With food in their bellies and enough in their packs to last them a few weeks, the trek up the mountains was easier than it had been the day before. They all seemed to move more quickly and complained less about the conditions. Dry moose meat was not a gourmet meal by any stretch of the imagination, but it wasn’t wet slop from a can, or stale, dry crackers either.
They followed their path along the river, sticking as close to the banks as possible. They still only had a vague point on their map, but the well could have been anywhere along a long stretch of land. More than once, the river branched and forked, forcing them to go out of their way to find a good crossing point. It added time and distance to their journey, and in the short hours of daylight, they were forced to pick up their pace even further to make up for even more lost time.
As they followed the river further upstream, deeper into the mountains, small flowers began to poke through the snow where it was thinnest beneath the trees. Though they weren’t yet mature, Bruttenholm suddenly lit up with a new energy.
“This is it,” he said, crouching down to look at one of the small sprouts, woody little green twigs with wide, serrated leaves.
Rogers stopped and knelt down next to him. “What is that?” he asked.
“Roses,” Bruttenholm said. He looked up at Rogers, both giddy and serious all at once. “I suspected this might be what we’d find here.”
“Roses?” Rogers repeated.
“Cuttings,” Bruttenholm said, pointing. “See how the top is flat. These were put here deliberately.”
Rogers leaned in to look, and nodded. “All right,” he said. “So we’re close.”
“Very, I’d wager.” Bruttenholm stood, leaning heavily on his cane to keep his balance. “Follow the roses, and I believe we’ll find our well.”
Loki looked down at the little sprigs in the ground all around them. He didn’t know what they meant, but Bruttenholm was clearly putting a lot of stock into them. They obviously counted for something. But if Bruttenholm knew they were close, Loki trusted him. He picked a careful path through the flowers, trying to notice whether they were getting bigger or smaller as he walked. They’d been planted chaotically, with no regard to larger plants that might present an obstacle. He got the feeling that whoever was behind it was going for the quantity approach, planting as many as they had the energy to plant and trusting nature to take care of the rest. If that meant that the next empty spot was beneath a towering tree, or already choked by low scrub, then so be it.
The roses grew taller and taller, until finally blue blossoms and tangled brambles were all that remained. Loki remembered the blue flowers from his journey here as a boy, and began to share Bruttenholm’s excitement. Getting through the maze of thorns was no easy task, but if they could move slowly and carefully enough, they could just about make it. Loki had seen blue roses before, many times. Every midwinter, Frigga was presented with a bouquet of the flowers, which stayed in bloom all year until the following winter. Loki had never known where they’d come from, but now he made the connection. They were absolutely on the right path. He stopped and pulled his bayonet from his belt, carefully cutting a handful of blossoms from one of the plants.
“What are you doing?” Rogers asked harshly.
“What I’ve been told to do,” Loki said simply.
When he had what felt like an acceptable amount, he made his way more purposefully through the brambles until finally the trees and roses all cleared, leaving a wide, open circle. In the middle of the circle stood a small, squat well, crumbling from age. Behind it was a hut, small and dumpy, and standing high on chicken legs.
“What the fuck?” Coulson asked quietly as everyone stopped at the edge of the clearing.
Loki ignored all of them. He walked straight up to the hut, holding his arms wide. The game was up. There was no more point in hiding, since he would not be on Midgard for much longer anyway.
“My name is Loki, son of Odin of Asgard,” he said in his most commanding voice. “I am here under my own free will, and I have many questions.”
He ignored the murmurs from behind him as the hut squatted down to lie on the ground. The door sprung open without a second’s hesitation, and an ancient woman walked out, shaking her head. Her golden eyes shone brightly against her dark, ashy skin as she tutted at him from across her lawn. She had always been ancient, since the day Loki first met her as a boy, but she seemed to have not aged a day in all that time.
“Urðr. How lovely to see you,” he greeted, handing her the flowers.
Urðr clicked her tongue and shook her head. With her hands on the sides of Loki’s face, she pulled him close. “You’re supposed to come here after. Not during, stupid boy,” she said. She laughed and pulled him down for a hug.
“And yet you knew to be here. Cearly I am precisely where I’m meant to be, when I’m meant to be there,” Loki said.
Urðr laughed, finally stepping back to look at him, studying him for what came next. “What have you done with your hair?” she asked, shaking her head again. “It doesn’t suit you. You should bring your friends inside before they all freeze.”
“By all means,” Loki said.
