Jane trudged through the snow, hiking up her skirts so they wouldn't get too wet later. She kept her pace slower for Erik's benefit – he was getting older and his knees weren't what they used to be, he had been saying lately, with a rueful smile. Jane was worried for his health, of course – he'd taken her in when she was but six years old, and cared for her as if she were his own – but privately she also had her own reasons for dreading Erik's death, namely what was going to happen to her afterward. She couldn't bear thinking about it.
As Erik paused halfway up the slope, and Jane stopped with him, a flash of light on ice caught Jane's eye. For a moment it was bright, almost blinding; and then it passed, to her relief.
It had been the sunlight reflecting off of one of the spires in the distance. The Jotuns had built their homes, giant structures of ice, not a mile from Bjarn, the human village. All the better to impose their presence, Jane thought with a sour twist to her mouth. Even in the summertime, when the Jotuns went north and the air was warm, they didn't melt. They just sparkled in the distance. Some kind of magic was at work, of course, although the Jotuns were secretive about the mechanics of it.
Sometimes villagers, especially teenagers, would go to get a closer look at the giants' houses, and came back with descriptions so fanciful they had to be invented: terraces, balustrades, statues, all perfectly formed of ice, glittering and gorgeous. Jane had never felt the urge herself, preferring to stay as far away as possible from the hateful things, although she had wondered once or twice in her curiosity how they built them, and what they looked like from the inside. She couldn't imagine a more inhospitable environment than endless slabs of ice, but it was possible that the giants, although they were brutes, could be clever in their own way, and that their designs might improve those of the villagers. Not that she could ever ask.
The building with the highest spires, the one that had attracted her attention, was uninhabited. It had been made for the royal family of Jotunheim, apparently, but since their victory on Midgard, they had never visited. Why would they, Jane thought bitterly, even though she didn't want them to. In their eyes, Midgardians were just specks, barely higher life-forms than insects.
Erik's arm tugged on hers, breaking out of her reverie. "Sorry," she said breathlessly, looking back at the path.
"Lost in thought?" he said gently, studying her.
She forced a smile, and let Erik lean on her as they made it up the final steps to the house. Throwing the door open, Jane gave an audible sigh of relief, and heard Erik do the same.
For all that she hated its source, Jane was grateful for the magic that kept the houses at a steady temperature fit for humans - much warmer than the winter outside preferred by the giants. Erik took care of their cloaks while she tended to the fire. She'd have to go down into the garden to know exactly what she'd be preparing, but she hazarded a guess that it would be soup again. And there was a loaf of bread rising in a bowl in the corner.
Erik was quiet and he went about folding up their cloaks and stashing them away. Normally he would be talking about his work, what sort of problems Bjarn was facing and what they could do about them. Come to think of it, Erik had been pretty quiet for the last few days. It had registered, but she hadn't given herself time to think about it, and thinking about it made what felt like a pit of ice settle in her stomach. It could be a sign of his ailing health. But it was always possible it was a different problem entirely, she told herself. One they were more equipped to deal with.
"Anything interesting happen today?" Jane tried, leaning over the hearth. Erik looked up suddenly, as if he were surprised to hear her voice.
"No, nothing," he said with a frown, as though he were distracted. Jane didn't quite believe him.
"I can't wait for summer," Jane sighed, finally sitting back. Truth be told, she had it relatively easy, because Erik's contributions to the village's agricultural technology (along with her help as well) earned him the right to his share of the farmers' crops and ranchers' meats, without either of them having to engage in a lot of manual labor. Not that she ever got credit from any man but Erik.
Sitting next to her, Erik passed her a mug of beer. "You mean when we can finally go outdoors without seven layers?" he asked with a twinkle in his eye. "When you were young, you hated every clasp and knot and buckle. I swear, you would have run around naked if given the chance, child."
Jane smiled at the memory. She hadn't ever grown to like complicated clothing, but she had learned to accept it. "That's not what I meant."
Erik's lips purse, but he didn't say anything.
"You know what I mean," she persisted. "When the giants are gone."
Erik sighed, and Jane knew what was coming; he'd berated her enough in the past for expressing criticism of the frost giants. Not out of any loyalty, she knew, just prudence – not a virtue she herself had yet mastered. The world had been this way for almost a thousand years, he reminded her whenever she had brought it up. Unrelenting winter with the Giants for six months, then six months where the land was friable and the people were free to warm up. It was their arrangement, organized after Jotunheim's defeat of Midgard and Asgard. Humans produced food and menial labor in return for some measure of protection and freedom during the growing months when the Jotuns would venture north. Whenever Jane had questioned this arrangement, asking why the Jotuns needed their food if they had their own world, it had been explained that Jotunheim had only the smallest strip of arable land compared to Midgard's bounty. Jane thought it was because they liked having somebody to kick around when it amused them.
