From out of the wan night slides the shadow-walker.
If the mountains to the north of Jötunnheimr are anything, they are cold. Bitterly, bitterly, cold. Merciless winds splinter and howl off the great frostbitten cliffs and chasms, skimming like knives uncountable over exposed plateaus and plains as the lone walker makes his way across the wasteland, hollow eyes focussed unwaveringly on the distant point far ahead where, no larger than a single glinting star on the north-western horizon of this frozen world, liquid light floods from the great doors of the giant’s feasting hall, an alluring promise of warmth amidst the hostile wilderness that never seems to get any closer. He’s slipping, his feet stumbling over the craggy ice and stone more frequently now, but he refuses to stop, to turn around. Nothing awaits him back in Asgard. There’s no one left there – the palace is empty. The Asgardian nobles are here, displaying their full ranks in a show of honour, friendship and trust in their jötnar hosts. Look, their gathered numbers announce, We are assembled here, all of us. We’ve come to you on this winter night to show that we have naught to hide from you, that our intentions are pure. We are Æsir, children of the elemental fire and the sword. We know no trickery. We don’t deceive.
But two of the Æsir aren’t present, and while one’s absence might be lamented the other will certainly not be missed. At least, he has no plans to be missed tonight, but those plans hinge on his actually reaching the feasting hall before the cold turns him into an ice sculpture decorating the wastes, and he cannot shake the numbing awareness of a slow and very undignified death lying in wait for him as the frost wind steadily gnaws its way through his cloak to the skin beneath.
No, not his. This cloak is not the great, sweeping swathe of rich wool that would normally drape itself elegantly over his shoulders, protecting him from the elements that now reject his link with them. The robe he borrowed (well, stole) from the watchman dozing at his post outside the chamber door back at Thruðvang is a vastly inferior specimen, the white of the private guards so substandard, so thin, that the sheep its wool came from must have been a frail and malnourished lamb for all the warmth it offers him.
But to have no warmth at all on a night like this would be infinitely worse, and so the solitary traveller shrugs himself deeper into its itchy folds, clutching it tightly about his narrow chest and refusing to recant of the reasons that have brought him here tonight. The excoriating taste of the frost in the air, the howling gales that slice through leather and flesh and muscle alike into his bones as if he were an alien to this land and not its prodigal son…one might consider this torment unworthy of a single night’s entertainment. One might indeed question the worth of the entertainment itself, but such a one would not be Loki Silvertongue, exiled son of the Jötunns Laufey and Farbauti, fallen prince of Asgard, and prisoner of the Allfather.
Alföðr, but never mine.
A dry smirk stretches itself taut across his white, flaking lips, but it holds no true mirth. Not one of his smiles could really deserve to be called such now: of late there has been precious little happiness in Loki’s lonely captivity. Even the trio of sentries who are never far from his prison - be that prison a warded cell in the citadel or house arrest out in Thruðvang - have grown exceptionally dour in Loki’s gloomy presence; the effortless camaraderie and laughter they’d share with one another when their unruly charge’s interminable sentence had been passed dried up, and replaced by a tense kind of silence that stretches the long hours of the day into weeks. The three years since they brought him back to Asgard have seemed a lifetime, endless and monotonous. The guards aren’t so reluctant to meet his gaze now though, and the thought is a comfort; in the first days after they hauled him in and sealed him in the stone-walled cell neither the sentries who stood watch during the daylight hours nor the single warrior who was his company at night would so much as glance his way if they could at all avoid it. Now, with him restricted to a house out in the wilderness far from anywhere he can feasibly do any harm, their fear – if it was indeed fear – has wilted along with their humour. They’re bored, Loki thinks. Bored to their very bones of standing watch over a man who can never escape his incarceration, because he has nothing to escape for and nowhere in all of Yggdrasil to run to.
