The Jotun changeling was a mad, ranting thing at the end, all hunger and rage and desperation; a hopeless creature that cursed and wept and finally, despairing, fell.
Heimdall the Gatekeeper, the Guardian, had watched the false prince all its life. Saw it wrested from its mother and left to die on Jotunheim. Saw it beguile the eyes of a king who had needed no enticement to spare it, of a queen whose cool face concealed a heart too warm for her own protection, of a small prince too innocent to recognize the foe being nurtured at his side. Saw it left behind by the true prince, imagine itself overlooked and unwanted even by the king and queen who had saved it, fester in anger and jealousy.
Heimdall recognized the threat, and Heimdall watched, and when the time came Heimdall played his part. The creature fell, disappeared into the void, under the uncomprehending eyes of its foster brother and the grieving gaze of the one it had called Father.
That seemed the end, but the king hoped, and in his hope wove spells of protection, waiting as the stars moved around Asgard and Midgard for the creature to return.
It reappeared on Midgard, a realm so far removed from the rest of the Nine that its ignorance had become nearly innocence. It was a realm on which one could begin again, unless bitterness and rage still clouded one's every thought.
The creature had scarcely enough magic to break its own fall, hardly the strength to stand on its feet. It would have been easy prey for any foe, but abandoning it to enemies was not part of the king's plan, and so it fell into the hands of…
Not mortals. Not like the true prince. The creatures who found the changeling were not mortal, but they tried to live as mortals, and despite their powers-- and their awful potential for violence-- they tried to be harmless. Their dwelling was old and shabby-- even the Jotun should have been offended, to be expected to live in such a place after centuries in the palace at Asgard. Instead, the changeling seemed grateful, clung to one of the beings, the young female spirit, as if longing for any crumb of affection from her hand.
On some parts of Midgard, there was a tradition of animals kept as companions, as "pets," solely out of affection and not for any useful reason. There was no such practice on Asgard. Perhaps that was why the creature had been unable to understand the Allfather's purpose in keeping it.
Now, it seemed to comprehend, seemed grateful, was willing to submit as the spirit tried with smiles and gentle words to tame it.
The Jotun was a creature of treachery and deceit, but it practiced no deceit on its new companions, nor did it betray them. There came a time when the changeling and the spirit faced monsters of their own, trying to protect the beings who shared their home, and the mortal woman who had befriended the true prince during his own disgrace.
The true prince had faced such a test, had passed it, and had been saved by the Allfather's enchantments.
No such enchantments existed to protect the changeling-- perhaps the Allfather thought none were needed, or perhaps the king was still placating the monsters his son had attacked. But the Jotun faced his test as his brother had. At his side was the spirit, who alone of her companions could not be harmed by these monsters, and the look on her face was of agony.
Heimdall opened the Bifrost.
Afterward, the prince did not seem to understand why Heimdall had acted, and Heimdall did not offer to explain. He was unsure, in fact, whether he had done what he did for the changeling at all. But he watched the boy cling to the new companions who had taken him in, who had helped him. He saw none of the old anger, and little trace of the hunger that for so long had seemed insatiable.
After the prince and his friends had been returned to their dilapidated little home, Heimdall looked backwards. The Guardian saw all, though he paid little attention to that which did not affect the security of Asgard. But, if he chose, he could return his gaze to times past, to review that which had been seen but not specifically marked.
He saw two young men encounter monsters, and rise up monsters themselves; saw them fight the violence in their nature and, eventually, succeed. He saw them arrive at the dilapidated little house, take up company with the spirit, watched the three beings begin to lean on each other, watched them give each other strength and friendship that, later, they also gave to the fallen prince.
It was the spirit whose influence seemed strongest on the prince, and so Heimdall paid careful attention to her life and death. She was not remarkable, really, was only a mortal woman of no special talents. But she was trusting, was kind, was warmhearted-- was the last being in the Nine Realms who should have been put in the path of the treacherous changeling. And yet, he had not harmed her. He had allowed her to help him. It seemed largely because of her that the changeling had once again changed.
The changeling had not betrayed her. But treachery was indeed known to the spirit, and so it was on the last night of her mortal life. She did not seem to know the manner of her death, or remember that she had been betrayed, but this was the reason she had not yet passed on to her rest. Heimdall had seen much and was rarely troubled… but this troubled him. In a house shared with monsters and one who had at least committed monstrous deeds, she was safe. However, betrayal had touched her, and could do so again.
