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Tag: fic: Second Rite

Second Rite #13: Cold

Something exploded, and Loki woke with a choked shout. He wanted to scream out loud, but his tongue felt too big in his mouth, and his throat too tight. He struggled to free himself from beneath the bulk pinning him down as another report rang out, and another, and another, with no rhythm or cadence at all.

He couldn’t breathe, and everything felt hot on his skin as he freed himself and rolled onto his hands and knees. By then, he realised he wasn’t in Europe, knee-deep in snow and mortar shells. And he wasn’t alone. Beside him Fenrir whined quietly, while across the room a lantern suddenly filled the bed closet with a low light. Loki stayed where he was, still trying to just breathe while he took in the room around him. He was safe, in his bed in a Jötunn bed closet. Nothing was exploding. Nothing was in danger.

“What’s wrong?” Bjalfi asked from behind him.

Loki didn’t turn to face him. Instead, he just shook his head and sat back down. “Nothing. I’m fine,” he said, forcing the words out one at a time.

He was not fine. He was drenched in sweat and his entire body ached, only surpassed by the raw roughness in his throat. Loki scrubbed his hands over his face and tried to focus on just breathing. If he could just keep breathing, he’d be okay. A moment later, Fenrir edged up close, trying to fit his enormous size into Loki’s lap. Wrapping his arms around the wolf’s neck, Loki buried his face into his fur. He drowned in the sensation of oily fur on his skin, and the scent of raw animal musk, cloying and familiar and safe.

The sound that wasn’t an explosion kept filling the house from above his head, unending and deafening. After a long moment, when he felt like he might actually be close to fine, Loki looked up to the roof. It rattled and bucked in the wind, falling heavily back down against the stone frame of the house.

“Is that normal?” he asked.

He could feel the weight of the entire room staring at him, and was glad when his question seemed to deflect some of the attention.

“No,” Bjalfi said after a long moment. “It’s not.”

“Great,” Loki said. “Fantastic.” He nodded and buried himself back in Fenrir’s coat, leaning his entire weight against the animal. Fenrir took his weight, twisting about to lick Loki’s bare shoulder.

“Children, let’s go,” Gudrun said suddenly, getting up from bed.

She coaxed Ozur and Vigdís from their beds and guided them out to the fire room, leaving Loki and Bjalfi behind. Knowing that it was only the roof coming undone, and not the entire world ending, Loki ignored the crashing sound above him and focused instead on just breathing. Again Fenrir shifted and whined quietly, licking the side of Loki’s head. With his hair in the tight braids on his scalp, Fenrir’s massive tongue left him feeling uncomfortably cold.

“We should go too,” Bjalfi said finally, getting up as well.

He stopped beside Loki, standing above him as though contemplating reaching out and grabbing Loki to pull him to his feet. Finally, Loki looked up again, first to Bjalfi, then to the roof shuttering and slamming above them, and nodded.

“Right,” he said.

He leaned away from Fenrir and slowly pulled himself to his feet. Looking around the bed closet, Loki wasn’t surprised to find Ikol absent, and pushed through the curtain to the fire room. Gudrun had already got the fire started, and had moved with the children over to the table on the far wall where the roof seemed more stable and attached. While Vigdís and Ozur busied themselves with playing checkers with the coins Loki had given them, Gudrun nervously spun wool into a fine thread. Bjalfi joined them at the table, sitting close to Gudrun as he looked to the roof above them. Loki sat instead on the floor, letting Fenrir invade is space and take up too much room.

For a long moment, only the children spoke as they played their game, complaining about one another’s choice of moves, and arguing about rules. Loki ignored them, again burying himself in Fenrir’s coat and wondering if he could get back to sleep.

“Do you know any stories?” Ozur asked suddenly.

It took Loki a long moment to realise he was the subject of Ozur’s question.

“Me?” he asked, looking up slowly.

“You travel. Do you know any stories from other realms?” Ozur asked.

Across the table, Gudrun shook her head. “Leave him be,” she said.

Loki shook his head as well. “No, I can tell a story. What kind do you want to hear?”

A story would be distraction, and Loki needed no end of that as the roof continued to try to break free above them. He could tell a story and think about that, ignoring everything else around him that seemed to make him want to jump out of his own skin.

“Do you know any about a dragon?” Ozur asked. “But not Fafnir. I’ve heard that one a dozen times already.”

Loki took a deep breath and considered the question. “A story about a dragon?” he asked. He knew plenty, but one in particular instantly sprang to mind. “How about a story about a treasure hunt, with a dragon at the end?”

“Is the dragon guarding the treasure?” asked Ozur.

“Isn’t that what they always do?” Vigdís asked. “Steal treasure and guard it.”

“The dragon is called Smaug,” Loki said. “And he’s not only stolen the treasure, but an entire Dwarven kingdom. But the story starts with a hobbit.”

“What’s a hobbit?” Ozur asked, forgetting about his game entirely.

“Tiny little people,” Loki said. “Even smaller than dwarves. They put their houses underground and spend their days eating everything in sight. They don’t like to leave their homes, so not many people know about them.”

By then, even Gudrun and Bjalfi had turned their attention to Loki. He told as much of the story as he could recall, and though he could remember most of the important bits, he occasionally found himself having to fill in gaps where his memory failed him. By the time he got to the magic ring and the creature that guarded it, Loki was fairly certain he had told part of the tale backwards, and missed a few fairly large bits entirely. But he had only read it once, distracted from the combined demands of a drill sergeant screaming in one ear, and the Tesseract screaming in the other. But eventually, the dragon was slain, the battle won, and a hobbit returned home to his hole in the ground.

The tale took long enough to tell that by the time it was done, the wind outside had calmed and the roof stopped trying to take flight. Loki found himself exhausted from the simple act of telling the story, and leaned against Fenrir as though to catch his breath. He could feel a headache forming between his eyes, not from the weight of his horns but from the strain of simply existing.

“Have you ever seen a hobbit?” Ozur asked.

Loki shook his head. “No,” he said, fairly certain such things didn’t actually exist. “All I know about them is they come from Midgard. Where else would you find elves and dwarves breathing the same air?”

The children both gasped quietly and looked at one another, startled and thrilled all at once.

“And where did you hear these stories from Midgard?” Bjalfi asked, with a look in his eye that betrayed his suspicions.

“On Midgard,” Loki said. If Bjalfi was going to ask out in the open, Loki wasn’t going to bother lying.

“You’ve been to Midgard?” Bjalfi asked. “With a face like yours? Halfbreed or not, even you must know it’s forbidden.”

Loki shrugged, paying more attention to burying his fingers in Fenrir’s coat than to Bjalfi. “So is my existence here,” he said, not entirely certain whether it was true or not. “I get by.”

Neither Bjalfi nor Gudrun disputed his words. They only sat in a tense silence, looking at one another with something that looked almost like fear. The children saw it too, both Vigdís and Ozur casting confused glances between Loki and their parents.

Suddenly, Bjalfi got to his feet and walked toward the other end of the house, picking up a coil of rope on his way. “Get dressed, boy. I need you on the roof,” he said.

Loki looked up at him as he disappeared behind the curtain, and then turned his attention toward the others still at the table. Ozur wasn’t getting up, so Loki nudged Fenrir off him and stood, brushing dirt from his breeches before heading back to the bedcloset to dress. He found Bjalfi sitting on his bed and pulling on his boots, but said nothing as he knelt to find something clean enough to wear. He would need to find a way to wash his clothes sooner rather than later, before they began to fall apart under their own filth.

“You keep talking like that, and you’ll soon find your head separated from your body,” Bjalfi said.

Loki paused and looked up to meet his gaze. He wore a strange emotion on his face that wasn’t anger, but something alarmingly close. Loki opened his mouth to insist he’d be fine, but chose instead to just nod. In his exhaustion, he had become careless, and let too much slip. How many Jötunn halfbreeds could claim to have visited Midgard, and have tales to back it up? Hvítá was isolated from the rest of the realm for as long as snow fell from the sky, but it would not take much for word of his existence to reach any bounty hunters still hoping to collect. If Utgard itself were not crawling with them, it would be a miracle.

He returned his attention to his pack and pulled out a tunic. Pulling them over his head was becoming an increasingly tedious affair as his horns grew longer, pointing not straight forward, but angled slightly outward so they created a bigger challenge each week. Loki moved carefully, trying to avoid catching them on anything as he pulled the garment over his head. He failed several times, having to stop and untangle the fabric where it caught on the tip of one horn or another. Though his horns weren’t sharp, he worried they still might tear the fabric and leave him with one less tunic to rotate through.

“Are those all you got?” Bjalfi asked, watching Loki struggle.

Loki nodded as he finally pulled the tunic down over his body. He looked down at it, with its high collar that concealed everything below his neck. Even unlaced, it showed little off and left little room for ever-growing horns. And suddenly, he realised it was entirely wrong in more ways than just its needlework.

“Nobody told me,” he said, staring straight ahead at the wall. “This entire time, I hadn’t even noticed.”

Every man and boy in the village wore a style that opened fully at the front, and held closed with a belt. And the entire time Loki had been there, he had struggled to pull his over his head. He buried his face in his hands and tried not to feel like an idiot.

“You’ve known this entire Bor-damned time,” he said.

“It didn’t feel wise to say it out loud,” Bjalfi said. “I find you out there in the storm, and you’re wearing all these fancy clothes, and someone taught you runes. I figured a jarl or general took you home as some kind of pretty little pet for his children.”

Loki snorted and looked up at him again. “I’m the oldest, actually. And I’m fairly certain I was taken out of some misplaced feeling of guilt.”

He shifted around on the floor to pull his boots on, pausing to look at them—tall and fitted, custom made for someone who wasn’t him, but close enough in size. And obviously Álfar. Loki had thought he’d planned properly. Thought he’d covered all his bases. He hadn’t even tried.

With a sigh, Loki got to his feet and turned to Bjalfi, still not entirely certain what the true purpose for calling him away was. After a moment, Bjalfi rose as well, and the two walked back out toward the door.

“Stay on this side of the house,” Bjalfi said to the others as he and Loki stepped out into the snow.

Bjalfi led the way around the back, toward the end where the bed closet sat, looking up at the roof as they walked. The heavy snow drifts along the side of the house posed a treacherous obstacle, forcing Loki to cut a wider path around the house unless he wanted to find himself buried in snow and ice.

“Surtur take it all,” Bjalfi said, stopping in his tracks.

Loki looked up to see what Bjalfi was swearing at. The entire roof had come loose from its connection, and was sitting at a twisted angle atop the frame of the house. Loki turned to look down its length, able to see the spot where it had come loose and shifted. One more good storm, and the house wouldn’t just lose its roof; the entire thing would be torn apart from its foundations. Suddenly, the task he had been called out for was obvious. Taking another few steps back, Loki examined the roof to see if he could spot any potential weaknesses. It was too high for him to jump, and even if it wasn’t, the snow was too deep for him to get a good run. And even without snow, Loki wasn’t sure how well it would be able to support his weight on the landing.

He walked around to the front of the house, finding the same story on the other side. But while it sat crookedly on the frame, there was no part where the roof had completely come off and exposed anything inside to the elements. It was still in a precarious and dangerous position, but it could have been much worse.

“You as light on your feet as you seem, boy?” Bjalfi asked.

Loki walked back around to where Bjalfi stood, still looking up at the damage.

“More than you know,” Loki said.

Bjalfi hummed a concerned little noise, but otherwise ignored anything Loki might have been implying. Ignoring his own weight was another skill that had always come naturally to him, and one he nearly perfected while on Midgard. The roof might have collapsed under even Ozur’s weight, but it was clear they both knew sending Loki up was the obvious choice.

Bjalfi sighed and handed Loki the coil of rope.

“Stay on the poles,” he said, stepping deeper into the drift to get closer to the roof. “We won’t be able to replace the turf if you fall through.”

Loki nodded and stepped close, staying in the tracks Bjalfi cut through the deep snow. After a moment of quiet calculation between the two of them as they both studied the distance between the ground and the edge of the roof, Bjalfi crouched and offered Loki a foothold. Loki stepped into his hands, and in one smooth motion was hoisted up high enough to be able to climb up where he was needed. Even keeping his feet on the poles like instructed, the turf of the roof felt thin and worn, ready to fall apart at any moment. Loki kept his weight off his feet as much as possible as he crept along the roof to find the best place to start, careful to avoid shifting and tearing any of the turf beneath him.

He had to hang over the edge, lying flat on his belly to lash the roof to the frame below, wrapping and twisting the rope around anything he could reach. It did his growing headache no favours, but short of giving himself completely away, Loki couldn’t see any other way to get the job done. Still, the rope did not feel very secure against the roof itself, or the wooden posts supporting it, and still he worried that the next storm would tear it all to pieces. Unsure what else to do, Loki breathed into his hands, pretending to warm his fingers before returning to fiddle with his lashing. While he made it look like he was tightening his pathetic attempt at securing the rope, he wove seiðr deep into the fibres, forcing them to hold. His magic would not hold forever, but it might hold long enough for spring to come and the entire roof to be replaced. It didn’t need to hold any longer than that.

With Bjalfi directing him from below, Loki made his way along the entire end, securing the roof with both rope and magic. By the time he reached the other side of the roof and secured the end of the rope with a tight knot, Loki was both too hot and too cold all at once. While his fingers and face were frozen from being stuck out in the wind, the hard work and over-exertion of his magic had made him feel as if he were burning up beneath his clothes. He knew as soon as he stopped moving, the sweat on his skin would begin to freeze in the cold Jötunn air, so he wasted no time in getting down. He rolled off the roof, not waiting to be caught, and let himself fall into a deep drift below. It was difficult to pull himself out of the snow, but after a few moments of struggling, he was pulled free and dragged to where the snow was lighter.

“Inside,” Bjalfi said.

Loki nodded, already heading for the door. He didn’t need to be told twice.

“It should hold,” he said, trying to warm his hands in earnest by rubbing them together.

He walked with Bjalfi’s hand on his back, pushing him through the snow a little faster than he wanted to walk. Loki wanted to slow down, but he knew if he did, he’d only find himself picked up again and hauled inside like an unruly pet, so he kept pace as well as he was able. As soon as they were inside, Loki was hit by a wall of heat so thick he staggered at the door. Though the fire was burning low, the air inside the house felt heavy and thick, stopping him in his tracks. Loki took a deep breath wondering if the house had been so hot before he’d been called outside.

After a long moment of trying to catch his breath, Loki made tracks back to the bed closet, pausing in his steps halfway there to free himself from his tunic. The fabric felt uncomfortably damp in a way Loki wasn’t entirely sure he was imagining, serving as another acute reminder that he had not had the opportunity to properly bathe or wash his clothing since stepping foot on Jötunheimr. Even if he was imagining the state of his tunic, he was not imagining the state of the rest of him; sticky, hot, and absolutely filthy.

At the bed closet, Loki stepped through the curtain and tossed his tunic toward his bag with the rest of his filthy laundry. He desperately wanted a shower, though he would have even settled for a hot bath by that point. Having the means for neither, he picked up the fabric from the ruined tunic he’d been using for everything else and tossed it over his shoulder while he dug through his pack. Finding his shaving kit, Loki pulled the soap tin out, leaving the rest behind. It wasn’t ideal, but it would do. He took both back out and put them on a bench by the fire, ignoring the curious and concerned attention from Gudrun and the children as he searched through the shelves for a large enough pot.

“What do you need?” Gudrun asked.

Loki found a small cauldron that might serve his purposes and turned toward the door. “I need to bathe,” he said.

He regretted stepping outside as the cold air immediately drove straight through him, making his every joint and muscle tense and lock up. With a deep breath, Loki forced himself to crouch just long enough to fill the cauldron with snow and returning inside. The constant shift between bone-chilling cold and stifling heat was starting to turn his stomach upside down, slowing him even more. Shaking his head and pushing through it, Loki hung the cauldron over the fire to melt the snow.

“How are you dirty? It’s winter,” Ozur said, watching from where he sat atop the table, adding to Loki’s scribbles with some of his own. “There’s no mud or dirt out there.”

Loki crouched down near the fire and scrubbed his face with his hands. He thought he’d been plenty distracted from his violent wake up call, but the crawling itch beneath his skin had never quite gone away. He tried to just breathe, but even that was starting to hurt as his chest tightened even further at the duelling sensations of pervasive chill and oppressive heat. He had gone months without looking at a bar of soap while in Europe, but suddenly all he wanted to do was get as clean as possible.

“His kind aren’t bred for this realm,” Gudrun said quietly when it was clear that Loki wasn’t going to answer the boy’s question. “Just like we have to clean the horses after we work them, he needs to get clean after he works as well.”

Loki ignored their chatter as he poked at the cauldron, finding it full of water that was barely above the point of re-freezing again. But it was water, and that was good enough, so he unscrewed the cap from his soap and used the rag to bring it to a lather. The soap wasn’t meant for bathing, and would likely do little to actually get him clean, but he pretended he didn’t know this as he began scrubbing himself.. He started first with his face, careful to avoid the still-tender areas around his horns as he scrubbed his skin until it hurt. He worked his way down from there, taking a slow approach as he cleaned every inch of skin he could reach. He couldn’t reach his back almost at all, and as he scrubbed his chest, Loki wondered when so much hair had managed to spring up in that area. Ignoring it as a question for later, he stopped only once he got to his breeches. For a moment, Loki considered taking everything back to the bed closet to finish, but as soon as he stopped his remaining energy evaporated from his entire soul. He was as clean as he was going to get in a longhouse with a dirt floor and flaking roof, and that was good enough for the moment. He sat back onto the ground and watched the fire for a long moment, only looking away when Gudrun set something on the bench beside him. Loki looked up at her first, and then to the small stack of clothing she’d left. Frowning, Loki slowly reached out to pick up the top from the stack, realising immediately what it was.

“Thank you,” he said quietly, shaking out the creases from the wool tunic.

“Ozur hasn’t quite grown into them yet,” Gudrun said. “They’re yours as long as you need them.”

Loki nodded and pulled it on, finding it infinitely easier than messing around with trying to work dense fabric around his horns. He fiddled with closing it around his front, changing his mind about which side should sit on top a few times, before settling on the one that felt most comfortable. He tied it shut with the wool belt sewn to it, and sat back to inspect the woven bands around the cuffs, the blue and gold thread making the shape of repeating dragon’s heads.

Sitting before the fire was entirely too hot, but even after Loki replaced the cap on his soap and tidied up the mess he had made, he couldn’t find the energy to get back up. He didn’t even feel much cleaner than he had when he started, but the effort of trying had been enough to finally still the deep itch beneath his skin. He was too tired to even move, and when Fenrir crawled over to muscle back into Loki’s space, he leaned back against the bench and let it happen.

“You reek too,” Loki said, doing nothing about the assault on his senses.

Fenrir had not had a bath since Loki’s return from Midgard, and it was going to be amongst the first things Loki saw to when they made it back to Asgard. His strong musk cut right through the lingering soap aroma that had stuck in his nose, making him seem all the more offensive.

Not for the first time, Loki considered giving up and going back without the sword, and without answers. But returning to Asgard would be returning to his cage, unable to leave his hall until he figured out how to hide his horns. But that wasn’t a problem he could solve on Jötunheimr without giving himself away any more than he already had. The little seiðr he had done in front of Angrboða painted a worrying picture as it was. Somehow, Loki thought even Bjalfi’s apparent endless well of goodwill might dry up if Loki were caught doing more than just seiðr. Asgard wasn’t the only realm where Dökkálfar magic was forbidden, and Loki wasn’t enough of a fool to push that boundary outside of Odin’s protection.

While the others talked quietly around the table, Loki thought of Asgard, and what new dangers awaited his return. Vanir magic did not come as easily to him as other practises did, but he was not wholly without sight either. He tried to find Asgard, high in Yggdrasil’s boughs, and a few times he thought he got close. But each time, it slipped away, moving further and further from his grasp until the pain behind his eyes forced him to stop before he stretched himself too far. He needed to find better ways to achieve the same result, but it was another problem that would have to wait until he returned to Asgard. For a moment, he thought about trying to see what was going on around the village, but found himself entirely too exhausted to even try. Even the thought of getting up to go back to bed seemed like too much effort, so Loki stayed where he was, too warm by the fire and buried beneath his enormous dog.

He needed to get out of Hvítá. He needed to finish his quest and get home. He’d been gone for far too long, and the little time he’d spent on Asgard was spent wallowing in misery. Asgard would be at the height of summer by the time Loki returned, but there were things he could occupy himself with that did not involve being out in the sun.

Loki let himself drift in and out of sleep as the others busied themselves around him. Also at the top of his agenda when he returned to Asgard was to go to sleep and not get out of bed for at least two days. And real sleep; not the brain-dead state of hibernation his body kept wanting to throw itself into. He wanted to wake up and feel like he’d actually rested.

When he could no longer sit on the floor, Loki freed himself from beneath Fenrir and returned to the bed closet. If he was going to finish this quest, he needed to have a plan he could act on as soon as it was safe to leave the village again. He fetched his map and a charcoal pencil, taking both back out to the table and finding room at the end. With the map flattened out in front of him, Loki stared at his endless scribblings and markings that still pointed to nowhere.

“Who taught you that?” Ozur asked, leaning over to look at the map.

“My mother,” Loki said.

Ozur craned his head about, frowning at the mess of lines and runes that covered the large sheet of parchment. “Is this Jötunheimr?” he asked.

“It is,” said Loki. He pointed to the spot on the map, where he’d marked Hvítá. “We’re here, and I need to find my way… somewhere over here,” he continued, gesturing vaguely to the mountains to their north.

“Can you teach me to do that?” Ozur asked.

Loki looked over at him, not sure what conversation they were having. “To read a map?” he asked.

“To do the runes,” said Ozur.

Loki looked up at Bjalfi, where he watched from the other side of the table. He’d figured out that he wasn’t meant to know to read, but the rules were still vexingly unclear. But Bjalfi nodded slowly, so Loki rolled his map back up to keep it from getting further smudged and messed up.

“Each one makes its own sound,” Loki said, writing them out in order. At the sixth, he stopped to look at what he’d put down and realised exactly how tired he was. “And these are the wrong ones.”

He scrubbed them out with the heel of his hand and started over, making sure to write them in the correct dialect.

“How were they wrong?” Vigdís asked, watching as well.

“Each realm has its own set,” Loki said as he wrote, realising that if Bjalfi or Hrapp were literate, they would have spotted dialect he wrote in as well. “Jötunheimr has twenty eight.”

Vigdís got up to move to their side of the table, settling to Loki’s left while Ozur watched from his right. There was an awkward shuffle as Loki tried to find room to write with a child crowding him so closely, but she got the hint after a few moments and put a bit more space between them.

“Why do you use that hand?” Vigdís asked.

“Because Fate thought it would be amusing if every word I ever penned wound up smudged and unreadable,” Loki said as he finished writing out the set.

He taught them to write their names, as well as their parents’ names and the various animals that lived on the tundra. It distracted them well enough that he was able to take his map to the other side of the table while they practised copying everything and making a tremendous mess of the table. Loki almost felt bad about that, but he couldn’t risk what he’d written on his map becoming more smudged and smeared than it already was.

Loki had rather hoped that the dead man he was following would have been a bit more well-known, but he’d been dead for so long that any memory that was left of him was vague and second-hand at best. All Loki had to go on was stories of drunken depravity, relayed by his father, who himself had been drunk when the stories had happened. Everything Loki could recall from stories he had only half-listened to had already been written down, and now he searched his memory for anything that might have been buried away. He scribbled down any little thing that sprang to mind, not knowing how relevant any of it was.

And he quickly realised he was no closer to figuring anything out than when he’d started. Once again, his plan had fallen apart before it even got off the ground, and he couldn’t even be surprised. Sighing tiredly, he got up to put his map away. For a brief moment, he considered giving up and going back to bed, but even as he contemplated the possibility he turned away and walked to fetch his cloak instead. As soon as his fingers touched the fabric, Fenrir sprang awake from where he’d fallen asleep on the floor, whining quietly.

“Yes, come along,” Loki said.

He cast a brief glance back to Bjalfi and Gudrun as he pulled his cloak on. As soon as he opened the door, Fenrir muscled his way through and ran out ahead, bounding through the snow like an extremely oversized puppy. Loki walked behind him at a casual pace, having no plans for where he was going, or what he would do when he got there. With the break in the weather, other villagers had ventured out of their houses, hurrying to finish chores and make any repairs of their own. Loki ignored them, letting the Jötuns get on with their day until Fenrir crowded too close. Each time, Loki would call him back, watching them each react as if they had just escaped death itself.

“Get over here,” Loki finally called out, worried that the dog might frighten the wrong person and get an axe in his skull.

Fenrir trotted back to meet him, running frantic circles around Loki. Loki paused in his step, letting the animal get it all out of his system, and wishing that just once, he could take Fenrir somewhere and not have to worry about the damned animal getting himself killed for being too friendly. As he waited for Fenrir to exhaust himself with whatever it was he thought he was doing, Loki looked around to see who amongst the village bore witness to the show of stupidity, and was surprised to find Angrboða approaching.

“What are you doing out here?” she asked, keeping her distance from the one-dog riot.

Loki looked at Fenrir, and then back at her. “Believe it or not, walking my dog,” he said.

Angrboða laughed. “Is that what you call this?”

“No, but I’m sure someone does,” Loki said.

He leaned his entire weight into shoving Fenrir out of the way so the two of them didn’t have to shout over his noise. After a moment, Fenrir apparently got the point, and buried his snout in the snow to search for whatever it was he thought he’d find.

Angrboða didn’t approach right away, but when Loki nodded down the path and began walking again, she quickly fell into step beside him.

“I know you don’t intend to stay here, but where will you go?” she asked.

Loki shrugged. “I don’t actually know. I’d hoped to find a guide who might know something about the man I’m trying to find, but that hasn’t gone to plan.”

He watched Fenrir carve a path through the snow with his snout, snuffing and coughing every few moments. Loki still had no plans for where they were walking, and let Fenrir lead as much as he was capable.

“I brought you something,” Angrboða said. “For your dog.”

She reached into a pocket in the apron she wore and pulled out a large square of bright red fabric. Unsure what she meant to do with it, Loki only watched as she stepped close to Fenrir, holding the large square in her hand.

“Come here, you silly thing,” she said.

Fenrir looked up at her and sniffed the air as she approached. His snout found the fabric, and as though following a cue, Angrboða held it up for him to inspect. After a few moments, she reached out to tie it around his neck. Without warning, Fenrir snarled and bared his enormous fangs as he leapt backwards gracelessly.

“Ho!” Loki shouted, quickly stepping to put himself between the two of them.

He looked first to Angrboða to make sure she was unharmed, and then to Fenrir. He still growled, the sound sending a chill through even Loki; a wild, untamed noise Loki had never heard before.

“What’s got into you?” he asked.

He carefully reached out, daring to stroke the side of Fenrir’s neck. Fenrir stopped growling, but seemed no more relaxed for it.

“I don’t know what I did. I’m sorry,” Angrboða said.

Loki looked back at her, ready to assure her in having done nothing wrong. But his eyes fell onto the red square she still held in her hand.

“I think you frightened him,” he said, reaching out for the fabric. As soon as Angrboða handed it over, Fenrir began growling again. “None of that,” Loki said.

Holding one hand against Fenrir’s shoulder in a feeble attempt to stay the animal, Loki let him sniff at the fabric again. He had less interest in it this time around, and kept growling instead.

“Oh, what the hel did he do to you?” Loki muttered.

He inspected the fabric, understanding precisely what Angrboða had intended for it. Fenrir looked like a wild animal, and he’d be safer wandering the village if he wore something deliberately placed on him.

“I’m terribly sorry,” Loki said, looking back up to Angrboða. “I’ve never seen him like this before.”

He stroked Fenrir’s neck, trying to calm him.

“What did I do?” Angrboða asked. “So I don’t do it again?”

She’d stepped back, giving them both plenty of space. And giving herself space to flee. She wasn’t particularly tall for a Jötunn, but she was still quite a bit taller than Loki. And even then compared to her, Fenrir was not a small animal. Odin had no end of complaints against Fenrir’s size, but that was on Asgard. That Fenrir was too big even for the Jötnar was not something Loki quite knew what to do with.

“I don’t think he likes this,” he said, looking back down at the fabric in his hand. “I told you he was stolen. The man who took him chained him to a short post so he could only lay in the mud. I think he’s afraid you were going to do it again.”

Fenrir’s growls slowly turned to a low rumble as Loki continued to try to calm him.

“How long was he like that?” Angrboða asked.

Loki looked around, knowing they were alone. All the same he made sure they would not be overheard.

“I’m not sure. A season, maybe,” he said.

He leaned his weight against Fenrir, encouraging him to lie down in the snow. Once he finally settled on his side, Loki followed to lie on top of him. The snow around them was deep, making it impossible to see anything beyond rooftops and sky.

“It’s true about Asgard,” Loki said after a long moment. “You get sent away when you come of age, and can’t come back without some great story of heroism.”

“That’s where you’re from?” Angrboða asked, stepping back into view. For a moment, she seemed like she wanted to sit, but kept her feet instead.

Loki nodded. “It is. I took a shortcut. Instead of spending a year slaying beasts and rescuing maidens, I decided to go fight a war. I came home early and found him missing.”

He could feel Fenrir rumbling beneath him, something deep and brutal rolling out of the beast’s chest. Something entirely out of place from the animal Loki had hand-reared from a pup.

“I can’t believe anyone would want him. I’ve never even seen one tamed before,” Angrboða said, wringing her hands in front of her as she watched Loki try to calm the animal.

“No?” Loki asked, trying to act as if lying in the snow with his grumpy dog was a perfectly normal thing for a grown man to be doing. “I thought they were common. My brother bought him near Utgard.”

Angrboða laughed, a bit too nervous to be entirely genuine. “Gods, no. Only for witches.”

“I’m not a witch,” Loki said. “I’ve tried, but I’m not very good at it. My mother’s Vanir, but that hardly means anything when you’re adopted.”

Angrboða looked around cautiously, but even without Loki making sure they wouldn’t be overheard, there was nobody close enough to hear them anyway.

“You’ve tried sight magic?” she asked. “What other magic do you know?”

Loki considered the question for a moment. “I don’t know dwarven runes,” he said. “That’s the only other one I haven’t cracked yet.”

Angrboða looked at him as if she weren’t sure whether to question further, or call him a liar. “You can’t be serious,” she said quietly.

“Deadly serious,” Loki said. He looked down at the cloth in his hand and sighed.

Now that he’d been given the idea, Loki knew it needed to be done. And it wasn’t going to get done unless he did it himself.

“I’m going to put this on you,” he said to Fenrir. “And then you can go off and be as angry as you want about it.”

Fenrir growled again, loud enough to give Loki pause. But rather than chastise, Loki sat up to better see what he was doing. Fenrir didn’t snap or snarl at him, but he didn’t exactly help either, forcing Loki to work his hand beneath Fenrir’s neck to pull the cloth completely around. Once he had two opposite corners in a place he could see them, Loki tried to make sure the cloth was folded well enough to sit comfortably. It wasn’t happening with Fenrir’s passive resistance, so Loki gave up on the idea and tied it closed anyway. Loki used the same trick he’d used when fixing the roof, though didn’t bother to hide the magic this time. He licked this thumb and dragged it over the knot, making sure it would stay tight, making sure the knot was tight before getting up. As soon as he was on his feet, Fenrir sprang up as well, violently shaking himself of the thing that refused to come off.

“Go find some wild beast to be angry at,” Loki said.

Fenrir looked at him, holding his entire body stiff just long enough for Loki to notice. Then, he sprang forward, throwing his entire weight into Loki and knocking him onto the ground before bounding away for the open tundra.

“Loki!” Angrboða shouted, rushing to help him back to his feet. She watched as he brushed himself off, wounded only in his pride. “Not a witch, huh?” she asked.

“Clearly not,” Loki said. He looked off toward the direction where Fenrir had run off, able to see him as an enormous black spot against the snow.

Angrboða didn’t seem to buy it, from the way she laughed. “Let’s go inside. You must be freezing,” she said.

Having no objections, Loki followed her.

« ||

Second Rite #12: Ritual

Loki had expected hunting mammoth to be similar to caribou, or maybe moose. In some ways they were. With storms bringing herds north away from the sea to ride out the thaw, the tundra endured a brief starve. But while the caribou still wouldn’t give birth to their young until after the sun’s arrival, mammoths were already calving. While the mother would starve out the rest of the winter, the calves had a steady supply of milk until the snow melted and the grasses returned.

This was the problem with mammoths. Caribou in a herd had their own risks, but none so great that it they were difficult to bag on a clandestine trip into the wilds. A single mammoth could kill an entire party if ill-prepared. A herd would kill even the most prepared party. The only way to get a mammoth was to find one that had separated from the herd to give birth. Which meant that the mammoths on offer were going to be hungry and hormonal, and the fact that a party of three had taken one was close to a miracle.

But this time, Loki knew what to expect, and was travelling with a stronger party who knew where the enormous creatures were likely to be found through the rest of the dark winter. This time, he was able to watch, and learn, and see the way experienced hunters wore the animal down and exhausted it. And when that took entirely too long, this time Loki knew what not to do when he threw the traditional ways out the window and went in entirely too close for anyone else’s comfort. Instead of getting himself thrown from his pony, Loki took the time to dismount before trying something stupid. With the animal hobbled and thrashing its enormous head as it lie on the ground, his party couldn’t get close enough to it with their spears and axes. Loki picked up a spear from one of the sledges and ran not toward the mammoth’s front, with its trunk and tusks flailing in every direction, but toward its flanks. With its legs tangled in rope, it was unable to kick and thrash as it wanted to, making it easier to climb up onto it.

The mammoth did not like being climbed upon, but Loki held his footing as it moved beneath him, unable to move enough to throw him off. He lacked any solid footing as he stopped at the shoulder, just behind the mammoth’s head, keeping just enough distance to keep from being knocked off. All it would take was for the mammoth to realise it could reach him with its trunk, and he’d be back in the snow. Before it had the chance to realise this, Loki drove the spear into the back of the creature’s skull. He could feel bone crack and shift as the mammoth bellowed beneath him, but he did not manage to stab deep enough. He struggled to maintain his balance atop the animal as he drove the spear again at the same spot, aiming for the back of the creature’s brain. This time, the spear fell through bone and drove deep, and the mammoth bellowed and roared again as its motion grew uncoordinated and jerky. Loki was nearly thrown free completely, only keeping his footing through the tight grip he held on spear lodged in the mammoth’s skull. He held on, feeling it slip as the mammoth settled awkwardly, still struggling to free itself beneath him. Loki stabbed again, this time feeling the entire animal go stiff beneath him. He had hit the right spot to cripple the mammoth, though it still clung to life. Its trunk slammed against the snow as it wheezed its final breaths beneath him, its very life force draining away with each shuttering breath.

Beneath him, the rest of his party watched and shook their heads in various stages of disbelief. Loki slid down the mammoth’s shoulder to join them, falling heavily in the packed snow.

“Rutting suicidal halfbreeds,” Hrapp said, already turning back to the sledges to replace his axe with a long knife. “Go on. You’re going to say something stupid any minute now. Get it out.”

Loki turned back to look at the mammoth, taking several long strides backwards to see it better. “I want the hide and the tusks,” he said.

“Of course you do,” Hrapp said. “Damn things weigh more than you do, but you’ll carry them out on your back anyway.”

Loki shrugged. “I’m sure I’ll figure something out.”

He dropped his spear down toward a nearby sledge and pulled his knife from his belt, realising immediately it was entirely too small for any part of the job. Frowning, he put it back and returned to the mammoth to gather up the rope he’d used to hobble it.

“What do you do with the calf?” he asked, realising he had been absent from this part the first time around.

“The tundra takes it,” Bjalfi said. He approached the mammoth and stood with his hands on his hips for a moment, taking in the scale of the task ahead of them. “This part’s too big for you. Sit it out,” he said finally.

Loki stopped as he gathered up the rope and looked up at Bjalfi. He struggled against a wave of sour indignation at being told to sit out, but knew better than to argue. He knew how to skin an animal. He’d quartered moose and caribou just fine on his own. But Bjalfi knew that. He knew Loki was out there with them for the ritual itself, and not the education.

And Loki knew that his part in the ritual was to do as he told. Not giving voice to his annoyance, he finished gathering up the rope and sat on one of the sledges to watch the other men skin, gut, and quarter the enormous beast. As he watched them struggle to move the beast where they wanted it, Loki realised Bjalfi may have had a point, as annoying as it was. The mammoth was several times larger than any moose, and Loki would have only got in the way if he tried to help. So he sat aside and watched as the men leveraged the animal this way and that as they prepared to bring it home. Loki watched, and though it wasn’t much different to what he already knew, he paid attention to the way they went at the animal not one step at a time, but one part at a time, working carefully to preserve the skin so it could be taken all in one piece.

Without a sun to track across the sky, Loki had no idea how long they spent out on the tundra. He just knew that by the time they were back on their horses heading back to Hvítá, the cold had set in from so much time spent idle. He was glad to be back on the move, even if it meant riding into the wind for another hour. Soon they would be back inside, enjoying warmth, drink, and a good meal. His pony was beginning to tire from the hard ride and the cold wind, but every time the party slowed to go easier on the animals, one of the sledges dug in and got stuck under the enormous weight piled upon them. Getting the sledges unstuck was an ordeal that took every single one of them to fix, further delaying their return. By the time they made it back to the village, they were met by a second party in the stables, kitting up to ride out and find them.

“Bor’s bollocks,” one of the men said loudly at the sight of the sledges. “I didn’t think the little whelp was serious.”

Bjalfi drove his horse into cover and dismounted, taking a long moment to stretch his muscles now that he was on solid ground.

“The boy could tell me he’s felled a cave troll, and I’d believe him at this point,” Bjalfi said.

Loki watched both of them as he dismounted his pony, eager to get cleaned up and inside. “Cave trolls are nasty and not worth the effort,” he said.

He was met by a mix of laughter and incredulity as the rest of the party made their way into the stables.

“I think I believe that,” Bjalfi said.

The stables were crowded and hot, making putting the animals away and clearing the sledges slow and tedious work. They all had to work around one another in the tight space, tending to animals and hauling their kill out so the sledges could be pulled away. The second party they had met in the stables quickly returned their horses to their place and worked on emptying the sledges so they could be moved out of the way. Loki did what he could, but the scale of the task before him seemed to put him more in the way than allow him to be useful. He focused instead on the animals, making sure the horses were all brushed and and fed and back in their places. Their thick, woolly coats needed more care to brush clean than the horses Loki was used to, and he struggled to determine whether it was sweat or oil he worked to remove.

He was startled out of his routine when Bjalfi grabbed him by the arm as if he were a child, and pulled him away.

“Go inside,” he said, nudging Loki toward the open doors.

“I’m fine,” Loki said. He hooked a thumb over his shoulder, pointing back toward the horses. Before he could say anything about them, Bjalfi gave him another sharp nudge.

“You’re sweating. Go inside,” he said.

Loki wiped his brow with the back of his hand, realising Bjalfi wasn’t wrong. He looked up at Bjalfi, taking a long moment to be confused at the significance before he noticed what wasn’t being said. So many bodies working so close to one another had made the stables into a sauna, but none of the other men showed any sign of working in the heat beyond simply looking miserable. Of the group, Loki was the only one to have broken a sweat, and for some reason, this was bad.

“Right,” he said, nodding.

He turned to fetch his cloak from where he had hung it on a post and headed toward the doors.

“No way in hel that boy’s from Jötunheimr,” he heard Hrapp say behind him as he left.

Loki ignored him and stepped out into the snow, hoping for a brief reprieve from the heat. Instead, sharp wind cut straight through him, and he understood immediately. He pulled his cloak around him, unsure what to do with the wholly unnatural sensation of being at once entirely too hot, and entirely too cold. With his horns in the way, he couldn’t pull his hood down far enough to protect his face, and it took only a few steps into the wind for a deadly crust of frost to form over his skin. The hall was closer to the stables than Bjalfi’s house was, so Loki made quick tracks in that direction. His entire life, he’d thought cold was something that bothered other people, but Jötunheimr kept finding new ways to prove him wrong and make him eat his words.

