It should have come as no surprise that it all began with Laufey-king, whose eyes were the sharpest and mind most astute of them all.
The little invaders scrambled across the ice, chased to and fro by the defending soldiers. Though the Odinson put up a good fight, surely a retreat was imminent.
Amongst this chaos of battle the king stood high on his vantage point and beckoned one of his legions closer to him with the curving of a finger.
Of course they did not hesitate to answer his summons. “What is it, my king?” their leader asked, smooth and subservient.
“Keep an eye on that one.”
“Which one, my king?” he asked politely as he dared. For in truth, all Aesir looked alike to him. Puny strange things.
Laufey gave a low rumble, reaching out to palm the other’s head and turn it so his eyes faced the way he wanted. “That one.”
He indicated the thin one in the green and black coat. The guardsman nodded, and Laufey removed his hand.
“Follow it. Don’t hurt it, but keep watch and see what it does.”
They were very strange orders but it was hardly the place of a single soldier, or even an entire platoon, to question the will of the king. Together they bowed and then crept swiftly across the ice, trying to follow the Aesir without letting it know they were present.
Jotnar were not built for stealth. One supposed it was comical, a dozen or so giant soldiers walking in a line, crouching low as they could with weapons still in hand, keeping their heads ducked.
Despite their best efforts, the Aesir still spotted them. It tried to distract them with an illusion and then threw a flurry of knives at their heads.
“Ow,” a soldier complained, pulling one of the little pig-stickers out of his eyeball.
“We aren’t supposed to hurt him,” one of the others pointed out. “King’s orders.”
“Little gnat has teeth,” their leader growled, annoyed. “He wants to bite, he can take it when he gets swatted in return. I’m sure he can take a bit of a thumping.”
They rushed at the Aesir. It already had very pale skin, but somehow it blanched even more so at the sight of the many Frost Giants bearing down at it at once.
It stood its ground admirably, really, but the first hard backhand to its chest sent it flying several feet, senseless.
“I thought they could take a harder hit than that,” the one who had struck the blow remarked, surprised.
The Aesir was on its side, face buried in the snow, moaning. A spot of red blood stained its lips.
“King’s orders,” the same soldier from earlier repeated, more shrilly this time.
One of his mates smacked him in the shoulder, annoyed, but they all couldn’t help exchanging worried looks, thinking about what would happen when Laufey found out.
“Maybe he’s faking,” another suggested hopefully. Their leader grunted, reaching down to prop the Aesir up for a better look.
“They bruise like fruit,” he groused, but then stopped with a noise of surprise as the darkening blue color spread past where his hand landed, across all of the Aesir’s skin.
The entire warrior band stared in amazement. “By Ymir’s frozen breath!” came one astonished whisper.
The now blue-skinned being’s lids fluttered as he came around, and when he opened them his eyes were scarlet.
“What…?” His gaze drifted to the hand that held him, and then he appeared shocked into full consciousness as he got a look at his own limbs. “What is this?” He wrenched himself free, bringing his palms before his eyes to stare at them in disbelief and horror.
“What have you done to me?”
“He’s a changeling,” one of the soldiers realized, almost reverently. “By the Crag, that’s no Aesir – he’s one of us.”
“What?” The changeling’s head shot up, alarmed. “No I’m not! You’re wrong!”
“Laufey must’ve seen something,” the same soldier continued, ignoring him. “That’s why…”
“You mean the Aesir kidnapped one of our own?” another warrior interrupted. He spat into the ice in disgust. “Bastards! Rip them all apart and be done with it.”
“Stop that,” their leader instructed, irritated. “Now‘s not the time.” He bent down as best he could without actually taking a knee, so that he could meet the much smaller Jotun in the eye.
“It’s all right now, little kindred,” he said kindly. “You’re safe.”
The only response at first from the smaller giant was to stare at him. Slowly he tried moving away from them, backward, on his hands.
“This…this is all wrong,” he began. “There must be some kind of mistake.”
“Wonder why the king didn’t just tell us to rescue him and be done with it?” one of the soldiers asked the others, frowning.
“Rescue,” the boy on the ground stammered, appalled. “Oh no. No. You don’t understand. You mustn’t…my father…” He turned his head suddenly, calling out, “Thor-!”
As soon as they realized he was yelling the Odinson’s name one of the band reached out, helpfully knocking him upside the head to return him to unconsciousness.
It was clear to all of them having spent who knew how much time trapped in Asgard must’ve addled the youngling’s brains.
“Take him back to Laufey,” their leader determined, making a decision. “He will know what to do.”
“Poor runt,” one of the giants remarked, gazing down at the limp figure sympathetically. “Wonder what those monsters did to him?”
To say that Laufey-king was aggravated by what his soldiers had done was to make a grave understatement.
And he made as much clear to them, with both his hissing words and how he had them each sent to the lowest chambers in his dungeons, where were kept devices one shuddered to think about, for their punishment.
But there was nothing to be done. The Aesir had left already by their Bifrost. His eldest, the foundling he did not even know still existed, was for better or worse brought home.
The tender mercies of his impatient warriors had left the boy with broken ribs and a bruised head but no other injury. The healers made short work of it, binding his chest and using sleeping draughts to keep him unconscious.
They’d removed most of his Aesir garments, stripping him naked to the waist. Laufey could not see whether he shivered in Jotunheim’s cold. He should not, but it was impossible to tell yet how much may have been altered about his nature.
To be on the safe side, he wrapped him in as many thick pelts as he could find.
“Go and empty out Helblindi’s room,” he ordered his nearest servant. “You have until I reach it. Leave the bed.”
Then with a grunt he lifted his son’s still-slumbering body, carrying him easily sideways in both arms.
As he passed by the outside of his throne room, two figures detached themselves where they had been lurking in the shadows, waiting, and followed him.
Helblindi trailed swiftly in his father’s footsteps, while Býleistr had to turn sideways to fit through the same narrow corridors.
“What is going on?” Helblindi demanded, only the lowness of his voice as he asked the question a concession to respect. He was almost as tall as his father, and probably would be eventually – Frost Giant warriors grew not unlike stalagmites, adding inches gradually over many years.
“What have you there, Father?” Býleistr asked with more genuine curiosity. He was shorter than both his father and brother, but had broad shoulders almost twice as wide, his long arms and large hands giving him an unsteady, almost top-sided gait.
“This,” Laufey told them, hard and inflectionless, “is your brother. Long missing, thought dead by all, save the enemies that stole him from me. Your departed mother’s firstborn.”
Helblindi faltered for a fraction of a second. Býleistr almost collided into him, craning his thick neck for a better look.
“We have an older brother? But he’s small,” the younger Jotun wondered. “How can he be both a big brother and a little one?”
“Consider it yet another riddle of your existence, Býleistr,” Jotunheim’s king told his child in response, in the voice that was the closest he ever came to being sarcastic.
Helblindi made a scalded sound as he realized where they were heading. “You are giving him my room?”
“It is his due as eldest,” Laufey replied without as much as a glance.
“But it is my room! Due or not, that isn’t right.”
“What does it matter, Helblindi?” Býleistr tried soothing him. “You never sleep there anyway. You always pass your nights in the barracks.”
“That doesn’t matter – it’s still mine,” his brother grated. “I keep all of my things there.”
“Now you will be keeping them elsewhere,” Laufey stated, making it quite clear his word was final. “Do not argue with me.”
The tone was one both his children had been raised to recognize. Býleistr tensed nervously on instinct. Helblindi fell silent, drawing himself up as a soldier, and swallowing the rest of his protests.
“Yes, my lord father.”
Laufey gave an absent sound of approval. Having reached the room, he gently laid his son down, maneuvering the thick skins and blankets around him.
Býleistr lumbered close to the bed as he could. He crouched down and rested his chin on folded arms, watching his sleeping brother’s face with inquisitive scrutiny.
Satisfied, Laufey drew back. “This is Loki,” he pronounced.
Bitterly he wondered if he was supposed to be grateful that Asgard’s king had deigned to give his abducted child a name both suited for Aesir or Jotun.
“Loki,” Helblindi repeated. There was unmistakable suspicion in his tone. “That’s what they call one of the All-Father’s sons, isn’t it?”
“It is. Don’t pretend you have less sense than you were born with, Helblindi,” Laufey said thinly. “You’re hardly the lack-wit your younger sibling is.”
Býleistr showed no sign of having been insulted, humming a tune as he poked with one careful fingertip at Loki’s face and hair.
Laufey continued, “You’re old enough I think to remember the story your mother would have told, about her first child, taken from us by the ice in the days of the last great war.”
Helblindi nodded slowly. “So this is he? But then it wasn’t the ice, after all. The Aesir king took him, and raised him while claiming him as his own?”
“Exactly.” Laufey turned to give his newly-found heir a long considering glance. “He would probably be dead, if Odin hadn’t. But that makes keeping him all this time no less of an insult. This could start a war.”
Helblindi bared his teeth. “Good.”
