Act I: Magic
“You might think to aim for the eyes or the belly, but the horns, my prince,” Bermar says. “That is key. A graze, even, and the beast will be whimpering. Why, once I ventured with–”
Thor, cheek resting in his hand and elbow on the table, lets his attention wander the length of the feasting hall. As if he does not know the trick to felling a bilgesnipe. This is why Thor prefers to sit among the older warriors. They do not care that Thor is a boy not even begun training and who yet counts his age by years, while they mark theirs by the fading of the stars in the sky. They pass him overflowing goblets of mead and thump his back like he is full-grown, and then they invite him hunting and show him how to slay a foe. Only young fools like Bermar – too young to even have fought the Vanir, too young to have fought anything but a bilgesnipe – think Thor cares to hear them drone or appreciates these half-remembered pointers Thor would prefer to know first-hand.
Thor meets Fandral’s gaze several tables away. Fandral sees Bermar and, grinning, mimes stabbing himself in the chest and then letting his head fall forward onto his plate. Thor can hear the plate’s rattle and Volstagg’s guffaw, as well as the surprised calls of those at the table.
“They travel in fours, you see. But Óspakr insisted they travel in threes.” Bermar chortles. “So I–”
Could Thor fake his own death? No, mother would be cross. Why can Thor not sit with Fandral and Volstagg, any how? The royal table is dull – always dignitaries and honored, dull young warriors. And his mother nudging him to make polite conversation.
“Truly? That’s astonishing,” Thor says without checking Bermar’s expression to see if the comment had any relation whatsoever to whatever sentence he’d interrupted.
Later, Thor will wonder that he’d been looking at his father at all.
There was no reason for it. Thor can have the king’s attention whenever he wishes it; the mighty feast, Thor’s been told, is when his father lends his attention to his people. This is why there are always new faces sitting at the royal table. His father knows the name of every man and woman of Asgard. Thor understands he’s supposed to be endeavoring to know the same, but is there not time enough for that later? He knows the names of all the Asgardians he cares to know.
But Fandral and Volstagg are no longer a distraction, tables away with their heads now ducked together in some fierce conversation that Thor longs to join. His mother is turned from him, laughing with Idunn, and no other nearby conversation interests him. All he has is Bermar droning in his ear, despite how Thor has been continually signaling for Bermar’s goblet to be refilled in the hope he might eventually pass out; he can hold his liquor, Thor will grudgingly grant him.
And so Thor sees when the raven-spy Huginn lands on Odin’s shoulder. Not an unusual sight; nor that Odin raises a hand to still the nearby talk that he might hear from the raven more clearly. Huginn would hardly interrupt dinner for an idle observation.
Thor sees the strange, sharp gesture his father makes, and the pen and paper that fold out from nothing in front of him.
Later Thor will remember all the details of the next moments, burned in his mind’s eye: his father writing some rapid note and handing the paper to Huginn, who takes it in one wiry claw and sweeps out of the hall, his flapping wings somehow audible over the feasting hall chatter. His father rising and the golden hall falling silent and whisper-still, no trace of boisterous cheer left in a single face. His father’s booming voice echoing: The frost giants have unleashed war on Midgard. Fandral and Volstagg looking to Thor, though every other Asgardian in the hall looks to Thor’s father. They have broken the covenant, agreed upon at the long table. Odin All-Father sharing one glance with Thor’s mother, and that one glance between them telling a history, and writing one. They have by doing so declared war on Asgard! And Asgard will answer them!
Right now, only one detail burns.
Seidr. That was an enchantment cast by his father’s hands.
Despite the silence in the wake of Odin’s announcement, there is a dull thudding in Thor’s ears. Odin knocks his tall, powerful staff Gungnir against the ground, and the thump spurns the gathered Asgardians into a study of motion. It may be centuries since the last war, but Asgard’s warriors are ever, ever ready for it. Over half the gathered men will not even need to detour to the armory – they wore full-plated armor and strapped great weapons to their backs and belts merely because the sun rose this morning.
Thor is distantly aware of Bermar clapping his back and saying, “I shall have to finish my tale once we’ve made corpses of the Jötun army.” He keeps seeing that pen and paper unfolding from nothing. Thor starts when a hand wraps around his arm. “Thor,” his mother says, in a tone that suggests this is not the first time she’s called his name. “You are to follow me.”
There are questions he should be asking, steps in times of chaos that every Asgardian child is taught while still in swaddles; but his feet are clumsy, his mother’s grip on his arm guiding him and all that keeps him upright, and the questions Thor wants to ask are heavy on his tongue. The Valkyries arrive silently, simply sliding into place around Thor and his mother, flanking them. Others fall alongside the passing warriors, all heading to posts or to form ranks along the Bifröst.
The Valkyries cannot and will not interfere. But they will watch and gather in their arms the souls of Asgard’s fallen warriors – there is no doubt that many will fall in a full war against Jötunheimr. Thor, and Thor alone, they will take arm to protect. There must be a king. And if Thor’s father is one of those fallen, Thor will need no one to tell him. The Valkyries will place a crown on his head the moment Odin’s breath stills. Not the coronation of which Thor dreams.