He turned, beckoning the squad to follow. For a long moment, nobody moved until finally Bruttenholm took the first step. Then, one by one, the rest began to make their way through the clearing to Urðr’s hut. Once inside, Urðr filled a kettle with water from a barrel and put it over the fire. Then she began plucking apart the roses, letting the petals fall into a bowl. The petals dried in her hand, shrivelling and cracking almost instantly.
“You are here about the well,” she said as soon as Rogers stepped inside.
The cabin comfortably fit the entire squad, and would have comfortably fit an entire platoon if that’s what Rogers had brought up the mountains with him. Loki made himself at home, sitting at her table not like a soldier on a mission, but visiting royalty waiting to be served.
“We are,” Rogers said, not being as subtle with his glaring as he clearly thought he was.
Urðr shook her head. “You should know better,” she said to Loki.
“They have the Tesseract already,” he said. “As well as other relics. I didn’t want to take that chance.”
Urðr nodded, not pausing in what she was doing with the roses. “Yes,” she said gravely. “And now is not the time to ask why. Nor is it the only stone on Midgard.”
Loki sat up sharply. “What?”
“I’m sorry, stones?” Rogers asked. “Olson, what’s going on?”
“Infinity stones,” Loki said. “Ancient relics with unspeakable power. Hydra uses one to power their army.”
“And there’s another one out there?” Rogers asked. He looked back and forth between Loki and Bruttenholm, but for once, Bruttenholm seemed just as lost as anyone else in the room.
“Now is not the time for you to know, Steven Rogers,” Urðr said. Her words were enough to stun Rogers into silence for a few seconds.
“And let me guess,” Loki said. “Now is not the time for me to know about the other?”
“No.” Urðr crushed the petals with a mortar and pestle, and poured them into her kettle. “You came here for another truth, as have all men before you. I will not tell you how to win your war, and you should know better than to ask, Odinson.”
“Someone mind telling me what’s going on?” Rogers asked, looking at the two of them like he was ready to start swinging fists.
“You came here to protect my well,” Urðr said. “For that I am grateful, but it needs no protection. We are well-guarded, and no mortal can find us when we do not wish to be found.”
Loki was almost pleased to hear it, until she turned those sharp golden eyes back to him. “And you. Outside with you, boy. You can keep lying to your father all you like, but you won’t make a liar out of me.”
Not wanting to find out what would happen if he disobeyed, Loki followed her back out into the snow. He walked behind her to the well, saying nothing as she dropped the bucket into the water deep below and hauled it back up. Beside the well was a low, shallow stone basin, where Urðr poured the vibrant blue water, so full of magic it almost glowed in the light. She stepped out of the way to let Loki kneel beside the basin, the snow beneath him soaking into his wool trousers. This was a moment he had been prepared for and trained on since before Thor had even taken his rite, but he did not fully know what to expect.
“Have you any questions, boy?” Urðr asked.
Loki did not know. He had been prepared for this, but had never thought to prepare himself for it. He had never once intended to take his rite or receive his fate. Even if he had, he didn’t know that he’d want to know his fate.
Besides. He already knew his fate. He had known it for years, ever since he was a boy and all other pantheons had met to seal Midgard’s fate. What more was there to know?
“And it will be the son of Jötunheimr and the son of Asgard who leads Hel’s forces and burns Yggdrasil to dust,” Loki recited. The words had been burned into his mind, never forgotten since they day they were first spoken before him.
Urðr nodded. “This is what you wish to know?” she asked.
It wasn’t. There was no stopping prophecy. No matter how hard one tried, if it were meant to be, it were meant to be. Prophecy could be changed and altered, but never directly. Never through intent.
“It is,” he said.
Urðr placed her hand on the back of his head and pushed his face beneath the water. Its icy chill consumed him, coursing through his veins with a coldness he had never before felt. Ice may have run in his veins, but now his every atom was ice. He could feel it freeze and stop his heart and fill his lungs until they burst. Every colour of the universe exploded in his eyes as the ice consumed him and scattered him into dust. And then there was darkness and an endless void. Ginnungagap spread before him for an eternity. For eons, the universe swirled around him, coalescing into dust, and then stars and planets and systems.
Then, he found himself being pulled from the ice, inch by inch as Auðumbla licked the rime and freed him. Loki stood there on the ancient plane and looked up upon Ymir’s skull high above him. The noble cow Auðumbla continued to lick the rime that covered the giant’s flesh, but she was not the only creature Loki saw on the ice. In the distance, something black moved, fluttering up and down, but going nowhere. Loki walked toward it, careful step by careful step lest the entire world fall away beneath his feet. What he found was a great golden eagle spread out on the ice with its feathers and blood spread around its body while a raven ate its entrails. Loki watched as it devoured the eagle. When the raven looked up at him, he did not feel as if it were his father watching him through its eyes. He felt instead an even older, more powerful force behind the inky black eyes. Something ancient and terrible. A herald of what was to come.