There was little he could do, and so Heimdall watched.
There is more than one beginning to any story. This one, it is true, started when a young soldier, alone in a wood in France, encountered monsters.
But it began again when another young man, on holiday in Scotland, went for a walk at the full of the moon.
When, on a dark night in an unfamiliar house, a young woman fell on a flight of stairs.
And once more, when a lost and desperate creature let go of the end of a spear.
These were the beginnings of the larger story, but within it there were others. This one began with a newspaper article, a faulty boiler, and a cup of tea in a snack bar.
Loki sat with his wings folded, watching George snarl and rampage below. The night was cold, and despite his current form Loki felt it. He fluffed his feathers, then drew in his neck and tucked one foot into his belly as he balanced on the other. Spending a whole night as a creature as small as this snowy owl took a considerable effort of magic, and by now a headache lingered at the edges of his consciousness.
No matter: a cup of tea with a lot of sugar, and if necessary a couple of pain tablets, would sort him out in the morning. For now, he was grateful the amount of noise George was making had frightened all the scuffling small creatures of the forest into their burrows.
It was not so much that Loki had gotten to the point where he felt guilty about killing anything. Such an attitude would be hypocritical even for him, especially considering the ham sandwich he intended to have for his lunch at work tomorrow-- to say nothing of the leather jacket he had left on top of his neatly folded clothing, in the abandoned building where he and George had both transformed. No, his primary concern regarding mice and shrews and the like was, if he gave in to the urges of the body he occupied, he was apt to forget the reason he was out here in the woods, in owl-form, in the first place.
It was Annie who spotted the newspaper story, just after the last full moon. Some extraordinarily fortunate human, apparently wishing to escape the streetlights and other illumination of Bristol, had taken a telescope into the woods outside the city to look at the sky. He had very wisely climbed a tree when he heard the sounds of a ravening animal in the distance. Everyone's luck had held: the creature had not come close enough to sense his presence. The human had stayed in the tree until the sounds moved away, then climbed down, took his telescope, and hastily returned to his home.
And then, of course, he had called the police with a garbled tale of some sort of beast in the forest outside the city. A journalist in contact with the police department had then written a story speculating that a rabid feral dog was loose in the forest.
It had not been a rabid feral dog.
It was not George who the man had nearly encountered-- George had been in another stretch of wood entirely, and the population of werewolves in Bristol was not insignificant. That hardly mattered, not with the city now uncomfortably on the alert for something. It had been something out there in the forest, after all.
The fuss would pass, of course, the attention span of humans being commensurate with their lifespans. Still, the article had provoked a nine-days wonder that might easily lead to increased activity in the woods. It did not make any sense for humans to deliberately court potential danger, but Loki had better sense than to air such an opinion in front of… well, anyone who knew him. It appeared that he was not the only creature capable of letting his curiosity overrule his common sense.
As long as interest died down before the next full moon no harm would be done, but there was no guarantee this would happen. And this was to say nothing of the very real possibility of young horror-film enthusiasts making a connection between the "rabid feral dog" and the full moon, and deciding to "investigate." It would not be a pleasing irony, for them to play at belief in werewolves only to learn the truth the hard way. None of the housemates wanted any harm to befall humans whose only crime was being silly.
And they certainly did not want George, or any other careful werewolf, to be put in a position to commit evil, against their will and every inclination. The housemates could not, naturally, protect every werewolf in Bristol, but they needed to find a way to safeguard George.
At one point, apparently, before Loki joined the household, George had made a habit of transforming inside the hospital at which he and Mitchell worked. There was a storage room in a little-used part of the hospital basement, one with a heavy latch on the outside of the door, such as might be found on a walk-in refrigerator. George would shut himself in before moonrise, and then Mitchell would retrieve him in the morning. It was hardly a perfect solution, but it kept everyone safe.
It also confirmed that George really was good all the way through, because for his part Loki could not imagine ever agreeing to be locked up like that, in what sounded like a windowless vault, not even only overnight, not even to protect the innocent. Such confinement would be bad enough at any time, let alone when not in one's right mind. George insisted he could not remember anything afterward, but still Loki could not get over a sympathetic feeling of oppressed terror at the idea.
