Actions

Work Header

Morass

Work Text:

The guards asked the chamber maid, the maid asked the blacksmith, the blacksmith asked the librarian and the librarian asked the guards.

And all of them said this:

“What was he THINKING?”

It had been several days before anyone had dared approach Thor even to offer him comfort, let alone to ask for the truth of his brother’s disappearance; when they had learned, they had shivered, for suicide was a thing far more heinous when committed by an immortal of Asgard. But beyond the bare facts of his brother's death, Thor would say nothing.

Bits of the story passed from hand to hand, from builders who had been ordered to reconstruct the Bifrost without being told how it had been shattered in the first place, to servants who had been tasked to mop up the blood and wash the scorch marks and bits of dead frost giant off the walls. In taverns and gardens and hallways, all offered what they knew in exchange for what they didn’t, piecing together the series of events like a jigsaw puzzle.

Why?, they asked. Why exile Thor then spare his life on Midgard, why collaborate with the frost giants and then slay their king? If the Trickster had been trying to usurp the crown, why had he not murdered Odin where he lay? Why, in the name of all that was sensible, had he attacked Heimdall- surely he knew that no king could ever rule Asgard without the Guardian at his side?

What had Loki been trying to do?

“Heimdall,” said Hogun, at the end of the seventh week, when Frigga’s weeping had not yet abated, the gloom that hung over the palace had not dispersed, and none of them had worked up the courage to speak to Odin, who was alone in carrying on as though nothing had changed.

They approached the shattered edge of the Bifrost, where the Guardian stood, and asked him; ‘Why?”

The answer stunned them. After more questions and many more answers, they walked back down the broken rainbow bridge feeling numb and shaken.

“He tried to murder Jotunheim. All of Jotunheim. To use the Bifrost to destroy the frost giants’ entire planet,” mumbled Fandral, pale-faced, repeating Heimdall's words to himself as though to make sense of them. “By Odin- it would have wiped them out.”

“They have no weapon that could ever have countered the unleashed might of the Bifrost,” said Volstagg. “Had Thor not intervened… blood of the gods, the genocide would have taken less than ten minutes. Five minutes.”

“The number of casualties would have dwarfed any of Odin’s campaigns,” said Hogun, who thought in numbers. “Odin’s, and those of Odin’s father, and of Odin’s father before him. Never before have any of the Nine Realms witnessed such a massacre as that which Loki would have initiated.”

Lost in her thoughts, the Goddess of War stared up at the sea of stars, her eyes shining and glazed. “I had never even thought of it,” she whispered. “It’s perfect.”

0

Once Fandral knew of it, Asgard knew of it. The entire ugly story exploded outwards, dropping jaws in its wake.

Sif was not alone in her opinion. But while Sif was loyal to Thor before all others, and could praise his bravery and resilience in the same breath that she praised the trickster’s tactical genius, many only saw one side of the story.

“They were threatening war!” Tyr bellowed, for the benefit of the twenty young warriors he was putting through their paces in the training arena. Like Sif, he was a war god, but while Sif’s line concerned itself with ancient notions of chivalry and battlefield honour, Tyr’s ilk were more concerned with the raw pragmatism involved in making one’s enemies as dead as possible. “Odin spent millennia grinding them into the dust, in a war that cost countless Asgardian lives! Yes, the trickster let them into Asgard- but to prove a point, a point that clearly needed to be proved! For how quick the vile Laufey was to declare war, after the Thunderer had committed but one boyish misdemeanour!”

“Nay,” Tyr went on, spitting on the ground after saying Laufey’s name, “as sure as day is day, the giants were looking for an excuse to invade! And after Odin showed them MERCY! He CHOSE not to completely eradicate them at the end of the last war! I am a general of Odin, and I will say this; their numbers have been mounting. We left maybe three hundred alive by the time we had won the casket - today they number in the tens of thousands! And they have not forgotten how we humiliated them! Mark my words, if Thor had not gone to Jotunheim, Laufey would have found some other excuse! Had Loki not intervened, we would have found ourselves facing an invasion next year, or the year after or two hundred years hence! And with Thor as king, Thor! Who has so recently shown us where his sympathies lie! By making the first strike, Loki displayed more foresight than any of us! A traitor? BAH! If a man saves your life, you do not quibble that he did not ASK PERMISSION first!”

A small crowd had gathered around him, eager to hear more. Respect for Odin’s loss had kept tongues from wagging for many weeks. Now that Tyr had brought it out into an open forum, the dam was breached. All those in attendance would tell their husbands and wives and parents what had been said, and they in turn would tell their children and apprentices and siblings.

Pushing bulky warriors aside until she was at the head of the crowd, Brunnhilde planted herself before Tyr, her blonde braids snapping in the wind.

“They number in the tens of thousands,” she bellowed back, “while WE number in the millions! Have you no honour? Do you not understand that the turncoat would have slain children?”

“I don’t even think they HAVE children!” Tyr roared. “Have any of you ever seen a frost giant whelp? I haven’t!”

“You would turn us into a race of tyrants, slaying the young and helpless indiscriminately,” accused the valkyrie. “Asgard is the most powerful Realm of the Nine. Such power comes with certain responsibilities.”

“Aye! Responsibilities! Like slaying monsters before they can rise up to slay us, and then rest of the Nine Realms in turn! THAT is our responsibility!”

“I have met the Jotnar in battle as often as you, war god. Many have I slain, and many have I duelled honourably. Lady Skaði, who married Lord Njörðr long before the wars ended- would you have her murdered too?”

“They have been divorced for many years,” Tyr said, grumpily. "The ice-blooded bitch lives up a tree in a mountain and plays no part in the affairs of Laufey or Odin.”

”But you would have her pay for Laufey’s crimes, as you would every innocent on Jotnar!” Brunnhilde snapped. “When the axe-wielder, Farbauti, threw down her weapon at battle’s end, I granted her clemency, and ten years later, she granted me the same when my men and I were stranded without food or water in the icy reaches of the wasteland. Our ancient enemies are not beasts, Tyr. They are people, as much as we.”

“Oh, shove off, you bleeding heart,” Tyr sneered. “You’d have us inviting all Jotunheim in for tea and biscuits.”

“I would have us be WARRIORS, not BUTCHERS,” she growled, her hand going to her sword. The warriors gathered around them started placing bets.

Volstagg interrupted the furore in progress by stumbling between the two, laden with a boar under his right arm and three overflowing jugs in his left hand, singing boisterously and apologising as he knocked Tyr sideways and drenched Brunhilde in ale. As Sif had often observed, large men who were good at pretending to be uncoordinated drunks were marvellous for crowd control.

The two stalked away, taking their grievances with them.

That was the start of it. Soon enough, Asgard’s warrior caste had split firmly into two camps- those who thought Thor had been in the right to save Jotunheim, and those who thought Loki had been in the right to destroy it.

The two sides had but one thing in common; they both thought Odin was entirely to blame.

“If he had destroyed Jotunheim years ago, they would have never been able to threaten us today,” said Loki’s supporters. “He had Laufey at his mercy, what foolishness to let him live!”

“If he had been a stricter parent, who had not so often indulged Thor's bloodlust, and instead taught the royal princes the importance of obedience to one's father and respect for one's adversaries, Loki would never have set off down such a misguided path,” said Thor’s supporters. It was an odd thing, that those now took Thor's part were those who had, in years gone by, criticized his love of combat as brutality.

Through it all, Thor remained locked in his room, drinking and refusing all words of council.

0

Fandral thought both sides were stupid, although his sympathies lay predominately with Thor’s supporters. Sif and Volstagg spoke in favour of Loki- although not in a public forum, and not in the glowing terms of Tyr.

“He went about it the wrong way,” Sif argued, as Hogun and Fandral wrestled in the dust outside the stables. The warriors had finished sparring and target practise for the day, but Fandral and Hogun liked wrestling, especially with each other. “The plan itself was flawless. But to exile Thor and lie about Odin’s death was unnecessary, and foolish. He should have waited until Thor was king, and then presented the idea to him- before his time on Midgard, Thor had no patience for the giants. I dare to say that, if not for the mitigating influence of Jane Foster and her friends, he would have readily agreed to the notion.”

“Never,’ said Volstagg. “Thor hates frost giants- or at least he did, before Foster softened him. But he believes in honourable combat, meeting one’s enemy on the battlefield, not slaughtering them like sheep. No, what Loki should have done is wait until Thor was on Midgard, wait for Odin to wake and then present the notion to HIM. He could have brought the Allfather evidence of the Jotnar’s rising military strength, and proof of the threat they posed to Asgard. That would be have been sensible.”

“Listen to yourselves,” Hogun said in disgust, mopping sweat and sand from his face.

"I think what Hogun means is that discussing the relative merits of what was undeniably treason is not appropriate behaviour for defenders of the realm," said Fandral, throwing an arm around the shorter man's neck. "Not that I agree; I merely translate."

"We are but speculating," said Volstagg.

“I’ve lost almost a hundred friends to Laufey’s men in scraps and skirmishes over the years,” said Sif, heatedly. “You remember the last one? We opened the Bifrost to Jotunheim, sending Laufey a healer after he had sent word to Odin that he was dying of a fever. And the second the healer stepped onto the snow, surrounded by an honour guard, they charged us. They got halfway down the Bifrost before Odin forced them back, and they took forty men with them as they fell! Forty, in one go, forty families bereaved!”

“Fifty frost giants died that day,” Hogun pointed out, pouring water down his back. “You speak as if our lives are worth more than theirs.”

“I don’t agree with her either, but I rather think they are,” said Fandral. “We are immortal. They are not. In purely mathematical terms, we will, in all likelihood, experience more, change more, create more and learn more over the courses of our existences, by virtue of the fact that we have more time.”