He can hear the laughter now, warm as the light from the multitudinous hearth fires he imagines must burn merrily away inside the hall. Each voice that flows out through the doors is familiar: the rumble of the king under a clear chuckle that might be Fandral; that booming fool Volstagg. Voices lift in song as Æsir, Vanir and Jötunn alike rejoice in celebration of their newfound unity. More than a truce – a friendship, this time. With the advent of a new king’s reign in Jötunnheimr and the passing of the old one, many and more promises and gestures of honesty have been made. The realm of the gods and that of the giants will stand together though Ragnarök itself might tear the worlds asunder. For now, at least. This Loki does not doubt. Maybe a marriage will be offered, a union between the two realms to seal the bond forever. Or perhaps some of the noble jötnar sons and daughters will be brought to Asgard to learn and to grow at the venerated knee of King Oðin himself. The Allfather could arrange such a thing with ease; the old man is a very persuasive creature, but how the great and wise lord talked away the culpability of his realm for Laufey’s death, Loki can only imagine, though in his heart he suspects that he knows too well what Oðin told Farbauti.
A traitor at the very heart of our home…driven mad by jealousy…were the boy sound of mind we would offer him up to thee, to do with as thou seest fit. But he is fragile, unstable, and must be kept under a close watch lest he do more damage to the cosmos. Already he has brought great suffering and destruction to the realms with his cruelty. Forgive his crimes for the acts of a desperate lunatic, noble one. Accept our offer of lasting friendship between Goðheimr and Jötunnheimr.
And not a word of Loki’s real heritage, nor the revelations and truths he had discovered in the wake of his brother’s foolhardy attack on Jötunnheimr, would ever pass the Allfather’s lips. His birth-mother would never learn the truth about the son she had lost, would mourn forever if indeed she even remembered him. Oðin would strive for peace and win it, no doubt, and Loki would rot in the rural hinterlands as far from the citadel as they can get him, attended only by the perpetual, never-changing cycle of the narcoleptic white-cloaks during the day and a rancorous, resentful Einherji through the nights. He struggles up the last incline to the mead hall and knows that an exhaustingly dull life is all that awaits him, but nevertheless he knows that no matter how bitterly his night guard might feel towards him, he wouldn’t exchange a single evening in her company for any slumbering sentry who might – as has been the case tonight – give him the chance to escape. In the small hours of her watch she sometimes speaks to him, occasionally deigns to respond to his needling taunts, and through her anger he’s often discerned memory. More than her memory – nostalgia, fondness for a time long gone, consigned to the past he thinks of as another world. He was second prince of Asgard then, loved by his brother at least if by no one else. His days were idyllic, spent in the shady corners of the library or in the glass gardens: oh, such gardens…will he ever see them again? If he keeps to his best behaviour, maybe she could be persuaded for the sake of their shared centuries and memories to escort him there and back, just so he might sit in the soft light of the crystal spires one last time and feel the elements respond to his call – for he is their child, their son though they’ve forsaken him of late – before the endless blackness of the cells engulfs him once again, unless he somehow manages to keep himself out of trouble and they are gracious enough to let him live out at Thruðvang until the Twilight comes calling.
Persuade her? You would waste less time in explaining to Thor how it can be that the towers float...
At last the great hall is before him and, cloaked in shadow and snow as he is, he may look in unnoticed. Why, on a night such as this, Ægir has left the doors open to the wind and the cold Loki cannot say, but he’s glad of it. Were the doors closed he might have a much harder time slipping into the throng unseen – it’s difficult to miss a door that opens of its own accord. As it is, Loki simply walks in, strides past the pair of Jötunn that flank the entrance, and gives himself up to the Allfather with a sweeping, ostentatious bow that strips from him his shielding enchantments with a flourish. As predicted, there’s something of an uproar.
“Loki!” King Oðin thunders, bringing his mead horn down against the oak table with an audible crack. Those who might have missed the trickster’s arrival are notified of it by the sudden silence that claims the high table, and all eyes descend on the king and the intruder. Loki smirks.
“I beg your pardon, my king, but I chanced to slip my bonds and found myself most desperately wanting company. And since you have gathered here, where else was I to come?”
