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Tag: fic: Those Who Hunt Monsters

Those Who Hunt Monsters #16: Honour

Loki was at his desk in his rooms when he heard the Bifröst activate.  He was almost considering becoming concerned that the others might not find the Bifröst site on their own, but it seemed an unfounded worry.  With them all home, he suspected Thor would be barging into his rooms at any moment to start shouting at Loki for humiliating him in front of his friends.  Loki had a few choice things he wanted to shout back.

While he waited for the inevitable, Loki pored over a script, trying to determine which role he fancied auditioning for.  Fluellen, he thought.  He’d never been Welsh before, though he’d been to Wales and could imitate their language and inflections.  When he did finally hear the door downstairs open, and heavy footsteps on the stairs, Loki ignored it.  He preferred to let the fight come to him.

The one who let himself into Loki’s bedchamber wasn’t Thor, but Odin.  He stood by the door, surveying the disorganised stacks of books and papers and piles of clothing that littered the room.  It was not how a prince’s chambers should have been, but twenty-two years of insistences otherwise had failed to convince Loki to at least try to keep his rooms tidy.  With a tired sigh, Odin approached Loki’s desk, glancing down at the printed booklet before him.

“Another order you continue to ignore, I see,” Odin observed, recognising the language written on the pages.

“Your decree said only that the Bifröst is not to be opened to Midgard,” Loki said, not looking up from the script.  “I’ve not used the Bifröst to travel there for several years.”

“I know what I said,” Odin said.  “I spoke without knowing my own son would find away to twist my words against me.”

He didn’t speak with anger, but with weariness, tired of having the same argument again and again.

“Was there something you needed, Father?” asked Loki innocently.  “My three days are not yet up, so surely you aren’t here to discuss that.”

Odin’s gaze narrowed at Loki.

“Your brother just returned from Jötunheimr,” Odin said.

“Did he?” Loki asked distantly.  “And did he tell you how he made an idiot’s wager?”

Odin didn’t speak for a long moment, regarding Loki thoughtfully.  “He told me enough,” he said finally.  “Why do you do these things, Loki? Is it not enough that I took you in; gave you a home?”

Loki laughed incredulously.  “For which I am grateful, but what has that to do with Thor’s behaviour today? He comes home with his tail between his legs after showing off, and I’m the one to be blamed for his arrogance.”

“You led him there,” Odin pointed out.

“And I am not his keeper,” Loki insisted.  “As you so astutely pointed out last night, I am not even able to make the decisions he so poorly judged today.  You can’t accuse me of one thing, and then blame me for its exact opposite.”

Odin sighed as he turned away.  “No,” he agreed.  “I can’t.  I suppose I’m a fool to ever expect anything from you, unless it’s disappointment.”

Loki stared up at Odin in disbelief, speechless.  “Is—Is that it?” he demanded, getting to his feet.

Odin turned back to him and shook his head.  “What else would you have of me, Loki? You’ve given me no reason to believe otherwise.”

Before Loki could respond, Odin left the room, shutting the door behind him.  Loki covered his face and screamed, drowning out the sound of his father’s steps on the stairs.  He kicked at nothing and at everything, not even knowing where to direct his anger.  How had his day go so badly? How was it that nothing went as planned? For but a brief moment, Loki thought to be grateful that Odin hadn’t disowned him outright, but then he realised all the good it would have done.  Loki had all but disinherited himself years before.  He wasn’t even able to grant Odin that satisfaction.

As he swore and kicked stacks of books and whatever else his feet could find to kick, his door opened again, but he ignored it.  He didn’t want a second round, and wouldn’t grant that satisfaction.

“Loki, stop this,” Frigga said from behind him, her voice as hard and cold as Loki had ever heard it.

Loki stilled at once and turned cautiously to face her.

“Mother,” he greeted.  “I was just—”

“I know what you were doing,” Frigga cut him off.  “And don’t think I am not aware of what you’ve done this morning.”

“I’ve done nothing,” Loki insisted.

Almost faster than Loki could see, Frigga reached out and grabbed him by the ear, pulling him down to her eye level.  A minor scuffle with Odin, he could have handled.  It was even expected.  But he couldn’t remember the last time Frigga saw fit to discipline him.  He grit his teeth, hoping she would at least make her point quickly.

“Do you think Heimdall is the only one in this realm to see what transpires in it?” Frigga demanded.

Loki breathed heavily through his nose to keep from crying out.  He didn’t dare answer her and risk it, but he also didn’t have to.

“I know you schemed against your brother, though to what ends, I cannot fathom,” Frigga continued, twisting his ear once again.  “You will right this, and you will make amends.”

“Yes, mother!” Loki’s eyes were watering.

She let him go and lingered in his bedchamber long enough to give him a sad look.  Then she turned and left, leaving Loki stunned amidst his mess of books and papers.  Odin’s disappointment only made Loki angry.  Frigga’s made him want to weep.

***

Sif found Loki in one of the palace’s wide corridors, knocking his forehead into a pillar at a steady rhythm.  Though she couldn’t hear his curses, she thought she might have known what troubled him.  It troubled her as well, though perhaps for different reasons.  She kept her distance for a long moment, contemplating an oath she’d made years before.  While completely avoiding one another’s presence would have been impossible, she had honoured the agreement as well as she was able, as had he.  But this was a conversation she needed to have with Loki, and Loki alone.  Drawing in a deep breath, Sif steeled herself and approached him.

“Loki,” she said, announcing her presence.

“Go away.  I’m busy,” Loki said, in time with his head striking the golden pillar.

Sif stood her ground.  “Please.  I would like to speak with you,” she said.

Loki sighed, though he stopped pounding his head against the pillar.  Looking at it, he almost expected to see the indentations of horns where his head struck, but the gold was as flawless as ever.  He rubbed a hand over his forehead, finding it free of any budding horns.

“Then speak and be gone,” he said.

Nodding, Sif dared another step closer.  “I would like to thank you,” she said.  “For this morning.  Things could have gone very badly if you hadn’t spoken up when you did.”

Loki snorted.  “And now some other maiden is to be taken from her home and given away as a token.  And you would thank me for that?”

“No,” Sif said stiffly.  She held her spot even against the scornful look Loki levelled upon her.  “I know your feelings toward me, and know that you did not have to speak to defend me.  But you were right.  It was not Thor’s wager to make.”

“Did that burn your tongue to admit?” Loki asked. “How difficult was it for you to think that I might be capable of such things?”

This was not the conversation Loki wanted to be having.  There were far more important things to deal with than Sif’s emotion-driven apology.  Loki didn’t even want her apology.  He’d been happy ignoring her, and was happy to continue doing so.

“Loki, I would ask if we could start over,” she said.

He laughed suddenly, an incredulous bark that startled Sif into taking a step backwards.

“Start over?” Loki asked.  “Yes, it has been rather a long time since I was ever accused of being Thor’s shadow.  Shall we start there? Or perhaps I can cast some harmless charm? Dökkálfar, perhaps? It would be rather amusing to watch rumours spread of how Odin keeps an orc hidden away in his court, wouldn’t it?”

“Loki, please,” Sif pleaded.

Loki threw his hands into the air, amazed that she could still go on as she was.  “Please?” he asked.  “Please what? You’ve hated me ever since we were children.  I’ve only ever been happy to indulge you that fancy and return the favour.  Why stop now when we’re having so much fun?”

“I never hated you, Loki,” Sif said evenly.  “It was childish jealousy, but never hate.  The only hate I held was that Thor preferred your company to mine.  I regret my actions and would take them back if I could.  I am ashamed to say I acted without honour.”

“Honour?” Loki asked quickly, head cocked to one side.  Of course.

“Yes, honour,” said Sif.  “Surely you know if it.”

Loki didn’t answer her.  Instead, he turned to rush down the hall, leaving Sif alone where she stood.

Honour was exactly what he needed to solve Thor’s problem.  Thor would simply have to honour the terms of his wager.  Loki let himself into Thor’s rooms, pleased to find his brother sulking on the terrace.  He fiddled with the bandage wrapped round his arm, ignoring Loki.

“My rooms.  Quickly,” Loki said, crossing the room to grab Thor and pull him along.  “If we make haste, Thrymr will still be where we left him.”

Thor looked eagerly to Loki.  “You believe I can get Mjölnir back?” he asked.

“Or at least get you out of the terms of your idiotic wager,” Loki said.  “Quickly.  Come along.”

He let go of Thor and made quick tracks to his rooms, Thor close on his heels.  Loki led Thor up to his bedchamber and threw open the wardrobe.  Casting a quick glance back to Thor, Loki began to rummage through the over-stuffed wardrobe, tossing several garments aside.  Finally, he found a pink Nornir gown he thought would fit and laid it out on his bed.

“Dress quickly.  We haven’t got much time,” Loki said, going to the mirror to tidy his own appearance.

Thor looked at the gown and forced a laugh, hoping that Loki was only jesting.

“It is a lovely gown, Brother, but I do not think the colour suits me,” he said.

Loki tied his hair back into a tail and looked at Thor in the mirror.  “I don’t have anything in red.  That will have to do,” he said. 

Thor’s smile dropped at once.  “You cannot be serious,” he said flatly.

“Can and am.  Now quickly.”  Loki quickly preened, making sure his face was clean and he showed no signs of the stress of the morning.

Loki didn’t wait to see if Thor would do as he said.  He grabbed up his throwing knives from his desk, and one by one secreted them about his body.

“You think we’ll need to fight them?” Thor asked, still frowning at the gown on Loki’s bed.

“Insurance,” Loki said.  “If I have to tell you to dress once more, I will not help you.”

Loki’s words were enough to move Thor into action.  He quickly undressed and squeezed himself awkwardly into the gown.  A generous dose of magic from Loki, and the gown was loosened to fit him, and once it was all tied and pinned into place, Loki quickly arranged a veil over Thor’s face.  Loki could dress up himself to suit any occasion, but he could not work miracles.  He would just have to hope Thrymr did not look to close.

“Keep your head down,” Loki warned.  “Don’t let anyone see your face until you have that damned hammer, or you’ll never have it back.”

Thor scowled at the ground.  “Aye,” he said darkly.

Loki smiled as he adjusted the gown once more.  “A pretty bride for a pretty suitor.”

Before Thor could retaliate, Loki took his hand and returned to Jötunheimr.  When they landed, Thor leaned heavily against Loki, damning him for his favoured mode of travel.  Loki had long grown used to the way Yggdrasil bent around him to allow him to step across her boughs, but he gave Thor a moment to come to terms with the brief sickness it caused.

Loki had taken them directly to Utgard, only a few steps away from the mead hall.  Taking Thor by the elbow, Loki guided the way back past the angry guard, offering false flattery as he grudgingly let them in.  They found Thrymr still present, gloating about his victory to the crowd.  He used Mjölnir as a foot rest, having apparently already grown bored with it otherwise.  At the sight of it, Loki could feel Thor tense.

“Keep quiet,” he warned, holding Thor back.  “This will only work if you keep to your role.”

Loki led Thor to Thrymr, stopping just out of his reach.

“Thrymr, as promised, I return with the agreed prize for your earlier wager with my brother,” Loki said, guiding Thor to take a step closer.

Thrymr snorted.  “Where is he, then? Too ashamed to show his face here again?”

Loki smiled tightly, keeping his grip on Thor.  “Something like that,” he said.

Thrymr raked his eyes over Thor, taking in his heavy form underneath the gown he wore.  “She’s big for their kind, isn’t she?” he asked.

Loki held his smile.  “You have no idea,” he said.

After a few moments longer, Thrymr nodded.  He handed Mjölnir over to Loki, too busy pulling Thor close to notice the way the weight of the hammer nearly brought Loki to the ground.  As Thrymr held onto Thor, he nodded appreciatively.

“Let’s get a good look at you,” he said.  Before he could be stopped, Thrymr lifted Thor’s veil, and was met with a murderous scowl.  Thrymr shouted wordlessly and threw Thor to one side.

“Is she not pretty enough?” asked Loki, still bent over and holding onto Mjölnir’s handle.

Thrymr focused his attention on Loki, forgetting about Thor.  As he lunged forward, Loki tried desperately to lift Mjölnir off the ground in a blind panic.  Thrymr made to tackle him, but when he reached Loki, Thrymr fell straight through him as he dissolved into thin air.  At that moment, those watching the scene leapt up to assist Thrymr, putting Thor and Loki at the centre of a very unfair brawl.  Grinning with blood-lust, Thor took up Mjölnir, holding it threateningly above his head.  But the time for threats was long over.  Thrymr formed a blade of ice over his own arm and swung it at Thor.  Thor blocked with his hammer, shattering the ice over Thrymr’s arm.  He used the distraction caused to swing again, this time slamming the hammer into the side of Thrymr’s face.  Thrymr stumbled back, but didn’t fall, all the more angry.

As he once more attacked Thor, two more Jötnar descended upon Loki, finding their faces sliced open for their efforts.  Loki held onto two of his daggers, electing to slash with them rather than throw them in the close confines of the mead hall.  Loki easily dodged around the larger warriors, slipping out of their reach without his magic and disappearing completely with it.

Thor was more indiscriminate with his approach, using his melee weapon to its full effect.  He swung Mjölnir in large circles, taking down as many tables around him as he did those who wished to fight him.  Loki armed himself with a broken plank from one of the long benches, using it as an overly-large spear.  He swung and jabbed with it, keeping himself away from the large swords of ice some of the Jötnar wielded.

“I thought you hated this sort of thing!” Thor called out as he dislocated one Jötun’s jaw with an uppercut swing of his hammer.

Loki swung his plank, striking one Jötun on the side of the head while he jabbed his elbow into another’s throat.

“I do!” he said.

The distraction proved catastrophic for him as he found himself cornered between a high bench and Gangr.  Before Loki was able to slide away, Gangr grabbed Loki’s arm, burying it in his massive hand.  When he didn’t openly attack, it took Loki a few moments to realise what was being done.  The sleeve of his heavy tunic cracked and shattered as Gangr grinned, sharp teeth bared in Loki’s direction.

From Gangr’s hand, the dark blue pallor of Loki’s natural skin began to spread out, slowly seeping up his arm.  Loki looked up as the satisfaction on Gangr’s face turned to confusion.  Loki offered something like an embarrassed chuckle, confusing him further. 

“I never claimed to be half-blood,” Loki said.

Before the guard could regain himself, Loki headbutted him.  Though he had no horns like the man who held him, his head was hard enough to shatter Gangr’s nose and startle him into letting go.

Loki dared a quick look to where his glamour sluggishly took hold again, hiding his blue skin and replacing it with the pink skin of the Æsir.  At another time, he would definitely have to experiment further, but this was not the time.

“Thor, we must go!” he called out, fearing what might happen if those around him found out what he had for so long kept from them.

Without giving Thor the chance to argue, Loki lunged toward Thor.  As soon as he had Thor’s wrist in his hand, Loki took them home.  They landed in the gardens, Thor mid-swing.  Mjölnir came down to the ground with a deafening roar of thunder, and before all was quiet again, he picked the hammer up again and rounded on Loki.  With the gown torn and mangled, barely hanging off Thor’s waist, Loki almost laughed.  If not for the murderous glare Thor gave him, Loki would have.

“Loki, what have you done?” Thor demanded.

Loki took several quick steps back.  “I brought us home before you could do more damage than you’ve already done,” he said.  “I got your precious hammer back.  You should be grateful.”

“You humiliated me,” Thor shouted.  “You had me debase myself before them, and then before I could regain my honour, you have me flee like a coward.”

Loki clenched his fists at his sides.  “Fine,” he said.  “Do it your way next time.  If you’ll excuse me, I have an audition to make.”

He turned and stalked away, pushing past Sif as she ran toward Thor.  She barely had time to recover her step before he was inside the palace, disappearing behind the walls.  Seeing her approach, Thor brandished Mjölnir in Loki’s direction.

“Look at him run like a coward,” he complained.

Sif slapped him across the face.  She hadn’t planned on doing so when she sought him out, but she found she felt better for it.  “I am not yours to do with as you please.  If ever you behave as such again—”

“Nothing came of it,” Thor insisted.

Sif wanted to slap him again, but she stayed her hand.  “And to whom do you owe your thanks for that?” she demanded.

Thor started to answer, but silenced himself instead.  He wasn’t sure what answer she was expected, and wasn’t in the mood to work it out.  “I am sorry, Sif,” he said finally.

“I am not the only one you owe apologies to,” she said.

Thor studied her face for a few moments.  One of the things he so liked about her was her passion, but he had never seen it so twisted like this before.  Anger was unfamiliar on her, and it stung to have it directed at him.  He nodded slowly, finally dropping Mjölnir to his side.

“Yes, I… I think you’re right,” he said.

He left her in the gardens, tracing the path up to Loki’s rooms, where he was sure to find his brother sulking.  That Loki had humiliated him, he was not so quick to forgive, but he did have Mjölnir back for it.

Thor found Loki’s doors unlocked, which he took as a sign that he wasn’t entirely unwelcome.  He let himself in, climbing the stairs that led to Loki’s bedchamber.  He found the door ajar, but the room itself was empty.  Loki’s travelling bag wasn’t where it was kept by the sofas, and his desk was cleared of any books or papers.  Beyond that, the room looked exactly as it did when Loki brought him up here to change — a mess of books and clothes thrown about without care.

Sighing, Thor put Mjölnir down and took off the gown Loki had put him in, exchanging it instead for the tunic and breeches he’d left on the bed.  He didn’t think about where Loki might have gone off to.  He’d left before without warning.  Loki would come back, Thor told himself.  He always did.

« ||

Those Who Hunt Monsters #15: Plans

The dining hall was no place for animals.  Least of all, those the size of small horses.  Of course, the problem with letting a rule go broken once meant that it stayed broken thereafter.

Loki sat at a table with Alv and Vali, entertaining one another with embellished tales and uncouth jokes.  On Loki’s right sat Viðar, occasionally tugging on Loki’s sleeve and holding up a bit of meat from his plate.  Barely pausing at all, Loki turned to blow a puff of cool air onto whatever Viðar had this time deemed too hot to eat.  Other times, Loki would pick up something from his own plate and hold it in his mouth, inviting Fenrir to leap forward and snatch it away.  Loki laughed at the game, as did his friends, but every time those finger-length fangs were bared, Odin feared the worst. 

Odin waited for Loki to slip away from the group and followed after him, meeting him on the terrace that overlooked the bridge to the Bifröst.

“Loki,” he said, announcing his presence before getting too close.

“Yes?” Loki asked.

He turned, and even under the harsh light of the evening suns, he still looked like a boy.  Like all Jötunn men, Loki grew no beard on his chin, though even in his Æsir appearance it was plain his face had not taken any of the expected harder features.  Loki had not even noticeably aged in recent years.  Though he was tall for an Asgardian, Loki was still woefully short for a Jötun.  And for all his time spent in the ring since taking a serious interest in training, the boy hardly put on any bulk.  Standing in the sunset with his alien wolf at his side, Odin wondered if he’d ever really considered the ramifications of his act of kindness long ago.

Fenrir sat at his feet.  While watching the goings on in the garden below, Loki reached out to scratch the side of the wolf’s face, again heedless of fangs that could tear off a limb with no trouble at all.  Odin eyed the wolf warily before he spoke again, reminding himself that it was his son he’d come to speak with, and not the monster Thor had dragged into the realm.  Standing, the creature was almost as tall as Loki.  Despite being raised on Asgard, the wolf had no trouble at all growing it its full and proper size, bringing old suspicions to the front of Odin’s mind.

“Midwinter was your twenty-second nameday,” Odin said, as if the information had somehow passed Loki by.

“Yes,” Loki agreed.  “I seem to have a new one each year.”

Any other time, Odin might have found Loki’s remark humorous, but this time, it only irritated him.

“You have not yet taken your Rite—” Odin said.

“Nor do I plan to,” said Loki, cutting him off curtly.  “It’s an Æsir tradition.  I am not Æsir, as I know you’re aware.”

“You may not be Æsir, but you are Asgardian, and a prince of this realm,” Odin said, forgetting all about the wolf at Loki’s side.  “You have responsibilities and I will not allow you to ignore them further.”

Loki began to voice just how little he cared, but stopped himself short.  He had at least learned that lesson.  He knew he was not too old for Odin to drag him out of the palace by his hair again.  But he would not lose this.  He knew there was more than one way out of this absurd custom, even if he hadn’t thought of it yet.

“At least let me say my goodbyes,” he said with resignation.  “Thor wasn’t given the chance to do so properly and it plagued me.  Let me spare him that.”

Odin considered it and nodded.  “You have three days,” he said.  “Not a minute longer.”

Before Loki had another chance to renegotiate, Odin left him.  Loki watched him leave, and then looked down at Fenrir.  Fenrir licked his hand and Loki scratched his ear in return.

“I’ll think of something,” he said, stroking the wolf’s face again.  “We’re not going anywhere.”

***

Loki stayed all night in his chambers, scheming and pacing silently.  Odin was going to make him take Sjálfsmynd come Hel or high water.  Surely, there must have been some way to get out of it.  Some way to convince Odin to change his mind.  He was already a man, in age.  Why should he need to prove such things?

Or perhaps, Loki thought.  Perhaps there were ways to prove that fact without the year spent in exile.  How difficult could it be, truly?  As much as he liked leaving Asgard, the prospect of not being allowed to return until some arbitrary, undefined task was completed did not seem like fun.

He found Thor at breakfast with Sif on his knee and Fandral boasting loudly about some new deed or another.  As Loki neared the table, he and Fandral ignored one another in the name of courtesy.

“Brother,” Loki said, sitting close to Thor.  “I was thinking of making a trip to Utgard today.  Perhaps you would care to join me.”

Thor looked at Sif, and then back to Loki.  “What brings this on?” he asked.  “I thought you preferred to travel alone.”

Loki scowled at him.  “Father is making me take Sjálfsmynd,” he said, annoyed.  “I thought we might go somewhere first, before we find ourselves both too occupied to ever do so again.”

He cast a sideways glance to Sif, ready for a biting remark from her.  He was almost startled when instead, the remark came from his other side.

“I thought you would have done that already,” Fandral said.

Loki glared at him.  Fandral answered it with a shrug.

“As often as you’re away.  I thought it must have happened by now, is all,” Fandral reasoned.  He looked back and forth from Loki and Thor, as if he might find whatever answer he was looking for written on their faces.

“What do you say?” asked Thor suddenly.

Confused, Loki looked back to him, only to find the question was directed at Sif.

Sif cast a cautious glance to Loki.  He had not intended to invite anyone other than Thor, and could feel a heat rising beneath his collar at the extended invitation.  Over the years, he and Sif had made good on their pledge to avoid one another when possible, and now Thor was ruining plans by trying to drag her along on this trip.

She looked at Loki, then at Thor.  Loki could see her weighing options, though he said nothing.  If he hastily uninvited her, it would only call attention to his scheme.

“I should need to change first,” she said, getting to her feet.  “I shall only be a few minutes.”

Fandral watched her leave before reaching for his ale.  “I’m ready whenever.”

Loki resisted the urge to grit his teeth at Fandral inviting himself along as well.  He had not intended to bring an audience to Jötunheimr.  His plan would still work with one, but became more and more dangerous with each new person who tagged along.

“I need to see to Fenrir for the day, and then I will meet you in the stables,” he said evenly.

He left the dining hall as quickly as he could without running.  Fenrir had already been fed and given to the boy Loki employed to mind him during the day, but Loki had to get away from Thor before his anger got the best of him.  Sif was not invited.  Fandral was not invited.  And yet, they were both apparently going with.  Loki needed to calm himself before returning to their company.

As he rounded a corner, he came to Volstagg and Hogun, on their way to breakfast.  Volstagg was laughing at some unheard joke, but Hogun seemed to have neither heard nor cared.

“Friends,” Loki greeted with a false smile.  And then an idea struck him.  Perhaps the added danger of company could enhance his plan, instead of weaken it.  “Thor and I are organising a short trip to Utgard.  You should come.”

“And skip breakfast?” asked Volstagg.

“Surely we can eat there,” Loki said.  “My brother’s probably waiting already.  I was just on my way to meet him now.”

Volstagg looked over to Hogun and the two exchanged shrugs.

“Might as well,” Volstagg decided.  “You don’t have plans, do you?”

Hogun shook his head.

Grinning widely, Loki gestured in the direction of the stables, back the way the other two had come.

“Then let us not waste a moment longer,” he said.

They made quick time to the stables, where the other three already waited with their horses.  Loki’s horse was dressed as well, but the inclusion of the other two delayed their departure all the same.  Volstagg and Hogun quickly dressed their horses for the short ride to the Bifröst while Loki took his mount and considered the changes to his plans.

“We’d better be careful,” Fandral said, taking his own mount and moving his horse to stand beside Thor.  “They may mistake us for a war party.”

Volstagg laughed.  “Don’t try to seduce any of their women, and we should be fine.”

He and Hogun were soon saddled and the six of them were off, out the great golden gates of Asgard’s palace and across the rainbow bridge to Heimdall’s observatory.  Heimdall stood in his place as always, guarding the Bifröst and watching over Yggdrasil for trouble.

“You are not dressed warmly enough,” he said without preamble, as the group dismounted their horses and approached.

Loki was in no mood for the tedious mental sparring with Heimdall.  He was not surprised to find that the gate keeper knew of their intentions, but he was irritated at the delay all the same.  He seemed to be keeping a close eye on Loki, affording him little privacy.

“Heimdall, let us pass,” Thor demanded before Loki even had the chance to say anything.

“What business have you in Jötunheimr?” Heimdall asked, shifting his gaze just enough to make it plain that the question was directed at Loki, and Loki alone.

Thor either didn’t notice, or didn’t care, and once again spoke first.  “Our business is our own,” he said, not giving Loki a chance to speak.  “We are the sons of Odin, and we need not share our plans with anyone.  Let us pass.”

Heimdall gave the impression of glaring at the lot of them before stepping aside to grant access to the observatory.

“What’s the matter?” asked Volstagg as he walked past Loki.  “Silver tongue turn to lead?”

Loki glared at him, moving slowly to join the rest inside.

“Remember where the Bifröst takes you,” Heimdall warned.  “It is easy to get lost on Jötunheimr, and there are many places the Bifröst cannot safely land.”

“Loki goes to Jötunheimr all the time,” Fandral said confidently.  “Surely the Bifröst can’t be that dangerous there.”

“I have never sent him there before,” Heimdall said from behind them.

Loki rolled his eyes as the others sent nervous glances between one another, wordlessly questioning Heimdall’s meaning.  Suddenly, Heimdall drove his sword to the hilt into the pedestal and the group were all pulled forward off their feet and flung into the vastness of space with only a thin beam of light to guide their journey.  It was all over in only a few seconds, the silence of Ginnungagap now a ferocious roaring all around them, and then silence again.  They landed on the frozen tundra beyond Utgard’s walls, surrounded by a new silence; a silence only occasionally broken by the creaking of ice or the shifting of a far-off glacier.  Fandral and Sif both stumbled to regain their footing as they landed, while Volstagg remained steady on his feet.  Even Hogun barely swayed as he surveyed the landscape around them.

Utgard stood in the distance, far enough away not to be touched by the Bifröst, but close enough that an Asgardian would not freeze before reaching her gates.  Even from the distance, Utgard was a mass of icy spires that rose toward the black sky above.  They seemed almost to glow in the never-ending night; a towering beacon in a stark and unforgiving realm.

“Watch out for eagles,” Loki warned as he took the lead.  “They like to pick things up and take them.” 

Even he cast a wary eye toward the stars, imagining he might be able to hear one screaming high above them.  A flapping noise behind him stopped Loki in his tracks.  Fighting the urge to hide in a hole in the ice, he spun round, seeing Fandral donning his cloak in the snow.  Glaring at Fandral’s puzzled look, Loki turned to lead the way once more.

“I remember the eagles during the war,” Volstagg said.  “We never could figure out how to give those men a proper burial.”

Loki glared back at him, but said nothing.

They walked quickly across the hard, salty ice, reaching Utgard’s gates in little time.  Upon reaching the city, it was plain that the splendour seen from the Bifröst site had been nothing more than an illusion.  Many of the towers and spires crumbled in neglect, and the streets were bare, save the debris from whatever fell from above.

“There is no-one here,” Hogun declared warily.  He and Fandral both moved closer to Sif, but she stepped ahead of them quickly.

Loki ignored all of them.  “This place once looked like Asgard,” he said, craning his neck to look at the top of the nearest tower.

“You should have seen it,” Volstagg agreed.  “All of Asgard’s beauty, frozen in ice.”

“I would have liked to,” Loki said.

“We should not be here,” Hogun said all the same.

“Why are we here?” asked Sif.

Loki broke into a grin and turned to face the others.  “To have a bit of fun, of course.”

He disappeared into a dark hole in the wall, leaving the others with little choice but to follow after him.  What seemed like no more than a crack in the wall opened up into a small, but high room, with a single occupant guarding its single door.  The guard was large even by Jötunn standards.  He stood at least ten feet tall and had arms as big around as tree trunks.  But what the younger members of the party were staring at was the man’s horns, high on his brow and blue like the rest of him, fading to black at the tips.  They weren’t like a ram’s or a goat’s horns, but smooth, with a distorted S-shaped curve to them, sweeping back and then coming to point forward again like serpents ready to strike.  At the sight of him, Fandral and Hogun book took wary steps back, moving to put themselves between the guard and Sif.

The guard acted as if he hadn’t even seen them, however.  He turned his bored gaze to Loki instead.

“What are you doing here, Trickster?” he asked.

Loki smiled up at him without fear or apprehension.  “Why, Gangr.  We’re here to spend silver.  What else does a person do here?” he asked.

Gangr rolled his eyes and pounded his fist on the opaque ice door, commanding it to open.

“Stay away from the rooms, or I’ll throw you out myself,” he warned.

Loki bowed sarcastically to Gangr and walked through the door.  While Loki and Thor were unfazed by his presence, Volstagg cast him a wary glance as he passed the towering man.

“What rooms were those?” Fandral asked as Loki led them into a large mead hall that seemed to be carved out of a single large stone wall.

Like everything on Jötunheimr, the building had been formed from the very realm itself.  Utgard sat in a deep, narrow valley, bordered on three sides by high mountains.  They were not skilled craftsmen, like the dwarfs of Niðavellir, nor did they have the resources of Asgard to build their palaces out of precious materials, but they had ways of using the very ice they commanded to carve out large caverns and halls from the mountains.  It was a technology long lost to them, along with the Casket and most of their army during the last great war.

Now, with the city’s population dwindling and the mountain crumbling around them, once-abandoned spaces within the city became re-purposed.  What was once the house of a nobleman was now full of hard furniture and rough furs, all abused and barely holding together after years of serving what remained of Laufey’s army.  What had once been painstakingly polished wooden sofas and beds, imported from beyond Jötunheimr’s borders, now splintered and cracked, sitting incongruously against still battered and beaten stone tables and benches.

The hall itself was not as cold as it could have been, despite being made of ice.  If anything, the air was thick and cloying as any mead hall on Asgard.

“Lovely girls here,” Loki said to Fandral.  “But they don’t give private shows, no matter how much you offer.”

No sooner had Loki spoken, several dozen men — younger men, by their size — jumped to their feet and rushed to the Asgardians by the door.  At the sudden commotion, all but Thor and Loki readied themselves for a melee.  Though Thor had Mjölnir at his side, he didn’t raise it.  Instead, he shook his head fondly.

The mob descended upon Loki, who made no effort at all to defend himself, and instead only laughed as he was jostled about by a small army of men larger in every way than he was.  He laughed in the middle of the chaos, struggling to keep from being crushed.

“Yes, I should have known,” he said, reaching into one of his hidden pockets and pulling forth a small, brown parcel.  “I have lemon drops and peanut butter cups.  Who wants what?”

The area evolved into a barely-controlled chaos as men of all ages began to shove their way close enough to part with a silver piece in exchange for one of the strangely sweet little morsels Loki brought to their realm.

“What’s this, then?” Volstagg asked curiously, still holding his axe ready even as he inched closer to see.

Thor laughed and shook his head.  “Loki likes uncontrollable mobs,” he said.  “He likes uncontrollable mobs of children most, but drunken soldiers and hunters are close enough, I suppose.”

Fandral and Sif exchanged wary looks as Thor waved the group to follow him.

“Come.  Loki will catch up.”

Loki took every coin offered to him, exchanging them for handfuls of Midgardian sweets.  There weren’t many sweet things on Jötunheimr, and the introduction of such treats to Jötunn mead halls was guaranteed to cause a sensation.  Soon, the crowd thinned out, and Loki had room to breathe once more.

“It’s amazing they don’t all melt in here,” Fandral grumbled to himself.  “They’re made of ice, I thought.”

“Only when they choose to be,” Loki reminded him firmly.  He squeezed the back of Fandral’s neck just enough to be uncomfortable and dropped the temperature of his hands as a brief, but sharp reminder to hold his tongue.  Smiling at the rest of the group, Loki stood straight again and looked around with an open and innocent expression.  “Drinks, anyone?”

Sif glared suspiciously as a Jötun woman placed a large tray on the table, carrying a tankard for each of them.

“Fr—Jötunn mead is toxic,” she said levelly.  “Unless you wish us poisoned.”

The woman cast Sif a tired look, but said nothing while Loki gasped, as though positively hurt at her words. 

“Small beer, only.  I assure you,” he said.  “Thor hasn’t dropped dead from it yet, so I doubt very much that you will, unfortunately.”

While the rest got small beer, Loki picked up the lone cup of wine from the tray.  As he drank from it, he winked at Sif.

Sif glowered at him, taking a tankard in a show of spite.  Volstagg, ignoring their sniping, reached eagerly for a drink of his own.  “Well, then.  Don’t mind if I do.”

Thor took one as well, and soon after Hogun and Fandral followed.  Hogun made a show of sniffing at his until he was certain as he could be that he wouldn’t be poisoned by it, and eventually took a cautious sip.

“I remember coming to places like this before the war,” Volstagg said.  “They had a better selection then, but I don’t imagine Jötunheimr gets much trade these days.”

“And you should see the fortune I make because of it,” Loki said with a smug grin.  “Which, by the way.  I did promise breakfast, did I not?”

He dropped onto the table a bag made of brown paper.  Curious, Volstagg picked it up and peered inside, finding a few small, paper-wrapped parcels.  He took one of the larger ones and unwrapped it, finding a small, brown bowl with a flat top and ridged sides.  Confident in Loki’s lack of a desire to kill him, he popped the morsel into his mouth, and was immediately surprised to find it at once salty and almost unbelievably sweet.  He immediately went for another one.

“What in the Nine Skies is this, Loki?” he asked.

“Treasures from Midgard,” Loki answered, settling into a seat beside Thor.  “Some of the best in Yggdrasil come from there.”

The crowd around them followed a certain ebb and flow as everyone seemed to keep to some schedule marked by a time which almost stood still on Jötunheimr.  Utgard moved into spring, but the sun did not make itself known until the summer months began.  Still, something there marked the time, and those who lived there followed it, coming from and leaving to attend whatever their duties for the day.

Unlike the soldiers who patrolled Utgard’s barren roads, the men who came to the mead hall were not so scantily clad.  They dressed in furs from mammoths and polar bears, and covered themselves in jewellery made of horn, claws, teeth, and bone.  They wore their wealth for all to see, with beads of gold and precious stones and jewels sewn into the furs.

Horns were also not unique to the man who guarded the door.  The hall had high ceilings to accommodate them, but even then some would still scrape and gouge the ceiling if they were not careful.  Some of the men had runes and symbols carved into theirs.  Others still were held off-balance by a horn broken, and still struggling to regrow to match the other.

There were some boys as well; taller than any of the Asgardians still, but clearly boys all the same.  Loki took a special interest in them, watching while making it look as if his attentions were elsewhere.  He made a point of not staring, and only just managed it.

“When do you get yours,” Thor teased, nudging Loki with his elbow.

“Hush,” said Loki quietly.  “Never, if I’m lucky.”

Thor snorted.  “I don’t think they would suit your pretty face.”

“Shut up,” Loki spat back.

“Uh, lads,” Fandral said quickly, cutting in.  “Company.”

Loki looked up to where the others were staring, and brightened immediately.  He’d expected a tediously long wait, so seeing the one on whom his entire scheme was hinged approach the table was enough to make him forget to be annoyed with Thor.  He was taller than most of the other Jötunn men in the hall, with horns that bore the scars of being broken and cracked in several places.  As he stomped toward their table, the Jötun’s ruby gaze was focused directly at Loki.

“What are you doing here, Trickster?” Thrymr asked angrily.  “I thought I told you not to show your pale little face around here again.”

Loki smiled at him, ignoring everyone else’s nervousness.

“I’ll bet you ten silver pieces you change your mind on that,” Loki said, pouring the coins out onto the table.

“Fine.  You can stay.  Ha! I win!” As he collected the coins, realisation of what he had lost dawned on him.  “You little snake!”

“Manners, Thrymr,” Loki said sweetly.  “You’ll frighten my friends.”

Thrymr turned his attention to the others, sizing up the lot of them.  His gaze lingered on Sif for a few moments too long.  Loki said nothing, letting her squirm.  He still hadn’t quite been sure of bringing her along, but he was starting to warm to the idea.  Thor noticed Thrymr’s gaze as well and straightened his back, for the first time since their arrival showing anything other than open acceptance for Jötunheimr and her people.

Thrymr scoffed at what he saw and turned his attention back to Loki.

“Your friends are just as pathetic as you are,” he said.

Thor leapt to his feet, brandishing Mjölnir menacingly.  “You dare insult me?” he demanded.  “The son of Odin?”

Thrymr grinned widely, showing sharp, jagged teeth as he laughed.  He stepped closer, invading Thor’s space with his massive bulk.

“What are you going to do about it, little Æsir?” he asked.  “I could crush you and your friends now, but what would the sport be in it?”

His gaze fell once more to Sif, and suddenly Loki began to feel his plan fraying at the edges.  He’d hoped to use her unease to fuel Thor’s temper, but had not intended to involve her directly.  If he wasn’t careful, it would fall apart completely. 

Thor, enraged by the insult, stepped forward so quickly Fandral and Volstagg barely had time to hold him back.

“The only sport to be had will be me knocking the teeth from your skull,” Thor insisted.

Thrymr laughed again, as one would to indulge a small child making play at war.

“Thor, not now,” Loki insisted quietly.  He turned his attention back to address Thrymr.  “We came here to spend silver, nothing more.  We have no quarrel with you.  Do we, Brother?”

He jabbed an elbow to Thor’s ribs at the last word, but Thor paid him no mind.  Loki knew he wouldn’t.  As long as the quarrel stayed between Thrymr and Thor, the plan would work.

Thrymr smiled wolfishly, and Loki wasn’t sure if he should be pleased or not.  The Jötnar had their honour, and while Thor hadn’t outright insulted it, he was still dangerously close to doing so.

“Then let us spend it,” Thrymr said.  He dropped a leather purse onto the table, just out of Loki’s reach.  “Best me, and it’s yours.”

Loki eyed the purse, and even without counting its contents, knew it contained more than he had brought with him to Jötunheimr.

“I will match it,” Thor said all the same.

“Show me,” Thrymr insisted.

Thor couldn’t, and he faltered for a moment, not wanting to back out.  “You have my word,” he said.  “As the son of Odin, I—”

Thrymr laughed again, exaggeratedly loud so all in the mead hall might have heard it.  “Your word is no good here! Your father is a murderer and a thief.  I will not wager on your word.” He leered at Sif again, and this time Loki knew his plan was falling apart.

“You will wager with what you have,” Thrymr said.  “If I win, you will give me a wife.”

“Thor, no,” Loki insisted, grabbing Thor’s arm to try to pull him back.  “You can’t do this.  You don’t know what you’re doing.  This is madness.”

He had not wanted Sif involved.  While he might have been glad to rid her of Asgard, it was not the plan for Thor to wager her in an ill-conceived bet.

Thor shook himself free, elbowing Loki aside.  “Know your place, Brother,” he said.  He looked back to Thrymr and nodded.  “I accept.”

Loki grit his teeth as Thrymr grinned even wider than before and turned away. 

“The Æsir princess has challenged me!” he called to the room.

While Thor seethed and raised Mjölnir again, the hall around them erupted into chaos as a large space was cleared out, all tables and benches pushed aside.  Biting his thumbnail, Loki watched all of this in silence.  The plan was swiftly falling apart.  It wasn’t supposed to be a formal challenge.  Challenges had rules.  Drunken brawls did not.  Clearly, Thor’s pride was not a force to be underestimated.  Loki would have to think fast if he wished to avoid disaster now.

“There are rules here,” Loki said suddenly, hoping to at least put off disaster a bit longer.  “Rules you must obey or else forfeit.  No weapons, and no help.  This is a test of strength between the two of you, and you alone.”

Thor glared at him.  “You tell me this now?” he demanded.

“You didn’t let me speak,” Loki hissed back.

Thor raised his fist to strike Loki, but Volstagg stayed it.  Loki glared back at both of them, almost wishing Thor would strike him and give reason for Loki to abandon him to his fate.

“Might he perhaps back out?” Fandral asked hopefully.

Loki shook his head.  “No.  It would be considered forfeit and Thor would have to make good on his wager.”

Several wary glances were thrown in Sif’s direction, where she stood stiffly, glaring daggers at Thor.  Had she been capable of casting magic, Loki thought Thor might have been struck dead right there.

“Well, there’s nothing that can be done now,” Volstagg said, easing Thor’s arm down.  “We can only learn from it for next time, and have to win this time.”

