"No," Freya said instantly, snatching the feather cloak back from Loki as if the situation were somehow his fault for finding out. "Absolutely not."
"The hammer," Loki pointed out, "is rather important."
"I think you're making it up. Or helped him steal it."
Thor considered intervening, since he was quite sure Loki hadn't, but getting between Loki and Freya when they were arguing was like interfering in a fight between Freya's cats and a good way to get verbally ripped to shreds.
"To get you and Thrym to snipe at each other? A fine idea, but alas, no," answered Loki. Fortunately Freya slammed inside Folkvangr without replying.
"Absolutely not" remained the answer Freya sent to the council, which remained at something of an impasse until Heimdall spoke up.
"Let Thor dress up as the bride," Heimdall proposed, and went on to elaborate this plan with alarming enthusiasm while Loki looked delighted.
"It's perfect," Loki said. "They'll hand you the hammer itself in the ceremony. I'll come along as your bridesmaid." Thoughtfully, "Maybe Sigyn, too."
"Why would they hand--" Thor began, baffled, then realized that Loki was inexplicably talking about Mjolnir's symbolic role in mortal weddings and, less frequently, those of the Aesir and others on good terms with them. He couldn't begin to imagine why a hostile Jotun would think it was a good idea. "Putting a hammer in the bride's lap isn't their custom!"
"No," Loki explained, "but they won't be able to resist showing off."
"It should work," Odin added. Heimdall nodded, grinning brightly.
Thor looked at them all in disbelief. "I take it we're assuming Thrym has no idea what Freya actually looks like."
"Brisingamen should help," Loki said gleefully, as if Freya hadn't already refused to help. Of course, if Odin insisted....
"You'll go veiled," Odin added.
Thor felt that he was probably lucky Odin hadn't suggested the hat would be enough.
It didn't happen often, perhaps, but he did know in principle how to admit defeat. "I think I'll go get my actual maidservant."
"Roskva," Thor said, "I need a bridesmaid."
Roskva looked up at him, tried to make sense of this, and failed completely. "Er," she said. "What?"
"Loki found out where Mjolnir is," Thor explained. "Thrym's buried it, and he demands to marry Freya before he'll give it back." He looked resigned. "At Heimdall's suggestion, therefore, I am going in disguise as a bride."
Roskva was not entirely sure the conversation was developing any more sense as it went. "This... was Heimdall's idea?"
"I can only hope," Thor said grimly, "that he foresees this will work. Anyway, Loki and Sigyn have volunteered to come along and, ah, help. I'd like to have one other person along who doesn't think the whole thing is hilarious."
"I think I sprained a thought," Roskva said. "I'll... go and pack."
"See Sif about your dress," Thor said dryly. "If she can arrange it in between giggling."
"With sufficient provocation."
Roskva was trying to talk to Sif -- who did, indeed, giggle -- when they heard a splash and a roar of "Loki!"
Investigation revealed Thor dripping scented water and scowling over folded arms, and Loki grinning. And holding a large bucket. "Most brides don't smell like goat farmers, Thor."
"Most of the brides I've known have been goat farmers," Roskva murmured.
"But they'd have bathed," Loki said.
Roskva surveyed Thor and his fragrant puddle. "Perhaps less abruptly."
Loki shrugged. "Did you want to talk him into a proper wedding-bath?"
"I am still right here," Thor pointed out.
"I think," Roskva said, "I'll get a towel. And a mop."
As she retreated from the conversation, she heard Thor say, "We'll be taking the goats to get there anyway."
"Ah, yes," Loki said slowly. "About the goats...."
There was a wooden clatter. Probably the bucket, dropped from about the height of Thor's shoulder. "Are you bleeding? What did you do?"
Roskva stopped walking.
"Freya," Loki explained, "drives cats."
"You didn't steal them; there's no way they'd go unless we first laid the trail with fish and cream. Loki, did you turn my goats into cats? Without me there?"
"This way they won't blame you for it. You're welcome."
Thor sighed and raised his voice just as Roskva started moving again. "Roskva--"
"Bandages?" she called back.
Loki, evidently not much distressed by the lacerating fury of the goats (or cats), announced at the first mention of sewing that it wasn't necessary, as he would simply enchant their clothing. He paused over Roskva, looking a little pained. "Why... do you smell of fish?"
"I was just bribing the goats. Cats. I told them it was in your name."
"Oh, good," Sigyn said. "We might all get there in one piece."
"Just go wash up. I'll dress Thor first."
At this point, Sif broke down in laughter again and left the room.
Loki stared after her. "Sif giggles?"