He made it into the hall, finding it empty but warm. The fire pit in the centre of the floor was still smouldering, so Loki took off his cloak once more and moved to put some more wood on from the stack along the far wall. Until that moment, he hadn’t realised how much he’d missed simply being alone. He stretched out on one of the benches, lying on his back and looking up toward the ceiling, allowing himself to enjoy the sound of the fire beside him, and the wind outside. He hadn’t been alone since the day he’d left Asgard, and though he had no reason to dislike any of the people he stayed with on Jötunheimr, he had spent every passing moment in the company of someone else. Even on Midgard, he liked to make sure he had space and time to call his own, though his last trip had not afforded him that luxury either.

Loki allowed himself to doze by the fire, though he never truly managed to fall asleep. He stayed in a space somewhere between states of consciousness, drifting in and out as the quiet sounds around him lulled him one way and pulled him another. He was finally pulled back awake completely when the door opened, and someone stepped into the hall. Loki sat up and twisted himself in his seat to see Bjalfi walking toward him, visibly relieved.

“There you are,” he said, stepping close to the fire.

“Am I not meant to be here?” asked Loki, shifting to sit up properly, crossing his legs beneath him so his feet didn’t dangle off the side of the bench.

“You can be here,” Bjalfi said. “I went home looking for you, and you weren’t there.”

“I was enjoying the quiet,” Loki said. He picked up an iron poker from the end of the bench and jabbed it into the fire to get some more air on the coals.

“Well. I hope you had a good time, because it won’t last much longer,” Bjalfi said. He shook his head, watching the fire as Loki poked it. “What was the point of all this today?”

Loki shrugged. “Indulging a curiosity,” he said. “So I suppose I should be thanking you for that.”

“This is one of those things, isn’t it?” Bjalfi asked, pointedly not looking at Loki as he spoke. “You’re banished, or whatever, and not allowed back until you’ve completed some task. They still do that, don’t they?”

Though Bjalfi wasn’t looking at him, Loki pretended the man’s words didn’t send a deathly chill down his spine. Something had given him away when he wasn’t paying attention, and Loki did not know what.

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Nothing like that. Simple boredom and an argument with my father.”

He couldn’t tell if Bjalfi believed him or not. It was clear he’d been figured out, at least in part, and it wasn’t exactly a mystery how. Loki did not exactly show up with the best cover story, and being so ignorant to his own biology that he had not realised he could freeze to death from working up a sweat was surely the final nail in his coffin.

“And I suppose your father’s not stepped foot on this realm in twenty years,” Bjalfi said.

Loki laughed quietly, not sure if this was another test or not. “No, I don’t suppose he has,” he said, knowing full well it was a lie.

Odin did not spend a lot of time on Jötunheimr, but he did make the occasional trip to placate Laufey. The occasional trip, Loki realised in hindsight, he and Thor had never been invited on because it might spoil a secret. Loki pushed that thought from his mind and focused instead on not looking like he was watching Bjalfi.

“How did you come here?” Bjalfi asked after a long moment.

This, Loki knew, was a test. “You’re aware of the Dragon Lines, yes?” he asked.

Bjalfi frowned, and a moment later, he shook his head. “What is that?”

“Threads of magic that bind Yggdrasil together,” Loki said. “If you can find the spaces where the lines intersect, you can step between them, from one realm to another. Anyone can do it, but you have to be sure you know what you’re going to find on the other side.”

“And where’s the one you took to get here?” asked Bjalfi.

Loki shook his head. “If you know where I’m from, you know why I can’t answer that,” he said.

As funny as it might have been, Loki wasn’t particularly in the mood to go home and be hanged for treason on top of everything else. He watched Bjalfi nod, just enough to acknowledge that he knew more than either of them were willing to say.

“And how does someone like you find it?” Bjalfi asked instead.

This time when Loki laughed, it was genuine. “One starts by not taking no for an answer,” he said.

“All right. So where is it?” Bjalfi asked.

“No,” Loki said, seeing his game and playing along.

Bjalfi shrugged. “Worth a shot.”

Behind them, the door opened again, and Hrapp and Bork made their way inside. Between them, they carried a long iron shaft, skewered through one of the mammoth quarters. Not needing to be told what came next, Loki quickly got up to make room for the two of them to set up the spit.

“I thought you told him to go home,” Hrapp said, shaking his head in Loki’s direction.

“So did I,” Bjalfi said.

It wasn’t long before others began to make their way to the hall, arriving mostly in groups of two and three. Mead, ale, and wine began to be passed around as the crowd grew, soon outnumbering that which had filled the hall for the judgement before. The mammoth was roasted over the fire at the centre of the hall, with bits cut off and passed around as the meat cooked. Loki thought he had missed this but he quickly found himself overwhelmed with the crowd and the noise, and found a corner where he could disappear into a cup of mead that shined almost red when the light hit it just right. The mead was thick, with a heavy spice that caught in the back of Loki’s nose and throat, and he thought he might drown in it. If he focused on it hard enough, he was almost able to forget the constant noise around him.

With his back to the corner he could see nearly the entire hall, but he found himself looking not out at the crowd, but keeping his attention his cup in his hands. He let himself get distracted, and in turn startled when he found himself suddenly not alone.

“You seem troubled,” Angrboða said as she sat in an empty seat near him.

Loki shook his head and gazed into his cup. “No. Just tired,” he said. He gave the cup a gentle swirl and watched the light play off the mead inside.

“I imagine anyone would be,” Angrboða said.

She reached out, lacing her fingers in his and drawing his attention away from his drink. She seemed hopeful and nervous all at once, as though afraid to overstep some invisible boundary between them. As if it hadn’t been Loki’s own misstep the first time.

“Did you not go on a hunt?” he asked.

Looking at her now, with her dark hair braided tightly against her scalp, showing off the single pair of silver hoops in her ears, Loki realised the context he had missed before in his ignorance. He hadn’t asked when they’d previously spoken, but now he realised she may have been younger than him.

“No,” Angrboða said, shaking her head and pursing her lips like she was trying not to laugh. “Girls can go, but they don’t have to.”

Her hands were bigger than his, exactly as he was used to his own hands being bigger compared to other women he spent time with. The odd reversal seemed to only highlight the situation he found himself in, and he found himself wondering what he was doing as he looked at their fingers laced together.

“You truly aren’t from Jötunheimr, are you?” Angrboða asked after a moment.

Loki took a deep breath and shook his head. “No,” he said. That secret was clearly out, though he was eager to guard what little mystery may have remained about himself.

“Then where?” Angrboða asked. She looked at him like she might have found the answer written on his skin. But all she was likely to find was smeared kohl and exhaustion.

“Terrible things would happen if I told you that,” Loki said. He took a deep breath and returned his attention back to the over-sized cup in his hand. “I think we’d all appreciate if that were avoided.”

“Fine,” Angrboða said. She let go of his hand and sat up a little more straight, taller than Loki would ever be. “Then where is your fancy cloak from?”

Loki considered this for a moment, unsure if he wanted to play this game. But it was a game they could both play, so he nodded.

“Álfheimr,” he said, looking up again. Playing a game was a distraction he could throw himself wholly into, making it easier to ignore the crowd and noise around them.

Angrboða reached out to pick up his cloak from the bench and examined it in her hands. Gudrun’s stitching along the new hem had been perfectly fine, but stood out as rough and basic against the rest of the garment’s construction.

“And what is Álfheimr like?” she asked.

“It’s full of some of the laziest people you will ever meet,” Loki said. He shook his head in silent, sarcastic judgement. “My brother accuses me of laziness, but these people turn it into sport. They make cider from golden apples, and the forests are full of flowers of every colour that will eat a man whole.”

Angrboða looked up at him suddenly, the cloak forgotten in her hands as her expression turning to stunned disbelief. “Is that true?” she asked.

“Every word of it,” said Loki. “I lose my mind after two or three days there. Nice to visit, but I’d never live there.”

“What about Vanaheimr?” she asked, losing some of the playfulness in her voice. “Have you been there?”

“Many times,” said Loki. He drank from his cup, finding it nearly empty. “They build their cities in the forests and along rivers. It’s not uncommon to see deer wandering through the marketplaces or their ports.”

“Isn’t it too warm for deer?” Angrboða asked. She neatly folded Loki’s cloak back up and returned it to its spot on the bench.

“The deer on Vanaheimr like the heat,” Loki said. He looked up at her again. If he kept his focus on her, he could almost forget about everything else for a moment. “They have different pelts that help keep them cool instead of warm.”

Angrboða smiled, something coy and cunning all at once. “Surely you’ve not been to Asgard,” she said.

“Asgard’s beautiful,” Loki said, realising as he said it that he meant it. “Though it’s only a rumour that it’s built of gold. It’s the stone they use. It shines like gold in the sun, and the realm has three of them. It makes the summers horrible.”

Angrboða’s smile once again faded. “You’ve been to Asgard? And you’ve lived to tell the tale?”

Her gaze shifted to the clothes he wore, different in construction than anything on Jötunheimr, while wholly unlike his cloak as well. Rather than elegant lines meant to obscure one’s form, the tunic and breeches Loki wore were cut and built in a way to call attention.

“Many times,” Loki said, shrugging as though Asgard was not increasingly the most dangerous place for him to be.

“And next you’ll have me believe you’ve been to Midgard as well,” said Angrboða.

Loki shrugged again, just enough to be seen.

“You have not,” Angrboða said.

“Their great cities are built out of steel, with towers so tall they reach the clouds. They’ve harnessed lightning and use it to light their homes and roads, and have turned food into an art,” Loki said. He watched Angrboða slide further and further into incredulity as he spoke, as though she wasn’t sure if she should call him a liar or not.

“You’ve seen this with your own eyes?” she asked. “Truly?”

“Truly,” Loki said. “It’s where I go when I’m irritated with my brother, or wish to avoid some tedious chore. It’s the last place anyone would look.”

She seemed as though she still did not believe him. “You’ve not been to Muspelheimr?” Angrboða asked after a brief moment.

“Once,” Loki said, laughing to himself. “I nearly burst into flames on the spot, and shan’t be going back ever again.” It may have been an exaggeration, but it hadn’t felt like it at the time.

Angrboða laughed, nervous and awkward, still clearly trying to puzzle out whether he was telling the truth. “What about Niflheimr?” she asked.

“It’s where I fought my polar bear.” He motioned to his chest, and the scars she had seen before. “There are caves where lightstone forms in on the surface of the rock. At some points, it’s like standing under the stars.”

“What of Niðavellir?” she asked. “Do they let you cross their borders?”

Loki considered this, taking a long moment to pick his words. “If you know the right ferryman, and are willing to brave rough seas. There are some overland paths into the realm, but much of the soil is barren. There’s little for resources, and the trek to the nearest city is three days. Andvari will take you straight to Rötgart for the right price, and only if he likes you.”

Angrboða frowned, and for a moment, looked away. Almost like she was embarrassed. “Is there any reason left to travel to Svartálfheimr?” she asked.

Loki shook his head. “I’ve been there a few times,” he said. “Out of curiosity, mainly. The parts that haven’t been turned to ash and sand are peat bog and swamp. The tigers and slugs rule that realm now, and they can have it.”

She stared at him, still obviously trying to figure out whether or not he was lying. He said nothing while she came to her own conclusions, taking company from the last of his mead instead.

“What are you doing here?” she asked finally.

Loki shrugged and put his mug aside. “I got into a fight with my father. I’m still furious with him, honestly. But I left to find a magic sword, and if I find it, I might take it home and stab him with it.”

Angrboða started to say something, and then shook her head instead. “I cannot tell if you’re joking or not,” she said finally.

“Neither can I,” Loki admitted, laughing quietly.

As far as his fights with Odin went, it had not even been the worst one for a while. Neither of them had even taken a swing for the other, though there was a certain amount of satisfaction from the idea of finally getting the last word. The whole purpose of finding the sword was to use it, but Loki had no idea whether or not he could go through with it when the time came. He didn’t think he’d stop being furious with Odin, maybe ever, but running a sword through one’s own father was not a task to be taken lightly.

“What did you fight about?” Angrboða asked.

Loki shook his head and stood. The crowd showed no sign of thinning and the noise was beginning to burrow into his skull. “Would it be rude to leave?” he asked.

For a moment, Angrboða seemed disappointed, until she looked around as well. “No, it wouldn’t be rude,” she said.

He’d already stayed too long, and now Loki was starting to regret it. The mead had done nothing to calm his nerves about the enormous crowd, and instead seemed only to put him more on edge.

“I need to be somewhere else,” he said. “You’re welcome to join me.”

He picked up his cloak and waited just long enough for her to rise as well, and began picking a path toward the door. Most of the crowd were gathered around tables and benches, making it easy to stick to the wall as he made his way to the door. As soon as he was outside, Loki sat in the snow and buried his face in his hands.

“Loki?” Angrboða asked. She bent to pick his cloak up from the ground, and hesitated to stand again.

Loki held up a finger for just a moment, and focused on breathing. He had thought he’d left this behind on Asgard, but the sour buzz beneath his skin clearly proved otherwise. Instead, he tried to focus on the cold air on his skin and in his lungs. It didn’t help, but he felt like it should. He took a breath so deep, his chest hurt from the strain, and as he exhaled he finally looked back up.

“Are you well?” Angrboða asked.

“No,” Loki admitted. “I haven’t been for some time.”

He rubbed his eyes with his fingers before getting back to his feet. There was a time not so long ago that he would have been in the middle of the crowd, actively encouraging some degree of mayhem. And he missed it. He hated that even sitting as far away as possible made him want to flee from some unseen danger. He hated that he could be perfectly fine one moment, and a panicked mess the next, for no reason at all.

“My apologies,” he said, turning back toward Angrboða.

Not sure what else to say, he started walking back to the house. A moment later, Angrboða fell into step beside him.

“Are you ill?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” said Loki. Then he shook his head. “No. Just tired.”

They walked down the path in silence, with only the quiet howl of the wind between them. Beneath the wind, the village was quiet, with most of the people still at the hall. Loki found Bjalfi’s house empty and dark, with the fire pit cold in the middle of the room. Sighing to himself, Loki looked around the room as he stepped inside as he hung his cloak on its post.

“Where are you at?” he called out.

He could hear Fenrir grumbling from the bed closet, followed by the unmistakable sound of a bed creaking. He yawned even as he ambled out to the fire room to greet Loki.

“Stay the hel off their beds,” Loki said, holding the door open and stepping out of the way. “Get outside. Go pester a wolverine or something.”

Fenrir whined and took his time to stretch his back and all of his legs before walking out into the snow. Angrboða watched him go, keeping her gaze toward the door even as Loki swung it shut.

“Is it true?” Angrboða asked. “The children said you might be a witch.”

Loki rolled his eyes as he crouched beside the fire pit to see what he had to work with. There was little left but cold charcoal and ash, but someone had been thoughtful enough to bring in some wood from the stack outside.

“Which one of those brats said that?” he asked, pulling a few split logs from the pile. “I’m not a witch.”

“They all did,” Angrboða said, laughing quietly.

She sat on a bench and watched as Loki stacked the wood in the pit. With everything how he wanted it, Loki stood to pull the sack of birch bark from its peg on the wall, and pulled out enough to fill the void beneath the wood. He quickly stuffed it into place and picked up the flint and steel from the hearth and hoped he could get it to work without looking like an idiot. Though he was utterly unsurprised at striking his own knuckles at his first attempt, it hurt no less. He hissed and choked on swears in several languages as he tried to shake the sting from his fingers, and ignored Angrboða’s concerned noises as he contemplated trying again. But he was done playing this game. It was tedious and draining, and his secret was as good as out anyway. Tossing the flint and steel aside, Loki reached to search his pockets, realising too late that the lighter he was looking for was most likely on his desk.

“Oh, to hel with it,” he muttered to himself.

Drawing seiðr he had barely touched since stepping foot on Jötunheimr, Loki spat into the fire pit. The bark immediately caught, flames quickly spreading to build a low light across the room.

Loki stayed here he was, looking directly at Angrboða as light from the fire slowly lit the room.

“That stays between us,” he said.

She nodded. “That was seiðr,” she said, staring at him with wide-eyed disbelief.

“Yes,” Loki said, getting up to search around the ceiling.

“It’s forbidden for men to practise,” Angrboða said. She looked around the room nervously, though whatever she expected to see didn’t seem to be there.

“All the more reason to keep it between ourselves,” Loki said.

He walked into the bed closet, finally finding Ikol tucked into one of the dense fur pelts on one of the beds.

“There you are,” Loki said, picking the bird up.

Ikol showed no intention of perching on his own, so Loki carried him in his hand as he returned to the fire.

“Are you cold, or is laziness catching?” he asked as he sat down on the bench next to Angrboða.

Ikol squawked at him, making a sound as tired and grumpy as it was possible for a magpie to make.

“Can I pet him?” Angrboða asked, already holding her hand out cautiously.

“He may bite, but you can try,” Loki said, bringing Ikol closer.

She ran a delicate finger over Ikol’s feathers, following the ridge down his back. Ikol squawked a few more times, puffing himself up and ruffling his feathers, but otherwise didn’t make much of an effort to scare anyone away.

“Oh, you are cold,” Loki said, frowning at the sad creature in his hand.

After a moment of looking around for a sensible solution, he shifted in his seat and crossed his legs in front of him. He pulled the hem of his tunic up and put Ikol in his lap against his stomach, and then dropped his tunic down over the bird to cover him up.

“I’m sure he’ll bite me when he’s sick of it,” he said, watching the fire.

Angrboða watched all of this, laughing quietly. “If he’s so mean, why do you keep him?” she asked. She inched toward him on the bench, moving close enough to push Loki’s knee up so it rested against her thigh.

“I like that he’s mean,” Loki said, pretending that he didn’t notice. “If anyone tries to steal him, this is what they have to put up with.” He pointed toward the door. “The idiot outside was stolen once, and apparently let it happen.”

“Who would steal a wolf?” Angrboða asked. “I still don’t understand why you even have one.”

“He was a gift,” Loki said. He looked down, stroking his thumb against the bird beneath his tunic. “A companion for when I spend too much time alone. As for who would steal him, a man who is sorely missing his hand.”

Before he could say anything further, the door opened to the wind, drawing both of their attention away from one another. Ozur and Vigdís quickly stepped inside, with Gudrun following close behind. The weather was already worsening from just the time from when Loki and Angrboða had walked through the village, after barely a day of calm winds. Loki frowned and watched as the three shuffled around the door.

“Where’s Sigtrygg?” Loki asked.

Gudrun looked between Loki and Angrboða with unveiled suspicion, and then shook her head. “He wanted to stay with his parents tonight,” she said. “Bjalfi will be home later.”

Loki nodded. He looked toward the back of the house, and then over to Angrboða for a moment, before pulling Ikol out from under his tunic. The bird still seemed tired and miserable as Loki handed him over.

“Hold him,” he said.

Angrboða cupped the bird in both hands, holding him close to look at him. Hoping she didn’t get a sharp beak to the face, Loki got up and made his way to the door. He opened it, finding a biting wind and heavy snowfall on the other side. Loki had hoped to let Fenrir stay out longer, but the weather changed his mind in an instant. He stepped outside just long enough to whistle between his fingers, and then retreated back to the comfort of the house.

“I was wondering where you two disappeared to,” Gudrun said, looking at Loki while she helped the children with their own cloaks and boots.

“I was tired, and wanted to check on my animals,” Loki said.

“That takes two?” Gudrun asked.

Loki smiled, pretending he didn’t see what was happening. “No, but I appreciate the company,” he said.

He leaned against the wall and yawned, not even putting on a show. Loki hadn’t eaten much at the hall, but he was already contemplating skipping anything resembling a real meal and falling asleep.

“Me too,” Ozur said, yawning as well. “I’m going to bed. I’m having the big one all to myself.”

He got up, leaving his boots on the floor for Gudrun to deal with, and started heading back to the bed closet.

“You should let Loki have one of the beds. You two can share,” Gudrun said, shaking her head as she picked up the discarded boots and moved them to their place.

Loki shook his head. “I’m fine where I am,” he said. “Let him enjoy it. I’ll have my own bed when I go home.”

Gudrun nodded slowly as Ozur disappeared behind the curtain. While he waited for Fenrir to find his way back, Loki watched Angrboða delicately pet Ikol while he sulked in her hand. His attention was diverted by a scratching at the door, and when Loki turned to open it again, Fenrir trotted inside with a fox in its jaws and shook himself off.

“Where in the Nine Skies did you find that?” Loki asked, watching him take his prize over to the loom.

Loki closed the door as Fenrir got comfortable on the floor and began pulling the fox apart.

“Ew,” Vigdís said, watching him from across the room. “I’ve never seen him eat an animal before.”

“He prefers it to being fed,” Loki said, returning to sit next to Angrboða, careful to keep enough distance between them to not raise any more dirty looks from Gudrun. As he got settled, Ikol suddenly sprang from Angrboða’s hands with a flurry of feathers, and flew over to nest into the heavy fur on Fenrir’s back.

“I think he likes your wolf better,” she said, sounding almost sad.

“Fenrir’s warmer than we are,” Loki said, watching his dog eat his dinner. “I took him from another realm. He’s not used to this cold.”

His attention drifted back to the fire for a long moment. Sitting next to its warmth, Loki found he was more tired than he realised. He stood again, taking a moment to stretch his back.

“You’ll have to excuse me, but I think I’m going to take Ozur’s lead,” he said.

Angrboða smiled lightly at him. “Will I see you tomorrow?” she asked.

“If I can be convinced to wake up tomorrow, perhaps,” Loki said.

He turned to head toward the bed closet as well. Finding Ozur already asleep in the bed Sigtrygg had previously claimed for himself, Loki quietly began to strip down to his breeches. As he undressed, folding everything neatly and setting it aside by his pack, he could hear a hushed conversation from the fire room, too quiet to be able to make out the words. But he was too tired to care, and let them keep their secrets as he climbed into bed.

« || »

Second Rite #11: Nameday

With each day that passed, his headaches subsided more and more.  The crack in his horn mended, leaving only the faintest groove in the bone as evidence that it had been broken at all.  His mouth healed, leaving a gap in his teeth that he’d have to deal with later upon his return to Asgard.  If he returned home broken and bruised one more time, he thought Odin might never let him leave the palace again.  But it wasn’t his fault that the things that left him broken and bruised were the things that presented the most fun.  What had been the point of learning to hunt if he never went hunting?  What had been the point of learning to fight if he never threw his fists or swung a sword?

What had been the point of learning other realms existed if he never visited them?

Half his childhood had been spent preparing for something he was constantly told he was not allowed to do.  Others may have found Álfar mead halls a fair substitute for adventure, but Loki constantly craved more.  He hunted bison and caribou, made friends with dwarves and waged war with humans.  And each time, he came home bruised and broken in some new way, and happier for it.  

Sitting on a frozen Jötunn tundra had become an entirely new experience without needing to hide away.  Not new, however, were the headaches.  Headaches that had never truly gone away, but had become something dull and easily ignored unless his horns were pulled or abused in some way.  Since he began travelling to Utgard, Loki had never once seen anything to hint at horns being a constant source of trouble.  But he realised now it was something Jötunn men must just learn to ignore, and he was no exception.

Waking as he did with the feeling of hot iron between his eyes, Loki did not know how he was expected to learn to ignore anything.  Even the low light from the lanterns seemed to cut like glass.  He lay on his back in his small bed, with his hand pressed hard against his head between his horns.  He thought it might have helped, but he also thought that perhaps he wanted it to help badly enough that he was imagining that it was.  As soon as Gudrun noticed him suffering on the floor, she rounded up the children and moved them all to the other side of the house, which did seem to help.  Already, the pain was threatening to become the sort that went straight through him, with the first sour tinges in his stomach already forming.  Loki bent his knees, bringing his legs up to put that little bit of pressure on his stomach in the hopes of stopping it before it really got started.  Beside him, Fenrir leaned his great bulk against Loki’s body, a comforting weight that sent jolts through Loki with each shift and movement.

Loki didn’t hear Gudrun approach again, and did not notice her until she crouched down on his other side.  She sat carefully on the floor, pulling Loki’s hand from his head with a gentle force that he did not have the energy to fight.  He kept his eyes closed, knowing she was studying him with the same critical gaze she always wore when she looked in his direction.

“Sit up,” she said, trying to pull him up from the ground.

Loki shook his head, but she didn’t take his no for an answer.  Unused to being the smallest person in a given room, Loki was surprised when she pulled him up from the floor.  He tried to fight it, but even that hurt, and a moment later he let her do as she pleased.  She directed him to shift and spin around on the floor until he faced the foot of the bed frame he bunked up against.  She leaned him forward so that his horns rested against the wooden footboard and pressed his head downward as if to change the direction of gravity on his horns.  They were pushed up against the frame, and exploded in an entirely new sort of pain.  Loki cried out as everything turned white around him, something deep within his skull exploding in a way that at once screamed at him to stop and begged out for more.  Loki tried to sit up, to take the pressure off, but somehow found the pain worse.  He leaned forward again, just letting the weight of his own body do the work.  The pain was unbearable, but Loki thought if he sat back up again he might actually die.

“When does it end?” Loki asked, his voice dry and wrecked from so many hour spent trying not to make a sound.

He felt Gudrun’s hand on the back of his neck, pressing slow circles into his skin.  He heard her make a strange little noise, both confused and exasperated all at once.

“Nobody’s prepared you at all for this,” she said, less of a question and more of a plain statement of fact.

Loki saw no point in denying what was surely plainly obvious, and shook his head as well as he was able.  “No,” he said.

Gudrun sighed quietly, continuing to rub small circles on Loki’s neck.  “It doesn’t,” she said after a moment.  “Not truly.  The horns never stop growing, but they do begin to slow once they’ve formed.”

Loki remembered what she had said the last time he had dared to ask.  Two or three years, maybe more.  Though without knowing what manner of thing he was, she hadn’t seemed certain.

“As they grow, the bone cracks and breaks to make room and heals in cycles,” Gudrun said.  “The broken bone has to hold new weight, and sometimes it breaks further under it.”

“Fantastic,” Loki said quietly.  His skull had quite literally split open, and this was to be the rest of his life.

Loki thought he heard Gudrun wanting to say something further, but she stayed silent, sitting on the floor by his side as he wallowed in misery.  Somehow, he managed to eventually drift off to sleep, sitting cross-legged on the floor with his head resting against the bed frame.  It was a fitful, restless sleep, but he caught himself drifting in and out for an untold amount of time.  He could hear the others speaking beyond the curtain, occasionally catching snatches without context.

“Clearly a thrall.”

“The boy can read.”

“What the hel’s he doing here?”

“Do they still send their children into exile?”

He dreamed feverish dreams he didn’t understand, all melting into one another.  He dreamed of war and mammoths and of Brooklyn buried ten feet in ice, and of Asgard, filled with a race of people half his size.  He dreamed he flew across Yggdrasil on the back of a hippogryph stallion, and crashing into an endless boiling sea.  Eventually, he could sleep no more, pulled awake by a burning tension in his neck and shoulders.  Loki slowly sat up, finding it easier than it had been before, though the pain seemed no less present.  Loki tilted his head to one side, stretching muscles as one by one, the bones in his neck popped, sending an electric shock through his body each time.  He rose to uneven feet, knowing the only thing he wanted was to rid himself of this sticky, overheated sensation.  Ignoring everyone in the fire room, Loki walked straight to the door and out into the snow, and collapsed into the first drift he found.

“Oh, Ymir’s stones,” Bjalfi said from inside.

A moment later, he stood over Loki with his back to the wind.  Loki acknowledged him with a tired grunt but stayed where he was, staring up at the starless sky, and Bjalfi’s exasperated face above.

“Come on.  Inside before you freeze to death,” Bjalfi said.

“Bite me,” Loki said.

It was the wrong answer.  Without giving Loki any further chance to protest, Bjalfi lifted him off the ground and hauled him over his shoulder to carry him back inside.

“The boy’s delirious,” Bjalfi said as he carried Loki back to the bedcloset.  

Instead of putting him in his bed on the floor, Bjalfi put him into his own, close to the wall where he would need to expend effort to get back to the floor.  As Bjalfi left the room, Gudrun returned with a wet cloth.  She sat on the bed next to Loki and placed the cloth between his horns, freezing it with a light touch.  Loki tried to wave her away, knowing he wasn’t delirious or any such nonsense.  But then he noticed the biting cold against his skin, and it was precisely what he’d wanted in the first place.

He allowed himself to relax back into the bed while Gudrun checked over the rest of him, going as far as to open his mouth to check his teeth.  She got up, returning a moment later to put something in Loki’s mouth.

“Chew on this,” she said.  “It will prevent infection.”

Loki didn’t feel infected, but he obeyed all the same.  The herb she gave him to chew on was woody and tough, with a strong flavour Loki thought he recognised, but couldn’t place.  For some reason, it reminded him of Italy.  Perhaps he was delirious.

His mind began to wander, quickly shifting from one thought to another faster than he could keep up.

“I could really go for a pizza right about now,” he decided.

Gudrun looked at him like he had started speaking a different language.  Which, Loki realised, he nearly had.  He shook his head and tried to wave it off, but for a treacherous moment he’d forgotten precisely where he was.  On Asgard, he got away with little cultural slips, occasionally spouting nonsense when he forgot his place and spoke like a mortal.  Oh Jötunheimr, it had the potential to be deadly.

“You had best not be ill.  We are without a healer right now,” Gudrun said, shaking her head.

“I’m fine,” Loki said.  “Just very hungry.”

He realised it wasn’t a lie as soon as he said it.  He hadn’t eaten anything since the previous day, and had no idea how long he’d sat napping with his head on fire.  But it seemed to be enough.  Gudrun nodded and got up, quickly rushing out to the fire room.  Loki took advantage of her absence and sat up, moving the frozen cloth to the back of his neck where it was momentarily needed more.  He leaned his head in the other direction, releasing several more jolting pops from his neck.  With them, the heat from beneath his skin finally seemed to fade, though the stiffness stayed.  He looked down at his free hand, flexing his fingers to pull his skin tight across his knuckles.  He wondered what it was that made him heal easily from some injuries, and scar from others.  Burns from magic he was too young to control left marks that still lingered.  Cuts scarred over from losses in the training ring, and something particularly nasty where he had caught his thumb in the bolt of his rifle during basic training.  Even the polar bear scars on his chest were starting to fade, not quite as raised or bright as they once were.  Part of him suspected it might have been Thor’s attempt at healing magic that had caused him to scar at all from that adventure.

His thoughts were interrupted when Gudrun returned, handing him a bowl of soup.  Loki took it and nodded, and for a moment, just held onto it.

“Thank you,” he said, leaning forward so the cloth stayed on the back of his neck.

He could feel her concern rolling off her, filling the room with something heavy and unspoken.  Loki pretended he hadn’t noticed and brought the bowl to his mouth to drink some of the broth.  It was strong and salty, tasting of both fish and game.  It was not a flavour Loki particularly liked, but one he was getting used to.

“I don’t suppose you know when your nameday is, either,” Gudrun said.

Loki shook his head.  “I do not.”

Gudrun reached her hand out to run her fingers over Loki’s damaged horn.  It was an unusual sensation.  He could not feel the touch on his horn, but he could feel that it was being touched.  Like a pressure that travelled through the bone to his skin.  He could feel the slight bounce when her finger crossed the crack in the bone, still knitting together, but healing quickly.

“When you return home to your father, will he know what to do next?” she asked as she pulled her hand away.

She spoke the words with a weight Loki did not understand.  Again, he shook his head.  “I don’t know.  What should be done next?”

The sad look that fell upon her face told Loki that his question was proof enough that Odin did not know what to do.  But Odin was not Jötunn, though he may have had Jötunn blood.  Why should he know what to do?

“On your nameday, you would be pierced and marked as a man,” Gudrun said.

Loki’s gaze found its way to Gudrun’s ears, pierced with rings of silver along the edges.

“What are yours?” he asked, knowing there was no point in continuing to hide his ignorance.

Gudrun tilted her head to show him.  “Womanhood,” she said, pointing to the first piercing on the bottom.  “Marriage.”  She pointed to the one above it.  “And my children.”  She pointed to the rest that climbed up the curve of her ear to the subtle point at the top.

Four of them, Loki noticed.  He said nothing about it, knowing plainly what it meant.

He shifted to hold his bowl in one hand, and looked down at his knuckles again.

“I sometimes scar easily, or don’t heal right,” he said, stretching his skin over his knuckles to better show the marks in the low light from the lamps.  “I don’t know why.”

Gudrun breathed deeply and looked sad again.  “When does your father expect you back?” she asked, clearly changing the subject.

Loki nearly laughed.  “I only intended to be gone for a week.  Maybe two,” he said.  And then he shrugged.  “I travel more than I stay home.  I won’t be much missed, if that’s your concern.”

“You sound so certain,” Gudrun said, her voice lilting like she wasn’t sure whether to believe him or not.

He realised that he’d already lost track of time, and wasn’t sure how long he’d actually been gone.  He’d lost much time to sleeping off injury, and more to sitting idly waiting out storms.  He had broken one of his horns, and spent enough time on the realm for it to have mostly healed.  They had begun to curve upward, getting completely in the way of everything in a way Loki thought he might never get used to.

Loki drank more of the broth from his bowl, making it easier to pick some of the meat out with his fingers.  Pieces of turnip and parsnip also filled the bowl, taking up too much space to be ignored for long.  He picked one from the bowl, holding it in his fingers and daring it to offend his tongue.  He put the piece in his mouth, and found it offensive.  He’d eaten much worse things before, but it was bitter and starchy and tough in all the ways food wasn’t.  The damned things had no place on a civilised plate, and yet were a staple of every meal Gudrun prepared.  Loki could afford to be picky at home, when the table spread out before him offered a seemingly endless choice.  But he did not have that luxury now, needing every ounce of energy he could get from every source available, even if it meant turnips and parsnips and every other disgusting root vegetable Jötunheimr’s soil could spit forth.

And it plainly showed on his face, enough to make even Gudrun, in her perpetual state of worry, laugh.  “You don’t like it?” she asked.

Loki shook his head.  “I hate it,” he said, picking out another piece of meat to chase the flavour away.  “I always have.”

“Do you make that face when your mother cooks it?” Gudrun asked.

“My mother knows better than to put it on my plate at all,” Loki said.

It was a lie, but not a tremendous one.  Frigga had never once cooked for him, as far as Loki could recall.  But she still knew what Loki liked and did not like, and what he would and would not eat when given a choice.

He seemed to have finally found something to amuse the woman, rather than further confuse and concern her.  “What else is she not allowed to put on your plate?” Gudrun asked.

Loki shrugged, drinking more of the broth.  “Parsnips, beetroot, carrot.  Swede may be the worst of the lot.  I might tolerate a potato if it’s cooked well.”

Nothing that grew under the dirt was suitable food, as far as he was concerned.  A radish was no better than a worm in that regard.

“For her sake, I pray your brothers are not as fussy as you are,” Gudrun said.

Loki allowed himself to laugh, knowing Frigga had far larger problems than what her children would and would not eat.  What her children would and would not do seemed to present more consternation from every angle.

“Are they adopted as well?” Gudrun asked.

Loki paused, taking a long moment to cast a sideways glance to her.  He supposed it was obvious.  He had been with these people for weeks, and knew nothing of their way of life.  They would have had to have been blind to not notice.

Slowly, he shook his head.  “No,” he said.  He had to be careful in how he spoke, making sure to not give too much away still.  “Nor is my family completely ignorant.  My grandmother was Jötunn, so my father knows some things.  She unfortunately perished long before I was born.”

There had been a time when Loki had thought Bestla the reason why Odin had kept him, before he learned otherwise.  Before he knew that he had been kept for more political reasons.  And now he knew even those reasons had been a lie.  There were worse reasons to keep a child, than to train him in magic and use him as a tool.  At least that convenient excuse came with the freedom to break rules and do as he pleased.

But now, Loki knew there was likely another reason on top of it, though what he still could not unravel completely.

He ate from his bowl, still considering Gudrun’s earlier words.  He could have returned home at any point, waited out the season in comfort, and come back.  But he’d chosen to stay, though he belonged on Jötunheimr no more than he belonged on any other realm.

“If my nameday were tomorrow, what would I expect?” he asked.

“If you belonged to this village, you would wake, and be taken to the hall,” Gudrun said.  “You would pledge loyalty to the jarl, be pierced and given a ring, and sent on your first hunt.”

“That explains some things,” Loki said, already understanding more than he had just that morning.

“When you return, whatever you and your party bring back to the village would be prepared for a feast,” Gudrun said.

Loki wondered if the Æsir and Jötunn traditions came from the same place, and why the Æsir version had been allowed to become such a farce.  Loki had hated his first hunt, and though it had earned him a rather magnificent heraldry, he hadn’t learned anything at all from it.  Learning to hunt came later, once he started venturing out on his own.

“I’d like that,” he decided.

“It won’t happen tomorrow, but I can see that it’s arranged,” Gudrun said.

Loki nodded.  “Thank you,” he said.

***

Loki sat sideways on the bench, his legs crossed in front of him.  Behind him, Gudrun combed his hair and redid his braids, taking her time to weave intricate patterns into the sides in a way that pulled it all away from his ears and draped down behind his shoulders.  He had worried he might react to the touch as he had done before, but Gudrun’s touch was different to Angrboða’s.  Her hands did not linger on his skin, or brush against sensitive areas.  But still, it was something unusual that Loki was not entirely accustomed to.  Something close and delicate, which left him feeling just a litle more clean and put together somehow.  He had always hated the thought of someone else touching his hair, getting his oils and grease all over their hands and skin, like some wild animal.  Had he known that having his hair done in tight braids would take some of that sensation away, he’d have got into the habit of doing it ages ago.

On another bench near the fire, Vigdís worked on a small project of her own, weaving dyed threads with her fingers into a wide, flat cord.  Loki watched her as she worked, her practised motions making a swift task of it.  Every so often, she stopped to affix a small silver bead to one of the threads, working them into the design as part of the pattern.  The three of them together sat in silence, with only the cracking of the fire filling the air.  It was a comfortable silence though, and despite it, Loki’s mind did not wander far.  He focused of the sensation of his hair being combed and braided, and on watching Vigdís’ work.

It felt right, Loki realised.  He wondered if he would have put up less of a fuss as a boy had his first hunt been an individual affair, rather than rounding up all of the children of the same age and sending them out in groups.  If perhaps he had spent a bit of time being pampered and doted on first, and not dreading a week spent with children with whom he’d harboured a mutual hatred, he might have been more eager to go.  If he might have been more eager to participate had he not been set up for failure from the start, and instead been expected to come back triumphant.

He may not have failed his first hunt, but even in success he was treated with suspicion.  To bring home a boar or a deer was considered an overwhelming achievement.  Now, he was to be sent out with an experienced party, and to feed the village upon his return.  It was a tremendous responsibility, but not one he bore alone.  He was only expected to go and learn, with direct participation entirely optional.  Today, he would be sent out as a member of the entire party, not competing against everyone else, but assisting as he was able.

Sod the camping trips.  Loki already knew he’d get more from this than he got from his first hunt on Asgard as a boy.

Loki watched curiously as Vigdís finished off her weaving and brought the cord over to Loki.  She sat on the bench in front of him and reached for his hand.  He let her take it, holding his hand out for her as she wrapped the cord around his wrist.

“What’s this for?” he asked.

“Decoration,” Vigdís said.

Loki nodded along, glad to skip another crash course on symbolism.  Decoration was perfectly acceptable, so he held still while she tied the cord together.  When she had it secure, it hung loose on his wrist, but too tight to slip over his hand.  Its V-shaped stripes in black and blue, with small specks of silver reminded Loki of Jötunheimr itself.  He shook his hand a few times to let the bracelet settle in a way it wanted before nodding.

“Thank you very much,” he said.

Vigdís laughed quietly and got up to take her basket of threads and beads back to its spot.  A few moments later, she returned to sit in front of Loki again with a small ceramic pot.  Loki watched her carefully dip the pad of her finger into it, coating it in a fine, black powder.

“Use the tool,” Gudrun scolded suddenly.

“I’m better at it this way,” Vigdís said.