Still glaring at Loki, Thor dropped Mjölnir to the ground and stepped into the cleared space.  Thrymr attacked at once, throwing a punch like a boulder at his face.  Thor dodged it, but only barely.  Aside from the rules Loki spoke, there were none.  No weapons, no help, no backing out.  Beyond that, all was fair game.  Thor rushed Thrymr, who stood to one side and before Thor could wheel round, attacked from behind like a coward, grabbing Thor and making himself too cold to touch.  Thor growled and scrabbled at Thrymr’s arms but without a weapon, it was an unfair fight.  None of Týr’s lessons mentioned anything of foes capable of freezing flesh right off the bone, but Thor hadn’t time to contemplate this oversight.

Thrymr seemed to go out of his way to fight unfairly.  At a time when Thor almost managed to pull him into a choke hold, he was stopped by sharp teeth digging into the flesh of his arm.  Thor wrestled his arm away by slamming his other fist into Thrymr’s nose, bloodying it until he released his bite.  He managed to step away, casting a quick glance down to his arm as blood ran from the wound.

All around him, the crowed jeered and laughed as wagers were made on the outcome of the duel.  Suddenly, Thor no longer cared about a fair fight.  The son of Odin would not be so openly mocked.  As he backed up to a long table, he thought he could hear a shout in protest, but he ignored it.  There was a large glass wine bottle behind him, and unthinking Thor picked it up and heaved it at Thrymr’s face.  As it connected with its target, the laughter around him turned to deafening anger.  Thrymr stood still, unfazed by the blow but angry all the same.

“The Odinson forfeits,” Thrymr declared to the crowd.  “I am the victor!”

As the crowd began cheering for Thrymr, Thor returned to Loki’s side, seething.  Before he was able to voice his complaints about the match, Loki released a barrage of wild slaps to Thor’s head, silencing anything he might have said.

“You stupid, stupid idiot!” Loki scolded.  “What the Hel were you even thinking—”

Before his slaps could turn to punches, Volstagg and Hogun pulled him away, holding him back with all their strength.  The look they shared before turning to glance to Thrymr kept Thor silent as the Jötun neared their group.

“I’ll be having my prize now,” Thrymr said, leering opening at Sif.

“No,” Loki protested before he realised it.  “Not her.”

Under any other circumstance, he would have been delighted to be so completely rid of Sif.  But not when he was so directly responsible.  Not when the blame could come back to him.  Somehow his plans had fallen apart before they even took off.  His only choice now was to find a way to save Sif from Thrymr’s grasp.

“I was promised a wife,” Thrymr said.  “She’ll do nicely.”

“She most certainly will not,” Sif snapped.

Loki gently nudged her away from Thrymr, putting himself between the two of them.  “She’s spoken for already,” he said.

Sif looked to him, her expression sour.  Loki ignored her, keeping his own gaze on Thrymr.

“I can handle this myself,” she said.

Loki levelled a conflicted glance at her, clenching his jaw to keep from saying anything to make the situation any worse than it already was.  Before his tongue could slip, Fandral took Sif by the arm and guided her back further still.

“Perhaps it would be wise to stand this one down,” he suggested.

She glared at him, but said nothing more.

“I will return to Asgard and find a wife for you there,” Thor said.  “This I swear.”

All jest was gone from Thrymr as he turned his sneer to Thor.  “You expect me to take your word.  You’re as stupid as you are arrogant.  I want that one.  I won her, and they all saw it.” He gestured to the increasingly restive crowd around them.

Behind him, the crowd had silenced, watching the scene as Thrymr argued for the prize he had rightfully won.

“Then I will stay behind,” Loki volunteered quickly.  “As ransom, until such time as Thor returns.”

“Your word is worth even less than his, runt,” Thrymr growled.  “I wouldn’t trust you not to slay me while I slept.”

Loki snorted before he could stop himself.  “At least I have never wagered that which I had not to give.”

Thrymr glared at him, finding Loki unmoved by the display.  “Then I’ll have this as ransom,” he said.  He reached down for Mjölnir where it sat on the ground and took it as if it were a mere trinket.  “It will make a good door-stopper, I think.”

Thor growled and Loki buried his face in his hands.  As ransom, he could have left any time he wished.  Mjölnir would have to be retrieved.

“Fine,” Loki said tiredly.

“What?” Thor demanded.  “It’s not yours to give.”

Behind them, Sif snorted.

“And neither is a wife yours,” Loki spat back.  “Or are you setting out to become a tyrant before you ever take the throne?”

There was an awkward silence as Thrymr grinned lecherously.  Finally, Loki sighed.

“I’m going home,” he declared.  “Follow me or don’t.  I care not.”

He left the mead hall, avoiding his own reflection in the ice around him.  How his plan had failed so completely, he had no idea.  How difficult should it have been to talk Thor out of another foolish plan and prove himself the proper man of the two of them? Thor could be impulsive, Loki knew, but this was a shock to even him.  A drunken brawl, some hasty negotiation.  It should not have been so difficult.

He didn’t even wait for the others to catch him up.  Rather than returning to the Bifröst, Loki simply went home in his own way.

« || »

Those Who Hunt Monsters #14: Pack Animal

Until Loki took his Rite, he would remain a child in the eyes of Asgard.  Though he was old enough to be a man, his duties reflected a much younger age.  It gave him plenty of time to do as he wished, and what he most wished to do was skulk around in the shadows.  Asgard was abuzz with talk of another war looming.  Though Vanaheimr threatened to declare war, their realm would fall in an instant, Loki knew.  There was nothing interesting about the affair at all.  Just a bunch of puffed up, inflated egos throwing themselves around.

Perhaps his disinterest had something to do with what had started as a dull ache in his bones, but it had spread over the weeks until it seemed to all but consume him.  He felt sick and stiff, as if he’d spent all day working without having slept the night before, and he felt it almost constantly.  At least in the shadows, he could observe without being forced to participate.

Eventually, even the shadows lost their appeal and Loki retreated to his bedchamber.  The noise of the palace made his now ever-present headache seem even worse, and it was no use asking, demanding, or even commanding that everyone be quiet for a time.  His rooms were at least quiet, well out of the way of the rest of the palace.

He stretched out on the un-made bed and closed his eyes, breathing evenly.  With quiet came boredom, and Loki let his mind wander.

By now, Thor had moved beyond Niflheimr and travelled the roads of Vanaheimr.  Loki recognised the town almost at once and smiled to himself.

“You should go to Niðavellir,” he said, letting his voice carry across Yggdrasil.  “If Andvari’s not in port, he will be soon.  I’m sure he’ll ferry you across for a price.”

Thor stopped in his tracks and looked round, realising only a moment later that the voice he heard was inside his head.

“I will not,” he said sternly.  “And this is forbidden.  You will get us into trouble.”

“No, trouble is you being in Vanaheimr right now,” Loki said.

Thor continued on his path, leading away from the docks.

“Or haven’t you heard yet?” Loki asked.

“Heard what?” asked Thor.  He passed by two men, glaring at the wary way they watched him.

“I can hear you even if you don’t speak,” Loki said.  “I’ve been practising, remember?”

Thor rolled his eyes and trudged on.  There were many taverns and brothels in this corner of Vanaheimr, and their patrons filled the area near the ports.  But Thor did not visit for them.  Not this time.

“You should know Vanaheimr’s declared war,” Loki said after a moment.

Thor stopped again, this time looking for a quiet place to speak openly.

“Why?” he asked aloud as he ducked into a space between two tall buildings.  “Father has been very kind to them.”

“Apparently their puppet king thinks we’ve kidnapped his puppet daughter,” Loki said. 

“Your betrothed?” Thor asked, watching the foot traffic on the road.

“She’s obviously run away, but I think Iri’s welcoming the opportunity to challenge Father, in whatever shape it comes,” Loki said, his voice coming from deep inside Thor’s skull.

Suddenly, everything around Thor seemed a threat.  If what Loki was was true, Vanaheimr was more dangerous than any other realm in Yggdrasil.

“Why?” he asked again.  “It makes no sense.”

He could hear Loki laugh in his head.  “I’d run away too, if I were betrothed to me,” said Loki.

“Loki,” Thor scolded.

“That’s fine.  I didn’t want to marry her anyway,” Loki went on.  “I bet she looks like Freyr.  They probably all bed their sisters there.”

“Loki!” Thor repeated.

“My advice to you, Brother,” Loki said, his voice suddenly serious.  “Complete your quest and come home.”

“I cannot,” said Thor.  “I have not yet found what I seek.” He dared to step back onto the road, wondering how well-recognised he would be there.

“Then complete your quest and find somewhere else to be.”

Thor could feel Loki leave then, as if whatever grip he held had been released.  He thought on what Loki had said, and whether there might be a way to stop the war before it ever had the chance to start.  If nothing else, as Asgard’s crown prince, it was his duty to find out.

On Asgard, Loki found himself restless once more, despite the constant headache that kept him in bed.  He left his chambers, making his way to the throne room where Odin and Vanaheimr’s King Iri were speaking.  Loki quietly let himself in, watching the pair of them as he walked along the edge of the room.  Neither man had any guards with him, as a show of good faith, but Loki knew from experience that Odin was prepared for a fight.  He held his arms stiff at his side, keeping his feet apart.  Iri stood to mirror him, and Loki wondered if maybe they shouldn’t just hit one another a few times and settle their differences that way, since it was what they both clearly wanted to do.  Despite this, both spoke with calm anger, neither backing down to the other’s position.

“You dare accuse Asgard of this crime?” Odin demanded.  “You rule because I made it so.”

“What point is there in ruling if I must pay tribute with my own daughters’ lives?” Iri said, stepping into Odin’s space.

“It is betrothal, not tribute,” said Odin.  “From where I stand, you have broken our treaty.  Perhaps it is Asgard who should declare war.”

Loki walked a wide line around the room, watching the two argue back and forth.  He stopped at the wall behind Odin, putting his father between him and Vanaheimr’s king.

“What would be the point in any of it?” Loki asked suddenly.  He regretted it as soon as he felt the sharp spike behind his eyes, but he repressed the wince that followed.  He crossed his arms and leaned against the wall as if Odin and Iri had interrupted his own musings.

Odin and Iri both turned to look at him where he stood against the wall.

“Asgard has nothing to gain from a war with Vanaheimr,” Loki said.  “We already own the land, even if you do rule it for us.  Your armies are under our command.  Who would fight your war? Or have you already broken your treaty and formed armies of your own?”

For a moment, Odin looked as though he was about to reprimand Loki for speaking out of turn, but he turned to Iri instead.

“You were asked a question,” he said, folding his arms.

“And why should I answer?” demanded Iri.  “He’s probably the one who took her.  I’ve heard about the things this one gets up to.”

Loki rolled his eyes dramatically, and another sharp spike of pain cut through his skull.  “Why would I take that which would shortly belong to me anyway?” he asked.  “I cannot even wed until after I’ve taken my Rite, so what use would she be to me now?”

Loki stepped closer to Odin, leaning in to speak as he approached.

“Father, how do we even know the princess is truly missing?” he asked.  “And that this is not all just a ruse to distract us from something bigger?”

“My daughter is missing, and you accuse me of the crime?” Iri practically growled as he stepped close to Loki.

Loki looked at him plainly, but he had to hold his entire body stiff to keep from stepping back.  Iri was a brute of a man, slightly taller than Loki and wide and gruff.  The thought of being one day related to the man was almost sickening.

“Perhaps instead of accusing others, you should focus on finding her,” Odin said.  “If I declared war every time I lost track of one of my children, Yggdrasil would never know peace.”

“Then perhaps you should keep a tighter watch on your children,” Iri said, glaring at Loki.

He turned and walked out of the hall, the dark cape he wore fluttering behind him.  Loki and Odin watched him go in silence, neither knowing what would happen next.  Iri made his exit with the clang of the heavy golden doors.

“This could have all been easily avoided,” Odin said, turning a stern look to Loki.  “I don’t know what mischief you have been up to lately, but I do not see you for weeks.  And now you make yourself known to antagonise Vanaheimr?”

“Why does everyone always presume that I am lying?” Loki asked.  He rubbed his temples slowly, finding it more and more difficult to ignore the ache in his skull.

Odin couldn’t stop the sigh that escaped him.  “Loki,” he said wearily.

“I was only trying to help, Father.” Loki turned to face him, his expression open and tired.  “If I’m honest once more, I’m glad she’s gone.  She should be marrying Thor anyway.”

“Thor is my oldest,” Odin said evenly.  “You know how this works.”

“Like Hel he is,” Loki said.  Eir never seemed to be able to pin down any specific time of year, had been consistent in one regard.

Odin looked to Loki for only a moment before turning to walk away.  “Of course,” he said.  “I shall have to inform Týr of this error at once.”

“I’m sorry, I misheard you,” Loki said quickly.  “Of course Thor is your oldest.”

At least with the princess missing, Loki would not be forced to wed anyone, whereas Sif had the annoying habit of always being where she was meant to be.  And Loki liked that prospect even less than his current one.

Loki walked with Odin into the weapons vault beneath the throne room, staying always half a step behind his father.  He kept to the edges of the room, where the light from the fire pits didn’t quite reach his sore eyes.

“When Thor returns to Asgard, it will be as a man,” Odin said, stopping before a small dagger on a pedestal.

“Goody for him,” Loki said under his breath.  He looked down at the dagger, knowing Odin’s intentions for it.

“It doesn’t suit him,” he said.  “He’d accept it, but he wouldn’t like it.”

“And you know better?” asked Odin levelly.

Loki knew that he did.  He cast around the vault until his eyes fell on something tucked away in a dark corner.

“That,” he said, pointing.

Odin turned to look at the mighty war hammer and smiled.  “There is a story behind that one,” he said.

“Tell me?”

Odin walked toward the hammer and took it from its perch, holding it up to study the runes marked on the side.  They were dwarven runes, used to work magic into the metal itself, and one of the few written languages even the Alltongue didn’t know.  It was a magic Loki did not know, and could not study, as dwarves only shared their language with their own kind.

“Mjölnir was one of my blood-brother’s finest achievements,” Odin said.  “Not unlike you, Loki was always finding trouble for himself.  When he decided he wanted a weapon crafted by the Sons of Ivaldi, nothing else would do.  Getting it nearly cost him his life.”

Odin offered the hammer over to Loki.  Loki took it by the handle, and when Odin let go the hammer fell to the ground, nearly taking Loki with it.  Watching Loki try to pick it back up from the ground, Odin chuckled.  No matter how hard Loki pulled, how much of his scrawny strength he put into it, the hammer would not move.

“He tricked his way into possessing that hammer,” Odin said, picking it back up from the floor and returning it to its place.

“Let me guess.  The dwarfs were not pleased,” Loki said dryly.  He watched the way Odin moved the hammer easily, having only to mind that he put it down carefully to keep it from crashing into the pedestal.

“To say the least,” Odin agreed.  “But he got his hammer in the end.  He was never able to lift it, though.  It took me years to discover why.”

“A name curse?” Loki asked.  “Those are meant to go the other way.”

Odin ignored Loki knowing even that much about such magic.  “I suppose they hated Loki so much, they intended to punish any who bear his name.”

“Do your next son a favour,” Loki said.  “Don’t name him for an idiot.”

***

Thor’s return to the realm three days before his nameday sent Asgard into barely-controlled chaos.  With the crown prince back in his place by his father’s side, Midwinter celebrations began early.  Everyone in the palace scrambled to be sure that everything was perfect and that the celebrations would go as smoothly as possible.  As soon as it began, Loki retreated to the silence of his rooms, away from the noise and clatter.  It seemed every light, every sound, every vibration made him want to be ill.  It was a feeling he had managed to ignore for months, but it seemed the noise surrounding Thor’s return only brought it all back to the front.

He thought he might catch up on the news of the latest war on Midgard, but the stack of papers by his bed seemed suddenly daunting.  He wondered what the point of it even was.  The humans would slaughter one another until one side could take no more, there would be a brief peace, and then another war would break out barely a month later.  Their lives were so short, they hardly had time to learn from their mistakes.  In a fit of ennui, he picked up the stack of papers and threw them into the fire pit at the centre of the room.

***

Thor thought he might never get away from all the fanfare.  After meeting with his father to explain his deeds during his travels, it seemed everyone in the court wished to meet with him as well.  It wasn’t until almost midnight that he was able to sneak away and ascend the stairs that led to the royal chambers.

He passed by his own doors and let himself into Loki’s rooms instead.  They were dimly lit, but even then Thor could see that they had not been kept up.  If Loki had time to chase away the serving girls and maids, then he hadn’t been doing any travelling of his own.  At least not recently.

“Loki?” he called out cautiously.

He began to climb the stairs leading to Loki’s bedchamber, finding the door ajar.  Thor pushed it open and peered in at the mess inside.

“Loki, are you in?” Thor asked.

“No,” Loki answered from the dark.

Thor frowned and pushed his way in, finding Loki on his bed beneath a pile of furs and blankets.  He pulled them away to find Loki still dressed beneath them all.

“Go away.  I’m not here,” Loki complained.

Thor resisted arguing the fact that Loki was, clearly, there.  “You will make yourself sick like this,” he said instead.

He reached for a small lamp Loki kept on the shelves around his bed.  It was nearly brimmed with water, with a small mesh cup suspended in the small space above the surface.  Thor pulled out the pin that locked the cup in place and the cup dropped into the water, submerging the stones it held.  When the stones touched water they glowed bright blue, letting off enough light for Thor to see by.

Loki barely sat up to glare at Thor, the effect rather ruined by the hair over his eyes.

“So he went with the hammer after all,” he said, eyeing Mjölnir still in Thor’s grip.  “Good.  I was afraid he wouldn’t listen.”

Thor looked down at the hammer.

“Loki, how long have you been in here?” he asked.

Loki reached for the lamp, but Thor pulled it away.

“Couldn’t this have waited until morning?” Loki asked tiredly.

“I wished to see you,” said Thor.  “When you were not there to greet me, I became concerned.”

He reached out, but before he could make contact, Loki pulled away sharply.

“No,” Loki snapped.  The very idea of being touched made him feel ill, though he didn’t know why.  “Just leave me be.”

Thor hesitated to leave, but Loki quickly reached out, dodging around him.  He reset the lamp with one hand and pulled the blankets back over himself.  As the light from the stones slowly faded, Thor reached for the blankets once more.

“Go away,” Loki said from beneath the pile.

Only able to assume Loki was tired from his own adventures, Thor slowly turned to leave.  He shut the heavy door behind him as he made for his own rooms.  He would simply have to greet his brother in the morning.

Loki did not attend breakfast, nor could he be found on the grounds after.  Finding his confusion growing to concern and worry, Thor once more sought Loki out in his rooms.  Even upon returning from his travels, Loki could usually be persuaded to leave his rooms to be social.  By Volstagg’s occasional questions, Loki was still training, though he had not attended in quite some time.

Again, Thor visited his rooms and found him still dressed and asleep beneath a pile of furs and blankets.

“Loki, why don’t we go riding?” Thor asked as he tried to pull the blankets away.

Loki reached for them again, and even in the low light of winter, Thor could see that his usually dark skin had paled as though he were ill.

“No,” Loki snapped.  He pulled the blankets over him again, tucking the edges under himself to keep Thor from taking them once more.

Every inch of him hurt, but he didn’t know why.  Before, he’d been able to ignore it, but somehow Thor’s return to Asgard seemed to make it worse.  He felt he might explode if anyone dared even touch him.

“I said go away,” Loki groaned.

Thor cast around the room in confusion, but found nothing to explain Loki’s behaviour.  The room was in its usual state of disorder, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary at all.

“That was last night,” Thor said, not sure what else to say.

“Then go away again.”

Thor sneered at Loki’s stubbornness.  “I will go away and I will fetch Eir,” he said.

“Fine,” said Loki.  “As long as going away happens, you can do as you please.”

“I will.”

Thor left, angry with Loki for behaving as he did and angry with everyone else for allowing it.  He stomped down the stairs and through the corridors of the palace, but he did not go to Eir’s rooms.  For what could he say to her? That Loki was being even more impossible than usual? Thor had been gone over a year.  How was he to know what the usual even was now?

As he stormed out to the grounds, he remembered Mjölnir by his side, the mighty war hammer he had been entrusted with and told never to let leave his sight.  It was a fine hammer, he realised, for smashing things.  And that was exactly what he intended to do with it.  He brought it upon the first obstacle he came upon; a large and ancient apple tree, empty and bare for the winter.  It stood no chance against the uru metal, and shattered and fell as soon as the blow landed.  Whether the crack was from the wood, or some sudden thunder, Thor neither knew nor cared.  He brought the hammer down on the splintered stump, and again it shattered with a far greater sound than it should have done.  Another strike, another roar of angry thunder, and all that remained of the tree was a million tiny splinters on the cold ground.

It did nothing to calm Thor’s anger.

“Idunn will not be happy to see what you have done.”

Thor spun round to see his father behind him, watching the scene with detached calmness.

“It is Loki,” Thor said.  “He ignores me.  He deliberately makes himself ill to spite me.  I am angry, Father.”

“And so you take it out on Idunn’s apple trees?” asked Odin.  “These are the only happiness that woman has, and you would destroy that because you do not get your way?”

Thor looked down at the mess he’d made.  Idunn had other trees in her orchard.  She would not miss this one.  Still, he burned with shame when he realised the control he’d lost.

“Perhaps you can speak to him,” Thor suggested.  “Since he will not speak to me.”

“Your brother and I have not spoken for weeks,” said Odin, his gaze still lingering on the fallen apple tree.  “I suspect he prefers it that way.”

For but a moment, Thor thought Odin might say something more on the subject.  Instead, Odin turned and started to walk away.

“I expect you to make amends for this,” he said.

Thor resisted the urge to bring his hammer down once more out of spite.  Instead, he went to see Eir.

On Eir’s advice, Thor never stopped visiting Loki.  Every day, he let himself into Loki’s chambers, and every day, Loki grew more and more distant and angry.  The closer Thor tried to get, the harder Loki pushed him away.

Sometimes, Loki was in bed.  Other times, he paced restlessly through his rooms.  Nothing he did made the ache go away.  The more Thor visited, the worse the ache became until it drowned everything out.  Finally, he took to locking his doors to keep everyone out.

It was clear to Thor that Loki was never going to let him get close any time soon.  Thor didn’t have to like that, but he did accept it.  There were other things he could do that might help ease whatever pain Loki suffered.  He did not seem so quick to forgive Thor for leaving, as he’d hoped Loki would have been, so a peace offering seemed the best avenue.  Something special that Loki could use.  It took almost a month to find the right gift, and even as he searched, Thor still visited daily, even if it meant just standing outside the door and shouting through it until he got bored.

Finally, Thor found what he was looking for on Jötunheimr.  The witch who sold it to him seemed convinced it would help, after listening to Thor’s explanation of the the problem.  He parted with five silver pieces in exchange for the squirmy little bundle, which he took immediately back to Loki’s rooms.  Finding the doors mercifully unlocked, Thor made his way upstairs to the bedchamber, where Loki slept beneath his mountain of furs.  Thor said nothing, making no attempt to wake him as he placed the small bundle on the bed.  Making sure it stayed more or less in the same place, Thor spared a glance to Loki and beat a hasty retreat to his own rooms.

Loki awoke a few moments later to something wet on his face, and a high-pitched whine in his ears.  He moved to push the offending item away, but it only squirmed right back onto his face.  He finally opened his eyes to see a small wolf pup before him, with fur as black as the night, and its eyes still closed.  It turned to burrow in close to him, but Loki sat up and picked it up by the scruff of its neck.  He ignored its whines and protests as he got out of bed and walked to the door, never bothering to make sure he presented an acceptable appearance.  The entire palace could see him as he was, in his true form for all he cared.  He took the pup to Thor’s chambers and dropped it on the large padded chair by the door.

“This made its way into my room,” Loki said.  “It seems like the sort of thing you’d like.”

Thor looked up from his task.  He sat against a wall, sharpening his axe with a whetstone.  When he saw Loki, he smiled almost sadly.

“It was a gift,” Thor said.  “I meant it for you.  I thought you might enjoy having some company that didn’t shout at you for a change.”

Loki regarded Thor suspiciously for a moment, before returning his attention to the pup.  Already, it cried at being abandoned, even though Loki and Thor were both in sight.

“It’s old enough to be away from its mother, but it still needs to be around others,” Thor said.  “Animals that wander off on their own freeze on Jötunheimr’s tundras.”

Loki continued to watch the pup’s pathetic cries for attention, wondering what it would do if it went ignored for too long.  He didn’t know much about wolves or dogs, but it did not seem old enough to be away from anything, much less its mother.

“Since when are you an expert on Jötunn fauna?” he asked.

“I am not,” Thor admitted.  “I can only tell you what I was told.  She said that creatures taken from their dens often fail to thrive if left to themselves for too long.   Most creatures on Jötunheimr are pack animals, and need to stay with their packs to survive.”

“I see.” Loki watched the pup for a few moments longer before picking it back up.  It quieted almost at once.  “One stolen Jötunn runt for another.”

He stared at the pup in his hand, wanting nothing to do with it.  Loki was no more Jötunn than he was Asgardian.  He knew nothing of one realm, and had no place in the other.  And now Thor had given him a pet that would suffer the same fate.

“Well, come along, Fenrir,” he said, spitting out the name as if an insult.

“Oh, you have named it already!” Thor declared happily.

Loki turned to leave.  “No I haven’t,” he said as he walked out the door.

It was another week before Thor saw Loki outside his room again, though this time he had at least spared a moment to comb his hair and see to his appearance.  He had the wolf pup with him, and sat on the ground in a narrow corridor as he tried to coax the pup into eating a piece of roast pheasant.  Though perhaps not quite so difficult as hand-feeding a gryphon, it was no small task.  The pup would sniff at the meat Loki offered, but hardly seemed to know what to do with it otherwise.

“It’s food,” Loki told the pup irritably.  “You eat it.  Like a civilised person.”

The pup became more interested in Loki’s face then.  It tried to climb up his chest and reached up to lick Loki’s mouth curiously.  By now its eyes had opened, cloudy and blue like ancient ice.

“Must we do it this way every time?” Loki complained.

As it turned out, despite what Thor had told him, the pup had not been ready to leave its mother.  Like many Jötunn mammals, if left to its own devices, it never would have left its mother’s den at all.

When the pup began to whine, Loki rolled his eyes and put the bit of pheasant meat into his mouth, letting only the smallest bit poke between his teeth.  He bent his head down and the pup eagerly reached up to take the meat from his mouth.

Thor watched all of this, and could not help but laugh as the pup licked at Loki’s mouth for more.

“Are you that thing’s mother now?” he asked.

“No,” Loki said, wiping his mouth with his hand.  “Shut up.”

Thor sat down beside him and reached out to scratch the pup behind the ears.

“Have you decided on a proper name yet?” he asked.

“What’s wrong with Fenrir?” Loki replied, trying once again to coax the pup into taking the meat from his hand.

Thor laughed again.  “That is not a name,” he said.

“Why not? He’s a Jötunn wolf.  That’s the Jötunn word for wolf.  It’s a perfect name.” 

He tried to push the pup away from his face, but it fought against him.  Loki sighed and brought the pheasant back to his mouth.

“This can’t go on much longer,” he warned.  “You will learn to eat like a civilised person.”

« || »

Those Who Hunt Monsters #13: Distance

Fandral spotted Loki off to the side of the training ring at exactly the wrong moment to be distracted.  It was only the briefest hesitation, but Hogun pressed it to his advantage and swung low, striking Fandral in the side and nearly bringing him to his knees.

“I think we’re done here, don’t you?” Fandral said, clutching his side.

“If you say so,” Hogun said.  Whether he was agreeing or complaining, Fandral couldn’t tell.

Either way, he got up and trotted uneasily to where Loki stood.

“Don’t touch me,” Loki said, though he made no effort to step away.

Fandral stopped short, unsure what to make of the command.

“Oh, you can hear me,” Loki said with surprise.

“Of course I can hear you.  You’re standing right here,” Fandral said.

“No I’m not,” Loki said.  He stood before Fandral, barely moving with his back straight.  If it highlighted his recently-acquired height, it wasn’t the intent.

Fandral narrowed his gaze.  “You are,” he said.  “I can see you.  You’re right here.”

“I’m in bed,” Loki said.  “I didn’t expect this to work.  It didn’t before.”

Even more unsure than before, Fandral reached out to touch Loki’s arm.  Instead, his hand passed straight through Loki’s flesh, as though he were a ghost.

“I told you not to do that,” Loki said.  He didn’t pull away.  Didn’t move or step back, like he was glued to his spot.

“Magic?” asked Fandral.

“Of course.” Magic that Loki had been toying with for months, but had only just cracked.  Magic that might have been much easier to learn with a teacher, though no Dökkálfar had been alive to teach it.

“No-one else can see you, can they?” he asked.

“Not if I’ve done this right,” Loki said.  He managed to look down at himself, moving stiffly.  Projecting himself was one thing.  Controlling that projection was another entirely.

“Oh, go away.” Fandral attempted to give Loki a shove, but again his hands met no opposition.  Determined not to be the punchline to more jokes, he turned to walk away instead.  “You’re not as funny as you think you are.”

Loki waited for Fandral to walk away before returning his consciousness to his corporeal form.  For a long while, he lay in bed trying to work out why things hadn’t gone as he’d intended.  Fandral hadn’t even given him a chance.  Perhaps he was just distracted and busy.  Loki would just have to try again.  If he was lucky, he could catch Fandral on his way to the dining hall for supper.  Loki sent another shade of himself to wait outside Fandral’s chambers, hoping that he hadn’t already missed him.  He only needed to wait a few minutes before Fandral came to his rooms to clean and dress for supper.  He saw Loki waiting and made to push past him.

“Still not here, I see?” Fandral asked when he failed to make contact.

“I’m trying to avoid getting punched,” Loki said.

“Of course you are.” Fandral unlocked his door and held it open expectantly.  “Coming in, then?” he asked.

Loki considered it briefly.  “I can’t,” he said.  “It’s too difficult.”

“That’s what I thought,” Fandral said, turning to disappear into his rooms.

“Not like that, you idiot,” Loki said quickly.

Fandral stared at him.  “Are you coming in or not?” he asked, still holding the door open.

Loki shifted only slightly.  “Moving is difficult.”

“Right.  Try this again when you can be bothered to get out of bed,” Fandral answered.  He let the door swing shut behind him.

Loki returned himself to his room in an outrage.  What right had Fandral to be angry at him? What right at all? Fandral had been humiliated only because he’d done the same to Loki first.  Loki got vindication, and plenty of time had passed to put the matter behind them.

Loki simply wouldn’t stand for it.  He hauled himself from bed, still sore and stiff from drink and disaster in other realms.  He took just enough time to tie his hair back behind his neck and make sure his clothing was straight before making his way down to the dining hall.  He hadn’t put in an appearance at supper since returning from the chaos in Niðavellir, and his entrance was met with more than a few stares.

He took his place next to Thor, ignoring his brother’s greeting.  Odin hardly paid him any attention as supper began, and to Loki’s right, Baldur ignored him entirely.  Loki disregarded them as well, waiting for Fandral to make his appearance.  When he finally did, Loki rose quickly.

“Fandral,” he said.

“By Bor’s testicles, what the Hel do you want now, Loki?” Fandral demanded.

“I think we should talk,” Loki said simply.

“And I think you should leave me alone.” Fandral made to walk through him again, swiping his arms at Loki’s face as he stepped forward.  Instead, he found a solid body before him.  Loki managed to dodge the blow to his face, but Fandral still collided with him hard.  Before either could react, two Einherjar came as if from nowhere and dragged Fandral away from Loki.

A petty, vindictive part of Loki was pleased to see he’d managed to once again get the best of Fandral, but it wasn’t what he wanted.  Already, it felt like a hollow victory.

“Leave it,” Loki commanded.  “He won’t do it again.” He turned to glare at Fandral, feeling every eye in the hall turn on them.  “Will he?”

Fandral glared right back at him.  “No,” he said finally.  “I won’t, my lord.”

His words were insincere, and everyone near them could hear it, but protocol had been followed.  The Einherjar released their hold on Fandral, but stayed close in case they were needed again.

Loki ignored the lot of them and turned his back to leave.  He intended to walk out and lock himself in his chambers for several weeks, but another idea struck him instead.  He walked up to Volstagg, making his presence known by putting himself directly between Volstagg and the man he spoke with.

“I wish to learn to fight,” Loki said.  “Properly.  We start tomorrow.”

It took Volstagg several attempts to find his words.

“Uh.  Yes.  At your command,” he managed.

“Good.” Loki inclined his head to Volstagg and his conversation partner before turning to leave.

***

For all his time spent in a woman’s body, toying with the court, Loki had never allowed himself to explore an area that burned him with curiosity ever since he first learned to change his shape in that way.  He was tired from training and needed a break from it all.

He was done with Fandral.  He’d tried to make peace and received only hostility.  If Loki wanted answers to these new questions, he could not seek them on Asgard.  Not with Fandral still so bitter.  He had other options, of course.  Asgard was not the only realm with loose morals.  Loki could simply seek his answers elsewhere.  Álfheimr had always been particularly accommodating, but it also was becoming a bore to return to the same place every time desire struck.

There was a new world being established; one of which he had heard many a tale, but had never seen for himself.  The only problem was in getting there.  He knew many ways of travel, but none could be entirely reliable.  He could only safely take himself to places he already knew.  Travelling blindly could get him lost, or worse, land him inside a wall or somewhere equally unpleasant.

There were hidden paths as well, like the one he and Thor accidentally discovered between Álfheimr and Niflheimr.  But finding one that would take him where he wanted to go could take years.

There was one last resort; a finale, simple solution, but Loki hesitated to take it.  Two months on one of Midgard’s endless seas could easily turn into a death sentence.  There would be none present strong enough to go after him should he fall into the water.  He was too heavy to swim, and the seas too deep for any to jump after and save him. 

Then Loki realised there was another way to travel across the realms.  One so obvious he’d almost forgotten it completely.  One way or another, Loki would be leaving that day; whether for England or somewhere new, he couldn’t know.  He quickly packed his travel bag, sparing only a moment to decide to leave his armour behind, and made his way to Heimdall’s observatory.

The Gate Keeper stood at the edge of the rainbow bridge, gazing far into the unseen distance.  As Loki approached, Heimdall looked down and apparently straight through him.

“Prince Loki,” he said evenly, not turning his gaze to properly address him.  “What brings you here today?”

Loki had only spoken to Heimdall a few times before, and something about the towering warrior at Asgard’s gate seemed to almost silence his tongue.  It took him several moments to find his voice.

“Heimdall,” Loki said finally, straightening his stance and lifting his chin.  “I understand the Bifröst still connects to Midgard.”

Still gazing into the far distance, Heimdall nodded almost imperceptibly.  “It does,” he confirmed.

“And it came land anywhere you wish it to?” asked Loki.

Heimdall seemed to shift his gaze, but only the smallest amount.  Where he was looking and what he saw, Loki could only guess.

“You want me to open the Bifröst to Midgard,” Heimdall said.  “To do so is against the Allfather’s command.”

“But is it, Gatekeeper?” Loki asked quickly.  “The decree was that none should interfere with Midgard and it’s dealings, was it not? It says nothing of opening the Bifröst.  Does it?”

Heimdall’s gaze seemed to narrow, and Loki got the distinct impression that he was being glared at.

“No,” Heimdall admitted finally.

“So you would not be breaking any command to open the Bifröst to Midgard’s New World,” Loki said.  He moved to stand a bit more stiffly against the winds coming off the sea.  Only Heimdall knew what lay at the bottom of Ginnungagap’s spiralling torrents, and Loki wasn’t exactly keen on being the second person to find out.

“No,” Heimdall repeated.

“Open it,” Loki said.

Heimdall hesitated only briefly before turning to the observatory itself and stepping up onto the dais.  Loki followed him inside and stood to one side, watching patiently.  With little ceremony, Heimdall drove his sword into the pedestal at the centre of the dais, bringing the Bifröst to life.  The walls around them spun and whirred fiercely as the Bifröst orientated itself to Midgard.

It was open only a few seconds before Heimdall removed his sword and recalled the power of the Bifröst.

“I have done as you commanded.  Now tell me, Loki.  What interest do you have in this realm?” Heimdall said.

Loki smiled.  “So you know where the New World is?”

“I do,” Heimdall admitted.  “Across a vast sea, south of the land that was once known as Vinland.”

“Vinland?” Loki asked quickly.  He’d read of it only briefly, but he had also seen the maps.  “Open the Bifröst again.  I wish to leave immediately.”

Again, Loki felt Heimdall glaring at him.

“As you said yourself, interference with Midgard is forbidden,” Heimdall said.

“Interference, yes,” Loki said, knowing those piercing gold eyes of the gatekeeper had seen him on the realm in the past.  “I have been travelling there for years, and my father knows it.  I will go even if you do not open the Bifrost to me.  As it happens, the Bifröst is the safest and quickest route to my destination.  How badly do you imagine my father would punish you if I were harmed on my journey because you denied me safe passage?”  He watched Heimdall carefully, trying to anticipate the next thoughts of a man gifted with Nornir sight.

“I am only doing my sworn duty to my king,” Heimdall said at once.

“Tell me,” said Loki.  “What are the conditions of Midgard’s seas right now?”

Heimdall looked back at Midgard, taking a long moment to consider what he saw.

“You would return to that realm if I deny you passage?” he asked.

“Without hesitation,” Loki said.  It was little secret that Loki had developed a fear of the water, but his curiosity for the new world was growing by the second.  If crossing one of Midgard’s endless seas was what it took to get there, then that’s what he would do.

“And you would attempt to cross ill-tempered seas despite the dangers they present?” Heimdall asked, returning his gaze to the present, though averting it from Loki.

“I know no other way to reach my destination,” Loki said.

Heimdall considered this for only a moment longer.  “Then I have little choice,” he said, resigned to his course.  “I break my oath to my king only to protect his son.  You must know, I am bound to report this to our king once you have passed.”

“By all means, please do,” Loki said.

He turned back to the pedestal, and as he re-awakened the Bifröst, Loki grinned to himself.  He hadn’t expected it to be quite so easy to manipulate Asgard’s Gatekeeper.

As the Bifröst rose to full power, Loki stepped into position.  He hadn’t had much chance to travel it, and hadn’t expected to be pulled off his feet by its power.  In just a few moments though, it was all over.  He stumbled gracelessly as he touched ground in a flat valley covered with rime and frost.  Recalling the maps he’d seen in the library, Loki took the time to orientate himself.  The New World was south of Vinland, and many hundreds of miles away.  He wanted to reach the New World, and yet he knew Heimdall had instead delivered him to Vinland, no doubt in some poor attempt to get him to return to Asgard.  But Loki could travel quickly; crossing the distance would be the matter of days, if not less.  He simply found south and set off, slipping into one shadow and out of another on the distant horizon. 

***

After the unexpected summons from Heimdall, Thor rushed to meet Loki in his chambers, but he did not expect the sight with which he was greeted.  Loki always returned straight to his chambers from whatever trouble he found himself, and standing at the large oak desk, Thor suddenly understood why.

Loki appeared out of nowhere in a flurry of curses and laughter.  Though he still resembled Loki, with familiar pointed features and unusual green eyes, he wore the form of a woman, with a slight frame and long, raven hair.  The dress he wore was torn, but most alarming was that he was shackled at the wrists and ankles, keeping his hands bound behind his back and his legs unable to run.

“Loki!” Thor rushed to his brother’s aid, but in this form, Loki was confusing.  Thor didn’t know if he had been cursed or had done such things to himself.  Either way, Thor didn’t want to touch him.

“A little help?” Loki asked, chuckling when he saw the look on Thor’s face.  Even his voice, while still his own, was light.  “There’s a book on the second shelf, bound in blue leather.  Fetch it.”

Thor nodded and rushed over to the bookcase lining the opposite wall.  Few of the books were titled or marked in any way, but Thor found it quickly enough.  Though the cover was bare of any markings at all, but the inside pages were filled with a hand-written Dökkálfar dialect.

“Loki, this is black magic,” Thor said, glaring down at the page.

“Rather fitting, seeing as I was just condemned for witchcraft,” Loki said.  “There’s a table of contents somewhere.”

Thor frowned as he flipped through the pages.  “What orc did you steal this from?” he asked, finding the requested page and holding it up for Loki to see.

Loki scanned the page Thor showed him.  “Why do I have to have stolen it from anyone?” he asked.  “The Dark Elves are dead.  You can’t exactly steal from someone who no longer exists.”

“What makes you think you can even do this magic? You’re not an orc.”  Thor frowned down at the pages he held open for Loki.

“No one’s an orc,” Loki reasoned.  “They all died in the war.”

“Even Father cannot perform this magic,” Thor pointed out.

“Maybe he just hasn’t tried hard enough,” Loki said off-handedly.  “Page two-forty-eight, and not another word out of you.”

Thor flipped through the pages and held the requested one up again.  For a few quiet moments, Loki studied the page.

“Ah.  Of course,” he said quietly.

It took him a few moments to go from theory to practise, but the spell wasn’t too different from the one he used to travel; the magic was just focused on a smaller scale.  Instead of moving through shadows, he simply needed to move his arms away from the shackles that bound him.

Closing his eyes and breathing steadily, Loki focused on the shackles on his wrists, feeling their cold weight on his skin.  He pulled against them, stopping when they followed.  The chains jangled and clanked loudly as he tried to put into practise the new magic.  After a few attempts, he finally felt something catch and the shackles slipped right through his flesh with a sharp chill, before falling noisily to the floor.

“That was easy,” he said, holding both arms out to his sides.

He did the same to those binding his ankles and kicked them aside in disgust.  Wasting no time, Loki made a quick path to the large wardrobe in the corner, stripping himself of the ruined dress along the way.

“Loki!” Thor cried indignantly.

Startled, Loki spun round to see what had alarmed Thor.  He found his brother unable to decide between staring wide-eyed at him or averting his gaze entirely.  There were several seconds of confusion before Loki looked down at his bare chest and remembered his breasts.