His father did not pause before pushing him with one hand into the doorframe. Býleistr cowered at the resounding crack.
Helblindi bit back his pain with a hiss, grimacing where his shoulder struck the wall. He understood the chastisement perfectly – it was not his to seek war, deserved or not. Such decisions belonged only to the realm of his father.
“Forgive me, my king.” He bowed his head, stonily contrite.
“Mind your place as befits a prince and there will be nothing to forgive,” Laufey murmured.
He turned toward the door, poised to leave, and pointed down at the senseless figure in the bed. “Until then, both of you are to attend to your brother.”
Both his standing sons nodded, Býleistr eagerly and Helblindi merely resolute.
“Remain here,” Laufey emphasized. “I have things to manage, but one of you must come and find me if it looks as if he will wake.”
“And after that?” Helblindi muttered. But Laufey was already gone, not bothering to give his son an answer, and it was up to Býleistr to reply in his stead.
“Silly question!” Býleistr declared, almost cheerfully. “It will be our duty to do whatever our brother tells us to, after all!”
Helblindi scowled, a low sound grating the back of his throat.
Having limped back to the throne room at the king’s summons, the band of Jotun warriors knelt before their ruler, not daring to let their aches register in so much as a moan or a flinch in his presence.
Laufey showed the points of a cruel and unyielding smile. “How did your men find your tour of the dungeons, Thrym?”
The lead warrior set his teeth so as to fight a grimace, resisting the urge to shift trying to find a more comfortable position for his sore limbs. “Very educational, Laufey-king,” he offered tersely.
His soldiers backed up this statement with a group mutter.
If their king had been any but Laufey, he might have laughed. Instead the Jotun’s face relaxed and he leaned back in his throne, satisfied.
“Good,” he said, clear he was ready to return to business.
There was no patience in him, only the same grating, unhesitant march he had doled out matters of state in, since before the days of the war but most certainly all the more after.
“You and your band came very close to making a grave and unforgivable mistake, Thrym,” Laufey observed coldly. “As has since been revealed to you, the disguised Jotun you so carelessly attacked is my long-lost son…your prince and heir to the realm.”
“We are very sorry for the insult, my king,” Thrym apologized – again.
“Loki has been kept all this time as an Aesir, a part of their ruler’s get. It makes reclaiming him no simple matter. That was why I wished he be permitted to leave at first, fully intending to take audience with Odin and make my demand for his return after. But thanks to you,” Laufey paused just long enough for the weight of his inflection to sink in. The battle-hardened warriors stared at the floor, inwardly cringing. “Things have become…more complicated.”
“We deeply regret our mistaken actions, my king,” Thrym said.
“Jotunheim has not just taken back its own,” Laufey continued, unforgiving. “It has also kidnapped a prince. We have seized the All-Father’s son. Do you expect Odin to ignore that? Do you think it will be easy to still the war he would desire over this?”
“I…no, my king. Of course not, my king. Again, I am fully repentant for my band’s act, my king.”
Thrym’s tone was beginning to border on the desperate.
“It matters little now,” Laufey remarked, grimly dismissive. “The die has been cast. We will deal with things as they are, for we have no choice.” He sat straight in his throne again.
“As for you and your men, you are being reassigned. Your new orders are that from now on you are to serve as Loki’s personal guard.”
Thrym and the other Jotnar lifted their heads, a few of them coming close to making pleased exclamations of relief. To serve and protect the heir to the throne was anything but a punishment. Loki was firstborn, of the royal bloodline; being his guard was a position of honor.
“As you command, Laufey-king.” Thrym bowed his head, accepting.
“It will not be perhaps so easy a task as you imagine.” Laufey rested his chin on long fingers, gazing with a grave look of warning. “Remember my son has been raised by them of Asgard. He will know not of our ways. In addition to keeping the prince safe, it will also be your task to instruct him where necessary.”
“Yes. Of course,” Thrym declared, forearm across his chest. “We will do whatever is required to see to our prince’s happiness.”
Laufey’s mouth moved in the barest ghost of a smile.
“Happiness?” he said, almost musing. “A high commodity in our world. One whose hold can only be fleeting. Take care not to set up for more than you can deliver.”
Loki came around to consciousness slowly, mind endeavoring to shake off the cotton of sleep and make sense of what had happened.
Before he even opened his eyes he was aware he was in an unfamiliar bed. Wary and confused, he pushed himself to a sitting position, choking back a cry at the ripple of pain sent through him.
Looking down he saw strips of a white bandage across his midsection. That discovery however was pushed aside rapidly, paling in comparison to what else he saw. Someone had seen fit to remove most of his clothes, and all that he could see of his body was changed - his skin was an icy blue, marked with the thin raised lines of a Jotun.
Loki drew in a sharp breath, thickly, feeling himself start to panic.
A voice spoke, alerting him to the fact he was not alone. “Look! He wakes!”
Loki’s head shot up. The chamber he was in was not a small one, but it felt all too crowded, his stomach clenching as he looked around.
Two full-grown Jotun stood by the wall gazing at him intently. Worse even than that, Laufey himself sat by the door, his fiery eyes unblinking as he looked down at Loki.
There was nowhere to run. Weak and injured as he was, he knew he couldn’t summon all his magic. And surely even could he best one Frost Giant in strength, at his peak, he was no match for three.
He felt tiny and helpless where he sat in the massive bed, cowering.
“There you are,” Laufey murmured, his voice a low rumble. The Jotnar’s king stood, and Loki realized the chair that had held him was made of the living ice – it receded as soon as Laufey’s touch left it, disappearing back into the wall.
“What do you want with me?” Loki demanded, fighting not to let his voice tremble.
Ransom, he assumed…or something much worse. There was all sort of cruel pleasure they could take in the son of their sworn enemy. Distantly he thought that it wasn’t fair: it was Thor who had picked a battle with Jotunheim. Loki having goaded him into it notwithstanding. It was never supposed to go this far.
His voice rose as he added, “What has happened to me? What have you done?”
“Done?” Laufey repeated. He moved half a step closer, that being enough to send Loki pressing his back to the headboard. Laufey’s hand moved in a flicking gesture. “Nothing, but let the touch of your own people, your world, reclaim you.”
Loki’s mind refused to make sense of it, at first. “I don’t understand,” he said nervously, feeble.
Laufey made a sound that was somewhere between an impatient scoff and a sigh.
“You are not Odin’s son. You are mine, taken when you were an infant, disguised as something you were not, passed off as one of the Aesir. Do you understand now?”
Loki stared up at him. “That. That can’t be. It isn’t true.”
He thought to when that Jotun had seized him and his hand changed. When he had woken from a stupor to find the Frost Giants surrounding him, declaring him one of their own.
It can’t be.
He couldn’t be one of them. He was Loki Odinson, second born to the line of Asgard. He couldn’t be a monster.
“No?” Laufey pointed. “Look at yourself, princeling. How do you explain it?”
Loki folded his arms. Though in truth, he was hugging himself.
“This is a trick. You’ve placed a curse on me of some kind,” he insisted, his voice cracking. “I can’t be a…you’re lying.”
Laufey’s eyes narrowed. “You really think that is so? More likely than that you’ve been lied to all your life already?” he demanded, impatient. “Can you really tell me there has never been anything about yourself that hasn’t fit? That in all your time among the Aesir, you have never wondered, never questioned, never found anything that has made you thought you did not belong?”
“Stop!” Loki pressed his hands over his ears. “Stop, please. Why can’t you leave me alone?” Dropping his hands he looked up again, pleadingly. “I want to leave. Can’t you please let me go home?”
“You are home,” Laufey stated, resolute. “You’re back where you belong.”
He gestured toward the other two Jotun in the room. “Meet your youngers; my other sons, Helblindi and Býleistr.”
Loki shrank in on himself, eyes wide. His “little” brothers were at least twice as tall as he was, and one of them looked like an ogre.
The craggy one waved, grinning with its horrible teeth at him. The other, a clear double for Laufey, merely bowed its head with a heated gaze.
“If you need anything,” Laufey continued, “they will see to you.”
Considering the matter settled he strode out of the room without another word.
There was silence for a moment in the wake of the king’s exit. Loki’s head was reeling. He barely noticed that the other two were still watching him.
The tall thin one muttered something.
“That isn’t kind, Helblindi,” the second said reprovingly. “I’m certain elder brother is just tired.” He turned to look at Loki, beaming cheerily. “Is there anything we can do for you, brother?”
Brother! To these monstrosities. Loki almost choked out a sob.
“Go away. Get away from me, the both of you!”
Grabbing the blankets he wrapped them around himself, covering his face. He curled up on his side in despair.
He whimpered, “Just leave me alone.”
Thrym and his soldiers sat around in a circle on the ground, doing something that was quite rare among the Jotnar: trying to put their heads together and think.
Their king had been right. Promising to keep their prince happy had been a mistake. It was a far from an easy task, and one that looked impossible to find a way to start.
