The land itself was unchanged. The mountains still rose to snow-capped peaks, and the sea still grumbled and sang in the harbor just as it always had and always would. But two years ago, Hell had come to people of Arendelle, and Queen Birgitte now feared that it would never leave.
In her castle, once the proud home of her ancestor Queen Elsa the Snow Queen, Birgitte watched, under guard, as the German lieutenant dumped her jewelry casket open on her vanity.
"Leave that alone! Are you looters, as well as murderers?" she demanded furiously.
The German glanced at her and smiled like a shark. "You will not tell us where the great jewel is, so we must look for it. And take some... recompense for our trouble."
He pawed through the gold and silver, holding up a necklace with a gold chain and a large, round red stone set into an old bronze pendant. Holding the stone to the light, he sniffed disdainfully. "Looks old, but it is no ruby, is it? A rock. But the gold is real. For you, Your Majesty. What 'royalty' is worth these days." He kept the chain and tossed the stone pendant to the floor.
She flinched when it landed on the wooden slats, but it landed without harm and skidded across the wood to her feet. She lifted her eyes to the German dog and spat in hatred, "You will never rule in Arendelle. You will never conquer us."
"We already did." he returned with unctuous smile, swept the best jewels into one of her embroidered handkerchiefs and left the room with sharp commands to his soldiers to stay on guard outside. "You will stay here. If you try to escape I will round up twenty of your people and shoot them in front of you. Have a pleasant evening, madame."
The door slammed behind him and his men. She seized the pewter ewer and hurled it at the door. "Damn you all to hell!" she shouted, and then waited to see if anyone would come back in.
When no one did, she bent and picked up the pendant. It fit in her palm, and she smiled at it in relief. Funny that he had thrown away the most important piece as if it held no value.
Now to see if it did what it was supposed to. If the stories her Nana had told her were true: If you break the stone in a time of great need, your ancestor the Ice Demon will return to aid you.
"I hope you were right, Nana, for this is a time of great need," she whispered.
Kneeling on the floor, on the other side of the bed out of immediate sight of the door, she put the red stone on the rug, between two towels to muffle the sound, and then took up the pewter ewer.
She closed her eyes, not knowing how to do this. Supposedly all she had to do was break the stone, but that seemed not proper. She was not summoning him as if he was a servant; she was pleading his help, and she should be the supplicant in this. "I am Queen Birgitte, second of her name, great-granddaughter of Elsa the Snow Queen of Arendelle, your descendant, and I beg you, Ice Demon, to fulfill your promise and come to our aid. Please, your people need you."
She brought the ewer down as hard as she could.
The stone shattered like an egg with a loud cracking sound. She lifted the top towel away to see the shards, sitting dull and unaffected. She'd smashed a two-century-old royal heirloom for nothing.
The ruby shards sparked and glinted, as if each caught the light of a brilliant sunset. An intense cold washed over her, like a sharp knife of winter, biting the skin of her arms and her cheeks. Soon it was gone and the room was warm again.
She smiled as she gathered up the shards and dumped them in the hearth. At her window, decorated with iron bars after her previous attempt to escape, she looked out to the harbor and the movement of enemy troops. There was a tank in the square and several German boats in the water, controlling access and using them as a base to control the Danish straits and to attack the North Sea.
She had hoped the invasion would be quickly fought off, but she had not reckoned with the sheer strength of the Nazi machine, overwhelming her little country. Two years after that hideous flag had first been raised over her castle, she had decided it was time to beg for help. She had nothing to lose at this point, and her people were dying every day trying to fight these invaders as best they could.
The message was sent, and if God and the gods were kind, she would have her response soon.
And these invaders would be very sorry they had ever crossed the border.
In Asgard, Thor knew that Loki had a formal petition for the king and he knew what it had to be about - there was only one thing Loki wanted. So Thor made sure he was in the hall at the appointed time to listen. Loki would formally make his request, again, and he would be formally denied, again. Thor wanted to be there, to support him.
Loki entered, wearing the green cape and helm of his court armor. "I request permission to go to Midgard," Loki said, looking up at the throne.
Odin's expression was, if anything even more grim. "Three times in the past two years, you have made the same request and I have denied it each time. Nothing has changed, Loki. Your request is denied."
Loki clenched his jaw and said with passable patience, "It has changed. This time, Arendelle has asked for my aid. The situation has grown dire for them. They need my help."