Loki tried not to laugh as he looked up, allowing Vigdís to draw heavy lines beneath his eyes.  She was careful with her touch, tapping the kohl against his lids in delicate strokes.  Behind him, Loki could hear Gudrun sigh as she finished up his braids.  She tied off the last one and pulled his hair off his neck, so it all hung down his back.

“I would tell you to try not to yell when the woman pierces you,” Gudrun said, getting up to move in front of Loki so she could see what Vigdís was doing.  “But you sometimes don’t make enough noise.”

“Yes, well,” Loki said, shrugging.

Screaming and yelling and crying were the best ways to let someone know they’d managed to hurt him.  By keeping it to himself, he made himself a more difficult target.  It was the first lesson he’d ever learned in the ring.

Vigdís finished with his eyes and put the lid back on the pot as she got back to her feet.  When she returned to the fire room, Bjalfi and Sigtrygg followed, both dressed for the day.

“Where’s Ozur?” Gudrun asked.

Bjalfi shook his head.  “He’d rather sleep,” he said.

Loki suddenly realised he still didn’t entirely know what to expect.  “Is attendance not compulsory?” he asked.

“Not for this.  Usually it’s family and those close,” said Bjalfi.  “I wouldn’t expect a large crowd.  I’m surprised Gunnar even agreed at all.  You’ll have a crowd this evening, however.  Nobody misses an excuse for a feast.”

Loki nodded.  This was a selfish curiosity, if nothing else, but he had not considered the chance he might not have been indulged at all.  Eager to get going, Loki pulled his cloak on, making sure it was clean of dirt and dog hair as much as possible.  Once the rest were dressed for the weather, they left as a group for the hall.  The weather was thankfully clear, with just the smallest sliver of hazy violet on the southern horizon.  It was the first Loki had seen any hint of a sun since arriving on Jötunheimr, but he did not allow his hopes to rise, knowing it would not stay for long.  Winters weren’t much different on Asgard, with that faint sliver of hope in the sky that took entirely too long to manifest into something real.

Bjalfi had been right as well.  As they entered the hall, Loki was still somewhat surprised to find it largely empty, though he recognised those few faces he saw, mingled in with others no doubt indulging their own curiosity.  Hrapp approached immediately, clapping a large hand on Loki’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry.  It only hurts for a little bit,” he said, his wide grin betraying his words entirely.

“Only a little bit?” Loki asked, screwing his face into a heavy frown.  “That’s disappointing.”

Hrapp laughed loudly and stepped aside to allow Gudrun to lead Loki over to the jarl, where he sat in the same spot he had before, near the middle of the hall.  He was just as big and weathered as Loki remembered him, and clearly bored already.  As Loki approached him, he regarded the man no differently than he would have a jarl from Asgard.  He held himself tall, with practised grace and not an ounce of trepidation before the man who could choose at that moment to have him cast out of the village if he’d wished for it.  Standing before Gunnar, Loki bowed, watching the man’s expression turn to one of familiar suspicion.

“Thank you for agreeing to this,” Loki said evenly.

Before he could stand straight again, Gunnar leaned forward and took Loki by the jaw.  It was becoming unnervingly familiar to be treated like some oddity, but he made no move to stop Gunnar, or to move away.  Instead, he maintained eye contact with the man as he dragged his thumb over the scruff Loki had given up trying to keep shaved.  Shaking his head, Gunnar let him go and sat back in his seat.

“You understand what you’re asking today?” he said.

Loki nodded.  “I do,” he said.

Gunnar’s suspicion only seemed to grow.  “And you would swear unyielding loyalty to me?” he asked.

“Yes.  I do,” Loki said, knowing this was meant to intimidate him into backing down.  

“And to put the people of Hvítá above yourself, and protect them and this village from outside threats, even if it came at the cost of your own life?” Gunnar asked.

“This I swear,” said Loki.

Gunnar still regarded him with open concern, drawing out the moment long enough to make several of those in attendance shuffle awkwardly.  Loki held his stance, unbothered and unflinching, having employed the same tactic himself when testing some nameless jarl or chieftan’s resolve.  Finally, Gunnar nodded, once and with a heavy air of finality.

“Kneel,” he said.

Loki did, taking a knee before the Jötunn jarl upon whose land he so brazenly trespassed.  A woman Loki didn’t recognise stepped from the meagre crowd and knelt beside Loki.

“This will hurt,” she said, keeping her voice low as she tilted Loki’s head to better see her task.

“So I’ve been told,” Loki said.

She reached into a pocket of her apron and pulled out a long, sharpened bone needle, more than twice the size of the one Gudrun had used to line his cloak.  Her hands were steady as she positioned herself, pressing her thumb against the back of Loki’s ear.  He couldn’t see what came next, but there was no mistaking the feeling of his flesh being pierced.  Loki winced hard and screwed his eyes shut, able to feel the needle moving through his ear, first in one direction, and then back out again.  Then, it was replaced by a blunt pressure as his ear was pulled.  Loki couldn’t help the sharp hiss that escaped through his teeth at the sensation of something twisting, and the close sound of metal on metal in his ear.  Then, she pulled away, and it was done.

“That’s it?” Loki asked, unable to stop himself.  “That wasn’t so bad.”

Somewhere behind him, Bjalfi laughed loudly as Loki tilted his head so his other ear could be pierced.

He endured the process just as easily as the needle was driven through his ear to make way for the silver rings that were clamped in place with a forcefulness that felt permanent.

As the woman stepped back, Gunnar motioned for Loki to stand again.  “Hold out your hand,” he said.

Loki rose to his feet, shaking his head against the new, unfamiliar weight on his ears, and held his hand out to Gunnar.  Gunnar took him by the wrist, his hand large enough to break Loki’s bones if he wished to do so.

“As a man of this village, you not only share in our bounty, but are bound by our laws,” Gunnar said.  “Any trespass against against a single man or woman is a trespass against the entire village.  Do you swear loyalty to Hvítá and every person in it?”

“I swear it,” Loki said.

Gunnar nodded and turned Loki’s hand over, exposing his palm.  He dropped a small silver ring into Loki’s hand before letting him go.

“Then you are a man of Hvítá, Loki,” Gunnar said.

Loki bowed again, holding the position just a little longer than he had before.  “Thank you, Gunnar.”

With another nod, Gunnar dismissed him with a wave of his hand.  Loki turned to return to Bjalfi as he tried to find a finger to fit the ring he had been given.  He realised he had been rather underestimated in size as he finally slipped the ring—forged of several strands of twisted silver—onto his pinkie.  Giving it a good twist to make sure it would stay, Loki looked up at Bjalfi.

“I suppose it’s hunting now?” he asked.

“Aye,” said Bjalfi.  “Usually these go a little differently than it will today.”

Loki thought about that for a long moment.  “I’m meant to be learning, am I not?” he asked.  Caribou were easy, and Loki’s only reservations about bear came down to having done it before and not enjoyed it.  “I think I’d like to try for a mammoth, if that’s possible.”

Bjalfi considered this, ignoring the concerned looks from the others in the small crowd.

“Get your things and dress your horse,” he said.

« || »

Second Rite #10: Bison in Kansas

Dodging questions grew tiresome quickly, and the atmosphere in the hall began to rapidly grow too close and loud, taking Loki outside to get some space. The air was calm and cold, and for some reason Loki couldn’t quite figure out, he found himself wishing for a cigarette. But he had none, and hadn’t once thought to even purchase any during his brief return trips to Midgard. He knew the Jötnar must have indulged in more than mead and wine, though he still knew frustratingly little about the realm or its people. So he stood in the cold and watched the stars above as they traced their constant circles across an ink-black sky.

When the door to the hall opened, Loki looked up to see Bjalfi and two other men step out into the snow.

“We’re preparing a hunt, if you’d like to attend,” Bjalfi said.

Loki nodded, eager to get out onto the tundra and stretch his legs once more. “Of course,” he said.

Bjalfi nodded to the other two men and walked with Loki back toward his house. Loki had to walk swiftly to keep up with the man’s enormous strides, but refused to run. If he lagged behind, then he lagged behind.

“Will you be bringing your weapon with you?” Bjalfi asked, turning back to face him. He slowed his pace slightly, allowing Loki to catch up.

Loki shook his head, almost laughing at the question. “No,” he said.

He still wasn’t sure what he had been thinking the last time. Jötunn horses had never heard such noises. Of course the animal had been frightened by it.

When they returned to the house, they found Gudrun and the other two children awake and getting on with their day. For a moment, Loki considered bringing Fenrir along, but thought better of it. Something about him sat poorly with the villagers, and he did not think the other men going on the trip would respond well. He packed his bow and quiver instead, and made sure his knife was on his belt. Having learned another lesson from last time, he also grabbed one of his pelts to pin around his shoulders for a small amount of protection against the wind.

Ready, he met Bjalfi by the door again, and the two made tracks to the stables. They’d arrived first, and before moving to his own horse, Bjalfi led Loki to another stall. Toward the back were a few ponies, about the size of Midgardian quarter horses. Rather than taking one out. Bjalfi simply stood back. Another test. And one he surely knew Loki would not fail.

Loki approached the largest of the ponies and opened its stall to lead it out. The large chestnut stallion snorted once at him, but Loki did not back down. He had been bullied by larger horses, and was not afraid of one barely larger than his own dog.

“Come on,” Loki said evenly. He stood tall against the animal, letting it know he was in charge. “None of this nonsense.”

The pony threw its head back, but Loki stood firm. He reached out to its neck, stroking a line down the firm muscle. The pony gave one more small buck and a snort before shaking its head and calming.

“There we go,” Loki said, stroking the pony’s neck in smooth, even lines.

He took a bridle from a hook on the post and quickly fitted it, making sure the bit was seated properly before tightening the straps. Then, he was able to lead it out to the aisle where he would have more room to dress the pony. He had watched Bjalfi carefully, and while there had been differences between Jötunn saddles and those he was used to on Asgard and Midgard, a saddle was still basically a saddle, and only had so many parts.

He draped the horse first with its blanket, and by the time he’d fetched the saddle, Bjalfi had begun to dress his own horse. As Loki tightened the cinch and made sure the saddle sat right, the other two men walked into the stable. One of them paused, giving Loki an unveiled, critical look.

“It’s bad enough you’re bringing him. But letting him ride, Bjalfi?” he asked.

Bjalfi glanced back over at Loki, before turning attention to his friend. “It will be easier this way. Trust me, Helgi.”

Loki stood by in silence, letting his pony get used to him while the others dressed their horses. He stroked its neck and the side of its face, ignoring the muttering and sideways glances thrown his way. If Bjalfi had intended to invite Loki along again, then surely he would have told the others what to expect. Somehow, he did not strike Loki as the sort of man to spring surprises, unpleasant or otherwise, on others.

As the others were ready to go, more skeptical glances were thrown Loki’s way. Making sure he was watched, Loki mounted the pony in one fluid motion, practised a million times over since he was old enough to keep his balance without being held. He held the reins in his right hand, keeping his left free to draw a sword or gun he did not have. He pretended he did not notice the way the other two men looked at him as he kicked his heels into the pony’s flanks.

The others all had sledges on their horses, but Loki’s pony was too small to pull one. It would free him up to ride faster and keep up, despite his mount being much smaller. As they rode out of the stables, Loki followed behind at first to give the others room to draw their sledges without problem. They rode a quick path through the village and back out to the tundra west of Utgard once more. As they reached open terrain, Loki sped up to ride abreast with Bjalfi.

“Caribou again?” he asked, reasonably certain they would not be deliberately hunting any mammoth with such a small group.

“And bear, if we find any,” said Bjalfi.

Bjalfi watched him ride, thinking thoughts Loki could not decipher. The seat of his saddle was shallow and narrow with no fenders, forcing Loki to adjust his posture from what he had grown used to. He did far more riding on Midgard than on Asgard it seemed, and the saddles the Americans used — over-engineered with extra parts and enormous stirrups — favoured riding with one’s hands free much more easily than the Jötunn saddle he rode on. But he quickly found his rhythm, able to use his knees as much as the reins to guide the pony where he wanted it to go.

“Who taught you to ride, boy?” the man named Helgi asked, having to almost shout over the sound of hooves ploughing through the snow.

Loki craned to look over at him, on Bjalfi’s other side. Like many of the men in the village, he showed signs of rough hunts and dangerous accidents, particularly with his horns. Loki knew they would grow back if broken, but many of the men had horns that were cracked and gnarled from repeated abuse. Helgi was no exception, with deep, healed cracks between knots and odd bends.

“My father taught me, when I was quite young,” Loki said, knowing it was the wrong answer, despite being more or less the truth. He had first ridden a horse with Odin, sat in front of him on the saddle as he had ridden with Bjalfi before. But it was not Odin who taught him how to calm a frightened animal, or how to convince it to do what Loki wanted it to do.

Odin had been far too important and busy for such things.

All the same, Loki got precisely the confused and conflicted reactions he had expected. The others looked to Bjalfi as if expecting a reasonable explanation, but all he had to offer them was a shrug. Loki was a wholly unexpected presence in this village, and one which everyone seemed determined to walk on eggshells around. His presence was a danger to them as well, even if they did not know about any bounties. For them, he was dangerous to keep around for an entirely different reason. None in the village would spill his supposed secret, because every one of them believed they faced the same danger. If they believed him to be lausingi, Loki wouldn’t deny it. In a way, it was freeing. Loki did not have to hide himself for as long as none were likely to visit from the outside. He could be himself, if only to a point, and did not have to hide that which he excelled at.

And what he excelled at was getting people who were not Asgardian to like him. He may have known almost nothing of Jötnar culture, but anyone could be charmed with the correct words.

He slowed his pony to fall behind the rest, giving him space to weave around and put himself between Bjalfi and Helgi as he caught back up again. It was easier to address the man this way, having to only look up at him, rather than trying to see over Bjalfi and his horse. All the while, Helgi watched him with that same critical gaze that hadn’t left his face since Loki first saw him outside the hall.

“And to whom do I owe this pleasure today?” Loki asked, looking up at Helgi as if he did not have to crane awkwardly to meet him in the eye.

“Helgi,” the man said. “And my cousin, Bork. What brings you to Hvítá?”

“I was merely passing through when a storm caught me off-guard,” Loki said.

Now, Loki had something to test; a lie to run with and defy all at once. Knowing what they believed gave him something to test against, trying to weasel out any other theories these men might have. Theories that might provide Loki more clues for himself.

“Passing through? From Utgard?” asked Helgi.

Loki shook his head, the motion casual and almost lazy. “No. Not Utgard. Though I have been there, and find the mead halls quite entertaining.”

It was the wrong thing to say. Entirely the wrong thing to say. All three of the men turned their eyes to Loki, disbelief and confusion once again the words of the day.

“You’ve been to mead halls in Utgard?” Bork asked, shouting incredulously over the noise.

No matter what Frigga and Odin had told him, Loki knew he had still been lied to. These men knew something so fundamental that nothing Loki said sat with their worldview. Something that went beyond simply being lausingi. And that same fundamental something had been kept from Loki for his entire life.

“I have indeed,” Loki said, keeping that building rage covered up with a veneer of ignorance and obliviousness. “And have won much silver off Thrymr and his gambling vice.”

“What?” shouted Helgi. “You? Gambling in Utgard?”

“The very same,” said Loki.

He rode loosely, lazily, showing off his comfort and confidence on the pony. Bjalfi had spoken for him in the stables, issuing a subtle warning. Loki was not who they expected him to be. Loki, who could read and write, ride and hunt. This stranger who walked into their village with trained animals and all the manners and carefully chosen words of visiting royalty in a foreign realm. Loki, who in simply being polite and a gracious guest, laid himself bare on the table. Everything about him was wrong, because he was not truly of Jötunheimr. And had he been, Loki knew he would not be alive to speak of it. He read this all, and more, on their faces as the men tried to reconcile what was before them with what they all so plainly knew. Were he anyone else, Loki might be able to ask outright. But one slip, one escaping rumour, and he and everyone else would find themselves in grave danger.

“If you were half as smart as you think you are, you’d know the dangers of showing a face like yours around Utgard,” Helgi said.

Loki laughed, done hiding all but his name. He had never had a good cover story to begin with, and there was no going back from the amount of suspicion and distrust he had already fostered. The only thing left was to move forward, ever an irritating enigma to these people, and hope he did not wear out his welcome before it was safe to travel again.

“If I were half as smart as I know I am, I would still be the smartest man I know,” he said.

On his other side, Bjalfi laughed; a loud, booming sound straight from his belly. Not at Loki, he realised quickly. But at the others. Because if he did not believe Loki, he at least knew Loki believed it.

“You haven’t had this boy haunting your house as I have,” Bjalfi said. “I no longer believe he is even of Jötunheimr.”

Bjalfi’s words earned Loki more critical gazes from the other two. It was only a matter of time before his abysmal lack of a cover story was picked apart and dissected. He could have answered directly, but only shook his head. Lazy, indifferent, as if that much should have been obvious from the beginning.

And with his clothing from Asgard and Álfheimr, Loki was quite surprised it had not been obvious at all.

He laughed, knowing he was causing no end of consternation amongst the group. He missed it, he realised. He missed winding people up just to see their reactions. So long had he gone playing the role of humble guest that he had jumped at the first opportunity to drive someone mad with as few words as possible.

Bruttenholm was right. Loki was an agent of chaos, and he revelled in it.

As they rode further into the tundra, Loki dodged more questions, still knowing he needed to be careful. Jötunheimr’s dangers were limited compared to what faced him from the other eight realms, but they were still dangers. Even on Midgard, Loki knew he was not the only one who did not belong. Until he could hide himself again, Jötunheimr’s tundras were the safest place in all of Yggdrasil.

After almost an hour of riding, they came across the herd again. Loki watched the other three as they slowed their horses and readied their bows. Loki grabbed his as well, taking three arrows from his quiver, held between the fingers of his left hand. Instead of slowing, he kicked his pony into a full gallop. Leaning low against the animal, he nocked the first arrow as he rode a wide flank around the herd to cut it off and drive it back toward the others. As he reached firing range, Loki straightened his back and rose out of the saddle, holding his weight with his feet in the stirrups. The narrow stirrups and lack of fenders on the saddle made it a precarious stance to balance, but he caught his rhythm quickly and lined up his shot on a large, dry female. As soon as the arrow was loosed, he had another nocked, aimed, and loosed again. As he nocked the third, the caribou stumbled and fell while the rest turned back toward the other three hunters, waiting on their horses.

Loki chased the herd, leading the pony with his own weight, and using the pony to guide the herd. He drew more arrows from his quiver and found a new target. His first arrow caught the caribou right behind its ear, felling it instantly as it ran. His pony was swift and unburdened by a sledge, allowing him to get into the herd. With the two remaining arrows in his left hand, Loki found one final target. He picked out an old buck, not wanting to thin the herd of too many females. Loki loosed both arrows so quickly, he was not sure if the animal had already begun to fall by the time the second tore through its neck. Watching the herd run right into the trap, Loki leaned backwards against the saddle, slowing the pony before he even reached for the reins. Grabbing them in his hand, he pulled the pony to a complete stop to watch the rest unfold. He had put a great distance between himself and the other three men in his party, but he could still see them employ their own methods. They had all left their mounts to use the snow itself as cover. With the caribou all coming directly toward them, it was easy pickings for three Jötunn men with longbows. Loki watched deer after deer stumble and fall in the snow before the herd redirected itself and ran in another direction.

With everything over, Loki slid down off his pony and switched his bow for his knife. He had felled three deer, and now he had to prepare three deer. Loki gutted and skinned each one, leaving carcass and entrails on the snow to be collected by someone with a sledge. As he was halfway through preparing the third caribou, Bork rode up with laden sledge. He offered no help from his mount, only watching Loki from high above.

“Is that how they hunt where you’re from?” he asked.

“No,” Loki said, carefully peeling the caribou’s pelt away. “It’s how they hunt bison in Kansas.”

He knew the words would mean next to nothing to the man, but hunting bison in Kansas was precisely where Loki had learned this trick of driving the herd into a trap. For a moment, Bork seemed to want to say something, but he stayed silent. Loki quickly finished preparing the caribou and moved its carcass to the sledge, along with the rest. The arrows he’d pulled from the caribou had all been stacked neatly in the snow, and Loki picked them up as he returned to his pony. Bork followed him, pulling the sledge behind his horse.

“Who taught you to shoot that thing?” he asked.

Two of Loki’s arrows would need new heads. The rest, he made sure were clean, before returning them all to his quiver. The broken ones went into a separate section, where he would not be likely to grab them by mistake.

“I wander, and I meet people,” he said. “I trade skills and knowledge, and bring what I have learned back home to share with my people.”

He mounted his pony once more, and rode with Bork toward the others.

“What else do you know?” asked Bork, still carrying a skeptical note in his voice.

Loki laughed. “More than I could possibly tell you.” He looked up to the sky, the stars blotted out by high clouds. “On Svartálfheimr, there is an insect which produces a fine silk. If the silk is spun in a particular way, it creates shadowthread. When used in the creation of a garment, the wearer can become invisible.”

Loki wanted such a cloak, but the price for them was beyond anything even he could pay. One day, he would possess one, and with it cause no end of trouble for someone. To be able to hide himself without magic would open up so many new possibilities.

“You’re making that up,” Bork said.

“It’s been twenty years since the war?” Loki asked, shaking his head. “Twenty years with only black market trade to sustain your people? While Jötunheimr and Asgard stagnate, other realms have invented marvellous things.”

“You’ve been to Asgard?” Bork asked, his incredulity building with each word.

“Many times,” said Loki.

He opened his cloak to show the tunic he wore beneath. Plain, and simple by his own standards, but ornately decorated and hemmed compared to anything he had seen in Hvítá so far. When he resettled the cloak over his shoulders, he lifted his chin high and leaned back in his saddle, giving Bork a good view of the ornate silver clasp that held it together, decorated like a prancing hippogryph. He smiled while Bork tried to work out precisely what he was seeing, but offered no more in the way of words.

They regrouped with the others, while Helgi took stock of everything they had felled. In total, they had a dozen caribou loaded on the sledges, enough not just for their own households, but with plenty left over to share with any others in need.

“You should have done that last time,” Bjalfi said, nodding toward Loki.

“You should have let me ride last time,” Loki said, done playing at humility. He knew exactly what he was capable of, and riding second on someone else’s horse had not played to his strengths.

Still, Bjalfi laughed, obviously able to see through the game Loki was playing. Though neither spoke it aloud, they had reached an understanding. Loki would help as he could, payment in exchange for hospitality, but offer nothing of value about himself in return. The other two still regarded him with suspicion, casting the same wary eye to Bjalfi when he did not question Loki’s arrogance.

“There’s still room for a couple of bear, if we can find them,” said Helgi. He looked to Loki as he mounted his horse. “What tricks have you got for that?”

He spoke with heavy sarcasm, but it was another test. And not one Loki cared to indulge.

“I don’t do bear,” he said. “I have the pelt of one in my hall, and it is the last bear I shall ever willingly cross paths with.”

“In your hall?” asked Helgi as the party began to ride again.

Loki shrugged again, offering no further explanation. They rode as a party until motion in the distance caught their attention. Again, Loki wished he had packed a pair of binoculars as they watched the creature in the distance, trying to judge by its speed and the shape of its silhoutte what type of animal it was. Finally, Bjalfi got down off his horse and readied his weapons. As he picked his axe from the sledge, he also grabbed a length of rope and tossed it to Loki. Loki caught it easily and slung it over his shoulder, waiting patiently for his role in this while he ignored the questioning glances of the other two.

He kept his mount until he knew he was needed. If he strung the horses too soon, and the others needed to beat a hasty retreat, the time needed to unstring the horses could kill them all. So he watched and he waited, just as before as the others crept up on the bear, disguised as caribou making their way across the tundra. Then, when they got close enough, they dropped their camouflage and struck. The roars and their shouts carried across the tundra on the wind, changing into something almost spectral. Loki wondered how far the noise would carry, and what it sounded like where it was just a whisper on the wind, barely audible over the vast emptiness of the tundra.

Then, the bear went down, and Loki slipped off his mount. He quickly strung up the horses, leaving each with a wide gap between the others. It took some convincing to get the caravan moving, and his smaller pony did not seem to have the confidence to lead, but Loki did not give it a chance to think twice. He urged it forward with a certain firmness that eventually wore its way into the pony itself, allowing it to build off of Loki’s own confidence. Even then, the task was made easier by riding an animal that wasn’t perilously too large beneath him. By the time he arrived at the kill, all three of the horses behind him had fallen into a smooth line behind him. The party were busy preparing their bear, sparing only the briefest of glances toward Loki as he slipped back off his mount to untie the horses and rearrange the sledges to accommodate for the enormous kill.

Jötunn caribou were quite a bit bigger than those Loki had hunted on other realms, but he managed to haul those on one sledge over to the others, trying to evenly balance the load between the horses. By the time he was done, the bear had been prepared and hauled onto the empty sledge. Loki looked over the load assuming the men knew what they were doing, even if experience told him the sledges were too heavily packed. But the horses that drew them were larger than any Loki had ever encountered before, and were surely experienced with pulling heavier loads home.

They all mounted their horses and began the long ride back to Hvítá. As they rode, the wind began to pick back up again, kicking up ice and snow with it. With his hood down, it stung at Loki’s ears and neck in a way he didn’t think he would ever get used to. The cold had never bothered him, and now that he’d found a cold that had, he was wholly unprepared for it. Several times, he tried to raise his hood, only for it to catch the wind and either fall right back down, or trap the biting air in a vortex around him. He finally gave up, and kept it down as he focused just on getting back. What felt like days was only a few hours’ ride, and when they finally neared the village again, Loki had never thought he’d be so happy to see it. They rode into the stables, and while the others dealt first with their sledges, Loki quickly undressed and brushed his pony. When he was done, there was still work to do with the sledges, so Loki decided to make himself useful.

“Is there anything else that needs to be done?” he asked.

He hadn’t been present for this part last time, and wasn’t sure what was expected of him.

Bjalfi looked up at him as he hauled a caribou over his shoulders, and shook his head. “Go inside. Get warm,” he said.

It was an order Loki would not refuse. He had froze the entire ride back, and was eager to get inside and near the fire again. There he found the boys playing on the makeshift checker board Loki had drawn for them, while Gudrun and Vigdís busied themselves with dinner. Loki stood near the door watching the scene as he kicked packed snow from his boots and took of his cloak. As he went to hang it on the post he had claimed for himself, he paused to look at it. Álfar in design and origin, meant more for protecting against the sun than the frigid temperatures of Jötunheimr.

“When you’re done with that, might you assist me with something?” Loki asked.

Gudrun looked up at him, seeming almost surprised at the question. “What do you need?” she asked.

Loki lifted his cloak, gesturing with it. “As fond of this thing as I am, it wasn’t built for this climate. I was rather hoping you might be able to assist me with lining it.”

Gudrun looked at him and then the cloak before nodding. “Of course,” she said. “It did seem a bit light.”

“Thank you,” Loki said.

He hung the cloak up and went to join her by the fire, watching as Gudrun showed Vigdís how to pull pin-bones from dried fish. When then finished, Gudrun got up and walked to the bedcloset, leaving Vigdís to clean up and start readying the rest of the dinner preparations on her own. A few moments later, Gudrun returned to the fire with a small basket.

“Bring your things,” she said as she got settled.

Loki quickly got to his feet and fetched his cloak and the caribou pelt he’d got on the first hunt he’d taken with Bjalfi and Hrapp. He brought both over to Gudrun and sat sideways on the bench next to her, crossing his legs so his feet didn’t hang off uncomfortably.

“Nobody’s shown you how to do this?” Gudrun asked as she found a delicate little bone needle.

Loki shook his head. “No,” he said. He could mend minor issues, and sew buttons and patches, but anything beyond that was a foreign realm.

He watched as she gathered supplies, pausing every now and then to look over his cloak or the pelt before finding something new. Loki had expected her to merely stitch the pelt to the inside, but Gudrun worked much more deliberately than that. She carefully cut all the hem-work, pulling out old threads and tossing the scraps into the fire. For a moment, she looked at the silver-cast claps in front, and simply pinned it aside to keep out of the way.

“This isn’t wool,” she said as she finally began pinning the cloak to the pelt, laying the fur against the outer edge of the cloak.

“Unicorn, I believe,” Loki said.

He said nothing to the questioning look Gudrun gave him. He didn’t need to be told how rare and expensive such a cloak was, woven from the spun cashmere shed from an animal since hunted to extinction. Such cloaks were in limited supply, and only became more rare and valuable with each one that was destroyed.

Loki watched her carefully as she pinned everything in place, being careful to make sure it all fit and wouldn’t pull or bunch. Once she seemed satisfied, she cut off excess pelt, working as closely to the edges of the cloak as she dared, and began stitching the two together with stitches small and delicate, creating a sturdy hem to hold everything together. Loki wanted to ask to try, but didn’t dare risk doing something wrong and damaging the cloak. At the same time, Gudrun never offered. Instead, she worked so Loki could watch her, moving slowly along the entire outer edge, pulling out pins as she went. As she neared the bottom, she cut the thread and carefully pulled the cloak and pelt through the open seam at the bottom, putting the exposed fur on the inside of the cloak. Loki realised that working inside out would have never occurred to him, and he wasn’t entirely sure why she had done it.

“What’s the point of that?” he asked.

“It hides the seam,” Gudrun said, turning the cloak on her lap to work along the bottom.

This time, she used a different stitch to achieve the same result, though it didn’t seem as neat or sturdy as the rest had been. Once everything was stitched, and Loki thought she was done, she began making a second pass about a finger’s width from the edge. Further securing the two together, Loki realised. As she worked, the second line of stitching seemed to also work to reinforce the shape, keeping the cloak from sliding around on itself. One more thing that would have never occurred to him had he dared to do this himself.

Once she was done, she handed it back to Loki. He carefully put it on and clasped it around his neck, finding it a little tighter and much heavier than it had been, but much more likely to protect against the cold. The hood, with its new lining, fit more snugly around his head, and tickled at his neck and ears with the fur. Though it was too close and uncomfortable near the fire, he knew it would be an improvement out on the tundra.

“Thank you,” he said as he took it off to hang back up on the post.

“All these skills of yours, and nobody ever taught you to sew,” Gudrun said, watching him.

Loki let himself laugh and shrugged. “I never needed to learn,” he said, knowing she would take from that what she would.

« || »

Second Rite #9: Tafl

With the boys thoroughly vandalised with their new haircuts, Loki quickly cleaned up the mess and returned his kit to his bag.  As he tried to re-pack everything, he felt something deep in the bottom snag and spill something everywhere.  Why he had not replaced this one with a bag of holding, he had no idea.  Laziness, most likely, just like the source of all his other problems.

“Damnit,” he hissed, reaching into the bag to pull out whatever had fallen to the bottom.  

What he pulled out was a handful of Midgardian coins.  When he had made the decision to enlist, Loki cleared out his apartment by stuffing everything wherever it would fit, into bags and hidden spaces, and forgotten about it.  Also forgotten was an absurd amount of assorted coins, used both for casual mayhem and admission to news reels.  He looked at the assorted quarters and pennies and nickels in his hand, and reached in to fetch more.

“Would you like to play a game?” he asked loudly enough for his voice to carry to the next room.

“What game?” Ozur asked.

A moment later, he poked his head through the curtain.  Loki held out his hand, offering him the coins.  “Take these to the table,” he said.

Ozur cupped his hands for Loki to pour the coins into them, and then disappeared back to the other side of the curtain.  Moving quickly, Loki stuffed what he could into his bag and took his charcoal pencil with him.  He didn’t have a board, but he had a table he could draw on, and that would be good enough.  By the time he stepped to the other side of the curtain, all three children were huddled around the long table, hunched over to peer at the strange coins Loki had given them.  Loki walked over to join them and sat on the bench next to Vigdís.  Though he could see over the table just fine, he could not look down at the centre of it very comfortably without having to strain his neck.  Trying not to grumble about the situation, he got up onto his knees so he could lean over the table to see what he was doing.

With the pencil, Loki drew a large square, and then began dividing it up into an 8×8 board.  He hastily coloured alternating squares, until he had something resembling a crude checkerboard.

“Is it like tafl?” Sigtrygg asked.

Loki considered the question for a moment.  “It’s not not like tafl,” he decided.

He separated out the coins, pulling the pennies and nickels out from the rest.  Since Sigtrygg was already sitting opposite of Loki, he offered him the first choice.

“Which colour do you like?” he asked.

Sigtrygg took a moment to consider the question.  “I like the copper,” he said.

Loki pushed the pennies across the table to him, taking the nickels for himself.  He showed Sigtrygg how to set up the board, with the coins taking up the black squares on the outer three rows.

“We take turns,” he explained.  “Your men can only move forward one space, sticking to the black squares.  You cannot retreat.”  

He demonstrated, sliding one of his nickels forward in a diagonal motion, before gesturing to Sigtrygg to do the same.  Sigtrygg mirrored him, moving a piece of his own directly in line with Loki’s.

“You can capture an opponent’s man if they’re next to you, like this,” Loki said as he jumped his piece over Sigtrygg’s.

“Hey!” he said, laughing awkwardly.  “That was mean.”

Loki put the penny beside the board, and then gestured for Sigtrygg to make his next move.  A moment later, the boy spotted his play, jumping a piece of his own over Loki’s.

“The army that defeats the other wins,” Loki said.  

He moved another piece, and this time Sigtrygg moved one of his own on the other side of the board.  The game moved slowly as Sigtrygg struggled to find a strategy.  Loki sacrificed a few of his pieces, pretending the boy was getting the better of him each time.  Then he slipped one of his pieces into an empty spot in the back row.

“Now I have a king,” he said.  He pointed to the small pile of nickels on Sigtrygg’s side of the board.  “Which means you have to crown me.”

Loki showed him to stack another nickel on top of his piece.  It was a bit precarious and awkward, since by their nature the nickels did not want to lock together, but it would work.  If not for the dim light, Loki thought it might have been easier to use the heads and tails sides, but they’d already got started this way.

Sigtrygg moved again, placing a piece in the middle of the board.

“You want to get as many kings as possible,” Loki said.  “Because they can move backwards.”

To demonstrate, he jumped another of Sigtrygg’s pieces.

“Hey!” Sigtrygg said again.  “Quit being mean!”

Loki played without a strategy of his own, moving almost randomly.  Though he still played with little mercy, pointing out errors and bad moves as he took each piece from the field.  Even as Sigtrygg swore at him, he laughed, and Loki sacrificed enough of his own pieces to keep him engaged.

“You bastard!” Sigtrygg said when Loki took his last piece.

“Move over,” Ozur said, nudging him with his elbow.  “I can beat him.”

Loki said nothing, and reset the board.  He played just as chaotically as he had before, allowing pieces to be taken and ignoring obvious moves for the sake of entertainment.

“Move your back row, you coward!” Ozur shouted, leaning over the table in a mirror of Loki.  

They both held their weight over the board with hands planted on either side of it, invading one another’s space with each move.

“Are you sure you want me to?” Loki asked, holding one hand over a piece.

“Move it!” said Ozur.

Loki did, jumping over four of his pieces.  As Ozur shouted at him, Sigtrygg and Vigdís broke into peals of laughter.

“Is this what you think beating him is?” Vigdís asked.

“Shut up!” Ozur shouted.

Loki let him take a few more pieces before ending the game.  While Ozur made noises about cheating and rigged games, Loki turned to Vigdís beside him and held out his hand toward the other side of the table, gesturing for her to take the next turn.  Slowly, she stood and moved to the other side, looking down at the board.

“May I be silver?” she asked.

“Absolutely,” Loki said, switching up the pieces so he had the pennies.

She had been quietly watching the other two during their turns, and was slower to make her moves.  Loki changed nothing, moving the first piece his eyes fell on, and playing with no goal at all other than entertainment.  Pieces were sacrificed and taken, until Loki grew bored with the game and ended it.  He got up, giving his place to whichever of the boys wanted it, and retreated back to the fire.

“Who’s hungry?” he asked.

He was met by a chorus of children asking to be fed with varying degrees of politeness.  Leaving them to continue to play against one another, Loki began digging through the stores to see what was available.  Soup had been the meal of the day since he’d arrived, and he was bored with it.  These people ate for survival, but Loki had been spoilt.  He craved something with a different flavour.  He had never done much cooking on his own, having always prefered to have someone else do it for him, but it was not a completely foreign concept either.  He had done enough simple cooking while in Europe to grasp the basic principle.

He found a jar of pink roe, ground into a paste and preserved, and a few small crates of parsnips and turnips.  Other jars of jams and butters lined the shelves, far outnumbered by empty and unused jars.  He picked up bundles of dried herbs to smell, with no end goal in mind.  After finding everything inside that seemed useful, Loki headed out to the shed to see what meat was stored away from the house.  Built of stone and sod like the house, the shed was closed up tightly against any wandering bears that might find their way into the village.  Loki managed to get inside, and found it mostly stocked with the results from their hunt.  Aside from the game, there were a few racks of fish left from the summer.  Loki had to climb to reach the lowest rack, and moved slowly to avoid toppling the whole thing.  The fish had been split down the middle, salted, and dried, hung by its still-intact tail over a thin wooden pole.  He took the fish and locked the shed back up, still not entirely sure what he’d do with it.

As he walked back into the house, Sigtrygg looked up at him and frowned.

“I could have got that for you,” he said.

The thought to ask had not even occurred to Loki, so he just shrugged.  He put the fish out on the table, and returned to the casks and crates to figure out what he wanted now that he had a direction.

“Is this seal oil?” he asked, finding a barrel of cloudy, almost foul-smelling liquid.

“Yeah,” Sigtrygg said.

Loki had never cared for parsnips or turnips, but with few other options, he took a few of each and started with them, chopping them roughly to boil on the fire while he prepared the fish.  The fish had already been removed of its spine, but still had large pin-bones to be dealt with. 

He cooked a simple meal, making a mash of the roots and frying the fish in seal oil.  He tried to use some of the roe to mask the turnips in the mash, but at the end of the day, a turnip was still a turnip.  Loki made sure the children were settled with everything they needed first, before settling by the fire to eat.  He had forgotten all about his tooth until he took his first bite, and a sharp, piercing pain shot straight through his brain.  Over the past few months, he had got almost worryingly good at ignoring constant pains.  Once he was past the worst of it, Loki pushed through and ignored it for as long as he needed to eat.

But he couldn’t go forever with exposed nerve and jagged edges in his mouth.  It would never heal right, and opened up an avenue for infection he couldn’t risk.

“Where are the tools kept?” he asked, standing to put his plate aside.

“There are some in the stables,” Sigtrygg said.  “I’ll show you.”

Loki was no stranger to bad ideas, but even he wasn’t sure about this one.  The two of them walked out to the stables, and Sigtrygg showed him a bench with an assortment of tools scattered about.  Amongst them were a set of long, thin pliers.

“Perfect,” he said, picking them up.

He took them back to the house to clean and boil them.  As they sat in a pot on the fire, Loki returned to his bag for the last of his destroyed tunic.  By the time he returned to the fire with the tunic and his mirror, the children were all watching him cautiously from the table.

“Should we fetch someone?” Vigdís asked.

Loki shook his head.  “Only if I pass out,” he said.

This was not just a bad idea.  This was an apocalyptically stupid idea.  There was a small cask of wine near everything else, and before moving a step further in this stupid plan of his, Loki poured a cup and drank quickly.  He cringed, turning his head sharply at the bitterness of the drink.

“That’s bad,” he said, his voice choked as he pointed at the cask.  “That’s very bad.”

With the children watching him from their safe distance, Loki sat by the fire and pulled the pliers from the pot they boiled in.  Even using the mirror, he struggled to get a good grip on what was left of his tooth.  Most of the surface area was exposed nerve, making even the slightest touch explode in pain.

Finally, he found a good hold.  Not giving himself any time to form any second thoughts, he pulled hard.  For a moment, as he forced himself through the pain, he thought he might have got the job done.  And then he both heard and felt another crack, and a fresh sting made him drop the pliers.

“Fuck!” he shouted, dropping the pliers.

He pressed his hands into his mouth, trying to suffocate the pain out.  For a moment, he just breathed.  Once the worst had subsided, Loki picked the pliers back up from the dirt and tossed them back into the pan to boil all over again.  

“I’m going to get someone,” Vigdís said, already getting up.

