Jötunnheimr was even colder than the stories spoke of.
Sif's tongue stuck to her teeth, made clammy by the chill in the air. Her throat was a dry hum in the back of her mouth. The points of her that her winter garb let through – the front of her neck, the sliver of skin between gloves and sleeves so exposed when she could not hold still, were as white as the winter around her, and just as cold.
Her feet made patterns in the fresh snow as they had walked to the capitol city from where the bifröst had let them down. She had marveled at how quickly the snow fell here, Loki at her side snickering that the giants needed it to be so in order to keep themselves from sinking down in the drifts. If she struck to find ground beneath the snow, the stonework of Útgarðar would be a steel shade of blue, etched deep with foreign lines. While Asgard was all the brilliant skies of the cosmos and long sweeping curves of bronze and gold (like a star had fallen and formed Goðheimr with its very heart), the realm of ice and snow was all silver and blue and endless cloudy skies above. The sun had not shone since the Casket of Ancient Winters had been taken from the Jötunn king on high, and in its place, the deep drifts of snow seemed to glow all around them.
It had been four centuries since the Great War had been won, and the Aesir restored peace to the realms – letting great Yggdrasil's limbs once more rest in repose. It was a story Sif had long since grown on – a story she had heard from her lady mother before the hearth, and one she had heard Odin Allfather tell time and time again when they sat to feast.
The land just seemed . . . empty now. Empty as if a great frozen spirit had exhaled across the sky and had forgotten to take its breath back in again.
It was a world she had not thought to visit herself – not until her years and steel demanded it of her, at any rate. She had been brought along simply to give the princes two something to amuse themselves with. The last thing a peaceful meeting needed was a bored Thor and a mischievous Loki – better that the three of them tumbled together in the courtyards while the giant's eyes watched them from far above, each gaze shining as embers lost to the chill of the wastes.
Odin Allfather and Laufey Jötunnfather had been speaking since the high part of morning, renewing the peace treaties between their peoples, and near noon, the princes two and the girl who would be a warrior were called forth before the court.
Even as young as she was, she could feel the violence in the room when Odin introduced them. She could feel the hard eyes on the golden armor of the Allfather – shining so brightly in the dimly lit ways. Laufey's eyes had slipped over Thor – whom Loki had elbowed to keep the other from wiping at his nose in front of a foreign court – saying only how much like Frigg the boy appeared, and nodding when Odin boasted of his first's early achievements with sword and shield. His gaze had rested longer on Loki, curious as the small child – a head taller than Thor but seemingly a reed where Thor was an oak tree, firmly planted – tilted his head and met his gaze straight on. A pause, and Laufey had said nothing of his opinion until Odin had carefully mentioned his second's proficiency with the arts of seiðr. Sif, behind Loki and Thor, had moved her left foot up to knock against the back of Loki's boot at the pause in Odin's voice, seeing how the other fought a sigh.
Laufey had raised a brow at that, and his court rumbled a laugh. Loki had stiffened, an instinctive anger coloring high on his cheeks, before realizing that the laughter was not for his talents, but for the Allfather himself. “Then the boy is wasted upon your race,” the Jötunn king's humor had thundered. “He shall learn naught from Asgard's laughable mages – few as they are.”
“Quick enough I learn under my father's gaze,” Loki spoke so before Odin could – his eyes slipping up to the older man, eager to bring honor to his father's name. His voice did not tremble, even as his hands clenched – a boy before giants, and so feeling their weight. He stepped forward at his claim, approaching the king's dais as green flames leapt and swirled about his hands. Loki's brow furrowed, and sweat beaded upon his forhead, even with the cold wind that echoed in the open halls of Útgarðar's keep. The flames took on shapes in his hands – three wolves, chasing themselves in endless circles, the heart of the flame like a full moon shining above the spirits. The flames howled in his hands, filling the throneroom with the song of wolves, their song ancient and true.