“Oh, honestly,” he said, putting his hands on his hips and turning to face Thor.  “It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, surely.”

“Not on you, no,” Thor insisted, still not sure where to look.

Rolling his eyes, Loki let go of the spell that changed his shape, slowly transforming back to his natural self.  His skin slowly darkened to a marbled blue and black as his entire body shifted its shape, going from female to male.  Thor had seen Loki change his skin before, but this was something else entirely.  Loki’s hair was also the longest Thor could remember having ever seen it.

“Thank you,” he said, all the same.

Thor had no sisters, but he was certain that if he did, he would surely not be allowed in her chambers while she dressed.  Instead, he had three brothers, in the presence of whom he had dressed, bathed, and slept every day for the first ten years of his life.  And now one of them appeared to be both.

“Why do you do this to yourself?” Thor asked, kicking his toe at the discarded dress.  “Does Father know about it?”

Loki kicked the dress away into a corner as he found a pair of breeches that still fit him.

“Because it amuses me,” he answered as he pulled on the breeches and tied the laces in front.  “And I don’t care what Father knows.”

“You would care if he found out,” Thor reasoned.  “It would not be the first time you started caring after Father gave his opinion on the matter.”

“Then don’t tell him and he won’t find out,” Loki said.

He walked across the wide room to the mirror on the wall, taking a long moment to study his reflection.

“Do I look different to you?” he asked.

“You no longer look like a woman,” Thor said.

Loki began untying the braids in his hair, letting it hang loose down his back.  His hair already had a bit of a natural curl to it, and braiding it always highlighted it, making his hair seem messy and unbrushed in a way he didn’t entirely like.

“That is not what I asked,” Loki said.  He leaned in close to the mirror and glared at the places on his forehead where heavy dark lines looped back upon themselves, half-obscured by his hair.  He was almost curious enough to consider shaving his hair to the scalp to see where they went.  Almost, but not quite.  He wasn’t that curious about them.

“I think Eir was wrong,” he said.

“Wrong about what?” Thor asked, stepping close to see what Loki was staring at.

“Everything,” Loki said.

He slashed at the mirror with his hand and turned away to start walking through the room, upsetting items and tossing some of his more durable possessions about until the tidy, un-lived in feel was gone.  One day, he thought, the servants might realise that their efforts were not appreciated, but it clearly was not that day.

“What do you want, Thor?” Loki asked as he tossed the heaviest blanket from his bed onto a sofa.

“I was hoping to speak with you,” Thor said.  “Heimdall said you had found trouble for yourself, so I figured you would be home shortly.”

His bedchamber properly messed, Loki fell back onto his oversized bed and picked up a small rabbit carved from ivory.

“I did and I am,” Loki said, turning the rabbit over in his hands.  “Now what is it you wish to speak about?”

He carefully loosened his grip on the rabbit, slowly until he wasn’t touching it at all.  It stayed in place above his chest, rocking as if the slightest breath would knock it down.

Thor frowned, attempting to speak several times before stopping himself.  Loki watched him through quick glances, not wanting to take his eyes from the rabbit for too long.

“I am taking Sjálfsmynd,” he said, opting for the direct approach.

Loki lost his control over the rabbit and it dropped from the air like a stone.  It bounced off his chest to the floor, unheeded.  “Why?” he demanded, sitting up quickly.  “I just returned home from nearly being hanged.  I don’t want to go out again.”

“It’s not the same thing.  You go on these trips to make mischief,” Thor said.  “You never return with tales of valour or sacrifice.  Only… cross-dressing and thievery.”

“So? That’s more fun,” Loki said.

“And that is not what the Rite is about,” Thor said, more forcefully than he’d meant to.  He took a deep breath to calm himself.  “We have proven ourselves warriors on the hunt, and now it is time to prove ourselves as men.”

“Yes, I was there for that lesson as well, Thor,” Loki said as he got back to his feet.  “I still do not want to go.”

Thor looked guiltily at Loki, and then looked away.

“What?” Loki asked.  “What is it? I know that look.”

“Father says we must take our Rite separately,” Thor said.  “Sjálfsmynd is a journey one must take by himself.  It matters not that we were raised together.  We are different men and must take different paths.”

“His words don’t suit you,” Loki said.  “I imagine he coached you on that, did he?”

Thor said nothing.  He stood in silence, looking away from Loki.  Loki wanted to hit him.

“When are you leaving?  For a year.  Without me,” he asked flatly.

“Tomorrow morning,” Thor answered.  “I wished to wait for your return so I could tell you myself.”

Loki snorted and turned his back to Thor.  “And here I am,” he said.  “I have things to do.  See yourself out.”

He stood stiff, staring at the row of books on his shelf.  Finally, Thor turned to leave.  Loki would forgive him eventually.  He always did.

***

Loki sat on the floor of his bedchamber, naked to the waist and surrounded by books.  Every muscle in his body burned and the evening Asgardian air was sticky and hot against his Jötunn skin.  But unpleasant and demanding as his new regimen of training was, for the first time ever, he felt like it was finally starting to be of use.  The motions became easier, his blows landed where he wanted them to.  Blocking and dodging had become easier as well, though he still took a few more hits than he’d have liked.

Exhausted and sore in ways he never thought possible, he’d retired to his rooms to read up on other forms of Vanir sight magic.  After so much time in the ring, the words made little sense to him.  After a while, he began chewing a water hemlock root to dull the ache in his muscles.  Ten minutes later, pleasantly giddy, he gave up reading altogether and spent nearly an hour flipping through pages, pausing only to look at the pictures.

“Loki.”

He jumped sharply at the sound of his name and looked up to see Odin standing before him.

“Have you always been there?” Loki asked, squinting up at him.

Odin did not answer Loki’s question.  Instead he peered down at him with a gaze Loki could not read.  The man could make himself like a stone sometimes, even when Loki was of clear mind. 

“Volstagg informs me you’ve started training again,” he said. 

“He did?” asked Loki.  “Why would he say that?”

Training meant preparing for the hunt, and going out into the woods with Freyr and Sif and getting stuck with sharp sticks and trampled by wild animals.  Loki definitely did not want to go on the hunt again.

“Are you saying there is no truth to his words?” Odin asked.

Loki stared into the blank space in front of him as he tried to remember.

“Have you changed your beard?” he asked suddenly.

It was then that Odin noticed Loki chewing absently on something.

“What have you there?” he asked, having a strong suspicion already.

Loki took the root from his mouth and looked at it.  There was something familiar about it, but he couldn’t remember how it came to be in his possession.

“I don’t know,” he said.

Resisting the urge to laugh, Odin held out his hand.  Loki looked at his hand, studying it for whatever it was he was supposed to be looking at.  But it was just his father’s empty hand, held out in front of his face.  Then Loki remembered the hemlock root.

“You’ll like it,” he said, handing over the mangled root.  “It’s quite good.  I got it from somewhere.”

“Yes, I’m sure you did,” Odin agreed.  He shook his head at the root in his fingers.  “We will try this again in the morning.”

“Uh-huh.” Already, Loki’s attention was elsewhere.

Shaking his head once more, Odin left Loki’s rooms and made his way to Frigga’s, finding her by the terrace at her loom.

“Your son,” Odin said as he stepped near her.

“My son?” Frigga asked, looking up at her husband.  “Our son.”

“When he’s this exasperating, he’s your son.” Odin placed the root on the edge of Frigga’s loom and watched as she peered at it.

“What is this?” she asked finally.

“Hemlock,” Odin answered.

Frigga levelled a knowing gaze at Odin.  “I remember a certain someone else having a fondness for hemlock in his youth.”

Odin chuckled, somehow not surprised at being so completely called out.  “Yes, and he handles himself about as well as I did,” he said.  “I don’t think he recognised me at all.”

“He’s young,” said Frigga, returning her attention to her loom.  “Let him have his fun.”

“He has other things to be focusing on,” Odin said.  “Other things he should be doing.”

“Give him time.  It is always difficult for twins to be separated for so long.  He may wish to see Thor return safely before he leaves.” Frigga stopped to straighten out a snag in the wool, working it out with her fingernails.  “I still see no reason they could not have gone together.”

Odin sat in the empty chair across from Frigga.  “That is precisely what worries me,” he said.  “The boy will be nineteen by then.  He can’t have Thor fight all his battles for him.”

“And nineteen is a perfectly acceptable age to go,” said Frigga stiffly.  She looked up at Odin again, challenging him to disagree.  “We agreed we wouldn’t treat him any differently than his brothers, but I think that may have been a poor decision.  He is different, and we should recognise that.”

“I took my Rite at eighteen, just like every other man in this family,” Odin said.

“If Loki is not ready to go before Thor’s return, then you will not force him,” Frigga insisted.  “We raised them together, but they are not the same.”

Odin rose to his feet again, stepping close to Frigga.  She looked up at him, defiant and unblinking.

“You heard Eir’s opinion,” he said.  “He’s older than we took him for.”

“And if he were still on Jötunheimr, he would be considered a child even now,” Frigga reminded him.  Though she held her seat, her tone still rose to meet his.

Odin was not to be defeated on this matter by her or anyone.  “But he’s not on Jötunheimr,” he said.  “He’s on Asgard.  We have our own customs.”

“Have they started cutting?” Frigga asked coldly.  “You were just with him.  I presume you saw his face.  Tell me.  Have they started cutting?”

Odin grit his teeth and glared at her.  “No,” he admitted.

“Then he is still a child, and not ready to take Sjálfsmynd,” Frigga said.  “I let you have your way on the hunt, but on this I will not bend.  He will go when he is ready, and not a moment before.”

Sighing angrily, Odin turned back to the door.  “You coddle that boy far too much,” he said.

“Someone should,” Frigga said, looking back to her loom, though she’d lost all desire to continue her work with it.  “And it was never going to be you.”

« || »

Those Who Hunt Monsters #12: Deception

By the time Loki and Thor found their way back to Asgard, slightly bruised and with a few new scars each, winter was upon the realm.  Their drinking trip to Álfheimr and subsequent catastrophe in Niflheimr took them from Asgard longer than Loki would have liked, though they both knew they could never pass for them having taken their rite.  It was simply that, a drinking trip turned sour, ending on one of Niflheimr’s endless great tundras.  After being lost on Niflheimr for so long, they had both grown very tired with the darker seasons, with neither being happy to return as Asgard’s suns started to spend more time below the horizons than above.

In the time they were gone, Loki not only caught up to his brother’s height, but came close to surpassing it, though he still remained slim as ever.  What little baby fat remained on Thor’s body had transformed itself to hard muscle, and Loki thought Thor looked even more ridiculous than he had before.  When they stood before their father to explain their long absence, they were no longer the boys he knew them as.

Nor were they they boys Asgard remembered.  Perhaps it was just Loki’s bone-deep weariness from so long away from home, but the court seemed less cagey toward him.  And at the same time, he had began to feel less distant from the court and his duties within it.  He put in appearances where he was expected and began to take interest in political affairs for the first time in years.  He was still the youngest in attendance at most of the meetings, but somehow it no longer mattered.  When he spoke, he was listened to.  It took him weeks to break the habit of starting every sentence at a near-shout.

The time might have been enough to change the way Asgard saw Loki, but it was not enough to change the way he saw Asgard.  Nor was it enough to change his attitude toward many specific people.

Fandral too had grown over the months.  He’d taken to growing a pointy little beard, which Loki thought looked ridiculous.  It reminded him slightly of an old hero from Midgard’s legends, which made it look all the more ridiculous on Fandral.  He was no hero, though none seemed to have realised that.  It was also clear that no one had yet learned his dirty little secret.

And oh, how clever Fandral thought himself.  He went through the same motions every day, showing false interest in any pretty thing in skirts, only to turn them away when no one was close enough to see.  As far as Asgard knew, Fandral had a list of conquests a mile long.  Any retribution Loki might enact upon him would have to be at his own expense.  To reveal Fandral for what he was, Loki would surely have to reveal himself.  It was a very tricky problem, and one he couldn’t wait to solve.  Even with the months of distance between them, Loki still felt the sting of being so immediately cast aside, and he wondered how many others Fandral had dallied with when Loki wasn’t looking.

***

Loki had played a variation of this role countless times already.  He knew every movement, every inflection.  Now, he simply had to put it all into practise.

He stood before the long mirror, studying himself for anything that might give him away.  Every seam was perfect, right down to the hem of the long, blue skirt he wore.  Even the shade of the skirt was perfect, matching his eyes almost exactly.

Tonight, he was Æsir, and none would ever doubt that.

The shape he’d taken was of no one in particular; tall and graceful with flowing blonde hair and modest proportions.  In his youth, he always lacked a certain sort of grace when playing these roles, but something about his added height seemed to make everything fit perfectly into place.  He was graceful and feminine, but not startlingly so.  This form was as plain as it was flawless.  He’d chosen a form of elegant beauty, but one which would not stand out in anyone’s memory for any longer than necessary.

He’d already put in his official appearance at the Midwinter celebrations that night and left early on, just as he always did.  He waited just long enough for Odin to hand out his customary gifts of intricately-carved wooden figures, using the excitement as cover to slip away.  Now enough time had passed that no one should suspect a thing.  He had his own carved figure, a small bear with the images of its skeleton carved into the wood.  It wasn’t anywhere near as skillful as the figures Odin himself carved and gave away, but it would pass for its purpose.

Concealed both from Heimdall’s gaze and any within the palace, Loki made his way back down to the dining hall and slipped in unnoticed amongst the crowd.  He kept to himself, watching from the sidelines with an apparent nervous apprehension as the nobles mingled amongst themselves.

Sure enough, someone spotted him soon after and approached without any suspicion at all.  Loki had trained with Vali in the ring, and had no quarrel with him.  He had always been friendly to Loki.  His father was one of the Vanir who held a position in the court only through Odin’s good will, but he had lived on Asgard for so long, Loki frequently forgot he wasn’t Asgardian.

“I haven’t seen you around here before,” Vali said easily.

He wasn’t a particularly attractive man — a bit too broad in the face and heavy around the waist — but he’d do for Loki’s plan.

“No,” Loki agreed, his voice soft and quiet.  “My father came to the city for the winter.  He is…” He trailed off, looking around as though lost.

“I’m sure he’s around here somewhere,” Vali said.  He leaned slightly closer, and Loki knew at once that his plan was going to work.

“And tell me,” Vali continued, almost purring.  It took all of Loki’s control not to laugh in his face.  “And who are you that I’ve never seen you here before?”

Loki smiled demurely, looking up to meet Vali’s eyes.  “No one of consequence,” he said.

Vali smiled right back.  “Oh, I wouldn’t say that at all,” he said.  “I find myself unable to take my eyes off you.”

It was a bit heavy and over-done, and under any other circumstance Loki would have rolled his eyes.  As it was, Vali had taken the bait, hook and all.  Loki smiled, but didn’t look away.

“I don’t know about that,” he said.

He moved closer to Vali, letting the brute know that his advances were most certainly welcome.  He let Vali spend the next twenty minutes feeding him line after line, and occasionally would return with his own thinly-veiled innuendo.  Eventually, Vali finally tired of pretence and made the suggestion that they disappear together.

Loki had never had a plan move so smoothly in his life.

Over the next few months, Loki continued to play the same game with the court, for the first time thankful for Thor’s commitment to his not-so-secret courtship to Sif.  Every time Loki made an appearance as some nameless flirt, he would shamelessly attract someone’s attention.  They too would spend just enough time to appear decent, sharing double-entendres and embellished flattery before retreating to some secluded part of the palace.

It didn’t take long at all for Fandral to realise that being seen with Asgard’s latest trophy had come to be expected of him.  Half the unattached men in the court had, at one point or another, tried to talk her into their chambers.  And they had all been sorely disappointed when, at the very last moment, she turned them down at their door.

When Fandral approached her, a chalice of wine in each hand, Loki behaved as he had every other time.

“Where is your companion this evening, my lady?” Fandral asked, offering Loki one of the chalices.

“I have none,” Loki said, accepting the offering.  “Surely it is not expected of me to be in the company of a man at every moment?”

Fandral smiled wolfishly.  “Expected? No.  But every night I’ve seen you, it has been in the company of another.”

“Friendly company,” Loki said.  “That is all.  And what is the nature of your company this evening?”

“Very friendly indeed,” Fandral said.

He smiled again and took a drink of his wine.  Loki drank as well, in order to hide his own smile.  This would not only work; Fandral would make it too easy.

“Perhaps you would be friendly enough to show me around the palace?” Loki asked.

He brushed his hair off his shoulders with a large gesture, drawing attention to his breasts.  Unlike the others who had all begun to stare immediately, Fandral’s reaction was slow.  He only made a point of looking once he realised he should have done so.

“My dear, I would be honoured.” Fandral motioned questioningly to the doors and even offered his arm.

Loki put down his wine and took Fandral’s arm, allowing himself to be led out of the dining hall.  He had been taken on many a tour through the palace, down one or two corridors before inevitably ending up in front of someone’s chamber door.  Usually, that was where Loki ended it and feigned cold feet.  With Fandral, he wondered how far he could go before Fandral’s feet grew cold.

“I’m sure you’ve already seen all the public areas,” he said, leading Loki down a more dimly-lit corridor.

“I have been here for a few weeks now, yes,” Loki said.  “I would be eager to see the rest, though.”

“Then I shall show you.” He turned down another path, and Loki found himself almost disappointed in the lack of effort Fandral was putting forth.  He had expected at least a pretense of a tour, but Fandral was the same as everyone else, leading Loki straight to his door.

“I cannot help but think, good sir, that you are showing me the way to some of the private chambers,” Loki observed.

“Some of them, yes,” Fandral said.  “One in particular.”

He led Loki to his own chambers, unlocking the door and opening it with ease.  Loki stepped inside, making a show of looking around.  Once the door was shut again, Fandral stepped up close to him and put his hands on Loki’s slender waist.  He stood with a long step between them, his arms stiff and his hands barely touching Loki at all.  Loki looked down, frowning at the placement.

“Is something wrong?” Loki asked.

“Wrong? No,” Fandral said.  “But I fear I may have led you here under false pretences.”

Loki smiled, trying to push himself closer to Fandral.  “Yes, I did think the tour was a rather short one,” he said.

“And here is where it ends, I’m afraid,” Fandral said.  He tightened his grip just enough to keep Loki at arm’s distance.  “You may stay here for the night.  In fact, I would prefer that you did, but you are free to leave whenever you like.”

“I think I would prefer to stay,” Loki said.

Again, he tried to push closer to Fandral, and again, he was pushed away.  He was surprised Fandral had even gone this far, and part of him wanted to see just how far he could go before disaster.  He reached behind himself to unlace the cord on the back of his dress.  Just as he planned, Fandral quickly reached out to stay his hands.

“No.  No.  Nothing like that,” Fandral said quickly.  “I only brought you here to maintain a reputation I have worked very hard at earning.”

Loki frowned, pretending to be confused.  “And what reputation is that?” he asked.

“One that requires me to be seen in the company of young maidens,” Fandral admitted.

“You do not want me?” Loki asked.

“I do not.”

Loki frowned even deeper and looked away, screwing up his face as though to stop himself from crying.

“I see,” he said.  “In that case, good evening.”

He turned to leave Fandral’s chambers, running as soon as he was out the door.  He only hoped that no one heard him laughing as he ran.

The next morning, dressed as the prince he was meant to be, Loki wandered down to the dining hall once more.  It was still early yet, and few were up, but he wanted to be sure he had good seats for the show.

He found Alv and Vali near the centre of the room and approached them easily.

“Loki,” Alv greeted, reaching out to clap him on the arm.

Vali straightened up quickly and nodded.  “My lord,” he said.

Loki waved him off, still not sure how to handle the respect he had returned to Asgard to find.  He thought it would be something he’d enjoy hearing, but after so long without it, the words always just seemed to ring false to his ears.   Most of the time, he was still certain that any show of respect was just a veil to conceal another ulterior motive.

“I was thinking of organising a game today,” Loki told Alv.  “I never thought I’d miss training, but I find myself rather bored without it.”

“You can still go down and spar,” Vali offered.  “Though, I’m not sure what sort of game you could make of it.”

Alv and Loki both laughed at some secret joke.

“Volstagg’s band of merry misfits?” Alv asked.  “Sparring for fun? I’d much rather play football.”

“Football?” Vali asked.

Loki pulled his tattered leather ball from its pocket of subspace and spun it on the tips of his fingers before tossing it to Alv.

“Fairly simple game,” he said.  “Though, we need at least eight to make it truly fun.”

“We can teach you,” Alv offered eagerly.

“I’ve never heard of it,” Vali said, looking between them and feeling as though he were missing something important.

“You know how we’re not allowed to go to Midgard?” Alv asked quietly.

“It’s not as bad as they make it out to be,” Loki said.  “A bit dirty and crowded, but they invent such wonderful things.”

Vali’s jaw dropped at what he was hearing.  “That’s where you go?” he asked.  “How do you even get there? Heimdall won’t open the Bifröst to that realm.”

“Bifröst is only one way to travel,” Loki said slyly.  “I have found many more.”

“Is it true you and Thor were in Niflheimr as well?” Vali asked.

Rumours had been floating around concerning their little disappearance, but Loki had been too preoccupied with other matters to give them much attention.  He considered an answer for only a moment before reaching beneath his tunic collar and pulling out a dark cord.  Attached to it, along with several small silver beads, were four large, black claws and a very large fang.

“You should ask my brother to show you the pelts,” he said.

Vali and Alv both stared at Loki with wide eyes.

“Pelts?” asked Alv.  “As in more than one?”

“As in more than one,” Loki said.  He wondered when he would be getting his back.  “He should have got them back from the tannery by now.”

So busy was he in teasing Alv and Vali that Loki had completely failed to notice Fandral enter the hall until Alv called out to him.  He’d never been able to not only tell an outrageous story, but have it be more or less true, and he found he rather liked the credibility.  Even more, he liked the awed looks on their faces.

“Did you know Loki and Thor hunted polar bears in Niflheimr?” Alv asked, wondering why no-one had told him this story sooner.

Fandral was just as surprised to hear this as Alv and Vali had been.

“No.  What? Really?” he asked.

Loki shrugged, pretending that he hadn’t once again almost been killed by his own stupidity and something much larger than he was.

“Wow,” was all Fandral said.

“Loki wants to have a game today,” Alv said suddenly, having absolutely nothing boast-worthy to follow Loki’s claims.  “Will you play?”

Having either forgotten about being caught by Loki, or just ignoring the whole ordeal wonderfully, Fandral smiled widely.

“Sounds like an excellent start to the day,” he said.  “How many have we got?”

“Four, counting you,” Alv said.  “We should probably find two more, at least.  Where’s Hogun at?”

Loki shrugged and leaned against the table.  “I haven’t seen him yet.  I think he’s taken to sleeping late,” he said.

“Was that a familiar little fox I saw you with last night?” Vali asked suddenly.

Fandral grinned as if he had something to be proud of.  “Yes, it was,” he said.

Alv and Loki both rolled their eyes so hard it nearly hurt, but Fandral ignored them both.

“She is a saucy little minx, isn’t she?” Fandral asked.

Vali snorted.  “Tease, more like.”

“Well, sure,” Fandral said, quickly adjusting his lie to suit Vali’s side of the story.  “Once you get her alone, though, you practically have to pry her hands off you.  I thought I was never going to get out of there alive.”

The other three all shared confused looks.

“Are you saying you actually bedded her?” Alv asked skeptically.

“You… didn’t?” asked Fandral, suddenly very confused indeed.

This time, Loki snorted.  “She all but ran from me in tears,” he said, knowing far better than Fandral ever could that his lie would fit in with what the other two had experienced.

“I do have to say, if anyone among us had a chance with her it would be a son of Odin,” Vali said.  “What in the Nine Realms would she see in you?”

Alv laughed openly at having caught Fandral in such a lie.  “What? Couldn’t handle being told no for once?” he asked.  “Or have you just got so used to it you just pretend it never happens?”

Vali and Loki joined in with Alv’s laughter, leaving Fandral lost and confused.  “What? No,” he said desperately.  “I turned her down.”

Vali and Alv were lost to their laughter then, leaning against one another for support.

“I’m sure you did,” Vali said.

The two of them pushed off the table, taking Loki’s ball with them.  As they made their way through the slowly-growing crowd, Loki leaned forward so only Fandral could hear him.  His smile had completely vanished, as though he hadn’t just nearly been reduced to tears from laughter.  He gripped Fandral’s arm hard, pulling him close so only he could hear Loki speak.  When Fandral tried to pull away, Loki only gripped tighter.

“Don’t you ever humiliate me like that again,” he said with a voice like steel.  “Consider us over, since you’re too much of a coward to say it yourself.”

“It was all you,” Fandral realised.  “You did— How?”

“And good luck convincing anyone of it,” Loki said.  “By midday, the entire court will know you as a liar.  And with no one able to find her after today, there will be no one here to back up your recount of events.  Just be glad I did not see my original plan through.”

As Fandral glared at him, Loki let go of his arm and replaced his cheery expression.  Without another word, he ran off to catch up with Vali and Alv for his football game.

« || »

Those Who Hunt Monsters #11: Mockery

The dining hall was as full as anyone could remember it ever being.  It seemed the entire palace had come to attend the feast.

Almost the entire palace, at any rate.  Loki was nowhere to be seen, which was typical.  Thor was also absent, which was worrisome.  Odin sat in his place at the head of the longest table, listening to as many of the conversations taking place around him as he could manage.  It wasn’t a terribly difficult task to follow them, as they were all on the same topic: Loki Hippogryph-Slayer.  And it was no wonder.  The last person on Asgard to slay a hippogryph had been Odin himself, and that was several long years after his first hunt.  For a boy of sixteen to do so, and come out of it with only a few bruises was cause for sensation indeed.

“Are we entirely sure Loki’s the one you adopted?”

Odin looked over to where Volstagg had sat himself in Thor’s seat, indifferent to his breach of decorum.

“Because I am seeing more and more of you in that boy every day,” Volstagg went on.

“I am surprised you see him at all,” Odin said.  It seemed he only saw his son when there was punishment to be dealt.  And even then, Odin still had to find him first.

At Odin’s words, Volstagg grew serious.  “I should also beg your forgiveness, Allfather,” he said.  “I had not even noticed he’d wandered off until he came running back.”

Odin nodded.  “It was an unrealistic demand to make of you.  Even Heimdall loses track of the boy.  You had other students to watch as well as Loki, and you haven’t any gifts of sight to aid you.”

“Thank you, Allfather,” Volstagg said, inclining his head.

Again, Odin nodded.  “I have heard some say that he cheated?”

Volstagg shook his head, dismissing the idea outright.

“Only the jealous ones,” he said.  He finished off his mead and reached for a plate of berries that sat nearby.  “Aside from the part where he wandered off on his own like an idiot, he did everything as I taught him.  Only, instead of fire, he used his own natural talents.  The boy has a lot to learn, and I fear he may surprise us all when that happens.”

Even though he was ashamed of it, Odin still couldn’t help the suspicion that crept through him.  “And he had no help?” he asked.

“I intended to assist, I admit,” Volstagg said.  “I thought the damn fool boy was going to get himself and half the others killed.  I hadn’t even time to grab my axe before everything was over.  It was only after that I noticed he’d put almost half a dozen arrows into the beast as well.”

Volstagg saw the look on the Allfather’s face and began to wonder just what was being said.  He even suspected he could pinpoint the source of the slander.

“They were all his,” he felt compelled to add.  “He makes his own arrows, and has a certain way of tying the fletching.  Magpie feathers, and green cord.  You should be proud of him.  I wish I had a son like your boy.”

Finally, Odin dared a smile.

“You wish you had a son,” he said.

Volstagg laughed loudly, thoroughly called out.

“Well, yes.  That too,” he agreed.  “And what that day comes, I hope he is half the stubborn, crazy whip-crack of a man your son is growing to be.”

As Odin was about to thank Volstagg for his words, the far doors of the hall slammed open with an echoing clatter, causing both cries of alarm and riotous laughter to ring out from those nearest.  Odin and Volstagg stood at once to witness a scene that bore all the hallmarks of another raid on the wine stores.  Into the hall sprinted Thor, enchanted so as to have the head of a mule.  Loki rode on his back, holding a wooden sword stolen from the training ring.  He laughed wildly as he attempted to steer his brother through the crowd by pulling his hair, but he quickly lost control in the chaos and the two of them crashed into a table, spilling its contents to the floor.

“Thor, you ass,” Loki shouted, making Odin wonder just how accidental the crash had actually been.

“Mead for me, and carrots for my steed,” Loki called out over the chaos left in his wake.

He sat backwards on the nearest bench, leaning back against the table and grinning drunkenly at the scene around him.

“Loki,” Odin said over the din.  When Loki turned to look up at him, Odin slowly shook his head.

“Yes, Father.  Sorry, Father,” Loki said quickly.

He waved his hand almost carelessly, releasing whatever spell he’d placed on Thor and restoring him to his original appearance.

“I think you looked better the other way,” Loki said flippantly.

Thor rolled his eyes and turned his back to Loki.

Already bored, Loki looked around, and finding no-one had actually fetched him any mead, he pulled a half-empty bottle from the pocket of space he’d stored it in earlier.  It was the first wine he’d found that had any effect on him at all, and he was hardly surprised when he’d discovered it came from Jötunheimr; fermented from some of the berries that grew on the realm’s tundras, toxic to even the Æsir.

It tasted absolutely vile, and Loki was all too happy to finish the entire bottle that night.

“You were saying?” Odin asked, turning back to Volstagg.

Volstagg shrugged.  “I thought it was funny,” he said.

Odin rolled his eye and sat back down.

Loki was tired to his bones.  His entire body hurt, and he itched under his skin from wearing this form out in the sun for so long.  He took his wine out to the terrace and sat on the ground, content to just be alone for a while.  He thought about finding Fandral, but hadn’t seen him since they returned from the hunt.  Loki assumed he must have been just as tired and worn out from the hunt.

“What are you doing out here, brother?” Thor asked suddenly.  He sat beside Loki on the ground and leaned back lazily.  “This is meant to be a celebration.”

Loki waved vaguely in the direction of the dining hall.  “Then go.  Celebrate,” he said.  “By all means, don’t let me stop you.”

Thor frowned, studying Loki’s face in the low evening light.  There were thoughts on his mind he wouldn’t voice, and not for the first time Loki had considered learning how to read minds just to know what people refused to say to his face.

“You should celebrate as well,” Thor said.  “This is as much your day as anyone’s.”

Loki rolled his eyes and turned so Thor was outside his field of vision.  “What have I to celebrate?” he asked bitterly.

“Loki, all of Asgard is impressed with your deeds,” Thor said.  He tried to move so Loki would look at him, but Loki only turned further away.  “It is all anyone speaks of.”

“Would you just for once listen to what is said around you?” Loki demanded, finally turning to face Thor.  “No one is impressed.  Any infant would see that.  Or do you just wilfully ignore that which doesn’t suit you?”

Thor couldn’t tell if the desperate look on Loki’s face was genuine, or just another trick, and he wasn’t sure he had the energy to work it out.  Instead, he rose to his feet and looked back to the doors to the dining hall.

“I am going to fetch myself another horn of mead,” he declared.  “Would you like anything?”

“Yes.  Fine.  Whatever,” Loki said, once again staring out at the horizon.

Still not sure how to interpret Loki’s request, Thor turned and walked back inside.  He would get himself the mead he craved, and find something to take back out to Loki.  Perhaps that Jötunn wine had made him ill after all.  If that were the case, Thor thought a few bread rolls might help improve his mood.

He made it only as far as the first table, now mostly empty save several abandoned plates and chalices left behind, before he noticed a small group of men and women talking nearby.  Just as Thor had said to Loki, their topic of conversation had indeed been the hunt.  But there was something about the tone, Thor noticed; something that didn’t seem to quite fit their words.  Not for the first time that night, Thor heard the title ‘Hippogryph-Slayer’ tossed about, but the words sounded almost ironic, rather than an honour.  It wasn’t spoken as a kenning or title, but in venomous sarcasm and mockery.  Certain that they hadn’t yet noticed him standing so close, Thor turned to hide his face, pretending to be terribly interested in what remained on the table.

“Njord’s boy says he cheated,” one of the men said.

“Of course he cheated,” said the other.  “I don’t care who his father is.  No one just takes down a hippogryph stallion with a hunting knife.”

Thor had to bite his tongue to keep from speaking up then.  He knew he should have told them how Loki had first greatly wounded the beast with five or six expertly-shot arrows, but he knew if he called attention to himself, he’d never hear what else they had to say.

“I don’t like having the little troll anywhere near me,” said the first.  “He gives me the creeps.”

“Some months ago, he was overheard planning to do away with Odin’s true sons,” one of the women said, her voice quiet and almost scared.  “He’s been terribly jealous ever since the Allfather removed him from the line of succession.”

Someone snorted and Thor had to turn and walk away quickly before he did something he’d come to regret.  How could these people say such things? Loki was just as much Odin’s son as Thor or Baldur were.  And anyone who saw them together would know how much Loki adored Viðar.  It was absolute madness.

Unsure what else to do, Thor made his way back out to the terrace where Loki still sat.  Seeing his brother there, in such a state after hearing what he had, Thor knew he had to do something.  Loki was always better at fixing things, but this time, it would be Thor’s turn.

“Loki, I believe I know what troubles you,” he declared suddenly.

Loki snorted.  “As if you ever could.”

“I…” How to word it? Thor did what he imagined Loki would have done and took a moment to organise his thoughts.  “I took your advice and—”

“And all of a sudden, you’re offended on my behalf?” Loki finished.  He finally drew himself to his feet as gracefully as he’d ever done.  “Where was that offence three years ago?”

Like their father, Loki spoke most calmly when he was especially angry, until he could control himself no longer.  Thor knew that if he did not choose his words carefully, Loki would make him regret it.

“Loki, I never know what you want of me,” Thor said evenly.  “You tell me you want one thing, and the become angry when I give it to you.”

“Years,” Loki said.  “For years, you stood by and let me be pushed aside.  Where were you then?”

“Because when I do step in, you spit venom at me,” Thor reminded him.  “What am I to think? Do you scorn our parents as well, after you insist you be allowed to fight your own battles?”

“Do not bring them into this!” Loki spat, lunging forward.  “And I can fight my own battles.  Who are you to imply that I can’t?”

Thor found himself as confused as he’d ever been around Loki.  “I only try to make sense of what you tell me.”

“I have done Macbeth twice, and I have still never held a claymore.” Only as he said the words did Loki realise how bitter even that exclusion made him.

Thor didn’t have an immediate response to that, least of all because he didn’t understand what any of it meant.  He couldn’t help but wonder if Loki did it deliberately.

“Then let me make it up to you,” he offered.  “We are done with training and you never attend your lessons anyway.”

“Neither do you,” Loki said.

“So there is no reason either of us needs to worry about staying.  None would miss us.  Let us go to Álfheimr.  Prove these people wrong and show them your worth.” He reached out, placing his hand on the back of Loki’s neck.

“No, Thor,” Loki said warily.  He pushed Thor’s hand away and took a step backwards.  “I don’t think that is a good idea.”

“Just the two of us,” Thor promised.  “I may not be able to make up for three years, but I will try.  Is it not customary for warriors to take their sjálfsmynd after they complete their hunt?  There is no rule that says we cannot go together.”

“I’m not a warrior,” Loki said.  “And you know it.”

“I know no such thing.  Please, brother.” Thor tried to approach him again, not sure how close he could get before Loki turned to run away.

The last thing Loki wanted was to be anywhere with only Thor to protect him.  Thor, who was so easily distracted and more concerned with his own image than with what actually went on around him.

“We just got home,” Loki protested.

“And you do not seem happy to be here,” Thor said.

Loki thought about that for only a few seconds.  “No, Thor.  I am not,” he agreed.  “But I still do not wish to leave home again so soon.”

He pushed past Thor and slowly walked down the open corridor in any direction his steps took him.  When he realised this was a path he’d walked a thousand times before on nights when he felt especially hopeless, or unable to sleep, or simply bored, Loki put more purpose into his steps and made an effort to conceal himself from any watchful eyes.  He found himself away from the public areas of the palace, where the servants and guards slept in private, but small quarters.  It was a place he knew very well.

Fandral never locked his door unless he was out or Loki was with him, and that was how Loki found it.  Locked.  Fandral was likely still off in some corner somewhere, playing up his carefully-maintained image by recalling his battle with the fearsome dragon to a small group of girls.  Loki would simply wait for him to return.

He unlocked the door easily enough and had barely stepped inside when he heard several startled cries somewhere in the dark.  Startled himself, Loki cast a dim light into the room and immediately wished he hadn’t.  Fandral quickly sat up in bed while someone else quickly leapt from the covers and darted across the room.  Loki couldn’t see the other boy’s face properly — just a mop of shaggy, dark hair — but didn’t need to see it to know what he’d walked in on.

“What?” Loki demanded, not sure if he should be angry or sick.  He thought he might be both.

“Get out!” Fandral shouted desperately to Loki.

Loki obliged, if only because he didn’t know what else to do.  He slammed the door behind him, mind racing.  After a moment, he realised that no one was going to follow him out the room.  He couldn’t bring himself to do anything about it though.  Standing outside Fandral’s rooms, trying not to think about what was going on inside them, Loki could only wonder if he had interpreted the situation right.

But what other interpretation would there have been?

Why had Fandral done that?  No.  That wasn’t the right question at all.  Loki already knew he was undesirable, and had for some time.  The real question was why he hadn’t seen Fandral’s true intentions sooner.

Because he was clearly blind and only seeing what he wanted to see.

He turned to stomp back down the corridor, retracing his steps until he found Thor, still standing on the terrace and staring forlornly at the sky.

“Get your stuff,” Loki ordered.  “We’re going.”

Thor turned to him, confused.  “I thought you wished to stay,” he said.

“Nope.  I’ve changed my mind.  We’re going drinking in Álfheimr.  Now.”

Without another word, Loki turned to leave again.  Thor stood still for a few moments longer, wondering if Loki did it deliberately, or if he truly had no idea how fickle and contrary he could be sometimes.

***

Niflheimr, Loki decided, was the worst of the Nine Realms.  Aside from the fact that he’d no idea how they even found themselves there, the wind was bitterly cold, even to his skin, and every square inch of the land was infested with angry spirits.

Furthermore, polar bear was quite possibly the worst meat Loki had ever tasted.  It was also the only meat he and Thor had been able to catch.

Loki sat close to their pathetic excuse for a fire and watched Thor, buried beneath the hastily-prepared skin of the bear, chewing absently on one of the smaller, more delicate bones of the creature’s paw.  Another gale kicked up out on the plain behind them, sending an icy blast into the cave they’d found for shelter.  Loki huddled into the bear skin he wore draped over himself and tried to ignore it.  When he shivered, he thought his chest might split open all over again, and he wasn’t sure that Thor was up for another round of trying to put him back together without healing stones.

Loki couldn’t even begin to imagine where Thor had picked up that magic.

“Are we done yet?” he asked, as the wind slapped him round the face in a way it no doubt thought most playful.  “I think we’re done.  I want to go home.”

“There are worse places to be,” Thor said, even then full of irritating cheer.

“I can think of very few,” Loki said.

Thor chuckled and tossed the bone into the fire.  “Where do you go? When you disappear for weeks.”

Loki considered making something up, because he knew Thor already knew the answer.  In the end, he decided he was too cold to bother.

“Midgard,” he said.  And then a thought occurred to him.  “You know how we were once worshipped as gods there? We still are by some people.”

“Really?” Thor asked, eager to know who would consider him a god.

“It’s why the pact forbade travel there,” Loki said.  “Remember when we were boys? He let us sit in on the talks.”

“I do recall it vaguely,” Thor said.  “I mostly recall being annoyed at being made to attend at all.”

Loki couldn’t help but smile.  “If you listen very carefully, you can still hear the prayers,” he said.  “They may not always be intended for you, but that doesn’t seem to matter with these things.”

Thor closed his eyes and listened, a frown setting on his face.  “I hear nothing but wind,” he said.

“That’s because you’re not listening right,” Loki said.  “Ignore the wind for now.”

“Oh, you’re a shaman now as well, are you?” Thor asked.

“Possibly,” Loki said smugly.  “Stop listening with your ears.  You listen for them with your mind, and your heart.”

“Loki, that makes no sense,” Thor complained.

“Shut up and listen,” Loki said.  “Yggdrasil has needs.  She can be very vocal about them.”

Thor closed his eyes again and tried to listen, but still all he heard was wind.  Wind, and maybe the same angry spirit that chased off Loki’s horse and scared Thor’s to death.

“I think we should find the Bifröst site,” Thor declared suddenly.  “Let’s go home.”

“Oh, it’s about time,” Loki said.  “I have a much faster way.  Just keep your eyes closed.”

The next thing Thor felt was very, very ill.

 

« || »

Those Who Hunt Monsters #10: Shame

As the suns crawled across the western horizon, Volstagg stopped the party and began giving orders to set up camp, while he unloaded the cart.

“Loki,” he said, gathering up handfuls of dried grass from the cart. “Build the fire. Somewhere away from the trees.”

He handed Loki the grass and went on instructing Sif on where to find clean water. Loki glanced around the clearing Volstagg chose for their campsite, wondering what he was even meant to be doing. He found a spot roughly in the centre of the clearing and put the grass on the ground. He knew he was missing a crucial tool, but he’d never actually seen a fire be started before, and any fires he ever started over the years were either unintentional, the result of magic, or both. It had simply never occurred to him that he might want to deliberately set something on fire without magic, and it had been an oversight on his part that he never learned how to do so.

“Do something,” he told the pile of grass.

It did nothing, but Thor quickly noticed Loki’s situation and stepped up beside him.

“You need flint,” Thor told him. “And that will never work. Where’s the wood?”