But it was too late now. Thrym considered himself one who kept to his word, no matter how difficult. And his warriors were all men of honor, who followed where he led them without hesitation.
They would solve this riddle, no matter how much work, or thinking, it took. This was what determined warriors did.
Almost a week had passed. The prince had remained in a melancholy no force could seem to shake. He would not eat. He barely spoke to anyone, save to order them out of his sight. Most of the time he passed sleeping and when he woke he hardly left his bed. The furthest he ever got was the window of his room, where he sat wrapped in his furs and gazed out blearily at the frozen landscape.
Jotunheim too was in a state of depression. It worried and saddened the people, that their rescued prince would be so unhappy.
What they should be doing was celebrating. Considering how little cause they ever had for it, it was nothing less than a tragedy they could not.
“Maybe he’s ill,” one of the soldiers suggested. His brothers-at-arms groaned.
“We thought of that already, remember? Idiot,” another grumbled. “The healers insist he is fine.”
“It could be some disease we have never heard of before,” the same soldier insisted, muttering.
“Oh, come off it,” Thrym barked. He scratched at his head in frustration, long fingernails digging into his scalp. “We’re not wasting time going about in circles. Come up with something different.”
“Perhaps he is enchanted?” Considering by their understanding ‘enchanted’ was not much different from ‘sick’, the one who made this suggestion did so very quietly. “Some Aesir curse, designed to keep him in a state of misery?”
“But how would we break such a spell?” another questioned.
“Wouldn’t Laufey know if his heir was cursed?” yet another countered. “It seems the sort of thing he would mention.”
“Hmm.” Thrym rubbed his chin. “Probably,” he conceded. “So no, likely not an enchantment.”
“Well I don’t know! Does anyone even know anything about him?” one soldier demanded in frustration. “What does Prince Loki like?”
“Sighing, if experience is anything to go by,” the most wry of the group quipped.
Thrym was not in the mood, and smacked him upside the back of his head with the flat of one hand for his trouble.
“We should try bringing him things,” a warrior offered suddenly. “Presents. Until we figure out what it is that most pleases him.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, we’re a little short on tributes.” A fistful of snow was shaken at him.
“There are still the traders from Alfheim and Svartalfheim,” he insisted. “And I’m sure we could find a few items, if we looked around.”
His fellows slowly began to warm to the idea. After all, it was certainly better than nothing.
“Weapons. A boy always likes weapons, right?”
“There are probably some royal trinkets left in the treasury. No one will miss them. It’s not as if they’re doing any good where they are.”
“It’s said that Loki is a magician. That means he is a scholar, yes? What do scholars like?”
“Umm…books? Do you think we can find any books?”
“There must be a few hiding somewhere, if we ask around.”
“He did grow up among the Aesir. Maybe he prefers whatever sort of things they do.”
“Shiny things. I hear they like shiny things. I’ll bet if we dig deep there are still some gems in the ground.”
“Maybe some different type of food? At least until we discover his favorite.”
They went on like this, brainstorming for some time, and once they had what they considered a satisfactory list of possibilities for cheering up their prince, the group split apart and went to the tasks of their work.
In the days of before, when Jotunheim had been a world built up with cities far as the eye could see, an empire of towers and walls and fortresses, a grand citadel had stood at the edge of Laufey’s kingdom.
Now it was a relic not even fully worthy of the designation ‘building’. The roof was long gone. Left were the crumbling remains of perhaps two and a half walls.
It was here that Laufey stood in wait, alone. His hold rested upon the black and jagged blade Nál, mighty sword of all his line. Both hands were gripped around its hilt, the weapon balanced point first against the ground by his feet.
He heard the Bifrost’s roar and his eyes opened. Moments later the All-Father appeared, helmet gleaming and raiment fluttering in the icy wind, Gungnir at his side.
“You come armed to what I promised was a meeting of peace, Laufey,” Odin observed tersely.
“As do you. But we’re both alone, as we agreed. Isn’t that good enough?”
Nál was both a wide and a long blade, designed to be huge even in the hands of a Frost Giant. Easily Laufey hefted it up to balance against one shoulder.
“In some ways it is more symbol now, in truth,” Laufey mused, eyeing the craftsmanship. “The last great treasure of Jotunheim. All others have been taken from me – by force, or by deceit.”
“I have not come all this way to play games.” There was barely-restrained anger in Odin’s voice.
Laufey responded with a thin mirthless smile. “I was speaking to the heart of the matter. Or is wise Odin unable to divine at my meaning? But you have nerve to speak to me about games, child-thief.” The last word was spat out, Laufey’s features set with fury.
“You took my son. My heir. Carried him off as if he were another spoil of your victory.”
“I found an abandoned child, exposed to the elements. I realized a short time later he was yours,” Odin stated, firm. “That much is true. But there was no theft. What you have done, however-”
“A temple is a poor place to abandon a child, don’t you think?” Laufey interrupted. His expression was positively disdainful. “Don’t waste my time with whatever tale you have built up in your head as justification over the years, of abandonment. You’ve more sense than that.”
Odin fell silent. He had the hard composure of a king, unreadable, but Laufey liked to imagine he saw a glimmer of indignity in that one remaining eye.
“All right then. So be it; we both know the truth.” Odin actually let out a brief sigh. “But you forget my mother’s people were of Jotunheim, and I understand more than you might expect. Loki was a frail child, too young for it to have been a good idea to test him with his Winter’s Right. You left him there knowing it would be the end of him – nay, I almost think, hoping for it. Do you honestly think he would’ve survived had I not intervened?”
“No,” Laufey replied. “I fully expected he would have died. Just like every weak male suckling, when it comes time.” He shook his head. “But those are our ways. It is far cry from disowning him; that much I am certain you understand. And you had no right to do what you did.”
“I came across a child, unclaimed, in the aftermath of a battle.” Odin’s voice rose. “It would have been within my right to do whatever I saw fit with him. I chose to raise him as my own.”
“So you expect my thanks, then, you did not let him grow up a slave, instead of the prince he is?” Laufey demanded. He sneered, continuing, “Did you hope if he rested his head against your Aesir queen’s soft breast, and drank of her sweet milk, it would somehow change what he was?”
“Do not speak of my wife in that way,” Odin commanded in clear warning.
“My words will be whatever I like,” Laufey hissed in return, venomous. “Your crushing terms of ‘surrender’ were the death of mine.”
“You can believe whatever you like about my objectives, Laufey. It doesn’t matter to me. But Asgard is all Loki has ever known. All these years he has been as my own. I am the only father he’s had.”
“And whose fault is that? Do you know what Loki is doing, right now? He makes himself sleep, because he would rather be detached from the world than live with the truth he is Jotnar.”
Laufey snarled. “You’d claim to love him as if he was your blood, yet you raised him to despise and fear his own kind. You spit upon my people’s heritage.”
Odin looked visibly pained.
“That was never my intention. I hid the truth because I wanted him to belong, and because I worried what might happen if my less forgiving subjects knew. But his mother and I never spoke ill of the Jotnar to Loki or his brother. I always hoped to one day make him a bridge between our people, to form a more lasting peace – how could I do such a thing if Loki rejected his origins?”
“So much for your peace,” Laufey said mockingly. “That is exactly what he has done.”
“Then I am afraid he learned that view from the rest of Asgard, and I did not do enough to protect him from it,” Odin admitted sadly.
“Not that you could have said too much, could you?” Laufey was unforgiving. “Not when keeping secrets was so important to you. No, you had to be careful, else you raise suspicion.”
“What is it that you want, Laufey?” Odin demanded, losing his patience. “We both know that your entire kingdom hungers for vengeance, for war. Will this be the excuse you use to give it them?”
“Your heir brought war straight to my doorstep, just as he desired, with his impudence,” Laufey retorted harshly. “That would be all the reasoning I would require. But whether he intended it or not, he also returned my son to me. So I think I will call it even. But what of you, All-Father?” he added. “Will you deliver your people to war, all for your own personal cause? And how do you think they will react when they find out what race your adoptive son, the child you would risk their lives for, truly is?”
Odin shook with restrained emotion. “I want my son returned to me, Laufey. No counsel you speak, however wise, will change that.”
“You have nothing to barter with,” Laufey countered. “All the ache in your heart, and you still would not threaten war. Not over one prince. And you would not trade me back the Casket either – not that I would accept such terms. An heir is worth least as much as that.”
“Don’t posture for me,” Odin said, derisive. “You already had an heir before you knew Loki lived. You would not forfeit your entire people over one life either – if I did offer you the Casket, you’d take it and gladly too.”
“But you’ve no intention of giving it to me. And so we are at an impasse, I think,” Laufey decided.
Odin’s gaze was heavy. “So it seems we are.”
“I hold the trump card, though. For once.” Nál’s great blade lowered, making a harsh sound where it briefly scraped the ice beneath Laufey’s feet. “And I think after everything, it is the least I can do to make you suffer for it awhile.”