“Loki…” Queen Frigg, resplendent in a gown of deep forest-green, rises to her feet, her tone filled with a heavy warning. The golden brocade hemming her magnificent dress glitters in the torchlight, mirroring a chaplet of gold that drops a brilliant yellow stone upon her smooth forehead. “You know that you were not to leave Thruðvang.”
“I know, Your Grace.” He refuses even now to call her móðir. “But truly it is a lonely business, being a prisoner. I pray you are both assured of my regret, my sorrow and my repentance, and I beg of you a place at the table. Let me this one night spend among you, before I return to my gaol for good.” Loki beseeches her, the regal woman who for a time he believed to love him as her own son, then turns back to the fuming king of Asgard to plead his case with the Allfather. “Hear me now, fjölnir, as I stand before you a supplicant, and know that no remorse is greater than my own for the harm I have wreaked upon the nine realms. Allow me a seat in memory of the long-dead days when we were bonded by blood.”
Oðin’s face sets, his mouth a flat line amidst his white beard. Only a cruel king would deny such a truly heartfelt plea, Loki knows, and to the assembled guests it must indeed seem sincere, pouring from his pale dry lips like the sweetest honey. “Rise,” the Allfather instructs curtly, gesturing to Viðar at his left side to surrender his chair. The young As obediently vacates his seat and gestures for another to be brought, but on the other side of the hall a voice lifts in protest.
One of the guests does not accept Loki’s smooth remorse so easily. Bragi Boddasson has been regaling the lower tables with a stirring epic on the exploits of the Prince Thor, but now he sets down his harp and crosses the room, anger writ in every plane of his face.
“Why should we make room for one such as this?” he demands of the king, “You know what manner of creature he is, Alföðr, why then should we believe in his repentance when we know him to be a deceiver of unmatched prowess? Why trust him, when he has slipped his bonds and taunts you baldly with his talent for trickery? There is here tonight neither man nor woman who has not tasted this serpent’s venom,” the skald motions beyond him to the others, gesticulating as only a poet can. “Indeed our hosts would not be here at all, had he his way. Or have we forgotten that, in the face of his honeyed tongue? Fine and noble folk good Ægir brought here tonight, and this liar is not such a man. He may be earning his pardon, my king, but I do not forgive so easily. And nor does my lady Iðunn, for his insult against her.”
Standing by the harp Bragi had left at the table, fair Iðunn of the golden apples sighs heavily. She bears the Silvertongue no love, but rancour and bitterness are not a part of her nature and she bears him no grudge either. He’s done much worse against many others, and no doubt several of those others dearly wish that all he had done was barter them to a giant. Her captivity had been short-lived, and Loki had been punished.
Is still being punished.
Apparently unmoved by Bragi’s contempt, Loki sweeps up a drinking horn from the surprised hand of a nearby servant, turning as he does so to encompass the assembled ranks of the Æsir, Vanir and Jötunn in his mocking salute. “Hail to one and all, my most valiant lords and ladies. All but you, Bragi Boddasson there on your bench, for your poor welcome. Would that you had smiled and obeyed your king.”
The skald flinches at the chilling ire in the trickster’s suddenly baleful glare now, and steps back to the Lady Iðunn’s side. Within the halo of faint light she seems to emanate Bragi’s face is a pale, sickly shade of grey and his anxiety is plainly apparent to all.
“Peace, Loki,” he declares, “Indeed, I think a horse and hoard I’d give you if it would only save me your mischiefs.” He glances in an aside to the others, and the low rumble of laughter has Loki advancing on him slowly, patient as a predator, smiling in a way that causes Iðunn to frown as she recognises the malice in that haunted, skull-like grin.
“Are you that afraid of mine tongue?” Loki enquires innocently, cocking his head to one side, “Though indeed, your fear should not surprise a soul here this night, should it? Whenever have the skalds sung out of Bragi the Bold, Bragi the Brave, Bragi the Fearless? Not once to my recollection, though were your deeds half so daring as your words no doubt you’d rival my brother himself in valour!”