This time, however, Erik didn't reprimand her as usual, just looked at her over the rim of his mug. Twice Jane thought he was about to say something to her, but then seemed to change his mind. Finally he rose and held a hand out to her. "Come, I'll help you gather the vegetables for stew.” His smile, tired though it was, was almost enough to chase away Jane's worries. But not quite.
The next morning, they learned that the prince was coming to visit.
The news had spread like wildfire through Bjarn. Everyone was confused, and no one had any idea why a member of the royal family was coming to visit – although some thought they did, expounding outlandish theories after a few mugs of beer that night. Everyone that Jane spoke to was nervous, though: the regular giants were bad enough, but no one wanted to encounter the ones at the top of the ladder. Was he coming to impose stricter demands on them? To make sure the humans were being kept appropriately underfoot? To raise the agricultural tax?
Every option made Jane sick to her stomach, too much for much drinking to be really enjoyable. Instead, she escorted a mildly inebriated Erik home from the Lewis home, where Darcy had been distributing her newest brew. Or probably Erik was escorting Jane; it wasn't always safe for a woman at night, and his presence was helpful.
Nearly all the villagers were at Darcy's, so when Jane heard voices speaking, voices that sounded not at all human, she stopped out of instinct.
Erik looked at her with curiosity, barely visible in the waning light. She held a finger to her lips, and he nodded. Hopefully he wasn't drunk enough to be very clumsy or make a lot of noise that would get them caught. She led them across the long edge of a longhouse, to where she could hear the voices coming from.
Glancing around the corner, she couldn't see anyone in the vicinity, until she looked down into the valley nearby. The moonlight made their movements visible, towering figures shifting like giant boulders. A shudder ran through Jane that she couldn't totally attribute to the cold.
Although she could hear their voices, she couldn't quite make out the words. She wavered on the edge of indecision. It wasn't often they got the chance to observe the giants in secret, much less listen to them talk. If she could get a little closer without being noticed, maybe she could find out something about the royal visit.
Her decision made, she turned to Erik. "Stay here," she hissed. "I mean it."
"Jane," he whispered, looking worried.
"I'll be careful. You know we need to know something," she added after seeing the unhappy line of his mouth.
The slope was gentle and the valley shallow. That meant it wasn't dangerous for her to climb down a little, but it did mean they'd have a better chance of spotting her when she did. She would have to use the trees as cover, and wait until clouds covered the moon, which was inconveniently full, to decrease her visibility. Hiking up her skirts a little, she edged around to the nearest tree, fortunately hundreds of years old and enormous, to hide behind its trunk and peek around.
At the next occasion of cloud cover, she struck out, trying to keep as light and quick on her feet as possible, while at the same time avoiding stepping on branches and anything else that would announce her presence.
She managed to get further down, about thirty yards, without any incident. Behind another tree, she tried to focus and listen, even though her heart was beating so loudly in her ears. She could make out individual giants' voices now, as they took turns speaking and laughing, but only caught perhaps one word out of three.
Mentally Jane cursed, and looked for her next target. There was another tree below her, another twenty yards; Jane though if she could reach it, she could hear them.
At the next roar of laughter, Jane darted out from behind her tree, and made her way down a little more slowly. Luckily for her, the tree was nearly in a straight line down, and hid her progress for her.
Peeking out from behind the trunk, she tried to catch her breath and listened, hard. There were only maybe four giants - it was hard to tell - which was fewer than what she'd estimated before. In the dark she had mistaken every lump for a new creature. Here their outlines were clearer; they sat in a circle, cross-legged. Thankfully, their voices were so much louder than human ones.
"– you heard?"
"He loves playing tricks," rumbled one giant confidently. He was facing her direction, so she heard him clearly. "Always he is up to mischief at the palace, or so I have heard."
Were they talking about the prince? Unconsciously, Jane leaned forward, listening avidly.
One of the Jotuns who was facing away from her spoke, and she couldn't make everything out: ". . . sent him away . . . bother . . ."
"Or he was bored, and comes to unleash his boredom on us," said the first sourly. They all snorted, the sound like a distant landslide to Jane's ears.
