Odin returns from battle bloodied, one-eyed, and possessed of a squirming babe. He passes the bundle into Frigga’s arms without greeting and turns his back to divest himself of his armor.
“Odin,” she says, glancing helplessly between his back and the child’s sour little face. “Husband. What have you done?”
The armor drops to the floor with a resounding clatter and Odin himself staggers to the edge of their marriage bed. He halts Frigga’s rush to his side with a upraised hand.
“I need but rest,” he says. “Do not trouble yourself.”
Frigga hovers near the foot of the bed, and movement against her skin reminds her of her burden. She draws the covering from around the child’s face. Its skin is chilled from its journey and soft as cowslip petals.
“You bring me back spoils of war?” she murmurs as she strokes its full cheek. Though her attention is intent on the tiny pursed mouth, the glint of tears on lashes, she sees in the periphery of her vision her husband raising his head to look at her for the first time since he burst through the chamber doors. “What finer gift for your wife, you thought, than another woman’s child, torn from womb by brutal means?”
“Wife. I merely found it in a drift and sought to preserve its life.”
Frigga straightens and meets Odin’s remaining eye. “Do not lie to me.”
Odin sighs and drops his gaze. “Would that I had chosen a more tractable wife.”
The child begins to fuss. Frigga holds it to the warmth of her breast and begins to sway.
“I am your match, Borr’s son. And I will be answered. What have you done?”
Odin stands, nude, resplendent in bruises and cuts, and moves toward the bathing chambers.
“I secured our future,” he says. “That is all you need know.”
He disappears into the baths, and Frigga peers down into the face nestled now against her. Odin knows nothing of the future Frigga glimpses in these tear tracks, these wisps of black hair. Sorrow and suffering, fire and fury. The bonds of love strained by burden, pain outpacing joy.
Odin knows nothing, and Frigga will not speak to enlighten him.
“You are a curse,” she tells the babe, thumb tracing the unfinished lines of its soft skull. She bends to pass her lips across its forehead and begins to hum a lullaby Baldr favored in his infancy.
The child is male, and so Frigga calls him Loki. By pressing Odin further, she learns her new charge is Jötunn, the runt of Laufey’s loins, transformed by Odin’s magics into something acceptable in this realm. Daily she searches his face for raised markings, for cool hues unbecoming of an Asgardian, for the flash of cold and hateful eyes. But he remains warm and pink, and he regards her only with a proprietary, accusing sense of knowledge. He understands her, and in that understanding is ownership.
Within days, Frigga’s breasts, long dry, give forth milk.
She is nursing him when Thor stumbles upon them, loosed of his minders and intent on causing mayhem. He careens into her legs, and when she clutches Loki to herself to brace against the impact, she does not know whether it is for his protection or Thor’s.
“Mother!” Thor cries, flinging his arms around her calf and seeming unperturbed by her repudiation. She exhales, cups Loki’s head in her palm.
“Thor,” she says, “my darling, you must be more careful.” In silent apology for her rebuff, she swings her leg until its little passenger is delirious with laughter.
“What beastie have you, Mother?” Thor asks afterward when he has recovered his wits. He paws at her, trying to get a glimpse of the babe in her arms. “Father says I have a brother. Let me see him.”
Gently she extracts his grabbing hands, splays her palm on his belly to put space between them.
“You must be gentle, my son,” she says, though he was not born of her womb, “and remember words of respect and kindness.”
Thor is small yet, of a height barely to her knee, and he is exuberant in the way boys are, bursting with life’s urgency. Frigga’s heart swells to see him heed her words and rein himself in. He disregards everyone, even Odin — but not her. It is for her that he reserves his obedience, his piety. He clasps tiny hands together and stills. His eyes are big, blue, imploring.
“Please, Mother,” he says. “May I see my brother?”
“You mustn’t touch him,” she warns him, because she is afraid beyond the rational that Odin’s folly, this Loki, will harm him, will deaden his flesh with cold, will infuse him with despair. She has seen the state of the warriors whom fortune did not favor in Jötunheim. That no such fate has befallen her matters little — she is grown, she makes her own decisions and weighs their consequences beforehand. Thor will not learn to do so for eons.
Thor only nods, the frantic motion betraying his eagerness.
