ideas.

“He wouldn’t have gone home already,” Fandral said, checking over a low wall.

“You mean breathe the same air as his stepmother?” Loki asked.  “Not likely.”

They began to leave the manicured gardens, wandering toward more open areas beyond the courtyard.  With no real plan, and their goal slipping away, they wandered aimlessly.  As Fandral and Hogun passed their wine back and forth, Thor began to take it as well.  With the orchards nearby, Loki turned to head in that direction.  If nothing else, they could at least grab a snack before heading back toward the palace.  The apples were close to falling from the trees, hanging heavy and low on the branches.  As Loki trotted closer to take one, his attention was pulled away by a the sound of movement in the orchard.  He turned to the rest, motioning at them all to be silent as he slowly crept toward the sound.  With the others close behind, Loki rounded the corner at the wall and nearly dropped his basket at the sight before him.

“Ymir’s tits,” he said, as the other three quickly crowded behind him.

They had found Freyr, on the ground with his breeches unlaced, and his hand up his sister’s skirts.  The two of them remained frozen on the ground, wide-eyed and barely breathing.  For a long moment, all were silent as they stared at one another, each waiting to see what would come next.

“Now, I don’t have any sisters, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t normal,” Fandral said finally.

His words broke the spell, and suddenly Freyr and Freyja were in a flurry of movement, Freyr pulling his breeches back up while Freyja tried to right her skirts and get to her feet, both red in the face and looking anywhere but up at the group that had found them.  Through it all, Thor stepped forward and took Freyja by the arm, quickly pulling her away and leading her back to the palace.  With the two of them gone, Freyr was alone on the ground, with Loki, Fandral, and Hogun all standing over him.

“Gods, he’s sad, isn’t he?” Loki asked, frowning down at the sight before him.  “It almost makes me want to just go home.”

Fandral shook his head.  “Not me,” he said, already reaching into the basket. 

He lobbed the egg, hitting Freyr right over the eye, and triggering the other two to join in.  The eggs broke as they struck him, unleashing an odour that quickly overwhelmed the area, but even as Freyr scrambled to his feet to run away, they didn’t stop.  They chased him, throwing as many as they could at him before he got too far away for any of them to land.  Once Freyr was gone, the others turned back to retrace their steps toward the palace, mission completed.  Loki ditched the few eggs that were left, tipping them out of the basket as they came back to the gardens.  As they came to more frequented and public areas, they slowed their pace to avoid attracting attention. 

“Did either of you have any idea?” Fandral asked, laughing suddenly.

“That horse he rode in on always has been a bit too high,” Loki said. 

Fandral snorted.  “He’s Vanir.  They’re all like that.”

Loki looked at him, making sure to meet him directly in the eye.  “My mother’s Vanir,” he said.

Fandral stumbled and stuttered over his next words, managing only to make awkward noises until Hogun snorted beside him.  A moment later, Loki laughed as well and shook his head.

“Æsir don’t exist within the court.  It’s all a great, big lie,” Loki said.  “My father’s half-Jötunn.  Through the right set of catastrophic circumstances, I’d have claims to the throne on Vanaheimr, Jötunheimr, and Álfheimr.”

Fandral frowned.  “Sounds awful,” he said.

“I know,” Loki said.  “My father wouldn’t let me renounce all of it.  Only Asgard.”

He looked skyward and knocked his elbow into Fandral’s arm.  Fandral looked up as well, then back to Loki.

“The Queen’s Vanir, so that makes sense,” he said.  “I think?”

“Iri holds no true power,” Loki said.  “He’s a glorified jarl.  Odin controls Vanaheimr, and I’m supposed to marry one of his daughters after I take my rite.  But yes, my mother is Iri’s cousin.”

He gagged, hating the prospect every bit as much as he did the day it was declared.

“My grandmother was Laufey’s aunt,” Loki went on, not even having to pause to remember how it went.  “Her brother was Laufey’s father.  And my uncle Vé is married to one of Queen Aelsa’s sisters.  It’s all a bit tenuous, but if the right people fell over dead all at once, I’d be in line for any one of them.”

He shrugged, knowing it would never happen.

“Norns teeth, how do you keep that all straight?” Fandral asked.

“It’s in those books you don’t read,” Loki said, knocking into him.

“But you’re adopted,” Fandral said, knocking back into him hard enough to throw him off his balance.  “Doesn’t that get in the way?”

Loki shook his head.  “Doesn’t matter,” he said.  “The whole realm saw my father stand up and say he was my father.  He said it, so it’s true.”

Fandral shook his head and looked over to Hogun, as though Hogun would have any opinion on the matter.  Sure enough, Hogun mostly ignored him as they continued their path back to the palace.

“Shall we head to the mead hall?” Loki asked.

He didn’t want to go back to his chambers so soon, and banquet would have likely been long over by then.

Fandral nodded, and then turned back to Hogun, who answered with an indifferent shrug.  After a moment, with all in agreement, they took a turn away from the gardens.  The mead hall was crowded and loud, full of soldiers and servants and off-duty guards enjoying their supper.  As the three walked in and found an empty space, they were met by several men shaking their heads and muttering into their cups.  Ignoring all of it, they settled down amongst the crowd.  Fandral picked up a communal ale pitcher from the table, and poured it into a cup that may or may not have been clean, before passing it over to Hogun.

“What is it?” Loki asked.

Fandral drank and shook his head.  “Smallbeer, I think,” he said.

“Ew.”  Loki frowned and looked around for a barwench. 

“Shouldn’t you boys be listening to bedtime stories?” a man next to them asked.

Loki looked up at him.  He wasn’t anyone Loki recognised, though he held himself like a guard.  Not any guard Loki had ever crossed paths with, either.  His armour was ill-fitting and tarnished, and he lacked the familiar crested helmet worn within Odin’s higher ranks.

“What’s wrong with you?  Can’t make the cut for Einherjar?” Loki asked.

The man scowled deeply at him, holding onto his cup as though letting go might cause him to do something stupid.

“Watch your tongue, boy.  Someone might take it,” the guard said.

Fandral snorted from across the table.  “I’m sure the Allfather would love to hear you say that,” he said into the back of his hand.

Hogun snorted as well, while Loki sat calmly, watching the man’s brain catch up to the situation.  Indignation gave way to confusion, and then realisation.  Finally, he rolled his eyes and shook his head, seemingly dismissing the whole thing.

“What are you drinking?” Loki asked, leaning forward to try to peer into his cup.

“It’s a bit much for someone you’re age, Highness,” he said, not even trying to hide his sarcasm.

Now, Loki rolled his eyes.  He looked across the table to Fandral and Hogun, and then shrugged.

“Wanna bet?” he asked.

He pulled his coin purse from his belt and let it fall to the table with a heavy thunk.  The guard let his gaze linger on it, but as he moved for his own purse, the man next to him stayed his hand.

“Olar, no,” he said.  “You take his gold, and there’ll be trouble.”

Olar shook him off.  “The boy challenged me,” he said, reaching for his own purse and dropping it down. 

It was a bit heavier than the one Loki had offered, toppling slightly under its own weight.

“First man down?” Loki asked while Olar turned to flag the attention of one of the barwenches.

“He’s a rutting child,” Olar’s friend said.

Olar shook his head, clearly having none of it.  “He’s man enough to make a bet, he’s man enough to stand by it.” 

Loki said nothing, watching as a young woman broughr round another pitcher, similar to those already at the table.  Olar took it, and passed an empty cup over to Loki.  Loki made a show of making sure it was at least passably clean, wiping out the inside with the hem of his tunic, and then set it back down for Olar to pour the first round.  He watched as Olar filled it, stopping just before the drink spilled over onto the table.

“There are rules,” Olar said, topping off his own cup.  “You puke, fall over, or fall asleep, and you lose all your coin.”

“Sounds easy enough,” Loki said.

He met Olar in the eye, waiting for him to make the first move.  For the first time, he seemed to realise what he was doing, and faltered.

“You’ve already had a head start.  Should I catch up?” Loki asked, raising his cup.

His words spurred something in Olar.  With a heavy glare, he brought the cup to his mouth, drinking greedily.  Loki glanced over to Hogun and Fandral and shrugged dramatically, drawing more laughter from both of them.  Then, he drank as well, finding his cup full of the same mead that was served in the dining hall; thick, sweet, and utterly benign.  He finished quickly and slapped his cup onto the table, and then sat up and leaned forward to peer into the pitcher.

“Gonna fall over?” Fandral asked, holding onto his own cup as though he’d forgotten about it.

“No, I don’t think so,” Loki said.  He looked around, still having not got what he’d actually come for.  “I would like a plate, though.  Is that allowed?  I’m quite hungry.”

Instead of answering, Olar filled Loki’s cup again, and then his own.  As soon as he put the pitcher down, Loki picked up his cup and emptied it again, trying to watch over the top as Olar drank.  He’d already been well on his way to drunk before Loki challenged him, and it wouldn’t take long before he gave up or lost.  With his cup empty, Loki put it back down and shrugged.

“I really don’t think I’m doing this right,” he said.

He tried to ignore Fandral laughing at the scene before him, keeping his focus on Olar.  He thought about trying to play up how the mead affected him, but his only point of reference had been the absolute misery the Jötunn wine had brought him, so he instead decided to simply drive Olar to madness by not showing any effect at all.  With the next round, Olar emptied the pitcher entirely, and was already waving the barwench back as they drank.  As he slammed the cup down, Loki could see that his condition was beginning to worsen.  He may had been more drunk than Loki had realised before they started, but after drinking half a pitcher, he was likely sliding closer and closer to the point of no return without even realising.

“Can we try something else next?” Loki asked, watching as he poured a shaky round.

“No,” Olar said.  “We drink this.  No backing out now.”

Loki leaned back in his seat, twisting his face into a mocking frown.  “Fine.  I was only asking.”

He drank.  Olar drank.  He hoped there would still be food left by the time Olar collapsed into a heap on the floor, but the man was being stubborn about it.

“Seriously, I came in here to eat.  Is that allowed, or do I have to wait?” he asked.

“If it shuts you up, fine,” Olar said, shaking his head.

He waned to tap out.  Loki could see it in the way he moved.  He’d drunk too much too quickly, and that feeling, Loki did know.  As he clumsily flagged the woman down again, he swayed in his seat and frowned toward the floor.

“The boy wants a plate,” he said when the woman arrived.

“Three, please.  My friends would like to eat too,” Loki said.

The woman nodded and turned to fill their request, leaving the game to play on.  Olar was hesitant to refill the cups, still swaying slowly in his seat and frowning at the air in front of him.  Finally, he poured the cups, spilling some over the side.  Loki watched the puddle spreading out across the table, only looking away when Olar shoved his cup closer.

“Sir, do you need to take a break?” Loki asked, looking up at him.

Fandral dissolved into a peal of laughter, which only seemed to raise Olar’s ire even further.  Olar grabbed Loki’s hand, pressing it against the cup, and then picked up his own.  Loki waited until Olar drank first before bringing the cup to his lips, wanting to be done if only because he was very quickly tiring of mead after so much in such a short time.  He drank slowly, taking his time while Olar angrily slammed his cup down with a belch.  Loki flinched back, pretending to be surprised, and put his own empty cup down as the woman returned with three plates of roast meat, hard cheese, and dense bread.  Loki smiled up at her as she laid everything out, and then turned his attention back to Olar as the man stood.

“Listen, I don’t know what game this is,” he said, pointing a finger right in Loki’s face.  “But I’m not having it.”

He jabbed his finger toward Loki again, swaying on his feet as though knocked off balance by the very motion.  Loki carefully picked up one of the irregular blocks of cheese from his plate, biting into it as he watched Olar struggle to stay upright.

“I thought it was a drinking game,” Loki said.  “I guess I’m having fun.”

He shrugged and reached for the pitcher, needing something to drink after trying to swallow the cheese.  As he filled his cup, Olar leaned forward to swipe it away, missed, and stumbled to the ground.  Loki leaned over in his seat to look at him where he struggled to get back up from his knees.

“You fell over, I won,” Loki said, quickly reaching for both coin purses and making them vanish before they could be stolen back.

Olar tried to glare up at him, but he was so miserable it did not have the right effect.  With a shrug, Loki turned to his plate to eat, while Fandral and Hogun both laughed.

“That’ll teach him some manners, I think,” Fandral said.

“At least until next week,” Loki said.

He turned to watch as Olar’s friend helped him to his feet.  Grumbling, his friend tossed a few coins onto the table, before the two of them stumbled out of the hall and into the darkening evening.  Once they were gone, Loki pulled out the man’s purse to inspect its contents.

“Oh, good,” he said, digging through the coins inside.  “It’s mostly gold.  I can pay Eldred back and still have a good amount left.”

He hid the purse away again and picked up his cup, only to dump it out onto the floor.

“Give me some of that.  I’ll gag if I have to drink any more mead,” Loki said, reaching for the ale pitcher.

The ale went down like water, oddly refreshing for what it was.  The mead had been so thick and cloying that it had almost stuck inside Loki’s throat, and drinking so much made him feel like he might burst in all the wrong ways.  But with the whole thing behind him, he settled down in his seat and ate his meal.  It wasn’t what was served at banquet, which made him like it all the better.  No pretense or piles of things Loki didn’t even like in the first place.  He bit into a piece of meat without even knowing what it was, and was pleased to find that it was goat.

“You know, if you could do that more often, you could fund your own party,” Fandral said.

Loki looked up at him, and for a moment he considered it.  But he shook his head instead.

“I think I’d rather talk Thor into doing my bidding, and save my coin for something more important,” Loki said.

“How much gold do you owe that creepy old man, anyway?” Fandral asked.

“About fifteen pieces,” Loki said, ignoring the way Fandral nearly choked.

“Gold?” Fandral asked.  “Not silver?”

Loki nodded, trying to ignore the size of the debt.  He knew it was no small sum, and wasn’t sure what to do now that the number had been put into voice.

“He does dangerous things for me,” Loki said.  “I can’t protect him, but I can pay him.”

He shrugged and ate more of his goat.  Sitting right next to one another, Loki couldn’t help but notice just then how different Hogun and Fandral were.  Bragi had status.  He and his family were taken care of, paid to be in Asgard’s service and given gifts for their loyalty.  Hogun dressed well, and wore his hair in intricate styles that his mother brought with them from their homeland.  Fandral wore the same thing until he wore it out, with his hair shaggy and untended because his mother hadn’t the time to fix it for him.  In a lot of ways, he looked like Thor, with wild blond hair and the beginnings of a beard on his chin.  As he ate, Loki came to a decision.  It was an easy decision to come to, but he wasn’t entirely certain how he might pull it off.  Pride might get in the way, or it could backfire in some wholly unforeseen way.  But he would deal with those outcomes only should they arise.

As evening drew into night, they finished their meal and their drinks, and parted ways, each heading off to their own place within the palace.  Rather than going straight to his own chambers, Loki took a detour down a corridor he rarely visited.  He wasn’t sure where, precisely, he needed to be, so he tried the easiest option first and let himself into the servants’ hall.  Those who were still awake all stopped what they were doing immediately and looked up at him, some not quite seeming to know what they should do.

“I need to speak with a tailor, please,” Loki said.

Several of the servants glanced warily at one another, before one man finally nodded and stood. 

“At your service,” he said, barely hiding the uncertainty in his voice.

Loki nodded back and stepped into the corridor, waiting for the man to follow.  He soon stepped into the corridor with Loki, neither saying anything until the door was closed behind them.

“There’s a boy.  You might know him.  Fandral,” Loki said.  “His mother is a washer woman somewhere around here.  I don’t know her name.”

The man nodded.  “I know him.”

“Good.”  Loki pulled out both his coin purses and transferred some out of the smaller one, still keeping a decent sum inside.  Once he was satisfied, he handed it over.

“Tomorrow morning I want you to catch him.  Early, before he leaves, and and dress him in whatever he wants, and as much as that will pay for,” Loki said.  He nodded to the coin purse in the man’s hand.  “Tell him it’s been paid for, and he can’t refuse.”

The man looked down at the purse in his hand, then to Loki before nodding.

“Of course, my prince,” the man said.

Loki nodded, a subtle bow of his head to dismiss the man, and waited until he retreated back into the hall before turning to head back to his own chambers.  He took his time, having no real reason to get back, and knowing his bedchamber would likely still smell of rotten duck eggs.  He quickly became distracted, and had no warning at all when he was shoved hard against a wall and held there.  Barely having time to cry out in surprise, Loki managed to twist around enough to look up, and see that it was Freyr who had tackled him.

“You still stink,” Loki said, trying to push himself away from the wall.

But Thor had been right.  Freyr was bigger in every way, and had every advantage that came with it.  He shoved Loki’s face back against the wall, and then punched him in the side, knocking the air out of him, and then finally let him go.  Loki slid to the ground, holding onto his side as he wheezed and choked.

“Who have you told?” Freyr asked, standing above him and poised to kick.

Loki coughed, trying to convince himself to breathe, and held up one hand in what he hoped was a placating manner.  Slowly, finally, he managed to find his feet and get them beneath him, using the wall to steady himself as he stood.

“Touch me again and I’ll tell everyone,” Loki said, fighting back the urge to vomit.  “Starting with your mother.”

“That witch is not my mother!” Freyr shouted.

He wound up to kick him, but Loki took a step back before it could deliver.  Rather than Freyr’s kick landing, his foot swung through open air, throwing him off balance.  The trick was becoming an easy one normally, but still struggling to breathe, turning one step into ten made Loki’s insides feel like they had twisted up in a knot and then turned inside out.  He panted hard, barely holding himself together and looked up, seeing Freyr glaring at him across the gap Loki had created between them.  Loki forced himself to glare back, standing up as straight as he could with the pain in his side and his insides swimming.

“Touch me again, and I will tell everyone,” he repeated, forcing his voice to remain even.

Loki didn’t dare try his trick again.  He took a single step backwards, making sure Freyr would stay right where he was.  Rather than follow after him, Freyr only stood and glared, and so Loki turned his back and continued toward his chambers.

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #24: Rötgart

Hogun was out with his bird again, using the creature to hunt something small for dinner.  He didn’t need to; with Bragi’s position within the court, Hogun and his mother were well taken care of.  But for reasons he kept to himself, Hogun seemed loath to accept it.  He hunted for his food and shopped for his mother, keeping himself well outside of Asgard’s inner circles.  Like Loki, he was Asgardian, but he wasn’t Æsir.  And he seemed to like it that way, always on the outside, and Loki almost envied him for it.

Loki watched from a distance as Hogun held up his arm as a perch for the eagle.  It was a large bird, as birds went on Asgard, but it was small for a bird of Yggdrasil.  Hogun strained as it landed, bracing to keep his arm from falling under the eagle’s weight.  He fed the eagle a morsel and sent it off again, watching as it climbed on golden wings into the heavens.  Only once it was riding the air currents high above did Loki finally approach Hogun, pretending his friend’s pet didn’t make his skin crawl. 

“You feed that beast more meat than it brings in,” Loki called out.  “The only man on Asgard to hunt at a loss.”

Hogun turned his head as Loki approached, watching him from the corner of his eye. 

“It’s for sport.  If it was a real meal I was after, I would be hunting boar,” he said. 

“It’s been a while since I’ve seen a good goring,” Loki said. 

Hogun rolled his eyes and looked skyward again, scanning the endless plane above for his bird. 

“Have you taken your hunt yet?” Loki asked, looking for the bird as well.

“I do not have to,” Hogun said.

Loki nodded, once again touched by a small sting of envy.  Loki wasn’t Æsir, but his position made that irrelevant.  Or it had, before he gave it up.  He had no position now.  He was Loki, heir to no one, god of nothing.  And surely for all he gave away with it, it must have come with some benefits.

Loki watched the sky, still acutely aware of the eagle circling above them.  Something deep within him, something that would never truly leave Jötunheimr, told him to flee and find a hole to hide in.  No matter how many times he told himself he was on Asgard, where the eagles were only big enough to carry off a toddler, he could not quell the instinct-driven fear within him.  He had never even seen the eagles of Jötunheimr, but he didn’t need to.  The way Hogun’s bird made him want to flee was enough to tell Loki that every tale he had ever heard about them was true.

The eagle circled around high above, and then started to dive back down toward them, rather than any rabbit in the field they stood in.  Loki wanted to run, but his dignity forbade it.  He stood stiff as if the sight of razor sharp talons bearing down on him wasn’t a nightmare he’d had ever since he was a boy. 

With neither warning nor permission, Hogun took Loki’s arm and wrenched it up above his head, as if he expected Loki to retrieve the eagle.  Loki froze, only regaining control of himself as Hogun’s bird landed with a flurry of feathers.  Loki ducked his face away, acutely aware of the talons circling his arm and pinching his skin.  He stood stiffly, eyes closed and facing the ground, while Hogun shoved something into Loki’s free hand. 

“Reward her,” Hogun commanded. 

“For what? Not destroying me?” Loki asked, letting the panic rise in his voice. 

He looked up at the eagle, it now seeming even bigger than it had when Hogun held it.  Forcing his hand steady, Loki held out the morsel of dried meat for the bird, snapping his hand away as soon as its hooked beak came in contact with the meat.  He stared at the bird as it swallowed the meat and settled a bit more firmly on his arm.  He could feel the weight of it through his entire body, every movement it made echoing through him as it steadied its grip and preened its feathers. 

“She is just an eagle.  You should stop being such a child,” Hogun chided. 

Loki shot a glare at him, but it was a fleeting one, as he dared not take his focus off the predator on his arm. 

“I am not a child.  But you are an ass,” he said. 

“Send her off again,” Hogun said. 

Loki moved as he’d seen Hogun do a thousand times before, trying to push the eagle into the air with his arm.  The first time, it only ruffled its wings, but when Loki tried again with more force, it took flight and climbed back into the sky.  Loki let himself fall back into the dirt, panting with the shock of still being in one piece. 

“I don’t like your bird.  And I don’t like you,” Loki said. 

He heard Hogun snort somewhere above him.  “Good.  Your form is terrible anyway.  You would make a terrible falconer.”

Despite it all, Loki bristled.  “And you make a terrible archer,” he said bitterly. 

Catching his breath, Loki stood again and turned his attention back to the sky.  Beside him, Hogun said nothing as he watched his bird circle around above them again.

“Fine.  If you’re such an expert, tell me what I did wrong,” Loki said, dusting himself off and apparently determined to give himself a heart attack before the day was through. 

“You’re afraid of her and she knows it,” Hogun said.  “She will not respect you until you can hold yourself without fear.”

“I don’t need a bird to respect me,” Loki said, keeping an eye on it as it soared high above.

The eagle began to dive again, talons outstretched as it plummeted to the ground.  For a moment, Loki thought it would crash, but at the very last moment before impact it flapped its wings and began to slowly rise again with a large hare in its talons.  It flew in a wide circle around the field before returning, dropping the hare to the ground just before perching on Hogun’s outstretched arm.  While Hogun rewarded his bird and fitted her hood back over her head, Loki fetched the hare before it woke from its stupor and ran away.  Blood drained from it where Hogun’s eagle had grasped it with its talons, but it still breathed, rapid and shallow in Loki’s grip.

Loki had never killed anything before.  His aim with a bow had not improved to the point that he could lead a moving target, but he knew he couldn’t allow the animal to suffer.  He grabbed it by the head and twisted hard, trying not to flinch at the sound of cracking bones as the hare went fully limp in his grip.  For a long moment, he looked down at the hare, which just moments ago still clung to life, before finally offering it to Hogun.  Nodding, Hogun took the rabbit and began walking back toward the palace.  For a moment, Loki thought to follow after.  But Hogun was heading home, and Loki did not wish to intrude there.  He may have been heir to no one, but he was still a prince in title, and had no place barging in on someone’s private dwelling.  Instead, he stood in place, surveying the land around him.  There were places he should have been, and things he should have been doing, but he had no desire to see to any of them.

He was nothing, and he was free.

With no one nearby to see what he was up to, Loki pulled the old man’s map from its hiding place and unrolled it.  Asgard was not a large realm, though Loki had not had much of a chance to explore it.  Now, though.  Now, with the consequences of skipping his lessons and dodging training diminished, he’d have time to go exploring.  And he knew exactly where he wanted to go first.  Orientating the map so he could find himself on it, Loki scanned it for the closest X marked upon it.  It wasn’t far at all.  Driven not just by curiosity for what lie beyond the gate, but for why the gates had all been mapped in the first place, Loki hid the map away again and made his way toward the rocky ledge on the north edge of the field. 

This time, with his knife on his hip and a few extra tricks up his sleeve for protection, he braced himself for whatever he might find.  This gate, though old and forgotten, stood intact.  Moss and vines grew over it, but the ground around it was not completely overgrown, making him wonder who or what still used it.  The stone arch that marked the point where the Dragon Lines intersected was weathered and beginning to crumble, but he could still see the runes etched on its surface. 

Dwarven runes, protected by magic so he could not read them.  He searched all sides of the gate, but found no translation.  But Loki knew he didn’t need to read them.  The other gate, broken and destroyed though it was, had been marked with Jötunn runes, and had led to Jötunheimr.  It only made sense that a gate marked with Dwarven runes would lead to Niðavellir.  Loki held his hand near his knife, ready to draw it should he find trouble on the other side, and stepped through.

Rather than trouble, Loki found himself near the entrance to a crowded market.  A packed and worn road led away from the market, whose entrance had been carved from the very mountain it sat beneath.  Giant stone gryphons stood on either side of the hewn archway, which was far wider and taller than it truly needed to be.  The dwarves built not for function or convenience, but to make a statement, and this place was no exception.  Loki looked up at the steel gate that had been drawn back, allowing entrance to the market, wondering what magic the dwarves used to carve and cast such enormous structures.

Standing guard beneath the gryphons were a pair of dwarves, both leaning lazily against their axes as they watched Loki where he stood in awe.

“You keep gaping up at the sky like that, and you’re likely to drown, boy,” one of them said.

Loki quickly turned his attention to them, but they didn’t seem to wish him ill.  He lowered his hand from his belt, but stayed where he was in case he still needed to beat a hasty retreat back to Asgard.

“Who are you here to do business with?” one of the guards asked.

Loki turned to look at the gate behind him, confident that for all its apparent neglect, it was still very much in use.

“Business?” Loki asked.  “It’s a market.  I’ve come to shop.”

Both dwarves looked to one another, exchanging some secret message between them before nodding.

“Gates close at dusk,” the first one said.

Loki nodded, and only then stepped closer.  He looked toward the sky, hoping to see the sun, but it was hidden behind clouds so heavy he couldn’t even find a spot that seemed brighter than the rest.  Knowing he’d have to be quick about indulging his curiosity, he made his way inside.  The entrance to the marketplace was not a natural one, with its walls polished smooth and bricks set evenly into the ground.  Beneath the din of commerce, Loki could hear a low, continuous roar somewhere off in the distance, but he could not see what caused it. 

On either side of the hall that made the entrance to the market, arches led to grand staircases, leading deeper into the mountain.  Loki paused at the top of one of them, looking down to see what might lie beneath, but he could see only the stairs doubling back across themselves as they twisted deeper into what he assumed must be the mines.  He had been to the palace at Stoneholm several times, but he had never been allowed into the common areas.  Seeing where dwarves actually lived and worked was something he wished to do now that he knew where to find it.  It would have to wait for when he had more time, and better rapport with the dwarves in whatever place he had found himself now.

He left the entrance and headed toward the market, crossing over an abrupt threshold where polished stone gave way to rougher, worn tunnels.  The brick in the floor was replaced by wooden planks, tarred over and covered in sand, and as Loki walked along the path he realised what the deep roar he could hear was.  This dwarven city was near the sea, nowhere near Stoneholm and its palace. 

Loki stopped at one of the stalls to examine what sea-faring dwarven merchants sold, and found a supply of rather predictable fishing gear.  He looked at a finely-woven net hanging on display, but dared not touch it.  He hadn’t much experience with dwarves, but he knew enough to be cautious.

“Are you lost?” the dwarf running the stall asked.

Loki looked up, surprised to hear a woman’s voice behind the gnarled black beard.

“I’m sorry?” Loki asked.

“Aren’t you a bit young to be wandering on your own,” she said.

Loki realised she was worried about her stock getting stolen or damaged by wandering children, and sighed.

“I’m fifteen,” he said.

The dwarf rolled her eyes.  “Bloody ogres all look like infants,” she muttered, turning away from Loki as if it would keep him from hearing.

Able to take a hint, and knowing when he wasn’t welcome, Loki turned to explore further.  As he walked deeper into the market, he realised dwarves weren’t the only beings milling about.  Vanir and Elven travellers wandered from stall to stall, talking and trading with the dwarves who ran the place.  He realised then why the guards at the gate had not been at all surprised to see him.  The gate was not only still in use, but part of what seemed to be a thriving trade network used by peasants and merchants outside the city.

Wandering through the crowd, Loki heard the unmistakable sound of a hammer on an anvil.  Drawn toward it, he found a blacksmith working out of a small forge, smashing away at some enormous chunk of metal.  Loki stood by, watching as the dwarf worked, hammering and folding steel, and putting it back in the fire so he could hammer and fold it some more.  After a few cycles, the dwarf finally looked up and saw that he was being watched.

“What do you want?” he asked.

And this one was a man, though Loki had no idea how to tell the difference from appearance alone.  He wore his beard in a tight braid, tucked beneath his tunic to keep it out of the way, and otherwise looked no different from the fish woman.

“I’m just watching,” Loki said.  “I’ve never seen dwarven craft before.”

The dwarf nodded.

“Just watching, or watching and buying?” he asked.

It hadn’t occurred to Loki that he might be able to buy something.  He didn’t have any coin on him, but he quickly called forward a purse from his desk, hiding it behind his back so the dwarf did not see him.

“I have gold,” he said.

The dwarf put his work down and stepped aside, nodding for Loki to follow into a separate room.

“You strike me as a blade man,” he said.

Loki nodded.  “Daggers, mostly,” he said.

Adding a dwarven dagger or two to his collection had never even seemed possible, and now he was being invited to browse the smith’s collection.  The dwarf led him to a table stacked with wares in various states of completion, and pulled a box from a large stack of them against the wall.  With his hands clasped behind his back, Loki watched as the dwarf pulled off the lid and set it aside, revealing a small collection of daggers and knives.  He leaned close to get a look at all of them, blades so sharp and polished that Loki thought they might cut him if he got too close.  Blades of black steel that seemed almost invisible, and silver steel that shone in the dim light of the lanterns.

And, Loki realised, a pair of daggers that didn’t belong.

“That’s white steel,” he said, looking up at the dwarf.

For a moment, he thought the dwarf might take a swing at him.  They stared at one another, both waiting for the other to make the first move.

“And who are you going to tell?” the dwarf asked.

Loki had not skipped so many lessons that he did not understand the importance of what was laid out before him, though it was clear that the dwarf had under-estimated him.  Loki knew the power he suddenly held in his hands, and what he could do with it.

“I suppose that depends on how much you’re selling them for,” Loki said.

The blades, forged in steel smuggled from Jötunheimr, with plain black handles, stood out starkly amongst the rest.  They were not designed to look flashy or special, because they already were flashy and special just by the fact that they existed.

Loki looked back up at the dwarf, keeping his expression neutral and unassuming.  The dwarf, meanwhile, looked Loki over from head to toe.  He watched as first, the dwarf sized him up, clearly aware that while Loki had a bit of height on him, he was still small and scrawny, and armed only with a single knife at his hip.  But Loki had not been to the training ring, or to the stables, or anywhere else that might have warranted an older tunic he could ruin without care.  He was still dressed for breakfast in the dining hall, with a tunic sewn to fit him, and adorned with intricate embroidery at the cuffs and collar.  Whether the dwarf knew precisely who he was or not, it was soon clear he at least knew that the boy before him could cause trouble if he wanted.

And it was also clear that he wasn’t going to roll over and allow a boy to take advantage of him.

“Ten gold,” he said.

Loki knew how this worked.  Markets were markets, and he’d been to enough of them to know he was meant to haggle.  But this was not a moment for haggling. Loki had made the first offer by not sounding the alarm right away.  The dwarf had made a counter-offer, and Loki simply nodded.

“Ten gold,” he repeated.

He stood up and opened his coin purse, having to dig through the mess of silver and gold and copper coins until he found the appropriate amount.  Once they were all in hand, he made sure to count them out in front of the dwarf before handing them over.  Nodding slowly, the dwarf took the coins, counted them in turn, and nodded again.

“Not a word,” he said.  “Now take them and get out.”

Loki carefully picked up the daggers, taking only a brief moment to examine them while he waited for the dwarf to offer him a method of concealment.  But the dwarf made no such offer, standing still as though he had won some game.  And he might have done.  Loki would need to carry the blades out of his forge, through the crowd, and back home without being seen with them.  Blades which would surely cut him deep if he tried to conceal them beneath his clothes.

Shrugging, Loki simply made them disappear.

“Thank you,” he said, giving the dwarf a smug smile.

He left then, eager to see what other trouble a dwarven marketplace might have to offer while the dwarf blustered on behind him.  Vendors with food became more common as Loki made his way closer to the sea, though many of the goods had come straight from the water, unprepared beyond the fish being gutted so the meat didn’t go rancid.  Others sold warm clothing and camping supplies, though who it was meant for, Loki wasn’t sure.  Niðavellir was not a forgiving realm, and even Loki knew it was not a place to camp.

He soon reached the port, finding a row of ships rushing to load and offload in the high tide.  But it wasn’t the action of the port that caught his attention.  The sky had nearly completely gone dark, without a single star in the sky.  Loki turned round to look back the way he’d come, but he couldn’t see the gates from where he stood.  Looking back toward the sky again, he realised it didn’t matter.  Dusk had come and gone, and he was trapped.  He looked around, hoping to find somewhere he could ride out the night, but the area seemed to lack any sort of inn.

“If it’s passage you’re needing, it’s two gold,” a dwarf called out.

Loki looked over to him, uncertain of anything.  “Passage where?” he asked.

“Vanaheimr,” the dwarf said.

Loki knew he could get home from Vanaheimr.  He knew he might face trouble after, but it would be far less trouble than if he had to be rescued from Niðavellir.

“Yes, please,” he said.

He realised what passage meant, and looked out over the rough waters.  Taking a deep breath, he fished out two more gold coins from his purse and handed them over.  The dwarf took them without bothering to check their authenticity, and nodded toward his karvi.

“In you get.  Stay low, touch nothing,” he said.

Loki nodded and quickly did as he was told, finding a safe place to settle down.  He watched from a spot by the mast as a team of dwarves quickly loaded up the boat before all getting in and taking their places at the oars.

“What’s your name, boy,” the captain asked.

For a moment, Loki considered giving a fake name.  But then he realised he might be better taken care of if the dwarf knew who he was.

“Loki,” he said.  “Of Asgard.”

The dwarf paused what he was doing to look down at him in a way that made Loki want to squirm.  Then he sighed and shook his head.

“Of course it is,” he said.  He began unhitching the boat from its moorings, moving quickly so they could get out of port before the boat was smashed against the docks.

“I’m Andvari,” he said.  “You’ll listen to me if you want to survive this journey.”

He turned back to Loki as he coiled the rope up in his arms.

“I don’t imagine you can swim,” he said.

Loki shook his head, holding onto whatever he could to steady himself against the harsh rocking.  The whole sea seemed determined to drown them all before they even left port, but the rowers carried on into the growing darkness all the same.

“Came through the gate, then?” Andvari asked.

Loki nodded, feeling as though his stomach might completely fall out.  “Aye,” he said.

“Next time, make sure you’re able to leave through it,” Andvari said.

Loki said nothing and nodded, focusing on the floor before him.  The whole boat heaved and lurched as water sprayed over the edge.  Whatever they were hauling, it didn’t seem to matter whether it got wet, because nobody seemed to care as their crates and barrels became flooded.  Rather than working to make sure the boat stayed free of water, Andvari fiddled with his rope some more, checking its entire length as he quickly ran it through his hands.  Once done, he looked forward and nodded.  Loki dared to look forward as well, but all he saw was an infinite blackness stretching forever ahead.  He realised that when the dwarf had offered passage to Vanaheimr, Loki had not even bothered to question why that meant a trip over sea, and now he was stuck as a dwarf’s prisoner, with no means of escape.

He watched as the dwarf began to shed his clothing, first his tunic, then his boots, and finally his breeches until he was naked.  Loki wanted to look away, but the absurdity of the situation kept his attention glued on the scene before him.  Apparently not even bothered by the icy spray that washed over the sides, Andvari tied the rope around his waist while one of the rowers stood and took the rope in his hands, giving Andvari a small amount of slack.  Before Loki could ask what was going on, Andvari tossed himself over the side, sinking fast and taking the rope with him.  The other dwarf led the rope out further until he got to a knot at the end.  He braced himself against the side of the boat as the whole thing suddenly lurched, not from any wave but from Andvari’s weight pulling them through the water.  The rest of the rowers pulled in their oars, and the boat listed heavily to one side, fighting against waves and current as though the insane dwarf were somehow guiding them through the water.

Watching the line as it dragged against the boat’s side, Loki realised that was exactly what was happening.  Somehow, from beneath the water, Andvari himself was pulling the boat along.  So transfixed on the line was Loki that he didn’t notice the waves calming and the wind dying down until the inky black sky shone bright and pink.  He looked up first, knowing they were in Vanaheimr, and realising a moment later how they had got there.  He watched as several dwarves stood to help haul Andvari in, and after much splashing and thrashing about, he was hauled onto the deck, still naked.  Loki looked away, searching for anything to focus on that wasn’t a short, hairy dwarf with all his parts on display.  In the distance, he thought he could see land, and what might have been a town, and that seemed as good as anything to hold his attention.

“Did you sneak off, or will you be calling that light show of yours to take you home?” Andvari asked.

Loki dared to glance over to him, finding him at least wearing his breeches.

“Uh,” he said, realising as he started to speak that lies and stories might not be his best bet.  “Snuck off.”

“You know you way around Gullnaströnd?” Advari asked, untying the line around his waist and tossing it aside.

Loki shook his head, thinking he might have recognised the name, but not confident.  “Not particularly.”

He watched as Andvari finished dressing, pulling his tunic over himself without without caring he was still soaking wet.

“There’s a gate to Asgard, to the east,” he said.  “I don’t know where in Asgard it takes you, but I know it goes there.”

Loki nodded, watching as the rowers all took their positions again and began taking them into port.

“Thank you,” he said.

He sat still and quiet, watching as Andvari coiled up the rope and got it ready to use again.  Even though the seas were much calmer than they had been on the other side of the gate, Loki still held on to the mast, barely able to keep his wits about him.

“How did you do that?” he asked, hoping for a distraction.

Andvari looked over the edge of the boat.  “You came by gate, so I assume you know how they work,” he asked.

Loki nodded.

“That one’s tricky,” Andvari said.  “Best way to find it is under the surface.  And the best way to do that is with a guide who can swim like a fish.”

For a long moment, Loki tried to puzzle out what Andvari meant, before he realised the dwarf spoke literally.

“You’re a shape shifter?” he asked.

“Aye,” Andvari said.  He stepped to the bow, looking out over the water toward the distant port.  “Good skill to have, even if you’re not guiding boats through drowned Dragon Lines.”

He turned back to look at Loki, and in that moment, Loki knew his secret had made its way far beyond Asgard’s borders.  It had only been a matter of time, he knew.  But the look on Andvari’s face wasn’t one of hate or disgust.  He simply knew, and he wanted Loki to be aware of it.

“You always this small?” Andvari asked.

Loki looked around at the rowers, but none of them seemed to care much about what was going on.  They only focused on rowing.  Not sure how else to answer, Loki simply nodded.

“But you don’t always look like that?” Andvari asked.

“No,” Loki said.

Nodding, Andvari turned back toward the port, leaving Loki to wonder what was going to happen next.  He still clung to the mast, holding on as though at any moment, the whole boat might tip over and throw him into the sea.  But the boat stayed on an even keel, and their course stayed true, and slowly they neared the port.

“How far east is the gate?” he asked suddenly.

Andvari turned again to face him.  “Not far.  Follow the road.  You shouldn’t be able to miss it.”