Thor sighed. "It usually takes more effort than this."
Given the situation, this statement was astonishing enough to render Loki speechless for a good three minutes.
Roskva had had a dress mended while she was wearing it before, but she'd never had one change shape. The texture slid oddly against her skin, the skirt rippled longer, and the seams migrated. The experience was all the stranger for Loki changing shape absent-mindedly as he circled her, brushing suddenly longer and apparently unruly hair out of his -- or her, at the moment -- face.
"There, that's done." Loki glanced up and grinned at her expression. "What? Haven't you ever wondered what you'd look like as a boy?"
Roskva shrugged. "Thialfi, probably."
Loki currently resembled his most usual self somewhat less closely than Roskva resembled her brother. "A fair point. Where is he, anyway?"
Sigyn laughed. "I think he left about the time you started transforming everybody's clothes into formal gowns."
"I was thinking I might send him to tell all the giants we actually like not to show up," Thor said.
"I'm already coming," Loki said.
"Yes, but I don't like you very much right now."
"This was Heimdall's idea!"
By the time Sif had recovered enough from the transformation of Thor's clothing to start bringing in jewelry, Loki was speculating avidly on why and somewhat less successfully on how Thor "usually" got her to giggle. (Of course, at the moment it was happening every few sentences.) She effected a pause in this subject by inquiring if they'd asked Freya for Brisingamen.
"Not yet," Loki said.
"Loki's going," Thor put in firmly.
The air around Folkvangr was heavy in a way that pressed against Loki's ears and left him rather worried. Freya probably wouldn't weave a curse against Thor, knowing how much Midgard depended on him, but Loki had no such protection. Fortunately she was just sitting by the fire stroking one of her cats and, if she was calling up magic, she was probably doing it unknowingly.
"Freya," began Loki, which was as far as he got.
"No," said Freya. "I have said no and I meant it."
"Oh, I know," said Loki. "I just need to borrow your necklace. Thor's going to dress up as you and go in your place."
Freya looked up, clearly startled, and gave him a suspicious look before deciding that he was telling the truth. "I'll come and give it to him myself," she said, gently setting the cat down by the hearth. "This is something I must see."
"It's a very good likeness," said Loki.
Freya brushed down her dress with both hands, lips pursing as she thought up a retort. "I don't doubt it seems so to the brainless Jotnar involved in this," she said.
Loki smiled sharply. "They do appear to have an interesting opinion of you."
"They know me only by hearsay, and most of that from a single source," said Freya as she walked out of her hall with Loki following.
They hadn't quite reached Thor's hall when Freya got her first surprise. A golden cat turned yellow eyes, still slitted horizontally instead of vertically, on Loki and hissed menacingly.
"So this is why my cats have been sulky today," she said. "You know, asking me to come along as someone other than the bride would have been different."
"Tell Thor that," said Loki. "I'm sure it would be much easier to drive your cats than these wretched creatures."
The cat gave him a look that said it might have understood that, and Loki made sure to keep Freya between him and the cats until they were inside.
"You were just meant to bring the necklace," blurted Thor, before quickly getting hold of himself. "Ah. Freya. Of course you are welcome in my hall. Did Loki ask about Brisingamen?"
"Yes," said Freya, unclasping it and slipping it from around her neck. "But he has a habit of not returning it. Besides, I couldn't miss this." Her eyes were dancing with mirth, although she was doing a better job of containing it than Sif, who was clearly about to dissolve into giggles again.
Thor sighed. "Thank you," he said, taking Brisingamen and clasping it reluctantly around his own neck. The effect was startling.
"Freya is most generous," said Loki. "She should tell you what else she's offered."
Thor turned a puzzled look on Freya.
"I think your goats might give you some trouble at present," she said. "Perhaps I should lend you my own cats, and come along to drive them."
"No," said Thor. "No, thank you, Freya. It's very kind of you."
"You do have the necklace. Are you still worried about being outshone?" said Freya.
At which point Sif, once again, left the room.
"It would be dangerous to have you there," said Thor firmly. "They might recognize you and work things out."
Freya smiled and said, "Very well then. I wish you luck on your wedding day."
"Thank you," Thor said sourly. "I'm expecting excellent weather."
Loki made a gleeful effort to introduce as many traditional wedding details as possible into the travel preparations, but, as there really was some urgency, only ones that wouldn't slow things down too much. He was not much more enthusiastic than Thor at the idea of Mjolnir in the hands of Thiazzi's close kin.
He did, however, go to plait a crown of flowers while Thor hitched his goats -- or cats -- to the chariot. It seemed like a good way to reduce the potential claw damage to both himself and the harness.
