i: sif sleeping.
- Sif slept. As she slept, she dreamt of Loki.
In her dream they were as children again, and they played as children would in the forest. The trees towered vast and endlessly above them, their branches so weighted with leaves as to take the light from the day. Darkling glimmers showed them paths through the woods, long and winding paths which twisted about the trees and crossed each other again and again.
Loki leapt over a fallen tree as if it were only a stick. Leaves whispered beneath his toes. In the landing, he turned to her. He smiled brightly.
"Would you like to play a game?"
Sif grunted. She'd her foot on the trunk, her hands on the curve before her. The wood was soft, rotting; bits of tree crumbled away under her fingers. A sickly sweet scent engulfed her. The force of it made her head swim. There were dead things here.
She came down in a crouch, knees bent, her arms spread out from her sides. Loki was a shadow at her side. The trees had thickened, drawn closer together. In the deepening gloom, his face showed as a ghostly collection of angles and long lines. She could not make out his eyes.
"Let's play hide and seek," he said. "Won't that be fun?"
"What are you talking about? Look around,” she demanded. “We need to go home before it's too dark."
She thought perhaps he smiled. Perhaps he laughed.
"Coward," he taunted. "Little stumbling foal. Frightened of your own shadow."
"I'm not a coward! Swallow your tongue!"
She took a step toward him, but he was gone; there was nothing there but another tall tree rising from its twisted roots. Sif felt the face of it, the channels, the wrinkles. That sweet smell flooded her mouth, her throat. She turned about it. The forest was darker still. What light showed between the leaves so densely woven above was thin, like that of evening. But it was morn; she knew that.
"Loki," she said. "Loki! Where are you? We have to go! This place isn't right."
"I can't tell you where I am," he said. His voice came at her from the trees, from the roots beneath her feet, from the blackness between the trees. "That wouldn't be much of a game, would it?"
"I don't want to play games with you! I want to go home," she said.
Her breath came wildly. The trees ringed her, dark sentinels. She turned on her heel. The path had gone. The stink of rot filled her, made her stomach flip.
"No," she said. "I won't go without you. Loki, please. Where are you?"
A hand caught her shoulder. She rounded, fists raised, but it was Loki—Loki as she did not know him. He was older. Lines framed his nose, his pale eyes. The corners of his mouth dragged. She could not turn from his eyes, his awful, bruised eyes.
"Go home," he said.
"What's happened to you?"
She tried for his hand, his wrist. He drew away from her. His fingers passed through hers as if he were spun of fog. The trees folded about him, like a shroud.
"Loki! Please, wherever it is you're going, you don't have to go."
"I've already gone," he said. "Don't go looking for me. You won't find me. I was always best at these games. Have you forgotten?"
"How am I supposed to go home without you?" she shouted. "What—" She cast about and could not find him. "What will I tell Thor?"
"Your confidences with Thor are your own," said Loki savagely. "Tell him whatever you would tell him. Tell him he needn't concern himself with his little brother."
"Loki," she pleaded, "please, what's wrong? Where are you?"
Sif turned round and round. The forest tightened about her. The last flicker of light from above vanished, and she was alone in the dark.
Then: light blossomed at her feet. She fell back and smashed into a nearing tree. Like bubbles blown from a handful of soap or marbles thrown into the air, little round balls of light showed in the tangled network of roots. They rose, one by one, and as they rose that smell of death magnified. Sif clamped her hands to her mouth and stepped as high as she could on the roots, as far from the rising sea of brilliant, winking bubbles as she could get.
The tree shivered at her back. As with the undulation of the sea, it surged and withdrew. Sif stumbled and fell hard upon her knees and hands. Those strange lights surrounded her. A bubble caught in her hair and she heard, as from a distance, a little voice singing of death and the devouring fires; then the bubble popped.
Her room was dark, lit only with the glow of Asgard through the window. A suggestion of gold shimmered over the ceiling. She breathed in deeply, then she turned, coughing, onto her side. A cloying stench filled her nose and mouth; the taste of it clawed at her tongue.