“What?” Loki asked.

Thor gave Loki a pitying look. Loki wanted to punch him.

“We need to gather the firewood,” Thor told him. “Come. I’ll help you.”

Loki still wanted to punch him, but he followed instead, mostly watching as Thor wandered through the underbrush, gathering fallen branches and handing them to Loki.

“Wouldn’t you get better wood if you cut down a tree?” Loki asked.

“It would be wet,” Thor said, picking up a thick bough that was almost as tall as he was.

Loki looked round at the trees surrounding them. Most looked a bit poorly from the lack of rain, in his opinion.

“They don’t look very wet to me,” he said.

“Neither do you.” Thor gave Loki a nudge back toward the camp. “But I’m sure if someone cut you open, they’d find plenty of wet bits.”

Grimacing at the mental image, Loki stacked the branches beside the grass and watched Thor clear the area of fallen leaves and twigs. Once the area was cleared, Thor went back to the cart to fetch a spade.

“Dig a pit,” he said, handing the spade to Loki.

“I thought I was building a fire,” Loki said dubiously.

“So far, I have been building the fire,” Thor pointed out. “You can dig the pit.”

Unable to fault that logic, Loki pressed the dull old spade into the ground and started to dig out a small hole. He still wasn’t sure what he was doing or how it related to building a fire, but he didn’t stop until Thor took the spade back from him. Thor showed him how to place the grass in the shallow pit so enough air could get to it, and then handed him a large piece of flint and a ring of steel.

“Strike them against one another,” Thor explained. “Aim the sparks to catch on the tinder.”

Frowning sceptically, Loki struck the two together, bashing his knuckles hard enough to draw blood.

“Ymir’s tits!” Loki dropped the flint and steel in favour of nursing his bloodied knuckles.

“You barely scraped them,” Thor said with a chuckle. “Don’t be such a crying baby.”

“Then you do it,” Loki said.

Thor cockily picked up the flint and steel and struck one against the other, neither creating a spark nor starting a fire. He tried again, growing more vocally frustrated with each failed strike.

“See?” Loki said. “You can’t even do it. What good are you?”

“You’re putting me off,” Thor complained.

“Of course I am.”

Loki watched for a few moments, growing frustrated right along with Thor.

“Oh, to Hel with this,” he said. Annoyed, he spat at the tinder, which immediately went up in flame. The flash startled Thor so badly he dropped both the flint and the steel ring.

“Hey! He cheated!” Theoric shouted from where he was still tying the horses and making sure they were fed and watered.

Loki picked up the nearest loose branch and turned on Theoric, almost hoping to have a reason to be able to club him on the side of the head.

“And what will you do if you come across a foe who uses magic?” Volstagg asked. “Accuse him of cheating and demand another attempt?”

“He’s not a foe. He’s supposed to be building a fire,” Theoric argued.

Volstagg looked over to the fire and shrugged. “Looks built to me,” he said. “I didn’t tell him how it had to be done. Just to do it.”

Theoric grudgingly turned back to his task, and only when he was certain that Theoric was otherwise engaged, Loki dropped the branch and turned his attention back to Thor. He watched as Thor piled some of the smallest branches into the flames and pointed at the larger piece they’d gathered.

“What about those?” he asked.

“You get an axe and break them down to smaller pieces,” Thor said, sounding irritatingly cheerful.

***

Fandral wasn’t sure if he should have been pleased or embarrassed. All he’d seen was the flash of red feathery scales before drawing his bow and loosing an arrow. But now that he saw the actual dragon, stuck through and half-exploded from the inside out, most of the glory seemed to have vanished.

“You killed a lizard. Well done,” Freyr said sarcastically.

“It’s a dragon, you ass,” Fandral insisted. “Look at the scales. What lizard looks like that?”

“This one, obviously,” Freyr insisted.

“It’s a dragon.” Fandral pointed at the juvenile dragon, its flat, pointed scales stuck out at all angles. Its body was long and slender, with short, stubby legs that ended in hook-like talons.

“It’s shorter than my forearm. It shouldn’t count for anything,” Freyr argued.

Volstagg finally reached the boys and looked down at the carcass on the ground. “Fandral slew a dragon,” he said simply. “Remind us all, Freyr, what beast you’ve felled this trip.”

Fandral laughed and bent to pick up his kill. It wasn’t terribly glorious, and as a trophy not even pretty, but a dragon was a dragon. Even this one would earn him an intimidating set of armour.

He took the dragon back to his horse and took the reins from Loki, where he waited on his own mount.

“Let me see,” he said.

Fandral showed him the creature, holding it up by the end of its tail. Despite everything, he couldn’t help the grin that spread across his face.

“Waste of an arrow,” Loki observed. “You could have hit with with a stone and done the job.”

His own grin belied his words though, and Fandral answered with a vague, half-hearted punch as he mounted his horse.

“His Lordship’s being charmingly bitter about it,” Fandral said. “I keep waiting for him to slap a mosquito and for Volstagg to tell him it counts.”

“Freyr, the fearless bug slayer,” Loki said. “I shall be sure to call upon him when next I find a spider in my rooms.”

They both laughed as Freyr approached them, neither making an effort to conceal the fact that he was the target of their mockery. When Volstagg rejoined them, the small group began to make their way back to camp. They cut a single-file train through the lighter areas of the forest, trusting Volstagg to lead the way.

As they came to a heavier part of the woods, Fandral cast a wary glance around him. Midnight sun would last for weeks still, but with the suns low on the horizon, the shadows of the forest were long and heavy, distorting the terrain around them.

“Are there any goblins out here?” he asked, trying to sound more curious than nervous.

“Just the one that I can see,” Freyr said under his breath.

Sneering, Loki waved his hand at the ground, bringing a small stone up and casting it at the back of Freyr’s head.

“Ow!” Freyr cried out, clutching his head with both hands. “You whoreson bastard.”

“If I kill Freyr in single combat, may I be excused from the rest of the hunt?” Loki asked, all jest gone from his voice. “Or will he not count as a trophy?”

Volstagg abruptly stopped his horse and moved as far to the left of the trail as he was able.

“Freyr. Up here with me,” he commanded.

Freyr grudgingly moved to catch up with Volstagg, casting a bitter glare to Loki.

“Why should I be punished when he’s the one threatening to kill me?” he demanded.

“I’m almost tempted to let him,” Volstagg said, kicking his horse’s flanks and starting down the trail again. “I don’t know what Týr teaches you lot about honour, but it can’t be much.”

“My father will hear about this,” Freyr said, making it sound like a threat.

Volstagg neither cared nor found him terribly threatening. “Yes, I’m sure he will,” he agreed. “Does he let you talk to your stepmother like that?”

Freyr went silent and stared at the trail ahead of him.

“My guess would be no,” Fandral whispered to Loki.

Loki said nothing. He kept a tight grip on the reins and focused on the way the leather dug into his skin to keep from jumping out of his saddle and pulling Freyr to the ground. The few months away from Freyr’s presence was apparently enough to make him forget how to ignore the way he and his friends spoke, and now even the sound of some of their voices was enough to make him want to break someone’s neck. He had to be sure to always have at least one other person around in case Freyr or Theoric or Sif said anything to him, because he didn’t trust himself not to drive any of them through with the first weapon he could grab.

The four of them made the rest of the ride in silence, ignoring one another while lost in their own thoughts. They returned to camp to the smell of cooked deer meat — a result of Sif’s successful hunt early that morning. A second fire had been built since then, burning low beneath the stretched pelt of her felled stag.

As soon as he saw the group return, Thor eagerly bounded over to Loki.

“Were you successful?” he asked, grinning hopefully.

“No,” Loki said flatly.

He got down from his horse and handed the reins over to Thor, hardly looking in his direction.

“There is still time,” Thor said encouragingly. “It’s only the second day.”

Loki ignored him while he focused on removing the saddle from his horse, stacking it and the rest of the tack neatly on the ground.

“You’ll get something soon enough,” Thor continued, undaunted.

“Oh, yes. I’m sure I’ll slay an ogre while we’re out here,” Loki said. “Maybe I’ll get very lucky and come across a fire giant.”

Thor frowned, forgetting what he was going to say next. “I’m not sure that would count as a trophy,” he said, uncertain. “Nor do I believe you would find one outside of Muspelheimr.”

Loki dropped the horse blanket and turned away sharply. “Don’t talk to me,” he demanded.

He trudged off far from the campsite, not paying much attention to where he was going until he realised that he’d only managed to somehow walk a large ring round the camp. Still angry and not ready to go back to face anyone, Loki sat on the ground and watched as Asgard’s smallest sun struggled to dip below the horizon. Ordinarily, he might have waited until dark to return to the group, but dark was not something that would happen for a considerable time. Were he to wait, he would not return to camp until midwinter.

As Loki was about to give up and return to camp despite his mood, he heard the sound of approaching footsteps. Turning round, he saw it was only Fandral, still slightly blood-stained from his kill earlier.

“Technically, you would be allowed to kill him, you know,” Fandral said. “No one could fault you for it.”

“I’m allowed to kill him in single combat,” Loki said. “But I’d never win, so what’s the point?”

He picked up a stone and cast it into the woods, trying to ignore Fandral as he sat down on the ground beside him.

“I didn’t completely destroy the beast’s heart,” Fandral said. “Perhaps you should eat it, and then challenge Freyr to a duel.”

He offered Loki a hard, purple mass the size of a small nut. It was such a pathetic parody of a dragon’s heart that Loki couldn’t resist laughing.

“No, it’s yours,” he said. “You have it.”

Fandral shrugged and popped the heart into his mouth. As soon as he bit into it, he gagged and grimaced. He tried to spit it out onto the ground, but it stuck to his tongue and only made it as far as his chin.

“That is vile!” Fandral shouted, trying to wipe his mouth clean. “Why would anyone?”

Loki cast a quick glance around them. There was no one around, despite Fandral’s outburst, so Loki leaned in close to steal a quick kiss. Fandral tasted of heavy spice and congealed blood, but Loki managed to resist a grimace and shrugged.

“I don’t know. It’s not so bad,” he lied.

Fandral playfully pushed him away. “That’s because I’ve already swallowed all the terribly nasty bits of it,” he complained.

Wiping his mouth as clean as possible, he looked back toward the camp with a bit more scrutiny than Loki had done.

“I ought to tell you off for that,” he said. “You’ll get us caught with that behaviour.”

“Consider me told off,” Loki said.

He was fairly confident he could do much worse before the witness of the entire court and still keep anyone from seeing it. But he didn’t say as much to Fandral. That was a secret he wanted to keep to himself for as long as possible.

“We’d both be banished, if we weren’t killed first,” Fandral said. “Not even your father would be able to do anything.”

“Yes, fine,” Loki said, growing tired with this speech already. “I shan’t do it again.”

“Good,” Fandral said, nodding thoughtfully.

Loki was tempted to keep his word to the letter, but he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to handle never doing that again. Maybe he’d think about it; keep it for ammunition for the next time Fandral started to annoy him.

Sensing he had done the opposite of what he came to do, Fandral knocked his knee against Loki’s.

“It’s a big group. You’ve got plenty of time yet,” he said.

Loki shrugged. “Time is nothing without skill.”

“I’ve seen you,” Fandral said. “You’re better with a bow than I am. You’re better than most of the men I’ve seen training at the targets. And don’t even get me started on those knives of yours.”

“I don’t know,” Loki said glumly. “I guess we’ll see.”

***

Even Alv had a trophy to take home after he’d killed a toad. The sort of trophy befitting a charcoal-chewer, yes, but a trophy all the same.

Loki had hoped that Freyr’s bad luck would hold and force him to return to the palace empty-handed, but he found himself once again disappointed. He wanted to be sick when Freyr shot a hare with his sling late on the fourth day.

No-one expected Loki to take down anything. He was rail-thin and awkward, completely out of his element, and not at all cut out to be a hunter. He couldn’t even build a proper fire without help.

He found himself wondering if the Jötnar even hunted. They must eat something, and therefore went after whatever game Jötunheimr had to offer. Living entirely off of frozen shrubs and berries couldn’t have possibly sustained a warrior race as powerful as the Jötnar. But Loki had never cared to learn about Jötnar society.  The people who would have allowed him to die, screaming on the ice as an infant were no better than those who cast him out in boyhood for the same crime.

The Jötnar surely hunted, and were surely good at it, Loki reasoned. They had to be. Loki would not fail this, as he failed everything else Asgard said he should excel at. Even if all he managed to bring down was a fledgling sparrow, he would have something to show for his time spent communing with nature. He ignored the complaints and wishes to return home and focused on the task at hand. He would find something in this useless copse and kill it. There were only a few hours remaining until Asgard’s largest sun was at its eastern-most point in the sky and Volstagg gave orders to pack up camp. Loki was not going to waste them. He grabbed his bow and quiver and set out into the surrounding trees, listening to the sounds around him. At every rustle in the leaves above and scrape in the underbrush below, Loki turned his attention and drew back his bowstring, but by the time he found his target, it had already fled.

Still, he pressed on, drawing deeper and deeper into the woods. Having long-since lost sight of the camp, Loki tried to use the suns as his compass, but they had the tricky quality of not staying in place for long. Just one more lesson he was failing, it would seem.

He thought perhaps he might be able to use that to his advantage, though. Volstagg would never return to the palace without him, and if he got himself lost, it might buy him a few extra hours.

A robin chipped above him, and as quickly as he could, Loki put the bird in his sights and loosed his arrow. The robin was quicker though, and took to the air before the arrow struck. The arrow soared right through the branches and out of sight.

“Damnit,” Loki growled.

He’d have to go retrieve the arrow, but it wasn’t as if he wasn’t already embarrassingly lost. And the arrow couldn’t have gone too far. He’d fired it almost straight up in the air and there were plenty of trees to stop it on its way down. Loki set out in the direction the arrow landed, moving slowly enough to be able to check the entire area around him.

He only made it a few paces before he heard thrashing about in the undergrowth. It wasn’t the sort of thrashing that a squirrel or a hare might cause, but something much larger. And angrier. Loki soon saw the cause of the noise, and was immediately reminded of annoyed elk in Scotland. Only much, much larger, and instead of antlers, this beast had large, sweeping horns growing from the top of its head and massive wings on its shoulders. And sticking out of its neck was Loki’s arrow. He didn’t even have time to appreciate the fact that he’d shot a hippogryph stallion, even accidentally, because as soon as the creature noticed him it gave charge. Loki had time to fire off one more arrow in defence before he turned to run back in the direction he’d came. He knew he could never outrun it, but there were little other options presenting themselves.

Behind him, and growing ever nearer, the hippogryph crashed through the underbrush, knocking low branches out of its way with its horns. It snorted and huffed as it ran, its talons digging deep into the ground while its hooves kicked up soil and moss behind it. If Loki found a way out of this alive, he thought the sound of that creature chasing him might haunt his nightmares for the rest of his life.

When the ground levelled out enough to feel solid beneath Loki’s feet, he turned and loosed another arrow at the hippogryph, striking it in the shoulder. This only seemed to anger it more. It reared up, slashing its talons through the air and screeched so loudly the entire forest seemed to vibrate from it. Loki refused to let himself be taken in by the display and continued running, putting as much space between himself and it as possible.

Seeing Loki wouldn’t be intimidated, the hippogryph gave chase once more. It beat its wings violently as it ran, snorting wildly. Its left wing seemed sluggish and clumsy compared to its right, and even if it had enough room to get airborne, Loki didn’t think its wings would be able to support the rest of its weight.

Still running, he turned and fired off another arrow, striking the hippogryph in the same shoulder. The arrow hit low, missing the secondary pectoral muscles that would have crippled its ability to take flight. Instead, the beast stumbled, slowing its gait to accommodate the injured limb. Not quite what Loki was going for, but he’d take it as a minor success.

Loki soon began to smell smoke and heard activity in the distance. He knew that he had somehow, miraculously found the campsite again, although this time he was glad for it. Until that moment he hadn’t even considered taking the hippogryph for a trophy, and even once he knew it would be a great burn to those in the group, he didn’t think he’d manage to kill the raging beast that still pursued him.

All the same, Loki ran toward the camp.

“Sword!” he shouted as soon as he was near enough to be seen. “I need a sword!”

Volstagg looked up and reacted immediately. He grabbed the first blade he had on hand and tossed it to Loki, hoping it would be enough while he hunted for something more suitable for the task.

Loki caught the blade and frowned at it. It was far from a sword, but a hunting knife was better than nothing. It would simply have to do.

He turned to the charging hippogryph and this time stood his ground. He would either kill the best or—

Or at least he wouldn’t be alive to regret the alternative.

And that was unacceptable. He simply had to kill it.

Just as the hippogryph was nearly upon him, Loki dropped his bow and struck out with his hand, casting a flash of white hot light. The hippogryph reared up in confusion, slashing blindly with its talons. As it fell back down to all fours, Loki lunged forward and drove the knife deep into the side of the beast’s neck. It kicked and bucked fiercely, its own weight pulling against the blade of the knife and pulling it across its neck. Loki held tightly, using his own weight to steady the knife as blood spilt across his hands and arms. One of the hippogryph’s talons struck Loki in the chest, knocking him to the ground as it fell to one side. Dazed and winded, Loki managed to sit up to see the hippogryph in its final throes.

It was all over in a manner of seconds. At once, Volstagg abandoned his search for a sword and was upon Loki, massive hands pawing over his chest and stomach to make sure he wouldn’t soon follow the hippogryph in bleeding to death.

“You stupid boy. Why the Hel did you go off alone?” Volstagg demanded.

Loki didn’t answer him. Instead, he laughed almost deliriously at the sight before him.

“Does this count?” he asked. “Can we go home now?”

Volstagg hugged Loki close to his chest, squeezing him so tightly Loki thought he might have squeezed the very life out of him.

“Haven’t an ounce of sense in you,” Volstagg said.  “Stupid, stupid boy.”

Loki knew Volstagg wasn’t wrong.  Looking at the slain beast in the dirt, he saw its full size with its limbs and arms splayed out.  It still occasionally kicked and twitched as the last of its blood drained onto the dirt.  By then, the others had all gathered round behind them, eager to get a look at what had just happened.

“It shouldn’t count,” Freyr complained. “He cheated.”

Thor responded by shoving him sideways to the ground. No one else even thought to help him up.

« || »

Those Who Hunt Monsters #9: Hunt

Volstagg stood behind Loki, watching him line up his shot.  Loki had grown comfortable with the bow since Fandral had first shown him how to use one, but he had not quite mastered it as well as he would have liked.  In a single, fluid motion, he pulled an arrow from his quiver, aimed, and loosed it.  With his quiver emptied, Loki frowned at his work.  Nine of his ten arrows hit the bullseye, with the tenth straying only as far as the bull.  Good.  But he could still be better.

“Your form needs work, but at this point I think you’ve been doing it wrong for so long your aim would probably just get worse if you tried to correct it,” Volstagg observed. He scratched at his beard and looked across the field at the targets, each stuck with arrows fletched with black and white magpie feathers.

“That’s how Fandral said to do it,” Loki said, turning to face him.

Volstagg snorted.  “Well, there’s your problem,” he said.  “You’re listening to Fandral.”

Loki glared at Volstagg for his remark, but said nothing.  Fandral was insulted often enough, and Loki knew the sting from such barbs.  He just hadn’t expected Volstagg to ever be one to cast them.

Volstagg hardly noticed Loki’s sour expression and pressed on.  It was nothing he hadn’t seen before.

“Let’s see these knives of yours, then,” he said.  He pointed to a closer row of targets and stood back to give Loki room.

Determined to show that he wasn’t completely useless as a warrior, Loki put down his bow and reached for the leather sleeve in which he kept his throwing knives.  Like with the bow, his form was far from perfect.  He threw his entire body into casting the blade, twisting his spine in such a way that caused him to completely lose sight of his target at a point when he should have been aiming.  He threw one knife at each of the half-dozen targets, striking the bullseye every time.

“Where in the Nine Realms did you learn that?” Volstagg asked, standing to get a better look at the targets.

“During some of my travels last year,” Loki said, walking to retrieve his knives from the targets.  “I learned to shoot from horseback as well, though I’m still quite bad at it.  There are those who do such things for spectacle, and spent some time learning from them.  They train even harder than those who do it in hunting.”

“Hunting for sport,” Volstagg said, almost chuckling.  “Well, that sounds like a fantastic idea.”

Loki wasn’t so sure.  The first hunt was upon them, and Loki knew this was why Volstagg wanted to see his skill with anything other than a sword or axe.  On Midsummer, every boy of sixteen, and occasionally a few girls, were to go out and prove themselves warriors in less than a month.  It had long been Volstagg’s privilege to lead the hunt for the sons of Asgard’s nobility, but this would be his first year leading Asgard’s royalty as well.

Loki knew he dreaded being the first to return from the hunt with Asgard’s royalty having been unsuccessful.  It was a fear Loki shared with him.

“Can you hit a moving target?” Volstagg asked.

“Of course,” Loki said.  “Though I still struggle to do so from horseback.”

Volstagg nodded, seeming almost surprised to hear it.

“Luckily, we don’t do much from the mount,” he said with a wink.

For the next fortnight, Loki spent every spare moment with Volstagg, being all but driven into the ground while he was drilled on close combat.  Even though he was already quite skilled at it, Volstagg drilled him on shooting from horseback.  Volstagg thought might be Loki’s one advantage over the others in the party, while constantly reminding him not to count on it alone to get Loki through the trip.  Not everything was easily felled with a bow.  Most, in fact, were taken down with simple brute force and a blade, which Loki had not even begun to learn.

Volstagg tried to teach him any number of styles and techniques, but Loki seemed ill-suited to all of them.  He hadn’t learnt anything beyond the very basics when he first started training, but the basic techniques were designed with someone much smaller in mind.  And of course, the techniques Volstagg taught to his other students were better-suited for someone rather a bit bigger than Loki was.  He was still small for his age, despite his Jötunn blood, doomed to forever be smaller than his peers.  If they’d had more time, perhaps Volstagg could have come up with something that played more to Loki’s strengths, but Loki didn’t have any other strengths.  Other strengths were what boys who actually had proper training could rely on.  As it was, there was just too much for him to even usefully implement the stuff he already knew.  His shoulder was always a little too high, or his leg kicked out a little too far.  Loki was fairly certain he would be more a danger to himself than anyone else in a melee situation, but he tried to remain optimistic.  Volstagg put on a similar attitude, clapping him on the shoulder and singing praises every time Loki made even the smallest improvement.  It still never felt like he was going anywhere at all.

“I’m not getting any better,” Loki declared after once again completely losing his balance and falling to the ground with a sound thump.  “I should spare you the dishonour and stay behind.”

“The dishonour to your father would be even greater if you stayed,” Volstagg pointed out, offering Loki a hand up.

Loki refused his hand and pulled himself to his feet.

“It’s an Æsir tradition anyway,” he pointed out.  “I’m not Æsir.”

He dropped his practise sword on the ground and trudged off toward the palace, leaving Volstagg with nothing to say.

***

Loki didn’t sleep the night before the hunt.  None of Asgard’s three suns ever fell completely below the horizon during the summer months, leaving his chambers bright enough to read by, even without torches or lanterns.

He sat on the dais in his bedchamber, leaning against the foot of his bed as dawn approached.  Throughout the night, he’d gone through a small stack of various books and plays, and was halfway through a most horrifying script in which the elderly were executed for the crime of being old, when he heard his chamber doors bang open downstairs.  Any thought that his intruder might have been Thor was dispelled when Loki realised that three sets of footsteps climbed the stairs to his bedchamber.  Even as the door to his bedchamber was thrown open, Loki kept his place and pretended to be too involved with his reading to notice the intrusion.

“Loki, why are you not in the stables?” Odin demanded.

“Because I’m reading,” Loki answered, not looking up.

“I have been lenient with you,” Odin said, folding his arms over his chest.  “Perhaps too lenient.  But this is one thing where I will not allow you to bend the rules to suit yourself.”

When Loki still kept his eyes fixed on his book, Odin nodded to the guards by his side and watched as they descended upon Loki and pulled him to his feet.

“No,” Loki protested as his book was pulled from his hands.  “Unhand me! Stop it; you’ll lose my place.”

Odin reached out and took the book from Loki’s hand, snapping the pages shut without care.  Loki realised with a sinking feeling that this was not going to end well for him.  He raised his chin defiantly.

“They will unhand you only to see you make your way to the stables,” Odin said calmly.  He folded his arms over his chest and stood before Loki like the great, immovable force he was.

“I’m not going,” Loki insisted.  “I’m not even Æsir.  Even you can see that.  I don’t have to go.”

“Loki, I may be your father, but I am also your king,” Odin said sternly.  “As your father, you shame me.  And as your king, I will punish you for your disobedience.”

Loki folded his own arms over his chest.  “Punish me, then,” he said.  “I don’t care.”

As soon as he said it, he realised he did care.  He cared greatly.  Odin grabbed him by the collar of his tunic, catching skin and hair alike in his grasp and pulled him toward the door.

“See that he’s packed,” Odin ordered to the guards before leading his son down the corridor to the stairs.

Loki hardly put any thought into matching pace with Odin, or even trying to escape his grasp.  Odin’s intentions were clear, and Loki’s entire focus was on making sure he appeared at least passingly Æsir before he was dragged from his chambers.  Odin showed no sign of slowing to descend the stairs, and Loki stumbled to keep his footing beside him, still putting most of his focus into his magic.  There were many paths between Loki’s rooms and the stables, but Odin chose the one that was most public, ensuring that plenty of people saw Loki being so openly disciplined by his father.  The last thing Loki wanted was to be seen being dragged along by Odin while wearing his true form.  He managed to cast the glamour as he was pulled through his doors and into the corridor, finally freeing his attention for other matters.

When they reached the stables, Odin shoved Loki in Volstagg’s direction, causing him to stumble gracelessly.

“Do not let him out of your sight,” Odin ordered.  “He tends to run and hide when he does not get his way.”

Thoroughly shamed, Loki kept his gaze to the ground and tried not to listen to the others laughing quietly amongst themselves.  The only one who was not laughing was Thor, but Loki never looked up to see the pained look he wore instead.  Suddenly, Thor put a hand on Loki’s shoulder and guided him to his horse.  The mottled chestnut mare had already been kitted and dressed to ride, but Loki pretended not to notice the implications.

“I knew Father was going to make you come, but he forbade me from seeing you last night,” Thor explained quietly.  “I am sorry.”

Loki shrugged as he scrubbed his hands over his face.  What could he possibly say? Even Hogun was counted in the hunting party, and he too was neither Æsir nor of certain age.  How foolish had Loki been to think his plan would ever work?

As Loki checked the tack on his horse, one of the guards delivered his travelling pack to Volstagg, dropping it carelessly on the ground.  Loki tried not to think of how badly his belongings were mistreated by the great idiot, or of how poorly he was sure to be packed for the journey.  As though reading these thoughts, Thor leaned in close again.

“I may have over-packed for this,” he said.  “Enough for two, even.”

Loki tried to cast him a scathing glance, but his heart wasn’t in it.  He knew he should have been grateful for all Thor’s forethought, since Odin’s guards almost certainly put minimal thought into his travel bag.  But it was a difficult feeling to balance when he also felt betrayed and forsaken by his own father.  Ignoring anyone else, Loki mounted his horse and tried not to think about the fact that he was to venture into Asgard’s wilderness with three of the people who hated him most.

“Why do we have to go with Volstagg’s band of merry misfits?” Freyr complained loudly, making sure his own horse was packed.  “We trained with Týr.  He could have taken us.”

“I already asked my father to lead us on the hunt,” Sif said.  “He’s the captain of Odin’s guard.  The only time he leaves the palace is for war.”

Theoric was in the group as well, though he had moved to train under Halfðan.  He had bribed his way into Volstagg’s party to participate in the hunt with Freyr, despite not having the station to be in their group at all.   Not that any of Volstagg’s  students did either.

He mounted his horse and shook his head.  “How long would it take us to make our kills and be home? Surely he could spare the time for that.”

“Longer than you might think,” Volstagg cut in.  “It will be a full day’s ride before we even reach the hunting grounds.  Which is why I want everyone ready to ride in five minutes.”

Theoric and Freyr both rolled their eyes.

“A full day for Volstagg’s horse, perhaps,” Freyr said.  “I’m surprised its back doesn’t break when he sits on it.”

“Oh, shut up, would you?” Fandral said finally.  “Does Týr teach you lot anything about honour?”

“You shouldn’t even be here, son of argr,” Sif said.  She stepped into his space, trying to push him back without touching him.

“At least I don’t have to buy my friends,” Fandral said smugly, not letting himself be swayed.

At once, Volstagg was between the lot of them, pushing Fandral and Sif apart.

“All right, you two,” he said gruffly.  “Get on your mounts.  We’re leaving.”

He stood his ground until both of them mounted their horses, before making his way back to the narrow-two-wheeled cart he’d been packing.  It was mostly empty, loaded with whatever wouldn’t fit on the individual horses, as well as a small collection of furs and dried grasses.  Checking once more that the cart was secure, he tied the pack horse to his own massive stallion and took his mount.

With the crack of the reins, Volstagg was off, and the group he led followed after.

The group that year was the biggest it had ever been, even without the princes being raised as twins.  It seemed every time the royal family announced another pregnancy, the population of Asgard soared.  And with Odin presenting twins, the court had been eager to keep up with the Allfather.

In addition to Týr’s group, Volstagg had his own small group as well.  Along with Loki and his constant companions in mischief, he’d taken in Alv — a boy with almost no drive to do anything, but whom Volstagg was determined to see successful at the hunt regardless — and Brynja — the daughter and only child to a Vanir widower, with some distant relation to the Queen.  She was a fierce child, but her sex and her station had her shunned as a warrior almost as soon as she entered training.

If Volstagg had expected her and Sif to bond, he was sorely mistaken.  Instead, Sif completely ignored her, riding ahead with Freyr and Theoric.  Loki rode slowly at the very back, accompanied by Thor on one side and Fandral on the other.  He looked blankly ahead while the other two speculated on the trip ahead of them.

After the first hour, Sif fell back to ride beside Thor, and at once, his attention was diverted from Fandral and Loki.  The two of them fell behind even farther, not seeming to notice having done so.

“What’s that all about?” Fandral asked as he watched Thor and Sif from over his shoulder.

Loki looked up long enough to follow Fandral’s gaze.

“Isn’t it obvious?” he asked.  “I imagine once we return from this thing, they’ll start doing it properly.”

Fandral frowned.  “Doing what? Hunting?” he asked.

“Courting, you idiot,” Loki said.  “They’ve been dancing around one another for years.”

Fandral nodded, having honestly never paid enough attention to notice.  “Well, who wants to do it properly?” he asked.  “I much prefer keeping my business out of everyone else’s.”

Loki allowed himself a slight smile as he rode beside Fandral.  He had no idea what to call his arrangement with the other boy, but he did find a certain thrill to the secrecy of it.  He’d kept his last deep, dark secret for nearly thirteen years.  He couldn’t help but wonder how long he could keep this one.

“How long do you reckon this will take?” Fandral asked.  “Needless to say, I’ve never done this before.”

“Courting?” Loki asked, raising his eyebrows in confusion.

“The hunt, you idiot,” Fandral volleyed back.

Loki nodded. 

“Until everyone but Volstagg has made a kill,” Loki said.  “Or until it’s been two days since the last kill.”

Fandral frowned as he thought about Loki’s answer, wondering which book he’d pulled that information from.

“We are a sad lot, aren’t we?” he asked.  “The only way Alv will kill anything is if he sits on it.”

Loki snorted and shrugged.  “I don’t know.  He could get lucky and tread on something.”

He was able to laugh at Fandral’s deflection , but it wasn’t Alv he worried about.  Everyone else had years of practise with this.  Loki had barely a few weeks.  What chance did he stand at all? Unsuccessful hunts were known to happen from time to time.  Generally, it wasn’t the kill that made the warrior, but his enthusiasm in the rite.  The kill just cemented his status amongst the ranks.

Unless his status was already at the very bottom.  He’d be better off not returning at all if he were unsuccessful, then.

“What happens if no-one kills anything?” Fandral asked.  “Was that in any of your histories?”

“It’s happened a few times,” Loki said as he shifted in his saddle.  “There was a year of famine before the war, but the hunt still went out.”

“You can’t just stop there.  What happened?” Fandral asked.

Loki smiled wickedly.  “It was the year Týr took his hunt.”

Fandral cast a look over his shoulder to Sif and covered his mouth to keep from laughing out loud.

“That explains so much!” he said.

Loki laughed along with him, knowing at least that with Fandral along on the hunt, he wouldn’t be completely bored.  At least if they were lucky, there would be the opportunity to sneak away for a clandestine meeting or two.

« || »

Those Who Hunt Monsters #8: Cast-Offs

Few people in Asgard could be said to be truly Æsir.  It was a misnomer; an idea that existed in name only.  There were no more Æsir on Asgard than there were Dökkálfar on Svartálfheimr.  But where one had been wiped out by an ancient war, the other faded into history through diplomacy and treaties.  Odin himself was half-Jötunn.  Frigga had strong lines of Álfar and Vanir in her line, and Loki himself was still, inexplicably, bethrothed to a Vanir princess.  But save those few with Nornir or human blood, there still existed universal traits amongst those on Asgard.  Most notably, the fairer traits of blond hair and blue eyes.  Loki’s dark hair had always set him apart, and when his secret got out, few seemed truly shocked to hear it.  After all, what sort of Æsir prince is born with black hair?

The shriek of horror and anger was heard through the palace, in part due to a slight magical boost.  Loki was still in bed when he heard it and grinned widely at the satisfaction of a job well done.  He had not seen Sif in three days, and just to further cement his cover, he rolled out of bed and bolted down to the doors of his chambers.  Not even bothering to dress or apply his glamour, he opened the door and peered out at the guard assigned to his chambers.

“What was that?” Loki asked, looking for all the world as though he’d just been roused from sleep.

The guard looked down at him, jumping slightly at the sight before him.

“I don’t know, my prince,” he said, turning his gaze away.  “Shall I find out?”

Loki considered the offer for a long moment.  “No,” he said finally.  “I’m sure the whole palace will know before breakfast is done.  I can find out for myself.  Thank you.”

He closed the door and returned to his bedchamber to dress.

While he usually made a habit of sleeping through breakfast, he knew that the dining hall was unusually full that morning.  Every noble in the palace, and even some of the serving classes milled about, speculating upon the scream that echoed through Asgard’s golden halls that morning.  Thor found Loki by one of the long tables, picking over a stack of bread rolls.

“What are you doing here so early?” Thor asked.

“Gossip,” Loki answered cheerily.  “What have you heard?”

Thor frowned at him.  “Loki.”

Loki shrugged.  “I was woken from my slumber, as I’m sure were many others.  Are you not curious to know why?”

“Well, yes,” Thor admitted.  “But it is not our place to spread gossip like—”

“Like what?” Loki prompted.

“Like women,” Thor said.

Loki hummed thoughtfully.  “Would you say the same thing to Sif?” he asked, looking around as though hoping to spot her in the crowd.

“No,” Thor said, looking around as well.  “She is a woman.”

“She’s also a warrior,” Loki pointed out.  “Surely a person can’t be both.  Isn’t that how it is? Either one or the other?”

Thor didn’t have an answer for him, so Loki smiled and took a bite of his roll.

“Where is she, anyway?” Loki asked.  “I thought she’d be down here, not gossipping with the rest of us.”

“I do not know,” Thor realised aloud.   He looked around the hall, but Loki knew he would find no trace of Sif anywhere.   “Surely, she must have heard that banshee wail as well.”

Loki’s face went serious as he raised his eyebrows pointedly.

“You don’t think?” Thor asked.

“I think plenty,” Loki said.  “But, no.  I have not implied anything.”

Loki watched the seeds of worry sprout in Thor, and again had to stop himself from laughing as his brother turned and sprinted from the dining hall.

***

Loki had not counted on Týr still being terrifying.  He may have been too old to cower beneath his mother’s skirts, but that didn’t stop Loki from putting himself behind Odin.   His shortness of stature made it all the easier to play up the role of scared child, though there was little to play up with Týr shouting about him just inches away.

The curse had worked wonderfully.  As soon as water soaked Sif’s hair, all the golden colour drained from it, leaving behind locks as black as a raven’s wing.  It was a maliciously beautiful sight.

It was also forbidden magic, and Loki’s future well-being depended upon his being able to deflect his guilt.

“My son was in his bed,” Odin said calmly, in stark contrast to Týr’s rage.  “The guard outside his door confirms it.  And the guard outside your door says no-one entered your chambers who should not have.”

“They’re lying,” Týr insisted.  “He did this, that little goblin.  I know it was him.”

“Týr Hymirson,” Odin said sternly, loud enough for his voice to echo off the walls of the throne room.  “This is not the first time you have falsely accused my son of crimes against your family.  Do so again, and they will be your last words spoken in this realm.”

Týr glowered, his jaw clenched tightly, and took half a step back.  “Yes, Allfather,” he said.

Without another word, he took Sif, her face still red from crying, and led her through the large doors to the promenade.

“Loki,” Odin said, not turning to look down at him.  “Be honest with me.”

Loki shook his head.  “I have not been near her for days,” he said, knowing it to be truth, but not the one Odin was after.  “We agreed to avoid one another’s presence, and have both held to that agreement until just now.”

Odin regarded him with suspicion, but nodded all the same.  “Very well,” he said.  “I would suggest you continue to honour that agreement.”

“Yes, Father,” Loki said.

“Good.” Odin turned away and began walking toward the door to the north hall.  “I believe you have lessons this morning.”

“Yes, Father,” Loki repeated.  He didn’t wait to be dismissed before darting from the throne room, feeling as though he had dodged death itself.

***

Viðar ran as fast as his legs could carry him as he rounded a corner to a corridor that even then he knew he was not supposed to be down.  Against the wall in front of him stood a large, golden pot with a large, sprawling fern, and wasting no time he ducked behind it.

Moments later, Loki’s even footsteps rounded the corner, stopping less than a meter from the fern.  Hands planted firmly on his hips, Loki looked round the corridor and hummed to himself.

“I think I have lost my brother,” he declared casually to the corridor.  “Mother will be most upset, but I think Baldur will enjoy being the youngest once more.”

Loki didn’t expect any sort of nervous giggle from the precocious infant he’d liberated from the nursery, but he didn’t need one to know where Viðar hid.  The swaying of the fern more than gave him away.

“Maybe I should lose him as well,” Loki continued.  “Then I can be youngest once again.”

“Loki, what trouble are you causing today?” Odin asked suddenly from behind him.

Loki spun round quickly, startled at his father’s ability to sneak up on him so.

“No trouble at all, Father,” Loki said innocently, taking a step back toward the fern.

Odin narrowed his gaze at Loki, clearly trying to puzzle out whether Loki was spinning another clever lie.

“There is a matter I wish to speak with you about,” he said.

“Yes,” Loki said.  “I would like to speak with you as well, but today is wash day and Viðar has not yet had his bath.”

He spun quickly and snatched up Viðar from behind the fern.  This time, he expected at least an indignant squeal from Viðar, but still nothing came.  Not taking the time to dwell on it, Loki rushed down the corridor with Viðar slung over his shoulder.  He had a good idea what Odin wished to speak with him about, and wanted nothing to do with that conversation for as long as possible.

Loki let himself into Frigga’s washroom, Viðar struggling to free himself from Loki’s grip.

“Loki,” Frigga said to the sound of the door opening.  “Your father was looking for you.”

“Yes, he found me,” Loki said.  “And I found this!”

He pulled Viðar from his shoulder and held him out for Frigga, ignoring the way he squirmed to get away.

“Ah, yes.  Someone else who wasn’t where he was supposed to be.” Frigga took her youngest from Loki and held him on her hip with one arm.  Viðar stopped struggling at once.

“You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?” Frigga asked.

“Not a thing,” Loki said.  “Who else went missing today?”

Frigga looked at him dubiously, and Loki knew that he was in for more trouble than he’d realised.  Maybe if he left quickly, he could outrun Odin again.

“I’ll let you get to work then,” he said easily.  “Try not to let him get you too wet.”

“He’s no worse than you were at this age,” Frigga said, letting more of her weariness show than she’d meant to.

Loki cringed dramatically and stepped backward out the door.  As soon as he turned round to sneak off somewhere to hide, he found Odin blocking his path.

“Perhaps now we can talk,” Odin said sternly.

“Yes,” Loki agreed, putting on a false smile.  “Let’s.”

“I’ve spoken with Týr again,” Odin said, cornering Loki against the door.  The mere mention of Týr tended to have Loki running in the opposite direction, and Odin wasn’t about to give him the chance to do so.

“Oh?” Loki asked.  “What crime is he accusing me of now?  It’s only been several hours since the last one.”

“He tells me you have not attended training for several months,” Odin said.  He wasn’t doing anything to raise his voice, but his calm, quiet anger made Loki’s blood turn to ice.

“Ah,” Loki said.  Suddenly, sneaking off to the library didn’t seem the best plan.  He regretted not going somewhere beyond the palace.  Like Niðavelir.

“Do you deny these claims?” Odin asked.

“Not at all, Father,” Loki said, not even daring to think what might happen if he got caught up in a string of lies regarding this.  Even more, he feared what might happen if Odin knew the full truth.

“There’s nothing to deny,” Loki continued, gathering up his wits.  “Volstagg leads training in the evenings.  I find I prefer it to working in the heat of the day.”

“Volstagg?” Odin asked.  “I was not aware he led anything beyond the hunt.”

Odin often claimed to know everything that transpired within the realm, but Loki had made a good habit of proving that false again and again.   While he had tricks and magic of his own, he only convinced everyone he knew everything by being a terribly good actor himself sometimes.

