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Trickster's Game

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Gods, like men, require entertainment to while away their free time. Sadly, even the most godlike pursuits can lose their charm after a millennium or two-hence the well-known saying, "If you've slain one three-headed fire-breathing monster, you've slain them all."

So what do gods do when they find themselves bored at the prospect of yet another round of superhuman deeds and excessive feasting? All too often, they look for diversion in the human world, a place made interesting by its ever-changing parade of inhabitants. In pursuit of entertainment, the gods may drive men to madness; they may heap them with glory ... or they may simply drop in for a drink on a winter's evening.

Be prepared.

---

It was snowing in Midgard again. Wet, heavy flakes clung to the branches of the fir trees and drifted down to join the thick blanket that already lay across the mountain's flank, glowing bluish-white in the gathering twilight.

In the middle of the frozen expanse walked a man, old, but straight and strong and broad of shoulder, with a satchel slung across his body and a staff clasped in one hand. A close observer might have noticed that he wasn't leaning on the staff at all, despite the steepness of the slope. An even closer observer might have noticed that he left no footprints in the snow.

A squawk cut through the frosty air, and the man stopped in his nonexistent tracks for a moment. He turned his face skyward, revealing one keen grey eye and one battered leather eye patch, and frowned at the two black birds wheeling and diving above him.

"Shoo!" hissed Odin, the All-Father, lord of Asgard and wisest man in all the nine worlds. "Go on, shove off! Go find something dead to eat!" He shook his fist at the ravens, and they grudgingly flapped off toward the summit of the mountain, doing fancy loops and dives along the way.

Show-offs, thought Odin. He turned back and squinted through the falling snow at the cluster of buildings that lay ahead, perched on a stretch of flat ground like dinner on a platter. He'd been wandering all afternoon, looking for just such a place to try out his welcome. He liked to make sure that humans remembered the importance of hospitality, even though he knew full well they only took in travelers for fear of turning away gods in disguise. If you could prove to a human that the beggar on his step was really just an old woman with unfortunate hygiene, he would cheerfully slam the door in her face, even in the middle of a blizzard.

Odin snorted to himself and drew his furs closer around his neck. Even a god could get cold, and the dim flicker of firelight in the windows looked warm and inviting.

The first door he reached belonged to a fellow called Egil Finnbogisson, who ushered him with all due ceremony into a cozy hall made even snugger by the presence of a dozen pigs. The pigs were wintering indoors with the family to stop them freezing in their sheds, and they had made themselves thoroughly at home. The All-Father found he could not stretch his legs out without encountering a bristly back or a set of trotters, and it was hard to carry on a conversation above the grunting. Finnbogisson did not apologize for the pigs, but he did muster a decent welcome for his guest, and Odin resolved to reward him before he left. Some said that the reward for behaving properly was not being changed into something unspeakable by an angry god, but Odin was very nearly as wise and just as his reputation proclaimed, and he believed that one good turn deserved another. Besides, he was enjoying himself. Finnbogisson had been a warrior and a raider for many years before settling down to raise livestock, and he was full of just the sort of stories Odin liked to hear, tales of blood and valor and plunder. If not for the pigs, it would have been as good as a feast at home in Valhalla.

As Finnbogisson's tale reached its climax, one of his servant girls brought in another platter of meat - the pigs squealed when they saw it, as if recognizing a departed friend - and the All-Father tore into a large chunk with gusto, juice running down his chin and getting caught in his beard. He was gnawing away when Finnbogisson suddenly said, "Ah, there you are, wife! Where have you been? We have a guest."

"I was seeing to something in the women's quarters," said a low, feminine voice that sounded vaguely familiar to Odin. Wondering if it might be one of the many human women he had dallied with in the past, he turned around to look at her, and promptly inhaled the piece of meat he was chewing.

Finnbogisson's wife was leaning - almost lounging - against a wooden post. She had long, reddish hair done in a series of elaborate plaits, but that was not her most striking feature. It was her eyes, amber like a fox's, and her high, sharp cheekbones that, combined with the meat, took Odin's breath away. Granted, last time he'd seen those features, they'd not been atop such a sweetly curved body, but he knew them. Knew him.