Frigga shifts, dislodges her nipple from the small, suckling mouth, arranges her breast back inside her garments. Loki scowls at the interruption, face pinched, fists waving. She holds him in the crook of one arm and hefts Thor into her lap with the other. Thor peers at Loki and the vibration of his enthusiasm ceases. He goes still as if enchanted.
“Oh,” he says after a moment. “He is very little. Is he a weakling?”
“No, darling,” Frigga says. “He is merely new to the nine realms. He needs time to grow as big and strong as you.”
Spectres of what’s to come dapple her vision — Loki will have his own strength, separate from Thor’s. Loki will birth babes and bring worlds to their knees. Loki will never blacken Thor’s flesh with cold.
Frigga draws a sharp breath and clears her vision. Thor’s attention is trained on Loki. They are two calm, solid weights in her arms, each entranced by the other. Frigga rests her nose in the silken blond locks of Thor’s hair, breathes deeply the smell of his youth.
“Mother,” Thor whispers, “I wish to touch him. Just a bit.” A grubby child-finger inches closer to the tempting swell of Loki’s cheek.
Frigga cannot keep them apart — she knows this now. Their fates are tangled threads, knotting together over the course of history across the realms. There is fear and woe. There is great love. She cannot know if one is worth enduring the rest.
Wisdom of the mind and wisdom of the heart are two separate beasts.
For now, they are but children, innocent and ignorant. For now, Frigga must protect them from themselves, from each other, from their consumptive bond.
“No, my love,” she says. “Perhaps when he is bigger.”
Loki is a greedy babe who cannot abide separation from Frigga’s breast. When the woman Kelda calls upon her during a difficult birth, she must lash Loki to her front before crossing the Bifröst into Midgard.
The child Kelda carries is breech; Frigga follows the spine down Kelda’s belly only to find the shape of the child flares outward. These are the hips, the legs. They will never pass through the birth canal, and so Kelda suffers.
“She must be cut open,” Frigga tells the midwife, who passes a hand over her haggard brow.
“Can you not—” The midwife makes a vague twirling gesture. “—change it?”
Frigga only shakes her head and seats herself on the bed beside Kelda, who sobs into her shoulder. Frigga places her arm around her, strokes her sweaty hair.
“A clean, sharp blade,” she says softly, and Kelda cries harder. “It would be best to boil it. Bring much bedding.”
“I am familiar with the procedure,” the midwife snaps. Frigga arches a brow at her.
“Then cease your dithering and do what must be done.”
The midwife’s mouth hardens. “I called upon you to do what I cannot,” she says. “You do this.”
“Someone do something!” Kelda wails, and Frigga grips her hand.
“You misunderstand my place in your world,” Frigga says. Her words are sharp but her tone is gentle for Kelda’s benefit. “The gods stand sentinel, bestow favor — they do not intervene. You must believe in the power of your own actions. Placing faith in us does not mean passivity.”
“The gods!” The midwife scoffs. “I should have known. Where were you when I lost Hildr? Alfsigr? Brynja? Where was your favor then?”
Frigga sees it then: amid the joy of ushering in new life there is also fathomless anguish, a lifetime of loss. Motherless babes and wifeless husbands. Daughterless parents. The midwife’s shoulders carry this pain; she is heavy with it, almost broken. Compassion floods Frigga’s breast, but this is neither the proper time nor the proper place.
“You would start this quarrel now?” she asks, and the midwife sneers. She bustles from the room to fetch supplies.
Loki squirms against Frigga’s chest and lets out a tremulous cry. Frigga hushes him, but Kelda reaches around her and tugs the cloth from his face.
“Tell me his name,” Kelda says, voice strained. “Tell me everything about him.”
Frigga blinks down into Kelda’s face, alarmingly alternating between flushed and blanched. She is perspiring with the day’s efforts. She will die soon, if her babe cannot be extracted. She knows this, and longs for distraction.
“His name is Loki,” Frigga says.
Kelda hums out a note that sounds like satisfaction, though Frigga hears pain as well. Kelda strokes Loki’s cheek, and he quiets. Frigga’s breath catches. This is the first time anyone other than Frigga herself has touched Loki’s flesh, and Kelda remains pink and mortal-warm, unharmed by the contact.
“He likes to be rocked,” Frigga continues, “and swathed in sumptuous furs.”
Kelda gives a weak laugh. “Already he has the tastes of a king.”