“He does think of things other than food when it suits him to,” Loki said.  He tried to edge along the wall, but Odin stepped to remain right in front of him.

“You have become very talented with your words,” Odin said gravely.  “I only wish it has not been at the expense of your other studies.”

Before Loki could twist the truth into another lie, Odin dismissed him and moved to enter Frigga’s chambers.  Loki remained where he stood, feeling he had been let off rather lightly, and wondering when the true punishment would come.

***

“Loki! Pay attention!”

Volstagg stood at the edge of the ring, despairing at the prince’s complete lack of skill with a weapon.

Loki had been training with Volstagg for almost three months, and had not left Týr’s training a day before, but that was only half the truth.  Attendance and participation were not the same thing, and given Loki’s apparent willingness to learn, Volstagg was willing to bet that his lack of participation had not been through any fault of his own.

“Loki!” he shouted again, but it was too late.

In a single swing, Hogun disarmed Loki of his practise sword and struck him in the ribs with his own.  A long stream of red trailed out from Loki’s side as he fell to the ground, long limbs sprawled out awkwardly.  If it had been the first time Volstagg had seen the display, he would have panicked.  As indeed he did the first time Loki used the flash of a red silk scarf and the low light of twilight to aid in his dramatics.  As it was, Volstagg dragged his hand down his face and stomped over to where the prince lay in the sand.

“I’m done,” Loki declared, staring blankly up at the sky.

“Get up,” Volstagg said.  “You are not just going to lie there in the dust.”

“He got me.  I’m dead,” Loki said.

“There is no honour in this defeat,” Volstagg said.

“There is no honour in being defeated every time I step foot in the ring,” Loki complained.

Volstagg sighed tiredly.  Loki’s lack of skill annoyed him.  His inconsistent attitude toward training annoyed him.  Most of all, the fact that Loki was right annoyed him.  He had yet to best even a single opponent in all the time Volstagg had been training him.  He hadn’t even come close.   Not for the first time, Volstagg wondered if Loki had ever once been given a proper lesson in nearly four years.

“Sit up at least,” Volstagg said.  “I don’t like talking to a corpse.”

Loki complied, and Volstagg lowered his bulk to meet Loki in the eye.

“How much have you trained with a sword?” he asked quietly, so the others wouldn’t overhear him.

Loki looked away, not wanting to admit that most of his time spent with a sword had been spent learning how to use one on stage.

“Right,” Volstagg said, picking up on part of what was being left unsaid.  “Have you trained with anything else?”

“A bow,” Loki said.  “Knives as well.”

Volstagg nodded.  “I think that’s something we can work with,” he said.  “Now get up.  Your father’s watching.”

Loki looked around wildly as he got to his feet.  Sure enough, Odin stood at the far end of the ring, watching everything in a stony silence.  Leaving Loki to sort himself out, Volstagg approached the Allfather, saluting as he drew near.

“Volstagg,” Odin said with a nod.  “What is this you have here?”

Dropping his salute, Volstagg turned to look at the small band of teens he’d collected over the years.

“Just taking in Týr’s cast-offs,” he said without thinking.

Odin glanced at him, but said nothing on the matter.  Instead, he pointed out to the group on the other side of the ring, where they had already forgotten their lessons and had begun kicking around the leather ball Loki often brought to training.

“That tall boy,” Odin said.  “I believe I’ve seen him before.”

“Fandral?” asked Volstagg.  “He and your son seem very close.  They’re often disappearing together after training.”

Odin nodded, watching them as their friendly game of ball turned into a frenzied tackle.  He had seen the bruises Loki used to wear when he first started training, far heavier and far more frequently than anyone else accumulated them.  Seeing the boy not only participating in training for once, but playing with friends was a sight Odin thought he might never see again.  “Yes, about Loki,” he said.

He stopped a long moment to watch the antics from across the ring, unable to tell what was going on beyond a mess being made from all the dust being kicked up along with the ball and the squabbling.  So much of the boy’s cheer lately seemed to either be false or at the expense of others.  Save for kidnapping Viðar for their own private games, Odin thought Loki avoided other people as much as possible.  He almost hadn’t the heart to discipline him for neglecting his training for so long, if it meant Loki could be truly happy for just a while longer.

He said nothing while he contemplated the state of his own family, and Volstagg waited patiently for him to start speaking again.

“Loki tells me he has been training with you for several months now,” Odin said finally.

“He has, yes,” Volstagg said.  “But he’s very far behind.”

Somehow, Odin wasn’t surprised to hear this.

“How far?” he asked.

Volstagg sighed, not wanting to be the one to deliver the news.  “Years, maybe,” he said.  “He knows how to hold a sword, but you give him one, and he hardly knows what to do with it.  He punches and kicks like the only fights he’s ever been in were outside of a ring.”

What Volstagg said seemed to contradict Týr’s complaint, and not favourably.  If anything, it cast even more uncertainty on the situation.

“Weapons training starts at thirteen,” Odin said.

“It does,” Volstagg agreed, but he didn’t want to volunteer any more information than he had to.

“Midwinter was Loki’s sixteenth nameday.”

“Was it really?” Volstagg asked, knowing that Odin could see right past what he was trying to do.  He knew full well how old all four of Odin’s sons were.  All of Asgard did.

“Tell me, Volstagg,” Odin said.  “How can he be so far behind when Týr tells me he’s only been neglecting training recently?”

Volstagg licked his lips and tugged awkwardly at the end of his beard.  “I dare say you already know the answer to that,” he said.

Odin said nothing, only staring at Volstagg patiently.

“Týr’s done this before,” Volstagg said finally.  “I’ve trained a few boys he neglected until they grew tired of sitting at the sides.  Alv there was one of them.” He pointed to a large boy, who even from the distance seemed to have more fat than muscle on him.  “Your son is very stubborn to have kept attending for so long.  The only reason he stopped was because Fandral brought him here one evening.  I think he was afraid of what might happen if he took Týr’s hint.”

Odin nodded.  Indeed, Týr had neglected to make any mention of his own fault in Loki’s training.

“And what of the hunt?” Odin asked.

“I still plan on taking him,” Volstagg said.  “He’s sixteen; he can’t stay behind.  I’ll do what I can, but I can’t promise he’ll be successful.”

“Very well,” Odin said, resigned to the knowledge that the fates had already apparently decided that Loki was always to be kept to the sides of everything.  Not for the first time, Odin wondered if his choice in keeping him had been the right one.  He wondered if maybe Loki would have been better off if raised far outside the palace by another family.

“I would like to be kept aware of his progress.”

“Yes, Allfather,” Volstagg said.

Again, Odin nodded before turning to walk away, deciding to let Loki have his time with the few friends he had.  There was no reason to deprive him of that when the only fault had not been his own.

Once Odin was far enough away, Volstagg let out a deep breath and willed himself to keep standing.  Midsummer’s day was barely more than a month away, and he hadn’t the first idea how he was supposed to prepare Loki for his first hunt in that time.

« || »

Those Who Hunt Monsters #7: Blood

The more Loki practised, the more he read, the easier and more naturally even the most draining Álfar and Dökkálfar magic became.  If running along secret servants’ corridors cut quick paths across the palace, the long-forgotten magic of Svartálfheimr and the Dökkálfar cut right through the realms themselves and opened doors even the most discreet servants couldn’t have dreamed of, wherever Loki needed them.

Loki quickly tired with startling servants and guards by appearing and disappearing without warning.  Even retreating to the various stores he kept scattered around the outer reaches of the realm grew boring before long.  What Loki needed was a challenge.

As soon as he realised where he should go, Loki wasted no time in getting there.  He thought of bitter ale, bearskin rugs, giant elk, and flimsy trees covered in snow.  He focused on the image from his memory, which he would not admit to being clouded with time until much later.  Bending Yggdrasil’s boughs to his whim required him to know where he intended to be.  As a young boy, he hardly knew where Odin had taken him — not that hazy memories were enough to stop him.  He told Yggdrasil where he should be, and an instant later the darkness of his chambers was replaced with the harsh light of day and the stench of horses and too many people in too small a space.  It was a far bigger leap than he’d ever made before, and Loki hardly had a moment to second-guess himself before his entire body rebelled at the strain.  Doubling over, Loki caught hold of the nearest wall and was sick on his own shoes.  Nearby, he heard someone laughing, but before he was able to right himself, whoever had been laughing was already gone, lost in the crowd around him.

Loki wiped the sides of his mouth on his hand as he looked round his surroundings.  The bustle that surrounded him was not the small Midgardian village he remembered from boyhood.  It was the middle of a city, and for an infuriating moment, Loki took it for the lowest depths of the city of Asgard.

But looking around, Loki quickly realised he was anywhere but Asgard.  Everything from the shapes of the buildings to the very fabrics the people wore was different from Asgard.

Still shaky from stretching himself too far with this new magic, Loki brushed his hair from his eyes and resolved to find out where in the Nine Realms he had found himself.  He didn’t have to wander long before finding a large building with towering spires that could only be a temple of some sort.  Inside, Loki was immediately taken in by the architecture.  It was unlike anything he had seen on Asgard, with high ceilings and sweeping arches all in stone, laid one by one.  The walls were lined with brightly-coloured glass that after a few moments of study, Loki realised were conveying stories with the images formed in the intricate patterns of colours and lines.

There were a few people in the large hall, but they seemed content to ignore Loki as he slowly and reverently made his way down the aisle.  But while the glass imagery was impressive, it still told Loki nothing of his location.  The stories and myths could be interpreted any number of ways and belong to any number of races.

As soon as he found a secluded space, he slipped into the shadows around him to more easily search the temple for any written sagas that might shed light to the question of which realm Loki had stumbled upon.

He soon found a small side-chamber with sparse furnishings.  On a small desk in the corner, however, there was a leather-bound book.  Loki immediately seized upon it, flipping through the first pages until finding this realm’s particular origin-beliefs.  As it was, the very first verse contained everything Loki needed to know.  In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram.  Even in the realms neighbouring Yggdrasil, only one race attributed all of creation to a single deity.  It was the same realm that had abandoned its original name and called itself instead after the very ground upon which its men walked — Terra.  Earth.  Midgard.

It would seem his aim was not so badly off after all.  It also meant it was somewhere he should not have been.  The realisation of the consequences struck him only then, and he knew his father would not be so forgiving for this trespass.  Casting a wary eye sky-ward, Loki hoped Heimdall had not been charged with keeping watch on this realm.  He especially hoped that Heimdall hadn’t seen his spectacular inability to retain his composure after his journey.

He knew that his risk of being caught was far greater if he went by his own name in this realm.  If Heimdall heard someone using the name of an Asgardian prince in a place where no Asgardian was meant to be, Loki’s holiday would be over sooner than he intended.  Knowing little else about Midgard, aside from the humans’ tendency to so fiercely follow their god, Loki flipped through their sagas until finding a human name to suit him.  Just over halfway through, one name did finally call to him.  He tested it on his tongue and smiled to himself, ready to see what mischief he could find for himself in this forbidden realm.  Loki shut the book and returned it to its place before making a hasty retreat from the temple and back out to the street.

Now that he knew he was on Midgard, he was able to appreciate how much the land had changed since his last visit.  But the more he looked around, inspecting the buildings and the people walking the street, the more he was prepared to admit that his aim had been off after all.  Something about the air itself didn’t feel right.  More than just the stuffiness of atmosphere that comes from crowded cities, the whole feeling seemed muted.  There might have been magic in this ground once, but it left long ago — gone for far longer than the ten years between Loki’s visits.

This was Midgard, but not the place Loki had seen as a boy.

He took a moment to assure himself that at least this meant he wouldn’t have to run from any elk after all.

“You there.  Boy!”

Loki was startled out of his thoughts by two men swiftly approaching him.  His first instinct was to run, but he hadn’t done anything that they would have seen, so he stood his ground instead, remaining watchful for any sign that he should flee.

The men reached him, the taller of the two at once moving his hands to Loki’s hair, which hung loosely at his shoulders.

“He’s perfect,” he said to his companion.  “We wouldn’t even have to put a wig on him.”

Loki began to doubt his decision to stand his ground.

“We’ll let Will decide,” the other said, nudging the first away from Loki’s hair.

“Decide what?” Loki asked.  He pulled away from both of them and watched them in case they approached again.

“Can you read?” the second man asked.

Loki regarded them carefully, noticing the way his question was dodged.  “Yes,” he said slowly.

“Then how does seven shillings a week sound?” the first asked.

Before Loki could answer either way, or even find out what a shilling was, he was quickly ushered down the street by the strange men.

“What’s your name, lad?” the shorter of the two asked as they rounded a corner.

“Lucam,” Loki answered.  “Od…son.” He realised after he started speaking that he shouldn’t tell these people his patronymic, but by then it was too late to backtrack gracefully.

“The name’s Richard,” the man said.  “My excitable companion is Kempe.  Have you ever acted before, Luke?”

Loki shook his head, focusing more on their strange names than what he was asked.

“You’ll get the hang of it,” Kempe said.  “Or you won’t, and we’ll just find another replacement.”

Loki understood the words they were saying, but none of them made sense in context.  He knew he should sneak away and find somewhere else to be, but he was far too curious to walk away, and what fun was there in travelling to a forbidden realm if he couldn’t mess things up just a little bit?

“Very well,” he said, deciding to simply go with whatever happened and return to Asgard should anything prove too much to handle.  “I shall give it my best and hope to not be replaced.”

His new companions laughed in a way he didn’t entirely understand, but it sounded almost ominous.  Neither of them said anything else though, until leading Loki through large doors to a round courtyard surrounded by rows of high seats.  In the centre, several more men stood on a raised platform, studying sheafs of parchment.

“Oi! Will!” Kempe shouted.  “We found Ophelia!”

One of the men jumped down from the platform and strode purposefully over to them, his gaze fixed on Loki.

“We found him just wandering,” Richard said.  “He says he’s never acted before, but at least he can read.”

The man called Will took Loki by the chin to study his face.  “You got all your teeth?” he asked.

Loki cast a glance over to Richard and Kempe before venturing a cautious, “Yes.”

Will’s fingers went to Loki’s hair, making him wonder what fascination humans had with it.  It was just on the bearable side of disgusting, as far as he was concerned, but then many of the humans didn’t seem much better off with theirs.  At least Loki kept his brushed, and occasionally tied in braids.

“We wouldn’t even have to put a wig on you,” Will said.

“That’s what I said,” Kempe said.  “He looks the part, at least.”

“What is the meaning of all this?” Loki asked finally.  “Why would you want to put me in a wig?”

Richard smiled widely and clapped Loki on the back.  “Luke Olson, meet Mr William Shakespeare,” he said.  “The greatest man there ever was.”

Will and Kempe both rolled their eyes almost sarcastically, and Loki wondered how that was meant to explain anything.  Before he could ask further, Will handed him a sheaf of parchment and guided him over to the direction of the raised platform in the centre of the ring.

“Stand there,” he said, pointing.  “Never mind the blocking for now.  We’ll just see what you can do.  Laertes! Act one, scene three!”

Richard jumped up onto the platform with Loki and immediately began speaking in a way that was even more incomprehensible than Loki had already been subjected to.  Eventually, he paused and gave Loki an expectant look.

“That’s you, Mr Olson,” Will said from the ground.  “You’re reading for Ophelia.”

“Oh,” Loki said dumbly.  He looked down at the page to find his place.

“Do you doubt that?” he read stiffly, not sure how it was meant to follow any of the nonsense Richard had said.

Again, Richard began speaking.  He barely looked at the page in his hand, reciting the words as though he was thinking them up right then and there.  More than that, he seemed to behave as though he were speaking to Loki directly, running a tender hand down the side of Loki’s face before holding him close.  If not for being so involved in trying to keep up with what was written down on his own pages, Loki would have struck him for being so forward.  But there was also the fact that Richard’s behaviour seemed perfectly natural to everyone else.  Clearly, Loki was missing some vital context, and he dared not question it lest he give himself away as not belonging on Midgard.  As far as he could tell, judging by everyone else’s behaviour and reactions to what was happening, this was a perfectly normal thing to happen.  If anything, protesting it would have seemed unusual and out of place.  Despite everything he’d been taught and raised to believe suitable behaviour for a man, and everything he had done to spite that, he simply let it happen to see where it went.

When Richard paused again, Loki this time took his queue.  “No more but so?” he read aloud, this time not even fully understanding his own words.

This time when Richard spoke, he carried on and on, still only occasionally glancing at the pages in his hand.  Thrice, Loki lost his place whilst trying to read along.  It occurred to him that this might be some form of spell work, meant to conjure or summon some ancient evil.  If this is what Midgard was truly up to, he knew he should tell his father.  But not before he saw the result of these actions.

Finally, Richard stopped and it was Loki’s turn again.

“I shall the effect of this good lesson keep,” he started, wondering how much of this nonsense he was expected to read.  “As watchman to my heart.  But, good my brother.  Do not, as some—what? This makes no sense.  What am I reading?”

He looked helplessly down to Will, ignoring the annoyed groans from those around him.  Even Will gave an air of exasperation as he stepped up onto the platform with Loki.

“Poetry, boy,” he said.  “It makes perfect sense if one reads it well.  ‘But, good my brother, do not as some ungracious pastors do, show me the steep and thorny way to heaven; whiles like a puff’d and reckless libertine, himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, and recks not his own rede’.”

Loki blinked at him and looked back down at the page.  Reading the verse again, he thought he might have seen the meaning in the words.

“That’s a great deal of speech just to tell someone not to be a hypocrite,” he said.

Will chuckled lightly.  “But where’s the beauty in such simple words?” he asked.  “A man’s character can be judged by the words he speaks.  If a man wants to listen to a dullard speak, he can stay at home to do so.  Here, we give him poetry and drama.”

Loki read back over the page, fighting his mind’s natural inclination to make sense of the words.  He remembered struggling with Nornir sagas written in similar verse.  Herða explained it as having to do with how the Alltongue finds meaning in words; finding not the meanings of the words, but the ideas behind them, making metaphor a jumble of ideas and images.

Determined not to fail at something so seemingly simple, Loki turned back to Will.

“I can learn to do this,” he said confidently.  “Allow me to observe your men so I know what it is I am meant to be doing.  One does not expect a novice to master any art overnight.  These men have plainly mastered what is certainly a very fine art indeed.”

After a few moments’ consideration, Will nodded.  “Very well,” he said, motioning to the ground.  “Observe.  Everyone else, from the top.  Let us show Mr Olson what it is we do.”

Will took Loki’s pages from him and waved everyone else out of the way.  Loki sat on the ground in front of the platform and watched as the men spoke strange Midgardian poetry to one another.  In all their actions, there was a story, though.  One of deception and deceit and a murderous coup carried out in secret.  Dead kings, treason, lost love and suicide.  The words were not meaningless, but meant as a dialogue to the saga that wasn’t told or sung, but rather performed.

“Tell me about this slain king,” Loki said when Richard sat beside him.  “What else did he do, before he was murdered?”

Richard turned a confused gaze to him.  “Which king?” he asked.

“This one,” Loki said, pointing up at Will as he portrayed the ghost of King Hamlet.

Richard laughed quietly.  “Tis but a fiction, boy,” he said.  “A figment of Will’s own imagination.”

“It’s a lie, you mean,” Loki said.

He thought about the embellishments added by warriors after they returned from a quest.  But even underneath the falsehoods were truth.  To embellish upon nothing was inconceivable.

“Not at all,” Richard said, contrary to Loki’s expectations.  “Fiction is the world’s greatest truth.  Truths are often misrepresented or withheld in the interest of avoiding slander.  Frame that truth as fiction, and a man can say whatever he wants.”

“We don’t have that distinction where I’m from,” Loki said before he could stop himself.

“And where’s that?” Richard asked.  “I thought you looked a bit lost when we found you.”

Loki knew he couldn’t tell him the truth of his home, and he didn’t know enough of the realm’s geography to lie.  The only thing he could think to do was put Richard’s words to the test.

“A kingdom far to the north of this place,” he said.  “The stories we are told are all true, told by those who have lived them, or else passed down by those who remember the words.”

“I wouldn’t have taken you for an Icelandic,” Richard said.  “You are a long way from home.”

Loki shrugged, letting him gather his own conclusions.  There might have been something to this fiction thing after all.  Lies were the coward’s way out.  Anyone could tell a lie and get away with it.  Telling the truth and framing it as a lie could be far more powerful.

***

Time passed differently on Midgard.  Loki did not know how to measure the differences, but from what he had managed to piece together, he should have been gone for only a few days in the time he had spent learning about Midgardian poetry.  He rehearsed his part in a secluded courtyard, hoping to be quick enough to get back before the show started.  But he wanted to be seen on Asgard, just to make sure nobody would notice him missing.

When Thor ran up to him, he was surprised by his brother’s frantic energy.

“Brother, where have you been?” Thor called out as he rushed to Loki’s side.  “You have been gone for weeks!”

Loki looked up at him, surprised at Thor’s outburst.

“Have I?” he asked.  “Time is supposed to pass more quickly there.  My absence shouldn’t have been more than a day or two.”

“Weeks,” Thor repeated.  “Mother has been beside herself with worry.  Not even Heimdall could…”

Thor trailed off awkwardly, but he didn’t have to finish that thought for Loki to know where it was going.  Heimdall could find anyone, so long as they lived.

Unless they shrouded themselves in magic.

It had not occurred to Loki how it might seem for Heimdall to be unable to find him.  Then again, he hadn’t expected to be away for so long.  Time moved more quickly on Midgard.  Everyone knew that, just as they knew it moved more slowly on Jötunheimr.  A few weeks on Midgard should have only been several days on Asgard, at the absolute most.  The week off he and his fellow actors were given as a break between their performances was supposed to be enough time for Loki to return home for a bath and maybe a meal or two.  He’d had the bath and was waiting for dinner, but now he wondered if he shouldn’t return to Midgard to make sure he wasn’t late.

But no.  That seemed to be the opposite of what happened.  Weeks spent on Midgard were weeks absent from Asgard.  Why had no-one ever noticed that? Or if they had, why had it never been recorded? 

“Loki, where have you been?” Thor asked.  His eyes fell to the pages in Loki’s hands and his frown deepened.  “And what is this? I heard you speaking as I approached.”

He reached for it, and after only the briefest hesitation, Loki let him take it.

“It’s what I’ve been doing,” he said.  “Be careful with it, please.  I intend to keep it when I’m done.”

Thor frowned down at it, twisting the pages this way and that as he tried to read Will’s scrawling handwriting.

“Why keep it?” Thor asked.  “It looks to be nonsense.”

Loki shrugged.  “It is a bit,” he agreed.  “But I enjoy it.  And none will even remember these words in a few years.  Someone should keep it so those in the future know it happened at all.”

Thor levelled a skeptical gaze at him.  “And what are you doing with it now?” he asked, handing back the pages.

Loki smiled devilishly and shifted in a way to make him stand as though his body was not his.  He held himself as though everything about him had suddenly become weighted differently.  It was an easy task, through only the slightest shift of his own body.  He had been getting better at it, but had not had the courage to fully commit to changing his entire body to the form of a woman.

“I am making sure it is committed to memory,” Loki said.

He turned away from Thor long enough to whip his hair about, and when he turned back around, it was with a look of urgency and wide-eyed terror.  Thor stood ready and glared over Loki’s shoulder to see what might have frightened him so badly, but he saw nothing.  So focused was he on the distance behind Loki that he nearly jumped when Loki pressed himself against Thor like a cowering maiden.  This, even Thor couldn’t ignore.

“He took me by the wrist and he held me hard,” Loki said with a voice that was barely his own.  He reached for Thor’s hands, his own trembling faintly.  “Then goes he to the length of all his arm; and, with his other hand thus o’er his brow—” Loki demonstrated the position as he spoke, backing Thor against the wall several paces behind him “—he falls to such perusal of my face as he would draw it.”

“Who?” demanded Thor.  “Loki, of whom do you speak?”

Loki dropped to his knees and turned his head up to look pleadingly at Thor, scrabbling at his tunic like a man drowning.

“Long stay’d he so,” Loki continued, ignoring Thor’s questions, gabbling as though in fear that someone might hear him.  “At last, a little shaking of mine arm and thrice his head was waving up and down, he raised a sigh so piteous and profound as it did seem to shatter all his bulk and end his being.”

He sobbed with lady-like hitches and turned glittering eyes back to his brother.

“Loki, stop this and tell me what you mean by it!” Thor pushed Loki to the ground and took a step back from him. 

At once, the fear on Loki’s face was replaced with a smug grin, he leapt up, and bowed deeply at the waist as he released the altered shape of his body.

“Loki, I will not ask again,” Thor threatened.  “This latest show tries my patience, brother.”

“Too much, do you think?” Loki asked, standing up straight and as himself once more.  “Will keeps saying to play it up, but I think you might be right.  It does seem a bit much.”

Thor glared at Loki, his jaw clenched tight.  “Tell me what you play at with this,” he demanded.

“Ah.  You asked again,” Loki said playfully.

“Loki,” Thor said, his voice taking on the dark quality it often did when he failed to get his way.

“Just that, brother,” Loki said finally with a mocking smile.  He pushed his hair back behind his ears and out of the way of his face.  “I merely play.  Nothing more.”

“This is not play,” Thor said.  “This is deception.  Speak clearly with me.”

Loki made a show of considering this, not even feeling the slightest bit guilty at riling up his brother with his unwillingness to cooperate.  For once, he had found something at which he could win against Thor.

“All right,” he said.  “The truth is I have been to Midgard.  There, I am paid handsomely to learn and perform the part of a woman before hundreds of witnesses.”

“You debase yourself and dishonour our family?” Thor asked.  “For trinkets? Why?”

“Oh, no,” Loki said.  “For far more than just trinkets.  It is forbidden for women to do the things I do.  If one wishes to see a woman on the stage, he must watch a man and pretend he sees a woman.”

Thor gaped at Loki, not wanting to believe his words.

“Father was right to forbid travel to that realm,” he said.  “The humans are all sick of mind, and now you have fallen victim to their sickness as well.”

“At least I am compensated for it,” he said, shrugging dramatically.

With a sneer, Thor turned away from Loki and stomped off.  As he went, Loki wondered if he might have pushed it just a little too far with his brother.

***

Loki stood on the bridge, watching the fish swim lazily in the muddy water below.  Behind him, Sif and Fandral exchanged boasts of their past deeds, a childish mockery of the warriors who would compare quests in the dining hall.  Loki tried desperately to block it all out.  He had only invited Fandral and Hogun to come with them because Thor had asked Sif along.  If he was going to bring someone on their private rides, Loki would double Thor’s contribution.  He expected the spiteful action to make him feel better about Sif being there at all.  Now, he just regretted it.  Hogun and Fandral both seemed to already prefer Thor’s company to Loki’s, and Sif was just as insufferable as ever.

“I thought you would be with your other friends today,” Sif said suddenly, breaking Loki from his thoughts.

“No, it’s not the same without Will,” Loki said mournfully.

He had been saddened by the loss of his friend, but Will — as well as the rest of them — was human.  Dying was just another thing they did.  But now seeing Sif become self-conscious over her words was almost enough to bring a smug grin to Loki’s face.

In truth, even before Will’s passing, the humans had begun to notice that Loki wasn’t ageing properly.  It was only a matter of time before someone accused him of witchcraft or some other nonsense.

“What about you?” Loki asked.  “Don’t you have sewing lessons to attend today?”

Sif glowered at him.  “Shut up, No-oneson,” she spat.

“Why are you such a shrew?” Loki demanded.

Sif raised her arm as if to strike him, but Fandral was upon her before she could swing, staying her hand.

“Hey, now,” he said calmingly.  “Let’s not have any of that.”

She rounded on him, pulling herself from his grip.  “Keep your hands off me unless you want to lose them, son of argr.”

Fandral’s eyes darkened as all jest faded fast from his demeanour.  “That sounds like a challenge to me,” he said.

Before he could reach for her again, Sif aimed a high kick at his stomach.  He jumped away just as Thor and Hogun stepped in to pull them apart, putting Hogun in the path of Sif’s anger.  Her foot landed on his hip, pushing him back and into the low rail of the bridge.

Already bored with the display of rage and machismo, Loki turned back to watch the fish some more, but they had retreated back to the depths, far from view.  Sighing tiredly, Loki leaned against the rail and wished everyone would just shut up.  For a brief moment, he even considered trying to magically gag them, but he might have found himself in even more trouble than it was worth, so he dismissed the idea.

The entire bridge lurched with the force of several bodies slamming into the rail, and Loki spun round to push the offenders away.  Instead, Hogun’s elbow caught him in the nose, blinding him with pain for a few moments.  Before he could recover, Sif and Fandral both slammed into him again.  The rail behind him cracked loudly as it gave way, taking Loki with it to the water below.

“Loki!” Thor and Fandral both called out.  The two of them tried to get to the edge of the bridge to peer over, but Thor pushed Fandral out of the way to get the best view.

The others stopped their squabble as well, peering wide-eyed at where Loki stood only moments before.  Staring at the water below, Thor steeled himself as he prepared to jump in after his brother.

“Thor, no!” Sif protested, holding him back by the arm.

“He needs help,” Thor said.

Fandral bit his lip, looking between the two of them.  “She’s right,” he said regretfully.  “How will you help him? You can swim no better than he can.”

“He can at least turn himself to a fish,” Sif reasoned.  “He’s a sorcerer.  That’s what they do.”

“Sorcerer in training, technically,” Fandral said, ignoring the glares from Thor and Sif both.

Despite his glaring, Thor knew they were right though.  If he jumped in after Loki, it would only make two people to rescue.

While they all argued, Hogun ran back to where the horses were tied and took a length of rope from where it hung on Fandral’s tack.  Not even sure that it would be long enough, he rushed back to the bridge and shoved one end of the rope into Thor’s hands.  Before anyone could even ask what he was doing, Hogun jumped off the bridge with the other end, falling beneath the water as the other three shouted his name.

The river was deeper than he thought it would be, with thick mud kicked up from heavy spring rains.  He could barely see a few inches in front of him, but it would have to be enough.

Unlike the others, he was not born of Asgard.  He may have benefited from her many gifts of health and life, but he wasn’t weighed down by dense bones or compact muscle.  Like everyone in his native village, he’d learned to swim as a boy, and now he pressed that advantage to dive deeper into the river, reaching out for the feel of linen and skin against his fingers.

He swam deeper, letting the current take him downstream and praying to whichever gods or fates that still listened that he hadn’t somehow passed Loki in the muck.  Finally, when he was about to go back up for air, he felt something causing the water to roil to his left.  He reached out, feeling a frantic hand grabbing for anything it could find.  Hogun took it, pulling Loki close to him and holding him tight, despite his panicked thrashing.  Not risking the time to tie the rope to him, Hogun gave it a sharp tug and wrapped what he could around his forearm.  At once, he could feel the rope being pulled from above and began kicking, trying to help the others pull him and Loki to the surface.

In his arms, Loki still thrashed, but for the time being Hogun took this as a good sign.  So long as he still moved, he still had air in his lungs.  Asgardians were tough creatures — the Jötnar even more so — but Hogun suspected they were still capable of drowning.

As his own lungs began to burn from a lack of air, Hogun could see the sparkle of sunlight on the surface.  He let out the breath he’d been holding to ease the fire in his chest and kicked harder to reach the surface.  Finally, light flooded his vision and he hoisted Loki up to get his face out of the water; no small feat with Loki’s weight pressing him down beneath the water.

“Get to the bank!” Hogun called up to Thor.

Thor nodded and ran the length of the bridge, holding the rope aloft to keep it from dragging against the rail.  Once on the bank, he pulled Hogun and Loki to land and cast the rope aside.  He pulled Loki into a tight hug, ignoring his coughs and sputters as he cleared the water from his lungs.  Neither of them even seemed to notice the way Sif glared at them, or Fandral bouncing impatiently a few feet away.

“I would not have liked to explain to father what happened if we failed to retrieve you,” Thor said.

Loki said nothing, staring blankly at the water in front of him.

“You shall be honoured for this,” Thor said to Hogun, placing a heavy hand on his shoulder.  “You have done my family a great service and all of Asgard shall know it.”

“There was no need for a rescue,” Sif said.  “He could have just as easily turned himself into a fish and swam far away from us.”

“When have you ever seen me turn myself into a fish, you stupid cow?” Loki demanded, turning to her.

“What sort of sorcerer are you that you can’t?” Sif demanded back.

“Enough!” Thor shouted.  “I am weary of this feud between you.  Loki is my brother and—”

Sif snorted, cutting him off.

Casting a hard glare to her, Thor pulled a dagger from his belt and without hesitation, slid the blade across his palm, drawing a long, straight cut that bled freely.

“Loki, give me your hand,” he said, not taking his eyes off Sif.

Loki hesitated for only a moment before giving Thor his right hand, seeing plainly where this was going.  Any other time, he might have protested it, but he was too exhausted to put on a show.  He barely flinched as Thor dragged the blade across his open palm before taking Loki’s hand in his own.

“With this action, we share blood,” Thor said.  “There is none here who can deny now that Loki is my brother.”

He continued to glare at Sif, watching her reaction.

“No, I cannot deny it,” Sif said bitterly.

“Good,” Thor said, taking his hand from Loki’s.  “Then you know that a strike against him is a strike against me.”

Sif only nodded and looked away.  Looking at the cut on his hand, Loki wanted to be sick.  This was exactly the sort of grudging respect he had for so long wished to avoid.

***

All of Asgard had indeed heard of Hogun’s deed, and how Odin’s founding son needed rescue in the first place.  Never mind that anyone else in his place would have needed rescue as well.  With Loki, it was simply more proof that he didn’t belong on Asgard in the first place; that he was so weak, he needed saving by a human boy.

He didn’t blame Hogun for it.  If anything, he owed Hogun a debt.  But he still tasted the bitter resentment toward the entire realm as he sat in the dining hall, watching everyone chatter mindlessly and occasionally throw a glance his way.

Loki focused especially on Sif, dressed now as the maiden she was supposed to be, in a golden gown to match her hair.  She could fill two roles and be praised for it.  In the palace, she was a maiden.  Outside, a warrior.  Why should Loki be shamed for his magic if Sif was not shamed for taking up a sword?

He realised that he hated her, and always had.  From the first time she insulted Jötunheimr in his presence, even before knowing the truth of Loki’s heritage, he hated her.

If she was going to question his abilities as a sorcerer, perhaps she would like a private demonstration of his skill.

Set out at even intervals along the table were vases with various flowers from the gardens.  Loki picked out a blue one, and with his table knife, cut the stem short and put it in his mouth briefly to suck on the freshly cut end.  Quietly muttering a series of incantations, he wet his fingers with his tongue and played them over the petals, weaving layer after layer of magic into the plant.  Wash day was three days away and by then, the flower would be long forgotten.  The curse that Loki put into it, however, would still be strong, waiting until the first touch of water to release itself.

Satisfied with his work, Loki stood and walked slowly up to Sif, hesitating as she spoke with several other girls her age.  She was bored with their conversation, and Loki could see it, but court manners required certain behaviours from her.

When she saw Loki approach, she tried to decide which conversation she wanted to have least.

“What do you want?” she demanded finally, not quite caring about court manners enough to address a prince properly.

“Only peace,” Loki said, turning the flower over in his fingers in a display of nervousness.  “Thor did our speaking for us.  I thought you might want to speak for yourself.”

Sif looked back to her companions and nodded, sending them away.

“What is that in your hand?” she asked, taking control of the conversation.

“Oh,” Loki said, looking down at the flower.  “A peace-offering.  I know it should be something more personal, but I feared you might not accept it if it was something of my own.”

Sif thought about this offering for long enough for Loki to look away and bite the end of this thumb, giving the impression of second-guessing himself.

“Yes, all right,” she said finally.

“May I?” he asked, holding up the flower.

“Very well,” Sif said.

She tilted her head, allowing Loki to slide the short stem of the flower into the hair above her ear.  He moved her hair to hold it in place, giving it an uncertain smile.

“There,” he said.  “And now, I think it would be best if we agreed to avoid one another’s presence.”

Sif nodded.  “Agreed,” she said.  “But know that it is only an agreement I make for Thor.”

Loki nodded.  “Understood,” he said.  He then bowed lightly to her.  “My lady.”

He turned quickly to walk away before she saw the grin he could no longer hide.

« || »

Those Who Hunt Monsters #6: Secrets

Loki sat at his desk, unable to concentrate on the book before him. A history of the treaties with Nornheimr, while useful information, was completely unable to hold his attention after the chaos of that day.

Groaning to himself, Loki put his head down on the desk and shut his eyes. As soon as his head touched the flat surface of the desktop, something sailed through the open window behind him, knocking over one of the small potted plants he kept there. From outside, Loki heard panicked swearing, but he couldn’t recognise the voice from the distance. He leapt up and leaned out the window to shout at whoever tormented him this time, but the words fell flat when he spotted a frantic Fandral on the ground below.

“What are you doing?” Loki demanded, surprised to see him at all, let alone flinging stones through his windows.

“I got a bit lost,” Fandral admitted. He held up a bottle of wine for Loki to see. “I thought you could use the comfort tonight.”

Loki began to ask whose wine Fandral had stolen, but quickly decided it didn’t matter.

“Stay there!” he said.

He spared a moment to right the plant Fandral had smashed before rushing out his bedchamber and down the stairs. Rather than take the door from his rooms and have to trace a large circuit to where he left Fandral in the gardens, Loki instead cut through the unused rooms of his chambers and leapt out a window to a narrow strip of slanted roof that ran between two portions of the palace. On the other side, he slipped through another window and ran down the wide staircase that led to the patch of garden beneath Loki’s chambers.

“Over here,” he called as he approached Fandral.

Fandral turned quickly and pointed, unable to fathom how Loki had come from the complete opposite direction of his chambers.

“Well, all right then,” he said, half-expecting the answer to any question he asked to include magic.

“You can’t technically get to my chambers from here,” Loki said, leading the way back inside and up the stairs. “You have to be on the other side of the palace.”

“Then where are we going?” Fandral asked.

Loki gave him a sly look, but said nothing. Trusting Fandral to follow after him, Loki climbed back out of the window and onto the roof, moving across it as though he’d travelled this way a thousand times. Fandral realised as he struggled to keep his own footing that Loki probably had.

“You weren’t kidding when you said you knew all the secret paths,” he said when they were back inside.

“There are two other ways out of here, if one doesn’t count the front doors or simply jumping off the terrace,” Loki said smugly.

“You’ve jumped off the terrace?” asked Fandral as he looked around the room. Though it was mostly empty, it was still obviously Loki’s. If anything, the dustless stacks of books gave it away.

“Thor was being exceptionally annoying,” Loki said with a shrug.

Nothing in the room they were in gave away any hints of secret paths.  But his chambers were larger than just the single room they were in.  Though he had moved into them as a boy, his chambers were intended to be his home for the rest of his life, with extra rooms for his own private functions, nurseries, or anything else he might want to use with the space as he grew.

Fandral looked around the emptiness slack-jawed and visibly confused.  Though Loki had never seen what servants’ chambers looked like, he knew just from Fandral’s face that they were not as generous as even the empty room they stood in.

“Shall we?” Fandral asked finally, holding up the wine.

Loki shrugged approvingly and moved to the antechamber, but before he opened the door to request a pair of chalices from the guards on the other side, he thought it best not to bother. No one needed to know about the company he kept, and that included those charged with his safety.

“I haven’t anything from which to drink, but I do have a terrace where we can be left alone,” he said.

“A fair trade,” Fandral agreed with a sly little smile of his own. “Don’t expect me to follow you off it, though.”

Loki led the way through another neglected chamber to the large terrace that looked out over a sparkling garden and the south side of the palace. Everything glittered in the setting of Asgard’s largest sun, bathing the royal grounds in a twilight glow.

“I just heard the announcement this last hour,” Fandral said as he worked to free the cork with a knife. “You seem to be taking it rather well.”

Loki leaned against the parapet, looking distantly toward the horizon.

“It was at my request,” he said. “My father wasn’t pleased, and it may cause issue with Vanaheimr later, but in the end we reached a suitable accord. I think it will all work out eventually.”

“That’s not a request to be made lightly,” Fandral pointed out. “What happens if you change your mind?”

Loki looked back him, wondering how much of the story he should tell. Fandral was a servant’s son — hardly someone to be trusted with secrets despite several years of shared company. How much did he truly need to know?

“I won’t,” Loki said. “And in the unlikely event that I did, it wouldn’t matter. It can’t be overturned.”

Last in line. There was still a certain amount of responsibility in it.  Important, but ultimately meaningless, freeing him to do as he pleased on his father’s coin while his position weakened with each additional child Frigga bore.

“So, what does that mean for you?” Fandral asked hesitantly. “You’ve not been… disowned or anything, have you?”

He finally uncorked the bottle and offered the first drink to Loki.

“Not at all,” Loki said, shaking his head. He took the wine and drank from it, careful not to spill. “I would just have to lose all of my brothers and any of their heirs before the throne fell to me.”

He smiled to himself and passed the wine back to Fandral.

“That’s a Hel of a thing to give up,” Fandral mused. “You went from second to last.”

Loki waited until Fandral drank to respond.

“First, actually,” he said, smirking when Fandral choked and spat wine everywhere. “We only realised the error recently.”

He knew it wasn’t exactly the truth, but Fandral’s reaction more than made it worth the lie. Fandral looked at him with confusion before he connected everything he knew about Loki.

“Oh. Wait. Really?” he asked.

“By as much as two seasons.  Maybe more,” Loki said.

“Oh,” Fandral said awkwardly. “Well. I guess you’ve always been a bit small for your age.”

Loki laughed at took the wine from his grasp. What Fandral didn’t know was that aside from Thor, he was the first in all of Asgard to see something worth jesting about, rather than insulting.  Loki was still short and scrawny, but had begun to catch up again.  Thor still towered over him, giving little hope that they might ever be able to literally see eye to eye.  But it hadn’t bothered Loki for a long time.  If anything, it made him the least threatening Jötun anyone had ever seen.