"Fandral!" Hogun barked.

"What? What?"

Soon they were quarrelling, too.

0

The debate didn’t stop there. It presented itself at the next meeting of the High Council, when two of Odin's long-time political allies descended into a shouting match before the entire court. The Allfather separated them, his face betraying no emotion at the mention of his lost son. All watched to see if he would settle the matter there and then, either by declaring Loki a traitor or by declaring Thor a fool, but he moved on to other matters.

But the issue seemed to have sunk its hooks into the hearts of the Asgardian populace. They were a warrior race, and it had been almost a thousand years since the last good war. Bickering became a regular feature of life at court. In taverns which Thor had frequented before his retreat into gloom, they sang songs of his honour and cursed Loki’s name. In many of the halls of learning which Prince Loki had sponsored and patronised before his death, the best legal minds of Asgard equivocated long into the night over mulled wine.

“IGNORING the issue of morality, the FACT of the matter is that Loki Liesmith, WHETHER OR NOT we interpret his actions as being for the greater good, was, in fact, KING at the time. Odin was incapacitated; Thor was exiled. Yes, he lied to the Thunder God. Yes, he ATTACKED the Thunder God, and the Watcher, and, yes, he moved to annihilate Jotunheim. But was any of this actually ILLEGAL, I ask you?” said one.

“Let me put it to you this way,” said another, who was, by this stage, drunk. “Odin was the king. Odin has, in the past, attacked Jotunheim. Odin has, in the past, attacked Thor- hurling the boy down to Midgard, stripped of his powers and with no way of defending himself must surely constitute an attack, yes? Would we dare say that Odin was contravening the laws of Asgard when he did so? For surely, the laws of Asgard are the laws of the king. And the law of Asgard has always held that, when Odin in the grip of the Odinsleep, whosoever serves in his place shall be fully and legally recognised as king until such time as Odin has recovered.”

“But THOR would have been king,” protested a third, a young apprentice who had long since given up trying to make notes. “Had Loki not a. interrupted his coronation and b. goaded him into riding to Jotunheim, thereby ensuring that, when the next Odinsleep came round, he would be in exile and therefore not eligible to serve as king.”

"But Loki could not have predicted when Odin would fall, no one can,” said the first.

“No, but hear this," said the second. "Given that Loki did not obtain the legal authority of the crown through recognised and legitimate means, do we still consider him as having had full legal authority to move against Jotunheim?”

And so it went.

The only people who didn’t contribute were the queen and the Lord Balder. Frigga, because she was, among other things, a goddess of hearth and home. In her eyes, her family could commit no wrong unless they committed it against each other; given that all had wronged one another in this instance, all were to be blamed.

Balder, because… but who could say what the Shining One thought?

0

It was getting out of hand.

The two sides had now polarised around Tyr and Brunnhilde. Each had a core group of supporters, who followed them from place to place fully armed and glaring at anyone who looked like they belonged to the opposing camp. Whenever one was in attendance at a feast all gathered would be privileged to hear yet another hour-long dissertation on Why Thor/Loki Was Right. Whenever both were, there was a high likelihood of bloodshed.

Minor subgroups sprung up. There were those who took Thor’s side, but did their best to find Loki totally blameless at the same time. “He was confused, poor thing, he didn’t understand what he was doing. It was all for attention, you see. How painful it must have been for him, growing up beside a brother whose glory he could never hope to equal. Such a shame. Poor thing."

There were some who thought that Loki had found the means to force the Allfather into the Odinsleep - for had he not been the only one in Odin's presence, and had shouting not been heard from within the chamber shortly before the guards had burst in?

And some, like Sif, took Loki’s side, but only so far as to appreciate his tactical acumen, roundly condemning his attack on Thor.

“What was he thinking?” she said one evening, slightly drunk and, for the first time, misty-eyed. On a whim, she and Fandral had ventured into the room the princes had shared when they were children. The sight of the small, empty beds had moved Fandral to retrieve a bottle from the royal cellar. “For all his brother's jealousy, Thor had ever loved him best and foremost. And to attack us! I thought… you may laugh all you want, but I truly thought we were friends.”

0

Here and there were those who took the longer view, concerning themselves not with matters of right or wrong, but with the practicalities of using the Bifrost as a weapon. “If one were to turn it against Asgard’s enemies in short, targeted bursts,” said Amora the Enchantress, lounging back on a red cushion as her feet were rubbed by her latest paramour, “striking cities and strongholds, rather than attempting to destroy entire realms. Such a weapon would instil the proper degree of fear and respect, without making us out to be rabid dogs. The realms would see the power we wield, and realise that every day we let them exist is an act of mercy.”

“Oh, do stop,” she added, as the young man began suckling her toes. “I am trying to scheme, you mindless…”

0

"Utter foolishness," snapped Queen Karnilla, when at last it reached her ears. "The Bifrost is a portal between worlds, a source of immeasurable power. To leave it open for so long would have rendered it unstable. It might have torn apart Jotunheim, and gone on to tear apart Alfheim, and Muspelheim, and half the cosmos besides. Why wasn't the stupid boy THINKING?"

0

Arguments at court had been replaced by honour duels, which Odin did not bother to interrupt. “If they want to kill each other, let them,” he grumbled. “At least they’ll shut up.”

0

Balder was tending the queen’s yellow roses. She would allow no other at them, not since he had first wandered into her rose bed at seven and brought a near-dead bush into full bloom with naught but stubborn patience and the skill of his pudgy fingers.

In the years since, they had conjured a work of art from out the clay and bred a hundred new shades into being. Balder was tolerant of the bugs and parasites he found beneath the leaves, less so of the occasional patch of grass that sprung up from the rich soil.

"There are many who like grass," Frigga said.

"You speak truly, my queen," said Balder, firmly hoisting up a lump of earth with small green shoots sprouting from it. "And when I have transplanted it into the farmland for the cows to graze upon they may admire it there."

Of the row that had engulfed Asgard, he went only so far as to sigh, “I think it’s all a great pity."

He offered no opinion as to who was right or who was wrong, for which she was grateful. With Thor wallowing in misery and Odin carrying on as though nothing were out of the norm, Frigga would have found herself bereft of comfort, had it not been for Balder.

“I often think it would have been better for all if you had been my son,” she said, fingering the white petals of a dog rose. “You are younger than Thor, but older than Loki. You could have fit between them. Tempering Thor’s arrogance and self-absorption, mitigating Loki’s reserve and jealousy. Both of my loves are prone to extremes, yet you are as temperate as a mild summer’s day. Moderation; that is what this family lacks.”

He said nothing, and she knew he was secretly glad that he had not been her son, for he harboured feelings for both the Thunder God and the mischiefmonger that were neither filial nor moderate.

0

“It seems that Odin’s presence before his assembled nobles no longer commands the instinctive obedience it once did,” Odin remarked one evening, while warming his feet beside the fire.

“It is a sad thing when a father will not mourn a dead son,” was all Frigga said, sitting beside Odin as she wove.

“He is not dead, old woman,” Odin muttered. “As well you know."

“I know. Thor doesn’t. Nor does anyone else. You appear cold and unfeeling to them, One-Eye.”

“Thor is too preoccupied with his own grief to notice my lack,” said Odin, “and everyone else is too busy trying to lecture me on foreign policy.”

He slouched back in his chair as Frigga began to massage his neck, and muttered, “Little shit. Even when he isn’t here, he’s still complicating everything.”

0

Thor emerged once a day from his wing of the palace, to walk listlessly down the Bifrost until he reached Heimdal. The two questions he asked were always the same, as were the answers; “She seeks for you,” and “No.”

“If Thor would emerge from his gloom, walk out there and ACCEPT the praise that his followers are lavishing on him, that would be enough to sway public opinion to his side,” said Fandral, thoughtfully. “None would be fool enough to accuse the Odinson of lying.”

“With Loki being… gone, Tyr would find himself facing Thor alone,” agreed Sif. “Loki’s supporters would dissolve.”

“I disagree,” said Hogun. “The schism has spread too far. If Thor had accepted their adulation from the start, it would have been enough. Now? Now it is too late.”

“It must be said,” Volstagg mused. “An excess of humility is almost as bad as a lack of it, when one is playing at politics.”

0

It was common knowledge that if you were faced with a problem that seemed unsolvable, you took it to the Norns.

Not in the hopes of having it solved for you. You took it to them because the Norns liked problems; they could mull over them for centuries. And it was a good idea to keep the Norns' vast minds preoccupied with the most complicated, tricky problems you could come by, for as long as they were thinking about your problems, you could rest assured that they weren't thinking about you.

If you were lucky, and you brought them your problem on a sunny day just after a light rain, when the wind was right and the stars were correctly aligned, they might allow a drop of wisdom to fall into your ears as they debated your problem.

"Ladies!" Fandral said with a bow.

The three women before him were all ancient, long-nailed and famously unhelpful. They spoke the language of prophecy, which was, to Sif and the Warriors’ untrained ears, largely unintelligible.

“In answer to your question," said the ugliest one, who sat in a puddle, before any of them had posed a question. "Purpose. To fight. Storm Lion and Iron Lizard. They fight, we... yes. Exist to fight. They are gods. It is their role. Role. Role. Role.”

“Ye-ees,” said Fandral, checking to make sure the cave entrance had not closed behind them. Volstagg and Sif flanked him, with Hogun at the very back; his loathing of the Norns and their soothsaying was well documented. “We understand that, I think, but…”

“The driving mechanism of creation,” mumbled the younger one, who sat atop a pillar eating pomegranate seeds. "All very sad."