When he returned, however, Thor's skirt was covered in cat hair, which was at least an authentic detail, and the erstwhile goats were winding around his knees with what appeared to be the deepest affection, restrained only by the hopelessly knotted traces. Sigyn and Roskva, adorned with somewhat less cat fur, had been crowded to the periphery, although Roskva was still making a loyal if somewhat futile effort to block the cats from going around each other.
"Loki," Thor said, his voice remarkably level under the circumstances, "what did you do to them?"
"They're cats," Loki said, keeping a safe distance. "And they like you."
"You don't act like this when you shapeshift," Thor said in exasperation.
"Not strictly true," Sigyn said, looking on with interest. "He's like that regardless."
Thor considered this and knelt down to try to undo the tangle. (This led naturally to cat hair up to his shoulders and his veil knocked askew.) "You do have a point."
Loki edged closer, rather surprised when the cats' adoration of Thor kept them too distracted to go after him, and reached over a golden-furred back to pluck at the knot. The strands fell immediately free. He took advantage of the proximity to clap the crown on Thor's head. "There!"
Thor straightened, eyeing Loki, and then threw the traces over his shoulder, grabbed a cat in each hand, and aligned them swiftly with the chariot before putting them determinedly into harness. "And behave yourselves," he added. "It'll be over sooner that way." He put a hand up and poked at the crown. "Loki. Seriously?"
"Your bridal crown, lovely one," Loki said cheerfully. "Try to keep it intact until we get there. You're not supposed to be deflowered until after the wedding."
"At least there'd be no question about blood on the sheets," Roskva said.
Thor's mouth twitched slightly, but he said, "Don't you start."
With the cats harnessed and at least currently pointed the same direction (forward, no less), Sif came out and managed to control her laughter long enough to kiss the bride goodbye with a tenderness and passion that Thrym would surely have found inappropriate. At least, if he'd somehow overlooked the many other reasons for concern.
The cats took a few tries to hit their stride in their altered bodies, but, once they did, the chariot made good progress until sunset. At that point, they tried to stop for the night -- but the cats tried to eat leaves and grass as if they were still goats, which had predictable effects on their digestion and woke everyone up again.
Thor gave up and put them back in harness. This time, they set out perfectly in tandem and the chariot's wheels carved flaming ruts through the mountains they crossed. A fine mist of golden fur gleamed in their wake.
Thrym's hall came into view, approaching rapidly, and Loki hissed, "Thor. Veil."
Thor ground his teeth and yanked it back into place. "Yes. Thank you."
"And whatever you do, don't talk!"
They charged down the last slope, and Thor reined in the cats between two rows of horrified-looking stablehands.
Thrym came out to greet his bride, completely ignoring a full-pawed slash from one of the cats that left five bright scratches just below his knee. Thor dodged the embrace, and Thrym laughed. "Such maidenly shyness!" he boomed.
As this would have been about as plausible for Freya as for Thor, Loki had to choke back most of a giggle with the reminder that they had left Sif at home for a reason. Also, it could be a test. "You are taking proud Freya from her lost husband's bed, not her mother's house. But as eager as she is for the wedding, she will see her prized cats tended before she goes to your arms!" A scornful look at the wary stablehands punctuated this information. "What is this hanging back? Are all your men so timid?"
Thrym looked over the cats as his great dogs circled from behind him and started growling. The cats hissed. Loki reflected that perhaps the dogs would have been adequate explanation for "Freya" borrowing goats. Ah well. The cats were more fun, even if everybody was going to be relieved when they were back to normal. "And how," Thrym asked dubiously, "does one stable a cat? Or are they to come in and lie by the fire?"
While that was unexpectedly accommodating, having them indoors meant they would either act like cats and fight Thrym's dogs, or act like goats and raise questions. "You didn't have the stable prepared for them?" Loki asked in tones of dismay, taking Thor's arm as if to support the shocked bride and turning to the stablehands. "Well, you must put fine blankets in for bedding, and salmon in the manger--"
At this point, Thor picked a blade of grass off his dress with his unencumbered hand and prodded Loki with it.
Loki's eyes widened fractionally. "--But first, you must remove all the hay."
"What?" Thrym asked. "Why should a cat care about hay?"
"These are unusual cats," Loki said, quite accurately. "No hay. No straw."
Thrym shrugged and looked at his stablehands. "Well? You heard her. Make ready."