“No,” Sigtrygg said.  “I’ll try first.”

He walked over to Loki and crouched down beside him.  Loki tried to just breathe as the boy pulled his mouth open to look at the damage.  He was just a child, but sitting on the floor with the boy’s thumb in his mouth, Loki thought he could be very easily overpowered.  At that moment, it might have been a good thing.  He looked up at Sigtrygg and nodded, trying to prepare himself for what came next.

The boy picked up the pliers from the pot and gave them a small shake to dry them.  Loki could feel the hot iron on his tooth a second before the pain came back.  It grew each moment as Sigtrygg pulled against him, forcing his mouth open with his other hand.  It reached a point where Loki could no longer maintain a silent, if frenzied composure.  He shouted wordlessly as pressure and pain built, interrupted only by a short moment when the pliers were re-settled for better grip.

“Sorry!” Sigtrygg shouted.

But he didn’t stop.  Even as he cringed, he continued to pull until finally something snapped again.  This time it was not his tooth cracking, but pulling loose from its socket.  The pain went straight through his eye as Loki’s mouth was filled with a familiar, metallic taste.  He shoved the fabric of his tunic against his mouth, trying to stem the bleed while everything calmed down.

“That was gross,” Sigtrygg said, looking at the tooth he held in the pliers.

Loki would have rolled his eyes, had everything not hurt.  He leaned forward, keeping his head down so he did not swallow any of the blood in his mouth.  Each breath hurt, even when taken through his nose, bothering the wound that bore deep into his skull.  Then, for no reason at all, Loki thought about what he would look like on stage with a missing tooth.  Though he thought he might never get back to Midgard, he realised in that moment that even if he did, he had one more thing on a growing list he would need to learn to cover up.  Even if he could find a way to hide his horns, he wasn’t sure how to hide something that wasn’t even there.

He spat blood onto the ground, and then reached for his wine.  There was still enough at the bottom to fill his mouth.  He held it, but did not drink.  Even over the bitter wine, he could still taste blood.  He spat that onto the ground as well and returned the fabric to his mouth.

“You’re fired,” he said to Sigtrygg after a long moment.

“What’s that mean?” Sigtrygg asked as he picked the pot up from the fire.

“Means get lost.”

Sigtrygg laughed and took the pot and pliers away.  After a moment, Loki climbed up onto the bench and lay stretched out.  A moment later, Fenrir trotted over and rested his head on Loki’s chest.  Loki scratched him behind his ears, digging his fingers into the dense fur.

“Do you want out?” Loki asked him.

He hadn’t been allowed to hunt since they arrived in the realm.  He needed to be allowed to run freely and kill his own food.  He could not live on table scraps and off-cuttings forever.

But instead of moving toward the door, Fenrir settled down.  He rested his head on Loki’s chest, a heavy weight that almost made it difficult to breathe.  

As the house settled down, Loki dozed.  The pain subsided to a dull but constant ache that was easily forgotten as long as he didn’t do anything to upset the area.  While Loki rested, the children returned to their game, taking turns playing one another into the evening.  He was asleep in front of the fire when the door opened, and Bjalfi and Gudrun returned.  Their heavy stomping and slamming the door behind them woke Loki, though he tried to pretend it hadn’t.

“What the hel has happened here?” Gudrun asked as she surveyed the mild carnage left from earlier in the day.

“He pulled out his tooth and then went to sleep,” Vigdís said.

“What have you done with your hair?” Gudrun asked.

Loki opened his eyes to see Bjalfi standing over him, wearing an expression that suggested he was less than amused.

“Let’s see what you’ve done to yourself this time,” he said, while behind him Gudrun lamented the board Loki had drawn on the table.

Loki opened his mouth to show him.  Rather than say anything, Bjalfi rolled his eyes and shook his head as he walked away.  Loki nudged Fenrir off him and forced himself to sit up.  For a moment, he watched Bjalfi inspect the coins he had given the children to play with, and pretended he did not see the suspicious glance thrown his way.

“I wasn’t expecting you back so soon,” Loki said.

“We got lucky,” Bjalfi said.  He began unpacking his bag onto the table, making sure the supplies they’d taken got put back in their place.  “They had found an old bear den for shelter.”

Loki nodded.  “I should have sent you with the dog,” he said.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t even think to offer.”

He knew Fenrir still made them uneasy, but he also felt as if he should have offered to do more than stay home.

“Where is your brother?” Loki asked.

“He and Oddbjorg are staying with the woman,” Bjalfi said.  “To help with the children, and see that no further harm befalls the household.  There will be a panel tomorrow to decide the man’s fate.”

Loki knew better.  He was supposed to be hiding; keeping a low profile away from prying eyes and loose tongues.  But he had seen so little of Jötunheimr, and knew nothing of its workings beyond what he had been taught as a boy.

“I would very much like to see this,” he said.

Bjalfi looked at him, a long, cool gaze.  Loki returned it, knowing Bjalfi was looking for any excuse to call his bluff.  What bluff Bjalfi was expecting, Loki still did not know, but was eager to find out.  Then, Bjalfi nodded, and returned to putting his gear away.

“I’ll be sure to wake you,” he said.

“Much appreciated,” Loki said.

He got another odd glance from Bjalfi, but it was gone quickly.

***

Bjalfi woke him early, and as Loki rose to dress, Sigtrygg was roused from his slumber as well.  Loki watched the boy shuffle half asleep out to the fire room, wearing just his linen pants.  Loki quickly dressed and pulled on his boots to meet the boy.

“You’re going too?” he asked, finding Sigtrygg slumped on one of the benches.

Sigtrygg shrugged.  “I’m twelve.  I have to go.”

“Oh.  I see,” Loki said.

Now Sigtrygg gave him the same confused and suspicious look he’d got from everyone else.  “Have you never gone to a panel?”

Loki shook his head.  “I haven’t.”

“Not even in your own village?” asked Sigtrygg.  “Why not?”

Loki almost laughed.  “I only just learned I might be twenty years old.  If nobody told me that, who’s going to tell me I’m required to do something at twelve?”

Sigtrygg started to respond, but stopped, only looking more confused.  Loki needed answers, and an assembly was the only way he felt he was likely to get any.

“I should get dressed,” Sigtrygg said suddenly, getting up.

While he dressed, Loki reached for his cloak and threw it over his shoulders.  He started to pull the hood over his head, but stopped short.

“Oh, who cares?” he said to himself, tossing it back over his shoulders.

If he was going to attend a panel, half the village would see him.  Perhaps if he showed his face, someone with a loose tongue would give voice to the ghosts of suspicion haunting Bjalfi’s house.  With the way Bjalfi and his own behaved toward Loki, it was beginning to seem unlikely that any would talk.  And with whom would they speak, if the weather were so foul that none could scarcely leave the village?  If anything, it was likely most of the village were already aware of his presence anyway.

Committed to another bad idea, Loki quietly slipped back to the bedcloset and found Fenrir still sleeping on their bed on the floor.  Loki tapped him with his toe, attempting to rouse the animal.

“Are you going out?” he asked.

Fenrir did not respond.

“I’m talking to you,” Loki said.  “Are you just going to sleep here all day?”

Fenrir grumbled, a sure sign that Loki was up and asking things of him entirely too early.  Loki shook his head.

“Then you listen to this woman and do as she says,” he said, pointing toward Gudrun, who watched the entire scene from her bed.

He left Fenrir and turned his gaze upward, searching for Ikol.  He found the bird watching over the bedcloset from above, and raised his hand toward him.  Ikol flew down, landing on him with a squawk.  Loki took a moment to scratch him around the head and neck, making sure he was in good health and clean after having moved into the rafters.

“You as well,” he said to Ikol.  “This is not an opportunity for you to eat a hole in their roof.”

Ikol squawked again, and Loki released him.  Instead of returning to the rafters, Ikol landed on Fenrir, settling in the dense fur behind his neck.

“You speak to them as if you expect them to understand,” Gudrun.

“They do, to a point,” Loki said.  “Perhaps not as you and I understand one another, but they do understand.  And usually obey.”

He looked down at the animals, jealous that he was not sleeping in right along with them.

“He’ll let you know if he wants to go out, but it’s just as likely he’ll sleep until I return,” Loki said.

He left Gudrun with a small nod and turned to return to the fire room.  By then, Bjalfi and Sigtrygg were ready and waiting on him.  Bjalfi opened the door and led them both across the village.  Houses were scattered randomly, leading a wide, and slightly crooked path from one end to the other.  It was to the centre of town that Bjalfi led them, not to a house, but a hall.  Tall and wide with a peaked roof, it was the only building in the village primarily constructed of timber.  Inside, the space was already beginning to crowd as all of the village’s men, and many of the women assembled for judgement.

As Bjalfi led Loki and Sigtrygg in, more than a few heads turned their way.  Loki pretended he hadn’t noticed, casting his attention instead to the hall itself.  Posts and rafters supported the roof above, and hung lanterns and pelts.  Bjalfi made sure both of them stayed close as he led them toward the centre of the hall to the jarl’s seat.  At a good spot to watch, they settled into the crowd near one of the posts.  Loki nudged Sigtrygg with his elbow and pointed up to the rafters.  Sigtrygg looked up, taking only a moment to catch Loki’s intent.  He nodded, and laced his fingers together for Loki to step into his hands.  With a quick boost, Loki pulled himself into the rafters to better see from above.  His antics did not go unnoticed, turning more attention toward him and his hosts.  Below, another man stepped close to Bjalfi.

“Lausingi?” he asked.

Bjalfi shook his head, a short and quick motion.  “No.”

Loki frowned at the exchange, but said nothing to avoid calling any more attention to himself.  That was something else to be unpacked and dealt with later, though he didn’t like the sound of it.  A moment later, Hrapp approached as well, giving Loki one more point of distraction.  He looked up at Loki in the rafters, seeming completely unfazed by what he saw.  He and Bjalfi spoke quietly, keeping their voices too low for Loki to hear.  

Finally, the hall began to quiet down as the jarl raised his hand into the air.  He was a large man, with gnarled and broken horns that had been carved with runes and staves and knotwork.  Every part of him had been worn and weathered in a way many of the jarls Loki crossed paths with on Asgard couldn’t even compare.  This was a man who did not waste time in his king’s halls.  This was a man for whom every day was a fight for survival.  Even he cast a critical gaze toward Loki, though otherwise did not acknowledge his presence at all.

“Bring in the accused,” the jarl said.

The man was led inside, held at each arm by men with swords.  Though he was not bound, the men kept a tight hold on him as he was walked in front of the jarl.

“Vali Eyvindarson, you have pulled all these men and women from their warm beds and the safety of their homes,” said the jarl as he stood from his seat.  “First to prevent needless death when you could not control your fists, and now to determine what should be done to you.  Time and valuable resources have been squandered correcting your actions.”

When he spoke to Vali, he addressed the entire hall, as if reminding all of them exactly how the entire village had been wronged.  In this trial, the man’s wife and children were not the only victims.  Everyone who had been inconvenienced and put at risk were held in the same regard.

“Why should these people show you mercy today?” the jarl asked.

“This was a private quarrel,” Vali said.  “Between a husband and a wife.”

“This man is not my husband!” A woman shouted.  

She stood and made quick strides to the centre.  From his perch in the rafters, Loki could see the side of her face bruised and swollen where she had caught Vali’s fists.

“I wish for a divorce,” she continued, pointing to Vali.  “This man will never step foot in my home again.”

The jarl looked at her, and then cast his gaze across the assembly.  “I think none here would disagree to Hallfred’s demands,” he said.

Hallfred kept her venomous gaze on Vali, even as she nodded.  “Thank you, Gunnar,” she said.  “My children thank you too.”

Only as the jarl stepped closer to Vali did Hallfred step back again.  “Have you any actual words of defence, Vali?” he asked.

“This was a private quarrel,” Vali repeated.

The jarl shook his head and returned to his seat.  “You show no remorse,” he said.  “Two children and their mother were almost killed trying to flee from your violence.  Such is not tolerated or welcome in Hvítá.  Five lashings, and then you will never return to Hvítá again.”

Almost at once, one of the men holding Vali kicked his leg out form under him, forcing him to his knees.  He fought even as he was held down, and a third man approached with a leather whipcord.  Vali was wrested from his tunic, and with little warning at all was struck across the back with the whipcord.  The crack of leather against skin was punctuated by Vali’s screams, followed by shouts and jeering from the assembly.

Movement below caught Loki’s attention, and he looked down to see Sigtrygg looking away, his eyes screwed shut as he hunched into himself.  When the whipcord cracked again, Sigtrygg flinched.

Loki did not recall how old he was the first time he bore witness to a public flogging or execution.  Perhaps the boy’s age.  Maybe even younger.  It wasn’t the sort of thing Loki revelled in, though he had long become desensitised to the sound of a whip and the scent of blood in the air.  He returned to watch, to bear witness, as was expected by his presence.  Then he caught Bjalfi looking up at him, and another curious expression writ across his face.  In response, Loki only shrugged.  The punishment was a required part of any judgement.  He had seen such things plenty of times before.

After the fifth whip crack, Vali was left on the floor in a crumpled heap, panting and trying to silence himself.  He was left there, laid out and exposed for a long moment while the crowd continued to shout and jeer.

“Leave this place,” the jarl said suddenly.  “Should you return, the punishment will be death.”

Still panting, Vali rose to his feet on shaky legs that barely held his weight.  The crowd did not part to let him pass, forcing him through tight spaces to be slapped and punched as he made his way to the door.  Once he was finally outside, and the door shut behind him, the atmosphere in the hall shifted abruptly.  The judgement had been swift, and the punishment dealt even more swiftly, and now came the drink.  Having been dry entirely too long, Loki leaned far to one side, tilting his balance and rolling off the beam.  He landed easily on his feet and stood to explore the hall and all it had to offer.  He was used to having to weave and dodge around drunken Jötnar nearly twice his size, but here Loki found he was quickly dodged, as if bumping into him might cause him to break.

Loki quickly found himself a mug of mead, and wandered to find a place to enjoy it while he watched the crowd mill about.  But at the end of a long table along the wall, he spotted a familiar face.  Angrboða had spotted him too, and quickly averted her gaze toward the table.  Loki approached the side opposite her, but did not sit.

“I must confess I do not know where I misstepped, but I most humbly apologise for having done so,” he said.

Angrboða looked up at him, confused and hurt, and showing all of it to Loki.

“Who are you?” she asked.  “Truly?”

“No one of consequence,” Loki said.

She did not believe him.  He could see that plainly as well.

“May I sit?” he asked.

She didn’t respond immediately.  She had to make up her own mind before nodding and motioning to the empty seat across from her.  He drew more looks from the crowd as he tried to find a comfortable and dignified way to sit at a table that was too big.  Finally he gave up and settled on his knees to drink his mead.

“I feel as though I perhaps misread the situation,” Loki said.

“You’re not from Jötunheimr at all, are you?” Angrboða asked.

Loki considered her question for a moment.  He still had not pinned down a lie, so he simply went with the truth and shook his head.

“Where, then?” Angrboða asked.

Loki shook his head again.  “I cannot say,” he said.  “It would bring danger to this place, and I do not wish for that to happen.”

She studied him from across the table, her sharp, red eyes almost piercing right through him.  He knew exactly what he looked like, wearing an Asgardian tunic and an Álfar cloak.  Too small, too scrawny.  There was not a single part of him that belonged there.  And yet, he stayed, refusing to return home.

“Why didn’t you want me?” she asked, cutting right to the chase.

It was a simple question with a complicated answer.  Loki knew anything he said would give part of him away, but he wanted to make the situation right.

“I very much did,” he said, finding no reason in denying it.  “But where I was raised, using a man’s bed to rut in the same room his children sleep would cause no end of quarrel.”

“I thought I had somehow insulted you,” Angrboða said.  She still studied him, still seemingly unsure about something.

“There was no insult,” Loki said.  “Only poor judgement on my part.  And not the first time, nor surely the last.”

That got her to laugh, at least.  A small noise, but Loki counted it as a victory all the same.

“You are a very strange man,” Angrboða said.

Loki could not tell her intent with her words.  “Is that a bad thing?” he asked.

“No,” said Angrboða.  She considered her own mug for a moment.  “Confusing, perhaps.  But not bad.”

Loki nodded.  “Well, that’s all right, isn’t it?”  He drank from his mug and looked out over the crowd.  Someone was always looking back at him, and always someone different than the last time he’d checked.

“I’m afraid I’m rather making you the centre of attention,” he said, standing.  “I suppose I should go indulge some curiosities.”

“Will I see you again?” asked Angrboða.

“I look forward to it.”  Loki left her with that and rejoined the crowd.

« || »

Second Rite #8: Temptation

The others were still gone by the time the children began yawning and pretending not to fall asleep by the fire.  As Angrboða wrangled them up to put them to bed, Loki walked through the house with his eyes toward the rafters, looking for his rifle.  He worried about the condition he’d find it in after the last one had been damaged by the previous horse Loki had failed to stay on, and he grew anxious as he failed to find it.  

As Angrboða walked out to find him, she frowned.  “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I’m trying to find my weapon.  It needs to be cleaned,” Loki said.

“Oh!”  Angrboða looked up, and turned back around.  “I think he said it was back here?”

She walked back to the beds, and climbed on top of one.  Reaching into the rafters above, she pulled the rifle down and looked at it curiously before handing it over.

“Thank you,” Loki said.

He brought it close to the lamp between the beds to inspect it, first pulling out the clip and emptying the chamber.  It appeared no worse for wear, but he still wanted it cleaned after its tumble in the snow.  He walked to his pack and opened it, finding his ruined tunic from the hunt.  It had been cleaned, but the stains would never come out.  Not particularly bothered by the loss of it, Loki tore the sleeve apart at the seams, taking the long strip of cloth to his bed to use to clean the rifle.

“Join me up here,” Angrboða said as she got into one of the vacant beds.  “You do not have to sleep on the floor.”

Loki looked up, but did not move.  “I wouldn’t want to keep you up,” he said.

“You won’t,” Angrboða said.  “Come, I’ll brush your hair.”

Loki wanted to argue, but didn’t have the energy.  He stood, and on his way to the bed bent to pick up the stray round he had ejected from the chamber earlier, and pressed it into the clip.  Loki climbed up onto the bed and sat down in the middle, already preparing to take the rifle apart.  Angrboða settled behind him, crossing her legs in front of her as a barrier between the two of them.

He began tearing down the mechanism, pulling the trigger guard to release the entire assembly from the stock.  As soon as it was out, the barrel fell loose a little more easily than he’d have liked.  Already, he could see bits of mud and other gunk that had wormed its way in, so he started completely disassembling the action and trigger.  As he began to place everything out neatly before him, Angrboða pulled his hair away from his shoulder, holding it out of the way while her free hand traced a line close to the wound on his shoulder.

“This was from the hunt?” she asked.

Loki shook his head as he struggled to pull the bolt free without damaging it.  “No, from a recent fight,” he said.

Her fingers traced down his back, over other marks and scars from the war.  Then, her hand disappeared from his skin, and soon her fingers were in his hair, pulling out the worst tangles so she did not pull with the comb.  Loki could not recall the last time someone had fixed his hair like this.  His mother, perhaps, when he was still a boy.  Once he had outgrown the need for his mother to comb his hair, he had always dealt with it himself.

He quickly found himself distracted by it.  Her touch was gentle, even as her fingers touched his scalp and neck.  He knew she was trying to avoid pulling his hair.  Had he not still had a constant dull ache behind his eyes, he might have wanted her to.

Cleaning his rifle took far longer than it normally would have, and not just because he hadn’t brought his kit for it.  He found himself stopping to hold still, just allowing himself to be touched.  Forgetting about his task entirely, Loki closed his eyes and leaned back into her touch.  He wanted to feel more of it, and to do more about it.  But he could also feel himself slowly falling asleep under her touch.  Loki had to force his eyes open again, before he shifted in his seat to finish his task.  He had got the most egregious dirt and debris out of the mechanism, and would have to properly clean it all later.  As quickly as he could without making too much noise, Loki reassembled the weapon.  Setting it aside, he closed his eyes again and allowed himself to drift.  He didn’t think he had fallen asleep, but he could feel himself getting close more than once.  He could also feel his body responding in other ways, though he was entirely too exhausted to do a single thing about it.  Instead, he let himself be touched in this entirely unfamiliar way.  Brothel visits and one night stands had always been significantly more rough and desperate affairs.  Not even Fandral, when they were still close, had ever shown much interest in casual touch.

Loki realised she was no longer combing his hair, but braiding it.  He didn’t think his hair had even been long enough, but he could feel her using the comb to pull sections apart before weaving it all together again.  Then she tied it off, giving Loki the chance to explore her work with his fingers.  She had left much of it alone, preventing the pull against his scalp.  Instead, he found a small braid on either side, woven in to the rest at the back of his neck.

“What was that for?” he asked.

He could hear her trying not to laugh behind him.  “I imagine you’re sleeping more than usual,” she said.  “And then your hair gets tangled.”

She wasn’t exactly wrong.  Loki was no stranger to fortnight-long naps when he was injured or unwell, but from the moment he returned from Midgard, all he wanted to do was sleep.  Before that, even.  He had thought his extended nap in Urðr’s cabin had been exhaustion from cutting the most convoluted path possible across Europe, but he’d been plagued with headaches since France.  Early warning signs he’d only just at that moment come to recognise.

“Well.  Thank you,” he said.  

He picked up his rifle and slipped down off the bed to go put it away.  As he crouched next to his bag, he put himself between it and Angrboða so she could not see him hide the rifle away in one of his secret places.  Then he ruffled everything up to give the impression he was hiding it back in his bag.

Rather than returning to the bed Angrboða still sat in, Loki turned to return to his own against the wall. 

“You don’t have to sleep alone,” Angrboða said.  “Come back here.”

Loki looked up at her again, not sure it was the best idea.  Even if he weren’t too exhausted to do anything other than sleep, the children slept in the next bed.  He was already preparing to try to go to sleep frustrated, and wasn’t exactly in the mood to make it worse.

“I’d hate to be in the way if they should return home,” Loki said.

“If they return home, we can move elsewhere,” Angrboða said.

Loki silently cursed himself, absolutely failing to come up with a single other excuse.  He was weak, and was going to spend his night restless and frustrated over an inability to say no.  He stood and climbed back into bed, trying to find his way under the pile of furs and blankets.  He was used to having Fenrir in bed with him, and sleeping in a realm that was often too warm to sleep comfortably to begin with.  Once he figured it out, he lay back and immediately closed his eyes.  Unable to find any other place for his hands, Loki rested them on his stomach.  A moment later he opened his eyes and looked toward the lantern on the table between the two beds, but found he was not bothered enough by it to snuff it out.

“Is this normal?  For your kind?” Angrboða asked suddenly.  She drew her thumb across his jaw, and Loki knew she meant his pathetic, teenager’s excuse for a beard.

“I suppose it is,” he said.  He had no idea in truth.  Until he found out what he was, Loki was prepared to assume he was the only thing like him in all the Nine Realms.

He tilted his head back into the pillow, allowing her explore further.  She was careful where she touched, avoiding the raised lines that marked his body.  Her fingers traced the marks on his chest, as though trying to find each and every one.

“What are they from?” she asked.

Loki took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly.  He wasn’t sure he’d survive the night.

“A weapon similar to mine,” he said.  “Damn nearly killed me.”

“I’m surprised it didn’t.”  Loki could hear the frown in her voice as she spoke.  “What happened?”

Loki opened his eyes and was met with concern.  “Lost a fight,” he said.

His answer didn’t seem to satisfy her.  “And this?” she asked, tracing a finger along one of the long claw marks.

“Polar bear,” Loki said.  “Won that fight.”

He moved his hands behind his head and tried to ignore the strain in his breeches.  A moment later, Angrboða took it as an invitation to explore further.  Her hand disappeared beneath the heavy fur blanket, tracing the line of hair that ran down Loki’s belly and disappeared under his waistband.  Loki clenched his jaw and stared at the roof above, forcing himself to stay still beneath her touch.  Though she kept her fingers above his waistband, and did not explore any further, Loki still found himself struggling to maintain his composure.

“I am not a strong man,” he said, closing his eyes again.  “And I am trying very hard to resist fucking my host’s sister in law in his own bed.”

She took her hand away, and Loki regretted saying anything.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

Were she not a foot and a half taller than him, Loki might have been able to improvise a bit better.  But he couldn’t exactly hold her against a wall, or bend her over a table like he could with women on other realms.  Were she not a woman, Loki would have gladly volunteered to be the one fucked against a wall, or bent over the table.  As it was, he was left with extremely limited options.

“I don’t dislike it,” he said.  “But I’m afraid I may not be able to keep my manners much longer.”

It had been a mistake getting back into bed with her.  He should have stayed on the floor, safely out of trouble, and gone to bed mildly irritated.  Loki didn’t know what he had been thinking, except that he hadn’t been thinking at all.  He’d been acting like an impulsive teenager, and he hated himself for it.

“I have to leave,” he said, getting up.  “I’ll be somewhere else.”

He walked out of the room and straight to the door, not even bothering to grab his cloak or boots before heading out to the snow.  The cold wind on his bare skin helped to calm him somewhat, but it did nothing to soothe his frustration with himself.  He was stuck in this tribal village for as long as the weather remained foul, and he could not afford any extra attention on himself.  He may not have been hiding from whatever force his hosts had imagined him to be, but he was hiding all the same.  

Loki stayed outside until the wind began to bite, and a chill began to set into his skin.  He returned to the house and quietly made his way back to his own bed.  Whether Angrboða were truly asleep, or was just lying silently, he didn’t know and didn’t care to check.  

He settled himself beneath the blankets, no less uncomfortable and frustrated than before he’d gone outside.  Still furious with himself for his own poor judgement, Loki struggled to get comfortable.  Before he was able to, Fenrir rolled on top of him and pinned him where he was.

“I hate you,” Loki said, trying to shift beneath the wolf’s weight.  

Fenrir moved only to start licking the side of Loki’s head.  He quickly gave up and tried to force himself to sleep.

***

Loki woke to voices on the other side of the curtain.  He shoved Fenrir off him as quietly as he could and got to his feet.  The children were all still asleep, but Angrboða had gone, leaving the room feeling almost empty.  After a moment of quiet eavesdropping, Loki realised as he listened that hers was one of the voices he heard.  He carefully stepped to his pack to pull out the last of the clean tunics he’d brought, and carefully pulled it over his head as he stepped to the other side of the curtain, not wanting to interrupt whatever was going on.  Bjalfi and Gudrun had both come home, dressed in heavy furs and cloaks of their own.  While the women spoke quietly, Bjalfi worked quickly at wrapping cured meat and stuffing it into his pack.

“Still trouble?” he asked.

Bjalfi turned to him and nodded.  “Some children ran into the storm, followed by their mother.  We need to find them before the next one hits.”

Loki nodded, unsure how to help without giving himself away.  

“Since he’s awake, I’ll go back out with you,” Angrboða said.  

She glanced over to Loki, but looked away again as soon as she saw him watching her.  

“You’re leaving?” Loki asked.  He was surprised to hear it, though he knew immediately why.  

“Help is needed,” Angrboða said.

“Can you care for the children?” Gudrun asked.

Loki nodded.  “Of course.”  

The children were old enough that they didn’t need much looking after, but Loki suspected they weren’t the one Angrboða had been sent to watch after in the first place.  And now she was leaving, because Loki had made the situation uncomfortable.

Gudrun turned to Angrboða, touching her arm.  “Go.  Ready yourself quickly.”

Without another word, Angrboða turned and rushed out the door.  Loki didn’t know why he felt guilty watching her go.

“Sigtrygg will help you with larger tasks,” Gudrun said.

Hrapp’s boy was barely twelve years old, and already taller than Loki.  Not for the first time, Loki found himself wondering how any war bride or her children could live in this realm and not go completely mad.

Bjalfi finished loading his pack and turned toward the door as well.  He paused before opening it, looking to Loki with unveiled apprehension and skepticism.  Bjalfi still did not trust him, and wore it plainly on his face.  But he said nothing, and with a curt nod, opened the door to the wind.  As he and Gudrun left, Loki turned to tend to the fire in the pit.  It had burned down to embers in the night, and was threatening to go out entirely.  Loki put the last of the firewood from the stack into the pit, arranging it so it would catch, and returned to his bed to pull his boots on.  He found Fenrir watching him, and nodded toward the door as he finished dressing.  Fenrir immediately jumped to his feet and trotted out to the fire room to wait for Loki.  He reached for his cloak, but thought against it before his fingers touched the fabric.  It would get in the way and cause problems, and by this point his presence in the village was surely known.

Just as on Asgard, Loki was the worst-kept secret in history.

While Loki let Fenrir out to do his business, he walked around to the back of the house where the firewood was kept beneath an overhang on the roof.  Most of it seemed to come from smaller trees, collected from flooded river banks, but there was a decent amount that come from a forest of no doubt towering pine and spruce somewhere Loki had not yet travelled.  He was surprised timber would even grow in such an environment, but he knew there were a few months each year when the ice and snow melted, replaced by endless swarms of mosquitoes.  That much, he had experienced even in Utgard.

  The axe was larger than he was used to, but not so large that he could not swing it.  He split more wood to bring into the house, stacking it haphazardly nearby until he was ready to take it in.  The sharp wind made the task all the more draining, but Loki was glad for the physical work.  So much time locked up in small places was beginning to drive his mind in circles.  The sun could not come soon enough.  Loki needed to complete his task so he could return to Asgard and get the answers he had been denied. 

When he had enough firewood to last the next few days, Loki buried the axe back in the chopping block and began to pick up that which he’d thrown onto the ground.  He could only carry a few at a time, so that’s what he did, hauling an armload of wood into the house.  He found Sigtrygg up already, poking at the fire with an iron rod.  As Loki brought the wood to its place, the boy looked up at him.

“Do you need help?” the boy asked.

Loki made sure nothing would roll or tumble away and stood.  “Please,” he said.

Sigtrygg got up and followed Loki back out to the wood pile.  As the two of them bent to gather the rest up, Sigtrygg laughed.

“Ozur’s going to be pissed off at you,” he said.

“Why’s that?” asked Loki.

“He always says the axe is too heavy to lift.”

Loki looked at the axe, and then shook his head.  “That boy played you like a fiddle,” he said.

“What’s that mean?” Sigtrygg asked.

He hadn’t realised precisely what he’d said until Sigtrygg asked.  Loki picked up the last of the firewood and started walking back toward the door.  “It means he deceived you, and you never thought to question it.”

“No,” Sigtrygg said, following close behind.  “Ugh, that little bastard.”

Loki laughed and walked around to open the front door.  As Sigtrygg stepped inside, Loki whistled loudly into the wind, and a few moments later was met by Fenrir trotting around the opposite side of the house.  Loki waited for Fenrir to get inside before following, making sure the door was tightly latched behind him.  Once he finished stacking the rest of the wood, Loki walked the length of the house, checking the rafters for Ikol.  He found the bird on the far end, digging something out of the sod roof.

“If you put a hole in that, these people are going to get very angry,” Loki said.

Ikol squawked at him and then flew down, landing on Loki’s shoulder.  Loki moved him to his hand and took him over to the fire, where he sat on the ground, idly scratching the bird around its head and breast.

“How do you make it listen to you when you talk to it like that?” Sigtrygg asked.

Ikol continued to squawk and croak, apparently having much to say about the situation.

“Quite a lot of training,” Loki said.  “We’re still working on some things.”

“Are you a witch?” Sigtrygg asked.  “They can talk to animals like that.”

Loki laughed again.  “I am many things, but a witch is not one of them.”  

Sight magic remained the most difficult magic he had ever tried to learn, and in many ways, remained the only magic he had barely learned at all.  Divination seemed an impossible task as far as Loki was concerned.

“Can I hold him?” the boy asked.

Loki moved closer and stretched out his hand toward Sigtrygg’s to encourage Ikol to hop over.

“He’s a bit mean and may bite,” he warned.

After a moment’s coaxing, Ikol hopped over to the boy’s hand, and directed his angry squawking tirade in his direction.  Sigtrygg laughed and cautiously reached out to pet the bird with his fingers.  At once, Ikol snapped his tiny little beak at him, and he drew his hand away.

“Why is he so angry?” Sigtrygg asked, laughing.

“I don’t know,” Loki said.  “He’s an ass.  He’s always angry with something.”

Ikol pecked the boy on the wrist, drawing a flurry of feathers and waving hands.  As Sigtrygg tried to back away, Ikol flew back up into the rafters, still cursing both of them even as he found a perch.

“If you tear their roof off, I’m letting one of them eat you,” Loki said.  

He shook his head and settled back against the bench behind him, ignoring Ikol’s rage above him.  He felt dirty, and wanted little more than to bathe and wash his clothes, but neither were particularly viable options with everything frozen around them.  He had not packed well enough for an extended outing, nor for such poor weather.  He had expected to spend his time alone, or with a guide at most.  Leather breeches and loose tunics would have been perfectly fine, but with a constant audience, Loki knew he stood out in more ways than one.

But if he couldn’t bathe, he could at least do something to feel like he was clean.  He got up and walked over to his pack, finding that everything had been shuffled around in his desire to wear something clean every now and then.  At the very bottom of his pack, Loki found his shaving kit, tangled up in everything else.  He had almost not brought it, but now he was glad that he had.  With the kit in one hand, he found the tunic he had torn up the night previously and grabbed that as well.  On his way back to set himself up, he picked up one of the metal cups from the shelf against the wall, and filled it with cold water from a barrel against the wall.  He put the cup against the fire to heat it, and sat back down again.  Settled, he opened his kit and checked himself in the mirror.  With the fire burning, he could just about see the sorry state he was in.  Then he tilted his head down just a little too far, and caught his own horns in the mirror, and with them a sting he still did not have a name for.  Like betrayal and regret all at once.  He frowned and dropped the mirror for a moment, trying to convince himself to check the damage from his fall.  Finally he looked, deliberately tilting his dead to see the long crack on his left horn, jagged and moving in a rough line across it, near the base.  It had started healing already, but at the sight of it, Loki understood immediately why he had taken such a hit from it.

His tooth was another matter entirely.  It had broken in half, leaving a rough gap where his left canine used to be.  Unless Loki was even more unaware of his own biology than he realised, that wasn’t coming back.  

“What’s that?” Sigtrygg asked while Loki frowned at himself in the mirror.

Loki handed the mirror up for him to see.  “Looking glass,” he said.

The boy looked at it, and jumped at his own reflection in it.  “What magic is this?” he asked.

“No magic,” Loki said, trying to find words the boy would understand.  “Just a trick of the light on polished silver.”

He was not sure glass had even made its way to Jötunheimr, much less out to any of the tribal villages beyond Utgard.  But Sigtrygg seemed to accept the answer and used it to get a good look at himself in it.

“It seems so real,” he said.  He touched it and frowned when all his fingers found was the flat surface of the glass.  “You have all these fancy treasures.  Where did you get them?”

He handed the mirror back, and Loki returned it to its spot in his kit.

“I travel.  Have done since I was about your age,” Loki said, testing the water in his cup and found it warm enough.  He tore off another rag from the old tunic and dipped it into the water, using it to scrub his face

“You were born before the war, right?” Sigtrygg asked.

“I was,” said Loki.  

“I want to travel some day.  Dad says I can go to Utgard with the caravan this year.  Maybe some day I’ll even go see Álfheimr,” Sigtrygg said.  

“I don’t believe there are any laws against it,” Loki said.  He knew the Jötnar had been forbidden from entering Midgard even before the pact, but the other realms all fell on the side of simply being unwelcome and hostile, without putting anything in writing.

Sigtrygg watched curiously as Loki soaped his face and began to shave by the low light of the fire.  He was not particularly good at it, especially in this form, and the flickering light and small mirror were not helping.  He moved slowly, avoiding the raised lines as much as possible and struggling to get to the spaces in between.  The straight razor was rather a different beast to what Howlett had shown him how to use, but easier to care for and keep clean and sharp without being able to take frequent trips to Midgard.

“That’s a fancy blade,” Sigtrygg said.

Loki wiped it on his rag and held it up for the boy to see.  Its synthetic handle was marbled to resemble some sort of bone or antler, in a way that resembled neither at all.

“How come you grow hair on your face?” the boy asked.

Loki shrugged and shook his head.  “I don’t know,” he said. 

“Can it do this hair up here?” Sigtrygg asked, rubbing his finger along the side of his head.

The boy asked just as many questions as his cousin, and Loki wondered if he would ever run out.  Loki watched him for a moment, before resuming his own task.  “I don’t see why not,” he said stiffly, trying desperately not to cut himself.

“I want to shear the sides, like my dad has,” Sigtrygg said.  He ran his fingers through his own hair.  It was shaggy, but not long, stopping just below his ears.  “Have just the stripe, like a tail.”

Loki paused to consider it.  “I’m not very good at it,” he said.

Sigtrygg shrugged.  “I don’t mind.  If you want to, that is.”

Frigga had long learned to avoid allowing Loki any amount of charge over his own younger brothers, and it had been a lesson learned from mischief gone wrong.  As it was, the opportunity to try something new was indeed tempting.

“If you don’t mind possibly going completely bald,” he said.  “Fetch me a comb while I finish up.”

Sigtrygg got up and quietly rushed back to the bed room, leaving Loki to finish without interruption.  Once he got everything he could safely reach, he washed his face with water again and checked himself in the mirror.  It was not his best work, but given the circumstances it could have been a lot worse.  At least he had not cut himself.  That was always a minor victory.

When the boy returned, Loki stood and tried to find a good way to arrange them so he could see what he was doing.  

“On the floor,” he said, pointing.  

Sigtrygg handed him the comb and sat as instructed.  Sitting, he was a little too low to reach comfortably, but there was no better way around it that Loki could see.

While his own hair annoyed and occasionally disgusted him, Sigtrygg was properly Jötunn.  His hair was the same as Loki’s, but it belonged on him, just as much as anything else did.  It wasn’t revolting to touch the way his own hair often was.  Loki easily used the comb to separate an even line where the boy wanted the sides shaved, though he had no clear idea of what he was doing.  Once it felt about right, he opened his shaving kit again and pulled out the small pair of scissors from it.  The scissors were small, meant for more personal grooming, but he didn’t dare go at it directly with the razor.  

“Last chance to change your mind,” Loki warned, getting the scissors ready.

“Do it,” said Sigtrygg.

Laughing, Loki began cutting his hair as close to the scalp as possible.  The oils in the boy’s hair made it stick together, unwilling to fall to the floor as easily as Loki would have liked, and he had to stop every few minutes to wipe the blades down so they would cut smoothly.  It took much longer than Loki had wanted, but eventually he had everything cut that he wanted, leaving a rough, uneven mess on the side of Sigtrygg’s head.

“You’ll have to stay very still for this part,” Loki said as he picked up the tin of soft soap.  He smeared it all over the boy’s head, trying not to miss anything in the low light.  “It’s very sharp, and it cuts deep.”

The boy took a deep breath and nodded, before going still.  Loki was surprised to find this task much easier than his own face, having few obstacles to work around.  It went much quicker than the work with the scissors had done, even with the delicate process of cutting a straight line where the boy wanted his hair long.  As the razor bared the boy’s scalp, twisted black lines were revealed, not unlike those Loki had been surprised to find on himself as a boy.  Once he was done, Loki cleaned up the remaining soap and picked up the comb and scissors again to start on the other side.

As he worked on the other side, Ozur slowly shuffled out to the fire room, and stood nearby to watch.

“Are you supposed to be doing that?” Ozur asked.

Loki shrugged as he wiped his scissors clean again.  “Probably not,” he said.

Ozur watched in silence for a moment longer.  “Can you do mine next?” he asked.

Loki realised he should have expected this, and pointed to one of the benches.  “Get in line,” he said.  “I ought to charge you both a quarter.”

“A quarter of what?” asked Sigtrygg.

Loki shook his head at himself.  “Never mind.”

Before he was even done with Sigtrygg’s hair, Vigdís wandered out as well, pausing to look at the scene before sitting down.

“Do you want yours done too?” Ozur asked.

She looked at Loki and Sigtrygg and shook her head.  “No,” she said.  “Mom can be mad at you.  I don’t want any part of it.”

