He caught the motion in the side of his eye as he strode down the hall. The shadows in a recess changed.
Someone had gutted the torches along this way. Thor continued past, pretending not to see, and waited for the shout of warning and the attack with his palm on his hilt.
But none came.
When he exited the hall with no interference, either challenging or craven, he doubled back to discover who had been missed in the sacking.
They were patient. He lost track of time as he waited; he only knew that the fighting outside had drifted away. He wanted to rejoin it--but he also wanted to see who had managed to elude the best of his men.
The sounds of fighting were almost inaudible, and his patience nearly broken, when the shadows shifted again. A figure leaned slightly out of the recess, glancing along the hall.
Not a woman, Thor realized. Or else a poorly endowed one.
The man started forward, taking care not to step on the remains of the broken statue at his feet. He moved quietly--had he held still enough as Thor passed, he might have escaped this day.
Skillful, he acknowledged, and stepped into the hall.
When he called out the challenge to fight, the man spun around sharply, eyes wide. Then he jerked a short sword up and out before him.
Thor eyed the sword, and the man, in the light available from the outer room.
He was not a warrior. That was visible in his garb, his sandals--but more so in his stance. His arm was out straight, too taut. He had no room to thrust, and would have to pull back to swing. And though his hand was steady, it was gripped over-tight around the handle.
Not as skillful as he'd first thought. He kept a hand on his hilt regardless, and continued forward. The man began to back up, and Thor shifted to the side, slowly herding him toward the wall.
Loki took another step back as the invader continued toward him, trying to keep a smooth pace and striving to calculate how close the doorway to the inner sanctum was. The invader had blocked the path out; but the corridor around the innermost room was twisted and curved--if he broke into a run, had enough of a start, he could lose the man long enough to hide again. Just a few more steps, and that should be close enough to--
He tripped over a chunk of shattered statue and realized too late he'd been cornered.
Loki caught himself against the wall, but not swiftly enough; trying to resettle his feet only caused him to trip over more shards--they'd destroyed everything--and the wall scraped his palm as he sank to a knee.
He kept the sword out in front of him. The invader had stopped out of reach, but Loki was caught between him and the wall and a pedestal that once held a god's image, and there was no way of escaping until the other man was lying in his own blood.
The only advantage now was to make the man come to him. Loki readjusted his grip on the sword, hating that his palm was sweating--a weakness, one he couldn't cease, one that placed him at a disadvantage--and waited for the invader to move.
Yet he didn't.
The invader stared down at him, expression obscured in the dimness. Loki had doused the lights to aid his concealment, but now the deed was turned against him.
After several breaths passed and the man still hadn't moved against him, he decided to act. Loki shifted, slowly rolling onto the balls of his feet, keeping one hand braced against the wall to add momentum to his spring. If the invader was trying to outwait him, there was little Loki could do but make the first move--the invader had more of his kind outside the temple, while his own kith were captured or lay dead within and without.
But his movements, cautious as they were, spurred the other man to his own. He loosed the hammer slung in his belt--Loki spared a glance at it, judged the weight of the head and the ease with which the invader held it with an internal curse--and took another step forward.
He could afford to wait no more. Loki shoved away from the wall and propelled himself forward, striking for the man's exposed chest above his armor though he knew the bone beneath would stop a killing blow; even to slow him down might be enough.
The invader struck his arm aside with his free hand. Loki landed no more than a glancing blow--if it drew blood, it didn't stand out from that already smeared on the man--before the blade jarred against the pedestal. Loki managed to keep his grip on the hilt and swung the sword back again, aiming for the nearest exposed flesh.
The invader blocked the strike with his hammer, then gripped his wrist tightly and twisted. Loki scrabbled to keep his hold on the sword, jerking back against the grip and lashing out at the invader's knee with a leg.
The kick twisted his body; Loki felt a wrenching in his shoulder, gasped as it lit into pain, and dropped the blade. When the other man jerked him up by his wrist, Loki cried out as the spasm sharpened.
The invader loosened his grasp. Loki disregarded the growing numbness along his arm and threw himself recklessly at the man; it made the invader stumble back, but not enough, not for an escape--and then the grip around his wrist tightened once more, twisting his arm up.
Loki cried out again, and then snarled and sank his teeth into the invader's shoulder, all thought of dignity or pride gone and only the desire for escape and the cessation of pain left in the wake.
The man grunted. He pulled Loki's arm around and up behind his back, forcing him to turn--and then shoved him forward, slamming his head against the wall. Loki's mind fogged for a moment as his vision went black along the edges. When it cleared, he braced a leg against the wall and shoved himself backwards, trying to strike the invader with the back of his head or to at least push him away enough to gain room to maneuver.
The man slammed his head against the wall again; and this time when darkness covered his vision, it didn't recede.
When the man slumped against the wall, Thor relaxed his grip without releasing it.
But he soon recognized the limp weight. Deciding it wasn't a trick, he let go, and the man sank to the floor.
Thor looked down at him for a brief while, considering.
He ran a thumb over the bite mark in his shoulder, and then reached past it and pulled the edge of his wrap free.
As he knelt down beside the other man, he noticed the awkward way his shoulder was hanging. Thor examined it, then set his weapon on the floor and tugged the man onto his back.
The sound of battle had faded completely by the time he had the shoulder pushed back into place. Thor hooked his hammer to his belt, hefted the man up, and went to see what remained.
When Loki regained consciousness lying on his side, he found his shoulder ached, and something warm and coarse weighed it and his chest down. His head fared little better. His arms were bound behind his back.
"Sir," a woman said quietly, "you wake?"
Loki slitted his eyes open enough to see the thigh currently serving as his pillow, and rough animal-skin boots a distance beyond it. A glance up confirmed one of the invaders was standing sentry; Loki kept his gaze narrowed and half-hidden by his lashes, and answered just as quietly, "Yes. Where are we?"
"A camp," she answered. "Near the riverbank."
The hand clutching her robe tensed and twisted the fabric; that was answer enough. But he could make out the sounds of other living beings behind him, silent in the way fear and loss inspired. "To what purpose us survivors?"
"...I do not know," she answered.
He restrained a frown, though his gaze flickered up--uselessly, her face was obscured to him, but a reflex all the same--toward her voice. "Explain."
". . . You are the only man here, sir," she murmured. "The rest of us are women. Some boys."
It took Loki a few moments to comprehend; and then he said "Ah."
The sentry's boots had turned in their direction. He did not speak, and soon resumed his former position; but since he had heard their talking, there was no point in the ruse any more. Loki sat up carefully, aided by the woman since her hands were bound before her. There was a bloodstain on her robe where his head had lain; no wonder the ache in his temple.
A fur wrap fell to his side once he was upright. Loki stared at it blankly, then recognized it as the one the man who'd fought him had worn.
...He supposed he should be flattered. He knew he was appealing, as some of the bolder women of the temple and a few of the too-bold visitors had made clear. Even a barbarian had eyes.
Loki turned and looked over his shoulder, cataloging what of his home remained. He knew two of the seven women from separately shared evenings and sheets; the rest he recognized by face if not name. The same went for the three boys, though the name of one was caught on the tip of his tongue. He'd been pestered into taking his older brother, Njal, on as an apprentice, but had refused the other boy due to his clumsy hands. He had seen him sometimes, helping his brother clean the scriptorium or ferry the scrolls and messages and objects for engraving to and fro.
He did not see Njal.
Loki turned away from the huddled group and looked out at the half-built camp, the tents being raised and the deep hole the raiders were digging in the middle.
He wondered briefly what that was--curiosity ever at the ready, even in the most absurd of situations--and then the woman beside him muttered, "They won't shame us further."
Loki glanced over, took in her expression and the way her robe was knotted up in her clenched hands, and looked away again.
"Live," he replied. "It's always better to live."
"Ha," another said, and he looked over to see Eydis, ever sharp and disdainful. "In degradation? As slaves among them? That's a pitiful life."
Loki curled the side of his lip up, even though the gesture took effort in the circumstances. "Who can know? Perhaps you'll be sated then."
She tossed her hair over her shoulder at him, a gesture he remembered. He had enjoyed her; she'd been a clear stream he'd caught his reflection in, and could dip his hands in to drink without concern of being pulled down into the depths. Her ultimate rejection still irked.
This was worse than the petty revenges he'd considered.
"The only pitiful thing is to force your fate," he added, dropping the false smile. "It will come when it's due. Until then, live."
Eydis snorted again, low, but did not contradict him this time.
Two tents were completed when the tension among them grew too much. One of the women--a girl, more--began crying, choking sobs that wouldn't be stopped; at last Njal's brother began talking loudly over her, chanting one of the eddas as another woman muffled the girl's tears in her lap.
He stumbled even before he finished the prologue. Loki took up the tale with what might have been exasperation in better times, continuing even after the girl was taken away, claimed by her captor.
More tents rose, more of their group were removed; Loki continued to chant, and studied each as they went, judging from the tilt of their chin and the steadiness of their walk whether his words had slipped through.
He had not reached all. But most--most he had.
Loki supposed that would count as his last victory. After all, what use would his clever tongue be on those who could not understand him?
When the last boy was taken away, leaving only him, he ceased chanting. No point remained.
But he continued to recite the poem in his mind, even as he watched the fire in the central pit be lit, until someone came for him.
Warning: I've added pairing and 'consent issues' tags starting with this chapter because it contains unconsensual sex. I had a discussion with my beta whether it qualified as dubcon or noncon; the consensus was that, if there's even a discussion in the first place, label it noncon--better safe than sorry. I didn't go with the archive warning, and I left the Loki & Thor tag, because the & is more overall apropos than the / to this fic, and this is the only chapter with noncon, though the broader consent issues will remain for a while.
I tinkered with things after the betaing; as with all the chapters, any mistakes below are my own.
He was pounding in the last stake of Sif's tent when one of his men came up. "Your tent is ready, chieftain."
"Ha, good," Thor replied, and aimed one last strike at the peg. He rehooked the hammer to his belt and gave the tent a satisfied look. It would be waiting when Sif returned with her scouts.
"I put the man inside," Thjalfi added.
"Well done," he said, clasping him briefly on the shoulder as he passed.
At the central fire, Volstagg said that the evening provisions were nearly ready, but he forbade anyone sampling besides himself. Thor left him to it and went to his tent.
The man from the hall was standing in the center, staring at the loose pile of metals and gold that Thor had taken from the temple's smithy. He jerked his chin up slightly when Thor entered, but otherwise didn't move.
As he stepped to the bucket of water near the opening, the man spoke.
He frowned, and shook his head. The man made an exasperated noise, then nodded at the opening of the tent and shifted.
Thor soon gathered though his gestures that the man wanted to relieve himself. He left the water and went over to him.
The man stiffened faintly as he came behind him. Thor undid the bindings on his wrists, and then--when he didn't move--pushed him toward the entrance.
The man went. Outside the tent, he turned the corner; Thor left him to it, but kept a keen ear. They'd set camp at as good a distance between the trees and the river as possible, but the forest remained closer than he liked for strange territory.
But the sentries' lots were already drawn for the night and they were in place; so when his shipmaster came up with news, he turned to him.
"The last of the rats are dead," Njord announced. "And the bulk of the meal remains good."
"Volstagg will be pleased," he said with a grin. "Have you told him?"
Njord shook his head. "My lot was drawn for first guard."
"No matter, I'll do it," Thor replied. "Is your tent ready?"
Njord snorted. "I'll bunk on the ship, chieftain. As always."
He shook his head briefly with good humor, and then held up a hand and turned the corner of his tent.
The man was standing at the very edge of the far corner. Thor could see him watching one of his men farther down, who was holding sentry against the forest and had his back turned.
The man glanced over at the sound of his footfalls, but his expression remained indecipherable. He grabbed a handful of the man's long over-clothes and pulled him back to the front of the tent.
He waved Njord off to his duties, pushed the man into his tent and told him to stay there, and went to give Volstagg the good news.
Loki had finished cleansing his hands when the invader returned, bearing a wooden slat laden with food in one hand, an empty one and a wineskin in the other. More spoils, Loki noted, recognizing it as from the temple's store. The man shifted the wineskin and then loosened the tent flap's cord, letting it fall behind him as he entered. The interior of the tent sank into a dimness broken only by the twilight seeping through the gaps and the lit oil lamp perched on a corner of the laden tray.
Loki remained by the water bucket, watching with body tilted away as the man sat down on the ground and began to cut up the food.
He soon transferred portions of it to the empty slat; and then the man dropped the knife to the side, held the slat toward him, and spoke.
Loki studied him for a long moment.
He had no desire to eat--had not felt the urge since waking and realizing the group he was among--and he was not inclined to willingly come within arm's reach of the barbarian.
But the tent was not large; and he had been entangled in a mis-copied scroll all day and had consumed nothing since breaking his fast before the invasion came; and there was no point to inflicting the ache of hunger on himself later.
Loki went over and took the slat, and then swiftly stepped to the side, almost up against the tent wall.
He found it difficult to place the look the man gave him at that--Loki might have thought it contempt, were it not tempered with something else he could not discern--but he paid it little heed. Where he now stood, he could feel the edge of the knife's hilt beneath his sandal.
The barbarian left his own slat where it sat and went to the bucket. As he began to wash, Loki sat down slowly, taking care not to shift too much and risk drawing attention to the blade.
He looked at the plate as he settled on the ground, tucking his robe along his leg and sliding the knife against his shin as he did. Loki wondered idly where the meat had come from--if they'd had the time to hunt beforehand, someone should have spotted them and called the warning sooner--and then he recalled the sacred swans in the pond on the temple grounds.
He decided to abstain from the meat, and began on the oatcake instead. He kept the corner of his vision on the invader as he ate.
The man had rinsed much of the dirt and blood from his arms and face. He paused to remove his boots and gauntlets; Loki broke off another piece of the oatcake and then stilled when the man undid his belt as well.
Without the leather strap to gird it, the armored skirt loosened enough to be peeled off. Loki watched as the man set it beside his hammer; when he returned to his washing, Loki resumed eating as well, if more tensely now than before.
He rinsed the dry cake down with a drink from the wineskin, opening and lifting it with his left hand to favor his other shoulder, and then shifted his leg briefly. When he felt the knife's hilt press against it, Loki reminded himself to be concerned with planning. He could stomach remaining in the tent with a corpse until deep night; but there might be intruders. And if he failed to kill the man or to stop him for calling for aid, the consequences would be worse than if he waited for a better opportunity.
But he recognized this stretch of the riverbank; if the raiders had landed here, they would have come to the temple before the village. He had little time--the sooner he could flee, get within the safety of the village walls and warn the lord of the attack, the better.
Perhaps someone else had escaped, and already warned them; perhaps they were prepared for battle and on their way. But Loki did not intend to pin his hopes on the possible success of another.
The man poured a last handful of water on his hair, shook it out, and then turned toward him and spoke. Loki looked at him, keeping his gaze up and his face impassive.
The man gestured for him to come over.
Such hospitality, Loki thought dryly, to cover the sudden sourness in his throat. There was a chunk of the oatcake remaining, and all of the meat; apparently he'd had only a limited time for his meal.
He did not move.
The invader frowned after a moment, and then gestured again, more forcefully. Loki set the cake back on the slat, but remained where he was.
The man made an annoyed noise, and then picked up the bucket and hauled it over.
Loki leaned back reflexively before catching himself, bracing a hand on the ground beside his leg. The invader dropped the bucket beside him and crouched, then scooped up a handful of water and pressed it against his temple.
Loki flinched at the sudden sting along his wound and bared his teeth, pulling back further. The invader paused for a moment; but then he lowered his brows over his eyes. He caught Loki by the jaw, holding him in place, and began rubbing away the dried blood on his skin.
Loki stared forward, at the light that limned the closed-off entrance. He could hear sounds from the camp outside, half-muffled through the thick skin of the tent; but they would still eventually. The raiders would sleep. The moon was not yet half-full; he could slip past the sentry line and find his way to the path leading to the village. Loki let his hand drift closer to his shin, and slowly curled his fingers around the hilt of the knife.
The man released his chin and slammed a hand down on his forearm, pinning it to the ground. Loki cursed when the act jarred his still-aching shoulder. He had to twist his body down and to the side to accommodate it; his grip loosened reflexively. The invader wrenched the knife from his grasp.
He gave the blade a disgusted look, and tossed it to the other side of the tent before glaring at him. Loki forced himself to bare his teeth again in response; but when the man let go of his arm, he scrabbled back and onto his feet.
The invader let him. Instead, he picked up Loki's slat and dumped the remaining food unceremoniously onto his own, before turning to the side and sitting down to eat.
Loki remained on his feet, staring, and found himself fighting the urge to laugh at the childishness of the act.
The impulse gradually washed away. As the man continued to eat, Loki looked down at him, considering.
Under other circumstances, he wouldn't inspire disgust. He was thickly-built throughout, with strength Loki well remembered; though a foreigner, there were similarities between him and the warriors who came to the temple to have their weapons or armor engraved with blessings. Loki had always gazed his fill at those men, but barely spoke to them beyond what was necessary for his work and sneered down any efforts at familiarity. He knew enough of warriors to know that they would respect him as a scribe for his skill with blessings and curses, his knowledge of the old tales and his turn with poetry that might one day be used to honor them if they gained sufficient renown; but if he were to let his position slip enough to show the man behind it, then his lesser frame and unbloodied hands would negate all else in their minds, and they would make demands and expect liberties that Loki refused to give. And since he had no interest or use for half-finished boys, Loki had contented himself with women or else kept to his own bed.
Perhaps those times would return after this, or even remain. He had missed where exactly the invader had thrown the knife, but it was to the side. And since the only thing in that corner was a large fur pelt Loki assumed was the bedding, there was a chance his hand would find it. He flicked his gaze over; but he caught no glimpse of the blade in the faint light from the lamp, and Loki soon looked back at the man to avoid suspicion.
...He was thickly built throughout. Loki ran his eyes over him once more, took in his neck and arms and the muscles of his thighs; and then he folded his arms and began to trace runes on his inner arm, by the elbow.
A sharp twinge ran through his shoulder as he did, and for the first time Loki felt a twist of concern for something beyond the situation before him. If he could not write....
When he reached the village, after giving warning, he would hire a physician. He could take some of the gold the invader had stolen with him--it had already been desecrated. If it weren't enough, he had his necklace. He would tend to his arm second; first, he had to escape.
Loki wrote protection and good fortune onto his skin. He doubted it would serve, since it was unseen; but it was better than nothing at all. The man finished eating, took a long drink from the wineskin, and stood.
Loki remained in place, watching, as he dropped the slats by the tent flap and then took the lamp over to his clothes. As the invader cleaned and oiled his armor and weapon, Loki continued to glance at the bedding, hoping to catch sight of the knife. But he fared no better than when the light had been closer, and had to focus his gaze forward again when the invader completed his tasks and straightened up.
Loki could see nothing else in the tent to be tended to, other than sorting the stolen goods; but that possibility grew unlikely when the invader stepped past them.
Loki held himself still as he stopped in front of him, gazing over the man's shoulder at the closed entrance beyond. He blinked, and then frowned, when the man lifted his arm from his side and studied it.
Loki's frown deepened as he tilted his forearm one way and then the other, turning slightly to let the light hit it, and felt as though he were a horse having its teeth checked.
The man tapped his arm and spoke. Loki blinked once, slowly, and gave him a look he hoped was sufficiently belittling in the dim light.
The barbarian scowled, then grabbed his other wrist.
Loki clenched his jaw at the spasm in his shoulder the motion wrought, and then blinked again, this time in sincerity, when the man pressed his own hand against the crook of his elbow.
When he didn't move, the man did it again, right over the spot where he'd placed the runes. Loki narrowed his eyes.
He shifted his hand, and the man released his wrist. Loki traced another set of runes on his skin with deliberation, this time seeking cunning; the barbarian watched him do so, and then took his hand once more.
Loki kept his jaw tense against the ache as the man turned his hand upside down, examining his palm, and told himself to be less careless. He hadn't believed he was seen when writing; this was the second time the man had caught an act Loki thought concealed. If the barbarian's gaze was so sharp, he would have to be more clever.
...His back had been turned when Loki was looking for the knife, for most of the time. Not all.
Loki resisted the urge to glance at the bedding again, and reconsidered.
His best chance for escape was at night. But the moon was waxing; if he waited too long, it would grow full enough that even raiders unfamiliar with the forest might be able to pursue him. And he did not know how long they planned to stay here--if they decamped and moved closer to the village, that would aid him; but if they were content with despoiling the temple and decided to sail back to other climes, he had no time to delay at all. Even one evening might seal his fate, if they left on the morrow. But if he failed to take the invader by surprise, whatever humiliation this night had in store would undoubtedly be increased, if it did not outright cost his life.
. . . He could endure a blow to his pride, Loki thought, looking at the other man as he continued to study his hand and tap a thumb against Loki's palm absently. There was a tale he'd learned early in his apprenticeship, of the time when the gods were young and their world yet unfortified; they'd foolishly accepted a bet with a builder from another realm and risked the sun and moon and a goddess in trade for walls--and when they stood to lose, they'd forced the least loved among them to release them from their oaths with his trickery and guile, or else they'd take his life.
He'd done so, changing forms and seducing away the builder's helper at cost to himself; but he had endured, and lived, and returned to take his seat in the golden halls once more.
It was always better to live.
The invader rubbed his thumb along one of his fingers, and Loki shifted his gaze to the oil lamp.
When the man released his fingers and slid a hand up his arm, Loki closed his eyes. He thought of the moon, and the knife in the bedding, and the day that would follow the night; and when the invader slipped his wrap off his shoulder, he let it fall.
The scribe allowed him to remove his over-clothes without hindrance or help. Thor let it fall behind the man and then eyed him again, half-thinking this might be more trickery.
But he did not seriously consider it. He had won their fight and taken his chosen spoils. If that second attack was some foreigner's necessity--maybe required, to preserve honor, or demanded by his position--he had beaten it down too, and left no doubt who was stronger. The matter was settled.
Besides, the man's clothes were soft things. Thor had not seen or felt a hidden weapon beneath them when he'd carried him.
He tugged at the scribe's belt for a few moments until he found where the cloth was tucked inside itself. Unwinding it was more of a nuisance than it needed to be, because the man would not lift his arms. Thor frowned as he dropped it by the over-clothes.
He took a handful of the robe anyway, pulling it over and off. In the moment after it was removed and the fabric no longer obscured the scribe's head, Thor saw that his face was set in a sneer--but only for a moment, and then it disappeared. He tossed the robe to the ground, and took a step to the side to let the light fall on him.
The man was handsome and fair of face; but he felt like wood beneath Thor's hand and he would not look him in the eye. He disliked it.
Thor reached up and pushed back the damp strands of hair that clung to the side of the scribe's face, taking care not to hit his wound. The man's mouth twitched, but he remained still.
He repeated the gesture, brushing the rest of the hair back. And then, when the man still did not acknowledge him, he tightened his grip and pulled him forward.
The man hissed under his breath when pressed against him. Thor kept the hold on his hair, and slid his other hand between them to find the scribe's length.
The man gasped sharply and jerked against him when he took him in hand. Thor half-smiled and tilted the man's head back, to better see his expression--but he shut his eyes and tried to turn his face away. When Thor's grip stopped him, he grimaced, jerked his head once, and then sealed up inside himself again.
Thor growled, and closed his hand around him. The scribe clenched his jaw against any further sound as he stroked, but he could feel the growing tautness in the man's back against his arm. His muscles were as tight-strung as a bow from trying to remain still.
That was preferable. It was reaction, and acknowledgement. It could be turned to pleasure.
He released the man's hair and took his shoulder instead, turning and pushing him toward the bedding. He did not remove his other hand. The scribe's first step backwards faltered before he caught himself, and Thor half-smiled again. Even if the man was unskilled with a sword, he had fierce self-control; to crack that felt akin to a victory in real battle.
The man allowed him to push him down to the bedding. Thor thought about removing his sandals--but at a glance they appeared too complicated, and he lacked interest. There were better things at hand.
The man grew still again as Thor stretched out atop him; but he let out a shuddering breath when Thor took hold of his length once more and began to stroke it alongside his own. A few moments later, the body beneath him finally loosened, as the man let his head sink back against the fur and an arm fall to the side. Thor smiled as he shifted his weight. He braced his forearm beside the man's head, and reached out to touch his hair.
This could be enough, he decided, as the scribe clenched a hand in the fur and drew in one quick breath after another against him. It was enough to ease him into his bed tonight. The man had value--a scribe would be a great use in the next strike, and in future ones. Thor would set him to the duties of a bondservant first.
Later, he could coax the man into his bed proper, and see what else that tense, sullen mouth might do. But the success of his journey and his men came first.
Thor cupped a hand against the man's jaw and ran a thumb over his bottom lip. His smile widened slightly as the scribe opened his eyes; and then the man brought his arm up.
Instinct warned him. Thor shoved himself to the side, but not soon enough--he felt the sharp slice of a blade against the back of his neck even as he moved.
He roared in anger. Before the man could get to his feet, Thor reached out and grabbed his arm, twisting it hard to make him drop the knife. When he did, Thor wrenched the man toward him, yanking him off balance before jerking his arm up behind his back and slamming him to the ground.
The man screamed thinly. Thor ignored it. He snatched up the knife before driving it into the ground beside the man's head, and then gripped the back of his neck and slung a leg over his thighs to pin him, riding a crest of fury at this cowardly attack--another, again, when he had won rightfully and fair, without deceit or guile or--
The man shouted at him. He snarled in response, tightening his grip. When the man spoke again, his voice was low, pleading.
Then he noticed the man's other hand was holding his shoulder.
Thor narrowed his eyes and didn't loosen his grip as he stared down at him, suspecting more trickery. But the man didn't move; he only spoke quietly, eyes shut tight and fingers tense against his upper arm.
Thor watched him longer, and at last released his wrist. The scribe gasped before pulling his arm down to his side. Once it was there, he turned his palm up. He released his own arm a breath later, letting that hand lay palm up on the ground as well, and spoke again.
Thor kept his grip on the man's neck as he pressed a hand against his shoulder. The man flinched, but clenched his jaw and bore it.
His shoulder was swollen. Thor examined it, pressing in spots and feeling the man jerk beneath him, and then he reached over for the lamp.
He saw no bruising. The man might be lying about the pain; but the swelling was real, and ill-omened. Thor had seen this type of wound in his men in previous battles, usually after a fall from a horse or a blow taken too hard to the shield-arm.
And the man was a scribe. He had written with that arm.
Thor pulled up carefully on the shoulder, ignoring the hitch in the man's breath--but it did not feel loose. Not like before. So it was in place, but slow-healing.
He released the scribe's shoulder and stared down at him.
Maybe this was honorable among his people. Maybe the greater shame lay in ever admitting defeat. Thor could not grasp how that kind of honor worked, but he had no other explanation. Maybe the man believed there was nothing wrong with this back-stabbing attack.
But it insulted him, and he could not ignore it.
Thor leaned over and bit down hard on the joint between the man's neck and shoulder. The scribe made a noise in the back of his throat, but didn't let it past his lips.
He kept his teeth in for another heartbeat before letting go. When he straightened up, he rubbed a thumb across the man's skin, wiping away a dribble of blood. Then he eased his grasp on the man's neck before urging him onto his knees.
When the scribe obeyed, cradling his arm to his chest, Thor moved off of him and sat down on the bed. He shifted his hold and had the man turn toward him.
When he pressed down, the man's neck stiffened beneath his hand. Thor pushed harder, and he went partway.
The man kept his arm against his chest, but he reached out and took him in his good hand.
Thor's mouth twisted back slightly as he stared at the dark head bent over his lap; but he left the man to the half-measure for a time. The scribe's hand was pleasant: smoother than Thor normally encountered in men, with calluses in unusual places.
When the man had stroked him back to firmness, Thor pressed down on the back of his neck once more.
The man drew in a long breath this time before yielding. The pendant of his necklace bumped Thor's shin as he bent his head lower.
Thor lidded his eyes at the first tentative lick. He slid his hand up the scribe's neck to cup the back of his head, curling his fingers into the man's hair as he tongued him. This was not what he'd meant either; but once again, he left the man to it. For a time.
When the hand pressed against his head yet again, Loki closed his eyes.
He was not surprised. It had been a hollow hope that he might complete this task with the least humiliation, though he'd held to it all the same.
It was not as though worse were not coming.
The push was not as hard as the others had been--but he knew if he did not respond, the pressure would increase. And he had spoken surrender; he had bargained this.
If it had to be done, Loki preferred to do it himself, rather than have it forced on him. He shifted his bad arm carefully, finding where it best lay against his chest without pressing discomfortingly against his thigh or the barbarian's knee; and then he leaned down further, swallowed once, opened his mouth, and took the man in.
The taste was no more pleasant on his tongue, and Loki reminded himself again that this was more bearable than losing the ability to write. He wrapped his good hand around the base of the shaft and began to stroke; if he could keep a hand there, he would not be forced to take too much in.
The musky scent was stronger now that he had to breathe through his nose. Loki wrinkled it, then made himself take in more of the shaft. If he did enough himself, perhaps the barbarian would not press beyond that.
Loki laved the head of the man's shaft with his tongue, made an effort not to grimace at the taste, and struggled to remember what other tricks Eydis had used the two times she'd done this to him. He'd had to charm her considerably beforehand--once with a complicated blessing to be engraved on a ring for one of her kinsmen, the other with a gold armband a lord had previously given him as payment. She'd kept wearing it even after shunning him, but he hadn't noticed it when he saw her last. He wondered if her captor had taken it. He wondered briefly if she was doing this now.
The thought snapped a thread in him, and Loki found laughter bubbling up his throat from some place he could not fathom. It rippled out before he caught it.
The barbarian made a pleased noise.
Loki glanced upward, though the act was meaningless--all he saw was part of the man's stomach and his own hair. But a moment later, the man began rubbing a thumb against the back of his head--not further pressure, only a small, gentle movement. Apparently he had heard correctly.
Apparently there was some use for his clever tongue among barbarians after all.
Loki laughed bleakly again. The man gave another pleased rumble, running his hand through Loki's hair before sliding it down to cup the side of his face.
He gave another useless, considering glance upward. Loki slipped a little further down, letting his mouth adjust to the length, striving to relax his jaw when it began to ache. When it felt as comfortable as he supposed it would ever be, he gave an experimental hum.
The barbarian said something in an encouraging tone.
Loki took a firm grasp of his thoughts before they could drift again, and made himself focus on what was before him. He soon found a rhythm between his mouth and hand that--if the noises the barbarian made were any sign--promised this part would at least be over soon.
When the man's hand tightened along his face, Loki guessed his task was near success. He tried to pull back--but the grip was too hard. And then the barbarian grunted, and the hot wetness hit his throat.
Loki jerked back roughly, losing hair in the process, and coughed the seed up. He wiped his chin with the back of his hand, and eyed the barbarian through a narrow gaze.
As the man shuddered through his release, Loki glanced at the knife embedded in the grass. He looked back at the barbarian just in time to see his eyes open.
Perhaps it was a warning he should finally heed: that would not be the way he escaped this.
The man exhaled slowly when he finished. He shifted, wiping the seed off his leg absently, and then took Loki's good arm. Loki went when he was pulled, and let the man push him down onto the bedding.
On his back, like a woman. Loki glared up at the roof of the tent, then closed his eyes and made his face become--he hoped--impassive. Now, perhaps, was the time to let his thoughts drift wherever they might go; he had no need of them here.
The hand on his softened member was gentler than expected. Loki blinked despite himself, and then stared at the roof as the barbarian stroked.
His body betrayed him in the end. Loki pressed a hand over his face to conceal it as he steadily lost the battle with himself; the barbarian had leaned over him and he would not reveal himself so rawly, not this way, not like this.
When the man pulled his hand away and pinned it beside him, Loki lunged forward and bit his forearm. The hand around his shaft tightened as it moved; he couldn't restrain a shiver, and pressed his face hard against his shoulder and the fur beneath him.
The barbarian said something, he knew not what tone, and rubbed a thumb against the inside of his wrist. Loki bared his teeth even as he gave in--for why should he fight this bit of pleasure? Why should he not take something to counter all the rest? The cost of it couldn't be any higher than what he'd already agreed to pay.
His release caught him by surprise, coming quicker than he'd expected; Loki bit down his sharp gasp and fought the urge to cant his hips into the man's hand, to draw out the sensation even as it began to fade. He closed his eyes instead, and struggled to bring his breathing back to something more dignified.
The barbarian unhanded him, pushing up from the bedding. Loki left his eyes closed. He cared not to see what was coming.
He changed his mind when he heard the slosh of the water bucket as it was set nearby. Loki turned his head and watched the man rinse his hands.
He'd brought the wineskin over as well. The man took a long draught, then held it out to him.
Loki stared at it for a moment, and then rolled a shoulder and pushed himself to a sitting position with his good arm. He drank slowly as the man washed off his legs and chest, rinsing the taste of seed from his mouth; and when the man gestured to the bucket, he set the skin aside and cleansed himself as well. The oil lamp was guttering.
He was flicking water from his fingers when the barbarian picked up the cord that had bound his arms.
Loki let his hands fall to the rim of the bucket. He glanced at the knife, blade still thrust in the dirt, once more; but then he slid his gaze away and stared at the wall opposite instead.
The man tied his wrists behind his back, taking some care with his shoulder. The binding was looser than before, though it still held fast when Loki tested it. He shifted back onto the bedding when the man gestured, and then, with some confusion, further, until his back was nearly against the tent wall.
His stomach clenched when the man jerked the knife free of the ground.
The barbarian dropped the water bucket beside the tent entrance, then returned and pinched out the lamp. In the dark, Loki heard the man settle onto the bedding beside him. He did not touch him again.
Loki remained unmoving for a lengthy time, waiting, distrustful; but nothing changed. Eventually he shifted enough to lie down on his good side, annoyed even as he did that it left him facing the barbarian.
He did not fall asleep for a long time.
He woke abruptly when another invader opened the tent flap and called inside. The man stretched and rolled to his feet, speaking with the fellow raider briefly as he dressed in the dim firelight coming through the gap. Loki pulled his legs up to his chest.
The man spoke to him before he left. Even in his shame- and sleep-fogged mind, Loki noted it was the same thing he'd said before in that barbarous tongue, when he'd first pushed him into the tent.
He stored the thought away, and sunk back into sleep.
The scribe woke again when he returned from sentry-duty. Thor stretched back out on the bed without undressing, seeking a few more hours rest before dawn. Beside him, the other man laid unmoving until he slept.
Morning came soon, and with it the smell of burning wood.
Thor undid the scribe's binding and went to help Volstagg throw more kindling into the central firepit. When he returned with another slab of oatcake, the man was dressed and pulling on his over-clothes while his arm hung at his side. He took a portion when Thor broke the oatcake in half and ate with him; but he snarled when Thor tested his shoulder. The act didn't fully hide his grimace of pain.
He set the scribe's arm back at his side and got the bucket. He put it in the man's good hand and told him they needed more water, and to fetch it. He was given an insolent look in response.
Thor attempted to convey the order in gestures, each greeted with the same disdain. Finally, aggravated, he grabbed the man's upper arm and pulled him out of the tent.
Outside, he pointed in the direction of the river, and then shook the bucket in the man's hand and pointed again. The scribe, either finally understanding or no longer able to pretend he didn't, started toward the riverbank. Then Thor spotted Hogun by the fire.
He grabbed the scribe's over-clothes before he could move out of reach, and pulled him over. "Hogun!"
Hogun turned aside from Volstagg. "Aye, chieftain?"
"His shoulder came loose in our fight," Thor said. He pulled the scribe's over-clothes off his shoulder and tugged the strap of his robe down as well, so Hogun could better see the swelling. "I returned it, but it's healing slow. He's a scribe, so I want him well. Any thoughts?"
Hogun examined the shoulder with minute care. The scribe stood silent throughout, though once a hiss escaped his teeth when Hogun tested how well his arm could rotate. When Thor looked at him, his face was blankly impassive except for his eyes--those were half-lidded so that he could not see the expression in them.
At last, Hogun released the scribe's arm, nodded once, and went to his tent. Thor, familiar with the man, waited without feeling offense at the absence of leave-taking.
Beside him, the scribe pulled his clothes back over his shoulder.
Hogun returned soon with a swatch of cloth. He wrapped the sling over the scribe's good shoulder, binding his ill arm to his chest.
"It looks to heal," his man said. "Keep it like this, and stretch it a few times a day, and it should happen quicker."
Thor grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. "Much thanks."
"Chieftain!" one of his men called. Thor turned in his direction.
The man came up with one of Sif's, and his grin widened.
"What news?" he demanded.
"We have the lay of the village," Sif's man answered. "And more."
"Aye." He held out a scroll. When Thor took it, the man wiped at his face.
He frowned briefly. "Go quench your thirst," he ordered. "And then join me."
"Thank you, chieftain," Sif's man said gratefully, and made for the firepit and the cask of mead Njord had brought from the ship.
Thor sent the scribe to the river again, and went to convene his best warriors.
When he was out of reach and the raiders had returned to their various tasks, Loki pulled his wrap further up his shoulder, trying to cover the bite mark beside his neck and jerking on the fabric when it caught beneath his arm, pressed tight by the invader's sling.
He made himself stop a few moments later, when he realized how pathetically desperate it had to look, and forced himself to drop his arm back to his side.
It was pointless anyway. The mark had already been bared, to the entire camp; no amount of concealment would erase that. Even had it not, he'd mis-remembered how close the barbarian's tent sat to its neighbors--the skin of it might have concealed part of the past evening, but not all.
Not all of his begging had been low.
Loki swallowed down bile and fury, saving them until they could serve him better, and stopped at the river's edge.
He was glaring at the water and striving to think of the most dignified way to fill the bucket when someone arrived behind him.
"You can't charm it up into the pail," Eydis said.
He ignored her on principle.
The silence stretched out a brief while, and then she moved beside him. Loki looked her over, again on principle: her clothes were not torn, and she seemed unbruised. She tsked under her breath, once, at the sight of him; and then she let the handle of her bucket slide down her arm before reaching out and tugging on his belt.
It came loose easily. He knew he'd wrapped it poorly, his arm too stiff to be any use; but it still irked him to see how badly done it was. He remained still while Eydis rewound it silently.
When it was properly wrapped, she moved past him, kneeling on the riverbank and tipping her bucket in. "Your arm?" she asked.
"It will heal," he replied. He would not acknowledge another possibility.
"Good," Eydis answered, and he frowned. There was a strain in her tone, a brittleness not quite hidden enough. She looked over her shoulder at him a moment later, then nodded at his neck. "That love-mark suits you."
Loki considered her for a moment as she watched him with too-bright eyes, and felt charitable.
He curled his mouth back. "I can't say the same for your hair," he replied, tilting his chin at the messily redone braid. "Too much time spent lolling in that bed to do it properly?"
"No wonder he likes you," she sallied, "he can't understand a word you say."
"I imagine you could communicate just fine," Loki retorted.
She tossed her hair over her shoulder at him, and looked back at the river.
"Do you think anyone made it to the village?" Eydis asked, quieter.
"Perhaps," he replied. "If they were swift enough."
"Brynja was the swiftest of us," she said wearily.
Loki glanced in the direction of the village, past the river's bend.
"If they were unseen, they wouldn't have to be fleet-footed," he replied a moment later, looking away again. "There's some hope."
"Enough of hope," she snapped. "Who are you to speak? If you survive and return, no kin will cast you out for being a collaborator. You'll return to your life as it ever was."
When she stood, Loki tripped her so that she fell into the river.
She floundered back to rights with an infuriated noise, and then threw a bucketful of water at him. He dodged the bulk; she stormed back up onto the bank, armed with another.
A shout from the camp paused her. Eydis let the full bucket fall to her side a moment later; Loki glanced just enough over his shoulder to spot a dark-haired man moving away.
"Yours?" he asked.
Eydis turned her back to him. "Mine," she answered, in a low, loathing voice.
Loki studied her.
They made silent truce when another of the women arrived. She hastily filled the bucket she'd brought, then began trying to scrub a bloodstain from her robe. Loki recognized her from the previous afternoon, when he'd woken with his head on her leg.
The only blood on the robe seemed to be his own. Loki considered her for a moment--her fate he'd been uncertain of--before saying, "Well met?"
She startled slightly and looked up. "Sir. ...Yes." She swallowed, looked back down at the gown and resumed scrubbing. "I--well met." She glanced over at him. "...Yourself?"
"Well enough," Loki answered, for he lived.
When he crouched beside the water and started trying to fill his bucket left-handed, she abandoned her dress and came over. "Let me, sir."
Loki relinquished it, ignoring Eydis's snort as she wrung out her robe, and turned to see who now was storming their way.
It was Njal's brother, stomping down the path with buckets in tow. His scowl quite effectively precluded a conversation; if he'd wished to soon leave, though, the wrathful enthusiasm with which he went about trying to fill the pails worked against him. The woman set Loki's bucket beside him and then moved further upstream, away from the boy's splashing, to resume cleaning her dress.
Loki watched the ease with which he moved, with no seeming soreness or strain, and wondered briefly if he'd been taken simply as a bondservant.
He found he preferred the idea.
"Njalkin," he called, pushing up to his feet. "Come here."
The boy shot him a fierce look.
He had the arrogance to drag the bucket through the river again, more effectively this time because slower, before dropping it on the ground. "My name is Dagur Olafson."
"Mm," Loki replied. "Come here."
When he did, Loki carefully worked his arm out of the barbarian's sling. He took Dagur's wrist in his good hand and pulled the boy's arm taut before beginning to write upon it.
Sharp twinges ran though his shoulder as he did, making his hand shake. Loki knew that, were the runes visible, they would be crooked and ill-formed. He did not let himself scowl about the fact in front of the boy he'd rejected as an apprentice.
He dropped Dagur's arm when he was finished and looked upstream. "Woman."
When she came over, Loki took her arm as well and then asked, "What's your name?"
"Brynja," she answered.
He wrote out the same blessings for protection and good fortune on her as he had on Dagur, and then repeated the work for another woman who'd come to the river to fetch water. By then his hand had ceased to shake, so that the runes came out clean; his shoulder still ached, but no longer spasmed.
He kept the cleverness for himself.
Eydis held her arm out without a summons from him. Loki arched a brow briefly, but took it anyway. He wrote the same runes; and then he paused, and considered, and let go of her wrist and wrote further.
Eydis examined her forearm after he finished. Loki took a step back.
"So what is this?" she asked.
"Blessings," he answered. "Protection, good fortune," he said, with a nod to the others; and then he looked back to her. "And in your case, more: whomever you touch will find their death-blow dealt soon." He smiled. "Handle your captor well."
They stared at him.
Eydis held her arm away from herself. "...Is this a jest?"
"No," he replied, smile gone.
She looked at him with betrayal and disbelief. ". . . So you have killed me."
"You are safe," Loki replied. "A knife cannot cut itself."
Eydis fisted a hand in her robe. She swung the wet cloth out, slapping him hard in the leg with it, and then snatched up her bucket and stormed back to the camp.
She passed two women and a boy as she went. Loki traced the runes onto those three as well while Njal's brother and the other women left, and then had Unna help him return his arm to the sling. When it was retied, he retrieved his bucket and returned to the invader's tent.
That left three uncounted: the last boy, another woman, and the girl who'd wailed last night.
As he was washing his face, shouting broke out. Loki caught Dagur's voice raging against one of the invaders.
He dried off with the edge of his wrap, and went out to see why the fool boy was seeking death so enthusiastically.
Thor paused the council when the shouting began.
As he stood, he saw the scribe stride out of his tent. Thor motioned for Fandral to follow him and crossed the camp to the source of the conflict.
It was past their boundary line, inside the woods. Thor tracked the noise and discovered a temple woman struggling to hold back a boy who was yelling at one of his men. Hermod was burying another girl.
Ahead of him, the scribe paused at the sight; but when the boy shoved free of the woman, he moved forward.
The scribe grabbed the boy before he could reach Hermod. The boy swung around, lashing out reflexively, and Thor watched with interest as the scribe dodged the blow. The boy caught himself and gestured with angry words at the girl's grave, half-covered in dirt. The scribe hissed something.
"Get close enough to hear, without drawing attention," Thor ordered lowly, and Fandral went. He watched the scribe turn the boy roughly and then grip his chin, forcing him to look at the woman. She was rubbing her cheek where the boy's arm had hit it when he'd escaped her grip.
The scribe spoke again, restrained and even. The boy gritted his teeth.
Thor moved around them, joining Hermod. "What happened?"
"She stabbed herself when I left to stand sentry," his man replied. "I went to bury her, and then that boy appeared."