So before entering the hall, they saw the cats installed in an environment safely free of anything more indigestible than cream -- from goats' milk, by the scent, which Loki was fairly sure had even gotten Thor to crack a smile behind his veil -- and swathed in fabric that would have seemed appropriate for a bridal bed. If that was what they were putting in the stables, Loki resolved to try sneaking in to see the actual bed before it wound up in pieces.
At that point, Thrym attempted to take his bride by the arm and cooed, "My sweet," and Thor folded his arms and strode toward the house with what dignity he could muster. Thrym sighed happily, "Magnificent," with his eyes wandering downward over Thor's figure, and Loki began to be optimistic that despite the peculiar success of having stolen the hammer in the first place, their host might actually be a total idiot.
Which raised the question of how the success had in fact been managed. Loki leaned over to Sigyn as they were led into the hall and said in her ear, "I cannot believe Thrym sneaked Mjolnir out of Asgard unless he is only pretending to be this stupid. See if you can find any sign of who really managed it."
Sigyn nodded. Loki blew a breath across her neck as they sat down and grinned at the goosebumps that rose and faded in its wake, but decided reluctantly against anything further on the grounds that it might be too distracting. Anyway, somebody had to make sure Thor kept quiet.
Within the next half-hour, Loki was beginning to think that having two of the bridesmaids kiss might be a useful distraction. Thor had, apparently out of spite, eaten an entire ox and all the sweets, somehow without dislodging the bridal veil, a feat by which Loki was secretly impressed. Thrym was refilling his bride's drinking horn. Again.
Loki was personally flirting outrageously with half the table, including both of Olvaldi's surviving sons Idi and Gangr. This limited the amount of flirtation the household could apply to Sigyn (which annoyed Loki) or Roskva (which ran the risk of scaring her and inspiring Thor to be protective, although she was taking it more calmly than she once would have). It was, however, steadily losing ground to the attention drawn by Thor's appetite.
"Never have I seen a bride eat so heartily!" Thrym finally exclaimed. "Freya's appetite is greater than that of most giants."
"Freya is of the Vanir, and they always eat well," Loki said, "and besides, she was so eager for the wedding that she fasted eight days for sheer excitement and the speed of the journey." An odd noise came from Thor at this point, and Loki kicked him firmly under the table in the hope that he wouldn't laugh. And possibly that he'd eat less. Loki was still a little peeved about the sweets.
There was a somewhat muffled yelp from Loki's other side; Thor, Loki, and Thrym all turned quickly to discover Thiazzi's brother Idi starting back from Sigyn, with blood on both their mouths and distinctly indignant expressions. "Idi," Thrym said, "what have you done to my bride's maidservant?"
"I kissed her," Idi said woundedly, "and she bit me."
"How fickle of you, Idi," Loki said, making an effort to sound jealous instead of breaking down into laughter. "You've been wooing me more charmingly."
Sigyn folded her arms and looked generally mutinous, but Loki caught the tiniest quirk of her lips. "I did not ask for a kiss, I did not come here to change husbands -- and whatever may generally fall from his mouth, I don't count Idi's breath suitable wergild for the assault!"
"Now that you have traded insults," Thrym said, rubbing at his forehead as if the entire confrontation pained him, "why don't you both go clean up?"
Idi left somewhat sullenly; Sigyn, with Roskva solicitously following to help her, departed with greater speed. One of Thrym's serving-girls approached with a helpful air and disappeared with them.
Thor, evidently unconcerned by Thrym's astonishment at his appetite, proceeded to follow up the ox with eight salmon. Idi returned between the second and third salmon; Gangr proposed marriage to Loki shortly after the sixth. Loki professed to be overwhelmed, counted fish, and started to wonder where their missing companions had gotten to.
Thrym, having evidently dwelt on the incident for some time, leaned over to his bride. "Unwanted kisses and blood should not be allowed to mock the joy of a wedding," he said huskily. (Loki's eyes widened.) "Let us show the hall how it should be done."
Before Loki could speak or swat his hand down, Thrym twitched aside the veil. He shouted, leaping back the length of the hall as if thrown. A cluster of startled servants scattered out of the way -- Loki stopped breathing momentarily upon seeing Sigyn and Roskva with them -- and the walls shook when he landed. Loki cursed silently; they hadn't even seen the hammer yet!
"Fire," Thrym panted. "Freya's eyes are like the fire of heaven. Such ferocity I have never seen."
Loki couldn't recall ever being so astonished by Thor's eyes, no matter his fury, as to completely miss the beard, but there was no point throwing away an opportunity. Maybe Thrym simply thought Freya had gotten ox-blood all down her front. "I told you how eager Freya was for the wedding, did I not? She has not slept for the same eight days, and so her eyes are hot and red."