Loki laughed.  “You may be the only smart one here,” he said.

He finished up the other side more quickly, having figured out what he was doing the first time.  It did not look the best, but it wasn’t exactly terrible, either.  In the end, it resembled a shaggy version of the Mohican cuts he had seen some GIs around London wearing.  He handed Sigtrygg the mirror so he could see for himself, and started cleaning off his razor.  He would need to sharpen it when he returned to Asgard, but had not brought any of the tools to do it now.

“I like it very much.  Thank you!” he said, handing the mirror back as he bounced up to his feet.

With his spot vacated, Ozur quickly got up to take it.  He settled at the floor by Loki’s feet, looking at the mess on the floor around him.

“All right,” Loki said with a small sigh.  “What do you want?”

« || »

Second Rite #7: Clear Weather

Loki was given a small bed of furs in the bedcloset, tucked against the wall at the foot of one of the beds.  It was very simple, with everything stacked and arranged neatly on the floor, but Loki had slept in much worse conditions.  The space was his, a small patch within the crowded house where he could be left alone when he wanted it.  Each morning when he woke, Loki would gaze skyward for just a few moments, giving Heimdall a chance to see him.  He was on Jötunheimr.  He was well.  And then he would cloak himself again before dressing and taking Fenrir out to the paddock beyond the village.

For the first time in almost a week, Loki found the air still and the skies clear.  As he returned to the house, he found Bjalfi and Hrapp hastily dressing in heavy furs.

“Is there a problem?” Loki asked, leaving Fenrir to go sprawl out in his spot beneath the loom.

“We’ve got good weather,” Bjalfi said.  “It’s a good opportunity to hunt.”

Loki watched them for a moment, and then glanced back toward the far end of the house, toward his bed and his things.  He wasn’t being invited at all, but the opportunity to get out and do something was a strong temptation to overcome.

“I’ll go, if you need the help.”

Bjalfi huffed and shook his head.  “We don’t have time to teach you,” he said.

“I don’t need to be taught,” Loki said.

Bjalfi and Hrapp looked at one another, until Hrapp finally nodded.  Not even hiding his disagreement, Bjalfi rolled his eyes and turned to face Loki.

“Be quick,” he said.

Loki quickly rushed back to his bed, and opened his pack to dig through it.  He strung his bow and set it aside, and then checked to make sure none were watching him.  Not sure what they were hunting, Loki pulled his Garand from his hiding spot, making sure the clip was loaded, with several extras to spare.  He quickly arranged his weapons and furs about his cloak, quiver and bow on his hip, rifle over his shoulder, and went to meet the others.

“What the hel is that?” Hrapp asked, seeing the rifle over Loki’s shoulder.  “It looks Elvish.”

Loki glanced at it.  “I traded services for it,” he said.  “It’s a good weapon.”

At the sight of him, Fenrir stood.  He was clearly eager to get out as well, but Loki shook his head.  “You stay,” he said, before pointing up at the rafters where Ikol dug for insects in the turf roof.  “Watch after him.”

Fenrir grumbled, but lay back down.  Satisfied he’d stay put, Loki pulled his hood over his head, pulling it far forward to cover the top of his face.  Already, his horns had grown long enough for the hood to pull on them, but Loki ignored it.  Soon the hood would not hide them at all, making him all the more eager to get out while he had the chance.

Bjalfi and Hrapp led him out to a large barn, full of cattle and horses larger than any Loki had ever seen.  The two men quickly saddled their horses, clearly intending against giving Loki one.

“I can ride, if it will be easier,” he said.

“You’ll ride with me,” Bjalfi said.

Loki rolled his eyes, biting down on a sharp remark that threatened to pass his tongue.  He waited until the horses were dressed and tacked, watching silently to see how they did it.  Their equipment was different to that used on either Asgard or Midgard, but no so different that had Loki been given a pony, he would not find it difficult to replicate.  Once the horses were tacked, each was attached to a small sledge to drag behind them.

When he was done, Bjalfi reached out as if to lift Loki onto the saddle, but Loki waved him away.  He was small, but he would not be treated like a child.  Instead, he reached up onto the saddle to find a good handhold, and looked up to judge the distance.  He hopped on the balls of his feet once, twice before jumping, pulling himself up as he went.  He moved quickly, getting one foot into the stirrup to give himself the leverage to swing the other leg over the saddle.  A moment later he was seated, moving up against the low pommel to give Bjalfi room to mount as well.  

He did not miss the hushed murmurs between the two Jötuns on the ground.  A moment later, Bjalfi mounted behind him, and they were trotting out of camp into the dark tundra beyond.  He watched for a long while as the terrain glided past, providing similar vistas to what Loki had seen in Russia.  They ran along a great, wide open plain, with giant mountains looming in the distance.  Loki looked up at the stars, and thought the mountains to their north might be where he’d need to head once better weather came.

“What are we hunting?” Loki asked, spotting dark spots against the snow to their right, several hundred meters away.

“Anything that moves,” Bjalfi said.

Loki pulled his bow and a single arrow from his hip, but hesitated for a moment.  There was too much wind, and the shot too far.  He quickly put them back and unslung his rifle instead.

“Cover your ears,” he said.

He raised his rifle to one of the creatures in the snow.  Bjalfi and Hrapp both noticed what he was aiming at.  “You’ll never hit that from here,” Bjalfi said.

“Not with the bow, no,” Loki agreed.

He struggled to get a bead on the animal, finding it difficult to keep his target without his feet in stirrups.  As Bjalfi slowed the horse, Loki squeezed the trigger.  The shot rang out like an explosion over the tundra.  One round was all it took, and across the tundra one of the figures in the pack stumbled and fell while the rest scattered.  The horse spooked and jumped, but Loki held on until Bjalfi calmed it again.  Suddenly, he was reminded of French fields and gopher holes.

Bjalfi and Hrapp both stared at one another for a moment, before finally turning the horses toward the kill.  They found a caribou in the snow, its blood steaming beneath it in a growing black pool.  Loki hopped down off the horse and shouldered his rifle as he walked toward the animal.  It was a big female, with antlers almost as big as the hippogryph horns Loki hung above his bed.  One way or another, he was determined to keep them.  He pulled his knife from his belt, and turned to Bjalfi.  

“Do you prefer to gut here, or at home?” he asked.

“Here,” Bjalfi said, getting down from the horse to join him.

While Loki had no doubt he could gut and prepare the animal himself, he was glad for the help.  Jötunn caribou were quite a bit larger than any he had encountered before.  

“I’d like to keep the horns and pelt,” Loki said, cutting the beast open with his knife while Bjalfi held it.

Bjalfi nodded.  “You’d get good trade for them,” he agreed.

Loki had no intention of trading either.  The antlers were going on his walls, and the hide would become a lining for his cloak.

“What is that thing?” Hrapp asked, watching from his horse.

Loki shrugged, feigning ignorance.  If they thought it was Elvish, he was not going to correct them.  “I have no idea, but I am awfully fond of it,” he said.

“Any chance you’d want to trade it?” asked Hrapp.

Loki shook his head.  “Absolutely not.”

The caribou was hot on the inside as its internals spilled out onto the ice.  Loki separated the gut from the organs, keeping the latter for their meal that night.  With it cleared out, Bjalfi loaded the carcass onto the sledge while Loki hastily cleaned his knife.

He found mounting the horse in the snow more difficult, but still managed to get settled by the time Bjalfi had the caribou secured.  All settled, they resumed their path across the endless expanse.  Loki let his hood fall as they rode, knowing none would see him so far out.  He wished he’d been given his own mount, since it would have been easier to shoot from, but at the same time he was glad to have been allowed to go along at all.  There was still little freedom in riding second, but he was out in the air beneath the stars, away from closed rooms and endless gossip.

They came to a frozen river and followed its banks vaguely westward as it lazily sprawled across the low plain.  Loki watched the stars above, tracking their movements across the sky and trying to memorise the constellations above.  

Then, the horses slowed.  Loki looked ahead and saw why.  An enormous white bear, twice the size of the one that had nearly ended Loki’s life in Niflheimr ambled along the bank in the distance.  They stopped the horses, and as Bjalfi dismounted, he looked to Loki.

“No, thank you,” Loki said, shaking his head.  “I’ve already won a fight with a polar bear.  This one is all yours.”

Bjalfi nodded, seeming pleased with this decision, and confused with the response all at once.  But Loki was here to help, not get in the way.  He could help make quick work once the animal was dead.  As the other two readied their axes and bows, Loki slid back into the seat of the saddle, sitting more comfortable to watch from the distance.  He wished he’d thought to bring binoculars, or even a spyglass, but even when he thought he’d planned and prepared he’d still managed to go off half-cocked.

Slowly, Bjalfi and Hrapp crept across the tundra toward the bear.  With fur hoods pulled over their heads, they walked hunched over.  Not trying to hide their horns, Loki realised.  Instead, they looked like caribou separated from the herd, cautiously trying to find their way back.  They weren’t trying to sneak up on the bear at all.  They were trying to bait it out.

Loki quickly got down off the horse and walked over to Hrapp’s.  He grabbed its reins and guided it over to the other.  If he were here to help, he should at least act like it.  Loki climbed back into the saddle, annoyed that even alone, his feet could not reach the stirrups.  After his time Out West, he’d got used to a different type of saddle, and he missed it now.  Saddles designed to do exactly what he was preparing to do, allowing him to lead another horse without taking one of his hands out of the equation, or causing him to lose his balance if he chose to lead by hand.  Saddles designed to make it easier to control the horse with his legs and knees when his hands were not free to hold the reins.  Saddles that did not make him feel like falling off was an inevitability, even without being quite a bit to big for him to fit.  Saddles with horns and fenders and deep seats and heavy stirrups.

As settled as he was going to get, Loki watched the other two slowly creep on the bear, while the bear unsubtly crept on them.  Then, it broke into a run, lunging forward on the ice toward them.  Bjalfi and Hrapp stood with bows drawn, both firing as quickly as they could.  In just a few moments, the bear had nearly a dozen arrows sticking out of its head, neck, and shoulders, and still it charged.  They fired at it until it was close, and traded their bows for their axes.  It would not have been Loki’s first choice for a weapon against such a beast, but he knew even his rifle would barely put a dent in that thing’s power.  It was the size of a deuce and a half, with several times the force behind its dense bulk.

Loki would rather take on the two and a half ton truck.

The bear brought its massive paws down toward one of the men, but he rolled out of the way and swung his axe, driving its blade deep into the beast’s shoulder.  The bear’s roars carried across the tundra, shaking something within Loki to his core.  He watched tensely as the other two dove and danced around it.  While one distracted the bear, the other swung his axe for its neck.  At the first strike, the bear reared up again, roaring so loudly Loki had to struggle to keep the horses steady.  Then it was back down on all fours, slashing for one while the other again drove his axe into its neck.  Even in the darkness, Loki could see its blood spilling across white fur and ice as its neck was hacked open.  It moved slowly, stumbling instead of lunging, as it bled onto the snow.  Then with one final blow of the axe, the bear fell, and with it, a heavy silence.  The only sound over the tundra was the wind, kicking up again in small fits and bursts to fill the silence left behind.

Loki waited a long moment, watching to make sure the bear would stay dead before he kicked the horse into action.  Even though he did not fit on the horse, riding without another behind him was a sensation he had not realised he’d missed.  With one hand on the reins, and the other holding onto the other horse’s reins to guide it, Loki ran the horses across the snow.  Without his feet in the stirrups, he had to hold tight with his knees.  So big was the horse beneath him, Loki still felt he might fall off.

He approached the other two as they set to gutting the bear.  They glanced up at him as he slowed the horses, sharing the same familiar look between them.  Like they had expected nothing of him, and were unpleasantly surprised when he exceeded those expectations.

“I’ll take the liver for my dog,” Loki said, knowing not even the Jötuns would touch it.  He had been feeding Fenrir little other than scraps, and Loki knew he could use a proper meal.

Hrapp nodded as he cut it from the spilled entrails.  The two of them made quick work of the bear, leaving little for Loki to do except stand by idly, or get in the way.  He held his seat until the two of them loaded the bear onto the empty sledge, and then made room for Bjalfi to mount behind him again.

“This should get us through the next storm or two,” Bjalfi said as he climbed back onto the horse.  

He looked skyward and began to turn back toward the village.  With laden sledges, they moved more slowly across the snow, dragging at an even pace to keep the runners from getting stuck in.  Though he was glad to have had the chance to get out and do something, Loki was already starting to tire.  The headache that never truly went away was making itself more known, and the constant darkness without a hint of sun was confusing to his body.  In such a short period of time, he had swung between seasons of complete light and complete darkness, and he could feel it catching up with him.  He held on to the front of the saddle as they rode, eager now to just get back and sit before the fire again.

Loki was not expecting them to slow abruptly as they left the river.  Ahead, between them and the village was a giant of a beast, bigger than the bear by several times over.  But this wasn’t a bear.  It was a mammoth cow with a calf.  Loki had little experience with them, but knew that if they were anything like moose cows, they were in trouble.  They tried to skirt around the mammoth, but every time they gained distance on it, it would charge at them again, putting itself back in their path and blocking their course.  With the sledges behind the horses, they could not make sharp twists and turns without risking harm to the animals, or damage to the sledges.  But their wide arcs were slow, while the mammoth was not.  The giant cow moved with a frightening speed to keep herself between the horses and her calf, unable to know that in doing so, she was blocking their path and only moving them closer.  Each time they tried to move in a different direction, she moved closer, charging forward with a deafening noise that was neither a bellow nor a screech, but something between the two, horrible and enormous.  Bjalfi tried to guide the horse, but the sledge behind it stuck in the snow and kept it from moving where it needed to go.

Without warning, Hrapp abandoned his horse and jumped into the snow.  On foot, he was more agile and nimble, able to make tight turns and draw the creature away.  It threw tusks and trunk into the air, using the weight of its head to turn itself to follow him.  A moment later, Bjalfi was on the ground as well, axe in hand as he chased after his brother.  Unsure what the goal was, Loki tried to steady the horse as he watched the two men run circles in the snow, dodging tusk and trunk alike.  At first Loki thought they meant to try to draw it away, but then Hrapp began firing his bow at it, loosing the few arrows he had left.  Loki knew not even a Jötunn longbow would take down the beast, even with a thousand arrows.

He jumped off the horse and rushed to unhitch the sledge.  Along with the other gear that had been brought, Loki found a long length of rope, which he hoped would be long enough.  He quickly tied a large loop on one end and climbed back onto the horse, having to try twice against its bucking and fussing.  Finally settled, Loki set it running toward the mammoth, putting it on his left.  With one hand on the reins, he readied the rope in the other.  This was not a skill he had ever perfected on his own, but with his magic, he had a hope off making it.  He concentrated on the rope as he ran a wide ring around the mammoth, further confusing it while he centred his intent.  Then as he came back around to its front, Loki hurled the rope, letting it slip loosely through his fingers.  He was too tired and too unfocused to guide the rope where he wanted it, and instead of hooking onto one of the mammoth’s tusks, it fell over the top.  He pulled it sharply to try again, but the loop he tied caught on the line and snagged anyway.  If he was quick, it would be all he needed.  He ran the horse around the mammoth again, pullings its head to one side as he drew the rope around its legs.  The rope was just long enough to make a full circuit around the beast, before it would draw him within striking distance.  It stumbled and fell to its knees, giving Bjalfi and Hrapp the chance to get a little closer.  There was no subduing and outrunning the beast now.  It had to be killed if they intended to make it back to camp.  If it regained its footing, it would come at them for blood.

Knowing it would make little difference, Loki unshouldered his rifle again.  His horse was too big to guide with his knees but he tried anyway, throwing his entire weight into getting it to continue to run rings around the mammoth.  He had almost a full clip, and intended to unload every last round.  At the first shot, the horse jumped sharply, nearly knocking Loki off.  He fired again, getting off two more quick rounds off before the horse bucked and Loki knew weightlessness for a few seconds.  For the second time in just a few months, Loki became intimately acquainted with frozen ground and snow in his sinuses and lungs.  His world exploded in a white hot void as something in his skull shattered.  He heard nothing but the ringing in his ears, and felt nothing but a pain that started between his horns and ended deep in his gut.  He managed to get up to his hands and knees long enough to vomit the meagre contents of his stomach into the snow, and then rolled over to collapse onto this back.  With his eyes shut tight against the world, Loki squeezed his head with both hands.  It did not help, but he felt like it should.  

He lay in the snow for an eternity.  Ragnarök came and went twice before he opened his eyes and saw the stars still shining in the sky above.  Somehow he had survived, though he felt like he had died a hundred times over.

Slowly, he realised he no longer heard the mammoth wailing into the night.  Instead, he heard rushed footsteps in the hard snow, and then the dry, scraping crunch as someone fell to a stop beside him.

“You are one tough little bastard,” Bjalfi said, looking down at him.

For a moment, Loki tried to just breathe.  “I do not like mammoth hunting and shan’t be doing it again,” he said.

He tried to sit up, but the wave of nausea that punched him in the gut forced him back down.  He could hear Bjalfi laugh as he moved away, followed by crunching and shuffling in the snow.  Loki slowly sat, fighting back against the rising tightness in his stomach, and saw Bjalfi gathering his weapons from where it had all scattered in the snow.  Rather than bring it all back, Bjalfi put his bow and arrows and rifle on the sledge before returning.  Loki tried to get up to meet him, but wasn’t given the chance.  Before he could even argue, Bjalfi picked him up and hauled him over his shoulder.  Loki did not fight back, only because he did not have the energy.  Bjalfi put him back up onto the horse, and then left him again to assess the situation.  The mammoth was dead, and her calf alone.  Neither of the men seemed to want anything to do with it.  The tundra would take it, food for a bear or a wolf den.

Loki leaned forward against the horse’s neck, focusing on just breathing and keeping his stomach still.  He had again broken his nose, but it was second to the pain that only seemed to build in his head.  The pain he thought he had been past once the damn horns on his head had broken skin and healed.  Eventually, the sledge was re-hitched and Bjalfi once again on the saddle behind him.  They had taken what they could of the mammoth, but it was far too big for two sledges. 

Riding back was even slower than it had been before, with sledges overloaded and runners digging into the snow behind the horses.  Bjalfi rode with one arm around Loki’s waist, holding him in his seat so he did not have to struggle to keep his own balance.  Every step the horse took sent another shockwave straight through his skull, and twice he vomited bile over the side into the snow.  Behind him, Bjalfi offered weak assurances, but Loki could barely comprehend the words as he heard them.  He was weak and broken, and he should not have left Asgard.

As they neared the village, Bjalfi carefully pulled Loki’s hood over his face, catching his horns and causing him to wretch again.  Every pull of the fabric sent a line straight down his spine to his gut.  If this was what it was to be truly Jötunn, Loki didn’t want it.

They brought the horses into the barn, and while Hrapp quickly unhitched the sledges, Bjalfi coaxed Loki down from the horse.  He was able to walk, just barely, back to the house but collapsed against the wall as soon as he was through the door.  He brought his knees up, holding his legs tight against his stomach as he tried to do anything other than wretch or pass out.

“Put this up high,” Bjalfi said lowly, passing something off to his wife.  Then, he spoke more loudly.  “Boys.  Go unload the sledges.  We’re going back out to retrieve the rest.”

Ozur and Sigtrygg both got up with a loud grumble and followed Bjalfi back outside.  A moment later, Loki looked up to see Vigdís, Bjalfi’s daughter, inching closer to him.

“Leave him be,” Gudrun warned.

“He’s hurt,” Vigdís said.

“That’s why you should leave him be.”

The girl backed off, not looking away from Loki as she walked back to sit by the fire.  Still struggling to breathe without pain, Loki snapped his fingers a few times.  Fenrir quickly responded, getting up and moving to lie in front of Loki.  Loki leaned against him, resting his body against his side for any sensation other than never ending pain.

***

Loki woke in his bed, with Fenrir on the ground by his side.  He found himself naked to the waist, his tunic previously covered in blood and vomit nowhere to be seen.  Next to his bag were his bow and quiver full of arrows, along with the rolled caribou pelt and the antlers, all neatly stacked in his corner.  He slowly got up, stiff and sore with little flashes of pain still erupting behind his eyes, and looked toward the sky.  He was here.  He was still breathing.

He tried to pull a fresh tunic from his bag, but bending to open it sent a new wave of nausea through him.  Something was wrong.  The pain was different somehow, as if radiating out from his head.  It had got into his mouth as well, though the cause was apparent once he’d noticed it.  One of his teeth on the left had cracked and broken in half, leaving a jagged edge that didn’t want to be touched.

It would be warm enough by the fire.  He didn’t need to get dressed, he decided.  He just needed to get out of bed.  Though he wasn’t particularly fond of cold dirt beneath his bare feet Loki kept his boots off as well, unsure he’d be able to stand again if he sat to put them on.

He walked out to the fire, finding the house far more quiet than usual.  The three children all sat up at the table, while an unfamiliar woman tended the fire.  She was much younger than either Gudrun or Oddbjorg, likely closer to Loki’s age.  He watched her for a long moment, before looking around the house again.

“What’s going on?” Loki asked.

The woman looked up, not quick enough to hide her apparent surprise at seeing him.  “There was trouble in the village,” she said, her gaze flicking from his horns, then to his bare chest.  “They went to assist, and asked me to stay with you and the children.  I am Angrboða”

Loki nodded.  “How long?” he asked.

“Last week,” she said.

Loki was surprised to have slept for so long.  He did not remember anything about moving from where he had collapsed on the floor, but this fall had been worse than the last by far.  Last time, his skull was not already tearing itself apart and putting itself back together.  Last time, he did not have horns that cut into the ground to abruptly stop his fall.

He nodded again and turned to find his cloak.  In the apparent week he had been unconscious, his horns had grown longer, making it difficult to settle his hood without bringing another wave of pain.  He took Fenrir out to the paddock, lingering outside far longer than either of them needed.  The cold air was calming on his skin, but did nothing for the sour feeling in his stomach.  He realised he needed to eat something, and finally turned back toward the house.  On his way he looked out across the village, its houses scattered as they fit next to one another.  Nothing seemed out of place from the paths, but he hadn’t had the opportunity or nerve to go exploring to know what trouble he should be looking for.  Once back inside, he carefully removed his cloak, excruciatingly aware of everything near his horns.

“Come,” said the new woman, inviting him to the fire.  “You should eat.”

Loki hung his cloak on a post and stepped close to the fire, sitting on the ground.  “Where’s my weapon?” he asked.

For a moment Angrboða seemed not to know what he meant.  Then, she quickly nodded.  “I believe it was put in the rafters.  Bjalfi was afraid the children would find it.”

Loki nodded in turn.  “Wise,” he said.

He watched Angrboða fill a bowl from the cauldron above the fire.  

“You are from Utgard?” she asked, handing him the bowl.

Loki shook his head, too tired to do anything but hold the bowl in his hands.  “No.  Just a traveller.”

He ignored the way she looked at him.  It was the same way everyone else in the house had looked at him, with deep suspicion laced with concern.  

He used his fingers to pluck a piece of meat from the bowl.  Even as he chewed it, he didn’t know what it was, and didn’t particularly care.  It was food in his belly for the first time in a week.  As he ate, Angrboða slipped down from the bench she sat on to get closer to Loki’s level.  Even on the floor next to him, she was still taller than him, with his head barely reaching her shoulder.  She leaned close to him, letting him eat while she inspected his horns.

“The break is healing,” she said.  “You are lucky it was only a crack, and it did not break off completely.”

Loki looked up at her.  “Break?” he asked.  He brought his fingers up to one of his horns, repulsed by the smallest whisper of his own touch.  “Fantastic.”

“You are young,” she said.  “It will heal quickly.”

Loki snorted quietly.  “Maybe not that young.”

“And every boy says that when their horns cut,” Angrboða said.  She leaned back against the bench, giving him space to eat, while staying down closer to his level.

“I was born before the war,” Loki told her.  

Angrboða frowned.  “The war was twenty years ago,” she said.  She looked him over again, more critically this time.  “You’re about five years late to be cutting your horns.”

Loki shrugged.  It was one more question he’d have answered once he found Gram, though also one question finally answered.  He had learned to fairly accurately guess the differences in time before Asgard and Midgard, but knew only that Jötunheimr moved more slowly.  Asgard marked time only by Asgard’s calendar, and expected the other realms to do the heavy lifting in keeping track of the difference.  And Loki had been foolish enough to not even think to question it until finding himself snowed under in Jötunheimr.

“I am on a journey, and was caught unaware by the storms,” he said.  “I had not realised it was so late in the season when I embarked.”

She continued to look at him, studying him under the flickering light of the fire.  Her eyes fell once more to the scars on his chest.  “What happened to you?” she asked.

Loki looked down, frowning casually at the mess of raised lines and mangled flesh.  “Polar bear,” he said, motioning vaguely to the claw marks.  “The weapon in the rafter shoots hot iron.  I had a bad couple of encounters with others with similar weapons.”  He gestured vaguely to the still-healing mess on his shoulder.  The mark left by the Tesseract weapon.  “This was something I’ve never seen before.  Something of immense magical power.”

He watched her expression change from concern to confusion as he explained.  He could see her reforming opinions and ideas, the same way the others had when Loki failed to make sense.  She looked to his horns again, something critical to her gaze just as Gudrun had been when Loki had first arrived.  Something about his horns told them something, and he did not know what.  Then, Angrboða took one of Loki’s hands in hers, turning it over to inspect it carefully.  He had not had the chance to trim his nails since arriving on Jötunheimr, but they were not weathered and worn like hers either.  Her palms were rough on his, calloused and used from a short lifetime of hard work.

“You have never done a day’s labour in your life,” she said, looking him straight in the eye.

Loki took his hand back.  She seemed surprised by this revelation, as though even in Utgard such things were unheard of.

“That’s not strictly true,” Loki said.  He’d had enough days of punishment mucking the stables to qualify, but she was also not wrong.  Even Loki could admit he had lived a very privileged life.

“Tell me, wanderer Loki,” Angrboða said lowly.  “Who are you really?”

Again, Loki shook his head.  He smiled at her, tired and lazy and almost genuine.  “No one of consequence,” he said.  “Just a humble traveller on a simple quest.”

Angrboða did not accept his response, but he would not give her a single word more on the matter.

« || »

Second Rite #6: Dangerous Skills

The wind kicked up over the tundra with a banshee wail.  Loki had experienced hard winters on both Asgard and Midgard, but Jötunheimr was coming into spring, and already presented him with a dire outlook.  Fenrir trudged on ahead, cutting a path in the snow for Loki to follow, and even he seemed to struggle against the weather.  The sky above became difficult to see from snow kicked up from the ground and whipped around by the wind, and Loki was no longer certain he was even heading in the right direction.

Loki very rarely experienced true cold.  Even in his true form, in a body that was adapted to it, he hated every moment of it as he trudged across a barren landscape.  He could hardly think at all through the mind-numbing chill that cut straight to the bone.  Even wearing one of the furs he had packed, and his hood pulled low over his face, the cold was becoming too much.

Then, Fenrir bound ahead into the storm.  He was not a dog, and therefore did not bark, but he made a sound like he was trying to.  A ridiculous braying that carried across the tundra like an otherworldly beast.

“No!” Loki shouted after him, running as hard as he could against the snow.

Then he heard it.  Beyond the wind and Fenrir’s mad noises, Loki heard people.  Men shouting in the distance, while Fenrir bound toward them.

“No!” he shouted again, stepping through the shadows blanketing the tundra.  

He caught up to Fenrir and locked his arms around the wolf’s neck as two Jötunn men rushed forward with enormous hatchets drawn.  Unlike the warriors and guards that still patrolled Utgard, the men wore heavy furs and hide boots, covered from neck to toe against the cold weather.

“Don’t touch him!” Loki said, putting himself between the Jötuns and Fenrir.

The man in the lead stopped and turned to the one behind.  “There’s a child out here!” he shouted.

Before Loki could object, the man bent toward him.  Realising he was about to be picked up like a toddler, Loki took a step back, pulling Fenrir with him.

“Do not,” he said.

Standing tall again, the man looked out over the tundra beyond where Loki had come from.  “Are you with anyone?” he asked.

Loki shook his head.  “No,” he said.

The man nodded.  “Come.  Quickly, out of the storm.”

Loki followed him, keeping a tight hold on Fenrir with one hand, while the other cradled the front of his cloak where Ikol slept.  The walk back to the village was a short one.  He realised Fenrir must have smelled something ahead and ran off like the damn fool he was.  The men led Loki to a turf house where inside they were met by a chorus of alarmed cries from the family within.  Apparently even on Jötunheimr, keeping wolves as pets wasn’t exactly welcome.

Those inside were dressed similarly to the men who had found Loki, in heavy wool and hide.  Inside, the house was warm, but in a way that suggested the air would quickly cool as Loki warmed up from being out in the snow.

“Go lie down,” Loki told Fenrir.

He let go, allowing Fenrir to find a spot away from the fire pit in the middle of the room.  He lay beneath a tall loom against the wall, keeping watch on Loki, while all eyes were on Fenrir.  A small child, not much shorter than Loki got up to approach Fenrir, but was pulled back by his mother.

“Thank you,” said Loki as he moved into the house and away from the cold.  “The storm caught us off-guard.”

“They do that this time of year,” the man who had led him to the village said.

Loki reached into his cloak to check on Ikol.  The magpie had curled up small inside the deep pocket, and took some rousing to coax out.  As Loki brought Ikol out to the warmth by the fire, he too was met by small, startled gasps.

“Is that your pet?” one of the women asked.

“Yes,” Loki said, trying to find a suitable place for the bird to perch.  “He’s a magpie.”

Ikol had other ideas, and flew over to nest in Fenrir’s dense fur.  With that problem solved, Loki began to slowly get himself settled.  He found an empty spot against the wall to place his bag.  He could feel the sharp eyes from his observers on him, but he ignored it.  He took off his fur pelt, making sure it was neatly rolled and tucked away safely before pulling his hood down.

For the third time, he was met with surprise.  Loki looked around the room, at every one of the Jötuns who stared at him like he was something unheard of.  Feeling very much on display, he folded his cloak slowly and put it with the rest of his gear.  In Utgard, Odin’s Jötunn son was widely recognised as a halfbreed, which Loki had always chalked up to insult over his Æsir disguise.  But now, with blue skin that was too dark and horns too short yet to begin to curve, these people looked at him like they had never seen such a creature in his life.

Just one more thing in a long line that didn’t make sense.

“You came from Utgard?” the first man asked.

He motioned for Loki to sit near the fire, an offer which was gratefully accepted.  Loki sat first on one of the long benches, but found it immediately uncomfortable with the way his feet dangled and did not touch the floor.

“From that direction, but not from Utgard,” said Loki.  He shifted, and then gave up and moved down to the floor, trying to find a good balance between getting warm and not getting burnt.

“Well,” said the man, sitting near the fire as well.  “I’m Bjalfi.  This is my home.  My brother, Hrapp.  You’re welcome to stay here until it’s safe to leave.”

Loki nodded.  “Thank you,” he said.  “I’m looking for my namesake.  A man named Loki.”

Bjalfi shook his head.  “Don’t know him.”  

He was obvious in the way he studied Loki, looking for any clues about who, or what he was.

“Is there anyone out there who might be looking for you?” Bjalfi asked.

Loki shook his head, focused instead on looking around the house.  Its stone walls supported a peaked pole frame to the roof, with heavy turf piled on top.  A hole above the fire in the roof let occasional flurries of snow through, which swirled and melted in the updraft from the fire.

“No,” he said.  “Just me.”

As they spoke, the child had inched his way back over to Fenrir.  Fenrir wuff’ed lowly, drawing attention back to him.

“Ozur!” the boy’s mother shouted.

Fenrir jumped, sending Ikol into a fluttering frenzy through the house.

“He’s fine,” Loki said, rising quickly to fetch his bird.  “He’s harmless.”

Convincing the boy’s parents of this was second to retrieving Ikol and making sure he didn’t hurt himself or get out of the hole in the roof.  Loki calmly walked across the house toward the direction Ikol had fled, finding him perched up high in the rafters, squawking angrily at everything.

“Yes, I know,” Loki said, holding his hand up to the irritated bird.  “It was all terribly upsetting.  Now come on.”

After a few more angry squawks, Ikol flew down to perch on his hand.  Loki stroked him on his head as he walked him back to the fire.  As Loki sat, Ikol moved up to his shoulder and stayed where he could watch everything more closely.

Ozur, the boy, was still on the floor, a cautious distance from Fenrir.  With the excitement over, Fenrir stretched out, trying to sniff the boy without getting up.

“You can pet,” Loki said.  “He’s harmless.  He won’t bite.”

The boy reached out again and ran the tips of his fingers over the crest of Fenrir’s head.  And then again, gaining a little more confidence.

“I don’t know if I’d call those beasts harmless,” Hrapp said, speaking finally.

Loki couldn’t help but laugh.  “A sentiment my father shares,” he said.  “I’ve had him since I was a boy.  Hand-reared him, from a pup.”

“Since you were a boy?” Bjalfi asked.  “And what are you now?”

Loki looked up at him.  He was enormous, almost ten feet tall before his horns.  Perhaps closer to twelve with them.  

“Older than I may appear,” Loki said, trying to decipher the creeping feeling that built up within him.

He watched the growing unease that filtered through the entire extended family.  Both men, their wives, and their combined three children all turned their gaze back to him.  He was smaller than all but their youngest child, too short, too slim, and too dark.  Even in the low light of the fire and their few lanterns, Loki could see that.  Most Jötunn half breeds were fairer of skin, often enough to pass as Æsir without magic.  He had never seen himself in his true form compared so closely to other Jötnar, but he had always known his skin was darker than it should have been.

And they saw it too.  He could see that written plainly on their faces.

“So what are you doing out here?” Bjalfi asked.  “It’s a bad time of year to travel.  The southern seas are warming, bringing storms until the sun returns.”

“As I said, I’m looking for my namesake.  Or more likely, something he left behind before his death,” Loki said.

He realised he knew little of Jötunheimr’s seasons, having spent the sum total of his time on the realm in brothels and mead halls.  Travelling the realm had never been on his task list until now.

“Do you know where you’re going?” Bjalfi asked.

Loki shook his head.  “Not at all.  My plan was to hire a guide, but it seems my timing was poor.”

“Hire a guide?” Bjalfi asked.  It seemed everything Loki said made him all the more suspicious.  

“Yes,” said Loki.  “I assume silver still spends on this side of Utgard?”

“You have silver?” Bjalfi asked.  

He was testing Loki at this point.  And Loki was curious enough to let him.

“Enough for a guide,” he said.  He had far more than just enough to pay for a guide, but they didn’t need to know that.

He watched Bjalfi struggle with this, turning something over in his head.  “A, uh.  Man of your stature might not be wise to go around announcing such things,” he said.

Loki shrugged, lazy and careless.  If Bjalfi was testing him, Loki could test back.  “I think I can mange.”

As the rough tension hung over the house, one of the women stood.  “Let’s put the children to bed,” she said to the other.  

Together, the two women wrangled up the children and ushered them to a partitioned area toward the far end of the house, leaving the men to continue their talk.  Loki watched them go, ready to call his knives should he need them.  After a long moment of silence, Bjalfi moved closer to Loki.

“I will hide you, but if you put my family in danger, that offer will be revoked,” he said, his voice a low rumble that Loki could feel on his skin.

Loki nodded, not sure what he meant, and not wanting to question it.  “Thank you,” he said.  He looked between Bjalfi and Hrapp, able to see the apprehension they held with their entire bodies.  With the women and children gone, they showed it more readily.

“While we’re being honest, it’s not just my namesake I seek,” Loki said, turning his attention back to Ikol on his shoulder.  “The man was executed before I was born.  It’s not him I care about, but something he left behind.  A sword.  I intend to return it to my father.”

“Executed?” Hrapp asked.

Loki shrugged with the shoulder Ikol wasn’t perched on.  “My father knew him; not I.  All I know of him is that he was a menace called Loki, and he had more enemies than friends.”

The two Jötuns looked at one another, and in the low, flickering light, Loki could see Hrapp just barely shake his head.

“You do know him?” Loki asked.

Hrapp looked at his brother, and then to Loki.  “Of him, perhaps.  Though I could not say much.”

“Then say what you can.”  Loki watched them, their expressions quickly dancing between apprehension and confusion.  Something about Loki was wrong.  Something he couldn’t outright ask without putting himself in any more danger than he was apparently already in.

He coaxed Ikol into his hand, stroking his neck and breast with his fingers.

“There was one,” Hrapp said finally.  “A sorcerer, executed when I was a boy.  I don’t know of anything he left behind, though.”

Loki nodded.  Hrapp’s man sounded like the one he was after.

“I assure you, I bring no danger to you or your children,” Loki said.  “I seek only his sword, and nothing more.”

Bjalfi nodded slowly.  He didn’t believe Loki, but for some reason refused to call him out.  Loki did not understand.

“Very well,” Bjalfi said.  “As before, I will hide you, and you can stay until it is safe to leave.  But I will not protect you.”

“Understood,” Loki said.

He didn’t.  Not for a single moment did he understand what Bjalfi was talking about, but asking seemed dangerous.

Bjalfi studied him for a long moment more before nodding.  “You’re probably exhausted and in pain.  Come.  Rest.”

Loki nodded.  “Thank you,” he said, following Bjalfi as he got up.  As they walked in the direction the rest had gone earlier, Loki looked around for a safe place for Ikol.

“You will have to behave for me and stay put,” Loki said.  He released the bird up into the rafters, hoping he had not made a mistake in bringing him with.

“How have you trained it like that?” Bjalfi asked.  

He took Loki into a bedcloset, blocked off only by hanging furs.  There were three beds, though one had been left empty for Loki.  In the other two, the children lay with their mothers, talking quietly.

Loki huffed lowly.  “Quite a lot of hard work.  Fenrir will do anything I tell him, and nothing I don’t.”

Bjalfi motioned to the empty bed.  “You can stay here.  We’ll make better arrangements tomorrow,” he said.

“Thank you,” Loki said again.  

He pulled himself up to sit on the edge of the high bed and pulled off his boots, glad to have them off.  Moving entirely without thinking, he pulled off his tunic as well, still getting used to the careful way he had to move it and his head to keep the fabric from pulling on his horns.  When he looked back up, he was met with a stunned look across Bjalfi’s face.  It took but a moment to see where the man was looking.  Loki was a mess.  It wasn’t just the fading polar bear scars, or the sundry wounds and injuries from the war.  Or even the still-healing gash on his shoulder, raised and angry and refusing to fully knit together.  But a combination of all of them, telling a story youthful folly and poor choices all at once.

“I’m rather clumsy,” Loki said.

“I see that,” said Bjalfi, nodding slowly.

As Loki climbed into bed, he whistled as quietly as he could manage.  A moment later, Fenrir trotted into the room and leapt up into the bed with him.  His appearance drew more startled noises from Bjalfi and the women, while the children all laughed.

“Those things are not pets,” Bjalfi said, turning to take off his own boots.

Loki ignored him, settling in to find a way to feel safe without Fenrir bumping into his face and keeping him awake.  Ordinarily, Fenrir would sleep sprawled out on top of him like a living blanket, but Loki didn’t dare.  Finally, he rolled over onto his stomach, finding a position that kept his his horns from getting knocked into.  Fenrir settled on top of him, a familiar weight in a wholly unfamiliar land.  Once he was settled, it took no time at all from the day’s excitement and travels to catch up with him.

When Loki woke, he knew not what time of day it was.  It was a confusion he was slowly getting used to, though waking in a strange house in a realm where he had never spent more than a few hours at a time heightened the confusion.  He could hear the wind still howling through the walls, occasionally rocking the timber frame of the roof above.  Careful not to pull on his horns, Loki managed to struggle his way from underneath Fenrir and slipped out of the bed.  Casting his gaze up, Loki looked not toward the roof above, but toward the sky beyond.  It was a simple message to Heimdall.  He was here.  All was well.