“The pillars of the universe,” muttered the older one, who hung upside down from the roof of the cave, like a bat. “Poor shattered pillars. Bad architect. Didn’t plan. Plan. Rivers of blood.”

“Think, children,” said the middle Norn, shifting in her puddle. “If the peoples of Asgard have elected to fight their princes’ battles for them, there is no more reason for your conqueror princeling and your murderer changeling to fight. Fight. Do you want a sandwich, sandwich?”

There was a small collection of sandwiches, covered in a foul dressing, on a silver plate before her. As Sif watched, one of them moved.

“No, thank you,” said Volstagg.

They all cackled together.

“Poor children,” the older Norn snickered to herself. “No hope for any of you.”

”Piss off, now,” said the Norn in the puddle. “Your smell offends us.”

“Did anyone understand any of that?” muttered Fandral as they left.

“I thought it sounded very wise,” contributed Volstagg.

“Yes, but what did it MEAN?”

0

Thor stared down at the rioting crowds, bleary-eyed.

“You should go to them, my son,” said his mother.

“Aye. I should,” he said, and went to retrieve another barrel.

0

His son was good at hiding, but Odin was better at finding.

Granted, he had to look under nearly every inch of the universe before he spotted him, but to do so only took him eight days, with the help of Heimdal, several small blood sacrifices, and his grandson.

0

Loki sat on a rock, surrounded by a wide, still ocean- the Pacific, he believed- hugging his knees whilst the seagulls pecked at him.

The day before, he had been at the bottom of the sea, clinging to a rock in the form of a sea crab. Tomorrow, he planned to be an osprey, and build a nest.

What Midgard lacked in quality compared to Asgard, it made up for in quantity. Such diversity! There were parts of the planet that were colder than Jotunheim. There were parts that were hotter than Muspelheim. Both parts supported life, in abundance. Jotunheim and Muspelheim together boasted fewer than a hundred species. Or so the royal library had lead him to believe. Perhaps he should investigate for himself.

And what people! He had spent the majority of his time thus far mingling in amongst those humans to whom Thor had grown so attached- Jane Foster, her pretty little monkey assistant, the man in the suit who reminded him of Laufey in many ways (his reserve, his cunning, the startling capacity for ruthlessness that he kept hidden beneath the receding hairline and well-maintained fingernails.)

(Loki wondered; would he have loved his father-by-blood, if he had known him longer?)

They had been unaware of his presence, and many times he had listened in as they speculated as to what Asgard looked like, when Thor would be coming back. They pronounced ‘Thor’ as though it rhymed with ‘thaw’, which he could not help but find appropriate.

A cormorant was creeping unwisely close. He wondered what it would taste like. He hadn't bothered to eat in... he hadn't bothered to eat, and the pangs were beginning to distract him from his musings.

“Tell me, my son,” said a voice behind him. “What did you think was going to happen?”

0

“DUPLICITY MOST FOUL!”

“You’re sounding like your old self again,” said Sif, approvingly.

“PERFIDY MOST VILE!”

“As you say,” nodded Volstagg, and patted the Odinson’s arm.

“SEDITION MOST… MOST…”

Thor hiccoughed. The Odinson stood amidst the splintered wreckage of his bedroom, weaving on his feet, clasping an empty flagon as though it were Mjolnir. He rallied, and continued. “I loathe him!”

CRACK went his last unbroken piece of furniture – a small footstool – as it hit the wall and broke apart.

“And I SHUN him! He was weak in life, cowardly in death! And… and…”

Thor sat back down on the floor and broke into fresh sobs.

“And we were doing so well,” Fandral sighed, patting his back.

At least Thor had consented to speak to them. Luckily, he had declined to leave his rooms, and thus was not disgracing himself in front of any but those who loved him.

“Vile,” he wept. “And spiteful. He came to me on Midgard, Fandral! He told me… told me… oh, but he is vile. Was vile. Was…”

He clutched his empty flagon to his chest.

Even as he mumbled words of comfort, Fandral could not help arching an eyebrow at Volstagg, who arched one back at him. Doubtless, it was tragic to lose a treasured friend. Even more so to lose a brother. Worse yet to lose a brother in so unworthy a fashion, surrendering himself to the abyss rather than facing just punishment.

But they were Asgardians. Warriors born. If a man had not spent at least half of the sum total of his immortal years in battle by the time he was slain, he was barely a proper man, and bound for Hela’s realm as sure as day was day. Brothers fought beside brothers in battle, and brothers died. If they died well it was all to the better, and one sang a song to their memory. But if they died poorly then one shook one’s head, grieved a while, and moved on. There would be other battles, and often other brothers.

Thor had lead men into battle, thousands of them. He was a general of renown and prince of the realm. He, better than any, knew that the universe was cruel, that fate was hard and that loved ones frequently died before one could say goodbye. Fandral had watched in approval as he scolded a lad of seventeen for bemoaning the loss of a dear friend for more than the customary two weeks.

‘You dishonour his memory,’ he had chided. ‘When men look back upon valiant Wold, do you want them to speak in awe of his glorious death, outnumbered ten to one atop a pile of bodies that seemed to touch the sky? Or do you want them to speak in derision of his friend, Luft, and his unabated, improper weeping?’

Thor’s own unabated, improper weeping had begun as soon as Fandral had (carelessly, he saw now) suggested that they go through Loki’s private armoury to see if there was anything Thor would like as a keepsake. He had meant no harm by it; when a family member died, it was traditional to take a memento of theirs into battle with one, as a remembrance. But Thor had started to shake, then started to shudder, then started to wail in deep, heartrending tones as Sif had taken hold of Fandral by his beard, and yanked out most of it to punish him.

“A traitor,” Thor sniffled, slurring with the drink and thick with misery. “A DOG. He betrayed the principles of Asgard, the covenant of…”

“Friend, I have an idea,” said Sif, stroking his brow. “Why don’t you tell THEM that?”

She gestured to the window, through which a red sky was visible, and seven separate plumes of smoke. From outside, they could hear the clash of steel on steel, the thud of skin meeting skin, and a sound reminiscent of someone rogering a pig. The riot had not abated.

“Your people long to see you, my prince,” said Hogun, wincing as the squealing got louder. “Will you not go to them? They fear for your health.”

Thor’s sobs gave way to a dark chuckle. “My people,” said the Thunder God. “And I their noble king. What a good king I would have been to them. What a glorious, perceptive, loving monarch would Thor have made, a man who cannot even see the pain and suffering in the heart of his own flesh and BLOOD."

He put his fist through the nearest wall.

"By all the gods, he was RIGHT to interrupt the ceremony. He should have done more! Slain me in my bed! Anything but allow stupid, heartless Thor to park his idiot backside on the throne of Odin!”

“Steady on,” said Fandral.

Thor did not hear him. “But why did he not speak to me?” he said, self-loathing mutating into bewilderment. “Did he really believe me so stupid, so self-absorbed that I would not heed the words of my own brother? WAS I that stupid?”

“Well…” said Sif, awkwardly.

“Or,” he was, his voice going hard again, “did witty Loki have his own plans for the throne? Ah yes, most likely! Cunning Loki would have kept Thor on Midgard until the end of days and taken the crown for himself had Odin not intervened. A brother? HAH! A dog! A serpent! A leech, sucking off the kindness and compassion of… of…”

“Here we go,” muttered Hogun.

With a great howl, Thor crumpled once more. “My brother,” he wept. “My poor, poor little brother. My clever… beloved… ah, it is too cruel….”

“Fetch more wine,” Sif told Volstagg.

“A parasite!” Thor said, regaining his temper as quickly as he had lost it. “A louse! A cringing oyster of a man…”

0

“You, then,” Loki said, sounding, to his dismay, half as regal and twice as sullen as he'd hoped to.

Odin dismounted, and Sleipnir trotted to his mother’s side, where he received a neck rub.

“It was brilliant,” the Allfather admitted. “I won’t say that I hadn’t thought of it before. But I never expected anyone else to actually try it. It was the sort of thing that one always thinks no one but oneself would be enough of a monster to contemplate.”

He saw his son flinch at the word ‘monster'.

“You’ve not been eating enough,” he guessed, noting the way Loki’s fine clothing hung from thin shoulders. “Your mother will be dismayed.”

Mentioning Frigga was a dirty blow, he thought.

“I have been trying to decide what I should eat, Father,” said Loki. “I am as yet unsure as to what substances best suite the frost giant constitution.”

“I’d have told you everything, eventually,” Odin said, briskly, soothing Sleipnir’s mane; the horse was whinnying in distress, aware that his mother and grandparent were fighting. “Will you come home? Your brother misses you.”

Odin knew that if he had said ‘I miss you’, his son probably would have returned home with him.

“You do that on purpose, don’t you,” Loki said. He turned cold green eyes on Odin, and the king felt a rush of paternal affection at all the malice they held. By all the powers, what a hateful creature he’d raised.

“You said ‘no.’ You could have said anything, and you said ‘no.’ I would have slaughtered a world for you.”

“Aye. But you would have slaughtered my son for yourself, to appease your own hurt feelings.”

Loki’s nostrils flared and he stood in one quick movement that caused his clothing to shift, revealing just how thin he’d become. He couldn’t have lost that much weight since falling from Asgard, Odin thought. He must have stopped eating a long while ago. “I had a chance to kill Thor. I did not take it. Were you watching? Did you see that?”

“Yes,” said Odin.

“I love Thor,” Loki continued. “And I had Thor’s love. I gave it up, Father. I gave it up to win yours.”

“Why?” Odin asked, genuinely curious. “Thor’s love has ever been of a higher quality than mine.”

“Because Thor’s love is easy to win,” spat Loki. “While yours is hard.”

“And you’ve always liked a challenge.”

“I feel we are alike in that regard," his son scowled. "For all we are not bound by blood.”