"But--" Here the improbability finally drove Thrym to protest.
"She wept each night through," Loki invented, driving the point further, "because we had not yet arrived. Her eyes are sore with sleepless tears and aflame with passion for you. Perhaps you had better complete the wedding sooner rather than later!"
At this point Thrym's sister sat down in her brother's vacated seat next to Thor and asked for the golden rings from his hands to win her love and welcome. Thor regarded her from behind his veil with icy incredulity. Loki rather thought she'd have had better luck getting presents from Thor than from Freya, if they'd met under better circumstances -- she was fairly pretty if perhaps no brighter than her brother -- but Thrym came up and removed her before a response became necessary.
"Let us come to the point," Thrym said. "And after my lovely and passionate Freya has at last been properly filled, perhaps she can get some sleep." With a smirk, he finished, "Bring forth Mjolnir!"
Thor, whose glare at the innuendo had been threatening to burn through the veil, straightened alertly. Thrym bestowed on him an excited grin, apparently mistaking the reason for the sudden enthusiasm. Four giants carried Mjolnir in, with great pomp, and Thrym took it from them and brandished it high.
Thor started to get up. Loki kicked him harder this time.
"Let us drink to my happiness with Freya!" Thrym cried, and when that was done, "And let us all drink a toast to my mighty and clever kinswoman, with whose help I deceived Heimdall, breached Asgard's mighty wall, and struck Thor's pride low." He held Mjolnir aloft until everyone drank. Despite Thor's hurry to get the hammer back, Thrym's arm had started to tremble with effort by the time the bride's horn slammed back to the table. The assembled giants cheered.
With an elaborate bow, Thrym lowered the hammer and beamed at Thor. "My beautiful Freya," Thrym murmured. "Now, is this your custom in Asgard?" And he laid Mjolnir on Thor's knees and reached again for the veil.
"I don't believe it's the custom in Vanaheim," Thor said, wrapping his hand around the handle. Thrym's eyes widened, and then Mjolnir smashed up through his jaw.
"I'll go find the girls," Loki said. The safest place in the hall at the moment for anybody Thor didn't want dead was probably right where he could keep an eye on them, which was why Loki made sure Thor was looking before assuming the appearance of a young man again and darting off to look for Sigyn and Roskva.
He found them helping a Jotun serving-girl out a window and was a bit puzzled by this until he recognized her as the one who'd shown them, presumably, where to wash up. "Come on," he said as soon as this was done. "It's probably safer near Thor. Unless there's anybody else you want to rescue?"
"Not especially," Sigyn said. "I heard a little too much about your bad taste in moving to Asgard for love of Odin and his daughter."
Loki laughed at that and grabbed her hand to start towing them back toward the hall.
"Safer, you say," Roskva panted as they wove through the chaos and tried to avoid getting trampled between the people running away from Thor and those charging up to challenge him.
"Well," Loki said, "once we get there. Tch." He shook his head. "He's ruining his dress."
Thor spotted his companions as they returned to the hall and hastily began working his way toward them. He'd been nearly done with the other end of the hall anyway. Lightning struck Thrymheim in nine places as he walked; the air clattered, and much of what was not stone began to burn.
"There you are," he greeted them. "Loki, put my clothes back, will you?"
"But you look so pretty."
"Loki." A hint of a growl this time, and Thor dropped the veil and crown of flowers on him.
Loki relented. Roskva looked relieved. Sigyn appeared to be trying not to laugh. Thor decided that was probably as much as he could expect at this point and chose to concentrate on killing the rest of the inhabitants of Thrymheim.
He finally found a chance to unclasp Brisingamen and handed it off to Roskva as they left the blood-drenched hall for the stables. Some of the dogs that hadn't fought for Thrym milled around unhappily just outside both buildings, but didn't attack now.
The cats were lounging on opposite sides of the stall, pointed in different directions, and the manger was damp and smelled vaguely of fish.
Thor went in to hold them still while Loki turned them back into goats. "Where did the rest of you go, anyway?"
"To gossip with Thrym's servants," Sigyn said. "We found out how he got the hammer. Skadi sneaked it out to him."
Thor looked up sharply. "I didn't think her that hostile now." How dare she.
"That would be the mighty and clever kinswoman of his final toast, then," Loki said. "I did wonder."
"Speaking of moving to Asgard," Roskva muttered.
Loki grinned. "Yes, but she doesn't like it much. Though I notice she's not here either."