Thor knew the man well enough, and did not ask if the girl had been abused to her death. He shifted the scroll in his hand and knelt beside the half-completed mound, trying to see what had caused the foreigner offense--but he found only a proper grave.
The boy snarled. When Thor looked over, he was gesturing at them again.
The scribe responded with condescension, and spoke at some length. Fandral was nearby, tending to the woman's face, so Thor stood; but he kept the two of them in the side of his vision.
Whatever the scribe had said, the boy replied with derision. The scribe answered back with contempt.
"Should I finish?" Hermod asked, glancing at the body.
When his man threw another handful of dirt on the girl, Thor noticed that all three of the foreigners tensed. He frowned.
The boy moved toward Hermod. The woman dashed past Fandral and grabbed his arm once more; the scribe snapped at him.
The boy stilled. He stood in place for several heartbeats, shaking in anger--but then he turned, snatched up a scattered handful of firewood, and left. The woman went after him.
Thor watched the scribe glance covertly at the grave before leaving as well. He wondered why the man's upper clothes were half-damp--and then Fandral returned to him.
"What offended so?" he asked.
Fandral shook his head. "The burial, but I didn't catch what exactly."
He made an aggravated noise, and started back to the camp. Fandral fell in step beside him.
"You've collected a snake, Thor," he remarked.
Fandral smiled wryly. "His way of speaking is difficult, but I'm fairly sure he advised the boy to wait until Kvasir trusts him, and then slit his tendons and rob him for the girl's blood-price."
Thor rubbed beneath the cut on the back of his neck and said "Hm."
Fandral shrugged. "The boy disapproved, but I shall warn Kvasir anyway."
"Good," Thor said. "Then rejoin me."
"Aye, chieftain," his man replied, and then shook his head. "That's why human goods are too much trouble."
"You say that now," Thor replied with a half-smile, "but you'd soon change your mind if you're caught sneaking around with the other men's bondwomen."
"I wouldn't know anything about that," Fandral replied with dignity.
"Aye," Thor drawled.
Fandral turned aside with a grin when they reentered the camp. Thor remained at the edge for longer, thinking. Then he tossed the scroll back to his weapon hand and went to get the scribe.
"I'm fine, sir," Unna replied.
Loki let his hand drop from her face. Dagur had already flung his firewood beside the pit and headed into the forest again, ignoring the scolding the stout man tending the area had called after him. "Have you seen the last two?" he asked.
"Who?" she requested, frowning faintly.
"The woman and boy who did not come to the river," Loki replied.
"Oh," she said. "Bergthora and Halgi?" When he nodded once, she shook her head. "No, I haven't."
Loki spotted the invader striding up to them from the corner of his eye. "See what news you can find," he ordered, and then the man arrived.
"Yes, sir," she answered, and quickly backed away.
The man spoke. Loki looked at him in response, waiting for something more useful.
The barbarian opened a scroll, and held it out. Loki took it and stared down at the parchment in distaste. It was ill-made, one corner patched over with glue, and had needed another scraping before being treated; it looked like the worst of Njal's early efforts at making vellum, fit only to be saved as scrap.
It was a warning of the invaders. One as poor as the parchment it was written on; there was no description of their numbers, their location, the strength of their men--just a summary of the temple's fall. He supposed it was no surprise: the handwriting was the head priest's, a man who'd been a talented skald; but his hands had grown weak with age, and admittedly, he'd had little time to write. He'd been the one who'd run into the temple with the warning of the coming raiders.
He'd passed the man's body when he'd sought concealment in the raid.
The invader turned away from him, looking to another man coming up; Loki picked idly at the glued patch on the vellum, then stilled when the corner peeled up to reveal drawings beneath.
Loki saw rough, stylized sketches of trees and the river, and then he pressed his thumb hard over the corner.
The invader spoke to the other man. Loki brought his thumb to his lip absently, as if considering what he was reading, and wetted it with his tongue; then he pressed it over the corner again, pinching the vellum hard and hoping it would last until they destroyed it.
"What does it say?" the other man asked, and Loki looked up sharply over the edge of the parchment.
It was the man from the forest. He'd been flitting over Unna while Loki argued with Dagur.
He'd been within hearing range.
The man gestured to the vellum. "I am Fandral. Do you understand me?"
"Your words are distinguishable through your accent," Loki replied. "Barely."
The man pulled the corner of his mouth back in a dry smile. "What does it say?"
"Where did you get this?" Loki responded.
The man considered him, and then made a small gesture. "From a man on the road. But what does it say, scribe?"
"A warning," Loki replied, and rolled the paper back up from the bottom, to better conceal the corner. "That the temple fell to your ilk. There's not much else; the man who wrote it had little information, and less time."
The man was silent for a while, presumably picking through and translating Loki's words to himself. At last, he spoke to the invader, and then turned to him again. "Are you the writer?"
"No," Loki said. "You've already slain him."
The man added to his report. The barbarian looked at him briefly; Loki stared back without emotion. Then he looked back to the man, asking something.
"What is the 'much else'?" the man repeated.
Loki shrugged his good shoulder. "A warning that foreigners were coming up the road. A statement that the temple would delay them. A plea for swift aid. Nothing besides."
When the man stood silent again, Loki asked, "Should I use smaller words?"
"Would you?" the man drawled, with a doubting tone and a wry eyebrow; and Loki's mouth twitched in a faint smirk.
The man related his answer to the barbarian, who nodded. He took the scroll back from Loki's hand, but did not open it; and Loki hoped to himself that it would be tossed in the fire with little more attention.
"Where on the road?" he asked.
"Why?" the man replied.
"Why do you think," Loki said, disdainfully.
The man looked at him for a moment, and then said, "The road to the town."
Loki pressed his lips together briefly before catching hold of himself. He turned to the side. "Am I needed for aught else here?"
The man gave him an exasperated glance, before turning to the barbarian and relating his question in whatever butchered translation he was creating. The barbarian shook his head once, and then spoke to his fellow raider.
"No," the man told him. He pointed to the trees beside the river. "Get wood for the fire."
Loki left without response.
He found Dagur, Unna, and two more women taking rocks from the river as they hunted for brushwood, and learned from Unna that the remaining woman and boy were bound up in their captors' tents but yet lived. Loki joined his kith in their tasks; by midday, there was more than enough wood to satisfy the raider in charge of the rations, and they'd gathered enough stones to lay a cairn over the girl.
It was some time past midday when the raiders ran out of tasks for him. Three had returned from a hunt, bringing two stags with them; the man in charge of provisions set the women to aiding him skin and clean the meat, the boys to tending the fire. One-handed, Loki had been unsuited for either duty, and returned to the barbarian's tent instead.
Once inside, he'd pulled his arm free of the sling and begun gingerly stretching his shoulder, trying to bend away the stiffness. He'd managed to bring it out straight before him when the raider stormed into the tent.
Loki startled and looked over in surprise; the invader hauled him to his feet by his good arm and dragged him outside.
He shoved him to his knees not two steps beyond the tent, gripping the back of his neck harshly. Loki hissed when a stone dug into his shin, and then the man who spoke their language crouched beside him, holding out the scroll. The patch had been peeled away to reveal the map.
"Why did not you tell me about this?" the man asked.
Loki tilted his chin as far up as the barbarian's grip allowed, and sneered. "Is treason so common among your kind that you expect it in everyone else?"
The barbarian muttered. The man answered; Loki assumed he was striping away scorn in his translation, because the barbarian's grip didn't tighten further. They exchanged words.
"When did this leave the temple?" the man asked.
"What does it matter," Loki replied, grinning, "unless you lied about where on the road you took it?"
Fandral looked at him in disbelief. "Do not you fear death?"
Loki did not deign to respond. At the edge of his vision, he saw Dagur stabbing into the firepit with a long stick, trying not to show that he was staring at the three of them.
Short-sighted boy, he thought, and shook his head; as if he could defeat a camp of warriors with a burnt stick.
"What does it say in truth?" the man asked, holding the vellum out again.
"I've already told you," Loki replied.
"Is it the truth?" the man demanded.
He pulled his grin back further on one side, showing teeth. "If you doubt me," Loki suggested, "then learn to read as well as speak."
The man looked at him another moment, then pressed a thumb against the bridge of his nose. He spoke to the barbarian, who answered in clipped tones; as they held a brief discussion, Loki caught Dagur's eye and jerked his head once.
The boy scowled at the fire, but at last dropped the stick into it. A second standing beside him handed over another bundle from the pile of kindling.
Fandral turned aside and asked the other temple residents if they could read the scroll, but all answered nay. Loki knew Unna was lying--she had been born to the temple's smith, producing at least a rudimentary familiarity with the runes--but he stared at the ground and did not let his face betray this.
The third boy, Halgi--the one still locked away by his captor--had been an acolyte of the high priest. Loki had had little dealings with him; acolyte duties had rarely brought the boy to his own territory of the scriptorium. But he knew it was a position which demanded runic knowledge.
But the invader did not go to ask him.
When the man turned back from the central firepit and gave a hopeless gesture, the barbarian jerked him to his feet.
Loki clenched his jaw as he was turned roughly and shoved back inside the tent. The barbarian pointed at him and gave an order--that same phrase, a third time, he noted with studious detachment--and then jerked the tent flap closed. Loki heard him bark other commands outside, before the sound of his voice faded.
Loki stood in the dim light of the tent and thought that no, he would not wait. He turned to the bedding.
Last night, after the barbarian had jerked the knife from the ground and extinguished the light, he had almost immediately settled beside him. Loki had not seen the knife when he awoke, nor heard a clatter of metal in the dark to suggest the barbarian had hidden it among his spoils. There was a chance he'd taken it with him when he left, or removed it after he'd sent Loki out to work; but he would not know without searching.
Loki flung the bedding aside. At first glance he thought his suspicions proven, that it had indeed been removed at some earlier point--but then he spotted a patch of loose dirt.
The blade was covered over with it, while a loose stone sat beside the hilt. Even had Loki lain on this side of the bedding, he might not have noticed, had he not suspected.
He wondered what was wrong with these people that they were so absurdly trusting, and then picked it up and went to the back of the tent. Loki listened for the sound of a sentry on the other side; when he heard nothing, he gripped the bottom edge of the skin and began to saw with his left hand.
He cut a gash in the tent as high as his waist, heart pounding all the while--at any moment the barbarian could return, another raider could pass by outside--and then paused and held the flaps shut as he listened again.
Still nothing. Loki pushed his way out and found a sword leveled at his neck.
He slashed the man's thigh.
The sword jerked away briefly and Loki darted to his feet, slamming a hand against the man's mouth before he could shout for aid. He choked down a groan at the spasm of pain it caused in his shoulder, and stabbed at the man's throat.
When he fell, Loki took off into the treeline.
He was not far into the forest when the undergrowth began to tear at him. Loki pulled up his wrap and draped it around his right hand and arm as he forced his way through; the knife did little good against anything thicker than bramble.
He made his way northward toward the road, but then stopped when it came into sight and turned back slightly into the woods again. If the invaders rode up that way, he did not want to be seen.
He could do little about being tracked through the forest, given the trail of fabric and blood he was leaving in his wake; but if he had enough of a start, he might yet make it to the village.
He'd travelled a fair distance without sound of pursuit when he came to one of the streams feeding into the river. Loki bent down for a drink, then nearly pitched in when his vision went black along the edges.
He braced a hand in the mud and held himself steady until it cleared, and stared at the water.
He was weary. He'd slept ill; he'd had but little to break his fast, and not much more the evening before. He was not unaccustomed to hard work, having made all the vellum for the temple before taking on an apprentice; but he was unaccustomed to it on an empty stomach, driven by anger and panic and a pounding heart.
If he did not rest soon, he would fall--and they would find him.
Loki drank carefully from the stream, then returned to his feet and looked about. He spotted a tree with a low branch a brief distance away, and went to it.
It was at a reasonable height to permit climbing, and sufficiently sturdy-looking above to offer concealment; but as soon as he tried to pull himself up, pain lanced through his shoulder sharp enough to make him let go. Loki gritted his teeth and tried again, bracing most of the weight on his good arm--but like before, as soon as he moved to pull himself higher with his right hand, his shoulder refused to bear it.
Loki dropped to the ground once more and slammed a fist against the tree trunk.
That did little but make his good hand ache, so he took a deep breath and gathered himself. Then he began examining the undergrowth.
Thor had caught the man's trail shortly after entering the woods. It was so obvious he suspected yet more deception--but he found no signs of a second, more hidden path, so he remained on it.
Then he crossed the stream and lost it.
He walked the area and waded up- and downstream, looking for signs of where the scribe might have exited. The sky was edging to dusk when he returned to his starting point.
Thor glared upward, and then looked in the direction of his camp.
He had to turn back soon, either to the camp or the road. He would be at a disadvantage if he let night catch him while he was still in the forest. And this land was known for wolves.
But if he turned back, he might lose all chance of catching the scribe.
He paced the ground once more in agitation, searching for a clue. Any trace of the scribe's path would do. He did not fear the man reaching the next homestead--Sif's scouts had it well surrounded, and she would have laid precautions after the first warning got through. They could recapture him.
But Thor wanted to lay hands on him first.
He stopped beside a tree and exhaled through his teeth.
He could not afford to give in to pride. He could not stay in the woods until dark; he could not abandon his men to chase a chance to assuage his wounded ego. The scribe would run to the homestead, and Sif and her men would run him to ground before he reached it. The result was what mattered.
He scowled once more, and then lifted his chin. Thor turned, preparing to go back to the camp--and then he noticed the tree.
He moved closer to the trunk and confirmed that the dark streak he'd spotted was blood. When he looked over the rest of it, he found more streaks on one of the low branches. There was nothing higher up.
Thor took a step back, and thought.
His arm was still injured--he'd been unable to climb. If he'd sought shelter this soon into his run, he'd been desperate for it: he had to know they'd soon discover his absence.
If he could not find concealment above, he would search below.
Thor stepped away from the tree, turned back toward the camp, and stalked heavily in that direction.
When he'd gone a fair distance he returned to the stream, moving slow and careful across the ground. He stopped at the water's edge and studied the surrounding undergrowth, searching for an area that looked unnatural.
He had to cross the stream before he found it. His efforts to move silently had taken enough time that the scribe had been lulled.
Thor watched the man emerge from the shelter of brambles, nettles, and leaves that he'd built. The scribe wrapped his injured arm in his over-clothes before tugging his robe free from a thorn; and then he saw Thor.
As he stared at the man, a part of him admired his tenacity. The scribe was a far cry now from the first time he'd seen him in the temple: his clothes were ripped, his feet muddy, his hair mussed with nettles, and his skin bloodied with dozens of nicks from running through the forest. And yet he still lifted a knife, as if he were armored or stood a chance of defeating him. A part of Thor could not help respecting that.
The rest of him was furious.
"You have injured one of my men," he said lowly, laying his palm on the hilt of his hammer as he took a step forward. "You have pulled me away from the rest of them, when I should be holding war council."
He saw the scribe glance about him, gauging escape routes. Thor lengthened his strides.
"You ignore your place," he added, feeling the words grow more guttural as his anger rose. "You've risked the lives of my men by lying. You act without honor."
The scribe turned and fled.
Thor took off after him. The chase was hard but brief: the man ran through the forest without concern for the undergrowth, but his sheer ferocity worked against him--his sandals did not have the strength of Thor's boots, and the cloth of his robe caught more easily in the twigs and thorns than Thor's armor and fur.
When he was nearly in arm's reach, the scribe spun around and lashed out at him with the knife. Thor dove into the attack, blocking his wrist with a forearm. He used his momentum to drive the man backwards and slam him against a tree. When he gasped, Thor grabbed his arm and twisted hard.
The scribe didn't release the knife. Thor could feel his arm shaking beneath his grip as he struggled to retain his hold on it. He grabbed the man's throat and slammed his head against the trunk.
The man grunted, and then tried to knee him in the groin. Thor ground his heel down on the arch of his foot and jammed his thigh against the inside of his other knee, preventing a second attack. Then he slammed the scribe's head against the tree again, harder.
The scribe finally lost his grip on the knife. When it fell from his fingers, Thor jerked his arm back to an awkward angle and pinned it against the trunk. The scribe tried to kick him again, but found no traction to do so. Thor released his clutch on the man's throat just long enough to grip his chin.
He jerked the scribe's head to the side and sank his teeth into the joint of his neck, over the previous wound. The man made a choking noise and jerked against him, and then dug his free but injured hand into his arm. Thor pressed down harder on his arm and foot.
The man clawed at him until he finally had to drop his arm with a strangled cry. When he at last went still against him, shaking with suppressed violence, Thor pulled back.
He spat blood to the side, and glared at the man.
"You degrade your kin," he growled. "You degrade yourself. I have won you by rights--why do you ignore this?!"
The scribe's eyes were shut against the pain, but he pulled his lips back in a sneer at Thor's words.
A shudder of fury ran up his spine. He jerked backwards, pulling the man with him, and then turned and shoved him away. The scribe sprawled out on the ground.
Thor watched him scramble to his feet, and thought of pushing him down again. He could twist a hand in that dark hair, press him back into the grass, and take him here. No matter how much the scribe fought, Thor was a match for him. A man without honor didn't deserve to be treated with it--maybe this would be what it took for him to acknowledge that he was defeated, that he had had his chance to be the victor between them and had lost.
Thor had not thought himself that kind of man; but he'd never before felt such wrath toward someone who wasn't an enemy he could end.
The scribe glared at him, panting, as he backed away. When Thor strode forward he moved faster; but his backward pace served him ill in the dim light. Before he could turn to run, a half-buried root caught his heel. The man threw out a hand instinctively to catch his balance and jarred his injured arm against the trunk.
When he grimaced and clutched his shoulder, Thor closed the space between them. He grabbed a handful of the scribe's hair and knotted it between his fingers, ignoring the sting of nettles against his palm, and jerked the man around.
Thor shoved him forward. "Go," he snarled, and pushed the man again.
The scribe stumbled once, hissed when the act yanked his hair in Thor's grip, and then began walking. Thor used their trail to direct him back to the stream, and then on to the camp.
They arrived at the camp at nightfall. They weren't yet within reach of the firelight when one of his men ran up. "Chieftain!"
"What?" Thor growled.
The sentry stopped a fair distance from him, and Thor reminded himself to save his anger for where it was deserved. "Two more have escaped. A woman and a boy. They're already being sought."
"Good," he said, and looked at the central fire. His men seemed to have grouped the rest of the captives around it. "Any other news?"
"Nothing yet from Lady Sif, chieftain. Your tent's been stitched up."
He finally released his grip on the scribe's hair, and nodded at his man. "Return to your post."
He turned to the scribe, about to order him to join the other captives, and found the man staring at them. He was smiling faintly.
Thor looked back at the fire and saw one of the women holding up two fingers and gesturing at the woods.
He shoved the man over to his tent and inside. Thor bound his hands behind him again--barely remembering not to strain the man's shoulder too much, and barely caring after he did--and then pushed him to a sitting position on the grass.
"Stay here," he ordered, and stormed out.
He took the long way around the fire, not wanting to get too close to others in his current state. Thor strode through the camp until he found a log one of the men had dredged over from the forest. It was outside of the edge of the firelight; he sank down on it.
He drug a hand over his face a few heartbeats later, and then pressed them both against his thighs when they continued to shake with anger. Thor exhaled once, and then again, slower, and wished Sif were there.
He didn't look up when Volstagg sat down beside him.
"Here," his man said, holding out a slat with slices of meat on it. "A bit too cool, but still good."
"I don't hunger," Thor replied, pushing his arm away.
"It'll give you something to do with your hands besides throttle him," Volstagg said, and Thor had to laugh hollowly.
He took the plate a moment later. "Thank you."
"Always, chieftain." Volstagg handed over his horn, filled with mead, and then looked at the tent. "I'm surprised you brought him back."
"We need him," Thor muttered. "Fandral can't read their scrawl."
"We need him, if he reads it," Volstagg replied.
He made an aggrieved noise in the back of his throat and bit off a chunk of the venison.
"Well," Volstagg said, and clapped him on the shoulder as he stood. "There's no one else yet, so you're right, Thor. But take care when you sleep. That's the sort of prize that chooses its own master."
He made another noise through the mouthful. Volstagg took his leave and went to feed two men who'd just returned.
Thor wolfed down the meat, hungry now that he'd begun eating--but he paused when he noticed a temple woman speaking with one of his men.
The man gestured for her to stand and followed her to a nearby tent. Thor watched with suspicion as she went around the corner. The man stood guard beside it.
When she returned, he ceased his scrutiny and swallowed the last mouthful of venison. Thor dropped the empty slat and stood, of a mind to receive the returned men's report on the missing captives--and then he sensed movement beside his tent. He glared over, expecting to see the scribe.
But it was only the woman, walking past the opening and adjusting her gown. Thor watched as she tugged on her belt once more, and then slipped her hand free and threw a piece of oatcake inside.
The woman returned to the group of captives without further incident. She wasn't the same one who'd told the scribe through gestures that two more had escaped.
Thor looked back at the tent and drained the mead slowly.
He remained that way for a while before finally joining his returned men.
It was deeper into night when Thor broke the council, sending some of his men to rest and others to resume their turns at sentry duty. He returned to his tent by lamplight.
He found the scribe sleeping on the ground with his head on the fur. The man jerked awake at the sound of Thor's footfalls, but made no further movement. He stared out the tent's entrance instead.
Thor pulled the cord so that the flap fell behind him. The scribe's eyes closed briefly; but then he opened them again, still looking beyond Thor to some unseen distance.
"Your kith escaped," Thor told him. He set the oil lamp down and began to pick at a nettle in his palm he'd been ignoring. "But they won't make it to the homestead. They'll run afoul of my other men before then. All this has done is bring harm to yourself and them, and aggravation to their masters. They won't thank you for it in the end."
The scribe was looking at him finally, with that condescending gaze. Thor ceased trying to converse with someone who could not understand now that he had the man's attention. He dragged a hand through his hair, pulling it back from his eyes, and then picked up the water bucket.
He dropped it beside the scribe. "Wash," he ordered.
The man eyed him. But he'd apparently not yet forgotten their last fight, for he soon began to move. He used his elbow to push up to a sitting position with some difficulty; Thor waited.
When the man shifted to rise to his feet, Thor went behind him. The scribe stilled as he unbound his wrists.
"Wash," he repeated, and sat down on the bed. The scribe gave him a wary look from the side of his gaze and shifted farther away before beginning to rinse his arms.
The man hissed once at the sting of water on the half-healed wound on his neck. Then he tensed his jaw and made no further sound. Thor watched him in silence.
He twisted a hand over one of his vambraces as he did, and considered removing them and his boots. And yet it would be wasted effort--he had only a short time to rest before he needed to rouse himself and take his turn at sentry duty.
And he did not trust the scribe enough to sleep in the same space with him unarmored.
Thor waited as the man washed off the flecked blood and caked mud of his attempted escape, as he moved his injured arm with care and scowled at the punctured leather of his sandal's thin sole. The desire for sleep seeped into his marrow as he did; but Thor waited.
Eventually the man began picking nettles out of his hair. He knew the scribe was stalling at that point, and said, "What should I do with you?"
The man paused, but did not look over.
Thor began to tap a thumb against the back of his hand. "You are deceitful," he continued. "You have brought harm with your words and your deeds. You seem bound by no code I know." He shook his head. "I begin to think Fandral was right, you are a snake. What will it take to make you swear to an oath of no harm? What would make you heed it?"
The scribe looked at him in aggravation when he ended on those questions. A moment later he pressed a hand to his ear, and then pulled it away again, fingers outspread in clear mockery.
"I don't know if you're brave or mad," Thor said, and pushed to his feet.
The sound of a horse made him look to the side.
Thor frowned as it drew closer. Someone was riding hard--but the sentry line wasn't moving to stop them.
He left the tent and found Sif drawing her steed up short beside the fire.
She jumped off before it had fully stilled. One of his men grabbed the reins.
"What happened?" Thor demanded, willing his weariness to slough away. Something was ill to bring her back alone, and in such hurry.
"Treachery," Sif answered, pulling off her helmet. She held out a strip of bark. "I don't what kind."
Thor took the bark and found more of the foreigners' writing on it. Sif continued.
"We caught the two runaways," she said. "The boy wrote this, but I don't know if he finished it before he died."
"What?" he replied.
Sif shook her head, and then pressed the heel of her hand to the bridge of her nose. Thor was sure she'd been awake as long as him and waited for her to start the report from the beginning.
"They slipped through our lines," she told him. "We found the way and blocked it when they fled again. They were shot down."
"You should have brought them back," he said. "They were still men's property. And Fandral can speak with them."
Sif shook her head again. "No, Thor. They were shot by their own people."
She pulled the broken shaft of an arrow from the belt of her armor. "They were shot from the walls when they headed back to us. We moved back. They didn't aim for us, Thor. Only those two." When he took the arrow, Sif added, "The woman died there. The boy lived for a while, long enough to write that, but I couldn't get him back here in time."
Thor looked at the arrow and the bark, and then turned to Thjalfi. "Bring Fandral."
"Yes, chieftain," his bondservant replied. He handed the reins to Sif and left.
Thor caught her shoulder when she started to mount the horse again. "No, rest here."
She shook her head. "I should get back--"
Thor cupped the side of her neck. "Sif. Quench your thirst. Rest your eyes. My captive is a scribe," he added. "When Fandral translates what this says, then go. You'll do more good with the knowledge."
She exhaled, and then nodded once. "Aye."
"I set your tent over there," he pointed. "There's water inside. There's mead and wine there," he added, gesturing to the stock beside the fire.
"Just water," she replied. "Until this is done."
He patted her shoulder and then pushed her toward the tent. "Rest. I'll bring you the news."
"Thank you," Sif said quietly, and went. She tethered her horse to one of the tent's pegs before going inside.
Thor looked down at the bark and the broken arrow once more, and scowled.
He retrieved the scribe from his tent, dragging him up to the firepit. Thjalfi had found Fandral by then. From the state of his hair, Thor guessed he'd tracked the man down in a tent other than his own. But Fandral strode up without his usual ribbing at the interruption. His face was solemn.
"The Lady Sif returned?" Fandral asked.
He nodded and quickly related the situation. "Something is ill with that homestead. Tell him to read this," Thor ordered, holding the bark out to the scribe.
He belatedly realized the man's arms were still bound behind him. Thor gave the bark to Fandral instead and untied them. "Tell him someone within there killed those two," he added as he did.
Fandral made a low noise and then spoke to the scribe.
"Lies," Loki replied, annoyed that they thought he would fall for such a simple trick. His head still ached, but the barbarian had hardly knocked all sense from it. He rubbed his shoulder gingerly as Fandral made a frustrated sound and related his response.
The barbarian growled. If that actually meant anything in their language, Fandral expanded it further.
"I do not lie," he said. "A man of ours came with the news. They were--" he paused, frowned, and then made a gesture as if drawing and releasing an arrow from a bow "--from a man of yours."
"Lies," Loki repeated.
The man took a broken arrow shaft from the barbarian's hand and held it out. "She came with this."
Loki blinked when the firelight caught the white feathers of the fletching, and the grooves beneath it painted blue.
He made his face go blank a breath later, and shrugged his good shoulder. "You were shot at when you came too close to the walls," he said casually. "And now you try to use his laxness in a flimsy deception."
"You know this," Fandral said in surprise. He let the hand holding the arrow fall to his side, then stepped closer and held out the peel of bark. "You know I say truth. Read this. Give your word you will say it in truth."
"No," Loki sneered, lifting his chin. "I will not give my word to your kind. It's worth more than that."
The man made an aggravated gesture with the hand holding the arrow. Loki did not take the lure to look at Byleist's weapon a second time, and the invader soon tried to plead his case once more.
"The boy wrote it. It was important." He held out the bark peel again. "Give your word."
"No," he answered.
Fandral dropped his hand and spoke to the barbarian. The man stared at him with a narrowed look; Loki ignored him. He instead forced his expression to become impassive once more, unwilling to let the rising tension he felt, the sharp bite of nerves below his shoulder blades, show itself in his stance.
It had been senseless, he realized in hindsight, to give in to pride. He would have been better served pretending to be cowed after his failure to escape, pretending to be willing to read the note. They would not know if what he said was true or not, and it would have given him an edge over them.
Loki resisted the urge to press a hand to his head. Perhaps more sense had been knocked from it than he'd thought. He should have known better. He should have thought.
The three of them stood there in silence as the fire crackled against the night. Then, after some time, the barbarian turned and spoke to his fellow.
The other man frowned, asking something; the barbarian jerked his chin slightly toward the forest and repeated some of his words. The man shrugged with a resigned comment, and looked back at Loki. He stood for several breaths, seemingly sorting out his translation, before he spoke.
"Swear on the life of the girl who died, that you will read this and say it in truth," Fandral told him. "If her life was worthless, do not swear."
Loki jerked back.
A breath later, he glared at the barbarian. The man met his gaze, waiting.
"She was worth more than you," Loki ground out.
"No, if you do not swear," Fandral replied.
Had the fire been two steps closer, Loki would have reached into it and lashed out with the burning kindling.
He did not like being gotten the better of.
". . . I swear," Loki said poisonously, thinking of the blood that had stained the temple's floors from all those who'd died, and the dirt thrown over the body of one of the threadbare remnants of the kith who'd lived past that hour. "I swear to read it in truth, and I swear your lives will be the worse for it." He snatched the bark from the man's hand.
The writing was terrible, put down in a dark and flaking ink. Loki realized that Njal must have been teaching his brother runes in his spare moments, and that Dagur must have written the warning in his own blood, at the same time. He strode past the raiders to the fire. The barbarian moved toward him, but paused when Loki only turned to let the light fall on the birch so he could better see. He skimmed over the message once, half his mind occupied with errors in the formation despite everything; then he read it a second time, much more carefully.
When a spasm of pain shot up his injured arm, Loki realized he was clenching his fist.
He released it, twitching his fingers for a few moments before ceasing that motion as well, and stared blankly at the bark.
"What does it say?" Fandral asked.
"...Lord Farbauti wishes no more bloodshed," Loki answered, keeping his voice low so that the others still being guarded nearby would not overhear too much. "He wishes you to remove your men from around his village, and depart. As incentive, you may keep everything you despoiled from the temple, and no act of restoration or revenge will be committed against you. He will be sending a small party tomorrow to settle the terms."
The raider had raised both brows. "Is that true?"
"I have expanded on some of the choppy wording," Loki said; "the essence is true."
The man turned to relate the news to the barbarian. Loki shifted his grip on the bark and asked, "Where are their bodies?"
"I was not told," the man answered. "But if they died, she would throw dirt on them."
Loki didn't bite back his sneer in time. The raider gave him an odd look, and then asked, "What do you do for the dead?"
"We cover them in stones," he answered.
"Ahhhh," the man murmured, and then spoke further to the barbarian, who said something quietly in response.
"No insult was meant," the man told him.
Loki rolled a shoulder. "They are dead either way."
The man gave him another look at that, but then shrugged and added, "What is the ransom for the captives?"
"You may keep everything," Loki repeated, without inflection.
Fandral paused, and then turned further toward him. Loki looked to the fire instead. A few heartbeats later, he heard him convey the rest of the news.
As the invaders spoke to each other, Loki saw Eydis staring at him from the other side of the firepit, gesturing behind her for another woman to hold silent. He had not noticed her in the group earlier; her seat was nearer than any of the others' had been.
Loki glanced back down at the bark and started to throw it into the flames, then recalled that might give away that there were others who could read among them. He dropped it to the ground instead. When neither of the men looked at him, he slowly moved back, toward the others.
"What is happening?" Eydis demanded when he came round the fire.
"A falsehood," Loki replied, meaning his next statement and knowing his words would be misconstrued. "Dagur and Brynja were shot down by their men trying to enter the village. The invaders thought to use that in a deception to have another message translated."
"So we are not abandoned?" another woman asked.
"Hush," Loki replied. "The one man understands our words." He looked at Eydis. "Where are Halgi and Bergthora?"
"In their tents," she answered after a long pause, still giving him a sharp look. "I think their captors decided to leave them because they couldn't be a threat."
"But they live?"
"For now," she said.
"Flatter the cook into giving you two horns of mead," Loki said to the group in general, not caring which did so. "And some food. Then bring them to Halgi's tent later."
"When?" Unna asked.
"When you hear laughter," Loki answered, and turned back to the two raiders.
They still conversed. Loki paused at what he deemed a proper distance, and waited. He stared at the fire again as he did.
He had assumed if he went into the village with a warning, with news, with the location and number of the raiders, it would counter his appearance within the walls. He had assumed that if he were bringing Farbauti necessary information, the man would not harm him for having left the temple's grounds. He had assumed the hatred had simmered out over the years; Byleist spoke to him as a fellow man when he visited the temple, Helblindi did not insult him to his face in its halls.
He had assumed, like a fool.
Loki rested a hand over the crook of his elbow, where the runes lay, and thought to himself that good fortune took twisting paths.
"If a party is coming to settle terms tomorrow, Lady Sif must know," Fandral added. "Or someone else needs to ride out and warn the others."
"Aye," Thor agreed reluctantly. "I would have a plan laid before then, but I don't want to rouse the men from their beds again."
"You had no problem doing so with me," Fandral pointed out.
"I said 'their' beds," he deadpanned, and Fandral made a masterful effort to hold a straight face.
"Too little sleep leads to clouded thoughts," Thor added with a frown, and began tapping the arrow shaft absently against his palm. "That seems especially dangerous in this place."
He brought the arrow down one last time and then stared at it. "Farbauti seeks an end to bloodshed, but kills two of his own to stop them bringing that very news? And why would they flee back to us to tell it in the first place? Especially if a negotiation party is coming tomorrow?" He shook his head. "No."
"That assumes he translated it truthfully," Fandral replied. He rolled his shoulders and stretched. "I don't know how much store I put in his word."
"I trust him on this," Thor said, because he doubted that the look of fury and betrayal on the man's face before he'd caught himself could be false.
Fandral made a doubtful expression, but did not argue.
He tossed the arrow aside. "Volstagg is still awake. Hogun would have sentry duty with me soon enough," Thor added, glancing up at the stars. "Go wake him."
"Always an enjoyable task," Fandral muttered.
"Join us at Sif's tent," he ordered, turning to find Volstagg.
He paused at the sight of the scribe. Thor had noticed him moving toward the other captives and assumed he would stay there as long as he was permitted. "What is it?"
Before Fandral could translate, the man dropped his hand from his elbow and spoke.
"He wishes to see the other two captives," Fandral conveyed. "The ones that aren't eating."
Thor shook his head. "I want you with us."
The scribe said something quietly.
"'Please,'" Fandral related.
Thor gave the scribe a long look. The man met his eyes, though he could not determine the expression in them--the fire was at his back, shadowing his face.
"Very well," Thor finally answered. "I'll wake Hogun. Join us when he finishes."
The council was mercifully brief. Thor sent Volstagg to wake Hogun and roused Sif before they arrived. He barely finished relating his concerns about Farbauti's actions before Volstagg interrupted.
"The situation seems simple enough," he said. "We came here as your men, Thor. Do you want us to attack or to move on?"
He chuckled once, and clasped Volstagg's shoulder for a moment before releasing it.
"I would hear Farbauti's explanation," he said at last. "I would not flee in the night, based on a few foreigner's words. But I don't like this place," he finished, slower. "There are hidden things here. I had not heard that Farbauti was a coward, and this is a craven act." He scowled past the tent's wall, in the direction of the homestead. "I feel we're being used for something."
Volstagg shrugged his shoulders. "We're restocked on freshwater, and we can eat the meat first. The river is long; the coastline is vast."
"The homestead is decently fortified," Sif said, "but hardly the richest we've ever come across." She reached for her helmet. "I'll have my men pull back and loosen our circle, to let the party through tomorrow."
"Skirnir will object," Hogun said. "Incessantly."
It was the closest to disapproval to his plans. But Thor knew his man would have spoken his mind if he disagreed whole-heartedly. Hogun enjoyed battle, not manipulation.
"Not out loud this time, I think," Volstagg replied with a grin. "Unless he's somehow forgotten the blow from the last time."
"Frey must see to his own thralls," Thor answered. "We'll see what course the day takes. Sif, create a path for Farbauti tomorrow. Hogun, relate the news to the men awake, then take your post. I'll catch the rest after I alert Fandral."
"And I?" Volstagg asked, rising to his feet with the others.
"Rest," Thor replied. "You've done your turn this night."
He found Fandral standing outside a nearby tent with another man. Thor raised his brows when he heard low laughter within.
When he glanced inside, he saw the scribe and the boy sitting. The scribe was speaking cheerily, gesturing with one hand while the other held a mostly-full horn of mead. A second, empty horn lay by the boy's feet, and he was chewing on a slab of oatcake in his hand. The scribe said something that caused the boy to snort with laughter again. When he doubled over, coughing on a piece of the cake, the scribe glimpsed him at the opening of the tent.
His face immediately changed. The smile disappeared and his eyes hardened. He jerked his head once, gesturing for Thor to leave--and then the boy straightened up, and the scribe's half-grin was back as if he'd never dropped it.
Thor stepped back from the entrance, brow drawn.
"What happened?" he asked Fandral.
"He's been telling stories," his man replied. "Old tales, the like. I don't understand most of the phrases, but I recognize names." He frowned and rested a hand on his hip. "One of the women brought the mead. He mimicked a toast, as if part of the tale, and got the boy to drink." Fandral snorted. "On an empty stomach. It went straight to his head. All he's had to do after that is put food in his hand and keep him laughing."
"Clever," Thor said, impressed.
"Cunning," Fandral replied, with less appreciation. "It was a trick."
"It served," the third man pointed out. "Haymaking season is coming, and I need more workers. If guile makes him eat, so be it."
The boy was his, so that settled the matter. Thor relayed his decision about tomorrow to them both and then told Fandral to rest.
"There's the other one," his man warned. "He hasn't spoken to her yet."
"What's the worst he can say?" Thor asked. "He'd be a fool to continue instigating rebellion now, and they'd be fools to listen. It would only bring more harm to them all."
"...Aye," Fandral agreed. "Very well, chieftain."
Thor had him tell the scribe to leave the boy if he wished to speak to the woman and then sent him off. When the scribe exited, still holding the filled horn, Thor led him to the next tent.
He stood beside the opening instead of following inside. He assumed the woman would be easier to win back to living if she only spoke with her kind, and wasn't loomed over by a stranger.
Thor was slowly working out where these peoples' sense of honor ran afoul of his own. If three preferred death, and another three had courted it, rather than accept life as bondservants--that was a pride to be considered. It was almost akin to a warrior's.
They had treated the warriors within the temple with respect, and let them fight to their death. Perhaps even the maidens and priests had expected the same regard? Normally when he joined with Frey's men for war-faring, they retrieved more human store than this--considering it now, it was odd.
But most of those times had been before Skirnir and his kin had joined Frey's household. The previous time he and Frey sailed out, they had also come away with much in goods but little in people.
He rubbed the heel of his palm against his eye, and then dropped his arm and his musings. He had sought out only warriors in the first strike of the battle, and had spent much of the remainder in the hall with the scribe. He would have to wait until they sailed and the men began telling tales of their deeds to learn how the rest of the temple's residents had fought. There was no point in wondering until then.
Thor frowned as the voices inside the tent grew sharper.
It had sounded before like the two were arguing--but the scribe was now speaking over her, and his tone had grown bullying.
When he heard sobbing, Thor stepped inside.
The scribe was crouched a fair distance away from the woman, and she seemed unharmed. She'd pulled up her legs and hidden her face against her knees, but he saw no marks.
The scribe ignored his arrival and spoke again to the woman in an even tone. Thor stood at the entrance as she slowly drew in breaths until her weeping ceased.
When she wiped her face on her gown and then lifted her head, the scribe handed her the horn. After a hesitation she took it and drank.
Her eyes fell on him as she did so. A breath later, she closed them and turned her face away. Thor regretted not having Fandral with him; he disliked the steely look in her gaze. He disliked not knowing what the scribe had said to create it.
A mistake to learn from. He should not underestimate the man, or leave him alone with his fellow captives for too long. Regardless of whatever vows Farbauti had--supposedly--made.
The scribe handed her the last of the oatcake he had with him. When she took it and began to eat, Thor ordered and gestured for him to stand.
The scribe walked slowly back to Thor's tent, but it seemed genuine weariness rather than obstinacy. He recalled that the man had been underfed today, even including what had been snuck to him after he'd dragged him back to the camp.
Recalling the evening's events reminded Thor that the man deserved an empty stomach.
And yet, he did not like how still the scribe stood when he bound his hands again--for once the man did not test the strength of the bonds, even reflexively. He made no sound when Thor pushed his good shoulder toward the bed and told him to sleep.
Thor left the tent in frustration. He attempted to quash it by visiting Oleg's to see how he was recovering from the wounds the scribe had given him.
The man was still feverish, but bleeding little. Thor left him with words of encouragement for his health, and went to find Gunnar among the sentry line.
"Your bondwoman is eating again," he told Frey's man.
"At last," Gunnar said.
Thor thought of the look in her eyes over the rim of the horn, and added, "Take care. These are a prideful lot."
The other man smiled with half his mouth. "Thank you, but I am not afraid of one woman."
"Very well," he said, and went to take his place in the line.
The third shift of sentries took up their duty some time before dawn, and Thor returned to his tent. He'd left the flap open; in the firelight that spilled in, he saw the scribe sitting on the ground. He had not tried to mask his footsteps, and the man blinked rapidly and straightened at his arrival. He turned his head partway toward Thor but stopped short of looking at him.
Thor paused for a moment, wondering if this was a new trick.
But the man neither moved nor spoke. Thor watched him for a few more breaths, and then stepped over.
The scribe had been toying with some stones while he waited: before him lay a circle of rocks with a twig upright in the center. Thor looked at the oddity and wondered briefly what it was. Then he recalled seeing something similar but human-sized outside the temple, and let the thought slide.
It was well that the scribe had not been asleep. He had plans--and come dawn there would be too much for him to oversee. Now was the best time.
Thor undid the scribe's bonds and handed him a piece of salted meat he'd taken from the rack Volstagg had arranged. "Eat."
The man did so, and swallowed the lees of the wineskin as well, while Thor drank the horn of mead he'd brought with him and then dropped it by the opening. When the scribe finished, Thor waited for him to stretch out his shoulder. Then he bound his arms behind him once more before pushing him to the bed.
The man sat down, and then moved further back at his gesture. Thor unloosed his hammer from his belt and set it deliberately in the center of the bed before sitting on his own side. He ran a hand over one his vambraces and again tried to determine if it was worth undoing them if the scribe was going to be more docile. They were unpleasant to sleep in, but not impossible--especially the way he currently felt.
He was surprised when the man spoke.
The tone was low and polite enough, but one glance at his face made it clear that was false. The scribe sneered when he looked at him, and spoke more; Thor did not have to know his words to understand the scorn in them.
Despite his weariness, a frisson of anger ran up his spine.
He did not like to have his gifts rejected. He did not tolerate being spoken down to--least of all by a servant. Thor clenched a hand in the fur as he imagined reaching over and shaking sense into the scribe.
His knuckles brushed the head of his hammer as he did. Thor held still for a moment, and growled in frustration. The scribe hunched his shoulders at the sound but also bared his teeth.
Thor stared at him for several heartbeats. Then he shook his head.
"You exhaust me," he muttered, dropping back onto the fur. "Sleep now, scribe. Explain in the morning how you've been offended this time." When the man didn't move, he looked over. "Sleep," he ordered, and then added the word he'd heard the other captives calling him. Maybe the sound of his name would startle him into behaving.
The man's eyes widened.
A moment later, he spoke carefully. Thor frowned, and then guessed that the man wanted him to repeat himself. He did so.
In the dim light, he saw the scribe's mouth curl back in a faint grin.
Thor suspected he had been wrong: the word was not his name. He was certain he was being mocked again when the man snickered under his breath.
But a moment later the scribe lay down on his side. Thor glared--but the man said nothing else.
After several breaths, he told himself it did not matter. If he'd given the scribe cause to ridicule him, he'd also gotten him to lie down and cease his scornful tongue. That was well enough. He was weary.
Even with the hammer in reach, with the scribe's arms bound behind him there was little he could do other than put a knee in his throat. He felt confident he would not sleep through that.
So Thor closed his eyes and let himself at last rest.
Dawn was still approaching when shouting arose in the camp. Thor rolled off the bed onto his feet and snatched his hammer as he strode out of the tent.
The argument lay between Fandral and one of Frey's men. Frey's man was shouting; Fandral was trying cheerily to calm him.
Thor took in the familiar sight and assumed Fandral had not made it out of the other man's tent in time.
Frey confirmed it when he came over a moment later. "Hreidmar claims your man has damaged one of his goods."
