The trial was to begin, and once again Loki was in the dungeons. This time, though, the bars were locked, and what had once been his room had been stripped to nothing.
"My son," Odin said, and Loki's eyes met his. Accusing. Silent. His eyes looked up at Odin like skin flayed open, ripped and shredded, hurt and anger dangling like torn ligaments off fractured bone. Loki's pain was a physical thing, dark blood spilling from an open wound.
And Odin couldn't help but wonder, where had he gone wrong.
The spiked crown of the mountains seemed to turn black as the sky darkened, and a chill settled heavily over Odin's men. Faces grey and mouths pressed, the men of the Aesir were unused to a cold that seemed to soak through the thick linen tents and the heavy plates of armor, and so they huddled amongst themselves, discontent and muttering, quietly. The land was bare save for the hundred tents that dotted the craggy landscape, and the wind cut through them like icy blades.
"What is this?" his general said, and Odin held out the infant, swaddled in a blood-stained cloak. The general frowned and motioned to the rest of his men, who walked toward him, curious and silent.
"I found him," Odin said. "Left to die by Laufey's men. An infant of Aesir blood."
The men peered. The oddness of a baby in the middle of a frigid ruin had pulled the men out from their irritated stupor, and they crowded around their king, curious. Odin pulled back the cloak to show a small face, the pale pink of the infant's skin supporting the lie.
"Whose baby is it?"
"Were they going to sacrifice him?"
"What are we going to do with him?"
"I do not know," Odin said, and he watched as his general tugged upwards the line of his cloak higher on his neck, a futile movement. The cold was biting, sullen, and his men huddled close together over rough-hewn fires, the flames weak and entirely inadequate to supply any sort of warmth.
"Bread and water," his general said, and he took the baby from Odin, grudgingly. "We haven't any milk to give him."
"Give it to me," Odin said, and he took the bread and soaked it in water.
The baby didn't move, didn't make any sound, when Odin held the soggy bread to the baby's mouth. The general frowned, holding the baby upright as Odin attempted to feed him, soggy bread turning into a mushy paste and milky water dribbling water down its chin. "He will not survive," the general said. Odin took the infant again, cradling it in his arms. "I too am a father, my king, but a child as this will not survive. It would be better," the general said, and he hesitated, "if we make it quick."
Odin said nothing. Surely a knife to the belly would be the quickest death, the blood spilling out of its small body like a cut satchel of wine. But the child had survived, abandoned and alone; it would be cruel, Odin thought, to spit in the face of the child's chances.
"We will take him," Odin said, and the general's jaw tightened. "Surely our healers on the battlefield will now how to care for a newborn babe?"
"My king, it is unwise," his general said, and the baby squirmed. Tiny hands gripped Odin's thumb. "An infant such as this will only be a distraction."
Odin rubbed the baby's chest with one calloused hand. The baby cooed, then smiled, arms reaching out toward him.
"I will care for him," Odin said. His general hesitated. "If he dies by weakness or hunger, then that is his fate. But I will not hasten the child's death," Odin said, and the baby made a sound, something between a high-pitched laugh and a squeal. "We will be home within a fortnight. Until then, I suggest you keep our men on guard, and help rally them to conserve their warmth."
"Your grace," the general said, and he bowed low before leaving the tent, lifting the outside flap to reveal cold skies and strong gusts of wind.
They called him Loki. It seemed to be a perfectly reasonable name.
Thor at two years-old was inquisitive, poking a blond head into Odin's bedchambers and squealing with delight while Frigga held him, swaddling the newborn in cotton and cradling him to her breast. "A pity I cannot make milk," Frigga said, and Odin watched as their son looked up at Loki with bright blue eyes, lifting a chubby hand to touch his face. At two years-old, young Thor spoke few words and toddled with manic energy, watching fascinated as the infant rolled on the bed.
"He likes him," Frigga said, hushed, when Thor squealed and giggled, pawing at the baby's face. She held Thor in her lap and pointed.