Loki nodded.  “Thank you,” he said again.  “And for the passage.”

“Try not to make a habit of needing it,” Andvari said.  “I’m not a ferry, but I know panic when I see it.”

Loki tried not to let his frustration with himself show.  He’d need to find better ways to get himself out of trouble if he intended to finish decoding the old man’s map.  He wouldn’t always be able to rely on friendly strangers every time he found himself in trouble.

He said nothing more for the rest of the voyage, watching as the port grew closer and closer by the minute.  Once Andvari had the boat tied off, and his crew began unloading their cargo, Loki pulled himself onto the dock with shaky legs.  Still afraid he might fall into the water, he at least took some solace in the fact that there were enough people who could have jumped in and saved him if he did fall in.

But he didn’t fall in, however much his legs threatened to give out beneath him.

“Where will you go?” Loki asked, watching crates get hauled away by Vanir port workers.  “Not back through that?”

Andvari turned to look out over the sea, sun hanging high in Vahaneimr’s sky.

“No, tide will be out by the time we get back,” he said.  “We’ll stay here, return tomorrow.”

Loki nodded, not sure why he was glad to hear it.  The dwarf clearly knew what he was doing, but surely even a dwarf who could turn himself into a fish could drown if something went wrong.

“If I get stuck again, I’ll let you know,” he said, turning to leave.

“If you get stuck again, it’s three gold,” Andvari said.

“After that terrifying ride, I’d say it’s free,” Loki said.

Andvari laughed even as Loki walked away.  It wasn’t until he found solid ground beneath his feet that his legs stopped feeling like they might tremble out from beneath him.  He wasn’t sure about the strange Vanir city he’d found himself in, but it didn’t matter.  He found east, and then the road that would take him to the gate, and followed it.  Sure enough, just as Andvari had said, he found the gate just off the road, and just as weathered and beaten as the others.  Loki paused long enough only to make sure the runes were Asgardian, and seeing that they were, he stepped through.

It led him to a shallow pool beneath a waterfall, somewhere Loki had never seen before.  He looked up for the suns, but without knowing the time of day, any direction could have been North.  Sighing, Loki worked on finding a path to higher ground so he could figure out where he was.  The rocks leading to the top of the waterfall were too steep and too slick to climb, so he followed the ledge until its slope began to taper off.  From there, he was able to double back, climbing up to the ridge until he had reached its peak.  He could see the palace far off in the distance, and sighed.  The walk back would not be an easy one, or a short one, and though he could still ask Heimdall for help, the thought of what would come after gave him pause.  Instead, he sat down on the damp grass beside the beside the small stream and pulled the old man’s map out again, bringing with it a charcoal pencil.  He found the gate he sat above, to the south of the palace, and marked it, before working backwards to Vanaheimr, then Niðavellir, and finally to the gate he had first travelled through after Hogun had left.  With the map marked, he hid it away again, and then looked out over the realm to the palace.

It would be a very long walk, and for all Loki knew, it was midnight.  He certainly felt tired enough for it to be.  He let himself fall backwards into the grass, arms splayed out at his side as he stared up at the sky.

“Heimdall, I’m tired.  I don’t want to walk anymore,” he said.

He knew Heimdall wouldn’t send the Bifröst for him.  Heimdall would make him wait while he sent someone on horseback to come fetch him. 

And Loki figured he deserved it.  If his punishment was to wait out in the suns, slowly roasting alive, it was better than the punishment he would have received if Heimdall were to have rescued him from another realm entirely.

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #23: Secrets

Loki sat at his desk, unable to concentrate on the book before him.  A history of the treaties with Nornheimr, while useful information, was completely unable to hold his attention after the chaos of that day.

Groaning to himself, Loki put his head down on the desk and shut his eyes.  As soon as his head touched the flat surface of the desktop, the door to his bedchamber opened and Bror stepped inside.  Loki looked up at him, too tired and worn down to say anything.

“That servant’s boy is back,” Bror said.

Loki frowned.  “Fandral?” he asked.

Bror nodded.  “The one.”

Loki sat up, glad for the distraction from everything else.  “Send him up,” he said.  “And Bror.  He’s my friend.  Just let him in.”

With another nod, Bror turned and walked back down the stairs.  A few moments later, Fandral wandered into his bedchamber, holding onto a bottle of wine.  He looked around the room, and then shrugged as though he wasn’t sure what he was doing there, and gestured with the wine.

“I thought you could use some company tonight,” Fandral said.

Loki began to ask whose wine Fandral had stolen, but quickly decided it didn’t matter.  He was tired and his head hurt, and he needed a break from everything he’d been buried in all week.

“Shall we?” Fandral asked finally, holding up the wine.

Loki shrugged and stood up, stretching his back and yawning.  He rubbed his eyes and looked at Fandral, not quite sure he wanted to stay in the same room he’d locked himself up in, but not wanting to go anywhere either.  Odin had not taken Loki’s decision well, and many within the palace took it even worse.  Loki had expected as much, and he knew there were some who would insist that the decision had been made under different circumstances.  But it was done and Loki was, for the moment, free to do as he pleased.

“I may not be the best company tonight, but I do have a terrace where we can be left alone,” he said.

“Just one?” Fandral asked.  “They don’t give you much space here, do they?”

Loki ignored Fandral’s teasing and led the way downstairs and through a neglected chamber to the large terrace that looked out over a sparkling garden at the south side of the palace.  Everything glittered in the setting of Asgard’s largest sun, bathing the royal grounds in a twilight glow.

“I just heard the announcement this last hour,” Fandral said as he worked to free the cork with a knife.  “You seem to be taking it all rather well.”

Loki leaned against the balustrade, looking distantly toward the horizon.

“It was at my request,” he said, utterly unsurprised rumours had spread so far so quickly.  “My father wasn’t pleased, but I don’t care.  It needed to be done.”

“That’s not a request to be made lightly,” Fandral pointed out.  “What happens if you change your mind?”

Loki looked back him, not expecting Fandral to understand any of it.  He was a servant’s son—barely educated and so far removed from the world Loki lived in he may as well have been from a different planet entirely.

“I won’t,” Loki said.  “And in the unlikely event that I did, it wouldn’t matter.  It can’t be overturned.”

Last in line.  There was still a certain amount of responsibility in it.  Important, but ultimately meaningless, freeing him to do as he pleased while his position weakened with each additional child Frigga bore.  The only way his situation could improve from there would be for him to do as he pleased on his father’s coin, but he had long accepted that punishment as final.

“So, what does that mean for you?” Fandral asked hesitantly.  “You’ve not been… disowned or anything, have you?”

He finally uncorked the bottle and offered the first drink to Loki.

“Not at all,” Loki said, shaking his head.  “He wouldn’t let me go that far.”

He took the wine and drank from it, careful not to spill.  It was Asgardian wine, sweet and light, and absolutely pointless.  But it seemed rude to turn it down.

“I would just have to lose all of my brothers and any of their heirs before the throne fell to me,” he said.

He smiled to himself and passed the wine back to Fandral.

“That’s a hel of a thing to give up,” Fandral mused.  “You went from second to last.”

Loki shrugged, wondering what Fandral was trying to do.

“Never wanted it anyway,” he said with a shrug.  “Sounds like a whole lot of work if you ask me.”

“Meanwhile, every saga I’ve ever heard had some bit about all the king’s sons squabbling over the throne,” Fandral said. 

He leaned against the balustrade and drank from the wine.  He seemed comfortable, careless, and utterly at peace.  A sensation Loki thought he’d never know for himself, though perhaps once Asgard calmed down, he might get close.

“You know my father overthrew my uncle?” Loki asked.

Fandral shook his head.  “So the squabbling is real, then?”

“Cul barely held the throne for four years,” Loki said.  He looked out over the gardens below, wondering what it all might have looked like with his uncle in charge.  “And in those years, he started a war that nearly brought Ragnarök.  My father overthrew and killed him to stop it.”

“There is a certain amount of killing expected there, I suppose,” Fandral said.  He offered the bottle over to Loki.  “Might be a bit tough to pull off when your brother’s twice your size.”

Loki laughed as he took the wine.  Everyone else had approached this subject with grim reluctance, but Fandral had been the first in all of Asgard to see the absurdity in the situation.  Loki was still short and scrawny, and yet so many feared him anyway.  Thor still towered over him, giving little hope that they might ever be able to literally see eye to eye.

“You say that now,” Loki said.  He took another drink and set the wine on the rail between them.  “One of these days, I’ll catch up and outgrow you all.”

He severely hoped not, when it came down to it.  He didn’t want to be short and scrawny forever, but something about being ten feet tall was even less appealing.  For one, he’d hardly be able maintain his role as an irritating little imp if he stood taller than everyone else.  And he rather enjoyed being an irritating little imp, when it came down to it.

Fandral looked him over, wearing a strange, puzzled look on his face.  Loki watched him in turn, knowing there was a question forming somewhere in that blond skull of his.  Fandral was always so curious, and so cautious about voicing it.

“What do you look like?” Fandral asked suddenly.

The question caught Loki off guard.  It was not the question he had expected at all.  “What?” he asked.

“The Jötuns don’t look like us,” Fandral said. 

The two of them stared at one another for a long moment, neither wanting to be the first to say anything.  Loki realised he should have expected this question sooner or later.  But now that it had been asked, he was utterly unprepared.

“I thought this…” Fandral motioned to Loki in general “…was just some sort of disguise.”

“It is,” Loki said slowly.  He found himself fighting the urge to take a step backwards, refusing to let Fandral see him as cowardly.

“May I see?” Fandral asked.  “If it’s not too bold to ask.”

Loki wanted to ask why.  He wanted to say it was too bold to ask; to send Fandral away.  Call for the guards outside to come and remove him.  Thor had said Fandral was rude and out of line, and Loki had defended him.  And this was his reward.

At the same time, he didn’t want to say no.  Fandral knew what he was.  Everyone did.  And still Loki had kept it hidden.  For his own safety, but also just to avoid the awkward discomfort from everyone else.

Knowing he was stalling, Loki reached for the bottle of wine and took a long drink to steel himself.  It didn’t help, but he felt like it should.  With his eyes still averted and screwed tightly shut besides, Loki let his disguise drop.  By the time he set the wine down between them again, the hand that held the bottle was blue.

Loki could feel himself trembling as he dared only the briefest glance toward Fandral before turning his head to avoid the look of disgust his friend surely wore.  He resisted the urge to hug his arms around his chest as he stood before Fandral on display, open and vulnerable in a way he had never dared expose himself before.  He could almost count on one hand the amount of people who had been allowed to see who he truly was.  He had been kicked and punched, beaten into the ground more times than he could count, but this was the first he truly felt vulnerable.  When suddenly he felt Fandral take him by the hand, Loki jumped so hard it hurt.

“Oh,” Fandral said quietly, carefully turning Loki’s hand over to study both sides.  “It feels the same.  Almost.”

Loki still couldn’t look at him.  He was a coward and he knew it, but he didn’t care.

“What?” he asked.

“I thought it would be, I don’t know.  Hard or something,” Fandral said.  “But it’s not.  It’s not the same, but more like…  I don’t know.”  Loki knew he was failing to find a polite way to say that Loki’s skin felt like it was completely covered in rough sand.  “Like you spend a lot of time working.”

“I spend a lot of time indoors,” Loki pointed out.  “I don’t like the heat and I get ill from it easily.”

Fandral laughed uneasily.  “I suppose you would.”

Loki looked down where Fandral held his hand in his own, focusing intently on the ugly collection of marks and scars that his Æsir skin hid from view.  Traces of old burns and small cuts from bad experiments and rough play marred his hands and arms, doing little to hide the hands of a prince and a scholar.

Even more prominent were the raised lines on the back of Loki’s wrists, leading up along his arm and under his sleeve.  Without warning, Fandral began tracing the length of one of the lines with the tip of his finger.  It was invasive and entirely too intimate, and Loki hated it.  He jumped sharply, hissing as he wrenched his arm from Fandral’s grasp.

“Sorry,” Fandral said quickly, pulling his own hands away.  “I didn’t realise that would hurt.”

“It didn’t,” Loki said.  “It was… I didn’t like it.”

He recognised the sensation for what it was, but it was far more intense than anything he’d ever experienced on his own, and never from something as simple as a gentle touch.  That another boy had caused it was confusing and sickening and a bit exciting all at once, and Loki had to turn away from Fandral before he became hysterical from so much exposure.  He breathed deeply and slipped back into his Æsir form before anything else happened that he couldn’t handle.  Rubbing his hand along his arm where Fandral had touched him to blot out any lingering sensation, Loki turned back around and gave Fandral an insincere smile.  There was something in Fandral’s gaze that Loki couldn’t quite read, so he did the only thing he could do and ignored it.

“I still have that wine I got at the market,” Loki said, for lack of anything else to say.  “I didn’t even finish the first one yet.”

It had frightened him the first time.  But it hadn’t killed him, and this time he knew to slow down with it.  Eager to put space between them, Loki quickly turned and made his way up the stairs back to his bedchamber.  As soon as he was up there, looking at the clutter and the close space, he realised it had been a mistake.  But then Fandral was right there behind him, taller and bigger in every way, and Loki had nowhere to go but forward.  Loki retrieved the bottle from the shelf where he’d left it and sat down on the sofa.

Fandral joined him, putting a bit more space than necessary between them.  Loki wasn’t sure why, but he was glad.  He took a drink from his wine, trying to better pace himself than he had last time.  It was still overpowering and unpleasant, but it gave him something else to focus on besides whatever had just happened out on the terrace.

“So what do you do up here all day?” Fandral asked suddenly.

Loki shrugged.  He looked around his bedchamber, glad for the distraction. 

“I have a few lessons in the afternoons,” he said.  “History and politics, but I go elsewhere for those.  I don’t have a magic tutor right now, so that I teach myself.”

He took another drink of his wine, already feeling it warm his belly.

“The king used to have a court magician, but my grandfather abolished the practise,” he said, staring straight ahead at the clutter on the table.  He wasn’t sure why he was still talking about magic, but he had no idea how else to go forward from what had happened.  “The last man who held the position used it to against Asgard.  I’m to take up the role when Thor becomes king.”

“Another one of your ideas?” Fandral asked.

Loki shook his head.  “No.  It’s one I don’t have a say in.  But it’s not the worst thing to be forced upon me.”

He shrugged, and dared to look back over to Fandral.  Fandral sat completely at ease beside him, drinking his own wine as he lounged on Loki’s sofa.  Loki realised that perhaps he had misread the situation earlier.  Perhaps he was just so overwhelmed from everything, and so wholly inexperienced with people who didn’t want to punch him that he had imagined something that wasn’t there.

“What about you?” he asked.  “What do you do all day?”

Fandral shrugged.  “Not much, really,” he said.  “I take small jobs when we need the coin.  Hunt when I can; rabbits and deer, mostly.  When we need it.”

Loki knew Fandral didn’t have much.  He wore it on his clothes, old and repeatedly mended because it was all he had, rather than being worn out from being his favourite.  He was tall and lean, no doubt because his family scraped by on one meal a day, but still had enough muscle to be one of the best in the ring when Loki watched their group train.  Loki knew exactly why Thor thought Fandral was taking advantage, but he didn’t care. 

“You know, you don’t have to join the Einherjar,” Loki said.

Fandral looked at him, confused and critical all at once. 

“What else am I going to do?” he asked.  “Become a farm hand and muck pig shit for the rest of my life?”

Loki shrugged.  “Warriors do very well for themselves.  Especially when they join a party.”

He watched Fandral run the idea through his mind.

“How do you think Volstagg feeds so many children?” Loki asked.  “He joined a party and takes jobs for my father.  He has fun running training groups, but he does it because my father pays him to scout the lower classes.”

“I’m sure he was someone before that,” Fandral said.  “Whose party would I even join?”

Loki took another drink of his wine, letting the question hang for a moment. 

“My brother’s already talking about starting one next year, after our hunt,” he said, hoping it might tempt Fandral away from becoming a soldier and disappearing into the ranks.  “It would be very well funded.”

Fandral said nothing.  He stared down at the bottle of wine in his hand, very obviously mulling Loki’s words over in his mind.  It might have been a misstep to say anything, but Loki knew all he’d have to do was ask Thor, and it would happen.  If Fandral was there to take advantage, he might as well get something more than table scraps for his effort.

“Mum’s probably wondering where I am,” Fandral said suddenly, still looking at the wine.

“Your father can keep her company tonight,” Loki said. 

He considered drinking more of the wine, but put the bottle down instead.  He was already feeling like he’d had a bit too much, and wanted to avoid a repeat of last time.

“Dad’s dead,” Fandral said.

“Oh,” Loki said, caught off guard by the statement.  “I didn’t know.  When was this?”

Fandral shrugged.  “He ran from battle.  He was executed when they found him.”  He shifted slightly, but said nothing more.

“I’m sorry,” Loki said quietly.  He wasn’t sure what else to say, though more about Fandral suddenly made sense.

“Your father took pity because my mum was pregnant,” Fandral explained.  “Usually the widows are cast out as well, but I guess Odin was feeling generous.”

Odin rewriting the rules was not even a little bit surprising.  Loki wondered what other secrets Odin had woven throughout Asgard.  It was clear he didn’t give much care to how things were meant to be done, so long as it benefited him somehow.

“He was in a high mood that winter,” Loki said.

He knew it had nothing to do with Odin’s mood.  He was building himself a foundation to fall back on later; painting an image of himself as an egalitarian ruler, sympathetic to all so he didn’t lose all his support when his secrets came spilling out.

“It probably doesn’t even matter what I do,” Fandral went on.  “I don’t think it’s possible to dishonour my family any further.”

Loki suddenly felt very uncomfortable.  He couldn’t remember when, exactly, Fandral had moved so close, but there he was.  Loki recalled the disappointment and curiosity on Fandral’s face out on the terrace, and the way he had touched him just before that.

He tried very, very hard not to think about how much he enjoyed being touched like that, even if it had scared him.  He completely ignored the fact that no maiden ever touched him like that, and likely never would.

“Fandral,” Loki said, his gaze returning to the bottle of wine on the table. 

Loki knew he had overdone his drink again, but he still didn’t think he was drunk enough to be misunderstanding the situation this time.  Their bodies were too close, and it was entirely too warm.  Loki wanted to move away and get space to breathe.  But it was a wholly new sensation to have someone in his space like this.  To have this close touch he hadn’t realised he craved.

“Hmm?” Fandral shifted against Loki a little too deliberately to be accidental.

“This is… I’m not…”

Loki didn’t know what he was trying to say.  He knew what he should have said, but he couldn’t form the words.  It felt like both a lie and a truth all at once, and Loki didn’t know which one he feared more.

“Of course you’re not,” Fandral agreed, moving his hand onto Loki’s thigh in a way that was anything but innocent.  “You’d have to be Æsir first, and we all know you’re not.”

Loki rolled his eyes, struggling to find a way out of this situation, and coming up empty.  He wasn’t so clueless that he didn’t know what Fandral was doing, but he knew he should shut it down.  The problem was he didn’t think he wanted to.

“All the same,” he said, wondering if he should shove Fandral off him, but not wanting to be alone again.

He was too hot, and he knew it was not from the amount he’d had to drink.  Fandral was not leaning against him because he was falling asleep against Loki’s side.  His hand had found a place on Loki’s thigh to linger, and he couldn’t stand it.

“I don’t think this is right,” Loki said finally, though he still did nothing to stop it.

Fandral sighed deeply.  “Do you wish for me to leave?” he asked, forcing the formality.

“No,” Loki said quickly.  “I just… I don’t think this is right.”

He had spoken his mind, as though somehow that alone absolved him of his inaction.  As though it were protest enough, and that whatever happened next was not his fault.

Fandral moved his hand up his leg in a way that was entirely intentional.  “Since when have you ever cared about what’s right?” he asked

Loki closed his eyes tightly at his touch and leaned his head back to face the ceiling.  “Is this a trick?” he asked, ignoring the sudden heat in the room.

“No,” Fandral said, his voice lazy and almost tired.

Loki ignored his response.

“If this is a trick,” he said, “I will make sure you regret it for as long as you live.”

Part of him wished it was, so he could thrash Fandral without feeling guilty, or without feeling like he was going to miss out on something important and amazing if he did.

“Then it’s a good thing this isn’t a trick,” Fandral said.

“I don’t know…”

What?  How?  Why?  Any one of them could have finished the sentence, and Loki wasn’t sure which was the more important one.  He looked back at Fandral, having never felt so nervous and out of place in his life.

Fandral only smiled and moved to put his face closer to Loki’s.

“Then I suppose I shall have to show you,” he said, closing the gap.

Loki couldn’t think of anything else to say that wouldn’t be a complete lie.  He said nothing at all, even as Fandral dropped the last shred of pretense and moved his hand where Loki knew it was going.  He had touched himself, as all boys did, but the sensation was wholly different under another’s hand.  Loki inhaled sharply as his entire body tensed.  He knew he should have felt ashamed as he felt himself rise to the touch, but he didn’t.  Everything about the situation was wrong, and while Loki’s mind screamed at him to put a stop to it, his body betrayed him.  Fandral stroked him through his breeches, leaning his entire weight against Loki’s side.  With his arm trapped between them, Loki felt like he might still be able to put a stop to it.  And then he watched Fandral begin to unlace his breeches, and instead of putting a stop to it Loki shifted to free his arm and allow their bodies to get that much closer.  Unsure what to do, he let his hand fall across Fandral’s back.  He did not take his eyes from Fandral’s hand even as his laces were completely undone and his cock exposed.  With Fandral’s hand directly on him, teasing foreskin and smearing slick across the head, Loki lost all desire to stop whatever this was.  He clenched his fist around Fandral’s tunic and closed his eyes, letting himself sink into a sensation that was familiar and wholly new all at once. 

Fandral stroked him and teased, paying more attention to Loki’s face than to what he was doing with his fingers.  With him pressed up against Loki’s side, their faces were close, and for a moment Loki thought Fandral might try to kiss him.  Loki didn’t know if he wanted that, but was still oddly confused that it wasn’t happening.  He thought about trying it himself, but could not bring himself to make that move.  Instead, he sat stiffly against Fandral, holding onto his tunic and biting his lip, trying not to allow any sounds that might alert someone to their actions.  There was no one near by who could have even heard, but the thought that they could be caught at any moment sent a thrill though Loki that he couldn’t quite clamp down on.  He arched his back, rolling his hips into Fandral’s touch, and suddenly everything changed in an instant.  Instead of teasing, Fandral began stroking him in earnest, and it was too much.  He arched even further, barely aware of Fandral moving beside him, twisting his body to free up his other hand.  He spilled quickly, unable to stop the startled cry that burst from him.  Still breathing heavily, he looked over to Fandral, finding his other hand down the front of his own breeches, lazily stroking himself as well.

Loki didn’t know at all what to say, and just blinked at him in heavy confusion.  He still didn’t know why Fandral was doing this, but he did not exactly wish to question it too far either.

“I told you it’s not that difficult,” Fandral said with a wicked smirk.

Loki nodded, still feeling a bit stupid over what had just happened.

“Do you want to use your hand or your mouth?” Fandral asked.

Loki didn’t immediately understand what Fandral meant, until noticing he was still stroking himself.  He was expected to return the favour.  Feeling stupid for an entirely different reason, Loki shrugged.

“Which do you prefer?” he asked.

Fandral shifted away from him, opening himself up as he leaned back into the sofa. 

“I prefer the mouth,” Fandral said, pulling himself free from his breeches.

Loki felt more stupid and out of his depth by the second.  He had no idea what he was supposed to even do, even as he shifted to better face Fandral.  Fandral clearly did know what he was supposed to do, if he had a preference, and Loki didn’t know how to meet his expectations.  Finding it suddenly difficult to breathe, he moved to all fours, leaning over Fandral as he continued to stroke himself.  Loki had long become thoroughly convinced that he would never bed someone who was with him willingly.  He still was not entirely certain why Fandral was doing this, but he found himself very eager to please all the same.

“Tell me how,” he said.

“You can lick it.  Suck on it,” Fandral said, moving his hand away.  “No teeth.”

Nodding, Loki licked his lips and tried not to feel like he was going to vibrate out of his skin.  Seeing no way to ease himself into it, he lowered himself and took as much of Fandral’s cock into his mouth as he could without feeling like he was going to choke on in.  Above him, Fandral hummed and leaned further into the sofa, apparently liking whatever it was Loki was doing.  He could taste the salty slick on the back of his tongue, and was surprised when he felt himself begin to stir again.  He had expected to find the act vulgar and unpleasant, but was surprised to find that he liked the taste.  He liked the noises Fandral made above him, and when he felt Fandral’s hand on his head, fingers tangling with his hair, Loki found himself leaning into the touch.  He tried to suck and use his tongue, but could not figure out how to do both at once without choking.

Hard once again, he shifted to hold his weight on one elbow while he moved to stroke himself as he tried to get more of those sounds out of Fandral.  He tried to find a rhythm in tandem, moving his hand the same time he would lick or suck, but he couldn’t find a good rhythm to begin with.

Then Fandral’s grip tightened in his hair, nearly pulling, and Loki forgot all about trying to keep a rhythm.  Fandral had done it for him, forcing Loki’s head to move up and down as he rutted into his mouth.  It was so sudden and quick, and Loki tried to fight against him to slow down.  Twice, he nearly gagged on Fandral’s cock hitting his throat, but he allowed Loki to set the pace before it happened a third time.  But now he knew what Fandral wanted and tried to mimic it, moving his head up and down to stroke Fandral’s length with his entire mouth.

He’d get better at it.  Next time, he wouldn’t choke.  The thought of a next time excited Loki even further, and he spilled quickly into his own hand.  Again, Fandral tightened his grip in Loki’s hair, not trying to hide his noises at all he spilled his seed all over Loki’s tongue.  Loki managed to pull away quickly, coughing and gagging and not sure what to do.  He hadn’t anticipated the inevitable conclusion, and resolved to figure out how to avoid that next time as well.

When he looked back up, he found Fandral smiling lazily.  He wasn’t repulsed or disgusted.  And for some reason, that surprised Loki.

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #22: Heirs

It had never been unusual for Loki to sleep through breakfast, and Thor quickly came to expect him to skip training all together.  But Loki only ever missed supper for one of two reasons.  And as far as Thor knew, he had done nothing to irritate Loki, and Loki had done nothing to irritate Odin. 

Thor let himself into Loki’s chambers as he always did, taking care to shut the heavy door behind himself.  The guards paid him no mind as he entered, but Bror’s presence there gave Loki a good chance of being in.  Despite the years of occupying his chambers, Loki still had done little to make anything downstairs usable beyond as a giant closet, stuffed with clutter he’d stolen and pilfered from around the palace.  Thor ignored all of it and headed upstairs, where he knew he’d find Loki.

“Brother?” he called out cautiously.

He pushed through the bedchamber door and found Loki standing before a tall looking glass, in his natural form and wearing only his breeches.  He held his hair in a messy bunch above his head as he stood there, staring silently at himself.

“What are you doing?” Thor asked.

Loki sighed and let his hair fall back to his shoulders.  “I look twelve,” he said.

Thor laughed as he stepped closer.  “You could stand to be a bit taller,” he said.

Thor looked his age.  He was tall, and putting on muscle, and the thing he called a beard was at least visible from a small distance away.  Standing next to him, Loki only looked even smaller.  Not just too short, but too scrawny and soft, and if he ever grew a beard, it would be a miracle.

Loki’s entire body sagged at the sight of it. 

“Yes, I’m short.  But look at me.”  He lifted his hair up again, pulling it up off his shoulders so it hid nothing.  “Look at these damn ears.  If they stuck out any further I’d get caught up every time I walked through a door.”

“They’re not that bad,” Thor said, still laughing.  He sat down on the sofa to watch Loki deal with his crisis.  “Okay, they do stick out a bit, but at least they’re not giant elf ears.”

Loki groaned loudly and let his hair drop again.  They were even worse in his natural form.  It wasn’t bad enough that his ears stuck out; they had to be pointed as well.  As he stared at himself, he hated everything he saw.  But even when he shifted form, putting on the fair skin he wore to fool no one, he liked what he saw no better.  He saw the same awkward little boy with big ears, too short, too skinny, and nothing like what he was supposed to be.  Staring at himself, he didn’t even know what it was that he was supposed to be.

“Loki, you’re Jötunn,” Thor said, watching him slowly lose his grip on the whole situation.  “You were always going to be a little different.  That’s how it works.”

“Yes, but not like this,” Loki said, gesturing to himself.    “At least if I were too big, I’d be taken seriously.  Even Father still treats me like a child.”

He leaned in toward the looking glass and peered at his face.  The long, curling black lines that painted his forehead were hidden in this form, but he knew exactly where they ought to be.  He ran his fingers over his brow, not sure what he expected to find, and finding nothing out of the ordinary.  He knew at some point, his brow would harden and he’d start growing horns, but he couldn’t imagine himself with them.  Jötunn horns were enormous, and the thought of having to carry that weight around on his skull for the rest of his life terrified him.

“Have you seen Eir recently?” Thor asked, proving he could pay attention when he wanted to.

Loki chewed on his lip.  “Last month,” he said.  “I’m to go see her again when I start having headaches.”

“Does it hurt that badly?” Thor asked.

“I don’t know.  Probably,” Loki said. “I’ve heard you can have them removed, but you have to wait until they start cutting.”

“You mean like you did with your teeth?” Thor asked.

Loki bared his teeth, filed flat and even, looking at them in his reflection.  He could still remember the agony that whole ordeal had been, but he did not regret it.  Not for a moment. 

“Yeah,” he said.

He dropped his arms to his side and stared at himself a moment longer before turning to pull his tunic back on.  Dressed, he stood quiet for a long moment, debating his next words very carefully.

“I’m disinheriting myself,” he said finally.

Thor sat up sharply, unsure if this was Loki’s bizarre humour or a giant mistake.

“Why?” he asked.

Loki threw his arms out, letting them fall back to his sides again. 

“Look at me,” he said.  “I will never convince Asgard that I belong.  I can’t even convince Father.  What am I supposed to do if something happens to you?  I’ll be drawn and quartered.”

Thor watched Loki for a long moment.  He wasn’t wrong.  That was the worst of it.  Despite everything, Loki was second in line.  Should anything happen to Thor, the throne would fall to Loki.  And none on Asgard would accept it.

“Father won’t like this,” Thor said.

“I don’t give a damn what he’d like,” Loki said.  “I’m disinheriting myself, and I’m doing it now so it’s not a problem later.”

He sat down on the floor, trying to just focus on breathing evenly.

“He’s lying about something,” he said.  “Sooner or later, whatever it is will come out.  And it will get me killed unless I can convince Asgard that I am not a threat.”

“Loki, nobody sees you as a threat,” Thor said.  “A menace and a troublemaker, but if Father believed you were truly in danger, he would lock you in a cage.”

Loki snorted.  A moment later, Thor got up from the sofa and joined Loki down on the floor.  They sat together in silence for a long moment, just the two of them on the cold stone. 

“How long have you been thinking about this?” Thor asked.

“A while,” Loki said.  He leaned against Thor, for the moment not caring that Thor made him feel small.  “I sort got the idea when he made me stand there getting shouted at by Iri.  If I don’t matter, I can’t be used as a pawn.  But I think I made up my mind on our nameday.”

Thor sighed and shook his head.  “He didn’t mean that,” he said.  “He’s old.  He’s probably going senile and confused you with Baldur.”

“Thor,” Loki said.  He sat up again, making sure Thor saw him.  “Look at me.  If I were still on Jötunheimr, I probably would be the nursery still.”

Thor did look at him.  And despite demanding it, Loki hated it.

“Have you talked to Eir about that?” he asked.

Loki took a deep breath.  “She says I was born small, and that’s it,” he said.  He didn’t believe it.  Not for a single minute, but he didn’t have any other ideas either.

“I don’t know.  Maybe your mother was a war bride,” Thor said.  “Kelda’s was, and she’s small.”

“Kelda’s taller than you are,” Loki said.

“She wasn’t always,” Thor said.

They fell silent again, both running out of points to argue.  Thor hated Loki’s room.  It was cold and dark and draughty, and full of trash and hoarded junk.  Able to take it no longer, Thor nudged Loki with his elbows.

“Come on,” he said.  “Bring your ears and we’ll find something to eat.”

Loki turned and punched him in the arm. 

Loki stood outside the door in such a way as to see into the room, but not be seen himself.  He let the shadows hide him from the women—servants and midwives—who rushed in and out of the room, busy with so many important tasks.  He’d not arrived in time to witness the cause for the activity, but he didn’t have to hear his mother’s screams and cries to know what event had finally transpired.

Eventually, the room calmed and Frigga was left to her peace, but she was not quiet for long.

“You may come in, Loki,” she said, tired but happy.

Loki frowned at being discovered, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to be surprised at being caught.  He stepped out of the shadows by the doorway and warily entered the room.

“That was not seiðr.  Or Jötunn magic,” Frigga said, a dull edge of suspicion on her voice.  She looked as tired as she sounded, and Loki felt a pull of guilt for disturbing her so soon.

“No,” he agreed, staying by the door despite his curiosity.  “Álfar magic.  I’ve been practising.”

“Indeed,” Frigga said.  She didn’t need to point out the difficulty in practising Álfar magic, even for the Álfar.  Or that he had fibbed about picking up a bit of Dokkálfar magic in his studies.  If Frigga recognised what he had done, then surely she knew where it had come from.

Loki smiled slyly.  “It isn’t so difficult,” he said.  “There’s a certain… knack to it.”

Frigga’s eyebrows rose, but she said nothing more on the subject.

“Come on,” she said instead.  “I know you came here to meet him.”

Loki’s smile turned into something more open as he approached the queen’s bedside.  He knelt on the ground beside her, peering curiously at the still bundle in his mother’s arms.

“Has he been named yet?” Loki asked about his newest brother.

“Not yet,” said Frigga.  “But when he is, he shall be called Viðar.”

“That was fast,” Loki said.

He hesitantly reached out to touch his fingertips to the infant’s head, brushing curiously at his golden gossamer hair.  Viðar shifted and opened his eyes, bright and almost crystal in colour, and looked straight up at Loki.

“I thought he was asleep,” Loki said, pulling his hand away quickly.

Frigga smiled fondly at both her sons.  “His eyes remind me of yours,” she said.

Loki gave his mother a sideways glance.  “My eyes are green,” he reminded her with a sternness too heavy to be serious.

“They used to be blue,” Frigga said.  She reached out to brush Loki’s hair from his forehead.  “But they are yours, and whichever colour you wish them to be.”

Loki pulled his gaze from Frigga, looking down at Viðar instead.  Seeing his brother—adoptive brother—in his mother’s arms, Loki couldn’t help but wonder how he must have looked when he was nothing more than a squirming infant; if Frigga had held him any differently.  If she loved him right away or if she balked at the very idea of nursing the sickly, blue runt Odin had brought home.

Was he even blue? He had vague memories of Odin teaching him how to hold this false appearance, but he remembered nothing before it.  He couldn’t have been allowed to wear his natural form.  Not if so few in Asgard even knew of it.  Had Odin forced this form on him as an infant?

He must have done.

Loki wanted to ask all of this of Frigga, but his tongue was like sand in his mouth and any attempt at words ended before they even began.  In all his fifteen years, Loki had already become skilled at hiding his thoughts and emotions from others, but never from Frigga.  His dry, seemingly endless well of sarcasm and deflection always evaporated around her, leaving him stumbling over his own words and as readable as a book.  Looking up at her face now, Loki could see that this meeting was no different.

“Come.  Sit up here,” Frigga said, moving to make room for him on the bed.

Distracted from his thoughts, Loki looked up at her with wide, startled eyes.  “What?”

“Come hold your brother,” Frigga said simply.

Loki turned his gaze back to Viðar, eyeing the tiny, fragile body with apprehension.  “What if I do it wrong?” he asked.

Frigga smiled at him reassuringly.  “I won’t let you.”

Not convinced, but equally not wanting to disobey his mother, Loki sat on the bed beside her.  He sat stiffly as Frigga placed the infant in his arms, guiding his hands to support Viðar’s head and hold him securely.

“He’s very quiet,” Loki said.

Though he moved about constantly, Viðar hadn’t made a sound since Loki started listening in from the corridor.  Not a single squeak nor mewing whine had come from him, and though Loki hadn’t much experience with infants, he knew there was something not quite right about it.

“I don’t remember Baldur ever being this quiet,” he said.

“You were perhaps loudest of all,” Frigga said.  She settled back tiredly to watch her children bond.

Loki still sat stiffly, afraid to move lest he somehow cause harm to the child in his arms.  He watched intently though, as Viðar in turn took in everything around him.

“I would have thought Thor to be the loudest,” Loki said.  “He still is.”

“Thor was loud in his own ways, but you could be a very unhappy child,” Frigga said.  In ways, they both knew he still was, but neither said anything of it.

“We had to be very careful with you,” she said.  “You were so small and frail when you father brought you home, but already your magic was strong.  We couldn’t keep nursemaids for you because every time your father concealed your appearance, you would either break it yourself or scream to the nine skies until he removed it.”

She stroked her fingers over Viðar’s wispy hair, looking down at him as she spoke.

“And you were always ill,” she said.  “There were times I thought you might waste away into nothing.”

“I don’t remember any of that,” Loki said quietly. 

But he could hardly be surprised to hear it.  If his own magic itched and burned after being worn all day, he couldn’t imagine what discomfort or pain someone else’s magic must cause.

“No, you wouldn’t,” Frigga conceded.  “We stopped trying to hide you from nursemaids shortly after you were named.  You wouldn’t eat until you were nearly four years old.  Do you remember that?”

Loki shook his head, and he wondered if there was a deeper reason he didn’t remember.

“What changed?” he asked.

Frigga petted his hair, heedless to the oils that even several baths a day could never seem to wash out.  Even Loki himself thought it was disgusting, but Frigga never seemed to mind.

“Your father was convinced to stop treating you like your brother,” Frigga said.  “You’re different, and you needed different things.”

Loki looked down at himself, wondering if he was so small because he didn’t belong on Asgard in the first place.  If simply being within the realm had broken him somehow.  Being in Asgard had changed Hogun, so why wouldn’t it have changed him as well?

“There were still times when your father would have to conceal you,” she said.  “We feared if anyone knew where you’d come from, there might be an attempt on your life.”

“I had no idea,” Loki said.

He looked back down at Viðar, who had finally stilled and closed his eyes again.

“Why take me in though?” he asked quietly.  “You already had a son.  An heir.  Why not hide me away with some family in the city?”

“Your father thought it was the best way to keep you safe,” Frigga said.  She smiled almost conspiratorially then.  “And you’ll never have him admit it, but I think from the moment he first held you on Jötunheimr, he thought no one else would be good enough.”

Loki looked back up at his mother, taken by the new detail to a story he already knew.  He’d been told, eventually, that his parents hadn’t originally intended to keep him, which was why it took so long for him to be named.  Frigga told him then, with the explanation that she did not think there was any honour in keeping these things from him.  He might not have always been told the full truth, but she never wished to lie to him.  Some part of Loki, which he had always kept hidden, harboured the suspicion that he hadn’t been truly wanted—that he only remained in the palace because no one would take in Odin’s Jötunn foundling, and Frigga’s honesty toward him was her way of atoning for the rest of Asgard.

“Then why…” he said, unable to find the words to the question he needed to ask.

“He has his pride,” Frigga said, exasperated but fond.  “He can’t be thought to base his decisions on emotion.  If he sought out another family, he could say that he made his decision logically.”

“But no one else knew,” Loki said, more confused than before.  “Why craft such a lie for no audience?”

“Your father knew.”  Frigga’s hand moved to Loki’s back, as though to hold him in place.

Loki laughed, feeling a weight he hadn’t realised was even there lift from his chest.

“He was his own mark,” he said.

“Perhaps he meant to take me in as well,” Frigga said.  “But he has been no more able to fool me than you have.”

Loki still didn’t feel good about his situation, but he felt better knowing that he was not the intended recipient for whatever con Odin had planned with him.  For years, Odin had fooled almost all of Asgard.  He may have even fooled himself, and in some ways, he clearly had.  Loki didn’t even want to think of how easily he might have been fooled as well had Odin intended to keep certain truths from him.