Fortunately, George had long since changed his practice, and now transformed in the forest. He took every precaution he could think of to avoid tragedy, most of them on the advice of a werewolf whose brief acquaintance he had made before Loki's time. George would go to a reliably-deserted stretch of wood where there was an abandoned storage building. He would leave his clothing there, then take to the woods carrying a raw chicken and a length of cord.
The chicken had puzzled Loki, the first time he saw George leave the house on his transformation night. However, at the time he had not really had strength enough to be properly curious (which, when he thought about it later, he realized meant he had been in even worse condition after his fall than he thought.) Even after he recovered enough to really wonder about it, Loki had been afraid to offend his rescuers-- particularly since, though it was hard to remember now, George had been quite distrustful of him at first and not very welcoming-- and had refrained from asking any impertinent questions.
Eventually, of course, George had befriended Loki, and though at the time he still did not really like to talk about his condition, he had explained about the chicken. It was used to lay a track which George, in werewolf form, would follow in a harmless spiral back to the abandoned building. It kept the wolf form occupied, and also ensured that when George regained possession of his body, he would be near his clothing. Loki could only admire the tidy simplicity of the plan.
That plan had continued to work admirably, but it would not be proof against some foolish human blundering into range of George's heightened senses-- and aggression. George sometimes came home feeling very sick indeed after having devoured some creature he encountered, which was as unlike George as possible. The wolf would simply go for anything that crossed his path, a human as easily as a rabbit or deer.
The storage room was no longer an option, hospital renovations having recently resulted in more usage of that corner of the basement. And besides: George, Annie and Mitchell all agreed that a George who transformed in the forest was for the rest of the month a much calmer and more peaceful George than one who spent his full moon hurling himself against brick walls in a locked room. The wolf needed his interlude of freedom in order to sleep contented for the rest of the month.
And that was the reason Loki was now sitting in a tree above George's head. Because the wolf form would turn on anything that attracted its attention, Loki had suggested that he accompany George for the next full moon or two, at least until they were reasonably confident he would be alone in the forest once more.
George had not even let Loki finish explaining his idea before he vetoed it, and also employed the pink spray bottle from the kitchen to emphasize what he thought of such a potentially dangerous-- to Loki-- plan.
"Are you completely mad?" George had shouted, waving the spray bottle for emphasis as Philip and Elizabeth, the kittens, scuttled for cover under the sofa. "It's bad enough worrying about attacking total strangers. How do you suppose I'd feel if I woke up and found out I'd killed you? It's not like you're impervious to injury, you idiot."
Only George would use a word like "impervious" in a condition of such mental unrest, Loki reflected fondly, even as his own temper began to rise.
"No, George, really, listen to me," Loki argued, then clenched his mouth and eyes shut as he took another blast of water to the face. "Stop that. I have no suicidal tendencies-- " now-- "and even if I did, I would not ask you to be party to them. Really, George, do you honestly believe I think so little of our friendship?"
Which was, of course, exactly what George had just been saying to Loki. The two of them glared at each other for a moment, and then George put down the spray bottle and Loki wiped his face.
"You will permit me to continue?" Loki asked. Mitchell took the spray bottle away, and the kittens emerged from under the sofa to pounce on Loki's feet. George nodded, still looking suspicious, and Loki said, "I do not suggest retaining my own form. My idea is to transform into an owl. That way I can follow you safely from the air, and if I perceive anything or anyone in your vicinity, I can fly down, distract you, and lead you in another direction."
"The wolf is pretty quick," George warned.
"I have no doubt," said Loki, who had been present for one transformation. Despite having a great many other things on his mind at the time, he still remembered how frightening George had become. "But I would take care to remain out of your reach. And if I am not needed, I can simply remain in the top branches of a tree and keep watch."
George looked undecided and Loki, exercising unwonted self-control, kept quiet and let him think about it. George's transformations were intensely personal, and he valued his privacy at such times. Loki's presence at that single transformation had been the result of extremely unusual circumstances, when the safety of one of their friends had depended on frightening the truth out of someone else. He still regretted being unable to find a different way to get the information they desired, though George had not seemed to resent being used so: in that one case the end truly had justified the means.