Thor glowered over at him and let go of one of the goats. "You are entirely too cheerful about this. We will have to talk to Odin--"
"Odin?" Loki left the second goat fully restored and vaulted back out of the stall. "I was thinking I'd just tell her stepdaughter."
Thor opened the door to the stall and went out to lean against the exterior wall, glowering at the main building as the stormclouds drew in thicker. He could feel the waiting raindrops grow heavier, and the winds were restless. "Loki," he said, "Skadi would be Thrym's last living relative now, wouldn't she? Or at least closest?"
Loki peered around the doorway at him. "That's a point."
"That's what I thought." The clouds darkened. "You seem remarkably cheerful about the whole situation."
"Watching you pretend to be a bride and Thrym inexplicably fall for it was hilarious." Loki would think so. Thor was more surprised and offended at Heimdall. Loki added, "And the more alarming facets of the situation are over," with distinct relief, which left Thor a little less annoyed.
"More or less." Lightning stabbed downward again, and this time, stone cracked, the sound lost in the thunderclap. The clouds began to move in a sluggish circle. "Why don't we let the horses out?"
Loki eyed him. "What are you doing? I think my ears just popped."
The clouds turned faster, lowered, and a whirlwind ripped downward and through the house, flinging stones aside. It spun in place for a moment at the end and then went back for another pass.
"I see," Loki said, and turned and went back inside. Thor suspected he was smiling again.
The other three emptied the stables; Thor destroyed every building and then harnessed the goats, who were much more cooperative this time.
Some time later, Roskva said, "We're being followed."
Thor glanced back, half expecting pursuit and half thinking that Jotun warriors would warrant a little more agitation. What he saw instead was a mass of horses and cattle, with dogs trailing behind. "So we are. Well, we didn't make much effort to scatter them. Loki, you'll look after them all before you go to bed, of course."
Loki's head turned slowly as he scanned the herds. "You have a bizarre sense of humor, Thor."
"Just the goats, then?"
"Your goats hate me right now."
"That's entirely your own fault."
"Roskva," Loki said, in tones that caused Sigyn to break down into laughter, which he blithely ignored except to squeeze her hand affectionately, "the goats like you."
Roskva grinned. "So does that mean you're taking care of the rest of them?"
Loki sighed. "You were so much shyer when we first met you. You can go back to being intimidated any time now."
As it happened, everybody looked over the animals and checked a bit more closely on any of them that seemed to be in distress from the trip. They ate a couple of the oxen, and the goats lounged about looking smug, presumably either because they were not being eaten or because they could comfortably digest plants again.
Sigyn did mention waking up in the middle of the night to discover one of the goats in the process of lowering a dead mouse onto Loki's face. She'd glared at it. The goat had stared back for a moment and then ambled off as if it had planned on this all along. Thor didn't think their attitude had been much affected by being cats, but he wasn't sure when Tanngnjostr had caught that mouse.
Heimdall stopped them long enough to say, "Hello, I thought you'd be back sooner," and then he looked past them. They had the rare satisfaction of seeing Heimdall look startled as the herds started to catch up.
"We had more company on the way back than I was expecting," Thor said. "Didn't you see us coming?"
"I didn't think you even cared for horses," Heimdall said weakly.
"Magni does," Thor pointed out.
Loki's mouth twitched. "Are you trying to annoy Odin?"
Thor shook the goats' reins, and they started moving again. "Maybe a little." He held up a thumb and finger, very close together. "He certainly hasn't been any help. Unlike you, exasperating as you may be." A sideways grin. "Do you want a horse?"
"I do not," Loki said firmly. A moment later, he added, "You probably shouldn't give Odin stallions anyway. Sleipnir would be jealous."
Thor glanced back at the horses. "Might appreciate the mares though."
"That really isn't going to depend on whose they are."
Thor left most of the horses with the delighted Magni, then deposited a few mares, all the dogs, and the accusation of Skadi with Odin and Frigg. The dogs stopped and growled, hackles up, when they saw Geri and Freki; Thor took his leave and moved on to Folkvangr while the introductions were being sorted out.
Freya answered the door with a restraining hand on the nearest cat, then let go as she spotted the goats in their usual shape. She looked Thor over, noting both hammer and the lack of bridal apparel, then eyed the herd of black-horned cattle following the goats. "I gather it went well. What's all this?"
"I'm here to return your necklace," Thor said, pouring Brisingamen into her hand with a certain amount of relief, then gestured at the cattle. "And offer an apology."
Freya blinked. "In the form of Thrym's cattle?"
"They followed me home."
"They followed the goats," Loki said.
A smile tugged at Freya's mouth. "What exactly are they an apology for? I want to hear you say it."