Now the sniggers are on Loki’s side, conjuring flushed crimson spots on the poet’s cheeks and through gritted teeth Bragi responds, all attempts at conciliation abandoned. “I would that you and I stood outside, snake, that we might put your insults to the test. Methinks your liar’s head would make a fine prize indeed and no clever words would keep me from it – I think I’d bear it home: a grand adornment over my hearth it would make, and a fitting price you’d pay for your lies.”
“And what further proof is needed of your daring?” crows Jötunnheimr’s forgotten prince. “So brave in your chair, yet not so were I to challenge you. Indeed I think I shall. Come out, bench-warmer, fight me if you feel I have insulted you intolerably. Show us all the hero you’ve hidden thus far within.”
“Bragi,” interrupts the Lady Iðunn softly, restraining her wrathful husband with a gentle hand and calm word. “Pay him no heed. Surely you can see that your anger is a nourishment to his spite? Loki thrives on the trouble he wreaks, so offer him no such satisfaction.”
Eyes flashing pale as venomous stars in the torchlight Loki turns on her now, but where the dread in the poet’s features was as obvious as the animosity, no such distress sees he in Iðunn’s dark gaze. The youthful goddess meets him without fear, so brim-full is she with the milk of pride that all Asgardian females seem to abound with. It makes them quite wonderful targets for his favourite weapon, Loki reflects as he locates Iðunn’s most exposed nerve, her weak spot, and launches his assault.
“Hold your tongue,” he advises her, “Lest my own reveal some secrets you thought never to share with your mate. Who was it that your lusts ensnared, now? Who was it fell captive to your winding arms? Your brother’s own murderer, was it not?” He had never troubled to learn the truth of that rumour, but it serves a purpose now to disconcert her and to stoke the flames of Bragi’s fury.
“Please, be still,” Iðunn’s fingers tighten on Bragi’s arm as he all but lurches towards the intruder, her eyes glinting hard as blackened steel. She is a hard woman to provoke, but if anyone could manage it Loki is that man. “I will not bandy words with you here, Loki, I seek only to calm my husband. Anger and mead are a potent mix and I want no fighting here. No one does.”
She stands at Bragi’s left, and at his right another woman appears. “We should not wonder at his hatred of us,” Gefjön remarks cuttingly, “Loki Liartongue is as famed for his treachery as much as his vile insults, so why give a response, my good Bragi? And you, Loki, why do you seek with bitter tongue to raise up hate among us?”
“Why, dear Gefjön, to show you all for the liars and the pretenders you truly are. You yourself are not so chaste, I seem to recall. What was the price he offered you, that boy? A necklace, I think it was?”
For all his relatively benign intentions in coming here Loki finds himself unable to restrain the flood of bile he unleashes upon the Asgardians. Fuelled by his resentment and loathing of their hypocrisy and their judgement, their own hate and their scorn, each word is as a knife to their pride and he revels in the discord he births with his tongue. Disgusted, Gefjön and Iðunn turn away and guide Bragi back to their bench, Iðunn forsaking her earlier assertion of trying to sober her husband up and slamming a mead horn into his shaking hands before taking up another in her own. Smirking, Loki willingly fends off Freyja, Njörd, Skaði, Týr and any other As or Van who feels the need to throw their helm in the ring with similar such comments, before turning now to the queen, who has been remonstrating with him in her stern, calm voice. Loki looks to his wish-mother and sees her disappointment.
“Oh, my son…” she sighs, the very picture of a wounded parent, “Why have you come?” The queen is a wise woman, she knows better than to question his escape from the house in Thruðvang, but his motives are and always have been a mystery to Frigg. She could never imagine the dark dreams he has entertained for years now, the poisons that worm their way through his being a little further each night. She sees much, but not all. Even as a child Loki was half-lost to her sight through his own alien nature and magick and now the separation is all but irrevocable.
“To join you,” he says simply, “It’s no fault of mine that I was not welcomed as a guest.”