“Why do you think I favoured Thor?” Odin snorted. “He was ever the one I saw less of myself in. You can pretend to hate me all you want, impetuous Loki, but if you had been raised by Laufey, you would still have come to me eventually. I draw creatures like you to me like maggots to a corpse.”

Like he’d once drawn Laufey, but that could wait for another day. Today was about diplomacy.

“And on that note,” he went on, “you should know that I didn’t appreciate your killing my most ancient enemy while I lay immobilised. Do you know how many centuries I spent dreaming of the final confrontation? I would have been a magnificent spectacle and a fitting way to end my life. Who else will I find to lay me low in honourable combat, now that Laufey is dead?”

He hoped that his son would one day be savvy enough to pick up on the insinuation there. He’d probably need to eat something first.

“Enough, I didn’t make the journey for this,” Odin said, folding his arms. “What do you want? What will it take to make you come back? The throne? No, I don’t believe you ever wanted that. Mjolnir? I’ll make you a replica. The beauteous Balder, perhaps? You can have him, boy. I’ll give him to you on a plate. How about that, eh? All those years you’ve been mooning after him.”

“You’ve seen, have you?” said Loki.

“All those times you thought I wasn’t looking at you, that was when I was looking.”

“You are a better liar than I,” Loki marvelled.

How sad that the boy could only see that now that he’d fallen. How much misery it would have saved him to realise it sooner.

“I’ve had more practice. You’ll get there. Cut to the chase, boy, what is it you want? Your royal father has come to you, humbled and contrite, offering you pardon for all your sins and praise for all your brilliance, just like you always wanted. Aren’t you satisfied?”

His boy was still young, and to surprise the truth out of him was still an easy thing. Odin knew he would look back on these days with nostalgia, a hundred years hence when he could no longer tell Loki’s lies from his truths.

“No,” said Loki, quick and startled. “You said ‘no.’ We… we cannot go backwards from that and play at happy families once more. How could you think we could?”

Odin grinned, slapped his knee. “Thank the Norns. I was afraid you might waver.”

He whistled and Sleipnir nuzzled his mother once more before trotting back to his side.

“Do you know how long it’s been since Asgard… no, since I faced down a worthy foe? Thor, bless his heart, has never faced one in his life, before you decided to break his heart. I thought he might grow to manhood without ever knowing the touch of true glory that comes from earning oneself a lifelong nemesis. You had me worried there for a while, boy.”

“I can’t decide,” said Loki, wearily, sitting back down on his rock, “if you’re still just saying things that you think I want to hear.”

“It will bother you all your life,” Odin agreed, reaching into the pouch at his side. Above, the Bifrost opened again. “My kingdom is being torn apart as a result of your meddling. If you do not come back, I will come out in support of Thor, condemn you as a traitor and reveal the truth of your bloodline to any who would hear me.”

He threw his son a lump of cheese.

“You know how to slither back into Asgard undetected,” he said, mounting Sleipnir again. “I have not yet issued a warrant for your arrest. If you won’t make an appearance for my sake, then make one for Thor. He never wronged you. And he’s hardly going to make you a fitting nemesis if he can’t stop weeping like a babe."

“And for the sake of the gods, eat something,” he added as the Bifrost carried him away.

Loki sat quietly for another hour, until the same foolish cormorant pecked at him, whereupon he caught it, killed it, and ate it.

0

“Did it go well?” Frigga asked when he returned, and thanked Sleipnir for his service by bequeathing unto him another fifty acres of uncultivated land in which to roam free. The horse bowed his head to the Allfather.

“And check up on your dam now and then for me, little one,” Odin hissed into his ear, before turning to his wife.

“As well as could be expected,” he said.

“You told him that he is deeply loved?” Frigga persisted. “That his whole family wishes only for his safe return? That all is forgiven, so long as he is well?”

”Mm,” said Odin, pulling off his eye patch and rubbing a crooked index finger into the scarred socket. The damned thing always started to itch after he used the Bifrost these days. “I said something to that effect.”

“So there is no need for me,” said Frigga, her voice hardening, “to go down there myself and check, Allfather?”

“No need at all, my dear. I have no doubt he will return soon enough. We had a frank and earnest discussion and I am sure that reconciliation and forgiveness cannot be far off.”

“A… frank and earnest discussion.”

“Aye. Mutually enriching, it was.”

“So my dear hearts spun half truths and falsehoods around one another until the cows came home. Nary an inch of ground was given on either side. And nothing of value was achieved. Hmm?”

“I wouldn’t say nothing,” Odin said. “I gave him some cheese.”

0

The elves had a legend pertaining to the death of Asgardian royalty.

(Asgard and its denizens attracted more myths and legends than all of the other realms put together. The dwarves, in particular, had a rich oral tradition, in which Asgardian warriors featured ten times as heavily as any dwarfish warrior. Explanations for this phenomenon varied amongst scholars, but most held that it had a lot to do with Odin’s particular covetousness of the word ‘god’. None of the other eight realms referred to their inhabitants as gods, nor did they have any legends and myths in which non-Asgardian gods may have featured. There were no elf gods, no fire giant gods. Sceptics had speculated that this was because, in the early days of Odin’s reign, any land or nation that made reference to gods outside of the Asgardian pantheon could expect the amount of tribute requested of them to double. The only world that had escaped this condition was Midgard, and that was because it was the only world Odin had never bothered to introduce to his army.)

Anyway.

The elves had a legend. The legend went that every time an Asgardian of noble blood died, a star went out.

This was true. But not completely accurate.

There hadn’t been enough left of Laufey to fill a flagon, but Odin had had his carbonated ashes scraped off the floor and placed inside an ornate casket. It was a pity; he had once entertained hopes of mounting Laufey’s head on his wall. An old man’s fancy, most likely. Frigga would not have approved.

The funeral ship had been designed and built years ago, in preparation for Odin’s own death. Odin had overseen every moment of its construction, indulging his every hedonistic impulse, while Frigga had done her best to temper the most outrageous shows of narcissism, suggesting that maybe ten golden griffins would suffice in place of two hundred, and that while dragonbone was a fine material for coffins, fit for a king, if he went forward with his plan to make the casket two miles wide there would not be many dragons left in Asgard for the rest of them to enjoy when he was gone.

“I don’t want you enjoying yourselves when I’m gone,” Odin had grumbled. “And I want at least one hundred griffins. You never let me have a live one in all my years on the throne, so I intend to enjoy as many as I can in the afterlife.”

In the end, it had all come to naught. It was not Odin lying within the glorious funeral ship.

He gave the order, and the ship launched, breaking Asgard’s orbit at speeds it did not look capable of, bloated as it was. They watched it rocket across the sky, and continued to watch, until finally, the ship connected, like a meteor, with its trajectory; a white dwarf, handpicked by Odin for the privilege.

Maybe, when all was done, Odin thought, he could visit him upon that tundra of black snow and pale trees where the Jotnar had their Valhalla.

The enchantments woven around the ship went live a second later. The sun exploded.

Standing upon the edge of the Bifrost, all but Odin shielded their eyes. He had made attendance mandatory amongst all those nobles who harboured hopes of promotion for themselves or their children in the years to come. The turnout was impressive.

Heimdal was probably gnashing his teeth at the sight of all these gilded warriors cluttering his bridge, Odin thought, and decided that that was good. Let the old bastard suffer a bit. It would be good for him.

The frost giants would be watching. Byleistr and Helblindi among them. They would be in the midst of their own year of mourning, at the end of which one of them would be crowned. Until then, Odin would lay odds that Helblindi would take the reigns; not because Laufey’s oldest was particularly eager to be king, but because Byleistr was wise enough to know when it was better to step into the light, and when it was better to step into the shadows.

“Farewell, old… something,” Odin murmured. “It had to be one of us. And at least it was one of mine that got you.”

Had he known, in the final seconds?, Odin wondered. Had he suspected, when Loki had first come to him with sweet words and sweeter promises? Odin hoped he had. Even if the Mother of Jotunheim had not been granted the honour of death at Odin’s hands, he knew that, among the Jotnar, to be murdered by one’s own child was not so bad a thing. It showed that what you had brought into the world was at least strong enough to replace you.

Thor had been ordered to attend the funeral, although it was obvious he did not understand why. That he obeyed the decree without complaint or outburst spoke worryingly for his state of mind. Perhaps he was angry that Odin had arranged a funeral for Laufey, and not for his brother. Perhaps, just perhaps, he would be clever enough to catch onto what that might mean. Thor was not a stupid boy.

Odin reflected briefly on the misery with which he had gifted his children. It did not, he thought, equal the misery his own father had bestowed upon him, but hopefully it would suffice to make them great.

And they would be great. “Any child born of you or I could never have been anything but great,” Odin said, as much to Frigga at his side as to the incinerated remains of his… something, now boiling away into the blackness of space. “If not happy.”

0

Odin had sought out the younger. After the funeral, which she had spent wondering if Odin would have given her his own casket had she had been the one to die in the attack, Frigga sought out the older.

She found him in Hel. Seated on a rock beside the white, shallow lake where her granddaughter bathed every morning, attended by her bloodless servants. He was feeding a bone the size of a deer to a wolf the size of a dragon.

Hela’s realm was the reward for those who died in bed, in the field or at the dinner table, and, as such, it was a quieter place than Valhalla. Dead scholars, dead poets, dead warriors whose limbs had failed them, dead children. Anyone who had not had a sword in their hand at the moment of their death, either unwilling or unable to enter the hallowed halls of battle and wine eternal. Instead, Hela gave them silence, and space, endless space. For all that Valhalla was grand, its gleaming, beer-soaked walls were close together. Hel was as vast as the sea and the sky. You were not promised an eternity of joy, but you were granted an eternity of exploration.

