“Officially, I am God of Stoicism, also of pyrrhic victories and sour milk. And Volstagg is God of Joy and Revelry, and Fandral is God of Lust and Spring, patron deity of animals in rut and, for reasons that have never been made entirely apparent to me, bonobos. Sif is Goddess of War and her blessing grants fruitful harvests; Loki is God of Mischief, Chaos and Fire; Thor is God of Thunder, also Victory and Justice. Odin is God of so many things it can be difficult to keep track. Death, War, Wit, Wisdom, Poetry, Madness, the list goes on. Frigga is Goddess of Marriage, Love, Family and Destiny. No one knows exactly what Heimdal is God of, but we all suspect it to be horrifying.”
The figure standing on the balcony beside Hogun spoke in a high-pitched voice, like a eunuch’s. “What do you think I would be god of, if I were one of you?”
“Technically, every frost giant is regarded by Asgard as a minor deity of ice, snow and Winter. And mushrooms.”
“Mushrooms?” A sharp yelp of a laugh, not unlike the sound you might get by kicking a dog in the ribs. “I don’t even know…”
The taller speaker stopped, and looked away, until Hogun prompted him. “Know?”
“You were talking.”
“Was I? About what?”
“Oh, yes. I meant to say that I don’t even know what those are. Why would you make us gods of them?”
“I never said the system made sense. Something to do with growing in dark places atop decaying things, I suppose.”
“Oh! Oh. Is that meant to be flattering?”
King Helblindi Laufeyson had agreed to lend Asgard the Casket of Ancient Winters to ensure their victory against the fire giants, in exchange for a thousand years untaxed use of the Bifrost. Thor hadn’t liked it, but Sif had reminded him that Asgard’s armies still dwarfed those of Jotunheim, and it wasn’t as though they had any alternative.
He had also sent them his brother, who, Hogun was beginning to understand, had been elevated to the position of high priest since Helblindi’s succession. In his official capacity, he was to perform certain rituals that would ensure that the Casket was not corrupted by something something vague and ominous. Hogun found religion dull, and had paid little attention to the specifics of the Casket’s spiritual vulnerability.
In his unofficial capacity, he was a hostage.
To ensure one another’s loyalty while the war with the fire giants raged on, Odin and Helblindi had arranged a swap. Frigga now read poems and healed the ill in Helblindi’s keep, doing more for Jotnar-Aesir relations than Odin had done in millennia, and Prince Byleistr Laufeyson now resided in the royal palace, upsetting all that dwelt therein.
And, Hogun had come to suspect, trying to bankrupt the House of Odin. As soon as it had been explained to him that, as an ambassador from an allied realm, he had, for the duration of his stay, an unlimited expense account, he had set out for the market and accumulated every single thing that took his fancy. Food too hot for him to eat, clothes too small for him to wear, bridles for horses he did not have. He did nothing with them, but hoarded them all in the palace rooms he had been given.
Occasionally, he would present Hogun with something he had found – a saddle, a crab, a fluff-lined hat (‘It looks just like you, furry Asgardian!’) – and all of these accompanied by the offer of a fuck. That was the second thing Hogun had learned about the third prince of Jotunheim. There was nothing that did not put him in the mood for a fuck, be it shopping or sparring or breathing air.
As a consequence of his escapades in the market, Byleistr had become the only frost giant Hogun had ever met to wear more than one layer of clothing. At the moment, he wore three cloaks, five sets of tunics, worn one over the other, and several medallions of office, all of which had been commissioned a day before his arrival. Altogether, his assorted garments gave the impression of extra weight (or, Fandral had cruelly suggested, of a Swartalfheim rag merchant.)
“I like your hair,” said Byleistr, whose chosen method of flirtation was only slightly less subtle than Fandral’s. “May I touch it?”
”No,” Hogun growled. “And you should not ask. It is rude.”
Byleistr laughed, but Hogun had come to realise that such laughs were more often a way of releasing something bottled inside him than a genuine show of amusement.
