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Cold Cradle

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The sun set red on Asgard that evening: a bad omen, her mother had taught her. Frigga gazed absently from her chair at the scarlet light reflecting off of the polished floor of her son’s nursery. She wrapped her arms around herself. The knot in her stomach never loosened when Odin was away at battle. She’d performed her duties as veleda, but the prophetic feedback had been, as ever, vague; a mixture of joy and despair too intertwined to make sense of.

It wasn’t widowhood that frightened her most. If Odin fell in battle to secure an Asgardian victory, she could and would rule in his place. It was a Jotun victory that plagued her thoughts, an outcome that would bring all nine realms under Jotunheim’s control and overthrow an ancient celestial power balance-

“Mama,” Thor’s voice, full of childish impatience, jolted her from her thoughts. He was looking up at her from the floor, his tiny hands poised over his toy soldiers scattered around him. Frigga paused to remember where she had left off.

“Then your father and your uncles Vili and Ve slew the giant, Ymir, and from his corpse constructed the world. They grew vegetation from his hair, created oceans from his blood, soil from his skin and muscles and clouds from his brains…”

As she spoke Thor resumed playing. His fair hair was now long enough to frame his chubby cheeks, flushed from a day in the training yard wielding a blunt wooden sword and learning, albeit slowly, to temper his infantile enthusiasm with skill.

She continued her story, knowing that he was still listening, however engrossed he appeared to be in his game. But she could remember a time, not so long ago, when her son had entreated her to seat him on her lap and had listened, enraptured, to her tales of Valkyries and dwarves and elves and giants. Now a child, his babyhood behind him, he’d grown averse to such intimacy. Though he still enjoyed her company, he was reluctant to admit it now. More and more he preferred the company of his father, whose favor was earned through skill and strength and less readily given than hers.

”And then from two tree trunks they created Ask and Embla, the first Midgardians …”

There was a knock at the door at the end of the room. Frigga nodded to her handmaidens. Hlín and Vör opened the door to admit an Einherjar warrior holding his scuffed horned helmet in his blood-encrusted hands. Thor craned his neck around, too young to understand the gravity of the warrior’s message. With well-practiced poise, Frigga rose from her seat.

“What news?” she asked.

“An Asgardian victory, my Lady.” Frigga allowed herself a sigh of relief, too faint for the Einherjar to notice.

“And my Lord husband?” she asked in a clear voice that betrayed nothing.

“He is wounded, my Lady,” he said, “but he is well.”

For a moment so brief that Frigga wondered if she had imagined it, an expression crossed his face. His eyes darted to the side and his jaw twitched as if to add something. Then it passed.

“Where is he?” she asked.

“In the courtyard, my Lady”

“Take me to him,” she said and stepped towards the door.

Thor began to rise but Frigga gestured to him to stay put. Though she knew the way, the warrior led her through the halls of Valaskialf and out to the courtyard, which teamed with Einherjar and reeked of sweat and blood. Frigga was grateful that she saw Odin before he saw her. Collected though she was, she was not prepared for the dirty bandage wrapped around his face, masking his right eye and stained with blood so dark it was almost black.

She drew near him and when at last he saw her, he smiled, that familiar and distinctly Asgardian smile of victorious elation tempered by exhaustion. She grinned in return and reached for the bandage, careful not to shame him with concern. He took her hand and gently moved it away, caressing it with his thumb. His other hand hid beneath his cloak.

“My Lord,” she said, formal in public company, “I am overjoyed that you’ve won a victory this day.” The corners of his lips twitched.

“Perchance I’ve accomplished more than that,” he said and drew back his cloak to reveal the infant cradled in his other arm. “Laufey’s bastard.” Odin said, “Abandoned at Ymir’s temple.” He paused. “The peace with Jotunheim is tenuous but perhaps a lasting one may be forged through him.” Frigga stared at sickly baby.

“And,” she finally spoke, “you intend to raise this Jotun as our ward?”

“Our son,” he said. Frigga glanced around the courtyard.

“The Einherjar of Valhalla who plundered the temple with me alone share this knowledge,” Odin said, reading her face. “They are sworn in my confidence. The Aesir need never know.”

Frigga bowed her head, incredulous at what he was asking of her. She reached out and took the babe into her arms. He flinched away from her, unfamiliar to touch, Jotun or otherwise. He was, indeed, small for a Frost Giant, even for an Aesir. His limbs pressed pathetically against her, weaker than Thor’s had been at birth and his body was narrow and bony though whether from hunger or nature she could not yet tell.

Unsure what else to do, she rocked him shifting her weight from one foot to the next as she had once rocked Thor. At last the baby stopped struggling and relaxed against her. Frigga readjusted her hold, cradling his head in the crux of her arm. His skin was cold, like the corpses she washed and prepared for the pyre and when he nuzzled against her she felt the hairs rise on her arms and neck. Still, she pressed him to her.

He opened his eyes and looked at her with irises a shade of green she had never seen before. He was not a handsome boy. Not like Thor had been. His skin was a sickly pallor that contrasted with his hair, which, as thin as it was, was already jet black and matted to his scalp with moisture. He was not beautiful.

But he was hers.

Already, Odin had left her to join the celebratory feasting in the mead hall of Sokkvabek. And Thor, in his nursery, was no doubt absorbed in his game, apathetic to her absence. They loved her. She knew that. But they did not need her.

The babe in her arms, however, had begun to fret again, but this time with an urgency she recognized. She retreated back into Valaskialf to her private chambers. She unclasped her dress and guided his mouth to her breast. She winced when his frigid lips found her nipple but forced herself to hold him all the closer. It had been centuries since she had nursed Thor but she had witnessed women who, out of necessity, had fed babes they hadn’t birthed. It would be easier to acquire a wet nurse, of course, but a small, weak baby, cold to the touch, and the offspring of an enemy race was not easy to grow fond of- her own affection took her aback. But already her conviction refused to have this new son nursed with revulsion. Besides, it would be harder to convince Asgard that he was her natural son if she did not nurse him as she had her first born. The whispering amongst the Einherjar and the servants who would wait upon her during her months of enclosure would quiet in time and, until the day that her son ascended to Laufey’s throne, Asgard need be none the wiser.

“Jotun of Aesir, you are mine,” she told him, “Loki.”