And you did not need the Bifrost to visit Hela if you were a member of the royal family. Thor was rarely allowed into her halls, not since the spectacle he had made the last time he visited. Hela did not like drunkenness of any degree, and her uncle’s attempt to draw her beloved dead into a rousing battle song had not curried her favour. It appeared she had grown more flexible in recent years. Or maybe she merely felt sorry for him. He looked a sorry sight.

Her son had come seeking his brother, at long last. And, evidently, had not found him. He would not have looked here unless he had looked in Valhalla first. So perhaps he had already puzzled it out, and her presence was unnecessary.

Fenris leapt to his paws, tail wagging, and trotted to his grandmother, whose presence was still enough to make the Hel-wolf a puppy again. She opened her arms and buried her hands in the soft fur of his neck, and he, after a moment’s dignified stillness which served as the greeting he did not have the words to give her, began to assault her with great, slobbering licks.

“Hello, my darling,” she whispered into his grey ear, and then, drawing back, opened her arms in a like manner to the wolf’s uncle, and wrapped them about him.

“He lives,” she said into Thor’s ear. She had not meant to, but the sight of him at the funeral had broken her spirit. “Don’t tell your father I told you.”

0

Alone in the garden, Balder lifted a fallen yellow rose petal from the dirt, and crushed it between his fingers, releasing a potent, spicy scent. The Queen had asked him to pick out ten of her best roses to send to the new ruler of Jotunheim, to express her condolences. Neither she nor Odin feared that the Jotnar would seek retribution for Laufey’s death, not after Loki had revealed the power of the Bifrost to them. It would take a few generations for cultural memory of those few horrifying moments to fade. Nonetheless; diplomacy. And, as far as Balder was concerned, kindness.

“This one will grant fertility,” Balder said to himself, and plucked a pale peach rose, placing it in a basket besides the two he had thus far selected; a red one, to bless the receiver with good eyesight, and a white one, to grant at least one very good idea every year.

A pink rose (for valour, for curing infection, for hatred too if you wanted to make a curse of it) appeared before his eyes, making him blink. He followed the long, pale stem to a long, pale arm, and eventually his eyes reached those of Loki Odinson.

“Hail, Balder,” said Loki Odinson, as his breath caught in his throat. “I have a point to make.”

Daggers made of mistletoe did not feel at all different from daggers of steel or stone when they pierced one’s chest, Balder found.

0

The riot had peaked, and died down, peaked again, and was now in a lull, as combatants on either sides drank and snarled at one another. Asgard had no standing police force, but the vast, vast majority of its citizens belonged to the army, and senior officers who felt no loyalty to either side were working to keep the peace, aided by the royal guards, whom Frigga had dispatched at Lady Sif’s request. A pack of Valkyries watched from the rooftops and hovered overhead; allegedly, they were there to instil order, but everyone knew of the iron bonds that existed between Odin’s most vicious warriors, and no one doubted that they were only waiting for the excuse to surge to Brunnhilde’s side.

The Warriors Three and Sif were yet again obliged to aide the royal guards; Hogun and Sif with mace and sword, Fandral with conciliatory words, and Volstagg by sitting upon five of the ringleaders, drinking and inviting others to join in.

The tension was not broken, but distracted by the sound of hoofs, and someone shouted, “Make way for the Lord Thor!”

On instinct, the crowd parted, even those who had been taking Loki’s side. Thor was Thor.

From around a corner, Thor’s iconic chariot appeared, drawn by two horse-sized goats, their horns bedecked with rubies and gold chains, their triangular eyes rolling as they trotted forward.

Balder the Bright stood upright in the chariot behind them, and straightaway Hogun could tell something was wrong. His hair had been shorn, every dark strand of it. And…

The chariot drew to a halt. One of the Valkyries, young and curious, nudged her winged mount downwards, and tapped the silent Balder on his shoulder. Stiffly, for it was horribly apparent to all that he was at least three hours dead, he fell over.

0

One small mercy of that black afternoon; the rioting came to an abrupt end.

0

The worst part was telling Frigga.

The worst part was watching her carry him down to the crypt.

The worst part was seeing Tyr and Brunnhilde both clutching each other, weeping as hard as anyone else.

No, the worst part, the worst part of all, was when Thor strode into the room, having just returned after a five-day sojourn in his niece's realm, looking happier than he had in months.

“Sif!” Thor bellowed, taking her by the shoulders and embracing her. “My brother lives!”

“Yes,” Sif said, pulling away. “I know.”

0

Even in the royal crypt, a quarter mile below the palace, the sound of weeping reached Hogun’s ears. It was as though the entire world were mourning.

Balder was not of Odin's line, but Frigga had carried his body down to the royal crypt herself, and none had tried to gainsay her. He lay with his face turned to the left, handsome even in death, with the mistletoe dagger still embedded in his chest up to the emerald-encrusted hilt.

The dagger was crafted in the same manner and form of Loki’s famed throwing daggers. More damning, however, was the gold amulet hung around his neck, upon which were inscribed the words; 'A present for my brother.'

“It’s a lie,” said Hogun.

They were alone in the crypt. Frigga had left only a minute ago, to comfort a weeping Nanna, taking Thor with her. He had seemed unable to walk without guidance. The others looked at him with wet eyes.

“Oh, come on,” said Hogun. “We know one another. You know what I am. I do not search for deeper meaning when there is none to be found. I loved Loki least of all of you, and even I… Can you really see him doing this? Doing it LIKE this? I mean, really? Tying him to the chariot? He's squeamish, he doesn't like blood, nevermind actual dead bodies. And stabbing him? I can see him committing genocide from ten thousand light years away, but stabbing a man like a brigand? Not poisoning him or devising a complicated death trap or stopping his heart with magic or making it look like we'd done it or putting a snake in his mouth while he slept? Just... stabbing him? And have you ever known Loki to use jewel-encrusted weaponry? It’s, it’s vulgar, it’s crass, it’s…” Hogun trailed off, unable to articulate what he meant.

“Aye, it is a bit off, actually,” Fandral admitted, sniffling. “For one thing, the dagger’s in the front of his chest.”

“I mean,” said Hogun, “that, whatever else, he is a wizard of considerable skill. I have said before that I can find nothing worthy in trying kill an entire race, whatever their crimes against Asgard. It was a heinous crime, unforgivable in my opinion. But this is…” he gestured to Balder’s corpse. “…thuggery. If I were called upon to imagine Loki murdering Balder, I would imagine him doing it in a manner markedly less, for want of a better word, gauche than this. ‘A present for my brother?’ No, I don’t believe it.”

By now, Volstagg was nodding in agreement. “It’s the wizard’s equivalent of sticking your tongue out and going ‘phhhbbbbt.’” All else aside, he hates Thor’s goats. Never saw him go near the things. They tried to bite him once.”

“What are you saying, Hogun?” Fandral asked, wiping his eyes.

“It’s a trick,” Sif supplied, ever quick to abandon grief in favour of anger, or, in this case, suspicion. “He did this for a reason.”

“If he actually did it,” said Hogun, his brow furrowing. “We are sure he’s dead?”

They checked again. He was.

“What reason could he have for killing Balder?” said Volstagg, stroking one of the plaits in his beard. “It’s like the business with the frost giants all over again. He does something totally nonsensical and wicked, and we’re left trying to work out what it was.”

“But… what he did to the frost giants wasn’t nonsensical,” said Sif. “We’ve decided that. It was cruel, and it was debatably dishonourable, but there was sense in it. Where’s the sense in this?”

“Aye,” said Fandral, snapping his fingers. “Motive, that’s the thing.”

They thought.

“There’s nothing,” said Hogun. “Wiping out Jotunheim- yes, I can see how you might think that would work to the greater good. Abhorrent as I find it. But killing Balder? No good can possibly come of that.”

“What would result from it?” said Volstagg, shaking his head.

“Firstly; the removal of Balder from Asgard,” said Fandral, “which could only be considered a good thing if Balder were in some way endangering Asgard, as we all know he was not.”

“Nothing else,” said Sif, “beyond the irreversible sullying of the Liesmith’s reputation, the loss of any loyalty Loki may have found amongst the populace..."

"...An immediate cessation of any support for his cause...” said Volstagg.

“...Oh,” they all said at once.

“We need to find him,” said Hogun.

0

Loki had a small red book, in which he had listed all those persons who owed him favours, or thought they did. It was compact enough to fit inside his pocket, which was a testimony to the minuteness of his handwriting and the potency of the magic that bound it together, for it contained only ten fewer names than were contained in the High Book of Odin, which listed the names of every single person in creation.

(Loki also had a small black book, in which he listed family and friends, listing under the heading of ‘friends’ anyone he had had sex with at least once, and under ‘family’ everyone in whose birth he had been complicit. This book was slightly longer than his little red book.)

Heading the list in his little red book was Hela, for magic books tended to go awry when one tried to subject them to the hierarchy of the Asgardian alphabet. Hela came first in his books for, while there were beings in the universe who owed him more favours than she did, there were few who were as willing to grant them as she.

Loki loved his little girl. And did his best to remain on her good side.

In the shape of a falcon, Loki flew down his oldest son’s glittering scales to his daughter’s realm, where he was greeted by his second son’s deliriously happy barks.

To see and touch his treasures brought him a moment of real joy that he hoarded away quickly; he would spend months to come nibbling small bits off of it to sustain himself. To learn that his broth… his… Father’s… (enough, be still now) that Thor had been here recently made him picture the look on all their faces when they found his gift. He giggled.