“Would you have allowed it?” Loki asked, afraid of the answer he might get.  “If he meant to lie to me as well?”

Frigga looked at him with a sudden sadness in her eyes. 

“The first thing we agreed upon after we made the decision to keep you as our own was that you would always know the truth,” she said.  Again, she petted his hair as she spoke.  “You may not have always been old enough to understand the truth, and we may have tailored it to be more palatable when you were younger, but we have never lied to you.  Nor have we ever intended to.”

Loki held onto ‘we.’ Frigga rarely spoke for Odin, but when she did, Loki believed it to be coming from him all the same.  He needed it to be true, now more than ever.  He focused his attention back on Viðar, needing the distraction from his own thoughts as they stormed around in circles.

“I suppose Thor’s spoken with you by now?” he asked.  He wasn’t sure why he brought it up now, but he needed to know.  “To warn you.”

“He has,” Frigga said.

Loki was suddenly sorry he brought it up.  He may have been adopted, but he was also officially Odin’s eldest son.  Did that make a difference at all?

He wasn’t sure he wanted to know that either.

“And you agree?” he asked.

Again, Frigga looked almost sad.  “I don’t,” she said.  “I think it’s a very foolish and rash decision.”

“I am second in line,” Loki said grimly.  “I sleep with guards outside my door because I am not safe in my own bed.  Is that the kind of reassurance Asgard needs?”

Frigga took a deep breath, but said nothing.

“No,” Loki said.  “It may soothe tensions if…” He inhaled deeply, knowing this was what he wanted, but unable to find the words to voice it.

“If you were removed entirely,” Frigga finished.

Loki nodded.  “Yes,” he said.  “I would never be accepted.  There would be a revolt the moment I took the throne.”

Frigga looked at him, saying nothing for a long moment.  “The plan was never for you to take the throne,” she said.  “We have always thought you might be the older of the two of you, but it never mattered.  Your father has other plans for you.”

Loki nodded, trusting his mother, but not sure if he truly believed her all the same.  “And those plans have fallen apart before,” Loki said.  “What happens next time his plans fall apart?”

“Speak with your father about it,” Frigga said.  “He would hate to see your studies go to waste.”

“I will,” Loki agreed.

 

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #21: Market

At first, Thor thought Loki had not attended training at all.  Loki had been in a sour mood ever since their nameday, and had made himself scarce as a result.  Even as weeks passed, and the suns began to return on the horizon, Loki had still kept to himself.  And Thor knew why.

As he and Theoric entered the ring, Thor finally spotted Loki far off to one side with his nose buried deep in a book.  Thor smiled broadly at the sight of his brother, but if Loki saw him, he didn’t look up to acknowledge it.  He’d brought not only one of the heavy tomes from the library with him, but one of his own books, bound with blank pages, and was sitting outside the ring writing notes in the latter as he scanned the pages of the former.  Thor tried to get his attention by being even louder and more exuberant in his sparring with Theoric, but Loki still never even looked up at him.  Quickly growing curious and worried about his brother, Thor gave up on the pretence of putting on a good show and knocked Theoric to his back.  Thor didn’t wait for Týr to speak and give his judgements and instead left the ring.  He ran over to Loki’s side and tilted the book so Loki would know he was there at all.

“Where have you been?” Thor asked when Loki finally looked up.

Loki shrugged.  “Around,” he said.  “There’s really not much point in me being here, is there?”

Loki buried his nose again in his copied notes, no longer even pretending to be interested in what went on in the ring.

“Does Father know?” Thor asked, keeping his voice quiet.  “Perhaps if he did, you could actually learn something useful.”

Loki shrugged and turned the page in his book.  “Does he need to know?”

“He will find out,” Thor said.  “And when he does, he won’t be happy about it.”

Finally, Loki looked up at him, facing him eye to eye.  “Then perhaps you should spare me his wrath and not tell him,” he said.

He’d hoped to let his grim expression do all the warning for him, but he was quickly distracted by Thor’s face.  Or rather, something on his face, and reached out for it.

“What’s this?” he asked.  Loki plucked at the small hairs on Thor’s chin, making him yelp loudly.

“Ow!  Loki!”  Thor slapped his hand away and rubbed his chin.  “What was that for?”

“I couldn’t quite believe my eyes,” Loki said.  “I had to see for myself if you thought you were actually growing a proper beard.”

“It’s still coming in,” Thor said, lifting his chin as if to show off the patchy, blond fluff he called a beard.  “And the girls all seem to like it.”

“Just as well.  I don’t want an Æsir girl anyway,” Loki said.  It was a lie, but no Æsir girl would ever have him, and they both knew it.

“I thought you were getting a Vanir girl anyway,” Thor said.  He sat down beside Loki and leaned over to see what he was reading.  “Or has Lorelei gone and muddled things up as well?”

Loki shrugged.  “I assume it’s a matter of time before Iri calls it off.  He must have come up with some scheme by now.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Thor said.  “So why not look for a nice Æsir girl then?”

Loki looked straight ahead, focusing on nothing in front of them.

“Thor,” he said tiredly.  “I’m a frost giant runt.  Who on Asgard would have me?”

He looked straight at Thor then, without a hint of jest or irony on his face.  Thor took a breath and nodded, because if he spoke immediately it would only cause a fight.

“Why is it when I talk like that, I get slapped?” he asked instead.

“Because you’re not Jötunn.  You’re not allowed,” Loki said.  He returned to taking his notes, ignoring everything else that went along around them.

“Well, what about Kelda?” Thor asked, nudging against Loki’s side.  “She’s half Jötunn.  Surely she must know what to expect.”

Loki rolled his eyes.  “She’s a foot and a half taller than me and already a woman.”

“So is Lorelei,” Thor said.

Loki huffed mirthlessly.  “I am not marrying Lorelei.”

“Well, what of Hilde?” Thor asked, determined to not be dissuaded.  “She doesn’t seem too frightened of you.”

“Perhaps not,” Loki agreed.  “Though, I must confess to being afraid of what Volstagg might do to me if he caught me anywhere near any of his daughter.”

“You think Volstagg would react badly to his daughter courting one of Asgard’s princes?” Thor asked.  “I thought he was fond of you.”

“Oh, he is.  That’s the problem.  He might suffocate me with one of his bear hugs,” Loki said flatly. 

Thor shook his head dismissively.

“You should be training either way,” he said.  He placed his hand on Loki’s shoulder and gave what he thought to be a subtle nudge toward the ring.

“I told you, I don’t want to,” Loki said, pushing Thor’s had off him.  “And not with Týr even if I did.”

“At least take your nose out of that book for ten minutes and watch me?” Thor asked.  “You can still learn something that way.”

He was never very good at hiding his emotions, and at that moment, Loki could see every ounce of hope that played across Thor’s face.  With a defeated sigh, Loki marked his place in his book with a small strip of parchment and put it aside.

“Ten minutes,” he said.  “You have my undivided attention.”

Smiling broadly, Thor leapt to his feet.  “Then I shall have to put on a good show.”

Loki waved him toward the ring, already dreading having given in so easily.  He watched as Thor re-joined the group around Týr.  All but Thor continued to ignore Loki’s presence at the edge of the action, which he thought suited him just fine.  Being ignored meant Freyr didn’t harass him as much, and he spent considerably less time in the dirt as a result.

Loki watched as Thor and Freyr took the ring together and already he knew nothing good would come of this idea.  Thor was wearing the smile he often wore when he thought he was being clever, but it remained his single biggest tell.  Loki knew he should shout at Thor; tell him to stop whatever it was he was planning and just walk away before anyone got hurt.

Loki did no such thing.

Before Týr even started the match between the boys, Thor rushed at his opponent, tackling him bodily to the ground.  As Freyr tried to fight him off, Thor slammed his own forehead against Freyr’s face.  Even from where Loki sat, he could see the splash of red that erupted from Freyr’s nose.

By then, Týr finally ran into the ring and tried to put himself between the boys, but Thor managed to get in one more blow with his elbow before he was pulled off.

Even as Týr reprimanded him for behaving without honour, Thor kept grinning smugly.  Loki knew exactly what Thor had meant by that display, and he wanted to be angry for it.  He knew he should strike out at Thor for once again fighting battles that weren’t his to fight, but between his grin and Freyr’s blood-stained tunic, Loki couldn’t find it in himself to be angry.  Holding back his laughter best he could, Loki made a hasty retreat to the palace.  Moments later, he was joined by Thor, who still hadn’t managed to wipe the smugness from his face.

“You’re an idiot,” Loki said.

Thor shrugged dramatically.  “Perhaps,” he said.  “And still in possession of your ‘undivided attention’ for at least seven more minutes.”

Loki’s laughter started anew at the realisation that Thor had managed to so effortlessly manipulate him.

“Very well,” Loki said.  “I’m yours for the next seven minutes.”  He banished his books to the desk in his bedchamber.

“Where do send them?” Thor asked.  He looked around, expecting to find them somewhere nearby, and finding nothing of the sort.

“I could tell you, but it’s going to count against your time,” Loki said.

Thor decided he didn’t need to know about Loki’s tricks that badly, and took him by the sleeve.

“This way,” he said, tugging Loki along down the corridor.  “There’s something I think you would like to see.”

Loki returned to the ring as Týr’s group cleared out, and Volstagg’s took over the space.  It was already dark again by the time the group began, the ring lit by open braziers along the edges.  Loki was content to watch, but when Volstagg called him in to participate, he didn’t refuse.  While those around him ran drills with wooden sticks, Volstagg showed him more basic techniques.  Holding and swinging the stick in his right hand was uncomfortable and awkward, and he couldn’t control it as well as he’d like, but every time he tried with his left, Volstagg corrected him.

“I don’t use this hand for anything,” Loki argued.

“You go out of your way to be difficult, don’t you?” Volstagg asked, staring down at him.

“Only when people don’t listen to me the first time.”

Volstagg nodded, stepping back slowly.  “Fine, if that’s how you want to be,” he said.  “I suppose you use that knife with the wrong hand too?”

Loki looked down at the knife on his belt, hanging off his left hip.  He snatched it from its sheath, holding the blade close to his forearm to show that he at least knew how to hold it.

“Do you even know what to do with that?” Volstagg asked anyway.

“Of course,” Loki said.  “When someone irritates me, I stab him with the sharp end.  If I’m fast, they don’t even see it coming.”

Volstagg laughed so loudly the rest of the group turned to see what was happening.

“And who have you stabbed?” he asked.

Loki shrugged and put his knife away.  “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

Still laughing, Volstagg stepped back.  “Fandral, get over here,” he said.

Fandral walked over, watching both of them while he tried to figure out what’s going on.

“Help him learn his blocks,” Volstagg said.  “And be careful he doesn’t poke you with that blade of his.”

“He wouldn’t dare,” Fandral said. 

He handed his stick over to Volstagg and stood behind Loki, crowding a little too close for comfort.  He wrapped his hand around Loki’s on the stick and nudged his feet to be a bit further apart.

“The trick,” Fandral said quietly against his ear, “is not to watch his weapon.  Watch what the rest of him does.”

Loki tried to look back over his shoulder at Fandral, not entirely sure how that was meant to help anything.  Before he could ask, Volstagg swung his stick in a slow but even arc, while Fandral moved Loki’s stick to block, catching it just above his hip.  It was an awkward angle to hold his arm, but Volstagg swung the stick again, this time toward Loki’s shoulder.  Again, Fandral moved him to an uncomfortable position to block the strike, and even as he tried to move his body, there didn’t seem to be a good way to do it.

“See, that’s the easiest side for me to hit, and you’ve got it all out in the open for me,” Volstagg said.

Loki looked down at himself, and then back to Volstagg, feeling like he understood.  He was using the wrong hand because that’s the hand he was comfortable with, but the stick wasn’t his only weapon.  He moved along with Fandral as Volstagg took swing after swing, but he didn’t pay much attention to what Fandral was trying to guide him through.  He paid attention to Volstagg and the way he moved.  He stepped back and forth, moving like he expected to be struck out of what seemed to be habit.  Loki followed his rhythm and waited for just the right moment before ducking down and sliding his own foot toward Volstagg, freezing the ground beneath their feet.  Volstagg lost his balance and fell back onto the ground, losing his stick as he landed on his backside.  Loki had seen enough matches to know what he was supposed to do next, and quickly moved to stand over him, pointing the stick as his face.

“I win,” he said.

Volstagg stared up at him, his face as red as his beard, and for a moment Loki thought he’d made a terrible mistake.  And then Volstagg burst out laughing again as he rocked back and forth, trying to get up.

“Yes, I suppose you did,” he said. 

He rolled this way and that until he finally found purchase and climbed back up to his feet.  In the ring, Volstagg was the only one laughing though.  The other children in the group all stood around, staring with wide eyes at the scene before them.

“Is he allowed to do that?” one of the other boys asked.

Volstagg blustered, still laughing as he dusted himself off.  “It doesn’t matter what he’s allowed to do.  The enemies you face in battle will do whatever they damn well have to to survive.”

He picked his stick up from the ground and turned to face Loki.

“There’s no cheating when you’re fighting for your life, boy.  Remember that,” he said.  “When it’s you or him, honour be damned.”

Loki nodded.  He looked back toward Fandral, who only shrugged.  Around them, the rest still watched like they were afraid of what was going to happen next, but Volstagg only resumed his stance.

“Now what other tricks have you got up your sleeve?” Volstagg asked.

Loki wasn’t sure if he was being serious or not.  “Quite a few I’m not allowed to do,” he said all the same.

Volstagg pointed straight at him.  “Then keep those ones to yourself,” he said.

Loki nodded again.  Slowly, the rest of the group got back to their routines while Volstagg and Fandral helped Loki figure out the basics of how to even hold a weapon.  Everything was awkward and unnatural, and even as he twisted his body, he still struggled to get the hang of what was going on.  He didn’t think he’d ever get the hang of it, and when he gave up to go sit back down and just watch, Volstagg let him go.  He waited until the group was done for the day, hanging around on the bench and watching as they drilled moves that all came naturally.  Once they had their gear put away, Fandral and Hogun joined him on the bench, while several others watched from a distance.  Loki pretended to ignore it, regretting having pulled the stunt he did.

“I need to go into the market.  Want to come with?” Loki asked, looking around to see if Bror had come back yet.  He found the guard standing off at a distance and nodded to him.

Fandral opened his mouth, as if to protest, but his words died on his tongue.

“I don’t have any silver,” he said finally.

Loki shrugged.  “I’m not asking you to pay for anything.  I’m asking you to come with,” he said.

“My mother has asked me to fetch some things tonight,” Hogun said.

Outnumbered, Fandral shrugged, and the three of them turned to leave the training ring.  With Bror following behind them at a small distance, they made their way to the market.  Despite the suns being gone, the streets were still crowded and lively, with vendors selling all manner of wares.  While Hogun wandered off to take care of his mother’s shopping, Fandral followed Loki deep into the crowd, past the busier streets where vendors sold fabrics and food.  Open stalls were replaced with enclosed buildings with wooden signs out front, and windows lit by candles and lanterns.  It was one of these buildings Loki took Fandral into, where an old man with long white hair and a matching beard stood behind the counter.

“Prince Loki!” Eldred said as soon as he saw him enter.  “I have something for you.”

Fandral cautiously followed Loki up to the counter, standing by while Eldred disappeared behind a curtain into another room.  A few moments later, he returned with a large crate, slamming it down onto the counter with a thunk and a clatter.  Unable to see into the crate, Loki hauled himself up onto the counter and sat upon it, so he could peer down at what Eldred had found for him.  Half a dozen glass vials of powders and herbs and roots lined one edge of the crate, along with a large stack of books.  But that wasn’t what Loki was interested in.  Not this time.  The two dusty glass bottles were what he had been particularly looking forward to.

“Where’d you get it?” he asked, lifting one of them out to read the hand-written label.

“Utgard.  It’s not the best, I’m afraid,” Eldred said.  “But with things as they are…”

Loki nodded and put the bottle back.  He picked up the top book in the crate and thumbed through it to check that it was new material.  It was penned in a Dökkálfar dialect, with pages so old they felt as though they might crack under his fingers.

“I won’t ask where this one came from,” he said, putting it back.

Eldred laughed, winking in Fandral’s direction.

“Who’s this?” he asked.  “Someone to experiment on?”

Loki laughed.  “No, he’s a friend.  I mostly experiment on my brothers.”

Fandral looked around the small shop, as though someone might jump out from a corner and snatch him up.  But no one did, and Loki continued to dig through the crate, carefully inspecting everything in his order, and a few items that were unexpected surprises.

“Excellent,” he said finally, hopping back down off the counter.  “How will you take payment?”

“I hear Odin’s got some Álfar nectar hidden away up there,” Eldred said.

Loki nodded.  “He does.  It’s fairy piss like the rest of it, but I can lift a few without being seen.  Make it worth my while, and I may have a few surprises for you.”

Eldred nodded and gestured toward the crate.  Nodding back, Loki took the crate and hid the whole thing away so he wouldn’t have to deal with hauling it back. 

“I should have it to you by next week,” Loki said.  “Assuming I don’t get thrashed for what I did earlier.”

Eldred laughed and nodded.  “Well it wouldn’t be doing business with Prince Loki without the risk of him being locked up in a tower somewhere.”

Nodding back to Eldred, Loki turned to leave, with Fandral close behind him.

“Did you just bring me with you to smuggle something into the palace?” Fandral asked as they stepped back into the street.

“Don’t worry.  I need to do some legitimate shopping too,” Loki said.

He grinned up at Bror as they walked past him on their way back to the main part of the market.  Catching up with Hogun while he bought the last of his mother’s requests, Loki swung around to a vendor who sold inks and quills and blank books.  Loki picked a handful of large books with ornate covers, as well as a dozen bottles of ink in deep greens and golds and reds, and twice as many quills.  After he paid the woman in silver, he pulled one of the books from the rest and set it aside, joining it with a bottle of plain black ink and a few quills.

“Here,” he said, passing it all over to Fandral.

Fandral looked down at it while Loki took his own stack and made it disappear with the rest of what he’d bought.

“What’s this?” Fandral asked, picking up the book to look at it.

“It’s not enough to read.  You have to be able to write too,” Loki said.  He turned to Hogun, standing on his other side.  “You can write, can’t you?”

Hogun nodded.

Fandral picked up one of the quills to examine it, as though he’d never seen one before.  “I can’t afford this,” he said, dragging his finger over the pointed nib.

“I know,” Loki said.  “It’s a gift.  Use it.”

Fandral nodded and quickly gathered it all up to carry back with him.  “Thank you,” he said, not quite able to meet Loki in the eye.

Together, the three of them took their time walking back to the palace.  They stopped by random stalls, picking up small snacks as they went.  As they reached the palace, Hogun split off to return home, while Fandral followed Loki up to his chambers.  The crate and books he’d purchased in the market were on the table in front of the sofa, along with everything else he’d cast aside over the course of the day.  Both he and Fandral sat down next to one another while Loki reached for the crate to go through properly.  He marked everything down on a sheet of parchment, keeping inventory so he knew what he still needed.

“What is all this?” Fandral asked.

“Some stuff I’ve been working on for Thor,” Loki said, putting the glass jars aside.  “A few books that were meant to have been burned years ago.  And an experiment for later.”

He pulled the wine bottles from the crate and set them aside, unsure where he was going to hide them until he was ready to open them.  Odin looked the other way about the magic, but somehow Loki didn’t think he’d be quite as forgiving when it came to smuggling Jötunn wine into Asgard.

“Does the experiment have to wait until later?” Fandral asked.

Loki looked up at him, not entirely opposed to the idea.

“Won’t your mother worry?” he asked.

Fandral shrugged.  “Your men can send a message, can’t they?” he asked.

Loki looked toward the direction of the stairs, and then over to the side chamber where he hid everything he wasn’t supposed to have.

“I don’t see why not,” he said, already getting up to find a bottle of wine that wouldn’t poison Fandral on the spot.

Fandral got up as well, heading downstairs while Loki dug out a few cheap bottles stolen from the kitchen.  By the time he found something suitable, Fandral was back upstairs, waiting not on the sofa, but on Loki’s bed.  There was more room on the bed for both of them to spread out, so Loki grabbed one of the bottles he’d got from Eldred and joined Fandral, passing over the Asgardian bottle.

“Did you tell them what we’re doing?” Loki asked as he uncorked his bottle.

Fandral shook his head.  “No.  Only to let Mum know that I mightn’t be home tonight.”

Loki nodded and tossed the cork aside.  He sniffed the wine, surprised at the harsh vapours coming off it.  More curious than cautious, he drank straight from the bottle, grimacing at a flavour that was somehow even worse than the smell.

“No good?” Fandral asked, laughing.

Loki shook his head.  “Awful,” he said. 

He drank again despite the taste, because he was not going to let some disgusting bottle of swill get the best of him.

As they drank and joked, Loki found the room growing increasingly warm, though he suffered through it for a long while before he finally thought to take his tunic off.  He pulled it over his head and tossed it to the side, finding the entire task alarmingly taxing.

“Oh gods,” he said, bracing himself against the bed.

Fandral laughed.  “All right, Loki?” he asked.

Loki shook his head, and regretted it, feeling like he might suddenly be very sick. 

“Is this what it’s always like?” he asked.

It was bad enough that he was too hot, but he was dizzy and ill on top of it.  Infuriatingly, Fandral laughed again.

“You’ve truly never been drunk?” Fandral asked.

Loki shook his head again, much less vigorously than before.  “No.  I’m not sure I like it.”

Fandral pulled the wine bottle away, carefully setting it aside where it wouldn’t get knocked over or bothered.

“Perhaps you ought to lie down,” Fandral said, still laughing.

It sounded like a very good idea.  “Yeah, okay,” Loki said.

He let himself fall backwards onto the bed, glad they had decided to do this little experiment there, rather than on the sofa.  For a long moment, he stared up at the ceiling above, wondering vaguely if he might have made a horrible mistake.  Even though Loki was Jötunn, he was an awfully small Jötun, and he wondered if he wasn’t actually drunk at all, but dying of poison.  The thought consumed him, and soon all he could do was panic.

“Go fetch Bror, please,” he said.

Fandral got up quickly, and Loki could hear him making his way downstairs on unsteady feet.  He could hear talking down at the door, though not what was said, and then a moment later footsteps coming back up the stairs.

For a moment, all was silent.  And then Bror laughed as though he had just been told a tremendously funny joke.

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #20: Mistletoe

Thor was up early.  It would be several months before the suns rose on Asgard again, but he knew it was early all the same.  The palace and courtyards below were quiet and still, and the servants had not yet come into his chambers to fill his washbasin and tend to the fire.

He dressed quickly and gathered up the parcel he’d prepared the night before, and hoping Loki hadn’t come down with any second thoughts, rushed out of his chambers and down the corridor.  The hour was still early enough that the guards outside Loki’s doors had not changed from the overnight post, but they let him in all the same.  Thor ran up the stairs, expecting to have to haul Loki out of bed like most mornings.  But Loki was already awake and dressed, if not yet disguised.  He kept his room dark, and if not for the glow filtering in from uncovered windows, his dark skin would have made him nearly invisible in the shadows.  He sat on the floor, pulling on boots he always hated wearing, but tolerated to avoid the stares he drew when he wore sandals in the snow.

“I thought I’d have to drag you up by your hair,” Thor said.

Loki laughed.  “I told you.  It’ll only work if we can catch them by surprise.”

Thor laughed as well.  Loki being up before midday would be the biggest surprise of any.  With his boots finally on, Loki stood, taking the time to make sure he was properly disguised in his Æsir form.  His hair was a mess of wild curls that hadn’t been tended to for far too long.  Rather than deal with it, he mussed his hair further, fluffing it out so it fell over his ears.  He had taken to growing it long, and with it nearly to his shoulders, the grease didn’t seem quite so bad.

Satisfied with himself, Loki picked up the bearskin sack by his feet and rushed over to one of the windows.  He leaned out to look a the courtyard below, finding it empty.

“Let’s go,” he said, turning toward the door.

“Wait,” Thor said, holding out a hand to stop him.  “You should have this.”

He offered Loki the parcel he’d brought, stopping him in his tracks.  Loki slung the empty sack over his shoulder to examine the parcel, frowning down at it before looking up at Thor.

“I didn’t get you anything,” he said.

Thor shrugged.  “That’s okay.  I didn’t expect you to.”

Loki began to open what he thought was a decently-sized piece of hide, but found that a full goat skin made up only half of the gift.  It had been well prepared, and though Loki had no immediate use for it, he was sure he’d find something.  But buried inside it, he found a dagger in a leather sheath.  He put the goat skin aside, freeing both hands to pull the knife from its sheath.  The blade was almost as long as his forearm, forged in white steel and sharp on both edges, offset by its dark handle.  Loki felt like he’d seen it before, but he wasn’t sure where.

“I know how much you like other people’s trash, so I had it cleaned and fixed up for you,” Thor said.

Loki realised where he’d seen it before.  At the time, he’d been more interested in the rest of the mysterious man’s belongings.

“Thank you,” he said.

The sheath had been built to hang from a belt, so Loki quickly turned to find one.  With it attached to a belt, and the belt cinched around his waist, Loki turned back to Thor and held his arms out in display.

“Good,” Thor said, nodding.  “Next time someone starts something, you stick them with that thing and they won’t try it again.”

Loki laughed, knowing Thor was probably right. 

“We should go,” he said.

“You’re right.” 

Thor quickly turned back to the door, rushing quickly past Loki’s guards before either of them could ask questions.  Their first stop was the nursery.  Loki hung back keeping watch while Thor let himself in.  It took him only a few moments to break Baldur out, sneaking him past the nursemaids while they still slept.  From there, he let Loki lead the charge forward.  He could have found the kitchens on his own, but Loki knew paths that would keep them unseen as they made their way deep into the palace.  They had no plan as they broke into the kitchens, startling the women inside.  Shouts of shock and outrage erupted as the three of them quickly took whatever they could carry, stuffing it all into the sack Loki had brought.  By the time the kitchen maids figured out what was going on, and had managed to organise themselves, Loki ran back out again with the other two close behind.  They laughed wildly as they ran back through the corridors, taking a path that led them to the courtyard below Loki’s windows.  Loki summoned a blanket and laid it out over the snow, giving them a dry place to sit while they ate.

In the chaos, they had grabbed little of substance.  While Thor helped Baldur crack the seals on various jars, Loki dug in to the shark and seal oil he’d made sure to grab. 

“Do you think Mother will be at the feast tonight?” Baldur asked.

“Not likely,” Loki said.  He licked some of the oil from his thumb.  “She’ll probably want to hide tonight.  She’s as big as a house and mad about it.”

“Loki!” Thor said.

Loki shrugged.  “What?  She is.  I’d want to hide too.”

Thor shook his head while he spread some jam out on a torn piece of bread. 

“Well, for her sake, let’s all hope it’s a girl,” he said.

“I don’t want a sister,” Baldur said, scrunching up his face at the thought.

“Why?” asked Loki.  “Are you afraid she’ll love a daughter more than she does you?”

“Loki!” Thor said again.  “Your mouth will get you killed one day.”

Loki held his hand out toward Baldur, looking rapidly back and forth between the two of them.  “What about his mouth?” he said.  “Why’s he allowed to speak his mind, but I’m not?”

“He’s a child.  You’re supposed to be a man soon,” Thor said.

Loki rolled his eyes and returned his attention to his pilfered breakfast as approaching footsteps came crunching through the snow.  He looked up to see Fandral and Hogun finally joining them, both sitting down and immediately digging through the bounty from the kitchens.

“You’re late,” Loki said.

“We’re here now,” Fandral said.

Thor watched them for a moment.  “What are they here for?” he asked.

“You can’t expect this to work with just the three of us,” Loki said.

Thor considered their group and shrugged.  “We should hurry, then.  Before we’re seen.”

Between the five of them, they made quick work at their stolen breakfast of jams and dried meats.  Once they were done, Loki shook out the blanket and stuffed it into his bag to take with them.  Together, they walked to a spot he had scouted earlier, where tall oak trees bordered the palace grounds.  With their leaves gone, and the branches bare, the mistletoe clusters high in the boughs stood out in even in the darkness.

“Are you quite certain about this?” Thor asked.

Loki nodded, trying to judge the height from where he stood.

“Of course.  Get ready.” 

He took a couple steps back, and with a running leap managed to catch on to the lowest bough.  From there, climbing up the tree was a simple feat as he made his way ever higher toward the mistletoe.  As he came to the lowest cluster, he settled himself on a branch, bracing himself with his legs, and tried to tug it loose.  Finding it quite a bit harder to pull loose than he’d anticipated, Loki remembered the knife Thor had given him, and pulled it from his belt.  He carefully cut the mistletoe from the tree, dropping it down to those waiting below.

Loki wasn’t sure how much they’d need, so he climbed higher to cut another cluster down, and then another.  Hoping that would do, he re-sheathed his knife and began to make his way back down, dropping into the snow as Thor spread the blanket out again.

All but Baldur worked quickly to fasten small darts from the weed, sharpening their tips to a fine point before stuffing them into the bag.  The mistletoe Loki had cut made more darts than he had anticipated, but having too many would surely be better than not having enough.  Once they were finally done, Loki banished the blanket again, rather than stuffing it into the bag on top of their darts.  With no more plan to speak of, the five of them headed back to the palace, cutting instead through the market.  The narrow streets were full of noise and life as Asgard’s citizens readied themselves for Midwinter celebrations, buying last minute gifts and supplies.  The boys all slipped easily through the crowd, unseen and unnoticed even as they reached the palace gates.  Loki grinned up at one of the guards as they passed, shifting the bag over his shoulder.

Now, they were all on high alert as they wandered through the gardens and courtyards.  With no real aim or target, they waited until they came to the first large group of the day.  Loki paused to allow everyone to grab from the bag a handful of darts, before the five of them unleashed chaos on the unsuspecting crowd of servants heading into the palace to start their day.  Startled cries broke out as they were assaulted by an unending stream of sharp darts thrown at them.  Screaming war cries, the boys continued their assault until one of the men in the group began to chase after them.  The boys all ran, easily outpacing the man and escaping around sharp corners.

Once they were certain they were no longer being followed, they stopped to catch their breath, all laughing at the chaos in their wake.  They leaned against a wall, looking out along the path for anyone else who might be coming.  Footsteps echoing off the stone walls drew their attention, and they all took more darts in preparation of another ambush.  This time, it was Volstagg and his three eldest children, chatting noisly amongst themselves as they came unsuspectingly to the group.

“Get him!” Thor shouted, charging first.

Again, they screamed their battle cries and launched their assault, not expecting Volstagg to immediately chase back.

“You little terrors!” he shouted.

Rather than holding their ground, they all turned and ran back in the direction from which they’d come.  As they rounded the corner again, they found themselves cut off by a pair of guards who seemed to have never known what it was to have fun.  Volstagg caught up to them from behind, pinning them in.  For a long moment, nobody said anything as they all waited to see what would happen next.  Finally, Volstagg stepped forward, looking to the guards as he approached.

“I’ll deal with these two,” he said, taking Fandral and Hogun both by their collars. 

As Volstagg dragged them away, one of the guards stepped forward, holding out his hand expectantly.  After watching his friends get dragged away, Loki sighed and handed over the sack of darts.  They were then led to the throne room, where Odin was waiting with a heavy glare levelled at them. 

“Return Baldur to the nursery,” Odin said as the guards brought them closer.

As the guards took Baldur away, Thor and Loki were left standing alone beneath the throne.  For a long moment, Odin said nothing, drawing out the silence between them until it was oppressive.

“Father,” Thor said finally.

“This is how you choose to represent Asgard today?” Odin asked.  “Of all days?”

“Nobody got hurt,” Thor said.

“You terrorise the servants, steal from the kitchens, and kidnap your brother!” Odin shouted, standing up.  “This isn’t about hurt, boy.  This is not how men behave.  What else would you have done had you not been caught?”

Thor thought for a moment.  “We hadn’t planned that far,” he said.

“Leave the sarcasm to your brother,” Odin said as he stomped down the steps.  “I expect this behaviour from him, but you ought to be old enough to know better!”

Loki wasn’t entirely certain he’d heard Odin correctly.  “I’m sorry, what?” he asked.

“Not a word!” Odin shouted, pointing straight at Loki.

Not waiting that ire aimed at him again, Loki took a small step back.  As Odin neared them, Thor held his ground.  He wasn’t quite tall enough yet to look Odin straight in the eye, but it might only be another year before he was able to.  Standing beside him, Loki barely came to Thor’s shoulder.  Baldur was nearly as tall as he was, and he was still in the nursery.  The whole thing made Loki feel suddenly very small.

“You will be king one day, and this is not how a king behaves,” Odin said.  “Kings do not steal.”

“We took a few jars of jam and some rancid oil,” Thor said.  “It’s his anyway.  No one else wants to touch it.”

Loki tried to hide right where he stood, hoping Odin did not notice that Thor had dragged him right back into the centre of everything.  For a moment, Odin glared at Loki, but seemed to change his mind about shouting any longer.

“Go clean yourselves up and make yourselves presentable,” he said, returning his attention to Thor.  “It seems we have more to discuss later.”

Thor and Loki both looked at one another before turning to flee.  Together, they ran to Thor’s chambers, locking themselves inside before anything else could happen.  Loki sat down on Thor’s bed, watching as Thor stomped around.  He let Thor calm down, focusing on his feet and how they didn’t even touch the floor.

“What the hel was that even supposed to mean?” he asked quietly.

“He’s an old fool.  Don’t listen to him,” Thor said, his voice stiff.

Loki looked up at him, knowing Odin was right about some of it.  Thor was nearly a man.  Whatever came next for Loki, he’d never be taken seriously.  Not when their own father still saw him as a child.

He tried to brush his hair out with his fingers, and considered having it done in braids for the feast.  But every time he did, he only looked like a little boy playing dress up.

“Do you truly think he’s lied about us both?” Thor asked suddenly.

Loki looked up at him, still standing in the middle of the room.  Now instead of anger, his posture was filled with an uncertainty that he had not been able to properly hide ever since Frigga had become pregnant.  An uncertainty that Loki suddenly felt a crushing weight of guilt over.

“What?  No,” Loki said, shaking his head.  “I only said that to wind you up.  Look at you; you look just like him.”

Thor watched him, no more convinced.

“I mean, he’s obviously hiding something,” Loki said.

“You still think you’re a distraction?” Thor asked.  “From whatever it is?”

“Oh, absolutely,” Loki said.

He looked back down at his feet, wearing scuffed and battered boots that matched his frayed and mended breeches he refused to allow to be thrown out. 

“I don’t know what the plan is now.  He won’t tell me,” Loki said, hating Odin all the more for it.  “Until then, I’m another stolen relic, locked up until he might have use of me.”

He expected Thor to argue in his defense, but it never happened.  Thor sighed and nodded slowly, focused more on the floor than on Loki.

“He does love you.  In his own broken way,” Thor said instead.

Loki nodded as well.  “I know.  Sometimes I wish he didn’t.”

At least if Odin didn’t love him at all, he’d hold no expectations for Loki, which would make it harder for Loki to disappoint him.

Thor stepped forward, dropping his hand to Loki’s shoulder.  For a moment he just stood there, both of them silent, until his fingers found Loki’s hair.

“You should go wash,” Thor said, holding back a chuckle.  “If you show up looking like this, he may actually have a stroke.”

Despite everything, Loki laughed.  He stood, looking up at Thor and trying to decide whether everything would be all right.

“I think I know where we went wrong,” he said.  “Next year, we won’t get caught.”

Thor laughed, openly and honestly.  “When you have a plan, Norns help us all.”

Loki returned to his own chambers, asking the guards to send for a handmaiden on his way up to his bath chamber.  He bathed quickly, saving time to fuss with his hair.  The soaps he had to use to wash away enough oils to make his hair look clean made it uncomfortably dry and stripped it of its subtle curl, making it instead stick out at every possible direction.  He was still struggling to dry it when the handmaiden he’d sent for arrived, cautiously letting herself into the bath chamber.  Loki sighed at the sight of her and sat beside the washbasin.

“Can you do something to fix this, please?” he asked.

He still wore his Æsir skin, and had made sure the chamber was well lit, but still she hesitated slightly at the door.  Finally with a curt nod, she stepped forward to approach him.

Loki sat with his hands folded between his knees, saying nothing as the handmaiden began to comb out his hair.  It snarled and tangled easily after he washed it, and each pull of the comb caught in his hair and tore at his scalp.  Loki flinched each time, and occasionally hissed when she found some new tangle, but had learned long before that nothing made this easier, and no amount of complaining ever made it go more quickly.

He wasn’t at all surprised when she stopped combing and started braiding, pulling his hair up off his ears and into a style that would hide the fact that he had completely ruined his hair by washing it at all.  When she was done, she stepped aside so Loki could check himself in the looking glass.  He hated it.  With his hair pulled tight against his head, his ears seemed to stick out even more than they did already, and the hair that was left loose behind his neck was like wool sticking in every direction.  But there was nothing to be done about, and he sighed.

“Thank you,” he said, nodding to dismiss her.

She took no time in leaving, gathering up what little she’d come with and scurrying away as quickly as she could without running.  If Frigga hadn’t been pregnant and terrifying, he’d have asked her to fix it for him, but he wouldn’t be able to go to her forever and he knew it.

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #19: Nectar

Loki was already ignoring what happened in the ring when Fandral wandered over.  He knew why Fandral had started coming around early, and his pride wanted to tell him to stop; to send him away and let whatever happened as a result happen.

But he didn’t.  As Fandral sat beside him, Loki glanced up from the dusty old treaty he was supposed to read before his next lesson.  Fandral’s face was dirty, and his hair messed from whatever adventure he and Hogun had gone on, though neither seemed to bother him at all.  Loki had wanted to see what their rabbit hunting adventures looked like, but he never dared invite himself along.  It wasn’t his place, and they wouldn’t want him dragging them down anyway.  While Hogun was an uncertainty, Loki knew Fandral wasn’t even old enough to have taken his first hunt, and he wondered whether the rules were different for peasants and servants.  He wondered whether it would be breaking any rules if he did go along.

He didn’t comment on any of it, just like always.  He smiled lightly, and returned his attention back to Jötunns and elves and twenty years of trade agreement.

“What’s that?” Fandral asked, looking over at it.

Loki took a deep breath and sighed.  “Tedious,” he said.  He tilted it so Fandral could read over his shoulder.  “I have to have it memorised by tomorrow.”

Fandral frowned.  “All of it?” he asked.

“I don’t have to recite it, but I do have to know what’s in it,” Loki said.

Still frowning, Fandral nodded at the parchment in Loki’s hands.  “Mum thinks I should learn to read.  Says my prospects would be better, but I don’t see how.”

Loki looked up at him, forgetting all about his assignment.  “You don’t know how to read?” he asked.  “Why didn’t your parents teach you?”

Fandral was nowhere near ashamed enough about this, which only irritated Loki more.

“Mum never learned either,” he said.  “I think Dad did, but…”  He shrugged and said nothing further.

Loki stared at him, not entirely certain this wasn’t some sort of practical joke.  It didn’t seem very funny.

“Well, she’s right, you know,” he said after a moment.  “If you want to join the Einherjar you have to know how to read.”

“Oh.  I didn’t know that,” Fandral said, suddenly looking away.

“Volstagg didn’t tell you that?” Loki asked.

Fandral shrugged, but didn’t answer.

Loki watched as Týr’s group cleaned up after their time in the ring before everyone cleared out for the day.  He had no idea what it was they’d even been doing.  Loki had stopped paying attention so long ago, he no longer even knew how far behind he was.

“Well, it can’t be that difficult, right?” Fandral asked suddenly.  “Why don’t you teach me?”

Loki looked over at him, already prepared to tell him no.  It wouldn’t be right.  It wasn’t his place.  But what place did Loki have anyway? 

“I… if you want,” he said instead.  “Do you know where the library is?”

Fandral shook his head, and Loki was not in the least surprised.  This was all a terrible idea, and Loki knew it.  But the only person who ever wanted to spend time with him was Thor.  Everyone else seemed happy to pretend he didn’t exist.  He was wholly unprepared for any situation where someone wanted to be around him for any reason other than malice.