“You say that now,” Loki said. He took another drink and set the wine on the parapet between them. “One of these days, I’ll catch up and outgrow you all.”

He severely hoped not, when it came down to it. But it seemed the best response for the situation.  He could hardly maintain his role as irritating little imp if he stood taller than everyone else.

Fandral looked him over, wearing a strange, puzzled look on his face.  Loki watched him in turn, knowing there was a question forming somewhere in that blond skull of his.  Fandral was always so curious, and so cautious about voicing it.

“What do you look like?” Fandral asked suddenly.

The question caught Loki offguard. “What?” he asked.

“The Jötuns don’t look like us,” Fandral pointed out. “I thought this…” he motioned to Loki in general “…was just some sort of disguise.”

“It is,” Loki said slowly. He found himself fighting the urge to take a step backwards, refusing to let Fandral see him as cowardly.

“May I see?” Fandral asked. “If it’s not too bold to ask.”

Loki wanted to ask why. He wanted to say it was too bold to ask; to send Fandral away. Call for the guards outside to come and remove him. All he’d ever wanted was to be accepted, and now that he had it, all he wanted to do was run.

Good behaviour, he knew — even unintentionally good behaviour — should be rewarded though. Fandral had shown him a kindness, and it was one Loki knew to repay.

Knowing he was stalling, Loki reached for the bottle of wine and took a long drink to steel himself. With his eyes still averted and screwed tightly shut besides, Loki let his glamour drop. By the time he set the wine down between them again, the hand that held the bottle was blue.

Loki could feel himself trembling as he dared only the briefest glance toward Fandral before turning his head to avoid the look of disgust his friend surely wore. He resisted the urge to hug his arms around his chest as he stood before Fandral on display.  Nobody to Loki’s memory, outside of Eir or his family, had ever seen him in this form.  He had been kicked and punched, beaten into the ground more times than he could count, but this was the first he truly felt vulnerable.  When suddenly he felt Fandral take him by the hand, Loki jumped so hard it hurt.

“Oh,” Fandral said quietly, carefully turning Loki’s hand over to study both sides. “It feels the same.  Almost.”

Loki still couldn’t look at him. He was a coward and he knew it, but he didn’t care.

“What?” he asked.

“I thought it would be, I don’t know. Hard or something,” Fandral said. “But it’s not. It’s not the same, but more like… I don’t know.” Loki knew he was failing to find a polite way to say that Loki’s skin felt like it was completely covered in sand.  “Like you spend a lot of time working.”

“I spend a lot of time indoors,” Loki pointed out. “I don’t like the heat and I get ill from it easily.”

Fandral laughed uneasily. “I suppose you would.”

Loki looked down where Fandral held his hand in his own, surprised to see a whole new collection of marks and scars that his Æsir skin hid from view. Traces of old burns and small cuts that still did little to hide the hands of a prince and a scholar.

Even more prominent were the raised lines on the back of Loki’s wrists, leading up along his arm and under his sleeve. Without warning, Fandral began tracing the length of one of the lines with the tip of his finger. A terrifying jolt of something pleasurable and invasive shot through Loki, and with a sharp inward hiss he wrenched his arm from Fandral’s grasp.

“Sorry,” Fandral said quickly, pulling his own hands away. “I didn’t realise that would hurt.”

“It didn’t,” Loki said. “It was… very sensitive.  I dont like being touched there.”

He recognised the sensation for what it was, but it was far more intense than anything he’d ever experienced on his own. That another boy had caused it was confusing and sickening and a bit exciting all at once, and Loki had to turn away from Fandral before he became hysterical from so much exposure. He breathed deeply and slipped back into his Æsir form before anything else happened that he couldn’t handle. Rubbing his hand along his arm where Fandral had touched him to blot out any lingering sensation, Loki turned back around and gave Fandral an insincere smile. There was something in Fandral’s gaze that Loki couldn’t quite read, so he did the only thing he could do and ignored it.

“I know the way to the wine cellar,” Loki declared apropos of nothing. “I’m not allowed down there, but I suppose that’s half the fun of going.”

Fandral suddenly looked disappointed, like Loki had said the wrong thing.  The smile he wore a moment later was every bit as false as Loki’s as he gestured back toward the empty room behind them.

“Lead the way,” Fandral said.

Loki grinned and with nary a thought to the consequences he darted back into his rooms and through another passage behind a shelf that led through the palace’s massive library.  With Fandral behind him, he dropped the grin at once, glad to be out of that wholly uncomfortable situation. 

There were paths through the library that led down and away from the populated areas of the palace, and soon Fandral was following him through dark corridors and cramped spaces.

“Are you sure you aren’t getting us lost?” Fandral asked as Loki led him even deeper into the palace, into a high-ceilinged room with endless rows of racks holding glass bottles with liquids of every colour.

As Loki walked down one of the aisles, he helped himself to bottles at random, handing them back to Fandral without sparing a glance to make sure he still followed. Also stored with the wines were harder liquors and and spirits from other realms, and Loki helped himself to a few of those bottles as well.

“Are you trying to kill us?” Fandral asked as Loki handed him one more bottle of something blue and viscous.

“I’m trying to get drunk,” Loki said. “It’s never worked before, but here’s hoping.”

He grabbed one more ancient bottle and quickly fled, once more trusting Fandral to either keep up or fall far enough behind to take the blame. The path he led out was different from the one he took to the wine cellar, and after winding through hidden passages that didn’t look like they’d seen traffic in centuries, Loki flung back a tapestry and darted across the short distances to one of the long sofas under the windows in his bedchamber. A few seconds later, Fandral caught up with him and sat down on the floor in front of the sofa, spreading out their bounty before him.

“We are going to be so ill come morning,” he mused.

Loki uncorked his bottle and sniffed its contents.

“I advise you not to keep pace with me,” he warned. “I’ve been out-drinking Thor since we were six.”

“Six?” Fandral asked incredulously.

Loki took a drink of the amber-coloured liquid and grimaced.

“I don’t like that,” he declared. He took another drink.  “No, that’s still bad.”

Despite Loki’s warning, Fandral was determined not to be shown up. He uncorked a bottle of his own and took a drink, fighting against the urge to choke.

“That is really disgusting,” he agreed.

They locked eyes for but a moment before they each decided to try to finish his bottle before the other.

Asgard’s third sun reached its lowest point in the sky by the time they finished the foul-tasting spirits and moved back to the wine. Loki had begun to feel something, but he wasn’t sure if it was from the vast quantities of alcohol he’d consumed or just the relaxation of an evening spent wasting time. Or maybe it was just the warmth from Fandral leaning against his side. Either way, Loki decided that he liked it, and whatever it was, he wanted more of it.

“Mum’s probably wondering where I am,” Fandral mumbled into Loki’s shoulder.

“Your father can keep her company tonight,” Loki said. He twirled the bottle in his hand, sloshing about the remaining dregs of the wine.

“Dad’s dead,” Fandral said.

“Oh.” Most children their age with dead parents lost them during the war with Jötunheimr. Loki didn’t even think twice about it. Losing a parent in battle was honourable, and the preferred way to go.

“He ran from battle. He was executed when they found him.” Fandral shifted slightly, but said nothing more.

“I’m sorry,” Loki said quietly. He’d thought it was odd that Fandral hadn’t been chosen for the Einherjar yet, given his skills already, but now it made sense why it hadn’t been.

“Your father took pity because my mum was pregnant,” Fandral explained. “Usually the widows are cast out as well, but I guess Odin was feeling generous.”

It seemed Odin was doing things by his own rules outside of the royal family as well.  Loki wondered what other secrets Odin had woven throughout Asgard; how many other people he had fooled and deceived in the course of saving innocent children.

“He was in a high mood that winter,” Loki agreed.

“It probably doesn’t even matter what I do,” Fandral went on. “I don’t think it’s possible to dishonour my family any further.”

Loki suddenly felt very uncomfortable. He couldn’t remember when, exactly, Fandral had moved up to join him on the sofa, but there he was. Loki recalled the disappointment and curiosity on Fandral’s face out on the terrace, and the way he had touched him just before that.

He tried very, very hard not to think about how much he enjoyed being touched like that, even if it had scared him. He completely ignored the fact that no maiden ever touched him like that, and likely never would.

“Fandral,” Loki said, doing a quick count of empty bottles. He had out-paced Fandral at a rate of nearly four to one, and began strongly doubting that his friend was actually drunk enough to be to the falling asleep and drooling stage.

“Hmm?” Fandral shifted against Loki in a way that wasn’t exactly the way one did when trying to get comfortable.

Loki knew he wasn’t the only one on Asgard to fare poorly with the maidens. For all he’d seen Fandral try to work his charm, and for all he seemed to know what he was doing, he never seemed to make it beyond sharing quiet secrets. In fact, Loki had never seen him so much as even steal a kiss.

Could it have been that for all his show, Fandral intended to fail?

“This is… I’m not…” Loki couldn’t say it. He knew what he should have said, but he couldn’t form the words. It felt like both a lie and a truth all at once, and Loki didn’t know which one he feared more.

“Of course you’re not,” Fandral agreed. “You’d have to be Æsir first, and we all know you’re not.”

Loki rolled his eyes, knowing that was one more thing he could never hope to live down. How had Fandral even heard about that?

“All the same,” he said, knowing he should shove Fandral off him, but not wanting to be alone again.

He was too hot, and he knew it was not from the amount he’d had to drink.  Fandral was not leaning against him because he was falling asleep against Loki’s side.  His hand had found a place on Loki’s thigh to linger, and he couldn’t stand it.

“I don’t think this is right,” Loki said finally.

Fandral sighed deeply. “Do you wish for me to leave, my lord?” he asked, forcing the formality.

“No,” Loki said quickly. “I just… I don’t think this is right.”

Fandral moved his hand in a way that was entirely intentional. “Since when have you ever cared about what’s right?”

Loki closed his eyes tightly at his touch and leaned his head back to face the ceiling. “Is this a trick?” he asked, ignoring the sudden heat in the room.

“No,” Fandral said, sounding considerably less sleepy than he had only moments before.

Loki ignored his response.

“If this is a trick,” he said stiffly, “I will make sure you regret it for as long as you live.”

Part of him wished it was, so he could brain Fandral without feeling guilty, or without feeling like he was going to miss out on something important and amazing if he did.

“Then it’s a good thing this isn’t a trick,” Fandral said.

“I don’t know…” What? How? Why? Any one of them could have finished the sentence, and Loki wasn’t sure which was the more important one. He looked back at Fandral, having never felt so nervous and out of place in his life.

Fandral only smiled and moved to put his face closer to Loki’s.

“Then I suppose I shall have to show you,” he said, closing the gap.

Loki couldn’t think of anything else to say that wouldn’t be a complete lie.

« || »

Those Who Hunt Monsters #5: Heirs

At first, Thor thought Loki had not attended training at all. He wondered whether there was something he might have been able to do differently. Perhaps there was something he could have said to Sif or even Týr, but nothing he could think of would make a difference for the better. Or at least, if it did, Loki would not see it that way.

As he and Theoric entered the ring, Thor finally spotted Loki far off to one side with his nose buried deep in a book. Thor smiled broadly at the sight of his brother, but Loki did not see him, or else he didn’t look up to acknowledge it. He’d brought not only one of the heavy tomes from the library with him, but one of his own books, bound with blank pages, and was sitting outside the ring writing notes in the latter as he scanned the pages of the former. Thor tried to get his attention by being even louder and more exuberant in his sparring with Theoric, but Loki never even looked up at him. Quickly growing curious and worried about his brother, Thor gave up on the pretence of putting on a good show and knocked Theoric to his back. Thor didn’t wait for Týr to speak and give his judgements and instead left the ring. He ran over to Loki’s side and tilted the book so Loki would know he was there at all.

“Why do you not join us?” Thor asked when Loki finally deigned to turn his gaze upward. “I have not seen you enter the ring all week.”

Loki shrugged. “I prefer this,” he said. “It’s cleaner and I have become significantly less bruised.”

Loki didn’t look up from his copied notes.  He was required to attend training, but nobody had ever said he was required to participate.  There was no point in trying, when Týr would turn his back and allow Loki to be ganged up on, matched unevenly in fights against more than one opponent.  He couldn’t even hold his own in a fair fight, not that he had been given the chance at all in recent months.

“Does Father know you are neglecting your training?” Thor asked.

Loki shrugged and turned the page in his book. “Does he need to know?”

“Father will be most displeased,” Thor said grimly. “You know what happens when you disobey his command.”

“Then perhaps you should spare me his wrath and not tell him,” Loki said evenly.

He looked back up at Thor, hoping to impress upon him just how badly he needed Thor not to go to their father. He was quickly distracted by Thor’s face — or rather, something on his face — however, and reached out for it.

“What’s this?” he asked. Loki plucked at the small hairs on Thor’s chin, making him yelp loudly.

“Ow! Loki!” Thor slapped his hand away and rubbed his chin. “What was that for?”

“I couldn’t quite believe my eyes,” Loki said. “I had to see for myself if you thought you were actually growing a proper beard.”

“It’s still coming in,” Thor defended, lifting his chin as if to show off the patchy, blond fluff he called a beard. “And the girls all seem to like it.”

“Just as well. I don’t want an Æsir girl anyway.” It was as much a lie as it was the truth.

“I thought you were getting a Vanir girl,” Thor said.  “Hasn’t that been arranged for years?”

Loki shrugged.  “I assume it’s a matter of time before Iri calls it off.  He can’t possibly want to go through with it now.”

“I suppose not,” Thor said.  “So why not look for a nice Æsir girl then?”

Loki did not wish to court any of the Æsir girls he knew, but he wasn’t opposed to the idea altogether. He would just have to find a maiden who would not be repulsed by him. Even then, he knew he would not find any of the sort on Asgard.

“I can’t think of any,” Loki said, still copying lines from one book to the other.

“What of Lady Sigyn?” Thor asked, nudging Loki playfully. “I’ve seen the way your gaze lingers on her at banquet.”

Loki rolled his eyes. “She is betrothed to Theoric, remember? The idiot you just pushed into the dust.” he said. “And even if she wasn’t, she’s terrified of me. There would be no point.” He returned his attention to his book, writing notes to himself with a charcoal pencil.

“Well, what of Hilde?” Thor asked, determined to not be dissuaded. “She does not seem too frightened of you.”

“Perhaps not,” Loki agreed. “Though, I must confess to being afraid of what Volstagg might do to me if he caught me anywhere near his youngest daughter.”

“You think Volstagg would react badly to his daughter coupling with one of Asgard’s princes?” Thor asked.

“That, or he might suffocate me with one of his bear hugs,” Loki said flatly. He far more expected a violent reaction from the warrior. Either way, even a casual dalliance with Hilde would surely end in death by suffocation for Loki.

Thor shook his head dismissively.

“You should be training either way,” he said. He placed his hand on Loki’s shoulder and gave what he thought to be a subtle nudge toward the ring.

“I told you, I don’t want to,” Loki said, pushing Thor’s had off him.

“At least take your nose out of that book for ten minutes and watch me?” Thor asked.

He was never very good at hiding his emotions, and at that moment, Loki could see every ounce of hope that played across Thor’s face. With a defeated sigh, Loki marked his place in his book with a small strip of parchment and put it aside.

“Ten minutes,” he said. “You have my undivided attention.”

Smiling broadly, Thor leapt to his feet. “Then I shall have to put on a good show.”

Loki waved him toward the ring, already dreading having given in so easily. He watched as Thor re-joined the group around Týr. All but Thor continued to ignore Loki’s presence at the edge of the action, which he thought suited him just fine. If anyone else did acknowledge his presence, he might be called into the ring for another beating disguised as practise.

Loki watched as Thor and Freyr took the ring together and already he knew nothing good would come of this idea. Thor was wearing the smile he often wore when he thought he was being clever, but it remained his single biggest tell. Loki knew he should shout at Thor; tell him to stop whatever it was he was planning and just walk away before anyone got hurt.

Loki did no such thing.

Before Týr even started the match between the boys, Thor rushed at his opponent, tackling him bodily to the ground. As Freyr tried to fight him off, Thor slammed his own forehead against Freyr’s face. Even from where Loki sat, he could see the splash of red that erupted from Freyr’s nose.

By then, Týr finally ran into the ring and tried to put himself between the boys, but Thor managed to get in one more blow with his elbow before he was pulled off.

Even as Týr reprimanded him for behaving without honour, Thor kept grinning smugly. Loki knew exactly what Thor had meant by that display, and he wanted to be angry for it. He knew he should strike out at Thor for once again fighting battles that weren’t his to fight, but between his grin and Freyr’s blood-stained tunic, Loki couldn’t find it in himself to be angry. Holding back his laughter best he could, Loki made a hasty retreat to the palace. Moments later, he was joined by Thor, who still hadn’t managed to wipe the smugness from his face.

“You’re an idiot,” Loki said.

Thor shrugged dramatically. “Perhaps,” he said. “And still in possession of your ‘undivided attention’ for at least seven more minutes.”

Loki’s laughter started anew at the realisation that Thor had managed to so effortlessly manipulate him.

“Very well,” Loki said. “I’m yours for the next seven minutes.” He banished his books to the desk in his bedchamber.

“Where did they go?” Thor asked with wide eyes. He looked around, expecting to find them somewhere nearby, and finding nothing of the sort.

“I could tell you, but it’s going to count against your time,” Loki said.

Thor decided he didn’t need to know about Loki’s new trick that badly, and took him by the sleeve.

“This way,” he said, tugging Loki along down the corridor. “There’s something I think you would like to see.”

***

It had never been unusual for Loki to sleep through breakfast, and Thor quickly came to expect him to skip training all together. But Loki only ever missed supper for one reason, and as far as Thor knew, he had done nothing to wrong his brother. Still, Loki was unpredictable at best, so Thor gave him the space he obviously thought he needed.

Loki remained out of sight for three days before Thor truly began to worry that he had done something to slight Loki. Ordinarily, Odin would take it upon himself to talk Loki out of his self-imposed isolation, but he was in Nornheimr, renegotiating the ancient treaty between the two realms. For only the briefest of moments, Thor considered asking Frigga to talk Loki out of his chambers, but what sort of man would rely on his mother to solve his problems? Certainly not the sort of man destined to be king of Asgard.

As Thor made his way to Loki’s chambers, he realised that his brother had been making himself scarce for nearly a week before vanishing completely, hardly putting in an appearance for more than a few minutes at a time before making his excuses and locking himself away again. This was not how he behaved even when they were quarrelling, and Thor felt a sharp pang of worry at the sudden change in his brother.

Thor let himself into Loki’s chambers as he always did, taking care to shut the heavy gold door behind himself. Knowing Loki had not yet found use for many of the rooms afforded to him, and often avoided the terrace, Thor went straight up the stairs and to the large doors that opened to the bedchamber.

“Brother?” he called out cautiously.

The room was dark, but not completely so. Heavy curtains blocked out any light from outside, but the glint of several lanterns confirmed someone’s presence within the chamber. Thor walked around the dais on which the bed sat, finding Loki sitting on his floor with his knees drawn up to his chest.

“Loki?” Thor asked as he sat down next to him. “Brother, what troubles you?”

Loki looked up at him, and immediately Thor saw the source of Loki’s torment. Though he wore his Æsir form, his face was heavily lined and marked with raised ridges along his brow. They were not the same as the lines that marked his skin when he took his Jötunn form, but something new; something hard that seemed to come through his skin, rather than be a part of it.

“Oh,” Thor said. “This is new.”

“This is only what I can’t hide,” Loki said, turning his face away again.

“What more is there?” Thor asked. He waited for Loki to answer, and when none came, he added, “I would like to see.”

Loki turned a cautious eye to Thor before letting his glamour drop, revealing heavy black lines trailing from somewhere in his hair, drawing swirled patterns along his forehead.

“You look like that old tomcat that wanders about the stables,” Thor said before he could stop himself.

With an exasperated wave of his hand, Loki threw the Æsir glamour back up.

“Yes, you’re being very helpful. Thank you,” he growled.

“Oh, that’s all right then,” Thor said happily. The sarcasm in Loki’s voice was plain, but Thor chose to ignore it just to be irritating. At least then, Loki might be distracted from his current… condition.

Loki rolled his eyes, knowing exactly what his brother was up to.

“Did they only appear this day?” asked Thor. He wished Loki hadn’t so quickly hidden behind his glamour, or that the room was not quite so dark.

Loki shook his head. “I first began to notice them a few weeks ago,” he said. “It’s only within these last few days that they’ve become too big to hide with shadows and darkness.” He sighed deeply, trying to keep the panic from edging in on his voice. “This was the first spell Father showed me to control, but I don’t know why it fails me now. It’s never failed me before.”

“Right,” Thor said, nodding. “Come. Eir will know what to do.”

Loki’s eyes went wide and he shook his head in protest. “No, no, no,” he said. “I would not wish to trouble her over this. I will see Father about it.”

“Father is in Nornheimr,” Thor reminded him.

“Then I shall wait until he returns.”

Thor ignored him. Loki tried to stop him from rising to his feet, but only wound up being pulled to his own by Thor.

“Thor, no,” he pleaded. “This is foolish. It’s nothing to trouble Lady Eir over.”

Thor looked at him, confusion set heavily on his brow. “You speak as if you are afraid of her, brother,” he said.

“No,” Loki protested quickly. Perhaps too quickly, but if Thor noticed he did not let on. “I am not hurt or ill,” he amended. “I don’t think. It would be pointless.”

In truth, he was afraid to see her; not afraid of Eir herself, but how she might react to him now that she had no reason to hide her true feelings toward him.

And still, Thor ignored Loki’s protests. He loosed his arm from Loki’s grip and pulled from the wardrobe a large, hooded cloak.

“Then we shall go to her and be sure,” he said, handing the cloak to Loki.

Loki looked up at Thor’s expectant face, suddenly finding all the fight drain out of him. He knew he had little other choice, unless he wanted to remain confined to his chambers until Odin returned from his travels. And he might still have been gone for several days or several seasons yet, for all Loki knew. There was no way of knowing with these things. With a great sigh, Loki threw the cloak around his shoulders and pulled the hood up as far over his face as he could. Satisfied that he would be followed, Thor nodded and turned to leave the chambers. Loki briefly contemplated staying behind, but Thor would only turn round and drag him out of the room, so he followed. He tried not to think of the things that would be said to him, focusing instead on the path they took to the Álfar woman’s chambers.

Thor pulled Loki through the door as he called out for Eir.

“My brother is ill,” he said to the sound of approaching footsteps. “Possibly. We require your assistance.”

“Ill?” Eir asked as she walked through a small door on the other side of the room.  She rushed over, slowing in her pace as she got close.  She looked Loki over as he stood hunched in his cloak, his gaze fixed to teh floor.

“Are you sure?”

She reached out and tilted Loki’s chin to better see his sullen, pouting face.

“Oh, I see,” she said with a fond smile that seemed to banish all sense of urgency from the room. “Not ill at all. It is sometimes so easy to forget that you are not a child of Asgard.”

As she let go of him, Loki wondered what she meant by that. None in the realm ever let him forget the fact that he did not belong among them.

“Then what is it?” Thor asked. “A curse?”

“Not at all,” Eir said. “It is only a sign that Loki is becoming a man. While Æsir men grow beards, the faces of Jötunn men become marked.” She frowned then and turned her eyes to Thor. “Is your father certain you are the same age?”

“We have the same name day because it’s convenient,” Loki said. He looked nervously to Thor. “Why?”

Eir still frowned, tilting Loki’s face again and pulling the hood down to his shoulders.

“Would you remove this, please?” she asked, tapping her fingers against Loki’s chin. “I need to see you better.”

Loki glanced to Thor again, receiving only a shrug in response. Not sure what else to do, he dropped his glamour, allowing Eir to see the full extent of the changes to his face. It did nothing to soften the expression on Eir’s face.

“It seems Odin was wrong about you,” she said, doing little to calm Loki’s fears. “You are much older than you seem.”

Thor’s eyebrows quickly climbed up his brow. “What does that mean?” he asked.

“It means you are no longer heir,” Loki said, hoping he was only teasing. As soon as he said it, though, he began to feel sick.

“You can’t be heir!” Thor protested. “You’re adopted!”

“There is a first time for everything,” Loki said smugly. He wondered why he was still saying anything at all.

“This is a conversation you should be having with your father,” Eir said. She pressed her fingers along Loki’s forehead, her frown setting further. “Have you any headaches or soreness?”

“No,” Loki said, worried all over again. “Should I?”

“If not yet, then soon.” She accepted that whatever she was looking for, she was not going to find. “You will come to see me when it starts?” It was not a question, despite being delivered as one.

“Yes, Lady Eir,” Loki agreed.

She stepped away, smiling again. “Now. I suppose we need to fix your glamour.”

“Yes, please,” Loki said. It was not Álfar magic, but he wasn’t surprised that Eir would know it all the same. It occurred to him that Odin had likely seen this coming and prepared for it just in case. It would not have been easy for her to learn, if she even managed it at all. But even if she couldn’t do it, Loki knew he could with even the most basic examples given to him.

“Very well. One moment.”

As she walked away, Thor lost the battle he was having with himself and began laughing loudly. Already feeling foolish enough without Thor’s help, Loki wet his fingertips with his mouth and tackled Thor. Before his brother could react, he shoved his fingers into Thor’s mouth and crowed in triumph as Thor turned into a chicken.

***

Loki stood outside the door in such a way as to see into the room, but not be seen himself. He let the shadows hide him from the women — servants and midwives — who rushed in and out of the room. He’d not arrived in time to witness the cause for the activity, but he didn’t have to hear his mother’s screams and cries to know what event had finally transpired.

Eventually, the room calmed and Frigga was left to her peace, but she was not quiet for long.

“You may come in, Loki,” she said, tired but happy.

Loki frowned at being discovered, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to be surprised at being caught. He stepped out of the shadows by the doorway and warily entered the room.

“That was not seiðr.  Or Jötunn magic,” Frigga observed. She looked as tired as she sounded, and Loki felt a pull of guilt for disturbing her so soon.

“No,” he agreed, staying by the door despite his curiosity. “Álfar magic. I’ve been practising.”

“Indeed,” Frigga said. She didn’t need to point out the difficulty in practising Álfar magic, even for the Álfar.  Or that he had fibbed about picking up a bit of Dokkálfar magic in his studies.  If Frigga recognised what he had done, then surely she knew where it had come from.

Loki smiled slyly. “It isn’t so difficult,” he said. “There’s a certain… knack to it.”

Frigga’s eyebrows rose, but she said nothing more on the subject.

“Come on,” she said instead. “I know you came here to meet him.”

Loki’s smile turned into something more open as he approached the queen’s bedside. He knelt on the ground beside her, peering curiously at the still bundle in his mother’s arms.

“Has he been named yet?” Loki asked about his newest brother.

“Not yet,” said Frigga. “But when he is, he shall be called Viðar.”

“That was fast,” Loki mused.

He hesitantly reached out to touch his fingertips to the infant’s head, brushing curiously at his golden gossamer hair. Viðar shifted and opened his eyes, bright and almost crystal in colour, and looked straight up at Loki.

“I thought he was asleep,” Loki said, pulling his hand away quickly.

Frigga smiled fondly at both her sons. “His eyes remind me of yours,” she said.

Loki gave his mother a sideways glance. “My eyes are green,” he reminded her with a sternness too heavy to be serious.

“They used to be blue,” Frigga said. She reached out to brush Loki’s hair from his forehead. “But they are yours, and whichever colour you wish them to be.”

Loki pulled his gaze from Frigga, looking down at Viðar instead. Seeing his brother — adoptive brother — in his mother’s arms, Loki couldn’t help but wonder how he must have looked when he was nothing more than a squirming infant; if Frigga had held him any differently. If she loved him right away or if she balked at the very idea of nursing the sickly, blue runt Odin had brought home.

Was he even blue? He had vague memories of Odin teaching him how to hold this false appearance, but he remembered nothing before it. He couldn’t have been allowed to wear his natural form. Not if so few in Asgard even knew of it. Had Odin forced this form on him as an infant?

He must have done.

Loki wanted to ask all of this of Frigga, but his tongue was like sand in his mouth and any attempt at words ended before they even began.  In all his fifteen teen years, Loki had already become skilled at hiding his thoughts and emotions from others, but never from Frigga.  His dry, seemingly endless well of sarcasm and deflection always evaporated around her, leaving him stumbling over his own words and as readable as a book.  Looking up at her face now, Loki could see that this meeting was no different.

“Come. Sit up here,” Frigga said, moving to make room for him on the bed.

Distracted from his thoughts, Loki looked up at her with wide, startled eyes. “What?”

“Come hold your brother,” Frigga said simply.

Loki turned his gaze back to Viðar, eyeing the tiny, fragile body with apprehension. “What if I do it wrong?” he asked.

Frigga smiled at him reassuringly. “I won’t let you.”

Not convinced, but equally not wanting to disobey his mother, Loki sat on the bed beside her. He sat stiffly as Frigga placed the infant in his arms, guiding his hands to support Viðar’s head and hold him securely.

“He’s very quiet,” Loki observed.

Though he moved about constantly, Viðar hadn’t made a sound since Loki started listening in from the corridor.

“I don’t remember Baldur ever being this quiet,” he added.

“You were perhaps loudest of all,” Frigga admitted. She settled back tiredly to watch her children bond.

Loki still sat stiffly, afraid to move lest he somehow cause harm to the child in his arms. He watched intently though, as Viðar in turn took in everything around him.

“I would have thought Thor to be the loudest,” Loki said. “He still is.”

“Thor was loud in his own ways, but you could be a very unhappy child,” Frigga told him. In ways, they both knew he still was, but neither said anything of it.

“We had to be very careful with you,” she said. “You were so small and frail when you father brought you home, but already your magic was strong. We couldn’t keep nursemaids for you because every time your father concealed your appearance, you would either break it yourself or scream to the nine skies until he removed it.”

“I don’t remember any of that,” Loki said quietly. But he could hardly be surprised to hear it. If his own magic itched and burned after being worn all day, he couldn’t imagine what discomfort or pain someone else’s magic must cause.

“No, you wouldn’t,” Frigga conceded. “We stopped trying shortly after you were named.”

She petted his hair, heedless to the oils that even several baths a day could never seem to wash out. Even Loki himself thought it was disgusting, but Frigga never seemed to mind.

“There were still times when your father would have to conceal you,” she said. “We feared if anyone knew where you’d come from, there might be an attempt on your life.”

Frigga’s gifts as a seer were fickle at best, but it was clear to Loki that she had seen his fears and apprehensions that day.

“I had no idea,” Loki admitted.

He looked back down at Viðar, who had finally stilled and closed his eyes again.

“Why take me in though?” he asked quietly. “You already had a son. An heir. Why not hide me away with some family in the city?”

“Your father thought it was the best way to keep you safe,” Frigga said. She smiled almost conspiratorially then. “And you’ll never have him admit it, but I think from the moment he first held you on Jötunheimr, he thought no one else would be good enough.”

Loki looked back up at his mother, taken by the new detail to a story he already knew. He’d been told, eventually, that his parents hadn’t originally intended to keep him, which was why it took so long for him to be named. Frigga told him then, with the explanation that she did not think there was any honour in keeping these things from him. He might not have always been told the full truth, but she never wished to lie to him. Some part of Loki, which he had always kept hidden, harboured the suspicion that he hadn’t been truly wanted — that he only remained in the palace because no one would take in Odin’s Jötunn foundling, and Frigga’s honesty toward him was her way of atoning for the rest of Asgard.

“Then why…” he said, unable to find the words to the question he needed to ask.

“He has his pride,” Frigga said, exasperated but fond. “He can’t be thought to base his decisions on emotion. If he sought out another family, he could say that he made his decision logically.”

“But no one else knew,” Loki pointed out. “Why craft such a lie for no audience?”

“Your father knew.” Frigga’s hand moved to Loki’s back, as though to hold him in place.

Loki laughed, feeling a weight he hadn’t realised was even there lift from his chest.

“He was his own mark,” he said.

“Perhaps he meant to take me in as well,” Frigga said. “But he has been no more able to fool me than you have.”

Loki still didn’t feel good about his situation, but he felt better knowing that he was not the intended recipient for whatever con Odin had planned with him. For years, Odin had fooled almost all of Asgard. He may have even fooled himself. He didn’t even want to think of how easily he might have been fooled as well had Odin intended to keep certain truths from him.

“Would you have allowed it?” Loki asked. “If he meant to lie to me as well?”

Frigga looked at him with a sudden sadness in her eyes. “The first thing we agreed upon after we made the decision to keep you as our own was that you would always know the truth,” she said. Again, she petted his hair as she spoke. “You may not have always been old enough to understand the truth, and we may have tailored it to be more palatable when you were younger, but we have never lied to you. Nor have we ever intended to.”

Loki held onto ‘we.’ Frigga rarely spoke for Odin, but when she did, Loki believed it to be coming from him all the same. He needed it to be true, now more than ever. He focused his attention back on Viðar, needing the distraction from his own thoughts as they stormed around in circles.

“I suppose Eir’s spoken with you by now?” he asked. He wasn’t sure why he brought it up now, but he needed to know.

“She has,” Frigga said.

Loki was suddenly sorry he brought it up. He may have been adopted, but he was also officially Odin’s eldest son. Did that make a difference at all?

He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

“It changes nothing,” Frigga said. “There have been enough upsets this year. The line of succession will still fall to Thor.”

“And I am still second in line,” Loki said grimly.

Frigga nodded, but said nothing.

“No,” Loki said. “As you said, there have been enough upsets this year. It may soothe tensions if…” He inhaled deeply, knowing this was what he wanted, but unable to find the words to voice it.

“If you were removed entirely,” Frigga finished.

Loki nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I would never be accepted. There would be a revolt the moment I took the throne.”

Frigga looked at him, saying nothing for a long moment.  “The plan was never for you to take the throne,” she said.  “We have always thought you might be the older of the two of you, but it never mattered.  Your father has other plans for you.”

Loki nodded, trusting his mother, but not sure if he truly believed her all the same.  “I have not had the best track record for keeping secrets,” he said.  “Should this get out…”

“Speak with your father about it,” Frigga said. “He would hate to see your studies go to waste.”

“I will,” Loki agreed.

« || »

Those Who Hunt Monsters #4: Alliances

“I do not wish to train with him.”

Sif stood defiantly at the edge of the ring with her back to Loki.  He wasn’t sure when exactly she had begun to hate him so, but it was a suspicion he’d had for years.  But now Loki knew the true extent of it.  He never thought it possible for one person to carry so much venom, but Sif was proof that nothing should be surprising.

“You cannot make me,” Sif continued in her protests.  “He’s not even a proper prince.  He’s a stolen runt.  He shouldn’t even be here.”

Those around the training ring all stood silent as Sif and Týr stared at one another.  By his sworn oath to the Allfather, it was Týr’s duty to discipline Sif for this insolence.  But as her father, he he plainly refused.

As a heavy silence descended over the ring, Loki became aware of the attention on himself.  All those around him were silent as they waited to see what would happen — whether Loki would be expelled from training, or if Týr would be forced to train the son of Asgard’s enemy.  Even Thor was silent, as nothing he could do would please Loki.  Even his silence was infuriating, and not wanting to give anyone the satisfaction of seeing him lose this without a fight, he turned his back to the ring with an exaggerated shrug.

“That’s fine,” he said, shrugging as he began to walk away.  “I don’t want to train with a maiden anyway.  I would hate to be responsible for her breaking a nail.”

Not caring that she was being baited, Sif growled loudly and tackled Loki to the ground, shoving his face into the dust.  Loki almost laughed at the familiar situation of dirt and dust in his eyes as Sif played right into his plan.  He twisted and bent himself to block his head from Sif’s fists, but did nothing to defend himself.  Soon, every child in the court would have the privilege of punching Asgard’s second prince, and the thought made Loki want to laugh all the more.  Sif continued to shriek and hit, Loki still did nothing, only blocking himself from her blows as she swung harder and harder.

“Fight me!” she demanded.  “Fight back, you coward!”

When Loki still did nothing Sif grabbed his arm to pull it from his head and give herself a clean shot.  As she touched his bare skin with her own, Loki let his temperature drop sharply, making his skin icy to the touch.  As soon as Sif felt the change in his skin, she quickly leapt off of him as though she had been burnt.

Realising immediately what Loki had done, Týr rushed over to her aid, glaring at Loki.  Loki couldn’t bring himself to care about what Týr thought of him, though.  He was just another amongst the Æsir who would have Loki cast out without so much as a second glance.  Taking advantage of the crowd’s attention on Sif, Loki rose to his feet and dusted himself off calmly as he could.

“Apparently, I don’t even need to fight,” Loki said.  “I should be studying anyway.”

He moved to push through the crowd, ignoring the way everyone quickly sprang back to give him a wide berth.  The thought on every mind at that moment was one of fear; fear of Jötunn magic that burned and destroyed flesh with a single touch.  Something in Loki rather liked it.

“Argr!” Sif shouted after him suddenly.  “That’s what you are! Argr!”

Loki stopped in his tracks, pausing only briefly before turning round to face her.

“No, milady,” he said evenly.  “For I would first have to be Æsir, which all here plainly know I am not.”

He gestured widely at the crowd, taking a small amount of satisfaction from the way those nearest to him jumped back to avoid his touch.  He dipped his head to Sif in a mockery of formality and walked away from the ring then, enjoying the silence left in his wake.  He may not have had the respect of the court, but he did have their fear.  And Loki thought that was even better.

He soon found Baldur beneath a tree, tearing apart some bread and feeding it to a small flock of birds.  Loki sat on the grass beside him, watching the birds peck at the ground for any morsels they might have missed.

“I think I may go into the city,” Loki said after a moment.  “Would you like to come with?”

Baldur didn’t look up at him, keeping his eyes on the birds before him.  “No,” he said.

Loki’s face fell.  “Why not?” he asked.  “I thought you liked going into the city?”

“I do, but not with you,” Baldur said, throwing more bread out for the birds.  “You always get into fights and it is embarrassing when you lose.”

“I didn’t lose today,” Loki defended.

Baldur finally looked up at him, disappointment written clear on his face when he saw Loki’s.  “No, but you still got into a fight.  Did you cheat this time? Again.”

Loki shifted his jaw and looked away.  “I see,” he said, realising that somewhere along the way, he had lost his little brother as well.  Worse, he never even saw it coming.  “Well, I shan’t want to embarrass you further.”

He rose to his feet again and strode away purposefully.  It would be Baldur’s own loss for not going with him.  If the boy wanted to sit and feed birds, then fine.  That was his right.

Loki soon found himself beyond the palace grounds once more, treading through tall grasses where again Hogun stood while he watched his eagle soar across the sky.  There was another boy with him this time; one who recognised Loki at once and put distance between them with little subtlety.  Loki paid him no mind and stepped up next to Hogun, craning his neck to watch the eagle above them.

“Can you teach me?” Loki asked after a moment.

Hogun looked over at Loki for a few seconds before raising his arm up to his face.  The bird soared down to take the perch in a mad flurry of feathers and talons, sending a visceral, almost instinctive terror through every fibre of Loki’s being.  He jumped away quickly to avoid any injury, or even contact with the animal, drawing another one of Hogun’s glances.  Despite the bored look on Hogun’s face, Loki was fairly certain he was being judged.

“You are not ready to learn,” Hogun said.

Loki frowned, not entirely sure what that was supposed to mean.

“Don’t worry about him,” the other boy called over.  “He wouldn’t know a positive thought if it kicked him in his manhood.”

Loki stifled a laugh at the thought and looked over to Hogun’s friend, only then realising that he was now tying new fletching to a stack of arrows.

“Surely, that can’t be true.” Loki looked over his shoulder to Hogun, who ignored them.

“If you still think that then you haven’t known him long enough, my friend.”

Hogun released his eagle again and Loki ducked and ran to be out of its way.  He wasn’t even sure why he was so afraid of it, but the very thrashing of its wings made him want to hide somewhere very deep under the ground.  Perhaps Hogun was right, and learning how to tame one for himself should wait until he was older.  Or at least able to tame his own fear.

The boy with the arrows laughed, but there was no malice to it.  All the same, it took Loki a few seconds to realise that it was not he who was being laughed at, but Hogun’s ridiculous bird.

“Don’t feel bad.  I hate that thing too,” he said.  He held up the arrow he was working on.  “Now this is a proper sport.  It requires skill and has no illusion of status.”

Loki belatedly realised the boy was speaking to him and faltered, struggling to find a way to work his words into an apology.  Loki ignored it all and shrugged.

“If you know who I am then you must certainly know I was adopted into it,” he pointed out, managing to keep the bitterness from his voice.

The boy looked away, nervously rolling one of his arrows between his fingers.

“Right.  I don’t like to be on uneven footing,” Loki said, ignoring his discomfort with the situation.  “You apparently know everything about me, and I don’t even know your name.”

“Oh, uh.  Fandral,” he said.  “My mother is a washer woman in the palace.  I’m—”

“You must know all the hidden paths, then!” Loki said, his face suddenly bright at the possibilities this boy could present.

Fandral looked away again in embarrassment.  “No, not really,” he said.

“Oh,” said Loki.  He knew the servants in the palace had children of their own, but with them being forbidden from much of the palace, he’d never actually met one.  “What a waste.  Perhaps I shall have to show you sometime.”

Behind them, Hogun’s bird landed with a deafening screech, causing Loki to duck without thought.  He thought perhaps Hogun made it do that on purpose.

“You know all the hidden paths?” Fandral asked, ignoring the eagle.

“Most of them, I think,” Loki said, trying to do the same.  The eagle screeched, and he cast a suspicious glance over his shoulder despite himself.  “But I still sometimes find new ones, so there are likely many more I have still missed.”