After presenting Fenris with a stolen lamb, he bowed, and presented Hela with the lamb’s soul, which he had caught in a bottle as it attempted to flee its dying body. His daughter took it out and let it trot about her dim throne room, in search of the green shoots it did not need anymore but would always crave.

“You bought me a monkey last time,” said Hela, and only a close relative would have been able to discern the shade of disappointment colouring her dull, dead voice. “Have I fallen in your estimation since then?”

“Never, precious,” said Loki, and kissed her hand. “But I am in a hurry and monkeys are difficult to catch. Next time, I promise.”

“You want a favour,” said Hela, in a bored voice. Like many teenagers, she thought sounding bored made her sound more grown-up. She was as tall as a frost giant (which should have tipped him off, he thought) and most who came before her did not notice that her breasts had not finished developing, or that beneath her green cloak, her living limbs still had a trace of adolescent gangliness.

“I recently sent a worthy warrior to your door, petal, a warrior with whom I now crave an audience.”

“Why?” she asked, boredom sinking beneath a swell of curiosity. “It’s not your way to explain yourself to people.”

She said ‘people’ the way Loki said ‘Jane Foster’, and the way Thor might have said ‘frost giants’ a year ago.

“I may have a use for him in years to come,” said Loki.

0

Imagine:

The length and breadth of a galaxy. Predominately emptiness. Huge, sucking spaces between stars. Dust. Debris. But squeezed, everything, every nothing squeezed and strung out very thin, needle thin, and now imagine that needle shooting through the cosmos, linking planet to planet, planets that may be galaxies apart, linking Muspelheim with her three suns to Jotunheim with its eight misshapen moons to tiny Niflheim where nothing grew, so toxic was the atmosphere, linking them all back to Asgard, where the needle was born. That needle had many names, many it had given itself, but it was called ‘Bifrost’ by small, soft creatures made of water who presumed to own it.

But now it had broken loose, and it fell, lashing and writhing like a severed gecko’s tail, turning in on itself, turning out on itself, all that dust and debris and emptiness coming unravelled, killing stars and solar systems as it imploded. In falling, it became something else.

It hadn’t felt as though he was falling into it. It had felt as though it was falling into him.

Imagine all that, the length and breadth of a galaxy, predominately emptiness and the sucking spaces between stars, energy, irradiated cosmic dust, matter, dark matter, imagine all of it shot, at incalculable speeds, directly into the front of his brain.

Loki will never come home, because although there is a home to return to, there is no more Loki; Thor’s brother does not exactly exist anymore. What has taken his place is the remaining spirit-fragments of countless dying stars, still severed, still thrashing about like a severed gecko’s tail.

“Balder the Brave would never repeat a thing told to him in trust. That’s why it had to be you. It could have been anyone. Fandral. Sif. But I need to talk to someone. You can always tell when you need to talk to someone. Besides, I thought it might make me feel better. Are you comfortable?”

He was, Balder admitted.

“Good. Good. I won’t keep you much longer. Wine?”

“No more, thank you.”

Loki shrugged and drank it himself.

Balder’s initial reaction to meeting Loki’s green-eyed gaze, barring the subsequent stabbing, had been delight. His delight had since curdled, not so much from the stabbing per se, as from the realisation that Loki had, apparently, done it on purpose, and furthermore, did not have a pulse.

“Of course I don’t,” he said, when Balder had asked him about it. “I actually died, you know?”

Loki Son-Of-The-Void threaded a flower behind Balder’s ear. He had become increasingly loquacious with each new glass of wine that Balder refused, and was now slurring his words.

“Tsk. You don’t just fall off the Bifrost into a swirling vortex of interdimensional chaos and survive, you… silly thing. I died. I felt myself being ripped apart. It wasn’t an illusion, or a dream. I saw my blood floating in space. I saw my flesh sucked from my skeleton and pulled down into a black hole. Interesting sensation. But, but you see, but then I wasn’t dead. Do you… can you understand? I was dead, really most sincerely dead. Then I wasn’t. I was reborn, and there was a brief moment when I felt I could chose what to come back as. I could have come back as a beautiful woman, and then no one would have said I couldn’t have as many children as I pleased. I could have come back as a child, then no one would measure me against Thor and find me wanting. I could have come back as a bee, or an amoeba. A universe of choice at my fingertips, and I chose to come back as me.”

Loki Born-In-Nothing sighed. “I seem to have a predilection for poor choices.”

No? thought Balder, and ran his eyes yet again over the… the…

Garden. It was a garden that Loki had made for him, down in this deepest and dankest of Hela’s chambers. Black roses trailed up the walls, moss skirted the floor, tall grass, the sort that Balder would have expected to conceal snakes, grew about their feet. Fruit trees and peonies and tall pitcher plants ran amok about the cold, black throne upon which Balder had been seated.

Loki was clearly not a horticulturalist by nature. Balder had never seen a messier or less healthy garden in his life. As Loki rambled drunkenly on, threading more flowers through his hair (and how odd that he had hair here, when Loki had gone to trouble of shaving his corpse in the living realm) Balder eyed the quality of the soil, and tried to decide what he should have planted instead.

“Shouldn’t you eat something?” Balder suggested, in one of the rare moments of silence. “I don’t mean to pry, but you haven’t eaten anything since you arrived. And you’ve been so generous…”

Loki snapped his fingers and the gag reappeared.

Although Loki had done nothing but sit by Balder’s side rambling, drinking and brushing his hair since his arrival, Balder had wanted for nothing. Unlike Valhalla, into which only Asgardian warriors and their favoured companions could enter, Hela’s realm drew occupants from every realm, of every rank and station. You could find delicacies in Hel that even Asgard’s great marketplace could not offer. Loki had brought him enchanted fig puddings from Alfheim and blue gin from the fire giants and dishes of raw fish and candied apples from Midgard. He had served him a roasted osprey, saying that it came highly recommend.

Trapped, Balder thought, in a distant and foreign place, with one of his beloved princes offering him all the food he could want, and flowers as far as the eye could see. Barring one or two unforeseen variables – his being dead chief among them – it was very nearly everything humble Balder had ever wanted.

He gave up trying to speak as Loki muttered on, threading wilted pansies through his hair, and drinking.

0

They searched high and they searched low. Why they searched, Sif could not say; whether it was to punish their quarry, or capture him, or, maybe, just to let him know that they, at least, understood. They searched in vain until Hela walked out of the air before them.

“It is always problematic,” she said, “when one’s relatives overstay their welcome. He keeps saying he’ll leave soon, but it’s been weeks. I don’t want to have to snap, but I have a realm to run, and it is in his nature to get underfoot. If I let you in, will you get him out for me?”

“Wait,” said Fandral, “are you talking about…”

Hogun slapped a hand over his mouth. “Lady,” he said, “if we grant you this favour, will you grant us one in return?”

Hela had met all of them before, and had a fondness for Hogun. A dull purple blossomed upon her dead cheeks. “I will.”

Riding into Hela’s realm on horseback, Sif and the Warriors Three shouted greetings to those they knew. They had no enemies here; all their foes had died in battle. Hela directed them down a long, twisted staircase that played tricks upon their minds, so that at one point it seemed as though they were walking up and down at the same time. When they reached the bottom, she showed them through a bird-shaped door, and into a large chamber.

They walked in on a conversation.

0

“You cannot… imagine… how funny it was. To watch them. I mean. Thor. And the rest.”

“Tell me,” said Balder, as wine sloshed onto the floor.

“Bless them. From Odin’s throne… it was like watching. Urm. Hamsters. You know hamsters, Balder?”

“I am familiar with the species. I kept some, once. Tell me, Loki… how much longer will this go on?”

Loki drew back, confused. “Will what go on, pure one?”

“This. I mean… you’ve been here for weeks now. And it’s, it’s nice, I won’t say that I haven’t been pleased with your company, and the flowers, and the food, but… well, I mean, aren’t you going to go off at some point? To plot Thor’s demise, or plot Midgard’s demise, or just… plot, basically? I mean no offence, but all the weeks I’ve been here now, I haven’t seen you plot even once. It seems unnatural. Please understand, it’s not that I don’t enjoy your company, I do. But aren’t you ever so slightly bored?”

Loki laughed, and hiccoughed. “Bored? What are you talking about, thick-witted Balder? This is my reward!”

“Your… reward.”

“Of course. My eternal reward. My gift to myself. I told you I’m already dead, didn’t I? And this is my afterlife.”

“Your afterlife is to sit in a bed of weeds and feed me things while I listen to you talk endlessly?”

“Yes! A veritable utopia. Isn’t it splendid? It took me a long time to come up with it. I thought, what would make me happy? And I thought, well, after losing literally everything I have ever valued and falling into the abyss only to be ripped apart at a molecular level, surely nothing can ever make me happy again! But I was dead, so I reasoned there had to be some kind of reward. Else what had it all been for? AND then I thought of you!”

“I’m sorry I had to kill you to get you here,” he said. “I know it must seem selfish to you. But quite frankly, I don’t care. I no longer care what anyone thinks of me. And it’s not as though you were doing anything anyway. Spending your immortal years tending Frigga’s roses and singing to the birds? You might as well tend my roses and sing for me.”

“So your plan going forward is…”

“To stay here. With you. Where I may do no more damage to the hateful outside world, or have damage done to me.”

“Forever.”

“That’s the plan. More wine?”

“And this is the most healthy and productive way you can think of spending the next however-many-billion years.”

Loki grunted in the affirmative, and Balder was saved from the brink of utter despair by Sif’s kicking the door in.

0

Know this, say the Norns in their damp cave, beyond their plate of sandwiches and their lidless eyes; understanding is easier than resolution.

0

“What am I looking at?” asked Sif.

“What are you doing, trickskin?” Hogun asked irritably. “And why are you dripping?”