She struggled with her sheets, kicking them away. Her heart beat cruelly, hard against her ribs as if to break them. The night swallowed her. The room was swollen with summer, thick with the weight of coming rain.
Of what had she dreamt?
An impression of darkness, of unbearable loneliness, swept over her. Sif touched her brow and thought of trees, of fireflies and the night around her. Of Loki's face, worn so thin.
Movement, at the corner of her eye. She turned, grabbing for the knife beneath her pillow. In the mirror opposite her bed she saw herself, dark-haired, face pale, her eyes wide and wild.
A pale figure walked in the corner of the mirror, and she thought, Loki. But it was only the curtain loosed from its ties, fluttering as the summer wind drove it on in sinuous waves.
The hilt of her knife dug into her palm. Her finger rested on the blade. Her heart would not stop its shouting.
Sif let go of the knife. The curtain whispered, twisting about itself, fluttering on and on in the mirror. She covered her face.
"Stop," she whispered harshly. "Enough of this. You are acting like a child."
He had gone. He had gone. He was dead; he was lost. Who was she to see Loki in her mirror at so late an hour of the night?
Sif drew her hands down her face. She had dreamt like so before. Sleep would evade her for long and restless hours, as her mind grew strange with unwanted thoughts and slow with doubt. The corners of her room held no thing that would justify laying in her bed, watching shadows couple and split upon the ceiling.
She dressed in darkness in old leathers and cloth and slipped the knife into her belt. The yards would be forgotten at this hour. If she chose to train, to burn every thought from her head till she fell, emptied, onto her bed again, then she would do so. Even better if she'd no company whose questions she would need entertain.
ii: asgard mourning.
- Asgard mourned, and Asgard did not mourn. Thor had ever been her most beloved son and Loki had won few friends. What did they say of Loki, who had been king as Odin slept near to death and Thor, Odin's heir, wandered distant Midgard? They said, he was half-mad, Loki, too clever for his own good. Hadn't he always been so? Ever playing tricks to show he could and never caring who got in his way, they said. What terrible trick had he pulled to break the Bifröst, to sever Asgard from all the realms?
The king would not say. The queen would not say. Their son, Thor, would not say. The house of Odin would not speak in its grief. Sif thought perhaps it was for the knowing there were those in Asgard who would not have looked on the purging of Jötunheim as an ill thing. And would Sif have stopped him? Would she have stayed Loki's hand as Thor had stayed it? "Do as you're told," her father had said to her when she was young and foolish, "or else the jötnar will eat you."
She would not think of it.
"What I don't understand is why no one will talk of it," said Fandral.
They had gathered in one of the lesser chambers of the palace, Sif and the Warriors Three. Soft light glowed out of the walls, casting red shadows where it shone off the gold. The room was strange without Loki standing as he would stand apart from them, his black coat falling about his knees.
Sif turned her back upon the thought of him. The leather at her shoulders groaned as she crossed her arms and then uncrossed them. A nervous sort of energy ran through her. She could not turn her mind from the mirror in her room, from the little flicker she had seen, as of a ghost passing through. But it was only a curtain, and she was a fool to dwell upon it. Cast it out, she thought. Think no more of it.
"And what is it no one will talk of?" asked Volstagg. His fingers gleamed with grease. A little pile of bones weighted his plate. His eyes shone keenly.
Fandral gestured impatiently, as if with a blade. He paced as he did at times when he thought things which worried him. Hogun, ever watchful, followed him about the room with his eyes.
"Loki," said Fandral.
The name filled the room, and Volstagg set down the length of pork rib to look at him. Fandral turned on his heel. He looked to Sif, Volstagg, Hogun.
"They never speak of him. They won't even make a story for the people. They act as if he never existed."
"Don't say that," Sif snapped. Her legs itched, down beneath the skin, in the bones. Restless, that's what it was. Her head ached for lack of sleep. A pale thing, fluttering at the corner of her eye. "You've seen how they mourn him."
"I've seen how they refuse to talk of him," said Fandral, "as if that will somehow undo everything he tried to do. He would have killed Thor! He would have killed us. Because of him the Bifröst is lost, and now all Thor does is watch the stars and think of his lost lady love."
