Chapter 1: Prologue
I've written the shenanigans from the Lokasenna as taking place post-Avengers Assemble. I'm not saying how far in the future, but we will revisit this occasion in a later chapter. Suffice it to say tensions are still high!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.”
Oh yes I did just use one of the most famous Norse myths as my prologue. Actually it helped, because it gave me an anchoring point in terms of canon. So let us go forth...
Loki: His characterisation is reasonably faithful to how Hiddles plays him in Thor and The Avengers, and I’ve done my absolute best to make him as sympathetic and vulnerable as he is in the films while still keeping to his nature (scornful, malicious, easily offended etc.). Balance is hard – if you don’t hate him just a bit in the prologue then I’m doing something wrong – but it was easier once I could write in Sif and Thor’s more positive influence on him.
Pairings: My reasons for not shipping Thor/Sif will be made clear in-story. Also, Loki/Sigyn never even left the metaphorical port since my mind was so impeded by the OTP. Call it one ship blockading the rest of the harbour. Sif/Loki is the flagship of my armada, backed up by certain myths, and this fic owes its genesis not only to Carolyne Larrington’s theories but also my headcanon, in which the accusations levelled at Sif by Loki and Oðin in the Lokasenna and Hárbarðsljóð are true. More on the mythological inspiration for this ship later, though.
Thruðvang: In the myths this is where Thor lives, meaning "house of strength" or some such, but I've adopted it as Sif's family home (since technically she would have lived there too).
Possibly due to a life of reading Tolkien too much, but this is really description-heavy. Many and much character growth, but these chaps are immortal and very flawed so change will take time. As of today the story spans about a thousand years. It really got away from me.
Top quote from Beowulf.
Fifteen-year-old Loki and Sigyn witness the arrival of a young woman from Vanaheimr - a girl who proves to be far more than the rumours might suggest...
There is a country far beyond the stars, where stands a wingèd sentry all skilful in the wars.
He’s ensconced in a shady corner of the rooftop gardens when she finds him, a blue-bound book propped up on his knees and his ink-dark hair loose about his face. She likes it that way, she decides as she crosses the lawn to stand at his side. She doesn’t sit down – she’d get grass all over her white skirts, newly pressed this morning – merely looms over him, a gossamer shadow made of sunlight and silk and the impatience born of privilege.
“Have they arrived?” he asks without looking up, one long finger tracing over the text he’s studying, his attention gript by a particularly incomprehensible illumination.
“The bifröst landed an hour ago,” she confirms, “I saw them ride into the city myself. They should be in your mother’s small hall by now. Come down?” Loki nods, but taps the book meaningfully. “In a moment.”
Sigyn sighs. On her way up to fetch Loki from the quiet gardens, she had briefly entertained the notion that that the promise of a new, foreign face in the citadel would be enough to persuade the second prince of Asgard to leave his solitary studies and come with her to scout out the arrival. Naïve of her. Her friend has spent his entire life pointedly ignoring convention: she’d be a fool to imagine he might react to anything in the same manner as the rest of the court where Sigyn spends her days. Yes, the circles in which she moves – and listens – are abuzz with talk of the newcomer and have been ever since the announcement was made three months ago, that Vanaheimr would be sending one of its highborn children to foster here in exchange for receiving an Asgardian youth, but the prince wouldn’t know that. Loki has always avoided the gossiping hens, as he calls them, relying on Sigyn to bring him pertinent information she garners every day.
She performs her duty, an integral facet of their friendship, gladly enough, and in nearly sixteen years of being the one courtier in Goðheimr at whom he looks with anything other than weary tolerance, she has yet to discover exactly what it would take for Loki to drop everything and answer her summons at once.
While she waits for him to finish deciphering his text she drifts away to the far wall and peers over the edge, soaking up the midday light in which the entire city lies limned. Over the years, whenever she calls him down, it’s always been just a moment or wait till I’ve put this away or I'm too tired right now. Nothing is to him more important, more interesting, than a chance to glimpse into the wisdom and mystery of wiser folk than him, who transcribed their lore for later generations to peruse. And a glimpse is all they offer him, really. He’s no longer an untutored boy, yet they still don’t think him old enough to be entrusted with their higher arcane secrets – and not for lack of trying on his part. Twice this past spring alone he’s been caught attempting to sneak into the library after dark, and twice reprimanded by his father. Where his brothers and most of their peers can think of nothing better than to spend the day bashing at one another down in the yard behind the barracks or racing their horses into a lather, followed by an evening of watered ale and raucous chatter, Loki is built of a very different substance. Tapered steel, rather than blunted iron, maybe. Thought, rather than action.
Sigyn’s always liked that about him. She likes that Loki takes things seriously, that he considers and he plans, because she’s had to do the same to secure her future here in Asgard. When she was no more than an inquisitive child trailing at her aunt’s hem on her first day at court, she had ignored the friendly greeting of the fair-haired prince and instead offered her hand to his smaller, sharper-eyed brother. Loki had kissed her nervously-trembling knuckles and muttered something about being delighted to make her acquaintance and she had known from then on – from his slightly impatient expression, carefully veiled – that here was a boy after her own heart. A kindred spirit. It had taken a little longer for Loki to realise the same thing, but he’d done so eventually.
At fifteen years old, both Loki and Sigyn find themselves immured in an uncomfortable limbo between childhood and adulthood, and their friendship is one of the few things that makes Asgard bearable anymore: Sigyn might love her high standing, the precedence given to her over the other maids because of her close association with the prince, but if it weren’t for Loki she thinks she might run mad with the boredom. And without her Loki would probably never leave his chambers or the great old library. They keep each other on a level.
She lives a uniquely advantaged life, she knows: nothing might be important enough to drag Loki from his pastimes immediately, but she knows she is one of the tiny group of people who can stir him at all. The others being his parents, his brother, and Ragnar, his ancient tutor.
And so she waits, enjoying her privileged situation, until Loki closes his book, climbs to his feet with all the awkward, gangly grace of a boy fast on his way to becoming a man, and makes his way towards the golden sandstone steps down into the palace.
“I suppose the hens are clucking away,” he remarks indifferently as they descend side-by-side.
“So loud you’d think a fox stalked the coop, and not another fowl,” replies she, amazed he hasn’t heard more of the endless talk concerning the new arrival. But being a prince has its uses – he can absent himself from public meals after a brief appearance, whereas Sigyn must linger to wait upon the queen. Much of her time is spent with the other ladies of the court and she has no choice but to endure them, though she loathes their small-mindedness sometimes. She has higher aspirations than to simply marry well or spend her days forever a handmaiden – and she knows Loki is possibly the one person in the kingdom who can sympathise. He too is confined, constricted by the traditions and conventions of the court, his personality ill-fitting the role carved out for him. Thor shines among the Æsir, Loki merely glimmers, a silent character of unnoticed promise and overlooked potential. No wonder he ignores them, after so long being ignored himself.
Lately, though, even he has heard the whispers circulating about the Van youngster being fostered with the Asgardian highborn. The Æsir and the Vanir are making concentrated efforts in the restoration of their ancient alliance, bridging the long-sundered gap between the two realms, and apparently the girl being sent from Vanaheimr is of special significance.
Normally, the presence of a new courtier, even one their own age, would hardly capture Loki’s interest, but this one…this one is different. Sigyn filled him in as soon as she heard. The young woman being sent is the offspring of a nobleman, but more than just any nobleman if the rumours are anything to go by. In fact if Sigyn and her sources are to be believed – and they usually are, she filters her news with practiced skill – it is the first and only daughter of Hoenir himself who is coming to live in the citadel: the Lord Hoenir who of old was sent as a hostage to Vanaheimr and took one of their own as his bride.
Even Loki is a little intrigued by this development. Sigyn can see it in the way his eyes dart and flash over the hallway outside the queen’s apartments, as if he expects the Van girl to be standing there. But the sunlit corridor is empty. If the newcomer has reached the citadel yet, she has already been escorted up into the queen’s rooms and been received by his mother.
“You think this one will be a fowl, then?”
Sigyn shrugs, “Until she gives me reason not to. I’ve heard what they say about the Van girls. The ones that aren’t docile as sheep are looser than an old tunic. No decency.”
Loki nods thoughtfully, shortening his stride to match hers. “But half of her is Asgardian – and Hoenir was certainly no sheep. Mayhap she’ll take after him.”
“Maybe. I hope so. Actually, I wouldn’t mind if she were loose, I just hope she’s an improvement on the current stock. Your mother really picked a shocker of a group when she chose the small court this year, you know.”
“I know. I’ve only ever attended there once, and the experience put both Thor and me off ever repeating it. A worse flock of gossips and simpletons I never saw.”
“And you don’t have to talk to them. Shall we go through?” They’re outside the great doorway to Queen Frigg’s suite now, and the Einherjar outside incline their heads in stiff bows to the prince as they pass. In a simple gesture of politeness Loki holds one of the doors open for Sigyn to precede him in, through the small green-carpeted hallway and down the tiled steps to the cloistered, roofless courtyard at the heart of his lady mother’s apartments on the upper level of the citadel. Arches in every wall lead onto a narrow corridor that borders the courtyard, and then onto the queen’s other apartments: her solar to the south, tiny in comparison to the great and airy presence hall far below in the public levels of the palace; to the west the antechamber that leads to her bedroom and to the north the room that holds her enormous loom and musical instruments, and the smaller room filled with soft chairs, a hearth of white marble, and a towering bookshelf. In there he would sit with her in his childhood and she would read to him of the stars, moons and the hidden mysteries of the universe: in there his fondest memories with his mother were born.
Now, he and Sigyn perch on the edge of the fountain in the middle of the courtyard and wait. The hum of voices drifting through the closed doors of the solar indicate that the emissaries from Vanaheimr – since Lord Hoenir remains in exile, his heiress has been escorted hence by her mother and a proxy guardian – are within. Despite his lifelong insistence on ignoring the more trivial side of high court life, Loki’s ever been fascinated by the complex diplomatic machinations that continue every day behind the scenes, the treaties and the mergers orchestrated and executed by his parents that come together and fall apart though their fair monarchic smiles never waver.
“Think they’ll be in there long?” Sigyn asks after a few moments. “Or will they forego the disconsolate goodbyes and just leave?”
“I imagine some form of farewell will be in order. Hoenir’s exile is permanent: once his wife returns to Vanaheimr, she must stay with him. The only way they will ever see their daughter again is if–”
“If she goes to see them. And until she reaches her majority, she cannot.”
“No. What is her age?”
Sigyn thinks back over what she’s heard. “Fifteen, or thereabouts. No older than you or I.”