Thor doubted 'damage' was the right term, but only said "Ah.
"The suit can be brought up at the next Assembly," he added, hooking his hammer to his belt. "We have greater concerns right now."
Hreidmar drew his sword, and both men looked over.
Fandral had stepped back and now rested his sword-hand on his hilt.
"Hreidmar," Frey said sharply. "We're in a foreign land. Bring it before the judges at the next gathering."
"I will not wait," Frey's man scorned. He glared at Fandral. "For too long we've been expected to ignore this seducer, all because you turn a blind eye to him in friendship with Thor. I've had enough."
Frey lifted his chin. Fandral raised an eyebrow, even as his smile sharpened and his hand tightened on the hilt.
Thor blew his breath out through his teeth.
"I do not challenge your right to a suit of seduction," Thor said, making a half-hearted effort to keep the annoyance from his voice. Behind him, he heard the scribe slip out of the tent. "Nor will Fandral," he added, with a brief glare at his man. Fandral did not observe it; his eyes remained on Hreidmar. "But this is not the time. If you choose a fight over a suit, it must wait until after the meeting with Farbauti."
"I am no thrall of yours, easterling," Hreidmar said bitterly. "I see no reason to follow orders from someone whose men have no honor."
Thor laid his hand on his hammer.
"Well," Fandral said diplomatically, and drew his sword. "Let us call the matter settled when one of us bears a wound? I would prefer a fight to another stand in the quarter court."
"Make it short," he said roughly.
As Fandral and Eydis's captor began to strike blows at each other, Loki moved along the circle of tents until he reached the one Eydis stood at the entrance of.
"Will they kill each other?" she asked lowly.
"A temple maiden shouldn't question the power of the runes," Loki replied.
She didn't respond. Eydis glanced at his bound arms and instinctively moved to release them; then she caught herself and pulled her hands away. A moment later, she reached up and began to fix her hair, repairing the braid that had come loose when Hreidmar wrenched it.
They watched Fandral parry and block the other man's strikes for a time, and then Loki felt someone undoing his bonds. He glanced over his shoulder to see Unna unwinding the strap.
"Stop that," Loki said. "You'll get in trouble."
"It looks painful," she replied, and continued to undo it. "I can at least make it looser."
Loki blew his breath out through his teeth, but couldn't deny that that would be preferable.
When it was off, Eydis held a hand out to the other woman. "Give it to me," she ordered, "and step back so no one thinks you loosed it."
Unna hesitated. "I could just retie it," she offered. "You're already in trouble."
"If anyone wishes to punish me, they'll have to touch me at some point, won't they?" Eydis responded. Beside her, Loki smiled briefly.
Unna bit her lip but let the strap drop into the other woman's palm, keeping her own hand a safe distance above. Eydis half-tucked it into her belt.
He stretched his arm carefully as Fandral slashed at the other man, his sword scraping armor. He forced down the grimace the action brought; his shoulder ached. The run and the fight yesterday had done it no favors, and since then his arm had almost always been bound behind him, in a twisted angle that at the best of times only caused a low throb. One of the scabs on the bite mark ripped as he rolled his shoulder, and he tightened his jaw.
Loki had begun to suspect the barbarian was trying to destroy his ability to write. He served a decent enough purpose being able to read; to ruin his arm would prevent him from laying any more curses. Indeed, the man would have to be a fool to do otherwise.
Loki supposed he would have to plead for a cessation to that, again. Soon, before the damage could not be repaired.
He loathed the thought; but he would do himself no good by refusing to plan it. To suffer humiliation remained better than to lose the capacity to write.
"Your arm?" Eydis asked, as Fandral parried another swing.
"Healing," Loki replied, for he still would accept no other possibility.
"And aid from the village?"
Loki eyed at her from the side of his vision and said, "Coming."
Eydis gave him a narrow look, but then glanced at Unna and said nothing.
Fandral dodged another blow from Eydis's captor, stepping backward to do so, and ran up against a cask of mead set near the firepit. He stumbled, and the other man lunged in, cutting a deep gouge in his arm.
Fandral responded reflexively as he righted himself and stabbed the man in the chest.
He sank to the ground and did not move again. As the other invaders went over to examine him, Loki smiled for much longer. Eydis covered her mouth with a hand and laughed behind it.
Fandral stuck his sword in the ground and leaned on the hilt. Blood ran down his arm. "I'm sorry, chieftain."
Thor rose from his crouch by the body, cursing the ill-timing. "We must bury him."
"Aye," Fandral said. He straightened and started to pull his sword from the ground.
"No," Thor told him, "you'll take too long to do it like this. Have your arm seen to. You'll be needed when Farbauti arrives."
"My men will handle the burial," Frey said, standing as well. "He chose a battle over a suit, even if the rules weren't kept."
"What of the blood-price?" Thor asked as Fandral left.
"We'll settle it afterwards, or his kin can take it up at the next Assembly," Frey answered. "There are greater matters to see to now."
Dawn broke. One of Sif's men arrived as two of Frey's were moving Hreidmar's body to the edge of the forest: a party of six had left the walls of the homestead. Sif had sent her fastest rider with the news, so there remained time before their arrival.
Thor sent a few men up toward the road to keep an eye for the riders and went to check on Fandral.
He was sitting in Hogun's tent. The temple woman who was the cause of the problem was holding a wet rag to his arm as Hogun sliced a cloth for bandages.
"Farbauti and his men are coming," he warned.
Fandral straightened some. "I'll be ready soon."
Hogun nodded once in confirmation and ripped the last cloth strip free. Thor noticed the leather strap half-dangling from the woman's belt and frowned.
His fingers brushed her arm as he took it. The woman glanced at him through her lashes, but did not speak or move except to readjust the rag. She was the same one who'd alerted the scribe to the other runaways.
Thor considered her for another breath and then left.
He found the scribe in his own tent. The woman helping him put on his sling startled when Thor entered and then half-hid behind the other man; she was the same one who'd thrown him food the other night. The scribe finished adjusting the sling on his own, watching him from the corner of his gaze.
Thor studied them, and then told and gestured for the woman to leave. She hesitated.
The scribe said something quietly to her and she left, skirting as far around Thor as the tent allowed. The scribe stood where he was, waiting.
"How is your arm?" Thor asked, picking up his fur wrap.
The scribe looked at him.
"Arm," he repeated, pointing to his shoulder.
The other man answered. Thor did not understand it, and supposed he should have expected as much.
He exhaled in frustration, fastened the wrap and went over to check himself.
The swelling remained, and seemed slightly worse. Pain flickered across the scribe's face as Thor carefully prodded his shoulder.
It occurred to Thor that in his aggravation, he'd likely been binding the arm wrong. It should have started to heal by now. He would have to either let it remain in the sling as Hogun had said and find another way to ensure the scribe's obedience, or else resign himself to the man having only a half-use as a reader.
"Is it bruised?" he asked, unable to see in the dim light. Then he recalled the pointlessness of that.
Thor pulled the scribe outside and toward the firepit. The scribe's over-clothes were trapped by the sling, and Thor had to tug until it was rucked up enough to be pulled down. He didn't bother repeating the act with the strap of his robe and just pushed it aside.
He saw little bruising on the man's arm aside from some along the healing bite mark, but a large one had formed around the cut on his temple. Thor frowned and turned the scribe's closer to the fire, trying to assess the damage.
In the corner of his vision, he caught a flash of motion beyond the treeline.
Thor moved aside instinctively, pulling the scribe with him, just as the twang of a bow came from the forest. The arrow sailed past, hitting the ground behind them.
"Ambush!" Thor bellowed, running for his tent and dragging the scribe with him. "They're in the woods!"
Men began to group and run to the treeline. Thor shoved the scribe into the tent, snatched up his shield, and joined them.
The barbarian tore back outside with further shouts, the noise echoing among the rest of the raiders as they charged toward the attack. Loki stood in the center of the tent, angry that his hands were shaking but unable to make them stop.
It had been Byleist among the trees.
He'd recognized the arrow; it had struck the ground so close to Loki that its white fletching, its blue grooves were impossible to miss. Loki had never understood why the man wasted good paint meant for runes on mere arrows.
It was not the barbarian he'd aimed at.
Loki fisted a hand in his robe and stared at the gold and metals piled in one corner of the tent, recalling how just two days ago he'd considered them desecrated. He had not thought farther than that.
The temple had been defiled. Its halls were smeared with blood, its storerooms plundered, its smithy robbed, its statues broken and its sacred swans turned to a meal for its ruiners. Even here, in the woods that were part of its grounds, where a ration of any fowl or beast hunted had to be apportioned to the temple and its residents--even here the invaders had made their base.
The temple had been desecrated; and so those consecrated to it had lost its protection.
Nothing shielded him from Farbauti anymore.
The realization seeped into him like a chill in the blood, and as Loki worked out the implications, untangled all the possible paths open to him now, he slowly loosed his hand and let it rest at his side.
In the end, he forced himself to laugh.
Loki moved to the opening of the tent, then hesitated just shy of exiting. But the sounds of battle were distant, muffled by the forest; and if Byleist wished to shoot him down, he had only to walk up to the entrance. The knife was long gone, and there was nothing in here to shield himself with--and with only one opening, the tent concealed three ways of approach from his eyes. It was no safer in here than it was outside.
It was not safe for him anywhere in this place, anymore; so no one spot was more dangerous than another.
Loki left the tent and retrieved the arrow, then rooted through the provisions until he found one of the knives used to clean the meat yesterday. He tucked it into his sling, hidden from sight, and made his way into the forest, listening sharply all the while.
Frey had sent his men along the river, so Thor had his move toward the road. A second group from each went through the center of the woods, with Thor among them. He and two more men followed the trampled undergrowth, hunting one of the riders. Sif's man had been sent back so that if any of Farbauti's eluded them, they would be blocked by her group before reaching the homestead.
The sun had breached the sky and light was filtering through the leaves when they found the rider's horse tethered to a tree. Thor had just begun to examine the ground for a foot-trail when the man beside him was shot through the neck.
He immediately dropped to a crouch and brought up his shield. The second man did the same, but an arrow pierced him through the eye before his shield was fully raised.
Thor shifted back beside the tree, behind the horse, to give himself more concealment. He cursed archers for yet another time in his life, and tried to spot the man through the trees and the undergrowth.
He saw nothing. After a brief wait, Thor looked at the horse's tether. The knot was up and to the side--but not too far. He might be able to undo it without being hit.
He waited longer, listening for any sound of the archer circling around behind him. All he heard was noise in the distance: possibly one of his or Frey's men. Possibly the rider or one of his fellows.
Thor straightened with care, keeping the shield against his chest and throat, and transferred his hammer to his shield-hand. He reached for the tether.
It was nearly untied when an arrow lodged in the trunk, grazing his hand and drawing blood. The horse reared and tried to break loose; Thor had to dodge behind the tree to avoid being struck by its hooves.
The sound of running came from his right as the archer circled around to his position. Thor slid back around the tree swiftly, wrenched the knot loose and seized the horse's reins.
The steed was still bucking. Thor grabbed his hammer with the hand holding the reins and tried to steady its head with his shield-hand. The gesture lifted his shield away from his body.
An arrow cut through the gap, slicing into his chest above the armor.
Thor grunted and jerked his shield back down in time to block a second arrow. The horse ran off.
He crouched with his back against the tree, ignoring the pain that brought, and kept the shield up high enough that he could just barely see over it.
A voice shouted foreigner's words. Thor didn't answer.
Several heartbeats later, the archer moved into view. He looked strangely familiar, but Thor didn't waste time considering it: the man had another arrow notched and half-drawn. When he spoke again, it sounded like a question.
Thor glanced at the bodies near him. Both had been killed with one shot in quick succession--yet the archer had spent three on him. The one that hit had pierced through his side, but outside the ribs and close to the edge.
The archer asked his question again and then drew the arrow back further. Thor shifted his grip on his hammer and tightened his jaw, readying to throw it despite the wound.
Another foreigner called out. The archer turned his head to the side but didn't look away from Thor.
The scribe pushed his way past a tangle of brambles. Thor blinked when the archer shifted around to keep the two of them in easy visibility, and then pulled his bow away from Thor and turned it on the other man.
The scribe stopped moving. A breath later, he smiled humorlessly and lifted his free arm. He was holding an arrow loosely in it.
His tone was no warmer than his smile when he spoke, though something in it seemed almost amused. Thor used the archer's distraction to readjust his grip on the hammer.
The archer replied. Thor frowned--he had his weapon set on one of his own people, but there was no anger or hatred in his voice. It only bore pleasant resignation.
The scribe closed his eyes and lowered his head, shaking it slightly. A faint smile remained on his lips.
Then he lifted his chin and the smile disappeared. He spoke again and pointed at Thor.
The archer seemed surprised and glanced at him. Thor quickly pulled his hand in behind the shield, but he'd already been spotted. The archer--apparently now realizing a warrior was a greater threat than an unarmed scribe--trained his bow back on him.
The scribe spoke more insistently.
The archer glanced at him briefly and asked a question.
The scribe's next words were vicious. He gestured to his sling, and then pressed his hand over the wound on his neck. He looked at Thor with loathing.
Then he faced the archer and spoke again, coldly.
The archer turned his head enough to scrutinize his fellow man. His mouth pulled back, and his next words were said in a tone half-mean, half-amused. The scribe drew a deep breath and expelled it.
A moment later, he half-smiled and spoke a word. The archer blinked. The scribe gestured to his bow, then his own chest, spoke more, and finally indicated Thor. His last words ended with a question.
The archer studied him for another moment, and finally laughed.
He lowered the bow. Thor watched the two of them carefully as the archer grinned and repeated the word the scribe had spoken. He jerked his head toward Thor with a cheery statement and dropped the arrow back in his quiver.
The scribe looked at Thor and then down at himself. He gave the archer a wry look matched by his tone when he spoke again. The archer responded, pointing at the area of Thor's hammer.
The scribe considered him, but then shook his head and touched his sling. He spoke and asked another question.
The archer huffed and brought his bow back up with a muttered comment. When he reached for his quiver, the scribe stepped over. He spoke and held out the arrow in his hand, the fletching facing the archer.
The archer shrugged a shoulder and took it. As he lowered the bow and notched the arrow, the scribe drew a knife from his sling and stabbed him in the throat.
The archer lashed out and sent the scribe crashing to the side, even as he sank down. He clutched at his throat for a few breaths before collapsing.
When he lay unmoving on the grass, the scribe pushed himself onto his knees. Thor stared at him.
The other man was gazing at the archer's body with wide eyes, chest heaving as he breathed fast and shallow. He did not move.
Thor watched him warily, and waited.
At last he shifted, keeping his movements slow. The scribe jerked and turned toward him. Thor paused.
The scribe looked back at the body. Then he closed his eyes and drew in a breath, before letting it out again in a long shudder.
Thor tightened his grip on the hammer when the man pushed to his feet. The scribe glanced at him once more.
"Stay here chieftain," he said.
Then he slid the knife inside his sling and went off to the right. Thor gaped as he left.
The scribe had barely gone out of sight before shouting loudly in his tongue. Thor cursed to himself, snapped the arrow's shaft in half and cursed more.
He'd pulled it out by the time the scribe reappeared with another foreigner. Thor grabbed the handle of his hammer and pushed to his feet as the scribe pointed at him and then the archer's body. The second man lifted his sword and strode forward.
The scribe stabbed him as soon as his back was turned. The foreigner jerked around and slashed at him; the scribe dodged it and threw the knife, catching the man in the throat.
Thor was still wrestling with the meaning of all this when he spotted another archer further within the trees. His bow was drawn and aimed at the scribe.
Thor threw the hammer at him. It struck the foreigner in the face and drove him backwards to the ground. The scribe twisted around to stare.
When Thor moved, the scribe looked at him. Thor kept a sharp eye on the other man as he crossed over to the second archer and retrieved his hammer.
While he wiped it on the grass, the scribe wrenched his knife free from the other man's throat.
He caught Thor's eye before deliberately sliding it back into his sling; and then he let his hand fall to his side.
Thor considered him. Then he glanced at his own chest, where blood ran from the arrow wound. He cocked an ear to the forest, listening for the sounds of men.
Thor looked back at the scribe and jerked his chin in the direction they'd both come from.
"Camp," he ordered. "Go."
The scribe studied him for several heartbeats before he turned and left.
Thor half did not expect to see him again, unless it was lifeless on the grass somewhere with an arrow in him.
He ceased trying to grasp the situation that had played out before him in an unknown tongue for unfathomed reasons. Instead he turned his mind back to a task he could understand: finding more of his men and completing the capture of Farbauti's.
The camp appeared deserted when Loki returned. He thought to himself it was foolish for the raiders to not have left even a contingent guard--and that it was foolish of Farbauti not to have sent out a second force, or to have his riders break into two groups and have one come around the long way in a flanking maneuver, until he recalled Farbauti had abandoned the temple's residents to conceal his true intention--and set to looking for the others.
He found them gathered inside Eydis's tent. The high priest's acolyte was standing just inside the entrance, holding a thick branch; he nearly struck Loki as he entered. Under other circumstances Loki might have been pleased to see such a change in attitude brought about by his words.
"Sir!" Unna exclaimed. "What happened?"
Loki flexed his hand and felt his skin pull where the blood had begun to dry. "The lord's men and the barbarians are battling," he replied, since that seemed obvious enough. "I took advantage of it."
"Why did you come back?" Eydis demanded. "Shouldn't we flee?"
"Unwise," Loki answered.
She narrowed her eyes. "Then are we winning?"
He shrugged a shoulder. "We shall see."
Eydis's expression was still distrustful when she asked, "And who should we hope is the victor for us to count it 'winning'?"
Loki closed his eyes and tilted his head back, and then sat down and gave her an aggrieved, weary look. "Will you truly be happy if you know the answer?"
She glared down at him for a lengthy time, before finally seating herself as well, on the other side of the tent.
"Did Lord Farbauti give us over?" she asked quietly.
"Yes," Loki answered, and heard one of the others draw in a breath. He began collecting stones that lay in the nearby grass, gathering them up in his bloodied hand.
Eydis pulled her legs to her chest and wrapped her arms around them.
"What do you mean?" Bergthora insisted. "When was this?"
"When you were being no use to anyone and starving yourself," Loki snapped.
"This is a mean joke, sir," Unna said shakily. "You should stop."
He closed his eyes again and shook his head.
"What's happened?" Halgi asked, resting the branch on the ground.
"Dagur and Brynja reached the village and found that Farbauti intended to negotiate with the barbarians to spare it at the cost of the temple," Loki answered. "According to the raider that knows our tongue, they were killed by one of the lord's sons when they tried to escape and warn us that we have no aid coming."
"But . . . why?" Halgi asked, unsure. "He'll be cursed."
Loki opened his eyes and said, "He already is."
Bergthora sneered. "So why did you insist on our living?" she demanded. "Are you ingratiating yourself to them, now?"
"A corpse is no use to anyone," Loki answered icily. He began to set the rocks in a circle. "The village will not avenge the destruction of the temple. If the Charioteer has not struck them down himself by now, we must do the work for him."
She exhaled through her teeth; but then she lifted her chin and took a seat, smoothing her skirt over the grass.
Loki completed the circle. Halgi, who'd been watching, who knew the significance of the Domhring and was old enough to have already seen one person bound to the punishment pillar that stood within the temple's own ring, broke off a twig from the branch and held it out to him.
A smile flickered across Loki's face as he took it; he jabbed the twig into the center of the circle, completing the symbol of the inevitability of retribution, and then wiped his hand on the grass.
"Then...it's true?" Unna asked. "We won't be ransomed?"
"Not as far as the boy believed," Loki replied. "I have only his warning to go on."
He turned his forearm partly in its sling, feeling the blade shift as he did. "This may be your best chance," he continued, "if you wish to flee. Stay in the forest on the opposite side of the road until you reach the village. You'll either find welcome or your kinsmen will have to avenge you against the lord or one of his men, and word will spread how he mistreated the temple. Either way, you'll fulfill your responsibilities."
Loki looked over. "But I would recommend the less chance-ridden, more direct route to revenge."
Unna swallowed thickly, and then sank to the ground, a hand pressed over her mouth. Another woman laid an arm over her shoulders.
"You shouldn't have lied," Eydis muttered.
Loki, irked that he wasn't being thanked for giving them one last night of hopeful sleep, replied, "I did what I chose as best."
The tent settled into silence.
It was forenoon when the camp outside began to sound of life. It was soon clear from the laughter and talk that it was the raiders, returning, successful. Loki and Halgi stood at the opening of the tent, counting the arrivals.
"It can't be true," Halgi muttered, as the number steadily grew. "Maybe Lord Farbauti never came to the temple himself, but--that doesn't mean he'd allow it to be violated like this and not avenge it. It must have been a--a trick. A misunderstanding."
"You are young," Loki replied, "you don't know any better."
The boy glared at him; or perhaps he implored. "Lord Farbauti couldn't just betray us like this."
"Dagur thought the same thing," he said, and the boy did not respond to that.
Loki let the silence stand. He noted that the barbarian had returned, his chest and armor stained red with blood from his wound; but the attention Loki paid to him was brief. He kept his focus instead on the two warriors the raiders had dragged back with them, bloodied from fighting and bound up as prisoners, spoils along with the four horses captured. He did not know the second man.
The first was Helblindi.
Volstagg clapped him on the shoulder. "Looks like the Father-of-Armies decided he didn't want you yet!"
"Someday," Thor replied with a grin. "One day he'll greet me at Valhalla's door with mead in his own horn. But not today."
"Hold it steady," Hogun ordered as he bound up the wound. Thor obligingly adjusted his grip on the cloths soaking up his blood.
"What next?" Volstagg asked, settling down beside him.
"We leave," Thor replied, and his man looked surprised.
"After this treachery?" he asked.
"This was one deception following a previous," he said. "They're killing their own and us. I don't like it." He looked out at the camp, noticed the scribe carrying a bucket up from the river and felt pleased that he lived. "Sif said the village wasn't that rich; we can find better. We pack today and sail at dawn. Have someone take her the news. Where's Frey?"
"I'll find him," Volstagg said agreeably, and then reached out and clasped Thor's shoulder again.
"What?" he asked.
"I remembered when you were this high," his man said with a gesture, "and had no battle-sense and went off at the least provocation."
Thor started to punch his arm, realized he couldn't without letting go of the cloths, and scowled instead.
"You've grown," Volstagg said with a grin, and stood and left.
Hogun wound the cloth around another time, and then looked at him with a raised eyebrow. "You're growing," he conceded.
"Just bind it," Thor grumbled.
He watched the scribe move about for a while longer; but then Frey arrived, and Thor had to turn his mind to other matters.
Loki dropped the kindling beside the fire and said, "You're in a sorry state, warrior."
Helblindi did not deign to acknowledge him, but the other man scowled. A deep gouge along his forehead stained half his face with blood. "This is the thanks we get?"
"You wish to be thanked for failing?" Loki asked, and the man grumbled.
Loki left the matter there, and went and got the barbarian's horn from his tent. The cook was preoccupied, in a discussion with the barbarian and other raiders, so he took the opportunity to tap the cask of mead and brought the horn back to the men.
"A thanks for trying," he said, and offered it to the second warrior. The man snorted, but did not turn it down; as his arms were bound behind him, Loki held the horn for him to drink and watched Helblindi in the side of his vision.
The cook had returned to his post by the time he finished, so Loki sent Unna to attempt speaking with him long enough to distract him and then drew a second measure.
"No," Helblindi said when it was offered to him. Loki had expected that answer, but the act forced the man to finally address him.
The second warrior gave him an odd look. When Helblindi said nothing besides, the other man lifted his shoulders as much as his bindings allowed and said, "I'll take his share."
When he'd drained the horn, Loki let it drop to his side, concealing it from the direction he'd last noticed the barbarian. "Be wary what you say," he told them. "The blond, bearded man with the bound arm knows some of our language." He indicated Fandral, and then drew his hand back. "I'll get leave for you to bathe your wounds."
"No," Helblindi repeated.
The second warrior looked at him strangely again. Loki made a mock-surprised face.
"Are you so bloodthirsty you even desire to wear it?" he queried.
Helblindi shot him the briefest of glares.
"I am not saying you should lay aside your pride because you were captured, warrior," Loki told him. "But perhaps choose better ways to hold it. How, exactly, is washing a battle-wound shameful?"
"Are you asking for an explanation because you're no fighter?" Helblindi retorted.
"A lord's son should look it," Loki replied evenly. "It ill-suits a man of ranking to stand filthier than a pack of barbarians."
Helblindi stared at him for a long while. Loki gazed back at him with an expression of mild annoyance, waiting, knowing that the other man was trying to decide whether Loki knew nothing of Farbauti's deeds.
Eventually Helblindi tilted his chin up and turned away. "Get leave," he ordered, without looking at him.
The second man exhaled. Loki had presumed he was unwilling to speak his opinion when his superior was opposed; the man confirmed it now by saying, "Thanks."
"The effort was appreciated," he replied as he went. "We were beginning to think we were abandoned."
Loki tossed the horn back into the barbarian's tent before seeking out Fandral.
The man was packing up spoils inside his tent, and gave him an exasperated look at his appearance.
"The two warriors want to clean their wounds," Loki said, making an effort to speak simply. "They asked me to get leave." As Fandral straightened up from the pack he'd been filling, Loki added, "I can take them one alone at a time to the river. They can do little like that, injured and unarmed."
Fandral considered for a few breaths, and then nodded once.
"One each time," he agreed. "Do not undo their cords."
Loki nodded once and left, and noted to himself the ranking of the man; no mere translator would believe himself to have the authority to grant permissions like that.
When he reached the warriors again, he gestured for Helblindi to stand. He held out a hand when the other man started to as well.
"They would only give permission if you went individually, not together," Loki said.
"I expected better of your silver tongue," he said, rising to his feet, and Loki shrugged.
"I won this much through a man who half-grasps our language," he replied. "It's fair work. The river is down this path."
Helblindi started forward and then staggered when he put too much pressure on his wounded leg. He pulled his shoulder back when Loki reached out to help him. "I don't need help from a captured slave."
"Then you will lurch through the raiders' camp because you think it beneath you to be helped by one of the Charioteer's servants," Loki said shortly. "I hope you never have need to ask him for aid again."
"So be it," Helblindi muttered, and took another careful step forward. Loki walked beside him, arm in its sling and hand by his side, and led him to the river.
Frey shook his head again. "I don't want to head back so early in the season," he said. "This is a pretty poor gain we've had so far."
Thor exhaled. "Then we may have to part ways here," he replied. "I'm going to take my men southward before returning. There are more goods to gain this year," he insisted, "but not here."
Frey rested a hand on his knee and frowned. "This is unlike you."
"My instinct is not the quickest," Thor admitted, because the shame of the truth was one he had accepted. "So when it speaks to me I listen."
Frey tapped a thumb against his knee for a time. Then he nodded once.
"I'll sail out with you," Frey said. "The south is always profitable."
Thor grinned. "That's good to hear."
He spotted Fandral leaving his tent, thought of something, and called for the man.
"What of Hreidmar's woman?" he asked Frey, when his man had arrived.
Frey looked at Fandral. "Do you want her?"
He made a face. "I already have a servant to maintain my house," he said. "A second is another mouth to feed." He sat down on the end of the log and turned toward them. "Would the family want her?"
"I know his sons will take the goods," Frey answered. "I don't know about her."
"What about you?" Thor asked.
Frey shook his head. "If it were a man, I could use him in haymaking season. A woman, not so much."
Fandral sighed. "Well, his death was my act. If his sons don't want her, I'll take her on."
"Maybe not," Frey said, looking up at a nearby tree. "If we're sailing out tomorrow, we'll need a sacrifice. Since she's now unspoken for, she should do."
Thor nodded once. "Very well."
Frey left after that, to organize his men and begin loading his ship. Thor rubbed a hand over his face. "I'll need some strips of animal hide. Was it you who had those, or Volstagg?"
"Volstagg," Fandral answered. "I can get them; you should rest."
Thor made an amused face. "A small wound like this has not laid me low."
"'Sleep heals,'" his man replied, quoting a favorite line of Hogun and all other physicians Thor had ever dealt with. He waved it off.
"I'll have time enough to sleep on the ship," he replied. "I won't be able to row for a while."
Fandral shook his head, but didn't argue further. Instead, he rose to his feet. "As you wish, chieftain."
Thor rubbed his face again and then shifted around on the log. He glanced over the camp reflexively, checking the injuries to his men--light--and gauging the level of activity. He frowned when he saw one of the captured warriors missing.
"Where's the second?" he called.
Fandral paused and looked where he was pointing. "Oh. Farbauti's son?"
Thor raised a brow. "Is that who he is?"
"Aye," Fandral agreed. "That's what he said. They asked to clean their wounds. Hogun was busy and they seemed too injured to waste a guard on, so the scribe went with him."
Thor surged to his feet.
When he reached the riverbank, the warrior was lying still on the ground, a bloody stone in the grass beside him. The scribe was washing his hands in the river. He half-turned his head at their arrival, but didn't fully look over.
Thor grabbed Fandral's shoulder when his man moved toward the foreigner.
"Knife," he ordered. When the scribe looked at him, he crooked his arm to imitate the man's sling and then pointed at the ground.
The scribe considered him for a few heartbeats. Then he reached into the sling hanging loose around his neck and pulled out the knife. He set it down beside the rock and went back to rinsing his hands.
Satisfied that he was unarmed, Thor released Fandral, took the knife, and went to examine the body.
The stone had caved in the warrior's skull; but there was no stab wound that Thor could find. The stone itself looked like it came from the river, but aside from the blood it was dry. He wondered at that for a moment, because the scribe had not been out of sight that long--and then he remembered the man had been at the river earlier, fetching water. He could have pulled it out then. If he'd planned this so far ahead.
It was a mean way to kill a man, Thor thought with a glance at the scribe: to declare he wasn't even worthy of a blade.
Thor stuck the knife in his belt and called the man by whatever name the other captives used for him. The scribe looked over.
Thor pointed back down the path. "Camp," he ordered. "Go."
The scribe rose to his feet, shook water from his hands and went. Fandral stared as he left.
"What...?" his man asked, gesturing at the body.
"He killed two others in the forest," Thor said grimly, and Fandral blinked. "The one who shot me, and another that he called over afterward." He knelt beside the body again, looking once more at caved-in skull. It had been brutally done, especially considering the scribe's injured arm. "And the one who wounded me would have killed him, if he hadn't tricked him first."
"...Have we stumbled into a feud?" Fandral asked.
"Maybe," Thor replied, for that was the only conclusion that made sense. "Half of Farbauti's men came to where he was instead of retreating, and the one who wounded me deliberately kept me alive, asking some question. If it was the same archer, he saw us standing at the fire together."
"Wonderful," Fandral muttered.
Thor shook his head. "All the more reason to leave this place before they try again."
Fandral was silent for several heartbeats. Thor pushed to his feet and gave him a look.
"You could kill him," Fandral suggested. "No one will think less of you for it."
"They won't say it to my face," Thor replied. "That's not the same thing."
Fandral shrugged. "We won't think less. Others will forget in time, as long as we keep accumulating great deeds."
"Nn," Thor answered.
He looked at the body one last time, and then turned back toward the camp.
He found the scribe speaking to the remaining captured warrior. Thor went to him, grabbed a handful of the man's over-clothes, and dragged him away.
"You've killed enough," he said. "Consider your point made, whatever it is." He called for Fandral. "Tell him to go bury the body," Thor ordered with a gesture to the scribe when his man arrived.
As Fandral conveyed the orders, Thor looked at the remaining warrior and thought over the words the scribe had spoken in the forest.
When the scribe left, he turned to Fandral. "What does this mean?" he asked, and then repeated the word that the scribe and archer had used to each other.
Fandral frowned. "I should know that," he muttered. "It's one of their kin-words. Cousin or brother or nephew or something." He looked over his shoulder at the departing scribe. "I'll ask him."
Thor held up a hand. "No," he said. "It's not important."
Loki shoved Helblindi's corpse into the river and let it drift away.
Then he sat on the grass within the trees, out of sight of the raiders passing on their way to the ships further upstream. Loki watched them move, and thought and planned, until a reasonable time had passed and he could make his way back to the camp.
As he returned, he passed Eydis and the other boy gathering seeds among the trees.
The afternoon was spent in packing. Loki not only had to gather and bind up the stolen goods within the tent, he also had to search throughout the camp for things that were missing, because the barbarian had an arrogant habit of simply dropping items where he stood and assuming they would return to him as if by magic.
The man seemed preoccupied in packing up another tent, first by himself and then, the last time Loki went past, with a woman wearing armor. The final time Loki went through the camp, on a search for the raider's mead-horn after the man had walked off with it earlier, neither were there; Loki found him by the firepit, plaiting a cord from strips of animal hide.
He stared at the rope for a long moment.
The barbarian spoke, and Loki looked up at him. "Where is your horn?" he asked, and then made a drinking gesture to convey his question.
The man pointed to a cask. The cook was standing near it, mixing a vegetable porridge in a small pot; near the seeds Eydis and the boy had been gathering earlier Loki saw a small bag.
He shook his head. Loki pointed at the barbarian, then indicated the horn hanging from the cook's belt, and pointed at him once more before making the drinking gesture again.
The man made an acknowledging sound. He looked over to the right, frowned for a few breaths, and then gestured vaguely to half the camp with an unsure comment.
Loki gave him a look, then exhaled deliberately and turned to search the area again.
He left by walking close to the cook, and glanced in the bag as he passed. It held more seeds, but none he recognized.
Loki found the horn at last, and shoved it to the bottom of a satchel beneath the heavy gold ring that used to sit in the innermost chamber of the temple to be painted in the blood of sacrifices or those swearing oaths. The man had apparently made an effort to wipe the old bloodstains away, and Loki felt another frisson of anger run down his spine. To think a bastard member of an illiterate race could erase generations' worth of rituals so carelessly....
He swallowed it down until a time when it could better serve him, and looked over when someone paused at the entrance of the tent. Eydis stood there, one hand clutching the flap.
"What were those seeds for?" Loki demanded.
"I don't know," she answered in a too-bright voice. "But he told me to gather enough for one bowl. And now yours is making a noose."
"I saw," Loki said.
"These scum worship the hanged god," she continued. "You've heard rumors of how they leave towns. There's always a body in a tree before they sail."
"I've heard," Loki said.
"No one's given me anything to do," she added, clutching the flap tighter. "Everyone else is given orders and set to packing, but I'm left to stand idle and wait."
"Your captor is dead," Loki said, adjusting the strap of the bag. "There's no one to give you orders."
"Help me," Eydis hissed, voice cracking; then she glanced to the side and left. Loki continued tying up the satchel and was unsurprised when the barbarian entered a few moments later.
"If you want that horn again you can find it yourself this time," he said without looking up.
The man asked something. When Loki glanced over, he gestured for him to come near. Loki left the bag and obeyed.
The barbarian examined his shoulder again, and then tilted Loki's head to the side and studied the wound on his neck. Loki kept his face blank and stared out at the camp; the tents remained up within it, but much of the rest of the area was cleaned, stored away, carried out to the ships or waiting to be. It was clear they would be leaving soon.
He could only hope it would be before Farbauti sent another strike.
The barbarian released his chin, turned, and left. Loki, unsure what the purpose of that was, went back to packing.
The scribe had finished binding up his goods when Thor returned. He now stood in the center of the tent, tapping his fingers against his leg. Thor shifted the sliver of soap he carried to his other hand and examined the water bucket.
It looked clean enough to him, but Hogun always insisted on fresh water when treating wounds. Thor picked the bucket up and held it out to the scribe; when the man took it, he pointed to the river. "Go fetch more water."
He turned aside after that, and was examining the tent when he heard the scribe snap his fingers behind him.
Thor gave him a disbelieving look for the arrogance--but the man pointed to the bucket and said, "'Water'?"
A few breaths later he came over and touched the water. "Water." Thor pointed to the bucket itself, and said, "Bucket."
"'Bucket,'" the scribe muttered, giving it a look. Then he turned and left.
Thor watched him go, considering.
When he returned with fresh water, Thor had the man cleanse the bite mark on his neck with the soap. He did so with a scowl, but it seemed caused more by the wound than the soap. While he was still at it, one of Thor's men called him out with a question about the captured horses.
Thor settled with Frey over which ships to carry them on and returned to his tent to find the scribe had stripped to the waist and was washing himself.
The man tensed and paused when he entered. Thor considered him for a time, and then stood beside the opening and folded his arms.
After a long silence, the man eventually resumed his washing. He glanced occasionally at the entrance, or Thor, under half-lidded eyes as he did. Thor remained where he was and watched him.
It was the first time he'd seen so much of the scribe in good light, and Thor admired the sight. But he also noted the muscles that the man's loose robe and over-clothes concealed. Thor recalled how the scribe had reflexively dodged a blow beside the temple girl's grave the other day, even with his bound arm hampering his balance; and he thought again of the prowess with which the man had thrown a knife and killed a soldier in the forest that morning.
Thor had assumed the scribe was martially unskilled because of his absence of armor and the poor way he'd wielded a sword when they first met. He rested a hand on the handle of his hammer and reminded himself that a lack of aptitude with one weapon didn't mean a lack with all.
The scribe tensed again.
Thor drew his hand away and folded his arms once more. The scribe didn't relax.
The man rinsed off his chest and arms and wiped away the water with his palm before pulling his robe back up and on. Thor observed that he was moving his arm with slightly more ease than previously.
The scribe paused again, and then shifted away and pulled the hem of his robe up his legs. He stopped at his knees--Thor guessed more from distrust than modesty--and began washing his feet and calves. Thor admired that sight as well.
When the man had rinsed off and thrown his robe back over his legs, Thor sent him to fetch more water. Once he returned, Thor cleaned the wound in his side and then had the scribe help him rebind it with fresh cloths. The man stood at arms' length to do so, and held the pads in a way that touched Thor's skin as little as possible.
"You're excessively skittish," Thor commented as he tied the bandage, "considering I've got a wound pierced through my side."
He guessed the essence of his statement came through when the scribe answered. The man's response was dry and clearly cutting, and he shifted his bad shoulder faintly in what Thor thought was an indication of bite mark there.
He snorted. "You marked me thrice," Thor said, gesturing briefly to where the teeth marks the scribe had left on his forearm and shoulder had been, and to the cut on the back of his neck. "I have one to go before we're even."
The scribe gave him an aggravated look, though Thor wasn't sure whether it was his usual expression at words he didn't know or because he was learning enough of their language to have the gist of what he'd said. Thor tested his bindings to ensure they would hold, and then helped the scribe retie his sling. Then he sent the man to Volstagg to see if he could be any use to him--Thor doubted the scribe's arm was healed enough to help his men load the ship, even if he was moving it better.
By nightfall, the ships were packed. All that remained for the morning was tearing down and storing the tents and herding the horses on board. Thor had spent most of the day on sentry duty, trading off with others so they could be released to help with the loading. He settled down to the evening meal gladly.
He'd been unable to find his drinking horn among his things, and had gotten Fandral to order the scribe to retrieve it. As he waited, he watched Volstagg's efforts to coax Hredimar's former woman to eat the porridge prepared for her.
"Do you think she knows?" he asked.
Hogun glanced over his shoulder at the woman. "How?" he replied. "It wasn't one of the All-father's temples."
"She's had nothing else today, but keeps refusing to eat," Thor said, and thought of how the woman had been standing at the entrance of his tent earlier, speaking to the scribe inside and clenching the flap with white knuckles.
"Perhaps she thinks Volstagg is trying to woo her, and is afraid of being crushed," Fandral replied with a grin.
Thor and Hogun snorted. Sif shook her head with an upward glance.
The scribe brought over his horn, already filled. Thor took it and then raised an eyebrow when the man spoke.
Fandral looked over and said something with a half-bemused expression. When the scribe spoke again, his face darkened.
Fandral's response was terse. The scribe's answer was dry, and he gestured to Fandral's bandaged arm before pointing to the woods. Fandral narrowed his eyes.
"What is it?" Thor said.
"He says we should let the woman return to the homestead," his man answered. "Something about she's cursed--those who touch her die."
Thor started to make a disbelieving noise, and then paused and looked at the woman again.
She had a hand pressed to Volstagg's wrist, shaking her head in refusal as Volstagg waxed--exaggeratedly, and uselessly--about the deliciousness of the porridge.
Thor glanced around at the other captives in view, confirming what he'd absently noted previously: none freely came close to his or Frey's men unless required. The scribe himself acted as though willingly touching Thor would somehow leave him contaminated.
He'd assumed her actions were nothing but a difference in nature--even foreigners were not all alike. Thor thought back to that other night, trying to remember how the captives had been sitting the few times he'd passed by while setting up Sif's tent. He vaguely recalled they'd been bunched together; he hadn't seen anyone ostracized, seated far enough away to avoid the risk of touching others.
He had learned the man was a scribe after spotting him writing on his own skin when he thought Thor couldn't see him.
Thor took a drink of mead and then rested his arms on his thighs. "They had no fear of touching her when we first brought them back to camp. She sat among the others like any normal woman." He looked at the scribe. "If she wasn't cursed when she was brought from the temple, then when was she? And who laid it?"
Fandral translated. When he finished, the scribe met Thor's eyes and didn't speak.
Thor thought of the multiple attempts the scribe had made to escape or murder him and others: sly, sneak-handed tricks with hidden weapons and false words.
He drained the mead, and then dropped the horn beside his food and left the group.
Thor found the woman who'd previously thrown the scribe food and helped him with his sling among those who were filling casks with river water for the journey. He gestured for her to come with him until she put down her bucket and followed.
Thor led her back to the camp and up to where Volstagg and the woman to be sacrificed were still arguing--she was pushing away the bowl now, but Thor saw her palm was touching Volstagg's fingers. The scribe was still standing by the others, half-attentively arguing with Fandral. His eyes narrowed at Thor's return.
"Volstagg," Thor said. "Step back."
His man gave him an odd look, but did so. Thor laid a hand against the second woman's back and shoved her at the first.
The first woman threw herself backwards, stumbling over a pile of kindling in her effort to move away quickly. The second woman managed to catch herself in time and escaped unscathed, darting out of Thor's reach with a panicked sound. Around them, the other foreigners froze.
The cursed woman had brought her arms up to her chest, hands balled into fists and pressed against herself. She'd acted instinctively; she didn't want to touch her own kind.
He glanced at the scribe from the side of his vision and saw the man had taken a step forward before stopping himself. Fandral had his sword partially drawn; Hogun was resting his palm on the butt of his mace.
Thor looked around the camp and noted that all of the temple folk within sight had paused. The news had spread among them beneath his guard.
The cursed woman looked about as well, and Thor saw her gaze catch on the scribe before she jerked her head away. Thor watched her shudder once before gritting her jaw. She lifted her chin and pulled her shoulders back, and gestured for him to come closer.
Thor studied her for several moments.
"Sif," he called without looking over, "lend me your spear."
The woman paled when Sif collected it from her tent and handed it to him. Thor herded her carefully toward the forest, making sure she didn't get too close to any of his men, and then called for Thjalfi to fetch a torch and catch up to him.
"Come with me," he told Fandral as he passed by, and then jerked his shoulder at the scribe. "Bring him with you."
Fandral drew his sword the remainder of the way out and ordered the scribe curtly to move.
The raiders remained a safe distance behind as they pushed them into the forest. When Loki glanced over his shoulder, he could see the tip of the spear a handspan from Eydis's back, glinting the light from the torch the youngest man carried. He walked in the rear, so the barbarian's face was cast in shadow, unreadable; Fandral's sword remained in his hand. Loki looked forward again, and saw that they were traveling parallel to the road to the village, separated from it by a few lengths of trees and undergrowth. No one spoke.
It was Eydis who broke the silence at last, voice almost inaudible in the night.
"I'm glad I refused to eat," she muttered. "The thought of sharing a grave with you would make me retch."
"I could have done better in terms of death partners myself," Loki replied.
"Clearly not," she rejoined bitterly. "What has all your supposed cleverness and silver tongue and nastiness done but get you outwitted by barbarous scum and left to be a sacrifice to the hanged god of all--"
Her voice cracked. She swallowed hard, but it still shook as she went on. "Defilement after defilement." Eydis swallowed again, and whispered, "Why hasn't the Charioteer revenged us?"
Loki was silent.
"Maybe he doesn't know yet," he finally said. "If he's away battling the frost giants, he wouldn't have learned of this."
"He's supposed to come when his name is called."
"By gods," Loki replied. "Not men."
He glanced back at the spear again, and thought that even their deaths would come at the end of the hanged god's preferred weapon. She was right; defilement after defilement.
Loki closed his eyes and then glared forward again. "He'll return in time," he said. "When he does and learns the news, there'll be no shelter they'll find from the coming storm."