Laufey's gaze hooked into a grin, still sharp upon his face. A part of Sif had felt like the Jötunn king could swallow her whole if he so chose with that smile. Subtly, she stepped closer to the princes, feeling a fight even though no battle raged.
“Well done, young one,” the giant rumbled, his voice sounding in their bones rather than in their ears. He waved a hand, and the ranks of his men parted for a slighter form to walk through. “Angrboða, see if you can show the sorcerer prince the way of a true mage while . . . peace is discussed amongst his elders.” The word was a slur upon Laufey's tongue. Odin stood straighter in a warrior's pose, even as he nodded his head in agreement.
The girl – Angrboða, Laufey had introduced the enchantress as, was young by Jotunn standards, but she still stood taller than all of the Aesir – nearly three heads taller than Loki, who was a willow towering over them all. Her limbs were long and thick – supple and streamlined, and almost completely bare to the winter all around them. She wore scales and fur about her chest, binding her breasts; and a short skirt of the same that stopped high upon her thighs. Black beads dangled around her neck, held down with a dozen tokens and talismans. Her head was completely shaved – letting the black markings of her people stand stark and proudly against her skin, telling a tale that Sif was ignorant to.
Loki stepped forth, almost curiously; and Sif rolled her eyes at the flare of feeling there, knowing that she had lost her friend for the remainder of their trip.
Eventually, Sif and Thor tired of watching the tricks that the two traded back and forth. She herself bore not of the elemental arts in her veins – only fire and steel, and the same was true of Thor. And so, the grand expanse of the courtyard beyond would serve them far better than the shadowed scroll rooms where the seiðr wielders practiced. She needed movement for her restless feet – and sparring kept the chill from her bones and the ice from her fingers better than anything else.
Laughing and shouting their war cries, they slipped over the ice, and used the clumsy footing to learn and grow. Soon Sif was using the ice to her advantage – needing every inch she could gain with Thor, who was like an oxen armed with thunder and lightning. She needed to fight smart with him – and so she factored in the slipping, using the sliding to tuck her rolls, and trip Thor's feet out from under him. He could level her with but a blow, and so she aimed to be quicker than all. Their fights were even, as they often were, and they did not realize their passing of the day until a ball of snow hit Thor squarely in the face – splattering upon his square brow, and catching in his hair.
“Loki!” Thor bellowed when laughter sounded past them both – quick and low, like a snake in the grass.
Sif smiled at the sound, and instantly grabbed for the snow at her feet, eager to return fire. Her own snowball was stopped as Loki lifted a hand – stopping the missile right before it hit his face. With a smirk, he raised a flaming hand, turning the snow to water upon his fingertips.
“Cheat,” Sif sneered, hands propped arrogantly on her narrow hips.
“Clever,” Loki returned, flicking the water from his bare hands – for he never did wear gloves against the winter. He didn't even wear the thick furs that Thor and Sif wore against the bite in the air – instead he was a shadow to the ruins around them, an extension of the cold.
“That is not the word I would use,” Thor declared grandly, shaking his hair out as if he were a dog emerging from the water. Droplets struck at Sif, and she made a face.
“That is just because it is something you cannot do,” Loki pointed out. “Better my way than rolling around in the snow like uncivilized barbarians.” His words echoed all around them as the three of them climbed up to sit down atop one of the large fallen columns that decorated Útgarðar. Their feet were barely able to dangle over the edge, so great was the mass of the ruins. Rebuilding was long, and rebuilding was slow, and without the casket, it would continue to be so for the icy race.
The approaching night made the air even colder. Now that she and Thor were not sparring as they had been, she felt the cold acutely. She buried her gloved hands in the crook of her elbows, trying to warm them.
Loki saw her, and concentrated. This time when he summoned a small flame in his hand, not only could he control its form – but it was bound enough so that he could pass the tongue of heat to her. Another to Thor. She looked down in amazement at the flame she held, a green mark against the grey tones all around them.
And out from her mouth spilled, “Is that something you learned from the enchantress?”