“Then she will not see Vanaheimr again for some time.” Loki falls silent, and Sigyn glances at him to see him staring off into the middle distance, eyes unfocussed. He considers what it might be like to spend a lifetime away from your home, to live for so long away from your parents that they become strangers to you – or you to them, because aren’t you the one changing, growing? He decides that he could well spend time away from his father and Oðin doubtless would not even miss him. His mother, though…he would miss her, and she him. And he would miss his brother. Oh, of course, a week without Thor might be a blessed relief, a spell of peace and quiet, but Loki knows life would not be the same without Thor for background noise. The kind of noise he does not mind, good-hearted and amiable, as opposed to the wilfully ignorant chatter of the small court.
Living without his family would, he concludes, be difficult. Barely worth the missing them. The girl in his mother’s solar, this strange half-Van, half-As, must be steeling herself even now for the imminent and fast-approaching goodbyes, readying herself to be thrown to the lions – lions that she will realise all to late are no more than tame housecats with their claws drawn. Having thought through precisely what she must be going through, and how little he would like to go through it himself, in a fit of charity Loki decides that he cannot in countenance surrender the newcomer to the hardship that awaits her in the small court. Queen Frigg will watch over her, for sure, but he knows that more is needed. Companionship. A wise, caring, but firm hand to guide her away from the coop and to ensure she too doesn’t become a hen. Sigyn.
“Befriend her,” he instructs, and sees Sigyn’s brows shoot up out of the corner of his eye.
“Well, I was planning to at least make her acquaintance.”
“More than that. I don’t want her turning out like the rest of them – not if I’m to learn anything from her about her home.”
“What could you learn from a Van?”
“I don’t know,” he replies irritably, “Their culture differs from ours in many aspects. I would like to ask her about it.”
Sigyn rolls her eyes. “As you wish, my prince. Oh – I think I heard them moving.”
And true to Sigyn’s word, after a few seconds the doors to the queen’s solar swing open and in a flash of reflected light a tall, fair-haired woman emerges. Her willowy frame glimmers in a long gown of dark teal, delicately embellished across the bodice, skirts and close-fitting, tapered sleeves with subtle embroidery – a spiralling pattern in metallic emerald thread. Her hair, intricately braided, is deep gold in colour and her eyes warm brown. As the woman descends into the cloistered hall bordering the courtyard the lovely gown sways, the outer skirts glimmering as if lit from within by a captive sun, and Sigyn realises that its jewel-like sheen comes from an underskirt of bright gold silk. If this is fashion in Vanaheimr, Sigyn approves.
The second Van to exit the solar must be one of the ambassadors from Vanaheimr, a grey-haired man of great age, utterly forgetful features and disappointingly ordinary garb, but after him comes the girl Loki and Sigyn are here to see – Hoenir’s heir. She is so alike in her appearance to the first woman that Sigyn knows they must be closely related: indeed, the taller female can be no other than Idisi Hoenirsbride, her mother. Hoenir’s daughter is as lean as his wife, though a head shorter, with hair of such shimmering luminescence that Sigyn mistakes it at first for a rippling cloth-of-gold veil, cascading in gilt rivers over her narrow, bony shoulders. Her skin is a little fairer than Idisi’s, her eyes a flickering hazel colour and her ears a little too prominent, but she is lovely enough.
Lovely? She puts the sun to shame, Sigyn thinks amusedly, noticing that the girl’s cheeks flush a pretty pink under the queen’s benevolent gaze. How long before Fandral sets his sights on her…
As well as her fine blonde hair, the young Van is an example of her home world’s fondness for summery colours, clad in yellow in a similar style to her mother’s – though Lady Idisi’s silken sleeves are puckered at the shoulders – but embroidered white in tinier detailing across the whole gown. Beneath the outer skirt of gauzy yellow her petticoat is of snowy silk, making her gleam in the sunlight like part of the golden city itself. She dressed herself rather cleverly, this one…they cannot fail to appreciate her. Compared to these exotic beauties Sigyn feels suddenly self-conscious, wishing she’d worn something more appropriate than a loose red tunic tucked into her white skirt. A moment later she reasserts herself internally. Sigyn is known for being the prettiest of all the girls in Asgard, all sharp blue eyes and tumbling curls – why let herself be shaken or intimidated by a foreigner? The daughter of Hoenir might have the illustrious blood of a famous hero running in her veins but she will always be an alien here, never quite possessing Sigyn’s home-grown, Asgardian appeal.
“Loki!” Queen Frigg notices the two youngsters and smiles warmly down at them, beckoning Loki and Sigyn up to join her. “Come, I have someone here you must meet.”
Exchanging a glance that both understand to mean be wary, Sigyn and Loki ascend the shallow steps up to where the queen stands with the three visitors from Vanaheimr.
“This is my son, Loki.” Loki bows his head politely and the Vanir all make their obeisance to a prince of the realm, the two women executing neat curtseys. “And Lady Sigyn, one of my own maidens. My dears, we have the honour to welcome the Lord Mimir home, as part of the ambassadorial party.”
Mimir? Loki stares at the unremarkable old man in astonishment, recalling his father’s tales of Mimir – the wisest of the Æsir, who had gone with the Lord Hoenir to Vanaheimr as his advisor. Dead to us, Oðin had said, Given over to our enemies. Obviously Mimir hadn’t actually died, but Oðin had counted the loss of his uncle and advisor a bereavement so great that the old man might as well have perished in the last of the wars with Vanaheimr. So this maiden is of sufficient importance to warrant Mimir’s attendance? Or is something else afoot?
“…the Lady Idisi Hoenirsbride of Vanaheimr,” Queen Frigg continues, and the tall woman in the teal gown inclines her regal head to them. Loki takes her extended hand and kisses her knuckles. “And here her daughter, Sif. She is of an age with you, I believe, and it is our hope that you become friends.”
Loki had only briefly looked at Hoenir’s daughter when the Vanir left his mother’s solar, giving most of his attention to the Lord Mimir – he sensed the aura of power emanating from the old man, knew he was a remarkable creature even if he had not known his name. But now, at Sif’s introduction, he finally turns his gaze on her, and raises one faintly amused eyebrow at the ungainly adolescent she becomes when seen up close. Still pretty enough, though if that mattered at all he would have succumbed to Sigyn’s charms a long time ago, but less glamorous. Now that she is only a few feet away Loki can see that she ill-suits her gown, forever plucking at the hems of her sleeves and biting her lip as if uncomfortable.
Actually, he reflects, taking in the sight of this sylph-like beauty shuffling awkwardly at her mother’s side, there is something about her – some inner solidity or resolution contrasting the outwardly girlish appearance – that makes her very skin no closer a fit. This is a maiden, Loki realises curiously, who is very unused to playing a lady.
Fascinated, it is with greater sincerity that his lips brush Sif’s knuckles, but once he relinquishes it she whips her hand back out of his as if burned. At Loki’s side Sigyn has to stifle her laughter at the ineptness of these two in their interactions. They will get along perfectly, she knows, He barely able to hold a decent conversation with someone outside his family, and she…well, this Lady Sif looks as if just touching a man upsets her stomach. Given the clowns that live at court, I fear she’ll spend more time in hiding than out of it. She and Loki both.
But Lady Sif is not without a kind of bravery, Sigyn decides. Though she looks very much discomforted to be the centre of attention, she does not lower her eyes or step back into her mother’s shadow: she meets the queen’s calm gaze and then that of Loki as if to do otherwise would be to forfeit some bizarre personal challenge. When Sigyn steps forward to kiss her cheek, one handmaiden to another, Sif even smiles.
“Now,” the queen says, “I will have you shown to your rooms, so you may rest before the feast tonight.” She makes a gesture, and from nowhere another young woman appears at her side.
“Sigrid, please show the Lady Hoenirsbride to the rooms prepared for her, and attend on her there.” The maid, yet another noble daughter offered a place in the small court, bobs a dainty curtsey and escorts Lady Idisi from the queen’s apartment, looking entirely unsure as to how to behave around the imposing Van.
“Sigyn, would you mind showing Sif to her new chambers?”
“Of course, my queen.” Sigyn nods goodbye to Loki, curtseys to Lord Mimir and Queen Frigg, and gives the Lady Sif a reassuring smile.
“Actually, if you would accompany her for the next few days, to help her find her way, I think that may prove useful. Show her around, help her learn the citadel. Loki, you too.”
“It would be my honour, Your Grace,” Sigyn turns to leave and finds that Loki is with her still, the Van girl trailing after them. The suite of rooms prepared for Sif lie in the quietest wing of the palace, the south-east overlooking the orchards and the royal hunting forest, and it proves quite a trek from the queen’s rooms to this section of the citadel. Loki is certain he’s never even been here before, the long corridor outside the apartments as unfamiliar as the rooms within. He isn’t entirely sure who would live here, normally. He and his brother live in the western wing in the levels beneath their parents; he knows that Sigyn and her fellow handmaidens dwell in the south, and visiting dignitaries in the north. These south-eastern halls echo in the emptiness, uninhabited for the most part.
“Who else lives around here?” he asks Sigyn as they walk, and she smiles at his ignorance.
“The Einherjar and the private guard live in the floors below. This level used to house the valkyrja – on the days they weren’t scouring the battlefields or serving in Valhalla. These days, though…”
“They’re always scouring or serving,” Loki finishes. He cannot remember a time when there were ever more than three Valkyries around the citadel, usually attending his father, but he knows that long ago such a time existed. Once, there were hundreds of them, passing peacetime days in Asgard, but now? Now there are no peacetime days. War is ceaseless, in one realm or another, and so the legion of the valkyrja live no more in the citadel.
“Hmm. The only ones who live here now are the plebes. And there aren’t many of them.”
Loki glances to where the Lady Sif walks behind them, looking about her curiously, and turns back to Sigyn, “I wonder at my mother’s decision, settling her here.”
Sigyn shrugs. “It’s a beautiful part of the palace. Her Grace probably thought the views might remind Sif of home, all those fields and orchards…and there isn’t much room elsewhere. All the permanent suites are taken at the moment.”
“Your mother accepted nearly three dozen new maids into her court this summer. About six departed – there’s hardly room to weave in her hall now. My lady,” she pauses suddenly, turning to Sif. “These are the rooms the queen has made ready for you. I hope they suit.” She pushes the door open and leans against it to let Sif and Loki pass, before following them inside and letting the door swing closed.
Like most of the residential apartments in the palace, Lady Sif’s rooms are grouped around the central chamber which functions as a dayroom, with couches situated around a firepit. Directly opposite the main door through which they have just entered, archways in the southern wall lead straight onto the terrace that runs along the entire length of this storey, and before she has even taken a look at her bedchamber and the other rooms Sif is crossing the tiled floor and passing out onto the long terrace. There, she absorbs the most breathtaking view of the green lands of Asgard, touched with gold in the afternoon sun.