"What use is that now?" she retorted.
"None," Loki said resignedly. Eydis strangled down an empty laugh.
He looked over and found her fists clenched in her skirt. Her chin was tilted up as she walked, and the light from the torch caught the tracks of the tears on her face.
Loki looked away, and then thought to himself it hardly mattered anymore. His shoulder ached less, but he was still unarmed; and the raiders had the spear, a sword, and a hammer. Even if he managed to wrest a weapon away, even if Eydis threw herself into the fight as well and clawed one of the three's eyes out, their odds were still poor. And even if they won, and escaped, and dodged the rest of the raiders, how many sunrises did he have left before Farbauti tracked him down? Enough to make it to another one of the Charioteer's temples? Enough to convince them to take him in to serve, to be reconsecrated, to be protected again?
He doubted his luck would strain that far. With Byleist and Helblindi's deaths, Farbauti could demand revenge even if he reached another temple; he would be turned out to answer for the blood. His best hope had been to soften the barbarian to him, to flee the country and then see where fortune took him. He should have held his tongue and left Eydis to her fate.
And yet, the thought of leaving anyone he had grown up with to die at the end of a noose in rotting tribute to the hanged god....
He shouldn't have held his tongue--he should have used it to come up with a better lie.
Loki smirked tiredly at the thought, and then let it fade away as he glanced at Eydis again. There was a chance he might yet live, if he could outwit and overpower or outrun the raiders; a thin and fragile chance, but he would try for it regardless. He had his necklace; it could buy him passage out of the country on another ship, and then it was just be a matter of not starving until he crafted a new plan.
But if he was to die now or soon, he didn't want it to be nothing but pain and bitterness and regret at the last. Loki exhaled, and reached out to brush a new tear from her cheek.
The barbarian brought the handle of the spear down sharply on his wrist. Loki hissed and jerked his hand away reflexively; when he did, the man used the spear to force him and Eydis farther apart.
A moment later, the sharp sting in his wrist bone began to fade and the significance of the action took hold.
Loki stopped and turned to look at the barbarian. But the torchlight was still behind him, and the moonlight was too filtered by the trees to reveal his face; Loki still could not read it. When Eydis paused a step ahead, the raider jerked his chin in the direction forward and spoke the word Loki recognized as a directive to move.
"Go," Fandral repeated, sword still ready at his side.
Loki glanced at the barbarian's eyes again, and then turned forward and resumed walking. Eydis gave him long, questioning look; but he had no answer.
Loki felt the consequence of their different tongues weigh on him as they resumed the trek through the woods, now with only the sound of the night animals and the crunching of the undergrowth beneath their feet. He could read the raiders' body language and expressions, he could guess at meanings from the tones they used; but without the ability to speak and be understood, he had no way to manipulate, to charm or convince, to argue or cajole or win. He was robbed of power.
But no, he reminded himself a moment later. Or rather, not of all power. Only some. He still had the runes.
Loki resisted the urge to run a hand over the crook of his elbow and continued trudging forward, yanking on his robe whenever the undergrowth tore at it.
Eydis cursed when a thornbush ripped up her hem and gouged her leg, wrenched at the fabric and caused the tear to widen, and sneered, "You really must have charmed him in bed, if he's still keeping you alive after all this."
Loki forced a smile. "Of course," he replied. "You should know."
"Know what?" she answered. "If you have any skills, you learned them after I gave up on you."
"Perhaps you would have noticed them if you weren't so impossible to sate."
"Ah, the insult of a man who has nothing to sate with," Eydis replied, and behind them Fandral snorted. Loki shot him an irritated look.
The barbarian questioned him; when Fandral started to answer, Loki looked forward again.
The two men spoke more than a simple translation of an insult required. Eydis glanced at him once more, but Loki only shrugged very faintly.
Eydis touched a hand to her throat, and then bit her lip and dropped it to her skirt again, twisting the fabric in her fingers. They went on in silence.
They were near the bend in the road where the village became visible in the distance when the barbarian spoke again.
"Stop," Fandral ordered.
When Loki turned to look at the three, the barbarian caught his gaze and held it as he spoke slowly. Loki stared back; but with the torch still behind the man too much of his face was in shadow, and Loki silently cursed the language, the situation, and the events of the past few days yet again.
The other raider took some time to sort out all that was spoken, but translated it at last.
"Someone here wants you dead," Fandral said. "He will take you away to live, if you...." He scowled, and then made a flopping motion with his hand. "The curse. Stop it."
"Negate it?" Loki asked.
Fandral made another face, and Loki assumed that was yet one more word the raider didn't know. He added it to his mental list and tried instead, "Undo?"
"Yes," Fandral agreed. "Undo the curse." He nodded at the barbarian. "He will take you away to live if you undo the curse, and she can go." He pointed at Eydis, and then the road, before dropping his hand. "If you do not, he will tie you and drop you in front of the village, and she dies here."
Loki was sorely tempted to point out that if they killed Eydis now and threw him at Farbauti's feet, they would still lack a sacrifice for their needs; but he curbed the urge.
"I agree," he said, because it was better than death and a far better outcome than trying to fight and run. If the raider was so taken with him that Loki's efforts to kill him thrice were being ignored, it was time to swallow his pride and use that to his own purposes. The Norns would surely stop spinning him so much good fortune if he kept spurning it.
Loki looked at the raider once more, and then bowed his head. He added "Yes," just to ensure Fandral understood.
Fandral related his submission, though his dubiousness was clear in his tone. The barbarian gave Loki another long, long look; and then he turned to Eydis, jerked his chin once at the road, and ordered her shortly to go. Fandral said something doubtful, but didn't stop her when she shifted away.
She took several more rapid steps backward--but then she hesitated, stopped, and took one toward Loki. Eydis held out her arm, palm up to expose the crook of her elbow, where he'd written out the curse a day ago.
"Take it off," she said.
"Do you wish me to flay the skin from your arm?" Loki asked. "It wasn't carved or painted; I can't erase what isn't visibly written."
She gestured sharply to the raiders. "Then do what you're going to do for them!"
"But I would have to touch you for that," he replied.
"So write the negation on yourself, too," she snapped. "Surely you can keep from driving them into wanting to kill you long enough to manage that."
"No," Loki said. "You were angered that the Charioteer hasn't come to revenge the temple yet; here you have the chance to do it in his stead."
Eydis clenched her hand into a fist.
"I have kin," she hissed. "Am I to spend the rest of my life terrified that if I graze them by accident I'll be burying them next?"
"I had kith," Loki replied coldly. "Now by Farbauti's doing I have less. I will never remove that curse if there's the slightest chance it will lead to his doom."
Eydis, expression furious, took a step closer. The barbarian thrust the spear between them, blocking her from moving any nearer.
"I should tell him," she said bitterly. "Exactly what you've done, what you've said, how he has only one night left to be rid of such a threat as you."
Beside them, Fandral straightened slightly and then spoke under his breath to the other raider, who drew his mouth back. Loki ignored them.
"He'd kill you first for being the nearer threat, idiot," he replied, and then added, "But do." Loki smiled faintly, tilting his head down. "Tell him also how Byleist fell choking on his own blood, and how his firstborn's corpse was dumped in the river for the fish to eat its eyes. Tell him he has no sons left, and now that curse he so feared waits only for him."
Fandral had broken off his conversation. Eydis stared at him, eyes wide.
"Loki," she said lowly, "what have you done?"
"What was expected of me," he said shortly. "You should go before they change their minds."
She glanced at the raiders and then the road once more, and shifted on her feet; but then she bit her lip. Eydis pushed her arm out further over the shaft of the spear.
"Please," she said quietly. "Please, take it off. You can't hate me that much. Please."
Loki looked at her for a heartbeat; and then he closed his eyes and shook his head.
"Why?" she demanded, voice breaking.
The barbarian pressed the spear's handle against her torso, forcing her to take a step back. He pointed again at the road, and again ordered her to go.
Eydis grit her jaw and clenched her hands into fists, glaring at Loki. He stared back impassively.
Finally, she spat on the ground at his feet, and turned and fled toward the road.
Loki watched her go for only a moment; and then he turned to Fandral, deliberately putting his back to her, and pointed at the man's wound. "Give me your arm so I can undo the curse."
"Bragi is going to have a job of it, crafting a song about this trip that sounds any good to anyone," Fandral muttered under his breath, and sheathed his sword.
"What was all that?" Thor demanded.
"He just said he'd take the curse off," his man replied. He held his arm out warily to the scribe. "Before that, they were discussing her and a curse and how he desecrated the body of that warrior he was supposed to bury."
Thor exhaled through his teeth and then pressed the spear into Fandral's outstretched hand. He pushed his own arm out before the scribe and ordered, "Fix the damage you've done."
The man blinked once. Then he glanced at Thor's bandaged torso. Thor watched the trace of a scowl cross his face before it went blank and the man took his forearm in hand.
"If I die before the morning, hang him," Thor told Fandral.
"Aye, chieftain," he replied. Fandral rested the butt of the spear on the ground and leaned against it. "That won't do you much good, though."
"I'll take what consolation I can get," Thor muttered. "If it's not a trap, I'll have him undo it on you and Volstagg and whoever else she touched before we board the ship." He gave Fandral's bound arm a look. "Do you think you can stay alive until then?"
"I'll avoid getting into any arguments with the Lady Sif," his man replied drolly. Thor had to snort.
The scribe was still eying his arm, brow drawn. Fandral frowned and spoke sharply to him. The scribe's reply was even-toned; he didn't look up.
"He says he's never done this before, so he has to determine the correct words to use," Fandral said, with a doubting emphasis on the 'says.'
"Mmmm," Thor answered, more an exasperated exhale than a proper reply. The scribe glanced at him through his lashes before refocusing on his forearm.
The man pulled his bad arm from his sling shortly after and began tracing lines on Thor's skin, along his upper arm and the crook of his elbow above his vambrace. Thor watched him work even as he addressed Fandral. "'A' curse?" he repeated.
"I don't think it's the same as this one," his man replied with a frown. "Not if I understood rightly how he was referring to it. It sounds like there's another one, on Farbauti."
"A curse and a feud," Thor said disbelievingly. "You're right, even Bragi won't be able to work with this."
"The take of silver and gold isn't too bad," Fandral considered. "And the women are pretty enough."
"We could do better," Thor said sourly. "Divided among us all, it doesn't total enough to balance all this aggravation."
Fandral made a sound that could have meant several different things, a skill that was part of the reason why Thor relied on him when situations required more diplomacy than he could muster. His man looked over to the road where the cursed woman had run. "I still think we should have stopped her."
"Farbauti knows where we're camped," Thor replied. "There's little of import she can say to him. I'll speak with Frey and we'll increase the nightwatch." He looked at the road toward the homestead as well, trying to gauge how much time they had. The woman had injured her leg; that would slow her down. "We should leave soon."
A few breaths later, the scribe finished his tracery. Thor shook his arm out and then pushed the man back in the direction of the camp. When he began walking, Thor retrieved the spear from Fandral.
Thor watched the scribe's back as they returned to the camp. The man walked with his shoulders straight and his neck tense; he yanked his clothes from the undergrowth agitatedly and tilted his head sharply whenever the sound of the night animals came too close. Thor kept an eye on the road parallel to them, making sure that they didn't stray too far away from it and risk ending up lost in the woods.
He didn't think the scribe would try that--the man was targeted for death by his fellow foreigner, and he knew it. Thor was his easiest chance for escape, and they both knew it.
It was hopefully enough to keep a rein on him. Thor doubted the man would go as far as trying to sink the boat once he was on it and thus condemn himself to the same watery grave as them. And once they were home, Thor could deal with him with less concern of how others viewed his inability to control his servant. All he had to do was get the man on the ship without incident, and keep a hold on him until they were done with the sweep through the south and had docked back home.
Hopefully holding the threat of being returned to Farbauti over the scribe would be enough to manage the first. Thor wasn't yet sure how to do the second.
He watched the man move through the forest, and muttered, "I should kill him when the curse is lifted."
Fandral looked at him.
Thor glared at the scribe. "I've failed to keep a hold on him," he said, aggravation seeping into his voice. "Not only has he directly harmed one of us, he's indirectly injured who knows how many more with this curse. If I continue to let him live, I'll be responsible for whatever more ill he does." He exhaled through his teeth. "If I kill him, I'll still lose face; but it would be less."
"...To be fair, Thor," Fandral offered after a pause, "your closest confidantes are a man with a string of seduction lawsuits, another man who practices women's healing work, and a woman who regularly breaks the law by dressing and bearing arms like a man." Fandral grinned. "At this point, Volstagg's the only one with any untainted honor. And even that may have taken a blow from associating with us."
Thor had to laugh. "It would take more than us to do that."
"Likely," his man agreed. Then he shrugged. "Do as you feel wisest, chieftain. But I can't imagine anyone would be foolish enough to try and smear your honor unless they were just seeking a fight. And few with sense listen to men like that."
Fandral paused, and then added, "Though if you do decide to be rid of him, you could wait until we're on the boat. He might fall overboard," he added. "No one loses face from a common accident."
Thor gave him a look. "Fandral," he said dryly, "sometimes your diplomacy takes a turn toward scheming."
"Scurrilous words, chieftain," his man replied cheerily. "It's fortunate I don't insult so easily."
Thor laughed again.
They walked several more steps in silence, and then Thjalfi spoke behind them.
"I'm sorry, Lord Thor," he said quietly. "They must have talked about it, but I didn't notice. I'm sorry."
"It's 'chieftain,'" Thor corrected. "You're a freedman now."
"Yes, sir," Thjalfi replied. "I'm sorry."
"It's been years since you left these lands," Thor pointed out, and gave him a brief smile over his shoulder. "I'd forgotten this was your old language. I didn't expect you to hear anything; don't be concerned."
Thjalfi shifted his hand on the torch and looked at the ground. A moment later, he nodded.
When they reached the camp, Thor pushed the scribe toward his tent and ordered him into it. He went to warn Frey of the need for a stronger sentry line that night and to discuss a replacement for tomorrow's sacrifice, and assumed that Fandral had passed along the rest of the news about the curse when Volstagg started toward his tent with a bellow.
Thor managed to stop him from instigating a fight with the scribe with Hogun's help. He convinced Volstagg it would be wiser hold off on any arguments until after the curse was removed--after all, Thor pointed out with a gesture to his side, it had gotten even him injured badly.
Volstagg looked down at him literally and metaphorically. "I trust my many more years of battle experience than you would help balance that," he replied, and Thor scowled.
He shook his head a moment later, and clasped Volstagg's shoulder. "I'll be fine," Thor said. "It was a poor curse to begin with; Fandral and I still live. Don't worry."
Volstagg looked unconvinced.
Thor turned slightly toward him. "I have an ulterior motive to holding you back," he admitted. "On the chance he was mad enough to try and kill me under the guise of a cure...if I look to die soon, I would like a last fight with you," Thor asked. "I would not be forced to die in bed, robbed of my seat in Valhalla by a witch." He glanced over at the tents. "I would ask Sif, but...."
Volstagg let out a long breath, and then nodded solemnly. "Of course."
"Thank you," Thor said sincerely. He looked over at Hogun. "You are my witness. If the worst comes to pass, tell my brother there should be no lawsuit, no bloodprice. It was my request."
"Aye, chieftain," his man replied, and Volstagg made an agitated noise. But neither pointed out the worst part of what he was asking: Volstagg was under the curse too, and the fight might be his last as assuredly as it would be Thor's.
Thor would throw the fight and argue with the Valkyries and the Father-of-armies in the afterworld before he intentionally killed one of his men, but he hoped it wouldn't come to that for both their sakes. He knew he was placing more trust in the fact that, except for Hreidmar, the curse was only causing injuries rather than death. He appreciated that they were leaving all that unspoken.
Thor squeezed Volstagg's shoulder briefly before letting go and grinning at both of them. "Don't worry," he repeated. "I can prepare for the worst without expecting it. I'll be fine, and in the morning we'll be rid of this curse and sail out for richer climes."
His men knew when not to argue. Thor left them with the same orders he'd given Fandral and Thjalfi--to find whoever else the woman might have touched--and then sought out Sif and told her the same.
He also spoke to her for a while longer on other matters. Then he finally went to join the rest of the men currently standing sentry.
Thor took an extra shift on the sentry line, sending off the man who tried to protest with the argument that it was be better for someone who would be rowing in the morning to get rest now while he could. It was only a few hours to sunrise before he returned to his tent.
The scribe was sleeping on the bed this time, arm still in his sling. He stirred when Thor set the oil lamp on the ground, and then shook himself awake and pushed drowsily into a sitting position.
Thor spotted the crumbs on his clothes and scowled, irritated that one of the foreigners had managed to sneak the man food without his knowledge. Thor kept the slab of oatcake he'd brought the man to eat for himself, dropping it beside his hammer and fur wrap for the morning.
He noticed that the scribe had built another of those pebble oddities. He'd accidentally scattered the first one yesterday; this new ring sat by the far corner of the tent, the broken twig jammed back into the center of it. Thor gave it a considering look.
He had seen two more about camp: one in Hreidmar's tent where the captives had been hiding during the ambush, and the other by the tent of one of Frey's men who'd captured a boy. All three were miniatures of the stone circle and pillar that had stood outside the temple.
Thor was certain now that the rings bore some religious significance to these people. But he looked at it for only a moment more before turning back to the scribe.
Whoever they worshiped, it was not the All-father. Any other god was lesser; and he had greater concerns. Thor crooked a finger at the scribe.
"Come here," he ordered.
The man rose to his feet and walked over with that empty expression that had begun to rile Thor more and more. It was as if Thor's presence was of no real significance to him--as if Thor was as slight a disruption to his life as the discovery of a mouse in the larder: a minor aggravation to be quickly dealt with. The man stopped in front of him just within reach.
Thor stepped closer and caught the man's jaw in his fingers.
"If I wake tomorrow alive and well, you will have earned a small piece of my trust," he said evenly. "Do not lose it by further harming my men."
When he paused, the man frowned. He once again put a hand to his ear and then pulled it away with splayed fingers; but this time it had the air of frustration, not mockery.
"I didn't expect you to understand that much this fast," Thor replied with faint amusement. "If it's still relevant tomorrow, I'll have it told to you."
The frustration on the man's face increased. Thor smiled slightly at the sight--it was an expression, a response, and therefore preferable to his earlier blankness. Even if there were other responses Thor would have preferred more.
Like the way the scribe had trembled under his hands that first night, after Thor had finally broken his icy self-control. He greatly preferred that response. He intended to have the man repeat it later, many times, when he was settled back at home and had all the time he needed.
Thor shifted back and looked the scribe over again. The dim light of the lamp and the fire outside showed him little, besides the fact that the man's feet were dirty again from walking in the forest and his clothes were more frayed. But Thor remembered more than enough of the sight of him from that morning to suit.
When Thor looked up at his face again, the man's impassive cast had returned, though his eyes were half-lidded. The expression hidden behind them wasn't the loathing the scribe had shown him before--but neither was it desire. It appeared to be resignation more than anything.
Thor's smile slipped away as he studied the man's face. He shifted his hand and ran his thumb over the scribe's bottom lip, thinking again of how the man had finally given in before. He'd bitten down on his lip to hold back his sounds that time. Perhaps the next one he would be too distracted to do so.
Then Thor exhaled through his teeth and remembered what else had happened that night: how much the man had fought him, how long it had taken Thor to loosen him up beneath him. The scribe seemed moderately more acquiescing now--but that was only another kind of challenge, the kind Thor didn't like.
He didn't care to wrestle through layers of false agreement, resentment and reluctance just for a bit of comfort tonight. And he couldn't afford to be tangled up doing so--he needed to be ready to charge out if Farbauti sent another attack on the camp. He was already injured and tired.
He still didn't know if the scribe had cursed him or not.
Thor drew his hand back and nodded toward the bed. "Go to sleep," he ordered.
The man blinked and then looked up at him.
"Sleep," Thor repeated, before making a gesture to indicate rest.
The scribe gave him a measuring, suspicious look. But he went and sat on the furs.
Thor pinched out the lamp and dropped onto the bed beside the man still fully dressed, forcing him to scoot over. He hadn't bothered to close the tent's opening or to bind the scribe's wrists--Thor doubted the man would be running now that he knew the kind of hospitality awaiting him at the homestead.
Eventually the scribe shifted beside him and lay down. Thor closed his eyes and listened to the fire crackle outside as he ran a hand over his arm where the man had written. He thought of Sif, and Volstagg and Fandral and Hogun, and his brother, and his home.
The scribe fell asleep before him for once.
Thor woke just before daybreak when Hogun leaned into the tent and asked if he was dead.
"No," Thor said, rubbing his face. He dragged a hand through his hair and grinned at him. "I told you I'd be fine, didn't I?"
"Nn," Hogun said, though his chiding tone was ruined by the small smile on his face. "I'll tell Volstagg to stop sharpening his ax, then."
Thor snickered. After Hogun left, he roused himself from the bed and dragged the scribe out of it as well.
He ate breakfast with his friends and watched carefully that the scribe drew the exact same lines on Fandral and Volstagg and the five others who they'd found as the man had on Thor himself. When he was finished, Thor saw that he was fed and then set him to work helping to tear down his and then Sif's tents.
Sif gave the scribe a poisonous look and refused his help, because she was half-convinced that he'd written a slower-working curse on Thor--she'd spent most of breakfast advocating torturing the truth out of him until Thor had promised to do so if he began to feel ill or his wound didn't heal right. So instead he sent the scribe to board the ship with the last of his tent pegs and then wait there with the other captives. In the meantime, Frey and one of his men hung the second warrior they'd captured the other day.
Their sailing was delayed because a magpie settled on the corpse and refused to budge until a pair of ravens passed by high above. It fluttered away after that, and several of the men tried to determine whether it was a good omen or a bad.
"It was two ravens," Frey finally decreed. "Of course it was a good omen."
Thor eyed the branch above them where the corpse still hung. He agreed with Frey, but felt an unease he couldn't define: it had arrived with the magpie, and remained even after its leaving. A thin line of tension ran beneath his shoulder blades as he listened to the sound of the trees in the wind.
He felt a strange urge to go to the boat and make sure the scribe was on it.
"And the other bird?" Skirnir asked.
Frey shrugged once. "A common, hungry bird." He turned to Thor. "You've said nothing. What do you make of it?"
Thor looked at the branch one last time and then turned to the other men and smiled. "You can't expect a better sign of approval than a pair of ravens," he said. "Unless an old man in a wide-brimmed hat and a cloak happens to pass by."
Frey and several others laughed.
They pulled the corpse down and buried it, and set sail.
Chapter 10: Part II - Chapter 10
I've altered the tags again, because from here on out there's more references to other relationships for both Thor and Loki. I'm not adding more ship names and just leaving them all lumped under "implied," though, because this is a Thor/Loki story; anything else is in the past or off-screen, so I figured that was the best compromise.
Thor stood at the helm of the ship and called directions as they navigated back down the river. Once they'd reached its mouth and passed out into the sea, he traded the position off to Njord and crossed to the stern. The last time he'd glanced back he'd noticed the scribe slipping up from the hold.
The man stood behind the tethered horses' shelter with a tight grip on the rail and the wide stance of someone unused to boats. He was watching the river recede along the coastline, but he turned to look at Thor when he came up beside him.
The scribe released the rail and started to lurch back to the hatch leading to the hold. Thor stopped him with a raised hand.
"You can watch if you want," he said, pointing at the water. "You're in no one's way here."
"...Aye chieftain," the scribe replied after a few breaths.
"You're a fast learner," Thor remarked. The man started to respond, but then grabbed the rail when the boat crested a wave.
"Have you been on a boat before?" Thor asked. "If not, you're better off in the hold until you get used to it. I don't want you falling into the water."
"Aye chieftain," the man repeated.
Thor paused and gave him a look.
"Is that all you're going to say?" he asked. "How much have you actually learned?"
The scribe gave him a look of pure exasperation and lifted both hands as if demanding to know what he was asking now.
He quickly dropped the gesture and grabbed the rail again--sarcasm apparently mattered less to him than staying at rights. Thor studied him for another heartbeat and then shook his head and chuckled.
"Let's begin where we should have," he said. When the scribe looked at him, he went on. "My name is not 'chieftain.' I am Thor." He pointed to himself. "Thor Erdasson." He said his name again, until the man finally repeated it.
Thor smiled. "Your name?" he asked, gesturing to the scribe. "I know it's not '\sir\.'"
The man smirked faintly at the word, further confirming Thor's assumption. Thor pointed to him again. "Name?"
"Loki," he answered.
It was the same word the cursed woman had called him the other night. Thor nodded once and waited for the rest.
But the man didn't continue. Thor considered.
"Thor," he repeated, and then gestured to his shadow on the deck--the closest thing he could think of to indicate those who came before him. "Erdasson." Thor gave him an expectant look. "Loki . . . ?"
"Loki," the man replied. He looked out at the coastline.
Thor watched him for some time, and then asked: "Loki Farbautisson?"
The scribe turned on him with a ferocity Thor had underestimated.
They grappled briefly until Thor pinned him against the back of the horses' shelter, forearm against his throat. Loki snarled and spat out a string of words, but the only one Thor recognized was his name.
When the scribe went still and tense, Thor waited for a few heartbeats before pulling his arm away slowly. Loki stayed where he was, glaring at him.
Thor glanced down the ship and was glad to see that the horses and the shelter had blocked the view of most of his men. Only Fandral and Sif were looking over.
He stepped back and pointed to the hatch. "Go."
Loki left and returned to the hold, rubbing his throat.
Thor went over to his friends, still scowling. Sif didn't relax her grip on her spear until he said all was fine.
"As gifted at sweet words as always, chieftain," Fandral commented quietly, and then snickered when Thor shoved his good arm.
Thor leaned heavily against the rail beside them, careful not to press against his wound. "What does this mean?" he asked Fandral, and then repeated the word Loki had snapped after his name.
Fandral made a face. "That's not a real word." He rested an elbow on the rail. "What was said around it?"
Thor repeated the entire sentence easily thanks to how viciously Loki had enunciated his words. Fandral puzzled over it for a time, and then said, "Ah.
"'I am Loki Nobodysson,'" he concluded. "Or something like that." He raised an eyebrow. "I'm fairly sure he's lying with that one."
"Why would anyone claim a man like that as kin?" Sif muttered.
"Hm," Thor replied, and thought about the curse Fandral had said was on Farbauti. He decided to have Thjalfi tell him later everything that he'd understood in the last conversation between Loki and Hreidmar's former woman.
They sailed on, out of sight of the coast. The captive boy snuck out for a while to watch the ocean, but then he got seasick and was sent back into the hold. Loki didn't come out again.
As he'd expected, Hogun forbade Thor to row until his wound healed further. Soon chafing at the way the instructions left him feeling useless, Thor remained at the helm to watch for land or whales or sharks. He listened to the men's tales of the last battle as they rowed but spoke to few but his closest friends, knowing his aggravation made him short and poor company. He didn't seek out the scribe for similar reasons.
By their second day on the sea, he began to see Loki again. The scribe was apparently suffering from boredom; Thor spotted him dragging water and hay up from below, holding ropes with his good arm when help was needed adjusting the sails, and mucking the horses' shelter--mediocrely, since he still wore his sling. He often saw him standing at the stern and staring at the sea, though he left whenever anyone came near.
Thor found other signs of the scribe's presence as well: lines cut into the railing to create marks indecipherable to him and his men. The first time he saw a set, Thor almost went into the hold to drag Loki out to account for them.
But the time passed calmly as he waited for his temper to cool and the ship didn't sink. So Thor decided to first find an answer to the greater question the marks raised.
He received it when he went to ask Volstagg if any knives were missing and found Loki in the scullery with him, being lectured on the proper way to clean fish.
Berated was a better word. Loki was crouched by a pile of the latest catch, staring at Volstagg with a blank look as the other man sliced up a fish and explained with aghast aggravation how much flesh Loki had wasted with his piss-poor cutting. Loki's bemusement only egged him on further.
Thor noted the faintest hint of a smile on the scribe's face and decided he was riling Volstagg on purpose.
Boredom, he thought. Thor ducked under the lintel and stepped into the tiny room.
"You should wait until he's learned more of our language before you try to teach him anything," he told Volstagg. "This lesson is falling on dumb ears."
His man held up a half-flayed fish and shook it. "This can't wait until he understands our words!" he insisted. "With this kind of waste we'd all starve before we reach the next shore!"
"We can catch more," Thor pointed out with amusement. "We are floating on a sea of fish. I think I've supplied us fairly well so far."
"Are you going to supposedly catch a sea serpent the size of a boat again?" Volstagg replied. "That might be the only thing he can be trusted to filet."
Thor scowled. "I did catch it. If he hadn't cut the line I would've had proof."
"Bah," Volstagg said, and dropped the fish on the wood slat serving as a table.
Thor made himself abandon the argument and asked, "Do you have all your knives?"
Volstagg frowned and set the one he'd been using beside the fish. "I should," he replied, turning to the chest where they were kept. "Why?"
In the side of his vision Thor saw the scribe slip away further into the hold.
He cursed under his breath and followed him.
The captives were huddled near the helm, by the hay and the barrels of fresh water. Thor noted with a frown that one of them had taken an oil lamp from the scullery and brought it over.
He found Loki speaking to one of the women. When Thor reached the group, the scribe turned and held a small knife out to him, handle first.
Thor took it sharply. "Why did you steal this?"
"Cut," Loki replied, and then held out his hand to the woman. She gave him a small ball of thread. Loki offered it to him.
Thor looked at the two women and saw that they were patching up their clothes with more thread and splinters of wood. The boy's over-clothes were now cut to his waist; Thor looked at the thread and guessed that the rest had been sacrificed for its material.
He examined the scribe and saw that the worst of the rents in his robe had been mended.
Thor bounced the ball in his palm and then tossed it back to Loki.
The man caught it easily with his good arm and returned it to the woman. Thor wondered once again just how skilled he was. Loki had faced him the first time holding a sword in the hand now in his sling, indicating it was his fighting arm--but he also seemed more than capable with the other.
Thor shoved the knife into his belt and picked up the lamp. He paused when he saw another set of marks cut into the side of the ship.
One of the women scooted away from him when he stepped over to it. Thor pointed at the marks and then looked hard at the scribe. "What are these?"
Loki shrugged and said something in his own language.
Thor glared at him.
A rustling sound made him glance over his shoulder. The boy had shifted in front of the women and was looking at Loki.
Thor returned his gaze to the scribe immediately, cursing that he had to keep his head down against the low ceiling. But Loki still stood with one arm in his sling and the other loose at his side. He'd shifted his footing--but it was away from Thor, not closer to him.
Away from Thor, and away from the others. To look at him now, Thor had to turn aside from them. He glanced at the group once more: the boy remained where he was, but he eyed Thor warily. The women were focused on their sewing, sitting close together and not looking at him.
Thor exhaled through his teeth and then lifted the lamp higher. "You can't keep this here."
He reached down and picked up a piece of the hay that the captives had pulled out and scattered to sleep on. Thor held it to the lamp's flame, and then pointed it at Loki briefly once it was lit before blowing it out. "Fire."
He pointed to the lamp and then jerked his head to the scullery. "If you need light, work over there."
"Aye chieftain," Loki said after a moment, apparently having sussed out what he intended.
Thor left the fact that the scribe was still addressing him wrong for another day. He took the lamp and knife back to the scullery.
"Are any else missing?" he asked Volstagg as he handed over the blade.
"No," his man answered. "The rest are all here."
"Good," Thor said, and hung the lamp back up. "Keep them locked away."
"Aye, chieftain," Volstagg replied.
"If you hadn't made him angry we could have kept the light," Halgi groused.
"That wasn't him angry," Loki said. He toed some of the straw at the boy. "And he thinks we'll set the ship afire. It was doing no good anyway."
"We could work at least," the other woman said.
"You can do so over there," Loki answered, gesturing to the cooking area. "The cook seems harmless so far."
"He yelled at you a lot," Unna pointed out.
"It was nothing significant," Loki said.
"It was doing some good," Halgi insisted.
"No it wasn't," the other woman, Ingebjorg, muttered.
"I have a different plan," Loki said, pulling the slabs of oatcake he'd palmed while the cook was going over the fish from the back of his belt. "But it will take more time. You'll have to endure until then."
"I didn't realize there were other options," she said flatly.
"There is always another option," Loki replied, going over to one of the water barrels. "But it's a poor one."
The women eventually moved to the cooking area as Loki worked open one of the barrels and immersed the slabs in them. Once they were soaked, he pulled them out and shoved them into one of the farthest bales, so they wouldn't be noticed before rot began to set in.
When he settled back on the hay, shifting to find a half-comfortable spot, Halgi rose.
"Can I go up?" he asked. Loki and circumstances had made it clear that at least one of them had to be there with the women at all times. It wasn't sufficient to stop Unna and Ingebjorg's captors from coming down--a boy and an injured man were equal levels of unimposing--but it seemed a deterrent against excessive abuse.
"If you wish. I have no plans to for a while," Loki answered, for his good shoulder still ached from the awkward way he'd had to handle a pitchfork to clean the horses' shelter.
"What time is it?"
Halgi made an irritated noise that Loki didn't bother to acknowledge. He knew what the boy wanted was evening, so he could see the stars; but the sun ran at her own pace.
Halgi went up anyway, and stayed longer than Loki expected. By the time he returned, the women had fled back to the sleeping area because the cook had begun tromping up and down between the floors, hauling out the evening meal. Loki took advantage of the raider's absence to steal and soak more oatcake.
He straightened slightly as Halgi staggered to the haypile and collapsed on it. Loki had been under the impression the boy's captor wasn't interested in pulling him into his bed--not to mention it was still light out.
"What happened to you?" he demanded.
"The wind died down so they made me row," Halgi panted. "I can't feel my arms."
Loki made a dismissive noise and leaned back against the bale, glad that there wasn't one more thing he was forced to plan a defense against. Unna rubbed the boy's shoulders until he finally stopped whining.
By the next morning, the first piece of oatcake smelt slightly off. Loki, not knowing how long the sailing was to last, decided it was as good a time to begin as any and went to the cook to offer to bring the morning meal to the men above.
He broke the tainted oatcake in half and carried in his belt as he did. When, while serving, he came across Unna and Ingebjorg's captors, Loki switched their share of the slabs out.
By the evening of their third day at sea, Thor's boredom had spurred him into a long argument with Hogun. He'd only half-won--his man said that if he made it through the next raid without ripping his wound open clean through, then very well, he could row since he apparently couldn't find anything better to do.
If the weather stayed clear they would be reaching the coast by next midday. Thor paced up and down the ship, ignoring Njord's increasingly aggravated noises each time he skirted past him.
The next time he turned at the helm, he saw someone coming up from the hold. The moon hadn't fully waxed yet, but Thor could tell it wasn't Volstagg and it was too tall to be the boy. And the women never came above deck. Thor made his way to the stern.
The scribe was standing at the rail and staring out at the sea again. He automatically turned away at the sound of footfalls. Thor knew from his previous observances that the man would go around the other side of the shelter and back into the hold to avoid whoever was coming toward him.
"Loki," he called.
The scribe paused. A moment later he laid a steadying hand on the railing and turned back. "Aye, Thor?"
Thor smiled as he came up beside him. "How fare you? Found your sea legs yet?"
Loki just looked at him.
Thor considered for a moment, and then pointed at the deck of the boat and staggered briefly as if he were unused to sailing. "Better?"
Loki made an understanding sound and shook his head. At first Thor thought he meant he was still having trouble; but he stood steady enough on the boards now. He guessed Loki thought he'd asked if it was still happening, since then his answer made sense.
"Good," Thor replied, and then lapsed into silence as he tried to think of something else to say.
When he didn't speak for several heartbeats Loki turned and looked out at the ocean again. Thor leaned an arm on the rail and gazed at the moon on the waves. He was glad that the weather remained calm, but would have preferred a stronger wind. Full sails were always faster, regardless of how sturdy the rowers were.
Loki pointed at the waves. "Water."
"Aye," Thor agreed.
The scribe gestured to the sea and said a word in his own language before asking, "You name?"
"Ah," Thor said. "Sea."
"'Ah sea'?" Loki repeated, sounding dubious.
"Sea," Thor clarified.
"Mm," Loki said, looking at the water again.
"What did you call it?" Thor asked.
Loki looked at him, but Thor could tell that he didn't know what he'd asked. He repeated the word Loki had said, and then pointed to the water and asked, "Sea?"
Loki gazed at him for a long time with an indecipherable expression before finally saying "Aye."
"Hm," Thor replied, leaning against the rail again. "\Ocean.\ Your words are hard to pronounce."
Loki offered a dry comment that Thor was beginning to assume meant 'I don't know what you're saying so I will mock you instead.' He made an annoyed noise in response, but let the matter lie.
A gust of wind caught the sails and lurched the ship forward. Loki shifted on his feet and then made an irked sound when his tattered robe caught on a splinter in the rail.
Thor pulled it free and then examined the cloth. Even with mending, it and the scribe's over-clothes were still fraying. His attempted escape through the forest had done him very little good.
"You'll need new clothes," Thor determined. "And real boots. I'll have that done when we reach home."
He looked up to explain more clearly and found Loki watching him with half-lidded eyes.
Thor studied him for a time, rubbing the cloth between his thumb and finger. When Loki neither spoke nor moved, but only gripped the railing more tightly, Thor paused. Then he tugged once on the fabric.
Loki took a step closer to him and Thor smiled.
He let go of the cloth and rested a hand on Loki's hip. Thor ran his thumb over the jut of the bone there and watched as Loki's eyes closed briefly.
Thor's smile widened as he turned them aside and guided Loki backward. The scribe braced his hands against the wood of the horses' shelter when his heel hit it, and then drew a breath when Thor pressed up against him. When he shifted and slid his hand from Loki's hip to the curve of his shaft, Loki sucked in another breath and closed his eyes once more. Thor chuckled softly, pleased that the man was warming to him.
The scribe's length began to swell against his palm--but he still didn't move against him. And though Loki's breaths had grown shallower, he made no other noise. Thor tugged his robe up, thinking that a touch on his bare flesh would satisfy him more. And then he noticed Loki's hands were pressed flat against the wall.
When he pulled the robe up farther and slid his hand beneath, Loki pushed his fingertips tighter against the boards. Thor shifted to the side so the moonlight could fall on the other man and found that Loki had tensed his jaw.
"Why do you fight even this?" he demanded. The scribe's length lay hot and wanting in his hand, had been made that way by his touch--and yet the man refused to acknowledge it. It was yet another rejection of the generosity Thor offered, this time couched in a pretense of acceptance.
He squeezed and Loki gasped sharply, eyes jerking open to stare at him. Thor scowled, his other hand tightening around Loki's thigh. "What do I have to--"
"Chieftain?" one of his men called from a short distance away.
Thor growled in frustration and then blinked when Loki jerked his head hard to the side, away from the voice's direction.
Thor studied the tension in the man's form, looking at the way his teeth were clenched and at the taut cords in his neck. He wondered if Loki considered it always shameful to receive pleasure from another man, even if he remained on his feet and wasn't opening himself in any way.
Foreigners, he thought and pulled his hands away. Thor took a step back before calling "Here."
Loki wrenched his robe down his legs. When Thor moved further from him he pushed away from the wall, though he remained slightly slouched. Thjalfi rounded the corner of the shelter and paused to determine which of the two was who in the moonlight.
"Hogun told me to find you, chieftain," the younger man said after a moment. "Oleg's fever's gotten worse."
It was the man Loki had stabbed in his escape attempt. He'd seemed to be healing, but had relapsed after the ship was underway. Thor exhaled through his teeth and looked at the scribe.
Loki caught his eye and then pointed at the deck. "Go?" he asked shortly, voice strained. Thor was gratified to hear that, despite everything.
It was apparently all the gratification he'd have tonight.
"Go," he replied, and turned to Thjalfi. "Are they still at the mast?" Thor asked as he started toward it. The scribe slipped around the other side of the shelter, out of sight.
"He started vomiting, so Hogun put him against the rail," Thjalfi answered, and then looked behind him.
Thor made his way to the small group of men at the side of the ship. Thjalfi fell behind him a step later, and then Thor heard him speak in a language he didn't know.
He looked over his shoulder to see Thjalfi had turned away and was facing the scribe, who'd paused in the middle of hauling open the hatch. Thor hesitated for a moment--but then he pushed it aside and made his way to his men. That was where his responsibility lay.
Loki paused in the midst of shouldering open the trapdoor, and tilted his head slightly toward the raider.
"Writer," the young man said again, and came closer. "Can I chat with you?"
Loki studied at him with a narrow expression. The man scratched his head, and then tried, "Talk with you. Speak?"
"Yes," he answered, and lowered the door.
The man exhaled in relief. "You get me, then?"
His dialect was one Loki had only heard a few times in his life, with unfamiliar terms; but he grasped the gist. "Well enough."
"That's good." The raider shifted on his feet, then gestured to the rail behind the shelter. "There?"
Loki waited until the man began walking and then followed with an awkward step, holding a fistful of his robe and wrap in front of him, still suspicious. When the younger man leaned against the rail, Loki chose a spot nearby but still far from arms' reach.
The raider scratched his head again, and Loki shifted, letting his clothes fall and resting his hand on the rail. He began tapping his fingers on the wood.
The younger man made a face at that and said, "You're a troublemaker."
"Mm," Loki replied.
"Lord Thor's not a bad man to serve," the raider continued, delving in to what he'd apparently intended. Loki tried to recall how many times the man had been around while he'd been talking to the barbarian or to others from the temple. "His temper's loads better, so you'd be fine if you'd stop setting it off. And he's good about freeing people who've served him right." The man gestured to himself, apparently as proof.
"How'd you come to be his?" Loki asked, wondering absently if the underlying implication would carry through.
If it did, the man didn't catch it. "His brother and him stopped at our farmhouse one night," he said, and Loki noted the multiple interesting parts of that statement. "I got told to put the horses away. And--this was during the bad year," he added, dragging his hair from his face. "When all the crops didn't grow right on account of the drought?"
Loki nodded. "I remember." It was the year he'd taken over the scriptorium after his master had died. That was almost all he recalled from that time; between the glut of new duties and the constant prayers to coax the Charioteer from his anger and bring back the rain, his memories of the season were little more than a haze of sore eyes and chafed, bleeding hands, the constant murmur of pleas drifting through the halls that never fully abated regardless of the hour, the stench of blood and offal and the acrid smell of burnt sacrifices. He'd reopened a scroll from that time later, after winter had come, and found that in his weariness he'd written a portion of the prayer he'd been murmuring under his breath as he worked in the middle of a sentence. He'd had to recopy it.
"They had bags of food," the younger man continued. "On the horses. I stole some cheese, but the horse kicked at me, and when I dodged and tried to tie it up it hurt its leg." He rubbed his neck uncomfortably and looked out at the water.
"He was furious," the man continued, speaking quieter. "When he saw it in the morning. I never saw anyone so angry. I thought he was going to kill us."
Loki thought of other times he'd faced the barbarian's wrath and made a wordless noise.
"I begged," the raider said bluntly. Loki glanced at him in the moonlight, but if he'd felt any shame over the act, it seemed to have long faded. "For my parents' and sister's lives. I didn't want to die, but I figured better just me than all us. It was my fault."
He dropped his hand and rested it on the rail. "His brother finally got him cooled down," he said. "And he decided me and my sister would be Lord Thor's servants from then on, to make things up."
"Ah," Loki replied.
"It wasn't awful," the younger man said, looking at Loki with a serious expression that made him reconsider his assumption that the double entendre had gone unnoticed. "And he's good about freeing people if they serve right. And if you're a freeman it's all different. How you're treated," he clarified. "You're one of his men, not a slave."
"Ah," Loki repeated, quieter.
The man rubbed the side of his palm against the rail for several heartbeats, and then asked, "You get me?"
The raider had skirted around the crux of what he was implying, but Loki could see through to it. He nodded once. "Yes.
"Thank you," he added, for the man had warned him that there was someone else among the raiders besides Fandral who understood their language.
The younger man half-grinned briefly. Then he nodded and said, "I'm Thjalfi."
"Loki," he answered.
The man started to say more, but halted and looked over his shoulder as he was called for. He pushed away from the rail a heartbeat later and started off, but paused at the corner of the stable and glanced back again, giving Loki a reassuring smile.
"Just don't be trouble and you'll be fine," he promised.
Loki nodded once without meaning it, and waited for Thjalfi to move out of sight before heading back into the hold.
His erection had softened, but he still felt frustrated, and angry at himself and at the barbarian for being so. He snapped at Halgi when he pestered him, and the boy sulked in the corner between the ship's wall and the bales until he fell asleep. Ingebjorg and Unna gave him a wide berth.