"Brother," Frigga said. Thor cuddled against her. "That's your baby brother."
"Brother!" their son said, and he squealed again, blond hair falling in soft curls over his face. "Brother! Brother!"
"His name is Loki, Thor. Loki."
"Low-Key," Thor tried, and shook his head. "Low-lee!" Thor said, and then he laughed. "Lowly! Lowly!"
And he pawed at Loki's face again, looking up at Odin and Frigga with a proud wide smile.
"I won't watch him," the wet nurse said.
The headache, which had been gathering at the sides of Odin's temples, seemed to flare in sharp points just above his good eye. "He's cursed," the wet nurse said. "He never sleeps! He just fusses and cries and stares at you like he's dead inside. I've never seen a child like it."
"The others are afraid of him," the housemaid said. She glanced up at the wet nurse and wrung her hands. "My king, we can't be with him anymore. The child's evil."
Odin sighed, then rubbed his temples. "He is just a baby," Odin said.
"But look at what he did to Nala," the wet nurse said. She grabbed the house maid's arm, which was mottled and blue. "No child can do that, your grace."
Odin's jaw tightened. He stood, hands behind his back and looking outside the window.
"Your grace, with all due respect...I do not think this child is of Asgard," the house maid said. Odin turned, cloak billowing with the movement.
"He is a child," Odin said. He looked out at his council, and at the housemaids, who stood in front of him, hushed. Reprobate. "My child," Odin said. His good eye roamed. They bowed their heads quickly, trained their eyes on the floor.
In the nursery, the baby was asleep. Frigga sat beside the crib, rocking him, slowly. "He had a crying spell," Frigga said. She looked up at Odin, exhausted. "He doesn't cry for milk, and he would not eat for me. But then I discovered this," Frigga said, and she showed Odin the bottle: the milk was ice cold, the sides of the bottle edged with frost. "He likes the milk cold," Frigga said, and Odin sagged, sitting heavily beside her. "My husband, what is it that you're hiding? What is it that you're not telling me?"
The baby's eyes were bruised; fine blue veins criss-crossed just beneath the baby's skin. "He is an innocent," Odin said, and Frigga shook her head, the baby snuggled up against her shoulder.
"Tell me," Frigga said, and Odin leaned against her, bone-weary and fatigued. Behind them, a candle flickered, orange and soft and casting warm shadows around the edges of the room.
"The child is a weapon," Odin said, quietly, and Frigga looked up, surprise and worry rimming the corners of her eyes. "He is the bastard son of the frost giant king. I could not leave him. I told myself he would be of strategic use: for blackmail or ransom, or some other purpose. And yet..." Odin started, but he trailed off, letting a calloused hand trace the soft skin of the baby's cheek. "I would like nothing more than to raise him. To make him and Thor twin gods upon twin thrones. One of Asgard. The other of Jutenheim. It would be his birthright," Odin said, and the baby whimpered, little arms and hands stretching in protest against Frigga's shoulder. "It would be my greatest wish."
"Then it will be so," Frigga said, and she pressed a palm against the baby's forehead, then ran her thumb along the soft patch of skin and down the downy strands of hair.
Thor took particular delight in torturing Loki in the way only older brothers knew how: upending Loki's truckle bed and yanking Loki's limbs when he wanted his attention. Little Thor laughed and shoved shiny things in his baby brother's face, then squealed delighted when Loki would reach out, grasping it with little hands. Odin would sit, meeting with his advisors and his counselors, only to come home to find the Loki draped over the Thor's stomach, both of them sleeping, the pink rosebud of his son's lips parted with tidal breaths: Loki was not an active child, not the way Thor was, hiding inside cupboards and upturning vases and the like, but Odin noticed how the he would turn, eyes bright and observant, whenever Thor would burst into the room.