“I think that’s sweat,” said Volstagg. “He’s covered in sweat.”

“Yuck,” contributed Fandral.

Loki glowered at them. “What are YOU doing here?”

“What are YOU doing to Balder, fiend?” said Fandral. “Moreover, what are you doing alive?”

“We were having a nishe… nice convershation,” Loki sniffed. “He’s perfectly well. So go away.”

He blinked owlishly. “Who let you in, anyway? Don’t tell me that girl…”

“Balder, has he done anything to you?” said Sif, brandishing her sword. “Besides kill you, I mean?”

“He means to keep me here forever,” Balder told them. “Also, I think he may be drunk. And he doesn’t have a pulse, which worries me a bit.”

“You come back from the dead after nearly causing a civil war, and the first thing you do is kill Balder and DRINK?” Volstagg said, putting his hands on his hips in a manner that unconsciously emulated his wife. “Your highness, what would your brother think?”

“CAUSING a civil war?” Loki scoffed. “I just AVERTED a civil war. You should thank me. You won’t, of course. No one ever thanks me when I fix things.”

“This is futile,” Fandral muttered. “He’s clearly mad.”

“Oh, yes,” sneered Loki Voidson, burning the alcohol from his veins with a snap of his fingers. The sudden onset of sorcerous sobriety caused many of the drooping flowers to leap back in full, angry colours. “Because that makes everything so much easier for you, doesn’t it? I am mad! Of course! It explains everything! You need not worry that I am wicked, you need not wonder if I was right. No, I am simply mad! Make me not mad, and all will be well! How splendidly convenient! I am mad, and so worthy only of your pity or your disgust.”

“I don’t pity you,” said Balder. “Nor…”

Loki snapped his fingers again; a vine coiled about Balder’s shoulders grew until it covered his mouth.

“To oblivion with the lot of you,” he continued. “If you will not grant that my actions were wise and justified, if you will not grant that my actions were for the good of us all, you can at least grant that my actions were my own. I don’t want your pity, and I’ve contended with your disgust long enough. I want your hatred. I will have it.”

Cracks grew in the dark soil beneath their feet. From them, thick, brown stems emerged, smelling headily of moss and rot. Hogun and Sif were fleet enough of thought and reflex to leap back, but not fast enough; soon, all four were trapped within a mass of coiling, decaying flora.

“Damn!” Fandral gasped, able to hack through three of them before his sword was neatly plucked from his hand by an unnaturally large, wilting daisy.

“Prince Loki!” Volstagg shouted, able to expand his chest farther than the rest of them. “Pray explain yourself to one who is lacking in wits! Why kill Balder to avert a civil war, when you could just as easily have come home, confessed your guilt before the court and apologised to Thor. Lad, it would have been so easy. You didn’t hurt us. You broke nothing that couldn’t have been repaired. Why…?”

“Because I will NOT apologise,” Loki hissed. “I did NOTHING wrong, NOTHING that was inconsistent with what Father taught us. My only mistake was in believing that he might once, just ONCE take my part over Thor’s. I did the RIGHT THING!”

“Hear, hear,” said Balder.

The entanglement of stems and flowers stopped growing.

“… What?” said Loki.

“Oh, I can’t say I agree with you, but I’m sure it all seemed reasonable and correct at the time.

The vines binding the warriors tightened and tightened until they felt their ribs creak. Slowly, Loki said, “… Are you… are you actually trying to HUMOUR me, you impertinent little…?”

“Not in the least. You make a reasonable point. If you simply explain your position to the Allfather, I am sure that he is sufficiently open-minded to consider all points of view. And then we can all move on with our lives."

“All … points of view?” said Loki.

“Yes,” Balder nodded vigorously.

“Are you deluded?” Loki Odinson gasped. “I BETRAYED my FAMILY! I let the Jotnar into Odin’s hallowed treasury! I exiled Thor! I unleashed the Destroyer upon him! I threatened the mortals! I LIED, and STOLE and…”

“Yes, but at the end of the day, no lasting harm was done. I forgive you entirely, dear heart, and I’m sure your family will too. We all make mistakes,” said Balder, in such effortlessly cheery tones that a small vein burst above Loki’s right eye.

“NO!” the trickster shouted, and stamped his foot. “You’re ruining it, you stupid man! This is my reward! I sit in this horrible chamber with you, HATING ME, forever! That’s what I deserve, curse you! You’ll not take it from me!”

“That will be a bit problematic,” said Balder. “I’m not good at hating people. Particularly people I like. Haven’t got it in me, I’m afraid. I know everyone’s very upset, but I can’t help but feel that this is all an unfortunate misunderstanding, and if we all got together and sat down around a table, we’d be able to sort it all out in no time at all.”

“’Sat down around a table’,” said Loki Odinson, hopelessly.

“I take it back,” muttered Fandral. “He’s the mad one.”

“That sort of language is bigoted and unnecessary, Fandral,” Balder chided, primly.

Something… happened then, something none of them could quite explain later. There was a sense of movement, a sense of lightness, a sound, deep within their ears, not unlike someone muttering angrily under their breath, and when their eyes cleared…

The garden had disappeared. The throne had disappeared. Loki, most notably, had disappeared. All that remained was a dark chamber.

And then Hela, gliding across the floor towards them, as the Warriors Three shook their freed limbs.

“My father has departed,” she said, “in bad humour, but that hardly matters. Thank you for your help.”

“Do you know where he has gone, my lady?” asked Sif.

“Yes,” said Hela, and stared passively at them.

“Right,” said Fandral. “But he’s alive?”

“Yes.”

“Then that will have to do,” said Volstagg.

“You may return to Asgard,” said Hela, as a corridor appeared in the wall behind her, lit by wall-mounted torches. “Balder stays. Balder is dead. This is where he belongs now.”

”You will remember, my lady,” said Hogun, “that I asked you for a boon?”

“Aye.”

“Permit me to leave Balder with a token of my affections. In memory of a world he will never see again.”

He handed Balder his sword and, on their way out, murmured, “Good luck.”

When they were all gone, Balder Everpure placed the crown of dying daises in his hair once more; it was the only piece of the weed garden that had not disappeared. He considered the total surface area of Hela’s realm, and concluded that at least nine hundred billion dead souls and demons stood between himself and the nearest exit.

Balder took up his sword, and stepped forward into the waiting blackness.

0

Loki burns through space, bound for Midgard, where, if nothing else, he has plans, plans which will give him something to do.

He thinks;

I didn’t go mad, or if I did, it was not because of madness that I defied Father, betrayed Thor, abandoned Mother. It was because I made a choice.

Brother, my brother, I’m sorry. You were brash and foolish, bull-headed and a bully…

…and you never wronged me. Not once. You did nothing. Of all people, only you have ever loved me. You defended me from my detractors countless times, at the expense of your own reputation. You laughed at my jokes and found my magic and my trickery both to be beautiful. You were kind and good and all any man could want in a brother. I loved every part of you, even those parts Odin did not love. I loved your greed, and your vanity, and your cruelty.

I chose Odin’s distant, lying affection over your close, fearless love, and I was a fool. I should have chosen you. I should have chosen you.

I did not go mad. I made a choice.

I made the wrong one.

Loki lands on Midgard, and prepares to make many, many more.

0

Frigga Allmother stood in her rose garden, running her fingers down their long, thorny stems.

Odin approached her from behind, saying, “Dear wife. What’s this I hear about your handmaidens packing your bags and saddling Starsong? Are you going on a journey?”

“I am going to visit my mother,” said Frigga, serenely. “I suspect I shall be gone for some time.”

“Ah. I see. I’ve annoyed you, so now you’re running off to sulk,” said the Allfather. “You are more like your son than I had given you credit for.”

“I am,” Frigga said, turning to leave. “You didn’t know what you were doing when you broke his heart, either.”

A few months with her mother, she thought, as her entourage made its way down the road. And then with her sisters, the Norns. And then perhaps she would visit Thor’s charming new ladyfriend on Midgard.

Provided Midgard was still standing by then, of course.

0

Finally, they had their duty.

A year and a day after the Bifrost had been broken, they set forth for Jotunheim.

As Odin had predicted, Helblindi had been crowned. He awaited their arrival in Laufey’s broken fortress.

A year and a week ago, they had come here, Sif thought, with Thor leading the charge and Loki bringing up the rear. Now Sif led them, while Hogun trailed behind, and they weren’t the only ones who felt a gaping emptiness at their front and their back.

Helblindi slumped back in his throne, white eyes blank and unseeing, while his nostrils twitched and his pale tongue flickered out periodically; tasting the air, then recoiling as his mouth snapped shut, as though their presence in the room was the equivalent of offal. His shoulders were tense, his long fingers gripping the throne as though he meant to crush it.

Byleistr, the eyes of the king, stood at his brother’s side, flanked by a semi-circle of Jotnar, many of whom bore scars or stumps in place of hands, arms, feet. Most of the time the younger brother’s demeanour was one of distraction; his lips moved as he carried on unheard conversations with people who were not present, his hands moving over one another in anxious repetition. Then one of the Warriors Three would look at him for a second too long, and a sudden, startling sharpness would attend his features, forcing them to look away. Occasionally, he would give a sharp, unprovoked giggle that made Fandral jump.

Sif presented them with the casket, held in thick leather gloves and recited the words Frigga had given her. “The House of Odin extends its condolences…”

“Put it down,” said Helblindi, son of Laufey, evenly, “and fuck off.”

Sif put it down and said, “The House of Odin would like to remind the House of Laufey that this gift is given in trust…”

A line of ice shot across the floor, stopping at the toe of her boot. As she stood very still, Byleistr stepped forward and took up the casket in both arms, carrying it back to the waiting throng like a beloved child. All eyes followed him; some of them tried to touch it, only to have their arms scratched.