His father fall? Only this morning the thought would have been inconceivable. Thor would have been grinning in excitement, secretly hoping the battle lasts so long that he grows old enough to fight in it. But for the first time, his father is not all-powerful to him. He is flawed, and the flaw is just wide enough for the Jötnar to slip in one of the thin, sharp blades Thor has been taught they favor.
“You are to stay always with your guard, and preferably within your chambers, until I tell you otherwise. Do you understand? And you,” she says to the Valkyries, “are not to let him from your sight.”
Two Valkyries hold open the door to his chambers, and his mother leads him inside. She grasps both his shoulders. “Thor, do you understand me? Your father is already on the Bifröst to Midgard and I must attend to matters here. Your father and I must each of us know you are safe. We know not yet how deep Jötunheimr’s treachery cuts. Our attention cannot be divided with worry for you. Thor, do you understand?”
The glow of Seidr in his father’s hands. This is Thor’s first true opportunity to demonstrate his bravery, his worth. But that glow is brighter in Thor’s mind than the gleam of light off a well-sharpened blade, and never before has anything distracted Thor from that gleam. “How can father use Seidr?” he blurts.
His mother lets out a long, slow exhale, and her hands tighten briefly on his shoulders. “Thor–”
“Did you know? Can you use–”
“Thor, my darling Thor, this is neither the time nor place for this discussion. I need you to promise me you will stay where it is safe.”
“So it is true?” he whispers.
Seidr is for children and cruel, cowardly adults.
This is what Thor and all children are taught and know is true: every child in every realm is born with an abundance of love – a lifetime’s worth – too much for their form to contain. Bottled up, it would split open your veins and flow like blood from your ears. It can manifest safely in what most call Seidr. Sparks of light, a flower blooming instantly from a seed, eyes and hair washing in every color like paint. A pen and paper folded out from nothing.
But love seeks ever to be shared. When you are drowned by your first true love, they are taught, that is when you learn to breathe and realize that until that moment you were under the tide. This weight of love becomes effortless once shared with another, and any other number of anothers after, and once properly used can never again be manifested as anything but the thump of your heart.
Thor sees them in the palace halls, at the feasting tables, in the practice rings, in the city markets. They are his fellow Asgardians, sometimes, or visitors from other realms, all usually at that young age on the cusp of adulthood. He sees how there is suddenly a difference to them, a peace to them. How one day there is Seidr glowing at their fingertips, and the next day instead their fingers thread through someone else's and the glow is on their cheeks. There is no doubt, not to Thor, which force is more powerful.
Those that close their hearts, however, seeking instead the lure of Seidr, become cruel, selfish creatures, locked always inside their selves. And the longer their bodies bear the burden of unshared love, the more twisted and dark they become. Thor knows the dark tales; he has heard the terrible stories.
But his father. His father is not – his father cannot be–
“It is different for the king on Asgard’s throne,” his mother says softly, her face tight. She runs gentle fingers through Thor’s hair, and he leans into her comforting touch. “You will learn when you are ready, my darling. You are too young now to concern yourself with such matters.” She shakes her head, her gaze faraway. “Your father was too young. His own father fell and he ascended to the throne when he was not much older than yourself. I will not have you suffer the same. Do not doubt this, Thor: your father gave himself and still gives himself utterly to all of his people and to all the realms. He is a good man.” She sighs again. Says again, “It is different for kings. You will understand how when you are king, and you will know better than to judge what you do not understand.”
“But he does not love you truly,” Thor whispers.
“There is more than one kind of love. He loves me as he can, and I him,” she says firmly. But Thor is watching her eyes now, and though there is certainty within her there is not necessarily peace with that certainty.
“Now dwell no more on this. Not now. Entertain neither rash thoughts nor rash action. Your father and I need to know you are safe, else he or I be distracted with worry and you are also made a too-young king.”
She waits, her hands warm and comforting on his crown, for Thor to say he understands. But what she means him to understand is unfathomable. What threat is cowardly, cruel Jötunheimr against a danger so much closer to home? He pictures again the pen and paper unfolding in his father's hands.
Thor glances at the Valkyries flanking the door.
They are gaunt, with slouched, loose posture, hips jutting with the confidence that they were created to face the worst and, when necessary, to become it. Glowing with an inner light said to originate in the halls of Valhalla itself, from certain angles their skin is translucent – barely seen for the muscle and bone beneath. Bloody strips of gauze wrap in haphazard tatters around their forms, fluttering against the crooked, well-used plates of their armor and catching on the crooked, sharp edges of their tall halberds. The bend of their enormous white wings arches over their heads, and their bottommost feathers trail against the ground collecting dirt. They are expressionless; but then, they always are.
“I understand, mother,” Thor says. He does not, not as she means, not how any of this can be, but he will have time to consider. Locked in his chambers and too young to fight for his people or those whom his people are sworn to protect.
His mother cups his face in her hands and kisses his forehead. “My son,” she murmurs, and then she is gone. The Valkyries close the door behind her, and then they stare straight ahead.
Until such time as anything seeks to threaten him, he may as well be alone.