“My chambers, then,” he said, knowing Fandral knew where they were, at least.  “I don’t do much in the mornings.  Come then.”

“Is that allowed?” Fandral asked.

Loki wasn’t actually certain.  “Why wouldn’t it be?” he said.

Fandral shrugged.  “Your guards didn’t seem too keen on it the last time.”

Loki laughed, watching as Hogun made his way over as well.  He looked for Bror, but he hadn’t yet returned from whatever matters he attended to while Loki had his lessons.

“Well, they’ll let you in this time.  I’ll see to it,” he said.

Hogun joined them, sitting on Fandral’s other side while Týr’s group slowly dispersed.  Rather than get up and go with, Loki stayed behind.  He had nowhere to go after training, and Volstagg didn’t seem to mind him haunting the sidelines. 

“Will you fight today?” Hogun asked, looking out over the ring.

Loki shook his head.  “No,” he said.

Hogun responded with a short hum, and with that single sound, he managed to make Loki feel like he ought to run and hide out of shame.  Instead of running and hiding, he stayed where he was, even as the rest of Volstagg’s group began to make their way to the ring.  He watched them swing sticks at one another and dodge out of the way in moves so practised it almost looked rehearsed.  Even when Volstagg tried to get Loki to join, he refused, pretending to be waiting on Bror to return and escort him back to the palace.

Rather than Bror, it was Thor who eventually wandered back over, sitting beside Loki while he ignored his reading.  With a glance down at the treaty, he rolled his eyes and shook his head.

“I swear, you’re going to forget how to have fun one of these days,” he said.

“I have plenty of fun,” Loki said.  He gathered up all of his things and banished them, hidden away safely for when he might want them again.  “I can’t help if if my fun’s too sophisticated for you.”

“So that’s what they call it,” Thor said.  He knocked into Loki with his elbow.  “I thought they called it boring.”

Loki nudged him back.  “So what’s your grand idea, then?”

Thor shrugged.  “Oh, I don’t know.  Go down to the kitchens, take some wine and whatever else we can find,” he said.

Loki looked back up at the group in the ring, still running their training routines while Volstagg shouted instruction and encouragement.

“If that’s all you want to do tonight, I suppose,” Loki said.

He didn’t watch Thor to make sure he fell for the bait.  He didn’t need to, because he knew Thor would.

“What do you mean, if that’s all?” Thor asked.  “Do you have a better idea?”

Loki grinned, unable to keep up the act any longer.

“I may,” he said, pausing to draw the moment out a bit longer, “have found Father’s special wine cellar.”

Thor sat forward, closing the gap between them.  “When were you going to tell me?” he asked.

Loki shrugged.  “I’ve told you now.”

They both looked over to Volstagg, but he didn’t even seem to notice they were there.  Without a word, the two of them got up and headed back to the palace, Loki leading the way down the paths he’d discovered.  Odin’s special wine cellar was not exactly forbidden, and thus they found it unguarded, but they still entered with trepidation and caution all the same.  This was the cellar where he kept his private collection, meant for celebrations and official business.  Meads and wines from not just Yggdrasil lined shelves, but gifts from other pantheons and their worlds littered the collection.

Loki and Thor both avoided anything they knew to be special gifts, gravitating instead toward more familiar labels.  Álfar nectars and wines drew Loki’s attention.  He pulled a couple bottles from the shelf, having no idea what to expect from any of it, but hoping it would be different from the ales and meads brewed in the palace.  Thor, meanwhile, stuck to what he knew, taking a bottle of mead from the shelf before joining Loki once more.  He looked down at the bottles in Loki’s hand and frowned.

“I’ve heard tales about this stuff,” Thor said, tilting one to better read the label.  “Men have lost weeks to it.  They drink at an Álfar table, and wake a fortnight later naked in some barn on Niðavellir.”

Loki laughed.  “These are the same men who get stumbling drunk on that fairy piss they serve at banquet.”

Thor frowned.  “I’ve been stumbling drunk on more than one occasion,” he said.

Loki looked up at him smugly.  “And you’ve never been able to hold your drink.”

He turned to leave, not wanting to stay any longer than absolutely necessary.  Thor followed after him, each holding their loot as Loki led the way back to his chambers.  Unlike Thor’s, all open and exposed, they’d have privacy in Loki’s.  But before they even got to the door, that privacy had been breached.  Fandral and Hogun both stood outside Loki’s doors, Hogun standing by silently while Fandral once again tried to talk his way through.

“Oh,” Loki said, spotting them from down the corridor.  “What are they doing here?”

He was surprised to see them, though not entirely displeased.  He looked at the loot the two of them had scored, and decided it might still be enough.

“Friends of yours?” Thor asked.

Loki hadn’t really considered it until that moment.  But with the question out in the open, the answer was obvious. 

“They are,” he said.  “You ought to know Hogun.  He’s Bragi’s foster son.”

Thor squinted down the hall to him as they grew nearer.  “I don’t think I’ve ever met him.”

“He’s quiet.  Fandral’s asked me to teach him to read,” Loki said, realising suddenly he had no idea what he was supposed to offer friends when they paid him a call.

“Good.  You need something to do,” Thor said. 

As they neared the door, Fandral’s arguing became more clear as he tried to convince Geiri and Bror to let them in.  Laughing, Loki trotted over to rescue them.

“Let them in,” he said. 

Geiri chucked and stepped aside to open the door, letting Fandral and Hogun into Loki’s rooms.  As Loki and Thor drew nearer, Bror’s attention fell to the bottles in their hands.

“Are you supposed to have that?” he asked.

Loki looked down at the nectar in his hands, and then back up to Bror.  “Where do you go every day?” he asked.

With an awkward nod, Bror stepped aside as well.  “Carry on,” he said.

Laughing, Loki followed Fandral and Hogun inside, finding them still in the antechamber.  For the first time seeing it with other people inside, Loki realised just how bare it looked.  But he had no use for it under its intended purpose, and so bare it would remain.

“Upstairs,” he said, pointing the way.

Thor led the charge, running up past the rest of them to Loki’s bedchamber.  Unlike the antechamber below, his bedchamber was well furnished for guests that had never been received.  It was also cluttered with books and stones and ingredients to potions Loki had never quite figured out how to perfect.  As Fandral and Hogun stepped inside, they both stood awkwardly near the fire pit in the middle, while Thor and Loki both dropped down on the long sofa against the wall.

“Join us,” Thor said, offering up one of the bottles.  “I wouldn’t touch what Loki’s brought.  He’s a bit mad.”

Together, Fandral and Hogun both made their way over.  While Hogun didn’t seem to care one way or another where he was or what he was up to, Fandral sat stiffly beside him, looking around the room with wide, curious eyes.  He’d been in Loki’s chambers already, but not invited to sit.  Now that he had been, he seemed utterly perplexed at how to behave himself.

Loki set one of his bottles on the low table before him, and uncorked the other with a small knife, digging it out and tossing it aside.  The liquid inside was sweet and thick, and when he drank it, it stuck on his tongue like honey.  Beside him, Thor uncorked both bottles he’d brought, handing one over to Fandral.

“What’s the occasion?” Fandral asked, taking the bottle.

Thor shrugged and shook his head.  “Who needs an occasion to have a good time?” he asked.

With a shrug, Fandral took the bottle and drank from it, before passing it over to Hogun.

“I’ve not seen you around before,” Thor said.  He took a drink from the second bottle, doing a poor job at concealing the critical gaze he levelled on Fandral.  “Who’s your father?”

Fandral seemed surprised at the question.  “No one you’d know, I’m afraid,” he said.

Thor nodded slowly.  Of course Loki would make friends with peasants.  But he supposed peasants were better than nobody.  When Hogun offered the wine back to Fandral, he drank a bit to much.  He coughed as he tried to swallow it, doubling forward and nearly choking on it.  Thor watched him for a moment, not sure what he was supposed to do, and then turned to Loki.  Loki only shrugged and took another drink of his weird Álfar nectar.  He wasn’t entirely sure if he liked it or not, but he’d made his choice and now he was going to stick with it.

“Don’t let him bait you into a contest,” Thor said as Fandral recovered.

Fandral looked up, first at Thor, and then at Loki.

“He may look like an infant, but he will win, and you will be sorry,” Thor said.

“At least I don’t look like the back end of a hog,” Loki said.

Fandral laughed awkwardly, obviously uncertain how he was supposed to behave himself.  Hogun, it seemed, had no such compunctions.

“Because he’s Jötunn?” he said.

Thor looked over at him and nodded slowly.  “Yes,” he said.

“Jötunn wines and spirits are banned on Asgard,” Loki said, explaining what he knew Thor would only dance around.  “It’s deadly toxic.  If you’re not Jötunn.  I know where to find some; I just haven’t dared yet.”

“Shouldn’t you be, like, six foot tall?” Fandral asked.  “Why aren’t you?”

While Thor nearly choked on his own wine, Loki laughed.

“I don’t know,” he said.  “I was born small.  I’m sure there are a lot of people who are very glad I never got bigger.”

“You two are the same age though, aren’t you?” Fandral asked.

Loki snorted.  “Supposed to be,” he said.

It was clear Loki was going to entertain these questions, so Thor gave up trying to resist.

“He’s older,” Thor said.  “No one should know that, but what difference does it make now anyway?”

“Oh, yes.  I can’t wait for that one to get out and cause no end of chaos,” Loki said.  “It’ll be so much fun.”

He laughed all the same, surprised it hadn’t already been going around.  He took another drink of his nectar, deciding suddenly that he was not at all in the mood to hide away in his chambers all night.

“Shall we go down for supper?” he asked suddenly.  “Take this down to the banquet hall.  It ought to be open now.”

Thor looked at Fandral and Hogun, realising a moment too late what Loki’s intent was.  He was already to his feet, waving his bottle toward the door as he beckoned the rest to follow him.  Knowing it would be nothing good, and wanting to see it all the same, Thor followed after him.  The four of them walked as a group down to the banquet hall, Hogun still not giving any indication that he even noticed what was going on around him, while Fandral tensed up again.  Loki didn’t know where Fandral normally ate, though he assumed if not with the other servants and their children, then at least with his parents somewhere.  As they reached the hall, Fandral’s pace slowed as his hesitancy got the better of them.  Loki beckoned him forward all the same, taking the whole group back to the far corner where he usually sat with Thor and his friends.  Freyr was already there, along with Sif, and both glared at the intrusion Loki had brought with them.

“Oh, we’re dining with peasants, now?” Freyr asked.

“Yes, because I invited them,” Loki said, sitting down on the long bench.  “And if you don’t like it, you can go stick your head in a pig.”

Freyr scoffed, but said nothing as Fandral and Hogun sat down to join the group.  While Hogun was no stranger to the hall, Fandral looked around in complete bewilderment.  Rather than waiting for anything to happen, Loki set his nectar down on the table with a heavy thunk and reached over for the bowl of snails no one else ever wanted.  As he picked one out, he was surprised when Hogun reached for one as well.  They both smashed the snails with their fists, cracking the shells against the table to make them easier to get into.  Ignoring everyone else groaning in disgust, Loki laughed, happy to share his snack.  While Thor continued to interrogate Fandral, asking questions as quickly as he could dodge them, Loki and Hogun got into precisely the sort of contest Thor had warned of earlier.  They drank, keeping pace with one another at first, while they smashed and devoured snails.  Eventually, snails turned to goat and heavy bread, but the drink stayed the same.  Hogun quickly fell behind, taking longer to get to each drink, while Loki kept his pace, eager to see what he might find at the bottom of the bottle.  He found nothing, save a friend trying not to fall asleep right there at the table.

“I should get him back to his mother,” Fandral said, watching Hogun drool on the table.

Loki snorted at the sight, but it wasn’t fair.  He had been promised an adventure, and all he got was a bit of lightness about his senses.  He watched as Fandral helped Hogun to his feet.  Arms tangled together, Fandral led him away, both stumbling as Hogun’s feet refused to cooperate as they walked.

“I want that other bottle,” Loki said suddenly, getting up as well.

For a brief moment, he felt a dizzy rush as he rose to his feet, but it passed quickly.  Perhaps if he was quick, the second bottle might have made the night worth it.  With Thor following shortly behind, Loki trotted out of the hall and back to his chambers.

 

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #18: Dragon Gate

Before they even got to the wall, Loki realised the direction the map was taking them.  He should have seen it before, but without everything laid out around him, Loki hadn’t been able to put it all into perspective.  He never went this way, keen to keep a promise he’d made so long ago, it might as well have been a lifetime.

“I told those men we wouldn’t bother them again,” Loki said as he tucked the map away.  “We should turn back if that’s where the map points.”

Thor laughed as he hauled himself over the wall.  “Oh, have you changed your mind about going?” he asked.

Perched atop the wall, he offered his hand to Loki.  Instead of taking it, Loki shook his head and jumped up, just able to pull himself onto the wall.  He looked back down at the ground below before swinging his feet over and leaping off to the other side.  He hit the ground hard, falling forward and catching himself on his hands.

“No,” he said, wiping his hands on his breeches as he stood.  “But they don’t want to be bothered.”

“Who were they?” Thor asked, dropping down next to Loki, and landing with much more grace and practise.

Loki shrugged.  “I don’t know.  They had Jötunn names, but they didn’t want to be bothered, so I didn’t ask anything else.  I was trying to be kind.”

“They didn’t look Jötunn,” Thor said.

Loki shrugged.  “So what?  Neither do I.”

Thor knocked into him, shoving him off balance.  “What are you talking about?  Are you blind?”

Loki shoved him back, but with much less success.  “Yeah, but I don’t look it right now, do I?  When was the last time you’ve even seen a Jötunn?”

He pulled the map back out and opened it, making sure he was still taking them in the right direction.  Confident he was reading it correctly, he nodded and led the way.

“I don’t know,” Thor said.  “Kelda’s mother.  And Freyr’s.”

“Exactly,” said Loki.  “You’ve seen Jötunn women.  Maybe the men are smaller, and that’s a secret they don’t want anyone to know.  One more lie father’s in on.”

“You don’t really think they’re lying about me, do you?” Thor asked.  “Why would they do that?”

Again, Loki shrugged and looked up at Thor.  “All I’m saying is if I were a king and couldn’t produce an heir, I’d find a way to make it look like I did.”

For a moment, the two of them walked silently along, neither saying anything while Thor mulled over this new idea.

“Say you’re right,” Thor said.  “You’re not, but if you were.  If I’m not truly Odin’s son, then I’m not heir, and can’t be king.  Why would he risk a secret like that getting out?”

It was not a question Loki had considered, but he didn’t need to. 

“You mean like how he meant to keep me secret?” Loki asked.  “No one was supposed to know that either, remember?”

Thor slowed as he turned to look at Loki.  This was no longer a joke.  Loki had truly stumbled upon something nobody was meant to see.

“He had to have known it would get out,” Loki said.  “I think it just happened sooner than he’d intended.  But if he is lying about you, it gets out, then what?  ‘Oh no, Thor’s adopted too!’”  He waved his hands about in a mockery of panic.  “So what?  At least it’s not like the time he tried to pass a frost giant off as one of his children.”

Thor bit his lip and looked grimly ahead as they walked through the woods.  Sometimes he thought Loki didn’t hear the words that came out of his own mouth.

“You might get punched less if you weren’t so sarcastic all the time,” Thor said.  He shook his head and sighed.  “And if no heir could be produced, what about Baldur?  We both saw Mother pregnant.”

“I said maybe,” Loki said, checking his map against their surroundings.  “Who knows.  Maybe the moons were just right and he was an accident.”

“Yes, and if I am a fraud, then he becomes king,” Thor said.

“Would that be so bad?” Loki asked.

Thor shrugged, having no other answer.  Loki had given him too much to think about, and he didn’t like any of it.  He focused instead on the adventure ahead of them, following Loki into the woods.  The map was not leading them quite as close to the old cabin as Loki had feared, instead leading them deep into an area that had become overgrown and tangled.  Loki stopped often, checking the map against their surroundings, using the spires of Asgard’s palace along with the suns to make sure they were heading in the right direction.  Finally, they came to a large area where once, trees had all been felled in a large circle.  Instead of open ground, tall weeds and saplings tangled around one another in a mess, all surrounding a large pile of stones at the very centre.  It was clearly what the map had been pointing toward, so Loki hid it away again to keep it safe while they investigated.

“It really is a burial mound,” Thor said, hesitant to step closer now they were there.

Loki, however, wasn’t quite so wary.  He got close enough to see the stones, and the runes carved on them.  These weren’t natural stones, shaped and worn by the elements.  They were hewn, and left to crumble.  He tried to read the runes, but could only make out bits and pieces in the mess.

“No, it’s something else,” Loki said, drawn to the stones all the same.

He touched one, dragging his hand over its surface.  Beyond rough stone and bits of moss, Loki could feel something else.  Something pulsed through the stones, foreign and familiar all at once.

“What is it?” Thor asked, stepping up cautiously.

“I have no idea,” Loki said.

He pulled away and began looking all around the pile for any clues.  The stones hadn’t fall on their own, nor were they deliberately piled, Loki realised.  They had been smashed and battered, left to lay where they fell.  Many of the stones had only partial words carved into them, or else were so worn from time and abuse they were difficult to read.

And then Loki realised the runes weren’t Asgardian at all.  He stepped back, trying to see the entire area at once.  Then he saw it, and as soon as the image came together, it was painfully obvious what they had stumbled upon.

“Oh, hel.  It’s a Dragon Gate,” he said.

Thor looked to him quickly, and then back to the heap of stones before them. 

“How do you know?” he asked.  “You’ve never seen one before.  How do you know what they look like?”

Loki stepped close enough to point to one of the stones, with Hvítá carved into it.

“It’s the Jötunn word for ‘white’,” Loki said.

Thor peered closely at it, nodding slowly.  He dared to step closer, reaching out to touch one of the stones as well.

“So it went to Jötunheimr?” Thor asked.

“Went?” asked Loki, looking up at him.  “I think it’s still alive.  I can feel it doing something.”

Thor looked at the remains of the gate, and then back toward the palace.  “It must have been destroyed during the war,” he said.

Loki looked up as well.  “That would be the smart thing,” he said.  “If destroying the gate also killed the line.”

He began feeling around not the stones, but the cracks in between.  At first, he wasn’t entirely sure what he was looking for, but as he crouched down low to the ground, he felt the stones growing colder.  Then, something icy and sharp nipped his skin, and he realised exactly what the map had marked.  He pulled it back out again, scouring Jötunheimr for the other side of the gate.

“This one,” he said, pointing to another X on the map so Thor could see.  “He wasn’t killing people.  He was mapping Dragon Lines.”

Thor frowned down at the map.  “It’s in the middle of nowhere,” he said.

Loki grinned up at him, their earlier conversation entirely forgotten.  “Fancy a trip to Jötunheimr?” he asked.

“The gate’s broken,” Thor said, waving his hand toward it.  “Or do you not see that?”

Again, Loki tucked his map away and climbed onto the nearest stone.  “Would it kill you to read a book?” he asked.  “The gates are markers.  They don’t do anything but tell you where to step.”

Thor looked up at him, and then back to the palace before nodding.  “We shouldn’t stay long,” he said.

Grinning widely, Loki grabbed Thor’s hand and carefully felt out ahead of him with his other as he climbed over the pile of stones.  He made sure every step he took would be on solid ground before continuing, not entirely sure what he was looking for.  But he knew it when he finally found it.  Something strong took hold of him, nearly pulling him forward as he stumbled upon it.

With a deep breath, he looked back at Thor before nodding.  A moment later, Thor nodded again, and they both stepped forward.  It wasn’t like travelling along the Bifröst.  There was no bright, shining light.  They simply stumbled off a pile of stones that was suddenly no longer there, and into a quiet, dark cave.  No evidence of a gate stood in the cave.  It was cold and empty, with every remaining bit of the gate having been cleared away long before.  Outside, the sun was high in the sky, inviting them both out to see what secrets Jötunheimr was hiding.

The cave was nestled into the side of a sharp embankment, though the river that had once travelled this path had moved on and changed course long before.  They walked along the ancient bed, following it through the tundra that never seemed to end.  Asgard was a small place, with few people to call it home.  Jötunheimr was a world without edges, as most were.  But its land was sparsely populated, too harsh and unforgiving even at its best.  Even though Jötunheimr was in the grips of summer, the air still bit with a chill that made Thor tuck his arms against his body.  Loki, however, was wholly unbothered.  The chill was a welcome relief to the heat on Asgard, and now that Loki knew where to find it, he grew eager to have a permanent escape when he needed it.

Despite the chill, the realm was not so harsh and unforgiving that nothing lived on Jötunheimr, however.  The rise and slope of the tundra around them fell quickly into a valley.  They could hear movement above as something trampled through the brush, as well as what sounded like shouting.  As Loki and Thor climbed out of the river bed and up into the scrub and grass to get a better look, they barely had time to examine their surroundings, as before them was a mammoth crashing through the brush.  As mammoths went, it was small.  Barely taller than Thor, but when it trumpeted in alarm, it didn’t need to be any bigger than it was.  It was already charging at them, sure to trample both of them without effort.  Thor grabbed Loki by the wrist and pulled him out of the loose gravel and sand at the edge of the riverbed, and onto firmer ground where they could more easily run away.  The mammoth might have still been able to follow them, but they soon realised it was the least of their problems.

Its mother was on the tundra above the river, and not happy.

Nor was not alone.  A small band of Jötnar with ropes and spears and axes were chasing and bullying the mammoth, trying to keep it away while a second group worked to bring down another mammoth from the herd.  Thor and Loki both watched the scene in horror, until the bullied mammoth spotted them in the way of the calf.  The mammoth forgot all about the Jötunn hunters and turned toward them, bellowing and trumpeting as it charged.  Still holding onto Loki, Thor ran as quickly as he could to get away.  Loki struggled to keep up, his legs shorter and slower than Thor’s.  The Jötnar behind them shouted and gave chase as well, but Thor kept going. 

Loki saw the Jötnar coming at them from the side, and pulled away, running toward them.  If the Jötnar caught them, they would be captured and ransomed.  And he’d rather be captured and ransomed than killed.

The moment the hunters caught sight of them, several stumbled in their step.

“Who the hel is that?” one of them shouted.

Loki didn’t care who they were, or what they were doing.  He ran to the nearest one, hiding behind him while the others charged the mammoth to distract it away from Thor.  As Thor ran back to the safety of the river bed, Loki looked up at his new temporary friend, glad that he seemed more confused than angry.

“Hi,” Loki said, trying to stay behind him.

The hunter gaped down at him for a moment, but stayed where he was, giving Loki what shelter he could.  He was not small, nor did he look anything like the men in the woods.  Long, sweeping horns grew from his forehead, and his hair shaved to reveal swirling black marks on his scalp.  He was pierced and tattooed, and in any other circumstance, he would have been terrifying.  As it was, Loki knew the man was the only reason he was still alive.  Loki barely stood taller than the man’s knee, which gave him plenty to hide behind.  Most surprising was that not only did the man let him hide, he made sure Loki stayed behind him.  Loki watched as the mammoth was diverted, and once the path between him and Thor was clear, he started running.

“I have to go!  Bye!” Loki said.

“Wait!” the hunter called out.

“No, thank you!” 

Loki ran as quickly as he could toward the point where Thor had disappeared down the embankment.  He tumbled down, barely keeping his feet by the time he made it to the bottom where Thor was hiding.

“How’d you get away?” Thor asked.

Loki didn’t stop running, heading back to the cave they’d come out.

“He was nice.  He let me go,” Loki said.

They left the chaos fading behind them, finding the cave and slipping back into it.  Rather than waiting around to see if they’d been followed, Loki quickly found the Dragon Line and pulled Thor through it.  They stumbled and fell through to the other side, tripping over the pile of stones.  Without a word, they both ran back toward the palace, only stopping once they were back in Loki’s rooms.  They both collapsed onto the floor, panting and laughing at the insanity they had so narrowly escaped.  As he lay on the floor, Loki realised that every single point on the map he’d found would lead somewhere interesting, and he wanted to know what all of them were.  Rolling over onto his stomach, he conjured the map, and then a quill, and carefully marked down where both ends of the Dragon Line led.

“If you say a word of this to anyone, I’ll turn you into a frog,” he said.

Thor shook his head.  “If I say a word of this to anyone, I’ll be in more trouble than you,” he said.

 

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #17: Great Nothing

Thor had hoped Týr wouldn’t notice Loki’s absence.  He wasn’t even sure how Týr could notice, with Loki being unable to participate anyway.  He’d learn just as much locked in whatever room he’d hidden away in as he would sitting on the side with his nose in a book.  Loki’s absence was not Thor’s problem, but Bror coming to collect Loki and finding him missing would very quickly be Thor’s problem.  He didn’t think he’d be blamed, but he also didn’t want to hear about it for the next two weeks.

While the rest of the group wound down and made plans for the evening, Thor slipped off as quietly as he was able, hoping neither Týr nor Loki’s guard had seen.  Loki had hiding places all through the palace, every one of them tucked in dark, forgotten parts of the grounds, far away from anywhere worth being.  Having no routine for these things, Thor wandered through every dark corridor and into every quiet hall and chamber he came across, moving only consistently higher and higher up stairs and towers.  It was in an old tower, unlit by lightstone or magic, that Thor finally saw the orange glow of candle light spilling out from a door up ahead.  Thor picked up his speed, trying to run without giving himself away in case the candle belonged to someone else.

But it was Loki Thor found on the other side of the door, sat on the bare stone floor surrounded by a small mountain of someone’s old laundry and garbage.

“I know everyone else is afraid of you, but Týr will go to father if you cross him,” Thor said as he stepped into the room.

Loki shrugged, barely looking up from a scroll he was reading.

“He won’t,” Loki said.  “He doesn’t want to explain why I’m not allowed to fight. Especially since it means he broke his part of the deal.”

Thor didn’t want to think about Týr’s part of the deal, because Týr’s part was also Thor’s part.  Sooner or later, he’d find a way out of it, but until then all he could do was pretend that nothing had changed.

Rather than acknowledging Týr’s part of the deal, Thor watched Loki examine the scroll in his hands.  Beside him was a wooden crate, half full with neatly stacked books and scrolls and small trinkets, organised in sharp contrast to the boxes and crates around him that had been carelessly stuffed full.  Shaking his head, Thor joined Loki on the floor and began digging through one of the boxes as well, hoping to find something more interesting than mouldy old parchment.

“Loki, you are the only person ever who goes out of his way to steal things people threw away,” Thor said.

Stuffed away amongst the rest of it, he found a small dagger wrapped in a scrap of wolf pelt.  Its leather sheath was tattered and torn, and its blade dull and chipped, but the handle of obsidian and gold gave it away as something that had once been special to someone.  Thor looked over to Loki and wondered if he’d done anything to even try to prevent the split lip he had not had that morning.  Knowing damn well Loki had not done a single thing to stop it, Thor carefully wrapped the dagger back up and sat it aside to smuggle out later.  Finding nothing else but rags and a single shoe in the box, Thor turned to see what Loki had been so enthralled with, and found the scroll wasn’t a scroll at all, but a map of Yggdrasil.

“Haven’t you seen enough of those?” Thor asked.

“Not like this,” Loki said.  He looked over at Thor, and then moved back to give himself more room to spread the map out on the floor.  “Look, it’s got Midgard on it.  Other places too.”

Thor leaned in to look at what had got Loki so curious.  Vexingly, he was right.  Thor had never seen a map quite like it.  Lands beyond Yggdrasil that he had never even heard of were marked on the map, with all their great cities and castles labelled.  But it wasn’t the cities the owner of the map had cared about.  Other places were marked as well.  Marked, but not labelled.  X’s peppered the map, though none gave any clue as to their significance.  Frowning, Thor looked over the map as he tried to find anything that might give him a clue, but nothing sprang forth.

“I don’t get it,” Thor said after a long moment.

“What’s not to get?” Loki asked, looking up at him.

“What’s so interesting about it?”  Thor sat back up, done trying to puzzle out whatever was going on with the map.

“Someone was trying to keep something secret,” Loki said.  “You don’t want to know what it is?”

“It’s probably just every place they buried a body,” Thor said.  “Why would they mark something important if they didn’t label it?”

Loki shrugged, and then pointed to Midgard.  “Yeah, but look how many are on Midgard,” he said.  “This must have been long before they locked it off.”

“Loki, we were there once.  Years ago.  And it was boring,” Thor said.  “It was just snow and moose and disgusting ale.  What do you care?”

Loki started to answer, but then stopped and took a deep breath again.  Thor too stared down at the map, knowing there was more to it than Loki was letting on.  With a cautious glance to Thor, Loki decided that if he could trust anybody with this secret, it could only be his brother.

“Because of this,” he said, flipping the map over.

On the back, along all four edges of the map was written a concealment spell in runes, along with what could only be a bloody hand print right in the middle.  Loki watched Thor read the spell, quietly waiting until the moment he saw what Loki wanted him to see.  It was a name Loki had seen only once before, and he could see Thor’s momentary confusion when he read the name as well.  Thor read it twice before he shook his head.

“It must be from Bor’s time,” Thor said.

“How do you know?” Loki asked, prompting Thor to elaborate further.

Thor shrugged.  “It’s not like Father made your name up.  There were other Jötunns in Asgard during Bor’s time.  This must have belonged to one of them.”

Loki stayed quiet for a long moment, wrestling with the desire to just blurt out what he knew.  Instead, he shook his head.

“I think it’s newer than that.  A lot newer,” he said.

Now, Thor was properly confused.  The two looked at one another for a long moment, before Thor turned the map back over it to study the markings scribbled across it again. 

“How do you know?” Thor asked.

Instead of answering, Loki began filling his box with the rest of the stuff he wanted to keep.  Books and scrolls of absolutely no importance, aside from the fact that they seemed to belong to a man history said did not exist.  A man who had been occupying a small corner of Loki’s brain since the day he discovered his existence.  Perhaps something in them might give him more of a clue, but first he wanted to see what Thor thought.

“Because I found something else,” Loki said.  “A while ago.  It’s in my desk.  I’ll show you.”

Thor looked up, and tucked the dagger he’d found earlier into Loki’s box.

“What about the rest of this?” he asked, pointing to Loki’s mess.

“I’ll come back tonight,” Loki said.

With his box as full as it was going to get, Loki grabbed the sides and breathed slowly and evenly.  He looked at everything in the box, keeping its image in his mind while he reached out for something else.  Each time he tried this trick, it got easier and easier to see where he wanted to go.  Instead of going there himself, not quite confident enough to take that step, he sent the box along.  It vanished from his hands as he stored it away so he wouldn’t have to haul it all the way back to his chambers.

“You’re getting better at that,” Thor said.  “What happens if you go with it?”

Loki shrugged and got to his feet, taking the candle with him.  “If you do it wrong, you won’t be alive to try again,” he said.  “You might wind up in a wall, or miss your mark completely and find yourself somewhere horrible.”

Thor laughed as he got up to follow Loki to the door, suddenly remembering why he’d sought Loki out in the first place.  Before Loki stepped out into the corridor, Thor grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him back.

“Father may have been told,” Thor said.  “About training.  Your guard came looking for you.”

For a moment, Loki paused at the thought of Odin finding out through Bror.  For a moment, Loki thought it might have happened.

“I think it’s in his interests to keep my secrets; not give them away,” Loki decided finally.

“If you say so,” Thor said, following Loki back out to the corridor.

“I do say so,” Loki said.  “You think it’s just teachers I can have banished?”

Thor didn’t want to know.  Together, they ran hidden paths back to Loki’s chambers, avoiding being seen by taking servants’ corridors and ducking through secret doors.  However Loki kept it all straight in his head, Thor couldn’t even imagine, but he trusted Loki knew where he was going all the same.  It wasn’t until they slipped out from behind a tapestry into their own corridor that Thor even recognised where they were.  Without a moment’s hesitation, Loki walked straight to his door, and the guards that stood before it as though he had not given them the slip just hours earlier.  As they approached, Bror allowed himself a moment of visible relief at the sight of them.  Without a word exchanged from anyone, Loki let Thor into his rooms and locked the door behind them.

“Are you sure he won’t tell?” Thor asked, turning back as though he could see through the door.

“You mean admit he’s shit at his job and get the axe?” Loki asked, already headed toward the stairs.

With it put like that, Thor could only shrug.  He followed Loki upstairs, surprised to see the box of stolen trash on Loki’s bed.  While Loki went for his desk, Thor quickly retrieved the knife and tucked it into the waistband of his breeches.

“Here,” Loki said, finding a book he had once stolen from right beneath Thein’s nose.

He wondered briefly if showing Thor was a good idea, but knew that if he let himself keep wondering, he’d never stop.  With a deep breath, he handed the book over.

“Here.  Look at that,” he said.

Thor looked down at it, but didn’t open it.  “It’s a palace record,” he said, flipping it over to look a the back cover.  “So what?”

“It was copied,” Loki said.  “Look inside.”

Finally, Thor did, opening to a random page.  He flipped through, several pages at a time, realising Loki was right.  Every line in the record was written by the same hand, in the same ink. 

“Who copies a palace record?” Thor asked.  “And why do you have it?”

“I have it because it was copied.  I wanted to see how long it would take someone to notice it was gone,” Loki said.

Thor frowned down at it, still flipping through pages.  “How long have you had it?”

“Remember when we found those men in the woods?” Loki asked.

Thor didn’t.  Not at first.  But after a few moments, he did feel a spark of recognition of some sort.  Some random adventure the two of them had taken, years before.  He looked up at Loki, not sure what question to even ask.

Luckily, he didn’t have to know.  He never did, because Loki had set him up to wonder at something specific, just so he could answer it.

“I took it out there to them, after we found them,” Loki said.  “That’s how I know the map isn’t from Bor’s time.  Go to Father’s nineteenth year.”

He stepped close to look over Thor’s shoulder as he flipped through pages.  Once at the correct spot, Loki carefully flipped through to the summer of that year, and pointed at an entry just after Midsummer, marking the death of Loki Nálarson.

“So he died before the war,” Thor said with another shrug.  “So what?”

“The men in the woods knew him.  They said he was executed,” Loki said.  “But even if he wasn’t, he’s nowhere else in the record.  If he was important enough for his death to be recorded, why isn’t his birth, or any of his children?”

Thor flipped back to the beginning of the record as Loki nudged him back to the bed.  They sat down next to one another, both looking at the pages before them.  Thor flipped through page after page in a tome that went as far back as Buri’s reign, but Loki was right.  There wasn’t a single note of celebration surrounding Loki’s mysterious name twin.

“Maybe he was old,” Thor said finally.  “He uses his mother’s name.  Elves do that a lot, don’t they?”

Loki shrugged, but he wasn’t done yet.  “Maybe he was an elf.  I don’t know,” he said.  “But go back.  There’s something else weird.”

Thor let Loki take control, and this time he flipped back slowly, taking his time to show each page.  For page after page, celebrations were marked, but not a single royal birth or death.  In Odin’s tenth year, Bestla’s death was recorded, and two years earlier their uncle Vili took his rite, preceded by another great span of absolute nothing of significance.  Nothing of historical note for year after year.  Even Thor couldn’t ignore it as Loki flipped through pages of some great nothing.

It wasn’t until before Odin’s reign that the record became interesting again.

“So, Father did absolutely nothing as king for twenty years?” Thor asked, flipping back through again to make sure he hadn’t missed anything.  “Did they forget to copy all the good parts?”

“Yeah, but look at Cul’s final year,” Loki said, guiding him to flip back again. 

Cul’s fourth and final year as king was marked by no end of death and destruction, as Asgard itself fell into civil war.  Odin overthrew his own brother to take the throne, and ended a second war with Vanaheimr by marrying their mother.  It was a story they both knew well, but now, written on pages before them, it made no sense.

“Wait,” Thor said suddenly, frowning down at the page.

Finally, he saw what Loki had seen.  Something was wrong about the book.  Something that was erased and left blank, because people would notice a lie much easier than they’d notice an omission.  No matter how many times Thor flipped back and forth through the pages, the numbers didn’t add up.  Odin and Frigga wed, and then nothing.  Years of nothing.

“So what does this have to do with you?” Thor asked.

Loki shook his head.  “Nothing,” he said.  “I’m adopted.  I don’t matter at all.  But what else was erased?  And why?”

He pulled the map out of his box and opened it up again, showing Thor the spell on the back once more. 

“He wanted this seen,” Loki said.  “But not while he was alive.  That’s what this part means.”

He pointed to one of the edges, and the runes that cast the concealment spell.

“I think he knew something, and that’s why he was executed,” Loki said.  “And he wanted everyone to know, but this got locked up with the rest of his stuff and nobody ever noticed it.”

Thor snorted.  “Loki, you read too many sagas.  He didn’t want anyone to know what kind of shady dealings he was up to, and it didn’t matter once he’d died.  This probably is a map of all the people he killed.”

Loki flipped the map over and held it up so Thor could see.  “Then he killed someone right outside the palace,” he said, pointing to an X just to the north of Asgard’s city.

They looked at one another for a long moment, neither saying anything.  They didn’t have to.  Loki’s invitation for adventure was plain even without speaking it.  After a moment, Thor laughed again.

“Next you’re going to say we were both adopted, and it’s all some grand conspiracy,” he said, getting up all the same.

Loki shrugged dramatically.  “Maybe!” he said.  He rolled the map back up and stood as well.  “Why aren’t you an old man?  You should be.  It took them long enough to bring you about.”

Thor had no answer to that.  Loki was right.  If Odin had done his job properly, Thor would have been a grown man with children of his own; not a boy still early in his training.  It didn’t seem like Odin to neglect the duty of producing heirs, and yet he clearly had.  Now Odin himself was an old man, while Thor and Loki were all of fourteen years old, and Baldur was still in the nursery.

And now with the promise of a shallow grave to go rob on top of everything else, Thor’s mind was racing as he followed Loki back out of his chambers.  They didn’t go out the door, and risk being followed by Bror or Geiri.  Loki had other ways out, through windows and across roofs, taking paths not even the servants knew.  They were Loki’s own paths, secret and hidden, with the promise of a broken neck should either of them lose their footing.  Neither did, and the quick shortcut took them to another part of the palace, above the dining hall.  From there, sneaking off the grounds was a simple matter of not being seen.

 

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #16: Coward

The boy was never where he was supposed to be.  Never at training, never attending his lessons, never even in the palace half the time.  As a boy, Odin was never where he was supposed to be either, and at first he saw no harm in letting Loki sneak off so long as he didn’t fall behind on his studies.  But as a boy, Odin was not in a uniquely precarious position.  Odin had never been ambushed and beaten by children who wanted to see what colour he bled. 

And if he had, Bor would never have stood for it.

But Loki never gave names, or even admitted where he had gained his cuts and bruises.  Instead he would deny anything had happened at all, insisting he had tripped or fallen in some careless act.  Odin knew better than to believe him, but as long as the boy refused to admit what transpired, there was little to be done.

He stood by quietly, arms crossed over his chest as he watched Frigga clean Loki’s face with a cloth.  He didn’t flinch or hiss as she tended to his split lip, or the cut on his cheek.  Watching him sit quiet and still while his mother tended to him was perhaps the most infuriating part of it all.  Boys played rough and got hurt as a matter of course, but Odin had seen grown men struggle to remain as calm as Loki did under the same conditions.  A boy his age should have been whining and complaining and trying to squirm away.  Instead, he had grown desensitised to the whole damn affair, sitting limp and staring at something unseen.

“Tell me again what happened,” Frigga said as she brushed her fingers over a darkening bruise around Loki’s eye.

“I told you.  I fell out of a tree,” he said.

Frigga frowned and pulled her hand away.  “Perhaps you should pick smaller trees to climb,” she said.

Loki only shrugged.  “May I go now?” he asked.

He didn’t wait for an answer before getting up.  As he walked past, he looked up at Odin without a word.  His face was completely blank, impossible to read as he wandered off to Norns knew where.

“I thought we agreed he should have someone watching after him,” Frigga said as she gathered up her cloths and soaps into her basket.

“He does,” Odin said.  “But it would seem as though he’s learned to slip away unseen.  Bror is only one man.  He can only do so much.”