"Thor mourns his brother," said Sif coldly. "You know it as well as I do. He loved Loki."
Fandral laughed, as sharp as one of his swords. He dragged a hand through his hair, for once unmindful of how it disheveled him.
"Loki did not love Thor. He could not have loved him," he said again. "Why else would he have tried to kill him?"
Sif shook her head. Her hair fell across her throat. "No. Loki loved him. But he was always so jealous," she said.
"Perhaps the rumor is right," said Hogun then. He looked to them. "Perhaps Loki was mad."
She shook her head again. The pressure behind her eyes redoubled. She itched all over for her stillness. She ached to run, to fight, to quiet her whispering mind, to do something instead of standing there in that room talking of Loki lost, Loki dead.
"He wasn't mad," she said shortly. "Loki was many things, but he was never mad."
"How can you say he was not mad?" Fandral demanded. "When he sent the sentinel to Midgard to kill his brother? When you might have died because of Loki's madness?"
Her teeth hurt. She unclenched her jaw and her hands as well. She did not know why she had wanted so badly to strike Fandral across his face, to see him laid out upon the floor and hear him silent.
"I know full well I might have died," she shot. Hot sun on her face, a rib cracked, her sword lost—she had known death then, in that moment as the sentinel bore upon her. "And if Loki were here, I would be the first to take my measure from his hide. But he isn't here. He's dead."
Fandral's gaze dropped. Sif’s breath came hard in her chest, too thick in her throat. She turned away.
In the silence, Volstagg said, "Whether he was mad or not, and though he did try to kill us, I shall miss his jokes."
"I must go," Sif said abruptly. Air made her dizzy, unsteady on her feet.
"So soon?" asked Volstagg, surprised. "You've only just got here."
"I'm feeling unwell," she said.
She bowed her head to them in thanks for their company, then she took her leave of that room, that empty, shining room. Her footsteps echoed in her wake, catching in the ridged walls, hiding in the vaults. In a little corner at the end of a long corridor she leaned against the wall and covered her face with her hands. She did not know why it hurt so. He had been her friend, and she supposed that was it. That was enough.
He had been her friend.
iii: memory: sif.
- Sif fell to her knee and slid into what small shelter the fallen pillar offered her. She trusted the poor light and this disorder of the ruins to shield her. A throbbing pain drove up her hip and down again to her calf; blood colored her shorn trousers, blood from a thick gash parting her thigh. She levered herself upright and slammed her back to the pillar as Loki slid in from the other end.
Their shoulders knocked. Sif glanced at him then down again to her leg. She grimaced. The wound ran deeper than she'd thought. She set to tearing the cloth from her leg.
Loki's arm pressed to her shoulder. Breathless, he said, "Fancy seeing you here. And how are you enjoying the party?"
"I only wish we'd got here sooner," she said. She wiped the ichor off her lance with her sleeve. "Did you see how many there were?"
"Eight and four remain," he reported, "but one of them has a horn. We should expect reinforcements."
She made to look around the pillar, but a knot in her side drew her short. She'd have a monster of a bruise all down her right side from the blow that troll had delivered her, and she imagined throwing herself to the ground as she had had done her no favors.
"Where in the hell is Thor?"
"He'll be here," said Loki.
"I know he'll be here," Sif snapped. "I want to know when he'll be here."
"No doubt he's busy tearing the mother to bloody shreds," Loki said soothingly. "He won't have abandoned us to die."
Sif eyed him over her shoulder. He'd dark ichor smeared down the side of his face, from his temple to the corner of his mouth. His face was pale, bruises showing beneath his eyes. How much magic had he used to hold the main party off?
"You don't sound so certain," she said.
"Oh?" He tried for levity. His throat worked. "I never doubt Thor. He is the last person I would ever doubt; he's so painfully, obviously honest about everything."
"If you're having some sort of jealous fit," Sif said, "while twelve trolls search for us and more come, then I will tear your tongue out and feed it to you."
Loki looked at her and whatever shadow had filled his face passed. His bruised eyes lidded. The bloodied corner of his mouth twitched up.
"Sif," he said in a mocking low, wondering tone, "I didn't know you cared. How shocking. Is this really the place?"