Satisfied with that conclusion he turned to leave, offering his adversary no term of farewell or even dismissal.
“You cannot just leave it there, Laufey,” Odin called to the other king’s retreating back, bitter but insistent. “You’re right to say I won’t send our races to war for this, but I will never leave you in peace so long as you hold my son captive.”
“He is not captive. He is home.”
Laufey twisted his head just enough to look at Odin with his harsh red gaze.
“Maybe when Loki is finally well enough to understand that, then I will be ready to negotiate with you further.”
Loki recalled it being said that in some ways, the body could be manipulated by the mind.
Stress or worry, fear or grief, in enough amounts could be suitable cause for one to sicken. Surely that was what happened to him now.
He felt constantly tired, vaguely feverish. His broken bones had mended but there was an ache in his chest that had nothing to do with the physical. His head was in a fog and he could barely focus on anything.
Not that he wished to even try.
No, better that he should just sleep. Give in to slumber the way the Aesir’s king did sometimes, allow himself to be cradled and hidden away from the world, unreachable, refusing to be a part of it.
And so Loki spent most of the time in bed, covers drawn up, eyes closed. He dreamed of nothing.
What had he left to dream about, to hope for? Even whatever fears he once had meant nothing to him now.
It had been a week, and Odin had not come to rescue him, nor even Thor, who’d once jumped at the slightest excuse to venture forth into Jotunheim. He had been abandoned – cast out, like the undesirable he always had been.
His Aesir family did not want him anymore, assuming they ever had. Everything he’d been raised to believe was false.
Even if he could get away, he’d nowhere to run to. He didn’t know the many winding ways of Jotunheim like he’d so thoroughly learned those of Asgard. The branch of Yggdrasil he showed to the Frost Giants, he only saw himself from the other side – he knew not where it lay in this realm.
Besides, he’d realized, he could not go back to Asgard. One look at his face now and they would chase him back the way he came. Assuming he wasn’t struck down on sight.
The only home he had ever known, and it was his no longer. He could never return.
Yes. It was so much better to sleep.
He was still abed, in a listless state halfway between awareness and drifting slumber, when he heard the sound of heavy Jotun footsteps approaching. He did not bother opening his eyes. He remained where he was, on his side half-curled into a ball, and did not move.
Two Jotnar, he guessed from where he lay. One with stride much heavier and awkward than the other. His fingers curled into his pillow as he realized who that likely meant it was.
But he had nowhere to hide, and they didn’t bother knocking before entering the room.
“Little brother, little brother!” The slight chill across his back meant the Jotun was leaning over him. “And by little I mean in size of course, not in years!” There was a gentle nudge with a fingertip. “Do you sleep still?”
“I told you best just to leave off, Býleistr.” The second voice was hard, impatient. “You aren’t going to wake him. No more than all the other times you’ve tried.”
“I don’t think he should be sleeping so much.” In defeat the first moved away from him, Loki exhaling in relief. “Should he? It does not seem very healthy.”
“He can do whatever he likes,” came the indifferent response. “He’s the eldest, isn’t he?”
“I wonder what could be making him so tired. It isn’t as if he’s been doing anything. At least, I don’t think he has. Have you seen him doing anything, brother?”
“Not a thing.” From the sound of the voice Loki realized the giant must be standing right next to him, looking down into his face. He fought the prickling urge to twitch or open his eyes. If they knew he was awake they would never leave him alone. “Unless you count breathing.”
There was silence for a moment, which Loki hoped meant that his would-be “siblings” were leaving. Instead it only seemed to mean they were studying him.
“What is that on his lids, Helblindi?”
“They’re called ‘eyelashes’, you great doddering oaf.” The response was snapped out, exasperated. “It’s the same as his hair.”
“No, no,” the first insisted, oblivious to his brother’s anger. “Not those. I see something else. It looks almost like frost…”
“Hmmph.” There was a brief considering note. “Ice crystals. Frozen to his skin. Must’ve been crying in his sleep.”
Loki swallowed as gently as he dared around the lump that formed in his throat.
“Why is he so sad, Helblindi? I don’t understand.”
“There’s a terrible surprise.”
“I mean it.” The Jotun’s voice was bemused, and mournful. “He’s safe now. After all that time trapped by the Aesir, he’s finally here. He should be happy. I know that I would be. So why does he cry? I don’t understand,” it repeated.
“Who knows why, Býleistr. Leave it alone.” The second was already storming towards the door as it ordered, “Come. Enough of this wasting time. There are things I wish to do, and if you’ve nothing better than to moon over our elder sibling then certainly you can help me.”
Even after they were gone Loki remained mostly still, shaking with silent despair and rage.
After a few moments, he was crying again, more tears to join the ones already frozen to his cheeks.
Thrym and his band were bred and war-hardened soldiers, and so they went about their every action as if it were the same as battle.
Do whatever was necessary to make ready, swift but thorough. Make certain they were prepared. And once that was handled, without waiting a moment further, strike.
“I still think the basket is a bad idea,” one of the giants muttered at another, as they marched their way up the winding passages of the palace, their determined leader at the head.
“I still think your parchment is a bad idea, but you don’t see me poking at you,” came the responding whisper, haughty. “Maybe you’re just frightened Prince Loki will like my gift the best. Now shut your gob and leave me alone.”
“You both shut up, and keep quiet,” Thrym said over his shoulder, growling. He raised a fist. “Or it’ll be your skulls.”
The rest of the band fell obediently silent, just as they reached the outside of their prince’s chambers.
Thrym hesitated. He should knock first, announce himself and his men, and wait for permission to enter. But experience at this point had taught him that a knock would likely be unanswered.
It was one thing to mind the boundaries of the prince he was sworn to serve – Laufey had commanded Thrym and his men to see to his heir’s safety and well-being. And the will of Laufey-king trumped that of his sons.
“Wait here,” he ordered his warriors, and then pushing through the carved slab that served as the chamber’s doorway, he went inside.
At least Loki was not asleep this time. He sat on the floor halfway between the bed and the window, still bundled in a blanket, his arms wrapped around his knees.
Thrym kneeled a short distance away, weight resting on one fist, and bowed his head respectfully.
“Good morn, my lord.” He went through the obligatory niceties with a touch of the awkward in his speech. A soldier, even a high-ranking one, was unused to frequently addressing the royal line. “How fares you this day?”
Loki only stared at the floor, and did not bother lifting his head. “Go away,” he responded, sullen.
Thrym took a moment before clearing his throat. “I am afraid, my lord, that I cannot comply.”
He got to his feet, feeling strange that he should do so without being told to rise. But with this refugee prince, there could be no waiting. He seemed unaware or willfully ignorant of his role as master.
Thrym approached the prince, whose eyes remained fixed on the floor – but Thrym could see how his breath had hitched slightly. He drew further in on himself, arms tightening.
“Come, my prince,” Thrym said as gently as he could manage. “My band wishes to address you.”
Loki squeezed his eyes shut, though briefly. “I do not wish to be addressed.”
Thrym said nothing but he stayed exactly where he was. Hopefully making it clear by his posture that he had no intention of leaving.
After a moment Loki let out a small sigh – carrying a note of almost tearful surrender.
It was good enough for Thrym. He reached down and tugged the blanket out of Loki’s grasp, taking in the rumpled state of his dress, his uncombed hair.
“You are not presentable, my prince.” Thrym cast his eyes about and found a neatly folded tunic and furs on a shelf. Probably they’d been left there days before and Loki had ignored them. “Here. Put on these.”
It seemed best, he decided, if he should manage Prince Loki as if he were some sort of child. Certainly he had the size of one – it was all too easy for Thrym to lift him up, forcing him to his feet. He handed Loki the clothing and with both hands nudged him away from the window.
Thrym was not used to averting his eyes when it came to other males, as if despite like shape and fact they were ultimately all the same it were still possible to visually assault this thing called ‘dignity’. But taking into account the prince’s shyness, he turned his back and waited with something like patience, arms folded.
After what he felt was enough time had passed he stole a glance over his shoulder, and satisfied that Loki was changed, turned around again.
He looked down at the prince, wearing clean garments but still the same blank look of detached misery on his face. With fingertips Thrym reached to awkwardly comb his hair into a better state – playing the role of manservant did not fit easily on a warrior.
“There,” he pronounced, satisfied. “Now sit. I will bring in the others.”
Within moments he had his troop inside, assembled before Loki, who sat on the edge of his bed with hands laced absently in his lap as if he literally did not know what to do with them.
His expression changed however to one of surprise, as one by one by the giants walked up and each placed something before his feet.
“What…what is this?” Loki stared at the rapidly growing pile, baffled. “What are you doing?”
Thrym waited until the last present had been deposited, and he and his men were all back in their positions, kneeling, before he responded.
“Forgive our ignorance, my lord, but we were not sure what would please you,” he explained in a low rumble. “We thought it best to be thorough.”
Carefully Loki stood up, coming forward and crouching down to make a bemused, somewhat trepidation-filled examination of the items.