A third giant spoke, but all she could catch was something about Midgard, or maybe Midgardians. Jane bit her lip and screwed up every ounce of her concentration.
"– too delicate," another said, sounding female and especially put out. "They could be hurt . . ."
"Are you concerned for their well-being, Aurboda?" Rarely had Jane had the opportunity to hear a Jotun sound amused. The other giants laughed.
The she-giant he'd spoken to laughed, too, dimming Jane's hope. But she turned her head, so that Jane could see her in profile, all sharp features and sharper claws dangling over her knees. "Hardly. But . . . not return to farming."
There was murmured agreement from around her.
"I have a cousin who serves the palace," said the first giant. "She says Loki is a runt, but a most powerful sorcerer."
"Could be . . . eration. You know h . . ." The next words garbled together to Jane.
"Perhaps." His tone was grim. "The warriors he has bested in combat also speak of his prowess." He looked disgruntled by the possibility, and the other giants shifted around him.
From there, the conversation seemed to move on to other topics. Jane waited a minute to see if they would speak of Loki again, but when they didn't, turned to look up the slope. Compared to how she'd come down, it looked like a much longer return journey.
She still had some cloud cover, however. After glancing back over her shoulder, Jane began taking slow steps up the valley's slope. One at a time, she told herself, and tried to step into the footprints she'd left earlier, knowing they would be safest.
Jane miscalculated a step, though, and her foot slid on an icy jut of rock underneath. With a surprised sound, she fell into the snow face-first.
Behind her, she heard, "– was that?" Resisting the urge to turn around and look - knowing the movement and the whites of her eyes might give her away - Jane stayed as still as possible against the ground, despite the wet and cold.
"So jumpy, Fimafeng," chuckled a giant, and the conversation resumed. Still, Jane didn't dare move until she heard them moving around. Chancing a look over her shoulder, she glimpsed the group rising and beginning one of their games – a fighting game, maybe. The sounds were a perfect cover for her to begin moving again, which she did slowly. Not just out of caution, but she found herself growing numb, too. Too much time spent outside.
She managed to make it up the slope, barely still standing on her feet. Brushing the snow off her front and shivering, Jane made her way back to where she thought she'd left Erik.
He was still waiting for her, she realized with relief as she turned round the corner of the last longhouse. As she approached, Erik caught her arm.
"I'm okay," she managed. "Although I might not be if I don't get inside soon."
Sighing, and looking significantly more sober than she had left him, Erik led her back to the main path. He didn't say anything as they walked back to their house; instead, he looked around suspiciously, as if people in the village might be listening.
The warmth of the house was a profound relief. The fire hadn't died out, either; Jane stripped off her overdress and went to sit next to it. Erik stayed by her side, looking nervous in the firelight.
"Did you find anything out?" he asked, an urgent note to his voice. He had taken hold of her elbow again, a little too tight for Jane's comfort.
How weird of him to ask, thought Jane with a frown, holding her fingers as close as possible to the fire without burning them. Normally he would berate her. Her voice was still unsteady as she said, "N-not much."
"Jane, you must tell me," he said anxiously, sitting next to her on the floor. He didn't seem drunk at all now, she thought, and tried to speak a few times, but could only let out shuddering breaths.
Seeing her trouble, he relented. The stew was still on the fire; he poured her a bowl and passed it over, still watching her. Blowing on it gently, she picked out pieces of meat and vegetable, cooked so long they were falling apart, and ate them, heedless of the heat.
When she could speak, she told him of how they thought the prince was a trickster, how they didn't know whether he was coming of his own accord or being punished for some reason, how he might have powerful magic. He nodded, paying close attention to her words and asking questions here and there, most of which she couldn't answer because she hadn't heard everything. His questions made her feel tired and confused - why did it matter so much? - and by the end of the conversation her head was feeling foggy and she ached to lay down. She could barely keep her head up, and found it dropping down unexpectedly.
"All right," Erik said, sounding unhappy, though she wasn't sure about what. "Enough of that. I can tell you're exhausted. Go to bed. But you should know, we're receiving guests tomorrow."
Jane tried to think of who would be visiting them this time of the year. It wasn't impossible, but in the dead of winter, with the giants so close, it was unusual. Most people preferred not to risk death overmuch. "Who?"
"Just some traders," he said dismissively, getting up with a little difficulty. "Coming up from the south. Don't worry yourself about it."
Just in time to meet the prince, she thought, curling up into her furs and already drowsing. Wouldn't they like that.