"I'm bleeding out, you idiot," she said. "If ever there were a time and place for your games, this is neither."
"Who's playing?" he demanded, but he left off.
His gaze lowered. His hair, normally so carefully slicked, stuck up in dark and curling tufts. Ichor gleamed wetly at his crown. He'd driven one of his knives up through the jaw of one particularly large troll, she remembered. She'd turned to help him, then one of the troll's fellows had brought its claws down upon her leg.
"Sif," he said. She couldn't place his tone, then he looked up at her again. His mouth was a hard, furious line. "How did this happen?"
"I fell into a cloud," she said.
He touched her leg, his fingers framing the torn flesh, and Sif hissed. Her toes curled painfully in her boots. Blood welled again, red on his pale fingers, and as her toes flexed she saw an answering tightness deep within that cut. She felt ill and yet, it was mesmerizing to see how the muscles drew taut even as she bled.
A terrible horn blew out in the ruins, nearer now than before. In the distance, another horn called out. A shouting rose. Sif hefted her lance and shifted her weight as if to stand.
"We should go."
Loki grabbed for her shoulder and pulled her down again. The fingers at her thigh had curled, digging into her skin. Sif cursed.
"What do you think you're doing?"
"You aren't going anywhere until I've stopped the bleeding," Loki snapped at her. "Unless you want to die ignobly at the hands of a gibbering troll. Is that it? Is that how the great warrior Sif intends to die?"
"I don't intend to die!" She tried to pull away but his hand at her shoulder was peculiarly strong, and he held her there. "I intend to kill them all before they kill us, which they will if we don't move."
"Self-sacrifice is the last resort of fools," said Loki. "I presumed you weren't a fool but perhaps I was wrong. You can't put weight on this leg, and at the rate you're losing blood—"
"Fine!" she snarled. Her knees rose—instinct told her to stand that she might show herself larger than him—then she swore again at the cold-hot fire that ran up her leg. Sif knocked her head on the pillar. She glared at Loki. "Stop the bleeding. Then we move."
"I live to serve," he said.
Then he took his hand from her shoulder and set it on the other side of the gash, mirroring the hand already spread upon her thigh. For a moment she thought of rising, then she saw how her blood painted his hands, his wrists. His cuffs were soaked with it, the dark green near to black. She stilled.
His fingers fanned wide. Gently, he stroked the edges of the cut with his thumbs. A curious tingling began where his thumbs touched her, then the lingering, driving pain faded to a distant ache, like that of a weeks old bruise all but healed. Loki bent his head to her bared thigh. She felt his breath, cold, on her skin.
Then: the breath tore out of her. Her chest felt as if someone had struck her; she felt both incredibly empty and terribly full. Her thigh itched so she could hardly think. She wished he would turn his nails to her skin.
"There," said Loki. He lifted his head. "That should hold you until we can take you to the healing chambers."
He brushed his hand over her thigh, sweeping blood from her skin. The gash had closed. Her skin puckered, a furious red pinched together and told to stay as so. He glanced to her, assessing. The circles beneath his eyes had darkened.
"Thank you," she said.
Loki inclined his head. He looked over his shoulder then and said, "Thor should have been here."
"He'll be here," said Sif. "You know he will. Do you have your knives?"
"Always," said Loki absently. "Have you your lance?"
"And my sword," she said. "How many do you think you can take?"
"More than you," said Loki.
Sif snorted at this. Setting her hand on the pillar and digging her lance into the ground, she forced herself upright. Her leg complained but held beneath her. Loki stood with her, his coat unfurling like a shadow. He held his shoulder carefully. He looked at her and smiled.
"What a pair we make," he said.
"Don't start," said Sif.
She swung her lance up and twisted the handle so the blade extended farther still. At her side Loki brushed his hands down his sleeves as if to smooth the wrinkles from them. Her blood stained his wrists.
"Ready?" she asked him.
He dropped his hands and two pale knives glittered between his fingers, one in each hand.
"Close enough," he said.