There were old books and scrolls, somewhat crumbling, and what smaller weapons they could gather from the training yard. A few gem-studded items from the royal treasury; a few actual gems they managed to harvest from the ice, uncut sapphires and diamonds. A pitcher of strong mead, a pile of the salt candy given to children, an entire boar’s carcass (carefully skinned, dried and gutted, of course). There were a whole slew of things they had managed to trade for: foreign goods not cheaply come by and completely worthless to them of Jotunheim, but who knew what they might mean to the prince? More books, fine clothing, all sorts of odds and ends, even a few toys.
Loki bent to pull a swatch of rough fabric where it covered the top of a basket, and found himself face to face with four blinking snow fox kits.
“Are these…?” He didn’t smile, exactly, but for a moment his face had a spasm that came very close. “They must have been hard to get a hold of,” he observed, wry. Snow foxes were a wriggly species maddening to chase after even in adulthood, never mind an entire litter of babes.
“I thought that you would like them, my prince,” the soldier that stumbled upon the nest couldn’t keep from saying proudly. A few of his fellows shot him aggravated looks.
Loki reached to pet one snow-white ear. “They certainly are very dainty,” he remarked.
“Aye,” the same soldier agreed cheerfully. “You’ll want to wait until they get just a bit older, so that they grow some more. But not too long. The meat is sweetest when they’re younglings.”
Loki froze. After a moment, he stiffly pulled his hand away from the kit. “I…see.”
The soldiers waited. He sat on the ground surrounded by his pile of tributes, taking them all in with an odd expression.
After another minute or so he looked up and noticed they were still attending on him. “Oh,” he realized, slowly. “Yes, I…thank you. For the,” a fraction of a pause as he glanced at a thick club with a knife carved into it, where it rested across the dead boar, “gifts. You may go.”
“As you wish, Prince.” Thrym bowed, the rest followed his example, and they all left.
Out in the hallway there was a comparing of notes and observations in a low murmur. They could not decide whether they were successful or not.
It was hard to say, but nothing they brought seemed to make Loki entirely happy. But at least, they all agreed, for a brief period of time he was displaying an emotion other than ‘sad’.
Certainly under the circumstances it could be considered only an improvement.
After the group of Jotun had left, Loki took stock of the things they had given him.
“Unbelievable,” he remarked with a shake of his head and a mutter, still in something of a confused daze.
Weapons – well, no surprise there; they were as much a fighting race as the Aesir, if not even more so. Food – his stomach still rebelled, nauseous, at the thought of eating anything, and none of things they had brought looked remotely appetizing. Gems and treasures – what, did they imagine him some sort of dragon, preoccupied with hoarding shiny objects?
The books at least held some form of interest to him. Loki opened the faded covers carefully, checking what contents lay inside. Clearly chosen without any form of discretion, he found every topic from history to navigation to medicine broached within the volumes’ pages. But there were a few tomes on sorcery, and that was a subject he certainly could and would always read more of. Those he would peruse, later; perhaps some of the historical ones as well.
He supposed it went to the Jotnar’s credit they knew enough about him to realize he would get enjoyment from books. Even if it appeared they viewed a book more as a straightforward item, never thinking that perhaps one might be preferred over another. Still, there was some forethought in it.
Loki could not remember the last time he had been given a present that was not some formality, that he’d been presented with something merely backed by the desire that he may like it – let alone so many gifts at once.
He turned his attentions to the items obviously not from Jotunheim. He vaguely remembered hearing before that other races and worlds still traded with the Frost Giants, though only the more mercenary, callous ones: Dwarves and Dark Elves.
He wondered if these roving traders must be tinkers, collectors of the random and obscure, to go by what’d been brought him. Certainly he could see no rhyme or reason behind the assortment. A battered tin flute, for example, lay right next to a beautiful and detailed model of a longboat.
The items of clothing amongst the loot had been mended in places, obviously secondhand, and the style was not at all for Aesir, but Vanir. Though he supposed to the eyes of the Jotnar there was no difference.
Loki sat back on his heels, feeling suddenly weary. He must be more homesick for Asgard than he thought, if all it took to stir pains of longing in him were a handful of poorly-fashioned castoffs.
But Asgard wasn’t his home anymore. They’d thrown him out.
The only “home” he had now was this barren and miserable place, surrounded by monsters too stupid to know the difference between a spell book and one on smelting metal, and who couldn’t understand why losing everything he’d ever known made him unhappy.
In a fit of pique that was far more fitting for Thor, Loki stood and viciously kicked the model ship into the wall, smashing it in half.
Well, he thought, looking down at the sad broken pieces, that didn’t make me feel any better. He’d even stubbed his toe in the process.
With dismissive frustration he decided to leave the rest of the pile exactly where it was. What few things he actually wanted he could always get later, and the foodstuffs were, thankfully, the kind that wouldn’t rot. He’d just leave the rest alone.
He almost forgot about the fox kits. But one had finally been brave or merely curious enough to venture from its basket, and Loki noticed the puff of white bounding past his feet.
After many unsuccessful attempts he managed to transfigure some water into very thin but hopefully acceptable milk. The kits couldn’t seem to understand the function of a bowl however and wouldn’t drink from it. Loki was forced to sit on the floor with arms outstretched as the four of them lapped from his hands.
Tired out from even that small bit of magic after how he’d been neglecting himself, and emotionally exhausted, Loki climbed back into bed and soon fell asleep.
When next he woke, in that first vague burst of consciousness, he found himself feeling rested and for that, at least minutely better.
That ended in a heartbeat as he rolled over and discovered someone had propped a large hand mirror beside his pillow, so that he found himself met with an undesirably clear view of his Jotun visage. His stomach churned as he absorbed the image of his familiar features altered by that awful blue, ridged skin and snake-like ruby eyes. Loki almost screamed.
He sat up quickly, eyes stinging and threatening to spill over, edging far away as he could. His hand shook uncontrollably as he reached over, turning the mirror down against the bedclothes so he would no longer have to look at such a horrid sight.
“Do you like it?”
Looking up sharply he saw the two Frost Giants – his brothers – looming, the elder leaning against the wall by the door with arms crossed, and the younger sitting on the floor next to the bed, uncomfortably close. It was the latter that had spoken.
Are you insane? Loki almost demanded in response to the question. But after a second he realized the giant couldn’t possibly be talking about his face; what he meant, more likely, was the mirror itself.
Loki gave the object another look, and discovered the back and handle of it were ornately carved and painted.
“It belonged to Mother,” the Jotun continued, explaining. “I thought you might like it. Isn’t it pretty?”
“It is,” Loki had to admit. The craftsmanship was so exquisite, in fact, he found it surprising it’d been evidently made for and by the Jotnar. He hadn’t thought of them as a species with any interest in finery.
He set the mirror back down again, more carefully this time. “What happened to her?” he asked, faintly curious. “How did she die?”
“Oh, I killed her,” the Jotun said, matter of fact. “Or, I mean, giving birth to me did. She was very tired, and sick, but she wanted to have another offspring anyway. As a way to encourage our people. It was too much for her and she died in the process. So it didn’t really work the way she hoped, I think.”
Loki stared at him in unchecked horror. “I’m sorry,” he finally managed.
The Jotun gave a lopsided shrug with his massive shoulders. “It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t really hers either.” He scratched the side of his cheek. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault. These things, they just happen.”
Loki found his eyes wandering over to meet those of the other giant, wide with questioning incredulity. Something about this was unaccountably…off.
The other Jotun met his gaze, silently deciphered the inquiry behind it, and then gave what was for a Frost Giant a passable eye roll. Simultaneously he gestured with two fingers at his own temple.
The unspoken but clearly expressed explanation: He isn’t quite right in the head.
So there was such a thing as slow-witted, even by Frost Giant standards. How charming. Between that, the same giant’s almost apelike shape, and his own unaccountable smallness, Loki was beginning to wonder if the royal family of Jotunheim was into habitual and gregarious inbreeding.
“Her name was Fárbauti.” The younger Jotun went on in a far-off, almost dreamy tone. “It means ‘lightning’. I wish I could have known her.”
“As if it makes a difference,” the other muttered, but he seemed to be addressing only himself. “As if that would have changed how you, or I, were raised. As if her hands, what strength she could marshal and fading beauty could make things any better in our world.”
Loki considered which of the two to ignore, and found the dullard marginally less disturbing. “Does Laufey ever speak to you about her,-?”
And he stopped, realizing he could not recall the giant’s name.
The elder giant noticed, and something slighted and irate flashed in his eyes. “Býleistr,” he barked. “He is called Býleistr. And, in case you have also neglected to remember, I am named Helblindi. Brother.”
Instead of feeling shamed by the accusation, Loki bristled under being snapped at. “I didn’t actually ask.”
Býleistr seemed entirely unaware of his two older siblings glowering at each other. “Some of the times,” he answered the initial question. “But not often. Usually I have to ask.” His voice quieted. “I don’t often ask.”