“Wow,” Fandral said, almost appreciatively.  “I didn’t think you lot cared about that.  I always thought you preferred to, I don’t know, pretend these things didn’t exist.”

Loki shrugged again.  It was rare these days to find himself included in the idea of Asgard’s royal family, and now that he was, he had no words to say to it.  The two of them fell into an uneasy silence again and Fandral looked away, steeling himself.  Loki saw the question forming before Fandral even put words to it and steeled himself for whatever was about to be said.

“So, is it true?” Fandral asked.  “What they’re saying about you?”

“They say many things about me,” Loki pointed out with a tired sigh.  “But yes, the core of it is.”

He watched Fandral, waiting for him to make his thoughts on the matter known.  Fandral cleared his throat suddenly and once more looked away, returning his attention to his arrows.

“Well, there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said, his voice stilted and stiff.  “I’m sure you’re a fine chap all the same.”

Loki rolled his eyes.  He had no time for someone too cowardly to speak his own mind, and started to turn to walk away.

“Do you shoot?” Fandral asked suddenly.

“What?” Loki was caught off guard by the sudden change in topic.  It wasn’t until Fandral held up his bow that he saw the meaning.

“Archery,” Fandral said.  “Do you?”

Loki shook his head.  “I’ve not yet started weapons training.” It was a lie, though not completely.  He was old enough, and Thor had already been training with a wooden sword for half a year.  Technically in the same class, Loki should have started as well.  But starting weapons would require his participation in the first place.

Fandral saw some of this doubt on Loki’s face.  “Come on, I’ll show you,” he offered.  “Since Billy Goat Grim over there won’t share his bird.  I swear, one of these days, I’m going to shoot it right out of the sky.”

“And then I would kill you in your sleep,” Hogun said evenly, not sparing the other two so much as a glance.

“Charming,” Fandral said flatly, completely unamused by Hogun’s response.  “I can see why you’re always surrounded by adoring on-lookers.”

He led Loki a few paces away to a mark in the ground aligned with a set of targets on the other end of the field.

“Why do you make friends with him if you don’t like him?” Loki asked, casting a glance back at Hogun.

“Are you kidding?” asked Fandral incredulously.  “He’s hilarious.  I don’t know what I’d do without him.”

The words were obviously a lie, but at the same time, there must have been some truth to them.  Why else would Fandral put himself in the company of someone he despised? Loki decided to drop the line of conversation entirely and watched with fascination as Fandral strung up his bow.  Once satisfied, Fandral pulled an intricately decorated bit of leather from his quiver and handed it to Loki.

“You’ll probably want to wear that,” he said.

Loki looked down at it, running his fingers over its thin straps.  Burnt into the leather were two gryphons, with intricate runes along the borders; something that had taken someone a lot of time and effort to craft.   He’d have hated to break it.

“I should be fine without it,” he said, handing it back.

Fandral looked at him dubiously, but could not bring himself to argue with one of the princes of Asgard, even about the benefits of wearing an arm guard.

“Very well,” he said, slipping it back into his quiver.  “Which is your dominant eye?”

It was not a question Loki had ever been asked before, and he wasn’t sure which answer to give it.  “Neither?” he said, uncertainly.

Fandral tried very hard not to roll his eyes.

“All right.  Which is your dominant hand, then?” Fandral asked patiently.

This answer, Loki did know.  “My left,” he said.

Fandral showed him how to hold the bow and steady the arrow with his fingers, guiding Loki’s hands with his own.  He wrangled Loki into a firm stance, kicking his feet to get them to move where he wanted them and considering it a victory when Loki didn’t try to put his feet back where they’d been.

“Anchor the end just at the corner of your mouth, here,” he said, bringing Loki’s hand up to the side of his face.  “And when you loose the arrow, release your fingers quickly.  Otherwise, you’ll lose the tension before the arrow goes anywhere.”

He stepped back from Loki, putting a few feet of distance between them.

“Take your time to aim,” he said.  “And release the arrow on the exhale.”

Loki carefully aligned the tip of the arrow with the nearest target.  After a few breaths, he released the arrow with a sharp thwap! He neither saw nor cared where the arrow landed, distracted by a sharp pain in his forearm.

“Mother of Hel!” he shouted, nearly dropping Fandral’s bow.  “Why!?”

Fandral tried not to laugh as he took the bow from Loki.  On the inside of Loki’s forearm was already the beginning of an angry bruise, at the centre of which was a long streak of a burn that was slowly dripping blood down his arm.

“You all right there?” Fandral asked, reaching out to help.

“No, don’t touch!” Loki said, pulling his arm away.

Fandral quickly pulled his own hand away, remembering all the terrifying things he’d ever been told about frost giants.

“Why? It’s not going to freeze me, is it?” he asked nervously.

Loki looked at him incredulously.  “No, it hurts,” he said.  “I just don’t want you to touch it.”

“Oh,” Fandral said dumbly.

“I’m a warm-blooded creature,” Loki reminded him.  “I have to make myself cold, and it takes energy.”

Leaving Fandral to work out how to pull his foot from his mouth, Loki began carefully prodding the area around the bruise on his arm.  He soon realised that it was only going to get worse, so he quickly took off his tunic and began to tear a long strip from the fabric.  He needed only to grip it in his teeth before his magic took hold and the fabric gave way easily, tearing a long line down the sleeve.  He tore at the sleeve again and extracted a suitable bandage from his tunic, which he quickly wrapped round his arm to stop the bleeding.

He finally looked up again to find Fandral staring at him apprehensively.  Even Hogun was watching him, though it was difficult to read the emotion on his face.

Loki realised that this was the first time he had practised that sort of magic outside the palace, and although it was a minor spell, it could be disconcerting for his new companions.  He wondered if he might be due another beating, and eyed them warily.

“By the Norn’s teeth, what happened to you?” Fandral asked.

Loki realised where Fandral was looking — not at the shredded fabric, but at Loki’s chest and stomach, still mottled with faded signs of previous fights from earlier in the week

“Oh,” he said.  “I get into a lot of fights.  I also lose a lot of fights.” He shrugged.  “I thought you were scared about this.”

He gestured to the remains of his tunic, not sure what to do with it now that it had been fairly thoroughly destroyed.

“No, I’ve seen magic before,” Fandral said.  “And isn’t that just something all fr… all Jötuns do?”

“Jötnar,” Loki corrected, suddenly finding it difficult to meet Fandral’s eye.  “But thank you for not saying… the other thing.”

Fandral nodded.  “Is that why you get into the fights?”

“Sometimes,” Loki said.  “But the one I got into today was because I called Sif a girl.”

“Sif is a girl,” Fandral pointed out.

“Don’t tell her that.”

The two of them laughed and even Hogun chuckled quietly, which surprised Loki.  Up until that moment, he wasn’t sure the strange Midgardian boy was capable of such things.

“Are you ready to try again?” Fandral asked, offering Loki the bow once more.

“I think I should wear that other thing this time,” Loki said.  “You never told me that your weapon harms its user.”

“I think you should try the other hand.” Fandral handed him the bow and arm guard.  “That last shot was terrible.  You missed the target completely.”

***

It was late enough when Loki finally returned to the palace that he did not expect to find anyone else wandering the polished corridors.  He parted with Fandral and Hogun at the entrance of the North Hall, where they each went their separate ways — Hogun to Bragi’s chambers, where he would remain until he was his own man, and Fandral to the servant’ part of the palace, where he would stay until plucked up for a position in the stables or the training yard.   If he was lucky, he might even be chosen to be some warrior’s page. 

Loki walked alone to his chambers, still carrying the remains of his tunic.  He would eventually find use for it, or the woman whose job it was to make sure his rooms were kept clean would take it away.  As he turned a corner, he was surprised to find his mother pacing fretfully about the corridor.  Frigga saw him a moment later and rushed to him with a gasp.

“Loki!” she said, sounding relieved and worried all at once.  She hugged him tightly, Loki suffering the indignity out of lack of any other options.  “Where have you been? We have sent men to search for you.”

“With friends,” Loki said, surprised that anyone had even noticed his absence.  “All is well, Mother.”

Frigga smiled warmly at him as she began to lead him down the corridor.  Her smile waned when her eyes fell upon the bandage wrapped round his arm.

“Loki, what happened here?” she asked.

Loki looked down, having nearly forgotten all about that particular mishap.

“Oh, I did that,” he said.

“Why in the Nine Realms would you do that?” Frigga asked.  She took his arm in her hands and began to gently unwrap the bandage to inspect the injury.

“It was not intentional,” Loki insisted.  “I was learning to shoot a bow.  It shot back.”

Frigga shook her head fondly.

“Well, I am glad to hear that my son is making friends, but this should be looked after,” she said once the wrapping was removed.

The bruise had by then expanded to nearly a hand’s width while the burn at the centre had become swollen and red, still seeping lazily.  Loki looked down at it and frowned.  It hadn’t seemed that bad at first, and now he wasn’t sure what to do about it.

“It’s fine,” he insisted, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary.  “It barely even hurts.”

“It needs to be cleaned,” Frigga told him.

“Eir’s probably asleep.  I would hate to wake her,” Loki tried.

Frigga was not having any of it.  “Then I shall do it myself.”

Knowing there was no way to get out of it, Loki let himself be led to Frigga’s washroom in her chambers.  Frigga kept a gentle hand on his shoulder as they walked.

“You have been fighting again today?” she asked suddenly.

“Why would you say that?” Loki asked.

“I know my sons as well as I know anything.  You only leave the grounds when you have been fighting,” Frigga pointed out.  She opened the door to the washroom and guided Loki inside.

“Then perhaps I shall leave the grounds more often.”

“Or start fighting less,” Frigga said.

Loki sighed, knowing that he would never win against his mother, and sat on a wooden chair near the washbasin.  He watched as Frigga filled the basin and wet a cloth, running it over a cake of heavy soap.

“I called Sif a maiden,” Loki said finally.  “She would not train with me, but she had no qualms about attacking me from behind.”

“Loki,” Frigga chastised.  She paused in her preparation to give Loki a look that was at once stern and weary.

“It cannot be an insult if it’s the truth,” Loki reasoned.

“But you still turned it into one,” Frigga said.  “Think about why you fight with the other children and why their words make you angry.  You cannot use their methods against them, or it will make you no better.”

She brought the rag to the burn on Loki’s arm, dabbing it as gently as she could.  Still, Loki hissed sharply and squeezed his eyes tightly shut.

“Loki?” Frigga asked.

“It’s fine,” he lied.

Frigga clearly saw right through him, but she didn’t stop.  She cleaned the wound as quickly and gently as she could before taking a clean bandage from a basket on the shelf.

“Would you like your father to put a stop to it?” she asked as she redressed Loki’s arm.

Loki wanted to say yes.  He wanted Odin to just make everyone leave him alone and treat him like they had before.  He craved the respect and dignity that was his right as the son of Odin and prince of Asgard.

“No,” he said, shaking his head.  “Their respect would be a lie, and I would just be a boy who could not fight his own battles.”

He would rather be feared than know he was living a constant lie.

Frigga nodded sadly and turned to tidy the washroom again.

“If ever you change your mind, you need only ask him,” she said.

Loki nodded in return.  “I know,” he said.  “May I go now?”

Frigga brushed his hair out of the way and gently kissed his forehead.  “Yes,” she said.  “You may go now.”

Loki got up and left Frigga to make his way through the winding corridors of the palace.  As he walked silently through dark spaces and hidden passages, he thought more on what he had said to his mother.  He wanted more than anything for the abuse from his peers to stop, but it never truly would unless he was the one to make it so.

And his peers — wasn’t that just the biggest lie of all of them? Loki shared nothing in common with anyone on Asgard, save his immediate family.  And even that was a lie.  Odin himself was only half-Jötun; Loki’s brothers only a quarter.  Not even enough for them to be considered so.  Even amongst those closest to him, Loki was still an outsider.

By the time Loki pushed open the doors to his chambers’ anteroom, he was exhausted mentally and physically, more than he had even realised until that moment.  He cast a weary glance around the barely-used room, his eyes falling heavily on the stairs that led to his bedchamber.  Suddenly, those few steps leading to the floor above seemed daunting, and Loki hadn’t even the energy to contemplate them.  Instead, he stumbled over to one of the long sofas along the nearest wall and let himself fall upon it.  The sofa was not meant for comfort, but at that moment, Loki didn’t care.  He wasn’t going to be there for long; just a few minutes while he gathered the energy to climb the stairs.  Then he could sleep and forget everything about the first half of the day.

Before he was even able to consider undressing for bed, Loki fell asleep.

« || »

Those Who Hunt Monsters #3: Bargains

Loki sat high in the stable’s rafters, able to see Thor and his friends from this perch.  While he couldn’t hear them over the distance, he could imagine the sorts of things they were saying.  Thor had been honest about what he had known when rumours and truth alike began to spread across Asgard, but many ignored their prince’s words in their certain knowledge that he had been deceived by Loki.  Thor was now, more than ever, surrounded by constant assurances of his worth while at the same time, Loki was insulted and degraded by those same words.  That anything else would be the topic of conversation amongst Thor and his friends wasn’t even the slightest possibility in Loki’s mind.  And as he watched, and as those around Thor spread their venom and poison amongst themselves, Thor continued oblivious to all of it.

Loki was startled from his thoughts by the heavy stable door being pulled open suddenly.  He looked down to see Volstagg taking a less than stealthy reprieve from whatever duties he had been assigned that day.  Setting himself on a bench along the wall, Volstagg opened a large cloth pouch, revealing a stack of bread rolls.

“Should you be here?” Loki asked, the sudden sound of his voice causing Volstagg to jump so sharply that he nearly dropped the roll he was holding.

With the roll firmly in his grasp once more, Volstagg looked up at Loki, still surprised to find anyone at all.

“Shouldn’t you have snuck off by now?” he asked.

Loki shrugged lazily.  “I thought about it,” he admitted.  “But where would I go? At least here I am alone.” He gave Volstagg a pointed look, making sure the mountain of a man knew whose space he was invading.  “Or was.”

He watched Volstagg take his lunch, slightly wary.  He could not tell if this was meant to be some sort of test, or if Volstagg’s intentions were as plain as they appeared.  Was he here to back Odin’s treacherous, adopted son into a corner of his own lies? Find reason to finally expel him from the realm?

“Boys your age are meant to get into trouble,” Volstagg said, focusing more on his impromptu meal than Loki.  “How else are you supposed to learn to get out of it as a man?”

Loki grew even more suspicious of Volstagg’s presence.  But if he was there to goad Loki into making more trouble for himself, he was not being subtle about it.

“From whom was that bread stolen?” Loki asked, not caring either way but wanting a change of subject.

Volstagg looked up at him slowly before turning to look over his shoulder for any who might see them.  Loki had not actually expected the bread to be stolen, but at Volstagg’s reaction, he knew he had unwittingly caught the man out.  As he raised his eyebrows inquiringly, Volstagg glared at him in a failed attempt to threaten him.

“I won’t tell if you don’t,” he said when it became apparent that Loki was not one to threaten. 

Though, with the month Loki had been through, it took more than harsh looks to threaten him.  Faded bruises stained his face and arms, and he did nothing to hide them.  He would let all of Asgard see the beatings he could walk away from.

Loki allowed himself to grin.  Perhaps not a trap after all.

“Finish my work for me and we have a deal,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest.

Volstagg frowned at having been out-smarted by a twelve-year-old boy.  “I pity the fool who should ever cross you,” he said.  “If you get caught, you are on your own.”

Loki smiled as he let himself drop down from the rafters.  “Then I shall have to endeavour to not get caught,” he said.

He jumped out through a window in an empty stall, leaving Volstagg to finish his stolen bread.  Having nothing better to do with his newly-won, if temporary freedom, Loki sought out Thor.  He found him with Sif and Hnossa, as well as a few boys from the court.  At the sight of Freyr amongst the group, Loki reconsidered his idea to join them and began a swift retreat, but he was spotted before he managed to get far.

“What’s he doing here,” Freyr demanded, stopping Loki in his tracks.  “I didn’t think the Allfather let him out of his cage during the day.”

Loki took a deep breath before turning back round to face the group.  “I was just leaving,” he said evenly.  “I wouldn’t want your Vanir visage to infect my eyes.”

The others in the group looked warily at one another, Hnossa taking a step backward to distance herself from the boys.

“Loki,” Thor scolded.

No longer willing to walk away from this fight, Loki turned his sharp gaze to Thor.

“Oh, so you take his side, do you?” he asked bitterly.

“I take no sides in this,” Thor said.

“Lies never did suit you, brother,” Loki said.  He laughed, forced and indignantly.

“I do not lie!” Thor protested.  Loki glared at him, which Thor ignored, averting his gaze.

“You should be on my side.” Loki said, holding himself back from shouting.

“I am—”

“Stop lying to me!” Loki snapped harshly.

Freyr snorted.  “As if you would ever know the truth if you heard it.”

“I know your father is an incestuous letch,” Loki said, affecting an air of casualness.  “Is that not the truth, or does the entire court speak lies?”

“You whoreson dog!” Freyr shouted.

Before anyone could move to stop him, Freyr bounded toward Loki, tackling him to the ground.  Wailing incoherently, Freyr lashed out with balled fists and struck Asgard’s second prince in the mouth, almost heedless to his own actions.  Loki blocked his face from any further blows with his arms and moved to kick Freyr off him, but his heel found no target as Freyr was already being pulled away by Thor.

“You dare strike my brother?” Thor bellowed, punching Freyr in his jaw so hard that he fell to the ground.

Loki watched this with barely-controlled rage.  Spitting blood at the ground, he got to his feet.

“Yes, Thor.  That was very helpful,” he said bitterly.

Casting a hard glance at Freyr, Loki wiped his mouth with his hand and turned away from the group.  He neither knew nor cared where he was going, only intending to get there, and away from Thor and those he called his friends as quickly as possible.  He ignored the hushed tones of scandalised conversation that began to rise from behind him and focused on keeping his attention straight ahead of him.

“Loki, stop,” Thor called from behind him.

Loki ignored him and strode on, picking up his pace.  Thor broke into a run to catch up with Loki, placing a hand on his shoulder when he finally did.

“Loki, stop,” Thor said again.  “We won the fight.  All is well.”

Loki spun round to face him, fists balled tightly at his sides.

“No, Thor.  You won the fight,” he sneered.  “All is not well.”  Loki lost every fight he found himself in, and did not need to be fed lies when he was spared another beating. He would rather take the beating than be rescued like some helpless creature.

Thor looked at him with barely-concealed confusion written across his face.  “How?” he asked.  “Freyr should not give you any further problems after this day.  And I shall see that he doesn’t.”

“Am I your sister?” Loki demanded.

Thor blinked, unsure what Loki was trying to do.  “No,” he said slowly.  “You are my—”

“Then why do you treat me like it?” Loki asked.  “What good does it possibly do?”

“He attacked you,” Thor reminded him.  “I was defending you.”

“No, Thor,” Loki said.  “You were not defending me; you were defending your pride.  But now, thanks to your need to have everything be about you, they all think that I am unable to defend myself.  Because you felt like showing off!”

Thor’s face dropped at the barbs from Loki.  Loki knew he couldn’t defend himself, as did everyone else.  But Thor’s interference would only make it worse.

“But that is not what happened,” Thor insisted.  “You know that.”

Loki howled in frustration and kicked Thor in the knee, dropping him to the ground.  Feeling no satisfaction from it at all, he turned quickly and stomped away.  This time, Thor let him go.

Caring not where he went, Loki picked a path at random and followed it.  As it struck him to do so, he changed directions and doubled back on his tracks until eventually he found himself beyond the palace grounds and in an open, sprawling field.  He seldom had reason to leave the grounds and knew little of the city beyond.  But being away from everything — away from Thor and those he called friends — was enough to make his anger dissipate, and soon Loki began to let his curiosity drive his wandering.

He soon came upon an open field, and a boy not much older than himself staring up toward something in the sky.  His skin was dark, but not like Heimdall or his Nornir mother.  Still, there was something familiar about him, as though Loki had seen him somewhere before, though at that moment he could not place when or where.  He walked up beside the stranger and was about to ask what he was watching when the boy held out his arm as a perch for a great eagle that dove from the sky.

Loki reeled back quickly to be away from its beating wings and sharp talons, but the stranger stood silent, unconcerned about the beast.  The eagle quickly settled, and was rewarded with a small piece of meat from a leather pouch at the boy’s hip.

“I did not know they could be tamed,” Loki said, watching the whole thing intently.

He was answered with nothing more than a nod.  As he watched the other boy place a small hood made of leather over the eagle’s head, Loki realised where he had seen him before.

Loki looked from him to his bird, and then back again.  “Is it true you’re from Midgard?” he asked, unable to keep the curiosity from his voice.

The boy did not answer as he tended to his bird.

“You’re Bragi’s foster-son, aren’t you?” Loki asked, ignoring the fact that he was being ignored.  “I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”

“Hogun,” the boy answered simply.

Again, Hogun only nodded as he started to walk back toward the palace.  Not wanting to give up this opportunity while he had it, Loki followed after him.

“Can you tell me about it?” he asked.

Hogun paused in his step long enough to look over at Loki, though whether in annoyance or simply to size him up, Loki could not tell.

“My people were attacked by an invading army,” Hogun said, walking again.  “Only my mother and I survived.”

“Oh,” Loki said, not sure what else he could say.

Hogun’s accent and speech were strange, and it occurred to Loki that he was speaking one of Midgard’s many languages.  He wanted to get Hogun to say more so that he could continue to listen to it.

“I don’t see you around the palace much.”

“Because I do not belong there,” Hogun replied with very little inflection at all.

Loki snorted.  “I know the feeling.”

He looked back over to Hogun, expecting him to say something else.  But the grim Midgardian boy remained silent.  Despite this, Loki did not feel unwelcome by his side.  He made no indication either way, whether he wanted Loki to leave or not, but he allowed him to be there at all, still far more welcoming than any other person Loki had met that day.  Even Volstagg was glad to have him gone.

Loki turned his attention back to Hogun’s eagle, perched on his hand, and walked across the field with him in silence.

***

Loki stood before the polished mirror in his bed chamber, shirtless and still in his Æsir form.  Even with his false skin, his bruises and cuts from the day’s fight with Freyr and those faded from earlier scraps with other boys showed on his face, dark and heavy against the Æsir colour.  He knew he should probably have gone to see Eir in her healing rooms, but he did not wish to bother the woman.  Less was this a matter of politeness, and more that Loki had not needed visit her since before his secret had become known.  Even amongst the few who had already been made aware, it had apparently become acceptable to let distrust and anger at him show.

Eir was always such a kind, helpful woman, and Loki did not want that idea of her to change.

Looking at himself in the mirror, all lean lines and sinew, Loki realised he had never been properly hidden in the first place.  He had always stood out against the Æsir in one way or another, and nothing he could do would ever change that.   He was too short and far too skinny, apparently unable to put on either muscle or fat.  But even if he did change his shape completely, he would never be one of them.   He was just a Jötunn runt, doomed to be forever different.

Loki let out something of an amused huff and breathed heavily against his palms until they were moist with his breath.  Driven by a morbid sense of curiosity, he ran his hands over his hair and twined his fingers through it.  With each pass, his hair lightened slightly, and he had to replace the breath on his palms twice before he was satisfied with the results.  This glamour was still tricky for him even after years of knowing it, and impossible to manage internally still, but he had not played with it much.  Odin had explained, when he first taught Loki this magic years before, that hair was always difficult to change like this because the glamour could not easily hold onto something that was not living, as skin was.

Loki hardly recognised the person in the mirror.  He ran his fingers through his hair, this time experimentally.  Most of the oil from it had gone along with the dark colour, leaving behind something that was straw-coloured and surprisingly soft.  It was also completely foreign and Loki hated it immediately.  He would not pander to the Æsir.  He let the false colour drop quickly from his hair as he shook his head, feeling far more himself with his own dark colour.

Everyone in the palace by now knew what he was, and soon all of Asgard would hear of the monster Odin let freely wander the realm.  There was no longer any need to hide himself.  While it would be suicide to leave the palace in his natural form, there were other ways in which to taunt the Æsir.  He blew a quick puff of air against his fingernails, releasing the pink colour to them and letting them go inky and black.  Though they stood out like this more than he had expected them to, it still didn’t seem like enough.  Gazing into the mirror again, it struck him that there was something obvious, yet small, he could change.  He closed his eyes and dragged his hand over his face, and when he again looked into the mirror, it was with eyes the colour of rubies.  And it was entirely too much, he realised at once.  He again closed his eyes and shook his head, and this time when Loki looked into the mirror, he was pleased with what he saw.  The green of his eyes was a subtle change from the blue of the Æsir’s eyes, but bright and piercing all the same.

He could change his skin to blend in, but no longer would he pretend to be what he was not.  He was simply Loki.  It was all he ever needed to be.

The door to his bed chamber opened, quickly spoiling Loki’s mood.

“What do you want?” he snapped harshly.

“Do not speak to me that way,” Odin said sternly as he entered the room.

Loki spun round, surprised by this visitor.  “I am sorry, Father,” he said earnestly.  “I thought you were Thor.”

Odin studied Loki harshly for a moment before nodding and accepting his apology.  “Are you two quarrelling again?” he asked as he approached Loki.

Loki turned back to the mirror, still unsatisfied with his work.  “Yes,” he answered simply, not daring to incriminate himself by giving up the cause for it.

“I heard about today’s incident,” Odin said.

Loki waited for an admonishment for leaving his work before he was finished, but none came.

“I am not speaking with him right now,” he said.  “And I will continue not to do so until he understands why.”

He bared his teeth and inspected the harsh points for only a moment before deciding he didn’t like their look in his mouth.   He spent so much time pretending to be Æsir that even when he wore his own skin, his own teeth sometimes felt uncomfortable.

“What are you doing, boy?” Odin asked, watching this from over Loki’s shoulder.

“Experimenting,” Loki told him.  “I am sick to tears of hiding and shall do so no longer.”

Odin placed a hand on Loki’s shoulder and looked at him through the mirror.  “Are you sure about this path you wish to take?”

“I have survived more dangerous things than a brawl with an idiot,” Loki said.

“Then you know there are more dangerous things.”

Loki turned to look up at his father, seeing the plain concern on his face.  He nodded and turned back to the mirror.

“This is something I feel I need to do,” he said.  “I will not let my entire life be a lie.  There is nothing to be gained from it.”

“Very well,” Odin said.  He let his hand slip from Loki’s shoulder and took a step back.  “As you are quarrelling with your brother, shall I expect you to take your supper in here tonight?”

“Yes,” Loki said.  “And every night until he apologises.”

“Very well,” Odin repeated, already tired from what was sure to be a long month ahead of them.  “I shall see that the servants are informed.”

“Thank you,” Loki said, bowing his head slightly.  “Send mother my love.”

Without another word, Odin left Loki’s chambers.  With him gone, Loki undressed the rest of the way and made for his bath chamber to clean himself of the day’s mud and blood and other filth.

 

« || »

Those Who Hunt Monsters #2: Discoveries

The longer Loki was kept from the new business with Midgard, the more desperately he wished to be part of it.  Not being able to listen in covertly, he decided he would have to find a way to be inside the meetings with his father and the other kings.

Before long, it was all he could think about, to know what was being discussed that was so important as to keep him out of it.  He took to skulking around doors and corridors, hoping to catch something of what was happening to make Asgard buzz so.  But those who came to the realm to make whatever decision was being made were careful not to speak of it where any might overhear.

Finally, after days of patience, Loki caught Odin as he left the throne room, which had been locked off and was guarded by two Einherjar.

“Loki, you should not be here,” Odin said tiredly.

“Why?” asked Loki.  “I wish to know what’s going on.  This is about Midgard, isn’t it?”

Odin put everything into not sighing then.  He was weary from hosting the talks and did not have the energy to argue this with Loki, a child who had discovered the word ‘why’ at an early age, and put it to good and frequent use ever since.

“This is a matter that does not concern you,” he said, hoping that would settle the matter.

As was often the case with Loki, it only fuelled the boy’s stubbornness.

“But it does,” he said.  “Perhaps not at this moment, but it will.  One day, Thor will be king and if this is important enough for them to be here, it’s important for us to know what it is now, rather than reading about it in some book when the finer details are forgotten.”

Odin looked down at Loki, seeing nothing but defiance and stubbornness in his eyes, so blue they were almost startling.  This was a child who would have anything he wanted.  Not just through charm, but through sheer determination.  Odin knew that if he were denied this, Loki would only find some other way to learn what went on behind those closed doors.

“Thor and I will be ten this winter,” Loki said.  “You said yourself it was time we learned the ways of these things.”

“That I did,” Odin agreed, once again reminded that while he gave the appearance of being several years younger, Loki was the same age as Thor.

“If I treat you as a man and allow you this, will you behave as one?” Odin asked, knowing he was only tempting the fates with this bargain.

“Yes,” Loki said.

Odin nodded.  “Very well,” he said.  “Now, whose lessons are you missing to be where you have been told to keep away?”

Loki opened his mouth to answer that he wasn’t missing any lessons, but only then realised he had so badly lost track of the time of day that it was possible he had missed everything.  If he missed Thein’s history lesson again, there might actually be a caning in his future.

“Perhaps you should go see to that,” Odin said.

Loki nodded.  “Yes, Father,” he said.  He wasted no more time and turned to seek out Thor to see what he had missed.

***

While the kings and ambassadors from the other worlds and beyond Yggdrasil slowly assembled and settled themselves about the throne room, Thor took the opportunity to shoot Loki a foul glance.

“I cannot believe I am here because of you,” he said bitterly.  “This matter has nothing to do with us.  We were there for a day.”

“One day, you will thank me for this,” Loki said loftily.

Thor rolled his eyes and turned away.  “You say that every time you involve me in your schemes.”

Thor glowered at those around him, but it had little of the intended effect.  He and Loki were the youngest in attendance and were already largely ignored by the rest.  But there was one there who saw and recognised them, and he moved to sit by them at the great table at the centre of the room.

“Things have not been going well,” Taranis said gravely.

Excited that someone here was treating him as a man and talking to him like one, Loki turned to listen to what Taranis had to say.

“How so?” he asked.

“Most of these old fools haven’t stepped foot on Earth’s soil in ages,” Taranis said with a great sigh.  “But the moment they’re told they can’t, they become outraged.”

Thor snorted.  “They sound like you, Loki.”

“Shut up,” Loki said, shoving Thor with his elbow.

“Yes, well.  The very old often become very childish in the end,” Taranis said.  He looked over to where his father stood, speaking with a man in a toga who seemed to be going out of his way to be disagreeable.  Loki recognised him as an Olympian, though he did not know the man’s name.

“It’s not just them, though,” Taranis said finally.  He cast a critical gaze across the room, mirroring a displeased sentiment that seemed to envelope everyone there.  “The humans have changed much in their ways.  It used to be that you could go amongst them and hurl a bit of lightning about and they would worship you as a god.  Now they wage holy wars amongst themselves and a great famine grips the land.”

Loki and Thor both frowned at this.  They had seen nothing of what Taranis described during their short time on Midgard, and both found his words difficult to believe.

“Because of us?” Loki asked.

“In a way,” Taranis said.  “There was a time when men regarded their gods as leaders and teachers.  But time moves differently for the humans.  They have such mayfly lives that they haven’t the chance to become set in their ways.  They spread across continents and do little besides quarrel with one another.  It seems as if entire civilisations collapse overnight.”

Loki was less than impressed with any of this, but fascinated all the same.  He wondered then more than ever why he had never been allowed to go to Midgard until now, just before the pantheons gathered to lock it away.

“What about the holy wars?” he asked.

Taranis shook his head.  “It’s this new trinity,” he said.  “The humans put all their faith in the new gods.  They refuse to be taught how to work their own lands.  If their crops fail, or the hunt goes poorly, they roll over and accept it as their god’s will.  This famine also brings plague with it, but this too is their god’s will.  The thought of taking a bath and washing their clothes doesn’t even occur to them.”

“They don’t bathe?” Thor asked.  “Loki is covered in grease, but he at least tries.”

“Shut up,” Loki said. 

He ran a hand through his hair, find it just as oily as it always was.  Before he could defend himself further, Odin stepped up behind him and bent over them to be heard over the din of the room.

“We are about to begin,” he told his sons.  “Behave yourselves.  You are princes of Asgard and should be seen as such.”

“Yes, Father,” they said, out of time with one another.

Loki watched him walk toward the head of the table, while Thor glowered beside him.

“You will pay for this,” Thor muttered to Loki.

“At least try to be creative when it comes to it,” Loki retorted as the throne room settled into an uneasy silence.

Before Odin could even speak to greet the room, the man Esus had earlier been speaking with rose to his feet so quickly that his chair skidded back across the floor.

“Earth has always been neutral soil.  Asgard is only trying to claim the world for itself!” he said over everyone’s heads.

“What of the Celts?” someone else across the table shouted back.  “They never leave the world unless they are called upon, as now.”

It was already not what Loki had expected.  Diplomacy didn’t exist in the room as everyone quickly began shouting over one another to be heard.

“And this is as far as it ever gets,” Taranis said to Thor and Loki.  “For weeks, they’ve bickered like this and accomplished nothing.”

“Why do they even care?” Thor asked, already bored with the brief entertainment provided by a group of old men shouting at one another.

“The boundaries of many worlds meet there,” Taranis explained.  “Yggdrasil is not the only group of worlds to connect by cosmic paths.  Earth is neutral because it must be.  It’s a convergence zone.  It grants access to many regions of the cosmos.”

“They’re afraid of another war,” Loki realised aloud.  “My father thinks Laufey had designs bigger than Midgard.  Does he mean that Laufey meant to conquer other world trees after taking Midgard?”

The shouting around them had come back to the topic of Asgard intending to claim Midgard for itself after all the other pantheons released their hold on what little bit of the world they still had.

“Perhaps,” Taranis said, casting a wary glance around the room.  “And it was not so long ago that it all happened.  It’s still fresh on everyone’s minds.”

“We were born during the war,” Loki pointed out.

“It’s my understanding you were born on Jötunheimr?” Taranis asked.

Loki tensed at at this before remembering that Odin had not been surprised by a similar statement from Toutatis whilst on Midgard.

“Yes,” Loki said, nodding stiffly.

“You don’t look Jötunn,” Taranis said.

“It’s just a trick,” Loki said warily, not sure how much he wanted to trust this man.

“No one on Asgard knows that,” Thor spoke up from where he was sprawled out over the table with his head in the crook of his arm.  He looked up, meeting Taranis with a hard gaze.  “I would like to know how you do.”

“My father shares his knowledge with my brother and me,” Taranis said simply.  “Though not always where he gets it.”

Thor continued to glare at Taranis as he settled back in his seat.

“You do not have to speak with him, Loki,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Do not presume to speak for me,” Loki said, resisting the urge to give Thor an angry shove.  “If you wish to be a bully on some else’s behalf, do so for Baldur.  I can take care of myself.”

Just then, Odin slammed Gungnir against the polished marble floor, sending an echoing clang across the room.  At the sound of it, all went quiet and looked toward the Allfather.

“This has all been discussed before, and opinions have not changed,” Odin said sternly, glaring out across the room.  “But bickering like fishwives solves nothing.”

“Why do we even care?” Thor asked, rather more loudly than he had intended.  Suddenly, all eyes in the room were on him, and he felt compelled to continue.  “If the humans want to slaughter and starve themselves in their own filth, how does that concern any of us? It’s their world.  They were there first.  As long as they are not bothering us, why should we bother them? Especially if they have turned their backs on us, as you all seem to believe.”

Odin glared at him for this outburst, but before he could reprimand the boy for speaking out of turn, Esus spoke up.

“They boy speaks the truth,” he said.  “The humans have turned their backs to us.  Who are we to interfere with their matters?”

“But their actions can put the rest of us at risk,” someone else said from across the room.

“How?” asked Taranis.  “They are far too busy destroying themselves.  Their matters are their own.  Perhaps my father and the Allfather are proposing the wrong course of action.  What we need is not to lock the world off, but a pact of non-interference.”

Now all eyes were on Taranis, so he stood.

“Matters of the worlds should be kept internal,” he continued.  “All the worlds.  Only if the actions of such threaten another should any be permitted to interfere.  The humans can worship whomever they wish, however they wish, but none of us should be allowed to influence their actions.  They’ve grown beyond us and our teachings.  It’s foolish to believe otherwise.”

The men of the room began to talk amongst themselves again, but it was more thoughtful than the anger of before.  Satisfied, Taranis nodded and resumed his seat.

“Well done, lad,” he said, clapping Thor on the shoulder.  “You will make a fine king some day.”

Loki frowned, not sure which part of Thor’s insolent indifference would make him a good king.

***

Though the library had always been there, long before Loki had ever taken breath on Asgard, he had never given it much thought.  As he wandered its high, narrow spaces however, he began to wish he had at least put some effort into learning its layout.  He browsed the shelves through trial and error, every so often plucking a book from the rest and opening it to see its subject.

The library seemed endless, having books on every subject imaginable, and in languages Loki had never seen before.  As he stood looking at a book filled with puzzling squiggles, the woman who tended the library walked up behind him.

“Are you lost, little one?” she asked.

Loki looked up at her, frowning slightly at her lack of recognition of him.   Perhaps she never left the library at all.

“No,” he said defiantly.  He looked down at the book in his hands.  “Maybe.  I wish to learn about Midgard.”

She smiled at him, though it wasn’t an entirely happy smile.  Something about her seemed almost sad, though Loki wasn’t sure why.

“You’re in the right place for that,” she said, humouring him.  “But you’ll never read it if you hold it upside-down like that.”

She gently took the book from him, turning it round in his hands to face the right way up.  Against Loki’s, her Álfar skin seemed to almost glow with something from within.  Even with his limited knowledge of such things, Loki could sense a strong presence of the seiðr within her; far stronger than any magic Odin possessed.

“What language is this?” Loki asked, returning his attention to the book.

Herða peered down at the writing on the pages.

“I believe that it’s called Latin,” she said.  “It’s a human language.”

“How are you supposed to read it?” Loki asked, seeing nothing more than random loops and lines written in ink.  “No one here speaks Latin, do they?”

Herða shook her head.  “Not to my knowledge.  But reading it is simple.  Don’t look at the words; look beyond them to the meaning.”

It was the single most ridiculous thing Loki had ever heard, and it showed on his face.  Herða saw it and smiled at him again, sad and almost pitying.

“Perhaps you’re a bit young to understand.  You’ll learn it when you’re older.”

She reached out to take the book from Loki, but he pulled it away, stung by her condescension.  Herða tried not to sigh at the unruly child in her library and waited patiently for him to give up the book.

“No, I can do it,” he insisted stubbornly.  “I’m older than I look.  Show me how.”

He continued to hold the book out of her reach, glaring up at her with all the fierceness he could manage.  Finally, Herða sighed and reached out again, this time not for the book, but to guide Loki away from the aisle.

“Let us find somewhere to be seated then,” she said.

Loki nodded slowly, and snatching a second book from the shelf without looking to see what it was, he followed after Herða through the maze of shelves to a large table by a window.

***

Thor burst into the bedchamber and leapt onto the bed, bouncing Loki from his slumber and right off his pillow, sending him crashing to the floor.

“Incestuous Norns!” Loki yelped as he picked his lanky frame up from the floor.  Every season, Thor grew bigger and taller, while Loki seemed to stay the same, growing more and more skinny as time passed.  “Is the concept of separate chambers completely lost on you?”

They’d had separate chambers since their eleventh nameday, but the concept hadn’t quite sunk in to Thor yet.  Every morning he barged in as though Loki’s chambers were his own, and every morning Loki cursed him for it.  In return, Thor only grinned widely.  Not wanting to be completely nude while he flung a bit more verbal abuse at his brother, Loki pulled on a pair of linen breeches, fumbling with the laces in his sleep-addled confusion.

“What possible reason have you for molesting me so this morning?” Loki grumbled.

“Have you forgotten?” Thor asked eagerly, bouncing slightly on Loki’s bed.  “We start training today!”

Indifferent to Thor’s excitement, Loki rolled his eyes and started to search for the tunic he had shed during the previous night, while Thor began picking up the books he’d knocked to the ground whilst flinging Loki from his sleep.  As he stacked them back on the bed, he casually paged through one of them and frowned at it.

“Father allows you to do this?” Thor asked, concern lacing his voice. 

Loki knew some of what was in those books was forbidden on Asgard, but nobody ever seemed bothered enought to stop him.  He looked up from where he was inspecting an ink stain on the cuff of his tunic.

“He never forbade it,” he rationalised.

“Loki,” Thor scolded, getting to his feet to face his brother eye-to-eye.  “Bor forbade this stuff— the seiðr.  I’m sure of it.”

“Forbade doing it,” Loki corrected.  “There is no law saying I cannot read about it.”

Thor narrowed his eyes at Loki.  “When you get caught, and you will if you are not careful, I know nothing of any of this.” He watched Loki as he twisted the sleeve of his tunic in his fingers, his blue skin standing out harshly against the faded yellow of the fabric.

“What’s wrong now?” asked Thor.

“There’s a stain,” Loki said, frowning at the black spot on the cuff.  “I hadn’t noticed it last night.”

“Perhaps if you spent less time with your fingers in ink wells, you would not have this problem,” Thor reasoned.  “At least now you have something to wear that you can ruin when I tackle you to the dirt.”

Sighing tiredly, Loki gave up on the ink stain on his cuff and pulled the tunic on anyway.

“I do not know how you make such a mess doing nothing at all,” Thor said, picking up another book and thumbing through it.

“Perhaps when you learn to read, you will understand,” Loki said with a wry smirk.

“You’re an ass.” Thor tossed the book he was holding at Loki, hitting him in the shoulder.