Loki circles the figure he’s carefully constructed out of snow. He’s never seen a human before, but once his father-kings have made slaves of them he supposes they will be a common enough sight, assuming any are left alive. But from what Loki’s heard, this might be a close approximation – slight like the Asgardians, long-fingered like the Vanir, covered head-to-toe in cloth like the Dwarves.
He wonders if it is true, that all these creatures stand separate from the elements around them. Loki and his brethren and all creatures of Jötunheimr are ice and rain and snow. To manipulate such elements is no different than to manipulate his fingers. These other peoples are weaker, Loki has been taught; they are incapable of this skill that is intrinsic to the creatures of Loki’s realm.
How peculiar that must be. How confining. Loki shudders, claustrophobic, at the thought of being confined to only the boundaries of one's own form, alone.
He nudges here and there at the snow figure, until he can think of no other way to match it more closely to the descriptions he's heard.
The finished form is, of course, taller than Loki, but most things are. He and his snow-human are on the roof of Laufey-king’s temple, overlooking empty fields for leagues in any direction. Loki prefers high places, where even the tallest of his brethren cannot reach were they to stand on tip-toe and stretch out their arms. And with Laufey-king and Fárbauti-king and the warriors off conquering Midgard – gone already for weeks – Jötunheimr is even more still than usual.
It is just Loki left behind in Laufey-king’s vast temple, with little company but the ice-dragons chained to their posts all along the paths leading to the temple gates. The dragons wait, frozen puffs of breath curling as fog around their spiky heads and drool freezing in shards from between their sharp, bared teeth. Their large, white bellies expand with breath, giving the illusion, covered in snow as they are, that the ground itself breathes.
Flicking his wrist, sharp knives of ice form from his fingers. Loki whispers, and the tips bleed to green. He’s been practicing poisons, using the spells he's found in forbidden books in a secret monastery. There is a beauty to poison that seems lacking in the ways other youths are taught to use their sorcery. His blood-brother Býleistr likes to catch snakes and snap his fingers and the snakes are split open from head to tail, instantly killed. How inelegant. How dull.
But Loki supposes it is not Býleistr's fault, nor the fault of all the others, that Loki is so brilliant and they so dim. All of them must, after all, do something.
This is what Loki and all children are taught and know is true: every child in every realm is born with greed beneath their skin – enough that a thousand thousand lifetimes could not satisfy it – too much for their form to contain. Bottled up, it would soften your strength and make dead your senses and cut you off from the rain and the ice and the snow. It can manifest safely in what most call sorcery. Splitting the skin of a snake without touching it. Creating wicked blades from nothing more than air and honing them to unnatural, devastating sharpness. Tormenting and teasing your brethren with tricks of light and sound. Poison, at your fingertips.
But greed seeks ever to be satisfied. When you know your first true possession, when you find the first creature that is yours and steal him and chain him to you and cradle him to your chest, they are taught, that is when you learn to open yourself up to being possessed in turn, and understand that by holding yourself separate you made yourself weak. This itch beneath your skin becomes a thrilling challenge, a power, when you learn how it can be satisfied and used to make you powerful. And sorcery can never again be manifested as anything but the chains of ownership connecting all creatures.
Loki sees them, in the halls of Laufey-king's temple, in the cities by the oceans, in the caverns, at the tournaments – his fellow Jötnar, not quite at the height they will one day reach; how there is suddenly a straightness to their spines, a smug tilt to their chins, a power to them. How one day there is dull, brutish sorcery haphazardly flung from their hands, and the next day there is instead their hands at the small of someone else's back, and a hand at theirs.
Those that close themselves off, they are taught, believing they can possess without being themselves possessed, become isolated, insane creatures, locked away from their brethren and their realm. And the longer their bodies bear the burden of unrequited possession, the more twisted and pitiful they become. Loki knows the dark tales; he has heard the terrible stories.
And he does not believe them.
There is no doubt, not to Loki, that they are fools, deceiving themselves that what they gained is somehow more than what they lost.
No one, absolutely not a soul, will ever possess Loki Laufeyson. He is different from his brethren – he is better. They look down at him, now, mock his height, mock his parentage, mock his strangeness, but Loki knows – he is stronger than them. And he will show them. He will keep sorcery and sanity both and be more powerful for it.
Again Loki circles the snow-human, determination thrumming through his veins. Wondering how to fell one, where best to strike. His other blood-brother Helblindi, only slightly less dim than Býleistr, says they are crushed as easily as single snowflakes – just press them between your fingertips and they are gone. “Even you could kill one,” he’d said.
Probably the neck. The belly. The eyes. The meeting between the legs. All of the usual places. Loki carves lines along the figure, leaving faint trails of glowing green. According to his cache of forbidden books, human ribs are supposedly useful in certain spells…
He drops the knives at an unexpected rush of sound. Whirling around, Loki dashes to the roof’s edge and sees the Jötnar force returned. So soon? They should not be back for weeks yet. Months, even. Should they have already subjugated the humans, it would take time to turn all the realm to winter and to set up settlements. But here the army is – or what remains of it. Their number is vastly diminished and the remaining ranks appear bruised and beaten. Loki spots Laufey-king pushing through the ranks, making for his temple. The Jötnar remain as they are, stances alert and ready. Loki searches and searches, but he does not see Fárbauti-king among them.