Loki!

He wanted to bellow the Jotun's name in a voice that would shake the roof-beam of the house, but was hampered by the small problem of not being able to breathe. The meat seemed to have expanded when it reached the back of his throat and was now sending gristly fingers down his windpipe. Black spots swam in front of his one eye. Through the increasing light-headedness, he wondered what Destiny would have to say about it if he did not turn up at Ragnarok because he had ignominiously choked to death on a piece of pig.

"Oh dear, let me help you with that," said the Loki-lady with a smile full of mischief. Coming forward,she whacked the All-Father on the back much harder than any woman could have done. Odin bent double, coughing and wheezing like a cat with indigestion, and finally spat the chunk of meat - somewhat the worse for wear - onto the straw-covered floor. Quick as a flash, a feathery black shape swooped in from the upper regions of the hall, snatched the meat up on the wing, and swooped away again.

"Is he all right, wife?" asked Finnbogisson, who had risen from his seat in worry. Odin's one eye, streaming with tears, zoomed to Finnbogisson's face and encountered a mixture of concern and blissful ignorance. His host clearly had no idea that his "wife" was a renegade giant, an outcast god, and an all-around nuisance - not to mention a man in disguise. Although it was no wonder that Finnbogisson hadn't realized that last bit, thought Odin. He'd seen Loki assume female form in the past, before he'd been permanently banned from Asgard, but he had never seen him looking quite so ... well, so luscious.

He felt Loki's presence above him, hovering, and looked up warily. Yes, it's me, blood brother, said the gaze that met his. You know it, and I know you know it. The question is, what are you going to do about it?

It was a question that would trouble Odin's mind all the way home.

---

When the All-Father came bellowing across the bridge from Midgard and burst into Valhalla in a frenzy, his son Thor and the god Freyr were the first two unfortunate souls he encountered, and therefore the ones who had to bear the full brunt of his rage.

"With all respect," said Freyr when Odin reached the end of the tale, "why did you not do anything about it?" As he spoke, he took a step back from the raised platform that held the All-Father's great carven chair. Thor, who did not believe discretion was any part of valor, remained standing at his father's feet.

"I'd been invited into Finnbogisson's house under the rules of hospitality," snarled Odin. "I couldn't very well repay him by taking his wife away, now could I? Even if his wife is a damned troublemaking wretch ... should have killed him when I had the chance, banishment was too good ..."

Freyr and Thor exchanged a look. Neither had had firm plans for the evening, but listening to Odin rant and rave about his adopted brother did not appeal.

"He's up to something," Odin went on. He flung himself into his chair and batted away a raven that had settled on his shoulder. "He's caused enough trouble among the Aesir and Vanir to last until the end of time; why should I not think he is doing the same among the people of Midgard"

"Perhaps he's simply taken a fancy for this man Finnbogisson," suggested Thor. "It has been known to happen."

"Loki has had giantesses and goddesses in his day," Odin growled. "Why set his sights on a human pig farmer?"

"A rich pig farmer, you said."

"It makes no difference!" said Odin irritably, swatting at the other raven. "Rich or poor, he is still a pig farmer, and Loki has been in his house, living as a pig farmer's wife and doing woman's work, for more than half a year. No passing fancy is worth that much. He is up to some foul trickery, and I will not stand for it; I will not have him tormenting humans the way he tormented all of us for so long."

The thunder god listened to this with his broad brow furrowed, fingering the shaft of his hammer as if he were remembering all the things Loki had done to him and his family in the past. Thor had always forgiven the Jotun, who was his closest friend in all the nine worlds, but Freyr thought that if push came to shove, Thor would most likely side with Odin over Loki.

"What will you do, Father?" Thor asked at last.

"It isn't what I will do, my son," said Odin. "It is what you will do. I have been Finnbogisson's guest, but you and Freyr have not. I want you to go there and remove Loki at once."

"And then what?" asked Thor. "Should we bring him back to Asgard so you can punish him?"