“It suits well, thank you,” Sigyn hears her call back to them. “It is beautiful.”
* * *
A lot can be garnered from a name, Loki knows. Not as much as can be learned from a face, or a spoken word, but still – there is something to be learned everywhere if one has the mind for it. And with the Lady Sif showing little of her face except for an occasional foray near his hideouts during Sigyn’s extensive and apparently daily tours of the lesser-known halls and crannies in the citadel, and less still of her voice, her name is all she leaves him to study. He finds it lacking.
It is not an elegant name. It does not drip with the promise of great beauty or grace, or fame. It is a flat name, about as interesting phonologically as it is etymologically; to Loki's ears it’s barely even female. More like the name Thor might give one of his hunting hounds – and at that thought Loki snorts aloud. Stars save him if anyone ever heard him voice that kind of observation. But in truth Sif, for all its exceedingly-feminine meaning, speaks more of a common peasant goodwife than a being of esteem and nobility. It resounds with none of the refinement or delicacy suggested by – for example – the name Sigyn. Sigyn, of course, anyone would affirm (the woman herself loudest of all) is a trueborn Asgardian aristocrat. Not like the other, who bears all the marks of Vanaheimr in her bearing and her passive silence.
At least, Loki assumes that she's passively silent. She always seems to be, whenever Sigyn drags her by. She seems utterly unaffected by her surroundings or by the everyday hustle and bustle of her new home, offering only replies to the questions of others and never observations of her own. At first he had thought it was because of some inner turmoil or old burden weighing her down, maybe extreme homesickness, but he has seen no sign of it since that first day in his mother’s courtyard. Either Lady Sif has learned to act in her short time in the citadel, to put away her griefs behind a carefully painted mask supplied, no doubt, by the consummate performer Sigyn, or Loki had imagined her discomfort at being displayed to the queen and she really is just an extremely awkward and dull person.
Time will tell, he assures himself.
He spins to face her, realising as he does so that he must have spoken her name out loud, thoughtlessly. She watches him with open curiosity, eyes wide and impossibly sharp for such a soft colour, though cast in shadow now as she stands with her back to the sun flooding down on them from high above.
“Oh, er…it’s naught, my lady,” he lies, settling onto the bench with his chosen book in hand, “I was to ask you something, but it has slipped my mind.”
“Oh,” Sif echoes, a puzzled crease appearing between her eyebrows. “What do you look at?”
Loki glances down at his book, wonders if she would understand the pretentiously convoluted title, and decides no – probably not.
“An account of a starfarer’s travels through the nine realms – and beyond. It’s quite fascinating.”
And Sif actually smiles, the first true smile he has witnessed. “It sounds it.” She leans against the rail of the terrace, letting her head recline so the sun shines down on her face. Her eyes close, and suddenly her voice is filled with the melancholy Loki will in later days come to associate with her memories of the lost Vanaheimr. “My father used to tell me of his journeys and quests, when we sat and cleaned our armour in the evenings.”
“Your armour?” repeats Loki, unsure if he heard right.
She nods. “Yes. Father had a suit of white steel made for me when I was twelve, though I think I’ve grown out of it.”
Loki frowns, wondering how an adolescent girl might have grown out of a suit of plate within the space of a few short years – then flushes livid scarlet when he realises that a steel breastplate made for a child might indeed prove uncomfortable on a young woman’s body.
Sif’s upper lip moves to cover the lower as she obviously follows the prince’s train of thought and fights back a grins.
He recovers swiftly. “So you learned to fight?”
“Almost before I learned to read or write. My father had me practicing warcraft instead of needlepoint and wrestling instead of the court dances. My lady mother insisted I learn both, but I am not what might be called ladylike by any stretch of the imagination.” Grimly she smiles again, shrugs indifferently.
So I was not wrong, Loki thinks. His first impression of Sif – that she ill-suited the feminine attire and posture she’d been shoehorned into – had been quite accurate. The knowledge pleases him, mainly because it means that there’s still hope: she might not be terribly dull after all.
It’s no guarantee that she’s worn a mask all this time, that she is some remarkably gifted actress hiding a dazzling yet unseemly personality behind a façade of docility, but who knows? It might be so. She might be concealing a nature that the small court would consider inappropriate for a young lady of noble birth.
Of course, the alternative is that she only wears the mask so convincingly because it’s a familiar one, and it takes no great skill to put on the same show you’ve acted out every day since childhood. Sif might be a talented liar but somehow Loki doubts it. She doesn’t seem the type to deceive easily, so maybe this act of hers – this mask – only fits her so well because it is well-worn, donned every morning for the last years of her life for her mother’s benefit, and now for the appeasement of Queen Frigg’s ladies.
Either way, there is more to Sif than she shows the world. She, just like Loki, has a face that the court will never see.
“Oh, so we were sent a proper little swan princess, were we?” he jests lightly, hoping to coax her into a mood where she’ll more willingly answer his questions.
“I’m no Valkyrie.” Shaking her head she glances down over the balcony again, and at last Loki puts the pieces of this particular puzzle together in a way that works out to his satisfaction.
It’s something that has vexed him for a while now: whenever Sigyn passes by the library with the Lady Sif in tow, the latter will invariably drift out onto the terrace and peer over the edge, watching something down below. Studying, it even appears sometimes. Now it’s transparently obvious that she’s been watching the goings-on in the barracks yard, her keen and hungry eyes following the training of the realm’s finest and taking everything in. Wishing that she could, if they’d let her, pick up a blade and join them. He wonders if she’s ever watched him down there.
“Why not?” he asks, struck by a sudden inspiration, “Why don’t you join us on the yard? I practice three times a week – Thor every day. Come down tomorrow.”
Her face lights up instantly. “Really? I’ll get to practice again?”
“Against me, at least,” shrugs Loki, “I doubt the other men will raise so much as a hand towards you. Not until you prove to them you can take it.”
“What, and you think I can take it, d’you?” Sif raises an eyebrow, props a hand on her hip challengingly and smiles to take the force from it.
“Well…you’ve had training.”
“Your realm is not without its victories,” he points out, “Some against Asgard itself. And yes, I think you can more than take it – I think you could give it. I think you could be the match of any of those clowns. But I don’t think fighting me, even beating me, would convince them that you can do it. They already think I’m a weedy runt, they’d use that as an excuse…”
Captivated by the idea Loki has planted in her mind, even to the point where she doesn’t appear to have heard his self-deprecating condemnation – which is a relief in its own way since she would probably spout some inane platitude to comfort him, as Thor does – she crosses to sit opposite him, “So I have to beat a – no offence – bigger man.”
“None taken. That’s precisely it.”
He’s startled to see her eyes flash with mischief.
“I know exactly who. I’ll come down tomorrow. Will you wait for me outside?”
Loki agrees, and she gets to her feet again to leave him with his books, where he will always be at his happiest. At the door she pauses, turns back thoughtfully.
“I don’t think they think you’re a runt. They have no reason to,” she says simply, “And if they doubt you because your talents show themselves less obviously than your brother’s, then they are blind fools and they deserve the trouncing I will give them on the morrow.”
And with that she departs, leaving a faint smile flickering on the prince’s features.
There’s definitely more to this one than meets the eye.
This is Part One of the chapter; Part Two to follow shortly :)
Sif was a conundrum. Her Marvel persona is so different from her personality in the myth: in the comics she’s very much a warrior, whereas in the myths she’s characterised almost entirely by her marriage to Thor, her hair and her extremely weird shenanigans with Loki. Aside from being the “personification of conjugal fidelity” (according to my mythology book) she’s also a goddess of the harvest. Combining the two conflicting aspects into one actually turned out to be an interesting process, and I just hope it doesn’t strain credulity having these extremes exist in a single character.
Sif’s parentage: So here I threw canon to the winds and went for two figures who have associations with life and war (like my interpretation of Sif herself). In the myths Sif is Oðin’s daughter and I’ve seen her named Týrsdottir in a few fics, but I went with Hoenir, who gave souls to the first humans (so he has fatherly associations) and was also known for his “intrepid” skill in war. After the war with Vanaheimr he was sent there as a hostage so to me it’s not unfeasible that he married a Van. The Vanir were traditionally more pacific than the Æsir, but they still schooled them once or twice, and this is where the dichotomy in Sif’s nature comes from.
Idisi Hoenirsbride is a completely made-up character, and the name ‘Idisi’ is a play on the fact that Sif is both maiden and warrior. Both her parents are associated with life-giving and battle: ‘Idisi’ is a German term for Valkyrie and I like to think Sif has something of the valkyrja in her.
Sigyn bears no relation to her mythological or Marvel incarnations, except for her close friendship with Loki. In my head she’s fair-haired, a sort of all-Asgardian noblewoman, but I read somewhere that she has black hair. Either way, I leave that detail up to you.
Quote from Peace by Henry Vaughan.
Loki can't resist testing Sif, and realises that with her spending so much time with Thor, he stands a real chance of losing her to the ways of the warrior...
For words, like Nature, half reveal, and half conceal.
Steel meets steel with a bone-jarring clang as the prince engages his adversary, driving forwards in a whirl of brute strength and bringing his broadsword down. The blade descends in a mighty slash that would, if it had gone unchallenged, have opened his opponent from skull to stomach. Instead it finds only the stubborn resistance of tempered steel, as the smaller of the two fighters draws up her own sword in a swift parry, and though her wrists tremble with the impact of her rival’s fearsome strength she neither stumbles nor gives a single inch of ground. Watching from the low wall that borders the outer yard, a field of hard-packed dirt on the south side of the barracks, Loki can’t help but smile at the faint surprise that crosses his brother’s face.
Of all the youths and warriors who use the palace armoury and training yards, Thor was the only one to take up Sif’s challenge when she and Loki arrived in the morning. Fandral, the handsome young man who is no older than Thor, balked at the idea of sparring with the girl using real steel, and Volstagg declined until he could be sure of her aptitude. In other words, neither would engage her for fear of killing her.
Thor is not so cautious. The prince has paid little enough attention to Sif since her arrival a month ago, giving her the same amiable smile and treating her with the same courtesy he would any unfamiliar maid about the palace, but now – now she has strayed into his personal fiefdom, and his interest is piqued. If she can withstand a duel with him, well, she may be worthy of a place among his own companions, Fandral and Loki, and if not, he can go back to all but ignoring her.
Four dozen Asgardians witness Sif do far more than withstand him.