What could have happened? What has followed them back that they do not stand down?
Loki swiftly climbs down the temple’s face and is on the ground just as Laufey-king reaches the steps. Loki is prepared to trail after Laufey-king and coax answers from him or glean what he can from Laufey-king’s actions, but Laufey-king pauses next to him and considers him. From a distance, and not just because he towers eight feet over Loki’s head.
“Attempt to make yourself of use,” he says, and then he continues inside. He tosses off his ragged armor and discards his broken weaponry as he walks and soon returns with fresh wear and sharp blades. He is flanked by Helblindi and Býleistr, both half Loki’s age and twice his height. They had not been permitted to join the fight on Midgard, but now they too are dressed for battle. Laufey-king again passes Loki but this time without pause; he and Loki’s brothers head back onto the field just as a bright light splits open the sky.
Loki has heard of the Bifröst but never witnessed it. It seems to take the entire sky. The ground shudders as the dragons lift their heads and haul their great forms to stand. Loki hasn’t time to ask of Midgard or to ask of Fárbauti-king or to even contemplate the unfathomable notion that those mortals had somehow repelled their army before the golden warriors begin descending from the sky. He hasn’t the time to wish he could fight alongside his kin or for his fingers to itch to create a spear perfect for plunging into soft Asgardian flesh before the two armies clash. He has time only to quickly and quietly scale one of the tall spires overlooking the battlefield before an enemy can spot him and add his blood to that already staining the ground.
For a time Loki just crouches on the spire ledge and observes.
He would whisper suggestions to the warriors, call out patterns that are apparent to him but would be unclear on the ground, but he does not waste the energy when he knows none of his kin desire his aid. But he notices, when the suns are peaked, that the reflection against the ice bothers the Asgardians’ eyes, while Loki and his kin barely register the light – their eyes too accustomed to filtering it. So Loki sends false suns into the sky to shine constant, unnaturally bright light to blind the Asgardians during the night, and rests and recovers his strength when the true suns rise.
As the days pass, the fighting only intensifies as more Jötun warriors arrive from far-off settlements to lend hand and the Bifröst keeps opening to ever more Asgardians. The ice-dragons grow indiscriminate in their rage at this disturbance and devour and spit out the bones of any – Jötnar or Asgardian – that dares come too near.
After about a week, when the battlefield is painted red and lined in corpses, a strange creature – sharp nose, black feathers, bizarre wiry feet – settles on the spire a few feet from where Loki crouches. It is like a bird, but also unlike any bird Loki has seen before. Loki forms a dagger in his hand, prepared to defend himself, but the creature just cocks its head and watches him. Regardless, Loki throws the dagger, but the creature just hops to the side and then back to its original post. Loki throws more icy daggers, each tipped with poison, and even as he enchants them to follow the creature, it somehow evades them with irritating ease. “Be gone, would you?” he growls, but if anything, the creature settles down more firmly.
Loki possesses more skills than just daggers and poisons – he shifts to the form of a water-cobra, hissing to frighten the bird away. It hops in the air, startled for a heartbeat, and then settles with tilted head. It inches closer, even while Loki bares his fangs and flicks out the point of his tongue. He darts forward, again and again, but the bird evades even these attacks. Humiliated to be so bested, Loki returns to his usual form, resolutely focusing on the battle below and not on his irritating companion.
For a long day Loki waits for its attack, but it never makes an aggressive move. Nor does it stop him when the suns set and he sends his own out to the sky, just turns its head to keep him ever in its sight. He tries intermittently to strike the creature, but it is difficult to pay constant attention to a creature that refuses to do anything to warrant it.
No daggers strike true, although he does once hit it with a simple snowball thrown in a pique. His victory is lessened when the creature gives him a look suggesting it allowed this out of pity. “I’ll make bracelets of your feet and adorn a helmet with your feathers,” he hisses at it, although he feels foolish threatening a creature that may not even understand him. When he is exhausted he slips to the side of the spire, shimmering out of sight while he leaves an illusion of himself in place. Another of the elegant tricks he prefers, scoffed at by his brutish brethren. But when he awakens, the creature is watching him, ignoring the illusion utterly.
So Loki does not dare fall asleep again, even as this constant effort and vigilance makes heavier and heavier his limbs, and the creature watches, and the clash of weapons below is so constant that it ceases to register as sound.
For almost a month Thor behaves. He stays mostly in his chambers, stubbornly keeping his back to the ever-present Valkyrie guard who confine him there. Food is brought to him, although never news beyond that the battle rages. He’s permitted brief walks within the palace – the one time he attempts to head to the Bifröst, his guards lower their spears to block his passage. Forged in the smiths below Niflheimr, the Valkyries have no purpose but to ensure that the royal line remains intact and that warrior souls are guided safely to their after life. Thor has little fondness for the Valkyries – but that is like professing little fondness for the sun. It does not require your fondness, and in any case it is best appreciated from a great distance.
The halls are empty and the city below Thor’s balcony quiet and still. Everything poised, waiting for word or for war to be brought here. This stillness will drive Thor to madness. He is not some fragile relic to be handled gently and hidden away. He should be doing. The only bright side is that his daily tutoring sessions have halted, as his tutor, Radulf, fights in the battle.