“Surely there are more men on Asgard,” Frigga said, speaking more to her basket than to Odin.

Odin stood where he was, not knowing what he might do if he dared take a step forward.  “And what would you do?  Surround him with guards?  Lock him away in his chambers until he comes of age?  Or keep him in the vault, perhaps, hidden away forever?”

Frigga shook her head.  “I don’t understand.  You let him learn those horrible things, and he uses them to find trouble rather than flee from it.”

“Perhaps he does not flee so he isn’t branded a coward,” Odin said.

“I would rather see him branded a coward than dead.”  Frigga stood and took her basket back to its place on a low shelf.

Odin didn’t disagree with his wife.  More than once, he had wondered if he had been too careless in allowing Loki to direct his own studies as freely as he did.  He outpaced tutors at an alarming rate, and his recent obsession with Dökkálfar magic meant Odin couldn’t even find anyone who might be able to guide the boy’s studies.  Sometimes, Odin thought that might be for the best.  If he were learning these things on his own, there was no telling what terrible secrets he might pick up with help.

“What would you have me do?” Odin asked again.  “He slips his detail and runs off with that servant’s boy every chance he gets.  Perhaps we should chain him down?”

“I do not like that boy,” Frigga said.  “Loki needs friends, but not that one.”

“That boy is one of the only friends he has,” Odin said.  “Take that away if you must, but it will be your tantrum to deal with.  I’ll have no part of it.” 

Odin watched silently as Frigga swept out of the room.  In her absence, Odin could almost feel himself crumble as he leaned against the wall.  Frigga was right, and Odin knew it.  The servant’s boy was trouble.  Bragi’s foundling was trouble.  Odin had pretended he hadn’t seen this truth in the hopes Loki could be encouraged to stay close.  Instead, he disappeared from the palace grounds and led his small gang of misfits and outcasts into unwinnable fights.

It was a problem even Odin did not know how to solve.  With each day that passed, and each new bruise on Loki’s face, his plans were sliding further and further from reality.  Loki would never become the man he needed to be if all he knew was defeat and shame.

The thought of years of planning falling apart spurred Odin into action, and he was walking before he even realised where he was going.  But as his conscious thought caught up with the rest of him, he strode with purpose toward the library.  Whatever tricks and spells Loki had been teaching himself, it was not magic he could use to defend himself.  Frigga had been right about that as well, even if Odin could not admit it.

He found Herða copying a stack of old scrolls to a tome for safer keeping, lost to her work.  He walked up to the desk, not even giving her time to notice his presence before speaking.

“What books has my son taken from here?” Odin asked, not bothering to engage in any ritualistic protocol.

Herða looked up suddenly, startled only for a moment at the sight of the Allfather standing before her.

“I can tell you he’s taken more than he’s returned,” she said, carefully setting her work aside before she stood.  “I have it all recorded.  Just here.”

She rose from her desk and pulled a worn ledger from a shelf.  After a few moments of flipping through pages, she handed he ledger to Odin and sat back down to resume her work.

“I’ve not bothered chasing him down for the ones that haven’t come back,” she said.  “He only keeps the ones no one should have anyway.”

Odin scanned through the ledger, flipping through page after page of borrowing records.  She had taken care to record Loki’s actions in red ink, and marking in gold when he had bothered to return what he had taken.  Some pages were written almost entirely in red, as Loki would take a dozen books at a time, and then return only days later for more.

And Herða was right as well.  He had kept far more than he returned, but much of what he had kept, he was not meant to be reading at all.  No one was.  Though the books were not hidden behind lock and key, it was dark and forbidden magic, outlawed by Bor when Odin was a boy.  Magic not used for combat or protection, but for sneaking and subterfuge.

Odin closed the ledger, not needing to see any more, and placed it on Herða’s desk.

“Thank you,” he said, already walking away.

Loki could not be allowed to guide his own studies any longer.  What he had learned on his own was already too dangerous. 

Loki was no stranger to humiliation.  He’d been in scuffs and scrapes before, and every time he came away with a few marks and his pride slightly bruised.  But Odin had never been there to see the aftermath before.  It was always Frigga, and Frigga alone who seemed to find him as he trudged back to the palace.  A mother was supposed to worry and dote on him.  It was her job.

It was Odin’s disappointment that hung over Loki like a dark cloud.  As though it were his fault that anything had happened.  Loki couldn’t force Týr to allow him into the ring any more than he could force the other boys to respect him.  Loki wasn’t a prince of Asgard.  He was a stolen runt, smuggled into the palace and put into a fancy costume that fooled nobody. 

And now even Odin couldn’t ignore it.  He had seen exactly what went on when nobody was around.  And Loki knew that would change as well.  Loki wouldn’t have a moment alone without Bror or Geiri haunting his shadow.  He’d never know another moment’s peace until the day he died.  Although if Freyr had anything to say about it, that day would not be long at all.

Loki let all of this slip away as he turned a corner and found Fandral standing outside his door, arguing with Geiri.  Loki soon realised that Fandral hadn’t shown up for no reason at all though.  He held Loki’s books in his arms, gesturing with them as he tried to talk his way inside.  For a moment, Loki stood back and watched the sorry exchange, wanting nothing more than to be left alone.  But in order to be left alone, he’d have to get past those two, and he’d have to at least thank Fandral for returning the books he’d left behind.

At the same time, Fandral had sought him out.  Even if only to return that which belonged to him, nobody had ever sought Loki out before.  He was a creature to be avoided at all costs, and always had been.  The novelty of someone wanting to find him was too much to ignore.

“Oh, just let him in already,” Loki said as he approached.

Geiri and Fandral both stopped their argument to look over at Loki.  Without offering another word, Loki pushed past Geiri and opened the door to his chambers, standing aside so Fandral could join him.  As the door swung shut behind them, Loki took his books back and dumped them onto the low sofa along the wall.  He knew he was supposed to offer something to his guest, but he’d never had a guest before, nor anything to offer.  With a sigh and a shrug, he turned toward the stairs instead, taking them up to his bedchamber.

“You get all this to yourself?” Fandral asked, slowly following him.

“Thor’s is bigger.  He’s down the corridor a bit,” Loki said, pointing vaguely off in the correct direction.  “But I liked this one.”

Thor was the only person who ever went into Loki’s bedchamber with any regularity, and although Thor teased, Loki had never really cared about the mess.  But for some reason, Loki found himself wanting to impress Fandral, and having books and laundry piled around his bed didn’t seem like the way to go about it.  Unsure what to do, Loki tossed the laundry off toward the wall, and tried to stack up the books into neat little piles.

“Why do you have so many books?” Fandral asked, laughing.  “You can’t have read them all.”

“I’ve read most of them,” Loki said. 

“How the hel do you find the time?” Fandral asked.

Unsure what to do, Loki sat down on the edge of his bed.  “I only have two lessons a day,” he said.  “What else am I supposed to do?”

Fandral snorted as he looked around.  Having someone else in his space, Loki realised that he hadn’t put a lot of effort into making it comfortable for anyone other than himself.  He had his bed and his desk and a few shelves, but little else.  When Thor came to bother him, they made themselves comfortable wherever they found room, but that didn’t seem quite right when the other person in his space wasn’t Thor.  Luckily, Fandral didn’t seem to mind.  Or even notice.

“What about training?” Fandral asked.

“What about it?” Loki asked.  “I have to attend, but I’m not allowed to participate.”

For a moment, Loki thought Fandral was going to ask a stupid question, but he quickly figured the answer out for himself.  He looked away and nodded, turning his attention to the rest of the clutter around the chamber.

“Is there a rule that says you have to train with Týr?” Fandral asked.  “I can’t imagine Volstagg caring if you joined him instead.”

Loki didn’t actually know whether it was a rule.  “It’s not how things are done.  I shouldn’t have even been there today,” he said.

“What about with a friend?” Fandral asked.  “Is there a rule about that?”

He looked back at Loki, so ridiculously hopeful, and it was awful.  Loki shook his head, not wanting to see that look on Fandral’s face.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said.

Whatever Fandral’s plan was, Loki wasn’t sure he wanted any part of it.  He had enough to worry about as it was, without having to show off exactly how much he didn’t know.  He was a prince.  He shouldn’t have been in such a position in the first place.

But if he were truly a prince, he wouldn’t be in such a position at all.  He was an impostor, and impostors had to do whatever they could to survive.

“I’m not sure what you expect to achieve,” he said, standing again.

Fandral shrugged.  But if he didn’t know either, then Loki wasn’t sure it was worth fighting at all.  He led Fandral back downstairs and out to the corridor, finding Bror back at his post, having returned from wherever it was he disappeared to when Loki was in training or lessons.  Loki let Fandral take the lead from there, curious to see what his plan was.  But they didn’t get very far before Fandral turned to look back.

“There’s a guard following us,” he said quietly.

Loki looked back, finding Bror not too far behind them.

“Yeah, he does that,” he said. 

He ignored Fandral’s unease at being followed, more concerned with where he was being taken.  Rather than going back out to the training ring, Fandral led him instead to a small, secluded garden. 

“Have you learned swords at all?” Fandral asked.

Loki realised this was a little more planned out than he’d thought.  Fandral already had a pair of training sticks set aside, ready to confound Loki all over again.

“No, I got kicked out right after we started that,” he said.

He looked at the sticks leaned up against the wall, and wondered what Fandral had planned to happen.  They weren’t the weighted training swords Týr used, but their purpose was the same.  Loki wondered if they were a common training tool, or something Volstagg had gathered up to train the children nobody else wanted to.

“And you have half a million books in your chambers.  Right,” Fandral said, seeming to finally understand the full situation.  He looked at the sticks for a long moment before picking them up anyway.  “Well.  I guess we start at the beginning, then.”

He handed one over to Loki, showing him how to hold it.  It didn’t approximate a sword, as much as it did a long club, only somewhat heavier on one side than the other. 

“You can use both hands if you need to,” Fandral said, taking a step back.  “You don’t need to worry about swinging it; just where to put it.”

“It hasn’t even got a sharp end to put anywhere,” Loki said, looking down at it.

“That’s fine.  You’re not stabbing anyone with it anyway,” he said.  “You want to learn how to defend yourself before you learn how to kill a man.”

There were better ways to defend himself than with a stick.  Loki frowned at the whole situation, but nodded all the same.  He expected Fandral to take a wild swing at him, but was surprised when he lifted the stick above his head and held it there.

“If I swing from here, where will I hit you?” Fandral asked.

Loki looked up at the stick and shrugged.  Then he looked back and Fandral, and realised the entire game was pointless.

“You won’t, because you’re too afraid of what my guard will do,” he said, glancing over his shoulder to Bror.

Fandral looked back at Loki, but the determination to see this through had completely drained from him.  And with it, Loki’s willingness faded away as well.

“I appreciate the effort, but if something goes wrong, it would come down on your head,” Loki said, handing his stick back to Fandral.

With a sigh of defeat, Fandral gave up and nodded.

“So, what?  You’re just going to go back to your books and pretend nothing’s wrong?” he asked.

Loki shrugged.  “Until I think of something better,” he said.  He glanced back to Bror, finding that he’d at least relaxed a bit about the situation.  “I’m supposed to be training in magic anyway.  That’s what my father wants.  If it bothered him that I can’t fight, he’d have already done something about it.”

“What about Freyr?  That hasn’t bothered him enough to do something about it?” Fandral asked, still watching Bror lurking nearby.

“Freyr can eat horse shit,” Loki said. 

He knew Odin would have done something about Freyr as well, had he all the information.  But Loki would not become the coward who made his father fight his battles for him.

“But if I went to my father, and he put an end to all of it, then what?” Loki asked.

“Well, you might not get kicked in the teeth for one,” Fandral said.

Loki shrugged.  “And nobody would ever take me seriously either.”

He sat down along one of the walls, saying nothing else until Fandral joined him.  With the sticks put aside for the moment, it was now just the two of them spending a quiet moment together, without the hassle and worry of lessons Loki didn’t even care about.

“You know, when most people get the daylights kicked out of them, they do something about it,” Fandral said.

Loki snorted.  “If I did something about it, I’d be hanged.”

Fandral looked over at him, struggling to find words to say in response.  Loki watched him try to find a punchline that wasn’t there, wondering how long he’d struggle with it.

“I don’t get it,” Fandral said finally.

Loki couldn’t tell if Fandral was oblivious, or just plain stupid.  Most people had the good graces to at least pretend not to know what Loki truly was, but Fandral seemed to have forgotten entirely.

“You do know what I am?” Loki asked.

Fandral looked at him, first confused, and then cautious.  “Sure, but it’s not like you can actually turn a person to ice or anything.”

Loki was leaning more and more toward stupid by the minute.  “Of course I can,” he said.  “Perhaps not completely to ice, but I’ve never tried that.”

Instead of being frightened like a sensible person, Fandral looked almost intrigued.  “Can you show me?” he asked.

“No!” Loki said. 

He wondered if this was some ploy to catch him out, but Fandral didn’t seem like he was lying about anything.  Just hopelessly dim and naive.

“And I can do a hel of a lot more than that.  Which I’m also not going to show you,” Loki said.

“So what, you’re just going to let yourself get kicked in the face and pretend it doesn’t matter?” Fandral asked.

“Of course not,” Loki said.  He glanced back over to Bror.  “Next time I won’t let him kick me in the face.”

 

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #15: Training

It was late enough when Loki finally returned to the palace that he did not expect to find anyone else wandering the corridors.  He parted with Fandral and Hogun at the entrance of the North Hall, where they each went their separate ways—Hogun to Bragi’s chambers, where he still stayed and likely would remain for several more years, and Fandral to the servant’ part of the palace, where he would stay until plucked up for a position in the stables or the training yard.   If he was lucky, he might even be chosen to be some warrior’s page, though why he still hadn’t been chosen was a mystery. 

Loki walked alone to his chambers, still carrying the remains of his tunic.  He would eventually find use for it, or the woman whose job it was to make sure his rooms were kept clean would take it away.  But somehow it seemed a shame to just leave it out in the field.  As he turned a corner, he was surprised to find his mother pacing fretfully about the corridor.  Frigga saw him a moment later and rushed to him with a gasp.

“Loki!” she said, sounding relieved and worried all at once.  She hugged him tightly, Loki suffering the indignity out of lack of any other options.  “Where have you been? We sent men to search for you.”

“With friends,” Loki said, surprised that anyone had even noticed his absence.  “All is well, Mother.”

Frigga smiled warmly at him as she began to lead him down the corridor.  Her smile waned when her eyes fell upon the bandage wrapped round his arm.

“Loki, what happened here?” she asked.

Loki looked down, having nearly forgotten all about that particular mishap.

“Oh, I did that,” he said.

“Why in the Nine Realms would you do that?” Frigga asked.  She took his arm in her hands and began to gently unwrap the bandage to inspect the injury.

“It wasn’t intentional,” Loki insisted.  “I was learning to shoot a bow.  It shot back.”

Frigga shook her head fondly and knelt before him to inspect the damage, carefully unwrapping the makeshift bandage.

“Well, I am glad to hear that my son is making friends, but this should be looked after,” she said once the wrapping was removed.

The bruise had by then expanded to nearly a hand’s width while the burn at the centre had become swollen and red, still seeping lazily.  Loki looked down at it and frowned.  It hadn’t seemed that bad at first, and now he wasn’t sure what to do about it.

“It’s fine,” he insisted, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary.  “It barely even hurts.”

“It needs to be cleaned,” Frigga told him.

“Eir’s probably asleep.  I would hate to wake her,” Loki said.

Frigga was not having any of it.  “Then I shall do it myself.”

Knowing there was no way to get out of it, Loki let himself be led to Frigga’s washroom in her chambers.  Frigga kept a gentle hand on his shoulder as they walked, guiding him along so he couldn’t slip away unnoticed.

“Have you been fighting again today?” she asked suddenly.

“Why would you say that?” Loki asked.

“I know my sons as well as I know anything.  You only leave the grounds when you have been fighting,” Frigga said.  She opened the door to the washroom and guided Loki inside.

“Then perhaps I shall leave the grounds more often.”

“Or start fighting less,” Frigga said.

Loki sighed, knowing that he would never win against his mother, and sat on a wooden chair near the washbasin.  He watched as Frigga filled the basin and wet a cloth, running it over a cake of heavy soap.

“I called Sif a girl,” Loki said finally.  “She wouldn’t train with me, but she had no qualms about attacking me from behind.”

“Loki,” Frigga chastised.  She paused in her preparation to give Loki a look that was at once stern and weary.

“It can’t be an insult if it’s the truth,” Loki reasoned.

“But you still turned it into one,” Frigga said.  “Think about why you fight with the other children and why their words make you angry.  You cannot use their methods against them, or it will make you no better.”

She brought the rag to the burn on Loki’s arm, dabbing it as gently as she could.  Still, Loki hissed sharply and squeezed his eyes tightly shut.

“Loki?” Frigga asked.

“It’s fine,” he lied.

Frigga clearly saw right through him, but she didn’t stop.  She cleaned the wound as quickly and gently as she could before taking a clean bandage from a basket on the shelf.

“Would you like your father to put a stop to it?” she asked as she redressed Loki’s arm.

Loki wanted to say yes.  He wanted Odin to just make everyone leave him alone and treat him like they had before.  He craved the respect and dignity that was his right as the son of Odin and prince of Asgard.  Although, even before it wasn’t exactly respect and dignity he was served.  It was more like grudging tolerance, given only because he was Thor’s brother.

He wanted that even less than he wanted the honest resentment he already got.

“No,” he said, shaking his head.  “Their respect would be a lie, and I would just be a boy who could not fight his own battles.”

He would rather be feared than know he was living a constant lie.

Frigga nodded sadly and turned to tidy the washroom again.

“If ever you change your mind, you need only ask him,” she said.

Loki nodded in return.  “I know,” he said.  “May I go now?”

Frigga brushed his hair out of the way and gently kissed his forehead.  “Yes,” she said.  “You may go now.”

Loki got up and left Frigga to make his way through the winding corridors of the palace.  As he walked silently through dark spaces and hidden passages, he thought more on what he had said to his mother.  He wanted more than anything for the abuse from his peers to stop, but it never truly would unless he was the one to make it so.

And his peers—wasn’t that just the biggest lie of all of them?  Loki shared nothing in common with anyone on Asgard, save perhaps his family.  And even that was a lie.  Odin himself was only half-Jötunn and knew nothing about where his mother was from; Loki’s brothers only a quarter.  Not even enough for them to be considered Jötunn at all.  Even amongst those closest to him, Loki was still an outsider.

By the time Loki pushed open the doors to his chambers’ anteroom, he was exhausted mentally and physically, more than he had even realised until that moment.  He cast a weary glance around the barely-used room, his eyes falling heavily on the stairs that led to his bedchamber.  Suddenly, those few steps leading to the floor above seemed daunting, and Loki hadn’t even the energy to contemplate them.  Instead, he stumbled over to one of the long sofas along the nearest wall and let himself fall upon it.  The sofa was not meant for comfort, but at that moment, Loki didn’t care.  He wasn’t going to be there for long; just a few minutes while he gathered the energy to climb the stairs.  Then he could sleep and forget everything about the first half of the day.

Before he was even able to consider undressing for bed, Loki fell asleep.

It was no accident that Týr would not call Loki into the ring, nor did it go unnoticed.  Though Loki found it easy to pretend he didn’t care.  He sat out of the way, his back against a stone pillar as he wrote notes in the margins of a book, paying more attention to not smudging the charcoal than to anything going on around him.  Even as small stones were tossed in his direction, Loki ignored the calls from the other children and focused on his studies.  Eventually the taunting died down as Týr regained control of the group, and training resumed.  As the rest of the group learned how to hit one another with sticks, Loki truly lost himself to his studies, finding himself surprised when he looked up to find the ring empty.  He looked toward the sky, trying to judge the time from the suns, but the suns always seemed to hang right in the middle of the sky that time of year.  Giving up, Loki began to gather his books, eager to get inside and copy his notes in ink before his writing smudged and disappeared for good.  As he turned to make sure he had everything, something struck him hard in the back of the neck.  Turning sharply, he saw Freyr standing amongst a group of boys from the palace, the lot of them doing an abysmally poor job at not laughing.

Taking a deep breath, Loki tried to pretend he hadn’t just been hit by a stone, but as he turned to walk away Freyr threw another at him, barely missing Loki as it sailed past his head.

Loki turned to glare, saying nothing.  Anything he could say would only come off as pleading or desperate, so he held his tongue as the boys around Freyr suddenly stopped laughing.

“Freyr, let’s go,” one of them said.

Freyr laughed.  “What’s he going to do?  Turn us into toads?” he asked.  “I don’t even think he can.”

Loki still said nothing.  He held his place, standing still as he glared.  He said nothing even as Freyr bent to pick up another stone.  For a moment, they both watched one another, and for a moment, Loki thought Freyr might give up.  But Freyr threw the stone.  This time, Loki dropped his books and caught the stone from the air.  He looked down at it in his hand, small and smooth and unable to do much damage even if Freyr had hit him with it.  But it wasn’t the pain that was the point.  Throwing it at all, and getting away with it was the point.  Loki knew this, and he dropped the stone to the ground.

“A damn coward’s all you’ll ever be,” Loki said as he bent to pick his books back up again.

It was bait, and Freyr took it without a moment’s thought.  He rushed to Loki, leaving his friends behind.  Knowing he couldn’t win this fight, Loki turned his face away and let Freyr punch him in the shoulder.

“Then I’ll be the first coward to slay a frost giant!” Freyr shouted.

He punched again, and suddenly he wasn’t the only one Loki had to deal with.  Two of his friends rushed over as well, punching and kicking until Loki was on the ground.  Loki knew he could make it stop.  He could make it stop forever, but he also knew at what cost.  There were no right options, so he covered his face and hoped Freyr would get bored quickly.  But a kick to his stomach made him move his arms down, exposing his face to the toe of someone’s boot.  He cried out, and in doing so lost the battle.  Above him, Freyr and his friends laughed as they kicked some more, only spurred on by their apparent victory.  Then suddenly, they all stopped, though Loki didn’t look up to see why.

“What the hel are you doing?” a gruff voice called out.

The boys scattered and ran, leaving Loki curled up in the dirt.  He could hear someone approaching, but felt too sick to even bother looking up.

“Oh, Bor’s bollocks,” the voice said.

Daring to open his eyes, Loki saw a familiar pair of orange suede boots and realised it was Volstagg who had found him.

“Can you stand, boy?” Volstagg asked.

Loki nodded, but made no effort to stand.  His home was in the dirt, and that’s where he wanted to stay.  But Volstagg didn’t give him that choice, and picked him up all the same, hauling him to his feet.  Standing only made his stomach do a flip, and for a moment he had to fight against the urge to lean forward and vomit.  He swayed a bit on his feet, and then Volstagg was holding onto him again, steadying him with giant hands on his shoulders.

“Why don’t you just have a rest over here,” Volstagg said, leading Loki over to a nearby bench.

Loki preferred to sit in the shade of the palace, but sitting was sitting, and he didn’t argue. 

“If that’s how Týr teaches you boys how to fight, I think he’s missed a few steps,” Volstagg said as he tilted Loki’s face up to get a look at him.  “You’re supposed to hit back.”

Loki shrugged as his attention wandered away from Volstagg, and toward Fandral as he gathered up Loki’s books and tried to stack them up neatly.

“At least they weren’t complete trolls about it,” Fandral said, bringing the books over and setting them beside Loki.  “Your things are all in one piece at least.”

Loki took a deep breath, trying to keep himself steady.  “Thanks,” he said.

It was only then Loki realised he wasn’t nearly as alone as he’d thought.  Volstagg had brought a whole gang of children with him.  Not just Fandral, but a few of his own children, as well as Hogun and a pair of boys Loki had never seen before.  More servants’ boys, Loki figured, lucky enough to know the right people that they’d have a shot at joining the Einherjar.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be here,” Loki said.

“Nonsense,” Volstagg said before Loki could even get to his feet.  “You’re here.  You might as well stay.”

Loki shrugged, feeling too sick to argue.  He watched as Volstagg’s group got ready to train, gathering up their sticks and grouping off into pairs.  Instead of joining the group, Fandral joined Loki on the bench, not quite sitting close enough to touch him.

“I thought you’d just had the same black eye for a month,” Fandral said suddenly.  “I’m sure you could rub charcoal on your face and get the same effect, if that’s the look you’re going for.”

Loki laughed, despite everything.  It wasn’t funny.  Everything hurt and he still felt like he could vomit, and still he laughed all the same.

“I could have stopped it,” he said.

“So why didn’t you?” Fandral asked.

“Because I’d rather get kicked in the teeth than have my head chopped off,” Loki said.

Now Fandral laughed.  It still wasn’t funny, but Fandral laughing made Loki laugh. 

“I thought you got special permission for that,” Fandral said.

Loki shook his head.  “I’m allowed to learn it.  I’m not allowed to do it.  It’s different.”

Fandral shrugged, and then nodded.

“All right, you two,” Volstagg said, walking over with a pair of training sticks in his hand.  “If you want to gossip, go find a weaving circle.”

He handed Fandral a stick and pointed him toward the ring.  With a shrug, Fandral headed out to go run drills with Hogun. 

“You too,” Volstagg said, holding the other stick out for Loki.

Loki looked at it, utterly unsure what he was meant to do with it.  He’d only briefly been allowed to train with any kind of weapon under Týr, but he took it all the same.

“With Einar,” Volstagg said, pointing to his son.

Still feeling more than a little unwell, Loki nodded and got up all the same.  He approached Einar and looked down at the stick in his hands, knowing in theory what he was meant to do with it, but having no idea how to bring it into practise.

“Dad?” Einar asked, looking to Volstagg.

“Run your drills,” Volstagg said.

Einar nodded, then turned back to Loki.  “Uhm.  Just try to block me, I guess,” he said.

Loki shouldn’t have been there at all, but he couldn’t find an elegant way to escape.  These were the children of servants and soldiers, far beneath him in status.  And he knew every one of them had seen him down in the dirt, utterly unable to do anything about it.  So he nodded as well, trying to match his grip to Einar’s.  He expected Einar to move slowly, at least taking the time to show Loki what he was meant to be doing.  But he swung instead, striking Loki in the ribs before he even had time to prepare himself.  He bit down on a yelp and leapt away, hating himself for making any sound at all.  Pride wanted him to demand to try again, but all he wanted to do was go find some place to be alone.

“I shouldn’t be here,” he said again, dropping his stick to the ground.

He turned and walked toward the palace, leaving his books behind as he left the group.

“Dad?” Einar asked again.

Volstagg sighed.  “Let him go,” he said.

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #14: Alliances

“I do not wish to train with him.”

Sif stood defiantly at the edge of the ring with her back to Loki.  If she’d disliked him before, she hated him now, and Loki wasn’t entirely certain whether he cared.  His friends had always been Thor’s friends, and they only seemed to be his friends because Thor expected it.  But now, as with everything else, Thor’s expectations meant nothing. 

Even if they had, Loki knew he wouldn’t want it.  The last thing he wanted was friends who only tolerated him just because his brother commanded it.

“You can’t make me,” Sif continued in her protests.  “He’s not even a proper prince.  He’s a stolen runt.  He shouldn’t even be here.”

Those around the training ring all stood silent as Sif and Týr stared at one another.  While part of him still hoped Týr might punish her even as a token effort, Loki knew otherwise.  Odin had told Loki that he could no longer protect him, and this was what he had meant.  His horrible, dangerous secret was now out in the open for all of Asgard to know about, and nobody was going to pretend otherwise.

As a heavy silence descended over the ring, Loki became aware of the attention aimed in his direction.  All those around him were silent as they waited to see what would happen—whether Loki would be expelled from training, or if Týr would be forced to train the son of Asgard’s enemy.  Even Thor was silent, holding his gaze to his feet rather than meeting anyone in the eye.  Thor’s silence was infuriating, and not wanting to give anyone the satisfaction of seeing him lose this without a fight, Loki turned his back to the ring with an exaggerated shrug.

“That’s fine,” he said as he began to walk away.  “I don’t want to train with a girl anyway.  I would hate to be responsible for her breaking a nail.”

Not caring that she was being baited, Sif growled loudly and tackled Loki to the ground, shoving his face into the dust.  Loki almost laughed at the familiar situation of dirt and dust in his eyes as Sif played right into his plan.  She may have been a girl, but she was still bigger than he was and had problem keeping him pinned to the ground.  Loki twisted and bent himself to block his face from Sif’s fists, but did nothing to defend himself.  Even as he endured her attack, Loki was taken by a sudden image of the entire group, and then every child within the palace lining up to take their turn.  With his face buried in his arms, Loki began laughing.  He, a prince, lay pinned to the ground while an entire group stood round and watched as Sif continued to shriek and hit while Loki still did nothing, only blocking himself from her blows as she swung harder and harder.

“Fight me!” she demanded.  “Fight back, you coward!”

Loki only laughed harder, and still did nothing to defend himself.  Sif grabbed his arm to pull it from his head and give herself a clean shot, and only then did Loki decide to put an end to it.  As she grabbed his bare skin with her own, Loki let his temperature drop sharply, making his skin icy to the touch.  As soon as Sif felt the change in his skin, she quickly leapt off of him as though she had been burnt.

Realising immediately what Loki had done, Týr rushed over to her aid, glaring at Loki.  Loki couldn’t bring himself to care about what Týr thought of him, though.  He was just another amongst the Æsir who would have Loki cast out without so much as a second glance.  Taking advantage of the crowd’s attention on Sif, Loki rose to his feet and dusted himself off calmly as he could.

“Apparently, I don’t even need to fight,” Loki said.  “I should be studying anyway.”

After checking her over, making sure she was uninjured from Loki’s tricks, Týr strode forward and grabbed him by the arm, nearly lifting Loki off the ground.  He dragged Loki away from the ring, pushing through the crowd and ignoring the way everyone quickly sprang back to give him a wide berth.  The thought on every mind at that moment was one of fear; fear of Jötunn magic that burned and destroyed flesh with a single touch.  Something in Loki rather liked it, even as he struggled to stay on his feet and keep up with Týr.

“Argr!” Sif shouted after him suddenly.  “That’s what you are! Argr!”

Týr dragged Loki beyond the ring, shoving him toward the ground as he finally let go.  Loki stumbled, but kept his balance, taking his time to turn back around to face Sif.  While she glared venom at him, no one else—not even Thor—dared to look directly at him.

“No, my lady,” Loki said evenly.  “For I would first have to be Æsir, which all here plainly know I am not.”

He gestured widely at the crowd, taking a small amount of satisfaction from the way everyone shuffled awkwardly, desperately pretending he wasn’t talking about them.  He dipped his head to Sif in a mockery of formality and walked away from the ring then, enjoying the silence left in his wake.  He may not have had the respect of the court, but he did have their fear.  And Loki thought that was even better.

He soon found Baldur beneath a tree, tearing apart some bread and feeding it to a small flock of birds.  Loki sat on the grass beside him, watching the birds peck at the ground for any morsels they might have missed.

“I think I may go out to the market,” Loki said after a moment.  “Would you like to come with?”

Baldur didn’t look up at him, keeping his eyes on the birds before him.  “No,” he said.

Loki’s face fell.  “Why not?” he asked.  “I thought you liked going into the city?”

“I do, but not with you,” Baldur said, throwing more bread out for the birds.  “You always get into fights and it is embarrassing when you lose.”

“I didn’t lose today,” Loki defended.

Baldur finally looked up at him, disappointment written clear on his face when he saw Loki’s. 

“No, but you still got into a fight,” Baldur said.  “Did you cheat this time?  Again.”

Loki shifted his jaw and looked away. 

“I see,” he said, realising that somewhere along the way, he had lost his little brother as well.  Worse, he never even saw it coming.  “Well, I shan’t want to embarrass you further.”

He rose to his feet again and strode away purposefully.  It would be Baldur’s own loss for not going with him.  If the boy wanted to sit and feed birds, then fine.  That was his right.

Loki soon found himself beyond the palace grounds once more, though not heading into the market.  There was nothing he really needed, so he headed out in the other direction, treading through tall grasses where again Hogun stood while he watched his eagle soar across the sky.  There was another boy with him this time; one who recognised Loki at once and put distance between them with little subtlety.  Loki paid him no mind and stepped up next to Hogun, craning his neck to watch the eagle above them, and pretending it didn’t make him want to crawl into a hole in the ground and hide.

“Can you teach me?” Loki asked after a moment.

Hogun looked over at Loki for a few seconds before raising his arm up to his face.  The bird soared down to take the perch in a mad flurry of feathers and talons, sending a visceral, almost instinctive terror through every fibre of Loki’s being.  He jumped away quickly to avoid any injury, or even contact with the animal, drawing another one of Hogun’s glances.  Despite the bored look on Hogun’s face, Loki was fairly certain he was being judged.

“You are not ready to learn,” Hogun said.

Loki frowned, not entirely sure what that was supposed to mean.

“Don’t worry about him,” the other boy called over.  “He wouldn’t know a cheery thought if it kicked him in his manhood.”

Loki stifled a laugh at the thought and looked over to Hogun’s friend, only then realising that he was working on tying new fletching to a stack of arrows.

“Surely, that can’t be true.” Loki looked over his shoulder to Hogun, who ignored them.

“If you still think that then you haven’t known him long enough, my friend.”

Hogun released his eagle again and Loki ducked and ran to be out of its way.  He wasn’t even sure why he was so afraid of it, but the very thrashing of its wings made every part of his being explode in some visceral terror he couldn’t even name.  Perhaps Hogun was right, and learning how to tame one for himself should wait until he was older.  Or at least able to tame his own fear.

The boy with the arrows laughed, but there was no malice to it.  All the same, it took Loki a few seconds to realise that it was not he who was being laughed at, but Hogun’s ridiculous bird.

“Don’t feel bad.  I hate that thing too,” he said.  He held up the arrow he was working on.  “Now this is a proper sport.  It requires skill and has no illusion of status.”

Loki realised the boy was speaking to him and turned to look at him.  The boy faltered suddenly, struggling to find a way to work his words into an apology.  Loki ignored it all and shrugged.

“If you know who I am then you must certainly know I was adopted into it,” he said, managing to keep the bitterness from his voice.

The boy looked away, nervously rolling one of his arrows between his fingers.  He wasn’t anyone Loki had seen around the palace, but Loki didn’t think he could have been from the city either.  Not if he was hanging around Hogun, and seemed to be friendly with him.  But he wore old clothes, and his hair was long not by style, but because whoever took care of him clearly hadn’t taken the time to cut it regularly.

Whoever he was, he clearly didn’t have the sense to keep his mouth shut.

“Right.  I don’t like to be on uneven footing,” Loki said, ignoring the discomfort with the situation.  “You apparently know everything about me, and I don’t even know your name.”

“Oh, uh.  Fandral,” he said.  “My mother is a washer woman in the palace.  I’m—”

“You must know all the hidden paths, then!” Loki said.

He no longer cared who Fandral was, or what idiotic things came from his mouth.  If he was a servant’s boy, there was no telling what possibilities he could open up within the palace.

Fandral looked away again in embarrassment.  “No, not really,” he said.

“Oh,” said Loki. 

He knew the servants in the palace had children of their own, but with them being forbidden from much of the palace, he’d never actually met one.  He’d at least suspected they’d spend their days running around inside the walls, but clearly that wasn’t the case.

“What a waste,” he said.  “Perhaps I shall have to show you sometime.”

Behind them, Hogun’s bird landed with a deafening screech, causing Loki to duck without thought.  He thought perhaps Hogun made it do that on purpose.

“You know all the hidden paths?” Fandral asked, ignoring the eagle.

“Most of them, I think,” Loki said, trying to do the same.  The eagle screeched, and he cast a suspicious glance over his shoulder despite himself.  “But I still sometimes find new ones, so there are likely many more I’ve still missed.”

“Wow,” Fandral said, almost appreciatively.  “I didn’t think you lot cared about that.  I always thought you preferred to, I don’t know, pretend these things didn’t exist.”

Loki shrugged again.  It was rare these days to find himself included in the idea of Asgard’s royal family, and now that he was, he had no words to say to it.  The two of them fell into an uneasy silence again and Fandral looked away, steeling himself.  Loki saw the question forming before Fandral even put words to it and steeled himself for whatever was about to be said.  Perhaps he did care about what came out of Fandral’s mouth after all.

“So, is it true?” Fandral asked.  “What they’re saying about you?”

“They say many things about me,” Loki pointed out with a tired sigh.  “But yes, the core of it is.”

He watched Fandral, waiting for him to make his thoughts on the matter known.  Fandral cleared his throat suddenly and once more looked away, returning his attention to his arrows.

“Well, there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said, his voice stilted and stiff.  “I’m sure you’re a fine chap all the same.”

Loki rolled his eyes.  He had no time for someone too cowardly to speak his own mind, and started to turn to walk away.

“Do you shoot?” Fandral asked suddenly.

“What?”

Loki was caught off guard by the sudden change in topic.  It wasn’t until Fandral held up his bow that he saw the meaning.

“Archery,” Fandral said.  “Do you?”

Loki shook his head.  “I’ve not yet started weapons training.”

It was a lie, though not completely.  He was old enough, and Thor had already been training with a wooden sword for half a year.  Being technically in the same class, Loki should have started as well.  But starting weapons would require his participation in the first place.

Fandral saw some of this doubt on Loki’s face.  “Come on, I’ll show you,” he offered.  “Since Billy Goat Grim over there won’t share his bird.  I swear, one of these days, I’m going to shoot it right out of the sky.”

“And then I would kill you in your sleep,” Hogun said evenly, not sparing the other two so much as a glance.

“Charming,” Fandral said flatly, completely unamused by Hogun’s response.  “I can see why you’re always surrounded by adoring on-lookers.”

He led Loki a few paces away to a mark in the ground aligned with a set of targets on the other end of the field.  Looking out at them, Loki realised they’d been out for some time, and wondered if Fandral had set them up himself.

“Why do you make friends with him if you don’t like him?” Loki asked, casting a glance back at Hogun.

“Are you kidding?” asked Fandral incredulously.  “He’s hilarious.  I don’t know what I’d do without him.”

The words were obviously a lie, but at the same time, there must have been some truth to them.  Why else would Fandral put himself in the company of someone he despised? Loki decided to drop the line of conversation entirely and watched with fascination as Fandral strung up his bow.  Once satisfied, Fandral pulled an intricately decorated bit of leather from his quiver and handed it to Loki.

“You’ll probably want to wear that,” he said.

Loki looked down at it, running his fingers over its thin straps.  Burnt into the leather were two gryphons, with intricate runes along the borders; something that had taken someone a lot of time and effort to craft.   He’d have hated to break it.

“I should be fine without it,” he said, handing it back.

Fandral looked at him dubiously, but could not bring himself to argue with one of the princes of Asgard, even about the benefits of wearing an arm guard.

“Very well,” he said, slipping it back into his quiver.  “Which is your dominant eye?”

It was not a question Loki had ever been asked before, and he wasn’t sure which answer to give it. 

“Neither?” he said, uncertainly.

Fandral tried very hard not to roll his eyes.

“All right.  Which is your dominant hand, then?” Fandral asked patiently.

This answer, Loki did know.  “My left,” he said.

Fandral showed him how to hold the bow and steady the arrow with his fingers, guiding Loki’s hands with his own.  Loki tensed out of habit at the closeness of their bodies as Fandral put him into position, but he didn’t fight it.  Fandral wrangled Loki into a firm stance, kicking his feet to get them to move where he wanted them and considering it a victory when Loki didn’t try to put his feet back where they’d been.

“Anchor the end just at the corner of your mouth, here,” he said, bringing Loki’s hand up to the side of his face.  “And when you loose the arrow, release your fingers quickly.  Otherwise, you’ll lose the tension before the arrow goes anywhere.”

He stepped back from Loki, putting a few feet of distance between them.

“Take your time to aim,” he said.  “And release the arrow on the exhale.”

Loki carefully aligned the tip of the arrow with the nearest target.  After a few breaths, he released the arrow with a sharp thwap!  He neither saw nor cared where the arrow landed, distracted by a sharp pain in his forearm.

“Mother of hel!” he shouted, nearly dropping Fandral’s bow.  “Why!?”