In an instant, it was all pulled away. He felt as if he were hit in the chest with a boulder as light flooded his vision. Choking and gasping for air, Loki found himself on his back in front of Urðr’s well, looking up at the cloudy Midgardian sky. He rolled over to his side to clear his lungs and breathe air.
“What did you see?” Urðr asked.
Loki waited until he had breath in his lungs to speak. “I saw a raven feasting on an eagle,” he said. He shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
“Now is not the time for you to understand,” Urðr said. “Now is only the time for you to know.”
Loki did not understand that either. What was the point of prophecy if he couldn’t even know what it meant? Knowing only that it existed told him nothing.
“In my dreams—” he started.
“One question,” Urðr said, cutting him off. “You have asked what you came here to ask, and were given the information you sought. Now you must decide how you use it.”
“I wasn’t given any information,” Loki argued.
“In time. You will see it for what it is. And it will be up to you to react accordingly,” Urðr said.
He didn’t have the energy to argue further. Sighing, Loki pulled himself to his feet and looked around at the sparse forest around them.
“I need to rest,” he said.
Urðr nodded at him and began to walk back to her hut. Loki followed her, using all of his energy just to move one foot in front of the other. Inside the hut, he found the squad sitting around the fire, discussing something quietly. As he stepped inside, they all turned to him, saying nothing as he struggled to catch his breath and dripped icy water onto the floor.
“Olson,” Rogers said. It was neither a question nor a greeting. Simply an acknowledgement of his presence.
“I am done,” Loki said. “This place is well protected. You need not be here. Go while there is still light.”
He ignored their murmurs and collapsed into one of the three beds in the hut.
“What about you?” Rogers asked.
“As I said, I am done.”
That was it for Loki. An eternity in the void left him hollow and used. Whether the Tesseract was safe or not no longer mattered. As long as Urðr remained on the realm, Loki knew Midgard was not in danger. Had they found an empty hut and unguarded well, he’d have other opinions. But he didn’t need to be told to understand what Urðr knew. If now was not the time to know about the stones, then now was not the time to involve himself further.
There was a cold silence between everyone as Rogers glared down at Bruttenholm. To his credit, Bruttenholm did not shrink beneath it.
“It’s best not to argue,” he said instead.
“You’ve known?” Rogers asked.
Bruttenholm said nothing. He only nodded, which was all he needed to do.
“Right,” Rogers said eventually. “We’ll deal with that later. I guess we’re done here.”
Loki closed his eyes and listened to the squad shuffle out into the snow. After a long moment, he opened his eyes again, expecting to find the hut empty. Instead, he found Coulson still sitting by the fire.
“This isn’t the place for you, Ray,” Loki said. “You should go.”
Coulson nodded. “You really just staying here?” he asked. He looked around like he wanted to say more, but didn’t want to insult their host.
Loki nodded. “I shouldn’t even be here. Midgard can handle itself.”
“What do we tell HQ?” Coulson asked.
Loki didn’t know. “I’m sure you’ll think of something.”
He took off his spectacles and examined them. He no longer needed them, or any other part of his disguise. It was hot in the small hut, and Loki no longer wished to wear a false form. With Coulson still right there in the room, Loki released his hold on his magic and let it drain from him. As his skin darkened and his false biology dissolved, the hut grew even more uncomfortably warm, but at least he was able to feel comfortable in his own skin. Not wanting to accidentally damage them, he settled his spectacles back onto his face to keep them safe for the next time he visited the realm.
“So, that’s you, huh?” Coulson asked.
“That’s me,” Loki confirmed.
Coulson stared for a long moment. “So, what? You’re going back to Mars now?” he asked.
It wasn’t funny, but Loki laughed all the same, covering his eyes with his hand. “I’m not from Mars, Ray,” he said. “Go home.”
Coulson nodded, still standing awkwardly in the cabin that now seemed much smaller without so many people inside. “I guess, uh. I probably shouldn’t expect any letters.”
Loki had learned to steel himself against these goodbyes. Most of the time, he avoided them by simply disappearing into the night. This wasn’t always an option, and now he was faced with the sticky task directly.
“I never learned to write, remember?” he said. “Nor am I likely to return to this realm within your lifetime.”
Direct was the best route to take. Loki kept his eyes closed, wanting nothing more than to get some well-deserved rest. Humans were fun to be around, but they weren’t permanent. He couldn’t afford attachment, and did not want to see the plain abandonment that he knew was written on Coulson’s face. If he saw that, he’d have to admit his own attachment.