“Oh, yes, TRUST,” said Helblindi. “Now that the old monster has seen what his bridge can do to us, it doesn’t matter whether we have the casket or not, does it? We all know what he can do to us if we step out of line.”

“At least you can rebuild your temples and homes now,” Fandral said, diplomatically. With a lazy movement, Byleistr threw an ice knife which landed point first in the wall behind his head, taking a lock of his beard with it.

“Go away, little things,” said Helblindi, chuckling upon hearing the ‘thud’. “We accept your gift. Perhaps one day I will be able to give you one to rival it.”

“Try it and see what happens,” Sif snapped, and Volstagg took it upon himself to make their excuses and tug her towards the exit. As they were leaving, Helblindi bared his teeth at all of them, while, behind his shoulder, Byleistr made a complex gesture in Hogun’s direction; Hogun correctly interpreted it as an attempt to blow him a kiss, made by someone with only a rudimentary understanding of what a kiss was. He neglected to inform the others of this realisation, and stored it away in his memory.

“This was a mistake,” muttered Fandral, as the Bifrost opened up and Heimdal snatched them away.

“Mm,” said Volstagg. “But it feels like a virtuous mistake.”

0

Balder’s return from the realm of the dead had won him acclaim unequalled, and bolstered Thor’s spirits enormously. At last, for the first time in months, he looked like the man Balder remembered.

Whether that was entirely because Balder was alive again, or more because Loki was, was a question that remained unasked and unanswered.

“Will you not join me?” Thor said, adjusting his gauntlets and taking up his helmet. Balder sat on the edge of the bed, and watched him dress. “They are worthy folk, these Midgardians, you would like them.”

“I am proud of you for rallying to their cause,” said Balder, to which Thor smiled, and kissed him sweetly. “But if both our princes are to be absent so soon after such unrest, I think someone must remain here, to ensure the peace is kept. And to keep your Father company.”

”Hmm,” said Thor. Frigga had embraced him before she had left, without telling him exactly why she was doing so.

“… You will come back?” asked Balder, looking at his feet.

In full armour, Thor bowled him onto his back and sat atop his waist. Instead of kissing him, though, he said, “Will you tell me why my brother killed you?”

Say you offended him, Balder heard. Say you did something to deserve it.

“Go now,” said Balder. “And when you come back, I will tell you exactly why.”

Thor looked surprised. “Duplicitous Balder! Where did you learn such dreadful habits, eh?”

He nuzzled Balder’s newly-white hair, and whispered, “I would come back even if you never told me. My love.”

One of your loves, certainly, thought Balder. As you are one of mine, dear prince.

Balder watched him leave with a lump in his throat and a sharp, shooting pain just over his heart.

0

And on Midgard.

Victor was a terribly impressive mortal.

The problem with impressive mortals was that they lacked the charm and appeal of unimpressive mortals, while retaining all the pomp of unimpressive immortals.

Victor was terribly dull. Loki lay on his back amid mountainous sheets and stared up at the ceiling, his feet propped up on a huge, stain blue pillow.

“And then, once we have won Mephisto to our cause, it will be only a matter of time before…”

It didn’t matter that Doom was terribly dull, not to Loki Child-Of-Nothing, who could conjure anarchy from empty air. It wasn’t as though there any standards Loki wanted him to meet, beyond being powerful and power-hungry. Loki Heartless certainly hadn’t hoped that Doom, powerful, vain, stubborn Doom, might serve as an adequate replacement for anyone that Loki Void-Born certainly didn’t care about anymore.

But…

It is done with, Loki thought. I have cleaned all traces of myself away. Now there is no one left in Asgard to speak for me.

…Except maybe Balder, but no one ever listens to HIM. Who would heed the words of a cowardly gardener, however beautiful?

And Loki Emptiness certainly did not have a lock of the hair he had cut from Balder’s head stored in a small leather box in his pocket, protected by enough wards and curses to kill the entire family of anyone who tried to open it.

“What do you think of that, Trickster?” said Doom.

“I think I will send my father some cheese,” he murmured, laying two fingers upon his wrist. No pulse.

“Eh? Must you persist in talking in riddles?”

How predictable, that Thor found more interesting friends among alcoholics, soldiers, children and impoverished scientists than Loki found among the most intelligent, powerful men on Midgard.

Perhaps he should pay Thor’s friends a visit.

“And then, when the leaders of Western Europe are on their knees, we…”

Not only was he dull, he was not, it had to be said, very good in bed. The majority of the amusement Loki had derived from the encounter had come when he had attempted to persuade the tyrant to remove his mask.

”Gosh, that sounds thrilling,” Loki said, and made ready to leave.

0

“At the end of the day,” Brunnhilde said, as they settled their differences over mead and meat, “there’s nothing to be done with any of them.”

“Bloody royals,” Tyr agreed. “Loki kills Balder, and does Odin take the opportunity to condemn the villainous swine? He does not.”

“Of course he doesn’t,” Brunnhilde opined. “Balder’s not royal. Balder’s one of us.”

“Little people,” Tyr spat.

“Aye! Almighty Allfather- pah! Doesn’t care if his own flesh and blood goes around murdering members of the populace. It’s disgusting.”

“Stop me if I’m talking out of my arse,” said Tyr, “but does it bother anyone else that ninety-nine percent of the political and economic power in Asgard is wielded by one percent of its population?”

“Well said!” boomed the valkyrie. “We should take up arms against the House of Odin!”

“Aye, aye, or maybe some sort of display of public unrest…”

0

And in Asgard.

Odin Allfather sat in his empty throne room, tapping his fingers.

“Is all well, sire?” asked Balder, who had developed an irritating habit of checking on him every few hours. As though he thought all-seeing, all-knowing Odin might need the company. Blatantly transparent (and insulting) as his motives were, he tried to disguise them by moving about the throne room and fussing, polishing the corner of the podium with the side of his sleeve, adjusting the tassels on the rich red carpet, filling up Hugin and Munin’s water dish.

“Silence, boy,” Odin growled.

It had been such a good plan, too. He had seen it in his dreams.

Such a war it would be. Thor was a machine of war and Loki was an agent of chaos, eternally on hand to provide Thor with all the war he could ever need. Odin’s perfect, glorious, beautiful children would reign forever in their blood lust and hate. No more boredom. No end. Chaos, and fire, forever and…

A frost giant of Laufey’s bloodline. To be raised into a true prince or princess of Asgard. After it had won the love and respect of his people – the prestige! The trick revealed! A Jotnar man or maiden, now beloved of Asgard, just as Thor was beloved, just as Odin was beloved. A frost giant prince of princess, to be married to valiant Sif, or virtuous Balder. How could even Asgard’s stoniest hearts fail to thaw before that? A peace that would last, true reconciliation between Odin’s kingdom and Laufey’s people.

For just so long, anyway. And then, betrayal. The devious little ticking time bomb Odin had created would detonate, and Balder would die, or Sif would die, or maybe even Odin would die, and then, chaos.
And with chaos, war. Asgard would never be able to stomach the notion of peace with the Jotnar after such a betrayal. ‘Look’, they would say, ‘old Odin clasped the snake to his breast, loved it and made it a prince, and it bit him regardless! These Jotnar must be rotten in their souls.’

Why did the stupid boy think I forbade him from attacking Jotunheim? he thought to himself. Didn’t he realise how easily we’d have won? If only he’d listened, if only he’d waited. Until a few more millennia had passed, until I had passed on the crown and an incompetent king sat on the throne, and a Jotnar changeling was married to one of the most beloved warriors in the land. Jotunheim would have had the chance to grow strong again.

A real enemy! A powerful enemy, for my warrior people and my warrior son!

A real war for me and my god of chaos, my wicked foundling…

“I note that you still have not publicly condemned or condoned Loki’s actions, sire,” Balder said tentatively. “Happily, the matter has resolved itself without your interference, but I wonder if…”

Odin ignored him.

It would all have worked so well. Three sparks that would birth a might inferno. Thor; ever poised to leap into battle, a king with no leash around his neck. Jotunheim; strong enough to threaten us once more. Loki; revealed one day as a cuckoo bird, ideally after his insecurities had been tended and watered to such strengths that he came to hate us all totally. The perfect ingredients.

For a war that will not come, now. Odin will remain upon his throne, a chastised husband and mourning father, a crown on his head as heavy as a slave collar around his neck. Never to taste hot blood between his teeth. Old. Bored. A warrior king to a warrior people, with no war for any of them.

I could have done it, Odin thought. For all of us.

Selfish, spoiled children to have ruined it all.

Odin sat alone, and sulked.

“It was nice of you to let the Jotnar have their casket back,” Balder said, fussing with the curtains. “Most magnanimous.”

“I’m not going to do it,” Odin muttered to Munin, who sat on one shoulder, having abandoned his gilded perch when Balder had attempted to feed him a cracker. “I refuse.”

“Sire?”

“On the other hand, he is a pacifist,” Odin murmured to Hugin, who sat on his other shoulder. “And he’s never lead men. Surely they’ll grow sick of him soon enough. Should Loki ever return, he would be easy to manipulate from the shadows, easy to weave chaos around his big fat head. Should Thor ever return, he would surrender the throne immediately, gracefully, and then things may proceed as I had planned, with my great golden fool of a son dragging us all into my war.”

“I… can hear you, sire,” said Balder.

“And should neither of them ever return,” Odin said to himself, “why, the populace will grow so bored and stagnant under his reign that sooner or later they’ll tear him apart like a piece of meat.”

Odin sat up and scratched Munin under his chin. “Balder,” he said, “given that I am currently bereft of children, what would you say if I made you my heir?”

 

end