"I don't care what you do with him," said Odin. He pushed up his eye patch and rubbed the vacant space underneath as though it ached. "Just get him out of Finnbogisson's house before he can do what he does best."

"Sleep with a man?" Freyr asked blandly.

"Wear women's clothing?" offered Thor.

"CAUSE TROUBLE!" boomed Odin. The walls of Vallhalla shuddered; its five hundred and forty doors clanged madly back and forth as if in an earthquake. Far away, birds fell out of the sky, stunned by the sonic wave.

Thor and Freyr had not lived a dozen centuries without learning what was good for them. They were halfway to the rainbow bridge before the echoes of the All-Father's voice had fully died away.

---

When Odin traveled among humans, he took pains to conceal his divinity, even if it meant slogging through the snow, climbing mountains on foot and otherwise doing things the hard way. The other gods were not as concerned with such convolutions, and so Freyr, who ruled over weather as well as fertility, simply cleared a path for Thor's chariot. For a hundred yards all around them, it was summer, complete with lush green grass, flowers, sunshine and bees. Outside their moving oasis, everything remained buried under two feet of snow. It was also dark: Odin had come rushing home in such a rage-fueled hurry that it was still night in Midgard.

As they rode, Thor outlined a plan that was effective in its brutal simplicity.

"We'll wait outside the privy, and when he turns up, we'll knock him over the head and take him."

"What if he doesn't have to go?" inquired Freyr.

"He'll have to go," said Thor, with the assurance born of long experience. "He may be descended of giants, but he has a bladder the size of a button."

The human village was not too far from the hidden bridge, and by the time the gods arrived, the first grey light was just beginning to creep across the snow-covered roofs of Finnbogisson's farm. They quickly located the privy outside the longhouse and settled in behind it to wait. Neither god was happy about the location - the smell was dreadful, and bits of Thor kept sticking out around the edges of the little wooden lean-to - but the thought of facing the All-Father's wrath if they went back without carrying out his instructions kept them both in hiding. They waited, and waited, and waited some more, while a succession of people who were not Loki went in and out, doing their business swiftly and cursing the cold. At last, Thor signaled excitedly to Freyr with an elbow in the ribs that their target was in sight. Neither of them had seen this woman's shape of Loki's before, but they knew him just as well as Odin had. A god was still a god, with a god's bearing and aura, even when he was on his way to the outhouse.

Loki picked his way through the trodden snow, and in their hiding place, Thor nudged Freyr again and held up three huge fingers, folding them into his palm one at a time in a silent countdown. When the attack came, it was swift and nearly noiseless. A short scuffle - a muffled burst of cursing - and then two shadowy figures were running away in the bitter dawn, the larger with a suspiciously person-shaped bundle slung over his shoulder, kicking and struggling.

Inside Egil Finnbogisson's house, the pigs raised their heads from their straw beds, listening, then grunted and went back to sleep. They hadn't liked Loki very much anyway.

Thor was so caught up in the thrill of the capture that he would have charged right past the chariot, still carrying his burden, if Freyr had not hooked a hand into the back of his magic belt and brought him up short. He flipped Loki over his shoulder - more gently than usual, in deference to his female form - and let him roll onto the green summer grass that had spread itself out all around them. A snowshoe hare hopped into the circle; stopped, looking surprised to discover that it suddenly had the wrong fur on; and hopped out again as fast as its oversized feet would carry it.

Loki sprawled there, his skirt hiked up far enough to prove he was a woman (and a redhead) all over, and looked up at Thor and Freyr with an expression of immense, weary boredom.

"He sent you, then," Loki said. "I knew he would, as soon as I saw him. He could never leave me be."

"He had to," said Thor, putting out a hand to help the Jotun up. "He knew you were up to some mischief."

"What mischief?" asked Loki in an innocent voice. He ignored Thor's hand and lay back on the grass with his arms folded behind his head, as if he were sunbathing. "I was simply trying out life as a human, and doing quite well at it, too, till you two came along."

"Not just as a human," said Freyr. "As a woman, and the wife of a man. It isn't natural."

Loki grinned wickedly up at him. "Says the man who slept with his sister."