“They’re waiting,” Loki said.
Coulson nodded again. He paused for just a moment longer before leaving the cabin to follow the rest of the squad back down the mountain.
Though Loki was exhausted to his bones, he could not sleep. He tried to force himself into unconsciousness, but it would not come. It was his uniform, he decided. Loki hauled himself from the bed and shed layers, dropping his boots and shirt onto the floor next to one another. Feeling it might perhaps be some sort of slight to undress completely, he kept his trousers on. Even they felt too heavy and close as he crawled back into bed, but he knew that once he got to sleep, he’d forget all about them.
“They are not mere playthings,” Urðr said finally.
Loki tried to ignore her. Perhaps if she thought he was asleep, she’d drop it and forget to nag him about it later.
“There are reasons gods are no longer permitted in this realm. Just because you are you does not mean you are above the law,” she continued.
Loki sighed. She clearly didn’t believe that he’d fallen instantly to sleep the second his head hit the pillow. “And what makes you above the law?” he asked. “Should you not have left as well?”
Urðr said nothing while she poured water into the cauldron over the fire. “There is not a pantheon that has not broken the pact. All have sent guardians to watch and protect the realm. But everyone else has stayed out of business which isn’t theirs.”
“It’s everyone’s business,” Loki argued. He sat up lazily to fight her on more even grounds. “They have the Tesseract. You say they have another stone. They were supposed to have been scattered, so why are there two in the hands of the humans?”
“And soon they will have three,” Urðr said. “This is not for you or anyone else to change. This is how the fates will it.”
“What do the fates will after that?” Loki asked, feeling suddenly as though he had just wasted his time completely. “One stone is powerful enough to obliterate a realm. And we’re to allow this race of barbarians to possess three?”
Loki had seen time and time again what humans did with the slightest amount of power over their neighbours. He had seen how quickly they progressed in their means and technology. Depending on Urðr’s definition of soon, with three stones, the humans could destroy their entire star system. Depending on the stones already in their possession, they could destroy much more than that.
“That is not for you to know at this time,” Urðr said, repeating her refrain once more. Loki began to hate her for it. “In time, yes. But not now.”
She poured him the last of the tea she had brewed and handed him the small cup. Too tired to fight her any longer on it, Loki nodded as he took the cup and drank as Urðr walked out of the cabin, leaving Loki alone. Before Loki finished the tea, he fell into a deep sleep.
Loki woke not knowing how many days had passed since he arrived at the small hut in the mountains. His boots and other belongings had been stacked neatly at the foot of the bed, but he found the hut empty. The thought of lacing those damn boots up once more made Loki’s entire body ache, and he had no reason to hide himself, so he walked outside wearing nothing but the wool army trousers he’d fallen asleep in. The snow was refreshingly cool on his bare feet as he walked around the clearing. The air on his bare skin helped wake him from what felt less like sleep, and more like hibernation. The sun was in a strange position in the sky. Higher than it had been during their trek up the mountains. He had been asleep for days; perhaps weeks.
He found Urðr behind the hut, cutting firewood with an axe almost as big as she was.
“Here,” he said, stepping forward to take it from her. It was a chore she could obviously do for herself, and had been for most of her life, but his muscles craved the activity.
The axe was heavy and sharp, splitting the wood with a single swing. Urðr probably did not immediately need the amount of wood Loki split for her, but it was something to do to delay the inevitable. He could not stay on Midgard forever. He had no reason to, and would be found sooner or later. But he did not wish to return to Asgard either. Asgard was a cage, and returning was a defeat. If he returned, it meant Odin had won their argument, and would hold it over his head for an eternity.
Loki stopped when he ran out of wood to split. He buried the axe in the chopping block and returned to the cabin to find Urðr serving a stew from her cauldron. She placed two bowls on the table, clearly inviting Loki to sit with her. He sat, immediately picking up the spoon from the table.
“Where are your sisters?” he asked, finally realising their absence.
“They have their own business to attend to,” Urðr said. “They shall return in time.”
Growing no more tolerant of her cryptic messages, Loki nodded and accepted it all the same and ate for what felt like the first time in months. The stew was full of a mix of game, as if each new pot were added to the previous. It was the first real food Loki had eaten since Trondheim, and he devoured it.
“Eat more,” Urðr said, pointing to the cauldron for him to pour himself a second bowl. “You’re still weak, and need the nourishment.”
Loki paused. “Am I allowed to know why?” he asked. “Or is it another secret?”
“Soon,” Urðr said. “For now, eat.”