Thor sighed. "Asking you to marry Thrym. However quickly you would have been widowed."
Freya grinned. "Did you actually go through with the wedding?"
Thor rolled his eyes, but growling about it wasn't going to help, especially when he had said he was apologizing. "It was hard to tell. I think Thrym was making it up as he went along."
"Including," Loki said blandly, "the toast to Skadi. Whom he didn't name, but others did."
Freya's amusement vanished, and the air seemed to thicken and grow more humid. "Thor. Is this true?"
"What, you don't believe him?"
She gave him a withering look.
"Roskva and Sigyn had Skadi's role from the servants at Thrymheim. Personally," Thor said, raising his voice as Freya whirled with her hand on the knife at her belt, perhaps to go inside for more weapons, "I don't think you need to go chasing her. Odin's going to summon her here, and she might actually show up."
Freya paused, considering this, her back still to him. "She might. I'll wait."
Skadi did show up; further, she confessed to sneaking Mjolnir out of Thor's room in the middle of the night and rolled her eyes when a few of the gods snickered. "It wasn't that much fun," she said, which set off several more of them.
Odin cleared his throat. "Explain your actions."
Skadi sighed. "Thrym was the head of my father's family. He had a claim on my help when he asked it." A pause. "I did tell him it was idiotic."
"He had to be told?" Loki muttered.
Skadi eyed him sourly and shrugged. "I suppose he lost his head over it."
Odin cut that topic off too, possibly on the theory that the situation was only going to deteriorate if Loki and Skadi were allowed to talk to each other, and explained what Thor had done when he got Mjolnir back. Skadi winced more over Thrymheim than Thrym; evidently she hadn't been nearly as attached to him as to her father. The council agreed that -- weighing the familial obligations, the danger to the gods, and what had actually ended up happening -- Thor's destruction of the buildings and redistribution of the animals of her inheritance balanced the theft of the hammer and the humiliating method of retrieval.
"Wait a moment," Skadi said at this point, rising, "what humiliating method of retrieval?" She looked around impatiently as more than half the assembled gods and goddesses cracked up.
"Freya," Thor said wearily, "wouldn't go."
Skadi put the pieces together and sat down with a somewhat strangled noise.
"On that note," Freya said, "we have not addressed my grievance. Which Skadi helped to arrange."
"I thought you got the cattle," Skadi said.
Freya smiled sweetly at her. "Those were a gift from Thor."
Skadi glanced around; a number of the Aesir were nodding. She hissed and said, "What do you want, then?"
Skadi scowled. "Not to the death. Your father would be distressed if I killed you."
"A duel between goddesses?" Odin asked dubiously.
Freya and Skadi both looked at him. "Why not?"
"It is these goddesses," Loki pointed out. "I wouldn't want to fight either of them."
"What does that have to do with it?" Skadi asked. "You wouldn't want to fight anybody."
"It's happened occasionally," Loki said. "It just never goes well. Did you regret giving up the chance to test yourself against the Aesir for an empty honor and a husband you did not keep?"
"The stars are no empty honor, and you omit the satisfaction of mocking your pain."
"Did you enjoy having me in your lap, Skadi?"
"I preferred seeing the goat's tether in yours."
"Will both of you," Odin said in exasperation, "try to attend to the topic at hand?"
"At least they're entertaining," Freya offered.
Odin eyed her. "Do you want to accept watching them argue as an alternative to the duel?"
"I believe," Loki remarked, as the combatants faced off on a spread cloak, "that at this point Freya is supposed to tell Skadi that she isn't a man."
"I believe," Thor told him, "that if you bring up any more of Midgard's dueling customs to them, they're going to forget about it and both try to kill you instead."
"And that's why I'm staying next to you. You probably won't let them."
Thor rolled his eyes. "I wouldn't let them, but I might shut you up for them if you keep being provoking."
"You're no fun sometimes. Did they ever agree on the rules?"
"If by 'agree' you mean 'stopped arguing with Odin's latest declaration once he started sounding really impatient.'"
"Choice of weapons. No seconds. First blood ends it. And at least in theory, they are not trying to kill each other."
Loki tilted his head, regarding the clash between the goddesses. "In theory."
"This could take a while."
It did take a while. At first they fought in silence; for a few days they offered insults, which degenerated gradually from poetry to periodic swearing. They were still at it without a break -- or a cut -- when Loki dropped by again on the ninth day. Most of the audience had long since gotten bored and wandered off by this point, although most people still stopped by to watch a little while whenever they passed.