She gives him the hiding of a lifetime, much to the amusement of the spectators who have gathered to watch this unprecedented tournament. The prince and the Van girl, in armed combat? Real steel? Loki sits beside Sigyn on the wall to watch, but the others have formed a wide ring around the combatants and cheer them on raucously. With each blow Sif lands on Thor’s armour, the noise level increases until the watchers are positively howling. Thor is red in the face, moving as fast as he can but never fast enough to catch her – she’ll strike him in the shoulder and by the time his shield rises to defend himself she’s away, leading Thor in a far deadlier dance than any maiden has before.
It’s all the prince can do to strike her back at first, but Thor is one of Asgard’s finest young warriors. As soon as the initial astonishment at Sif’s skill dissipates, he begins to recover lost ground against her. Soon the cheers and laughter of the crowd mingle with the prince’s own mirth.
Of course he would never be insulted or emasculated, being so challenged by a stick of a girl. To Thor, the very idea is both inspiring and hilarious.
“Was this your idea?” asks Sigyn at one point.
“I know not what you mean,” Loki replies, not taking his eyes off the fighters.
“I’m sure. Either way…’twas a good idea. She’s stunning.”
“She’s decent,” he allows, though privately he agrees, indeed cannot think of a time when, among the young warriors, he has before seen a duel so evenly matched. Maybe his own spars with Thor, but no others come to mind. “She compensates for physical weakness with technical skill.”
“Technical brilliance, more like,” Sigyn disagrees, resisting the urge to point out that not as strong as Thor does not translate to weak, because she knows what he truly means. “I think she could take you, if she wanted.”
“She’s running rings around my brother,” points out Loki, as another cheer rises from across the training yard. “If she can do that, she can most certainly defeat me. Which is why, now that I have seen her fight, I will refrain from ever engaging her.”
Sigyn snorts. “So that’s how you’re playing it, is it?”
“You are no weakling, Loki. I’ve seen you slaughter Fandral, even back your brother into a wall and get him to yield. If you have convinced Sif that you’re no more than an incompetent scholar, I do believe there must be a reason.”
“You do naught without purpose, old friend.”
She falls silent, her mouth falling open in amazement as the crowd parts – Sif has Thor on his back, her sword to his throat. The fight is hers.
“Stars and shadows, that maiden is full of surprises,” Sigyn hears Fandral remark bemusedly: “Anyone else fancy taking her on?” A chorus of excuses and oh, no, I’m only here to watch greets that offer, and so Fandral, chuckling, strides onto the yard, clapping a hand on Thor’s shoulder as the prince passes.
“So,” Sigyn turns back to Loki, “Your purpose? It cannot be as simple a thing as making her believe in your weakness, so you can prove yourself stronger than all once she has thrashed the entire barracks. That’s not your way…” she’s talking almost to herself now, tapping her chin thoughtfully as she considers, “Or do you just hope to avoid fighting her? Is it that simple?”
“It was to gain some insight into her character,” Loki explains.
Sigyn mulls that over, ignoring his snippy tone.
“I don’t understand. You told her you’re no fighter, so…”
“No, I told her they think me no fighter. I wanted to discern if she truly is like the hens, if she put stock in rumours without seeking the truth.” He folds his arms, feeling foolish now he’s voiced it out loud.
Sif doesn’t deserve testing, but he couldn’t help it. He had to be sure.
“Oh. I could have told you as much, if you’d only asked, you know. She is no more a hen than you are – and far less prone to games. Trust me, she fits in at court as well as Volstagg would among the Valkyries.”
* * *
If Thor had ignored Sif previously, now he cannot see enough of her. The girl who beat the prince, he calls her, regaling the table with the tale during the evening meal. Sif sits to his left, biting her lip and blushing furiously, occasionally unable to hide a faint proud smile. When the prince utters a challenge to his fellow warriors, that any who can challenge Sif and win shall at his behest be granted all the mead they can keep down, she looks mildly horrified but – and this Loki notices with a strange twist in his stomach – more than that, ravenous. Such a challenge excites her: it’s not enough for her to get the son of Oðin on his back, not nearly enough. She has something to prove.
And over the next three years, prove it she will. They come to respect her for her perseverance and her focus as much as her technical skill, and her friendship with Thor goes from strength to strength, until it is as common to see her accompanying the older prince as it was previously to see her with the younger. Loki notes the change before it even occurs, feeling an inexplicable annoyance with his brother that goes beyond what he had ever felt before. He was the one to invite her onto the yard that day: Sif is his. The time she is in Thor’s company detracts from the time she could be in Loki’s, answering his questions about Vanaheimr – he values her knowledge of the realm, as it is more relevant than many of the old books the library holds.
Yet still each morning she comes to find him, knowing his favourite places in the citadel well enough now to locate him with ease.
It is on one of these occasions that Loki notices something, something that alleviates somewhat the annoyance her frequent disappearances cause: when she is around him, and him alone, Sif relaxes.
The ladylike mask she adopts in the court – or did, before Thor’s acceptance of her less-than-ladylike habits overcame the need for it – dissolves from her face like mist from the meadows, but so too does the aggressive stance she dons in the barracks. Down there, the only time she truly lets herself be at ease is when she’s actually fighting. The rest of the time she seems on edge, as if still unsure that the others have accepted her, as if they might turn and laugh her out of the yard at any moment. Around Loki, though, there is no such tension.
He draws reassurance from this observation even during the hours of midday when, he has noticed over the past months, on some days Sif seems to vanish completely from the citadel. She goes neither to Loki, nor down to the yard with the warriors, and even Sigyn confesses she has no idea where Sif disappears to. She’ll reappear in the evening and say nothing of the fact that even Thor couldn’t find her, but Loki has kept enough secrets over the years to recognise them in another: whatever Sif does when she retreats from the palace, she holds close and reveals naught.
One day in the autumn of Sif’s third year in Asgard, she rides out on a hunt with Thor and Fandral, for a day and a night, instead of joining Loki on one of their favoured walks through the kingswood.
He seethes for the first few miles, wishing rain and fog down on them and frightening a herd of fallow deer out of their wits with a sudden bout of cursing, but by the time he reaches the roots of the mountains a new kind of doubt grips him. Mayhap it is the loneliness of being so far from another soul, but the silence of the landscape leaves room for insecurity to steal in and burrow itself a home in his heart.
Sif clearly prefers Thor’s company to his own, and it is more than just their shared hobby of bashing at each other with various weapons. She might be more comfortable around Loki but she laughs more freely with Thor. What if she decides she would rather be friends with just one of the princes? What if Loki loses her – his opportunity to learn of the ways of her people, rather? He might never get the chance to ask those questions as still remain to him: she might spend the rest of her days in Asgard with Thor.
It’s a foolish idea, Loki chides himself, but he cannot quite escape it. Not even when, after he returns to the citadel to find her waiting for him, and her smile is as ready and lovely as ever for him, she pulls him into a surprising quick hug.
“I’m sorry I could not come with you,” she says once they’re alone again.
“Think not on it,” Loki waves a hand dismissively.
“I will make it up to you,” insists Sif. Then: “What troubles you, my prince?”
He tells her that it’s naught for her to worry about, but she is relentless in her questions and eventually he surrenders to her nagging.
“Sometimes I wonder if you would not rather spend your days with my brother,” he admits, disgusted at his own weakness. How easily she can pry his private thoughts from him – how easily he lets her.
“Oh.” She is silent for a long time, gnawing at her lip and looking as if he’d punched her in the gut. “Oh Loki, I…forgive me.” I have been thoughtless, neglectful of you when you have been naught but good to me. “And never think that. Never. I owe you a good deal, my friend. I don’t think anyone could replace you in my esteem. You are – and always will be – very dear to me. I promise you that.”
“Alright,” he forces a smile, and it seems to mollify her.
“Now,” she says, crossing her legs under her and shuffling further back on the window seat, “Tell me of your trip. How far did you go?”
I apologise if this seemed rushed, or patchy. I just really wanted to get this half of the chapter posted. Hopefully the next will make up for this one :) and we'll see how long Loki can continue to act as if he's only interested in learning about Vanaheimr...
Quote from In Memoriam by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Loki realises Sif's love of warcraft is more than just a hobby, and both come to see how controversial it might prove.
Also feelings. He has feelings.
In the woods a boy one day, saw a wild rose growing.
The sun slips below the horizon on the night of Beltane, and with it Asgard’s young couples into the warm darkness. Sif, knowing Thor’s habits by now, has given up looking for him on this particular evening of the year and instead seeks out Loki. While his brother ruts with the kitchen maids, and the gardens and fields of the land come alive with music and the laughter of the Beltane revellers, and even Sigyn seems to have disappeared off, presumably to join the musicians, Loki can be trusted to keep his head. Sif finds him in the feasting hall alone at a table near the terrace with a horn of ale in one hand, the other used as a prop to hold his head up. For once there’s an absence of a book on the table before him; he appears to be lost in his own unfathomable thoughts rather than in another’s prose.
“Hiding again?” she asks as she takes a seat opposite him. The evening is a balmy one, and the breeze that parts the curtains of the arches is no cooler, but any breeze is better than none. Loki looks up at her and smiles wearily.
“Tonight I find this is one of the quietest places around,” he replies.
Sif frowns. “But everyone’s outside.”
“Aye, in the orchards, or running wild in the fields. Either way, they’re south of the citadel, so I’m here. North as these walls allow.”
“I noticed you weren’t at the feast. Again.” She pauses, smiling as she hears a tune drifting in over the balcony, a familiar song from her homeland played on a lone pipe. She recalls past Beltanes in Vanaheimr, when she was too young to realise what the figures gambolling around the bonfires did when they vanished into the night, but still of an age to sense the magick and importance of the date. To ensure a good harvest is to ensure the survival of the realm, for her people. In Asgard, it seems to be more of an excuse for a grand knees-up the whole population can enjoy.
Loki shrugs. “I enjoy the day. But there’s no need for me to enjoy the night.”
Sif hears the impatience in his voice.
“Apologies, my prince, do I bother you?”
Sighing, Loki shakes his head. “I should be the one apologising, I am poor company tonight. But talking of the rites, why aren’t you out…honouring…the date? I would have thought the Vanir took Beltane night seriously, and you are of age now…”
“We do. But with whom would I do the honouring?” Sif tilts her head curiously at him, allowing a little smile to play across her lips so Loki knows she is only teasing. “There are enough rutters out there to bring blessings aplenty on the crops, I daresay they can do without me.”
“Not everyone’s rutting,” he points out, “Sigyn’s out there with her harp, somewhere. You could go and join her.”