Her words were a clear warning that sat heavily on Loki’s chest. Still he poured a second bowl and ate, and then a third. Annoying as the woman was, she was right. He was exhausted and starving, and could have eaten the entire pot of stew on his own had he no manners at all. As he ate, Urðr left him alone again. The silence of the empty hut, with nothing but the fire crackling was a silence he missed dearly. He had not been truly alone since his arrival to the realm, and would have paid his entire fortune to have this isolation whenever he craved it.
When he ate as much of the stew as he felt polite, Loki put the bowl in a pail near the fire and walked over to his gear. He took the briefest moment to search through his overcoat, finding his spectacles folded neatly on top. He put them on again out of habit and pulled what passed as fresh clothing from his bag before banishing them off to his secret place. Then, he slowly began to dress. Comfort or no, a prince of Asgard couldn’t just walk around in nothing but his trousers. There were certain formalities that must be adhered to, no matter how informal his visit. This was still the home of Odin’s most trusted advisors.
He heard it as he laced up his boots. It wasn’t a sound that he heard with his ears, but with his very soul. A sound that had been plaguing him since New York. A song that called to him with a terrible purpose that Loki could not resist. He tried to shut it out, but it was more powerful than he was. It was no longer playing games, and neither was Loki. He would answer its call, and this time he would not be stopped. The Tesseract had grown stronger, but so had Loki. He had learned new tricks and new skills. Loki took the time to check the ammo in his handgun, finding only one round left. His rifle was empty, so he banished it along with his other gear, and picked up his bow and quiver instead. It was not enough to fight this battle, so he called his knives as well. He knew he could have been walking into another trap, but this time he would not lose. This time, he knew it was not a trap. Something had gone wrong, and the Tesseract was screaming for a new handler. It was not a cry Loki could ignore.
Sparing one final moment to make sure nothing was forgotten, Loki slipped back into his Asgardian skin. He might be able to sneak around whatever base the Tesseract had been held at, but he’d have an easier time of it if he wasn’t deep blue, with glowing red eyes. Letting that beacon guide him, Loki stepped out of the cabin and toward the Tesseract. He found himself not in a mountain fortress, but in a small, steel tunnel that shook and vibrated beneath his feet. Hollow sounds of footsteps in the near distance told Loki he was not on the ground. The Tesseract was screaming because it was being taken somewhere it did not want to go.
Loki opened a door and immediately saw what had gone wrong. A red, white and blue menace with a matching shield fought not as if his life depended on it, but as if everyone else’s did. Loki recognised the man he grappled with—it was a face he would not soon forget, having been nearly turned inside out from whatever power the man had failed to control.
Neither of them saw Loki enter, giving him the clear advantage over both of them. He drew his handgun and aimed for the man with the blood-red face. Before he could find a clear shot, he was violently thrust forward from behind while a searing, white hot pain spread through his shoulder. It was not the pain from Midgardian weapons, but from a weapon of unspeakable power. One of the humans’ weapons that had harnessed the power of the Tesseract. Loki spun on his heel and used his final bullet to split the soldier’s skull. The shot silenced the entire cockpit, bringing Roger and Schmidt’s attention to Loki. He barely had the time to notice before Schmidt took advantage. He grabbed the Tesseract from its housing before either of them could stop him. For a terrible, horrible moment, Johann Schmidt held in his hand the greatest power the realm had ever known. It was a power so great, his body failed to contain it. It vibrated his every atom apart, and soon Johann Schmidt was a cloud of dust, and the Tesseract had fallen to the floor. Loki watched helplessly as the infinity stone released itself from its shackles and burned through the fuselage to fall to the sea far below.
Loki and Rogers watched it before looking at one another. Without a word between them, Rogers rushed to the yoke and picked up the pilot’s headphones while Loki rushed to the hatch and pulled it open. The wind tore past and the sea shimmered dizzyingly below. Loki knew his next step could kill him. Very likely would. But he had not gone through everything to end here, so he stepped out into the void. As he fell, he had just enough time to banish his weapons before he hit the water. The impact rattled his entire body, but he barely had time to think about it before he started sinking farther and farther into the icy northern water. Midgardian seas were almost endlessly deep, and he knew he would not be able to find the Tesseract as he was. Loki ignored the suffocating chill around him and focused all of his energy on what came next. His plan relied on a complicated mix of magic, changing his body and banishing what he wore at the same time. He had to time it exactly right, or he could risk getting tangled in his own clothing and drown anyway. With no breath in his lungs, he used every ounce of power and magic he had, trading skin for scales and arms for fins. He mercifully found himself free from the tangle of his own clothes as his magic had been timed perfectly. With gills, he was able to breathe beneath the water, so he swam further and further down, hoping to catch a glimpse of the familiar blue glow. He swam as far as the ocean was deep, and as wide as he could manage, but the Tesseract could have landed anywhere from that height. It was light enough that an air current could have carried it for miles before it hit the water. A water current could have caught it and sent it even further.