Sif nodded then turned and sprinted out from cover. Four trolls scattered throughout the dank and barren ruins turned; another three loped from a close corner. Like her shadow, Loki followed her out from the other side. His arm rose; he drew it back; a shining projectile flew from his fingers and caught the nearest troll in the throat. Sif darted for it and sinking low, she drove her lance up into its gut. The troll choked and spat ichor on her face, then it fell toward her.
Loki caught her wrist and drew her free, and Sif turned her hand to catch his wrist in turn. She slung him round to face another troll, bearing down from the heights of the ancient, ruined hall. Loki threw another knife, this one biting deep into the creature's thigh, and spun about that Sif might cut it across the throat.
They'd felled nine when Thor came down from the heavens, shining light and raining thunder. He'd ichor on his armor, ichor on his lips; his face was wet with it. He swung Mjollnir around once, twice, thrice, and the storm began in earnest, dark clouds filling the patched ceiling and breaking open upon them.
"What took you?" Loki asked. He fell in at Thor's right, and Sif fell in at Thor's left.
"I didn't want to take all the fun from you, brother," Thor shouted merrily, then he brought his hammer down.
iv: thor's land.
- Who could mourn Loki as Thor mourned Loki? Born together, the one dark and the other bright, they had always been so; and if the one had come to envy and hate the other, before there had been love. Of Thor, ever love.
"I should have known to look here first," Sif called.
Thor looked to her as she scaled the last few feet to the ledge. Loki had found it when they were children. To three adventurous young æsir long tired of what secrets the palace held, the open alcove tucked high within one of the towers and there forgotten had been a boon, a place to hide and wage their private wars and make treaties when treaties were needed. The alcove looked out upon the north face of the city, and the dying light of day painted the water channels that cut through the city a deep and burnished gold.
Sif sat beside Thor. Her legs hung out over the lip. She touched the side of it and said, "It was so much larger when we were young." She glanced at Thor, who sat with his back bent and his shoulders hunched. "How did you even get up here?"
"Very carefully," he said with a semblance of his usual humor.
She looked over the city. "It won't be easy getting down again."
Thor shrugged. As ever, he would deal with it when he had pressing need to. Ever the same, she thought; but that was unfair. They had all of them changed. She touched the side again. The stone was smooth, polished. It chilled her hand.
"Do you recall," said Thor, then he stopped.
She looked to him. His jaw worked. He stared, unseeing, out at the edge of Asgard, where the water fell and the jagged remains of the Bifröst stood, glittering dully in the sunlight.
"A few things," she said.
He shook his head and began again:
"Do you recall, when we were children, how Loki and I fought over what to name this place?"
She did; she remembered it well. She remembered how Loki had argued it was his right as finder to give the alcove its name, to have it known as such by those who might follow them. His face had paled; his throat had worked. She'd thought it silly. Who else but Sif and Loki and Thor would ever want to come here?
"Yes," she said.
Thor looked down to his knees. Mjolnirr lay, waiting, by his thigh. It was strange, then, to see the hammer at his side, when she looked to him and thought him a child again, ruddy and short.
"I won over him eventually," said Thor. He looked around then at the alcove. His eyes passed over Sif, then his gaze returned to her. "We called it Thorheimr."
"I always thought it stupid," she told him.
"I remember," he said, smiling. "You told us so, many times. What was it you wanted to call it?"
"'Your tomb if you don't stop being stupid about it,'" she quoted.
"Now I remember," he said.
They sat together in silence, Sif at the right corner, Thor at the left. The space between them, though little, spread endlessly on.
"I wish I had not fought him over it," said Thor. He fisted his hand about the lip. "I wish I had not fought him over a great many things."
Thor ducked his head. His hair shone, distilled sunlight. She wanted for shadows and black curls, another between them. Sif set her hand upon his wrist.
"It wasn't your fault," she said softly.
"Then whose?" he asked her.
Mad, the people said. Envious, cruel, heartless. She thought of Loki as she had known him those last few days, his face hungry, his eyes wild, how he'd stared down at her from the throne as if the whole of the Bifröst had opened between them. She had known him and not known him.
Sif drew back her hand. She looked as Thor looked out over the city, their city, Loki's city. The last few reds had bled from the sky, and the darker shades of night descended.