"Mind your brother!" Frigga called, when Thor tumbled down spiral staircases and leapt from tall balconies, laughing and egging Loki to follow him. "Thor! Be careful!" Frigga said, when Thor dragged Loki into the river bank, daring him to swim up against the currents and dodge the craggy rocks in the rapids in front of them. Thor was young and fearless, and Loki followed him with the giddy acquiescence of someone who knew better: Loki was quick and sharp but followed along because his older brother told him to, his older brother dared him, and Frigga would grimace and frown and close her eyes, because the fates would not bless her with daughters, for once.
"We are going swimming!" Thor announced, because at ten years old he was fearless, yanking off his shirt and trousers and standing at the cliff's edge, looking down at the mass of rocks and waves crashing against the forbidding shore. "We'll dive down, and whoever hits the bottom first will win!"
Loki looked. The cliff was tall and the rocks were large and sharp, and he hugged his arms to his thin chest, shivering. "Brother, I do not think it's a good idea."
"Of course it is!" Thor said, and he hit Loki on the shoulder. "We will dive! And when we surface, we will swim to the edge of the river, and whoever is the fastest will win!"
"I don't want to," Loki said.
He almost drowned. If not for Heimdall, who watched the young princes playing at the cliffsides, leaping from his perch and diving into the blue-green waters.
On the shore, Loki coughed, then sputtered, coughing up large cups of salt water and shivering. When Odin found him, there were bruises on his back where Heimdall had smacked him, trying to beat out the freshwater that was clogging his lungs. Loki's skin was cold and pale, the bones of his ribs and thin shoulders sagging, pathetically.
"You cannot," Odin said, and Thor flinched, expecting the blow. "You cannot drag your brother like this! He is different than you," Odin said, and Loki hugged himself, thin arms like twigs of porcelain, small and thin and ready to snap and tear.
One day, Loki fell ill.
Odin watched, chest tight, as the healers rubbed his body with herbs and steeped washcloths in cold water. Loki's chest was thin and pale and his belly quivered with shallow breaths, eyelids fluttering and damp skin the color of a runny egg. "His heart beats fast," the healers said. They looked up at Odin, worried. "We fear it may be the worst."
The child thrashed, delirious. It waxed and waned, at turns crying out and clutching at the sheets, body writhing and splayed at strange angles on the bed, and other times he was strangely still and perfectly lucid, green eyes roaming outwards, as if peering into the dark.
"Father," Loki said, and his lips were blue. "Father. Where am I?"
"In your room, my son," Odin said, and Loki shivered, thin shoulders shaking, pathetically. His eyes were glassy; the skin of his lips had started to peel.
He will die, Odin realized. Pressed a shaky hand to Loki's brow, pushing back sweaty bangs and touching damp skin. He will die, he will die, he will die.
The healers were in the hallway, hands clutched to their chests, when Odin came to a quick decision.
"We move him to the dungeons," Odin said, and he ignored how the healers' eyes widened: the dungeons were the coldest part of the palace. Odin pushed past them, hoisting his son over his shoulder and moving down the hall.
"He is not contagious," the healer said, following him. "Your grace! There is no need," the healer said, but Odin ignored them, rushing down the stony steps and setting Loki on the cold stone ground.
"Your grace, there is no need for such cruelty," the healer said. "The child is not infectious. Surely you will let him die in his own bed."
"He will not die," Odin said, and Loki moaned, head thrashing and pushing up against Odin's hand. "Leave me now, your healing has served no purpose."
The healers hesitated. "Your grace?"
"Leave!" Odin said, and the healers startled, then turned, the iron doors thundering behind them. Hours passed, as Odin stood vigil, the paleness of Loki's lips giving way to a fishbelly gray.
He packed his body in ice. Great blocks of it, taken from the cellars and brought up to the prison cell, pools of cold water puddling by Loki's form. Even in the dungeons, there seemed to be too much warmth, and Odin pulled off the thick coats and smocks that covered Loki's body. The tips of Loki's fingers were turning, blue and mottled, and involuntarily his son shivered, plumes of white breath dissipating into the frigid air.