And surely by now George knew his friends' affection for him would not be altered by witnessing the transformation? Particularly considering the way his careful management of his condition had so far resulted in George-the-unthinkingly-savage-beast never committing an act by which George-the-kind-and-thoughtful would be horrified. Loki, for one, was humbled every time he thought of that.
"You won't do anything risky?" George asked finally. "You promise?"
"I swear," Loki agreed readily.
"You really swear? Really, really swear?" George insisted, looking suspicious. George knew Loki very well.
"I absolutely promise not to put you in a situation in which you might do me harm," Loki replied. And then, because he owed George as much, he amended, "Unless I see no other way to prevent injury to someone innocent. Please, George, we both know there is an element of danger in this plan, but there is no option available without risk to someone, and unlike the general population, I am aware of the dangers. And I can imagine how badly you wish to avoid hurting me, because it is as much as I want to avoid hurting you. I will do everything in my power to avoid any… unfortunate… incidents."
"You could always turn back into yourself and zap me with a sleeping spell or something," George pointed out. "If you really needed to."
"I would be glad to do so, if that is necessary," Loki agreed readily. A sleeping spell and a concealing glamour would be an effective course indeed. "But if such measures are not needed, I will simply stay out of the way and allow the wolf his freedom. Will you trust me?"
"That's a dirty shot," George grumbled, which meant "yes."
They had taken a bus across the bridge, then walked into the woods to George's secret spot. Loki remained at the building while George laid out his trail. When George returned, Loki disrobed and transformed first, waiting in a nearby tree until George came outside, closed the door behind himself, and set off toward the beginning of his chicken trail.
And so here they were, under the full moon, Loki gleaming white in the branches of the trees, flying silently after the shape of the wolfman.
The owl form Loki was using would, of course, draw unwanted attention if he was sighted by a nocturnal birder: Harry Potter notwithstanding, the snowy owl was a rare visitor to Britain. As much as he wished to take on the beautiful form of Hedwig, Loki had actually intended to transform into the much more common, even unremarkable, tawny owl. He had not even suggested the possibility of the snowy owl, but George, who knew him extremely well, had remarked that a white owl would be a much more effective decoy if Loki needed to act, and in fact would enable him to keep a greater distance while still attracting George's attention. This was all the permission Loki needed, and despite the potential seriousness of the situation he took a childish pleasure in this form.
Loki took care to stay within earshot of George, but he made periodic sorties to ensure there was no one else in the woods, before flying back to check on his friend. The forays were, admittedly, not solely for the purpose of scouting: Loki enjoyed transforming into a bird under any circumstances, and maneuvering about on the silent wings of an owl was most agreeable. Fortunately, owls were by nature more serious-minded than, say, ravens, and so it was a little easier to remain focused in this form than in some others Loki had assumed in the past.
Even so, when he encountered a small ruin in a clearing, Loki could not resist pausing for a moment to look at it. Having grown up in the Realm Eternal, Loki still found himself amazed at how much Midgard changed-- even in the scant two years he had lived in this realm, buildings were demolished and others constructed, houses were repainted, businesses changed hands and even purposes.
Nick Fury, of the Avengers, had once expressed astonishment at the great age of some structures he encountered here in England, but Loki for his part was endlessly interested in what was new, and also what was left to decay. Asgard, in his memory, never changed: its buildings and towers always shining golden in defiance of eternity. Loki was now aware that his memory was often faulty, not to mention unfair, but he still found Midgard much more interesting.
The questions seemed endless. Why did humans keep and cherish some ancient structures, while others fell to ruin? Even more, why were some ruins permitted to remain while others were cleared away to make room for something new? And if Loki lived on this realm for the rest of his quite-possibly-very-long life, which of the structures he knew would still remain at the time of his death? What would be left of the terrace where he lived now?
So: this little ruin caught his attention. Who had built it, who had cared for it, when and why had they stopped doing so? What was its intended purpose?
Loki glanced back toward George, who was now fully occupied sniffing the base of a tree. Then he circled over the ruin, allowing himself to descend gently, aiming to land on one of the upright stones that stood in shaky rows beside it.
He was sinking, on outstretched wings, feathery feet extended, talons open--
-- when something huge and black, with glowing eyes, emerged from the open doorway of the ruin. With a horrifying snarl, it charged him.