Fandral tried not to laugh as he took the bow from Loki.  On the inside of Loki’s forearm was already the beginning of an angry bruise, at the centre of which was a long streak of a burn that was slowly dripping blood down his arm.

“You all right there?” Fandral asked, reaching out to help.

“No, don’t touch!” Loki said, pulling his arm away.

Fandral quickly pulled his own hand away and jumped back to put distance between them.  For a moment, he stared silently at Loki, while Loki grimaced down at the sorry state of his arm.

“Why? It’s not going to freeze me, is it?” Fandral asked nervously.

Loki looked at him incredulously.  “No, it hurts,” he said.  “I just don’t want you to touch it.”

“Oh,” Fandral said dumbly.

“I’m a warm-blooded creature,” Loki reminded him.  “I have to make myself cold, and it takes energy.”

Leaving Fandral to work out how to pull his foot from his mouth, Loki began carefully prodding the area around the bruise on his arm.  He soon realised that it was only going to get worse, so he quickly took off his tunic and began to tear a long strip from the fabric.  He needed only to grip it in his teeth before his magic took hold and the fabric gave way easily, tearing a long line down the sleeve.  He tore at the sleeve again and extracted a suitable bandage from his tunic, which he quickly wrapped round his arm to stop the bleeding.

He finally looked up again to find Fandral staring at him apprehensively.  Even Hogun was watching him, though it was difficult to read the emotion on his face.

Loki realised that this was the first time he had practised that sort of magic outside the palace, and although it was a minor spell, it could be disconcerting for his new companions.  He wondered if he might be due another beating, and eyed them warily.

“By the norns’ teeth, what happened to you?” Fandral asked.

Loki realised where Fandral was looking—not at the shredded fabric, but at Loki’s chest and stomach, still mottled with faded signs of previous fights from earlier in the week, with Sif’s earlier pounding already showing on top of it all.

“Oh.  I get into a lot of fights.  I also lose a lot of fights.”  He shrugged, and looked down at the ruined tunic in his hands.  “I thought you were scared about this.”

He gestured to the remains of his tunic, not sure what to do with it now that it had been fairly thoroughly destroyed.

“No, I’ve seen magic before,” Fandral said.  “And isn’t that just something all fr… all Jötuns do?”

“Jötnar,” Loki corrected, suddenly finding it difficult to meet Fandral’s eye.  “But thank you for not saying… the other thing.”

Fandral nodded.  “Is that why you get into the fights?”

“Sometimes,” Loki said.  “But the one I got into today was because I called Sif a girl.”

“Sif is a girl,” Fandral pointed out.

“Don’t tell her that.”

The two of them laughed and even Hogun chuckled quietly, which surprised Loki.  Up until that moment, he wasn’t sure the strange Midgardian boy was capable of such things.

“Are you ready to try again?” Fandral asked, offering Loki the bow once more.

“I think I should wear that other thing this time,” Loki said.  “You never told me that your weapon harms its user.”

“I think you should try the other hand.” Fandral handed him the bow and arm guard.  “That last shot was terrible.  You missed the target completely.”

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #13: Bargains

Loki sat high in the stable’s rafters, able to see Thor and his friends from this perch.  While he couldn’t hear them over the distance, he could imagine the sorts of things they were saying.  Horrible, cruel things that nobody would refute.  Thor had been honest and forthcoming about what he had known when rumours and truth alike began to spread across Asgard, but every one of his words went ignored in the certain knowledge that he had been deceived by Loki.  Thor was now, more than ever, surrounded by constant assurances of his worth while at the same time, Loki was insulted and degraded by those same words.  That anything else would be the topic of conversation amongst Thor and his friends wasn’t even the slightest possibility in Loki’s mind.  And as he watched, and as those around Thor spread their venom and poison amongst themselves, Thor continued oblivious to all of it.  He would defend Loki, but even that had begun to wane as days went by.  And soon, Loki knew, Thor would stop defending him entirely.  Soon, Thor might even begin to believe what they all said.

Loki was startled from his thoughts by the heavy stable door being pulled open suddenly.  He looked down to see Volstagg taking a less than stealthy reprieve from whatever duties he had been assigned that day.  Setting himself on a bench along the wall, Volstagg opened a large cloth pouch, revealing a stack of bread rolls.

“Should you be here?” Loki asked, the sudden sound of his voice causing Volstagg to jump so sharply that he nearly dropped the roll he was holding.

With the roll firmly in his grasp once more, Volstagg looked up at Loki, still surprised to find anyone at all.

“Shouldn’t you have snuck off by now?” he asked.

Loki shrugged lazily.  “I thought about it,” he admitted.  “But where would I go? At least here I’m left alone.” He gave Volstagg a pointed look, making sure the mountain of a man knew whose space he was invading.  “Or was.”

He watched Volstagg take his lunch, slightly wary.  He could not tell if this was meant to be some sort of test, or if Volstagg’s intentions were as plain as they appeared.  Was he here to back Odin’s treacherous, adopted son into a corner of his own lies?  Find reason to finally expel him from the realm?

“Boys your age are meant to get into trouble,” Volstagg said, focusing more on his impromptu meal than Loki.  “How else are you supposed to learn to get out of it as a man?”

Loki grew even more suspicious of Volstagg’s presence.  But if he was there to goad Loki into making more trouble for himself, he was not being subtle about it.  Not that Volstagg was a terribly subtle man to begin with.

“Who did you steal the bread from?” Loki asked, not caring either way but wanting a change of subject.

Volstagg looked up at him slowly before turning to look over his shoulder for any who might see them.  Loki had not actually expected the bread to be stolen, but at Volstagg’s reaction, he knew he had unwittingly caught the man out.  As he raised his eyebrows inquiringly, Volstagg glared at him in a failed attempt to threaten him.  Though, if Volstagg had paid more attention to Loki than to the thread of being called a thief, he might have known that there were few on Asgard who would listen to him at all.  Faded bruises stained his face and arms, and he did nothing to hide them.  He would let all of Asgard see the beatings he could walk away from.

“I won’t tell if you don’t,” he said, watching Loki as if he expected him to leap from the rafters and announce what he’d witnessed to anyone who would listen. 

Loki allowed himself to grin.  Perhaps not a trap after all.  He sat up, letting his feet dangle down beneath him.

“Finish my work for me and we have a deal,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest.

Volstagg frowned at having been out-smarted by a twelve-year-old boy.  “Gods help the fool who should ever cross you,” he said.  “If you get caught, you are on your own, and I know nothing about any of it.”

Loki smiled as he let himself drop down from the rafters. 

“Then I shall have to endeavour to not get caught,” he said.

He jumped out through a window in an empty stall, leaving Volstagg to finish his stolen bread.  Having nothing better to do with his newly-won, if temporary freedom, Loki sought out Thor.  He found him with Sif and Flosi, as well as a few boys from the court.  At the sight of Freyr amongst the group, Loki reconsidered his idea to join them and began a swift retreat, but he was spotted before he managed to get far.

“What’s he doing here,” Freyr demanded, stopping Loki in his tracks.  “I didn’t think the Allfather let him out of his cage during the day.”

Loki took a deep breath before turning back round to face the group. 

“I was just leaving,” he said, shrugging dramatically.  “I wouldn’t want your Vanir visage to infect my eyes.”

“Loki,” Thor scolded.

The others in the group looked warily at one another, Flosi taking a step backward to distance herself from the boys.  No longer willing to walk away from this fight, Loki turned his sharp gaze to Thor.

“Oh, so you take his side now, do you?” he asked bitterly.

“I take no sides in this,” Thor said.

“Lies never did suit you, brother,” Loki said.  He laughed, forced and indignantly.

“I am not lying!” Thor shouted as he stepped closer to Loki. 

Loki glared at him, holding his ground.  Caught off-guard by Loki’s refusal to back down, Thor faltered in his own step and looked away.

“You should be on my side.” Loki said, holding himself back from shouting.

“I am—”

“Stop lying to me!”

Loki no longer cared about whether or not he was shouting.  With his fists balled tightly at his sides, he took another step closer to Thor.  Thor may have been bigger and tougher, but Loki knew he could get a few good swings in before Thor decided to fight back.

Freyr snorted.  “As if you would ever know the truth if you heard it.”

“I know your father is an incestuous letch,” Loki said, turning to face him.  “Your true mother’s also your aunt, isn’t she?  Or does the entire court speak lies?”

“You whoreson dog!” Freyr shouted.

Before anyone could move to stop him, Freyr bounded toward Loki, tackling him to the ground.  Wailing incoherently, Freyr lashed out with balled fists and struck Loki again and again about the face and head, almost heedless to his own actions.  Loki blocked his face from any further blows with his arms and moved to kick Freyr off him, but his heel found no target as Freyr was already being pulled away by Thor.

“You dare strike my brother?” Thor shouted, punching Freyr in his jaw so hard that he fell to the ground.

Loki watched this with barely-controlled rage at the farce that played out before him.  Spitting blood at the ground, he got to his feet.

“Yes, Thor.  That was very helpful,” he said bitterly.

Casting a hard glance at Freyr, Loki wiped his mouth with his hand and turned away from the group.  He neither knew nor cared where he was going, only intending to get there, and away from Thor and everyone he called his friends as quickly as possible.  He ignored the hushed tones of scandalised conversation that began to rise from behind him and focused on keeping his attention straight ahead of him.

“Loki, stop,” Thor called from behind him.

Loki ignored him and strode on, picking up his pace.  Thor broke into a run to catch up with Loki, placing a hand on his shoulder when he finally did.

“Loki, stop,” Thor said again.  “We won the fight.  All is well.”

Loki spun round to face him, holding his fists tightly at his sides so he wasn’t as tempted to smack Thor right in his stupid face.

“No, Thor.  You won the fight,” he said.  He spat blood onto the ground and wiped his mouth with his cuff.  “All is not well.” 

Loki lost every fight he found himself in, and did not need to be fed lies when he was spared another beating.  He would rather take the beating than be rescued like some helpless creature.

Thor looked at him with barely-concealed confusion written across his face. 

“How?” he asked.  “Freyr should not give you any further problems after this day.  And I shall see that he doesn’t.”

“Am I your sister?” Loki demanded.

Thor blinked, unsure what Loki was trying to do.  “No,” he said slowly.  “You are my—”

“Then why do you treat me like it?” Loki asked.  “What good does it possibly do?”

“He attacked you,” Thor reminded him.  “I was defending you.”

“No, Thor,” Loki said.  “You were not defending me; you were defending your pride.  But now, thanks to your need to have everything be about you, they all think that I am unable to defend myself.  Because you felt like showing off!”

Thor’s face dropped at the barbs from Loki.  Loki knew he couldn’t defend himself, as did everyone else.  But Thor’s interference would only make it worse.

“Look at you,” Thor said.  He gestured to Loki, as though his point was already made.  “That’s not all from today.  You’ve been losing fights since the day Sif found you out.”

Loki howled in frustration and kicked Thor in the knee, dropping him to the ground.  Feeling no satisfaction from it at all, he turned quickly and stomped away.  This time, Thor let him go.

Caring not where he went, Loki picked a path at random and followed it.  As it struck him to do so, he changed directions and doubled back on his tracks until eventually he found himself beyond the palace grounds and in an open, sprawling field.  He seldom had reason to leave the grounds and knew little of the city beyond.  But being away from everything—away from Thor and those he called friends—was enough to make his anger dissipate, and soon Loki began to let his curiosity drive his wandering.

He soon came upon an open field, and a boy not much older than himself staring up toward something in the sky.  He wasn’t anyone Loki recognised, and yet he didn’t dress like a peasant either.  His clothes were new, and clearly made to fit him, rather than handed down from an older sibling or cousin.  Still, there was something familiar about him, as though Loki had seen him somewhere before.  Though at that moment he could not place when or where.  He walked up beside the stranger and was about to ask what he was watching when the boy held out his arm as a perch for a great eagle that dove from the sky.

Loki reeled back quickly to be away from its beating wings and sharp talons, but the stranger stood silent, unconcerned about the beast.  The eagle quickly settled, and was rewarded with a small piece of meat from a leather pouch at the boy’s hip.  Through the rush of his heart beating in his chest, Loki slowly realised he had panicked over some boy’s pet bird.

“I didn’t know they could be tamed,” Loki said, watching the whole thing intently.

He was answered with nothing more than a nod.  As he watched the other boy place a small hood made of leather over the eagle’s head, Loki realised where he had seen him before.  He slowly stood, careful to keep his distance as he looked from the other boy to his bird, and then back again. 

“You’re Bragi’s stepson, aren’t you?” Loki asked, ignoring the fact that he was being ignored.  “I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”

“Hogun,” the boy answered simply.

“Is it true you’re from Midgard?” he asked, unable to keep the curiosity from his voice.

The boy did not answer as he tended to his bird.  He only nodded as he started to walk back toward the palace.  Not wanting to give up this opportunity while he had it, Loki followed after him.

“Can you tell me about it?” he asked.

Hogun paused in his step long enough to look over at Loki, though whether in annoyance or simply to size him up, Loki could not tell.

“My people were attacked by an invading army,” Hogun said, walking again.  “Only my mother and I survived.”

“Oh,” Loki said, not sure what else he could say.

Hogun’s accent and speech were strange, and it occurred to Loki that he was speaking one of Midgard’s many languages.  He wanted to get Hogun to say more so that he could continue to listen to it.

“I don’t see you around the palace much.”

“Because I do not belong there,” Hogun replied with very little inflection at all.

Loki snorted.  “I know the feeling.”

He looked back over to Hogun, expecting him to say something else.  But the grim Midgardian boy remained silent.  Despite this, Loki did not feel unwelcome by his side.  He made no indication either way, whether he wanted Loki to leave or not.  But he allowed him to be there at all, still far more welcoming than any other person Loki had met that day.  Even Volstagg was glad to have him gone.

Loki turned his attention back to Hogun’s eagle, perched on his hand, and walked across the field with him in silence.

Loki stood before the polished mirror in his bed chamber, shirtless and still in his Æsir form.  Even with his false skin, his bruises and cuts from the day’s fight with Freyr and those faded from earlier scraps with other boys showed on his face, dark and heavy against the fair Æsir colour.  He knew he should probably have gone to see Eir in her healing rooms, but he did not wish to bother the woman.  Less was this a matter of politeness, and more that Loki had not needed visit her since before his secret had become known.  Even amongst the few who had already been made aware, it had apparently become acceptable to let distrust and anger at him show.

Eir was always such a kind, helpful woman, and Loki did not want that idea of her to change.

Looking at himself in the mirror, all lean lines and sinew, Loki realised he had never been properly hidden in the first place.  He had always stood out against the Æsir in one way or another, and nothing he could do would ever change that.  He was too short and far too skinny, apparently unable to put on either muscle or fat.  But even if he did change his shape completely, he would never be one of them.  He was just a Jötunn runt, doomed to be forever different.

Loki let out something of an amused huff and breathed heavily against his palms until they were moist with his breath.  Driven by a morbid sense of curiosity, he ran his hands over his hair and twined his fingers through it.  With each pass, his hair lightened slightly, and he had to replace the breath on his palms twice before he was satisfied with the results.  This glamour was still tricky for him even after years of knowing it, and impossible to manage internally still, but he had not played with it much.  Odin had explained, when he first taught Loki this magic years before, that hair was always difficult to change like this because the glamour could not easily hold onto something that was not living, as skin was.

Loki hardly recognised the person in the mirror.  He ran his fingers through his hair, this time experimentally.  He had hoped to find something soft and silky to match the new straw colour of his hair, but it still held onto the oil and grease that was always there.  It was also completely foreign and Loki hated the look of it immediately.  He would not pander to the Æsir.  He let the false colour drop quickly from his hair as he shook his head, feeling far more himself with his own dark colour.

Everyone in the palace by now knew what he was, and soon all of Asgard would hear of the monster Odin let freely wander the realm.  There was no longer any need to hide himself.  While it would be suicide to leave the palace in his natural form, there were other ways in which to taunt the Æsir.  He blew a quick puff of air against his fingernails, releasing the pink colour to them and letting them go inky and black as they naturally were.  Though they stood out like this more than he had expected them to, it still didn’t seem like enough.  Gazing into the mirror again, it struck him that there was something obvious, yet small, he could change.  He closed his eyes and dragged his hand over his face, and when he again looked into the mirror, it was with eyes the colour of rubies.  And it was entirely too much, he realised at once.  He again closed his eyes and shook his head, and this time when Loki looked into the mirror, he was pleased with what he saw.  The vibrant green of his eyes was a subtle change from the blue of the Æsir’s eyes, but bright and piercing all the same. 

He tried next with his ears, allowing their subtle points at the tips to show, and immediately hated it as well.  Not only did it just call more attention to his ears and they way they stuck out, but it made him look like an elf.  And there was absolutely nothing wrong with being an elf, which for once was not what Loki wanted.  He could change his skin to blend in, but no longer would he pretend to be what he was not.  He was simply Loki.  It was all he ever needed to be.

As he stood before the mirror inspecting himself, he door to his bed chamber opened, quickly spoiling Loki’s mood.

“What do you want?” he snapped harshly.

“Do not speak to me that way,” Odin said sternly as he entered the room.

Loki spun round, surprised by this visitor.  “I am sorry, Father,” he said earnestly.  “I thought you were Thor.”

It wasn’t an excuse, but it was all Loki had.  Odin studied Loki harshly for a moment before nodding and accepting his apology. 

“Are you two quarrelling again?” he asked as he approached Loki.

Loki turned back to the mirror, still unsatisfied with his work.  “Yes,” he answered simply, not daring to incriminate himself by giving up the cause for it.

“I heard about today’s incident,” Odin said.

Loki waited for an admonishment for leaving his work before he was finished, but none came.

“I am not speaking with him right now,” he said.  “And I will continue not to do so until he understands why.”

He bared his teeth and wondered what they might look like now with harsh and jagged points.  Briefly, he regretted having them filed, but he knew Frigga had been right to insist.  He may have lost that part of himself forever, but it was easier for him to speak and be understood.  Sighing at the whole sorry lot of it, he deflated a bit at his own reflection

“What are you doing, boy?” Odin asked, watching this from over Loki’s shoulder.

“Experimenting,” Loki told him.  “I am sick to tears of hiding and shall do so no longer.”

Odin placed a hand on Loki’s shoulder and looked at him through the mirror.  “Are you sure about this path you wish to take?”

“I have survived more dangerous things than a brawl with an idiot,” Loki said.

“Then you know there are more dangerous things.”

Loki turned to look up at his father, seeing the plain concern on his face.  He nodded and turned back to the mirror.

“This is something I feel I need to do,” he said.  “I will not let my entire life be a lie.  There is nothing to be gained from it.”

“Very well,” Odin said.  He let his hand slip from Loki’s shoulder and took a step back.  “As you are quarrelling with your brother, shall I expect you to take your supper in here tonight?”

“Yes,” Loki said.  “And every night until he apologises.”

“Very well,” Odin repeated, already tired from what was sure to be a long month ahead of them.  “I shall see that the servants are informed.”

“Thank you,” Loki said, bowing his head slightly.  “Send mother my love.”

Without another word, Odin left Loki’s chambers.  With him gone, Loki undressed the rest of the way and made for his bath chamber to clean himself of the day’s mud and blood and other filth.

 

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #12: Vault

Loki was still asleep when the doors to his bedchamber opened.  Wanting nothing to do with whatever nonsense Thor was bringing him, he buried himself beneath his blankets and tried to go back to sleep.  But the lack of trampling footsteps was Loki’s first clue that it was not Thor who had entered his chambers.  Knowing that anyone else could not be so easily ignored, Loki dared to peek out from beneath his blankets to find Bror standing beside his bed.

For a long moment, neither of them spoke.  Loki tried to will him to go away, but Bror was persistent, and stayed right where he was.

“Come on,” Bror said finally, nodding toward the door.

Sighing deeply, Loki rolled all the way over and off the other side of his bed to dress, putting in as little effort as he thought he could get away with.  As he dressed, he found himself tempted to go wherever Bror was taking him in his true form, but it was not a strong temptation.  Angry though he may have been—at his father; at Sif; at everything about the situation—Loki rather enjoyed breathing.  Parading himself through the palace halls without taking effort to conceal himself could only get him killed.

He concealed himself, taking on an Æsir appearance, but otherwise didn’t even bother making himself presentable for wherever he was being taken.  He quickly combed his fingers to his hair as he got to his feet, and made sure he was fully dressed, and went no further in his efforts. 

“Let’s go get shouted at some more,” he said as he walked around the bed to follow Bror to his doom.

He was not surprised to be led to the throne room, nor to find Thor already awake and skulking nearby.  But he was surprised to be led in alone, and again to find Iri already there, shouting at Odin as usual.  Loki turned to Bror, hoping he might stay, but he was already halfway out the door.  Loki’s arrival did not go unnoticed, though he wished it had.  Iri stopped whatever tirade he was on, and turned to face Loki.

“You,” he said, striding across the room as Loki backed away.  “You truly believed you could get away with this?”

Loki backed against the wall, staying silent to avoid saying the wrong thing entirely.  Being shouted at by Odin was one thing, but being shouted at by one of Odin’s vassals was not something he was prepared to deal with.  But before Iri could get too close, Odin’s guards stepped between them, herding the Vanir king back.

“What trickery does this?” Iri demanded, turning back toward Odin while still pointing to Loki.  “What happened?  Did your schemes get away from you, so you spun some tale of a sickly little runt to cover your tracks?”

“I’m not sick!” Loki said, daring to take a step forward. 

Iri sneered at Loki before turning his attention back to Odin.  “If you think for even a moment that I’m going to allow that thing anywhere near my daughter—”

“I don’t think,” Odin said.  “This changes nothing, because nothing has changed.”

Iri stepped close to Odin again, invading his space and trying to lean close enough into Odin to force him to step back.  But Odin held his spot, not moving away from Iri.  Loki watched his father remain utterly unmoved, showing not a trace of emotion or reaction even as Iri further descended into outrage.  It was like watching a madman argue with a stone wall.

“My uncle may have bent to your whims, but he doesn’t rule Vanaheimr now.  I do,” Iri said.  “And I will not bend as easily.”

Odin chuckled, briefly and sharp.  “You have no more power over Vanaheimr than a country jarl,” Odin said.  “And if you wish to keep that power, you will do what is commanded of you.”

Iri shook his head, slowly and deliberately.  “Your kingdom is built on lies and deceit.  Knowing this, are we even certain Thor is yours?” he asked.

He turned to look at Loki, his gaze so full of venom that Loki had to resist the urge to step back again.  Odin hadn’t even flinched at Iri’s words, letting him say whatever horrible things came to his lips without consequence.

“It’s been so long, after all,” Iri said, clearly bolstered by Odin’s lack of response.  “I couldn’t believe it when I’d heard.  That she’d share your bed again, after what you did to her.”

“Asgard needed an heir,” Odin said.  “She knew this, and unlike you, understood her duty to her realm.”

Iri laughed, finally stepping back.  “This isn’t her realm.  She belongs on Vanaheimr.”

“Your uncle knew the price for peace,” Odin said, still in the same spot he’d been.  Still utterly unmoved by any of it.  “I’m surprised you don’t.”

Iri shook his head, and again walked toward Loki.  As he stepped closer, Loki realised he stood between Iri and the door, and quickly moved out of the way.

“All of Yggdrasil will know of this, Allfather,” Iri said as he reached the door.  “All of it.  Bad news travels fast.”

Without another word, Iri threw the door open and strode out, leaving Loki standing in his wake.  Loki watched the door close, glad to put the barrier between him and Iri, before he turned to face Odin.  He could feel the weight of his father’s glare on him, making him feel as though he should slink back through the door as well.  Odin was no longer the unreadable stone wall he was just moments earlier.

“Well,” Odin said, all of his anger toward Iri now directed toward Loki in that single word.  “I suppose you’re going to tell me you agree with him?”

Loki shook his head.  He did agree with Iri, and would have done anything to get out of the marriage Odin had planned for him, but he did not dare give voice to it.  Not if he ever wanted to see the light of day again.  But his response seemed to appease Odin.  He took a deep breath and finally stepped away from the spot he’d held the entire time Iri stood shouting in his face, slowly striding toward the throne.

“I have done nothing but make deals and demands to undo the damage your carelessness has created,” Odin said, making Loki wish Iri was still there in the hall with them.  At least with Iri shouting and ranting, Odin hadn’t been inclined to do the same.  “Half of Yggdrasil believes your actions have made void one agreement or another.”

Loki took a deep breath, trying to find the courage to stay where he was, and not run away into the shadows.

“What of Jötunheimr?” he asked.

“You should count yourself lucky that Jötunheimr is not amongst them,” Odin said.

He stood tall and unmoving for a long moment, staring down at Loki as though he were some sort of traitor to the realm.  Then, finally, he at upon the throne, dropping as though he held the entire weight of Asgard upon him.  Still, Loki fought to stay where he was, as unmoving and impassive as his father had appeared.  He didn’t feel like his father.  He felt like a coward.

“However,” Odin said finally, pouring enough weight onto that single word that Loki thought he might suffocate under it.  “You should know that I can no longer protect you outside of these walls.  I had hoped in time to reveal the truth, but your actions will not be forgotten.  Iri spoke the truth; bad news travels fast.”

Loki realised suddenly what Odin meant.  Sif’s lies had already spread beyond the realm, and the truth would never catch up to them.  Loki took a deep breath, hoping to at least defend himself.

“Father, I didn’t—”

“Silence,” Odin said, so sharply Loki took a step backwards out of reflex.  “Whatever your intent may have been, we are still standing here, discussing this.”

Loki held his tongue, resisting the urge to speak his thoughts; to protest that they were discussing nothing.  Loki was being punished and reprimanded for something he didn’t even do.

“Loki, I took you for a reason,” Odin said, a weariness on his voice that hadn’t been there a moment before.  “And now, despite years of planning and preparation, it may have all been for nothing.  Pray, Loki, do not disappoint me again.  I have no other options.”

With that, he shook his head and waved Loki away.  Loki stood silently for a long moment, biting his lip and glaring at his father before finally turning and walking away.  He kept his jaw clenched tightly as he left the throne room, not daring to make a sound even as the doors swung heavily shut behind him.  He had not been told to return to his chambers, so he went elsewhere instead, seeking out Thor.  Thor would understand.  Odin may have been a vile old man in this matter, but Thor had always been on his side.

He found Thor outside the training grounds, along with Freyr and Theoric, all freshly muddy and bruised from training.  Thor noticed him first, grinning widely as he rushed over to greet him.

“Loki, you’ve just missed training,” Thor said.

Loki shrugged.  He didn’t care what he’d missed.

“That’s not your brother,” Freyr said.

Thor spun round quickly to face him, trying to glare the way their father did when he’d been insulted.  But rather than helping, Theoric shrugged and nodded.

“He’s right,” Theoric said.  “My father said the Jötuns snuck into the palace and replaced your brother with that.”

“Loki is my brother!” Thor shouted, his fists balled tightly at his sides.  “Your father knows nothing.”

He was not the cold, emotionless image of their father, and for a moment, Loki hated him for it.

Freyr only shrugged.  “My father’s always said there was something wrong with him.  Look at him.  He’s such a little runt, the frost giants didn’t even want him.”

“What do you think they did with the real one?” Theoric asked.

While Thor shouted back at them, demanding their silence, Loki decided he didn’t care enough to stick around.  He had enough experience in not being wanted to know that his presence at the training ring with futile, so he turned and headed back toward the palace, ignoring the rising sounds of arguments behind him.  He had no plan for where he was going, or what he was going to do.  All he knew was that he wasn’t going to allow anyone to see that he cared.  Not now, and not ever.  He would pretend he didn’t care until it was true.  If it worked for his father, it would work for him.  Loki wandered aimlessly, letting his feet take him through corridors and and down stairs, until he found himself beneath the throne room.  He had never been explicitly disallowed from the vault, but he’d never been there alone either.  Still, as he approached the guards outside the doors, he braced himself to be told to leave.  When no such order came, Loki pushed his way through the doors to the hall on the other side.  Beyond the stairs lay rows and rows of items stolen and plundered from other realms, now claimed by Odin as treasures.  The source of Odin’s power wasn’t Gungnir, or the runes, or even Asgard itself.  It was what he had taken from other realms, held for ransom or in threat of use, to keep the rest of Yggdrasil beneath Asgard.

Loki wondered why he had not been kept in the vault like everything else Odin had stolen.  Perhaps he would be, now that his use had ended.  One more stolen relic amongst the rest, forgotten and ignored until he might one day be of use.

Now that he was in the vault, Loki was no longer wandering.  There was one item above all others he wished to see.  An item only he within Asgard could use.

Unless that too had been a lie.

The Casket of Ancient Winters stood on a plinth near the Destroyer’s locked vault.  Loki stood before it, barely at eye level to it, watching as the raging storm within swirled and howled silently.  He expected to hear it call to him, like some far off voice beckoning him into the storm, but there was nothing.  It sat cold and silent, but not dead.  Very much not dead.

He cautiously reached out to touch it, letting his fingers graze its surface as a cold unlike any he had ever felt before overtook him.  The cold travelled up his hand and to his arm, taking with it the magic he used to conceal himself.  He watched as blue slowly replaced pink nearly reaching his elbow before the doors behind him slammed open, startling him away.

“Stop!” Odin shouted.

Loki spun round quickly, looking down at his hand as his own magic took hold again, with it a warmth so intense it nearly burned.

“I wasn’t doing anything,” Loki said, finding himself with nowhere to escape.

“Is that so?” Odin said, storming toward him with an anger unlike Loki had ever seen.  “You could have gone anywhere, and yet I find you here.  Your lies may work on your mother, but they do not work on me, boy.”

Before Loki could figure out what to do, Odin was upon him.  He grabbed Loki by the arm and pulled him back toward the door, moving too quickly for him to keep up under his own power.  As they came to the stairs leading back out of the vault, Loki braced himself for the worst, but Odin held him high enough to allow him to stumble along all the way up to the landing.  Rather than letting him go there, Odin took him all the way to Loki’s chambers, dragging him through the palace for all to see, and letting him go only once they were inside.  Loki stumbled back, letting himself fall to the ground where he might be harder to reach again.  He expected yelling and shouting, but the shouting never came.  If Odin expected his disappointment to be worse, he was wrong.  Odin’s disappointment wasn’t a raging, deadly storm.  Instead, he only shook his head and sighed.

“What the hel am I going to do with you?” Odin asked.

Loki said nothing, because anything he could say would only lead him into a trap.

Loki not appearing at banquet was not unexpected, but the discussion of the evening was.  An attempt on relics in the vault and Loki’s continued absence told Thor all he needed to know.  This time, rather than risking the kitchens, Thor stuffed his pockets full of bread and fruit and anything else that would fit before he slipped away.  Finding Loki’s chambers dark and quiet wasn’t terribly surprising, since everything below the stairs was an endless pile of junk Loki had stolen from elsewhere in the palace.  Ignoring all of it, Thor climbed the stairs up to the bedchamber, finding Loki again on his bed with a book.

“Brought you some supper,” Thor said, emptying his pockets onto Loki’s desk.  “It’s not much, but I didn’t think I could get back down to the kitchens.”

Loki looked up just long enough to see what Thor was doing.  “Thanks,” he said.

Thor watched Loki read for a long moment, glad to see that this time, Loki had at least not been struck.

“Labour or jail?” he asked.

“Labour,” Loki said.

Thor nodded and sat down at Loki’s desk, wondering what he needed with so much of it.  “How long?” he asked.

“Until the harvest,” Loki said, flipping through pages without truly reading them.  “I’ve lost my allowance as well.  Father says until I can be trusted.”

He shrugged, and Thor laughed. 

“Well, it’s not like you’ll need it shovelling horse shit all season,” he said.  “What were you trying to take?”

Loki sighed and slapped his book shut, tossing it aside.  “Nothing.  I was looking at the Casket.  It’s supposed to be mine anyway.”

“Once you finish training, stupid.  Not now,” Thor said, unable to stop himself from laughing.  “Will you even be at training if you’re stuck in the stables?”

“I don’t know,” Loki said.  “I didn’t care to ask.”

Thor frowned.  “You can’t just not go.”  He considered his own words for a moment.  “Well, the rest of us can’t.  But if you’ve figured out how to do your training in your sleep like you have the rest of your lessons.”

Finally, Loki laughed. “I do not,” he said.

“You must,” Thor said.  “You don’t go to your lessons, and when you do you get kicked out of them.  Last time I skipped a lesson, Father boxed my ears.”

“Get better at skipping lessons then,” he said.  “It only works if you don’t get caught.  Then it’s your word against theirs, and they’re not going to argue.  They’re too scared.”

“Because every time your teachers argue, they get banished!” Thor said, unsure if he should be upset or impressed.

“Just the one,” Loki said.

He got up to take one of the rolls Thor had brought, tearing into it carefully.

“You know, I’m not actually stuck here.  I just didn’t want to look his horrible face,” he said.  “And I only lost my future allowance; not what I have saved.”

He opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a coin purse, checking to see how much was inside.

“Loki, what are you thinking?” Thor asked.

He peered into the drawer, finding even more gold and silver inside.  He knew Loki didn’t spend much of his allowance, but until that moment, he didn’t realise just how much Loki didn’t spend.

“I’m thinking there are better places in this palace to eat,” he said.

He looked to Thor, waiting for him to make a decision.  After a long moment, Thor got up and walked to the stairs.  Rather than following him, Loki walked toward the other side of the room, stopping at one of the windows.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

Thor pointed down the stairs, and Loki answered by shaking his head.  Realising that the guards would see, and that Loki no doubt had picked this particular part of the palace for a reason, Thor followed him over to the window.  This time, Loki would not be leading them out through a precarious drop to hard ground far below.  Instead, he hopped out, landing on a long strip of angled roof.  While Loki nimbly ran across it, well familiar with this route, Thor moved more carefully, holding onto the sharp point at the top as he crawled along it to the tower across the courtyard.  On the other side, they crawled through another window that sat above a landing to a set of stairs.  Rather than taking the stairs, Loki ran straight down the corridor, leading a path through the palace and beyond.  Once they reached the edges of the palace near the walls and far gardens, he slowed his pace a bit, allowing Thor to better keep up.

“There’s a mead hall the guards and servants use,” Loki said, leading the way through a wide, open corridor that would not see darkness for several more months.  “What are your thoughts on goose?”

Thor followed him, taking in the sights as they walked.  “How do you know about this?” he asked.

“I found it last spring,” Loki said.  “I got sick of having to sit next to Lorelei all the time.”

Thor laughed.  He’d sought out a witch to get out of the same situation.  A mead hall sounded like a much better option.

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #11: Bribery

Thor did not see Loki at supper that evening, but suspected it might have been a good thing, the way many of those round the table seemed to be looking for danger.  Clearly, word had already got out and spread through the palace.  Many men had their weapons with them, which while not unheard of, was still uncommon.  Loki’s presence at the table might have caused even more problems than had already arisen that day.

Assuming Loki was only avoiding trouble, Thor went immediately to his brother’s chambers after supper.  He opened the door, finding Loki in his natural form on the bed, hunched over with a book in his hand and a large wad of wool roving stuffed up his nose.

“Loki, what happened?” Thor asked, quickly shutting the door.

Loki shrugged, not looking up from his book. 

“There was some shouting, I struck him, he struck me back, and I’m on stable duty until he says otherwise,” he said blandly.

Thor stared blankly at him, not sure how much, if any, had been a joke.  With Loki, it was often difficult to tell.

“You’re an idiot,” he said.

“Probably,” Loki agreed. 

He sighed, and finally looked up from his book.  Hidden against Loki’s dark skin was a bruise around his eye, and in that moment, Thor was certain Loki was about to cry.

“Thor, this is a disaster,” Loki said.

“What did he say?” Thor asked.

He stood close to the door, and Loki let him, staying in the middle of his bed.  For a long moment, neither said anything, both too nervous to break the silence that hung between them.  Then, Loki sniffed hard and shrugged.

“Called me careless.  Said it was my fault and that whatever happens next happens,” Loki said.

“Surely he didn’t say that,” Thor said.  “He’s not just going to leave you in danger.”

Loki shrugged again.  “I’ve never seen him so angry.”

Finally, Thor moved, stepping carefully toward Loki’s bed.  When Loki didn’t protest, Thor climbed up next to him.  Before he could even get settled, Loki leaned against him, trying with every ounce of his will not to cry, while Thor pretended he didn’t notice.

“Does this mean you’re not going to training?” Thor asked.

“I’m never going anywhere again,” Loki said.

Thor almost laughed, and only barely managed to restrain himself.

“After all that talk about finding a way to Midgard, and now you’re never leaving your chambers again?” he asked.

Something within Thor’s words broke the last remnants of Loki’s resolve, and he sobbed loudly.  Without a word, Thor pulled him close, hugging him all the while he tried to get himself back under control. 

“He’s just angry because Týr was being an ass about it,” Thor said.

Loki sniffed hard again, trying to stop wailing like an infant.  “Týr’s always an ass,” he said.

“That’s why Father’s always angry,” Thor said.  “Why do you think Sif’s the way she is?  She has to live with Týr as a father.”

Despite still crying, Loki managed the smallest laugh, which he immediately choked on.

“I hate her too,” he said.

“I think that’s allowed,” Thor said.  He hugged Loki a little closer.  “Were you given supper?”

Loki shook his head and sat back up.  He looked out the window, but couldn’t tell where Asgard’s suns were, or what time of day it was.

“No, he wants me to starve,” Loki said. 

Thor frowned and crawled to the edge of the bed.  “I’m not going to let him beat you up and make you starve.  I’ll be back,” he said.

Loki wanted to argue.  He wanted to insist he didn’t need Thor’s help; that he’d be fine on his own for one night.  But he said nothing and let Thor leave. 

Thor didn’t have any particular plan for sneaking food up to Loki, but he had expected to get father than the corridor before being intercepted.  As soon as the pair of guards spotted him, they made swift tracks straight in his direction, leaving him with nowhere to run.

“The Allfather commands your presence,” one of them said.

Already dreading the worst, Thor nodded and followed.  For a brief moment, he considered using Loki’s trick of kicking one of them in the knee and running in the opposite direction, but he knew he’d be caught, and whatever trouble he was already in would be even worse.  He wasn’t as good at sneaking around like Loki was, and then he’d have made a promise he couldn’t keep.  So Thor followed, silently dreading whatever trap he was being led to, and hoping he’d still be allowed to sneak away after.

The Einherjar led him to the throne room, where stood Odin and Týr, in a silent, stony tableau.  But it wasn’t the two of them who caught Thor’s attention.  Sif too was there, and Thor had seen this all before.

“No,” he said as soon as the thought crossed his mind.

“No?” Odin asked.  “You’ve not even been told why you’re here.”

Thor pointed to Sif, angry with her all over again.  “You’re going to make me marry her.  I will not,” he said.

He’d expected Sif to be surprised by this declaration.  Instead, she seethed.

“I don’t want to marry you either,” she said.

“It seems as though we’ve an abundance of children incapable of doing as they’re told,” Odin said.  “Neither of you have a choice, and I will not hear argument about it.”

While Sif recoiled at being told off by Odin, Thor wasn’t done.

“After what she did to Loki?” Thor asked.

Týr shook his head.  “You ask me, every last one of them needs the switch,” he said.

“Silence,” Odin commanded.  “Whatever quarrel you have will be put aside immediately.  We are past negotiating.”

Thor looked at Odin, and then to Týr, and back again, while beside him, Sif stood silent, still seething as Thor worked out a puzzle in his head.  He realised then that Odin had arranged this whole thing as a bribe.  He knew Týr terrified Loki, and didn’t need to wonder why.

It was for Loki’s sake that he nodded.  “Fine,” he said.  He did not say how much he hated it.

He watched as Odin and Týr nodded to one another, quick and curt.

“That settles it then,” Odin said.

“I think it does,” Týr said.

“Leave us,” said Odin, not even turning to address Thor directly.  “We’ve more to discuss.”

Thor glared at Sif for a moment longer before he turned to leave, with her a few steps behind.  He waited until they were both out of the room, with the door closed behind them before he spoke again.