He fell asleep, and when he woke Loki was looking back at him, small pale face rimmed with dark hair.
On the third night, Loki's fever broke. On the fourth, he was drinking liquids again, weakly swallowing spoonfuls of medicines and soup before falling back into a heavy sleep.
By the fifth might, his wits came back to him, the delirium subsiding and only a startled lucidity settling in Loki's eyes. "I am not in my room," Loki said.
"No," Odin said. "You are not."
The shouting could be heard throughout the prison hall.
"Please," Loki said. He gripped the bars, panicking. "Father, do not leave me here!"
Odin stood. Watched with one good eye how Loki curled his fingers around the bars, knuckles white and shaking. "Please!" Loki said, again. "Father!"
There was no glass in the window, just iron bars and strong gusts of wind, which blew torrents of snow into the chamber. In the cold, the boy's strength was already increasing, and Odin could see it, see it in how Loki cried and sobbed and how with each strangled breath the pallid cheeks turn pink with color, and it was only then that Odin turned, his cloak billowing with the movement.
When Frigga found out, she raged at Odin for days.
"You cannot do this!" Frigga said. She paced the bedchambers, eyes wide and full of tears. "Husband! He is just a child, he does not understand--"
"And will you have him die, to assuage your guilt?" Odin said. "Already the color has returned to his face. What else will you have me do?"'
"He will not die," Frigga said. "Husband. The fever has passed, your worry clouds your thoughts. Loki is fine--"
"He is sick," Odin said. "Weak. I'll not risk my child for the sake of propriety. He will stay in the dungeons, where it is colder. Safer," Odin said, and Frigga turned away from him.
"We both know the cold does him well, but what of isolating him from his family? What say you of that?" Frigga asked, and Odin looked at her, staring deep into her eyes.
"I do this because we are family," Odin said, and Frigga's mouth thinned, a pressured, angry line.
Converting the dungeons into a suitable room did not take much. The bed from Loki's chambers was transferred, as were the large tapestries on the wall and the scrolls he kept piled on the table. There was always a darkness to Loki's belongings, a white mist of a heavy fog, veiled in secrecy and ceremony. A feather quill, altogether mundane in Thor's grubby hand, seemed at once imbued with a mystery and menace once it found its way among Loki's possessions. Thor did not understand: until now, they had shared a room, Thor waking up in the middle of the night to throw spit balls at Loki's hair, or to crawl sleepily into Loki's bed. "Why can he not stay here?" Thor said, and Odin shook his head.
"Your brother was very sick," Odin said. "It is not safe," and Thor's brow furrowed, the fringe of blonde bangs falling over his eyes.
After the sickness, a change befell his youngest son: before, Loki was quick to smile, eager to please, and happy. Now he skulked in the shadows, ghoulish and silent. Pale eyes shined in the darkness, lank dark hair falling over his face and over the egg-shaped hollows of his eyes.
The others grew uneasy around him.
Before, the other children teased him: stupid Loki, crybaby prince and afraid of his own shadow. Odin had seen it, in how Loki seemed to hesitate among the others, small and shy and eager for their approval. "Why should he play with us?" Young Volstagg said, and he pushed Loki against the steps, glaring. "The brat only slows us down!"
There were no children Loki's age. Frigga fretted, wringing her hands and watching as the children circled him in the courtyard, narrow-eyed and glaring. "Look at them," Frigga said, and Odin watched, bone-weary and dismayed, as Loki stood among the golden-haired children crowding around him, shy and unsure even as their oldest wrestled and grinned, running barefoot on the grass. "They do not include him."
"They are children," Odin said. He was well-acquainted with the hierarchies of youth. "He is younger than them all: let him find his way."
"But he looks so lost," Frigga said, and Odin shook his head.
"Do not interfere," Odin said. "You will only shame him."