“So I am bothering you.”
“No, I…” Loki sighs, “I only meant…I meant no offence. I wondered why you would stay in here, when you could be out at the festival.”
“Same reason as you: the quiet appeals to me. I have no love for noise. I have my own rites, and I’ll see to them later. Right now, with the heat and the noise I’ll get either sleep or a pleasant breeze in my rooms, but not both, and the lack of one will impede the other so I’ve come here. I can go, if it’d suit you better…” she unfolds herself from the bench and stands, smoothing out her skirts. She’s dressed like a Van again, in a diaphanous white dress with a thin strap that winds about her neck, her long hair pinned back in a tidy knot at her nape, and she looks a different creature to the girl he saw sparring with Thor only yesterday.
Over the past three years she has transformed from the ungainly, awkward-limbed youth she had been – metamorphosed as completely and noticeably as many a young woman of her age does. Once, her arms and legs seemed too long and thin to belong to the rest of her, but her intensive schooling in the arts of war has reforged Sif into a slender, taut-muscled creature filled with an inward-focussed assurance. Loki has never seen anyone pursue a hobby with such dedication and persistence and wonders at Sif’s ability to take what should be an unseemly pastime for a lord’s daughter such as herself, and make of it the most natural thing in the world.
“Wait,” Loki untangles his legs from under the table and circles around to join her. Sif pushes a filmy curtain aside so he can precede her onto the terrace, into the deepening twilight. The moon is new but the stars are out, the sky alive with a flickering noctilucence and the grounds of the palace similarly alight in the shadowy haloes cast by the torches and the bonfires; the light casts Sif into amber silhouette, her legs defined quite clearly through her thin skirts, and Loki looks determinedly elsewhere before she can notice where his attention wandered. Her legs are as muscular as the rest of her – an athlete’s legs.
He’s never thought of her as anything other than a friend, one of his best, and certainly never looked at her that way, but all sorts of imaginings are stirred up on Beltane night.
“Why do you train so hard?” he finds himself asking. “I had thought it only a diversion you enjoyed but it’s been years and still every day, you’re down there.”
Sif gives a nonchalant shrug. “The life I want sort of necessitates it.”
She nods, beginning to smile again as the subject of her ambitions is broached, “A soldier’s life. I have wanted it for as long as I’ve wanted anything. To serve the Alföðr – to fight in defence of the peace, to live with honour and pride…that is the life I want. And to get it I must put the hours in, down in the yard.”
Loki Oðinsson knows what it is to be different. He knows what it is to want what others do not, to think in ways they cannot, to dream of things they will never understand. He knows what it is to walk a pathway unfamiliar to most other people: the life of a warrior prince is not for him. Thor is the warrior. Sigyn is the socialite with a canny knack for court politics and Balder…well, Balder is Balder. Loki is a thing without a place, and so he’ll have to shape his own. He knows that. But the madness of Sif’s hopes and dreams take even him aback. She’s kept it quiet enough, these past years.
Unwilling to say so, however, he merely asks what her parents’ reactions were when she informed them of this happy revelation.
“My father didn’t say much,” she admits, “He said I ought to be prepared to fight hard for this, if it was truly what I wanted. And Móðir…she was not so open to the idea. She said that there were plans for me and they were already in place, couldn’t be altered now. But then a few days later she came to me and said that she would support me, and there were worse things I could choose to be. She said that if it was going to be this – if I wanted to learn – then she wouldn’t have me training under some fat old captain who hadn’t seen battle since the last war with Asgard. If I was to learn, she said, then it was to be from the very best. She’ll not have me fail. So I’m here, now, learning and training with the Alföðr’s sons.”
“A steep price,” he murmurs, and for a moment thinks Sif hasn’t heard. Eventually, though, she exhales heavily and responds.
“What, to lose her daughter? I think she accepted it, mourned it and overcame it before we’d even said goodbye. Whatever the plans she spoke of entailed, this cannot so much as disturb them, or she would never have allowed me to leave Vanaheimr.”
“No, I meant for you to lose your parents.”
“Oh.” Again, that apparently-uncaring shrug. “Life is give and take, isn’t it? I couldn’t expect to have a dream like this and not pay for it.” Sif is too bad a liar to be able to conceal how badly she has missed her mother and her father in the three years since she left the land of her birth. She gnaws absently at her lower lip, looking anywhere but at Loki until she has herself under steady control again. “I will see them again.”
“Yes. And when you do, you will be the first female member of the Einherjar. You will have arms and armour, and you will do them proud,” Loki tells her firmly. Her dream is not an impossibility. There is only one reason the Einherjar are all men, and that is simply because a legion of female warriors already exists. But if Sif were to choose the Einherjar over the Valkyries, there is no law against it. Only custom, and he cares little enough for that. If he were a slave to custom, he would probably be out in the wood somewhere wrapped in Sigyn’s arms tonight. It isn’t as if she hasn’t hinted at it several times – and eventually stalked off, bored with his unresponsiveness, to amuse herself elsewhere.
“Yes,” Sif agrees, standing a little straighter and leaving her lip alone, “I will.”
* * *
The sun reaches her zenith in a searing blur of white, trailing in her wake a halo of unchecked radiance as, ensconced on the shaded terrace that runs alongside the southern wall of the great library, Loki pauses for a moment to loosen his collar further. If it gets any hotter he might have to discard the thin tunic altogether.
On this day, eight yet till Midsummer, all of Asgard swelters, seeking reprieve from the merciless heat beneath any awning, any shade that can be found. All save two, and over the course of the morning Loki has found himself paying less and less attention to his studies – and his tutor’s droning intonation – and more to the pair who despite all rationality and common sense are sparring ferociously in the outer yard below, and have been for over half an hour now, apparently oblivious to the scorching heat beating down on them. The heat that has Loki fervently grateful for the heavy drapes that keep him in shadow while his lesson with old Ragnar runs its unremittingly mind-numbing course. No hidden gems of knowledge, no archaic secrets that only the oldest and most dedicated sages of the realm know, can possibly hold his attention when he could otherwise be watching Gitte Wulfsdottir, the extremely nimble aspirant Valkyrie, and the sinewy yet very graceful Lady Sif, duelling without reserve in the dust.
Their skills evenly matched, the maids face each other down across the scuffed dirt and do not trouble to check their blows when they can reach around one another’s nimble, darting feints to land them. With a mighty roar Sif’s twirling spear comes crashing down on Gitte’s hastily up-thrown shield, and as the taller of the two girls regains her balance from the shuddering impact Gitte drops, her left leg shooting out like a serpent striking to sweep Sif’s feet from under her.
Sif hits the ground hard but shoulders into a roll before Gitte’s mace can make contact with her armoured abdomen, and presses her hands to the ground above her head to vault to her feet, snatching up spear and shield and allowing herself a little grin – the only form of taunt Sif ever indulges in. Where Thor is pure violence and strength and recklessness more inclined to the devastatingly destructive properties his hammer possesses, Loki had long ago decided that Sif embodies precision and thought and feeling, a deadly weapon of tactical dexterity that the Allfather will hopefully one day realise has an invaluable and greatly deserved place in his arsenal of immortals.
She’s not at all ill to look upon, Loki considers, finally admitting to himself an uncomfortable fact that has with increasing regularity preyed on his awareness over the past few years. Down there, in her element, Sif is not the young woman with the broad shoulders and the skinny ankles that will always be thin despite the firm build on the rest of her, but a lithe predator filled with blazing confidence. He finds himself quite absorbed by that teasing smile, the powerful shifting of muscles in her legs and shoulders and the fearless way she faces down the other maid, whose fate it will be to defend the nine realms and summon home the fallen at the valkjosandi’s command. Sif is no Sigyn, lacking the noble sophistication and poise that makes their friend stand out in a crowd, but that she’s a little rough around the edges only serves to her advantage in Loki’s eyes: one day, he is completely certain, she will become lovelier than anyone thought possible, and their surprise will only emphasise it. True her smoky, glowing eyes are no bright Asgardian blue, rather a piercing tawny colour, and her lips are chapped and dry from her constant chewing on them. Sweat beads on glistening skin that is a far cry from the snowy fairness of Brynhild or Freyja and her hair is a dampened tangle scarcely contained by a leather thong at the nape of her neck – her voice is a rough and demanding husk, her gait a pounding, unapologetic stride, and yet Sif is more real, more open and vital and passionate than anyone he knows, and Loki feels a distinct and utterly inexplicable pride bubble up in his chest that he was the one to find her there in the library that day and invite her to join them in training: it was he, not the mighty Thor, who brought her into their lives.
She’s a puzzling girl, and all assume they have some insight or understanding of her thoughts and her motives, but Loki has spent enough time trying to read her that he feels he might well know Sif better than anyone, no matter what she or their other friends may have to say on the issue. Pride and humility, patience and impulse – all comingle in the brilliant, impossible mix that is Sif Hoenirsdottir. Life, and death, maid and militant, and he thinks that she’ll one day encapsulate both without the necessity for the struggle and the tension that he witnesses in every move she makes when not down in the yard, the only source of freedom for her. Here she’s unchecked and she is liberated, pouring out against her fellow warriors her need to be more than just a pretty painted picture tamed and muzzled for a court’s entertainment, or a burly combatant; a Valkyrie like young Gitte with no other meaning or music to her life than the drums of war and the recollection of the fallen, or even a politician as her parents surely wish. Down in the yard Sif exorcises her ultimate desire to have a little piece of all three live within her, and her bewilderment that such a need should prove so difficult to fulfil, that such a unique dichotomy may not be supported by all quarters…
As if the same thought has just crossed her mind, Sif exchanges her spear for a short gladius and renews her attack on Gitte. She pushes tirelessly on, her sword a brilliant flashing extension of her own armoured form as she batters the other’s shield, bruises the fingers beneath, drives herself beyond the voices and the sneers and forsakes utterly the maiden she was when she first came to Goðheimr. Biting her lip so hard she draws blood, Sif advances inexorably down the path to a career in battle and surrenders any chance to know whoever it was she might have become if she had not become friends with the younger prince of Asgard or been given this opportunity to pursue her ambition, surrendering the girl she was for the chance to know the person she will become, giving up on the Lady Hoenirsdottir and evolving instead into the unknown.
With a winded grunt she hits the ground again, her head slamming back against the dirt and the impact eliciting another, altogether softer sigh that nevertheless reaches Loki’s ears up on the library terrace and has them flushing pink, his skin tingling as the embarrassing blush presumably spreads down from his hair-line to his collar. Damn. He finds himself abandoning all pretence of listening to Ragnar as his attention is captured by a bright bead of sweat making its way down the exposed column of Sif’s throat, flashing in the sunlight as it slips into the neck of her leather jerkin and beyond. As safe as Loki feels up here, near enough to see every detail and yet concealed behind the pillar of the terrace and the fact that she would never, ever look up to somewhere so dull as a library, a sudden feeling that this is too much – that this is spying on Sif – has him forcing himself to return to his thrice-accursed studies, frowning.