There is wisdom in keeping Thor safely tucked away, he knows this, even if his gnawing boredom and restlessness makes the knowledge a poor comfort.
Thor eyes the Valkyries flanking the entrance to his rooms. They are poor company. Even were they inclined to answer the inquiries bubbling inside him, their voices are audible only to the dead and to the queen on Asgard's throne, the only living creature to whom they bow. Heimdall, gatekeeper on the Bifröst, would have answers, and if Thor asks, Heimdall may even provide them. One never quite knows with Heimdall. There is just the matter of reaching him, barred as Thor is by guards that can be neither cajoled nor bribed.
This means all proper means of escape are closed, and leaves as his only avenue Seidr. Not a subject which he prefers to dwell upon, though he has spent far too much of the almost-month turning the topic over in his mind. He’s never cared for the little tricks children are taught to use until their Seidr is properly channeled. Not like Fandral, who delights in the showiest displays, and likes particularly to make the older women blush with bright bouquets of light and shining jewelry; and it is no easy matter, making an Asgardian woman turn red. Nor like Volstagg, who mostly just coaxes platters of choice meats and sweet cakes closer to himself during meals, so that by the time most of the adults are too woozy with mead to notice or care, Volstagg is surrounded by mountains of food while the table ends to either side of him are piled with empty plates and unappetizing leftovers.
But every child must do something or the Seidr will escape by its own means in unpleasant ways. Radulf likes to tell of little girls being burned alive from the inside out until they are ash, and of little boys whose skeletons turn to liquid within them and so collapse in messy, shapeless piles of organs and flesh. “Use it while you may,” he’d advise at the end of each gruesome tale, “And then when it is gone from you never look for it again.”
When the pressure is too much and Radulf’s tales start ringing in his ears, Thor will find someplace hidden – some covered garden corner, a tree at the edge of Idunn’s forest, an empty balcony shielded by shadows – and with no more effort than it takes to blink, call the rain and thunder. They are not supposed to interfere with nature nor seek such primal outlets, but no other will do. He has tried Fandral’s way and Volstagg’s and many others, and they all leave a sour feeling of unease in Thor’s stomach. It is wrong, and so easily corrupted.
But the rain against his cheeks, the crack of thunder – that is pure and incorruptible. Sometimes, though Thor would swear it not true, he does not do this because the Seidr within him is tightening his chest, but simply because he thinks the sky is lovelier when grey.
Out on the balcony, the open door partially concealing him from the Valkyries, he calls the thunder now. He could just pen a message and send it flying out to its recipients. He has done that once or twice, which is partly why that spell pierced him so cleanly when he saw his father’s hands perform it. This way is less subtle, but Thor is hardly a thing of subtlety.
Once the rain is falling steadily, he taps one finger three times on the balcony, and thunder claps in the sky three times in perfect synchronization to each tap. The gesture he does not think is necessary, but it makes the action feel less like a trick.
Then he waits.
He is not left waiting long. Soon enough a whistle sounds above him, and from a window two floors above, Fandral whispers down, “We thought you would never call!” He rolls out a rope ladder and scales quickly down, Volstagg not a moment behind him. Heimdall will see, of course, even focused on the war as the guardian will be, but it is Heimdall Thor means to speak with. Thor would not be able to hide his approach in any matter.
Ensuring the balcony doors shield them, Thor gestures to behind the door to indicate his guard and then places a finger over his lips, even though the rain and thunder should mask their soft voices. Fandral and Volstagg nod in understanding.
Thor whispers, “What news?”
“They are fought back from Midgard,” Fandral whispers back. “But we followed them to Jötunheimr. They are beaten back but not yet beaten. That is all I know.”
“What plan, my prince?” Volstagg asks.
“The Bifröst,” Thor says. “I must reach it.”
Volstagg looks stricken. “You mean us go to Jötunheimr?”
“Is that where we are headed?” Fandral asks, with considerably more excitement.
“I do not yet know,” Thor says. “For now I wish only for more exact news. Once I have that, I shall see.” Volstagg will go, if Thor asks it. And for that, Thor clasps his arm and says, “But someone need stay here, unless the Valkyries too quickly realize they guard an empty room. If you do not object, that is.”
“For you, anything,” Volstagg says, voice weak with relief.
While Fandral and Volstagg work to transfigure Volstagg’s appearance to one that will hopefully pass at a distance as Thor, Thor casually heads back into his rooms and rummages through his wardrobe. He emerges with a thick coat, which he shows to the Valkyries. “It turned cool,” he says. The Valkyries do not even glance at him. When Thor rejoins his friends, he has to bite back a laugh.
“I suppose that will do,” Fandral says, somewhat doubtfully.
“I am not meant to be blond?” Volstagg guesses.
“I can say with confidence that that should be your least worry,” Fandral says. Thor slips the large coat over Volstagg’s shoulders and positions him so that only his covered arm should be visible to the Valkyries inside. “How long will you need, do you think?” Volstagg asks.