"I don't know," she said.
v: sif dreaming.
- Night fell. A chill wind rolled through the trees and set them to waving; their laden branches bobbed. A full moon showed in spots between the trees, and it cast a long pale shadow before it. All was silent, and nothing stirred.
Sif ran. Leaves split beneath her feet. A dried branch cracked like distant thunder. The night engulfed her, swallowed her whole. Only the moonlight, meager though it was here so deep in the forest, offered her guidance. A little trail of beaten brush and matted leaves wound on through the trees, and she followed it more deeply into the forest and the night.
What did she hunt? She could not remember. She bore no arms, no shield, nothing with which to take down a beast. What did she hunt? A thing she could not slay. A thing she could not catch. Her heart drummed. Faster, faster; she knew it slipped from her. However deep she ran into the woods, however close she came to its moonlit heart, whatever she chased ran farther, faster, deeper, closer still. What was it? What beast, what thing?
Things roused. Out the corner of her eye she saw weird silhouettes racing alongside her, in the trees off the path. Eyes glinted, shapeless eyes that caught the moonlight then lost it. Dark eyes. Red eyes. Bloodied eyes which followed her as she ran. They hunted her.
A branch snared her hair. She snapped it off and threw it aside. A great crashing as of a tree falling startled her, and she turned to look over her shoulder. The moon was a waning crescent, and the light it cast showed trees clustered tightly at her back. Thorn bushes spilled out between the trees. The path had gone.
Sif reached for her back where she kept her lance. She did not carry it.
"That won't be necessary."
She turned, her hands empty, her hands bare; but she was not without weapon, not without recourse, if she'd her hands and her feet and her brain besides. Loki stepped out of the shadows off the path. His eyes shone, bloodshot.
"Loki," she said, and yes, yes, it was Loki she had hunted; it was Loki she had sought. "Loki, thank the stars. I've been looking for you everywhere."
"I haven't been hiding everywhere," he said. "It's more 'nowhere,' I would say."
"Well, wherever you've been hiding, I'm glad I've found you."
She reached for him. Loki stepped back. A leaf crackled beneath his heel.
"Loki, please," she said, exasperated, "enough. I've found you. The game's ended."
"This isn't a game," said Loki, "and you haven't found me."
"Don't be daft," she snapped. "You're right here in front of me. I can see you with my own eyes. Do you think me a fool?"
He looked at her. His eyes shone, pale as the thinning sliver of moon above them and veined with red, as if he had not slept.
"No," he said. "I never thought you a fool."
The trees closed about them. The path glimmered faintly at her feet, as if strewn with little stars, and where it led she did not know, but she would take it, and Loki would take it with her. She knew this.
"Then come with me," she said.
She held her hand out to him, to take his elbow in hand and draw him near to her. He stepped back again. His eyes did not leave her face. She could not tell if it was regret which tightened his face or another thing entirely.
He said, "I can't."
The moon had gone. What light shone between them rose from the path, and it was a poor light. She searched his face, but the shadows were too thick and he stood too far from her.
"Why?" she asked. "Why can you not come with me?"
"Why do you want so strongly for me to come with you?" he asked in turn. "Am I so sorely missed? Is my absence so marked?"
"But you are missed," she said.
"And here I thought I was the liar," said Loki.
How could she catch him when she had no net? How could she bear him down when she had no shield?
"Loki, please," she said, "I am your friend—"
"Are you?" He asked this, mocking. "Are you really? My friend. You must know me so well. You must know everything there is to know about me."
She came for him again, and like a phantom he glided away from her, ever out of reach.
"And do you know everything about me?" she demanded.
"I know enough," he said. "I know you're dreaming. In a moment you will wake and you will remember only that you were running through the woods."
The trees blurred. The path dimmed. Her heart beat faster, faster. Loki drifted further from her. She had to catch him, she thought. If she did not catch him he would be lost; he would be gone.
"I will find you," she said, "wherever it is you go."
"You never could find me," said Loki, then he was gone and Sif stood alone in a circle of trees with only the wind for company.
The dream faded. Sif woke.