The sun was behind the hill when two travellers came down through the woods. The first was old and tall and grim. His tread was heavy on the earth: he scowled: he did not speak. Dead leaves crackled like bones beneath his feet.
His companion walked a pace behind him, silent as he had been bidden after too many jests. A smile lingered at the sharp corners of his mouth. His hair was a startling red in the gloom, and his eyes were black from lid to lash. An eddy of air lifted the leaves where he walked. His breath steamed in the evening air.
There was a house by the ford, but no smoke rose from the roof, and silence hung round the eaves like a banner. The younger man pushed the door open, and the other stooped to enter. His broad-brimmed hat brushed the lintel. Inside, the air was dark and still. There was kindling and dry wood on the hearth-stone, and a bed of musty furs in the far corner of the house.
"Fire," said the old man.
"I obey, lord."
The tone was mocking, and the old man raised his ash-wood staff in threat: but already the other was on his knees. The sound of his breath was like wind rushing through a pine-forest. Bright flames flickered over the pale wood.
The old man hung his hat on the corner of the door-post, hooked his staff around the leg of a stool, and sat down before the fire. He spread his hands -- knotted and gnarled like tree-roots -- to the warmth, gathering it up. There was dried blood under his fingernails.
The sweet smoke of applewood filled the house.
Outside, the wood was noisy with life. Birds rioted as the night came down. A bear, or a troll, crashed through the brambles, hunting. Further up the valley a dog-wolf howled. The two listened until the call was answered.
"He has his mate," observed the man by the fire, "but we must lie alone."
He looked sidelong at his companion. His eyes were blacker than soot and did not reflect the flames.
The other stared back at him. Not many could meet that gaze.
After a moment the red-haired man looked into the fire again. He was smiling. "Alone together," he said. "Two in one bed."
Outside, the wolves howled harmonies.
"I hear your thoughts," said the man with the ash-staff. "You'd work your wiles and lies with me. You'd --"
"No lies," said the other quietly, not looking up from the flames.
"You'll wake me at moonset in a woman's form, and have me give you what no man can receive."
"I would lie with you, not to you." Now he looked up, straight into the old man's iron-bright gaze; and now there were flames reflected in his own limitless eyes.
"Then tell me true: will you finish it as you start it? Will you finish it as a man?"
The red-haired man said nothing. He knelt by the hearth, and the flames gilded his skin. The curve of jaw and cheek and brow was as delicate as a girl's, and his lashes were long and like a veil over his dark, bewitching eyes. He went beardless, like a youth, and his lips were parted slightly. It was a woman's mouth, a woman's wicked --
"Aye, so you looked playing Thor's bridesmaid," said the old man. "And so you took it, like a hot-blooded girl at harvest-time. A fine night's work!"
A smile twitched at the corner of the other's mouth. His laugh showed sharp white teeth.
"You tricked them all," said the old man. "Giants and gods and men. But never believe, blood-brother, never believe that you can trick me. I know what you want from this night. I see you for what you are."
The other shied from his gaze as though it dazzled and burnt.
"I am as I am," he said after a little while, watching the fire again as it leapt and flickered in the hearth.
"You will stay as you are," said the old man, and there was a warning in his words.
"You would rather lie with a man than a woman?"
"I would rather lie with a man, who cannot conceive, than with a woman, who will bring forth monsters. Now: come here."
The stool was low and the angle awkward: the roof too steeply pitched for the old man to stand. Before long they were on the piled furs. The old man's fingers knotted hard in red hair: his single eye was fixed on his companion's face. He did not blink, even when the salt sea rushed through and out of him and into that hot, red mouth.
"I never heard of any child coming from that," said the other sourly, wiping his mouth. "Now, surely, you would --"
The old man was vigorous and strong. His age showed only in his iron-grey hair and the lines that learning had carved on his face. His hands were relentless on clothes and on skin. "On your knees," he said, "like a man."
"I am --"
His breath roared, drowning words, as he was taken, speared, caught fast between cock and hand.
"I will hold you to it," said the old man. His hand grasped the other's manhood, held him hard in a grip he could not escape. He thrust into heat and tightness unlike any woman's. When the noises began to become words he knelt up and put his hand across the other's sharp-toothed mouth.
The fire on the hearth leapt suddenly high. The red-haired man twisted like an eel, and the old man pulled his burnt and bitten hand free, cursing, hammering harder into the blazing, shuddering heat that drew another ocean out of him.
Later, they sat at the fireside. An eyeless rabbit roasted in the embers: the ravens had had it first. There was blood, again, on the old man's left hand, and seed sticky on his right.
"Do not name me thus."
"Your child and mine --"
"No!" The old man pulled his right hand from the other's hold. "Your children will be the end of me."
"My children," said Loki, "will be the end of everything."