“Forgive me,” Byleistr said. “In Jotunheim, to touch any part of another’s body without permission is impolite. To place your fingertips upon another’s face without permission; deeply impolite, implying the social inferiority of the party being touched. To actually grip another is sufficient grounds for a blood feud. Asgardians always seem much more… relaxed, by comparison. You put arms on shoulders and clasp hands and put your lips together without ever asking permission first. Is it different, with hair?”
“It is different with my hair,” said Hogun. “I am not of Asgard.”
“But you are a god.”
“One of Asgard’s many adopted children. I was born on Midgard. I served under a great and terrible king who we called ‘Ocean’. I was one of his most formidable warriors, though I was but a boy. Then, one day, when I was scarcely twelve, I offended him. He called for my death. As I was preparing for the next world, a boy with yellow hair and a boy with red hair fell from the sky and landed in the middle of my king’s army. They saved me and brought me to Asgard.”
“And Odin let you stay?”
“Odin’s realm is open to all who are in need.” Because Byleistr snickered at this (in a way that suggested that it was, in fact, this that he was snickering at , and not something one of his dead relatives had said), Hogun felt compelled to add, “Unlike Laufey’s.”
“Is that so, fursome one? My oldest brother was born undersized. My second oldest brother was born blind. I was born with powers of sight and hearing that would break the minds of lesser beings. Altogether, we were the three neediest babies there have ever been.”
“Aye, and look what happened.”
Byleistr looked confused. “What are you talking about?”
Two options, thought Hogun. Either we were mistaken and he was not truly abandoned in the temple –in which case we are child-thieves – or we were not mistaken, and Byleistr was not informed that his older brother was left to die. Either way, this conversation will end badly for one of us, and really, what is the point? Loki is gone, Laufey is gone.
For a given value of ‘gone’, present company taken into consideration.
“Nothing,” said Hogun.
“And I look around,” said Byleistr, warming to his theme, “and I see none in Asgard who are blind, or diminutive, or strange as I. They must all die very young here. So you see; we take better care of our needy than you do.”
“You will see very few in Asgard with any kind of lasting afflictions,” said Hogun, and Byleistr snickered. “The golden apples of Idunn are powerful magic. They could conceivably return the light to your brother’s eyes.”
“And what purpose would that serve, Hogun of Sour Milk?”
“Has he never expressed a desire to see, as you or I do?”
Sharp, shrill laugh that went right into your ribs. “No one sees like I do,” said Byleistr. “And my brother has been blind all his life, and he has tracked me down in snow over miles and miles, in blizzards. I do not think he would want your apples.”
His head quarter-turned left, and he exchanged silent words with someone. Having been a spectator to several such conversations now, Hogun had begun to realise that Byleistr spoke to different ancestors in different ways. Now, his brow was furrowed, and his lips moved in short bites, as though he was delivering a rebuke.
“May I touch your hair?” he asked when he was done.
”You just asked that.”
”Did I? I haven’t touched it yet, so you must have said no. Why did you say no?”
“Because I am not of Asgard.”
“Neither am I. Your words are nonsense. May I touch your hair now?”
“You would not be the first. Because I am not of Asgard, for many years I was regarded as an exoticism. Gods… their lives are limitless, they crave entertainment. I was new. My strange features, my strange tongue. And my hair. Note you how few raven heads there are in Asgard? I can name but two; Loki, and myself. Many would take me to their beds, and run their fingers through my hair the whole night long. And soon I realised that it was only that, only the intriguing colour of my hair that they cared anything ab…”
Hogun heard the rock crack beneath his fingers, and winced. Pulling his hand back from the masonry, and watching a chunk of it crumble away, he thought; I normally have much more self-control than that.
“They did that to me, too,” said Byleistr.
“Helblindi said you were untouched…?”
“I am. I was. It was other children, when I was small. They invited me to play with them. I soon realised it was only because they wanted to watch me…”
His head veered sharply left and Hogun waited patiently until he returned.
“I used to have fits,” he resumed. “I still do, sometimes. And they would do things to try and bring them on, so they could watch. Apparently it was very funny.”
“I am sorry.”
“It’s alright. I told my brother, and he held them down while I blessed them with the Ritual of the Weeping Snow.”