“Do that again,” Loki said threateningly as he turned to face Thor, “and I will hit you really hard in the face.” He picked the book up from the floor and set it safely on the table near the bed.

“It might be fun to see you try,” Thor taunted.  He turned round again and all but bounded over the bed and to the door.  “Now put your makeup on.  We’re wanted in the ring in an hour and I want breakfast first.”

***

Training started on midsummer for any future warrior, once their 12th nameday had passed.  As Odin’s son, Loki was required to attend.  Sif was also in the training ring that day, and Loki was not the only one to be surprised by it.  The only one present who seemed not to be surprised by her presence was Týr, but Loki had always been of the opinion that the old guard was slightly mad anyway.

“Are you supposed to be here?” Loki asked Sif bitterly.

“Are you?” Sif shot back.

Loki’s thoughts went back to what Thor had said earlier about him being caught out if he wasn’t careful, and for a brief, terrifying moment, he thought Sif might know more than she was letting on.

“What the Hel is that supposed to mean?” he demanded, realising a moment too late that it made him seem a bit too paranoid.  All the same, he quickly checked to make sure his glamour held, hoping none around them noticed.

Sif, thankfully, didn’t notice any of it.

“With all the time you spend in the library, I’m surprised you’re manly enough to be here at all today,” she said.

Loki glared at her.  “I don’t like you,” he said, aware that it was not the most clever thing he could have said.  But it was true, and that at least made him feel better about saying it.

Sif smiled smugly at him, and it made Loki want to slap her.

“The feeling’s mutual,” she said.

“All right, you two.  That’s quite enough of that.” Týr stepped up to put himself between them and turned to face his daughter.  “You don’t have to like him, but you do have to treat him with respect.”

“He started it,” Sif said.  “Like he always does.”

Loki scowled, not even pretending to ignore them.

“Unfortunately, that doesn’t matter,” Týr said.  “He’s Odin’s son and your prince.”

Loki proved just how princely he was and stuck his tongue out at Sif from behind Týr’s back.  Sif glared at him, but otherwise ignored him.

“Yes, Father,” she said.

***

Loki quickly came to loathe the daily sparring sessions under Týr.  Not only was he shorter than everyone in the ring, he was skinny and slow and every part of him moved awkwardly.  Thor was the only one Týr would permit to enter the ring with Loki, and even though his brother held back, Loki still ached to his core.

He trudged away from the ring, kicking his broken sandal off and into a small pool of water.  A few paces later, he pulled off his other sandal and threw it in a fit.  He would simply go barefoot, and damn any insect foolish enough to sting him.

He stopped at a wide stream and sat upon the bank, letting his feet fall into the water.  He was uncomfortable enough during the summer months, but being forced to wear his false Æsir skin and work out in the harsh light of Asgard’s suns made his entire body ache and feel ill.  Surely, Odin must have known this, but still, day after day, Loki had no choice but to join his brother and their peers in the ring.  Something Odin thought to be character-forming, no doubt.  Loki hated him for it.

“Be careful not to fall in.”

Loki looked up to see Thor sitting down next to him, placing Loki’s discarded sandals between them.

“It’s not that deep,” Loki said, kicking lightly at the water.  “I would have to be in a sorry state indeed to drown in this.”

“You look to be in a sorry state,” Thor said.  He looked over at his brother, unable to miss the heavy sheen on his skin and the dark circles beneath his eyes.  “Are you all right, brother?”

“I’m fine,” Loki lied weakly.

“You do not have to feed me falsehoods, Loki,” Thor said.  “You know I am the one person from whom you need not hide.”

Loki looked up to meet Thor’s open, honest expression.

“I hurt,” he admitted.  “Everywhere.  I do not wish to continue with training.”

Thor frowned and looked down at his hands.  “I do try not to hurt you,” he said.  “But I also know how much you hate to be treated as if you will break.”

“Because I won’t,” Loki insisted.  “And it’s not just that.  I’m not… I’m not made right.  I am too small and I don’t know why.”

Thor looked back at Loki thoughtfully.  “Perhaps you just need to be watered,” he suggested.

“What?” Loki asked.

As he looked up at Thor in confusion, he was hit in the face by a sheet of water.  Gasping more in surprise than from the water itself, Loki quickly moved away from the stream’s edge.

“Do you really wish to play this game?” he asked.  He gave Thor his best menacing glare, but his heart wasn’t entirely in it.

Grinning broadly, Thor responded by splashing him again, but this time Loki was prepared for it.  He attempted to block the water from his face and leaned forward to splash Thor in return, cooling the water to just above freezing.

“Loki, that is cheating!” Thor shouted, barely recoiling from the cold before charging forward again.

Before Loki could try his trick again, Thor grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him into the water.  After a few moments of panicked flailing, Loki managed to sit up in the shallow water, eyes wide and gasping.

“That was just mean,” he said, panting.

“You were the one who said you could not drown in this,” Thor pointed out.

Loki sent another near-frozen splash at Thor.  “I’ll drown you,” he threatened.

When Thor splashed again from the bank, still laughing infectiously, Loki held out his hand and turned the water into ice, flinching as the hard beads hit his face.

“How did you do that?”

Thor and Loki both turned to the sound of the voice, surprised to see Sif standing nearby.

“How long has she been there?” Loki asked quietly, not taking his eyes from Sif and having no faith in her ability to not do something catastrophically stupid.

Thor only shook his head, his humour quickly fading.

“That was frost giant magic,” Sif said, backing away slowly.  “How did you do that?”

“Now, Sif.  Just calm down and listen,” Loki pleaded, holding up his hands in what he hoped was a non-threatening manner.

“Stay away,” Sif warned, her eyes wide and her voice shaky.  She turned round suddenly and called for her father as she ran back toward the training ring.

“Oh, no,” Loki said.  He quickly jumped out of the stream and gave chase, punching Thor in the shoulder as he ran past.

“Stop her!” he shouted at Thor.

Thor quickly leapt to his feet, chasing after the two of them, and not entirely sure what he was meant to do when he caught up.  He quickly out-paced Loki and caught up with Sif before she reached the ring, trying to hold onto her to keep her from going any further.  But Sif struggled free of his grasp and reeled away quickly.  Knowing what would happen if she entered the ring again, Thor put himself in front of her in an attempt to block her path.

“Sif, stop and listen to me,” he pleaded.  “Please.  You do not understand what your actions will cause.”

“He was doing frost giant magic,” she said.  “How did you not see it?”

Loki caught up with them then, hanging back a few paces and ready to run in the other direction if actions came to that.

“I know what he is,” Thor said.  “But Loki is my brother and he will not harm you.  I swear.”

Thor motioned for Loki to come closer, but he held his spot and shook his head.  If Sif hated him before, he shuddered to think of what she might do to him know she knew his secret.

“How can you call him your brother?” Sif asked, edging away from Thor as well.  “The frost giants are the enemy.”

“Not any more,” Thor said.  “Bestla was of Jötunheimr.  Do you forget that?”

“That was a long time ago.  Much has changed!”

“Look at him,” Thor said, pointing to Loki.  “He is just as frightened of you as you are of him.”

“Good,” Sif said.  “As he should be.  Frost giant! Father, come quick! There is a frost giant here!”

As she ran in the direction of the training ring, Loki ran back in the opposite direction.  Loki knew he’d never be able to catch up with Sif, and nothing he could do would stop Sif from telling all what she had learned.  Loki, however, was still capable of finding himself in even deeper trouble once she told her father.

Thor again gave chase, following Loki into a thicket near the edge of the palace grounds.

“Loki, what are you doing?” Thor asked once he caught up.

Loki stopped long enough to take Thor by the wrist.  “This way,” he said, leading Thor to an opening in the side of a small hill.

There was a steel grate to keep any large animals from passing through, but over the centuries, one of the bars had worn loose, leaving a hole large enough for a flexible and scrawny boy to wiggle his way through.

“What is this?” Thor asked, watching Loki slip easily through a gap in the bars.

“I found it a few years ago,” Loki said.  “It’s safe.  Come on.”

Hesitantly, Thor followed after, finding the space between the bars a tight fit.

“Loki, you runt.  I cannot get through this,” Thor hissed at him.

“Yes you can.  You just…”

Loki took him by the wrist again and pulled hard, forcing his brother through the small space.

“Ow, Loki!” Thor protested, clutching at the side of his chest where steel had pressed painfully against his ribs.  “You vile creature.”

“Not now,” Loki said, biting back a harsh jab he knew they didn’t have time for.  “This way.  Come!”

He began running down the dark path, heedless of whatever might be lurking in the ankle-deep water along the uneven stone ground.  Having little choice, Thor followed after him, hoping Loki knew what he was doing.  Finally, after following the dark tunnel for so long that Thor had begun to wonder if it even had an end, Loki stopped suddenly and pushed at the low ceiling, revealing a trap door.  As the light poured in from above, it revealed Loki’s Jötunn form, his ruby eyes glinting sharply.

Peering up to the room above, Loki shifted his form again, letting the blue hues of his skin fade with the magic that had become natural to him.

“Up here,” he said to Thor.  “Quickly.”

He pulled himself up through the floor of a pantry in the servants’ kitchen, eliciting cries of surprise from the small group of women working at the table.  They barely had time to recover when Thor climbed up through the floor, letting the trap door slam shut behind him.

“Oh, and he’s brought his brother with him today,” one of the women said exasperatedly.

Loki hardly looked at them as he rushed to the door and inched it open to peer out to the corridor.

“Where is my father?” he asked.  “Do you know?”

“We’ve been down here all day,” a second woman said with a shrug.

“Damn,” Loki muttered.  Satisfied that the coast was clear, Loki opened the door enough to leave the small kitchen.  “Come on, Thor.  He has to be somewhere.”

Thor followed after Loki as he took the quickest path to the throne room.  Loki had found many of the hidden paths the servants took throughout the palace, which allowed them to get from room to room unseen.  The walls and floor weren’t the polished gold and marble of the rest of the palace, but roughly-cut stone, almost as if it had been hollowed out of the very ground.

“That was very risky back there, Loki,” Thor said, looking around at all of it.  “Considering the reason we are running in the first place.”

“I see better with my own eyes,” Loki said, not slowing down.

Thor frowned heavily.  “I did not know this form changed that,” he said.

“There’s a lot you don’t know.”

Not even pausing in his step, Loki turned sharply down a narrow corridor and pushed right through a tapestry on the far wall.  Thor followed after as they stepped into the trone room, where Odin stood talking to one of the Einherjar.

“Father,” Loki called out, rushing over to Odin.

Odin turned sharply at the sound of his son’s voice.  “Loki, what are you doing here?” he demanded.  A second later, his gaze fell to Thor, wordlessly asking the same question of him.

Loki stood before him, barefoot and still dripping.  With the Einherjar guard there, Loki had no succinct way to alert Odin to the situation at hand, but he had to say something.  And quickly.

“Father, there is a problem,” he said.  “A very private, serious problem.”

A brief moment of confusion crossed Odin before he grasped the meaning hidden in Loki words.

“Are you certain?” he asked.

Loki only nodded.

“We will continue this later,” Odin said to the guard.  “I have matters to discuss with my sons.”

With a nod and a salute, the guard turned and left the throne room, leaving Odin and his sons alone.

“Father, it’s Sif,” Loki said once they were free of any witnesses.  “She saw me… And she means to tell Týr.”

“Saw you where?” Odin asked, noticing at once the way Loki paused in his words.

While Loki hesitated to answer, the doors to the throne room burst open again and Týr strode purposefully toward Odin.  Loki immediately moved to put himself behind his father, having no trust in Týr’s actions, even then.  While his father’s anger could be great, it was always temporary.  There was no such guarantee with Týr.

“Where is he?” Týr demanded.  “Where is the little monster?”

“You cannot—” Thor protested, taking a step toward Týr, but Odin held him back.

“You should perhaps choose your words with greater care,” Odin said levelly.  “And remember to whom you speak.”

Týr grit his teeth and glared at Loki.  “Your boy cast frost giant magic against my daughter,” he said, forcing the words as though they burned him.

“No!” Thor insisted, fighting against Odin’s grip.

Odin turned a sharp gaze to Loki.  “You were doing magic?” he asked.

“No,” Loki said, watching Týr nervously.  “Yes.  But not against Sif.  I swear it.  I didn’t even know she was there!”

“So it’s true,” Týr said with a derisive snort.  “You have been keeping one in the palace.  I should have known it would be him.  The boy never did seem right.”

Odin turned his gaze back to Týr and stepped toward him, finally releasing his hold on Thor.  “He is my son,” he said.  “And you will treat him as such.”

Thor quickly moved over to stand by Loki, putting himself between his brother and the captain of Odin’s guard. 

“I always thought it was odd,” said Týr, still glaring at Loki.  “I never did remember hearing that the Allmother had borne twins.  I thought, maybe in the confusion of everything at the time, I’d just forgotten.  It happens.” His gaze moved to Thor before twisting into an ironic smile.  “Allfather, you have doomed us all.  Have you not taken heed of the prophecy?”

“Half of Asgard are descended from the Jötnar,” Odin reminded him.  “How many men under your command have Jötunn wives?”

“Spoils of war,” Týr said, crossing his arms over his chest.  “Where did you find this one, then?”

“That is none of your concern,” Odin warned.  He took another step forward, forcing Týr to back-step slightly.  “All that matters is that he is my son.  And you will continue to treat him as such.  I will not be defied on this matter.”

The two men stared long and hard at one another until finally, Týr backed down.

“I can only hope I am not alive to say I told you so,” he said, turning back toward the door.  “You have wrought destruction upon us all by allowing that creature into Asgard.”

He left the throne room, the heavy clang of the door closing echoing over the walls.

Shuffling awkwardly, Loki broke the heavy silence between them.

“Father, I —”

“Silence,” Odin demanded.  “I have turned a blind eye to your behaviour within the palace, but this carelessness will not be tolerated.”

Thor moved quickly to put himself between Loki and Odin.

“Father, this was as much my fault as it was Loki’s,” he said.

“Thor, don’t,” Loki pleaded.  He grabbed Thor’s arm and tried to pull him back, but Thor shook him off.

“No, I was the one to start it,” Thor insisted.  “Loki was only defending himself.  I pushed him into the water and was perhaps playing too rough with him again.  He had little choice but to react as he did.”

“Is this true?” Odin asked Loki.

Loki wanted to protest it.  He hated Thor for making their entire defence about how much bigger and stronger he was.   But Thor’s words were basically the truth, and Odin would find out if Loki lied to protect his brother.

Loki did the only thing he could do.  He nodded.

“Yes, Father.”

“Very well,” Odin said.  “But that does not excuse your carelessness.  Haven’t I stressed upon you enough the consequences of this secret becoming known to Asgard?”

“Maybe I wanted someone to catch me,” Loki said before he could stop himself.  Tears were already welling in his eyes and by this point, he could not stop himself continuing.  “Maybe I hate having to wear this false skin all the time! It hurts and it makes me ill and I can’t see properly.  I don’t want to be Asgardian.  Why can I not just be me?”

Odin sighed wearily.  “If I thought it was safe for you to go without, I would allow it,” he said.  “But even you know it is not, or else you would not have come to me as you did.”

“Maybe I won’t come to you next time!” Loki said.

Odin continued to glare down at Loki.  “Thor, leave us,” he said, not shifting his gaze.  “I wish to have private words with your brother.”

Thor looked nervously to Loki, but knew that this was not a matter on which Odin was to be crossed.

“Yes, Father,” he said.

***

Thor did not see Loki at supper that evening, but suspected it might have been a good thing, the way many of those round the table seemed to be looking for danger.  Clearly, word had already got out and spread through the palace.  Many men had their weapons with them, which while not unheard of, was still uncommon.  Loki’s presence at the table might have caused even more problems than had already arisen that day.

Assuming Loki was only avoiding trouble, Thor went immediately to his brother’s chambers after supper.  He opened the door, finding Loki in his natural form on the bed, with a book in his hand and a large wad of wool roving stuffed up his nose.

“Loki, what happened?” Thor asked, quickly shutting the door.

Loki shrugged, not looking up from his book.  “There was some shouting, I struck him, he struck me back, and I’m on stable duty until he says otherwise,” he said blandly.

Thor stared blankly at him, not sure how much, if any, had been a joke.  With Loki, it was often difficult to tell.

“You’re an idiot,” he said.

“Probably,” Loki agreed.

« || »

Those Who Hunt Monsters #1: Beginnings

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

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

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

Such a small child might have been allowed to live if born to peasants, but within the citadel it was clear why he had been left.  Small children were often borne of slaves and war brides, undesirable and unlikely to survive Jötunheimr’s harsh winters.  Laufey’s subjects may have been forbidden to aid the child as Utgard lost resources to the war, but Odin was bound to no such law.  He had seen enough death for one day, and would not stand to see an innocent babe fall victim to such a cruel practise.  Without thinking, he picked up the child.  The boy stopped crying and stared at him for a moment, before instinctively changing his appearance to that of an Æsir child.  As Odin wrapped the child in his cloak, he knew this boy would grow to be strong; despite his size, he could survive anything.

While even in infancy it took days for a Jötunn child to expire from starvation, there was little knowing how long the boy had been left alone.  Odin left his orders with Týr and made a swift return to Asgard, making no mention of the child he found.  He knew of only one nursing woman he could trust to care for the child and not speak of him to anyone else, and went immediately to her.

Odin walked into the chambers unannounced, and at the sight of his wife with their own infant son at her breast, he knew he was making the right decision.  His heart lifted just at the sight of them.

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

Frigga looked up at him, her eye immediately drawn to the squirming bundle he carried.  “What have you there?” she asked.

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

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

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

“He may be Laufey’s.”  Odin watched the boy squirm and change his colour in Frigga’s arms.  He could change his colour easily, but did not hold it well.

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

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

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

“If this boy is Laufey’s, he was left to die,” Odin said.  “He is small, and Jötunheimr is starving.  There are no resources to feed a child there.  Especially if his mother wasn’t Jötunn herself.”  War bride or slave, one thing Odin knew for sure was that the boy’s mother was not Jötunn.  His eyes were open, and when he was not screaming, he babbled.  No Jötunn infant was so small. 

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

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

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

Odin looked down to the boy at Frigga’s breast, not quite blue and not quite pink, but still shifting between the two without rhythm.  Not for the first time since finding the child, Odin thought that with the right training, the boy could be an asset to Asgard.  A powerful sorcerer in Asgard’s court could be a far better weapon any any army if wielded correctly.  It was a dangerous line of thought, and Odin banished it from his mind.  There were far more pressing matters at hand that required his attention.

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

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

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

“I’m sure any would be, if put in his place today,” Odin said.

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

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

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

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

***

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

He had placed a glamour on the boy to make him appear Æsir and preserve the secret of his parentage from the nursemaids, but it made the boy fussy and intolerable.  He would cry and kick and flail until the glamour was finally removed, which Odin finally did to have five minutes of quiet.  After two days of such battle, Odin tried a different approach.  He placed a spell upon the boy instead, designed to only hide his form in the presence of anyone other than himself or Frigga.  The boy still railed against it whenever the change was forced upon him, and the sheer volume at which he complained was often enough to drive the nursemaids away.  As soon as the false form was released, the boy would return to his quiet, wide-eyed curiosity of the new world around him.

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

By the time the treaties with Jötunheimr had been signed, Odin realised that the boy’s fate had already been decided from the moment he was in Odin’s arms.  There truly was no finer fit for the son of a king than within the palace itself.  There, he would be protected and free to learn and use the gifts bestowed upon him at birth.  He would have all of Asgard’s resources to hone his craft.  In time, he would be sharper than any blade.

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

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

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

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

“You said it was not for us to name him,” she said.

“Thor is to be presented to the court in two days’ time,” Odin said, moving the soap out of the way before it could be kicked to the floor again.  “And when that happens, he shall be presented with a twin.”

Frigga gave Thor a hard look, which did nothing to still him.  “And you think that will work?”

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

“It is not a permanent solution,” Odin said, knowing better all the same.  “But it is an immediate one.”

Frigga finally wrestled Thor into a thick linen cloth, which was about as good as the situation was likely to get for some time.

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

For a fleeting moment, Odin thought he could.  It certainly would be easier.  But to do that, he would have to hide it from everyone, including the boy himself.  If he did that, and the secret ever came out, he would earn an eternity of resentment.  Odin knew only abstractly what it was to be Jötunn from what he had seen of his own mother, but he still knew that the Jötnar were fiercely honourable, and could not tolerate untruth.  To deny this boy that knowledge of himself would make Odin no better than the father who left him in the ice.  He might have given the child a chance at life, but that life would be a lie.  For a Jötun, that was no life at all.

“No, I don’t think that’s right,” Odin said, finally.  “After they are presented, those closest will be made aware of the circumstances.  Perhaps in time, Asgard might accept the idea and the need for secrecy will be no more.  But for now, it’s a secret we should do our best to keep.”

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

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

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

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

***

The two of them stood on their toes, trying to peer over the side of the cot at the squirming bundle within.  Frigga had said that the new baby was their brother, but it didn’t look like much of a brother.  If anything, it looked squishy.

“It’s so tiny,” Thor observed.

“He,” Frigga corrected.  She looked far more exhausted than either Thor or Loki had ever seen her, and Loki wondered if that was the new baby’s fault.

“What does he do?” Thor asked.

Frigga smiled patiently at him.  “Nothing.  He just is for now.”

“Is he like me?” Loki asked.  “Father says I was small.”

It took a long moment for Frigga to answer him.  “No, your brother is like Thor,” she said finally.  “All Æsir babies all start out small.”

“But he could be like me, couldn’t he?” Loki asked. 

Frigga smiled at the question, but she still looked sad in a way Loki didn’t understand.

“As he grows older, he may be able to use magic, as is the gift from your father,” she said.  “But only time will tell.  His blood may be too mixed.”

“Oh.” Loki watched the new baby squirm and bubble away.  “That’s all right, then.”

Frigga ran her hand over Loki’s hair, black and slick unlike any Æsir’s.  “Of course it is.”

“Does it have a name?” Thor asked.

“He,” Frigga corrected.

“Does he have a name?” Thor said dutifully.

“Not yet.”

Loki looked up at her, confused.  “Doesn’t he need a name?” he asked.

“Not yet,” Frigga told him.  “But it was almost three months before you had one.  Sometimes, these things aren’t to be rushed.”

“What about me?” Thor asked eagerly.

“Your father knew exactly what to call you from the moment you were born,” Frigga said.  She smiled again, but this time honestly.  “You woke the entire palace wheny you were born.  There was only one name suitable.”

Thor beamed proudly, and while the words Frigga spoke were the truth, they felt like the greatest lie to tell her children.  In time, Loki would be old enough to understand the truth to why he was unnamed for so long, but Frigga knew that to tell him at this age then would only confuse and frighten him.

It could wait just a little bit longer.

“When will he do things?” Thor asked suddenly, reaching into the cot to prod at the infant within.

Frigga gently stopped his hand and pulled him away.

“When he’s ready,” she told him.  “And not a moment sooner.”

***

The two princes of Asgard stood behind Odin, listening to their father’s telling of the last great war.  It was a story they had by then heard a great many times already, but never told quite like this.  The stories they had heard before were from the warriors who had been in battle, told round the table during supper.  Odin did not speak of mindless beasts that walked upright and used magic like cowards.  Instead, he spoke of skilled warriors forced to fight for an unjust cause.  It was their king, Odin explained, that was the evil in the tale.  Not the warriors, who were only doing as they were trained and acting on their king’s orders.

Odin spoke of the final battle, how it took place on Jötunheimr itself and how it had lasted half a dozen days.  Thor and Loki both listened to the story with amazement in their eyes, eager to hear more of it.

“Is that where I came from?” Loki asked.

Odin nodded.  “It is.”

“What about me?” asked Thor.  “Where was I?”

Odin regarded Thor with barely-veiled incredulity.  “You were at home.  Where you belonged.”

Thor frowned, disappointed in this answer.  “Oh.”

“Then why was I at the battle?” Loki asked.  He looked down at his hands, pink and Æsir like the rest of him.  He hated this skin.  It didn’t fight right and it itched, but Odin made him wear it whenever he left the nursery.  “Did they do something to me that makes me different?”

“Was he stolen?” asked Thor with new excitement.

“No,” Odin said, growing irritable from Thor’s increasingly outlandish questions.  “Where do you get such ideas?”

“Volstagg tells stories at supper,” Thor said.

Before Odin could comment on the wisdom of believing any of Volstagg’s stories, Loki spoke up again with new urgency.  “Was I stolen?” he asked quickly, eyes wide.

“No,” Odin insisted.

Loki often had dreams of the Eldjötnar, their skin made of fire that would melt him with a single touch.  He’d been terrified of them for as long as he could remember, and now Thor was saying he had been stolen as a child.  He wondered if it were the Eldjötnar that did it.

“You were not stolen,” Odin said.  “You were born there to Jötunn parents.  I found you in a temple.  Sometimes, if Jötunn parents can’t care for a child, they place it in a temple for someone else to find.”

“What if no one finds it?” Thor asked, far more eagerly than the topic of conversation should have allowed.

“What if no one wants it?” Loki asked frantically.  “Or what if you didn’t find me and what if I died?”

Odin signed as the two of them drove his lesson farther and farther out of control.  He watched them for a moment, saying nothing as Thor worked Loki farther into a panic.

“I think I hear your mother calling you,” he said.

Thor and Loki exchanged the briefest of glances before running in the direction of Frigga’s weaving room.

***

Midgard was nothing like Asgard.  The air was cold and the ground hard and covered in frost.  The boys both clung to their father, secretly regretting the decision to ask to come along on this journey, but neither wanting to admit it.  They had begged and insisted for so long, and to turn back now would be an admission of defeat.  Odin knew they were both too young to properly appreciate or understand the purpose of the day’s journey to the realm of men, but he also knew this would likely be their only chance to see this bough of Yggdrasil, and did not wish to deprive them of such an opportunity.

“Loki, you should not be here,” Thor said, elbowing Loki in the ribs and trying to sound as if he wasn’t still afraid of the great elk that had charged them as they left the Bifröst site.

“I can be here just as much as you can,” Loki argued, nudging back with skinny elbows.

“No,” Thor insisted.  “Father said he would rid Midgard of all the frost giants—”

Odin cuffed Thor round the ear.  “Do not speak of your brother that way,” he scolded.  “Those are not words I wish to hear from you again.  I don’t care who you heard them from.”

Thor frowned dramatically as he rubbed his ear.  “Well, you did say that.”

“I did say I would keep the Jötnar out of Midgard, yes,” Odin said.  “But that was in judgement for Laufey and for Jötunheimr.  Loki is of Asgard and so the judgement does not apply.”

Loki leaned round his father and stuck his tongue out at Thor.

“Be careful, Thor,” he taunted.  “I think I hear another elk approaching.”

Thor looked round wildly, but there were no elk anywhere near.  Only the sound of Loki’s laughter carried through the sparse trees.

“Enough,” Odin said.  “Both of you.  It is not too late for me to send you home.”

“Sorry, Father,” both boys said, not quite in time with one another.

They fell back into step beside Odin as he led them through the wood.  Eventually, they came to a small village nestled against a stream.  Odin walked purposefully to a squat tavern at the edge of the village and ushered the boys inside, bidding them be quiet unless spoken to.  Being still early in the day, the tavern was quiet and little occupied, but in the farthest corner, beneath the stairs, sat three men.  The one in the middle bore a similar age and countenance to Odin, and Thor and Loki knew him at once as another king.  The Allfather made a path to the men, keeping his hands on either of his sons’ shoulders lest they wander away.  As they reached the table, the elder of the other three stood in greeting.

“Esus,” said Odin.

“Borson,” said the other, his gaze unflinching in the face of the Allfather.  “We thank you for this meeting.  And you have brought your sons?”

Odin nodded once.  “It’s time they start to learn the ways of these things.  They are Thor and Loki.” As Odin spoke their names, he placed a heavy hand atop their heads.  It was a gesture he always made when introducing his sons to other gods and kings, but it still caused Thor and Loki to squirm slightly under the touch.

The man on the left of the other three smiled at the introductions.  He and the third were much younger than Esus, barely older than boys themselves.

“Odin’s Jötunn son,” the older one said.

Loki looked up at his father, unsure and scared all at once at someone outside the palace knowing this secret.  But Odin didn’t appear upset at this other man’s words, so Loki nodded slowly.

“Aye,” he said, still wary.

“There is a prophecy about you, is there not?” the man asked.

Loki started to look back to his father for an answer, but Odin was quick to speak.

“There are many prophecies about all of us,” he said.  “Though none have been verified.”

Esus smiled, politely but without mirth.  “Of course,” he said.  “And these are my own sons, Taranis and Toutatis.” He introduced them much the same way Odin introduced Thor and Loki, placing a hand on either’s shoulder as he spoke their names.

As Esus and his sons took their seats, Odin guided the boys to sit on either side of himself.  Before Odin’s seat was a tankard of mead, which Loki curiously peered into.

“I took the liberty,” Esus said.  “Had I realised you were bringing your sons, I would have provided for them as well.”

“Thank you,” Odin said with a slight bow of his head.

“May I, Father?” Loki asked, curious to see what Midgardian men drank.

Odin approached the request in the same way he handled Loki’s need to try everything for himself.  It was far easier to let the boy decide for himself that he didn’t like something than to convince him not to do it in the first place.

“Yes, but I don’t think you’ll like it,” Odin said.

Loki picked up the tankard with both hands and brought it to his mouth, careful not to spill any of it down his front.  When it became clear that Loki didn’t find the drink as repulsive as Odin had implied, Thor reached for the tankard.

“I want to try,” he demanded.  “If he gets some, so do I.”

As Loki passed the mead over to Thor, Esus began to speak.

“The men of this realm are becoming problematic,” he said.  “Their holy crusades only grow more violent as their kings gain more confidence.”

“Augh, Loki!” Thor cried out, spluttering.  “This is vile.  How do you drink it?”

“Maybe I’m just tougher than you,” Loki said, matter-of-factly.

“Enough,” Odin said sternly.  He took the tankard from Thor and put it well out of both his sons’ reach.  “From both of you.”

Thor and Loki shifted awkwardly as Odin returned his attention to Esus.

“I have only heard little of it, I must confess,” Odin said once he was sure the boys would remain silent.  “New followers of my teachings have become few and very far between.  I have little reason to visit this realm lately.”

“It becomes worse than that,” Esus said.  “These people see their gods not as leaders and teachers, but now as the solution to all their problems.  The mortals no longer act for themselves, but rather expect their gods to act for them.”

Odin nodded.  “I have heard the prayers,” he said.  “What know you of the new pantheon?”

“It isn’t,” Taranis spoke up.  “It’s only a trinity, and not so new.  It only just grows more influential in these lands.  Their followers force their god on our followers, which is why our numbers dwindle.”

Toutatis shrugged.  “I have attempted to make contact, but to no avail.  The Olympians have been unsuccessful as well.”

Odin frowned at this.  It was not the first time contact between the gods had been denied, but that didn’t make Odin like the situation any more.  He looked to his sons, and saw by the way they fidgeted that it was just a matter of moments before they started in at one another again.

“I think it’s time Esus and I spoke privately,” he said.

Taranis and Toutatis both nodded and rose to their feet.

“Come along, varlets,” Taranis said as he and his brother ushered Thor and Loki outside.

In the short time they had spent inside, snow had begun to fall, leaving a fresh blanket over the village.  Loki immediately wandered away from the tavern to play in the snow, relishing this opportunity he so rarely had on Asgard.

“What do you think they will decide?” Thor asked, ignoring his brother.  He had no desire to play in such cold conditions, especially when he could speak to these men as though he was one of them.  He stood up straighter, almost up to Toutatis’ shoulder.

Taranis climbed up onto a low wall and sat upon it.  “They’re going to lock Earth off from the other worlds,” he said.  “Or at least campaign for it.  I heard my father talking about it last night.”

“They can’t do that,” Thor protested.

“They can certainly try,” Taranis said.

“What about us?” Toutatis asked as he kicked up a narrow trough in the snow.  He took an opportunity and kicked some up at Loki as he passed.  “Where will we go? Surely the others won’t agree to this if we’re allowed to stay.”

“We were here first.  They can’t make us leave,” Taranis said.  “We’ve done nothing wrong.  It’s them that cause the problems.” He gestured widely, indicating all those around them.

Thor smiled broadly.  “Perhaps you could go to Niflheimr.  Its weather should be familiar to you, if this is what you like.”

He was answered by a hard-packed snowball to the back of the head.  He turned, expecting to find one of the Celt brothers responsible for the missile, but found his own brother instead.

“Loki!” he shouted.

“I’m sorry.  Were you standing there?” asked Loki, standing several paces away still and grinning widely.  “I didn’t see you.”

Thor picked up a handful of snow and lobbed it at Loki, but his target was quick to jump out of the way and the snow hit Toutatis instead.

Without warning, Taranis jumped down from his perch atop the wall and joined the fray in defence of his brother.  While they had the advantage of size on their side, Thor and Loki had their own advantage.  They slipped easily through hidden paths and along the trails beneath the trees at the edge of the village, quickly out-pacing their foes.

Loki soon slipped from view again, climbing into a tree and hiding amongst its boughs.  There he stayed, silent and watchful as Thor drew Taranis and Toutatis ever closer with well-aimed but poorly-packed handfuls of snow.

Finally Thor drew Toutatis beneath the bough on which Loki was perched.  As Toutatis bent to pick up more snow to throw at Thor, Loki bounced hard on the branch, sending all the snow upon it crashing down onto his rival.  Amidst Loki’s squealing laughter and Toutatis’ indignant cries, Taranis and Thor both heard the sounds of splintering wood.  As they each called their brothers’ names the bough gave one final crack and fell to the ground with Loki still on it.

“Loki!” Thor shouted, running toward him.

He found Loki staring wide-eyed up into the remaining branches above, his limbs tangled in the broken bough around him.

“Let’s not do that again,” Loki said flatly.

“You ass,” Thor complained, delivering a weak kick into Loki’s thigh.  “I thought you were hurt.”

“I told you,” Loki said as he struggled to his feet.  “I’m tougher than you.”

“You’re a whelp.  Get up so I can kill you for scaring everyone.”

With Loki on his feet again, Thor began picking twigs and grit from his hair, frowning as the slickness that never seemed to wash out now made everything seem sticky.

“Everyone all right?” Taranis asked after making sure his own brother was unharmed.

“We are fine,” Thor answered.

Taranis watched the two of them for a long moment before nodding and turning his attention to the tree above them.

“I wonder why it broke,” Toutatis asked, voicing Taranis’ unspoken question.  As far as either of them could see, the tree was perfectly healthy and should have been able to handle a bit of rough play from a young boy.

“Perhaps we should go inside,” Taranis said, suddenly.  “I think I fancy some spiced ale.”

***

Odin eventually left Esus’ table to find his sons on a large bear rug in front of the fire.  Thor was slowly tearing the bark from a small branch, tossing the pieces into the flames while Loki slept sprawled across his lap.  Odin knew both his boys were strong and would only grow more so, but in these moments especially, he had to remind himself that Loki would always be different.  While every day, Thor grew bigger, Loki was slow to develop beyond his awkward boyish form.  Seeing the two of them so close together exaggerated their differences, making Loki seem even smaller than he was.

When he slept, as he did then, his body lost its hold on the glamour he used to conceal himself.  It was magic Loki had always known, but calling upon it at will took some effort still.  While at home, within much of the palace save the most common areas, Loki was not made to hold his Æsir form.  But it was dangerous not to do so on Midgard.  The humans had already forgotten that they were not alone in the Universe and would surely try to strike down one as different from them as Loki.

Thor moved to wake Loki, seeing that his father was ready to leave, but Odin reached out to stay his hand.

“No,” he said.  “Let him sleep.  It would be easier that way.”

Odin removed his cloak and draped it over Loki before gently lifting him from the ground, willing him to stay asleep despite the movement.  Under the guise of making sure Loki’s head was comfortably rested on Odin’s shoulder, he looked round to be sure that none around them had seen exactly what had transpired.  Satisfied that none had, Odin led Thor from the tavern and back through the woods to the Bifröst site, which would likely be the last time the realm would ever see such a thing.  He knew the decision that was to be made, and what it would mean for the realm.  What it would mean for all the realms.

“Father,” Thor asked suddenly, trying to kick off the snow that was stuck to his boots.  “How is Loki my brother if he’s Jötunn?”

Odin was saddened to hear this question from his son, but not surprised by it.  He had long known that his honesty might at first confuse the boys, but he had the foresight to know that any early confusion was a far better price than anything secrecy would bring about.

“He is your brother because I say he is,” Odin declared simply.

“But not by blood,” Thor pointed out.

“No,” Odin said.  “There was no need for it.  But if, as men, you two decide there is, you can always create that bond.”

Thor nodded and trudged on alongside his father.  He looked up at Odin, the great man carrying Loki in defiance of his own harsh image.  The small hand that poked out from beneath the edge of the cloak may have been blue and oddly-marked, but even with this form, Thor could still recognise it as Loki’s.

“Father,” he said again.

“Yes, Thor?”

“He’s drooling on you.”

Odin craned his neck to see and rolled his one remaining eye.

“So he is,” he said.

***

It was Volstagg who found them beneath the window of the throne room.  Sif and Hnossa stood close by, watching anxiously as Thor lifted Loki onto his shoulders, grumbling all the while.

“How can you be at once so small and yet so heavy?” he asked.

“Shut up, lest someone catch us,” Loki hissed back.  “They’re talking about Midgard.  I want to hear.”

Inside, Loki could see Odin and Esus, as well as several others he did not recognise.  Matters of the realms were often kept as such — between the realms themselves — but this was surely far greater an issue than had been witnessed for some time, to bring about kings from beyond Yggdrasil.

“We were there for a day,” Thor protested.  “What do you care about it?”

“I care because it’s important.” Loki stamped his foot into Thor’s shoulder, making him yelp.  “Now hush or we’ll get caught.”

“Your brother’s right, you know.”

At the sound of the adult voice, Thor spun round so quickly that Loki lost his balance and fell noisily to the ground.  When he realised what had happened, Thor reached down to help Loki to his feet, all the while not taking his eyes from the massive warrior who caught them spying on what was meant to be a private meeting.

“Those are the men who are to decide whether the Nine Realms become eight,” Volstagg said.  “And had you not complained quite so loudly, I might not have heard you as I passed.”

Loki smiled smugly at the validation.  Thor responded by kicking him in the ankle.

“Now come on.  You shouldn’t be here.”

Volstagg herded the small group of children away from the high wall of the throne room and into an open garden.  Knowing they had already been caught doing what they weren’t supposed to be doing, none protested, going silently where they were bid.

“Asgard has no place for spies,” Volstagg told them once they were out in the open.  “There’s no honour in it.”

“My father says the frost giants employ spies,” Sif said.

“They have no honour either,” Hnossa added.  “That’s why they use magic when they fight.”

Loki grit his teeth and glared at both of them.  He wanted to shout at them — to pull their hair and kick and bite and hit until they took back their words.  Thor saw all of this in his brother, even if no-one else did.  He put his hand on Loki’s arm, reminding him where they were.  Loki trembled under his grasp, but Thor held his grip.

“What of Gungnir?” Thor asked.  “Gungnir is magic and my father uses it.  And Heimdall only guards the Bifröst because he has the magic to do so.  Are they without honour?”

“Do not speak ill of my brother!” Sif shouted.

She launched herself at Thor, but Volstagg was quick despite his size and put himself between the two children.

“We’ll have none of that now,” he said.

He cast a warning glance around the group, and when his eyes fell on Loki, his gaze lingered for far too long.  There was something critical behind his eyes, like he had seen the answer to a puzzle that had troubled him.  Loki looked away.  He had never been afraid of the warrior, even for all his size, but he didn’t like being studied so closely either.  The way Volstagg stared at him, Loki wondered what he knew.  He wondered if Volstagg had found something out; something he shouldn’t have.  A dark secret nobody was supposed to know about.

“He said Heimdall is without honour,” Sif said.  “You heard it.”

“No,” Volstagg disagreed.  Finally, he moved his gaze from Loki to point it at Sif.  “He could have perhaps used better words, but he was pointing out that not everyone who uses magic is the enemy.”

“But frost giants are the enemy,” Hnossa said.  “My father said there’s one hiding in the court.”

“What does your father know?” Loki asked indignantly.  “He’s not even here.  You might as well not even have one.”

This time, it was Hnossa’s turn to shriek and throw herself forward.  Loki moved quickly to put himself behind Volstagg and out of Hnossa’s path, glad to have managed to hurt her despite not being able to kick or bite.  Hnossa tried to move around to get at the young prince, but Volstagg held her in her place, trying to glare menacingly at Loki at the same time.

“But there is,” Hnossa said heavily.  “And it will be the son of Jötunheimr and the son of Asgard who leads Hel’s forces and burns Yggdrasil to dust.”

All in the group stopped to stare at Hnossa then, including Volstagg.  Hers were not the words of a child; not then.  It was prophecy she had spoken, and Volstagg recognised it as such.  They all had.

“I think you ought to come with me, little one,” he said.

Volstagg released his grip on her and led her away from the group and into the palace.  As they disappeared around a corner, the remaining three looked awkwardly at one another.

“Why would she say that?” Thor wondered aloud.

“Because frost giants are the enemy,” Sif said.  “Don’t you know anything?”

Again, Loki bristled and Thor held his hand so tightly it hurt.  Loki still wanted to make Sif hurt; to make her sorry for her words, but Thor held him back by crushing his hand.  If he was bigger, Thor wouldn’t be able to hold him back so easily, and then he would be able to make Sif sorry.

“Come on, Loki,” Thor said.  “Let’s go find a game to play.”

He tugged a still blazing Loki along, not sure where he was leading them, other than away from everyone else for a while.

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