Then, he cloaked himself and picked up his tunic from where it hung from the bedpost.  Loki had not missed Bjalfi’s expression when he saw the scars that littered Loki’s body.  Even to the Jötun’s eye, Loki was wrong there too.  He was not so far from Utgard that a halfbreed should have been such an extreme concept, but there was something about Loki that definitely put them all at unease.  Then he noticed his tunic.  He had not changed to an old one before he left.  While this one was not exactly formal or particularly elaborate, it was one of his newer ones, with intricate hems and embroidered knotwork around the collar and cuffs.  He should have changed, but it was too late now.  It had already been seen.  He had made the same mistake with his breeches, he realised.  New leather, with woven straps halfway down from his knee.  While nothing overly fancy, it was still the sort of thing he wore to mead halls as Odin’s irritatingly untouchable foundling, in Jötunheimr to raise mischief.  He had not for a moment considered what it would look like outside of Utgard.

Once dressed, Loki walked back out to the main part of the house.  While the children and one of the mothers sat at a table on the far end, the second woman was on a bench by the fire.  Loki joined her, choosing to sit on the floor instead.  Everything in and about the house made him feel like a child.  He should have been three feet taller, but instead he was small and scrawny, and everything just a little too big to be comfortable.

The Jötunn woman wore a heavy wool apron over a plain dress, with its pockets stuffed full of the tools she needed throughout the day.  On her fingers, she wore a small assortment of rings, and on her wrists she wore bracelets; some woven, some metal bands or chains.  Her dark hair had been braided and tied back, revealing the many piercings in both of her ears.  

“So what do I call you?” Loki asked.

The woman looked down at him.  “Gudrun,” she said.  “Bjalfi is my husband.  Ozur and Vigdís our children.”

Loki nodded.  “You have a fine home,” he said.

“Thank you,” Gudrun said.  She sat stiffly, casting her gaze between the fire and Loki.  Then, suddenly, she turned to him.  “I don’t suppose you’ve been seen to.”

“Excuse me?” Loki asked.

She leaned close to him, tilting his face to see him by the light of the fire.  Loki let her, not wanting to cause any more strife by resisting.  After a moment, she frowned.  

“You were cut,” she said.  “And very early.”

“How can you tell?” Loki asked.

“The marks,” Gudrun said.  “They’ve healed beyond where the skin is broken.”

Loki shrugged.  He didn’t particularly care either way, if it meant he was no longer in constant agony.  He let Gudrun look at him, tilting his face toward the fire to cast more light where she wanted it.

“It’s healed well.  Very clean,” she said as she let him go.  Somehow, she seemed almost surprised.  “Are you in pain?”

Loki shook his head.  “Only when I forget about it and knock them into something.”

He couldn’t find a lie to stick to, and didn’t dare try to probe.  His presence terrified these people, and yet they’d welcomed him into their house.  Whatever they thought he was, he knew only that it was bad news.  And he couldn’t exactly tell them the truth, as it would only be a matter of time before anyone important found out where he was.  The best course of action was to neither confirm nor deny anything until he had more information to work on.

Loki watched Gudrun settle back into her seat, wanting to ask her a million questions, but not knowing where to start.

“How long should it hurt?” he asked finally.

Gudrun faced him, studying him for a long moment.  “Usually, they grow quickly for the first two or three years.  When the tips turn black, they slow and the bone settles.”

Loki winced, wishing he hadn’t asked.

“But for you,” Gudrun said.  “I cannot say.  Maybe more, maybe less.”

Eir had known nothing, and now Gudrun didn’t either.  It begged a whole other question.

“You don’t see many others like me, do you?” Loki asked.

Gudrun shook her head.  “No,” she said plainly. “I have seen a few, but even they were not like you.”

There was something almost accusatory to the way she spoke.  Then she reached out again, this time to pull his mouth open.  Loki put up with the rest, but he pulled himself away, not liking being inspected like a workhorse.

“What was done with your teeth?” she asked, taking her hand away.

“I had them filed,” he said.  

He hadn’t thought about his teeth in years.  The number of people who ever saw him in his true form could almost be counted on one hand, but he hadn’t done it for them.  He’d done it because looking at himself in the mirror and seeing sharp, twisted fangs was one more in a long list of items he had grown to hate about himself as time went on.

And as soon as it was safe to do so, Loki would do the same to his horns.  If he never had to see them growing from his face again, he’d be happy.

Loki tried to read the woman’s expression, and the way she sat back away from him again.  Her concern and confusion was plain.  Every word Loki said was somehow wrong, and he did not know how to fix it.

“I do not know who you think I am,” Loki said.  “I am merely a humble traveller, on a single quest.”

“Where are you from?” she asked.

Loki shook his head.  “If I told you that, it would put your family in danger.  None have followed me, but word travels fast.”

Gudrun nodded.  That, she understood.  Loki was not so sure it was a good thing.

“I need to take my dog out,” Loki said.  “Where is a safe place to do so?”

For a moment, Gudrun seemed positively perplexed by the question.  Then, she pointed to the wall behind her.

“There is an empty paddock, that way,” she said.  

Loki nodded and stood, dressing in his cloak and furs before calling Fenrir.

***

As the storm rattled on outside, Loki sat at the table and studied maps he had hidden away.  Beside him, Ikol hopped about, pecking at this and that, and occasionally flapping off to find something else to peck at in the roof for a while.  The bench he sat on was just high enough for his feet to not touch the ground, and just low enough from the table that he had to crane to see the the detail on the parchment.  It was a sensation he tolerated in mead halls, when he was too drunk and distracted to notice, but now it was uncomfortable and almost demeaning.  His toes hadn’t struggled to touch the ground like this since he was a boy.  Between Asgard where he fit, and Midgard where he was used to nearly eating his own knees, the Jötunn house had gone to the other extreme.  

Finally he gave up and took everything to the floor by the fire.  Sitting on the floor did little to take away the feeling of being entirely too small, but at least for not belonging.  Somehow that was better than feeling like he was a child.

Odin hadn’t told him much of Old Loki, but he was able to remember enough places and names to begin to mark out a reasonable search area.  He marked everything he could remember with a charcoal pencil, making notes to himself as he recalled information, hoping to find some sort of pattern he could use later.  He hated charcoal pencils, but as one of the more durable options, they tended to be what he travelled with.  But they were a tool absolutely intended for right-handed scribes.  Even with the harder charcoal, Loki had to hold his hand at a twisted angle to keep from smudging his writing as soon as it was on the page.  And somehow it still managed to get all over his hand and smear on the parchment.

As he worked, Ozur sat down on a bench next to him and looked down at the map.

“Why do you sit on the floor like that?” Ozur asked.

Loki looked up at him, and then at his toes scraping the dirt floor.

“So my feet don’t do that,” he said, pointing.

Ozur looked down and kicked his feet out, drawing shallow marks in the cold dirt.

“How old are you?” Loki asked.

“I’m ten,” Ozur said.

Loki shook his head and huffed.  “Ten,” he repeated. 

The boy was nearly as tall as Loki, and probably heavier.  Loki had always thought he was too scrawny compared to the Æsir, but it was even more apparent next to other Jötnar.  Even the ten year old boy seemed to have a wider frame than he did.

“How old are you then?” Ozur asked.

Loki realised he did not know.  Not by Jötunheimr’s calendar.  He had never bothered to figure it out and keep track.

“I don’t know,” he said.  “I was born a few seasons before the war.”

“That was long before I was born,” Ozur said.  He looked over his shoulder toward Fenrir, where he lay beneath the loom, keeping watch over Loki and Ikol.  “Where’d you get your dog?”

Loki glanced up at Fenrir.  “He was a gift.  From my brother.”

“You have a brother?” Ozur asked.  

Loki wondered if he would ever run out of questions.

“Three of them.  All younger,” he said.

Ozur continued to kick his feet to scrape the ground.  “Are they all short like you?” he asked.

Loki laughed, almost taken off-guard by the boy’s bluntness.  “They are all the size they should be.”

“If I had a brother like you, I’d beat up anyone who was mean to him.  Do your brothers do that?” Ozur asked.

He reminded Loki of Baldur, incessantly asking inane questions with no end in sight.  The thought that Viðar had robbed the palace of the same torture stung.

“Sometimes,” he said.  “Less now than when we were boys.”

“Do you have any sisters?” Ozur asked.

Loki shook his head.  “No sisters.”

“Vigdís is my sister,” Ozur said, pointing to the only girl amongst the children.  “She wants to marry the sheep boy, but they can’t until his horns cut.”

“Who is the sheep boy?” Loki asked, glad to ask his own question for a change.

“His family raise the sheep flock.  In the winter, they have to move the sheep into their house so they don’t freeze to death,” Ozur explained.

Loki frowned.  He couldn’t imagine the filth and the stench.  “Your sister wants to spend her winters stepping in sheep shit?” he asked.

Ozur laughed.  “I think she’s crazy.”

Loki agreed with him.

He allowed Ozur to assault him with questions, until the boy got bored and went to play with Fenrir.  He was still timid around the beast, which seemed to be the story everywhere they went.  Once Loki had marked everywhere on the map he could think to mark, he rolled it back up and put it with the rest of his things.  Then he walked over to Fenrir and Ozur.

“He likes it right here,” Loki said, reaching out to scratch Fenrir near his haunch.

Fenrir rolled over, kicking his foot in the air as if to keep up with Loki’s scratching.  Ozur laughed wildly, even as he backed up to get out of the way.  Even after Loki stopped, Fenrir kept kicking for a few seconds more before slowly winding down.

“How did you do that?” Ozur asked.

Loki pointed.  “Just scratch him right here,” he said.

Ozur crawled over and furiously scratched Fenrir where Loki showed him, cackling wildly as the animal seemingly lost all control of his own leg.

“What’s his name?” Ozur asked.

“Fenrir,” Loki answered.

Ozur laughed some more.  “Why did you name him that?” he asked.

Loki stood, shaking his head.  “Because I am apparently bad at names.”

He turned to see Hrapp bending to pick his map up from the floor under a bench, where it seemed to have rolled after falling from its place on top of Loki’s pack.  Spotting his pencil on the ground as well, Loki bent to pick it up.

“Did you write all this?” Hrapp asked.

Loki looked up to see him reading this hen scratch notes he’d left himself on the unused spots on the map.

“I did,” Loki said, holding his hand out for his map.

Hrapp frowned down at it for a second more before rolling it up and handing it over.

“That’s a dangerous skill to have,” Hrapp said.

Loki frowned as he secured his map a bit better.  Nearly every man and woman on Asgard could write.  Loki was obviously missing a piece of crucial information, but revealing himself as an outsider would only call himself out.  How many halfbreed Jötuns made a habit of travelling the realms on a whim?

He rather enjoyed breathing, so he only shrugged.

“Come,” Hrapp said, leading Loki back toward the end of the house.  “Let us find a space for you and your… dog.”

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Second Rite #5: Keys

Loki lay in bed with his back to the door, fairly certain he was going to die before this ordeal was over. It was bad enough that his skull was literally splitting itself apart, but the pain had also turned his stomach into a sour pit. Every light, every sound, every sensation hurt so badly it made him nearly vomit. For two days, his mouth was full of a wet, metallic taste that lingered without ever actualising that which it heralded. Whether he was feverish, or only felt like he should be, Loki didn’t know.

The lights in the hall had all been put out except for a few torches near the door. Even those were too bright, so he had stayed curled up on his side, barely moving for days. He couldn’t eat, he couldn’t sleep. He knew not what day it was, or even how many had passed since he went to bed and found himself unable to get back up.

As the door opened behind him, he flinched at the sound. The little bit of light that filtered in from the corridor bounced off the wall at the back of the hall, sending daggers straight into his eyes. He squeezed his head with both hands, which didn’t exactly help, but hurt in a different way that was almost distracting.

At least the guards had stopped announcing every visitor.

“Loki,” Sif said cautiously as she stepped into the hall. Her voice cut through the air like hot iron, and then through Loki’s skull like a hot brick.

“No,” Loki said. Even speaking hurt. His own voice bounced around in his skull long after he stopped speaking.

“I’ve brought your,” Sif paused, and took another cautious step forward, “item back.”

Loki could not remember what item Sif would need to be bringing back. It clearly had not been important.

“Leave it and go,” he said. He exhaled slowly, metering his breath to fight back against the rising turmoil in his stomach.

He could hear each step Sif took, unsure and awkward until she picked a direction and walked to his desk. After a moment, she turned to leave, with each footstep on the stone floor like hot nails in his ears. When the door slammed shut, he jumped, his entire body tense and refusing to relax. He clenched his jaw hard against the rising knot in his throat, knowing that if he lost this battle, he may not live to see the end of this torture.

He refused to whine, refused to cry, or do anything other than attempt to ride this hel out in stubborn silence. Slowly, he began to relax from sheer exhaustion alone. Every ounce of him hurt, as though he had been hurled into the void and torn apart fibre by fibre and put back together wrong. And with each moment, it only got worse.

How long he stayed like that, Loki did not know. He did not care either. It could have been a minute, or a year, and it would have made no difference. It was an agonising eternity either way.

Again, the door behind him opened. This time not as wide, and it did not stay open. He could hear footsteps approaching again, along with the growing light of a torch being carried across the hall. The torch was placed into a sconce on the pillar behind Loki, followed a moment later by the shifting of his bed as someone sat behind him.

“Come here,” Odin said behind him.

Loki flinched against his voice. Even when the old man tried to speak softly, he still spoke with the voice of a king.

“No,” Loki said. He would not allow himself to cry or whine about it. No matter how much he might have wanted to.

Odin did not take Loki’s no for an answer. With a hand on Loki’s shoulder, Odin pulled him onto his back. Too exhausted to fight it, Loki let himself go, keeping his hands tight over his eyes so the torch didn’t prick them with its needle light. He pulled his feet up, bending his knees bent sharply to keep some amount of pressure on his gut.

“End it and put me out of my misery already,” Loki said.

“What do you think I am here to do, boy?” Odin asked.

He pulled Loki’s hands away from his eyes, replacing with with a heavy cloth. Loki barely had time to contemplate Odin’s words before hearing the unmistakable slide of steel against leather. Loki felt Odin’s hand press down on the cloth that covered his eyes, and then a moment later his world exploded in white, hot agony. Even if Loki wanted to cry, he couldn’t. He could barely scream as a growing tightness built in his lungs. His entire body tensed as his back arched against his will as cold steel cut him to the bone. Odin’s hand moved from Loki’s eyes long enough to slap him on the jaw. Then, Loki screamed. He screamed and could not stop as the pain rose from head to toe. His hands reached out, blindly grabbing anything they could find as a second flash of agony erupted, while his feet struggled for purchase against the soft fur blanket he lay on.

If he cried through his screams, he could not tell.

Then it was gone, the pain already slowly fading. Odin kept his hand over Loki’s eyes, sitting silently by as Loki’s every last breath was pulled from his lungs. As Loki panted, struggling to regain his breath, he felt a sticky heat across his brow, soaking into the cloth Odin still held over his eyes. Now, there was a new pain as well, stinging and sharp where Odin’s blade sliced his skin and spilled his blood.

“I don’t want it,” Loki choked out. His throat was raw and his lungs burned.

“I know,” Odin said. He moved the cloth from Loki’s eyes and rest it over his brow. “Now sleep.”

He stood, taking his blade and the torch with him. At the door, Loki could hear Odin speaking quietly to the guards. As the door shut, the hall was cast back into near-darkness, with only the gentle flicker of distant torchlight to see by.

Loki pulled his knees up again. Wrecked and exhausted, he could not even roll back over onto his side. Eventually, sleep finally found him, and for the first time in days, Loki closed his eyes and felt nothing.

He didn’t know how long he had slept, but when he woke he felt sticky, scratchy, and disgusting. His head still hurt, but nowhere near the level it had been before. It was back to a manageable but constant pressure around and behind his eyes. He tried to brush his hair from his face, but as soon as his fingers touched his brow, that familiar sharp pinch deep in his skull was back. Slowly, Loki rolled out of bed and walked to the bathchamber. As he walked through the door, he licked his fingers and snapped them in the direction of a torch on the wall, bringing some light into the dark room. The hall, and all of the chambers were still otherwise dark, but that was a problem for later, when Loki was certain he wanted to actually be awake.

He turned to look into the mirror and froze. He’d known, abstractly, what to expect but seeing it with his own eyes brought the sour feeling right back. His brow and hair were caked in sweat and blood, but it was worse than that. Far worse. Just on the edge of his hair, two perfectly round blue horns, slightly darker than his skin, poked through flesh that had been sliced open with a blade, his skin still red and broken along the lines of the cuts. Loki looked away, unable to bear the sight of it.

Eir had warned him against changing his entire form, but had said nothing of his skin. Drawing the seiðr was easier, and took less energy than fully changing his form, but he had not done it since his return from Midgard. There were smaller differences between the two, though outwardly the effect was mostly the same. He had tailored both spells to match as closely as possible, but there were things the seiðr didn’t change. And when he looked back at the mirror, he still saw a disgusting, unshaven bloody mess, only now the horns stood out even more.

As much as he wanted to scream and shout to the Nine Skies above, he resisted. Instead, he walked to the hall doors and opened one just enough to speak through, standing behind it so as not to be seen by either guard.

“Send for a healer,” he said.

He did not wait for a response before closing the door again. Rather than returning to bed, Loki walked over to one of the sofas and collapsed onto it. The shock went straight through his head, and he immediately regretted it. But he was lying down again, and that was good enough. He stayed there until the hall doors opened, and light peeked in from the corridor again.

“Loki?” Eir called out from near the door.

“I’m a monster,” Loki said, grumbling into the blanket beneath his face.

“You are not.”

Eir raised the lights in the hall and approached with her basket. Loki sat up, giving her room to sit next to him, and found that he could not look her in the eye.

“But you are a mess,” she said.

She placed her basket onto the low table and rose again, disappearing somewhere behind Loki. He didn’t watch her. He kept his gaze fixed and unfocused toward the floor. His own body had cheated and betrayed him, and turned him into the monster he had put everything into not becoming.

Eir returned to his side with a wet cloth and pulled him to face her. Even then, Loki still could not look at her directly. He kept his gaze diverted, not wanting to see the disgust he expected to see on her face. She slowly cleaned Loki’s brow, though even her feather-light touch brought him to flinch and hiss at the pain. He could feel her avoiding certain spots, but he could not tell if she did so because she did not want to touch them herself, or because she was sparing him the agony.

She put the cloth into a bowl in her basket and nudged Loki by the jaw to turn his head toward her. Loki closed his eyes, and let her do whatever it was she needed to do with him.

“It will likely remain tender for some time, but it’s already healing nicely,” she said. She tapped his chin, and Loki tried not to flinch away from it. “And this was smart. I would not recommend the other thing until the pain has stopped.”

Loki could not stop the sigh that came. “First I am a prisoner in my own realm, and now in my own hall?” he asked. He knew Eir was aware of what would happen should he be seen in public as he was.

“I have not treated many Jötunn boys capable of shapeshifting, much less those with Jötunn fathers. I do not know what damage such magic would cause, and do not wish to experiment now,” Eir said.

Loki opened his eyes only to immediately look away. He started to speak, to argue the situation, but the words fell like ash on his tongue. What argument could he possibly make? Eir could no more magic this disfigurement away than he could. He shook his head. He wanted to scream.

Would it have been so awful to have just been like everyone else, and not this hideous misshapen thing? He was a prisoner not only in his own home, but within his own treacherous body. He had finally tailored the perfect vessel for himself, only to be forbidden from using it.

“You will want to rest more,” Eir said. “And if you are feeling well enough, eat.”

“Very well,” Loki said.

Eir got up to gather her basket, while Loki turned his gaze away again. He did not watch her leave, and stayed where he was, silent and wanting to be ill, for a long time after. When he finally stood to return to bed, a parcel on his desk caught his eye. Loki picked it up and carefully opened the parchment-wrapped bundle, finding a blue and gold gown folded neatly inside. He had not remembered Sif returning it, though he hadn’t remembered much of anything at all when he tried to.

Eir was right though. All he wanted to do was sleep. While he was awake, the pressure in his skull came and went, ebbing and flowing like the tide, but never vanished. Fenrir came and went, but Loki would not let him into the bed, even if the animal wanted to climb up with him. Loki had never denied the animal’s size, and in many ways Fenrir justified the enormous bed that was made for someone else. Loki did not want those big paws or clumsy tail anywhere near his face. It was difficult enough to even dress without the loose fabric of a tunic catching on something Loki tried to ignore, pulling hard and reminding him all over again.

On days when he had more energy, Loki spied on the rest of the palace from his bed. He listened, and trespassed to places he should not be. All of Asgard was in unrest. Odin and Iri fought back and forth, in between Odin’s repeated trips back to Sutur’s fiery palace. And Iri was entirely too smug about it all.

Smug because the deflection with Sif had gone completely haywire. His ploy to insulate her from accusations had worked, but he found himself insulated as well. Two days after Sigyn found her husband dead, the prime suspect was taken mysteriously ill. Loki had not been seen in weeks, and he learned some doubted he even still lived. Now talk was of a botched assassination, with Theoric an unintended victim. And there was not a soul in Asgard who did not have reason to want Loki dead. Yet, no bounty had been collected. Had the attempt been made for that the assailant would need to produce a body. Which clearly had not been done. Iri wanted a body, and now his argument had shifted to Odin drawing the realms closer to war by refusing to provide one.

Loki permitted no visitors, outside of Odin and Eir. He could not even bear to think of Frigga seeing him as he was. For years, he had expected this, and yet it never came. Until it did, almost ten years late, like some cruel game of fate. Loki knew if he could not stand to see himself like this, it would surely break his mother’s heart.

There were other half-breed boys on Asgard. Boys with Æsir fathers and Jötunn mothers. Many within Odin’s army had Jötunn war brides, and Loki could not recall any of their sons growing horns and becoming hideous beasts. But their children also tended to be much fairer of skin, like their fathers. Even Odin himself had Jötunn blood, but none would know it from sight. Loki alone stood out in the realm, and he always would. He did not belong on Asgard any more than a horse belonged at banquet.

Nor could he return to Midgard looking as he did. Midgard was only suitable because he had learned to blend in. He could play a role and copy their speech, and pass unnoticed for months before being forced to return. But Midgard was still a deeply superstitious realm. He could not return as he was without being chased off by angry mobs with pitchforks. He wondered if he could ever return again, or if the realm would be one more thing lost to him forever.

That thought was more than Loki could bear. If through no fault of his own he had that taken away forever, Loki thought he might just hurl himself into the void and be done. Relentless pain mixed with a new rage built up in him. He tried to ignore it. Tried to push it down and focus on other things, but it ate at him. It burned him from the inside out, until it consumed him.

For the first time in weeks, Loki dared to look at himself in the mirror. The horns had grown considerably since they’d first appeared. He dared to reach up and touch one, finding it hard and rough like bone. He had seen Jötunn men in Utgard, and always thought their horns looked smooth. But he had never dared get close enough to inspect anything. He’d never wanted to know. He’d belonged on Jötunheimr no more than he’d belonged on Asgard. Until now. Even as Odin’s worst-kept secret, Loki could still make people forget. He would wear his false skin, and learned to charm the Æsir he could not avoid. And those he could not charm or avoid, he simply ignored, not worthy of his time as a Son of Odin.

Loki hated what he saw in the mirror. He would not charm anyone with a face like his. Even in his Æsir skin, he was the thing of nightmares. He could not remain on Asgard.

He cleaned and groomed himself as well as he could, getting angry all over again with his hair. He had finally found a way to make it behave, and like so much else, he was stuck with the repulsive, greasy mess that came naturally. Giving up on it, he dressed, having to remind himself to move differently as he pulled the tunic over his head so his horns did not catch and pull painfully. He knew he would have problems sooner or later. Asgardian attire did not typically come with buttons down the front, and he had seen the men in Utgard. He knew his horns were likely to never stop growing, and soon they would make it impossible to dress without completing changing his entire wardrobe.

Despite the summer heat, Loki found a hooded topcoat and put it on, throwing the hood far down to almost cover his eyes. The fabric pulled painfully on his horns, and he knew it did little to hide them, but they were at least not directly visible this way. He could leave his hall, mostly hidden, and knew he would be safe.

Loki did not leave through the door. Instead, he hid himself and walked across shadows to the throne room, where he found Odin speaking quietly with one of his generals. War was looming. Loki had to leave Asgard. He waited until Odin dismissed the soldiers before walking to the throne to face his father.

“Where did you find me?” he said, terrified of the words coming out of his own mouth.

“I told you,” Odin said, stepping down from the dais. “In a temple in Utgard.”

As he neared Loki, he reached out to remove his hood, but Loki stepped back out of his reach.

“I don’t believe you,” Loki said.

“It’s the truth,” said Odin.

Loki wanted to be able to call him a liar. To shout and scream at him about it. But Odin remained as ever impossible to read.

“Mother doesn’t believe you,” Loki said. “She shared with me her secrets. Now I want to know yours.”

“I found you in a temple, alone and suffering.” Again, Odin stepped closer to Loki, and again Loki stepped away. “I have had my suspicions about your natural parents since the moment I found you, but giving voice to such things is how rumours and gossip spread.”

“I deserve to know!” Loki shouted. He didn’t care if Odin’s suspicions were true or not. It would give him something — anything — to cling to.

For a moment, Odin looked very tired. Neither said anything, while Loki stared daggers and Odin seemed not to notice.

“It was a temple I found you in,” Odin said finally. “Laufey’s.”

Loki could not tell if the rising heat he felt was horror or rage. He clenched his jaw and fists so tightly it hurt. Anything he might have wanted to say, even wordless screaming, stuck in his throat.

“It proves nothing,” Odin said. “I do not know any more than Frigga who your natural parents were. The fact that you were in the temple at all is proof that any claim to you was abandoned.”

Loki shook his head, because it was all he could do. He ignored the pain from his hood pulling on his horns, and focused only on a rising wave of betrayal that threatened to crash over him. Odin’s words boiled in his mind, making even less sense than the information Loki had before.

“As I said, it means nothing,” Odin said. “There are a thousand reasons for a child to be placed there. My presence at the temple would be expected. Any grieving Jötunn mother might have tried to spare her child by placing it there.”

Loki still did not believe the words Odin spoke. He still made no sense. His words fell on Loki light heavy weights, dragging him down with each new sentence. He shook his head again.

Frigga had told him that she did not believe his natural mother was Jötunn. Was this something more Odin knew, or was he not picking his words with care?

Loki had to know. And he would not find out like this. He looked up at his father, determined to find out with or without the old man’s help.

“Tell me where you hid the keys,” he said.

Odin nodded, and then turned to walk away. It took a moment for Loki to realise what was happening, before he quickly gave chase.

“Tell me!” Loki shouted.

He chased after Odin, following him back down to the vault. Without a word, Odin opened the doors and strode down the aisle to the back. He stopped suddenly and picked up a box from one of the plinths, and opened it.

“I was a boy when Loki told me to scatter the keys,” Odin said, pulling out a ring with five golden keys attached. “It was a ridiculous quest to expect to be honoured. By the time I was old enough to have done so, I had more pressing matters to deal with.”

Loki looked at the keys, and then at Odin. Something felt wrong, like a trap. He wanted to reach out and take them, but didn’t dare try.

“Give them to me,” he said simply.

He was surprised when Odin handed them over. “They’re yours,” he said. “I do not know what you hope to find with Gram, but I pray it brings you peace.”

Loki looked at the keys for a moment longer before snatching them away. They were heavy, like they were made from something far more than they appeared. Sparing one final glance to Odin, Loki turned and fled back through the shadows. He would do this properly. Not some half-cocked temper tantrum like last time. He returned to his hall and threw off the topcoat, letting it lay where it fell. He would not need it where he was going. Everything about it screamed Asgardian royalty.

He packed his travel bag with the plainest clothing he had, and a few furs. With the room that was left, he packed his comb and shaving kit, and a few of his favourite weapons. His knives, and his bow. His Garand and his sidearm. Throughout the war, he had constantly stashed ammunition for both into his safe hiding spaces, and now had enough to last him for years. The Garand wouldn’t fit in his bag, so he stashed it away as well, ready for when he wanted it, but safe out of the way. He thought to grab his holster for his sidearm, but it would stand out too much. So it too was stashed. He could carry his knives in his bag, and his bow and quiver at his side.

He knew nothing about Old Loki, except that he had been Loki’s own namesake, and that Loki was a Jötunn name. If Loki were hiding something important where none would find it, it would be a place few could hope to get to. If Old Loki were Jötunn, and he had enough functioning brain cells to make the same logical decision, the box itself would be on Jötunheimr.

Loki let go of his false skin, letting the seiðr drain away until a scrawny, misshapen runt of a Jötun stood in his hall. He finished dressing, pulling on heavy boots and grabbing a plain cloak just in case, and called Fenrir. He looked up at the cage hung from the rafters. He had done great work with the bird, though it had not yet been fully trained. He wondered about it; whether he should leave Ikol in someone else’s care. Instead, he opened the cage door and reached his hand inside.

“Would you like to go on a journey?” he asked.

Ikol squawked as he jumped to perch on Loki’s fingers. Loki’s cloak had deep pockets on the insides, so he settled the bird into one of them, making sure he was nestled safely for the journey. He squawked and squirmed for a few moments before finally settling down in his new home. Knowing he needed nothing more, Loki wrapped one arm around Fenrir’s neck, and took that first step.

He did not go to Utgard. He would find no answers there until he had Gram, where he would slay Laufey himself if he had to. Instead, Loki stepped out onto the tundra, where even he felt the bite of the wind on his face. Loki pulled his cloak tight and hitched his bag over his shoulder while he got a lay of the land. Jötunheimr had its own North Star, and constellations that pointed to it. Luckily, the sky was clear, and Loki was able to find his heading. With Utgard in the far distance to his east, Loki knew he would find small villages if he travelled further west. And from there, he could likely find a guide to tell him more about the realm beyond its great city. But first, he had to walk. With Fenrir at his side, Loki trudged westward through the deep snow. With no knowledge of the realm outside of Utgard, Loki had not dared to start his journey too far from the city. Unsure and unknowing what dangers would meet him should he step out blindly meant he had to do it the slow way. He might have been able to walk along the shadows with Fenrir and Ikol, but like so much else lately, this was not the time to experiment.

As he travelled, he kept his eyes skyward, wary of the giant eagles that liked to hunt anything that walked Jötunheimr’s surface. He watched the horizon for anything looming in the distance, and tried to listen through the wind for anything that did not sound friendly. He had Fenrir by his side, but he was a single wolf. There were many things within the realm that were much larger than a single wolf with lazy habits.

Occasionally, Loki checked Ikol, each time finding the bird sleeping peacefully within his cloak. He wondered if bringing Ikol along had been the best idea, but it was too late to take back now. All he could do was walk forward, keeping his heading by the stars above.

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Second Rite #4: Blood Price

Though Thor had been right, and the hall was much cooler than his chambers had been, Loki still did not feel much better for it.  Whether it was being stuck on Asgard, unable to escape a growing rumour mill, or his general recent unrest, Loki still had a near-constant buzz behind his eyes.  

With Odin back in the realm, Loki had been excused from his few duties.  It allowed him to lock himself up in his new hall, away from everyone and everything that set his teeth on edge and made his skin crawl.  Thor would still come in to bother him, and would lay in bed next to him and natter away while Loki read or pretended to sleep.  Though he found it occasionally bothersome, Loki tolerated it.  Fenrir was still too miserable to be anywhere but the cold floor, and though Thor was often a poor substitute, he was company all the same.

Ikol grew more trusting and tame, and soon Loki began to let him fly around the hall and explore.  He was learning commands, and soon Loki would be able to train him to send messages when he did not wish to face the rest of the palace.  

Ikol was nothing like Hogun’s eagles, and Loki liked that very much.

Loki was returning Ikol to his cage for the evening when the hall doors opened and Thor burst in on him.  This time, Thor was not alone.  He came with Hogun and Fandral, each holding onto a bottle of wine or mead.  Loki had not been expecting any guests, and was thus unprepared, wearing only his linen breeches and nothing else to hide his scarred, blue skin.  They’d all seen Loki as he was individually, but with all three of them, Loki felt like he’d been put on display for an audience.  He quickly finished up with Ikol’s cage and changed his skin, not having the energy to put into anything more.

“What’s this?” he asked, glaring at Thor in warning, and knowing that the warning was missed.

“Drinks,” Thor said, grinning widely.  He walked past Loki and took a heavy seat on one of the sofas near the desk.

Hogun and Fandral paused near the door to look around, both peering up into the rafters.  Little trinkets and tools he didn’t need, but didn’t want to store away forgotten had been lined on the beams above.  They came from every realm, consisting of everything from small toys to gems and stones.

“Nice place you have here, Loki,” Fandral said.

“Thor found it,” Loki said.  He didn’t know why Thor had brought them, but didn’t have the energy to kick them out either.  He sat on another sofa, stretching out to keep it all to himself.

Thor laughed as he opened his bottle of wine.  “Father was most vexed.  I do not think he approved.”

The other two walked over, taking their time to explore the books and other trinkets on the shelves.  They sat on the sofa with Thor, leaving Loki blessedly alone.

“Father has not approved of anything since we were ten.”  Loki was sure it must have been an exaggeration, but it didn’t feel like one.  Odin always seemed to be angry or irritated at something, no matter the situation.

Thor poured a cup of wine, and then reached over to offer it to Loki.  Loki only shook his head.  He wanted none of it until he knew whether the buzz behind his eyes was going to get worse or go away.

“Surely you could go elsewhere for drinks?” he asked.

“You will not go to the mead hall, so we thought to bring it to you,” said Thor.  He handed the cup to Fandral, and poured one for himself.

“Lovely,” said Loki.

He got up and walked around the sofa to the tall shelf against the wall.  If he was going to be forced into the role of host, he figured he might as well get into the role.  He thumbed through the row of records on the shelf, picking out about a dozen different ones and taking them over to the mantelpiece.  While Thor and Fandral tried to engage Hogun in conversation, Loki opened the lid on the Victrola and pulled the crank out.  As he wound it up, Fandral wandered over, watching him curiously.

“What in the Nine Skies do you have here?” he asked.

Loki pulled the stylus from the soundbox and tossed it onto the unlit hearth.  “RCA Victor Victrola oh-two,” he said, as he fit a new needle into the slot.  He glanced over at Fandral and his positively baffled expression.  “It plays music.”

Fandral frowned at the machine.  “You’re going to play us a song?”  he asked.  “With that?”

Loki pulled the first record from its sleeve and placed on the turntable.  “No, it is.  On its own.”

He swung the arm over and gently lowered it to the record.  The machine clicked just before the record started spinning, winding up to speed by the time Loki lowered the needle into place.  He walked away as a slow Billie Holliday number played from the small black box, leaving Fandral to stare at it.  

Loki walked passed the sofas, and over the chambers at the side of the hall.

“Where are you going now?” Thor called after him.

“If we’re going to be drinking, I want something more than the fairy piss you call wine,” he said.

His wine cellar held quite a bit more than wine.  He had filled it wall to wall with bottles from across the realms, shelves stacked densely with wine and mead, beer and spirits, as they’d caught his eye along his travels.  As he figured out what he wanted, Hogun and Thor both wandered in after him, standing at the door.

“When I said bring the mead hall to you, I was joking, Loki,” Thor said, walking through the narrow space between two shelves.  He looked around, slack-jawed at row after row of neatly organised shelves.  “I have not even heard of some of this stuff you have here.”

Loki snatched up a few bottles from a low shelf.  “Help yourself.  Nothing from the bottom two rows.”  He grabbed one more bottle from the low shelf and stood again.  

Thor crouched down to see the labels adorning the lower-shelf bottles.  “Have you bought every bottle of drink from Jötunheimr?” he asked.

“Working on it,” Loki said.  He had a couple bottles of Coke left, and grabbed those as well before heading back out to the hall.  

As he passed Hogun, Loki gestured for him to follow.  He grabbed a few cups from a cabinet on his way over to the sofa, and set everything out on the low table between them.

“Is this another children’s drink?” Hogun asked.

Loki uncapped a square bottle with a black label, making sure the cap did not roll away as he tossed it onto the table.  “Oh, very much not,” he said.

He filled the cup about half way with the dark whiskey, and then topped it off with Coke.  He handed the drink off to Hogun, before mixing one of his own.  He did not use the whiskey for his own drink, but a distilled Jötunn beer.  If he was going to drink, he was going to drink to get drunk.

Hogun drank his and nodded.  “This, I like,” he said.

Loki gestured toward the bottle.  “It’s all yours, my friend.”

Just as he started to settle in, the record stopped.  He was content to let it stay silent for a few minutes before getting up to change it, but Fandral apparently was not.

“Your machine’s stopped,” he said.

Sighing, Loki got up.  He showed Fandral how to change out the needle each time, and how to operate the crank when the motor lost speed, and how to hold the records without damaging them.  Fandral seemed to understand it well enough, so Loki left him in charge of it.

By that point, a few more people had wandered in.  Vali and Alv, who Loki had known since training as a boy, but also Sif and Theoric, who Thor had obviously invited to have a few friends of his own.  Loki had not seen Sif since their ill-fated trip to Jötunheimr, and was not terribly pleased to see her now.  She had said she wanted to start over, though Loki was not sure how happy he was to oblige.  Instead, he continued to ignore her, letting Thor take up all of her attention.

“By the Norns, Loki.  What the hel has happened to you?” Theoric asked by way of a greeting as he neared the gathering.

Loki looked down, realising he had not dressed in the chaos of getting barged in on.  His skin not only still showed the faint scars from nearly being killed by a polar bear, but sundry other marks from being shot, stabbed, and impaled.  Loki frowned at it and walked toward his wardrobe to find something to wear.

“War happened,” he said plainly.

He ignored the quiet mutterings behind him as he found a loose tunic to wear, and pulled it on.  Hoping to finally enjoy this party Thor had decided to throw for him, Loki sat back down next to Hogun.  But it wasn’t a party for him at all, and soon everyone had broken off into groups of two or three.  Loki preferred it that way though.  He had less to concentrate on.  Less to think about.  He could drink with Hogun and Vali, and throw Jolly Ranchers and Junior Mints at everyone else when he wanted redirect conversation.  Nobody ever seem to know quite what to do with it, which only encouraged him to hunt through his stash for other sweets to throw around.

He told stories of Midgard, and their terrible flying machines, and ships that sailed beneath the water.  The deep collar on his tunic revealed several fresh scars on his chest, and eventually questions were asked about what had caused them.

He kept his guns in one of the other chambers, along with everything else he didn’t want out on display.  Not just his Garand and M1911.  Flintlocks and revolvers, a pump-action shotgun, and a few old muskets.  Even the Luger he’d hated, entirely because it wasn’t his issued sidearm.  He brought them all out, making sure each one had been removed of its clips and magazines, and a clear chamber before handing them around.

“Terribly inhumane,” he said, releasing the clip from his pistol.  It still held a few rounds, so he slid one out and passed it around as well.  “It fires these, which break apart in the body and tear organs and bone faster than it takes to hear the shot.”

Thor took the round and looked at it with a concerned frown.  “This caused all that mess on you?” he asked.

“Probably a hundred of them, yes,” he said, handing the pistol down to Fandral.

“Loki, you bring home all these treasures and delicacies, and then you show us this?” asked Thor, passing the round over to Theoric to see.  “What transpires on Midgard?”

“The humans have the Tesseract,” Loki said.  “That’s what I was doing there.  Attempting to retrieve it before they could use it to tear Yggdrasil apart.”

The room went silent as everyone looked everywhere but at Loki.  Thor was the only exception, staring straight at him.

“Does Father know?” he asked.

Loki nodded.  “He does.  And I suspect he knew before I even returned.”

“Where is it now?” asked Thor.  “Father has not said anything about it to me.”

“Lost,” said Loki.  “To one of Midgard’s endless seas.  Forever, one hopes.”

He knew the Tesseract wouldn’t be gone forever.  The humans advanced with frightening speed, and would no doubt develop ships that could sail even to the deepest depths of Midgard.

“What did you do on your rite, Thor?” Theoric asked suddenly.

“I hunted trolls on Vanaheimr,” Thor said.  It was only a moment before several in the group stifled laughs.  “But they were big ugly ones.  Very grotesque.”

Now, those stifling laughter no longer tried to hide it.  

“I searched for Gram,” Fandral offered up.  “For a year, I searched high and low for it across many realms.”

“Did you find it?” Vali asked.

“Do you see it?” Fandral asked.