Then he looked at Loki again. “By the way. Did you know you have snow foxes hiding under your bed?”
Loki almost laughed, though it would’ve been at the bizarreness of it all. “Yes, actually. They were a gift.”
Býleistr got down on his stomach, pressed flat with head turned sideways and rested atop his hands, trying to get a better look at the kits.
“Ah, worthy soldier Thrym,” Helblindi was saying, deprecatingly. “His brilliant scheme of present-giving to cheer you was what so inspired our younger brother.”
“I don’t think mine are as good as little foxlings, though,” Býleistr observed sadly. He had a thought and peered up at Loki, bright. “Are you going to keep them all to yourself? Or, could I maybe have a taste?”
Loki fought the urge to just vomit on him. “I don’t actually plan to eat them,” he stated, voice thin to keep from expressing his revulsion.
Býleistr only gazed at him blankly. As if there could be no other possible use for an animal.
“I believe our elder sibling intends to keep them as pets,” Helblindi translated. His voice was positively grating. “How sweet.”
“Yes, well.” Loki gazed back at him, eyes half-lidded, mouth curved in a partial sneer. “I wouldn’t expect you to be capable of appreciating a custom such as sentiment.”
Helblindi bared his teeth at him. “Stuck-up, Aesir-fed softhearted prig!” he snarled.
It occurred to Loki perhaps a fraction too late that Helblindi towered over him. That he could make a fist bigger than Loki’s head. He curled his fingers in front of him and, with a show of careless bravado he did not actually feel, conjured up a ball of dancing green balefire. Helblindi lurched back, understanding the warning.
“If you lay so much as a hand on me, you will regret it,” Loki informed him in an ominous tone, just to make certain there’d be no mistake.
“I think he already knows that,” Býleistr remarked, wide-eyed. He looked partially hypnotized by the magical flames. “Father would have him nailed to the ramparts for striking you. He does not tolerate dishonorable behavior among princes.”
Loki blinked. “Dishonor?” He considered Helblindi, who was looking defiant as he could, but keeping a respectfully far distance back. He dismissed the balefire. “It’s because I am eldest,” he realized. “You’re not allowed to touch me. Are you?”
Helblindi’s fingers curled tightly. “Not allowed does not mean ‘incapable’,” he advised. “Test me too much, and I would consider it worth our father’s punishment.”
Though he tried to keep his features aloof as possible, Loki couldn’t help swallowing. “So noted.”
Evidently considering that conversation over, Býleistr reached out and picked up the carved mirror. He ran fingers over the designs on the back.
“It was a gift, from our mother’s mother’s sire, to his bride,” he said softly. “He had it commissioned for her. To show how much he treasured her. How proud he was to wed her. In those days, I suppose, it was not hard to come by beautiful things.”
Býleistr held the mirror in both hands as if afraid of breaking it. “She passed it down through her line. All the way to Mother – it’s one of the very few things we have left of her.” He touched the carvings again.
“We don’t have much use for fine things, anymore. The artisans have other tasks, and what we have already, we usually trade away.”
“For things our people do need. Like weapons, and food,” Helblindi cut in brusquely. He glanced sidelong at Loki’s treasure pile with obvious distaste.
“Our stockpile must’ve been raided by Thrym and his cohorts brutally, for all of this.” He shook his head, frustrated. “I do not wish to know what this cost us. There was much I planned for that now we’ll have to do without. At least I know where a vase was hidden away, that I can use when next the traders come to get a bushel of cast-off dwarven steel.”
“Oh no, I already traded it,” Býleistr informed him. “Yesterday. I found a beggar-man from Alfheim sneaking around, and I gave it to him for a few skins of wine.” He gestured at where he’d added them to the things by Loki’s bed.
Helblindi did not say anything. He only whirled around and swatted Býleistr hard in the skull. The crack from where force met bone was piercing.
Instinctively Loki cowered in the face of such careless and brutal violence, pulling his legs closer, ready to hide, or fight if it came to that.
“Ouch.” Býleistr pressed a hand to his head, blinking. He reacted as though Helblindi had barely touched him. “That hurt,” he said in a meekly affronted voice, taking it like it was a scratch.
“The two of you wastrels deserve one another,” Helblindi declared, bellowing. He strode out, shoving Býleistr roughly as he passed.
Býleistr waited until he was gone before looking at Loki again, and shrugging. “He has been in a bad mood, lately,” he remarked.
It was all Loki could do to keep from gaping at him. The Jotun were even more vicious and barbaric than he’d thought, if this kind of thing was considered incidental. Who needed war, when they appeared so ready to murder one another over slights?
“I have something else for you,” Býleistr continued cheerfully. “Besides Mother’s mirror, and the wine.”
Reaching down, he held up a bowl full of what appeared to be fruit, and placed it on the bed.
Eagerly he nudged it closer to Loki with his hand. “Go on. They’re ripe, I promise. I made sure to pull the best ones out for you.”
Loki didn’t reach for it, and stiffly shook his head. “I’m not hungry.” Býleistr’s face fell.
“It’s been so long since you’ve eaten anything,” he protested, worried. “Are you sure? I don’t think that can be good for you, brother.”
Loki wanted so badly to object to the familial reference. He picked up a handful of the fruits, if only to place them in his mouth and keep words from dropping out.
They were berries of some kind, dark burgundy in color. Loki bit into one curiously, the juice exploding on his tongue. The texture was not unlike chilled grapes. The taste was actually quite pleasant, though not overtly sweet. More tangy and bitter.
Swallowing the first mouthful, he suddenly felt his hunger return with a vengeance. Býleistr smiled at him, relieved and pleased, as he continued eating.
“Good, aren’t they?” he asked. Chewing, Loki only nodded. “They’ve always been my favorite. Helblindi refuses to eat them anymore, because he says they are for children, but I’m more than happy to share them with you.”
Distantly Loki’s mind worked, considering what Býleistr told him. The rough climate of Jotunheim probably made it hard for plants to grow, let alone anything succulent as fruit. He was willing to bet none of the wild plants ran sweet. Jotnar children likely never developed the taste for sweet things, in that case – their preferences would run towards the bitter, instead.
Although, as soon as the thought came to him, it occurred that he’d never been fond of sweets, either, even as a child; at least not compared to Thor or the others. Maybe it was genetic.
The berries suddenly felt sticky in Loki’s throat, and he almost choked on them. Roughly he pushed the bowl back.
“You’re only half finished,” Býleistr objected.
“Take them,” Loki managed, curtly. “I’ve lost my appetite.”
Býleistr clearly would have liked to stay and talked with him longer, but Loki sent him away.
Thrym left his men in the barracks in the hope they might actually practice their combat, instead of standing around and grousing as was the more usual, and went by himself through the palace.
A few corridors away from Prince Loki’s room, he came across Prince Býleistr climbing through a window, humming brightly.
The sight was not unusual. Jotnar, especially ones built like Býleistr, were excellent climbers in ice. It wasn’t rare for many to take shortcuts across the jagged walls and towers.
“My prince.” Thrym paused with a bow of his head.
“Oh, hello Thrym,” Býleistr returned, swinging from where he gripped the window frame. “Have you been to see elder brother Loki yet today?”
“I was just on my way, my prince.”
“That’s good. Do you think you could try to get him to eat something?” The youngest prince frowned. “I’ve tried, but he won’t listen to me. But maybe he’ll listen to you.”
“I will do my best,” Thrym promised. He highly doubted he’d be any more successful and frankly, he was more concerned with Loki’s overall morose outlook than his stubborn refusal to eat, but he would make an attempt all the same.
“Thank you, Thrym!” Býleistr grinned, showing a mouth of jagged teeth. “You know, I think Loki may like you already. Because your men brought him the foxes. But do you want to know something strange?”
“What, my prince?” Thrym said in the tone of patience borne out of previous experience with Býleistr.
“I don’t believe my brother intends to eat them at all,” the prince confessed, eyes wide. “I think he is going to just…keep them.”
Thrym gazed back at him, perplexed. “That is strange,” he affirmed.
He made it the rest of the way to the heir’s chambers but this time, he paused at the threshold and knocked. Not certain he would get anything different, but it wouldn’t do to forget his duty, especially if Loki ever recovered his wits and started acting properly.
There was a pause, and then a distracted, dismissive voice called out, “Oh, you might as well come in.”
Not exactly right. But better than nothing.
Thrym entered and found Prince Loki sitting on the floor, studying the images on an unrolled parchment that the soldiers had brought him. The other books and scrolls, Thrym noted, had been carefully lined up and put away on a shelf. A few feet away from prince was a basin filled with a thin off-white liquid, and the fox kits were gathered around drinking from it. Other than that everything was the same when Thrym last had seen it, down to the unmade bed and objects piled on the floor in the otherwise bare room.
Loki glanced up. “Ah. You again. Of course,” he remarked. “What is it?”
Thrym inclined his head. “I only wished to see how you were doing, my prince. And if there was anything you needed.”