It could be a hundred years or more before Loki found it. Still, he searched and searched the seafloor, ignoring the pain in his back even in this form. Ordinarily these changes would force his body to put itself back together, but Hydra’s weapons disrupted his magic, and soon Loki could take it no longer. He needed to breathe real air. Knowing he could have been anywhere in Midgard’s great, endless seas, Loki was not going to try to swim to shore. He stopped, letting the currents carry him as he sought out the nearest land. Where it was, he had no way of knowing, but he focused on it and took himself there. As the seas were endless, so were the shadows beneath them, allowing him to travel the long distance in the span of a single breath. He did not make it onto land itself, but close enough that he reverted himself to his his Asgardian form and took the last small step all at once, falling to the frozen ground gasping for air as he pulled his ragged uniform back from where he had banished it. He had never before felt so defeated, and all he could do about it was scream, and punch the ground, and weep. He screamed wordlessly to whoever was listening, not just because he had lost, but because he had run out of options. There were no more choices. No more cause for delay. Loki didn’t know when he had lost hold of his concealment, but he knew that it was gone. He knew he was being watched, and the only thing left to do was to accept it. He couldn’t look up and face it directly, so he faced the ground instead.
“Heimdall. Open the Bifröst,” he said, defeat ringing heavily in his own ears.
A moment later, he was consumed by a pillar of light and pulled through the cosmos. Loki could not enjoy it. He took in none of the splendor or beauty as it soared past him, and landed gracelessly in a heap on the floor of Heimdall’s observatory, soaking wet and pathetic. Heimdall said nothing as he loomed over Loki, an ominous presence above him. It was Loki who finally broke the silence after a long moment.
“I suppose he’s aware?” he asked.
“He is,” Heimdall said simply. “The Allfather awaits your return in the great hall, Prince Loki.”
Loki wanted to hear derision in Heimdall’s voice. He tried desperately to hear it, but he was too tired and weary to make himself hear it. He pulled himself to his feet, and without another word, began the long trudge back to the palace. He thought he might be able to skip the whole ordeal and sneak back to his chambers, but he did not get far along the Rainbow Bridge before he was met by a mounted guard, leading a second horse behind him. Loki glared at the man for daring to assume he could simply order him around like this, but ultimately did not have the wherewithal to say anything about it. If anything, riding back to the palace sounded far more appealing than walking anyway, so he climbed into the saddle and let the horse take him back. There was still the time and means to make his escape, but by that point, it was no longer worth the effort. Odin knew he was back on Asgard, and the guard would surely report his disappearance immediately, so Loki went where he was wanted.
He found Odin on the throne, waiting impatiently for his return. Loki walked down the long hall tiredly, one foot in front of the other because it was all he could do. He did not stop beneath the throne to kneel and beg forgiveness. He walked to the steps leading up to the throne, sitting on the lowest one.
“Deliver your lecture and deal your punishment so I may go to bed,” he said. He’d nod and pretend to listen along, and they’d both feel like they’d got what they’d wanted.
He waited for Odin to order him to his feet, prepared to ignore it, but the order never came. Instead, Odin rose from his throne and walked down the steps to sit on the lowest one beside Loki, groaning like an old man as he lowered himself to the floor. Not just like an old man. He was an old man. Old, and stubborn, confusing as ever. Loki wished he’d get to his point already, rather than dragging it out.
“Is this what they wear on Midgard these days?” Odin asked, studying Loki while he wound up his admonishment.
“If I say yes, can I leave?” Loki asked.
Odin made the small grunting noise he often made when he tried not to sigh. “I shouldn’t be surprised you have no desire to make this easy,” he said. “Tell me, Loki. Where have you been?”
Loki rolled his eyes. This was not a game he had any will to play. “I have been sleeping in a frozen hole in the ground. And I can’t say I enjoyed it.” Let Odin do with that as he pleased. Loki didn’t care.
“Why, dear boy, were you sleeping in a hole?” Odin asked. Loki did not have to make himself hear the sarcasm in his father’s voice. It was plain as day.
“So the wild animals and the wild humans didn’t kill me in my sleep,” Loki said. “Though I suppose that would have made it easier for you.”
He leaned back into the steps and closed his eyes. He felt like he could have fallen asleep right there. Let Odin scream and shout. Loki was tired enough to sleep through anything.