A smile touches Frigga’s lips. “He is pleased to be spoken to, and sung to at length. He dislikes any distance between us. He has great appetite.” Then, she adds, though she knows not why, “His affections are as talons — sharp and steadfast.”
“And yours?” Kelda asks.
Frigga cocks her head in question.
“You speak of him as if he is a burden,” Kelda says, “and yet you cradle him to your breast as if he is the most precious of treasures.”
Frigga looks down at him and finds her thumb stroking his face, reverent. When they are apart, which is rarely, her full breasts ache, but so too does her heart, longing as it does for what it has taken into its chambers. A child not of her womb, same as Thor. A child in need of her care, her attention, her gentleness. A child.
“He is,” she murmurs. “Most precious.”
Kelda survives the surgery, the first bold cry of her daughter, the stitching of her wounds. In her joy she touches her child’s hand to Loki’s. Fingers grasp, instinctive, and Kelda’s daughter too remains unhurt by his proximity.
Kelda names the babe Freyja.
Visions of the future have plagued Frigga since she was small. She remembers an incident from when she was but a girl — she could not stop the onslaught of images that flooded her mind, that threatened to crack her skull and spill the contents of her belly. Washed in red, women and their issue, torn loins and ragged bellies. Mothers lifeless in pools of blood, children blue and stillborn, or small and pulseless, or deformed beyond grasp of life. So much death, so many means to achieve that end in childbirth alone. The visions poured behind her eyes like mulled wine into a bottomless chalice. Frigga staggered and sought shelter in a copse of trees. The moss and grass grew lush and soft beneath her hand, her cheek, when she lay down upon them. The ground cradled her as if in sympathy, and the shade was sweeter than Iðunn’s apples.
She lay there, paralyzed by the future, by a nauseating pain that shone bright with love, with hope. When at last she fought free from the barrage, she knew she must act as shepherd for new life. She knew her purpose now, and it was to staunch the suffering of women on their birthing beds. She had to learn, however, the means of filtering her visions lest they descend upon her all at once, crippling, again.
Frigga saw the future, and it was full of torment.
She laid flowers at her father’s feet and saw his great limbs withered, destroyed by Midgardian hubris.
She birthed Baldr, the only child of her flesh, and saw his ruination.
She pledged her heart to Odin in a fit of fleeting rapture and saw Asgard kindle and ignite.
She saw Ragnarök.
She learned long ago to blot out what darkness would descend upon the nine realms, and cherish what happiness there was to be had. To dwell on darkness would be to succumb to madness and despair. She began to hoard moments like wishing stones.
The future is a crumbling road in her mind, and it meets and breeches the horizon. On it, amid the oncoming storm, Frigga sees an age of childhood, of peace, of light and smiles. A pair of brothers, hearts beating in time, even when all of Yggdrasil stretches unending between them, even when hatred and resentment fester in their gullets like poison.
“I wish to play with him,” Thor says, a pout in his voice. Loki, beginning to crawl, wishes to play with Thor too. He grins and babbles now, often at Thor, who is a point of brightness in the shaded life Loki leads. He makes his clumsy way toward his elder brother, and Frigga understands now that though she stands at the floodgates, she cannot act in their stead. Love, misery, the future — they are coming. They are trickling through the cracks.
She stoops to sweep Loki into her arms. He looks startled, but answers her smile with one of his own. She presses her lips to his cheek, breathes in the soft clean scent of him.
“Come here, Thor,” she says as she sits among the cushions in Fensalir. Thor squeals and rushes to her side. “Sit.” He does, beside her, and carefully she places Loki in his arms. “You will call him brother,” she says, “and you will love him with all you are, until Asgard is no more.” Thor’s arms tighten and hold Loki secure. He greets him. Loki grins wide, and Thor laughs, kisses his forehead, his nose, his eyes. “And then,” Frigga murmurs, though neither boy knows she is there any longer, “when all of this is gone, you will love him still.”
Eons pass, and Frigga marks the ages by counting each heartache. Loki returns to her in chains, Thor his captor. There are new lines in Thor’s face carved by Loki’s misdeeds. Thor deposits him at Frigga and Odin’s feet and leaves without a word to tend to his grief. Loki bows before them, broken in defeat. Before Odin can draw breath to speak, Frigga kneels, lays her hands on smooth black hair. She raises his head and gazes into green eyes, shining with prideful, unshed tears. Her breath is ragged when she passes her lips over his face.
“My son,” she says. “Oh, my son.”