Odin was not impressed. "War has engulfed Midgard. It is… tragic, but it happens. It is not Asgard's place to interfe--"
"How can you say that?" Loki interrupted, incredulous. "You interfered yourself in the Winter War…"
"To defend them from the invading Jotnar. Not for wars they bring upon themselves. Else where would we stop? They war amongst themselves constantly."
Loki gestured sharply with his left hand, pushing the king's concern to the side. "I'm not interested in the rest of them. Only Arendelle."
"One of many--"
"No!" Loki jerked forward a step, temper snapping into fury. "Not one of many. The only one. I promised Elsa I would watch over Arendelle. For two years I have waited and I have been patient, but now this child of my own blood begs my help! I will not let these monsters murder her people - my people - in the streets without retribution!"
Odin let the echoes die, look on his face grim and forbidding, as he tightened his grip on Gungnir. "You will," he declared. "You should never have made such a foolish promise, Loki. And you may not keep it now. You may not go to Midgard and you may not involve yourself in the war there," he commanded.
Loki's eyes narrowed and his jaw and fists clenched, and Odin returned his look and warned quietly, "Do not gainsay my will in this. Or I will have you confined until you submit."
Loki's mouth and throat worked with words he desperately wanted to say but forced himself to held back. He whirled and stalked out again. His face was white with rage and his jaw so tight he should crack his teeth, and he glowered at nothing, not acknowledging Thor at all as he passed.
A silence fell until the slamming of the far door announced that Loki was gone.
"At least nothing is on fire this time," Thor said, jesting to try to cut the tension. But Frigga's face was still taut with concern, and Odin's grip on Gungnir was too tight.
"Will he obey?" Odin demanded of him.
The true answer was that Loki was probably on his way to the Observatory at this second, because no, he would not obey. Thor had not seen Loki so furious since he had left last time, and that did not bode well. Nor had there been such a break between his father and brother in the century since Loki had returned, and Thor hated to see it again. He tried to intervene, get some leniency for Loki's emotional reaction, "Father, you ask much of him. He lived among them for a long time, and some are still his blood kin. Our kindred, too, through him. They are in some sense Asgardian."
Odin's eye was severe as he rejected that line of reasoning. "Mortals. The child is long dead, and the blood thin. But that matters not; even if the child was alive, still I would forbid it."
Thor nodded in reluctant acceptance. Odin would not be swayed on this, but Thor did not believe Loki would either.
Unfortunately Odin knew that as well. "Loki is forbidden the Bifrost until this war on Midgard or his foolish impulse passes. The Einherjar shall be used to assist Heimdall, as necessary." Odin tapped Gungnir to seal the command, and Thor winced inwardly. That command put Loki under house arrest on Asgard for the duration of the threat against Arendelle.
Thor's gaze met his mother's and he knew she thought the same - Loki was not going to give up the defense of Arendelle so easily. The more Odin sought to box him in, the more he would resist. She flicked her eyes deliberately to send him after Loki, and he quickly made his farewells to father and mother and went after his brother.
Cape billowing behind him but helm discarded, Loki was pacing his chambers with all the stalking fury of a leopard, as Thor entered. "Do not parrot his words," he warned Thor icily. "I am in no mood."
"I came to warn you, he has forbidden you the Bifrost and detailed the Einherjar to assist Heimdall."
That made Loki stop pacing and he almost smiled. "So many? I feel I should be flattered."
"He remembers what happened to Heimdall the last time," Thor reminded him drily, but Loki was not amused, lips twisting sourly as if he might wish to do it again. "I am sorry you cannot go," Thor added. "I know how much it must pain you to see that land under threat."
"No, you do not," Loki answered after a moment, more softly. "When Birgitte broke the stone, I looked at Arendelle." With a flick of his fingers he cast an image in the air. "This is what I saw."
After a moment Thor recognized the place - this was the main market square of Arendelle, with the same stone pavings, with the bridge to the castle on one side and the church and the small buildings. It had changed, too, grown in population with greater numbers of houses and spread up the hills and the ships in the harbor were larger. But his eyes fixed on the center of the image then, people forced into a close herd in the middle of the market square by dark-suited soldiers with weapons. There was an armored vehicle behind them, in clear threat.
But the soldiers fired their weapons at the people in a great cloud of smoke- some tried to run screaming and were cut down. In the end, there was a pile of bodies - perhaps twenty - in the square. The image froze there on the scene of carnage, as Loki stared at it.