Odin did not scream, and he did not shout. He stood instead, looming over Loki with all the presence of the palace itself.
“When most young men seek to complete their rites, they are away from Asgard for a year.” Odin said, with a new sternness in his voice. “You have been gone barely a season.”
Loki looked up sharply. “What?”
“A boy does not become a man by seeking quests to bring vanity or glory,” Odin said.
Loki sat up slowly, still keeping his seat while he tried to figure out where his father was going.
“A boy becomes a man when he does what must be done,” Odin continued. “Tell me. What have you learned in your time on Midgard?”
Shaking his head, Loki finally stood again. “I don’t want to do this,” he said.
There was a plinth beside the throne. Odin stepped up to it and picked up a sword that shone like silver. Its blade was long and glowed like daylight itself, with twisted serpents that made its hilt and crossbar.
“Your brother chose this for you,” Odin said, placing the sword in Loki’s hands. “Just as you chose Mjölnir for him. Lævateinn is said to be unbreakable and unbending; a perfect blade for battle.”
Loki looked down at the sword. He didn’t want a sword. He didn’t need a sword. He had his own weapons he liked better. He shook his head already turning to leave. “Send supper and a healer to my chambers.”
“Loki,” Odin called sharply from behind him. “You cannot run from this forever.”
Loki ignored him and walked out of the hall toward his chambers, still holding the sword he did not know what to do with. At his chambers, he found guards posted outside his door, as always. Without a moment’s acknowledgement of their presence, Loki walked right past them into his chambers, which appeared exactly as they had left them. He also found them exceptionally quiet.
“Fenrir!” he called out. He waited for the beast to come bounding down the stairs, or from one of the far rooms, but the air stayed silent.
Loki immediately turned around and stepped back into the corridor again.
“Where is my dog?” he demanded of the first guard he saw.
The man glanced over to his partner before responding. “In the kennels, Prince Loki.”
Loki wanted to ask why his dog was in the kennels with the common mongrels, but he was too angry to get that far. He took one step and disappeared into the shadows, reappearing in tunnel beneath the kennels where the guard dogs and war hounds were kept. If his dog were kenneled, it would not have been with those taken on the hunt.
“Týr!” Loki shouted as he stepped out of the shadows.
Týr was close by, and heard Loki’s shouting.
“Prince Loki. Back so soon?” he asked.
“Where is my dog?” Loki demanded, ignoring the question posed of him.
“Your ‘dog’ is a threat and a menace, just like its owner,” Týr said.
Loki had no patience for this. His mind, body, and soul ached with exhaustion, and petty games were not the way to fix that. Giving no warning, Loki swung his fist at Týr’s face, connecting right between the eyes. He ignored the pain in his hand as Týr staggered backwards, allowing Loki the room to pass. As he walked, Loki raised Lævateinn at his side. He could hear Týr already chasing behind him, and wanted nothing of it.
He walked toward the open archway leading to the kennels, and stepped into a world of blinding sun and braying hounds. Some of the dogs were out, training with soldiers in the adjacent field, but most were locked in their small cages, frantically barking and howling to be let out. The cages were all entirely too small to fit Fenrir, so Loki kept walking as he ignored Týr’s shouts to stop.
Loki reached the end of the kennels, where he finally found Fenrir, chained to a stone pillar. The chain was so small, and Fenrir so big that the animal couldn’t even stand. When he saw Loki, he immediately began to whine and growl to be released. He was covered in mud and filth, his fur matted against his body from being left chained by a lunatic.
Loki turned toward Týr to look him in the eye before he raised Lævateinn over his head. He dropped the sword onto the chain, shattering it beneath the blade. In an instant, Fenrir was up on shaky legs, licking Loki’s face and crowding him with his body. Loki indulged him, pulling what fur he could grasp in his fingers, and scratching his ears.
“That thing’s going to kill someone!” Týr shouted from behind them.
Loki turned at once to face him. “Why don’t you have a snack?” he said calmly.
Fenrir leapt forward, immediately toppling Týr to the ground. Týr was a large man and a skilled warrior, but Fenrir was the size of a small horse. He pinned Týr to the ground and found anything his teeth could bite. Loki only watched as Týr screamed beneath the animal, fighting against him. But with no weapon, and one hand in Fenrir’s mouth, there was little he could do.
Soon, his screams alerted the men training their dogs. The men ran over, arriving just in time for Loki to call Fenrir off. Fenrir backed up, still growling as Týr writhed on the muddy ground. The dogs that followed the men barked and yelped until Fenrir turned his growl at them. Dogs and men alike took a step back. The men shifted their attention between Fenrir and Loki, both of them covered in blood and filth, and needing to bathe.