Though the sailing had started out well, it soon turned sour. Oleg died during the night.
In the morning Hogun wrapped his body in a bolt of green cloth that had been part of the man's spoils. He and Thor then sent him overboard with prayers to the All-father and the sea god. They added a good amount of his gold to placate the sea god's greedy wife and ensure Oleg a place on the couches and a share of the mead in her hall.
Soon after that two more men began to get sick. But there was no sign of illness between them that Hogun could find, and they claimed it was only when they ate--which set off a long argument between them and Volstagg. It nearly turned into violence before Fandral and Thor interceded and made all three swear to resume their grievances only after they'd landed. Volstagg stormed back into the hold, the two men were quarantined at the stern by Hogun, and Thor stood at the helm and watched eagerly for land, ready to be done with this trip.
He didn't think to look at the scribe who was serving the morning meal to the last of the men; and Loki did not indicate that he understood or noticed the events at all.
They barely landed before Volstagg and his detractors were off the ship and preparing to fight. Thor left them to it, expecting his friend to be the victor.
Volstagg won both fights barehanded and proceeded to extract an apology from the men that suited him. Thor started to go congratulate him, but paused when he noticed Loki had been watching from the plank jutting down from the ship.
The scribe appeared surprised, which wasn't odd--Volstagg the Mighty often astounded those who'd never seen him fight before. But there was another expression in his eyes, too: a wary, considering look that Thor didn't trust.
He thought back and realized that the two men had only grown sick after Loki started helping serve the meals.
Thor clenched his jaw and turned toward him. Loki didn't notice--now that the fighting was over and Volstagg was resuming good terms with the other men, the scribe had returned to guiding a horse down to the shore. Thor told himself to wait until the scribe was finished and back on the ship; he'd spooked enough horses over the years that he'd grown careful of becoming angry around them.
And then he paused, and thought further.
Even if the scribe were partly mad--a suspicion Thor hadn't completely discarded--it was odd that he'd do this. The man had begun to behave more as he realized his escape from Farbauti relied on Thor. And this was not subtle work--his hand in it would have been noticed eventually.
But he'd still flouted Thor's order and gone after the men. Even if he were partly mad he had to expect consequences for that.
And yet he'd felt compelled to do it anyway.
Thor decided to find what connection there was between the three of them, and also to keep the scribe far from the food.
Volstagg took the news of the real cause of the men's illness poorly, but he at least didn't try to go throttle Loki again. He swore vociferously to keep the scribe away from their supplies.
The raiders spent most of the day setting up camp after a freshwater stream was found close by. The armed woman rode off with a smaller group of men, for what Loki guessed was scouting work; and others sought out game in the woods. Loki raised Thor's tent, working backward from the memories of the way he'd torn it down days ago and helped by Thjalfi when his injured arm couldn't hold a weight. Thor was busy with a different tent.
As he hammered in one of the tent pegs, Loki wondered idly why they'd waited to set camp until night last time but were doing it in advance today; but he assumed either the ship had arrived later or the presence of the temple had come as a surprise, and didn't bother to ask.
He'd run out of rotting oatcake, which made serving the evening meal pointless. Loki played up the strain of the day's chores on his arm, tugging often at his sling in hopes of getting out of it.
When it was ready, the cook didn't call him over or order his help. Despite being what he wanted, Loki noted it with a sense of suspicion. He kept a watchful eye on Thor.
But the man behaved no differently to him than usual. At dinner Loki ate his portion of cooked hare ravenously, sick of the taste of hard oatcake after a week of nothing else. Thor said something amusedly to him as he did; but it sounded more like a joke than an insult, so Loki only grunted in response. He rebound the man's wound after Thor returned from his time standing guard, and they slept again on the fur bedding with the hammer between them.
Loki remained awake until long after he was sure Thor had fallen asleep, thinking.
The man had a short temper. But he'd also shown he could take his time before revealing things he'd learned or noticed: the runes Loki had traced on his skin, his father's name. His silence didn't mean Loki was safe.
If Unna and Ingebjorg's captors no longer came into the hold for them, there would be no need for him to continue the oatcake trick. And if they did, he could think up a new one, one that didn't implicate him in it. But it was unfortunate this had come on the heels of that one raider dying; Loki had gathered it was the same man he'd stabbed trying to escape. He hadn't remembered his face.
Either way, his suspicion that Thor had learned of his actions would remain beneath the surface of the man's silence, keeping Loki on edge, waiting, until the man finally confirmed it.
When he was sure Thor was asleep, Loki wrapped a hand around the hammer and tested the heft.
He exhaled silently at its weight. He was at a bad angle, and trying to be silent, but it was still impossible to lift more than a fingerspan from the bedding. Loki thought of how easily he'd seen Thor swing and throw the weapon, the casual way he walked about with it looped to his belt. He knew the man was strong, and yet....
Loki set the hammer back down and let out another long, quiet breath.
There was nothing he could do now. He was ignorant of this land, knew nothing of its language or customs; he didn't know where the nearest inhabitance was, or even where he lay. His only option was to wait out the remainder of the raiding and go back with Thor to his home. Once he'd learned the language and the lay of that place, he would have more alternatives.
To return home would never be one. But in time, he could slip away with a handful of precious metals or money, and see where else he might go in the new land to start over. He would have to live as a slave and a bedwarmer to the barbarian until then, and make sure the man didn't grow bored and cast him out or sell him off or kill him until he had sufficient means to escape; but he could endure that. It was not the worst of all possible fates, not if it took him from Farbauti's reach forever.
Loki tucked his good arm beneath his head and shifted his bad one in its sling. The ache was still there, but had lessened slightly; the bruises on his neck and temple hurt less to the touch, and the cuts he'd gained running though the forest were mainly healed. He would live.
He would live, and learn, and get away, and start anew.
Loki closed his eyes and let himself sink into sleep.
The armed woman returned in the night. Loki woke when Thor was roused to hear the report, and woke again when he returned from it.
The raiders assembled in the predawn light and set off in it as well.
One stayed behind: a man with a heavily wrapped thigh, who was vexed at his perceived weakness and took it out on them, snapping orders in loud and angry tones. Most tried to avoid him as they carried out their chores, which forced the man to seek them out, limping on his bad leg, and only made him angrier when he caught up.
Loki kept a watchful eye on the raider as he worked, making sure the worst he did was shout and push. While he was distracted for a few moments straightening a half-collapsed pile of firewood, he heard the man yelp.
Loki glanced over to find the second boy nearby, hiding his hands behind his back and dropping a stone. The raider turned sharply, glaring; and then he pointed at Loki and barked something.
Do I look like I could have hit you at this angle, you damn fool? Loki thought, but stared at the man silently. The second boy--Egil, no acolyte or of any significance, just a stablehand who'd managed to survive when so many of his betters hadn't--shifted on his feet, looking as though his mind had finally caught up with the potential consequence of his actions.
The raider stalked over and grabbed Loki's bad arm roughly. He hissed, baring his teeth, and then quickly forced the expression down as the other man spoken threateningly.
The raider stopped several heartbeats later and glared. Then, angry that Loki didn't reply--as if he could have understood what he'd been saying with the words run together so bitterly, even if he knew more of their tongue than he did--he shook his arm once.
Loki clenched his jaw against another grimace and glanced at the man's thigh. The bandages were stained, the wound reopened from his constant dogging of their steps; one hard punch to it should put him to a knee. There were several pieces of kindling among the firewood large enough for Loki could grind into the wound, to keep the raider down until one of the others could grab a length of rope to bind him.
And then what?
Loki would have to release him eventually, before the other raiders returned or after it, and he doubted that would end well for him. The other option was to kill the man, and then dispose of him and craft a lie that could both be translated well and set the raiders at ease, and hope the corpse wasn't discovered before they sailed. And that was a winding, tricky path, full of too many potential pitfalls.
Thor had not yet indicated what his punishment was going to be for his hand in the death of the other raider--another threat lurking behind the man's current silence. He would be unwise to add a second corpse to his count before the first was paid off.
Loki bent his head and spoke nonsense in a contrite tone, not dignifying the raider with actual words. The man scowled at him for a few breaths more, and then finally released his arm.
Loki stepped back, eyes still lowered, and watched the man's feet for any indication of an attack as the raider spoke another warning. But when he'd finished, the man turned and limped off.
Loki eyed him coldly as he went, and then turned and glowered at Egil.
"Sorry, sir," the boy mumbled.
"Behave," Loki ordered irritably, and slapped the back of his head. "And be grateful you were lucky enough I was here."
When the sun crested the trees, Loki found the woman whom the raider had harassed the least and sent her to communicate that they needed food. The man parceled out pieces of oatcake to them after that, giving Loki a deliberately-broken smaller one. He managed not to roll his eyes and took it without comment.
They received no further orders after that, and most drifted into the tents for some respite. For a time Loki gathered with several of the women as they worked to fray apart the remains of Halgi's wrap by hand for its thread; he'd been unable to procure another knife with the guard watching so closely. Halgi had grudgingly surrendered it after Loki pointed out that as the high priest's acolyte, he was the highest-ranked among those who remained of the temple: the heavy mantle of responsibility fell on him.
"A poor trade, I know," Loki had added, "but it can be just as warming if you use it correctly," and the boy had given him a sour look that showed he didn't appreciate the pun or the advice.
Loki told one of his favorite tales of the Charioteer as the women worked, one specifically chosen: the group giggled and laughed as he embellished on the god's frustrations with the bridal dress he'd had to wear and on his abject failures to behave in womanly fashion at the wedding feast, their anger at the humiliations they'd had to bear sluicing away as they listened to another's; and many smiled fiercely at the close of the tale, as Loki described viscerally just how the thieves were punished for their presumption.
His shoulder was stiff by the time he finished, and a bruise was forming where the raider had grabbed him earlier. Loki, loathe to show weakness before others, left soon after. He was sitting in Thor's tent, carefully stretching out his arm, when the raiders returned.
Their arrival was louder than their leaving had been. Loki glanced outside long enough to determine that they'd returned with captives as well as inanimate spoils, then went to retrieve his sling.
He was still trying to adjust it properly when Thor called his name. Loki turned toward the opening, then jerked and froze up.
Thor stood there blocking the tent's entrance, streaked with blood and expression implacable. "Loki," he repeated, and gestured for him to come to him.
He couldn't move at first, held in place by a sudden, twisting sickness in his gut. He could almost feel the stone wall against his back, the statue's fragments digging into his leg; could almost smell the smoke of the gutted torches and the blood pooling on the floors beyond the hall. Loki abruptly felt more keenly the ache in his shoulder, the itch of the scabbed bite marks on his neck, and thought of that night barely a week ago, the weight on his back, the hand on his neck, the pressure downward--
No, he reminded himself, and then repeated it until he could believe it. No. No, that is over, and then couldn't help adding, for now.
He shook his head hard, forcing the memories away, and walked over.
When he looked at the barbarian again, the man was frowning quizzically; and Loki realized his gesture must have seemed like a refusal quickly reconsidered. "Aye, Thor?" he asked, to indicate he was obeying.
The barbarian studied him for another heartbeat, and then turned aside and spoke, and gestured for him to follow. Loki did so.
The man led him to the knot of new captives by the firepit. It occurred to Loki as he walked up that this was how he and his kith must have appeared days ago. He looked over at the barbarian, waiting to see why his presence was demanded.
He soon gathered that these people's language was also unknown to the raiders, and the barbarian wanted him to try communicating. Loki could see both Fandral and Thjalfi farther away in the camp, and wondered if this was a test.
He cast his eye over the group again, weighing expressions and body language. A few moments later, he addressed the woman whom a few others were huddled behind. "Do you understand me?"
She stared back balefully.
"I'm not one of them," Loki said, annoyed at having to point out the obvious.
The woman shook her head once, and still didn't speak. Loki pursed his mouth.
He crouched and drew the simplest of the runes, ice, in a patch of dirt flung up by the digging of the firepit. The woman glanced at it briefly before returning her gaze to him.
Loki waited for a bit, and then added two lines, turning it into the rune for the Charioteer. The woman continued to look at him without comprehension.
Loki stood and looked to Thor, shaking his head. The man exhaled in mild annoyance, but otherwise seemed unaggrieved; Loki supposed coming to him had been a final resort.
Thor shrugged once and gestured that he could go. Loki turned to do so, tugging absently on his sling as he did. It still sat awkwardly; he needed to get Unna and have her help him retie it properly.
The barbarian laid a heavy hand on his shoulder. "Loki."
He tensed before he could stop himself. A breath later, Loki forced himself to relax and twist back around. When he did, the man cupped his upper arm and looked down at it, brows drawn.
Loki glanced over and saw he was glaring at the fresh bruise.
The man spoke slowly, pointing at the bruise to make it clear what he was referring to. Loki shrugged his good shoulder; Thor was using no words he recognized.
Thor studied him for a time longer, with an expression Loki found difficult to determine. Then he called over his shoulder.
The one who answered his summons was the raider who'd guarded the camp that morning. As the man limped his way to them, Loki cursed Egil under his breath.
When the raider stopped beside them, Thor pointed to the bruise and asked something tersely. The other man paused, and then made an assenting noise; and then he launched into what Loki presumed was an explanation of the morning. Thor glanced at him partway through.
When the raider was finished, Thor pointed to the man and asked Loki something. He caught the word 'you,' assumed it was a question of whether he'd thrown the stone or not, and shrugged his shoulder again.
Thor gave him another odd, considering look. But at last he turned back to the other raider and spoke evenly, emphasizing some of his words and gesturing to Loki's arm again. The second man lowered his chin slightly, and nodded once.
I am property that's been damaged, Loki thought, and had to swallow hard to keep down a snarl.
The barbarian finished with his fellow and sent him on his way, his grip loosening on Loki's arm as he did. When Loki took a step to the side, out of his grasp, the man let him go.
As he left, Loki heard someone speak behind him, and recognized the unmistakable cadences of a chant.
He glanced over his shoulder and found it was the woman he'd addressed. She had a hand laid over the bleeding arm of one of the other captives.
Loki considered the actions with curiosity, then forced himself to look forward again, before the barbarian noted his interest.
The raiders still had adrenaline to burn. Some stayed behind, organizing their spoils, wiping down the horses, and keeping an eye on the new captives; most went out hunting.
Loki fetched water from the stream for Thor to rinse off while the physician examined his wound. After it was cleaned and the physician began to wrap it up again, he spoke to Thor as though chiding him. Loki took note of it.
The raider who'd remained behind had been wary of upsetting Thor, and many of the other invaders also addressed him respectfully. Though Thjalfi claimed the barbarian treated his men differently than his slaves, Loki suspected both groups were cautious of arousing his anger.
And yet Fandral, and the cook, and the armed woman often spoke to him differently, without that underlying caution. Loki now added the physician to that small list as well, and went to get more water when the man told him to.
The hunters returned with a great deal of bounty: two stags, a boar, several braces of hares and a good net's worth of birds. The cook set the captives to work cleaning and preparing the meat; even Loki was deemed trustworthy enough to pluck the birds, though he was allowed to do nothing else and he noted how the cook kept a sharp eye on him. The work was slow and tedious, more so because mainly one-handed, but Loki distracted himself by keeping an eye out for the new captive who'd been injured.
He spotted her eventually, hauling a bucket of bloody water away to be replaced with fresh. Her arm--though still bearing the red line of a wound--was no longer bleeding even with the effort of her work.
After Loki handed over the bird he'd plucked and received the next one, he found a seat close to the spell-talker and watched and listened carefully to all she did.
It took hours to cook everything. It was evening by the time the feast was laid out, and the invaders dug in enthusiastically, joking cheerily with those who'd had the poor luck to draw guard duty and shouting among each other half the time. Loki gathered from the way they spoke that it was a funeral as well as a victory feast, and felt it unwise to show his face. He remained in the tent.
He had to leave eventually, for necessities' sake. When he'd finished, Loki rinsed his hands in the ocean and then skirted carefully around the group of raiders until he reached Halgi.
The boy was crouched at the edge of the beach and studying the sky. He'd been tracing constellations in the sand.
"Where are we?" Loki asked.
"I'm not sure," Halgi answered. "It's not like calculating the calendar." He made a face, then tapped his drawing. "They should look like this," he said, pointing at the stars. "We've gone southwest. We're not in Jutland anymore," he added, glancing up. Loki nodded in agreement with a brief glance at the new, barbarous captives.
"But we haven't gone too far. So...maybe Frisia?" Halgi concluded.
"Ah," Loki murmured, folding his arms.
A moment later, he forced a chuckle. "Not too far."
Halgi shrugged. "Not compared to what it will be," he muttered.
Loki made an agreeing noise and thought back to a map that had come into the temple once. It was the only one he'd ever seen of any significant size; they'd made a copy and sent it as a present to Farbauti. Jutland had been nothing but a spit of land on the vellum, surrounded by much larger places.
He supposed the boy was right.
"Loki," Thor said nearby.
He dropped his arms and turned to face the man. Halgi started to erase his drawings, then stopped when Loki murmured, "You'll look more suspicious."
Thor glanced at the sketches briefly before gesturing for Loki to come to him. When he stepped forward, the man turned and began walking back to the fire.
Loki followed, shoulders tense, as Thor led him into center of the group of feasting, half-drunk raiders, assuming that retribution had finally come. But the man was only looking for someone to refill his horn.
As he took it and went to tap the nearest cask of mead, Loki saw Halgi scuffing out the constellations.
The scribe came over with his horn just as Thor saw the boy start back to his captor's tent.
"Boy!" he called. "Come here!"
The boy didn't look over and kept going. But Loki looked at him. Thor nodded to him and pointed at the boy: "Call him over."
Loki looked at him for a breath, with a fleeting expression that made Thor think back to the scribe's face in tent. But then he turned and called out.
The boy glanced at Loki. The man spoke further.
The boy started toward them slowly, looking between Thor and the scribe with a wary expression. Loki ignored it and held out the horn.
Thor took it and waved the boy closer with his free hand. "Relax," he said when he came a few steps nearer. "I only want to ask you something."
Thor leaned over and drew on the ground, retracing the lines the scribe had drawn earlier when talking to one of the newer captives. "What does this mean?"
The boy blinked at the picture. Loki shifted on his feet, and when Thor glanced at him from the corner of his vision he saw the fingers of his good hand had curled slightly.
The boy glanced almost imperceptibly at Loki. Then, as Thor watched, he put on a confused expression. The boy shook his head and pointed at Loki. He spoke a few words, his tone indicating that Thor was asking the wrong person.
Thor glanced at Loki again and caught the flash of another expression on his face--one he might have called gratitude if he hadn't started to think the scribe was incapable of that feeling.
Thor took a drink of mead and recalled that when Fandral had asked the other captives if they could read the note Loki had concealed, the boy had not been among them. He'd been in his captor's tent at the time, refusing to eat. He'd never been asked.
Thor waved the boy off. He drained the horn as the boy fled, and then handed it to Loki. "Bring me another."
The funeral feast ended eventually, after the men who'd drawn first sentry duty returned and had their fill. Thor took his place on the line, listening with amusement to Volstagg and Fandral boasting and quarreling until Sif pushed them to their tents with orders to sleep off the ale before it was their turn standing sentry. More and more men left the fire.
Nearby, Thor could hear clattering in his tent as the scribe did something with his share of the spoils. He wondered briefly if the man were stealing anything--but then he decided that Loki would be quieter about it if he were. That noise eventually tapered off as well. So did the sounds in the other tents, until the night turned quiet.
Eventually his turn was finished. When Thor returned to his tent, he saw in the firelight through the opening that the scribe had packed away most of his spoils. The rest lay lumped in one pile, either because he'd run out of space or grown bored or tired.
Loki stirred on the bed when he stepped inside--the man was a light sleeper. Thor had noted it before, and put it away with all the other potential dangers of the man.
"Good work," he said, pointing at the packs once Loki sat up. "Though we aren't leaving yet. Did you steal anything?" he added, quirking his mouth.
Loki gave him a drowsy, disgruntled look and waited for Thor to say something he understood. Thor shook his head and undid the bandages around his chest. "Never mind. Good work."
The scribe tensed when he removed his belt. Thor watched him in the side of his vision as he stripped off his armor and began to wash properly. Loki continued to sit on the bed--but now he was staring forward, and Thor was sure that if he could see the man's expression better it would be the same blankness he'd been so prone to at the last camp.
Thor thought again of the look on the scribe's face when he'd returned from the raid. It had not been displeasure at his safe return, or disgust at his bloody appearance--it had been a shaken look of fear. It had been quickly dispelled and hidden away, but it had been there.
Thor finished washing and reached for a bundle of cloth strips that Hogun had left behind earlier. "Loki."
He stood and gestured for the scribe to come over. "Help me bind this."
Loki did so, wrapping the bandages around his ribs while Thor held the pads over the openings of the wound. The scribe didn't speak, and neither did Thor. He'd been right about the man's blank expression.
Thor had planned to teach Loki how to clean and oil his armor, but he looked once more at the tension in the man's shoulders and decided to wait until next time. He gestured Loki back to the bed and settled down to do it himself.
It took longer than it should have. The strike and ensuing battle had pulled the wound open more than he'd admitted to Hogun; Thor had to be careful not to move his right side too much to keep it from rapidly bleeding through the cloth. He was aggravated by the time he finished and settled on the bed, but he tried to stop scowling after Loki glanced once at his face and then looked away. The scribe closed his eyes a heartbeat later. Thor bit down on a new scowl.
It had been a long day. He knew Loki was still awake when he sank into sleep, because the tightness in the scribe's muscles had yet to relax.
They lingered in Frisia. The raiders caught more game and fowl, and the cook smoked and salted the meat. Loki continued not to be permitted to touch the food beyond plucking birds, and yet no one mentioned the sick men as the cause, or approached him about payment for the dead one.
Loki kept a wary eye on Thor as the time stretched on. It wasn't inconceivable that he would suffer little or no consequences for his actions; such had happened before. But it had never happened without his efforts to charm and cajole forgiveness or at least tolerance out of those he'd upset. He had not done so this time--without a better grasp of the language, he could not. And so he waited, and felt the waiting eat at him.
Despite that, he made efforts to communicate with the spell-talker.
It went slowly, because he didn't want to arouse Thor's suspicions and because she didn't trust him. It took nearly half a day, and judicious use of gestures and scrawls in the dirt, for him to convey that he and his kith were the same as her. The distrust shifted to indifference then; but once he managed to explain he was interested in her spells, the wariness returned. By dusk, Loki was exasperated and gave up for a time.
He'd studied the camp as he refilled the water bucket throughout the day, and had determined that the spell-talker's captor was one of the men who sailed on his ship. As long as the raider didn't board the other one, the woman would be traveling with him.
Loki hadn't bothered to intercede on behalf of any of the new captives, even when one was foolish enough to fight with her captor and struck for it. They were no relation to him, so he bore no compulsion to risk himself as a shield. But he was willing to barter some protection to the woman in exchange for knowledge; the gain would be worth the increased burden.
He just had to make her understand it.
Tomorrow, Loki decided, as he dropped the bucket inside the tent and turned to acknowledge Thor calling his name. The man made a gesture indicating his drinking horn, and Loki went to find it.
He would start bargaining tomorrow. It would be better to get the spell-talker to accept as soon as possible--it was going to be difficult learning two new languages, and he didn't know how long the raiders intended to sail together.
The evening meal was a stew made mainly with seeds and vegetables brought back from the raid; most of the meat was hanging over stands built up around a small, heavily-smoking fire. Loki, curious how the cook planned to keep it from rotting, struggled to ask him about it. He was greeted with distrust and shooing gestures at first, but when Thjalfi interceded and explained his question, the man answered.
He warmed to the subject throughout the meal, with Fandral translating his treatise except for the times he abandoned it to jest with the man instead. Loki suspected much of what the cook was saying was wittier than Fandral was capable of relaying, for the others would snort at things that sounded dry when told to him.
Loki sat behind Thor, and ate and drank what he was given, and listened to all that was said by the group of five, trying to piece out more words. Thor glanced at him sometimes from the side of his eye; but he didn't address him beyond orders for Loki to fetch seconds or bring over another of the wineskins.
Thor took an early shift on guard duty for once. Loki was still awake when he returned, still sifting through potential plans in his mind; he sat up at the man's arrival, a non-verbal greeting that Thor seemed content with.
When Thor set the oil lamp he'd been carrying on the ground, Loki shifted on the bedding, readjusting his sling from where it had slid as he'd lain on his back. But the man only rinsed his face, and examined his bandages before leaving them as they were, and pinched out the light before settling on the bedding.
Loki had to shift over for him to do so. He remained sitting as Thor stretched out on the fur, staring down at him; as the man's eyes adjusted to the darkness of the tent, alleviated some by the firelight drifting in through the opening, Loki saw him frown. A moment later he asked a question.
Loki felt a sharp urge to grasp a fistful of the barbarian's hair and wrench.
Tell me what you want, he craved to demand. Tell me what you're going to take, so I can prepare. Enough of this silence and this waiting. Be done with it.
The barbarian's frown eventually deepened. The man questioned him again; when Loki still didn't answer, he pushed onto his elbows.
Loki thought again of that other night, the teeth in his neck and the hand in his hair, and an involuntary shudder ran down his back as the barbarian started to sit up.
He dropped down sharply onto the bedding, jarring the bruise on his temple and causing his necklace to bounce on his collarbone. The barbarian remained sitting, and Loki felt tension biting below his shoulder blades as the man looked down at him. He closed his eyes.
After many shallow breaths, he felt the barbarian set a hand on his shoulder. Loki lay still as the man prodded it carefully, jerking once when he pressed a particularly sore spot. The barbarian drew his hand away after that, and asked another question. Loki caught the word 'shoulder.'
"It's not healed yet," he answered, eyes still shut.
The barbarian huffed out an aggravated noise, and Loki dug his fingers a little tighter into the fur. But all the man did was lay a hand on his upper arm, running his thumb over the bruise from yesterday. He spoke again.
Loki made a noncommittal noise and half-shrugged his good shoulder.
Thor commented no further, but neither did he pull his hand away. Instead, he continued to rub his thumb gently along the skin of Loki's upper arm, pushing the sleeve of his wrap up and sliding his hand higher so it was no longer on the bruise. Loki lay as he was, eyes closed, waiting.
A great deal of time passed, and finally Thor stilled his hand. He pulled it away a heartbeat later; Loki slitted his eyes open and watched as the man settled back down on the bedding, shifting to find a position that didn't put pressure on his wound. Thor muttered something as he did; but it was low and indistinguishable, and Loki couldn't catch any words he knew. He didn't reach for him again.
Loki slept poorly.
His head ached through the early morning chores, from the ill sleep or hitting the bruise or both. It made him sullen and withdrawn, fed up with the constant demands from the raiders and the other temple folk, and left him craving the peace and prestige of the scriptorium.
He shook it off by mid-morn.
When the raiders gathered for a discussion around the fire, Loki stole a cake of soap from the physician's tent. He sent Unna to convince the spell-talker to join them at the river, knowing it would take longer than if he went himself; Loki and the other woman had eked out a rudimentary understanding that Unna lacked. But Loki wasn't sure the spell-talker would accept the offer if he extended it.
He told Halgi as well, to mollify the boy since he was still irked over losing his wrap.
Halgi brought Egil with him when he managed to slip away, which Loki didn't comment on; but Unna arrived not only with the spell-talker but with several other women as well, some from the temple and some from the new captives. More arrived steadily, as they managed to find excuses to depart for the river. Loki refrained from muttering under his breath only because Halgi was within hearing, gave up on speaking to the spell-talker for the moment, and cracked the soap on a rock. He tossed half to Unna and resumed washing.
When he finished rinsing out his hair, Loki broke the soap again and gave Halgi a chunk to make the boy shut up. Then he dragged his clothes into the water and began washing them, trying not to worsen the fraying and unsure if he was cleaning them right; this was laundresses' work, not something he should be ruining his hands with.
Eventually Loki decided it was as well done as it would ever be, wrung everything out, and tossed them onto the riverbank to dry in the sunlight. He glanced over at Halgi to find the boy crouched in the shallows, turned away from the women and struggling to wash one leg stuck up above the water. Egil had long been driven far up the opposite bank when some of the women caught him spying on them; Loki hadn't gone to his aid, since a few tossed stones seemed fair punishment for being caught.
"Aren't you done yet?" he asked.
"It's hard!" he retorted.
"Has the Charioteer fallen so low that his acolytes now include those incapable of taking a bath?" he derided. "Are you a monk? Just wash."
Halgi muttered something under his breath that ended in 'no better than a rune-stone poet.'
Loki threw a handful of water at his head for the insult.
Halgi flung more back at him. He retaliated, and it went on for a little while until Loki decided he was degrading himself by water-fighting with a boy and turned his back. He ignored the last splash sent in his direction, and wrung out his hair once more before giving his clothes a considering look. A piece of soap pelted him on the arm.
Loki fished it from the water and looked over at the women with a raised eyebrow.
Unna, half-submerged with an arm modestly pressed over her chest, smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry, sir," she called. "It slipped."
"These things happen," he replied, and tossed it back to her.
He shifted away after she caught it, but watched from the corner of his vision. Unna didn't turn aside once the soap was back in her hand; instead, she checked over her shoulder on the others.
Loki caught her eye when she looked back at him. Unna smiled, rolling the fragment of soap in her palm before glancing slyly at the forest.
A breath later she paled and turned away.
The smirk that had begun to play on Loki's lips disappeared as he took a quick look at the trees. Thor and the armed woman were standing at the edge of them, watching their group and talking to each other.
Loki turned aside, toward Halgi.
"Go see the others back to the camp," he ordered.
"Huh?" Halgi replied. The boy glanced reflexively at the woods leading back to the encampment, then straightened. "Already?"
"More than half of us are here," Loki replied, rinsing his face to buy a bit more time. "It's surprising we had as long as we did. Go."
Halgi glanced at him. "What about you?"
When Loki didn't answer, the boy straightened his shoulders. "I'll explain." He rubbed water from his face. "I'm the highest ranked."
Loki rolled his eyes at the bravado. "I said that because I wished to keep my clothes," he replied dryly. "You're a boy. Go see to the others."
Halgi muttered something under his breath, but gave the raiders a concerned look. "Are you sure?"
"I know more of their words than you," Loki replied, which couldn't be argued with, and then waded to the bank to grab his robe.
Thor watched with his arms folded over his chest as the scribe dressed while still in the water, soaking his robe's hem as he climbed out of the river. Beside him, Sif eyed the women scrambling to get dressed.
"I can't decide if it would be worse to let Fandral know about this, or to listen to him whine because he wasn't told," she commented.
"You'd rather listen to him complain," Thor replied, because he knew her.
A slow smile crossed Sif's face. "I would," she agreed, and Thor chuckled.
He noticed that although the rest of the captives were almost finished hastily dressing or were already making their way back to the camp, Loki was still standing on the bank and drying his face with his cloth belt. Sif glanced at the scribe as well and her smile disappeared.
"I'll see that they all return and alert the others that we found them," she said. "I'll be back on sentry duty after that, if you need me."
"Your turn's already done," he replied with a faint frown.
"I think the men will want to make good use of their time before we're back on the ship," Sif said wryly, eying the damp captives again.
Thor shook his head. "Whoever's on duty can wait until their lot's done."
"I prefer not to be in camp right now," Sif replied, adjusting her armor. "A different branch of fate, and that could have been me."
Thor blinked, and thought back to when they'd first met in battle.
"That's impossible," he said. "In any branch."
Sif gave him a long, long look that almost softened by the end.
"Thor," she replied, and then simply shook her head.
"I can clean my weapons while on guard," Sif said. "I doubt anyone will find us before we sail; no one escaped to warn the neighbors." She gave Loki one last dubious look before turning to follow the final captives to the camp. "Don't let him stab you in the back."
"I won't," Thor replied, mildly annoyed at the assumption the scribe might manage it before he remembered the healed cut on the back of his neck. Sif nodded once and left.
No one else had lingered--with her departure, all that remained was him and Loki.
Thor stayed by the trees and watched the scribe. Loki finished drying his face and arms, and then gathered his sling and over-clothes from the ground in one hand.
Thor let his arms drop as the scribe started towards him. He fell in step beside Loki when the man reached him and paused briefly. Loki glanced at him from the side of his eye as they took a slower route back to the camp, but he didn't speak.
"You should have asked if you wanted to bathe," Thor said. "I wouldn't have refused. But having half the spoils disappear with you blackens your name further."
Loki's unintelligible reply sounded calm, but Thor didn't doubt that there was a strain of mockery in it that he couldn't interpret. He gave Loki an irked look.
And then he looked again, closer, and noticed the slightly awkward way the scribe was walking.
Loki glanced at him a few breaths later as Thor continued to stare, and made a flippantly questioning comment. Thor reached out and ran a hand over the man's hip briefly before sliding it down to grip his partially-hard cock through his robe.
Loki gasped sharply and faltered to a stop. Thor smirked at the sound and pushed him against the nearest tree.
Loki drew in another quick breath before dropping his clothes. He laid his hands on Thor's waist, rubbing a thumb against Thor's chest above the bandages.
Thor couldn't restrain a low noise at the gesture. He let go of Loki's cock and grabbed a handful of his robe instead, pulling it up and over the man's head. Loki lifted his arms and arched away from the tree to help, and Thor's grin widened.
He braced a hand against the trunk and stared down at the scribe, drinking in the full sight of him naked, at last, in decent light. He was as well-built as Thor's hands had told him: tall and fair, shapely-formed, and sleekly muscled beneath those deceptive clothes. His chest rose and fell in shallow breaths, and when Thor looked back to his face he found Loki staring at him with half-lidded and--at last--hungry eyes.
Loki glanced down a breath later, and then dragged his hands along the belt and fur of Thor's armor to press his palms against Thor's thighs. Thor leaned into them and gripped Loki's cock again, feeling it swell in his hand with each rough stroke. Loki exhaled deeply and pressed his head against the tree, closing his eyes.
"Is privacy what it takes to make you stop fighting?" Thor asked, rubbing his thumb over the head at the next stroke to feel the scribe jerk against him. "Or do you have to be primed by women first?"
Loki slitted his eyes open just enough to glare at him. "What?"
"That's a good word for you to know," he agreed. "Who taught you that one?"
Loki made an irritated noise and canted his hips forward, trying to make Thor resume his earlier pace.
"Very well," he said lowly, pleased when Loki shivered in response.
Thor drew it out, stroking heavily for a time and then slowing down or pulling back when the scribe started to tense. Loki hissed, and snarled, and cursed in his own tongue, and dug his nails hard into Thor's thighs; and Thor ignored it all and rubbed his hands over the scribe's hips and belly and chest each time before resuming until Loki moaned and began to speak in a pleading voice.
"Very well," Thor said again with a grin; and this time when he gripped the scribe's cock he didn't relent.
Loki choked down his noises at first, but soon even that became more than his sharp mind could handle. They turned to keening sounds that grew shakily louder until at last he came in Thor's hands.
The force of it bent him forward, leaving his forehead pressed against Thor's shoulder as he gasped for air in the aftermath. Thor tangled a hand in the scribe's hair and pulled his head back, wanting to see him like this.
Loki's face was flushed and his eyes dark as he stared hazily at him. Thor felt warmth pool in his belly at the display and heat further from the knowledge that Loki had been brought to such a state by him.
But his vision soon cleared. As it did, Loki ran his hands up Thor's thighs and beneath his armored loincloth, and then slid one further to encircle his aching cock.
Thor groaned and rocked forward into it, bracing an arm against the trunk beside Loki's head. Loki glanced at the arm and then back at his face, licking his lip absently. Thor made a hungry noise at the sight; and Loki did it again, slower and much more deliberate.
"How have none of your bedpartners strangled you before now?" Thor growled.
Loki snickered, understanding his strain if not his words. Thor closed his eyes and let his head drop forward as the scribe slowly began to stroke him. He resisted the urge to wrap a hand around Loki's and teach him the way to please him; instead, Thor let him do as he wished. Loki took full advantage of it.
Loki teased more than stroked, running curious fingers along Thor's shaft before abandoning it to tug on his foreskin, or cup his balls, or rub the joint of his hip and thigh. He returned a hand to Thor's cock only when Thor growled his name in warning, and never kept it there long enough before something drew his attention off again.
It made Thor wonder if the scribe had ever had a man before, in any way. The thought of being the first--the first to make such a clever, vicious man yield, to hear the sounds he made when unsoft hands touched him, to be touched by him--sent a shudder along his spine. The next time Loki started to pull away, Thor grabbed his wrist and held him in place.
"You'll learn the feel of me soon enough," he promised roughly. "Finish this."
Loki gazed at him through his lashes with the faintest hint of a smirk that Thor wanted to slap from his face. But the scribe wrapped a hand around his cock and began to stroke him evenly, echoing the way Thor had brought him off before. Thor closed his eyes and pressed his forehead to Loki's neck.
Loki kept a hand on his thigh as he stroked, running his palm over the muscles that flexed each time Thor pushed into his grip. Every so often his breath hitched when Thor thrust harder than usual. Thor nipped his throat at the next one and was rewarded with a muted gasp and Loki's hand tightening around him.
Thor bit down on the spot and worried the skin between his teeth until he knew it would bruise later. Loki groaned and muttered something, and began to stroke harder.
It didn't take Thor long to crest, not between the waiting and the friction and the pure pleasure of Loki finally touching him of his own volition. Thor rocked hard against him as he came, barely hearing Loki's gasp over the roar of blood in his ears; Loki's hand slid from his cock and gripped his thigh instead.
His hands were still tight on his thighs when Thor had finished and his heartbeat begun to calm. He glanced up and found that Loki's eyes were closed. The scribe's breathing had evened, but it was still shallower than before Thor had pressed him against the tree.
Thor kicked one of Loki's feet further to the side and rocked hard against him, and the scribe's sharp gasp was well worth the jolt of sensitivity. Loki blinked his eyes open to stare at him and Thor grinned brightly before doing it again, rolling his hips forward slow and hard. Loki bit his lip as he was wracked with a shudder.
He shook his head a breath later, pressing his palms hard against Thor's thighs. Loki mumbled a word, but didn't look at him.
Thor studied him for several heartbeats, a frown crossing his face as he did.
The man expected to be ignored. That was clear to see in the bend of his neck and the tautness of his arms. Thor thought again of that brief flash of fear on Loki's face when he'd returned from the last raid.
He huffed out a breath, and Loki tensed further.
"Not here," Thor agreed. He pushed several strands of damp hair away from the scribe's temple. Loki blinked at the gentle touch and finally looked at him again. "I would have all the time I desire to learn you."
Thor nipped his throat once more before leaning back. Loki let out a shaky breath after he did, and Thor ran a hand slowly over his waist and hip.
After some time, Loki shook his head briefly as if to clear it. He looked up at Thor. "Wash."
"Aye," Thor agreed, and pushed away.
Loki picked up his clothes but didn't bother pulling any on as they trudged back to the river. Thor fell a pace behind him and admired the sight. Loki glanced over his shoulder at him once; he sighed deliberately, but didn't comment.
Thor paused on the bank to remove his boots before splashing straight into the river, needing to rinse his loincloth as well as his skin. Loki padded farther out into the water, letting the current sluice sweat and seed from him. Thor narrowed his eyes when the action widened the gap between them.
Loki rinsed his face and dragged his hands over his stomach and thighs, and then waded back to the bank. He pulled on his robe and began to wind his belt around his waist as Thor finished rinsing.
Thor returned to the bank and reached for his boots. Loki picked up his over-clothes and turned in the direction of the encampment. "Camp?"
"Wait," Thor replied.
When the scribe looked at him, Thor pointed to the ground where he was standing. "Stay here. Wait. They mean the same thing."
"Hm," Loki replied, and remained.
Thor fastened his boots and stood, shaking water from his loincloth. "Let's go."
Loki thwacked some of the dirt and grass from his over-clothes before gingerly pulling them on. Thor held one side to make it easier for the scribe to slide his injured arm through the sleeve and then helped him put on the sling; he wasn't thanked.
Thor made an irked noise but wasn't truly surprised. "Camp. Let's go."
As they made their way back, he added, "We're sailing tomorrow. Pack tonight."
Loki looked over and blinked once. Thor repeated the words, along with multiple gestures to indicate sailing, the morn, and packing, until Loki nodded once and said, "Aye chieftain."
"'Aye, Thor,'" he corrected. "You should call me 'Lord Thor.' You aren't a man of mine."
"Aye," Loki replied impassively.
Thor grit his teeth. He was tempted to grab the scribe by the back of his neck and shake him, as if that would make the insolence fall out--but they were already in sight of the sentry line, and Thor didn't care to let others know how much a mere slave was capable of riling him. "Aye, Lord Thor."
Loki nodded once, as if acknowledging him; but he didn't reply. Thor caught the faintest hint of a smirk on his lips, and realized he'd given the scribe yet another way to mock him.
"You are not as clever as you think," he warned, and shoved the man at his tent.
Loki spent the evening, save supper, in packing. Thor spent most of it in the company of his four confidants, though for a time he remained inside the tent being lectured by and arguing with the physician over his wound. Loki listened without looking over, appearing preoccupied with the riddle of packing an increased amount of spoils into the same number of bags.
The man stayed out long on guard duty, as usual; Loki had fallen asleep by the time he returned. He debated pretending to still be so, but then decided that was unwise and made himself sit up.
But Thor only dropped onto the bedding after removing his wrist-guards and soon fell asleep. Loki dragged his bangs back from his forehead and made a face; but he settled back down and eventually did the same.
The spell-talker was found out as a witch and hung that morning.
Loki watched from the ship as the raiders dug a pit, and then cut down her corpse and threw it in before piling stones over it. When they began to drag buckets of sand from the beach and pour them over the rocks, sealing the gaps, he went down to the hold and resumed his ordered task of moving the water barrels into place, more keenly aware than ever that it was his ability to read and write, not just speak, that kept the noose off his neck.
What was the point, Loki wondered, of roaming so far from home, risking death in battle and drowning at sea, in order to ignore any knowledge that might be gained in the traveling? Metal and gems had their value and appeal, but to collect only them and not any learning that might also be had was idiocy.
Barbarians, he reminded himself, and wrested the barrel into place.
Both non-explicit and explicit references to situations of serious dubious consent in this chapter. (Slavery! It is a bad institution.)
They sailed nearer to the coast on this trip than the one before. Loki paused at the railing once during midday, and could just barely see the shore on the edge of the horizon. He wondered how familiar the raiders were with the area; were they being reckless? Or did they know that there was no one to see them along this stretch?
Or was this close to their home?
Loki tried to calculate what four days' seafaring would translate to on foot. Would it be far enough from Farbauti? Or would he be better off to continue farther south once he escaped? What were the roads like in this place?
What is this place, Loki reminded himself, and set the thoughts aside. He didn't know enough yet; there was little point to spinning plans until he learned where they were going to settle.
"We're traveling more south than west now," Halgi said the next evening. He rearranged the fragments of straw he was using as a map of the stars he'd been viewing on the deck above, after Unna had asked and Loki had ordered him to go.
He and Loki sat near the kitchen by one of the oil lamps, because Ingebjorg was still helping Unna clean herself in the area where they slept. Halgi had returned when her captor came back up from the hold.
"So we're traveling toward Walcheren," the boy concluded.
Loki frowned, trying to recall the map he'd copied once. "There's a bend there, correct?"
Halgi nodded. He shifted more pieces of straw, recreating part of the map; the original had been stored with the calendars and other priestly documents, so he'd viewed it more than Loki. "We'll turn west if we keep sailing." He laid more straw in a curving line, and then placed a piece above it. "Then we'll be between Normandy and Britannia."
He paused, hand still over the higher straw. "...If we're lucky, we'll keep going west. Or they'll reverse their route or head inland to wherever they live." He dropped his voice, until it was partially covered by the women's murmuring and only Loki could hear it. "If we turn north...."
He bit his lip, not wanting to risk the bad luck of speaking the rest. Loki recalled enough of the map to remember what lay northward: Britannia, then several isles; and then great stretches of ocean, broken only by that distant island and the nigh uninhabitable territory beyond it.
That might be far enough from Farbauti. But it would also leave him stranded in Thor's land, isolated and at far greater risk of being run to ground once he escaped.
There was a rustle of cloth back in the sleeping area as Ingebjorg continued, "You should be less accommodating."
"I don't want to be hit," Unna replied.
"Then be soft if you must when we're on land," Ingebjorg said flatly. "Throw up on him and pretend to be sick while we're here, and then you'd at least have some peace."
"...Maybe," Unna mumbled. "But he'd still hit first before he left."