Thor gasped, horrified by the brutality. Those people had been without weapon, and at least a few of them had been children. "Oh, dear ancestors, Loki… I … you are right. We must stop this."
"You need not go alone. I will gladly stand at your shoulder, brother. I will do whatever we must to get to Midgard, if we must fight the Einherjar, I will. I knew Elsa and Anna. They are my people, too," he declared staunchly.
Loki's glance was grateful and he even smiled a bit, before shaking his head. "That will not be necessary. I have found hidden paths in Yggdrasil to bypass the Bifrost."
"You can do that?" Thor was impressed, and surprised as he'd never heard of such a thing -- ships with stardrives could travel Realm to Realm, or use the Bifrost, but magical pathways were new. "Then we will take these paths together."
Loki hesitated, pressed his lips together, then shook his head once in regret. "I can take only myself. You will need to stay."
"But -- no, alone is dangerous. If there is a path for one, there must be a path for two," Thor insisted. "What can you do alone?"
"A great deal, Thor. I know where the tesseract is," he admitted, and Thor turned shocked eyes on him.
"You know--? You found it? And you told no one? Loki!"
"The Casket should be mine, and he never has offered it to me," Loki added, a bitter tone to his voice. "So the tesseract is mine in recompense." Thor wanted to protest that Loki had kept a dangerous secret like the tesseract for himself, but he wasn't surprised either. As much as Loki had reconciled with Odin, there remained a chasm of misunderstanding and distrust between them. Loki slipping out to Midgard was not going to improve the situation either, but Thor couldn't try to persuade him not to go, not after seeing that slaughter.
But Loki wasn't thinking about the tesseract anymore as his eyes went back to the image hanging in the middle of the room. "I should have been there when these creatures first invaded. I could have stopped this."
"Brother, it is not your fault--" Thor reassured him.
"No," he agreed. "It is theirs. Mortals have such short memories," he whispered, hands clenching. "They have forgotten. I will bring the Ice Demon back and they will remember why Arendelle should be left in peace."
Thor had heard enough stories about Loki's years as the Ice Demon to know that was not all good, and with the tesseract, could do worse. Thor gripped his shoulder. "Do nothing you will regret."
"Oh, I will regret nothing," Loki promised darkly. "But they will regret much."
"Then go, and bring back stories of honor," Thor wished him, hoping the reminder of honor would keep Loki from dishonorable behavior.
Loki saw right through it and chuckled. "Honor? I leave that to you, brother. Honor has no place in vengeance."
Thor wanted to argue with him, but knew there was no point when Loki was so determined.
"Come home," Thor told him. "When it is finished, come home. Do not do as you did before and believe you had to stay away."
"Even when Father is furious at my defiance?" Loki asked lightly, but with an edge of concern.
"He is always furious at your defiance," Thor joked. "Mother will talk him down, especially if I show her this," he gestured to the projected image. But the light mood evaporated and he looked at Loki, fearing this might be the last he would see him for another long stretch of time.
Loki rolled his eyes. "You needn't gaze on me like that. You will see me again."
"I know. But be cautious."
Loki snorted. "The irony of you telling me to be cautious is rather stunning."
Thor folded his arms and gave him a disapproving glare. "You ran blindly into the manticore's cave. Do not claim it is my flaw alone!"
Loki's mouth dropped open at the sheer effrontery of that accusation. "I was invisible! I had a plan! Unlike you and your countless reckless stunts! The dragon, remember that? That was all you, brother, all you."
Thor refused to fall for the attempted distraction with ancient history. "Your invisibility spell shielded neither sound nor scent, and your 'plan' consisted of throwing daggers at it until it was dead. Hardly a tactic you would condone if I did the same. You had no knowledge what was within, but because you thought you heard Sif's voice, you rushed in." Thor had followed after, but not quite immediately. The sight of Loki held off the ground by the claws impaling his chest, and the manticore's stinger ready to strike, would stay with him for the rest of his days. Manticore poison was one of the most deadly in the Nine Realms – Asgard had the anti-venom but Loki would probably not have survived long enough to get home for it. His anger faded for worry. "You nearly died, Loki," he murmured. "If I had been but seconds slower...."