“I don’t want to marry you,” he said.

“Good. I don’t want to be a queen,” Sif said quickly.  “I’m not going to be anybody’s brood mare.”

Thor tried very hard not to sigh.  “I’m only doing this for Loki,” he said. “That’s what this is about, isn’t it?  Your father gains status through you, and in exchange he doesn’t murder my brother.”

Sif sneered.  “Even now, you still call him your brother?” she asked.  “Knowing what he is.”

“I’ve always known,” Thor said.  “It was only a secret from people like your father.”

“My father says the war won’t be over until Asgard has been rid of monsters,” Sif said.

“Do not call him that!” Thor shouted, his voice echoing over the stone walls.  “Loki is a prince and you will show him that respect!”

Sif took a step back, shaking her head.  “You can’t make me,” she said, before turning and running.

Thor let her run.  He didn’t care where she went, so long as it was far away from him.  Alone, Thor wanted to yell and scream and hit things, but there was nothing suitable nearby to hit, and yelling and screaming would only attract Odin’s wrath.  Instead, he turned to continue his original quest, and headed toward the kitchens.  He found the servants around the table, eating their meal when he walked in.  At once, they all looked up at him as he entered, some standing abruptly, and others looking around unsure of what to do.

Thor had expected to find the kitchen empty, and finding it instead full stalled his plan.  He stood in the doorway, acutely aware that he was somewhere he should not have been, and having no idea how to rescue himself from this situation.  Finally, one of the women stood and walked toward him.

“Are you lost, my prince?” she asked. 

Thor shook his head, slowly at first, and then with purpose.  “No,” he said.  “My brother missed banquet.  I wish to take him something.”

An uneasy murmur rippled across the table, until finally the woman before Thor nodded uneasily.  “Yes, of course,” she said.

Thor could not help the creeping feeling that they had been instructed not to feed Loki, but at the same time, did not know how to refuse the request.  He watched as the woman hastily packed a basket with leftover boar and cheese and bread.  Then she paused, and she sighed and shook her head and began moving a bit more deliberately.  She packed a few jars into the basket, along with some fruits as well.  Far more, Thor thought, than Loki could ever eat at once.  Thor didn’t question it, suspecting she intended Loki to hide some of it away for next time.

And in that moment, Thor knew there would be a next time.

He stood patiently, hating this whole thing.  He watched as the woman finished packing up the basket, and wondered how he was meant to hide it.  He didn’t have Loki’s tricks, or his nerve for being caught breaking the rules.  But as the woman handed him the basket, she pointed him not through the door he’d come, but across the kitchen to another.

“Go that way,” she said, daring to nudge him along.

Thor only nodded.  “Thank you,” he said.

As he slipped into the corridor, he could hear quiet murmurs rise behind him, only to be quickly muffled again by the closing door.  The corridor he found himself in was not a public one, with polished stone walls and floors.  It was narrow and dark, lit by lanterns spaced a bit too far apart.  Thor followed it, clutching the basket in both arms, hoping he wasn’t being led into a trap.  When the corridor branched, he turned left, losing his nerve with each step.  He never paid much attention when he followed Loki through these dark spaces.  Loki would know exactly where to go, while Thor could only guess.  But when it led to a corridor he knew, he became convinced he had been led into a trap.  There were no more places to hide; no more shadows to sneak through.  Though it was a public corridor, the hour was late enough that even with the suns still above the horizon, many people had retired already.  Thor decided his best bet was to run as quickly as he could, turning sharp corners and staying as low as possible in hopes of not being caught. 

But there was one more obstacle which he had not accounted for.  Loki’s guards.  Hoping Loki’s tricks of brazen lies would do, Thor walked up to the door, expecting to be let in.  Instead, Bror and Geiri both looked down at him.

“What have you there?” Bror asked.

Thor looked down at the basket in his arms.  “Books.  For Loki’s studies,” he said.

He was confident his ruse would work, right up until Geiri chuckled.

“In a kitchen basket?” Bror asked.

Thor looked down at it again.  He didn’t know the difference.  Surely a basket was just a basket.

“I…”

Thor couldn’t think of a single thing to say that wasn’t the truth.  By then, he was certain that Odin truly had intended for Loki to starve.  But then Bror surprised him by opening the door.

“Go on, then,” he said.

Thor nodded and ran through, not wasting a single moment.  If nothing else, Loki could hide some of it before Odin was alerted.  When Thor reached the bed chamber, he found Loki in the same place he’d been, hunched over a book.

“Your guards caught me,” Thor said, putting the basket on Loki’s bed.  “I think they’re going to tell Father.”

Loki looked up at Thor, and then toward the stairs.

“Their job is to keep my secrets; not give them away,” he said.

He reached for the basket, taking his time to poke through everything.  It was all quite a bit more than he had expected, and he went immediately for the jar of fermented shark before he thought better of it.  He set aside everything dried and preserved, and went instead for a block of cheese.

“Did you get this from Dísa?” Loki asked.

“I don’t know.  Maybe?” Thor said. 

He knew very few servants by name, and none from the kitchens.  But he realised suddenly that Loki must have known most of the women from the kitchen, the way they had so easily defied what was now clearly an order.

The two were silent while Loki ate what he could from the basket, leaving behind anything that would keep.  Leaving him to it, Thor walked over to Loki’s shelves, stacked with more books than the last time he’d bothered to look.  Where Loki kept getting them, Thor had no idea.

“Father’s making me marry Sif,” Thor said suddenly.

Loki looked up, taking a long moment to figure out if he’d heard what he thought he did.

“Why?” he asked.

Thor sighed.  “To buy Týr’s silence, I think.  I don’t know if it was blackmail or bribery.”

Loki almost laughed.  He would have, if not for the prospect of one day having to call Sif a sister in law.

“I’m sorry, brother.  I’m not letting him murder me just to get you out of that mess,” Loki said.

Thor shrugged, not sure what to do either.  “Maybe we should try the witch again,” he said.

“She’s dead,” Loki said.

Thor turned round to look at him, but Loki gave nothing away.  “How do you know?” he asked.

“I went back there,” he said, already stashing the jars back into the basket for later.  “I think she was their mother.  But we shouldn’t bother them.  They just want to be left alone.”

Thor frowned, and then looked back at the disorganised collection of books on the shelves.  He didn’t know what any of them were, but they gave him an idea all the same.

“Do you think you could make a potion?” Thor asked.  “To make Sif fall in love with Freyr or someone?”

Loki looked around as well and shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I can try, but it might take some time.  I’ve not been allowed to learn that yet.”

For some reason, Odin was fiercely against it.  Loki had a feeling his misadventure with Kárni’s book was what kept him from being able to learn anything truly fun, but he’d got familiar enough with the library that he was certain he could find the right book with time.

“I have time,” Thor said.  “It’s not like he’s going to make me wed her tomorrow.”

Loki snorted.  “The way he changes his mind, nothing would surprise me,” he said.

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #10: Discoveries

Thor burst into the bedchamber and leapt onto the bed, bouncing Loki straight into the air and crashing down again.  Loki woke, arms flailing for purchase before he realised what had happened.

“Incestuous Norns!” Loki yelped as he looked around for any explanation that went beyond Thor being terrible for no reason at all. 

Every season, Thor grew bigger and taller, while Loki seemed to stay the same, growing more and more skinny as time passed. 

“Is the concept of separate chambers completely lost on you?” Loki asked, still struggling to untangle himself from his blankets.

As Loki grumbled and cursed Thor for his intrusion, Thor only grinned widely.  Not wanting to be completely nude while he flung a bit more verbal abuse at his brother, Loki pulled on a pair of linen breeches, fumbling with the laces in his sleep-addled confusion.

“What possible reason have you for molesting me this morning?” Loki said, already dreading the heat of Asgard’s summers.

“Have you forgotten?” Thor asked eagerly, bouncing slightly on Loki’s bed.  “We start training today!”

Indifferent to Thor’s excitement, Loki rolled his eyes and started to search for the tunic he had shed during the previous night, while Thor began picking up the books he’d knocked to the ground whilst flinging Loki from his sleep.  As he stacked them back on the bed, he casually paged through one of them and frowned at it.

“Father allows you to do this?” Thor asked.  He didn’t understand anything written on the pages, but he didn’t need to.

Loki knew some of what was in those books was forbidden on Asgard, but nobody ever seemed bothered enough to stop him.  He looked up from where he was inspecting an ink stain on the cuff of his tunic.

“He never forbade it,” he rationalised.

“Loki,” Thor said, getting to his feet to face his brother eye-to-eye.  “Bor forbade this stuff.  I’m sure of it.”

“Forbade doing it,” Loki said, focusing more on the stain on his sleeve than to Thor.  “There’s no law saying I can’t read about it.”

Thor sighed and shook his head.  “When you get caught, and you will if you’re not careful, I know nothing of any of this.” He watched Loki as he twisted his sleeve in his fingers, his blue skin standing out harshly against the faded yellow of the fabric.

“What’s wrong now?” asked Thor.

“There’s a stain,” Loki said, frowning at the black spot on the cuff.  “I hadn’t noticed it last night.”

“Perhaps if you spent less time with your fingers in ink wells, you wouldn’t have this problem so often,” Thor said.  “At least now you have something to wear that you can ruin when I tackle you to the dirt.”

Sighing tiredly, Loki gave up on the ink stain on his cuff and pulled the tunic on anyway.

“I don’t know how you make such a mess doing nothing at all,” Thor said, picking up another book and thumbing through it.

Loki started looking around for his sandals, having no idea where he’d taken them off, or where they might have gone to. 

“Perhaps when you learn to read, you’ll understand,” he said.

“You’re an ass.” Thor tossed the book he was holding at Loki, hitting him in the shoulder.

“Do that again,” Loki said threateningly as he turned to face Thor, “and I will hit you really hard in the face.” He picked the book up from the floor and set it safely on the table near the bed.

“It might be fun to see you try,” Thor said.  He jumped up from the bed and ran toward the door.  “Now put your makeup on.  We’re wanted in the ring in an hour and I want breakfast first.”

Loki didn’t want to start training.  Despite his own protests to the contrary, he was much smaller than any of the other boys who were starting that year.  Even Sif was taller than he was.  He didn’t even know why she was there, beyond the fact that her father was leading the lessons.  Standing in the ring amongst other children who were so much bigger than him made Loki wish he could find some way of escaping the whole ordeal forever.  He tried to stay near Thor, using his brother as a shield, but Thor was far too eager to get started, and would not stay still long enough for Loki to keep up, putting him right out in the open.

“Are you supposed to be here?” Sif asked, standing close enough that Loki had to look up to meet her in the eye.  “I didn’t think they let little babies train.”

“Are you?” Loki asked.  “I thought girls were supposed to learn how to take care of babies.”

Sif gaped, gasping in shock.  “I thought you were supposed to learn how to be a coward,” she said.

Loki’s thoughts went back to what Thor had said earlier about him being caught out if he wasn’t careful, and for a brief, terrifying moment, he thought Sif might know more than she was letting on.

“What the hel is that supposed to mean?” he demanded, realising a moment too late that it made him seem a bit too paranoid.  All the same, he quickly checked to make sure his glamour held, hoping none around them noticed.

Sif, thankfully, didn’t notice any of it.

“With all the time you spend in the library, I’m surprised you’re manly enough to be here at all today,” she said.

Loki glared at her. 

“I don’t like you,” he said, aware that it was not the most clever thing he could have said.  But it was true, and that at least made him feel better about saying it.

“I don’t need you to like me,” she said.

“All right, you two.  That’s quite enough of that.” Týr stepped up to put himself between them and turned to face his daughter.  “You don’t have to like him, but you do have to treat him with respect.”

“He started it,” Sif said.  “Like he always does.”

Loki scowled, not even pretending to ignore them.

“Unfortunately, that doesn’t matter,” Týr said.  “He’s Odin’s son and your prince.”

Loki proved just how princely he was and stuck his tongue out at Sif from behind Týr’s back.  Sif glared at him, but otherwise ignored him.

“Yes, Father,” she said.

Loki quickly came to loathe the daily sparring sessions under Týr.  Not only was he shorter than everyone in the ring, he was skinny and slow and every part of him moved awkwardly.  Thor was the only one Týr would permit to enter the ring with Loki, and even though his brother held back, Loki still ached to his core.

He trudged away from the ring, kicking his broken sandal off and into a small pool of water.  A few paces later, he pulled off his other sandal and threw it in a fit.  He would simply go barefoot, and damn any insect foolish enough to sting him.

He stopped at a wide stream and sat down on the bank, letting his feet fall into the water.  He was uncomfortable enough during the summer months, but being forced to wear his false Æsir skin and work out in the harsh heat of Asgard’s suns made his entire body ache and feel ill.  Surely, Odin must have known this, but still, day after day, Loki had no choice but to join his brother and their peers in the ring.  Something Odin thought to be character-forming, no doubt.  Loki hated him for it.

“Be careful not to fall in.”

Loki looked up to see Thor sitting down next to him, placing Loki’s discarded sandals between them.

“It’s not that deep,” Loki said, kicking lightly at the water.  “I would have to be in a very sorry state to drown in this.”

“You look to be in a sorry state,” Thor said.  He looked over at his brother, unable to miss the heavy sheen on his skin and the dark circles beneath his eyes.  “Are you all right, brother?”

“I’m fine,” Loki lied weakly.

“I don’t know why you keep lying, because you’re terrible at it,” Thor said.  “Look at you; you’re a mess.”

Loki looked up to meet Thor’s open, honest expression.

“I hurt,” he admitted.  “Everywhere.  I do not wish to continue with training.”

Thor frowned and looked down at his hands.  “I do try not to hurt you,” he said.  “But I also know how much you hate to be treated as if you will break.”

“Because I won’t,” Loki insisted.  “And it’s not just that.  I’m not… I’m not made right.  I’m too small and I don’t know why.”

Thor looked back at Loki thoughtfully.  “Perhaps you just need to be watered,” he suggested.

“What?” Loki asked.

As he looked up at Thor in confusion, he was hit in the face by a sheet of water.  Gasping more in surprise than from the water itself, Loki quickly moved away from the stream’s edge.

“Do you really wish to play this game?” he asked.  He gave Thor his best menacing glare, but his heart wasn’t entirely in it.

Grinning broadly, Thor responded by splashing him again, but this time Loki was prepared for it.  He attempted to block the water from his face and leaned forward to splash Thor in return, cooling the water to just above freezing.

“Loki, that is cheating!” Thor shouted, barely recoiling from the cold before charging forward again.

Before Loki could try his trick again, Thor grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him into the water.  After a few moments of panicked flailing, Loki managed to sit up in the shallow water, eyes wide and gasping.

“That was just mean,” he said, panting.

“You were the one who said you wouldn’t drown in this,” Thor pointed out.

Loki sent another near-frozen splash at Thor.  “I’ll drown you,” he threatened.

When Thor splashed again from the bank, still laughing infectiously, Loki held out his hand and turned the water into ice, flinching as the hard beads hit his face.

“How did you do that?”

Thor and Loki both turned to the sound of the voice, surprised to see Sif standing nearby.

“How long has she been there?” Loki asked quietly, not taking his eyes from Sif and having no faith in her ability to not do something catastrophically stupid.

Thor only shook his head, his humour quickly fading.

“That was frost giant magic,” Sif said, backing away slowly.  “How did you do that?”

“Now, Sif.  Just calm down and listen,” Loki said, holding up his hands in what he hoped was a non-threatening manner.

“Stay away,” Sif warned, her eyes wide and her voice shaky.  She turned round suddenly and called for her father as she ran back toward the training ring.

“Oh, no,” Loki said.  He quickly jumped out of the stream and gave chase, punching Thor in the shoulder as he ran past.

“Stop her!” he shouted at Thor.

Thor quickly leapt to his feet, chasing after the two of them, and not entirely sure what he was meant to do when he caught up.  He out-paced Loki without effort and caught up with Sif before she reached the ring, trying to hold onto her to keep her from going any further.  But Sif struggled free of his grasp and reeled away quickly.  Knowing what would happen if she entered the ring again, Thor put himself in front of her in an attempt to block her path.

“Sif, stop and listen to me,” he said.  “Please.  You do not understand what consequences your actions will bring.”

“He was doing frost giant magic,” she said.  “How did you not see it?”

Loki caught up with them then, hanging back a few paces and ready to run in the other direction if actions came to that.  He resisted the urge to bend over to catch his breath, trying to listen over the sound of his own heavy panting.

“I know what he is,” Thor said.  “But Loki is my brother and he will not harm you.  I swear.”

Thor motioned for Loki to come closer, but he held his spot and shook his head.  If Sif hated him before, he shuddered to think of what she might do to him know she knew his secret.

“How can you call him your brother?” Sif asked, edging away from Thor as well.  “The frost giants are the enemy.”

“Not anymore,” Thor said.  “Bestla was of Jötunheimr.  Do you forget that?”

“That was a long time ago.  Much has changed!”

“Look at him,” Thor said, pointing to Loki.  “He is just as frightened of you as you are of him.”

“Good,” Sif said.  “As he should be.  Frost giant!  Father, come quick! There is a frost giant here!”

As she ran in the direction of the training ring, Loki ran back in the opposite direction.  Loki knew he’d never be able to catch up with Sif, and nothing he could do would stop Sif from telling all what she had learned.  Loki, however, was still capable of finding himself in even deeper trouble once she told her father.

Thor again gave chase, following Loki into a thicket near the edge of the palace grounds.

“Loki, what are you doing?” Thor asked once he caught up.

Loki stopped long enough to take Thor by the wrist.  “This way,” he said, leading Thor to an opening in the side of a small hill.

There was a steel grate to keep any large animals from passing through, but over the centuries one of the bars had been worn loose, leaving a hole large enough for a flexible and scrawny boy to wiggle his way through.

“What is this?” Thor asked, watching Loki slip easily through a gap in the bars.

“I found it a few years ago,” Loki said.  “It’s safe.  Come on.”

Hesitantly, Thor followed after, finding the space between the bars a tight fit.

“Loki, you runt.  I can’t get through this,” Thor hissed at him.

“Yes you can.  You just…”

Loki took him by the wrist again and pulled hard, forcing his brother through the small space.

“Ow, Loki!” Thor shouted, clutching at the side of his chest where steel had pressed painfully against his ribs.  “You vile creature.”

“Not now,” Loki said, biting back a harsh jab he knew they didn’t have time for.  “This way.  Come on!”

He began running down the dark path, heedless of whatever might be lurking in the ankle-deep water along the uneven stone ground.  Having little choice, Thor followed after him, hoping Loki knew what he was doing.  Finally, after following the dark tunnel for so long that Thor had begun to wonder if it even had an end, Loki stopped suddenly and pushed at the low ceiling, revealing a trap door.  As the light poured in from above, it revealed Loki’s Jötunn form, his ruby eyes glinting sharply.

Peering up to the room above, Loki shifted his form again, letting the blue hues of his skin fade with the magic that had become natural to him.

“Up here,” he said to Thor.  “Quickly.”

He pulled himself up through the floor of a pantry in the servants’ kitchen, eliciting cries of surprise from the small group of women working at the table.  They barely had time to recover when Thor climbed up through the floor, letting the trap door slam shut behind him.

“Oh, and he’s brought his brother with him today,” one of the women said exasperatedly.

Loki hardly looked at them as he rushed to the door and inched it open to peer out to the corridor.

“Where is my father?” he asked.  “Do you know?”

“We’ve been down here all day,” a second woman said with a shrug.

“Damn,” Loki muttered.  Satisfied that the coast was clear, Loki opened the door enough to leave the small kitchen.  “Come on, Thor.  He has to be somewhere.”

Thor followed after Loki as he took the quickest path to the throne room.  Loki had found many of the hidden paths the servants took throughout the palace, which allowed them to get from room to room unseen.  The walls and floors weren’t the polished gold and marble of the rest of the palace, but roughly-cut stone, almost as if it had been hollowed out of the very ground.

“That was very risky back there, Loki,” Thor said, looking around at all of it.  “Considering the reason we are running in the first place.”

“I see better with my own eyes,” Loki said, not slowing down.

Thor frowned heavily.  “I didn’t know this form changed that,” he said.

“There’s a lot you don’t know.”

Not even pausing in his step, Loki turned sharply down a narrow corridor and pushed right through a tapestry on the far wall.  Thor followed after as they stepped into the throne room, where Odin stood talking to one of the Einherjar.

“Father,” Loki called out, rushing over to Odin.

Odin turned sharply at the sound of his son’s voice.  “Loki, what are you doing here?” he demanded.  A second later, his gaze fell to Thor, wordlessly asking the same question of him.

Loki stood before him, barefoot and still dripping.  With the Einherjar guard there, Loki had no succinct way to alert Odin to the situation at hand, but he had to say something.  And quickly.

“Father, there is a problem,” he said.  “A very private, serious problem.”

A brief moment of confusion crossed Odin before he grasped the meaning hidden in Loki words.

“Are you certain?” he asked.

Loki only nodded.

“We will continue this later,” Odin said to the guard.  “I have matters to discuss with my sons.”

With a nod and a salute, the guard turned and left the throne room, leaving Odin and his sons alone.

“Father, it’s Sif,” Loki said once they were free of any witnesses.  “She saw me… And she means to tell Týr.”

“She already has,” Thor said.

“Saw you where?” Odin asked, noticing at once the way Loki paused in his words.

While Loki hesitated to answer, the doors to the throne room burst open again and Týr strode purposefully toward Odin.  Loki immediately moved to put himself behind his father, having no trust in Týr’s actions, even then.  While his father’s anger could be great, it was always temporary.  There was no such guarantee with Týr.

“Where is he?” Týr demanded.  “Where is the little monster?”

“You cannot—” Thor protested, taking a step toward Týr, but Odin held him back.

“You should perhaps choose your words with greater care,” Odin said levelly.  “And remember to whom you speak.”

Týr grit his teeth and glared at Loki.  “Your boy cast frost giant magic against my daughter,” he said, forcing the words as though they burned him.

“No!” Thor insisted, fighting against Odin’s grip.

Odin turned a sharp gaze to Loki.  “You were doing magic?” he asked.

“No,” Loki said, watching Týr nervously.  “Yes.  But not against Sif.  I swear it.  I didn’t even know she was there!”

“So it’s true,” Týr said with a derisive snort.  “You have been keeping one in the palace.  I should have known it would be him.  The boy never did seem right.”

Odin turned his gaze back to Týr and stepped toward him, finally releasing his hold on Thor.  “He is my son,” he said.  “And you will treat him as such.”

Thor quickly moved over to stand by Loki, putting himself between his brother and the captain of Odin’s guard. 

“I always thought it was odd,” said Týr, still glaring at Loki.  “I never did remember hearing that the queen had borne twins.  I thought, maybe in the confusion of everything at the time, I’d just forgotten.  It happens.”

For a long moment, he and Odin only stared down one another, before finally Týr turned his attention to Thor.

“So, what is it?” Týr asked.  “Didn’t want to take any chances this time, so you grabbed a thrall and hoped to pass it off as what?  A spare?  A decoy?”

“You speak of matters to which you are ignorant,” Odin said.

Loki wasn’t interested in Odin, though.  He looked to Thor, both of them wearing their confusion plain on their face.

“Allfather, you have doomed us all,” Týr said, shaking his head as though he had any right to criticise.  “Have you not taken heed of the prophecy?”

“Half of Asgard are descended from the Jötnar,” Odin reminded him.  “How many men under your command have Jötunn wives?”

“Spoils of war,” Týr said, crossing his arms over his chest.  “Where did you find this one, then?”

“That is none of your concern,” Odin warned.  He took another step forward, forcing Týr to back-step slightly.  “All that matters is that he is my son.  And you will continue to treat him as such.  I will not be defied on this matter.”

The two men stared long and hard at one another until finally, Týr backed down.

“I can only hope I am not alive to say I told you so,” he said, turning back toward the door.  “You have wrought destruction upon us all by allowing that creature into Asgard.”

He left the throne room, the door closing with a heavy clang that echoed over the walls.

Shuffling awkwardly, Loki broke the heavy silence between them.

“Father, I —”

“Silence,” Odin said sharply.  “I have turned a blind eye to your behaviour within the palace, but this carelessness will not be tolerated.”

Thor moved quickly to put himself between Loki and Odin.

“Father, this was as much my fault as it was Loki’s,” he said.

“Thor, don’t,” Loki pleaded.  He grabbed Thor’s arm and tried to pull him back, but Thor shook him off.

“No, I was the one to start it,” Thor insisted.  “Loki was only defending himself.  I pushed him into the water and was perhaps playing too rough with him again.  He had little choice but to react as he did.”

“Is this true?” Odin asked Loki.

Loki wanted to protest it.  He hated Thor for making their entire defence about how much bigger and stronger he was.   But Thor’s words were basically the truth, and Odin would find out if Loki lied to protect his brother.

Loki did the only thing he could do.  He nodded.

“Yes, Father.”

“Very well,” Odin said.  “But that does not excuse your carelessness.  Haven’t I stressed upon you enough the consequences of this secret becoming known to Asgard?”

“Maybe I wanted someone to catch me,” Loki said before he could stop himself.  Tears were already welling in his eyes and by this point, he could not stop himself continuing.  “Maybe I hate having to wear this false skin all the time!  It hurts and it makes me ill and I can’t see properly.  I don’t want to be Asgardian.  Why can I not just be me?”

Odin sighed wearily.  “If I thought it was safe for you to go without, I would allow it,” he said.  “But even you know it is not, or else you would not have come to me as you did.”

“Maybe I won’t come to you next time!” Loki said.

Odin continued to glare down at Loki.  “Thor, leave us,” he said, not shifting his gaze.  “I wish to have private words with your brother.”

Thor looked nervously to Loki, but knew that this was not a matter on which Odin was to be crossed.

“Yes, Father,” he said.

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #9: Betrothal

Loki didn’t think anything could possibly be more boring than history lessons.  And yet, they were the lessons that had the harshest punishments for skipping.  The only thing about these lessons that wasn’t completely awful was that they were lessons shared with Thor, and somehow wallowing in misery with his brother was better than wallowing in misery alone.

Thein talked about boring things, like treaties and wars from Bor’s time.  Only half listening, Loki flipped through the pages of a book, pretending to be taking notes.  It wasn’t a particularly interesting book either.  A simple palace history, listing births and deaths and celebrations and the other events that occurred over the years.  But as he flipped through the book, Loki began to pay more attention to it than to Thein’s lesson.  Something about the record seemed wrong.  Or at least, not right.  He flipped back to the beginning again, not reading the runes on the pages, but looking at the ledgers as a whole.  And then he saw it; the thing that wasn’t quite right.

“Why has this book been copied?” he asked, not even caring about whatever Thein was saying.

“Because books get copied sometimes,” Thein said.

Loki frowned down at the page, not entirely certain why Thein’s answer didn’t sit right with him.

“If it was copied, then it was needed.  Why is it here?” Loki asked.

Beside him, Thor snorted.

“Because it’s clearly no longer needed,” Thein said, growing impatient.

Loki didn’t care what Thein did.  He flipped through more pages, looking at the ink as though it might hold more clues.  Palace histories were recorded, shelved away, and forgotten about; records kept out of tradition more than anything.  There was little reason to ever copy them at all.  And yet, the more Loki flipped through the pages, the more certain he was that it had been copied.  The ink remained the same from page to page, and seemed to have all been written by the same hand.  Who would have needed a copy of the records in the first place?  And why go through the effort when the original was freely available in the library?

“If you find this lesson inadequate, Loki, perhaps you can go teach yourself,” Thein said.

Loki looked up at him for the barest of moments before shrugging.

“All right,” he said.

Even through Thein’s protests, Loki gathered his notes and the book he’d been flipping through and stood.  Thor laughed as he watched, and then began to gather his own things.

“May I go too?” he asked.

“Neither of you can go,” Thein said.

Loki shook his head.

“You keep contradicting yourself.  I can’t keep up,” he said as he turned to leave, ignoring Thein shouting at him as he walked out of the room. 

If Thein wanted him to teach himself, that was precisely what Loki intended to do, and headed to the library.  This time not to the magic and spell books, but to the books on histories.  He found a quiet table to settle at and began flipping through the book in earnest, ignoring the perfectly written entries in ink that never once changed hand or colour.  It wasn’t an interesting accont, which made the fact that it had been copied all the more intriguing.  It contained births and deaths and marriages Loki expected to see, all listed out as they happened.  And all through it, something seemed to poke at the back of Loki’s mind, though he couldn’t pin down precisely what was wrong.

But he forgot all about what was wrong when he saw his own name, quite a bit earlier than it ought to have been, following a note of death without cause.  Loki flipped back toward the beginning again, looking for this name again, but this mysterious person only appeared once at his death, as though whoever had copied this book had written him out, and forgotten to skip that single line.

Loki stared at the entry for a long while, unsure where to go from there.  But if the man were important enough to have been in this book, he was certainly in others.  Without a patronymic to guide him, Loki looked instead for anything else around the same time that may give him a clue.  But aside from this strange man’s death, it was a fairly dull year otherwise, according to the book with missing information.  No treaties were signed, no children were born.  Odin’s 19th year of reign was a fairly dull one, as they went.

It was that year that Loki sought out next.  He looked beyond boring palace histories, to even more boring realm histories, checking tome after tome until he found another passage.  This book, dusty and forgotten, had not been copied, though pages were torn out and missing.  Loki found nothing to tell him more about this mysterious man who shared his name, but he did find something else.  Another name, which was also familiar.  A name he had recently heard before.  Knowing where he could find more information, Loki quickly tidied up any evidence he’d been there, putting books away and hiding the one that had started this whole thing.  He then quickly made his way out of the library and onto the grounds, following a path he knew well until he came to the low wall at the borders.

The wall Thor had needed to help him climb over.  If Loki jumped, he could reach the top, and could almost hold on.  But he could not hold on long enough to haul himself over.  He tried three times before deciding that this was not the way to scale it on his own.  Instead, he tried as he’d seen Thor do it, backing up and taking a running leap for it.  He managed to grab the top of the wall, and was almost able to pull himself over before his grip gave way and he fell again.  When he tried for a second time, Loki took a longer run up to the wall.  This time, he managed to grab onto the top and pull himself over.  But once on the other side, he realised there wasn’t enough space to take a long run up to get back over.

Deciding to tackle that problem when he got to it, he headed back through the woods, toward the cabin.  Again, he could smell the smoke from the hearth before he could see the cabin himself, as well as hear the repeated sound of an axe on a chopping block.  As he neared the clearing, he could see one of the men chopping wood, while a big, black wolf lay basking in the sun.  The wolf noticed Loki first, sitting up with a growl.  A moment later, the man looked up at Loki, and it was too late to run.  Instead, he stepped closer to the clearing, but still keeping his distance just in case he needed to run anyway.

“Who are you?” Loki asked, suddenly doubting this plan of his.  “And why do you live out here?”

The man shook his head.  “We aren’t welcome in town.”

The wolf that lay nearby wuffed quietly, drawing the man’s attention.  For a long moment, they stared at one another, until the man sighed.

“I’m Jörmungandr.  My brother Fenris,” he said, nodding toward the wolf.

Loki looked back to the wolf, realising that it wasn’t a wolf at all.  He wanted to ask a dozen more questions beyond the ones he had come to ask, but didn’t dare push his luck.

“And which one are you?” Jörmungandr asked.

“Loki,” he answered.

“You should go home, Loki,” Jörmungandr said.

Loki looked over his shoulder, back toward the palace.  “I know,” he said.  “But I’m in trouble either way, so it might as well be worth it.”

To his surprise, Jörmungandr laughed.  “I suppose you’re still looking for that witch, then?” he asked.

“That was my brother.  He wants the girl he’s supposed to wed to fall in love with someone else,” Loki said. 

He dared to step closer, keeping a wary eye on Fenris as he did.  Shape shifter or not, he still had all the teeth of a real wolf.

Jörmungandr shook his head and resumed his wood chopping.  “I think even if she were still here, she wouldn’t touch that one for all the gold in Yggdrasil,” he said between swings.

Loki looked around while he contemplated Jörmungandr’s words.  He’d said last time that the witch wasn’t there anymore, and there were only a few reasons Loki could think of for a person to say that.

“What happened to her?” he asked.

Jörmungandr stopped chopping his wood again and sighed deeply.  “Grief took her,” he said.

“Oh.”  Loki wasn’t sure he even wanted to ask for more information than that, though he had a pretty good idea anyway. 

But he was distracted from anything he might have asked by the way the man looked at him.  Almost like he was expecting something.

“I’ll tell my friends not to bother you again,” Loki said. 

He knew he should leave, but his curiosity kept him in place.  He looked around the clearing again, at the sad little shack, and the dirty and broken tools that had been thrown aside once their use had expired.

“Was she his wife?” Loki asked suddenly, unable to stop himself.

Jörmungandr looked at him with alarm and suspicion.  It was a look Loki was well used to getting aimed at him.

“Whose?” he asked.

Loki tried twice to recall the book he had hidden.  It was getting easier, but still the trick occasionally vexed him, as it did then.

“Him,” he said, opening the book to the page with the mysterious man’s death.

Jörmungandr buried his axe in the chopping block and stepped closer to look at the page, and then back to Loki. 

“What do you care?” he asked.

“Because that’s my name, and this book is wrong in other ways too,” Loki said.  He made a show of flipping through the pages again, though he knew already what he would and wouldn’t find. 

“It’s a copy,” Loki said, holding it open as he offered it for Jörmungandr to read.  “You can tell because it was all written by the same scribe.  The usual way is to record things as they happen.  Whoever’s present at the moment records it.  I wish to know why this man was erased.”

He watched as Jörmungandr flipped through the pages, growing visibly more perplexed by the moment.

“He was executed,” he said suddenly. 

“Why erase him?” Loki asked.  Plenty of people had been executed and allowed to remain in the records.

“I don’t know,” said Jörmungandr.  He frowned, and then looked back up at Loki.  “Odin must have had some plan in mind, to erase him and then give you his name.”

It had not occurred to Loki until that moment that the man’s name was anything other than coincidence.  And now that the thought had been put into his head, he could not find a single reason why it might have been done.  He knew his father had plans, but none of those plans seemed to have anything to do with what might have happened in the past.

“Did he have any children?” Loki asked.

Jörmungandr slowly flipped through early pages of the book, clearly looking for something.  “Three,” he said.

“They aren’t in that book either,” Loki said.  “I guess they were erased too.”

Jörmungandr laughed mirthlessly and gave the book back to Loki.  Knowing that if anyone were made aware of the error, the would be taken away and lead to more things erased, he hid it away.  Nobody would see the book again, unless Loki wanted them to.

“Go home,” Jörmungandr said.

Loki nodded, knowing he would be pushing his luck to stay any longer.  He turned back toward the wall, and then stopped suddenly.

“Can you help me over the wall?” he asked.  “It’s too high.”

Laughing more honestly this time, Jörmungandr began walking back toward the palace with Loki.

Loki had never met Vanaheimr’s king.  He knew, from Thein’s endlessly boring lessons that Iri and Frigga were cousins, and so he had expected Iri to be beautiful like his mother.

Iri was not beautiful.  He was wide and red-faced and angry.  Watching him shout at Odin, Loki wondered if he was truly his daughters’ father.  Though they were both there, it was Amora who was the focus of the argument, her belly swollen in a way that meant only one thing.

“Thor will not marry a ruined woman!” Odin shouted at Iri, his voice echoing off the stone walls.  “If you cannot control your children, how can I expect you to control a realm?”

Loki wasn’t sure how being with child had ruined her, and wondered if that meant Frigga had been ruined as well.  He watched the girls stand awkwardly on the other side of the room as Iri and Odin shouted back and forth, and wondered why Lorelei was there if this fight had been about Amora.  For that matter, he wondered why he was there as well.

“Perhaps your line should end with you,” Odin said.  “You rule because I allow it.  Or have you forgotten the terms?”

“Perhaps it’s time Asgard loses the right to dictate how other realms live,” Iri said.

“No,” said Odin, utterly unmovable.  “You can do with Amora as you wish.  Thor will not wed her, nor raise another man’s bastard.”

Loki had never seen Thor so relieved, and across the room, Amora did not exactly seem disappointed either. 

“Nor will he be passed along like a commoner,” Odin said.  “Rather, Loki will wed Lorelei, and Vanaheimr’s throne will fall to him.”

The room erupted into chaos as all involved shouted in protest.

“Assuming you can keep this one under control,” Odin said.

“He’s a child!” Lorelei said over all of it.

“And he won’t be for long,” Odin said.  “In a few years, Loki will take his rite and become of age.  Then they will wed.”

Loki looked from his father to Lorelei, unable to see the reasoning.  “But she’s old!” he said.

“Excuse me?” Lorelei shouted.  She gaped at Loki, and then turned to Iri.  “Father, you can’t.”

“And if I refuse?” Iri asked.

Odin stood silent for a long moment, waiting for the room around him to fall silent as well.  Only when everyone finally stopped their complaints did he speak again.

“If you refuse, Asgard will reclaim Vanaheimr through bloodshed,” he said.

Loki looked over to Thor, wondering how things had turned upsidedown so quickly.  While Loki’s world descended into chaos, Thor stood grinning at his own personal victory.

“We didn’t even need the witch,” he said.

Loki punched him in the ribs as Odin and Iri began shouting over one another again.

At banquet that evening, Loki was not allowed to sit in the corner with their friends.  Instead, he was placed at the head table at Frigga’s side, with Lorelei at his other side.  She was nearly old enough to be a woman, which made Loki feel even smaller next to her.  He wondered if Odin might make him take his rite early, and if so, how early.  He didn’t want to leave Asgard.  He didn’t want to get married.  And he definitely did not want to rule over a realm he didn’t even know.

“I could kill her myself,” Lorelei said beneath the din in the hall.

Loki looked up at her, not having to ask who she meant.  He said nothing, trying to pretend he wasn’t even there.

“How old are you, anyway?” Lorelei asked.  “Eight?  Nine?”

Loki frowned.  “I’m eleven,” he said.

“You don’t look eleven.  You look eight,” she said.

Loki bit his tongue and stared down at his untouched plate before him.  Nothing seemed appetising, and all he wanted to do was go to his chambers and hide forever.

“She won’t admit it, but Father believes it was a commoner,” Lorelei said, continuing on as if Loki cared.  “A bloody commoner.  Can you believe that?”

Loki shrugged.  “Would it be different if it wasn’t?” he asked.

He wasn’t so young that he didn’t understand the weight of the situation, but there were nuances he clearly did not grasp.

“She did this just to spite me,” Lorelei said.  “She knows how to be more careful than that.  What the hel was she thinking?”

Loki tried to follow what Lorelei said, but her words were confusing.  Women fell pregnant when they lay with men.  That’s just what happened.  How a woman could be careful about it, Loki couldn’t begin to comprehend.  Amora surely would not have laid with a main if she had not intended to have a child.  As far as Loki could tell, the whole thing had been planned so she could avoid having to wed Thor, and her plan had clearly worked.

“Maybe you should do it too,” Loki said.

Lorelei laughed and shook her head.  “I am not having a child just to spite my father,” she said.  “How stupid do you think I am?”

“I don’t want to marry you either,” Loki said.  “I just won’t take my rite.  Then it won’t happen ever.”

He thought maybe Odin was speaking out of anger when he said Loki would take Vanaheimr’s throne.  That wasn’t part of the plan.  Loki wouldn’t be able to protect Asgard if he had to worry about Vanaheimr as well.  He didn’t think Odin would change that plan, but he couldn’t figure out how this would work in otherwise.

He thought back to the man Odin had erased from history.  The man he was apparently named after.   If Odin could erase a man from history, he could surely change his mind on a whim.

“I think the only way out of this is if one of us dies, kid,” Lorelei said.  “And I don’t plan on falling on a blade any time soon.”

Loki shrugged.  Death seemed a little extreme.  Surely there were other ways out.  Thor had sought a witch, and Fate smiled on him in kind.  Perhaps Fate would do the same for Loki.