“And was it so beyond you to ignore one man’s grievances?” asks Frigg pointedly, inclining her head to the irate Bragi. “Would it have done you any harm to have stayed your temper and your tongue?” She does not wait for a response, and Loki catches a flash of anger in her eyes. Good. “If your brothers had been here this night I don’t think you would leave good Ægir’s hall unbound. Or un-bruised, for that matter – it strikes me that your calumnies are enough to inspire even my good Balder’s wrath. You disappoint me, Loki.”
Unabashed, Loki rolls his eyes, bows deeply and irreverently to the queen his mother. For the first time in years he has her attention; he won’t lose it, not until he has said his piece and his adoptive parents know true remorse for their abandonment of him.
“And here before you stands the very reason your good son comes never more to Goðheimr.” And now at least she sees the truth of the creature she thought to raise as her own. Fittingly they call me a ‘destroyer’ across Yggdrasil. “Mourned you much for him, my queen, but in your heart sorrowed naught for Loki’s fall, or Loki’s ruin.” With his eyes he dares her to deny it, and has the pleasure of seeing her own darken in grief and loss. She steps away from the high table she shares with her husband, Ægir, Ran and Gerð and descends from the dais to Loki’s side. Hesitantly she lifts her right hand to his forehead, brushes back his thick black hair and tucks it behind his ear just as she would do when he was a boy, all in disarray and dirt-stained from a morning with his brother in the yard. He never liked the noise, the brutal chaos down there. His own brand of chaos is much more dignified, and yet Frigg still has the power to make him feel anything but dignified with her gentle motherly ways. Or at least, she seems gentle, but something in her severe gaze suggests to Loki that she knows exactly what she’s doing.
“Mourned I for both of you, my child, and I love you still with all my heart. And as for Balder…I knew from the moment he fell whose hand lay behind it. I sat at my loom that day and saw his death before me in the weave. Saw I too who it was that gave the spear to Hoð and brought it all about, and truly disturbed you must be to so make known your callous crimes.” At his dismissive snort Frigg grasps his upper arm firmly, grim as judgment itself and unyielding as stone. “Loki, these troubles you have wrought you would do well to make penance for, else I fear your days are doomed to darkness. As it is I think your companions will be grief and guilt for a long time yet, for I remain hopeful that such sentiments are not beyond you.”
“Sentiment?” he hisses scornfully as if the very word offends him. “Such a thing is poison to the mind.”
A disgusted snort sounds from his right, and he turns towards it.
Seated with the Lady Sigyn and the warrior Fandral in a dimmer corner of the hall, where she had been enjoying a rare few hours free from her duties as Loki’s guard until he’d arrived to tear the ever-so-slightly tense amity of the evening asunder, his night warden sets her wine goblet down on the table, rises smoothly to her feet and advances on him. Clad in a long gown of iridescent steel-blue that leaves one shoulder and arm bare, her glorious hair unbound save for a circlet of silver about her haughty brow, she shimmers in the otherworldly twilight like an elf.
The look on her face, however, is far from fey.
“I’ve had enough of this. Permit me to escort the prisoner home, Your Grace.”
“By all means,” Oðin has kept quiet for most of Loki’s tirade, allowing his wife to attempt to deal with him, but now he nods wearily, gesturing for the warrior to be quick about it. “And tell whoever stood guard tonight that he is relieved of his duties. Replace him.”
“As you command, Alföðr.” The Einherji bows her prideful head to Oðin and Frigg, her fury simmering beneath a dignified and unaffected mien. Perhaps only Loki can see it, but the woman is seething. No doubt because she’s been his guard for the past three years and thus has a great deal of responsibility for him, she takes each blow he delivers against her peers as some kind of personal insult or negative mark on her own professionalism. Whatever she is feeling, though, she hides well – only disgust makes it through her mask. She doesn’t once look at Loki himself, and within him he can feel his spite flare up anew.
“And now comes my guard to cart me back to gaol, though “home” she names it,” he smirks at her. “So brave, so honourable, above reproach or insult…or is she?”
“You came for a drink,” she snarls, scooping up a goblet from the table beside them and shoving it hard against his chest, cheeks flushing red at his implied insult. “So drink your fill and be done, earsling. We’re leaving.”