This Sif infatuation has really gotten out of hand.
But she is a persistent young lady, and eventually he acquiesces just to shut her up. He follows her onto the dirt of the yard and lets her mark out the ten paces, waiting. As passive an act as standing opposite one another takes on the air of a hunt, a game, but into which roles will they slip? The predator, or the prey? He has never been pursued in his life and so never thought of himself as the quarry, though sometimes his mind betrays him and conjures up wild fantasies wherein Sif is the prey and he the hunter, marking her every step and tracking her every move, watching her hair whip like a rope of gold when she whirls about to stare over her shoulder for a pursuer she cannot see. In his dreams Loki masks himself in darkness, but no shade could ever hope to hide Sif’s yellow hair, no ebon shadow obscure her essential inner light. If Loki’s brother Thor is the high noon sun, invincible in his brilliance and his goodness, then Lady Sif must be evening, when the slanting bars of sunlight are at their deepest and their most impenetrable – when with her last swelling tide Sòl’s halo gilds the earth and sky alike. Maybe that’s why, in Loki’s dreams, the hunts invariably occur in that bewitching hour ‘ere moonrise; without fail he wakes before nightfall and without fail his prey eludes him, slipping away from his sights even as the sun evades the wolves.
But now he knows the roles have switched. He might have entered the field imagining himself a sharp-eyed hunter, ready to corner and pounce, talons at the ready, upon Sif. She has never underestimated him – but nor does she underestimate herself – and so as they face each other down across the dirt and Loki sees that faint smirk playing across her lips he knows that he’s in her world now. In her world, he’s no predator. Here the noble code of chivalry and honour robs him of his one main advantage, his magick, and leaves him relying on his own largely untested and surely untrusted physical ability. He and Sif almost of a height, and he has no more than three inches on her in breadth, but he knows it’ll be a tough match. Loki has only ever indulged his father and brother in their slavish belief in the need for him to practice these crude and violent arts: she is enthralled body and soul to them and as skilled in their ways as any of the men she fights.
More so, even. If warfare is the stage upon which the soldiers of the nine realms become players, then she is destined to outperform them all. Even as she and Loki match wills across the ten paces, engaging in their preferred form of unspoken mental combat before the first blow is even struck, that smile hides more weaknesses than many a mummer’s painted mask. Loki might fantasise of conquering her, of ensnaring her attentions and claiming her affections for his own, but for sure the hand that grasps the scroll cannot hope to simultaneously wield the sword – the mind that scours the library of its mysteries will never be sated down here in the barracks, and Loki knows where he would rather be. If that means he must endure losing a duel or a wrestling match to Sif, well, then so be it. One cannot always be the predator, and nor can a prince of one-and-twenty be good at everything.
No matter how much he might wish otherwise.
Sometimes, one must place oneself at a disadvantage if it means gaining an advantage elsewhere. Loki knows he could more than hold his own in a fight if it came down to it, so he feels no guilt about sacrificing his time down here for his learning in the higher arts. Besides, losing to a young woman who prides herself on being second to none of their age in terms of technical proficiency and natural talent…it is not so bad a thing. As long as he can still beat Thor, Loki will not worry about his reputation suffering. Even his brother loses to Sif every now and then, though she knows better than to rub it in.
Actually, Loki amends, studying Sif’s movements carefully, waiting for her strike, she is better than to rub it in. Just as her only battle-cry, war-paint or taunt is that infuriating smirk of hers, so a private little smile is the only reward she’ll allow herself for a victory.
Loki is just thinking that his dear brother, so fond of gloating over his own victories, could use a lesson in manners from Sif when something in her posture shifts and she uncoils from her position across the field in a swift darting movement. She surges over the dirt with serpentine precision and leonine power, twisting on the ball of one foot at the last moment to put herself on Loki’s left in a feint that’s almost balletic.
Loki turns with her, ducking under and around her swing to jab hard at her midriff, but Sif is on the move again, a sentient satellite anticipating the trajectory of the celestial body around which her orbit carries her.
A split second later and his hard fingers close around her elbow, dragging it up and behind her so viciously he hears the bones in her shoulder grate and click. Fingers on her skin so rough she suspects she’ll bruise black and blue by dusk, grinding flesh against corded muscle, muscle against bone, but Sif is not so easily entrapped. He sees movement, and there’s a blinding flash of white light and a dazzling pain as the crown of her head connects very solidly with the softest part of his nose. Seizing the brief opportunity afforded to her by the busting of his nose Sif turns again, wrenching her arm free from his grasp while at the same time her other arm comes up to grab him by the hair and force his head down to meet her upcoming knee. This time his nose breaks.
With a curse he darts back, feinting, ignoring the coppery taste of what must be a fairly gruesome stain on his lips. When Sif moves towards him in a swaying, indirect pattern Loki puts aside any uncertainty he might have nursed about hurting her – hurting Sif, not only his best friend but Thor’s – and judges the exact moment of her strike perfectly. With a grunt she finds herself tripping over the leg outstretched where none was before, and hits the ground hard. A moment later and Loki has her pinned once more, his knee jabbing painfully into her spine as he draws her hands up behind her again. This time he keeps himself well out of head-butting range.
“Yield, my lady?” he enquires, feeling her wriggle vainly beneath him.
“You yield,” retorts Sif, and he feels her back arch beneath him as for the third time in as many minutes white stars explode across his vision, this time as her booted heel comes up to crack against the back of his skull. The impact sends him keeling forwards: Sif yanks her arms free and turns beneath him to find herself neatly straddled, his hands pressed to the ground at either side of her head. Without pausing to contemplate the intense look in his green-speckled eyes, nor the not-unpleasant tingles that spread through her belly as a result, Sif grabs Loki’s arms, unhooks one leg from underneath his thigh and pushes upwards until she’s the one doing the straddling.
She keeps his bony wrists in her own grip, pressing his arms back against the hard ground above his head and almost flattening herself against his skinny torso in order to do so.
Her leathers offer her protection from the unsettling closeness of their bodies, but it is scant comfort for Sif when their faces are no more than a few inches apart. She bets she could even kiss him if she wanted – not that she would, she’s not mad. Unable to resist just one needling remark because it’s Loki and she can’t deny having him here at her mercy is just a little bit thrilling, she leans closer still so that she can whisper teasingly in his ear, “Yield, my prince?”
“Gladly,” he whispers back, the cool skin of his cheek flush against hers now. Their noses brush as she pulls back in surprise to stare down at him. Her brow furrows, her grip slackening on his wrists. Sif rests her hands on her thighs, an inscrutable look on her face, and Loki simply looks back. He has the feeling that he ought to say something, do something, but he can’t.
“Are we to lie here all day?” he asks when the silence – and the pressure of her over him – becomes too much to bear. “You win the day, my lady, go forth and celebrate.”
“I won nothing,” her voice is suddenly quite hard. “You nearly had me twice. Twice, I would’ve died, if my opponent had not been so gentle. You think I don’t know you let my hands go on purpose, that last time? You could’ve had me.” She looks disgusted, more at herself than at Loki, and he sits up that he might talk to her more easily. Sif shuffles back to sit on his thighs, looking down at her lap and chewing on her lower lip as if suddenly nervous.
“I didn’t let you win,” he says quietly, “I promise. You got me.”
“You hardly tried, though,” she insists, “I know you’re faster than me. Cleverer. You could’ve had me if you’d wanted.”
No, no I cannot, Loki smiles to hide the bitter direction his thoughts have taken, and leans forward. Sif does too, and rests her forehead against his. Her eyes close.
“On my honour,” he feels the warmth of her breath against his chin, “If I could’ve pinned your hands, I would have. I wouldn’t have let you go, until you made me.” He wonders if Sif will ever realise he speaks of more than just a wrestling match now, and knows it is unlikely. Words and language are to her a means of communication, of making a point or of demanding something. She knows none of the subtlety and the beauty in a phrase well-crafted or, as is the case now, a promise of multitudinous meanings.
When Sif hears him now, she hears only what he says. What Loki means remains unheard, and always will. Like them all, she hears only what she wants to hear, and what she wants to hear is these same words on another’s lips – his brother’s.
The day Thor is sworn into the service of the realm, Loki stands with his mother and watches. Despite his conviction in his own life’s path, a small yet insistent part of him wishes he were kneeling with his brother at the foot of the great gold steps rather than up here, where the whole realm can see that his choices have taken him down a different course. No matter the promises made by King Oðin over the centuries, that both of them have it in them to rule, Loki knows it will never be his lot to reign over Asgard. That privilege will go to Thor, and so, the younger son has resigned himself to the life of an advisor. Little more than a courtier and little less than a prince, Loki has chosen this, a life of stillness and silence, a life of learning; a wholly different form of discipline to the red-blooded, much more honourable way of the warrior.
The scathing comment reaches Sif as she strides through the courtyard, dirk swinging from her hip and a bruise over her brow. Gritting her teeth and swallowing back a comment – she hasn’t the verbal skill to make it cutting enough anyway – she continues on her way, ignoring the familiar remarks that Lady Frida and the rest of that infernal hencoop seemingly can’t resist making whenever they see her alone.
Had she Thor or Loki with her, the cruel old wives might think again about spreading their poison out in public, but today the princes are with their father and Sif is on her own. She had been seeking out Sigyn for company, searching the cloistered courtyard beyond Fensalir, but now…any reminder of the small court, of that queenly seat of all gossip and toxic whispering in Asgard, is enough to set her temper seething.
The day had begun with promise; after a morning spar with Volstagg she visited the citadel’s armoury to commission a new suit of plate, since her white steel breastplate has indeed grown too tight across the chest and would prove more of a hindrance than a protection on the battlefield. She’d gone to the smithy to request a new breastplate only, but with all the persuasive tactics of a born trader he had coerced her into letting him craft her a whole suit, informing her as he vowed to produce the finest work of his career for her that she would need vambraces, greaves and a helm to match. He knew a tanner who could sculpt wonders from plain leather, he could give her his name…
Thanking Falki, she’d left with a smile on her face and his assurances ringing in her ears. That is, until Frida's voice had cut through it and left Sif desperate to escape.