Loki shook his head, going back to looking at the parchment, chin rested in one hand. “Well, if someone could find some proper milk or the like, for the foxes, that would be helpful. But other than that, no.” His tone was incredibly brusque; he seemed in a hurry for Thrym to leave him alone.
“I will bring milk,” Thrym assured. “Is there anything that you would like, my prince? To eat?” he stressed.
Loki pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose, eyes closing. “No,” he snapped, harshly. “You can all stop trying to force your food down my throat. I’m fine.”
Thrym knew it was more than possible, from personal experience, for a full-grown Jotun to go a long time without anything to eat. But it was far from a desired situation. Normally it was one borne out of dire straits. He couldn’t fathom why the prince was refusing to touch so much as a crumb. In Thrym’s experience, you ate the food when you damn well had it, because tomorrow you might be starving again.
But he would not argue. It wasn’t his place. “All right.” He looked around again. “Are you certain there is nothing else we can bring you? For the room, perhaps?”
The walls and floors, free of so much as a single adornment, were a far from cheery sight. It was unbecoming for a royal chamber.
Loki gave an annoyed sigh, dropping the parchment again, but he did seem to think about it. “I suppose I could do with a desk. And a chair.” He exhaled. “Assuming anything can be found of the proper size, that is – and on that note, could something be done about the bed?”
Thrym gazed at him evenly, bewildered. “The bed,” he repeated.
“It’s not…most of it is fine. But in case you’ve failed to notice, I have to clamber over the edge to get in and out of it. The mattress comes practically past my shoulders while I’m standing on the floor. It’s problematic.”
Thrym only stared at him which, after a few awkward seconds, caused Loki to raise an eyebrow.
“Do you not understand what I’m asking?” he said, slowly enough the implication was he suspected Thrym might be thick-headed.
“The bed is too big for you, and you would like something to sit on,” Thrym responded, dutifully. He was still unable to hide his confusion. “But…forgive me, my prince,” he apologized hastily, “it’s just that I would’ve thought if you desired any other fixtures, you would have created them already yourself. I did wonder that you hadn’t.”
Loki blinked, frowning. “Created them? It’s true, I can make solid and permanent objects with my sorcery, but I prefer not to waste energy on things that can be achieved through mundane ways. I had thought, at the very least, there would still be access to furniture here.”
“Furniture,” Thrym echoed, blankly. Loki’s frown grew narrower, and Thrym felt nervous that he could tell he was angering him, but he honestly had no idea what to say. “But no, I didn’t mean with magic, my prince.”
“Well then how would you possibly-?” Loki began, exasperated, head turning in the direction of the bed. He stopped. “Oh. Ice. Now I see,” he exclaimed, realizing.
He looked back at Thrym, finally understanding. “You thought that I could alter and make whatever I wanted by reforming the ice.”
“You mean…you cannot?”
Thrym tried and utterly failed to keep his astonishment, perplexity, and dismay from showing on his face.
“What? No.” Loki blinked again. “Why would I?”
Apparently he found the expression Thrym was continuing to give him worrying. He pressed on, “I’ve seen Jotnar do such things before, but it isn’t as if I’ve ever learned.” He gave a small, strained chuckle. “Who would have taught me?”
“But. It isn’t something you learn,” Thrym said, flatly. “It’s something you just…do.”
No one had ever taught him, or his age-mates, or any of his soldiers, how to control the ice and call it to them. No Jotun, so far as he had ever known, had needed actual instruction in such things.
It was as if thinking you needed instruction on how to open up your eyes and see. It was instinctive.
Loki was staring up at him as he grasped what Thrym was saying, eyes wide. There was something very childlike about the look on his face. “Oh,” he said, his voice small.
Thrym forced what he hoped was a reassuring smile. Poor little prince – it only made him hate the Aesir all the more, raising him so ignorant of his own ways. Selfish tyrants, Thrym thought in harshest disgust.
“You’ll probably figure it out, eventually,” he offered. “After all, you’re very clever.”
Loki looked at the floor instead, lightly hugging himself. “I’m sure,” he replied in that same piteously small tone.
Thrym couldn’t resist giving him a brief pat on the head. Loki closed his eyes tight, inhaling sharply.
Before Thrym left he changed the bed around, lowering it so that it would be much easier for Loki to get into. It was the least he could do.
Eventually, Loki realized, he was going to have to make an experiment at shaping the ice around him. Considering that if he couldn’t, it was clear there was something horribly wrong with him, at least as far as the Frost Giants were concerned.
He had never tried, though. He hoped it was simple as that.
But for the present he had no desire to get further in touch with his…heritage. So he was more than content to let the matter go untested.
He was sick of staring at the same four walls and uninspiring view from the window, however. He may as well go for a walk.
There was no one lurking around outside the doorway, which was a relief. No soldiers, no servants, not even Býleistr, who Loki had half-expected to find camping in the hallway, the frequent way he’d been visiting.
The palace of Jotunheim was very much like a labyrinth. Grand in scale at least as that of Asgard, but that one had been laid out on a mostly straightforward grid. Not this place. Many of the halls were narrow, to the point where beings would be forced to walk single file, and the unknown architects seemed to have something against stairs. Instead the floors would rise or fall in gradual slopes, as if out of some bizarre necessity to mirror the natural landscape. And as far as his eye could see, there wasn’t a thing not constructed out of ice.
He supposed that made as much sense as anything. He’d yet to see even a single tree on Jotunheim. And it wasn’t as if their kind suffered any from the cold. Even his own mild discomfort he was willing to accept as psychological – he simply wasn’t used to being surrounded by so much snow, hearing a constant howling wind in his ears, and yet going about with not even the thinnest of jackets on.
Most of the surfaces he passed were solid, a severe white or almost blue in color. A few of them were more reflective. Those Loki hurried past as quickly as he was able, gaze averted.
He came at last to a grand but very empty hall. There was a raised step elevated from the rest of the room, but there was no throne or dais or anything on it.
Past that, so carefully set into the wall that Loki almost missed it, was a massive door. It would’ve towered over the head of any Frost Giant, and was broad enough at least three of them could pass through at once with plenty of room. Loki would have to go on tiptoe and even then probably jump to reach the doorknob – if there was one. There was no handle of any sort.
Loki frowned. He climbed up so he was standing in front of the door, giving it heavy scrutiny. It didn’t appear to be locked, but there was just no way of opening it.
“Curious,” he remarked, brushing fingers against his chin. This room, and the door itself, had an air of significance. There had to be something behind it – else, why bother?
And then he realized he knew a way he could try opening it after all.
Slowly Loki raised his hand, outstretching toward the door. Swallowing past the uneasy dryness in his throat he tried to concentrate. He focused on the shape and feel of the ice, willing it to change.
With a soft creak the surface broke apart like water, and a great curved ring formed a short distance from his fingertips. Exactly what he’d envisioned.
Loki felt a sick, strange mixture of triumph and fear. Placing that aside for the moment he grabbed hold of the ring and tugged, the door surprisingly light for its size.
As he pulled it open a chill air hissed past and Loki almost stopped, startled. It was leading to the outside?
It was only as the door swung back completely that his view was clear enough. He found himself facing a walkway that led to the outer surface of the palace, an area built on a precarious overlook. High above was a great craggy arch, walls and walls of ice. And before them was Laufey’s throne. Loki felt something inside go sour as he recognized the place now – it was where they travelled to when first he and the others had come to Jotunheim, and spoken to its king.
Had that really only been little more than a week ago?
Laufey sat in his great carved throne, alone and unattended. He rested his head on one hand, perfectly still, looking every bit the “sleeping giant” of stories. But Laufey did not sleep – Loki could see the red of his eyes from where he stood.
“Well now.” Laufey’s voice was a cool murmur. “What is this, then?” He peered at Loki with interest. “Did you come looking for me?”
Loki’s hands worked into fists, forcing himself to keep from visibly shaking. “No. I was only…it was a mistake,” he managed. “I apologize for disturbing you.”
Laufey heaved out a breath. “Disturbing me. What did you think I was doing? Does it look to you as if I am busy?” He gestured, fingers curving. “Come here.”
Loki hardly felt as if he had a choice. Feeling strangely detached from his legs, like some outside force compelled them, he walked forward until he stood directly in front of Laufey.
Was he supposed to bow? He was facing a king, after all. Though it seemed silly – even sitting, Laufey dwarfed him. He was starting to think he’d hate Jotunheim for reasons of scale if nothing else; the way everything was so out of proportion for him. It made him feel as if he’d been shrunk.
“How did you get in?” Laufey asked, bringing back Loki’s attentions. There was something in his tone that strongly hinted he already knew the answer.
Loki felt a surge of sudden anger. “I used the door,” he replied, hotly.
Laufey’s features twisted in the briefest of smirks. “So, you’ve learned how to use your birthright,” he noted. “Good. I was afraid that might have somehow been taken from you.”