Loki felt his talons just scrape against the stone, and then he beat his way frantically back into the sky, just ahead of the black shape snapping at his tail feathers. He flew over the remnants of the iron fence surrounding the ruin, and heard a sharp yelp of apparent pain from the creature as it fell back. The part of Loki's mind not thinking fly away! was puzzled, because the fence did not seem high enough to seriously inconvenience the beast. Loki landed, breathless, heart pounding, in the top branches of a tree and perched there, gazing down. Below him, the black creature raged and snarled until he could not be sure it was not another werewolf.
And yet, not far away in the wood, the snarling, raging George did not seem to notice it at all.
Loki turned his head (among the many small pleasures of this form was seeing exactly how far the head would turn before his neck began to hurt-- the answer was, so far, a great deal further than his usual neck) to look toward George, still going about his wolfish business. Then he looked back down at the black creature.
George's senses, at least those attuned to the physical world, were heightened in wolf form, but he did not seem to see or hear this creature. Reason therefore suggested that perhaps George's ability to identify magical beings was somehow impaired in this form, and the black creature was not, in fact... corporeal.
Loki opened his mouth, attempting to draw scent into what olfactory glands an owl possessed. He did not literally smell magic, but the analogy was so close that he often found himself instinctively sniffing when he searched for evidence of it. Owls have an extremely poor sense of smell, but Loki was still able to sense something, quite apart from the wet-dog scent he would never admit accompanied George's transformation into wolf form. The scent was not as deep and musky as George's wolf-smell, was also without the undertones that made Loki want to fluff his feathers and open his beak in a hiss.
That was interesting: given the black creature's show of aggression, Loki would have expected more threatening overtones in the sensation of magic. Ordinarily, although it was not infallible, malignant sorcery generally smelled bad to Loki (though he could not detect his own, Loki sometimes wondered what kind of stench had accompanied his own descent into madness and villainy before he arrived in Bristol.) The snarling creature below him smelled… well, rather like the boarhounds of Asgard, not a scent one would necessarily wish to have sleeping in one's bed alongside the cats, but not much worse than Nelson, the friendly Labrador whom Loki encountered with his owner on many of his evening runs.
The other thing that seemed very strange was, as Loki had already noted, the creature was huge, more than large enough to scramble over the derelict fence. And yet, it ranged up and down and made no attempt to do so, as though the fence was ten feet tall and it was a mortal dog.
The whole situation was puzzling, but Loki did not have time to try and work it out right now. Instead, he dropped from his top branch onto silent wings and wheeled back to focus his attention upon George once more.
It was not until morning that Loki's thoughts returned to the ruin, and the mysterious creature within it.
George had followed his chicken trail back to the abandoned building, transforming into himself once more as the moon set. Loki followed suit, rather headachey but not anything like as tired as George, who fairly collapsed on the dirt floor next to his clothing and immediately fell deeply asleep. Loki, feeling rather embarrassed at his state of undress even though the only other being present was unconscious, scrambled into his clothing. Then he covered George with both of their jackets, made a mental noted to suggest the addition of some sort of bedroll to the werewolf kit, and settled down on the floor himself to nap for a while.
He woke to George shaking him, muttering that they should get back. The sun was only just peeking above the horizon as they left their shelter, and as they walked down the trail that led to the road, Loki realized they were passing near the ruin he had noticed the night before.
It took George, still muzzy-headed, a few moments to understand what Loki was saying to him, and then he was even more confused.
"You saw some sort of vicious beast hanging around a ruined building, and you want to go back and look for it?" George demanded, his voice going high and rather squeaky, as it did in moments of emotional stress.
"Well, yes," Loki admitted.
"Remind me again," George began, removing his spectacles and polishing them on the tail of his shirt. Which, since his shirt was far from clean, rendered them badly smudged. Loki took the spectacles out of George's hands and scrubbed at them with a fresh tissue-- after two years working in a school inhabited by small children, Loki now always kept a fresh store of tissues in the left-hand pocket of every jacket and pair of trousers he owned. "Thank you," George muttered as he took the glasses back and put them on. Then he resumed, "Remind me again-- weren't you the one who was afraid some human would let their curiosity get them into a dangerous situation last night?"