“You searched for the keys first, did you not?” asked Loki.

Fandral looked at him, eyebrows high.  “Keys?” he asked.

Loki began gathering up his weapons to return them to their place.  “There are five keys, for five locks, scattered throughout history,” he said.  “Even if you find the sword, you have to get into the box it’s in.”

Fandral looked at him for a moment longer.  “Oh, I found none of those either.  And I searched every ale house from here to Nornheimr.”

While the others laughed, Loki wondered if everyone had gone off to do what they were already doing, disappearing for a year and coming back having accomplished nothing.  He was starting to understand why Odin had declared Loki’s rite complete after barely a season.

He took everything back to the side chamber, locking it all away into the warded box where he kept his more dangerous possessions.  By the time everything was packed away and secured, conversation had shifted again to other tales of embellished exploit.

Loki switched from spirits to wine, and by the time he’d polished off an entire bottle of Jötunheimr’s finest, the buzz behind his eyes turned into a full pounding headache.  He stumbled over to his bed and collapsed onto it, slightly too tired and ill settle himself properly.  His legs hung off the edge, and he lay with his arms spread out at his sides.  While the group talked and laughed, Ikol squawked and rattled about his cage.  Loki tried to shut it all out, but he had overdone it, and there was no taking it back.

A few moments later, the bed rocked with the force of another body crashing down near him.  He turned his head, finding Fandral joining him.  Loki waited for him to say something, but instead Fandral rolled to lean off the side of the bed to tease Fenrir’s ears.  The wolf had barely moved all night, keeping sentry from the floor while their space had been invaded.

“I never did ask,” Fandral said, his voice muffled against the heavy furs beneath him.  “Where did you get this creature?”

“Thor bought him on Jötunheimr,” Loki said.  “When my father found out, he wanted him culled.”

“This sweet little pooch?” Fandral asked.  Loki could hear the slight sarcasm on the edge of his voice, but he couldn’t have been terribly afraid of Fenrir with the way he kept playing with his ears.

Fenrir had only ever hurt a single person, and it had been at Loki’s command.  Loki tried to make himself regret it, but Týr was lucky to have remained in Odin’s army after what had happened.  He was lucky Loki hadn’t demanded his execution.

Soon, the headache won out, and Loki began to doze.  He woke briefly at one point to get into a more comfortable position, and then again when someone else invaded the bed.  Without windows, there was no birdsong or shifting light to wake him in the morning.  At some point, someone had put out most of the torches that lit the hall, casting it into a permanent, dim twilight.  This was the state Loki found it in when he woke to the sound of Ikol squawking to be let out of his cage.  He found Thor snoring next to him, and Fandral sprawled out at their feet.  At some point while he slept, everyone else seemed to have left.

He woke slowly, knowing not what time of day it was.  Loki slowly climbed out of bed, his headache from the night before still throbbing behind his eyes.  Whether it was the same headache, or hangover from too much spirits and wine, Loki wasn’t sure, and didn’t particularly care.  

He moved slowly around the sofas, finding Hogun sprawled out on one of them.  At his desk, Loki picked up a piece of parchment and hastily wrote out a note for Thor, asking him to have breakfast and a report of Odin’s travels to Muspelheimr sent down.  He left the note on the bed as he passed to the bath chamber.  He felt sticky and hot from drinking on top of the headache he’d already had the night before, so he drew a cold bath for himself.  So much time on Midgard had accustomed him to showers, but such luxuries weren’t on the agenda in Asgard.

Though it didn’t help his headache any, Loki at least felt cleaner for it.  His hair was another story.  No matter what he did, the greases and oils stuck to it like glue.  Once out of the bath, Loki stood before the large mirror on the wall.  Very little about himself made sense.  It didn’t stop at the pathetic excuse for a beard that stood out even against his true skin.  It was the hair on his chest and stomach as well, and at times Loki thought even his skin was too dark.  He had only been to Utgard, but even still had never seen any Jötnar with skin quite as dark as his.  He was small, both in stature and build, too short and too scrawny even now.  He reached up to poke at the wound on his shoulder, where the Tesseract-powered weapon had pierced right through him.  It had closed, but was still far from healed.  Whether that was from the weapon, or from whatever caused him to scar so easily from bullets and and giant bears, he had no idea.

If Frigga had been right, and his mother a war bride, it only opened more questions.  The last war Jötunheimr had engaged with before Midgard was Asgard itself.  And they had lost that war as well.

Standing before the mirror, Loki changed not just his skin, but his entire form.  He still didn’t like this shift, and worried that spending so much time as a real life human while on Midgard was what had caused him to start growing a beard in the first place.  Though at the same time, he had not been convinced of this either.  But in an Æsir body — not just skin — the air felt cool on his skin.  Even in the underground hall, it could still get a little warmer than he’d liked.  It also changed his hair.  Loki ran his fingers through it, still not used to the soft texture of it in this form.  Instead of feeling heavy and sticky, his hair hung loose over his ears.  He gave in to temptation finally, and blew a puff of air on his hands.  As he ran his fingers through his hair, it grew longer until it hung around his shoulders.  It was still uneven and messy, but at least it was a length that suited him better.

Satisfied, Loki left the bath chamber to find the hall empty.  On his desk, Loki found a stack of scrolls and a tray with the same depressing breakfast of bread, cured meats, and cheese.  He could go to Midgard for something more appealing, but Loki didn’t dare so soon after Odin’s warning.  He had figured out how to get to Midgard without the Bifröst, and was surely not the only one.  It was well known he travelled there frequently, and if there were an assassin after the bounty, Midgard would be the smart place to go.

Loki pulled on a clean pair of breeches from his wardrobe and walked to his desk to eat the same boring breakfast while he caught up on the trouble with Muspelheimr.  He was halfway through the second scroll when the hall doors opened, and one of the guards stepped in.  Before he could say anything, Sif pushed past him, making quick steps toward his desk.

“Yes, Sif is here,” Loki said, clearly seeing it for himself.  “Go away.”

He wondered why they had started doing that.  He certainly had not asked them to.  After a tense moment, the guard turned and left the hall.

“And why are you here?” Loki asked as Sif neared his desk.

Sif turned her gaze to the door, and bent down close to Loki.  “Loki, Theoric is dead,” she said, her voice a harsh whisper.

“What?”  Loki stood to meet her gaze.  “How?”

“Poison,” said Sif.  She spoke quickly, barely concealing a her panic.  “And Sigyn blames last night.”

Loki understood her panic.  Though nobody had a cause to want Theoric dead, as far as he knew.  He stepped away from his desk so he could close the gap between them.  Glancing upward, he cast a spell around them, hiding both of them from not only Heimdall, but anyone who might be listening from the other side of the door.

“Last night?” he asked.  “I don’t even know what happened.”

He had fallen asleep so early after being barged in on, and still had not cleaned up the mess.  

“Nothing,” Sif said.  “We stayed until Thor stumbled to bed.  Those of us who left did so together.”

Loki threw his hands into the air and turned to walk away, but something on the table between the sofas caught his eye.  He stopped to count the empty bottles littered around the area.  Far more was out than Loki had brought out when people first arrived.

“Who went back into the wine stores?” he asked, walking around the sofa to pick up a half-drained bottle of Jötunn mead.

“I did,” Sif said, watching him.  

Loki showed her the bottle.  Sif looked at it for a long, puzzled moment before sharply turning her gaze to Loki.  She covered her mouth with both hands as Loki twisted the bottle to see the label for himself.  He’d drank wine the night before, but had finished off an entire bottle to himself.  He hadn’t come close to finishing off the spirits he’d started with, but was long in the habit of returning anything unfinished to its place to keep it out of the hands of anyone else.

“I wasn’t that drunk,” Sif said, shaking her head.

“Someone was,” Loki said.

He found a cork on the table and stuffed it into the bottle before returning it to its place on the shelf.  Loki couldn’t get drunk on the vast majority of what he kept.  He collected wines and meads from other realms to share with his friends, and kept Jötunn drink for himself and himself only.

“Loki, what do we do?” Sif asked.

He walked back into the hall, scrubbing his face with his hands.  He looked up at Sif where she paced awkwardly across a small space.  She stopped only to watch him with desperation written plainly across her face.  Before Loki had left for Midgard, she had expressed a desire to start over between the two of them.  And then he returned and immediately ended her father’s career.  But now she came to him, all but begging for help.  He thought back to what Trevor had called him; a chaos god.  Loki hadn’t understood what that had meant at the time, but he understood now.  Loki didn’t sow chaos.  He conjured it.  His very presence caused pure, directionless chaos.

“We do nothing,” Loki said.  “We are equally culpable.  It belongs to me, but you gave it to him.”

He looked at her, watching her desperation rise.

“And you already knew that,” he realised.  “That’s why you came to me, and not Thor.”

She could have easily pinned it all on Loki; claimed Loki had left it out, or even given it to him deliberately.  Instead, she warned him.  Loki stepped close to her, putting both hands on her shoulders.  She flinched under his touch, but did not move away.

“Who else have you gone to?” Loki asked.  He could feel her tensing, trying not to turn and flee.

Sif shook her head.  “No one.  I heard and came immediately here,” she said.

Loki nodded.  That was good.  “Speak nothing of this.  All here last night saw I was plainly ill and went to bed early.  If the wine was brought out by mistake, Theoric should have known better than to drink it.”  He could feel Sif trembling beneath his touch, but kept his hold on her.  “If you were drunk enough to not notice what you grabbed, and he too drunk to know better, then it is likely none will remember who fetched it at all.”

Sif nodded slowly.  With her father so recently disgraced, this would surely ruin her.  Loki knew it would be easy enough to do, but with so much else he had to deal with, he could not deal with yet another sworn enemy.

“You should not have even come here,” Loki said.  

He looked around the hall for anything he could use to deflect suspicion.  When his gaze fell on his wardrobe, he strode quickly toward it and threw it open.  Even being quite a bit bigger on the inside, it was stuffed to bursting.  He quickly searched through it before finding a gown in blue and gold.  He couldn’t remember where he’d got it, but he took it out and returned to Sif, holding it against her with a critical eye.

“This would fit you, would it not?” he asked.

Sif looked at it, then up at him.  “Perhaps,” she said.  “Why do you have it?”

Loki handed it to her.  “Because I am the sort of degenerate who would steal it from you, of course,” he said.  “You simply noticed it missing, and came to collect.”

Sif looked at the gown again, and then back up at Loki, shaking her head.  “I don’t even want to know,” she said.

“Now sell it,” Loki said.

He released his spell and stood back with his arms crossed over his chest, and the most bored expression he could conjure upon his face.  Sif looked down at the gown in her hand again, and then back to Loki once more.  For a long moment, she seemed not to understand what Loki was asking of her.  Then she looked to the doors, and realised.

“Loki, what else have you stolen?” she shouted.

The doors burst open as Loki shrugged lazily.  “You’ll have to find out for yourself,” he said.

He hadn’t expected her to reach out to strike him, but Loki caught her wrist in his hand and turned to put his back toward the guards at the door.  He held her tight, making sure she saw his eyes dart quickly toward the direction of the door, the cue hidden from the guards.  A moment later, he released her and watched as Sif ran past the guards and out of the hall.  Loki turned to them and shook his head.

“Would you two mind your own rutting business?” he asked.  “Your job is to watch my door; not meddle in my affairs.”

They both nodded, and retreated.  For a long moment, Loki stood in the middle of the hall, wondering when his security detail had increased to such an annoying level.

Loki stayed in his hall, despite his curiosity.  He’d expected for someone to officially see him about Theoric, but none did.  It would have been a perfect situation to send Ikol out to spy for him, but the bird had not been trained yet.  The bird fluttered around the rafters, while Loki occupied himself with realm politics he had fallen behind on in his months away from Asgard.  He was halfway through a dense report on Vanaheimr illegally building a separate army when his doors opened again, and Thor let himself in.

“Brother,” he said, striding across the hall toward Loki, still at his desk with pages scattered everywhere in front of him.  “You’ve heard by now, I’m sure.”

“I have indeed,” Loki said.  He dropped the scroll onto his desk and looked up.

Thor frowned.  He looked down at the reports that covered Loki’s desk, and reached out to pick one up.

“Lady Sigyn is demanding a blood price,” he said.  He glanced over the page and dropped it back down again.  “But know that we will all speak for you on this.”

Apparently it had not taken long at all for accusations to fly in his direction.  “Me?” he asked.  “And I suppose I am expected to wed her as well.”

If such were the case, he would take his chances back on Midgard, amongst the assassins and bounties.

Thor chuckled, a forced and awkward sound.  “Who would have thought you would have women lining up at your door?” he asked.

Loki stared up at him, watching Thor fade to silence.  Thor cleared his throat and stood a little more stiffly.

“Perhaps so many rumours about you would not spread if you made more appearances,” he said.  “You lock yourself up all day, and do little to silence wagging tongues.”

“And how would you suggest I do that?” Loki asked.  “Shall I complete Fandral’s quest?  Retrieve Gram and drive the blade through every person on Asgard?”

“Do not be so dramatic,” Thor said.  “You should make more appearances.  Be seen more.  It is difficult to trust a man who acts as though he does not exist.”

Loki had not eaten since his pathetic breakfast that morning, and realised his hunger may have been why he could not shake the constant pressure in his skull.  Perhaps, irritatingly, Thor was right.  What Loki needed was some fresh air and a meal.  He stood and walked toward his wardrobe, passing Thor on his way.

“That still has not healed?” Thor asked.

Loki glanced down at his shoulder, and the angry red line torn down his skin.  He had not even seen his back, but could only assume it looked worse.

“There’s little to be done, apparently.  Eir’s tried all she could.”  

He wondered how much he should tell Thor, trying to form words as he dressed.  He had not bothered to dress properly for banquet since his return, but as summer only grew hotter the thought of topcoats and leather was enough to make him ill.  Attempting to make a bit of an effort, he tied his hair back into a tail.  It was a task that had always come with a strange amount of difficulty and never looked right, but in this new form it cooperated and sat loose on the back of his neck.  He had missed his long hair, and was tempted to put it all the way back to where it had been before.  But with so many rumours already circulating unchecked, he feared it would somehow only feed more.

Loki picked up a pair of sandals and turned toward the bed.  Before he sat, he lifted his hand and called for Ikol.  The bird flew down from the rafters and perched on his fingers, squawking loudly at him.

“You’re not taking him with you, are you?” Thor asked.

Loki shook his head as he took the bird to its cage.  “No, I don’t think he’s ready for the excitement yet,” he said.  “I may start taking him around the quieter halls soon.”

He returned to the bed to pull his sandals on.  Their father was no doubt pleased that Loki had found a smaller, much less obtrusive pet, which would only make Ikol all the more suited for Loki’s plans.  As dressed as he was going to get, Loki stood and called Fenrir, watching Thor shift awkwardly.

“Loki, I know you treat that thing like it is your child, but perhaps you should leave him here,” Thor said.

“He needs to be let out,” Loki said, already walking towards the doors.  “Such a large animal cannot stay penned up all the time.”

Thor followed him through the doors, and out to the dark corridor beyond the hall.  He walked stiffly beside Loki as Fenrir loped along ahead of them, taking his own path toward the grounds once they reached the stairs.  

“Where does he go?” Thor asked, turning to keep his gaze on the animal until it was out of sight.

“Out to the woods.  Usually to hunt,” Loki said.  “He prefers it to getting fed.”

“He’s going to kill someone one day,” Thor said.

Loki saw the sour look on his face.  It was the same sour look Odin wore when he lamented Fenrir’s presence in the palace.

“He has not attacked anyone I did not tell him to,” Loki said.

“So it’s true you set him on Týr?” asked Thor.

Loki turned his head to face his brother directly.  “He should count himself lucky I did not kill him.  Is that not the price one expects to pay for such theft?”

Thor did not have an answer.  He frowned even as they walked into the banquet hall.  As they found a place to sit together, Loki spotted Sif off in a corner, wearing a familiar blue and gold gown.  Though a bit long, it did indeed fit her nicely.  Loki was almost tempted to go speak with her, but decided to continue to honour their initial agreement to avoid one another whenever possible.

“Since we were speaking of my own marriage prospects, what of yours?” Loki asked, reaching for an apple from a nearby bowl.

Thor’s frown deepened.  “We have not spoken of such things since Jötunheimr,” he said.

The trip had seemed so long ago.  Loki had done so much since that disaster, that he was surprised to realise it had only been in the spring.

“Have you tried apologising?” he asked.  “I hear that tends to help.”

Thor shook his head.  “She says I do not respect her.”  He picked up half a rabbit from a nearby tray and dropped it onto a plate before him.

Loki said nothing to that, taking a bite of his apple instead, only to regret the way the crunch of it sent shocks through his entire skull.  It wasn’t difficult to agree with Sif though, when Loki had seen the whole ordeal play out before him.

“Bachelors have more fun anyway,” Loki said instead.

“Yes, you can break all the rules you like, Loki.  But a king needs an heir.”  Thor turned his frown to the rabbit and tore into it.  “I cannot just conjure one up out of thin air.”

Loki shrugged.  “Is that not precisely what Father would have done had the war ended a season earlier?” he asked.  He wondered how Odin would have hoped to explain that away.  With Thor only a few days old, he could not have hoped for a more convenient lie.

He turned his attention from Thor’s constant dour state and looked around the hall.  As he spotted Odin walking out to the terrace, Loki stood to follow after him, leaving Thor behind to contemplate his future romantic prospects.  He found Odin watching out over the kingdom beyond the palace, contemplating his own unknown mysteries.  Loki stood next to him and leaned against the balustrade to peer at the courtyard below.

“I see my son is out of his bed,” Odin said.  “And without that beast at his side.”

And there it was.  Loki ignored the snipe and took another bite of his apple.  So far, it had done nothing for his headache.  If anything, the crunch of the fruit made the pain worse with each bite.  

Loki had so many questions he wanted to ask.  Questions Frigga had planted in his mind, hinting at more half-truths that still had not come to surface.  He looked over at his father, finding himself unable to give voice to any of them.

“What know you of Sigurd’s lost sword?” he asked instead.

Odin kept his gaze fixed out on the kingdom beyond, and sighed tiredly.  “I should have known this day would come,”  he said.

Loki stood up straighter, entirely unsure what Odin meant.  “What day?”

“When I was about Baldur’s age, my blood brother asked me to build him a box,” Odin said.  “I did not know at the time what it was for, or what he intended to put in it.”

Another story about the idiot.  Loki had not known what to expect from Odin’s answer, but this was somehow even less expected.

“He told me to build him a box with five locks.  When the task was completed, he gave me a sword to place inside,” Odin continued.  “Then he told me to scatter the keys across the realms.  He took the box and hid it away, somewhere secret.  For another Loki, he said.”

“I like this man less and less, as I hear more about him,” Loki said.

“In many ways, you remind me a lot of him,” Odin said.  He finally turned to face Loki directly.  “So tell me, Loki.  Why do you seek the sword of truth?”

Loki hadn’t really considered it.  He shrugged.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “It was spoken of recently, and my one source of joy in this life has been taken from me.  Perhaps I wish to find a way to fill that void.”

He tried to read Odin’s face for anything, but as ever got nothing from the man.  It was maddening.

“I do not believe this task will fill any void, nor do I wish to see you take up such a quest when such grave dangers are already present,” said Odin.  “But I can tell you where to start, since I know nothing I say will put you off this task.”

He frowned, and reached out to run his thumb along Loki’s forehead.  His touch sent a jolt of pain through his skull, causing him to flinch back hard.

“I think perhaps you should pay Eir a visit,” Odin said.

Loki pressed his fingers into the bone above his eyes.  Slowly, the pain subsided back to the low throb it had sat at all day.  

“It’s the heat.  I’m fine,” Loki said.

“No,” said Odin.  “I don’t believe it is.”

***

Loki lay sprawled out on Eir’s sofa with both arms draped over his face, trying to listen to hi father and Eir speaking in hushed tones from across the room.  He had hoped — expected, even — that when it hadn’t happened as a boy, it never would.  But his body had found a brand new way to betray him; make him even more of a monster than he already was.  And now Eir had made him remove his disguise, putting him on display for all of her helpers and nurses to see.  Why they could not have done this in his rooms, Loki did not know.

Eir approached his side again, and when she moved his arms down to his chest, he did not fight her.

“Just leave me to die,” Loki said.

“Oh, stop that,” Eir scolded.

The draught she had given him dulled the pain, but did not numb it completely.  As she pressed her fingers into his scalp, Loki tried to just breathe.  

“You have been using different magic to conceal yourself?” Eir asked, feeling for something Loki had not known what to look for himself.

“I have,” he said.  He stared up at the ceiling, unsure if he should be sick or humiliated.  “Only recently.”

“It might be best to avoid that for a while.”  Something in the way she pressed her fingers against his scalp sent a jolt straight down Loki’s spine.

“There,” she said, moving her fingers along his hairline until she found another spot that did the same thing.  “The horns haven’t started cutting yet, but they will soon, I think.”

Loki wished he could roll over and die right there in Eir’s healing room.  “Remove them and be done with it,” he said.  

He would not — could not be the horned beast in the dungeons beneath the palace.  Loki could think of no greater insult than that.

“I do not think that is an option you wish to pursue,” said Eir, turning away to gather up something from a tray at her side.  “Such a procedure is painful and dangerous in itself.  Even if it is successful, it will cause permanent damage.”

She smeared something cool across Loki’s brow, taking great care to make sure his hair got greased up even more than usual.

“If you have any business you need to attend to, I suggest you do it quickly,” Eir said.  “I am afraid this will only get worse before it gets better.”

Loki was not going to weep.  He refused.  He would, however, pout and grumble as good as any toddler.

« || »

Second Rite #3: Summer

His bedchamber was stifling.  Even with every curtain pulled open, the stiff summer air refused to blow a breeze through the room.  Even Fenrir was miserable.  Instead of crowding Loki on the bed like usual, the wolf lay on the stone floor, legs splayed and panting.  Loki rarely wished he could swim, but melting during a hot summer afternoon was all it took to get him there.

As he lay sprawled out in bed, Loki’s thoughts wandered to freezing French pastures and galloping horses.  He remembered being overtaken by the wholly uncomfortable sensation of icy wind and biting cold as he rode with Dugan on a scouting mission.  To spare his horse extra weight, Loki had done more than change his skin; he had change his entire shape, becoming human in every possible way.  He wondered how a body that all but broke down under a light chill might react to a hot Asgardian summer.  If that body would be more adapted to it. 

Drawing the energy was difficult when he had so little to begin with, but Loki managed all the same.  He remembered as well how wrong and fragile this body felt.  Too light and ill-balanced, like moving wrong would fling him straight to the ground.  But he did feel better for it.  His skin did not itch from beneath the way it did when he only changed his appearance.  He did not feel as though he were in danger of suffocating and expiring on the spot.  Though the air was still warm, it was a different sort of warmth.  Just a little uncomfortable, but in a way he could ignore.

He also could not see.  His vision had completely blurred, throwing everything into an uncomfortable haze.  Loki got up from his bed and shuffled to his desk, careful not to trip over anything he’d left sitting about on the floor.  His spectacles he’d used as a pathetic disguise while on Midgard sat on his desk, and it was those he reached for.  As he fixed them around his ears, he understood a question that had vexed him for weeks in London.

The first time he had changed his shape in this way, he had been wearing his spectacles.  This time, he had simply reverted back to a form he already knew, and that form was broken, shaped by the very thing he hid behind in a feigned weakness.

As a real life human, Loki was blind as a bat.  And for some reason, this made him laugh like he had not laughed in months.  He laughed even past the point that anything was funny, unable to stop even as he heard the door downstairs open.  He tried to stop as Thor let himself into Loki’s bedchamber, soon worrying the heat had made him delirious.

“Loki, what’s so funny?” Thor asked, grinning oddly at him.  “And what is on your face?”

Loki shook his head and leaned against his desk, finally starting to catch his breath and regain his senses.  “It’s a long story,” he said.

“Good to see you are feeling better, then.”  Thor slapped Loki on the shoulder, and it was enough to bring him all the way back round again.  The slap itself stung his skin, an the force sent him nearly collapsing into his desk.

“Don’t do that,” Loki said, standing straight and taking a step away.  He’d known humans were fragile creatures, but he did not want to find out exactly how fragile firsthand.

“Since you are out of bed, perhaps we can go to the mead hall together,” Thor said, awkwardly crossing his arms over his chest.  No doubt to force himself into keeping his hands to himself.

“Thor, it’s hot,” Loki complained.  “I don’t want to go anywhere, except maybe to jump in a lake.”

He wondered if he would be able to learn to swim in this body, but didn’t have time to dwell on it.

“I don’t like to hear you speak as such,” Thor said, wearing a deep frown.

Loki shook his head and stepped toward one of the tall windows.  He leaned out into the air, hoping to find any breeze.  But he felt precarious an off-balance, and did not dare to lean out as far as he might have liked.  The drop to the ground below was not far, but it was far enough that it could do him real damage in this body.

“I’m fine, Thor.  Just hot,” Loki said.

He took off his spectacles and changed his shape back to his natural form.  It was not like the simple release of magic when he changed his skin.  Changing back took the same amount of energy, and in the end, he found himself just as miserable and worn down from the heat as he had before.  But he also felt more steady on his feet, and less likely to fall out the window should he turn his head the wrong way.

“Have you come back from somewhere?” Thor asked, still watching him from where he stood beside the desk.

“No, just experimenting with something,” Loki said.  He looked over at Thor, completely unbothered by the heat.  Loki had always thought Asgardian summers were unliveable, but now he wondered how much of that was Asgard, and how much was him.  He tried again, this time changing his entire body to an Asgardian form.  Like before, the air did not feel so heavy and cloying, and he felt slightly off-balance.  Muscle and bone had shifted and become less dense and differently-arranged, but it was not as bad as when he had been human.  He stretched his arms out, feeling his muscles pulling differently.  He did not feel quite the same shape on the inside, though from the outside, he saw no immediate difference.

“What are you experimenting with Loki?” Thor asked, watching him sharply from across the room.

“Something very dangerous,” Loki said.  His nails were the wrong colour.  He didn’t like it.  He blew a quick puff of air against them on both hands, bringing back their natural black colour.

Another thought struck him, and he quickly turned to walk to the mirror by his wardrobe.  As he expected, his eyes were blue and his hair blond, and that just wasn’t allowed either.  He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes for a moment, and looked back up to find them once again the vibrant green he preferred.  He blew another puff of air onto his hands before running them through his hair, darkening it.  As he ran his fingers through his hair, Loki was surprised to find it soft and dry, rather than coated in a thick layer of grease.

He had to refresh the breath on his hands two or three times before he was satisfied with the inky shade of black he wound up with in the end.  He crossed his arms over his chest and looked at himself in the mirror, rather liking what he saw.

“Huh,” he said to himself.

“What’s different?” Thor asked after a moment.  “What have you changed?”

“Everything,” Loki said.

He did not know how safe this new body would be to live in, but he had hated his hair from the moment he was old enough to understand that he had it.  It was still messy and too short to do anything with, but he seemed to have so much more without it being weighed down by his own disgusting filth.

He was going to need to play around with this some more.

“Well, you have your makeup on.  Let’s go!” Thor said.

That small satisfaction Loki had evaporated in an instant.  “I didn’t do this to go out,” he said.  “I did this because I was going to suffocate.”

Thor picked up the breeches and tunic that were draped over the back of the chair at Loki’s desk, and threw them at him.

“It will be good for you.  Come on.”  Thor grinned hopefully at him, and Loki did not have the energy to argue.

Loki dressed slowly and found a pair of sandals at the bottom of his wardrobe.  As he pulled them on, he realised his toenails were also the wrong colour, but he could not be bothered to fix them.

“You are making me do something I do not wish to do, brother,” Loki said as he stood up straight.  With a sigh, he walked toward Thor to get it over with.

“You do not get out often enough.  It will be good for you,” Thor said. 

He was careful about wrapping his arm over Loki’s shoulders, but this time they were more evenly matched.  The weight against him still felt wrong, but not like it was going to send him toppling over without warning.  He felt rather like he was being forced down the stairs, but did not argue any further.  There was no point in it.  Anything he did would only make Thor push harder.

Together, they walked down to the mead hall, finding it crowded, noisy, and chaotic.  Loki stopped at the door and shook his head.

“Thor, I don’t want to go in there,” he said.

He didn’t even know why he didn’t want to go in there.  It wasn’t like banquet, full of stuffy jarls and generals, boasting about things that probably didn’t even happen.  Loki had thought that was what bothered him about banquet, but the mead hall was so much worse.  This was the soldiers, servants, and workers, shouting and throwing things at one another.  It was the last place Loki wished to be.

“Why not?  You love this place.  Come on.”  Thor pulled Loki into the hall, dragging him through the aisle to an empty space at one of the tables.

“No, Thor,” Loki said, not sure how much he should fight back.

Thor was not wrong.  Loki did love this place.  Or at least, he used to.  Now, he found it unnerving.  The shouting and the noise melted together into a single, endless sound, making it impossible to pick out any one thing happening around him.  He sat on the bench stiffly, trying to keep space between himself and the brute next to him.  The man’s elbow kept jabbing out toward Loki, invading his space and forcing Loki to edge even closer to Thor.

Over the cacophony, something exploded.  Except it didn’t.  A tin tray, full of tin cups and bowls had been dropped, its clatter echoing across the walls.  Loki was already on his feet before he realised what it was.

“No,” he said, shaking his head.  He held his hands out toward Thor, stopping him from getting up as well, or pulling Loki back into his seat.  “Leave me alone.”

Loki turned toward the door, making a conscious effort not to run.  As soon as he was out of the crowded hall, he took a single step back to his chambers.  He couldn’t breathe.  He was nervous and practically bouncing on his feet.  He needed to get away, but didn’t want to go anywhere. 

He looked around his bedchamber for anything to distract himself, and found nothing.  There was somewhere he could go, to get away from the noise for long enough to clear his head.  Loki shook the colour out of his nails and strode to his wardrobe, digging out a new outfit.  His tunic traded for a collared shirt and a tie, breeches for slacks, and his sandals for thin socks and Oxfords.  Except he could only find one.  Rather than wasting time digging around his collection of outdated costumes for the other, Loki grabbed his army boots instead.  He pulled the laces tight and tucked them into the boots, rather than bothering tying them properly.  He wasn’t sure what time of year he’d find Midgard in, so he grabbed a jacket on the way to picking up his spectacles and wallet.  Loki hastily combed his fingers through his hair to look like he’d put some sort of effort into it, and stepped from his chambers to a damp alley.  It wasn’t quite winter in Brooklyn, but it was some sort of season close to it, so Loki put on his jacket on his way to the street.  Not enough time had passed since his last visit to have changed the realm significantly, so he turned left onto the street.  Two blocks down, the Walgreens was still standing, and open.

The damp weather and late time of day meant the usual chaos of the drugstore was at a minimum, though Loki still felt no calmer for it.  He picked up a basket from near the door and walked straight to the back toward the soda fountain.  At the end, the bright red Coca-Cola cooler sat where it always had.  Loki pulled out half a dozen bottles for his basket, arranging them so they didn’t clatter around too badly, and approached the man at the fountain.

While the man asked what he wanted, Loki studied the hand-written special board.  “Two clubs.  Wrapped if you can,” Loki said.  “Five pounds of candy.  Dealer’s choice.”

The man nodded and began to write out the receipt.  “Anything else for you, today?”

He thought about getting a cream soda, but he wanted to get back to his chambers as soon as possible.  “That should be it.  Olson.  I’ll be shopping.”

The man nodded.  “I’ll call you when you’re up, sir.”

Loki nodded and stepped away from the fountain to browse through the aisles.  Magazines, various pills and drugs, and soaps weren’t anything he needed, until he spotted the razors.  Since he was looking right at the display, he started to reach for a refill, until he saw the boxes of straight razors next to them.  The safety razor in his army kit would only last so long, he realised.  And replacing the blades could get tedious, if not outright difficult.  He figured a straight razor would last much longer and grabbed one of them, along with a few more tins of soap.

He wandered through the aisles, picking up a few more odds and ends he didn’t immediately need, but which called to him all the same.  A few new books he hadn’t read yet, new socks, and other odds and ends he worried might need replacing soon.  By the time his name was called, he had quite a bit more in his basket than he had planned for.  He took it all back to the fountain, letting the man total it all up.  The man had gone a little overboard on the candy selection, apparently giving Loki a small sample of everything the fountain had.

“That’s five-sixty-two, sir,” the man said as he arranged everything into a tall paper bag, placing two paper-wrapped parcels on top.

Loki pulled out his wallet, and pulled out six dollars.  “Keep the change,” he said, exchanging the cash for the bag.

“Thank you, sir.”

Loki nodded and quickly turned to leave.  Nothing at all had been offensive about the man, or the building, but all he wanted to do was leave.  As soon as he was out into the street, Loki found the first alley to slip into so he could return home.

He put the bag down onto the desk, removed his spectacles, and blew the colour back into his fingernails.  Then, he sat down on the low sofa against the wall and took a moment to just breathe.  He didn’t feel any better for having gone out, and almost regretted having done it.  Everything seemed to bother him, and he did not know why.

After a long moment of just breathing, Loki sat forward to pull off his boots.  He did not know what was wrong.  He still had not quite caught his breath, and his mind felt like it had been replaced with fluff.  He tossed his boots toward his wardrobe, and stood to undress again, changing back into his linen breeches.  He was hot and uncomfortable, but this time not from the summer heat.  It was a heat that seemed to radiate from his own chest.  The sensation wasn’t getting any better, so Loki began unpacking his things, laying everything out on the desk to be dealt with later. He hadn’t put much thought into the books he’d picked up, and grabbed one of them at random to take to the sofa along with his sandwiches and a few bottles of Coke.  He sprawled out along the sofa with his legs stretched in front of him.  Once settle, he opened the first sandwich in his lap, letting the paper wrapper catch as many crumbs as it could.  He ate slowly as he read a story about a man whose dog ran his entire flock of sheep off a cliff.  Like many other books of its time, the story was both frustratingly slow and vaguely feverish at the same time, which made figuring out if he actually liked it or not almost difficult.

He was interrupted by a guard letting himself into Loki’s bedchamber.  Loki glanced up at him tiredly, already losing patience with his presence.

“Hogun Bragasson requests an audience,” the guard said.

Loki hadn’t expected such a declaration, and took a moment to figure out how to respond.  “Yes, send him in,” he said.

The guard looked around the room, barely concealing a puzzled look before turning back down the corridor to the stairs.  A few moments later, Hogun walked into the room holding an item draped in a heavy, red cloth.  He stood in the doorway, looking around at the stacks of books and furs and random trinkets around the room, and the pile of shopping at the desk.  Seeing Hogun linger, Loki realised it might be time to move some of it to his hall downstairs, to be kept in perpetual storage with everything else he’d dragged home from other realms.  Loki sat up, making room on the sofa as he motioned for Hogun to enter.

“What’s this?” Loki asked.  He dog-eared his page and closed his book before setting it aside.

“A gift.”  Hogun put the parcel on the low table in front of the sofa.  “You have always been too cautious for one of your own.  Perhaps this one will be easier.”

Curiosity thoroughly piqued, Loki leaned forward and pulled the cover off of the parcel, finding a small cage, and inside, a magpie.  The bird hopped in place an croaked at the sudden intrusion.  Loki watched it as it ruffled its feathers at him, trying to take up as much of the small cage as possible.  Unlike Hogun’s screeching eagle, there was nothing about this tiny black and white ball of attitude that sent that visceral chill down Loki’s spine.  The bird was completely ridiculous.

“I love it,” he said, unable to look away.  “Thank you, friend.  To what do I owe this occasion?”

Hogun sat down on the sofa next to Loki, watching the bird as well.  “Thor worries about you,” he said.  “He fears you are ill again.”

Loki frowned.  “No,” he said.  “I don’t think I’m terribly well, but it’s not that.”

He had only been ill like that once, while Thor was away on his rite.  A Jötunn sickness that drained his body and mind of energy, and paradoxically caused him to seek out the very behaviour that had caused it in the first place.  Then Thor had brought him a wolf pup, and whether he had known what he was doing or stumbled upon it by accident, had forced Loki into a change of routine.  It had forced him to endure physical contact with another being.  Forced him to leave his chambers and be social, if only just to ask advice.

And now Hogun was in his chambers with a bird.  And whether he knew what he was doing, or just mirroring Thor’s actions from before, was doing the same thing.

Somehow, Loki didn’t mind so much.

“Is it trained?” he asked.  He wanted to touch it, to see how its feathers felt, but didn’t dare risk it flying away.

“No,” said Hogun.  “It will only answer to the one who trains it.”

Loki nodded.  He had no idea how to train a bird, but it would give him something to do.  Something to focus on that was quiet and didn’t need to be shared.

He reached over for one of the Coke bottles on the table and chilled it with his touch.  He pried the lid off with his thumb and passed it over to Hogun, who took it cautiously.  Hogun sniffed it first, and then drank.  His eyes went wide with surprise and he pulled the bottle away to look at it.

“What is this?” he asked.

Loki laughed, and drank more generously from his own.  “It’s from Midgard.  They give it to children there.”

Hogun grunted at it, and tried it again.  “I do not like it,” he said.  Then he drank again.

“It makes sense if you drink enough of it,” Loki said, still laughing.

He set what was left of his sandwich on the table and opened the second parcel, indicating to Hogun to help himself to one of the quartered slices.  Hogun took one and ate cautiously, chewing slowly like he wasn’t sure if he liked it or not either.  Then when he took another drink of his Coke, he stopped for the briefest moment before nodding.

“I understand it,” he said.

Loki had had the same problem with Midgardian food recently as well.  In recent years, everything had been getting sweeter, or heavier, or denser, almost completely overwhelming in flavour.  It was nothing like the roast meats or tart pies he had eaten his entire life.  Even the army rations had come with chocolate bars and occasional other sweets.  Coming back to Asgard to the same foods again and again had been like slow torture.

“Thank you again, for the bird,” Loki said.  “This one does indeed seem far less likely to carry me off to the horizon.”

He put the cover back over its cage so it could settle down.  It still squawked and croaked for a few minutes, but Loki ignored it and settled back into his seat to continue reading his book while Hogun tried to figure out whether or not he truly enjoyed club sandwiches and Coca-Cola. 

***

Loki carefully placed the small bowl of worms and fresh berries into the bird’s cage, and brought his hand out again without getting pecked.  Progress, it seemed, was being made.  Thor watched, grinning as the bird picked through the berries to find the worms first.

“What have you named it?” he asked.

“Ikol,” Loki said, making sure the cage door was locked.

Thor laughed, booming and honest.  “Loki, you are the worst with names,” he said.

“Says who?” asked Loki.

“Your wolf is named Wolf, and your bird is your own name backwards,” Thor said.  He crouched to watch the bird more.

“You do better,” Loki said.

Fenrir was in the same spot on the stone floor that he’d been all week, sprawled out right in the middle of the room.  He did not have the same tricks Loki had for making the summer heat more bearable, and he did not dare try them on Fenrir.  Loki crouched down to scratch Fenrir behind the ears, making sure the animal was still well.  He grumbled and thumped his tail on the floor, which was about as good as Loki could hope.  He could go weeks without food, and often did in the summer, but Loki made sure his water was full before collapsing onto his bed in a similar fit of ennui.

“Would you perhaps feel better underground?” Thor asked.

Loki grumbled as well.  “Maybe.  But I like these rooms.”

“Which ones?” asked Thor.  “You only use this one.  You have that enormous hall downstairs that’s filled with boxes of stuff you have not touched in years.”

“You can’t have a terrace underground,” Loki said.

“You mean the one you use three times a year?” Thor asked.  “And the other two you have blocked off with more stuff you never use?”

Loki frowned.  He hated when Thor made good points.  It usually meant he was right.

“Where did you have in mind?” he asked, already sitting up. 

Not even bothering to put on a tunic or sandals, Loki followed Thor out of the room and down the stairs to the corridor.  They took a path beneath the throne room, not far from the vault.  There, Thor led Loki into a large hall with high ceilings and a smooth stone floor.  There were no windows, which meant Loki would lose all the natural light his chambers got for most of the year, but it was undeniably cooler than his chambers ever were as a result.  He stepped inside, looking around the space for anything that seemed somehow off or suspicious.  But nothing seemed immediately wrong about it.  Two chambers led off from either side of the hall, and on the far wall was built an enormous hearth.  Tall pillars supported the arched ceiling above, with rafters clearly designed for hanging items spanning the entire area.