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #8: Witch

Though the library had always been there, long before Loki had ever taken breath on Asgard, he had never given it much thought.  It was a place he was sent for his studies, but suddenly it was a place that could also help sate his curiosity.  As he wandered its high, narrow spaces however, he began to wish he had at least put some effort into learning its layout.  He browsed the shelves through trial and error, every so often plucking a book from the rest and opening it to see its subject.

The library seemed endless, having books on every subject imaginable, and in languages Loki had never seen before.  Not just runes, but strange marks that didn’t even look like words, and rows and rows of random pictures.  As he stood looking at a book filled with puzzling squiggles, the woman who tended the library walked up behind him.

“Are you lost, little one?” she asked.

Loki looked up at her, frowning slightly at her lack of recognition of him.   Perhaps she never left the library at all.

“No,” he said defiantly.  He looked down at the book in his hands.  “Maybe.  I wish to learn about Midgard.”

She smiled at him, though it wasn’t an entirely happy smile.  Something about her seemed almost sad, though Loki wasn’t sure why.

“You’re in the right place for that,” she said, humouring him.  “But you’ll never read it if you hold it upside-down like that.”

She gently took the book from him, turning it round in his hands to face the right way up.  Against Loki’s, her Álfar skin seemed to almost glow with something from within.  Even with his limited knowledge of such things, Loki could sense a strong presence of the seiðr within her; far stronger than any magic Odin possessed.

“What language is this?” Loki asked, returning his attention to the book.

Herða peered down at the writing on the pages.

“I believe that it’s called Latin,” she said.  “It’s a human language.”

“How are you supposed to read it?” Loki asked, seeing nothing more than random loops and lines written in ink.  “No one here speaks Latin, do they?”

Herða shook her head.  “Not to my knowledge.  But reading it is simple.  Don’t look at the words; look beyond them to the meaning.”

It was the single most ridiculous thing Loki had ever heard, and it showed on his face.  Herða saw it and smiled at him again, sad and almost pitying.

“Perhaps you’re a bit young to understand.  You’ll learn it when you’re older.”

She reached out to take the book from Loki, but he pulled it away, stung by her condescension.  Herða tried not to sigh at the unruly child in her library and waited patiently for him to give up the book.

“No, I can do it,” he insisted stubbornly.  “I’m older than I look.  Show me how.”

He continued to hold the book out of her reach, glaring up at her with all the fierceness he could manage.  Finally, Herða sighed and reached out again, this time not for the book, but to guide Loki away from the aisle.

“Let us find somewhere to be seated then,” she said.

Loki nodded slowly, and snatching a second book from the shelf without looking to see what it was, he followed after Herða through the maze of shelves to a large table by a window.

Thor found Loki in one of the tunnels beneath the palace, away from the heat of Asgard’s suns.  He read a book, precariously perched on his lap, while his hands were occupied with a bag of nuts.  Thor tried to sneak up on him, but Loki barely flinched as Thor sad suddenly beside him.

“What is this?” Thor asked, taking the book from Loki.

Loki tried to take the book back, but gave up quickly once he realised he’d already been defeated.  “It’s sagas from Midgard,” he said.

Thor rolled his eyes, and then squinted down at the page, trying to decipher the marks written upon it.

“This one’s about two warriors who have fallen in love with the same woman,” Loki said.  “They’re captured by a jarl, and have to battle for the right to wed her.”

Thor scrunched his face in disgust and handed the book back.  “Who wins?” he asked.

“I don’t know.  I haven’t got that far,” Loki said.

He folded the ribbon over to mark his place and closed the book before it could become damaged.

“Maybe someone could fall in love with my woman and want to fight me for her,” Thor said, laying back on the stone floor.  “I could lose and then I wouldn’t have to wed her.”

Loki laughed, and after several tries, managed to hide his book away entirely, safely out of the way from the dust and grime that followed Thor everywhere.

“But then you’d have to lose,” he said.  “And I think the world might just end if The Mighty Thor lost a fight.”

Thor groaned loudly.  “Why isn’t Father making you wed anyone?”

Loki shrugged.  “I won’t be king.  I don’t matter.  I can do whatever I want.”

Thor sat up suddenly, making Loki jump.  “The witch!” he said.

It was a long moment before Loki caught up to wherever Thor’s thoughts had taken him.

“The one in the woods?” he asked, looking off in the vague direction of the cabin beyond the palace grounds.

He stood up as well, offering Thor his stash of snacks.  Thor lingered long enough to take them before heading toward the entrance of the tunnel.

“Maybe she can give us a love potion,” Thor said.  “Then someone else can fall in love with Amora and I won’t have to marry her.”

Loki didn’t think it would work quite that way no matter what Midgardian sagas may or may not have said about it, but he shrugged and followed Thor all the same.  He’d never even seen the witch himself, and wasn’t entirely convinced she was real, but he was curious enough to find out.  They followed paths untravelled by adults, slipping unseen through corridors and down hidden paths until they came to the edge of the grounds.  The border was marked only by a low wall, though not low enough.  Loki jumped, able to reach the top, but could not pull himself over.  Below him, Thor hoisted him up, letting Loki use him as a ladder to climb over.  Once Loki was on top of the wall, Thor backed away, and then with a running leap was able to haul himself over the wall without help.

There were no manicured gardens or paved paths beyond the wall.  There, Asgard’s forests were able to grow naturally, with dense under brush concealing what few paths existed.  But they didn’t need a path.  They had seen the cabin countless times before, but were always too wary to approach it.  But this time, as they walked toward the cabin with purpose, Thor showed no hesitation.  Loki, following a step behind, grew less and less certain of this plan with each step further into the woods.

Whether or not a witch lived there, it was clear even from a distance that someone was home.  The unmistakable scent of wood burning drifted through the trees even before they could see the cabin. 

“Thor, maybe you should wait,” Loki said.  “I can learn how to make a potion.  Then we wouldn’t have to bother this woman.”

“You worry too much,” Thor said.

Soon, they could see the cabin through the trees, squat and overgrown with moss and vines, as though whoever lived in it had not taken care of it for many years.  But it was clear that it had no been abandoned.  The many tools scattered around outside, and the goat grazing near the door were all the evidence needed to prove someone still lived there.

As they reached the small clearing surrounding the cabin, Loki heard a noise to their right.  He just had enough time to turn before a man, tall and wild, with red hair past his shoulders, stepped close enough to touch them.  Loki shouted in fright and jumped back, alerting Thor who did the same.

“You boys shouldn’t be here,” he said.

He wore no tunic, showing his freckled skin, and the tattoos that covered his arms and chest.  Loki didn’t know what any of them meant, and had never seen a man with so many before.  While he and Thor looked up at the man, neither entirely certain what to say, a noise from the cabin alerted their attention.  Another man, just as big with wild, red hair of his own walked toward them.  He looked more tired than mean, though he was no less frightening for it.

“What the hel is this?” he asked.

The two men looked at one another for a moment, before they both returned their attention to Thor and Loki.

It was Thor who found his voice first.  “We came to see the witch and ask for a favour,” he said.

The men looked at one another again, frowning with confusion.  Then, the one who came from the cabin shook his head.

“I think he means Sigrid,” he said.

The other deflated, suddenly looking just as tired as the other man.

“We brought a gift for her,” Loki said suddenly, taking the bag of nuts back from Thor and offering it.

The first man shook his head and walked away, leaving them only with the man who had come from the cabin.

“You’re Odin’s boys, aren’t you?” he asked.

Thor nodded.  “Yes.  And we’d like to see the witch.”

“The witch isn’t here,” the man said.

Thor and Loki both looked at one another, quietly confused about where a witch might go.

“Where is she?” Thor asked, beating Loki to the question.

The man sighed.  “Go home,” he said.  “This is no place for young princes.”

He turned without another word and returned to the cabin, leaving Thor and Loki alone in the woods.  Disappointed and defeated, Thor sighed and turned back toward the palace.

“I thought a witch was supposed to live there,” he said, barely keeping a pace Loki could follow.

“Maybe they killed her,” he said, struggling to keep up through the thick ferns and felled branches.

“Who kills a witch and then lives in her house?” Thor asked.

Loki shrugged.  “Someone who wants the witch’s power,” he said.  “That’s why the first thing you learn is how to protect yourself.”

Thor laughed.  “What, are you a witch now?” he asked.

“No,” said Loki.  “But someone could still kill me and take my power.”

“Nobody wants your power,” Thor said.  “All you do is hide and sneak around.”

“Maybe I hide and sneak around so nobody kills me for my power,” Loki said.

They reached the wall again, and Thor helped Loki back over, pushing him a little too far over the wall so that he fell over the other side.

“Don’t be stupid,” Thor said as Loki hit the ground.  “Nobody’s going to kill you for your power.  They’ll kill you because you’re Jötunn.”

He jumped over the wall, landing on the other side next to where Loki still sat.  Loki watched him as he looked around, making sure they hadn’t been seen.

“They’d have to catch me first,” Loki said. 

He pulled Thor’s foot out from under him, pulling him off balance.  Before Thor even hit the ground, Loki leapt up and ran toward the palace, leaving Thor behind, scrambling to get back on his feet and give chase.

Loki’s teacher talked, reading from an old leather journal she held in her hands as she paced back and forth across the room.  She talked and talked and talked, and because he thought he might go insane if he did nothing, Loki wrote it all down, hastily scrawling runes onto the page, only to immediately smudge them with his hand as he wrote down the next word.

When she finally stopped talking, Loki was glad to get a break.  But then she was right there in front of him, taking the quill from his hand.

“Hey,” he said, reaching back for it.

“You should use your other hand,” she said, wrapping his fingers on his right hand around the quill.

“I don’t like it,” he said.

“You will, if you stop being so stubborn about it,” she said.  “You can’t expect anyone else to want to read that mess you’ve left there.”

Loki shrugged.  “It’s not for anyone else.  I can read it just fine,” he said.

Ósk shook her head and began talking about the history of Vanir magic again, while Loki struggled even harder to keep up with his notes.  He had to hold his hand stiff to even make the quill touch the paper, though no matter how slowly he went, none of his lines were straight.  His quill blotted and threatened to crack under the weight of his own hand, and he soon realised he was putting all of his focus into writing just a few words that he hadn’t heard a thing the woman had said.

“Can you repeat that?” he asked, moving his quill back to his left hand so he could at least get something down onto the page.

“You should have been listening,” Ósk said.

“You shouldn’t have distracted me,” Loki said.

She slapped the journal against Loki’s hand, hard enough to momentarily trap him against the table.  He quickly pulled his hand back, dropping his quill to the table.  For a long moment, neither said anything as they glared at one another.  Then, he picked his quill back up with his left hand, where it was more comfortable, and waited for Ósk to continue her instruction.  For a moment, he thought she might slap him again, but instead she shook her head and walked away.

“Odin brought me here to teach you magic.  He can find someone else to teach you manners,” she said.

She began reading from her journal again, and Loki wanted to ignore her out of spite.  But he had been eager to learn about sight magic since he’d first learned about it, and even though the history was dry and tedious, he still found the ways in which the magic could be used fascinating.  He wrote down as much as he could, filling page after page until finally Ósk was done talking and let him go.  He gathered his notes and took them straight to the library.  He knew the section he needed, and took little time to find what he was looking for amongst the ancient tomes that hadn’t been touched in years.

“I’m taking these,” he called out, pulling down several books from the shelves, careful not to drop any.

“And are you bringing them back?” Herða asked from several rows away.

He could hear her approaching, even as he struggled to balance the books in his arms.

“I don’t know.  Maybe,” Loki said.

Herða helped him settle the books he wanted so they wouldn’t fall to the floor and crush his toes.  Loki considered trying to hide all of them away to save him the effort, but he hadn’t been able to figure out how to hide multiple things at once, and doing it one at a time took too much energy.  So he settled the stack in his arms and nodded once he was confident he wouldn’t drop any.

“Well, I suppose if anyone needs them, I’ll know where to send them,” Herða said.

She walked with Loki toward the door, leaving him alone for the rest of the journey to his chambers.  Getting the books up the stairs was the hardest part, and did occasionally make him regret putting his desk up there, but it was quieter on the top level, and the wind through the windows helped keep the chamber cool while he worked.

First, he set out copying his notes to a journal of his own, taking time to make sure his runes were straight and the ink didn’t smudge.  It took time and patience, but at the end, he had notes that made sense to him, where he could more easily remember placing them relative to all of the other information Ósk insisted on dumping on him each lesson.  Once he was finished, he turned to the books pilfered from the library and carefully paged through them, again making notes on scrap parchment.  While Ósk had taught him much of the history and practical application, she hadn’t actually taught him a single bit of actual magic since she’d began as his teacher.  He practised on his own, reading the passages and trying to visualise the instruction.

Sight magic almost required him to be in two places at once; to be able to not only picture himself somewhere he wasn’t, but to feel himself there as well.  Rather than trying to picture something he didn’t know, Loki tried to find himself in Thor’s chambers, to snoop about or see what he was up to.  He could picture the rooms in his mind, but he did not feel like he was there.  Certain he was only imagining what Thor’s chambers looked like, Loki pushed harder, until something sharp and hot seemed to stab him in the eye.  Crying out in sudden shock, Loki covered his face with his hands and tried not to wail like an infant.  Even as footsteps rushed up the stairs, Loki didn’t look up, focusing very hard on breathing through the pain that refused to subside.

Even as his chamber door crashed open, and heavy footsteps fell on the bare stone, Loki struggled to breathe.

“Prince Loki,” Bror said, looking about the room.

Loki tried to respond; tried to tell him that all was well, but all was not well.  He could barely manage to do more than whimper quietly.  Bror stepped close to tend to Loki, before his eyes fell on the pages strewn across the large desk.

“Fetch a healer!” he shouted over his shoulder.

And then he laughed, and Loki hated him for it.

“Most boys your age hurt themselves with swords,” he said, pulling Loki’s seat away from the desk to make more room.

Loki lost his battle and began crying from the pain that still lingered behind his eye.

 

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #7: Freedom

Loki skipped every lesson he was able to get away with, eager to watch the talks play out.  Every god at the table had a following on Midgard, and every one of them was clearly more important than the rest.  At the same time, every following was dead, because so few still prayed, and even Loki knew both could not be true.

But he kept quiet, and he watched, and he remembered.  Instead of tending to his studies, he would return to the nursery and record everything that had happened.  He learned which gods liked to pick fights, and which ones would try to quell them.  He learned which gods liked to be flattered, and which ones liked to be treated as equals.  Some of the gods were angry all the time, even when they weren’t debating.  Others could set aside their disagreements and enjoy a cup of wine with others.  Loki made sure to remember all of it.  When it became his turn to join the council, he would know he could rely on to make quick allies, and who would make quick enemies.

The council locked off the realm in the end, forbidding any travel to or from Midgard.  The mortals would stay on their realm, while everyone else were to return to their own worlds.  Ogma and his sons were not the only gods who lived on Midgard, and while they had homes to return to, every last one of them made no end of noise about it.  Even Taranis, who was seemingly in favour during the talks, moaned and complained about it once the pact was signed.

But that wasn’t what Loki cared about.  His thoughts were occupied by something bigger and more important.  The talks had taken so long that winter had set upon Asgard.  As the days grew shorter and shorter, even the spectator sport that was diplomacy could no longer hold Loki’s attention for long.  By the end, he was glad that the council had all gone their separate ways before Midwinter.

He and Thor arrived at banquet as they did every day.  But instead of being led up to the head table with their parents, Thor cut away from Áslaug and ran to a side table, where Freyr and Sif sat.  Unsure what else to do, Loki followed quickly after him, muscling in for a spot at the bench amongst their friends.  Loki had never sat anywhere other than the head table, but things were different now.  Midwinter had finally come, and though they weren’t yet men, they were no longer children, bound to spend their time in the nursery and at their mother’s side. 

And because it was Midwinter, the tables had already been laid with more food than had ever been set out before.  While Thor laughed with Freyr, Loki reached immediately for a bowl of snails and started smashing them against the table.

“Why is your brother eating peasant food?” Freyr asked, watching with thinly veiled disgust.

Thor rolled his eyes.  “All he eats is peasant food.  And not even the good peasant food,” he said.

“Shut up,” Loki said, smashing open another snail to spite them.  “I’m a prince.  You have to do what I say.”

Freyr did shut up.  He also got up and moved to another part of the table.

“Loki, be nice,” Thor said.

“Why?  He’s not nice to me,” Loki said.

Loki ate until he was sick, and when one of the other boys brought over a stolen pitcher of ale, Loki drank far more than his fill.  Not having Frigga hovering over him, telling him what to eat, and how much, and when to stop, he felt as if he might fall over and burst by the time Áslaug returned for them.  While Thor protested about being taken back to the nursery, Loki was just glad to be able to lie down and be miserable.

“Look at your brother,” Áslaug said as she tried to wrestle Thor into the bed he shared with his brothers.  “For once, you should be doing what he’s doing.  It’s time for bed.”

Loki watched tiredly as Thor fought against having his boots and breeches taken off, and only barely made room for him when he finally gave up and crawled under the blankets.

“I’m not supposed to be here anymore,” Thor said.

“Well, the queen says otherwise,” Áslaug said, throwing another blanket on top of them so they were completely buried.  “Go to bed before a troll hears you.”

“I’ll fight the troll,” Thor said, pulling his face free from the blanket.

“You’ll fight and you’ll lose, because you’re a baby,” Loki said.

Beside him, Baldur laughed, not as asleep as he should have been either.

“I am not a baby!” Thor shouted.

Without another word, Áslaug put out the lamps above the bed and left them alone, with Thor to his grumbling.  If he grumbled for much longer, Loki didn’t hear, falling asleep almost as soon as it was dark.

The night passed quickly, and even though Loki woke twice from having drank too much ale at banquet, he was up early.  He began to dress quickly, not even caring if he woke anyone up in his mad scramble for freedom.  In his sleep, Thor had apparently forgotten all about the best part of celebrating their tenth nameday, and he groaned and complained about being woken up.

“Come on,” Loki said, shaking him against the mattress.  “You were so excited yesterday, let’s go.”

Thor waved Loki away and rolled over.  “Why so early?” he asked.

Loki moved back, deciding instead to search around for his breeches, shed carelessly the night before.  “Because Baldur wets the bed and you’re the only one there with him now.”

It did the trick.  Thor leapt from bed, barely taking the time to untangle himself from the blankets.  While Thor dressed, Loki pulled on his sandals and made sure he was hidden behind his Æsir skin, ready to make his final escape from the nursery.

“Wanna go out the window?” he asked, looking over.  “Just for the hel of it?”

Thor looked out the window, and then toward the door that led to the nursemaid’s chamber.  After a long moment’s contemplation, he shrugged and finished pulling on his boots. 

“We probably don’t need to.”

“Yes, but you won’t get to do it ever again,” Loki said.

He didn’t care what Thor wanted to do.  He had put the idea into his own head, and now he was going out the window regardless.  He didn’t need to use the table to get up, but he still required the help of a chair.  Thor didn’t even need that, and pulled himself up onto the ledge with ease.

“One of these days you’re going to break your neck,” Thor said, swinging his legs out into the open air.

“Probably,” Loki said.

He preferred to go out backwards, holding onto the ledge before dropping.  Seconds after he hit the ground, Thor landed beside him, falling forward into the dirt.  Taking only a moment to make sure they weren’t hurt, they both leapt to their feet and ran a well-tread path toward one of the palace’s side entrances.  It was a path Loki knew well, and once inside he led Thor behind a tapestry to a hidden corridor that took them to a hidden staircase.

“Are you sure this is the right way?” Thor asked.

“I don’t know,” Loki said, knowing Thor would follow him no matter what he said.

The path came out to a wide corridor, lit by torches and channels of lightstone embedded in the walls.  It wasn’t a much-used area of the palace, but it was an area Loki had found himself in more than once.  He led Thor down the corridor, toward the end where it opened up to a large chamber with open terraces.  Thor immediately ran toward the terrace and leaned over the rail to look at the courtyard below.

“This one’s mine,” he said.  “You can see all of Asgard from here.”

Loki joined him at the rail, looking out over the city, with Asgard’s lone peak towering off in the distance.

“I’ll show you mine,” he said.

“What, you don’t want this one?” Thor asked.  “I thought you’d want to fight me for it.”

“No, I have a better one.”

He turned and ran again, leading Thor back down the same corridor, and then veering off down another path that showed even less use.  He came to a large door, behind which the stone floor was still stained with blood that nobody had bothered to clean.  His blood wasn’t the only thing Loki had left behind.  Other treasures, stolen and pilfered, sat in stacks along the wall, but he walked past those to open another door at the back of the chamber, leading to a small hall. 

“Loki how many times have you been here?” Thor asked, following him.

“Lots,” Loki said, stepping out to a terrace that overlooked a small garden.  “I figured out how to hide it from Heimdall.”

Thor looked around the hall, frowning at it.  “It’s so small.  Loki, are you sure?”

Loki nodded.  “There’s more,” he said.

He took Thor back out to the antechamber and led him through the dark room to another flight of stairs, hidden in the shadows.  At the top of the stairs were several more chambers, and another small hall, this one with a hearth in the middle, and another chamber off to the side.  He had even more books and treasures hidden up here, away from anyone who might not have wanted him to have them.  Suddenly, standing in the middle of it all, Thor laughed.

“Loki, it’s a cave,” he said.  “A weird cave for a weird Jötunn.”

“It’s not,” he said, pointing to the tall windows on two of the walls.

“It is,” Thor said.  “You’re so weird.  Why do Mother and Father put up with you?”

Loki shrugged, and walked to another chamber, with another terrace.  “At least they put up with me because they want to,” he said.  “They’re stuck with you.  They don’t have a choice.”

Thor punched him hard in the arm, but laughed all the same.

“Should we go tell Father?” Thor asked.

Loki looked around, and considered all of his stolen things already cluttering up the rooms.

“Help me move my stuff first,” he said.

Thor shook his head, but helped all the same, making quick work of hauling all of Loki’s books and stones and potions upstairs, to the secret little side chamber.  Hoping it was good enough to keep him out of trouble, the two of them ran to find Odin when they were done.  Orders were quickly given to have their new chambers furnished, and while Thor ran off to show one of the guards his new home, Odin kept Loki behind.

“I’ve given this a great deal of thought,” Odin said.  “I may not be able to stop this, but I don’t like it either.  You’ll have guards posted outside your door at all times.”

Loki wanted to argue, but he stopped himself and nodded instead.  He knew exactly what the guards were for.  If those outside of Asgard knew his secret, then it was inevitable that some within Asgard knew as well.

“Can I have Bror?” he asked.  “I like him.”

Odin nodded, having expected an argument that never came.  “I’ll have it arranged.”  He sighed, and looked to the waiting guard.  “Now go.  I’m sure you’ll want to move in immediately.”

Grinning, Loki ran off with his own guard, eager to show him where he wanted his new things.  Preparations had been in the works for months, leaving only the matter of moving his new things in.  A bed that was larger than any Loki had ever seen, a long desk, tables, and sofas, and all the things a man would need to entertain guests.  Once the new furniture had been moved in, followed by his clothing and toys and other belongings from the nursery, Loki spent the entire evening putting things where he wanted them.  He had never had his own space before, with nobody around to tell him where to put things, or what he was allowed to keep.  While Thor had rejected all of his toys, Loki put his wooden dragons and horses up on his shelves, decorating the space so his stolen books and potions didn’t stand out quite so much.  Rather than lighting the hearth to see by, Loki used lamps, keeping the small hall cool and comfortable.  He had more rooms than he needed, but he liked having the space, even if most of his new things all wound up upstairs, packed into the hall.  It felt comfortable that way, safe away from the door should he need to make a quick escape out one of the windows.

When he was done, and his body tired and sore from work he could have probably set servants to, Loki collapsed into his enormous bed.  It felt like a sea of furs and feathers trying to swallow him up.  He had never slept alone before.  He had thought it would be comfortable—enjoyable, even.  But even with the low glow of a lamp from across the room, the space felt strange.  Voices from the garden trailed up and echoed off the ceiling, seeming to come from all corners of the room.

Something, or someone shouting loudly was the final straw.  Loki leapt out of his bed and ran down the stairs, barely pausing to look at the guards before making his way down the corridor toward Thor’s new chambers.  Thor had no guards posted outside his door, allowing Loki to easily let himself in.  Thor was already snoring in his own bed, but Loki didn’t care.  He crawled in next to his brother, hiding beneath the blankets.

“Loki, what the hel?” Thor asked, moving over to make room.

“There was something outside,” Loki said.

Thor laughed and rolled onto his back, letting Loki snuggle up closer.  “You are such a baby,” Thor said.

Loki ignored his jab, finding it difficult to refute.  “What are you going to do now that you can pick your own studies?” he asked instead.

“I’m going to become a mighty warrior,” Thor said.  “You can be king.  I don’t want it.  It’s too much work.”

“I don’t want it either,” Loki said.  “I want to find a way to Midgard and see what they’re hiding there.”

Thor laughed.  “Loki, how will you survive on Midgard if you cannot survive sleeping in your own bed?”

“Midgard’s not scary.  It’s full of mortals.  How scary can they be?” Loki asked.

“You remember what Taranis said,” Thor said.  “They kill their gods.  What do you think they do to scrawny little runts?”

Loki realised he could hear voices from outside Thor’s terraces as well.  But if Thor wasn’t worried about them, Loki was determined not to let them bother him either.

“Exactly,” Loki said.  “I’m not a god.  I’ll go before I take my rite, and they won’t have a reason to kill me.”

Beside him, Thor laughed.  “You’re a fool.  You’re gonna die a fool,” he said.

Loki shrugged.  “Probably.  But at least I’ll have fun.”

« || »

Loki: God of Outcasts | Those Who Hunt Monsters #6: Diplomacy

For months, Loki was kept away from the strange new business with Midgard.  He had been allowed to see the realm, and then just as quick as he’d learned about its existence within Yggdrasil, it had been taken away.  Thein wouldn’t speak of it, and Odin would only answer questions in vague riddles seemingly designed to make Loki lose interest.  But he didn’t lose interest.  Each day he was kept from knowing more, his curiosity only grew.  He was forced to only watch as kings and gods from far beyond Yggdrasil came to Asgard to argue in secret.  Loki put names he’d heard from Thein’s lessons to faces, remembering each one in case the opportunity presented itself to show that he understood what was happening around him.

Strange beings came and went, and soon these secret talks were all Loki could think about.  He took to skulking around doors and corridors, hoping to catch the right opportunity to either sneak or force his way in.  But the guards who kept watch over these secret talks were not like Bror, friendly and willing to bend a few rules to keep the peace.  The guards outside Odin’s hall may as well have been made of stone for all they were willing to bend.

Loki thought the whole thing might come and go without him ever knowing why.  He went to his lessons, and back to the nursery, day after day without learning anything relevant.  Thein’s lessons remained of ancient wars and treaties and kings, stubbornly ignorant of what was happening all around them.

Loki didn’t give up.  Instead of trying to force his way in, he waited for the right opportunity.  No amount of asking was getting him into those secret talks, so he’d have to trick his way in.  And for that, he needed Baldur to play his part.  Thor didn’t care and wouldn’t help, but that was his loss.

It didn’t take much to make Baldur cry.  While Loki plotted the best way to go about it without getting himself into trouble in doing so, Thor took care of the problem on his own.  As Thor lined up an army of wooden Valkyries on their winged horses, poised to defeat a dragon, Baldur snatched up one of the horses from the line.  Thor took the horse back, and when Baldur reached for it again, Thor pushed him away.  Baldur, being much smaller than Thor, easily lost his balance and fell backwards onto the floor.  At once, he began screaming as though Thor had tried to murder him, and the entire nursery erupted into chaos.

“I didn’t push him that hard!” Thor insisted as Inga and Áslaug both rushed to comfort Baldur.

“You shouldn’t have pushed him at all!” Inga said, holding Baldur while she scolded Thor.

While Thor argued his case and Baldur wailed to the Nine Skies, Loki took his opportunity and rushed for the window.  Climbing up to it had become a practised act, and before anyone noticed, he was out the other side and on the ground far below.  From there, he didn’t wait around to see whether or not he had been noticed, and ran off to the nearest palace entrance. 

Even without cutting himself open and smearing himself with blood, Loki had figured out how to make himself go unnoticed when he wanted to.  He was not invisible, nor completely unseen, but his presence did not cause a stir either.  He wove a quick path toward Odin’s hall, finding it open and empty.  Wherever Odin was, it was likely not with the other kings and gods, discussing Midgard.  Rather than rushing off to find him, Loki climbed up into Odin’s chair by the fire and waited for his father’s return.  He didn’t know how long he had waited, because he soon fell asleep in the quiet room.  He only woke when Odin found him later.

“Loki, you should not be here,” Odin said tiredly.

“Why?” asked Loki, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes before looking up at his father.  “I wish to know what’s going on.  These secrets have been all about Midgard haven’t they?”

Odin put everything into not sighing then.  He was weary from hosting the talks and did not have the energy to argue this with Loki, a child who had discovered the word ‘why’ at an early age, and put it to good and frequent use ever since.

“What’s happening on Midgard does not concern you,” he said, hoping that would settle the matter.

As was often the case with Loki, it only fuelled the boy’s stubbornness.

“But it does,” he said.  “Perhaps not at this moment, but it will.  That’s what you always say.”

Odin did sigh, and for a moment wished Frigga were near to whisk the boy away.

“When Thor is king, he’ll need to know why all these people were here.  We both will,” Loki said, stubbornly staying right where he was.  “Won’t it be better if we know now?”

Frigga was not there, and nobody was coming to save Odin from his own son, so he picked Loki up and took him back to the corridor.  “It’s not the sort of thing for young boys,” he said.  “Thein will explain later.”

“When later?” asked Loki.  “When he’s old and forgotten all the good bits?  He already forgets what he’s talking about and says stupid things that aren’t true.”

Odin looked down at Loki, seeing nothing but defiance and stubbornness in his eyes, so blue they were almost startling.  This was a child who would have anything he wanted.  Not just through charm, but through sheer guile and determination.  Odin knew that if he were denied this, Loki would only find some other way to learn what went on behind those closed doors.

“Thor and I will be ten this winter,” Loki said.  “You said yourself it was time we learned the ways of these things.”

“That I did,” Odin agreed.

He was once again reminded that despite all appearances, Loki was the same age as Thor—a fact Odin himself sometimes forgot for how small Loki was.

“If I treat you as a man and allow you this, will you behave as one?” Odin asked, knowing he was only tempting the fates with this bargain.

“Yes,” Loki said.

Odin nodded and put Loki down.  “Very well,” he said.  “Now, whose lessons are you missing to be where you have been told to keep away?”

Loki opened his mouth to answer that he wasn’t missing any lessons, but only then realised he had so badly lost track of the time of day that it was possible he had missed everything.  If he missed Thein’s history lesson again, there might actually be a caning in his future.

“Perhaps you should go see to that,” Odin said.

Loki nodded.  “Yes, Father,” he said.  He wasted no more time and turned to seek out Thor to see what he had missed.

While the kings and ambassadors from worlds beyond Yggdrasil slowly assembled and settled themselves about Odin’s hall, Thor took the opportunity to shoot Loki a foul glance.

“I can’t believe I’m here because of you and your meddling,” he said, frowning down at the table in front of him.  “This matter has nothing to do with us.  We were there for a day.  Why’d you have to get involved?”

“One day, you’ll thank me for this,” Loki said.

Thor rolled his eyes and turned away.  “You say that every time you involve me in your schemes.”

Thor glowered at the gathering crowd around him, but nobody noticed, dampening the effect.  He and Loki were the youngest in attendance and were already largely ignored by the rest.  But there was one man present who saw and recognised them, and he moved to sit by them at the great table at the centre of the room.

“Things have not been going well,” Taranis said.  He slouched down low, exhausted from the whole ordeal.

Excited that someone here was treating him as a man and talking to him like one, Loki turned to listen to what Taranis had to say.

“Why not?” he asked.  He looked around, realising that the grim faces weren’t just a matter of decorum.

“Most of these old fools haven’t stepped foot on Earth’s soil in ages,” Taranis said, shaking his head as he spoke.  “But the moment they’re told they can’t, they become outraged.”

Thor snorted.  “They sound like you, Loki.”

“Shut up,” Loki said, shoving Thor with his elbow.

“Yes, well.  The very old often become very childish in the end,” Taranis said. 

He looked over to where Odin stood, speaking with another king called Jupiter.  He was old, with long white hair, and a long beard to match.  Neither of them seemed happy, but they hadn’t quite reached the point of argument just yet.  All around them, similar conversations took place, with alliances forming before the talks could resume.  Kings and gods had come from pantheons Loki had never even heard of, gathered from all across the cosmos.

“It’s not just them, though,” Taranis said finally. 

He cast a critical gaze across the room, mirroring a displeased sentiment that seemed to envelope everyone there.  Loki followed his gaze, recognising a few others he had seen coming and going in the months before.

“The humans have changed much in their ways,” Taranis continued.  “It used to be that you could go amongst them and hurl a bit of lightning about and they would worship you as a god.  Now they wage holy wars amongst themselves and great disease and famine grips the land.”

Loki and Thor both frowned at this.  They had seen nothing of what Taranis described during their short time on Midgard, and both found his words difficult to believe.

“Because of us?” Loki asked.

“In a way,” Taranis said.  “There was a time when men regarded their gods as leaders and teachers.  But time moves differently for the humans.  They have such mayfly lives that they haven’t the chance to become set in their ways.  They spread across continents and do little besides quarrel with one another.  It seems as if entire civilisations collapse overnight.”

Loki was less than impressed with any of this, but fascinated all the same.  He wondered then more than ever why he had never been allowed to go to Midgard before, just as the pantheons gathered to lock it away.

“What about the holy wars?” he asked.  He considered the phrase, not quite understanding its meaning.  “Are the other gods fighting on Midgard?”

Taranis shook his head.  “No, it’s men fighting in their gods’ names.  It’s this new trinity that’s causing it.”

He sighed, and watched the crowd around them became more and more agitated.

“The humans put all their faith in the new gods,” Taranis went on finally.  “They refuse to be taught how to work their own lands.  If their crops fail, or the hunt goes poorly, they roll over and accept it as their god’s will.  This famine also brings plague with it, but this too is their god’s will and to do anything about it is heresy.  The mere thought of taking a bath and washing their clothes doesn’t even occur to them.”

“They don’t bathe?” Thor asked.  “Loki is covered in grease, but he at least tries.”

“Shut up,” Loki said. 

He ran a hand through his hair, find it just as oily as it always was.  Before he could defend himself further, Odin stepped up behind him and bent over them to be heard over the din of the room.

“We are about to begin,” he told his sons.  “Behave yourselves.  You are princes of Asgard and should be seen as such.”

“Yes, Father,” they said, out of time with one another.

Loki watched him walk toward the head of the table, while Thor glowered beside him.

“You will pay for this,” Thor muttered to Loki.

“At least try to be creative when it comes to it,” Loki said as the hall settled into an uneasy silence.

Before Odin could even speak to greet the room, the man Ogma had earlier been speaking with rose to his feet so quickly that his chair skidded back across the floor.

“Earth has always been neutral soil.  Asgard is only trying to claim the world for itself!” he said over everyone’s heads.  Loki thought he might have been Ra, but the Ennead gods all animal heads to hide their faces.

“What of the Celts?” someone else across the table shouted back.  “They never leave Earth unless they are called upon, as now.  You expect them to go back to where they came from?”

It was already not what Loki had expected.  Diplomacy didn’t exist in the room as everyone quickly began shouting over one another to be heard.

“And this is as far as it ever gets,” Taranis said to Thor and Loki.  “For weeks, they’ve bickered like this and accomplished nothing.”

“Why do they even care?” Thor asked, already bored with the brief entertainment provided by a group of old men shouting at one another.

“The boundaries of many worlds meet there,” Taranis explained.  “Yggdrasil is not the only group of worlds to connect by cosmic paths and Dragon Lines.  Earth is neutral because it must be.  It’s a convergence zone.  It grants access to many regions of the cosmos.”

“They’re afraid of another war,” Loki realised aloud.  “My father thinks Laufey had designs bigger than Midgard.  Does he mean that Laufey meant to conquer other world trees after taking Midgard?”

The shouting around them had come back to the topic of Asgard intending to claim Midgard for itself after all the other pantheons released their hold on what little bit of the world they still had.  With shouting and fists slamming against the table, Loki could barely hear Taranis speak.

“Perhaps,” Taranis said, trying to be heard over the din without shouting himself.  “And it was not so long ago that all that business with Laufey happened.  It’s still fresh on everyone’s minds.”

“We were born during the war,” Loki pointed out.

“It’s my understanding you were born on Jötunheimr?” Taranis asked.

Loki tensed at at this before remembering that Odin had not been surprised by a similar statement from Cairbre whilst on Midgard.

“Yes,” Loki said, nodding stiffly.

“You don’t look Jötunn,” Taranis said.

“It’s just a trick,” Loki said warily, not sure how much he wanted to trust this man.

“No one on Asgard knows that,” Thor spoke up from where he was sprawled out over the table with his head in the crook of his arm.  He looked up, meeting Taranis with a hard gaze.  “I would like to know how you do.”

“My father shares his knowledge with my brother and me,” Taranis said simply.  “Though not always where he gets it.”

Thor continued to glare at Taranis as he settled back in his seat.

“You don’t have to speak with him, Loki,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Do not presume to speak for me,” Loki said, resisting the urge to give Thor an angry shove.  “If you wish to be a bully on some else’s behalf, do it for Baldur.  I can take care of myself.”

Just then, Odin slammed Gungnir against the stone floor, sending an echoing clang across the hall.  At the sound of it, all went quiet and looked toward the Allfather.

“This has all been discussed before, and opinions have not changed,” Odin said sternly, glaring out across the room.  “But bickering like fishwives solves nothing.”

“You may rule over these tribal backwaters, Odin, but you do not rule the rest of us,” Ra said, his voice resonating from behind his falcon mask.

“What good comes from locking off the planet at all?” Jupiter asked in turn.  “A bunch of squawking humans arguing over a god who cannot even bother to show his face at this council is enough to make us turn tail and run?  These wars could be ended in an instant with just a handful of our soldiers.”

“Is this what we are?” asked Odin.  “Jealous tyrants who slaughter mortals because we do not get our way?”

Again, the council began shouting over one another, with nobody seeming to agree completely with anyone else.  Loki watched in awe, while Thor rolled his eyes and rested his head against the table.  The fighting was unlike any Loki had ever witnessed, and he was suddenly very bitter at having been kept from Odin’s hall for so long.

“What do you think should happen?” he asked Taranis.

Taranis sighed.  “I think our fathers are right, but I don’t agree with the reason.  Earth should be locked off.  But not to let them sort their own problems out.  We should have never meddled in the first place.”

Loki tried to listen to the argument before him, but it had all melted into one cacophonous din. 

“What about this other god?  Is he dangerous?” Loki asked.

Taranis laughed, short and sharp.  “This Christ fellow?  That’s the worst of it.  He tried to teach the mortals peace and love and they tried to hang him for it.  Now they slaughter each other in droves in his name, and call it mercy.”

Loki considered this for a long moment, but no amount of mental rearranging made sense of this picture Taranis had painted.

“I don’t get it,” he said.

Taranis laughed again.  “Neither do I, kiddo,” he said.  “But humans kill their gods, and it’s best you never forget it.”

Loki looked out over the crowd again, understanding less of this drama than he did before.  Thein had always made these things seem so dull and boring, and had mentioned nothing of endless shouting matches.

“And we agree to lock Earth off, then what?” Jupiter shouted above all else.  “Every person here has access to the world.  What’s stopping any of you from breaking this so-called agreement once it’s signed?”

“The knowledge that if you’re caught, every other pantheon present today would declare war,” Odin said.

Another god Loki didn’t recognise laughed.  “Would they?” he asked.  “Or would they stay silent to protect their own trespass?”

While everyone began to shout again, Taranis sat up a little straighter in his seat. 

“So write it into the pact!” he shouted.  “War must be declared if any pantheon is caught trespassing on Earth.  Let the mortals lead their own lives, free from our interference.  When they’ve grown up a bit, they can make the choice to rejoin us.”

Whatever Taranis’ intent, the shouting only grew louder.

« || »
« Older posts

© 2022 LokiOfSassgaard

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