Having been raised a respectful prince was the only thing that kept Loki from breaking eye contact. How was he supposed to accept this creature as his sire? As his father? “Evidently not,” he responded, voice hoarse.
Laufey gazed down at him with a disdainful frown, and Loki could’ve sworn he somehow knew exactly what he was thinking. The Jotun rose to his feet and Loki instinctively stepped back, head craning.
And then he bit back a squawk as Laufey actually bent forward and picked him up. He wrapped a hand around his midsection that wasn’t gripping him painfully, but far too tight to be called ‘gentle’.
“I wonder what I should be more insulted by,” Laufey remarked, raising him so their faces were level. “The fear that All-Father and his people instilled in you, or the hatred?”
Loki met his gaze defiantly even though he could feel his shoulders draw up in a defensive manner. “What would you expect? I was raised by your kingdom’s enemies!”
Laufey’s lips curled, sneering. “You were raised by oppressors, liars and thieves.”
“I’m not a child,” Loki objected, angry. “I know enough of politics to realize there are two sides to every war. And I could hardly be surprised that the Jotnar begrudge the Aesir, for what their world has been reduced to. But do you really expect me to ignore how this story began? You started the war! And then you would act as though it’s all Asgard’s fault that someone had to finish it.”
Laufey leaned in close enough it was truly staggering. “We started the war by invading Midgard. The Aesir had nothing to do with it. They chose to intervene.”
Loki couldn’t help that his voice shook a little, with Laufey’s furious eyes so near to him. “B-because it would have been wrong to stand idly by and let you destroy entire worlds simply because it suited you.”
“Because it suited us?” Laufey repeated, intense. He drew in a breath that hissed between his teeth.
And then he shifted to one knee, lowering Loki carefully to the ground. He released him, but then reached out to tap him, hard, in the middle of his forehead.
“Our world was not as it is, then. Our people were many, overflowing. We needed room to expand.”
“So by all means, kill everything that already lives on another planet, in order to make it hospitable for you,” Loki said tersely, blinking.
“The humans are like insects. Do they really matter?” Laufey demanded, annoyed. “Your beloved and self-righteous Aesir meddle in and disregard their lives whenever they see fit. But when another race chose to have a turn, then it was a step too far.”
Loki scowled, reaching to smooth back his hair in order for something to do. He had no reply to Laufey – it was obvious the Jotun king had his view, and nothing could be said or done to change that.
Laufey shook his head when Loki remained silent. He moved to stand again. “You can believe whatever you like, about how our war with Asgard began. But when we had already withdrawn from all the other realms, they pursued us, and brought bloodshed and devastation to our home. The ‘threat’ we posed, that they claimed to be defending from, was over. But the Aesir pride meant they would not stop there. Not until we were as you see now.”
Loki bit his tongue, uncertain. He’d had this explained to him when he was young – Odin said the Jotnar were a people unwilling to surrender, that if left alone would’ve only eventually tried again. There was no choice, if the conflict was ever to end, but to beat them until they had no remaining strength.
And from what Loki had seen of Jotunheim so far, he found it hard to argue with that leaving it half-defeated would have been a dangerous prospect. But it had also been turned into a crippled world by Asgard’s victory, with a race clinging to pride and old grudges. Without their Casket they could never invade another world again, true, but they also were powerless to rebuild their own.
Besides, after what Odin had done to him, how could he ever take anything the man had said as truth?
Laufey walked away from him, back towards the rest of the palace, and not certain what else to do Loki followed.
“How have you and your brothers been getting on?” the king asked, almost careless. Loki was momentarily taken aback by the relatively mundane question.
“Helblindi and I do not coexist well,” he answered honestly. “Býleistr, however, is more,” he faltered, “full of surprises.”
“Yes,” Laufey muttered. “He has his amiable nature going for him.”
Loki made a derisive sound. “And little more, besides,” he had to remark. “Honestly, I must admit I’m surprised you would still have him.”
Laufey gazed at him narrowly from the side. “Oh no. Býleistr is nothing. My own father had a brother that drooled icicles and could only speak in sentences long as a single word.” Loki shuddered at the mental image. “Býleistr has sense enough to take care of himself, and more importantly, the strength. No point wasting it.”
“So he isn’t entirely…aberrant, then?” Loki questioned, as delicately as he could. “There is some precedent for it?”
“Of course you would have never been taught our world’s history,” Laufey responded flatly. “In ancient times, Jotunheim was home to many tribes, each significantly unlike the rest. Eventually all were united under one throne.” He gestured to himself. “The ages have caused us to be mostly unified in appearance, but every now and then some of the old blood shows. Particularly among the royal line, which alone represents all the olden tribes.”
“So I’m a throwback, then? Is that what you’re telling me?” Loki remarked. He frowned, steps slowing as he thought. “I’ve seen some Jotnar that may have resembled Býleistr. I know I haven’t seen any that look like me.”
“There would not be any,” Laufey stated, glancing at him across one shoulder. “The small offspring rarely ever make it past Winter’s Right, let alone to adulthood. Especially now.”
Loki stopped. “Winter’s Right? What is that?”
Laufey stopped as well, turning fully to face him. “When a male child is somewhere in his first few months of life, he is taken to the temple at the heart of Jotunheim. It is always during the harshest part of our season, when the sky is darkest and the snow rises before the very eye. He is stripped of all layers that might protect him from the cold and the elements, and there, he is left.”
Loki stared at him, completely still. “For how long?”
“A single cycle. A night, and a day.” Laufey continued, “If he survives, then is some ways he is considered a man already, in that he’s proven he will be one day. A warrior, with the strength to live among our people.”
“And if he doesn’t?” Loki murmured.
Laufey gave a faint shrug. “Then he was not meant to be. He was not worthy. Or capable.”
“You did this to me,” Loki realized, exclaiming. “You left me out in the cold, when I was only an infant!”
“You are a son of Jotunheim,” Laufey intoned. “It is what is done.”
“Were you hoping I’d die? You must have. Didn’t you?” Loki demanded. “All you needed to do was get rid of me, and then you could have a son that wasn’t a runt, born from some trait that should’ve died out long ago.” He looked away, blinking furiously. “Then you could have an heir that was…worthy.”
Not only did the Aesir not want him, neither did the Jotnar. He was trapped with a race of heartless savages that murdered its own children when they were still only babies.
“I hoped nothing,” Laufey retorted, so severely that Loki’s eyes snapped back to him in surprise. “Yes, it would be expected that a smaller child would die. Yes, it would in some ways be easier, to raise an heir whose appearance boasts obvious strength. But that is not why I did what I did. I planned nothing. I desired nothing.” He moved closer to Loki. “I did it because it is our way. Because you are my son, and you are Jotnar, and that is what we do.”
Loki’s eyes went downward, and then back to Laufey as a thought occurred to him.
“That’s when I was taken, wasn’t it?” he realized, breathing slowly. “The darkest coldest night: the worst possible time for the Aesir to try to take Jotunheim, and so when you would have expected an attack the least.” He wasn’t surprised he was fighting back tears – he just wasn’t sure why. There were far too many possible reasons. “That’s when Odin found me.”
“Yes,” Laufey answered, emotionless.
“I’d be dead if he hadn’t. Wouldn’t I?” He gazed up. “I’d have never survived.”
“Likely. But it matters not. You were left in the temple, and you lived to this day. It matters not there was intervention,” Laufey declared. “You still passed your initiation.”
He reached down to briefly cup Loki’s cheek, his fingers grazing the raised markings meaningfully. “You are a man of our people. My firstborn and rightful heir.”
“What do you want from me?” Loki demanded, completely overwhelmed. “You already had two sons. You didn’t need me. You weren’t even aware I was still alive, all these years, so it wasn’t as if you suffered my loss.”
“You were still taken from me, even if it was unknowingly,” Laufey said in a rumble. “I wanted you back because it was my right. They never should have held you. Let alone tried to pass you off as one of theirs.”
Loki shook his head again. “But…but you don’t have any sort of plan, or-?”
“I don’t need a plan. You are my eldest son, and so one day you will take my throne.” There was no hesitation, no doubt in Laufey’s visage. “Whatever happens between now and then…it comes as it will.”
Loki was all but speechless. “I…” he began, but his voice cracked. He drew a breath, swallowed and tried again. “I would like to go now. If I may.”
“If that is what you desire.” Laufey’s tone was unconcerned.
“Yes,” Loki murmured, not looking at him – he was lost in a thousand racing, half-formed fragments of thought.
Laufey, however, suddenly peered at him more closely. “Yes, what?” he asked, meaningful.
Loki’s eyes slid back to him. He knew what Laufey wanted.
“Yes, Laufey-king,” he said quietly, instead. A perfectly respectful reply, if still the incorrect one.
All was silence for a moment.
Laufey at last drew a breath, huffing. “I will allow you more impudence than I should, because of where you have been, and your circumstances.” His eyes flashed sharply. “But not too much.”
Loki nodded wordlessly, taking the dismissal for what it was, and left.