“Take this man to a healer,” Loki commanded.
The men acted at once, rushing to Týr’s aid. They helped him off the ground, both supporting him as they led him back through the tunnel toward their healer. Once they were gone, Loki began to walk back toward his chambers with Fenrir at his heels. With a tight hold on Fenrir’s neck, Loki took the same shortcut through the shadows, arriving back at his chambers in moments. Ignoring his guards once more, Loki walked through his door and immediately began to shed items and clothing. He dropped the sword onto the sofa near the door so he could start the painful task of removing his jacket. Now that he was home, in his own space, he became acutely aware of every ache and pain in his body. The weapon that had stabbed him in the back tore a searing pain through his shoulder as he tried to move his arm to free himself of the jacket. When he managed that, he had the task of his shirt beneath it, and his undershirt beneath that.
Naked to the waist, Loki walked to his wash basin and found it empty. Looking up in the mirror above the basin, Loki hardly recognised the unshaven mess of a man that looked back. He realised he was still wearing his spectacles, and took them off and gently set them aside.
As he inspected his hair, trying to decide if he should grow it out naturally, or get it over with and attempt to magic it back to the length it had been before, the door to the corridor opened. Loki peered around the door to find Eir herself walking in, trailed by two assistants. Each of the women brought in trays and baskets of food, medicine, water, and trinkets.
With Eir present, Loki stepped back to give her room to work. One of the girls filled the basin with water, while another stacked up fresh linens. While they worked, Eir stepped close to Loki, peering at him curiously. Her gaze lingered on his face longer than was comfortable, before she looked down at his shoulder. The blade the soldier had used had cut completely through Loki’s back, leaving a long, open wound in front as well.
“I’ve seen worse,” Eir said after a moment.
“Shall we wash the dog too?” a meek voice behind Loki said.
He turned to see one of the girls crouched down on the floor beside Fenrir. The dog had sprawled out on the floor, soaking in the timid scratches from the girl.
“Yes. And see that he’s fed,” Loki instructed.
The girl nodded and stood. “Yes, my prince.” She gasped when Fenrir stood as well, almost dwarfing her in height. She and the other girl took Fenrir out of the room, leaving Loki alone with Eir.
“Let’s get you clean, first,” Eir said.
Loki sat on a bench and allowed Eir to work, wincing through the sting of water and soap in his fresh wounds. “This is not Midgardian technology,” she observed.
Loki shook his head. “No. I’ve never seen anything like it myself.” He did not think she needed to know what caused it. He hadn’t even told his father that much.
Eir frowned and continued to scrub. “Let me see all of you.”
He had been wearing his Asgardian form for so long, he had forgotten to take it off. Loki released it, allowing his skin ot shift to its natural dark tones. When he looked up again, Eir wore that same perplexing look on her face.
“I have never known the Jötnar to grow beards,” she said finally.
Loki reached up to touch his face, and was surprised to find himself still an unshaven mess. “Well then what the hel’s this supposed to mean?” he asked.
“I do no know,” Eir admitted.
Loki had assumed it was his human form taking on a life of its own. That his pathetic excuse for a beard still remained in his true form was certainly cause for alarm. He watched Eir carefully as she re-directed her attention from cleaning Loki’s wounds to inspecting his face and head. She hummed discontentedly to herself after a moment, before returning to work.
Once he was clean, she was able to begin the healing process, but her magic refused to work. Potions and elixirs did nothing, healing stones only burned his skin, and her magic had no effect at all.
“We’ll do this the old-fashioned way I suppose,” she said, finally giving up.
She dressed his wounds, wrapping him tightly in the fresh linens, with instructions to rest. They were instructions Loki was all to glad to follow. By the time Eir gathered her supplies and left, the food she had brought was cold, but Loki didn’t care. Cold food was still food he hadn’t had to hunt for himself, or scrape out of a disgusting tin can. Fatty boar, fresh bread, and mead. He even devoured the potatoes and turnips.
As he put his plate aside to climb into bed, he heard the door to the corridor opening once more, followed by the rapid tapping of claws on stone floor. Fenrir rushed through the room and leapt into bed with Loki. When he saw the dog in the kennels, Loki had hoped he only looked so ragged from the mud in his coat. But even now, clean and freshly groomed, it was clear he had been starved. Loki’s anger flared all over again as he pulled the dog close to him, burying his face and fingers deep into his fur. He had not realised until that moment how much he had missed this; how much he had needed it.
Thor had done nothing to protect him. Nor had Odin. It was as if they had not expected him to return at all.
“Next time, I’m taking you with me,” he promised. “I’m not leaving you here again.”