“What is that?”
“An old curse. You don’t even need magic to perform it.”
“What does it entail?”
“I pissed on their faces, then Helblindi buried them up to their necks. We meant to go back for them, but by the time we remembered where we’d left them, the birds had pecked out their eyes.”
“I will not ask you again,” said Byleistr. “If I do, ignore me. May I lick you, then?”
“On your face. It is how we express comfort. Well, no, that’s a lie. I really just want to know what you taste like.”
It was less like being licked by a kitten and more like having someone rub a wet, dead fish across one’s cheek.
"What do I taste like?"
“You want to have sex now, don’t you.”
”Ooh, can we?”
Having one of the monsters had mothers used to frighten their children not only living in Asgard but unashamedly stomping about the market everyday naturally raised some concerns.
“All I am suggesting is that we lock his door at night,” said Sif. “And station a guard outside. And limit his movements to the palace and its grounds.”
Hogun frowned. “Jotnar sleep beneath open skies on open tundra. Even Laufey’s fortress didn’t have a roof. To confine him would be to threaten him.”
“And what if he sneaks out in the middle of the night and attempts to assassinate Odin in his bed?”
”Odin has not been in his bed since the war began. And even if he was, I can name species of fungus more likely to successfully assassinate the Allfather than Byleistr.”
“And what of the rest of us?” Fandral chimed in. “I don’t fancy waking up to find your new love sitting on my chest, a dagger in one hand and my throat in the other.”
“Fandral, have you seen the way he walks? The way he dresses? You can hear the footstep of a deer ten miles away. The only way you would fail to hear him creeping up to your door would be if a travelling circus were setting up camp beside your bed at the same time.”
"I just think he's creepy," Fandral muttered.
“I think it’s sweet that you care so much about him,” said Volstagg.
Hogun did not bother to deny it; he did not believe in wasting words.
That night, as Hogun was making his way past the obstacle course formed by Byleistr’s massive horde of trinkets to where Byleistr reclined on his bed (which he had formed from ice, spurning the sumptuous four-poster in the corner), Byleistr said, “That thing, that… what did you call it?”
“Door. Yes. Could you put a rock in front of it before you leave tonight? Or anything heavy. Then come and move it away in three hours or so. I do not sleep for very long in this hot weather.”
”Have you been listening to Fandral’s talk?” Hogun asked.
“Who is Fandral?”
“Why do you want me to trap you in your room?”
“I sometimes get up and move about in the middle of the night. Helblindi usually does it. At home, before I made my room, I slept in a burrow beside a family of rock rabbits. When I asked him to, Helblindi would roll a rock over the entrance, so I couldn’t get out. He didn’t like doing it, because he said it was like caging an animal, but I’m good at getting him to do what I say.”
“Because I find it frightening.”
“To wake up outside. When the night is bad, I sometimes move about without waking up. Or I do wake up, but I don’t know I’ve woken up. I walk away, and I’ve gotten lost a few times. Which is fun, but then I can’t find my way back, because I can’t track for shit. And then he has to come and find me, which ruins his night. So; the rock.”
“I see,” said Hogun, brow furrowed as he clambered into Byleistr’s lap, pulling away layers and layers of cloth until smooth blue skin was exposed to him. With a jolt, he realised that he liked it. Lanky arms wrapped around his chest as one hand sought out his cock and gingerly fingered it until it hardened.
“Don’t you find it irritating?” Byleistr asked, afterwards. He gestured to Hogun’s flaccid cock. “Having it… flopping about as you walk.”
“I have never noticed any disadvantage,” Hogun said. “Like your brother’s eyes, it has been a part of me forever.”
“And the soft, round bits beneath it, what purpose do they serve?”
Hogun fell asleep mumbling about Asgardian biology, while Byleistr kissed and poked at him.
When he woke up, Byleistr was gone. He wasn’t in the marketplace. He wasn’t skulking about the war council.
“I activated the Bifrost at Prince Byleistr’s request,” said Heimdal. “He said he was performing an errand for you.”