Loki hesitated, casting down his gaze as if he was finally realizing the gravity of what had nearly happened, and huffed a breath in irritation. But he approached Thor to give him an unusual look of serious intent in his pale eyes. "I will be cautious." Thor knew that was both promise and apology for nearly getting killed.
"See that you are." Thor gripped his arms again in both hands. "I dislike you going alone. These mortals have better weapons now--"
Loki sniffed in disdain. "Hardly. They still use explosive projectiles."
"Did you not see the armored vehicle? They grow more advanced by the hour. They are not the ones you knew."
Loki rolled his eyes. "They are still children groping in the dark for a light to find the way out of their meager lives. Now, fret not, I will keep in contact with Mother so you will know how I fare."
Thor would have let him go then, but some chill dread took him, looking at Loki's face, and instead Thor pulled him close, wrapping arms around Loki's shoulders. "See that you return."
"Fine, fine, get off," Loki squirmed free. "It appears I must go to Midgard to escape your piles of sentiment." He rolled his eyes and stalked to the wall case, choosing daggers to tuck into his vambraces and boot tops and others to store in his dimensional pocket for easy conjuring and throwing.
"Now, if you would do me an excellent favor?" Loki asked and when Thor agreed with a quick nod, he continued, "I will set a light touch of illusion around you, so it might seem I have disguised myself as you. Ride to the Observatory and approach Heimdall to visit Vanaheim."
"To distract him."
Loki's eyes flickered to the west. "And Father. They will both be occupied with you for a little while. Opening the path is not easy or quick and if they see what I intend too early, they could raise the city's shield. Any high energy discharge makes the path highly… problematic."
Which probably meant it would be impossible since Loki tended not to acknowledge impossibility. But Thor resolved to make sure the shields did not go up as Loki attempted to leave. Thor grinned. "This feels very much like our tricks in our youth, trying to fool Mother that I was you pretending to be me."
"Hopefully you do a better job this time," Loki said dryly. He held out a hand and in a moment, Thor felt the faintest touch like a chill breeze twine around his body, briefly stirring his hair. Loki observed and then gave a satisfied nod. "There, the air is slightly warped around you. Hopefully they will think I was careless in my fury."
"I will hold their attention," Thor promised. He wasn't going to promise a very convincing version of Loki-pretending-to-be-Thor, but if he was himself it wouldn't matter. All Loki needed was for Heimdall and Odin's gaze on him, not watching Loki.
"Good, then go."
Thor didn't move, still worried, until Loki let out an aggravated groan. "Do I have to leave first? You are pathetic." He started for the door and that prompted Thor into following him.
Before Loki could open the door, Thor put a hand on his shoulder, stopping him. "You will take care of yourself."
Loki turned his head to look at Thor over his shoulder. "There are no manticores on Midgard, I promise you." Flashing a grin, he slid out from under Thor's grip and triggered the door to open, stepping into the hall.
"I will head for the stables," Thor told him. "See you soon."
Loki wagged his fingers in farewell and headed in the opposite direction until he turned a corner and was gone from view.
Thor started for the stables to do his part in distracting any watchers. If he weren't so worried about Loki and his plan, it might have been fun. He left Mjolnir in the stall and took his horse across to the Observatory. Heimdall suspected he was Loki immediately, and Thor tried to keep up the deception by acting irritated by the doubt and insisting that he was Thor and he needed to go to Vanaheim, right now. When Heimdall refused, declaring the Bifrost was closed to all travelers, Thor attempted to order him and then cajole him like Loki might. He watched the Einherjar suspiciously like he might be considering magic against them all. But as soon as Heimdall sent a message to the king to request permission for "Thor" to travel the Bifrost, which Odin of course denied, Thor retreated with an openly sullen mien. But inwardly he felt jubilant at the success and hoped he'd done enough to distract Heimdall at the right moment.
Returning to the palace, feeling bereft at the knowledge that Loki was gone, he went to find his mother. She was standing on her balcony, overlooking the gardens, alone as if she had been waiting for him. She gestured him to come near.
Frigga examined him for a moment and then with a wave of her hand, dispersed the illusion. "Ah. Clever. So, then, Loki has gone?"
Thor nodded, then frowned. "You don't seem surprised he got past Heimdall."
She smiled. "That is because I know he did not use the Bifrost. However, I am surprised you did not go with him."
"I offered," Thor admitted, "but the path would hold only one, he said."