“Angrboða?” Loki asked. “Yes, she showed me that.”
The flame seemed colder in her hands, but Sif could not discern why. She set her mouth into a line, remembering the smile that had so graced Loki's face when the Jötunn woman had went about explaining a text that had long eluded the Aesir. How token were the elemental arts were token to the Jötunn people. How Loki had not stared only at her hands as she wove her enchantments, but at the long line of her neck, the twist of her lips . . .
“Oh,” Sif said neutrally.
“What else did the witch show you?” Thor asked where she would not. He had never feared the power of words, so he was often times careless with the weight of his own.
Loki snorted delicately at the term. “A great many things – all of which would be past you were I to attempt to describe.”
Thor shrugged. “Suit yourself,” said the first son. “I am surprised you were able to bear it – spending an afternoon's time with a daughter of the Jötnar.” His tongue made a slur of the word. “Perhaps your bravery is past what many give you credit for.”
“She was enlightening company,” Loki did defend the other. “Indeed, I would put her mind past what half of Odin's warriors could keep up with -”
“ - your kin,” Thor pointed out.
“Your comrades,” Loki stressed the first word – popped it out of his mouth like a seed.
Thor leaned back on his elbows, looking his second out of the corner of his eyes. “I,” he declared thoughtfully, “think that you like her.”
Loki snorted. “And what put that particular bit of insanity into your mind?”
Thor shrugged. “It is the only reason I could see you defending such a one when we are in the hall of such monsters.”
Besides Thor, Sif moved her flame to one hand so that she could hit Thor's arm with the other. “Silence,” she hissed. “It will not do to slight our hosts.” The conversation from the two had put a frown on her face. It deepened so when Thor scoffed, drawing Loki's frown as well.
“It is ridiculous,” Thor went on, “coming here under the facade of peace -”
“ - even the most warring souls wish for peace,” Loki countered his brother. “And even if it wasn't so – it wouldn't do to insult them so in the shadows of Jötunnheimr.”
“You would say that,” Thor chuckled, lost to the idea of his own sagacity. “Imagine, you and the witch shall have a litter of half-breeds -”
“Royalty, all,” Loki sniffed in response to the teasing, his nose in the air.
“ - who shall have too much of the seiðr's powers for their own good -”
“ - all to take up arms against your own line, naturally,” Loki said without missing a beat.
“Such heathens they will be that they shall bring Ragnarök to your door -”
“Ragnarök only? Trust them to set fire to the universe whole rather than mere Yggdrasil eternal.”
Sif clasped her hands together at the words, extinguishing her flame. “You,” she finally said, narrowing her eyes at Thor, “are letting your tongue run away with you. After all, wouldn't you look better than all with a Jötunn bride? She will be as large and thick skulled as you, and bear you a dozen strong sons – and each shall be as much a brute as their father.”
Thor sniffed. “And the lady Sif here may not look further for ice – already she is composed of it enough to make a fitting bride for one of the Jötnar! Why such ire, my friend? It is not as if you were jealous.” Thor elbowed the girl between them.
Sif trained her gaze, ever fierce, on the first prince. “And to think that I was silent as to your appraisal of the Lady Járnsaxa,” she drawled in a way that was long learned from Loki – dangerous when merged with a violence that was all her own. “You could scarce take your eyes off of her the whole time Odin was presenting us to Laufey Jötunnfather.”
Thor colored brightly, and Sif felt her grin turn sharp. “I was simply admiring her – the Jötunn have so few warriors worthy of us, and the tales of her prowess with the blade have spread the nine realms wide.”
“Of course,” Sif let the prince his falsehoods, satisfied with her words striking true. There was still smoke in her palms, Loki's spell not so easily extinguished, and so she rubbed her hands together. Loki was looking at her oddly, a narrowing to his gaze that she could not think to interpret. Her eyes found a spot in the city straight ahead; she settled upon it, and stared.