“Where did he go?” Hogun asked.
When Heimdal told him, the God of Stoicism became, very briefly, the God of Foul and Abrasive Language.
By the time he found Byleistr, he was already surrounded by dozens of humans with guns and tanks, a man with a garish shield and a man in a suit of armour. All of whom were clearly rattled by the appearance of a giant blue man, and were not comforted by the appearance of Hogun, whom the Bifrost deposited in a heap next to the armoured one.
“Hail, Stark,” said Hogun, remembering what Thor had told him.
"Hi," said Tony Stark. "Is Dr Manhattan with you?"
It took a long while to get it sorted out. Apparently the Mongolian Border Defence Forces had presumed that Byleistr was an alien or a cunningly disguised alien weapon, and had alerted SHIELD, who had alerted Iron Man.
“I was trying to find your ancestors,” Byleistr explained, after the balding man in the suit had taken statements from them both for the eighth time. Thorough man; Hogun approved of him. “This was where you came from, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, this is.”
And where I had hoped never to return.
“I found a few,” Byleistr said, “although it was difficult. So many things on this planet. So many dead voices. And your great leader was loudest of all. A very forthright mortal, he.”
There went that shiver again. Great Odin, if there was anyone on this planet he didn’t want to meet again… “You spoke to the khan?”
“He remembers you from amongst the thousands.”
“… You did not tell him what my name is now, did you? Or anything about Asgard? Or the Bifrost?”
It wasn’t that he really believed Byleistr spoke with the dead.
But if there was any being who could raise an army from the land of the dead and presume to march on Asgard, it would the man Hogun had worshipped as a boy.
“No. I let him speak to my father, though. They had much to say to one another. It was funny.”
And now he was picturing Laufey and the great khan advancing on Asgard side by side, an army of frost giants and the Horde behind them.
“We are leaving now,” said Hogun.
”I did speak to a few of your relatives, too,” Byleistr added, slyly.
“I’m sorry for anything they said. They were not gentle people.”
“Don’t worry, mine are worse,” said Byleistr. “They scarcely remember who you are.”
“That is for the best.”
“They suggest that you scarcely remember who you are.”
“I do not care to remember who I was.”
“Oooh.” Huge, indigo hands clapped in delight. “My funny little Asgardian has deeds to atone for! Tell me about them.”
“Did you eat someone? Did you kill a relative? Did you kill a relative who didn’t deserve it?”
“If I fuck you again, will you stop asking questions?”
“No. I want to fuck you this time.”
Hogun apologised formally to Fury’s agents, and to the shaken men and women of the Mongolian army. Glancing at their faces, he tried to find some glimpse of the land and the tribe he had known as a child, and found nothing. Mortals and mortal things were so fleeting.
Coulson made them sign some bits of paper, Captain America shook their hands and as the Bifrost opened up before them, Hogun did not look back.
The Casket needed to be blessed before it was carried into battle, according to Byleistr. Hogun watched as he stripped naked and spent a few hours with his head bowed, murmuring words no one else could hear to the Casket.
“It will acquiesce to being used as a weapon now,” he said, handing it to Thor and looking pleased with himself. “I could bless you hammer too, if you liked. We are almost brothers, are we not?”
”Aye, shaman, we are,” agreed the Thunderer. “But Mjolnir is eager enough for battle as it is. I would not have her overeager.”
“I want to be God of Bees,” Byleistr said to Hogun as the warriors made ready for war.
“I had never heard of them, but there was a woman in the market selling honey from dozens of hives. And I conferred with… with one or two friends, and we decided that bees were far more appropriate than mushrooms. Mushrooms are lumpy, often poisonous and grow on dead things. Bees are tenacious, hard-working and ferocious if attacked. Make us Gods of Bees. Or make me the God of Bees, at least.”
“I will need to speak to the scholars. Balder will have to make a special request. It could be done. He has more clout these days, now that Odin has named him heir.”
“Excellent. Excellent. No, that’s a stupid idea.”
“Sorry, was that for me?”
“No, no, someone else. Come, funny little Asgardian, I wish to show you my new hive collection.”