She frowned at him and shook her head. "Not so. If he opens the door, any can pass through. He chose to go alone."
"He could have opened the path for both of us?" Thor asked, not entirely surprised that Loki had lied about it. "Why would he not wish me with him, to help?"
Frigga looked out over the peace of the garden, her hands tight on the railing and belying her calm. She was not easy about Loki traveling alone to Midgard in the midst of war. "They are his people. His responsibility," Frigga answered. "And likely because he knew your father would recall the both of you in fury if you defied him, also."
Thor snorted a laugh. "Does he believe Father will be less furious with him alone?"
Frigga smiled wryly. "No, but the Allfather will send no one after him, knowing they will become pawns in Loki's scheme to free Arendelle before they ever return here."
"But, no, Father is wrong! We should help them," Thor objected. "Loki showed me what made him so angry – men with weapons firing into a crowd, slaying all before them, men, women, elders, children... A mass execution full of terror. It was terrible, and we should not sit idly by and let such evil occur there, if we are so willing to keep order on Vanaheim and Alfheim."
Frigga's hand seized his arm. "My dearest, it makes my heart glad to know you believe that. And truly I agree with you. Yet the Allfather is correct; the humans war amongst themselves, and for little cause. We cannot interfere in their disputes, else we either must rule them or we become tools of their conflicts." Thor nodded reluctant understanding; in general the policy was right, but in this particular instance it was wrong. Frigga inhaled a deep breath and continued, "And whether or not his decision was right, he gave the command which Loki is defying. A king does not lightly accept defiance or rebellion, nor should he."
"Loki is the exception to many rules, including this one?" she asked, with a smile. "He acts from the heart, but also from defiance, believing there is no consequence he would not accept." Her smile faded, as her expression grew more troubled and her blue eyes more distant as she saw something to come. "There will be consequence, Thor."
He felt a chill slip down his back, at the surety of her tone. "What consequence?"
She shook her head, that she didn't know, but it couldn't be good.
"I could follow him? Help him?" Thor suggested. "You could send me on Loki's path."
For a moment she seemed tempted, as if what she sensed was troubling enough that she would risk the king's fury, but then she said, "Even if I would, I could not. I do not know his path."
He frowned. "But you taught him--"
"His command of Yggdrasil far exceeds mine, Thor, and he has kept his method secret."
Thor was shocked. "Even from you?" Frigga was the only person Loki would admit to caring about, and they shared their magic. To find out he had held back secrets from her... But he thought of Loki's keeping the tesseract for himself, declaring it his recompense for the Jotunheim treasure, but perhaps it was truly because he no longer trusted his family, as once he had.
She turned away, face briefly showing her sorrow, but her words revealed that Thor's supposition was most likely correct. "He keeps one foot on the threshold. Nothing we say or do will fully convince him he belongs here."
"After all this time?" Thor asked softly. "But… we are his family."
"Yes, and he does care for us, my son. But the secret of his true ancestry preys on his heart. He fears the truth will be revealed and he will be reviled by the people, shunned and cast out."
"But I would stand with him."
"Yet you could not stand against the entire will of the people. I doubt the reaction will be as terrible as he fears, but he knows well that the intolerance against the Jotunn continues."
"I wish you had never told him."
She nodded sadly. "Perhaps that would have been better."
Thor turned his gaze up, imagining he could see Midgard beyond the veil of the sky. "I wish he was going to Midgard to visit with Elsa." She had been the only one he had seemed to trust with his whole heart after learning the truth, and her death had driven him into keeping his feelings more to himself than before.
Frigga patted his arm. "Perhaps avenging Arendelle will give him some measure of ease, and allow him to purge his grief."
If it were only purging his grief, Thor would be less concerned, but that was not Loki's plan. He shook his head once in soft denial. "He intends to bring back the Ice Demon and kill as many as he can, to force them out of Arendelle. I don't know if that is good for him, Mother, to embrace that darkness again."
Frigga shook her head, equally troubled by the thought. She reached up to take hold of her braid and draw the end through her fingers, smoothing it. "No. It is not. But your father has forced him into inaction for two years, when he might have been able to defend them without matching death to death. Now we will see the consequence of that patience."
"As long as he comes home at the end."
"He will." She found a smile for him. "I will not let him hide another century, not this time."
"Good." They both turned to look out over the city and the gardens and the sky above, and Thor thought she might be wishing she could see Midgard as well.