"It doesn't hurt for that long," Ingebjorg answered, because she'd already taken her own advice. Between the rotten oatcake Loki had fed him and her false seasickness, her captor no longer bothered to come below the hold to use her. Unna's was more persistent.
Halgi scowled and tore a piece of straw between his fingers.
"Stop," Loki said. "You can't defeat him in a fight."
"Then tell me a tricky way to make him quit," Halgi snapped.
"I'm thinking," Loki replied. "The first one didn't work."
Halgi exhaled through his teeth and ripped up another piece of straw.
The raider came down again the next evening, but this time he was pulled into the kitchen by the cook, who blustered on about something until the other man gave up arguing.
Unna asked Halgi to leave and check on the direction they were sailing. When he argued, her tone grew more strained; the cook had gone above, leaving her captor apparently in guard of his area, but there was no telling how long might pass before he returned and the raider was freed of his impromptu duty. Loki sat against one of the bales, listening to the strides of the raiders on the wooden slats above and watching the opening of the kitchen, growing exasperated.
"Are you going to make her beg?" he asked flatly after Halgi refused yet again to depart. "You need to leave because if you act rashly in her defense, you'll make things worse for all of us."
The boy flinched.
He bit his lip a moment later, then finally nodded once and left. Ingebjorg had already curled up against the wall of the ship, her wrap draped over her head, pretending at sleep. Loki stayed where he was, watching.
After a few breaths, Unna moved over and sat down on his good side.
"Give me more time," Loki muttered. "I'll come up with something."
Unna fidgeted with her fingers.
"It isn't awful," she murmured eventually. ". . . Sometimes I pretend he's you, on a bad day."
Loki raised an eyebrow. "...I don't know what I think of that."
"It's a very bad day," she confided, and he chuckled once.
They sat like that for a time longer. Loki could hear the raider grumbling to himself in the kitchen. Farther down, in the cramped area among the water barrels and dried meat--where the other captives had been forced to settle when Loki made it clear the four of them would not be sharing their slightly more comfortable area--two of the foreigners were talking quietly while the third just sat, toying listlessly with the hem of her dress. Ingebjorg shifted occasionally, seeking a more comfortable position on the scattered straw.
"...Is it wrong, not to fight more?" Unna whispered, twisting her hands together. "Is the Charioteer not answering my prayers because he's ashamed of me?"
Loki's fingers curled slightly, because the same thought had drifted across his mind, late during the nights.
He shook his head.
"We're replaceable chattel to these filth," Loki replied. "There's no shame in behaving in a way that will keep you alive until you can flee or take revenge. 'A corpse is no use to anyone.'"
Ingebjorg shifted again; but if she held a different opinion, she kept it to herself.
"He never waits when there's a fight to be fought," Unna said. "Or holds back when he's been insulted."
"Which is occasionally to his detriment," Loki pointed out. "And have you forgotten?" he added, pretending bemusement. "He tricked that dwarf to its death when it wanted the hand of his daughter. He knows deception has its place."
Unna hesitated, but at last nodded. She stilled her hands a little later.
In time the cook returned; the two men spoke in the kitchen before the raider left it. Unna shifted away.
Her captor came just close enough to their area to gesture for her to come to him. When she stood, he started toward the opposite side of the hold, where some space still remained in anticipation of future spoils. Unna followed.
Loki leaned back against the bale and closed his eyes, thinking. The raider had to be stopped; this was wearing at Unna, causing discord between her and Ingebjorg, vexing him and making it harder to protect their space against the other captives as it grew clear he had little power to exercise, and Halgi was undoubtedly going to crack and do something destructive if this continued. The man had to be convinced to cease coming down for her.
The issue was how. He had so few tools at hand: no weapon or way to conceal a corpse, no ability yet to speak well enough to cajole the invader to desisting, no--
There was a creak on the ladder leading to the deck, and soon he heard Thor's voice.
Loki blinked his eyes open.
Thor was speaking cheerfully with the other raider, a hand clasped on his shoulder. Unna had shifted against the wall of the ship, as far from Thor as she could manage; farther back, the other captives had fallen silent and were watching the two warily.
Loki thought of the way Thor had returned from the past raid streaked again in blood, and wondered how much of that side of the barbarian they had seen.
The men continued to talk, and Loki soon narrowed his eyes. The more he listened, the less it sounded like a conversation. The raider spoke little, and what he did was short or interrupted; and Thor's words, while cheery, had an undercurrent beneath them that brooked no argument. He still had a hand on the raider's shoulder. In the faltering light of the kitchen's oil lamps, it looked careless enough; but such weak light could be deceptive.
The other raider eventually made a dismissive gesture toward Unna, shooing her away as he answered some question of Thor's. She returned quickly to the relative safety of the bales, glancing at Loki as she moved behind them. He made the barest shrug of a shoulder and continued to study Thor and the raider.
Several more words, and the cook leaned out of the kitchen with a comment. Both men snorted at it, and Thor half-turned toward the cook, arm falling away from the raider as he did.
A few more words, another quip from the cook, and then Unna's captor shook his head with a half-grin. He made an acknowledging gesture to Thor, which was greeted with another smile and amused comment; and then he made his way to the ladder, and up it, and out of the hold.
Thor spoke to the cook for a brief time longer, turning more serious. He moved into the kitchen for several breaths as he did, preventing Loki from hearing any significant words or even determining the tone of his voice. Then at last he left it, and started toward their group.
Loki watched him approach without moving.
Thor hadn't quite reached them when he tossed something at him. Loki caught it reflexively, glancing down: it was a slab of oatcake.
Thor crouched before him. Loki resisted the urge to press his shoulders back against the bale as the man spoke evenly, pointing first at the oatcake and then gesturing to the women. Loki flicked his gaze to them before refocusing on Thor.
As he'd thought, he'd been found out. Unsurprising; it had hardly been that well-crafted a trick. He had so few tools here.
He couldn't help noticing the exit was blocked--he'd have to pass the kitchen to reach the ladder, and he'd already seen the startling ferocity the cook fought with--or that there was no possibility of aid. Halgi remained above, for what little use he might have been; Ingebjorg was curled up still in the corner, Unna huddled against her; and the foreign captives wouldn't bother.
"Loki," Thor said, and he lifted his chin and stared at the man.
Thor said something else, voice still level, and pointed at the oatcake again before shaking his head. Loki caught the word 'you' once, and then a second time as Thor pointed to himself.
The man paused then. Thor watched him for a moment, trying to determine whether he'd understood; when Loki didn't respond, he indicated the women and the oatcake again. Thor spoke the same words as before, shaking his head solemnly, before gesturing to himself once more and ending his statement with greater emphasis than the first time.
Loki's fingers tightened.
So he was no longer allowed to even settle his own affairs. Instead, he was supposed to petition the barbarian to interfere on his behalf, hope that the aid would be so generously granted, and then submit to whatever price was placed on the giving.
Of course he was expected to do as much. He was a slave now, not a man.
Loki closed his eyes and drew in a long breath, then exhaled it slowly through his teeth. He pushed down the sharp spike of fury, swallowing it until such time as it could serve him better, and opened his eyes to gaze at the barbarian again.
"Aye, Lord Thor," he replied, because there was no other answer to give in the circumstances.
The barbarian considered him for a brief time longer, but at last nodded. A breath later he held out his hand, and Loki set the oatcake back in it. Thor rose to his feet, pointing at him momentarily with a chiding comment, before returning to the kitchen. He tossed the oatcake in to the cook, and they spoke a few more words before Thor left.
Loki noted the considering way one of the foreign captives was eying him, and ignored it.
Halgi clattered down almost as soon as Thor was gone. "What happened?" he demanded, surprised.
"Shut up," Loki snapped.
Halgi jerked his chin up with a scowl, because even though Loki was older the acolyte out-ranked him.
"Here," Unna interceded, gesturing for Halgi to cease pestering him and go over to her. "Come here. I'll tell you."
Ingebjorg sighed and shook her wrap away from her hair. "Would that he'd done that a little sooner," she muttered.
Loki's lips curled back; but he forced the expression away a heartbeat later, before it could reveal that this wasn't by his design.
They continued southwest.
It was a good season, with rich takings and little permanent harm to his men. Frey voiced appreciation once at Thor's decision to turn south rather than continue around Jutland and up the coast. Even Skirnir found nothing to deride about their course except possibly that their holds were too full.
It was the closest they had to a problem. A few men sold their captives when they docked at a trading village. Thor bartered several cloaks that his brother had sent with him for the goods Balder desired.
He'd brought back a pretty, timid girl after one of the raids--but the scribe showed no interest in her beyond someone to foist the most tedious of his chores on. So Thor traded her also for a bar of iron that he gave to Sif to make the new spear she'd been considering.
The winds remained generous as they sailed. The sea god kept his storms elsewhere. And Loki worked no more mischief--at least, not that Thor uncovered.
It was a very good season for a time.
"Frey's ship is falling behind," Njord said one day at midmorn.
Thor shifted to look at where he was frowning. Frey's ship had drifted farther back from theirs, and it was turning toward the coast. There were fewer men above deck than normal.
"He must have sprung a leak again," Thor remarked.
Njord made a disgusted sound. "It's a wonder that coffin stayed afloat this long."
They adjusted the sails and made for the stretch of coast where Frey's ship was aiming.
Once they landed Frey determined that shipworms had burrowed into part of his hull. He and his men burned them out and then Njord began to plug and tar the holes. He grumbled the whole time, even though Frey was paying for the materials.
Frey eventually sought Thor out while he was raising his tent.
"I recognize that the quality of my ship offends your helmsman on a personal level," his friend said dryly, "but would you have him still his tongue while my men are in hearing? I need to get them back on it."
Thor snorted and then nodded. "I'll speak to him. Did he say how long we'll be remaining?"
"Until the sealant takes," Frey answered. "He couldn't say exactly, with the wood damp."
Thor nodded, predicting a few days at the least. "Do you know this area?"
Frey shook his head. "I've never stopped here before."
Thor hammered in the last tent peg and straightened. "Nor I. Sif will ride out with some scouts. At worst, we'll hunt and refill the water barrels."
Frey nodded. "Fair enough."
He left to see to his own shelter. Thor went to Njord and suggested he use fewer curses and dire predictions in his work, and then went to find the scribe. Loki had disappeared at some point after hauling the tent from the ship.
He found the man in the undergrowth where the beach turned to land. He was pulling bunches of small red berries off a bush.
Thor lifted a sprig from the makeshift pouch the scribe had created with his over-clothes and inspected it long enough to determine they weren't poison.
He dropped them back and said, "These taste bad." Thor mimicked eating and making a face, and then gestured for Loki to come with him. "Camp. There's still work to do."
Loki snapped off several more bunches--but he did it while following Thor back. Thor huffed but let the matter lie, and assumed the foreigner had terrible taste.
When he returned from sentry duty that night, he found Loki still awake and mashing the berries into a paste. He was using a silver bowl he'd taken from Thor's spoils without asking.
Thor gave him an annoyed look. But he was almost growing used to the man's arrogance, so he sat down across from Loki and slung off his fur wrap. "What is that?" he asked, pointing to the paste.
Loki answered, and then made a painting gesture.
Thor smiled slightly at the sign that Loki understood him better. And then he paused, and considered the other implications of his response.
If he was making paint, it meant there was something he wanted to put it on. Thor had come across foreigners who painted their skin before--but not in Jutland. Which meant the scribe intended to use it on something else. The paste didn't look capable of staining the dark cloth of his clothes, the leather of his sandals or the gold of his necklace; and the man owned nothing else.
But there were other things he'd created.
Thor undid his vambraces and set them aside. He pulled a few tufts of grass from the ground to expose the dirt beneath. When Loki glanced over, eyebrow raised, Thor traced out the lines the man had carved into his ship when he'd first been brought on it and then pointed at them. "What do these mean?"
Loki scowled and erased the lines sharply with the heel of his hand. Before Thor could respond in offense, he redrew them with one line at a different angle.
Loki gave him a dark look and pointed at Thor's hand. "No. Do bad," he warned, gesturing to the lines, "and trouble."
Thor pulled the oil lamp closer and considered the scribe's writing. He decided it looked more akin to the carvings on the ship than his own had.
Thor caught Loki's gaze, touched the lines and asked again, "What do these mean?"
Loki responded by erasing them once more. He wiped off the butt of the awl he'd been mashing the berries with and used its point to draw a jagged row of lines in the dirt.
He sketched the outline of a ship above them, and then looked at Thor and indicated the jagged lines.
"/Ocean/?" Thor asked, recalling Loki's word for the sea.
"Aye, chieftain," he answered. Loki redrew the lines he'd carved in a patch of dirt above the ship before erasing the rough waves below it. In their place he drew a straight line.
Thor eyed it for several breaths.
"Calm seas?" he asked, pointing to the flat line. "These are a charm for good sailing?"
Thor continued to study the drawing, and soon Loki half-smirked. He erased the ship and water and drew some sharp waves again, and then put a curved arc over them that Thor took for a capsized boat. Loki asked something dryly, pointing at Thor and then the drawing as he did.
"I had fair reason to think that," Thor groused.
Loki drawled out a comment and sketched a man lying under the waves. He tapped it once before pointing to himself and gave Thor a dubious, amused look.
"You've shown little consideration of the consequences of your actions to your life before," Thor said evenly.
The amusement left the scribe's face. Loki turned back to the bowl and resumed mashing the berries.
Thor reached out and tapped a finger on the rim. "This is mine," he said, gesturing to himself. "Ask before you use something of mine."
"Aye, Lord Thor," he corrected nearly by rote, before adding, "You aren't saying them like they're one word anymore." Thor gave him a considering look. "You're a swift learner."
Loki shrugged a shoulder.
The scribe was a very quick learner. Thor didn't doubt that he'd picked up more of their language than he pretended over the weeks that had passed--Loki gave himself away by mastering the inflections of words even when erring in their use or placement.
Thor hadn't called him out on it. It was possible that the man simply had a good ear for cadences that let him mimic inflections, and that sheer stubbornness kept him from learning more words and phrases than he needed. The errors he made were nearly all the same each time.
And if Thor was correct, it seemed a wiser course of action to let Loki think he was deceived. The man was so tricky that Thor was unwilling to relinquish this upper hand.
Even though it meant allowing Loki to persist in speaking back to him in his own tongue, often with words Thor had recognized for certain as mocking regardless of the tone they were said in.
He flicked a finger against the bowl. "This can wait until morning."
Loki looked over once more. Thor stood and gestured for the man to come to him.
Loki rapped the awl on the edge of the bowl to knock off the paste clinging to it. He wiped away the remaining excess as Thor undid his belt, and then reached over and pinched out the lamp.
In many ways, the scribe was still skittish in his bed. Thor had found that as long as he let Loki lay on his side, facing him, the man was enjoyably receptive--but if Thor shifted atop him or pulled Loki's back against his chest to touch him that way, he would tense up and become much more difficult to coax a response from. He still hadn't willingly offered Thor more than his hands.
The bite marks on Loki's neck had healed and faded, but Thor suspected the scribe was still wary of his temper. He had been gentle with the girl while he'd kept her, trying to show Loki that way that he didn't need to fear harm beneath him--but the scribe had always pretended not to pay attention during those times.
Once, afterward, Thor had purposely sent her to the opposite side of the tent where Loki was lying on one of the cloaks with his eyes closed. The scribe had ignored her presence until she'd hesitantly touched his hand, and then he'd shooed her off with a weary gesture and mumbled "Sleep" in a voice that sounded only half-awake.
Thor hadn't believed him. There was enough light from the fire outside that he could catch the flush in Loki's cheeks and see the way he'd slung one leg forward enough to conceal any reaction he'd had to their previous noise.
He'd called the girl back to his bed so she didn't have to sleep on the ground and let the matter lie.
The scribe was ungrateful, insubordinate, sly and lacking honor. But when he wasn't actively arousing Thor's anger, Thor didn't wish him harm. Loki was also cunning, intelligent, and capable of reading and writing the easterners' script--and he was, Thor suspected, more amusing and bitingly witty than their rudimentary conversations conveyed. He'd seen Thjalfi slap his thighs in laughter at some dry comment Loki had made more than once. But when the younger man was asked to share the joke he would turn red and stumble through an explanation that it was an insulting verse he should've known better than to listen to.
"Perhaps you'll recall that sooner next time," Thor would drawl in response--and that would scare Thjalfi off from the scribe's presence for a few days' sailing or camping, until the cramped quarters caused their paths to cross and the younger man was drawn in again.
Thor might have been vexed by the repetition if he hadn't understood it.
So when that sharpness was turned his way, Thor forced himself to remember that Loki was of value to him. His ability to communicate with other foreigners was a boon in raids and trading, and so was his ability to charm--when he was inclined to put it to use for those ventures. And if Thor ever properly determined his skill with weapons and became willing to trust him with one, then Loki's value would be even higher.
Thor wanted him as an ally. He was willing to work to that end, and reminded himself to be patient about it.
Even if there were times when it was difficult to remember that that patience was to his benefit. When the scribe looked at him with that half-mouthed smirk, or pretended obedience while still subtly defying him, it was hard to keep his own advice in mind.
And it was even harder at times like these, when Loki was panting against his shoulder with his eyes shut tight from his release. A tremor still ran along his thighs even though his cock was softening in Thor's palm. The hand he'd cupped around Thor's bicep was looser now, but Thor could feel the slight sting where Loki's tight grip had dug his nails into his skin.
Thor released his cock and slid his hand up and over Loki's belly and the joint of his hip. He flexed his arm deliberately beneath Loki's palm as he did, and smiled at the next, shallower breath the scribe drew. For all that he objected to any sense of being overpowered, rarely a bedding passed without him seeking out the feel of Thor's arms or hands or thighs and appearing to enjoy the strength found there.
Thor nipped the cord of Loki's throat and drew another thin pant from the man. He leaned over farther and did the same to his collarbone, wanting to hear the sound again.
But this time Loki drew a sharp breath instead, and the hand on Thor's arm ceased to hold and began to push. The last movement had put too much of his weight onto Loki, pressed the man's back too far against the bed--and Loki was reacting as he always did.
Thor exhaled against his skin with a low, aggravated noise he hadn't intended to be out loud. Loki's fingers twitched along his arm and then curled.
A few heartbeats later, he slid his hand down Thor's side, taking care to avoid the thick scars of his wound. Loki cupped a palm around his sac even as he wriggled in a showy effort to wrest his other arm from beneath Thor's weight.
Thor blew his breath out through his teeth once more and pulled away, rolling onto his back and freeing Loki's arm. The scribe murmured something as he pushed up to a sitting position and wrapped his free hand around Thor's cock.
Thor exhaled a third time, slower, and then reached up to touch Loki's hair. He couldn't see the scribe's expression--the tent flap was closed, and only a trickle of light came through from the distant firepit. Thor wondered what Loki thought when he looked at him like this, and wondered if those thoughts would ever make it through the man's insincerity to show on his face. Thor ran his palm along Loki's hair before sliding it down to cup his jaw. He brushed a thumb over Loki's cheek, tracing the curve of the bone and the line of his upper lip.
Thor blinked and then stilled when Loki kissed the pad of his thumb lightly.
A few breaths later he rubbed his thumb against the man's bottom lip. Loki parted them with a soft noise and let Thor slide inside.
A slow tremor crawled up Thor's spine as he pushed his cock harder into Loki's hand. The scribe continued to stroke him firmly while rolling his sac lightly in his other palm; he made another noise when Thor pressed down against his tongue, but didn't stop. After a few more moments he closed his lips around Thor's thumb and began to suck on it.
Thor watched Loki's face through lidded eyes and thought of pushing his thumb against the back of the man's teeth and pulling that mouth down to his. He imagined pulling Loki lower and seeing and feeling the scribe do in truth what he was promising. He would go easier on him this time, would let Loki take his cock down his throat at whatever pace he chose, brush the man's hair back from his eyes and murmur appreciation and keep a fist tight in the fur to hold himself back from jerking into the warmth and choking him.
Like the way he had the first night.
Thor blinked several times until he could force his gaze to focus, and then studied Loki more carefully. He thought that the scribe was looking back at him, but he couldn't see clearly enough in the dimness to be certain. Thor rubbed his thumb against Loki's tongue and then pulled free and cupped the back of his neck. Loki tensed slightly before letting his shoulders drop--his motions faltered for a breath, but then resumed.
It was all the answer Thor needed.
Perhaps the scribe felt he had to offer up more than what he had so far, and soon, before he lost the choice to do so. Thor wanted to believe he was winning Loki over to him, but he couldn't deny the other possibility.
Patience, he reminded himself, and even his mind's voice sounded strained.
He ran his thumb across Loki's mouth once more. Loki followed it with his tongue, flicking it over his lips where Thor touched them.
Thor made himself pull away. He dropped his hand and wrapped it over the one Loki had fisted around his cock, guiding the scribe into a faster pace. "When you come to me--"
He didn't know where to begin describing all that he wanted, and finally gave up trying. "I can wait until you do." Thor ran his gaze over the shape of the man's face in the murk, sure that Loki was looking at him now. "But know I'll not let you go afterward."
Loki shivered once, silently.
Thor could barely see it in the dark, but he took the way the scribe's hand tightened around him as proof that he had. Thor smirked briefly and then leaned his head back against the bed, and watched the man's outline as he stroked him.
Loki continued the new, rougher pace Thor had set--but with no hold on his neck, he didn't lean down to take him in his mouth.
Thor kept one hand over the back of Loki's fist, feeling the way it flexed beneath his palm, and ran his other over the man's thigh as Loki knelt beside him. Loki shifted occasionally, leaning from one leg to the other, but he didn't pull away.
Thor felt the tension in his groin building steadily under Loki's hands and didn't try to hold it back--there would be other nights, and more time. Or there wouldn't be, and so there was no reason to restrain himself. He had as much life as fate had written him and no more, the same as any other man.
Thor chuckled the next time he rocked up into Loki's hand and the scribe responded by squeezing the head of his cock briefly. "Swift learner."
Loki's response was drawled but not mocking--he sounded genuinely amused. Thor laughed again and rocked his hips up harder, prompting another squeeze, and then let the pleasure of the laughter and his climax mix as both rushed through him.
Loki drew a quick breath when Thor's grip on his thigh tightened. He stroked a few more times and then pulled away before Thor began to soften, making him grunt.
Loki shook his hand out and wiped it on the grass. Thor slowly began to ease his grip as he settled back into himself, but didn't let go. Several long breaths later, he tugged Loki down beside him.
Loki obeyed, but grumbled when Thor ran a hand over his hair once again. Thor didn't need to see his face to guess the expression he was making.
He did it again just to hear the scribe huff. Thor chuckled once and then settled his arm over Loki's side.
"Sleep," he said.
"Aye, chieftain," Loki yawned.
Thor considered jabbing him in the stomach but fell asleep before doing so.
The next afternoon he followed Loki across the ship as the scribe painted in the markings he'd carved. Njord also dogged their steps for a time, laying out argument after argument for why it was extremely unwise to be trusting a foreign witch's mixture and how it would be better to plane down the wood until the carvings were gone. Thor finally sent him off by reminding Njord that it was technically his ship, and then asking him to check on the status of Frey's so they could know when they might sail again.
He saw the scribe's shoulders tighten when Njord insulted the paste he was applying, even though he never looked over or otherwise indicated that he understood them. Thor noted the further proof that Loki knew more of their language than he was telling and decided to keep him away from Njord's possessions until they were home for the season.
"What does this do?" he asked, hoping to distract the scribe.
"Little," Loki answered. When Thor gave him a confused look, he pointed to the bowl. "Poor make."
Thor straightened away from the rail.
Loki shook his head. "No harm," he promised. "But little help."
He looked down at the bowl and the half-painted markings, and muttered something disgusted-sounding. And then he sighed, and dipped a finger in the bowl and resumed painting.
"What would you need to make it correctly?" Thor asked.
Loki rattled off a long list of things in his own tongue.
Thor supposed he had walked into that, but he glowered at the scribe anyway. Loki looked back at him guilelessly, and then dodged Thor's effort to shove him in the arm and held the bowl away from him with an admonishment.
After passing through the narrow channel of water between Normandy and Britannia, they kept south. Loki exhaled slowly when Halgi came down to the hold after viewing the stars that night with the news, and found himself unsure whether to be grateful they were remaining on the continent or concerned that it would be less difficult for Farbauti to reach him again.
One day after they'd made camp, Halgi sought him out at the small stream where Loki was washing his clothes. "That traitor wants to talk to you."
He meant Thjalfi. The boy thought little of the man's rough dialect and even less of his acceptance of his new life among the other raiders, and derided him accordingly--though usually out of Thjalfi's hearing.
Loki considered alerting Halgi to how much he lost in potential knowledge and possible alliances with his prejudice; but he wasn't in the habit of aiding rivals, no matter how benign. Instead he said, "You're running errands for him now?"
Halgi scowled and then deliberately took a bite of an apple he was carrying. "He pays for it."
Loki curved the corner of his mouth up briefly. "Smart," he complimented, before dragging his robe from the water and starting to wring it out. Since there were no apples on the ship or the nearby trees, he added, "We're near a trading village, then?"
"Another ship docked on the beach," Halgi answered. "They're swapping cargo."
"Tell him I'm washing clothes and need them to dry more," Loki said, responding at last to his original statement. "See if he'll come to me."
The boy nodded once, then took another bite before departing.
Thjalfi did come, and addressed him in their native tongue, which told Loki the importance of the matter. "Writer. I need to ask something from you."
Loki had already pulled on his still-damp robe, but continued wringing out his belt and wrap. "Yes?"
Thjalfi unslung his scabbard and pulled his sax half-free, crouching beside Loki as he did. "Will you carve runes for victory in battle on this? I'll pay you for it," he added.
Eyebrow raised, Loki set the cloth aside and looked at him. "Have we landed by a troll's den?"
Thjalfi's expression was dark. "A man insulted me," he answered. "At the next Assembly I'm going to kill him."
Loki didn't let his face change as he took the sword. "Why not here, now?"
"I'm better than a--" the man started to speak in the invaders' tongue, then caught himself and rubbed his jaw as he tried to find a translation.
"...Than single combat," he decided. "I challenged him to a formal duel, on the island. That way nobody can step in and talk things down after first blood."
Loki had been studying the sax, considering the quality of the iron and where best to cut the runes, but he arched a brow again at that. "I'd like to know what insult is so severe," he commented. "So I avoid it, of course."
Thjalfi didn't snort as he'd expected. Instead, he hesitated. Loki let the sax drop slightly and looked over.
The younger man grit his jaw and then sat down heavily on the grass. "He said the chieftain must've lost a lot of men on other raids if he was letting his wives pick up swords now," he muttered venomously.
Loki paused for a moment, and then went back to examining the sax. "Shouldn't that be more an insult to Thor?"
Thjalfi sneered. "That--" he spat another foreign word before shaking his head. "He's too cowardly to say these things near Lord Thor or Lady Sif."
"'Dishonorable,'" Loki repeated in the invaders' tongue before resuming his own; Thor had called him by it before in the first several days, often when angry, and still did from time to time. "That word, it means cowardly?"
"Cowardly, untrustworthy...not a man who matters," Thjalfi explained.
"Ah." Loki rubbed a thumb along the sax's handle and added, "So to imply a man's been used like a woman is an insult worthy of killing over to these people? You never mentioned that."
Thjalfi shifted uncomfortably. ". . . I didn't think you'd like knowing," he said quietly.
"Mm," Loki replied, and Thjalfi scratched the back of his neck.
"I don't think Lord Thor thinks of it like that," he rushed to add. "I've never seen him treat enemies we're selling or sacrificing that way. He just--"
"Mm," Loki interrupted, and held the sax out to him. "I don't have the tools to carve this properly."
"What if I got you some?" Thjalfi asked. "One of the boats is got to have someone with a chisel or gouge they'll sell."
Loki considered for another breath, then nodded his head. "If you can acquire something for me to use, I'll count that as the payment."
The younger man grinned briefly. "Thank you." He took the sax back and returned it to his scabbard. "I'll ask around," he said as he rebuckled it. "Will you be back in camp soon?"
"Likely," Loki answered, picking up his belt and starting to wring it out again.
A fourth ship had been dragged onto the beach when he returned with a fresh bucket of water and mostly dried clothes. Loki watched the large group of raiders mill and chat as he dropped the bucket and damp wrap inside his tent, and noticed Halgi and Ingebjorg near the edge of the forest, half-hidden from the raiders behind a tent. Halgi was talking animatedly, making tense, sharp gestures with his hands.
When Loki went over to them, he found that Halgi had ripped up patches of grass and drawn constellations on the dirt. "--supposed to look like this," he was saying. "At least, for the next month. They'll shift this way--" he pointed to another drawing "--if it takes you longer than that." He gestured to another picture and added," If you keep this one on your left as you walk, you'll keep in the direction of home."
"What's happened?" Loki demanded.
"I've been sold," Ingebjorg said bluntly. "To someone on a boat sailing back east."
"...Ah," Loki replied after a moment. "You're fortunate."
"If you flee as soon as you can and stay far enough away from the coast, you can make it back to Jutland," Halgi insisted. "Just follow these stars like I said, and you'll go in the right--"
He hissed under his breath and turned away sharply, hoping to intercept Thor before the man came within sight of the pictures--his voice had been close.
It had been too close, and Loki saw Thor glance at the sketches in the dirt over his shoulder. The man frowned briefly at the sight; but then he shrugged it off and pinched the cloth of Loki's robe, and asked amusedly if he'd fallen in while fetching fresh water.
Loki was choosing between three retorts and trying to move away from the others when the shipmaster came up, calling that Thor needed to come purchase some wood for--repairs, Loki guessed, or as a store against the future, if the raiders had a shorter phrase for such a thing.
Thor released his robe and faced the other raider. The second man glanced at the three of them briefly as he turned back toward the beach; but then he paused and looked harder at the ground.
Loki, distrusting his expression, made a sharp gesture behind his back. Ingebjorg left, and Halgi started to scrape away the drawings with his foot.
"Stop," the shipmaster said, and Loki made another quick gesture. In the side of his vision he saw Halgi wipe out as much of what remained as possible with one last panicked kick.
The shipmaster moved over to the patch of dirt and crouched beside it, asking Thor who'd made the sketches as he did. Thor pointed at Halgi, who was sidling around the corner of the tent. The second man told him to stop again, and then gestured for him to come back. When Halgi did, hesitantly, the shipmaster pointed to the vestiges of the constellations and asked if he'd made them. Halgi glanced over at Loki.
"Answer him," Loki determined, noting that Thor remembered seeing the boy draw in the sand weeks ago. "There's no harm in the two of us asking you to tell our location from the stars."
Halgi bit the inside of his lip, but looked back at the shipmaster and nodded.
The other raider asked a few more questions about Halgi's knowledge of the stars and the sun, which the boy answered once Loki translated the more complicated parts. The conversation went on longer than necessary, because Loki made sure to add several errors to his statements to conceal how much he knew; and he made another one without noticing before Thor corrected it, because he was still adjusting to the ways and meanings of endings for the raiders' words.
At last, the shipmaster pushed back to his feet and said that Thor needed to come look at the wood before it was sold to someone else. They left after Thor told Loki to help gather tinder for the cooking fires and instructed the boy to return to his owner.
The raiders spoke further as they went, but it was too low and soon too distant for Loki to understand.
Ingebjorg was traded without ceremony; her captor took a bolt of scarlet cloth to his tent and she followed a different man to his own. Several of the others from the temple spoke to her when best they could. The eight of them who'd survived the raid had escaped being traded off thus far--the villages the invaders had visited preferred captives from nearer places who knew their dialects. This was the first time since Dagur and Brynja's deaths, and Eydis's escape, that one of them was going to be lost.
Thjalfi came by that evening with a small but sharp-edged chisel. It was better suited for carving wood than metal, but Loki accepted it as payment regardless and told the younger man to bring his sax back tomorrow, when there would be light for him to work on it between chores.
He used the chisel to chip a stone into the rough shape of the Charioteer's weapon that night while Thor was standing guard, ignoring the way the relentless pace made his near-healed shoulder ache and stopping only when the image was accurate enough to be worth saying it had come from his hands. The next morning he stole a leather strip from one of the traders and then passed the materials over to Halgi. The boy bound the charm up and blessed it, and by dusk Bergthora, whose tent was closest to Ingebjorg's new one, threw the amulet inside while the trader was out.
They sailed out the next day. Neither he nor Halgi nor Unna addressed the space that Ingebjorg's absence left.
Loki pulled one of the oil lamps over to the area and worked on carving runes into Thjalfi's sax, pausing whenever his shoulder began to twinge, and told himself that at least the freshly-gained room had some use.
The wind fell calm for a few days, obliging the men to row instead of sail. The scribe sat behind the horses' shelter and chiseled lines into Thjalfi's sax.
Thor knew his man had picked a fight with one of the raiders they'd traded with earlier, but Thjalfi refused to speak of it--even Fandral couldn't cajole an explanation out of him.
He suspected that Loki knew the root of the matter, since Thor doubted the man would be going to his efforts otherwise. The scribe had even been working on the carving down in the hold, until Volstagg noticed the missing lamp and harangued Loki up onto the deck, away from the flammable hay and into more men's sight.
And Thjalfi had an old habit of bribing slaves instead of ordering them. Thor hadn't noticed the scribe wearing or carrying anything new save the chisel he was using; but he knew Loki well enough now to guess at the value he placed on information.
But trying to talk the answer out of him would be difficult. And Loki might take it as a sign that Thor couldn't request it from his man instead, or that he didn't trust Thjalfi to tell the truth if commanded. Thor wasn't willing to give him that impression.
So he let the matter rest and told Thjalfi not to allow Loki to handle the weapon out of others' sight.
The younger man showed him the sax at his order once Loki finished with it. Thor looked it over carefully, impressed with how the straight the lines were despite the ship's rocking.
"Do you know what it says?" he asked, running a thumb over the carving below the hilt. "You're sure it's a blessing?"
Thjalfi shook his head. "I can't read," he answered. "But I'm sure. His god's a pretty honest one, so he'd have to be honest in his prayers."
Given the scribe's relative ease in Thjalfi's company, Thor didn't sincerely think he'd written anything to harm the younger man; but he raised an eyebrow at that. "Who's he serve?"
Thor snorted. "A god like him?" he replied, leaning against the horses' shelter. "Impossible. He's lying."
Then he paused, and thought about it.
It wasn't so impossible. Thor knew more stories of the All-father than he did the giant-killing god, but he'd still heard enough--and the All-father's blood-brother had a place in several for each, as a traveling companion or a quick wit to escape some trouble they'd entered. Or the cause of the trouble in the first place.
Thor straightened, hefted the blade, and considered the lines once more with a faint frown.
It wasn't impossible--but if the gods knew their fates, why would someone like the giant-killer keep a man like Loki among his followers? The scribe's behavior had grown better during the sailing, but some days Thor caught sight of him eying the horizon and was sharply reminded that only way he'd made Loki cease running and fighting at the start was by threatening to deliver him to that man he held a feud with.
And even now, Loki would often smirk bitterly at his men or respond sarcastically to Thor's orders. If that arrogance of his still remained, Thor would be a fool not to assume that his deceptiveness did as well.
. . . A fool, or hopeful.
The gods' fates were their own. A few similarities were no reason to expect that he and Loki's futures would follow theirs. Thor had other friends he never could have predicted would become allies when they'd first met. People might be bound by the fates the Norns wove for them, but they still responded to the way they were treated by others--or so that was the way he'd always seen things be.
At least, that was the way he wished things to be.
And not all the troubles that the All-father's blood-brother had gotten the giant-killer out of were of his own creation. Several were; but not all.
Thor snorted under his breath and resisted the urge to rub a thumb against his temple.
If Thjalfi was right, if Loki chose to be honest in this--it would be a chance to change things. Thor knew his friends trusted the scribe little, but if Thjalfi came out of his duel alive and victorious, even Sif and Volstagg would grudgingly give him a chance to prove himself. He could offer Loki a place in their company then as one of his men; if he were free, maybe this life would grate at him less. And if so, he might cease lashing out at others, until in time these past several weeks were forgotten. From the way Loki interacted with Thjalfi and the others whom they'd traded with, Thor was sure that the scribe could charm his men and friends to his favor if he chose to. In time, things would be well among them all.
And if he was wrong, Thjalfi would likely die.
Thor tilted the sax and looked at the carving again, and silently hoped that the giant-killing god knew what he had been doing to allow Loki in his temple, and that he himself would not be wrong either.
Thjalfi had been shifting uncomfortably as Thor remained silent. He bit his lip at the gesture, and Thor forced himself to push his thoughts aside and nod at his man.
He smiled as he held the weapon out. "Fight well."
Thjalfi's expression cleared and he nodded once as he returned the sax to its scabbard. "Aye, chieftain."
They stayed near to the coast as they sailed along Frankia and Normandy. Frey had kin who had ties of marriage and friendship with people in the area, and his ship went ahead to ensure they didn't raid the wrong homesteads.
Frey's kin were prolific and so were their friendships; Thor and his men spent much of their time on the ship, and on land they traded more commonly than they looted. Sometimes they didn't bother to set up camp.
It left time for gossip. Volstagg and Fandral had been observing Thor and Thjalfi's conversation and relating it to Hogun and Sif, who were at their turn on the oars and had their backs to it. Volstagg raised an eyebrow as he watched Thor return the weapon to the younger man before sending him off.
"He'll be missed," he remarked.
"He's not too bad with a blade," Fandral replied with a shrug, shifting on the chest he sat on and resting his elbows on his legs. "He could win."
"Not with a cursed one," Hogun said.
Fandral spread his hands. "It might not be," he suggested. "The slave's been behaving."
"How's your arm?" Hogun answered; and Fandral made a face.
"It's Thjalfi's decision," Sif said flatly, tugging her oar a little too sharply through the water. "If he wants to take the risk of trusting him, he can take the consequences too."
"He may come out all right," Fandral replied, partly because he'd spent the most time of the four talking to Loki and partly because he found needling his friends fun. "He keeps swearing the slave has to speak directly when it comes to his god."
"He's a scribe," Sif snorted. "No better than a poet. Their kind never speaks straight if there's a chance to turn a word."
Fandral half-grinned. "The Father-of-armies is a poet, and he keeps his promises."
"Only when bound and his life's on the line from a blood-price," she replied coolly. "It's unwise to trust him too far, either."
"Sif," he cautioned.
She tilted her head with a cynical look; but she commented no further and kept rowing.
Fandral exhaled slowly but decided to ignore it. Sif's family's homestead had primarily worshiped the harvest god and his sister--hostages sent as part of the gods' peace-pact--and sometimes it showed.
"Besides," he added, to break the silence that had fallen, "if he said he'd carve victory onto the blade and then Thjalfi dies in battle, it would look as though he's rotten at his work." Fandral raised an eyebrow. "And I doubt he's willing to appear a fool, or useless, no matter what the trade-off."
"...Now that I could believe," Sif replied.
She and Hogun rowed in silence for a few moments, before she finally spoke again.
"I don't like it," she muttered. "Thor trusts him too much. He's shown he'll betray him if he sees a chance."
Fandral and Volstagg glanced at each other.
"Fair enough," Volstagg said, after a moment. "I can't say I trust him either."
"But then," Fandral added, "we didn't agree with him when he wanted to court a woman who soaked her spear-blade in more than half our men's blood before running him through with it, either."
"It was a sword, not a spear," she replied. "My spear was already broken by then."
Fandral felt she was missing the larger point; Sif glanced skyward when he said as much.
"He isn't wrong," Hogun replied, and she turned her head toward him. "Thor tends to trust where the rest of us won't." The man raised an eyebrow briefly. "I remember sitting outside the bed cabinet the whole night after the wedding, listening for the sound of treachery."
Sif gave him a very long look.
"Eventually I moved a little farther away," he continued.
Sif let go of the oar long enough to press a thumb to the bridge of her nose as Volstagg laughed.
Finally she tightened her lips to hold down a brief smile, shook her head, and went back to rowing. Fandral sniggered under his breath until Hogun glowered him into being relatively quiet.
If Thjalfi had recalled his conversation with Loki correctly, he would've realized that the man had not said directly that he would carve victory runes into the weapon.
But he did so regardless.
It wasn't his best work. He had to balance the blade on the deck or his lap instead of a proper anvil, cope with the uneven rowing of the boat, and use only a lone chisel with no hammer or gouge. His shoulder had healed for the main part, but it still twinged with the repetitious work, leading to lines more crooked than Loki would normally have found tolerable. They resembled an apprentice's efforts, something he might have grudgingly accepted from Njal the first few times, if the boy had lived long enough to begin working with metal and not just parchment.
Loki disliked the runes' appearance and their implication of his talent; but he murmured prayers under his breath to counter any potential flaws and made himself hand it back as it was. Thjalfi had no other weapons, and he had no prospect of improved circumstances in which to work--when they chanced to be on solid ground, Thor found other chores to heap on him.
He didn't know if the prayers would do any more good than the runes. The Charioteer no longer seemed to be answering either.
After multiple days of sailing and sleeping on the boat, the raiders finally dragged their ships to shore again. Loki and the other captives were put to work building a camp under the supervision of a few raiders while the rest rode off down a nearby path; Thor had once again deferred head of place to the leader of the other ship.
At first things seemed no different than the dozen of times before, until a raider shouted briefly from the woods.
More joined him, leaving behind just enough to block them from escaping. Loki still had a difficult time determining what the raiders said when the words came from a distance, so once the shouting dropped to low, near-inaudible conversation he ceased trying. One man returned briefly to dump out a water bucket and haul it back with him into the woods.
A few of the temple folk watched them with bemusement and then glanced at him. Loki shrugged and continued raising his tent.
Eventually the raiders returned with a near-full bucket of red, white-flecked mushrooms. One of them brought it to the firepit where the cook's things were already laid, and then sat beside it and only left if another took his place.
Halgi swapped firewood-gathering duties with a different boy and then came to Loki immediately after dropping off his first load by the pit. "It's poison."
Loki gave him a sharp look, checked reflexively that neither Fandral nor Thjalfi nor Thor were near though he knew they'd gone off with the others, and gestured for the boy to follow him into the tent. "What do you mean?"
"The mushrooms," Halgi said, brushing aside the flap as he entered. "They're poisonous. My master told me the hanged god's people use them in rituals."
Halgi shook his head. "I don't know," he replied, frustrated. "I hadn't learned enough about the Charioteer yet to start on the others. He just mentioned it when we were walking once."
Loki blew his breath out through his teeth and started sifting through all the tales he knew.
He couldn't immediately recall any about rituals and mushrooms, and exhaled again.
"Fine," he said shortly, waving the boy toward the entrance. "I'll keep an eye on it."
Halgi bit the inside of his lip as he glanced out at the firepit, and then left. Loki remained in the tent for a few more breaths, rubbing at his eyes, before doing the same.
He continued running through tales and chanting the eddas in his mind as he worked, trying to find an answer. It left him distracted; he was yelled at by two separate raiders, and barely kept his temper with both, by the time the rest of the group returned with newly-traded spoils.
The cook heartily congratulated the raiders who'd discovered the mushrooms, then hauled a keg and a bag of malt from the ship and set to work slicing them carefully. He didn't let anyone else come near as he did, especially not the captives--not that Loki had a chance.
Thor had been keeping a closer eye on him more and more often lately, for no reason Loki could determine. He'd analyzed his interactions with the man, the other raiders, the temple folk and the rest of the captives, and could find nothing that cast suspicion on himself; but Thor kept him busy in the tent or on the boat far more often now.
It was subtle enough that Loki could almost ignore it as paranoia. He'd been careful not to draw further ire from anyone, to willingly use his ability to converse and write when he was called to during trading or after raids, and he'd kept his rebellions to the small things Thor shrugged off. And there was always work to be done on the ship: the hold was becoming full, and had to be rearranged after nearly each stop to make room for all the spoils. Though Loki had managed to preserve the moderately comfortable spot near the decreased hay bales, the growing number of captives left no choice now but to share it with the foreigners. He suspected by the end of the sailing there'd be no room remaining at all, and he and the others would have to sleep above deck with the raiders, out in the elements. Each day that he could eke out a bit of space below, regardless of how cramped, was one less day of that.
He could almost ignore it as paranoia; but he didn't. No matter where he was sent, if he was left alone Loki never saw a trace of unguarded weapons.
He was in the hold again the next day, rearranging the cargo, when there came the sound of footsteps above. When more joined them but only milled absently across the boards rather than moving with the usual steady tread of the raiders, Loki frowned and climbed up to the deck.