And Frigga stood, hands arms crossed, nervously twisting a plait of hair.
The change that befell Loki was a subtle one. Instead of the timid, awkward glances and the shy, half-started approaches, Loki seemed apathetic to their advances. He stood, aloof and sullen, as the others blissfully ignored him: when they realized he no longer seemed to care, they circled him with suspiciously, eyes narrowed and curious.
"I heard you live in the dungeons, prince," Fandrall said. "I heard the Great Death befell you, and the plague took root in your soul."
The others moved closely, cautiously, Fandrall taking one slow step forward while Volstagg and Hogun flanked his sides. "He looks like death," Volstagg said, and Sif sniffed, "He smells like death," and Hogun looked him up and down.
Loki stepped forward, making the others flinch. "Come closer," Loki said, and his eyes narrowed, mouth curling into a sickening smile.
Odin found him a few hours later, lip bleeding and shivering under the shadow of a broken awning. "What happened?" Odin said, and he pulled Loki to his feet. "Who did this to you?"
"No one," Loki said, and he made a face, blood smearing on his teeth.
Later, he found Thor, similarly disheveled but able to stand upright. Thor struggled, hollering and shouting.
"They have no honor!" Thor said, and Frigga pulled him down, pulling him onto the couch beside her. "My brother was sick! I only mean to help." And then his face crumbled.
"He is angry with me," Thor said. He looked up at Odin, angry tears filling his eyes. "Why would Loki be mad?"
"I can fight my own battles!" Loki said, a few hours after the skirmish. Odin watched as the healers laid potion-steeped leaves over Loki's chest, and he could see the large purple welts and the discolored bruises overlying Loki's skin: there were scratches and small excoriations over Loki's ribs, a darkness over his collarbone and small cuts along his throat. "I do not need his help!"
"He is trying to prove himself," Odin said to Frigga, and she shook her head, angry and disturbed.
"Those children," Frigga said, and her mouth twisted. "If they touch him again, I shall wring their necks."
"And will you have your son hide beneath your skirts, forever a coward and afraid?" Odin's eye flicked upwards, catching hers.
"It is only high spirits," Odin said. "The spirited exuberance of youth. The hardship will pass, believe me," Odin said, and Frigga shook her head. Outside, there was the sound of thunder. Ashy clouds rolled over green-topped hills, and the faces of leaves trembled in the sticky air.
They were running along the riverbank. Loki and Thor, laughing and chasing each other, feet splashing into puddles and pounding into pebbled rocks at the basin. There was a light in the trees and they skidded into the black waters, splashing in the moonlight and wrestling together, two brothers, twin kites twining in an open sky.
It was toward memories such as this that Odin's mind often snapped back: the times before one son grew tall, a proud oak in sunlight, while the other grew twisted, caving in from the inside and rotting with moldy wood. The poets spoke of love and honor, but he did not know, nor could he imagine, how love could crash like torrents of waves.
"Father," Loki said, and he was a grown man now, bending over him as Odin was asleep. His eyes were dark and the curve of his spine was bowed, heavy and weighted, a willow drooping under a sheet of rain. "I know how to make you proud."
His voice was soft. He couldn't see his eyes.
Poor, misguided, foolish son: how he ached for his father's affections. Love.
Once, he watched the planets shrink and expand, watched as the universes collided and the realms of the world beat in time to a silent rhythm. Newborn planets, sun strokes and comets and stars.
But it was nothing compared to this: a baby, cradled close to his chest; then a man, crouched forward, beaten and broken, clutching his heart.
"I promise you," Loki said, and Odin couldn't move, couldn't speak, as Loki bent over him. "I shall make you proud."
And Loki's hand, ungloved, gently touched Odin's brow.
The hills step off into whiteness.
People or stars
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.
My bones hold a stillness, the far
Fields melt my heart.
To let me through to a heaven
Starless and fatherless, a dark water.