“Whose was this?” Loki asked.

“Knut’s, I believe,” said Thor.  “He returned to Vanaheimr shortly before you returned home.”

“Of course.”  With Iri making more threats of war, it made sense that his ambassadors would be leaving the realm.  He hadn’t entirely been sold on the idea of moving until just then.  If Iri found out Loki had snatched up Knut’s vacated hall, it would irritate the old fool to no end.

“I like it,” he said.

And he did. 

“You could use those rooms for storing all your useless junk,” Thor said, pointing off to the chambers at the left.  “One of them might make a fine wine cellar as well.  Put the rest of your stuff in here and continue to live like a peasant in a single room.”

Loki laughed.  “I think that is precisely what I’ll do.”

He liked having everything in one room.  It was simply easier to be able to exhaust himself with his studies, and be able to immediately pass out without having to climb stairs or trudge to another chamber.

Thor looked up at the rafters.  “Get your bird a bigger cage.  Hang it over there maybe,” he said, pointing to a dark corner at the back of the hall.

“How long have you been thinking about this, brother?” Loki asked.

“Since you spent all last summer complaining you were melting,” Thor said.  “But I have only been eyeing this hall since Knut left.”

Loki should have known.  Thor was never particularly quick with schemes, but he could be rather good at them when he had the time to think about it.

Moving everything in was a fairly quick, if draining task.  The magic he used to move everything was simple, but he had to move more than he’d realised.  The hall had more room for more shelves, which was the only part that took time, because the shelves had to be procured.  It also meant many of the boxes that cluttered the old hall could be emptied and their contents displayed.  By the end, he had very little to stuff into one of the side chambers, though there were still more than a few heavy boxes he hadn’t dealt with.  He kept his comically large bed, made for the Jötun he never grew up to be, and replaced not only Ikol’s cage, but his desk for larger models.

He filled empty floorspace with the sofas that littered his chambers, arranging them near his desk in a square around the largest of his floor tables.  The smaller tables were scattered between shelves and along walls to fill space, while he covered the walls with tapestries and his meagre collection of trophies and weapons.  By the time it was done, Loki felt like it was a place he could very comfortably live for the rest of his life.  His previous chambers had been intended to fill that role, but Thor had been right.  Loki only used one of the rooms, and it had been one of the smallest of them.  With no real space to store all his books and trinkets, it all wound up in cluttered piles all over the floor before eventually being shunted downstairs.  The new hall was so large that he had room to spare for years.

The hall was cool enough that Loki did not need to wear a false body to keep from feeling ill.  He relaxed comfortably in his own body, in his own skin, stretched out in bed as he read his book.  Fenrir still lay sprawled out on the stone floor, though he seemed considerably less in distress about it.  Ikol croaked and squawked from his cage in the corner, a constant background soundtrack over the Victrola playing a Harlan Leonard record.

He was startled at the sound of the doors opening.  His guards had taken to announcing visitors, but they had not done so this time.  Instead of one of the Einherjar standing permanent sentry outside his door, Odin walked into the hall instead.

“I go to speak to my son, and find out second-hand he has moved,” Odin said.

“The heat disagreed with me,” Loki said, looking up from his book as his father approached his bed. 

Odin stopped a few steps away and looked around.  His gaze fell first on the Victrola on the mantlepiece, and then to the paperback in Loki’s hands.  But rather than saying anything about either of them, Odin just sighed.

“I was not aware you were home,” Loki said, still not sure if he was going to dodge another lecture on being places he shouldn’t be.

“I have only just arrived in the last hour,” Odin said.  He continued to look around the hall, finding every little thing Loki had smuggled back from Midgard.  With everything organised, and not piled up on the floor, his exploits had become far more obvious.

At least he had hidden the guns, and elected against hanging them with his sword and knives.

“I wanted you to hear it from my own voice,” Odin said.  “You are not to leave this realm, for any purpose.”

Loki sat up sharply.  “Why?” he asked.

“Surtur blames you as well.  And I cannot protect you if you are not where you are supposed to be.”  Odin turned a stern glare to Loki.  “This is not a decree, because I know you will not listen.  It is a warning.”

Loki stood to meet his father in the eye.  “Warning from what?” he asked.

“Two kings have placed bounties on your head,” Odin said plainly.  “As long as you remain on Asgard, you cannot be touched.”

“I had nothing to do with any of this,” Loki said.  He threw his hands into the air and turned away as the record neared its end, and the Victrola switched itself off.  “What is their reasoning?”

“I do not know,” said Odin.  “I have grown accustomed to my own children running away, but the one who likes to do it the most is capable of caring for himself, and comes back sooner or later.  Iri’s daughter has been missing for five years, and Surtur’s child is but an infant.  They do not get the peace of knowing their children are safe.  These are fathers grieving for their children, and kings looking for answers.”

Loki shook his head.  “I know nothing, I swear it.”

“I know this,” Odin said.  He spoke so plainly and so quickly that Loki immediately believed him.  “But I can also recognise the circumstances are suspicious.  I ask you not as your king, but as your father to just this once do as you are told and remain on Asgard.”

Loki could not find a single word to say.  He stared at his father, wishing he had got a lecture instead.  Lectures he could at least ignore without threat of death.

“For how long?” he asked finally.

“Until this matter is settled,” Odin said.

Loki shook his head.  He had no plans to go anywhere, but now being told he couldn’t leave at all was blatant punishment for a crime he did not commit.

“And if it’s never settled?” he asked.

Odin did not answer right away.  “As I said.  You are not to leave Asgard until it is.”

With that, he turned and walked toward the door, leaving Loki alone with just Ikol squawking for company.

« || »

Second Rite #2: What Manner of Thing

Loki did not remember the dining hall always being so loud or so bright.  It all bore a hole straight through his brain, as if every sound, every light, every movement was cast deliberately just to spite him.  Nothing before him was appetising.  Nothing before him was even interesting.  On one side, his mother spoke quietly with one of her ladies in waiting.  On the other, some fat, red-faced jarl shouted boasts about his new wife and how quickly she had been made pregnant.

Loki hated all of it.  The performative act of the court that once bored him now drove him closer to rage with each passing minute.  Loki glared at the table before him, debating refilling his cup with more wine to drown it out, but all that was served was Asgardian wines and meads, barely strong enough to get him even pleasantly buzzed.  Without giving a word of excuse, he reached across the table for the bottle of wine anyway and stood to leave.  He ignored the turned heads as he slipped along the wall and out the doors, pulling the cork out.  As he put more distance between himself and the noisy hall, Loki began to feel more at ease.  He took a long drink from the wine bottle as he walked, tracing an aimless path through the darkest and most quiet corridors he came across.  It wasn’t long before he found himself stepping out to a narrow yard between two high towers.  It was poorly-maintained and overgrown, with tall grass and long weeds trying to climb up the tower walls.  Above, through the spires of the palace, stars and galaxies swirled in the dark Asgardian sky.  It was a sky Loki had not seen in far too long.  He’d grown accustomed to the inky blackness on Midgard, punctuated by only the most faint twinkling of distant stars on clear nights.  Even in Midgard’s most remote regions, the realm’s skies never came close to matching the skies above Asgard.

He took another drink of his wine and sat on the grass.  Content to stay there forever, Loki fell backwards to continue to look at the sky.  Instead of the sky, a grim face flooded his view, scowling down at him from above.  Loki leapt forward, spilling some of the wine on himself as he scrambled to his feet.

“Ymir’s tits!” he shouted, already trying to wipe the spilled wine from his breeches.  “What the hel are you doing there?”

“Enjoying the solitude,” Hogun said.

Loki lifted what was left of his wine.  “Then excuse me for gate crashing,” he said.

He started to leave, but Hogun reached out toward him.  With a shrug, Loki handed the wine over and sat back in the grass.  He leaned against the high wall and looked back up at the sky and all the colours mixing around in it.  As Hogun drank, he sat down as well, a few feet down the wall from Loki.  Neither said anything as they shared the bottle back and forth until it had been drained.  With the wine gone, they both retreated to their own contemplation, two adopted foundlings from distant realms, unable to find a place within Asgard.  Not for the first time, Loki wondered where on Midgard Hogun had been born.  He had seen so much of the realm, and knew that he had barely scratched the surface of its people and cultures.  But it was not a topic Hogun ever wished to discuss, and Bragi himself did not seem to know either.  He had drunkenly answered a prayer, and returned to Asgard with a new wife and her child, an no further information.

“Have you ever returned to your homeland?” Loki asked as he swished the last dregs around in the bottle.  He tossed it onto the ground between them and returned his gaze to the stars.

Hogun did not answer right away.  He let the question hang in the air, building a tension that might have made another man squirm in his seat.  Instead of squirming, Loki watched the sky above, looking for the flashes of falling stars or passing ships.

“No,” Hogun said.  He too turned his gaze to the sky.  “It was too dangerous, and now much will have changed.  It would not be the home I left.”

Loki nodded.  He had seen firsthand how quickly things on Midgard changed.  In the span of just a season, entire cities and nations would rise and fall.  Even during his time in battle, he had seen much change in the humans’ technology.  Hogun was right.  Even if he knew precisely where he had been found, it would not be the same place he remembered.  Iðunn’s apples had given Hogun the gift of Æsir life and health.  Anyone else who might have been lucky to have survived the attack on Hogun’s village would be dead for hundreds of years.

Before he could say anything else, heavy laughter and footsteps echoed from the other side of the archway.  A moment later, Thor stepped through the arch onto the grass, with Sif on one arm and Fandral following shortly behind.  The jovial mood evaporated at once as they noticed Loki and Hogun sitting on the ground, with an empty wine bottle between them.  As the two of them glared up at the intruders for sullying the mood, the other three fumbled awkwardly with how to proceed.

“Loki,” Fandral said first.  “Good to see you, old friend.”

“Indeed.”  Loki offered no greeting or welcome of his own, leaving tact to the others.

Finally, Thor nudged Sif toward the other side of the narrow strip of grass, leaving little space between the two groups.  Thor continued his story, shouting loudly and encouraging the others to laugh.   Loki couldn’t stand it.  Every word was a spike through his skull, no different to banquet.  Thor would soon be king, and yet here he was boasting about a boar he had hunted.  Loki shook his head and rose to his feet, leaving Hogun with the decision to stay or follow.  Hogun stayed, and Loki left alone to find somewhere else quiet to skulk around for a while.  He did not wish to return to his chambers, after weeks barricaded inside with only his thoughts and his dog for company.  He needed a change of scenery.  He needed the sky above him, and nature beneath his feet.  As he walked, Loki found nowhere he wanted to be.  So he walked and wandered, tracing an aimless path throughout the palace.  As he wandered deep into the sprawling maze of corridors and halls, sombre music carried across the air.  Loki followed it to its source, finding a small hall with open doors where a man practised on a large talharpa.  He pulled the bow across its strings, its music deep and droning.  It wasn’t a song Loki knew.  Loki wasn’t even sure it was a song, or if the man was making it up as he went.

He stepped into the hall to look around, interrupting the man.

“Prince Loki,” he said, scrambling to find room for his instrument as he stood.

Loki shook his head and waved a hand at him.  Slowly, the man sat back down again and resuming his play.  He kept a wary eye as Loki examined the instruments in the man’s hall.  Horns and drums, next to harps, lutes, and lyres, all of them immaculately kept and displayed with pride.  Loki found a place to sit amongst it all, where he could listen to the man’s music and let it fill his mind and chase out anything  else.  He closed his eyes and leaned against the wall, simply existing.  The man easily skipped from one melody to the next, teasing out both mournful sorrow and frantic energy from the instrument’s three strings.

Then he stopped again, this time with a loud shout and a clatter.  Loki opened his eyes to see Fenrir taking slow steps to the man, where he now stood on his stool.

“Fenrir, leave him alone,” Loki said.

He got up and led Fenrir from the hall and back out to the corridor.  Tired of wandering, Loki sought out a path that would take him to his chambers.

***

Loki sat at the far side of the table, with his head resting in his arms.  Across the room, Odin and Iri shouted as they always did, blaming one another for every problem between the two realms.  Vanir’s puppet king, back on Asgard to throw blame for his own problems and threaten war; a constant thorn in Loki’s side for years.

“Your boy disappears, and then Muspelheimr loses their heir?” Iri said, jabbing a stubby finger into Odin’s chest.

Odin stood, immovable against Iri’s attack.  “And what proof do you have for any involvement of Asgard’s?” he asked.  “We do not engage in war based on rumours and gossip.”

Loki kept his head on the table as he listened to them bicker.  He rubbed his temple with his fingers, wondering if he could drive a hole through his own skull and end everything right there.

“Your son returned.  Where is my daughter, Borson?” Iri said, still jabbing his finger at Odin.  “Where was he, that he came back?”

“Loki has long been in the habit of travelling the realms.  He mastered the art of disappearance as a boy.”  Odin still stood still, as if he barely noticed Iri’s presence before him.  “Should it be so surprising that he has mastered the art of reappearing as well?”

“He disappears once, and my daughter goes missing.  Again, and Surtur’s heir vanishes.  This is a plot by Asgard!”  Again, Iri jabbed Odin with his finger.  Still, Odin ignored it.

“Asgard has no quarrel with Muspelheimr.  We have been at peace with the Eldjötnar since I was a boy.  Asgard has no reason to start a quarrel with their realm.”  His obstinate refusal to even acknowledge Iri’s constant irritation only seemed to encourage more. 

“Where is my daughter?” Iri demanded, punctuating each word with another jab of his finger.

“Why is it,” Loki said finally, sitting up to face Iri himself, “that every time you and I are in the same room, I feel as though an axe as split my skull?”

He stood and approached Iri.  The last time Loki had seen Vanaheimr’s puppet king, he was a terrifying giant of a man, wide and gruff and scarred from battle.  Now, Loki had to look down to meet the man in the eyes.  Pressed between Loki and Odin with little room to flee, Iri pulled both his hands closer to his person.

“What have you done with my daughter? Iri asked.

Loki was done with this argument.  He’d been done with it the first time.  “Have you considered she might have run away?” he asked.  “As I imagine any young girl would after learning her father sold her as a bride to a frost giant.”

He spat the last two words, flinging Iri’s venom right back to his own face.

“Or perhaps you realised what you did and hid her yourself to use as a scape goat,” Loki continued.  “Do we have any proof she’s actually missing at all?  A missing heir is a terribly convenient excuse for a war, isn’t it?”

Iri sputtered and blustered, then turned back to Odin.  Still, Odin stood there impassive and stoic in the face of Iri’s tantrum.  Loki and Odin both stood on either side of him, saying nothing as he tried to form words through building rage.

“You have not answered my son,” Odin said, speaking over Iri’s incomprehensible sputtering.  “What proof do we have that the girl is missing at all, and not locked up in a tower?”

Loki crossed his arms over his chest as Iri turned back toward him to leave.  Without a word, Loki stood in his way.  He suspected Iri would win in a fair fight between the two of them.  He had age and real experience on his side.  But it wasn’t just the two of them, and Loki had no intention of fighting fairly.  Odin stood on his other side, while his Einherjar guard watched from the door.  Any fight Iri started would end just a swiftly.

“Vanaheimr’s armies will march if my daughter is not returned to me,” Iri said.

Loki shrugged and stepped aside, letting him go.  He waited until Iri stomped out of the room before sitting again, taking a seat close to Odin.  He watched his father slowly sit as well, for the first time showing weariness from Iri’s endless assault.

“What’s this about Muspelheimr?” Loki asked.

That the Vanir princess was still missing was surprising, but it was old news.  She had been gone for years, since Thor was away on his rite.  But he had heard nothing of Surtur’s heir going missing as well.

Odin shook his head.  “Dreadful business,” he said.  “The boy was snatched from his nursery.  I do not agree with Iri’s tone, but I agree with his suspicions.  The kidnapping is political.”

Loki frowned.  Muspelheimr was a terrible, unforgiving place.  He’d been there exactly once, and it had almost killed him.  The thought of anyone getting that far into the palace was impossible.

“Dissent within the ranks?” Loki suggested.

“Perhaps,” Odin said.  “I will be travelling to the realm in two days to offer Asgard’s support and aid.  In my absence, Thor will be taking on my duties, and you his.”

Loki frowned and looked to the floor.  Thor’s duties were boring and trivial, meant to train his temper so he did not misstep with more important matters of realm politics.  For years, Loki had suspected it was punishment for speaking out of turn when he was allowed into negotiations.  With each passing day, he dreaded more and more what rule under his brother would look like.

“Surely Baldur could use the practise,” Loki said.

“No,” said Odin after a moment.  “Baldur does need practise, but you have experience and will deal with matters swiftly.  With the harvest nearing, delay would only exacerbate these petty issues.”

Loki sighed, not even bothering to hide his distaste for the job.  He would much rather be taking on Odin’s duties, leaving Thor to hone his temper a while longer.  With Iri in the realm, Loki did not trust his brother in soothing tensions and averting war.  “Very well.  Shall he at least sit with me?”

Odin considered the question before nodding.  “He’s seen Thor’s methods.  Perhaps he would do well to see yours.”

Loki too had seen Thor’s methods.  He had sat in on his advisement before, though not recently.  Unless his skills had improved, Loki couldn’t imagine how anything got solved with him in charge.

***

The bickering was the worst.  Loki sat on the throne with his chin in his hand, listening to a pair of country jarls snipe and snap at one another over the position of a river.  As they shouted, Loki glanced over to Baldur, seated in a tall chair beside him and drawing a warrior fighting a dragon on a piece of parchment.

“Your property ends where the river lies,” one of the jarls shouted.

“My property ends where the river was!” the other shouted right back.  “The damn thing moved in the flood.  That doesn’t move the border!”

Loki rolled his eyes and shook his head, exaggerating his motions to make sure they saw.  “Remind me again how far the river has moved,” he said.

“Twenty ells into my property,” the second jarl said.

“That’s it?” Loki asked.  He shook his head.  “You waste my time squabbling over twenty ells of land?”

The two jarls both quieted in their argument and turned to face Loki.

“If this land is so precious, then you should battle to the death for it,” Loki said, waving his hand to his Einherjar guard.  Two of them walked forward, blocking the men into a small area.

“To the death?” the first jarl asked.  He looked to his rival, and then to Loki’s guard.

“Yes, right now.  Get it over with, we’re bored.”  Loki sat back in his seat and crossed his arms over his chest.  Now even Baldur was watching curiously as the two men stood uncertainly below the dais.

“Oh, is it not that important after all?” Loki asked.  “Very well.  The river marks the border.  In five years, it’ll flood again and move back in the other direction.  Should this dispute make it back to this hall then, you shall both be executed for wasting my time.  Get out.”

One of the jarls quickly bowed.  “Yes, milord.”

The other bowed as well, and the two of them awkwardly rushed toward the exit, away from the scene they had caused.  Once they were gone, Loki waved his hand for his guard to return to their places.  As they let the next beggar in, Loki leaned close to Baldur.

“Most who come here have problems they could solve themselves, but choose not to,” he said.

Baldur snorted, returning his attention back to his dragon.  “So I’ve noticed.”

“If they aren’t willing to fight for it, it’s not worth bringing all the way here, and I don’t want to hear about it.”  He sat back in his seat as another man approached.

The man was alone, which at least meant Loki wouldn’t have to sit through another childish argument.  He stepped up to the dais and bowed quickly. 

“Prince Loki.  Prince Baldur.  I come seeking aid for my village,” he said.  He kept his hands knotted at his waist.  Loki tapped Baldur on the elbow and pointed toward the man, making sure his brother saw.

“For what?” Loki asked.

“The heavy rains in the spring loosened the soil in the mountain above our village,” The man said, still wringing his hands.  He would not look directly at either of them, keeping his gaze at their feet instead.  “The mountain collapsed.  It destroyed our crops and blocked our route out.  Our stores were exhausted in clearing a path out, and now our people are starving.”

Baldur was back to drawing his dragon again, but glanced up at Loki.

“How big is your village?” Loki asked.

“Before the collapse, we were three thousand strong,” the man said.  “As I left, we were less than a thousand.  The livestock that survived have all been slaughtered to feed those of us who remain.”

Loki glance back to Baldur and nodded.  “After the harvest, a convoy will be sent with grain and stores to last your people through the winter.  Until then, you will have two thousand gold pieces, and five breeding pairs each of horses, boar, cattle, and chicken.”

The man bowed deeply, nearly losing his balance.  “Thank you, Prince Loki.” 

As the man turned to leave the room, Baldur turned to Loki again.  “Why two thousand?” he asked.

“One for each villager who perished.  And five breeding pairs to ensure strong lines,” Loki explained.  “If we send less, and all the gold is spent on food and clothing, soon they will be breeding father to daughter, which can make the offspring lame.  This way, the gold we spend goes to what the village needs most, and not on more livestock we could send in the first place.  We send less overall by sending more gold and no textiles or tools that may not be needed.”

“Couldn’t they sell the tools at market if they don’t need them?” Baldur asks.  “Tools are cheaper than gold, surely.”

“They could,” Loki agreed.  He watched Baldur continue to scratch and scribble away, now adding trees around his dragon.  “But a village in the position of asking for aid will be focused on feeding its people.  Market is more time and energy that doesn’t need to be spent.”  Loki motioned to the guards to hold off on sending in the next beggar.  “Even if they have rebuilt their village, they may not have anyone to spare for market.  It’s simply easier to cut out anything unnecessary.  Had he requested tools or clothing, it would be worth considering sending a cache with him.  He didn’t request them, so he likely didn’t need them.  If he does, he has 2000 gold pieces to spend closer to home.”

Baldur shuffled his parchment to a blank sheet and began writing everything down.  “How do you know he’s telling the truth?  If you make a habit of sending one gold piece for every dead person, surely he could lie.  And what’s stopping him about lying about the mountain at all?”

“He’ll be sent with an envoy, who will send a scout up ahead to verify the story,” Loki said.  “We could send the scout before he leaves the palace, but that is more time wasted and more lives lost if he’s truthful.  The scout arrives a day or two ahead of the party, verifies the claim, and rejoins the group.  If he’s telling the truth, as most do, his village gets gold, livestock, and a shipment of grain and stores next season.  If he’s lying, he is simply executed, and everything returns to the palace.”

Baldur frantically wrote to keep up.  “I didn’t know any of that,” he said.

Loki laughed.  “Father does like to teach by throwing you right into the fray and hoping you survive, doesn’t he?”

“When I sit with Thor, he asks many questions,” Baldur said.  “He’ll send precisely what is needed, or arrange an accord to benefit both parties equally.”

“And Thor takes all day to see subjects, and then spends all evening complaining about it,” Loki said.  “You can solve a problem swiftly without solving the whole problem.  If you solve the whole problem, they’ll be back when it happens again because they won’t know how to solve it on their own.”

Baldur nodded, writing this down as well. 

“We have two more.  Would you like to address the next one?” Loki asked.

At Baldur’s nod, Loki signalled for the guard to open the door for the next in line.

***

Loki never took a direct path back to his chambers, nor did he ever take the same path twice in a row.  As a boy, he had got into the habit in order to avoid those who might want to pick a fight or ambush him.  Now, it helped avoid those who might want to pull him into a tedious discussion he had not the energy to engage.

As he slipped through hidden servants’ paths, Loki heard Thor’s booming voice echoing off walls from a nearby hall.  Loki cloaked himself in shadow and approached the hall to find Thor and Iri continuing the same argument Odin had refused to entertain.  While Odin had endured Iri’s needling with indifferent stoicism, Thor shouted and jabbed right back.  Fearing Thor might bring Asgard to war with his temper, Loki watched for the right moment to step in and quash the argument once more.  But he realised they were not shouting about Iri’s missing daughter.

They were shouting about him.

“Loki is my brother and you will speak of him with respect!” Thor stood in Iri’s space, looming over him with a balled fist close to Iri’s face.

Loki stepped further into the shadows, watching the scene unfold in front of him.

“You expect me to believe that?” Iri asked.  Thor was bigger than him, but Iri refused to step back from Thor.  Instead, he leaned into Thor, closing the gap between them even further.  “Frost giants don’t grow beards.  I don’t know what that thing is, but it is not the thing you call your brother.”  He pointed wildly around them as he shouted in Thor’s face, only stopping when Thor slapped his hand away.

“That ‘thing’ is a son of Odin!” Thor shouted, backing Iri toward a wall.

“You have an imposter in your court.  You and your senile old father are blind to it,” Iri said.  He tried to stand tall to match Thor eye to eye, but no matter what he did, Iri was still looking up to meet his gaze.

“If it’s war you’re after, it’s war you shall get if you do not hold your tongue, Iri.”  Thor shoved him against the wall, pinning him to the wall with is arm across Iri’s chest.  “I shall slay you on your feet and then Vanaheimr will have its war.”

They stood locked in a hateful gaze with one another for a long moment before Iri finally shoved Thor away and strode toward the door.

“You have until the harvest to return my daughter, Odinson,” he said, stomping right past Loki where he hid in the shadows.

Thor watched him leave, glaring at the man’s back.  As soon as he was gone, Thor turned to pick up a chair and threw it at the wall, shattering it into a thousand pieces.  Loki started to walk toward him, but turned around instead and left.  He stepped through the shadows, taking a shortcut and emerging in his chambers.  He had not been paying much care to much at all beyond forcing himself from bed each morning.  Loki couldn’t recall the last time he’d so much as glanced toward a mirror, but when he looked at the one above the wash basin, the face he saw almost startled him.  He had not bothered to do anything with his hair since returning from Midgard, leaving it shaggy and greasy from neglect.  Furthermore, Iri had a point.  It was a point Loki already knew to be true, that Jötnar grew no beards.  And while the patchy fuzz littering his face could hardly be called a beard at all, it was far more than should have been present at all.  When Eir had no answers for him, Loki had simply ignored it.  But now he had a problem, and even Vanaheimr’s king was spreading rumours.

Loki scrubbed his hair first, using so much soap that it felt like straw once it was dry.  This was just as unacceptable.  He tried his magic, spells and glamours, changing his hair so it was no longer his at all.  He hated everything he tried and gave up.  His hair had grown so long since their time in England that it now hung below his ears when it was brushed straight.  Between the soap and the brush, his hair had lost all of its natural curl, so nothing he did looked right on him.  For a moment he thought about just making it longer so he could tie it behind his neck and be done with it, but he hesitated to force such a big change on himself when suspicions were already so high.

How rumours and gossip had been spreading without him noticing was another quandary.  He had made it his job to stay on top of the gossip mill within the palace, and yet had completely missed something so insidious it could start a war on its own.  It was a lie he needed to get to the bottom of before it spread further.

Wholly unsatisfied with his hair, but not knowing what else to do with it, Loki picked his shaving kit back up and assembled the razor.  He found the act much easier in his Æsir form, without having to worry about sensitive skin or hard ridges that lined his face.  When he was done, he was met with a face in the mirror he actually recognised, but Iri’s words still echoed in his mind.  What manner of thing was he?  He had barely survived being Jötunn, but now that wasn’t even true.  He had always known he was small for a Jötun, but now this?

With Odin in Muspelheimr, the only person Loki could go to for answers was Frigga.  He left his chambers and made a quick path toward his mother’s, hoping to find her somewhere close.  Instead, he found her chambers empty, with no sign of her anywhere near.  He searched her every room, and each of her gardens, his pace growing quicker by the second.  Was this some misguided plot?  Had Iri waited until Odin’s departure to enact some revenge?

Loki realised he was beginning to panic.  Frigga was under constant guard.  Had an attempt been made, it would have been immediately noticed.  Taking a deep breath, Loki stood still and closed his eyes, searching the palace from where he stood.  Soon, he found her on the terrace beyond the great hall, sitting in the sun with her handmaidens.  Loki took a shortcut, stepping from the garden to the great hall, leaving only a few quick strides to his mother’s side.  As he approached, the younger women looked up at him as they fell into an immediate silence.

“Mother, I would like a word in private,” Loki said, ignoring them.

“Of course,” Frigga said. 

She nodded to the small group of women she sat with, and one by one they all got up and left the terrace.  Loki took the nearest seat to Frigga, waiting until he was certain they were all gone.  Even then, he made sure none could overhear them and cast a spell to deafen anyone nearby from hearing their words.

“Loki, what troubles you?” Frigga asked.

It was not a question that could be answered simply, and Loki took a moment to put his thoughts into order.  “Tell me again where Father found me,” he said.

Frigga reached out to Loki, caressing his face with her thumb.  “Your father found you on an altar, in a temple in Utgard.  All we know is you were born on Jötunheimr.”

She smiled sadly and took Loki’s hands in hers.  “Your natural parents are as much of a mystery to us as they are to you, but I have long suspected your natural mother may have been a war bride.”

Frigga’s words opened a possibility Loki had never even considered, and his mind did cartwheels trying to make sense of it.  “From Midgard?” he asked.

Frigga almost laughed.  “No.  Not from Midgard.  The Jötunn attack on Midgard was far after you were born.  As much as you might wish to be, you are no more Midgardian than I am.”

Loki looked down at his hands, his fingers tangled with Frigga’s.  He did not think he had wished to be Midgardian either, but he couldn’t find a way to refute her words either.  He could not deny he had more fun there, or that he found the realm’s people far more enjoyable company than most of Asgard.  Even when much of it was exploding.  But did he truly wish to be human?  To be mortal?

Loki did not know.

“You once told me,” Loki said, still looking down at their hands, “that you’ve never lied to me.  Are there any other truths I haven’t been told yet?”  He looked up at Frigga, almost afraid of the answer that hadn’t even come yet.

“Your father has his suspicions, and I have mine,” Frigga said.  “Neither can be said to bear more truth than the other.”

Loki knew there was more he hadn’t been told.  More rumours.  More secrets.  “And what are his suspicions?” he asked.

“I will not speak for your father.  But if you ask him when he returns, he will answer you.”  Frigga wasn’t smiling anymore.  She knew something, but would not speak of it.

It all flew around Loki’s mind, nothing settling or taking form as he tried to make sense of it.  If Frigga was right, if Loki had been born to a war bride, then he knew even less about himself than he had when he woke that morning.  He felt like a child once again, terrified of his disguise slipping any further than it already had.  Terrified of someone bigger and stronger than he was, too drunk to control his rage and hatred.  Terrified that no matter what he did, he did not belong on Asgard.

“You’ve heard the rumours?” he asked.

Frigga nodded.  “I have,” she said.  “And I know there is no substance to them.”  She let go of Loki’s hands with one of her own, again bringing it up to hold his face.  “I know all of my children, whether or not I gave birth to them.  Soon the truth will out, and this will all be forgotten.”

Loki nodded.  He knew not when Odin would return from his trip to Muspelheimr, but he could do some digging of his own until his father returned.

« || »

Second Rite #1: Rest

Thor was not told about Loki’s return to the realm.  He had been louching about in the courtyards, entertaining several young maidens when he’d heard the commotion.  By the time he’d found the source of it, the area was cleared.  All he found was blood on the ground with the hounds whipped up into a frenzy, and Fenrir absent.

He found Sif next, near hysterics in Fandral’s arms.  Thor approached them in the alcove where they stood, cautiously assessing the scene before him.

“What has happened?” he asked.  He cast a stern glance toward his handsy friend as he guided Sif away from Fandral.

Sif allowed herself to be handed off.  She looked up at Thor with an expression like twisted steel.  “Your brother has murdered my father,” she said.

Thor struggled to find context in Sif’s words.  Loki was not on Asgard.  He was part of a growing trend of missing royal heirs.  Baldur and Týr had no conflict, and Viðar was but a child still. 

“Which brother?” he asked, trying not to feel like he was missing something crucial.

Sif leaned away from him, turning that sour, hateful glare to Thor.  “Loki,” she spat.

Thor watched her for any hint of dishonesty, but the more he watched her struggle to maintain her composure, the more he knew she spoke the truth.

“Then excuse me,” he said, stepping away from Sif. 

He left her alone with Fandral once more and strode toward the throne room.  In such a small amount of time, Thor had learned that not only had his brother returned to Asgard, but that he had murdered one of their father’s generals.  Thor believed neither could be true, desperately hoping there had been some misunderstanding.  Fenrir had not been at the kennels when Thor arrived.  Perhaps the beast had escaped, and Sif blamed Loki as the owner.  Heimdall had not seen Loki in almost a full season.  He would not return to Asgard just to commit murder.  Thor knew it.

He found Odin in the throne room, standing tiredly on the steps beneath the throne.

“Father,” Thor called out as he approached.  “Have I heard the truth about Týr?  Has he been murdered?”

He stopped when Odin turned to face him.  “No,” Odin said.  “Týr will live.  Eir is seeing to him now.”

Thor nodded, no less satisfied.  “And Loki?” he asked.  “Has he been found?”

Odin began walking down the steps to the floor.  “Your brother has returned, yes.  And you will leave him be.  Loki is to remain undisturbed.”

Thor frowned.  If his brother had returned home, Thor wished to see him.  But he found himself more uncertain of the situation by the moment.

“Sif tells me Loki struck her father.  Is this true?” he asked.

Odin looked at him, cold and passive.  Thor never thought himself a bad judge at reading another man’s character or emotion, but Odin was like a stone.

“No,” he said finally.  “A property dispute has been settled.  And that is the end of the matter.”

“Tell me why I can’t see him,” Thor said, knowing he was coming dangerously close to demanding this request from his father.

“Because Loki does not wish to be seen,” Odin said.  “And you will respect that.  He is battle weary and wishes to rest.”

Thor had no words.  Battle weary did not sound like Loki.  What battle had Loki fought?  Loki was a known coward.  All of Asgard knew it.  He had never completed training, never taken his rite.  He lived like a pampered child, and got away with it every time he was challenged.

“I see,” Thor lied.  “Then I shall give the good news to Sif.”

“Yes,” Odin agreed.

Thor turned away from Odin and left the throne room to return to his friends.  As he approached Sif and Fandral, he pushed everything from the front of his mind and put on what he’d hoped was a convincing smile.

“Good news,” he said as he approached Sif.  “Your father will live.  He is with Eir now.”

Though she had resisted until then, Sif broke into tears as she fell into Thor’s arms once again.  He held her, awkwardly at first before pulling her into a tight embrace.

“Come,” Thor said, pretending he did not have a thousand uncomfortable questions of his own.  “I’m sure he would like to see you.”

He turned to nod at Fandral as he began to lead Sif down the corridor.  Fandral nodded back, barely concealing a confused shrug.

 

***

Loki did not know how long he had slept.  He woke beneath a pile of furs, blankets, and beast, barely able to pull any of it off without every muscle and joint in his body screaming in protest.  He pushed through, crawling out from beneath the mess to stretch his back.  His shoulder still howled with pain when he tried to move his arm, but Loki ignored it.  He got to his feet and scrubbed his fingers through his hair, messy and tangled from sleep.  It fell down across his face, long enough to be irritating, but too short to do anything with. 

His skin felt tight across his body, and as he slowly regained full consciousness, Loki became acutely aware of the uncomfortable heat within his chambers.  He considered finding something to wear, but he was too hot to even bear the thought of clothing.  For now, naked was better.  He walked across the room to the terrace and leaned against the balustrade.  The sun was impossibly bright, and it was no less cool standing under it, but a faint breeze was enough to convince him that it was better there than inside. 

He heard his chamber doors opening down the stairs, but ignored it.  He was too tired still to tell anyone to go away.  He watched the grass below blow softly in the breeze and closed his eyes, contemplating returning to bed.

“Loki,” Thor said suddenly from behind him, interrupting his pondering.

Loki turned to face him, prepared to tell him to go away until he saw the tray of meats and cheese Thor held. 

“Oh, yes.  I’ll take that,”  he decided, already walking over for it.

Thor handed it over easily, watching Loki as he picked up the first morsel his fingers touched.

“What good timing you have.  Is someone spying on me?” he asked.

Thor shook his head.  “No.  You’ve been asleep for weeks.  Mother thought it best you eat, and sent me to wake you.”

“Mother does know best,” Loki agreed, stuffing his mouth full of cheese.

He looked up to see Thor staring at him, wearing that face he made when he wanted to ask a question, but didn’t know how to do it tactfully.

“What?” Loki asked.

Thor gestured vaguely toward his own face.  “What’s this?” he asked, before turning his vague gesturing toward Loki.

It took Loki a long moment to figure out the intent behind Thor’s awkward side-stepping of the question.  He scratched his face, and the pathetic scruff adolescent boys would claim as a beard.  “Right.  That.”

He shoved another piece of cured meat into his mouth before setting the tray down as he passed his desk.  Loki moved to the edge of his bed and called his rucksack from the void.  He dug his shaving kit out from the bottom as Thor watched, visibly straining against asking more questions.

“Father tells me you were in battle,” Thor said.

“Did he now?”  Loki took his shaving kit to the wash basin.

Thor followed him, watching curiously as he opened the kit.  He screwed the safety razor together and made sure the blade was in place before carefully setting it down beside the wash basin.  As he drew water to wash his face, Loki caught Thor still staring at him.  He stared back, already tired of prompting Thor to ask his questions.  They were spared further awkwardness as Fenrir ambled into the room, stopping to rest his chin on Thor’s shoulder.  Thor turned a wary eye to the massive black wolf, caught between leaning away from him and maintaining a noble amount of tact.

“Let him out for me, would you?” Loki said.  He returned to scrubbing his face, leaving Thor to this task.  After a tense pause, Thor turned to lead Fenrir down the stairs, and out the door to do whatever it was he did when Loki left him unattended.

With Thor gone, however briefly, Loki lathered the soap from his kit and began shaving the pathetic scruff from his chin.  It was difficult to manage in his Jötunn form, with hard ridges and sensitive skin both in the way.  As he navigated the troublesome maze that was his own face, Loki began to realise why Jötunn men grew no beards.  It also begged the question of why he did.

Loki had often wondered why he was so small, so oddly-shaped for a Jötun, and now this.  Not for the first time, he wondered how much truth there was to Odin’s story.  Why Odin had been so reluctant to find him a family deep in the city, away from critical eyes.  Why he had allowed time to run out until there was no choice but to keep Loki as his own.

Why Odin had given him a name for his own blood brother, himself a Jötunn magician long executed for crimes of mischief and cruelty.  A man Loki had never known, but with whom he shared a name curse.  What else didn’t he know?  What else hadn’t he been told?

Thor returned from his task, again turning that puzzled look to Loki.  “Where have you been?” he asked.

“Midgard,” Loki said.  He carefully traced the razor along one of the sensitive lines that ran down his neck, nearly cutting himself along the ridge as Thor laughed suddenly.

“You were battling with humans?” he asked.  “It could not have been much of a battle.”

Loki pulled the razor away and turned to face Thor directly.  “You know nothing of what I’ve been doing!” he shouted.  He did not know why Thor’s words had driven him to anger so quickly, other than being so plainly insulting straight to Loki’s face.

Thor took a step back into the corridor as his grin evaporated from his face.

“Get out,” Loki said, taking a quick stride toward Thor to close the gap between them.  “Or I’ll throw you out.”

Thor stepped back, giving Loki that same stupid, confused look.  A moment later, he turned back toward the stairs, leaving Loki alone.  Loki waited until he heard the door to the corridor slam shut before returning to his task.  Unbothered, it did not take him much longer to shave his face and finish cleaning up.  He tidied up his mess, making sure his razor was clean and dry before putting it back in its kit.  Loki felt like he could go right back to sleep, but his back and his bones ached from spending so much time in bed.  His shoulder still pulsed with a dull, constant pain, and as he rolled his arm to test it, the strain was enough to tell him to stop.  Carefully, he removed the dressing and inspected himself in the mirror.  The wound on his back had not healed, though it did look like it was trying.  It would have to do.

He shifted back into his Æsir form, deep blue skin shifting fair and soft, no longer thick and rough and covered in ridges; eyes sharp green instead of ruby red.  He kept his nails black, just enough of his true self shining through the costume he wore for the comfort of others.  He dressed simply, in a loose tunic and leather breeches, and left his chambers in search of a real meal.

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