He found the captives gathered on the ship. Loki glanced out at the camp and saw the tents remained standing, the woodpile by the firepit still in place and everything much as it normally would be. The only odd thing was the raiders: many were gathered in a rough circle near a cleared-out area by the edge of the camp. At its center Thor and the cook stood talking while another raider nearby with a shield slung over his back--Unna's captor, Loki noted reflexively--drank from a horn.
"What's going on?" he demanded of Egil, who was standing the closest.
The stable-boy shrugged, then corrected his disrespectful behavior when Loki narrowed his eyes by explaining, "I dunno. They just told us to come up here. Nobody said why."
Loki exhaled through his teeth and waved him away, looking for Halgi in hopes that he would have something of value to say.
He found the boy standing near the railing, looking out at the raiders with a frown. Loki glanced their way again as he strode over, and saw Unna's captor had dropped his horn and was now rubbing his face. Thor and Volstagg had ceased talking; the cook was resealing the keg beside him.
"Is this part of their rituals?" Loki asked as he reached the boy.
"Maybe?" Halgi responded, glancing at the raiders again distrustfully. "The cook was mixing the mushrooms with that ale all morning. But I don't know what they were talking about before they sent us up here," he added, giving Loki a reproachful look.
"You should begin learning their language already," he replied shortly. "There's little I can do when I'm constantly exiled to here or the barbarian's tent. If he's keeping me separate, you'll have to take over responsibility."
Halgi looked aside with a scowl; but it faded as he realized Loki's point. The boy sighed tiredly, then scrubbed his hair with a hand.
"It must be," he agreed, "with how they're acting. But I don't--"
He was cut short by an inhuman howl.
Loki jerked around to see the third raider had slung his shield from his back and was glaring wildly, lips pulled back from his teeth. The ring had widened around the men, the invaders backing up and away.
Volstagg hefted the keg and moved to carry it clear. The berserk immediately jerked in his direction, running for the cook until he was stopped short when Thor grabbed his arm and twisted him around.
Loki shoved Halgi hard in the shoulder toward the hatch. "Get the others below."
"I--" the boy started, and Loki shoved him again.
Halgi went, directing the temple women into the hold and ordering Egil to help him herd the rest of the captives down there as well. Loki crouched beside the railing and watched the berserk face off against Thor, howling once more before gnashing his teeth against his shield. Thor smiled and set his feet, but didn't loosen the hammer from his belt.
Loki made his way carefully toward the woman huddled by the wall of the snorting, restless horses' shelter, keeping behind the railing to conceal himself, not taking his eyes off the fighters below. Thor seemed to be toying with his opponent, seeking opportunities to knock or wrestle him to the ground rather than outright strike; and after several moments Loki realized he was trying to wear the berserk down.
Not a ritual, he determined as he reached the shelter and paused there, still watching over the railing. Not a fight. If the ale the berserk had drunk was spiked with poison as Halgi said, this was likely a test to see if it'd been mixed correctly and would meet the raiders' purpose. Thor wouldn't want to harm one of his men for volunteering; he was trying to keep him from injuring the others.
As he scrutinized the crazed fighting style of the berserk, Loki noted with surprise the unexpected grace in Thor's own. He hadn't caught it before in their initial fights--he'd been too focused on trying to kill the man or escape or survive--and aside from the raid that had enslaved him he'd only seen Thor in battling's aftermath.
His style wasn't all brute force, as Loki half-remembered. He was clearly a solid foe, bearing down heavily on the berserk as he tried to drive him to the ground--but when one wrestling hold proved untenable he moved fluidly to another, intractably, inexorably eroding his opponent's strength.
By the time Thor finally pinned the other man long enough for several raiders to join and pile over him until he ceased to rage and slumped panting on the grass, Loki realized he'd quit studying how the berserk fought at all and had been watching only Thor.
Behind him Unna was shaking uncontrollably, hands pressed to her mouth.
Thor dropped to the ground beside Arnkell as his man finished draining a horn of mead and grinned. "Impressive."
Arnkell rubbed his bloodless face. "Thank you, chieftain. You as well."
Thor laughed and clapped him on the back. "It's good practice," he replied, and his man smiled in response.
They sat in companionable silence as Thor watched Frey and his men coax the captives back off the ship. He caught the scribe's gaze once he'd disembarked, and gestured for the man to go to his tent. A few moments later Arnkell's woman came up and took his emptied horn.
She soon returned with it generously refilled--she had to walk slowly to keep it from spilling, and held it for Arnkell to take a sip before handing it over. As he began drinking, she patted the sweat from his brow with her over-clothes.
Arnkell gave her a bemused look for a few moments, but then he huffed out a pleased noise and rubbed a thumb against the inside of her wrist. Her hand stilled for a breath; but she soon resumed drying his face.
Arnkell finished the second horn and let his arm drop to his knees. He exhaled heavily again before looking over.
"I think I'll take leave of you to rest, chieftain," he said.
"'Rest,'" Thor repeated, eyebrow raised.
Arnkell chuckled under his breath. "I don't have the vigor just now to break in a skittish filly."
Thor nodded. "Your turn on sentry will be covered tonight--get your strength back."
His man thanked him and stood. The woman took his horn and followed him as Arnkell returned to his tent.
Thor looked covertly to his own to see if Loki had slipped out of it. But the scribe was nowhere to be seen; he had apparently left the temple woman to her own ends.
Apparently. But Thor was well aware that the woman was one of the captives whom the scribe spent the bulk of his time in the company of. He watched the entrance to his tent longer until he finally saw Loki move past it, rearranging something inside.
Thor closed his eyes briefly and then shook his head once. He pushed to his feet a heartbeat later, and went to speak to Frey about which direction they should sail next.
Loki had resumed the same habit he always fell to when exasperated with camp life's tedium or when he needed to think but had to appear occupied to do so unharassed: he upended several of Thor's bags of spoils and set to repacking them in a never-ending puzzle of trying to create more space.
He'd managed one successfully and begun in on the next when Unna paused at the tent's opening.
"I'm going to fetch water, sir," she said. Her voice was quiet, almost inaudible. "Do you need any?"
Loki glanced at the bucket, then took it and hefted the bottom of the tent long enough to pour most of the contents out into the grass behind it. "I do. I hadn't noticed."
"Ah," she replied, twisting the handle in her fingers.
"Better you don't go alone," he continued, leaving. She caught up quickly and followed a step behind as he started toward the stream. "I heard wolves howling last night."
As Loki dunked the bucket into the water, Unna said, "Will you steal me a knife?"
He looked over.
She gripped the handle tighter. "He's asleep, like you said. Deeper than he's ever been before. But he'll wake eventually." She bit her lip hard, then shook her head a breath later and looked to him again. "I kept trying to pick up the one they were using for the mushrooms but I can't get close enough without someone looking at me. You're much better at this, sir, please. Please?"
He turned away and pushed the bucket back under the water.
"I could," Loki replied. He knew the knife she spoke of: it was thrust in the dirt at the opposite end of the cook's things, separating it from the rest of the utensils and making it less guarded. "But it would do you no good--if you use it you'll be found out quickly."
"Yours is kind, sir," she replied in a shaky voice. "Please. I've never asked anything of you. Please, sir."
His grip tightened.
A moment later he hauled the bucket out and set it on the bank. "If I do," Loki ordered, "you'll have to keep it hidden until we're camped somewhere else, where it's safe to run after dark." He rose to his feet and tapped her arm sharply. "That protection will only serve so far. It'll have no value at all if you deliberately act counter to it."
Unna looked at the ground and, after a few breaths, nodded. "I can do that."
Loki gave her a hard look, then exhaled through his teeth. "I'll see what I can do."
She nodded again. "Thank you, sir."
He waited while she refilled her bucket, and they returned to the raiders' camp in silence.
It took slipping out of the tent again while Thor was occupied elsewhere, swapping firewood-gathering chores with Egil, provoking Volstagg into an argument by implying that the night's stew smelled off, and looking foolish enough to drop his armload of branches in the midst of gesturing while defending his claim; but Loki was able to slide the knife into the back of his belt and leave enough branches scattered over the area to conceal its absence. The cook was aggrieved enough by the time Fandral broke up their quarrel that Loki doubted he would look over at the spot or brush away the tinder to discover the loss.
He didn't know how things would spin out once it was discovered. If they sailed soon, the disappearance could be written off as mere dislocation, the tool accidentally tucked away in some stray bag in the hold. After all, it had been separated from the rest of the knives in the chest. He would see that Unna packed it at the bottom of one of her captor's bags in case they were searched, jumbled up in items the raider rarely used but not concealed enough to be markedly hidden. A careless misplacement; nothing more.
If they didn't sail soon, or its absence was caught before then...he would think of something.
He always thought of something.
Once in his tent Loki immediately secreted the knife under the bedding, suspecting that if he moved stiffly to keep it from falling from his belt Thor would notice, and would just as quickly discern the cause. He underestimated the man less these days.
That evening, after he'd finished serving the final meal and Thor had told him to return to the tent, Loki used the brief time he was alone to pull the knife out. Keeping an eye and ear turned outside where Thor conversed with his friends, he scraped the outline of the Charioteer's weapon into the blade near the hilt.
He jabbed his chisel in the ground afterward, so the dirt would leech away any lingering trace of the mushrooms' poison. Loki sharpened the knife with a whetstone he'd pulled from Thor's spoils until he heard the sound of the man's footfalls.
He tucked the knife into the back of his belt, flung the whetstone into the nearest sack, and then set Thor's drinking horn on top of it. He was readjusting his wrap when the man walked in.
Thor started to loosen the tent flap, and Loki raised a hand.
"Wait," he said, picking up the horn and moving to the entrance.
Thor raised an eyebrow with a mix of surprise and amusement, but let him leave. Loki circled around the lingering group of raiders at the fire to reach the keg, and eyed the locations of the guards.
He saw Thor watching him from the tent opening in the side of his vision; but as he tapped the keg and started to fill the horn, the man turned aside. Loki let out a silent breath.
When he finished, he circled around the group again, because such a route wasn't unusual for his or any of the other captives' habits and it brought him past Unna's tent. Loki glanced at his own once more, checked that no one else was looking over, then rapidly pulled the knife from his belt and tossed it through the entrance. He continued past without breaking stride.
A breath later he heard the rustle of cloth behind him. Loki risked a glance over his shoulder just long enough to see the flap to Unna's tent fall shut.
He frowned briefly, then forced it away as he reached his own.
Inside, Thor was rinsing his face. He glanced up once Loki entered, then looked surprised again when he held the horn out.
Thor took it as he wiped his face dry with a hand. "What's this?" he asked, giving Loki a curious look as he sat on the bedding.
Thor’s expression briefly turned exasperated. "Why?" he clarified.
The corner of Loki's mouth tugged back before he halted it. He shrugged a shoulder. "Fight well."
Thor blinked once, and then smiled slightly and took a drink.
"'Fought,'" he corrected a few breaths later.
"Fought," Loki repeated, adding again, "well," as he settled beside him.
Thor grinned. He took another drink, and then offered Loki the horn.
Later, lying on his side on the fur, Loki rubbed the sweat briefly from his eyes and brow before letting his arm fall.
He'd lost track of the exact days, but it was summer. Even the evenings were warm enough now; the fires that burned overnight were to hold back the wolves and other predators. But there was still a faint chill after dusk, one made clearer at a distance from the firepit and with sweat cooling on his skin.
He realized belatedly he'd draped his arm across Thor's stomach when the other man made a quiet, pleased noise. Loki felt him shift beside him, and a breath later Thor brushed a hand over his hair.
Loki kept his eyes shut as Thor stroked, not wanting to know what the look on his face was, not wanting to risk that his sight had adjusted enough in the dimness to see it. Even if he managed to get away with taking the knife, by the next time they camped--or the time after that, or whenever the traveling was safer--his part in the escape would likely be discovered and all this rendered meaningless, until time finally slipped it from Thor's memory.
He focused instead on the fact that his hair was growing longer than he was used to. He needed to convince someone to loan him a blade in order to trim it--soon, so he could have Unna cut it before she fled.
Lying there on the fur, loose-limbed with pleasure, Thor's warm bulk settled beside him, the thought occurred to Loki that it had been a long time since he'd considered escape plans of his own.
He nearly choked.
Beside him, Thor stilled. "Loki?"
He forced an awkward cough and rolled away, reaching for the water bucket.
Loki drank a handful of water and reminded himself harshly that he wasn't far enough from Farbauti yet. The man wouldn't let such a curse just sit over him, not when he now had the ability to kill Loki without incurring the Charioteer's wrath--that had been made clear enough. He had to wait, to get as far as possible, and seeing where Thor planned to settle for the winter was his best bet. By then he would know even more of the raiders' language, making it just a matter of acquiring enough coins or hack silver to pay his way traveling until he could find another temple and show that his talents at carving and writing made him worth taking in and reconsecrating, protecting him from Farbauti once more.
That was the only reason.
Loki drank another handful of water and pushed the bucket away, forcing himself to settle back down on the bedding. Thor was still propped on an elbow, watching him; but after Loki draped an arm back along his waist, he eventually laid down. Several heartbeats passed, and then Thor brushed a hand over his hair once more.
Loki closed his eyes.
He was starting to drift to sleep when the shouting began.
Thor shook his head sharply to wake himself and frowned in the direction of the noise.
Loki had jolted too when the cursing started, reasonably enough--but he was still tense now. Thor's frown deepened as he eyed the scribe and reached for his boots, head tilted to try and make out what his men were yelling.
Outside, a woman screamed before cutting off sharply. The scribe flinched and jerked around to stare at the flap.
Thor hissed a breath out through his teeth; there was no doubt now that Loki knew something he didn't.
"How are you involved in this?" he demanded as he fastened his armor.
The scribe's gaze flicked to his, but he didn't answer. Thor tightened his belt and shoved his way outside.
Several lengths away, Arnkell's foster-brother was dragging his woman from his tent by her braid. She was biting down on her hand to remain quiet.
"What happened?" Thor ordered loudly. In the side of his vision he could see Hogun and Volstagg coming over from the sentry line, ready to help restore order. Sif was leaving her tent with a spear in hand.
"My brother's dead," Eirik snarled, flinging the woman to the ground.
Thor glanced at her briefly before pushing aside the flap to the tent.
Arnkell lay on the bed with a knife jammed in his eye. The breath was punched out of Thor as he stepped inside, and he dropped sharply to a knee to check for a heartbeat. But his man was gone.
Thor dragged a hand through his hair and then removed the knife gently, saying a brief and doubting prayer as he did that the All-father would count it as a death by a blade and not in bed. He took it with him when he left the tent several moments later.
"Eirik," he said clearly, to draw the man's attention out of his rage. "He has to be buried."
Eirik glowered at the woman Fandral was now talking to, fists clenching at his sides; but he finally turned away. "Aye, chieftain," he muttered. "I'll see to it."
Fandral continued to speak flatly to the woman, pausing several times after using words Thor recognized as questions. But she never spoke. She only stared expressionlessly at him.
Fandral studied her for several heartbeats in silence and then spoke again, this time in a slow, even tone meant for children or the feeble-minded. She still didn't answer.
"Is that one of the cooking knives?" Frey asked.
Thor glanced at the blade in his hand. "Aye. Seems like. She must have stolen it earlier."
Volstagg frowned. "They're all locked away, and she was never--"
He cut off abruptly, frown deepening. Volstagg moved to a spot by the firepit and kicked aside a scattered handful of branches, and then cursed under his breath.
"It's the one I used on the mushrooms," he growled.
Thor immediately tilted the poisoned blade farther away from himself. As he did, the firelight caught the edge near the hilt, revealing a small carved shape.
Thor narrowed his eyes at the symbol and then stilled as he realized Loki's part in this went deeper than simply knowing it was going to happen.
He hesitated for another heartbeat--and then he turned the blade slightly, facing it away from the others and hiding the carving from view.
"It couldn't be locked up with the rest," Frey said, glancing at Thor when the other man remained silent. "Not tainted. If you hid it, that should have been sufficient."
"I didn't--" Volstagg started to say.
Then he caught himself, and looked briefly at Thor as well.
"I didn't think," he finished after a breath. "It should have been set beneath a log, or something that would have attracted more attention if moved."
Frey shrugged. "We've not collected any other mushrooms this season. Things can be overlooked with such a lapse in time."
"No," Thor grunted. "I should've had someone here guarding it."
Frey--a good friend--continued trying to salvage everyone's honor in the situation. "We already had a lack on the sentry line with Arnkell resting. Taking away another man would have left it even thinner."
"Then I should have done it myself."
Frey lifted a brow. "Even you have to sleep, Thor."
He exhaled through his teeth. "All the same, it was my failure in judgment. I'll speak to Eirik about compensation." He nodded at Volstagg. "All that you did was reasonable."
His man looked at him for a long moment before nodding back.
Behind them, Fandral exhaled tiredly and ceased trying to cajole the woman. When Thor turned toward him, Fandral caught his eye and then shook his head briefly. He pushed out of his crouch and came over.
"She refuses to speak," his man said. "Or else she can't."
"She has before," Hogun countered. Fandral made a frustrated gesture.
Thor gave the woman a considering look, trying to remember the last time he'd heard her talk. It wasn't while he was sitting with Arnkell--and then he recalled how she'd flinched at the man's touch.
Frey had mentioned afterward that he and his men had to call the captives up from the hold to get them off the ship; but Loki had commented on his spar with Arnkell. How long had the scribe watched it before going to the hold? Had he stayed above the whole time?
Had he been the only one?
"Was she still on the deck when your men boarded the ship?" Thor asked.
Frey blinked. Then he pressed his knuckles to his mouth as he thought back. "I don't remember, but I can ask."
He frowned as his hand fell away. "We ordered them on board, but not into the hold. You think she saw Arnkell go into his fit?"
"It would explain this," Fandral considered.
"It doesn't matter," Sif answered, resting the butt of her spear on the ground. "Whether she's being stubborn or struck dumb, Arnkell's still dead."
Thor nodded in slow acknowledgement.
"Eirik will determine compensation," he said before jerking his head toward Arnkell's tent. "I'll go aid him."
"Do you want help?" Hogun asked. When Thor shook his head, he nodded once. "Then I'll return to the sentry line."
"Thank you," Thor told him, before turning to Sif. "You should rest. You have the next lot, don't you?"
"Aye," she answered. "If you're sure, chieftain."
As they departed, Volstagg said, "I'll join Hogun back on the line as soon as I've dealt with the knife."
"'Dealt'?" Frey asked.
"It needs to be cleaned," he answered. "It's no use for cooking now, but I can save the hilt and sell the blade before we're home."
Volstagg was not a particularly good liar; but Frey didn't know him well enough to catch it. Fandral arched a brow but held his tongue with a glance between the other men. Thor shifted the knife in his hand for a heartbeat.
But he'd fought beside the older man for much of his grown life, and had trusted him long before that. He handed it over. "Thank you."
His man nodded in acknowledgement. Thor glanced at the woman still sitting hunched by the fire; one of Eirik's friends was binding her hands while the man tended to his brother's body.
He knew Eirik's temperament--after this crime, she wouldn't live through tomorrow.
But she and the star-reading boy were the two captives that the scribe spent the most of his time with. If there was a chance to learn for certain what the cause of her actions were--to make sure that they were contained to her alone, or at least to quell any further deception among the slaves before more of his men came to harm--he had to try for it.
Thor turned back to Fandral. "If she's not mad, she may be more willing to speak to one of her kith. If I get the scribe or that boy, would you keep awake to hear what they say?"
"Of course, chieftain," his man answered.
When Thor returned to his tent, he wasn't surprised to find that Loki had already dressed. The man looked over at his arrival.
"Come," Thor ordered with a harsh gesture.
Thor led him up to Unna with no further words, then left him there and went to help a raider carrying her captor's corpse from her tent. Fandral stood a few steps away, talking quietly with another man but watching him from the side of his eye, and beyond, the cook was setting a bucket of water and a cake of soap by the fire. He soon went to work washing the knife, and didn't glance to Loki as he did; but Loki made sure not to put his back to him.
Instead he caught Unna's jaw and checked the damage. A few heartbeats later he pulled up the edge of his wrap and began wiping away the blood trickling from her split lip.
"You were supposed to run," he said quietly.
Unna struggled to smile with the unbruised half of her mouth. "The Charioteer doesn't run from a fight," she answered. "If I'd done that, he might have quit listening again."
"When did he start again?!" Loki sneered--and the words came out so ugly and angry he even startled himself. Unna tilted her head up to stare, wide-eyed, as he fell silent.
Eventually, Loki swallowed and resumed wiping away the blood.
Unna's hands sat bound in her lap, but after a few more breaths she began twisting her fingers together as much as she was able.
"I'm sorry I lied," she offered. "But I knew you wouldn't--" She glanced at Fandral, fallen silent, past him. "...Would argue with me, otherwise." She smiled briefly again. "'Deception has its place.'"
Loki snorted, the sound tired.
He thought of pointing out the trouble she'd brought on him by acting rashly. But it was already done, and saying as much served no cause other than to hurt; and he felt more drained than angry just then.
Another bad plan, fallen apart too soon.
So much for those runes for cleverness he'd drawn on himself. So much for any of those beseechments to their god.
He dropped his hand a little later, the blood as cleaned away as he could manage. Loki scowled at the bruise, growing visible even in the firelight.
"I don't know if that protection will hold," he muttered. "I told you not to act against it."
Unna closed her eyes; but she only nodded slowly.
"Valkyries won't tolerate themselves to be abused by those beneath them," she murmured. She opened her eyes and gazed past him, where men were digging a grave. "If even the hanged god's battle monsters have that much honor, I can do no less."
Loki stared at her for a long moment, and then exhaled quietly.
He straightened and looked at Fandral. "What am I here for?"
The man drawled that that was an excellent question in his own tongue, and then replied in Loki's, "No more."
Loki nodded curtly and returned to his tent.
He didn't let himself look back at Unna, or over to the faces of the other temple folk who'd slipped or peeked out of their tents at the commotion. The flap dropped heavily behind him when he stepped inside; Loki shuddered in the darkness and then swallowed hard.
They buried Arnkell by the river, and hauled stones out of it to mark his grave in the shape of a boat.
Fandral quietly informed Thor of all that the woman had said to Loki. They were unable to learn more, even when Thor borrowed the star-reading boy to speak with her. His owner finally called him back to his tent, and Eirik was convinced to leave the murderer bound and in view of the sentry line until morning light, when she could be better dealt with. The fire was built up to increase visibility and Eirik left, still angry and mourning his brother.
After his departure Thor went to Volstagg. His man was cleaning his hands by the fire, the knife lying nearby on the ground. Its blade was broken from the hilt and scoured around the top as if Volstagg had scratched it while prying it loose.
"The branches," Thor asked quietly with a jerk of his chin toward his tent. "It was him?"
"Aye," Volstagg agreed.
Thor let out a long breath, his stomach twisting as he thought of how the other man had damaged his reputation to protect Thor's own. He set his jaw. "Thank you."
"Don't speak of it, Thor. Frey's men are loose talkers." Volstagg rose to his feet and looked at him, shaking his hands dry. "But something has to be done about him."
Thor drew another breath through his teeth, and nodded once.
He picked up an oil lamp and made his way to his tent.
Inside, the scribe was pacing. He stilled when Thor entered, but didn't look at him. When Thor wrenched the flap shut behind him Loki tensed further, fists clenching in his over-clothes.
He set the oil lamp on the ground in silence. Its light flickered through the space, and as he straightened Thor caught sight of another one of the pebble circles he was still finding around the camps, sitting half-hidden behind his bags of spoils.
Scowling, Thor caught the twig in the circle's center and jerked it loose before snapping it between his hands.
When he turned back Loki was watching him, his expression indecipherable in the weak light of the lamp. Thor tossed the halves of the twig to the ground and held his gaze.
"You helped cause the death of another of my men," he said lowly.
The corner of Loki's mouth pulled back sharply in a sneer.
Thor clenched a fist and stepped closer before catching himself. He turned aside instead and forced his hand to loosen, not wanting to even look at the scribe until he had a rein on his temper. "Each time I trust you you betray me," he gritted. "Do you--"
"'Man,'" Loki interrupted. Thor looked over and saw that his eyes were wide. "Animal."
He kept his gaze on Thor's face as he spat out something else in his own tongue. Thor caught one of the All-father's names.
He strode over and grabbed a fistful of Loki's clothes.
The man flinched when Thor yanked him closer. "Do not dare--"
"Dishonorable," Loki hissed out through his teeth, the word almost unintelligible. Thor stilled in surprise and then narrowed his eyes.
Loki glared at him. "Dishonorable," he repeated, enunciating the word so there was no doubt of it despite his accent. "Beast."
He swallowed harshly and went on, listing more insults, biting off each syllable. In other circumstances Thor would have been startled at the number he knew, before realizing that Loki had picked them up as they were spoken to himself or to those in his hearing by Thor and Frey's men. He would have marked it as further proof that Loki knew more of their language than he pretended, and paid attention to the fact that he was letting it slip now, too focused on something to realize he was giving himself away. Thor would have tried to work out what that something was.
In other circumstances.
Thor released his robe and wrenched hard on his hair instead. Loki choked off in the middle of a vicious slur.
"Enough," he snarled, forcing the man's head back to ensure he wouldn't speak.
Loki swallowed hard but held still, trying not to worsen the sharp ache in his scalp. His eyes were squeezed shut. Thor glared at him.
"Enough," he repeated harshly. "I am weary of your nastiness."
Loki's fists clenched as he panted shallowly. Thor kept his grip tight, planning to hold him like that for several more heartbeats to make his point.
Loki punched him hard in the side.
The strike hit almost directly where the arrow had pierced through him weeks ago. Thor grunted and jerked backward, shoving Loki away. The man sank to the ground.
He hadn't pushed that hard. Thor was already pulling back in instinctive defense as Loki seized the chisel stuck in the dirt.
The man lashed out in a wide arc, slicing into Thor's shin above his boot. He grunted at the sharp streak of pain and backed away further, knocking over the oil lamp. It spilled on the ground as he watched the scribe warily--Loki held the chisel as if it were a knife, with ease and clear training. Thor shifted away from the lamp and gripped the handle of his hammer.
The oil had spilled out close to Loki, and the scribe made the mistake of rising to his feet to evade it.
Thor let go of the handle and hooked a foot behind Loki's knee instead. When the man lost his balance and dropped to the ground with a curse, Thor dived at him.
He forced Loki to the grass and moved to pin his knife hand. Loki swung it from his reach and tried to drive the chisel into his shoulder.
Thor twisted backward and to the side to dodge it, and then jammed a knee into the juncture of Loki's hip and thigh. The scribe jerked, gasping in pain, and Thor slammed his wrist to the ground.
The chisel scraped against his vambrace as Loki slashed at him. Thor clenched his jaw and tried to wrench the tool from his grasp.
It was difficult--the scribe's arm had mostly healed and was no longer the weakness it had once been. Loki kept his fingers clenched tight around the handle and punched him sharply in the throat.
The blow was softened by the limited room he had to swing, but it still made Thor gag. He coughed hard and Loki thrashed under him, trying to pull loose.
The scribe's arm had only mostly healed. Thor kept Loki's wrist pinned with one hand, and then leaned back and slammed a fist against his shoulder.
Loki yelled in pain as the chisel slid from his grip. He curled in instinctively, and Thor released his wrist before grabbing his upper arm and shoving him face down on the ground. Loki cursed when the impact jarred his shoulder further.
Thor seized his wrist again and wrenched it behind him, and then dug a knee in the small of Loki’s back. He slapped the chisel away with his free hand.
Loki's head jerked, following the direction it went. Thor scowled at the motion and dug his knee in harder, making the scribe shudder. As Loki tensed under him, panting harshly, Thor watched him carefully.
One of the scribe's arms was trapped between his chest and the grass while the other was pinned to his back; and though his legs were free, with a knee on his spine and another by his hip, he had little leverage. The fight was over.
Yet Loki was still rigid, as if waiting another opportunity to spring, even with his temple pressed against the edge of the bed and his jaw clenched from the solid pressure on his shoulder. And the scribe was a deceitful, tricking opponent.
"Enough, Loki," Thor warned lowly.
The scribe pulled his lips back further. Thor growled in the back of his throat and tightened his grip.
"Fire," the man grit out.
Thor glanced to the side and saw that lamp's wick had lit the spilt oil, creating a burning puddle that was starting to eat the grass as well.
He snarled under his breath and pulled free, shoving Loki away as he stood. The man caught himself with an elbow on the fur and squirmed back further.
Thor stomped down on the flames and kept a distrustful eye on him. Loki rubbed his shoulder gingerly, sitting on the fur with his head tilted down and ignoring him; but as Thor extinguished the last of the fire he glanced up and glared at him in the dying light.
Thor ground the wick into the dirt and stepped over. Loki started to shift back, but Thor grabbed his hair again and the man tensed up once more.
Thor pulled his head back, forcing Loki to look at him. It took several breaths for his sight to adjust to the light trickling in from the large fire outside--but when it did he could see that the scribe was still sneering.
He'd had his hand in Loki's hair not so long ago this same night, thinking that the man was slowly beginning to soften toward him--that Loki had started to accept his company. That he was becoming, for all his continued jibes and insults, worthy of his trust. That with Thjalfi's duel the scribe would soon show he deserved a chance to prove himself, to be freed and take a place as one of Thor's men.
And all that time Loki had known Arnkell was going to die. Had been the source of the weapon that killed him so ignominiously.
"Liar," Thor rasped, his grip tightening as the word came out rawer than he wanted. The scribe flinched again before clenching his hands in the fur.
"Knew that," Loki muttered.
Thor stilled, shoulders tightening.
He had known that.
He'd known from the first night that the scribe was deceitful. He'd learned within days that he would plan out long-lasting curses and even use his own people for them. He stole, he poisoned, he sneered. He murdered.
And Thor never punished him sufficiently for it, out of his desire to make him a proper ally. Out of his unwise enjoyment of the scribe's company--which Loki used callously, making Thor think he'd changed when instead he'd just been waiting.
No wonder the scribe believed he would get away with aiding Arnkell's death. His part in it had already been covered over: his carving on the blade was concealed and the blame for its theft laid on others' shoulders. For all purposes, he already had.
Loki hissed, shoulders hunching, and Thor realized how tight his grip had become.
He let go and the scribe immediately pulled back. He scooted away farther as Thor stared down at him in the mitigated gloom.
"I've spoiled you," he muttered. "You don't know your place."
Loki's breath hitched.
It gave Thor a heartbeat's warning before the man lashed out again.
Loki kicked him hard in the leg against the gash he'd cut. Thor staggered back, and then dropped to a crouch. When Loki shoved to his feet, Thor lunged at him.
Whoever had taught him knife-fighting hadn't trained him as well in wrestling. Thor focused on the scribe's shoulder, throwing his weight against it. Loki punched his throat again.
Thor coughed violently and ended up twisting the man's upper arm hard. Loki made a high, pained noise as the joint strained. As he leaned reflexively into it, Thor got a hand around his throat and forced him to the fur.
Loki gagged and bucked under him, and tried to gouge his fingers into Thor's eye. Thor shoved back with a snarl and clenched his hand.
Loki fought hard as Thor choked him, but his efforts quickly slid from trained attacks to stark panic. He clawed at Thor's arm, and tried to wedge his fingers between his throat and Thor's hand far enough to pull it away. Thor tightened his grip automatically, and Loki strangled out a thin noise as he dug his heels into the bed, struggling to twist free.
Thor thought, suddenly, of how the All-father's blood-brother's lips were sewn.
His grip loosened slightly, and Loki gasped for air even as he wrenched harder at Thor's hand. When Thor peered down at the scribe's face, the terror on it was clear.
He hissed out a breath through his teeth, shoulders tensing--but he stopped short of letting go. The man was a liar.
"Stop fighting!" Thor ordered. When Loki clawed at his arm again, not listening, Thor seized his hand and pinned it down on his bad shoulder. The scribe jerked at the strain and thrashed against him.
Thor shifted his weight, making Loki shudder as it momentarily put more pressure on his shoulder, and then pinned the scribe's thighs under his shins. Loki dug his heels harder into the fur, ready to try throwing him off yet again--but he ceased at last when Thor shoved down hard on his shoulder briefly.
Once the scribe had remained still for a few loud, thudding heartbeats, Thor loosed the grasp on his throat further.
Loki gulped convulsively for air. As he caught his breath, he squirmed his hand further between his neck and Thor's palm--but he didn't yank at it this time. Instead he remained tense, watching Thor closely as he regained enough control to breathe shallowly.
"Stop," Thor repeated, striving to speak more evenly despite the blood pounding through him from the fight. "And I'll be easier on you."
Loki choked out a disbelieving laugh.
Thor pressed down on his throat again and the scribe drew a sharp breath through his nose.
He didn't move under Thor for several heartbeats. But then--finally--the scribe worked his hand loose from between Thor's palm and his throat, and let it fall shakily to his side.
Thor was close enough to feel Loki panting as he tried to force himself to go lax, and he could catch the strain of it in the other man's limbs. Loki was thrumming just as fiercely with battle nerves as Thor; his body instinctively didn't want to obey.
Thor let out a long, quiet breath.
He eased his grip once more. Loki's throat bobbed beneath his palm as the man hacked and then struggled to even his breathing.
When they'd sewn the trickster god's lips, it had done them no good--it had only made things worse in the end, for everyone.
But Thor didn't know how to make him listen long enough to understand.
"Enough, Loki," he said slowly.
Thor stared down at the man as Loki turned his face away. "No more of this. If you cause any harm--any--to my men again, I will have to kill you." Thor grit his teeth. "Do you understand?"
Loki drew another ragged breath, coughed once more, and then barely nodded. "Aye."
Thor pressed back down on his throat, and Loki gagged. "Aye, what?"
Loki squirmed and tried to lean away, and Thor pulled back enough that he could speak. The scribe closed his eyes before answering, "Aye, Lord Thor."
He lifted his hand from Loki's neck and braced it by his head. "Do not insult my god, or me, ever again," Thor ordered lowly. "Do you understand?"
Loki's face was still tilted to the side, his eyes shut, as he repeated, "Aye, Lord Thor."
Thor pushed up. He shifted off of Loki's legs when the man winced under the increased pressure and sat back on his heels, staring down at him.
Loki soon tilted away, curling the rest of his body to the side as well. He rubbed a hand gingerly against his throat. His breath was still rasping.
Thor frowned as the sound went on, and started to think he should get another lamp. He didn't remember how tightly he'd been squeezing before he was jarred out of the fight; if the scribe's throat was bruised badly enough he needed to have Hogun see to it. And he had to find the chisel and remove it. He shouldn't have let the scribe keep it in the first place.
He shouldn't have let Loki do many things; and now he had to repair what he could.
Thor grunted as he started to push to his feet--the chisel had cut surprisingly deep into his shin, and the wound stung.
Loki flicked a glance at him and snorted almost inaudibly.
Thor growled, and braced a fist on the bed beside his face. Loki's hand stilled on his throat.
"You must be mad," Thor muttered. "Are you trying to provoke me?"
Loki stiffened further. Thor glared, waiting for him to try and pull away.
But he didn't; and Thor's expression slowly shifted to a frown as he studied the man.
After several long breaths, he finally said, very quietly, "Ah."
From what Fandral had gleaned of their conversation, the scribe and the woman both knew she was going to die for her crime. And she and the boy were the two that Loki spent the most time with.
Thor had never addressed it with the other man, but he'd come to assume there was a reason: kin-bonds or fosterage, a handfast that had separated, or a marriage that had ended in divorce. He had assumed the same of the cursed woman he'd sent back to Farbauti's homestead, though that ending had obviously not been amiable. But he hadn't considered it in light of tonight.
It clarified matters.
"You are," Thor murmured, his frown deepening as he began to think back over everything Loki had done since he returned.
The other man sneered out an angry noise, twisting away. A breath later he tried to sit up and shove Thor aside, snapping out a curse too rough for Thor to understand.
He pressed a hand over Loki's mouth and dug his fingers into the man's cheeks to hold him quiet.
Loki jerked and tensed, but Thor didn't give him the time to react. He kept his grip tight as he rolled onto his feet, forcing the scribe to scrabble to stand as well. He could feel Loki's lips pulled back against his palm, and saw the man's fingers curl as Thor began to undo his belt.
But he didn't fight back this time. Loki only laughed bitterly as Thor unwound the fabric and dropped it, the muffled sound harsh and weary.
He fell quiet as Thor stripped off the rest of his clothes and then dragged him to the other side of the tent. When Thor pressed down hard on his shoulder, the scribe sank to his knees before twisting around to look up at him. The angle shadowed his face.
"Sleep there," Thor said flatly, and pushed him again.
After Loki lay down, Thor left him and went to the water bucket.
He washed the cut in his leg roughly and listened to the scribe shift about as he redressed. While Loki tried to find a comfortable spot amid the dirt and stones, Thor tied open the tent flap and searched the area where he'd flung the chisel. When he found it, he jammed the tool in his belt before finally dropping back down onto the bed.
He didn't manage to sleep before he was called to stand the last leg of sentry duty. Thor dragged himself to his feet wearily and shook his head to clear away the fog slowing him.
He glanced over his shoulder as he left and saw that the scribe had curled in on himself, shivering faintly.
Thor found Thjalfi and stopped the younger man on his way back to his tent.
"Here," he said shortly, holding out the chisel. "Take this and don't give it back to him unless you've asked me first."
Thjalfi blinked and took it. "I...."
He looked at Thor's face, and then cut off and dropped his gaze and nodded. "\Yes, sir.\"
He shook his head a second later. "No. Aye, chieftain."
Thor made a noise in the back of his throat and left him.
Thjalfi tucked the chisel into his belt. He rubbed his hair as he glanced over at Thor's tent; but a breath later he exhaled and dropped his shoulders, and made his way to his own.
I told you not to be trouble, he thought, as he dropped the chisel among his things.
When Thor returned to his tent after dawn broke, he found that the scribe was still sleeping on the ground but had redressed in his absence.
Thor looked down at him aggravatedly. Loki's hair and clothes were streaked with the dirt he'd been sleeping on--and he'd set a new twig into the pebble-ring.
He studied it and then the scribe for a time longer. Finally, he exhaled through his teeth.
Thor toed him in the back. "Get up."
Loki didn't flinch or jolt awake, but he turned his head and looked at Thor through his hair. He'd already been awake.
"Get up," Thor repeated, before pointing to the bed. "It'll be hot today. Go wash that."
Loki pushed himself up with an elbow and went to obey in silence.
The woman sat against a tree trunk some distance from the camp as they debated her death.
"Hanging is easiest," Frey pointed out.
"It's an insult to the Father-of-armies," Thor replied.
"He takes killers," Eirik said harshly.
"Aye," Thor agreed, "proper warriors who kill in battle. He'll take criminals too. But the mad belong to his blood-brother."
Frey and Eirik looked at her again. She sat with her bound hands in her lap, ignoring them. Her expression was placid as she looked out at the camp, or else to the newly-arranged grave by it.
Eirik exhaled sharply, but didn't argue further. Thor had already talked with Frey in his presence about the possibility that they'd been cursed by the temple captives' god--that warrior didn't take insults well. If that was the case, they had to appeal to the All-father to step in and talk him down, and that meant providing him with better sacrifices, not insulting ones. He and Frey and some of the others were still considering whether that meant raiding further inland or sailing to a new area.
No one suggested offering her to All-father's blood-brother to see if he would intercede. He held nearly as much sway with the giant-killing god as their own, and the stories said if he was called on and bothered to help he'd put more effort into it--but the way to sacrifice to him was an messy and cruel one. Thor had learned it along with his brother as a young man, and still knew how to perform it; but he didn't like it. He didn't bring it up.
He also didn't say the other reason why he was arguing against hanging her: Loki had come to him earlier that morn, laid a hand on Thor's arm and bent his neck and finally spoken again. "Please, not the noose for her."
Thor had given him a long look. Loki didn't move.
"She has to die," he'd said at last. "She murdered one of my men. His brother claimed retribution, and I'll not insult him by overriding it. It's been decided." He'd repeated, slower, "She has to die."
"Die," Loki had agreed tiredly, eyes closed. "Please, not the noose."
Thor--now believing that he'd been right to give the two of them a final chance to speak, even if neither had deserved it--had tightened his jaw. "...I will see."
Frey made a quiet noise as he considered the woman, and then raised his shoulders briefly.
"You're his priest, not I," he replied agreeably. "You know him better."
Eirik exhaled again, but with less vehemence this time. "Aye," he conceded. "As you say, chieftain. I won't make my brother's lot worse."
Thor--aware that Frey didn't live in the same place as he and didn't have to accept his word, aware that he was abusing Eirik's trust and his power as the executor of his district's rites, aware that he was doing it for a man who didn't deserve such disobedience to the gods--nodded once and said nothing more.
She refused a final meal. They cut her throat without ceremony and buried her near the edge of the trees.
Things calmed as the sun ran her course. Men hunted throughout the morning and early afternoon, and Volstagg took their catches and prepared a feast that began to be served as night fell.
Thor spoke to Thjalfi and learned that he had told the scribe how to say the phrase Loki had used that morning. Thor assured the younger man that he didn't see it as disobedience, and noted to himself that Loki had gone to some effort to preserve his cover of how much of their language he knew. He wondered if the scribe was hoping Thor didn't remember that he'd let it slip the night before.
He made Loki sleep on the ground again that evening but let him keep his clothes.
Thor returned from standing second sentry that night and found the scribe curled up against the chill once more. He stared down at the man for a few breaths, and then exhaled inaudibly.
Loki jerked awake when Thor took his arm. He went still as soon as he was reoriented, and rose to his feet when Thor tugged it loosely.
He followed as Thor pulled him over and down onto the bed. Loki stilled again, apparently in confusion, when Thor dropped his fur wrap over his arm and shoulder and then drew back and didn't touch him further.
After a long time, the scribe finally tugged the fur closer. He shifted a fingerspan farther away and hesitated once more--and then when Thor didn't move he settled and eventually fell asleep. Thor didn't close his eyes until after Loki's breathing had evened out into true slumber.
It had been a very good season for a time, except for the magpies.
They lingered by the sacrifices and nested in the areas where Thor and his men stopped to trade or raid. It was never more than one at a time, and they were rarely visible and eerily quiet. Half the time Thor didn't spot them until a raven or two chased them off. Most of the time none of the others saw them at all.
He'd already begun keeping a tight rein on the scribe in response. After the woman's death he increased it.
The act seemed justified when one of the first times he let Loki loose long enough to get more water, the star-reading boy attacked him.
Thor had been bartering with Frey over the chains the other man had in his cargo and watching the scribe in the side of his vision, so he knew it for once wasn't Loki's fault. The boy had paused at the sight of the scribe as he left his tent, and had hesitated for a few short breaths before charging at him.
Loki had sensed the attack a heartbeat before it landed and swung around instinctively, striking the boy with the bucket. Thor noticed that as he moved he reached with his free hand to his side--a place where knives would normally be sheathed.
Loki paused when he actually caught sight of the boy and then dropped his hand. The boy had fallen back, rubbing the top of his head where the bucket had clipped him.
A heartbeat later the boy snarled something out through his teeth and dived at him again. This time Loki only dodged.
If anyone in the temple had taught the boy how to fight properly, he'd forgotten it in his anger. It was embarrassing to watch. Thor helped the boy's owner separate the two as he and Loki yelled at each other.
"Quiet," Thor told Loki as the boy's owner cuffed him hard on the ear. The scribe fell silent, still glaring past him at the boy. Several of the temple folk had paused to observe them.
The boy ground out something low and angry as he cupped the side of his face and Loki jerked back with wide eyes, and then sneered. Gisli exhaled irritably and cuffed him again.
Loki hissed out something vicious and the boy blinked up to stare at him in shock. Thor gave him an angry look at the public disobedience and rattled the water bucket in Loki's hands. "Go," he said sharply, pointing toward the river.
"Aye, Lord Thor," the scribe said through his teeth before stalking away.
Gisli ordered the boy to get to work on the chores he'd been told to do. When he'd left, his man scowled over at Njord, who'd joined the group of onlookers. "Do you still want him?"
Njord snorted and folded his arms. "You are poor at negotiating," he replied, as people began to drift back to their own tasks. "I'll give you two silver brooches."
Gisli's scowl deepened. "That's less than you said before!"
"Aye," Njord drawled in agreement, and Thor left them to it.
He caught up with Fandral, who'd been nearby. "Did you overhear any of that?"
His man held up his hands. "Those two speak the most complicatedly of them all," he replied. "And it's impossible to understand when they're snarling like that. I got that it was about the woman, and her death; and something about their god. But no more."
Thor nodded tiredly. He'd been able to pick out a few words and several insults, but those had told him little beyond that. "Thank you."