Ever since revealing her ambitions to Loki she has felt on edge, waiting for the rest of court to find out and laugh her out of the palace. She had promised him that the reactions and opinions of the others would never affect her plans for the future, but how can they not? She hasn’t the security of a family here, or of a birthright to anything in Asgard. She’s a Van, who were enemies to the Æsir for many years. Her place in this realm is tenuous enough without her pushing her luck.
That’s not to say she won’t continue to push, with everything she’s got. Her place, she knows, is at the side of her prince. He supports her, if her peers do not.
She reaches her rooms and unbuckles her belt, tossing it at her bed without waiting to see if it actually lands there. Out on the terrace, where the only intruders are the swallows that nest in the rafters of the floor above, she climbs onto the wide sandstone railing, swings her legs over the edge and leans against a pillar, sighing heavily. If only Sif could tie Lady Frida to the pommel of her saddle by her long hair without being frowned upon…if only she could serve Asgard without being whispered about.
Her vertiginous perch eventually proves uncomfortable, so she lifts her legs back up and rests them on the rail itself. Folding her arms, she watches the sun track across the sky from east to west, trailing beyond the silver-touched clouds. It might not be Vanaheimr, but Asgard can be very beautiful sometimes.
She remembers the last ride she had taken with her father before Vanaheimr ceased to be her home. He had brought the horses round while dawn was still an hour away and they had cantered away from the house until civilisation itself seemed a memory. The sighing forests through which Hoenir led his daughter grew lighter and lighter with the hour, boughs and dripping leaves shifting colour as though invisible spirits hung amongst them with gilt paintbrushes. Neither had spoken until midday loomed above them, when she had confessed her anxieties in a rushed voice. She wanted to make him proud, she said. She wanted to become a warrior. But she wanted to make her mother proud too, and she feared the two could never coincide.
Hoenir had turned to her and said, without preamble, “Fear naught but the frost and the fire, child. The rest can be managed well enough.”
A few canting women are the least of the problems that will face her, but it does not stop them pricking at her confidence every now and then.
She knows that of all the women in Asgard, noble or not, the ones that witter and mock behind others’ backs are only the worst. Most are as strong and honourable and noble as the men, and far more dignified in most cases. Some, like Freyja, had been delighted in Sif’s decision; even Queen Frigg had smiled at her – and Sigyn had simply remarked that from what she’s seen of Sif in combat, she would’ve been astonished if her friend had chosen any other life. Astonished and, she could not deny, more than a little disappointed.
“You’re meant for more,” Sigyn asserted, “You and I both. Loki too. Just in different ways.”
The reassurance and support of her clever friend had carried Sif along in a tide of confidence for a time, though it struck her later that Loki never seems to feel that way. She and Sigyn are always pestering him, assuring him that his destiny exceeds their own in ways he’ll never imagine until it happens, but the prince never seems to swell and smile and float the way she does. His pride is not so easy to tend.
Both brothers are smiling tonight when they come looking for her. One – probably Loki, the tap is light enough to be him – knocks on her door, but Thor opens is straight away and the princes stroll in without so much as a by-your-leave. But then, they’re the king’s sons. They live their lives by his leave, certainly not hers. Thor is beaming warmly, Loki looking as if he’s just stopped laughing at some jest or other.
Their supper with Oðin went well, Sif supposes, as the pair appraise her thoughtfully.
Thor notes the hollow look in her eyes and the bruising of withheld tears below, the way she sniffs and rubs at her face before greeting him, and rolls his eyes.
“Which was it this time?”
“The same as last time. I’m fine.”
“I am sure of it,” he holds out a hand, steps back so Sif can shuffle herself off the wall, and pulls her in towards him for a bone-crushing hug. Anchored by the strength of her old friend, she throws her arms around his broad back and digs her fingers into his tunic, clinging until the last trace of wounded pride is ground to a fine powder by Thor’s embrace and drains away through her skin.
Then Loki clears his throat.
Thor and Sif laugh together, pulling away to see amusement in the other prince’s eyes. Thor thumps his younger brother on the shoulder in a tender, bruising sort of affection, and makes his way back inside to toss a log on the hearth. Filled with love for the pair of them, so different and so dear to her, Sif reaches out and hugs Loki too. It’s easier to wrap her arms around him than his brother; he’s so much narrower, but his arms are no less strong when he enfolds her in their embrace, and the strange scent of him no less comforting.
She hears him breathe in almost as if he’s scenting her too, and when she draws back to smile at him a muffled curse from inside causes them both to snap around – Thor’s dropped one of the logs on his foot – in their laughter she misses the hazy look that passes across Loki’s face, as if it ached him to let go.
The day Sif kneels before the Allfather with Fandral and Gitte at her side and bows her head to hear his benediction, everyone smiles. The exultant cries of the crowd celebrate Fandral – dashing in his glittering plate, his fair hair smoothed back in a perfect wave that wouldn’t last five minutes in combat – and curly-haired Gitte, the newest of the valkyrja. To join the battle maidens of Valhalla is an honour for a woman of Asgard; Gitte serves the Allfather, and she will be acclaimed for it. To choose Sif’s path, the course of the Einherjar hitherto only walked by men is for the Æsir unheard of, but today she vows in her mind to uphold her unprecedented action even as with her mouth she pledges a lifetime’s allegiance to the order.
The day Sif joins Thor and Volstagg and Hogun and knows a new chapter of her life is upon her; the day she earns the right to wear her armour of gilded steel and shield with pride; the day she can finally ride out seeking honour and glory and safety for her realm, Loki does not attend.
My other oneshot, A Delicate Fire, takes place at the end of the first scene in this chapter.
I'm running out of complete chapters to post now, so bear with, but I'd still love to hear what you think of this - good or bad.
Quote from Heidenröslein by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Sif takes her vows, and the warriors take a trip...
Once again I've split this chapter, because I want to be updating more often but at the same time I've hit a crappy patch in the story and I have only myself to blame for it. The first half of this was fun (drunk!Sif is great to write) but the section in Nornheimr was where I got into trouble. It will be continued and completed with the next update.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Kisses...the one theft I'll never feel bad about
Sif thinks she might melt. It’s the height of summer and the sweltering sunlight spares no one in the golden hall, making of the trio at the bottom of the steps below the throne a row of slowly roasting victims, clad in soon-to-be molten plate and perspiring steadily into a state of complete mind-numbing ennui. Another hour and Sif knows she’ll be a goner. And yet Oðin does not relent, first delivering an extensive sermon warning of the perils of the courses they have chosen before elucidating the rewards and glory awaiting them should their service lead to their deaths. Valhalla, the king reminds them needlessly, will be there waiting at their end, but of course Gitte will be there from the very beginning selecting and shepherding the fallen from the battlefields to their last great feast. It occurs to all three, though no one voices it, that she might be the one to find them on the field: that Gitte may be the one to brush her hand against their bloodied brows and raise them up from death to guide them onwards, that the freckle-faced, tangle-haired maiden, one of Sif’s oldest friends and her long-time training partner, might be the very one to find her fellow warrior’s lifeless corpse and judge whether Sif’s passing was courageous enough to merit her place in Valhalla. Silently, Sif swears to herself that whatever end she meets, she’ll meet it with her head held as high as pride allows it, and she will be worthy.
After Bragi the skald recites an epic on the greater warriors of the past, including Sif’s own father Lord Hoenir, the three inaugurates receive their blessings. Gitte steps up first to kneel before the Allfather, feel his hand on her forehead welcoming her into the ranks of the swan-maidens, and then again before Freyja, who steps down to salute and embrace her newest sister before guiding her to Brynhild who will guide her onwards. Then Sif is standing, feeling the leathers at her joints as stiff as the steel plate over them, rubbing painfully against her skin at her elbows and armpits and knees. She ascends the three short steps and takes a knee before King Oðin, who leans to touch her forehead and grasp her arm, raising her up again and, to her astonishment, embraces her before the whole realm.
Acceptance, she realises dumbly, stepping back and bowing again from the waist, He knows that they judge me, knows of their scepticism, and seeks to alleviate it by showing all of Asgard that he, the fjölnir, the Alföðr, accepts and welcomes me. He does me great honour.
Still reeling slightly Sif drifts over to where Volstagg and Hogun wait. The former sweeps her up into a powerful hug that steals the breath from her and drives the corners of her armour into her flesh in several of the most uncomfortable places. Oh, the bruises I’ll have from this day…Hogun grasps her forearm, smiling and nodding his head proudly to her, and now Fandral is with them too and the hall explodes with cheers as Goðheimr celebrates its newest champions.
And Sif wants nothing more than to leave.
Deciding that by the time she goes to her chambers, changes clothes and then heads into the kingswood someone may well have noted her absence and sought her out, she puts up with the dead weight of her steel for just a few moments more and takes the shortest route she knows to the safety of the royal hunting forest, fleeing through the orchards to the southeast of the citadel. Her feet are light and swift as she fords a brook with a quick leap, her long hair a gossamer veil that flashes silver as it catches the sunshine spearing down through the trees, and Sif at last lets herself relax as she runs. Her muscles are still tense with the nerves of the day but all the same her smile is as bright as the sky itself – she’s a warrior at last! Finally, she can do her kingdom proud and shut the naysayers up; finally she can prove that she is what Loki’s always believed her to be – capable of being more than just one thing. More than just a maid, more than just a dowry, more than just a wife. More than what a girl her age has ever dreamed of being. The first female Einherji…
She’s unfastening the buckles at her shoulders before she even hears the enticing sound of the river not too far ahead, the shimmering ribbon through the green heartland of Asgard, and its only when she reaches her favourite glade, with the rocky promontory over the deep pool, that Sif realises she’s not alone. There, fast asleep under the shade of the sweeping ash on the edge of the tree line, parchments at his side weighed down with a rock and a half-drained wineskin, looking about ten years old with his dark hair falling across his face, her alleged best friend.
So this is where he’s been all day. Getting pissed as a nixie in the woods while the rest of us…well, the rest of us get pissed as nixies in the palace. Seriously wondering if she’s the only halfway-sober soul in the realm this day, Sif decides she is not going to be annoyed at Loki for skiving off her inauguration ceremony because if she hadn’t been the one sworn in today then she would have probably done the same. She lets her cloak fall into a soft blood-red pool at the base of the elm tree beside Loki’s ash and slides off her greaves, gauntlets and breastplate to set them down neatly atop it, letting her muscles loosen without the weight of the armour and stretching her arms as far as she can around her. She checks to make sure the prince is still dozing before she doffs the rest of her clothes – all but her thin shift – letting everything fall into a slightly-less-neat pile beside her armour and quickly heading to the little promontory. The pool is only about seven feet down and its depth is assured, so she stretches out again, finds her footing and executes a streamlined dive straight down, plunging in and exhaling a stream of satisfied bubbles as sore skin and muscles feel the healing kiss of the cold water.