“It should not take too long to reach Heimdall, even if we take a long route to avoid being seen,” Fandral says. “An hour, at most.”
“We’ll stop first at a weapons vault. Just in case,” Thor says.
“Just in case,” Fandral agrees, teeth bright in his grin.
“So try to dally out here for as long as you are able. I have done this often enough these past weeks the Valkyries should not mind. When the rain stops you can abandon this post.”
“Good luck,” Volstagg whispers, as Fandral lets the rope fall over the ledge, transfiguring it to reach the ground, and Thor and Fandral climb swiftly down.
“I loathe being wet,” Fandral says despairingly, his hair already plastered to his head. Thor keeps to himself how he glories in it.
When they arrive at the nearest weapons vault, there is someone already inside – a small, golden-haired girl, carefully lining her belt and sleeves with daggers. She gasps when she sees them in the entranceway, gaping at her, and tries to hide the dagger in her hands behind her back. As if she is not lined with a dozen others, all in plain sight.
For a moment, they stare at one another.
Then, chin lifted and a bewildering amount of defiance glinting in her eyes – what did Thor do to her? He does not even know her! – she brings the dagger back into sight and tucks it alongside the others in her belt.
“Are you a Valkyrie?” Fandral asks. “I did not know they could be so short. Or so…pretty.”
The girl frowns. “I am not a Valkyrie.”
“I do not think Valkyries steal weapons,” Thor says, studying the strange girl. “They arrive already armed. Who are you?”
“I am Sif,” she says. Her fingers tap at the daggers.
“And you were bid to fetch weapons?” Thor asks.
Sif scowls, and Fandral actually takes a step backwards before catching himself. “I am here of my own will,” she says.
“To what purpose?” Thor asks.
“If the ice giants come I will not stand idly by. I will defend myself, and my family.”
Thor approaches her and takes one of the knives. “With these?”
“I cannot–” A faint blush spreads over her cheeks. “I cannot – these swords were too heavy. I have good aim, though.”
“Can you use a sword?”
“Can you?” she snaps. “What permission do you have to be here?”
“This is my home. I need no permission,” Thor says, seeing Sif’s eyes widen in realization of just whom she speaks to. Thor sees no reason to mention that he does, in fact, currently require permission, nor his current complete lack of it.
“Your highness,” she says, and then trails off.
“I think our purposes are the same,” Thor decides, handing her back the knife, which she tucks into her built. “Take your weapons. I will not stop you.”
“Thank you, my prince,” she says softly. “Do you – I have only ever tossed darts. Do you know the proper grip to use with daggers?”
“I can show you,” Fandral blurts. Thor had almost forgotten he was there, he was so unusually quiet.
“Since when can you throw daggers?” Thor asks.
“I cannot,” Fandral says, but he’s focused on Sif. “But I will. I’ll be taught when I am of age. Everything from swords to halberds. And then I will show you, if you like, my lady.”
“I am not your lady,” Sif replies, although her eyes brighten at Fandral’s proposition. “I am my own.”
“The offer stands, your lady,” Fandral says. He gives a flourishing bow with the title, and with equal flourish conjures in one outstretched hand one of his bouquets of light.
Sif takes the bouquet and holds it gingerly. “If we are not slaughtered by the Jötnar before we reach of age, perhaps I will accept,” Sif says, almost shyly now. She traces with careful fingers the insubstantial, flickering edges of the light-flowers, and then she glances to Thor and, hesitance abruptly clearing, firmly hands the bouquet back to Fandral. “But for now I should return before my mother notices my absence.”
“We should arm ourselves and be away as well,” Fandral says, regarding the bouquet with some bafflement, as if he has never had one returned.
Thor looks between them – at the girl with the daggers in her belt, at the boy with the flowers in his hand. Thor shakes his head and says, “No.”
“Thor?” Fandral asks.
“Go with Lady Sif. If the worst comes, lend hand as you can. But it will not. My father will triumph over the frost giants.”
“If you are sure,” Fandral says, though he is already drifting in Sif’s direction. Thor waves them away, and Fandral snags several daggers of his own before he and Sif dash off.
Thor does not arm himself. He heads to the Bifröst, thinking about love and what it means to never know it.
And when he stops beside Heimdall, the guardian is utterly unsurprised to see him.
They are going to prevail, Thor had realized the moment Fandral held out that bouquet to the odd Lady Sif. It does not matter if Odin All-Father is burdened with Seidr. He commands a thousand thousand warriors burning with pure love in their hearts, and the Jötnar will be helpless but to melt in the face of that heat.
“How goes it?” Thor asks, cheer restored. During some far-off tomorrow he will confront the knowledge of his father’s Seidr. For now, Thor would rather look forward to the days of celebration sure to follow their victory.
“The Valkyries can hear a soul sever from a body, young prince. Do you believe a touch of rain would stymie them?”
Thor stills and slowly, reluctantly, looks over his shoulder. His Valkyrie guards stand a few paces behind him, staring as ever ahead and past him.
“Oh,” Thor says, weakly. “But why–”
“There is nothing a Valkyrie likes more than a warrior-king. When they one far-off day take your soul to Valhalla, every last one will vie for the honor.”
“So it goes well, then, that that day is far off?” Thor says, grinning.