Thor made a face. “And at that, my lady – I must take my leave of you. I am sure that the peace talks have concluded, and I am anxious to leave this place.” He tugged at the fur of his coat, drawing it closer. Easily, he leapt down from their perch upon the column. At his leave, Sif scooted closer to Loki, seeking his heat.
Together, they watched Thor depart, the glimmer of him too bright to be swallowed by the grey cast of the ruins all around them. He was a smear of yellow and red – gold and blood against the wasteland, and Sif followed the flare of him until her eyes could no more.
“Child,” Sif so declared, tossing her nose into the air so that the shorn edges of her hair tossed arrogantly – the length of it just now having regrown to brush her jawline. The movement of it drew Loki's eye before he looked back out at the ruins of Útgarðar, tracing the flakes of snow that had started to decorate the darkening sky.
He smiled at her words, but did not comment. Time passed. Sif counted her heartbeats.
“She was beautiful,” Sif finally said in a whisper, voice heavy as if acknowledging a great secret. “You would not be remiss in admiring her so.”
Loki shrugged. “It was her power which drew me.”
Sif frowned at that, recalling soft skin revealed to the cold, and clever eyes as dark as burning stars. She bit her lip. Before her eyes, her bangs were long and black – unruly as always. Her elbows poked at her winter garb, all skin and bone just learning how to fall into place.
“Indeed, she was powerful,” Sif found the words weak on her tongue where she had intended them to be strong.
Loki blinked, as if surprised to hear the tone from her. “In some ways,” he said, almost carefully.
In others . . .
Sif found her gaze hooking upon him – upon the pale hollow of his cheek which was shadowed blue by Jötunnheimr's approaching eve, upon the ever glinting eyes which were colorless in the shadows of his face. Still, she knew them to be green. So very green.
Her fingers itched at her sides. She fought the urge to clasp them. Words rose in her throat, but none of them seemed to make it to her mouth. She choked upon them. And so, she exhaled, letting her hands move. While the second's gaze was so focused upon her eyes, she let her gloved hands find the snow full and white at her side, gathering fistfuls. Unceremoniously, she struck, and smeared the cold snow in Loki's hair, her mouth biting into a wicked grin at the surprised sound that did so escape from him at the act.
“Sif!” Loki did shout, shaking the snow from his hair – his pale fingers long and annoyed as he combed the ice from him. His gaze was as cross as ever, and she did grin wider at it.
“And there! You look to be a proper Jötunn now! Fit for your frozen bride -”
“Truly?” Loki sputtered, but there was mirth in his eyes – his smile stretching in a promising way about his lips. He waved a hand, and the snow around them lifted in a dangerous way.
“Loki Odinson,” Sif so hissed, backing though she had no where to go – just the edge of the column and Loki before her. “You would not dare.”
She shrieked as the snow dumped upon her. She held up her arms to shield her head, but to no avail – she could feel the snow heavy upon her hair, at the nape of her neck. She shook, annoyed as the heat from her body threatened to make the snow melt. She would be sodden, and it was all Loki's fault.
He was laughing outright now, his bangs as soaked as her own, his skin bright in the winter light.
“Now who is properly adorned for one of the Jötnar?” Loki did snicker.
Sif snorted, throwing her nose high in the air. “As if such a man could ever win my hand.”
“He'd have to be stupid,” Loki shook his head.
“Or brave,” Sif defended.
“Utterly thoughtless,” Loki drawled, and Sif could not help the laughter on her tongue, interrupting her ire. Her glance upon him was warm – warmer still than the winter all around them. Warmer than the heat and promise of magic in Angrboða's eyes.
She shook her head, and felt the growing strands of her hair tickle her jawbone. “Come now, if we are to be suitably chilled, it shall happen some place warmer than this.”
She stood, and reached down to pull Loki to his feet. His skin was cool under her own, but not cold. Never cold. When she tugged at him, he followed, more a shadow to her than any of the dark places cast by the ruins of Jötunnheimr all around them.