"I did not," said Freyr through clenched teeth. Thor shot him a worried look; he knew how sick Freyr was of those old rumors.

"Why shouldn't you?" Loki asked. "Everyone else has."

Freyr was beginning to look as though he had lockjaw. A most un-godlike purple hue crept into his face and marred his fair, ethereal beauty.

"Say what you like, Jotun. At least I am not the one who played the mare and bore a stallion's child -" Snarling, Loki launched himself at Freyr, his flesh suddenly stretching and reshaping into its own male form as he went. He struck Freyr somewhere between the knees and the waist, and they fell over together with a monstrous thud that reminded Thor of a youthful midnight expedition to tip cows in Jotunheim. Reflexively, he checked the grass for the leavings of a herd of giant cattle, but found only buttercups and clover.

Freyr and Loki were still rolling around together on the turf, punching and choking each other. Loki seemed to be getting the better of the fight, and Thor took a moment to admire his technique before reaching down, grabbing each god by the scruff of the neck, and lifting them to their feet.

"That's enough of that," Thor rumbled, holding them apart at arm's length. Stray blows hit his chest and belly and bounced off with no effect. He shook the two gods like a pair of naughty boys, then let them go.

Loki looked as angry as a wet ginger tomcat, but he stopped fighting and folded his arms over his chest defiantly. Freyr turned away and stared out at the frozen snowscape beyond his enchanted circle of summer, his back stiff as if he were pretending he had not just been scuffling on the ground with a man who was also a woman.

"This is stupid," Loki said. "All right, Odin asked you to take me away from Egil's house, and you've done it. You're finished. I have better things to do than wrestle with you, so why not just let me go?"

"Father did say we could do whatever we liked as long as we got him out," Thor reminded Freyr. "So we could let him go, couldn't we?"

"Oh, don't go all soft over him," snapped Freyr, turning around again. "It gets you into trouble every time."

Thor ignored this and addressed Loki directly. "If we let you go, you must promise not to go back to Finnbogisson's house. If Father catches you posing as a human man's wife again, there will be blood spilt, and it won't be mine, I can tell you."

"I swear on my life that I will not pose as a human man's wife again," said Loki, radiating sincerity. "Now may I go?"

"Freyr?"

"Oh, I suppose so," said Freyr irritably, and Thor grinned.

"Go on, then," he said to Loki. Without another word, Loki turned and stalked out of the circle, kicking at the ground deliberately and sending up a spray of snow as he crossed from summer into winter.

"Good riddance to bad rubbish," said Freyr. "Come, we should go back to Valhalla and tell the All-Father we have done his bidding."

"You go on ahead," said Thor, who was still watching as Loki's dark shape grew smaller and smaller against the blinding white landscape. "Take the chariot. I'll catch up."

---

Inside Egil Finnbogisson's longhouse, all was in an uproar. Egil had lain abed for a long time, waiting for his wife to return, and when he had at last got up to look for her, he had been in a bad temper. When he discovered that she had vanished without a trace, his anger had turned to bewilderment. He had been pacing up and down the main room for an hour, trying to work out where she might have gone, and shouting at anyone who offered him a possible solution.

"She wouldn't have left me!" said Egil to one of his grown sons, who had just suggested that very thing. "She liked it here. I was good to her. And anyway, if she had wanted to go, she would have divorced me first, to make it official." Looking abashed, the young man slunk off to sit in one of the sleeping alcoves and make a great show of checking the bindings on his shield.

"Perhaps someone has taken her," suggested a voice from the shadows.

"Who said that?" hissed Egil.

"I did," said Loki, stepping out of his corner and sitting down on one of the hearthstones. He adjusted his position a bit to make sure the flames would provide a dramatic backlight for his act. Half of dealing with humans was effect, he thought smugly. No, more than half. They were so easy to befuddle and mislead. Take Egil, for example. It had been seven months, and he still had no idea that his treasured young wife and the tall redheaded man who had arrived soon after their marriage, claiming to be his long-lost cousin, were one and the same person. And Egil was not even a particularly stupid specimen of a human; many others Loki had met were worse.