“It does,” Heimdall agrees.
“I want to know the moment my father slays their king.”
“What lends you such confidence, young prince?”
“It is not a matter of confidence. It is knowledge. The ice giants are monsters, and monsters will always lose to Asgard.”
For a long afternoon, Thor waits patiently next to Heimdall. Though they both stare ahead, Thor’s sees only the black of space and the far-off glitter of stars, while Heimdall’s golden sight extends to the precise details of each corner of the Universe. What must it be like, Thor wonders, to see so much, and know you will only see it from a distance?
Heimdall says, “Laufey-king is fallen, young prince. Jötunheimr in disgraced ruin.”
“How was he felled?”
Thor considers this. Then he says, “I would’ve used a hammer.”
Heimdall says, “One day, young prince, you will understand why this fate was crueler.”
The irritating bird had left this morning – finally! – but it returns and lands beside Loki just as a messenger sprints from Laufey-king’s temple, shouting words Loki is too far away to hear. But Loki knows what he must be shouting, knows they are lost, when Helblindi and Býleistr lower their arms, allowing the spiked weapons they wield to dissolve.
Within moments the rest of the Jötnar have followed suit – the ones slow to do so are unarmed with force. Loki would have thought they’d fight until the last warrior was slain, but Laufey-king is known to favor efficiency, and they’d been losing ground for a while now. Loki forces himself not to turn away – he will witness the executions.
The strange bird makes a strange cawing noise. Loki doesn’t bother to do more than absently say, “Be quiet, would you?” Loki is not so ready to be discovered and meet his own death. Not yet.
But no execution comes immediately to his brethren. The Asgardians crowd closer, weapons still drawn and ready, but they do not attack. For what do they wait? Will the Asgard king do the honors himself? Where is he, for that matter? The last Loki saw, he and Laufey-king’s fight had taken them into the temple.
Carefully sliding down the spire to the temple’s roof, Loki eases himself inside and onto the rafters and ventures slowly closer. His bare feet are steady and soundless on the slick iced surface, and he bows his head lest the tips of his horns scratch the ceiling, giving away his presence.
Laufey-king is sprawled on the ground, a deep gash revealing bone in one leg and blood smeared down the sides of his face. The All-Father towers over him, but his weapons are sheathed. He holds the Casket of Ancient Winters in his hands. Loki barely stifles his gasp. That old man dares?
“You shall keep to your realm, and all your people, as well,” the All-Father is saying, as Loki creeps closer until he is almost standing above the two kings. “And I will take from you your power, that Jötunheimr is crippled and unable to do more damage than its treachery has already regretfully wrought.” Laufey-king says nothing, just breathes steadily and listens.
Loki carefully forms an ice dagger in his hands. The creature, which had trailed him along the rafters, tilts its head. Soundlessly, Loki eases just a touch closer, so that he has clear aim of the All-Father’s back. Strange, agile maybe-birds aside, Loki is an excellent shot.
He has mostly stopped listening to the All-Father lay the terms of Jötunheimr’s surrender, but he hears and freezes when the All-Father says, “And also the shapeshifter. I was unaware any of your people possessed such a rare skill.”
“Shapeshifter?” Laufey-king repeats, impassive.
“Quite. The one poised above us, aiming a blade at my heart.” Startled, Loki nearly loses his balance – he catches himself in time, flat against the rafter with his arms wrapped around it. His dropped dagger shatters on the floor a pace away from the All-Father’s boots.
“Thank you, Muninn,” the All-Father says, and taps his shoulder. The creature makes its strange sound and glides easily down to land where Odin tapped. Loki gapes. That – that – Loki is going to kill – he is going to – to–
“Loki,” Laufey-king says. Mind whirling in a sense of absurd betrayal, Loki has no choice but to make his way to one of the supporting beams and slither down, coming to stand where Laufey-king lays. “My firstborn,” Laufey-king says, and it is a good thing Loki is on the ground or else he would have fallen at that. Laufey-king never acknowledges – “A shapeshifter, as you already know.” Loki struggles to keep his face expressionless.
“Well, Loki Laufeyson,” Odin says, and Loki flinches. He cannot help it. It is one thing to attribute the name to himself in his mind. Another to hear it spoken to casually. “I shall take you also as spoils.”
“Very well,” Laufey-king says. Of course it is that easy for him. Since when has he cared of Loki’s fate? “Are there any more terms?”
“Keep to your realm and to those I have dictated, and I shall impose no others,” the All-Father says.
“I would beg, then, a private moment with my son before you and yours away. Perhaps while you see to your men?”
“Why should I allow you this opportunity to scheme? I do not for a moment think you speak out of sentiment. And were Asgard crumbled at Jötunheimr’s feet, I’d be afforded no such luxury.”
“I lay in ruin before you, All-Father. Do you think I will not dream every night of your ruin in return? But if you meant to slay me you would have, and if you mean to deny me such simple dignities as a private farewell to my firstborn, you may as well have.”
The All-Father sighs and rubs a hand over his empty, bloody eye-socket. Loki had seen Laufey-king pop out the eye. He’d meant to try to find it later. “A moment only.” He leaves, taking his traitor-bird – Muninn – with him.