She stays under for as long as her lungs allow, turning a few rolls in the water just to make sure she still can – it’s been a surprisingly long time since she and the princes came here to escape. When she breaks the surface she swims from one side of the pool to the other, wincing as the gravelly shore on the southern side scrapes her feet and making her way back to the north, where she left her clothes.
If Loki was roused by the sound of her entering the water he doesn’t appear to have moved, so Sif picks up her cloak and drapes it around her as she returns to the sunny shore to dry off. She sits on the edge of the little cliff, her back to the trees and to Loki, and after a moment lies down. If he so much as fidgets, she’ll hear him in time to draw the cloak back around herself.
But she doesn’t. Before long the soporific combination of late afternoon sun and the wine in her empty stomach have Sif slipping into a doze, her head rolling back on the warm grass. She thinks vaguely that she ought to put some more clothes on, really, anyone could happen by and she’s hardly decent in her wet shift and cloak – though who would come by, really, this far into the forest? But compared to what has already happened today, the excitement of her inauguration, nothing else seems quite important enough to capture her attention as her eyes close and she drifts off into a peace-filled, dreamless slumber.
When she wakes, her senses take a moment to reassert themselves, but when they do she knows that it is still the same day as it was when she dozed off, and the lack of food in her stomach is starting to take its toll on her sensibilities. Twilight hangs heavy in the sweet-scented air and she feels a chill around her feet, but nowhere else, because her cloak is wrapped securely about her and something soft cushions her head… and Loki is sitting not two feet away from her, swinging his legs over the edge of the rock and pointedly not looking at her. Knowing that no other could have covered her up, and that to do so he must have seen in the first place, Sif is surprised at how un-exposed she feels. If anything, she feels strangely at ease, as if it is a rare good night’s sleep she has just awoken from rather than an afternoon nap on a rock in the hunting wood, and after a moment of wriggling her legs free from the cloak she moves towards the promontory so that she can perch beside Loki and nudge his shoulder with hers.
“Missed you today.”
He takes a few seconds to respond. “Did you?”
She snorts and nudges him again, “Don’t be a tit. How long have you been out here?”
That long? So he didn’t even look in on the ceremony. “Doing what?”
He sighs. “Spells. I needed the quiet.”
“And what of the wine?” The wineskin is there on Loki’s other side, looking distinctly emptier than it was two hours ago. Sif reaches across him to drag it over and take a long drink.
Her comment gets a little smile. “No, that was merely a…distraction.”
Sif frowns at the tone of his voice, and for the first time actually looks at her friend. In the blue dusk his skin is so white as to be almost luminous, as if he were a magickal creature shaped from fresh-fallen snow and given breath, but his mouth is a shade of vibrant red that Sif recognises as coming not only from half a skin of wine but also from gnawing at his lips nervously. He is distressed, and not once has he looked at her since her arrival. It occurs to Sif that this may well be because under her cloak she’s in her undergarments and if there’s one thing guaranteed to throw Loki off, it’s undergarments, but he has seen her in far less than that before now, so surely…
He shrugs. “The noise. The people. Everything–” he waves an arm to the northwest and the citadel, “–going on, back there.”
“Well, you might have told me that you were taking to the woods for the day. I would have joined you.”
“Now who’s being a tit?” Loki arches one scornful eyebrow at her and takes the wineskin back, “This is your day, Sif, you couldn’t have run off into the woods. They would’ve missed you.”
Sif hears what he cannot quite say and her heart clenches because he’s right. They would miss her, like they did not miss him today. This time her nudge is a little more forceful, but at the same time filled with more meaning. “Think you that a ceremony is more important to me? It was pomp and time-wasting for the most part. I could’ve made my vows to the Alföðr in a fifteen-minute rite with no one attending but Fandral and Gitte. I would’ve preferred it. If you had asked, I would have come out here instead.”
“I know. It’s why I didn’t ask.”
Oddly heartwarmed by that admission, even if she is fairly sure his hiding in the woods without telling her has more to do with him being unsociable than any burning consideration for her happiness, Sif leans in against him, letting her warmth soak into his side – gods, but he’s freezing – and his arm lifts to curl around her shoulder and draw her close. She notes with no little satisfaction how careful he is with where his hand goes as he makes sure to touch nowhere but her upper arm. No matter how innocuous the contact, however, it’s still a sensation new and heady enough to set her skin afire.
What is this? This is Loki, why am I acting…well, reacting, like this?
It must be the wine, she decides firmly, ignoring the stuttering of his heartbeat against her arm through the wool of the cloak. Everything seems stronger, more powerful than it was: the air itself seems to taste of Loki’s familiar magick and the grass beneath her right hand tingles, alive and thrumming with it. She looks out over the river, a dull shade of blue-grey in the evening, and wonders if the stars are out above them.
“You are an idiot,” she breathes.
There’s a long pause, during which she becomes intensely aware of his thumb moving against her arm, a soft, repetitive motion that has her in very real danger of falling asleep again. He takes another drink.
“Biggest idiot I’ve ever met.”
“Well, alright, I wouldn’t go that far.”
“If you knew I would say yes, why would you not ask? Do I offend you in some way?”
Something tells Sif that she will regret this conversation very much in the morning. Loki’s hand stills, tightens on her arm, and she can feel him take a deep breath.
“No. Of course not. I thought you might like to enjoy the rites, though.”
I have never enjoyed participating in rites, he knows that. And he’s a terrible liar when he’s drunk. But what is he lying to hide?
“Loki…Oðinsson…do you know what I had to go through today?”
“I could not possibly imagine.”
“I had to stand for an hour while your father talked at us, in my armour which is heavy, and it chafed on my shoulders so badly I have scrapes that still hurt, in the blistering heat, and then I had to sit through that feast where Thor and the…the morons three just talked more, about all the ‘ventures they’ve been on when I wasn’t there …and then I drank too much, and…”
“Yes, that last one is really very obvious.”
“Shut it. You’re drunk too.”
“But not to the point where I’ve lost my self-control.”
“So have you another drink, then. I’m not being the only one who makes a fool of herself tonight.”
Obediently Loki drains the wineskin and tosses it aside. “There’s no one but me here, Sif, and out of the two of us you are not the fool. Trust me.”
“I do,” Sif promises. “There’s a chill in the air. Let me up so I can get dressed.”
The arm about her disappears and Sif unwinds the cloak from her body so she can stand up, trusting in the darkness to hide her modesty. The ground shifts beneath her and in a few short steps she’s standing by a swaying, unsteady-looking elm tree – the tree with her armour under it, thankfully. Letting the cloak fall to the ground she rummages through the pile of garments to find her leggings and her formal white tunic with its vexingly itchy embroidery around the collar and sleeves, and shimmies into the shirt somehow without falling over, which privately she considers an achievement until she remembers that she still has to get her leggings on and that will require standing on one foot…
But she dresses without incident, pinning her cloak back into place but leaving her armour where it lies as she returns to Loki’s side. This time, she takes his hand, enjoying the feeling of being close to him and a little unsure if it’s still the wine making her act this way. “I’m sorry I didn’t come looking for you earlier, Loki,” she says softly. “I noticed you weren’t there the moment I walked in.”
Another weary sigh. “Again, you couldn’t have left your ceremony. Really, think no more of it.”
“But you’ve been out here all day, and you’re not happy. I’m not going to ignore that.”
“I am as happy as can be,” Loki reassures her, sounding anything but.
“Aye, that’s me. Loki the Liar…”
“Oh, for Ymir’s sake,” she hisses, finally pinpointing just where her unfamiliar feelings are leading her to and leaning across to kiss Loki hard on his red, wine-flavoured mouth. Whether shutting him up is also a motive of hers or not, it works, and before she can even close her eyes he’s kissing her back. His hand lifts to her cheek, hers to the back of his neck, and only the biological necessity to respire separates them in the end. She pulls back and looks at him, drowning a little in those enormous undine eyes of his.
“You’re drunk,” he breathes.
“As are you. I’m happy.”
“I am too. Is this just…is this just the wine?”
“This is me, old friend,” she nips at his lower lip with her teeth, drawing a harsh breath from him that she swallows without hesitation, “Only me. I hope…I hope it’s not just the wine that’s making you…”
“It’s not,” and he seizes her mouth again, effectively ending their conversation.
Normally it would fall to Sif or Loki to point out the pointlessness or idiocy of an endeavour suggested by Thor, but today both are silent. They ride side-by-side to the bifröst, and stand side-by-side behind Thor as he beseeches Heimdall to let them go. Eventually the gatekeeper acquiesces, and the gilded observatory dissolves round them in a whirl of cosmic magic. It’s not with conscious thought that Sif throws out her right hand, seeking, searching – and nor is it with a second’s hesitation that Loki grips it in his own.
When Nornheimr materialises around them and the fierce rush of the bifröst fades, they move apart slowly to circle the perimeter. The realm is of a wilder, more mystical kind than Asgard, the air a twisting miasma of coiling shadow and sentient seiðr, the looming forests a maze of impenetrable darkness and deceptive will o’ the wisps.
The shade itself proves baited with perils, for as they walk Loki soon realises they are being stalked by incorporeal threats perhaps more immediately dangerous to them than the anger of the Nornir (which he's certain they would provoke if they marched up and demanded to know their fates).
He keeps close to Sif, prepared to shield them both in shadow at a moment’s signal if he must, and she senses his discomfort.
“What?” she mutters as they walk.
“On all sides,” he informs her in a low voice, and her eyes flick anxiously about them, taking in their surroundings without betraying the way her hand slides to the hilt of her sword.
“Excellent,” she sighs. “Will they attack?”
“Probably. The Nornir set wards on their domain – guards of all sorts. I suspect we are being followed by some.”
But the walk through the woods passes without incident, the group either too large or too little a threat to bother their sinister watchers. Until he is certain they no longer face attack, Loki lingers with the party, but once they clear the darkest part of the forest and the slinking shapes in the shadows dissipate with the encroaching light of the realm beyond the trees, he announces his intentions to visit the Norn-Queen and make of her an enquiry. He would go alone, he says, entrusting the safety of his brother – and Sif, though he does not mention that – to the warriors. Their path to the Nornir is a relatively simple one from hereon in, only a barrow field to avoid.
Thor nods impatiently, bidding his brother farewell and leading the group away.
Naturally, the very thing Loki had instructed them to avoid is the very thing the warriors find themselves in the middle of some time later, and as they realise the nature of the mounds that encircle them, a low and sticky fog begins to gather.
Quote from my poem Stealing.