Whatever the boy had said, it had an effect on the other temple captives. Within a day, Thor noticed that they’d begun to avoid Loki, and rarely spoke to or came near him unless obligated. He noted that the boy held either a higher status or more power than he'd initially assumed, which Njord asked he not mention again until the man was done negotiating with Gisli.
He couldn't determine what Loki thought of the situation. The scribe went about his tasks in preparation for their sailing with a blank expression, his face always unreadable now.
Always, even in his tent. It left Thor unsettled--he didn't like this odd silence from the man who'd never failed to have some quip or barb on his tongue.
But he didn't know what to say to Loki to change things, or even if he should say anything. For once, the scribe was being obedient.
That evening before he went to stand sentry Thor left Loki with orders to pack up his things, an oil lamp to do so, and misgivings. He doubted the man would set anything afire even if he were considering an escape--it would be too soon noticed, and everyone had heard the wolves howling in the area.
But he couldn't shake away thoughts of the giant-killer, or the All-father's blood-brother. He found himself glancing over his shoulder often.
He stopped only when Sif whacked him in the back of his leg with her spear, and then asked why he'd let himself be hit in the first place when Thor cursed.
"Better me than a wolf," she retorted, moving back to her spot on the line.
"Aye," he muttered, and then shook his head and forced himself to focus on his responsibilities.
By the end of his shift, the last of his men said their things were packed.
He returned to his tent to find Loki had finished tying up his own bags and was sitting on the edge of the bed. He looked as though he'd dozed off like that, but he startled awake when Thor entered.
Thor rinsed his face and then gestured to him. "Come with me."
The scribe's steps slowed as they walked toward Arnkell's former tent. But he didn't stop entirely; and when Thor gestured him inside, he went.
Frey had left the chains in there once Eirik agreed to loan the tent for the captives to sleep in. Most of the men had already bound their own, and the rest were bringing theirs in as they returned from standing watch. Thor found the group that belonged on his ship and put the scribe at the end, as far from the boy as possible. Loki watched stiffly without speaking as he fastened the leaden band around his neck.
Thor left in equal silence and paused beside the man standing guard outside.
"Come to an agreement yet?" he asked, trying for cheer.
"That haggler," Gisli groused. "I know he wants him for his knowledge, he can't short-change me just because he's a little trouble."
Thor snorted and clapped him on the shoulder once, and then bid him goodnight and left.
They loaded them onto the ships still in chains, an awkward and unwieldy process. Even the captives who didn't know their language had picked up the assumption that this was his fault, and muttered and avoided him accordingly. At least as much as they could.
Halgi was released shortly after they pushed away from shore and taken above. With him gone--with Ingebjorg and now Unna gone--he was left amid strangers, who knew little to nothing of him or his position or his skills.
It was almost a relief. Loki slumped against one of the hay bales and listened to the foreign murmur around him, knowing that he wouldn't be called on to aid them, that he wasn't obligated to do so, that he owed them nothing. That he wouldn't be forced to care whatever befell them.
He thought briefly of trying to learn their language, just for the sake of something to do while he was trapped in such perpetual close proximity; the barbarian had all but tied him down in the tent even before this indignity, and if the past few weeks were an indicator, that would be unlikely to change. If he continued to be quarantined at least he could still hear.
Loki hesitated, and then tugged at the collar where the metal had begun to chafe his neck.
Assuming he wasn't kept like this, and then sold.
He hadn't--he believed that he hadn't--pushed the barbarian that far. But he'd counted on being able to influence him if necessary; kept separated, allowing the barbarian to focus on all the problems and supposed injustices he'd caused instead, would seriously harm his chances. If he'd known this would occur, he wouldn't have wasted the time he'd had beforehand. Thinking back, he could see with bitter hindsight that his ill-considered coldness might have sealed the barbarian's decision to be rid of him.
Thinking back even further, Loki bared his teeth and placed a hand over his neck.
If he was sold, he was sold. He would still bide his time, learn the language, secret enough coin to travel on, and escape. From who and to where didn't matter; it didn't change his plan, only some details of it. Either way, he would live and get free.
He scowled across the hold and reminded himself that that was all which mattered--he would be free. From who didn't matter. Nothing else mattered. He would.
Over time, the rocking of the ship and the women's occasionally murmurings lulled his anger somewhat. Loki rubbed his face where the scowl had made it ache, and then hesitated and tugged on the collar again. It scraped over his skin it had already chafed half-raw, and he winced.
'Yours is kind,' she'd told him.
It was true. As Halgi had said, he should have been killed alongside her--Thor knew he was an accomplice. That made two murders of his men; two more made sick, once he'd run away, four fights, and three times he'd managed to injure the barbarian. Four, if blame for the arrow Byleist had shot was thrown in. He should have been killed or at least sold long ago. He might not have gone against the runes' protection as drastically as Unna, but he had all the same. He should have gotten them all chained together when he first tried to escape, or when Dagur and Brynja died after succeeding at it.
If it had been anyone but Thor, he likely would have. He'd never seen these chains when working in the hold; wherever they'd come from, it was clear the barbarian didn't carry them as a matter of course.
Loki let his hand drop. It rattled the links, and the woman yoked to him gave him an ugly look. Loki returned it before cupping a hand over the inside of his elbow.
"Is this how you interpret good fortune?" he muttered under his breath. "Save me."
He ignored the fact that Halgi had purged him from the Charioteer's service. The boy was an acolyte and a child, not a true priest, and just as unconsecrated as Loki himself currently was; he was pretending to power he didn't have.
He had to be.
Loki rubbed the place he'd written the runes until his skin was red.
When Halgi was sent down briefly to eat with the rest of them, he and Loki remained on separate sides of the hold. They didn't speak.
Thor came down once to talk with Volstagg, limping, which Loki learned only because the cook commented on it. The place he sat was borderline comfortable with the bale to lean against, but ill-suited to visibility. Loki managed to shift forward and around enough to catch a brief glimpse of the barbarian as he started back up the ladder. He was favoring his left leg heavily.
More time passed, but the ship never touched land. Loki frowned to himself, trying to count out how long it had been. Was it still day? Or were they sailing through the night? It had been weeks since they'd done that.
He didn't know. He could see little among the piles of cargo from his place, and the hatch hadn't been opened recently. The sun had still been out when they were brought above to relieve themselves, but it had been too cloudy to determine where exactly in the sky she was, and time had passed since then. It might still be late day; it could already be night.
He didn't know enough to puzzle it out, so eventually he stopped trying and instead sought a decent position to rest in.
He woke when he heard footsteps near. Loki caught himself and forced his body to relax, feigning sleep.
The footfalls continued until they paused in front of him. They were too quiet to be one of the raiders--the tread wasn't heavy enough, nor did it have the sound their boots made on the wood slats. It was the softer pat of leather sandals.
Loki ignored the boy until Halgi finally spoke.
"Are you awake?" he asked quietly.
Loki noted the odd tremor in his voice and said curtly, "What matters it to you?"
The boy was silent for a long time. Loki continued to hold himself ready to lash out with a kick if he was attacked again; the chains restricted his movements, but he still had his arms and legs free. He could defend himself until some raider overheard and dragged the stupid child away.
The boy let out a long, shaky breath and sat down. "We've turned north."
It took Loki a moment to grasp the meaning of that. It was several heartbeats more before an image of the map coalesced in his mind.
He shoved himself to a sitting position, dragging the woman chained to him up as well and startling her awake. Loki fended her off when she jolted and tried to scratch his face, and pushed her back against the bale before looking at Halgi. "I thought we'd passed Britannia. Where are they going?"
The boy shook his head. "It's still to our north. We haven't gone around the bend that would put us toward Galicia."
He frowned. "We did go over a bend."
Halgi shook his head. "Not that little one, the--"
He made a frustrated noise and grabbed a fistful of hay, and started arranging the straws into a map, pushing aside the oil lamp he'd brought as he did. Loki shifted forward to watch; the woman pulled her feet back and, having apparently decided they were just talking, hunched in and leaned against the bale as best she could, closing her eyes.
"This bend," Halgi explained, pointing to a long line that dipped south before spreading out west again, toward what Loki recognized as Galicia. "The island stretches up to it. I think we've reached it, but they tacked north, not south."
Loki dragged his hair from his face as it fell in his eyes. "So they're taking us to Britannia."
"Maybe." Halgi started arranging more straw in the shape of islands. "There, or the island to its west, or...." He shifted a few more bits of straw, and then hesitated, staring at it, before dropping the rest on the wood. "I don't know. There's so many little isles around it, I can't remember where they all were. I'd have to see the map."
"It's gone," Loki replied. He slumped back against the bale and folded his arms. "At least we know where they're turning now."
Halgi snorted sourly. Loki ignored it and thought over the map again in his mind; there were isles scattered along the top of Britannia, and he vaguely recalled stories from sea-faring soldiers who'd visited the temple about the raiders who lived there, or at least worked for their rulers.
But those were few, compared to the ones that lived on the distant island further northward, across a great stretch of ocean. They might stop in Britannia; more likely, they'd keep sailing.
Maybe to be sold would be good fortune, understood only in hindsight, the way being caught when he'd tried to escape had saved him from setting foot in Farbauti's village and being struck down. Between the islands there would be enough places to drift if he was tracked, especially if he improved his swimming; and with time he could buy or steal or inveigle his way on a boat and make it back to the main lands.
But that distant island was too remote. It might be sufficiently far from Farbauti--but finding a way to escape it would be much more difficult than trying to hide in a land where Thor didn't live.
For the first time in a long while, he thought of Eydis. Had the curse she carried for him come to fruition yet? She'd had no cause to love Farbauti after he betrayed them--perhaps she'd tricked her way into an audience based on her 'escape' and chanced to touch him, and the man was long dead and Loki's safety assured, and he could leave whenever he best saw the opportunity.
Or perhaps she'd been clever and fled, gotten a kinsman to take her as far from the village as possible and sought out a scribe to remove the curse. It could be done, by the right person; Loki knew he wasn't the best of them. There were others, older than he, who'd simply had more time at the craft.
Perhaps she'd tricked her way to an audience and Farbauti had killed her to keep his actions secret.
He dropped the line of thought. Loki let out a long breath and shoved his hair back from his eyes once more.
"You were right, weren't you," Halgi said quietly, and he looked up. The boy had drawn his legs to his chest, and was biting a thumbnail. "He isn't listening any more, is he?"
Loki considered him for a long moment.
Finally, he picked the response that wouldn't bar him from hearing his own tongue spoken ungrudgingly again. Even just a day surrounded by nothing but foreigners had left him missing it, almost tempted to speak to himself just to hear proper words and cadences again. Some here spoke the barbarian's language, and he could understand sufficient of that; but it wasn't the same.
Loki huffed and settled back further against the bale. "I was angry," he said shortly. Then, when Halgi remained curled in on himself, he added, "And rash. Of course he's listening."
"Then why doesn't he answer?"
"He's probably fighting giants in Svalbard or Jamtland," Loki replied with a shrug, biting back the urge to ask why the boy was coming to him for comforting answers when he'd banished him less than two days ago. "He'll do something when he's not so busy."
Halgi toyed with his thumb, tugging a splinter of straw from it. "Maybe."
"If you have doubts, say them now," Loki replied. "You can't speak them in front of the others."
"I know that," Halgi hissed. He glared at him over the scattered straw and the flickering lamp. "You shouldn't have, either."
Loki shrugged a shoulder again. "I was rash," he repeated.
Halgi muttered under his breath and looked down at the map.
After a while, he settled cross-legged on the curved slats. "...So was I," he mumbled. "You're not really exiled."
"I know," Loki replied, though he had to swallow first to say it. "You're an acolyte, not a priest. You don't have the power to bar me from him."
Halgi scowled. "Ingrate."
Loki made an irritable noise.
The hatch opened and the shipmaster yelled down Halgi's name, startling the others awake; and the boy picked up the lamp and hurried off. Loki settled back down to sleep once he was gone, a hand cupped over the crook of his elbow.
The raiders took the chains off the next day, when they were out deep enough in the ocean that trying to swim to shore would be death.
The last parts of the sailing were uneventful.
When they reached Britannia, Frey navigated their course along the sea between it and Eire until they came to a monastery that he knew of. Just before they rode out against it, Volstagg broke open the keg of spiked ale for the men to drink. Most did; Frey refrained because he preferred to be clear-headed when leading his men in battle. Thor abstained because after his father's death he'd learned to not allow his temper to be loosed beyond his control if there was no one capable of wrenching him out of the berserker fit. Hogun, Balder and Tyr still bore scars from the final time he'd drunk russet-cap ale.
Afterward they looted the monastery and sacrificed everyone inside to the Father-of-armies until even Thor thought he would be pleased enough to intercede with the giant-killing god, and to overlook his actions in the aftermath of Arnkell's death.
After all, Thor thought wryly as he hauled his part of the spoils back to camp, if nothing else, the All-father understood the difficulty of severing ties with nimble-witted, charming men.
But he marked off his share to be offered to the god once he arrived home, just to be certain.
When they arrived at Eire's slave-market, he left Loki behind on the ship. Thor traded most of the jewelry and things of precious metals he'd acquired for homestead goods, consulting with Sif in several cases.
She didn't mention his failure to sell Loki. Neither did the rest of his friends, though Hogun was the greatest annoyed--spotting and treating the infected cut on Thor's leg had withered any tolerance his man might've had left for the scribe. The silence was both appreciated and frustrating.
Thor bought a set of old, clean clothes that suited the scribe's frame and a pair of good boots while at the market; but he held on to them for the time being.
Most of the men sold their captives. When they sailed again, the only slaves left were Loki, Njord's boy, and two women. The hold was full enough with cargo that the four had to sleep above deck, with one of the chains' bands looped around a crossbar in the horses' shelter to keep them in place. The scribe sat as far into the shelter as possible, his over-clothes draped over his head and face to keep off the sea spray. The boy tended to sit near him when released from duties, and Thor marked that whatever quarrel they'd had, it had apparently been resolved.
Many, he suspected, understood the difficulty of severing ties with clever people.
When they reached the Sudreys, Frey's ship separated from his own. Thor and his men stayed briefly at his hall like always, but only for one night instead of three.
"Are you sure?" Frey asked as they were readying to sail. "I've more than enough meat and ale, and benches and lodgings." He raised an eyebrow. "And you know my servant-women are the prettiest around."
Thor laughed, and then shook his head.
"No," he said regretfully. "My gratitude as always for your hospitality, my friend; but it's too late into the summer. If I delay any longer I could miss arriving in time at the Assembly."
Frey made an amused noise. "You people and your laws. Very well. I'll see you come next spring?"
"If I still breathe, I'll be here," Thor smiled, clapping his shoulder.
Frey laughed, and they parted ways soon after.
It was a long sail after they set out from Frey's homestead--the slaves grew restless. The women stared at the ocean surrounding them until the sea spray made them flinch back, and while Njord kept the boy busy, Thor sometimes saw him tracing lines behind the horses' shelter with a clenched jaw. The shapes were different from Loki's runes, so Thor presumed they were for calculating their path and didn't intercede.
Only Loki seemed unmoved. He gazed out at the water with that distant, calculating look Thor had often seen on his face as the man rummaged around repetitively with his spoils.
They landed at Faroe before the final leg of their journey, to refill the water kegs and stretch the remaining oatcake and dried fish with fresh meat.
"This is an island," Thor warned lowly while he unlatched the band around the scribe's neck. Loki glanced at him as he pulled it away. "You'd be caught within a day if you tried to run."
The scribe started to raise a hand to his chafed throat, but then stopped and let his arm fall. "Aye, Lord Thor."
Thor studied him.
The man was looking over their surroundings with the same deliberating expression he'd had during the last few days of sailing--but when Thor didn't move, Loki noticed and turned back toward him.
Thor considered him a breath longer and then showed Loki where to raise his tent. It was at a distance from the others', but if the scribe realized or cared he didn't show it.
Thor left him and went to Volstagg, and borrowed two knives before going to help the rest of his men.
That night he didn't have sentry duty. The camp was small and their arrival on the island was unknown, with their presence marked only by the fish and beasts they caught, so the men drew lots. Fandral lost and was needled by Volstagg for it--too much luck with women, the older man proclaimed, made for overall less luck elsewhere. Sif and Hogun had snickered more than was really called for. Thor diplomatically didn't comment.
He returned to his tent with an oil lamp as dusk fell. The scribe had been sifting through his spoils as usual, but he set them aside and turned toward him when Thor entered.
"Here," Thor said, tossing one of the knives on the ground near him.
As he set the lamp down, in the edge of his vision he saw Loki go still. A heartbeat later the scribe scrabbled for the blade.
Thor straightened and moved back instinctively. Loki had fallen into a defensive stance with the knife out before him, and he was glancing between Thor and the still-open entrance to the tent. His eyes were wider than before.
"No," Thor said, realizing abruptly what this looked like. He almost set the knife he was holding down before he remembered how swiftly the scribe could move. Thor tucked the tip of it into his belt instead and then lifted his palms, watching Loki carefully for any signs of a coming attack. "No.
"I know you were taught to fight this way," he said evenly, when Loki didn't move. "I want to know how well. That's all."
He saw when the scribe understood him: Loki's posture altered faintly. The change was almost invisible in the lamp's light, but the jittery surge of nerves faded from his movements as he eased into a calmer, more trained stance.
He didn't lower the knife. He was still pretending to understand little of their language.
Thor waited a few breaths more--but when Loki remained wary, he exhaled hard through his teeth.
"Why do you still expect to be killed?" Thor muttered, low and frustrated. His arms fell to his sides. "Have you done something worse I haven't learned of yet?"
The calm left the scribe then. A brief, cornered look flashed over his face, and he looked past Thor's shoulder to the entrance again.
It didn't seem false this time. Thor blinked once, remembering suddenly the way Loki had looked at him the first time he'd seen Thor return from a raid after he'd acquired the man. The fear had been deeper than this look, the panic clearer--but it was still similar.
It had been so long since that day, and the scribe seemed so often a step ahead in his plots and schemes, that Thor had nearly forgotten it.
"Have you?" Thor repeated, his fingers curling as he studied the scribe's face. He thought of the runes on his ship that he'd let Loki paint--he'd trusted the man when Loki said they were for good luck, but the foolishness of that had been made clear again and again by now. And it was a long sail left ahead of them, with no land to swim to for days if the boat capsized....
Loki shifted on his feet, and Thor's eyes narrowed.
He watched as the scribe crouched slowly and set the knife on the ground. He lifted his palms afterward, echoing Thor's gesture, before straightening again. Loki brushed his hair back from his eyes as he stood, and his gaze flickered over Thor's face, watching him as edgily as Thor was he.
Thor felt weary suddenly.
It had been months now. He'd been generous with the scribe to the point of imprudence, and if Loki wasn't harming his men he gave him near free reign. He'd picked up enough of his language that they could communicate rudimentarily; he kept his desires checked. He'd been gentle. Even when undeserved, he'd been kind.
"Why do you still expect to be killed?" he repeated, and the words came out tired.
Loki frowned, his head tilting as he examined Thor's face in the dimming light; and Thor wondered what could make a man be so untrusting.
The scribe caught himself a breath later and shook his head, still pretending at confusion. Thor watched him for several silent heartbeats.
Then he muttered under his breath and left abruptly to find Fandral.
Thor had already warned his friends of his suspicions that Loki knew more of their language than he showed. They'd agreed with him to leave it be for now, some more grudgingly than others. Fandral unnecessarily translated his intentions to Loki, and the man misleadingly relaxed and nodded; but the conversation was terse on both ends.
Thor knew it was partly because Fandral was trying to return to his duty on the sentry line as quickly as possible. But he knew it was also because the act was wearing at his man as much as it was on Thor. His friends weren't inclined to this kind of scheming--it wasn't their nature.
He didn't know Loki's reasons, and doubted he would guess correctly even if he tried.
Loki was very well taught in knife fighting. He was better trained than Thor himself; Thor found he had to fall back often or shift to wrestling moves to disengage Loki's blade. More than once he nearly loosed his hammer reflexively before stopping himself.
He still assumed that Loki was concealing the extent of his skills. Thor lashed out occasionally with sudden, sharp attacks meant to disarm the scribe's caution and provoke him into revealing himself--but after the first few Loki caught on, and stopped falling for them, and started seeing them coming.
It still told Thor what he needed. He called a halt soon after and they withdrew to separate sides of the tent, panting and catching their breaths. The summer air was warm even this far from the continent, and more stifling in the tent because Thor had closed the flap before they began. The scribe had shucked off his over-clothes early into the spar, and Thor's fur wrap had long been flung into a corner.
"The knife," he ordered, wanting to remove his vambraces but unwilling to do so while Loki still held a weapon he was so proficient with. "Give it here."
Loki tossed the knife on the dirt near him and started wiping the sweat from his face. He was holding his hair away from his neck.
Thor shook his head but let the rudeness go, telling himself even as he did that he shouldn't, that this had been part of his carelessness that had led to Arnkell's death. Vexed, he dragged the blade closer with his foot and started undoing his vambraces.
After he'd cast them beside his wrap and wiped off his forearms, he picked up the knife. As he turned to leave, Loki called, "Wait."
Thor looked over his shoulder at him, and the scribe pointed at one of the knives in his hand. "Cut?" he asked, lifting his hair slightly higher.
Thor looked at him for a few breaths. He'd seen the man pushing his hair from his face more and more often lately, and Loki had tossed his head repeatedly during the spar in an effort to fling it from his eyes. It was clearly longer than he was used to.
Thor nodded and let the flap drop. He wedged one knife into his belt as he stepped further into the tent, but kept the other in his hand. "Aye," he agreed, and gestured to him. "Come here."
Loki stiffened and tried to force down a frown. Thor knew he'd been asking for the knife back to cut his own hair--but he could pretend at a lack of understanding too. The scribe could either admit he knew how to speak better than he did, or else live with the consequences of his pretense.
When Loki still hadn't moved after several heartbeats, Thor gave him a long look.
"I intend you no more harm now than I did before," he said quietly.
Loki flicked a sharp glance over his face at that, and Thor wondered once again what made a man so distrustful.
Then the scribe sighed with a shrug, as if to say that if Thor wanted to perform such an unworthy task he was hardly going to try and argue. Loki came over and then turned and sat down, offering Thor his back.
Thor--surprised, and slightly pleased--reached out and brushed his knuckles along the man's hair. Loki made a quiet noise with no easily discernible meaning.
What trick are you planning with this concealment that you'll go to such lengths? Thor wondered reluctantly. Is it just stubbornness? Can I trust you?
He sat down behind Loki and gathered his hair into a short tail.
Volstagg kept his knives sharp. Thor had soon sliced Loki's hair to roughly the length it was when they'd met, but he spent a little longer trying to leave it less ragged. Loki made a few irritable noises if he tugged too hard, but otherwise remained still except to brush aside stray and itching bits of hair.
When he finished Thor wedged the second knife into his belt and began to help. He swept more strands from Loki's shoulders, and chuckled under his breath as the man started squirming and fishing down his back to get rid of the ones that had fallen beneath his robe.
"It serves you right for wearing such loose clothes," Thor replied, even as he pulled away and started ruffling the scribe's hair instead. "They're impractical."
Loki's reply was piqued and openly rude.
Thor snorted, unable to pretend he wasn't amused. He finished shaking out Loki's hair and brushed his hands over the man's shoulders once more. He flicked a stray hair from the Loki's neck with his thumb, taking care not to rub against the chafed skin.
He couldn't pretend he wasn't amused, any more than he could ignore the easiness that had seeped into him. Loki's haughtiness, his casual acerbic comments--they reminded Thor of how things had previously been. He hadn't grasped how deeply unnatural Loki's silences and tense obeisance had felt until now.
Nor could he ignore that Loki had let him wield a knife so close to his neck.
Thor closed his eyes and exhaled quietly.
If he'd sent a man onto the ship to ensure that the captives were down in the hold and out of sight of Arnkell before he'd entered his berserker fit, would things be different? From what Fandral had understood it was the woman who'd gone to Loki for the knife. If he'd felt obligated after he'd seen what her captor was capable of....
...But Arnkell had still died in bed, dragged down to Hel's table of famine instead of claiming a seat in the Father-of-armies' feast hall.
Thor tightened his jaw, trying to find a mediating point between the two conflicts and afraid that none existed. And if there was none, he had to side with his man. He had no right to call himself a chieftain otherwise.
He didn't realize he'd left his hands on Loki's shoulders until he heard the scribe sigh almost imperceptibly. Thor blinked his eyes open when Loki slouched into them.
"Loki?" he asked carefully, wondering if the other man was also thinking of how things had once been.
The scribe leaned back further until he was resting against Thor's chest. A few heartbeats later, he shifted about and rested his head against Thor's shoulder, and kissed his throat.
Thor exhaled in a surprised huff and brought a hand up to cup Loki's head. The man twisted around further and pressed his mouth to Thor's collarbone.
Loki leaned into his hands as Thor unwound his belt, placing a few more kisses over his chest before he reached down to tug the strap of Thor's own loose. Thor made a low noise in the back of his throat and tossed the scribe's belt to the side. Loki shivered briefly.
Another, longer one ran through him as Thor pushed to his feet and tugged Loki up with him. Once Loki had his belt loose enough, Thor prised off his armor. The scribe ran his palms over Thor's sides as he kicked it away, resting his forehead in the crook of Thor's neck. He lifted it when Thor caught a fistful of his robe and then raised his arms to let Thor pull it up.
Thor turned them around as he dropped the robe, and he and Loki managed to stumble back to the bed without tripping each other. Loki sank down on it once his heel hit the fur; and he ran a hand down Thor's thigh before curling it loosely behind his knee.
Thor drew in a sharp breath at the sight of Loki below him, that long throat taut as the man tilted his head up to look at him. Loki studied him for a long moment, and then pressed his tongue against his teeth, barely visible behind his lips.
Thor groaned and dropped to a knee, and tugged Loki down beside him on the bed. He went easily, sliding his palms across Thor's skin and making quiet, appreciating sounds as Thor touched him gently. He ran light fingers along Thor's shoulder and collarbone in slow, tracing patterns as he stroked him the way Thor liked most and had missed worst; but his eyes stayed closed.
And Loki's cock was slow to swell in his hands, even when Thor stroked him the way he knew the man favored best. And the scribe kept his head tilted down and away.
Thor knew what Loki felt like when hungry and eager, or pleased and sated beside him; and he slowly recognized that this was an imitation--one meant to appease? Or to stave off?
Had the scribe flinched when Thor touched his neck before, and he'd mistaken it as accidentally brushing his chafed skin instead of Loki recalling the last time Thor had had hands on his throat?
He hissed out a long, frustrated breath between his teeth, and Loki tensed faintly.
Thor started to release his cock and pull back--but then he changed his mind. Instead he shifted and propped himself onto an elbow, and then caught some of Loki's hair and tugged lightly until the man finally tilted his head back to look at him.
"I intend you no more harm now than before," Thor promised. "Why won't you believe me?"
A disbelieving smile twitched over Loki's mouth before he forced it away.
Thor narrowed his eyes. He squeezed tighter the next time he stroked, and felt Loki jolt beside him in response. Thor rubbed his thumb hard over the head of Loki's cock the next time he reached it and watched the other man's eyelids flutter briefly before he closed them again.
Thor continued that way for a time, listening to Loki pant. The scribe had dropped his hand from Thor's cock and fisted it in the fur instead, distracted or spiteful or something else. Thor didn't know.
It was a crack in his act, but it still wasn't an answer. It was still the same fighting against him that proved how Loki refused to trust him.
A breath later Thor blinked, and thought over the impression. Then he frowned and looked down at the other man.
The lamp was flickering, casting more shadows along the tent. But Thor could see that Loki had his face pressed against the bed, half-concealed by his forearm even as he rocked into Thor's hand.
He remembered vaguely that the scribe had done something similar the first night, when he'd hidden his face behind his hand as if ashamed. He remembered clearly how many times Loki had attacked him those first few days.
He recalled wondering later whether Loki considered it always shameful to take pleasure from another man, regardless of the way it was given. The scribe was always quieter in Thor's tent than during the few times Thor had pulled him away from the camp entirely. He was quieter still if the tent sat closer to the others'.
And the giant-killing god was arrogant and harsh to those he disliked. He tore into anyone he felt had insulted him, unless someone was able to convince him to take a more rational path. Did he expect his followers to do the same? All of them? No matter what the cost to themselves?
The Father-of-armies expected any man who wished to be welcomed into Valhalla to see himself killed in battle; perhaps the giant-killer had his own rules.
Thor's frown deepened briefly, and he propped himself up further to glance over his shoulder. Loki made a low, frustrated noise when the act caused his hand to falter.
There was no pebble circle in the tent--Thor knew that already. He'd looked for one earlier to make sure he wouldn't stumble over it while sparring. But they'd been absent in the camps even before tonight.
He and his men had been on the ship more often, and it was possible that Loki was simply unable to gather their materials while he was chained to the other slaves. But it was also possible that there was another cause--Njord's boy was free more often, but he no longer built them either.
"Those stone circles of yours," Thor said, looking back down at the scribe. "You don't make them anymore."
Loki blinked a few times and gave him an annoyed look. Thor started to stroke him steadily again, moving slower this time. A breath later he asked, "Do you no longer talk to your god?"
Loki stiffened and pulled back.
Thor grabbed his arm before he could go far. The scribe jerked on it once, and then glared up at him. His breathing was still uneven.
"Maybe he has no more use for you after you lost," Thor said, and Loki froze.
"Is that why you refused to admit it for so long?" Thor pushed. "So he might still heed you?"
Loki wrenched on his arm much more viciously.
Thor grasped it harder. He watched Loki silently for a few moments before adding, "The All-father has been both prisoner and war-leader. He doesn't look down on what has to be done in either role."
Thor let go of Loki's cock and brushed a hand along his face. "You should turn to him instead."
Loki's lips pulled back further from his teeth.
"He hasn't stopped heed," the other man spat out. "He won't."
Thor studied him for several heartbeats and then half-smiled. "When did you learn to speak so well?"
Loki's eyes widened.
A breath later he pushed back hard, nearly breaking loose of Thor's grasp. Thor grunted and caught Loki's shoulder before he could pull free, and then rolled them over to pin him to the bed. Loki growled and shoved up angrily, a thumb digging hard into the hollow of Thor's throat.
Thor coughed and grabbed his wrist before forcing it to the fur. He remembered the value of his hands to the scribe a heartbeat later, and slid his palm down to grip his forearm instead. Thor ignored Loki's other arm still shoving him and squirmed a hand between them.
Loki gasped when Thor managed to wrap a fist around both their pricks and began to stroke roughly. He cursed and clawed at Thor's shoulder a breath later, and Thor rolled it the best he could without breaking the motion, trying to knock Loki's hand off. The man slid it further up and gripped the back of Thor's neck instead, digging his fingers in.
Thor tried to jerk loose once and then stopped caring, because even if Loki was still fighting he wasn't lying any more. Thor dug his toes into the fur and rocked hard against him, driving Loki slightly up the bed.
Loki made a sharp, keening noise at that. A shiver ran up Thor's spine and he did it again--but this time Loki bit down hard on his lip to stifle the sound.
Thor huffed out a breath in disappointment and squeezed a little rougher the next time he stroked. Loki groaned harshly.
A moment later he jerked down sharply on Thor's neck, startling him into dropping closer. Loki bit his shoulder.
Thor grunted again as he felt the skin break, but didn't cease. Loki was panting raggedly, his breath catching in little wet gasps as Thor thrust against him, and even if the sound was muffled into his skin he could hear it better like this.
His release hit almost before he realized it, in a surge of sudden pleasure despite the ache in his shoulder and neck and because of the way Loki's thighs were pressed tight against his hips as the scribe dug his heels into the bed. Thor lost track of any sort of pace and pressed down heavier against Loki as he rode it out.
When it began to dissipate, he realized Loki still hadn't come. The scribe was jerking his hips against Thor's waist in an effort to get enough friction, his legs still shaking with aching tension.
Thor wriggled around enough to release his softening prick and then closed his grip back over Loki's. He began stroking rough and fast, pushing harder than the rhythm the scribe had been trying for. Loki pressed his head against the bed and moaned.
Thor shivered at the sound. He slid his hand up Loki's forearm, and worked the man's fingers out from where they were twisted in the fur before twining them in his own. Loki's gasp as Thor pressed their palms together against the bed was almost pained.
Thor leaned up and bit the man's earlobe gently, and Loki's breath caught. "Trust me."
The man strangled on a laugh and then swallowed hard. He shook his head a heartbeat later, pulling his face away.
"Loki." Thor squeezed his palm and didn't relent the hand on Loki's cock as the man's hips began to stutter beneath him. "Trust me."
Loki bit him again, harder this time, smothering his groan as he came.
Thor kept their hands together as the scribe shuddered underneath him, until the man slowly exhaled and slumped against the fur. A few breaths later, Loki tried to tug his hand loose. Thor let go.
He rolled over and settled on his side, looking at the scribe. When he'd caught his breath, Thor reached out and pushed back the hair clinging to Loki's face. Loki gave him a wary look as Thor rubbed away the sweat along his hairline.
"...Have you ever trusted anyone?" he eventually asked.
"No," Loki answered after a long pause.
Thor lowered his brows. "No one? No kin or kith, no one from that temple?"
". . . No," Loki repeated, after a much longer pause.
Thor laughed shortly, but there was no humor in the sound. "What kind of life is that?"
Thor studied him for a time longer. Loki eventually shifted and folded an arm under his head, staring back as if awaiting Thor's next move.
Thor exhaled tiredly and pulled his hand away.
Loki continued to watch him as he left the bed and went to the water bucket. Thor washed and dressed perfunctorily, and then picked up the knives and his fur wrap.
"Stay here," he ordered as he turned to leave.
"Aye, Lord Thor," Loki answered.
When he turned back to the bed he saw Loki frowning at him in confusion. There had been nothing mocking or insolent in his tone--there'd been no particular emotion in it at all--and he shifted uncomfortably as Thor continued to stare. The wavering light showed the marks on his throat from the slaves' chains.
There had been nothing in his tone, and even if that false submission was keeping his men safe Thor hated hearing it. He hated Loki thinking he had to use it as a protection.
When Thor went over to his hammer Loki sat up.
Thor saw the scribe's fingers curl against his leg as he crouched beside the bed. He glanced at them for a breath to confirm that the man didn't have a hidden weapon, and then caught Loki's gaze once more. He set the hammer deliberately in the bed's center between the two of them.
"You don't have to pretend affection that isn't there," Thor said quietly. "I don't want that. But trust me."
Loki inhaled silently.
His gaze was narrow as it darted between the hammer and Thor, and the knives in Thor's hand. He didn't move when Thor tucked them into his belt, or when he rose back to his feet; but he didn't look away.
Thor left and took the knives back to Volstagg.
When he returned to the tent--after being lectured heavily on the hair and stray dried blood that was still on the blades, and about the proper treatment of cooking utensils--Loki had dragged his robe back on but hadn't bothered with his belt or over-clothes. He woke for a few dozy heartbeats when Thor entered.
Before he drifted back to sleep, Thor saw Loki glance at his fur wrap. He'd had to fasten it over his hammer arm instead of his shield one to conceal the bite marks when he entered the camp; the pelt had scraped unpleasantly against them the whole time he'd been shifting on his feet and trying to escape Volstagg's displeasure.
The scribe blinked and frowned vaguely as if sensing that something was off. And then a few breaths later Thor saw him realize what, and why.
Thor watched a faint smirk play over Loki's mouth and gave him a pointed look.
"This makes six--" he felt the fur scrape against the places on his neck where Loki had broken the skin, and amended, "--seven times you've marked me. Don't doubt that I'm counting," Thor warned. "I've still five to go before we're even."
Loki glanced at his eyes. A breath later, he rested his fingers on the head of the hammer.
"I can wait," Thor replied.
A smirk passed over the scribe's mouth once more. He pulled his hand away and settled it back at his side.
As Thor stepped toward the oil lamp, Loki said, "Four to go."
Thor looked at him, and then at his throat.
"Four," he agreed after a heartbeat; and this time the smile lingered briefly on Loki's face.
Thor crouched down to put out the lamp, but he looked at Loki one last time before he did. The tension from earlier had left the man; he was settled comfortably on his side of the hammer.
As Thor pinched out the sputtering wick, he thought that that was a small victory.
The next dawn he pulled the clothes he'd bought at Eire's market from his bag and held them out to the scribe. "Here."
Loki paused in the middle of winding his belt and took them with a raised eyebrow.
"Wear these instead," Thor said. He gestured to Loki's worn robe but stopping short of touching it, or him. "That's too ragged to last much longer. And it'll grow colder from here on out."
Loki glanced down at his robe and made a brief face as if he agreed with Thor's assessment. But then he frowned slightly. "Summer."
Thor narrowed his eyes.
When Loki only looked back with a raised brow, Thor demanded, "This pretense again?"
Loki shrugged a shoulder. "No pretense," he replied, repeating the word carefully as if memorizing it. "It is hard." After a pause, he lifted the clothes. "It is summer."
Thor gave him a considering look.
Then he huffed. If it was true, it wasn't unreasonable; Loki spoke slower when forming full sentences.
And if it was a lie--and Loki had spoken too quickly and easily last night for Thor to doubt otherwise--then as with the man's knife skills, he had little way to prove it. Yet.
"Aye," Thor agreed, dropping the matter for now. "But it'll grow colder."
Loki glanced briefly over his shoulder. There was nothing past him save the tent wall; but the direction was northward.
After another breath he shrugged faintly and started unwrapping his belt.
Loki pulled on the new clothes with clear distaste. The fabric was coarser than the once-fine things he was used to wearing, and he kept rubbing his arms where the texture itched him.
"You'll like them more the first time winter's wind hits you," Thor said with a small smile as Loki sat fastening his new shoes. He crouched. "Do the boots suit?"
Loki finished tying the second one and straightened back onto his feet. Thor pushed up as well.
Loki stamped his foot a few times and then walked slowly around the tent. His frown deepened as he did, and Thor could tell from his awkward tread that they didn't fit as well as he'd hoped.
He huffed again. "If your feet blister I'll show you how to make new ones."
Loki didn't look terribly pleased by the thought, but nodded once regardless. He tucked his necklace beneath the shirt, his mouth still turned down.
Thor watched him for a long moment before frowning himself. "Why such suspicion? They weren't from a corpse," he said. "I asked."
Loki shook his head. He studied Thor for several breaths with that narrowed expression, and then swept a hand in the bed's direction. The scribe made a questioning gesture toward Thor's hammer and tugged once on the new shirt. His tone was vexed and puzzled as he asked, "What do you want?"
Thor blinked in surprise.
Then he closed his eyes--as if that would block out the fact that things had become so ill between them that Loki would ask such a thing, or assume there was even an answer. Thor let out a slow breath before shaking his head.
"You don't owe me repayment," he said, opening his eyes and catching Loki's gaze. "Your clothes won't suit you in my homeland. You would freeze."
Loki continued to watch him with his brow drawn, apparently waiting for the trick to be revealed.
"I don't let my household want for food or clothing," Thor told him, frustrated. "You are part of it."
Loki eyed him for a time longer as the distrust in his expression gradually turned to disbelief. At last he shook his head, chuckling bemusedly under his breath.
Then he tugged on his shirt once more, straightening it. "Thank you. Lord Thor."
Loki turned and started toward the bucket. "Water?"
Thor reached out and caught his upper arm. When the scribe paused and looked back at him, a frown had returned to his face.
"You killed two of my men," Thor said, and Loki stiffened.
Thor shook his head but went on, trying to explain. "The rest of the slaves are in those chains because of you. I can't release you from them now. I cannot lose face like that." He thought of his brother and foster-mother, of their homestead and his own, of the many people whose survival relied on his reputation. His hand tightened around Loki's arm, and the scribe tensed further.
Thor eased his grip, and almost pulled away but then didn't. "I cannot act dishonorably," he said, quiet and urgent. "Not in front of my men. Behave on the ship. Things will be different in my home."
Loki studied him in silence, his expression something between doubtful and deliberating.
"Things will be different there," Thor repeated, and made himself let go. Loki shifted on his feet but didn't outright pull back. "Believe me."
Loki considered him for several more breaths before nodding at last. "Aye, Lord Thor."
He hesitated a few moments longer. After Thor didn't speak or reach for him again, Loki picked up the bucket and left.
Thor rubbed a hand over his face. When he exited the tent soon after and turned to begin dismantling it, he saw a magpie perched silently on the roof.
Thor loosed his hammer and flung it at the bird.
It was struck to the ground before it could take flight. Thor made sure its neck was shattered, and growled at Fandral when his man mentioned the excessive nature of his hunting form.
He didn't let Volstagg add it to the breakfast meat, and threw it into the underbrush instead.
When they left the island, they sailed for longer than ever before.
He talked less with Halgi; the shipmaster kept him occupied, learning, pointing out shoals of whales and feeding grounds and, eventually, clusters of birds, and all the other touchstones of their sailing. One of the women spoke the raiders' language, the other what was apparently a dialect of it; Loki spent the days learning some words and phrases in the latter tongue, to distract himself from the sea spray and the smell of old hay and horse shit. He saw Thor often, among the rowers or grouped with his friends, but spoke to him rarely.
He knew where they were going; but when they finally came in view of the island, the sight hit hard all the same.
Halgi had broken away from the shipmaster as the raiders prepared to land and had come over near the horses' shelter. Loki tugged at the scratchy fabric of his neckline as he joined him. The boy had previously jeered at his new, rough clothes until Loki had barely refrained from slapping him; but he paid no attention now. He was staring out at the coast as they pulled steadily along it, hands gripping the railing.
"This...." Halgi swallowed, but his voice still shook when he tried again. "It looks like...."
"Jotunheim," Loki said flatly.
The island was an ugly, terrible place, even at a distance: rocky and bleak and desolate. He could see no towns, no farms or homes, even as they drew closer. For the first time, he realized just how difficult the task of fleeing Thor's reach was going to be. The island seemed a wasteland of ropy, misshapen rocks and half-glimpsed sheets of ice in the farthest distances; where was he supposed to hide among those? How far would he have to go to find a neighboring home? How much further than that to find a village Thor didn't know at all?
Where would he find anyone who thought well of the Charioteer in a place like this?
Halgi gripped the railing until it cut into his palms.
Loki glanced at him, then snorted and leaned his arms on the wood, watching the high crags of the coastline as they rowed past.
"At least we may be able to reach the Charioteer here," he added. "We'll likely catch him knocking in some giants' heads on those ice fields."
Halgi laughed, but it was high and strained and short. His knuckles were still white around the railing.
"You might," he said, after several harsh breaths. "I'll be on this boat."
Loki glanced over once more. Halgi was swallowing again, staring forward with a sick glaze of dread as the ship crested the waves, turning now toward a newly visible, landable shore.
He was reminded briefly that though the acolyte was capable of speaking to him almost as an equal, he was still a boy, barely coming up to his shoulder. Loki had already been apprenticed before he was even born.
After a few heartbeats, he exhaled in annoyance. Loki dragged his necklace loose of his shirt, then twisted one of the outermost tassels until it bent and finally came away from the medallion.
"Here," he said, holding it out. "As long as you carry gold with you, the sea god's wife will take you even if you drown."
The ship reached the beach, and a few of the raiders jumped out to start pulling it farther up the sand. Halgi took the gold, and Loki pulled his hand away.
"You'll be better off than the rest of us drifting in Hel's bitter realm," he added. "So bear it."
". . . Yes, sir," Halgi said quietly, clutching the tassel in his fist. "Thank you."
Loki looked aside when he heard Thor call his name, and saw the man was gesturing for him to disembark. He paused when Halgi spoke again.
"Live well," the boy offered.
A sneer crossed Loki's face before he could stop it.
But he shook away thoughts of the immediate future waiting here for him, and brushed his knuckles over the railing as he considered what lay beyond.
Perhaps he didn't have to try and break free in this inhospitable land, to run and risk so much; couldn't he find a way to talk himself onto the ship again in the spring or whenever the raiders next sailed out? Why should he steal and starve to make it where he wished to go if he could have it done at his ease?
A year wasn't long to wait if he didn't have Farbauti dogging his heels; and it was more than long enough to win Thor over to the idea.
Loki shook his head briefly again, tucking the plan away to consider at length later when he had the time, and then turned back and nodded once. "You too."
The boy forced a half-smile and returned the gesture. Loki paused for a breath longer, then climbed the railing and dropped carefully into the water, wading toward the nearest rope to help pull the ship ashore.
The next and last time he saw Halgi, the boy had found a cord somewhere and tied it round the tassel to make a necklace. Loki watched him help the shipmaster pull down and fold the sails for a moment; and then he turned away when Thor called his name, and followed him and his men up the shore and into the island, and didn't glance back.