Much to his amusement, even the two goddesses involved were showing signs of getting tired of the whole thing.
"I am sick," Freya hissed at Skadi, through crossed blades, "of every nitwitted Jotun who thinks he has something to hold over the Aesir demanding to marry me."
"It's true," Skadi replied, "that the smarter ones don't wish to."
Freya's blade broke the lock by sliding along the top edge of Skadi's and flicking out. Skadi ducked, slipping under Freya's blade, and only lost a lock of hair. Now that she was inside Freya's guard Skadi flicked her sword across Freya's belly, but Freya stepped to the edge of the cloak and brought her own sword down to block, leaving them locked together again with the swords crossed at the level of their hips.
"Because they are only found among the women," said Freya as if nothing had happened.
Skadi laughed sharply, though there was a grunt of effort in the middle of it. "Loki's not the only one who ever changes sex. I estimate that more than half of Jotunheim wouldn't mind marrying you." This was probably true, though Loki had to agree that it wasn't that smart of them. He thought at least some of them might have better luck persuading Freya to sleep with them than trying to coerce her into marriage, but perhaps they wanted the status as much as Freya herself.
Skadi's sword made a dart at Freya's leg. Freya mirrored the motion, but her blade was faster so that Skadi had to abandon the attempt and step back. Their swords now free, they stood at opposite edges of the cloak, eyeing each other warily.
"When we were sent to Asgard as hostages," Freya grumbled, "nobody said anything about being expected to marry Jotnar for them."
Loki rolled his eyes. Nobody had told Mimir to expect to lose his head, either. The Vanir hardly had space to complain.
"Frey's the one who asked Gerd, you know," Skadi pointed out. Loki decided he was agreeing with Skadi entirely too often in this conversation. "And I was after Balder. It's not my fault your father has pretty feet." She kept her sword carefully in the guard position, behind her leg and ready to sweep up, but she sounded tired.
"You didn't seem to think much of the rest of him!" Freya took a step nearer the center of the cloak, not yet attacking, but positioning herself to advantage for when the fighting resumed.
"I quite like him, actually. It's the wretched seagulls I can't stand."
"Seagulls?" Loki finally broke in. "The vituperation here is starting to fall off in quality. Are you two having a duel or a nice mother-daughter chat?"
"Yes," Freya said. "Now go away."
"Yes, don't you have someone else to pester?" Skadi asked.
"Don't start agreeing on my account," Loki said. "I am little more a peacemaker than Tyr. Although if you want to kiss and make up, it certainly sounds like Skadi would enjoy it."
Skadi rolled her eyes. "How do you put up with him in the same city so much of the time?"
"He travels a lot. The rest of the time, I try to pretend he never got that cord out of his mouth."
Loki's eyes narrowed, and he ran his tongue along the inside of his lip against the scars. "Are you jealous that I paid less for the dwarves' work than you did?"
Freya glanced at him this time. "I think I had more fun."
"And yet you refused to go to Jotunheim because it would make you look lustful! You should have come, you know. It was a lovely wedding." He bared his teeth in a smile. "And it's too bad Skadi missed the after-dinner entertainment--"
Skadi snarled at that and whirled away from Freya, leaping toward Loki and off the cloak. "Enough out of you!"
He laughed in triumph even as he darted backward. "Watch your feet, Thiazzi's daughter." And he fled as she looked down and swore.
"I win, then." Freya put down her sword. "I think we should hide an iceberg in his bed."
Skadi glowered after Loki for a moment, then sighed. "I was getting bored anyway. Still, I am probably in enough trouble with Thor without putting an entire iceberg in his house."
"A small iceberg?" Freya offered.
"And oceans again..."
"Well, if you'd prefer a mountain, I'm sure we could arrange that."
Skadi paused. "Tempting, but Thor would probably object to that too.... Maybe just an icecap?"
"At that point, we might as well just use an iceberg. It comes to the same thing."
"All right, then. A small iceberg."
Loki walked yawning towards his bed. At least the duel was settled; there was enough eternal fighting in Valhalla, and it wasn't very interesting there either. Horses were neighing sleepily to each other outside. Magni had been ecstatic on being presented with a whole herd of them. Loki doubted that would last once Sleipnir inevitably won the mares from Gullfaxi. He grinned, happy to borrow trouble when it promised to provide amusement, and pulled back the blankets, lost in thought.
A moment later he let out a startled yell as his bare body came into contact with something very cold. Laughter rang outside as he jumped out of bed and stared down at the iceberg. Ah, well, he thought, turning to head for Sigyn's bed. Tomorrow was soon enough to get them back.