Loki stares at Laufey-king.
“So, my bastard get,” Laufey-king muses. “There is use for you after all.”
“You send me to be killed in Asgard?”
“They will not kill you. You are no use to them dead.”
“How can you know?”
“Because the All-Father, though this admission pains me, is wise enough to not so carelessly disregard that which might one day have purpose. Odin and I have a long history, child. And mark me, it is better to have enemies with such – there is kinship in it, perverted though it may be. He will not kill you.” Loki says nothing. What could he say? “It pleased you, to be named my son. How you’ve begged me for the honor, to be the true heir to Jötunheimr's throne. You are being sent to my enemy’s belly. Perhaps you will find a means to persuade me to finally concede.”
While Loki’s heart is still thumping in his ears, the All-Father returns. “That is your time.”
“It was sufficient. You are most gracious, All-Father.”
“And you a poor liar and a sore loser,” the All-Father says. He regards Loki. “You can take any form?”
Loki glances at Laufey-king, but Laufey-king pays him no more attention. Loki nods. The All-Father taps his shoulder opposite Muninn. And waits.
Loki could run. He should. Turn to something small and scurry away. Or at least to something sharp and take the All-Father’s other eye. But the All-Father just waits. Serenely, for all that he is slicked with Jötun blood. Behind them, Laufey-king has struggled to his feet and makes for the temple entranceway. Loki is already gone to him.
A deep breath, and Loki forces his body to copy the maybe-bird’s shape. Then he takes flight and lands on the All-Father’s shoulder. The All-Father taps one of Loki’s wiry feet and a slim chain curls out, one end wrapping around his leg and the other connected to the All-Father’s armor. If there was ever a chance for escape, Loki missed it.
Loki’s mind is oddly blank, uncomprehending, as the All-Father gathers his men and follows them along the Bifröst to their home. As the All-Father greets a somber, golden-eyed man and fondly admonishes a grinning, golden-haired boy. As they walk down the bridge surrounded by more color than Loki knew the Universe contained. He remains perched on – chained to – the All-Father’s shoulder as the All-Father greets what must be the queen, and during the victory ride through the city, and during the celebratory feast.
Hours later, the All-Father excuses himself from other company and wanders deeper into the Asgard palace and down several staircases, arriving at some guarded vault. Inside the walls are lined with exotic weapons – a gleaming gauntlet, a shining hammer, a pulsing globe – and even numb as Loki’s mind is, he can feel the power of these weapons pressing in on him. Loki even sees the Casket on a pedestal ahead. The All-Father stops in front of a large mirror, tall as the ceiling and as wide as the All-Father is tall.
The All-Father removes the chain and says, “To your true form.”
Loki glides down from the All-Father’s shoulder and morphs upward into his Jötun form.
“I have considered all this day as to what I mean to do with you. I can no more have a Jötun wandering Asgard’s halls than I can leave you to your own devices elsewhere and trust you will behave and return when summoned. I have come to an uneasy solution.” He runs a hand along the mirror’s edge. The frame glows briefly, and then instead of their reflection Loki is looking at a room. A small one – no door, no windows, just basic furnishings.
No. Not a room.
Loki steps back, but the All-Father lays a heavy hand on his shoulder. “You will stay here until such time as I find a use for you.”
Loki finds his tongue. “If there is no use?”
“Then this is where you shall remain.”
“If I do not cooperate? I have no reason to.” Loki’s rooms on Jötunheimr were always more window than wall. He can already taste how stifling the air inside this room will be. His skin already itches from being so utterly separated from the rain and ice and snow of Jötunheimr. He is not part of the metals of these walls nor the dirt beneath these floors and they are not part of him.
“If I cannot expect your cooperation, there is no reason to keep you. But I suspect you are too dangerous to return. And if you had no self-preservation, I wager you would’ve been on the battlefield with your kin rather than skulking in the rafters. If this does not sway you, know that your presence here is one of the conditions of Jötunheimr’s surrender. Break it, and I may call our truce into question.” The All-Father studies Loki. “Do you love your people?”
Love. Loki's heard that word before. Usually sneered, when someone talks of Jötunheimr's enemies. “They are mine, if that’s what you mean,” Loki says.
The All-Father nods slowly. “Laufey once answered me the same. Step inside.”
Is it a dignity or a cruelty to walk into his cage of his own volition? Escape, his mind screams, but to where? He steps inside, as if there is no boundary between this room and the vault. But once inside, when he places his hand against the air between the mirror’s edges, it is like touching a solid surface.
“Know this, child. I love all peoples – even the Jötnar. I am All-Father to all realms, and I act to ensure the prosperity and peace of all realms. Though it brings me no joy to make such cruel use of no more than a child, I act always for the greater interest. You did not ask to be Laufey’s son, nor a creature with the potential for great power, but I am no fool to act as if these are not both true.”
Loki studies the room. “It is too warm,” he says.
“Then I suggest, child, that you switch to a form that finds this temperature less unpleasant.”
The All-Father brushes a hand against the mirror frame, and the vault shimmers away, leaving Loki staring at his own reflection. He does not change from Jötun form.