Egil raked a battle-scarred, work-stained hand through his greying hair, thinking about what Loki had said.

"Who would do such a thing?" he asked. "Who would stain my honor that way?"

"Your brother had an eye for her," suggested Loki. "Remember how he congratulated you on finding such a fine woman? And how he said he wished he'd found her first himself?"

"He only meant to compliment me," said Egil uncertainly. "Don't you think? My own brother?"

"Brothers have fallen out over far less," said Loki.

Egil's eyes gleamed.

"Get my weapons," he said.

---

Einar Finnbogisson's farm and compound lay directly alongside his brother Egil's, as close as twins in their mother's womb. The trees had been cleared away on the flat ground, but up-slope they still clustered thickly, making a perfect vantage point for Loki to watch the ensuing battle between the two brothers, their sons, and their servants. He had slipped away around the time Egil had hurled his accusation against the startled Einar, and long before the first blow had been struck, he had been safely perched on a low-growing branch. He was leaning forward so eagerly to watch the action that when Thor appeared to one side, he nearly fell out of the tree and into the powdery snow.

"I thought I might find you here," Thor said, unhooking his hammer from his belt and setting it on top of a snow-covered boulder. There was a faint sizzle, and all the snow melted and trickled in cold rivulets down the sides of the stone.

"Did you?" Loki had been hanging onto the branch, trying to get his balance, and now he looked at Thor with barely concealed amazement. "How did you know?"

"You promised not to pose as a human's wife," said Thor. "You never promised not to come back here. I didn't think you would have left that bit out if you didn't plan on doing it."

Loki stared for a moment, then burst out laughing, with the sort of reverberating godlike laughter that makes small animals scurry for cover.

"Perhaps you aren't the dullest axe in the rack after all," he said.

Thor chuckled, his gaze on the battle below. "Maybe not."

They watched the fighting for a moment.

"Whoops," said Thor. "You may be a widow before this day is over."

"All men must die," Loki said philosophically.

"Gods too," said Thor. Loki winced. Down at the farm, the first outbuilding smoldered and began to burn.

"This is all your doing, isn't it?" Thor asked, gesturing at the mayhem.

"Of course it is," said Loki, in a tone that suggested he was about to revise his opinion of Thor's intelligence yet again. "Egil thinks his brother has stolen his wife away, and he is avenging his honor. Very thoroughly, too. I'd always meant to stir up trouble between the two of them - they're like a pair of bears, spoiling for a fight - and you and Freyr snatching me that way was my chance. You might even call it a godsend."

"And it was all just for fun?"

"Of course," said Loki again. "I'm not allowed in Asgard anymore, and they aren't too fond of me in Jotunheim either. I must find my entertainment wherever I can. Tricking humans isn't as satisfying as tricking gods and giants, though. It's altogether too easy."

"I think this was a pretty good trick," said Thor. "Oh! Did you see how the big fellow over there swung his battle-axe? I've never seen blood shoot so high in the air. He'll be joining us in Valhalla, I'm sure of it." The big god's mouth was slightly open, his face rapt as he watched flame and gore spread from one end of Einar Finnbogisson's farm to the other, bright and shocking against the snow.

"You want to go down and join in the fray, don't you?" Loki said in a soft voice. "I can see the blood hunger on your face. This is your domain, battle and killing, more than it is mine."

Thor said nothing, but the reflection of the fire danced gleefully in his eyes.

"Why don't you go?" Loki urged. "Just for five minutes."

Thor reached out to pick up his hammer, and then hesitated, one large, beefy hand hovering just above the handle.

"I won't tell the All-Father," Loki said encouragingly. "Not if you don't tell him about me. Go on."

Thor's hand came down on the hammer and jerked it up into the air. Something disappeared from his face - thought, perhaps, or conscience - and was replaced by fierce, terrible joy. Whirling the weapon over his head, he charged down the hill, bellowing, and disappeared into the growing cloud of smoke.

As soon as he was well away, Loki dropped down from the tree and clambered onto the stone, tucking his legs beneath him in the pose of a child preparing to hear a tale.

"This is becoming more entertaining by the minute," he said to himself, all but clapping his hands in glee.

"Oh, is it now?"

Loki went very still. Then, slowly, he turned around to face Odin.

"You too, blood brother?" he asked. "I thought I had found a nice, private spot here, but it seems as busy as a wharf on a sailing day." His eyes darted to Freyr, who stood beside the All-Father, looking infuriatingly golden and righteous. "Let me guess. This sister-seducer brought his report to you, and you realized what I had done and came to lecture me?"

"Half right, said Odin. "I haven't come to lecture you."

A deafening boom of thunder rolled through the sky above the mountain, and Odin looked up, then down at the Finnbogissons' land. "My son?" he asked. Loki nodded.

"You have ever led him astray," said Odin with a sigh.

"He led Finnbogisson astray too," said Freyr, clearly put out about the fresh reference to his sister.

Loki shifted uncomfortably on the rock. His privates were starting to go numb from the cold, and he wanted nothing more than to get his scolding over with and go on about his business.

"What of it?" he demanded. "It means nothing if Finnbogisson fights with his brother. He would have done so sooner or later anyway, over their property line, or a tool, or a pig. And I'm not going back to him now, so none of it matters."

"Oh, but that is where you are wrong," said Odin, and Loki's insides quivered: the All-Father's rugged face bore a cold, harsh look that was even more frightening than his fury.

"What do you mean?"

"You are going back to Finnbogisson," Odin said. "You wanted to be in his house, so now you will be there until such time as you can escape. And you had best hope no one decides to fight over you, because no matter who wins such a fight, you are certain to be the loser. Now go!"

His arm shot out to full length, one finger pointing at Loki. Trying to scramble away from that threatening digit, Loki slipped off the rock and landed on all fours - but instead of hands and knees, he found himself balancing on two pairs of trotters instead, far closer to the ground than he ought to have been. He grew rounder and heavier all over; his eyesight dimmed and weakened; his nose grew more sensitive; and when he opened his mouth to protest, only a squeal came out. Desperately, he tried to change back to his own form and found he could not.

"Go!" roared Odin again, and struck him on the rump, sending the terrified pig stampeding down the slope in the direction of the two farms, where the surviving men were now hurrying to put out the fire by throwing buckets of snow on it.

"What will he do there, do you suppose?" asked Freyr, who was trying unsuccessfully to conceal a grin at Loki's fate.

"I suppose he'll be a pig, won't he?" Odin said testily. "Oh, I'm sure he'll work out how to change back sooner or later; he is a shapeshifter by nature. And if he doesn't manage it before someone gets hungry for pork, then he will be out of our hair for good. Either way, he is none of our concern just now. Come, let us collect my son and go home."

With that, the All-Father began making his way toward Egil Finnbogisson's farm for the second time in two days. Freyr followed.

---

When evening came again, the gods gathered in Valhalla to toast Odin's revenge on Loki, and in many cases, to get so drunk that they had to sleep the night away where they fell. No one cared. Gods may entertain themselves as they please, as long as they do not get in the way of other gods.

In Midgard, there was feasting too, as Egil Finnbogisson - bloodied but triumphant - celebrated both his own valor and the brave warrior's death of his brother, who had turned out not to be a traitor after all. He still did not know where his wife had gone, but he found that the more he drank, the less it concerned him. She had probably run off with someone else the way she had run off with him in the first place. It really didn't matter. He was still a wealthy man, with his farm, his sons and his pigs. If only the big red sow would stop squealing that way ...

In the corner near the pigs' trough, Loki backed his bristly body as far against the wall as it would go and let loose a volley of curses at the curious porkers that surrounded him. Egil might not have noticed that he had one extra pig, but the other pigs knew. They kept pushing and nipping, and he did not like the way the boars were looking at him one bit.

When I get out of here, he'll be sorry, he thought furiously, butting a nearly grown piglet out of his way. He's never even imagined the sort of mischief I'll make. Just wait - just wait!

The pigs pressed in again, sniffing and snorting, and a high, despairing squeal rose to the rafters of Egil Finnbogisson's house.

Far away, the gods laughed.