"Well, yes," Loki admitted, then added with what he considered unassailable logic, "but I am not human." George glared at him, and Loki coaxed, "We will not go inside the fence. The creature seems unable to pass beyond it, so we shall be quite safe. I merely… I want to see what it is, now that I am myself again and can concentrate."
"It couldn't pass by the fence?" George repeated, looking almost as thoughtful as he did sleepy.
"It appeared not," Loki replied. "Why? Is that of significance?"
"Might be," George said. "What kind of a fence was it?"
"It appeared to be of iron," Loki replied, and then made the connection, from a previous adventure involving British myth and legend. "Oh. I recall your saying that some kinds of Midgardian sorcery may be foiled by iron. Do you think this is such a case?"
"I can't actually think at all at the moment," George admitted. "But it might be."
"In that case," Loki wheedled, "surely it could do no harm to look. Since the creature cannot get at us anyway."
George narrowed his eyes. "You're not bringing it home," he announced.
"Did I say I wanted to?" Loki protested, trying to ignore the guilty flush that began to creep up his neck.
"You didn't have to," George sighed. "Either you want to torment it, or you want to study it, or you want to rescue it. Tormenting it isn't your style and I've never known you to take a strictly academic interest in anything, so you must want to rescue it. No. We have two kittens. We don't need a giant demonic dog. What would we do with it?"
"We could name it Baskerville," Loki said, very softly, because while George was correct that he did not wish to torment the creature, housemate convention rather indicated that he should torment George, at least a little. George uttered a sound that suggested he was sorry the moon was now waning gibbous instead of full. Loki smiled with bright innocence as he sidled out of his friend's reach. Rolling his eyes, George bowed to the inevitable.
"Just for a minute," he grumbled, and trudged after Loki down the path.
The feeling of sorcery was strong in the air as they walked up to the little ruin, both alert to retreat in case anything threatened. George was frowning, more in concentration than annoyance by now. Loki, unobtrusively keeping watch on his friend, felt sure that George was sifting through the contents of his extremely retentive brain, and would shortly present Loki with the solution to the mystery.
"That's a church," George said at length, stopping at a short distance from the edifice. "Or anyway, it was."
"Yes?" Loki prompted. He felt rather guilty for harassing George into thinking at a moment like this, when he only wished to return home to sleep, but curiosity was always stronger in him than charity.
George took off his spectacles and rubbed his eyes, realized he had smudged the spectacles in his dirty hands, and wordlessly extended them to Loki, who retrieved another clean tissue and wiped them.
"A long time ago, there was a tradition of spectral dogs who protected the souls of those buried near churches," George explained. Querulous as he could be, in matters of real importance his patience was endless. "They were called Church Grims. That might be what you saw last night. Maybe it was brought out by your sorcery, or the full moon, or the fact I was so close."
"So this is an enchanted creature like the rhinoceroses who guard the school?" Loki asked, pleased despite the ferocity of the creature to find this point in common between his magic and that of his adopted home.
"Sort of," George replied. "If you had laid the enchantment by burying a live rhinoceros in the schoolyard." George immediately looked sorry he had not curbed his tongue, and Loki could feel horror creeping across his face.
"This is the unquiet spirit of a dog who died-- like that?" he demanded. It was stupid to feel so upset, considering all he himself had done in the past… but, well, it was in the past.
"Probably," George sighed. "No wonder, really, that it's not very friendly."
"No wonder," Loki agreed, clasping his hands before himself and worrying them together.
"Loki, I mean it. We're not landing home with a giant spectral dog. Annie wouldn't have it," George said as firmly as he could manage.
"I just… I want to see… " Loki nearly spluttered, his feet carrying him closer to the fence almost of their own volition.
"Loki, whatever happened to it, it's been fine for centuries, you don't need to-- Oh, damn," George sighed, apparently reflecting that his argument-- a creature left to its own lonely madness for so long was beyond help anyway-- was not perhaps one his current audience would appreciate.
Loki reached the ruined iron fence, found a gap that would accommodate him, and slipped through despite George's protests. "I only wish to… to check," he called back. "There is no need to worry."
George uttered a wordless growl that really reminded Loki of his father.
And then the scent of the creature's magic filled the air, and Loki's nostrils, and there was a ripple of sorcery in the open doorway of the ruin as the Grim emerged.
Loki blinked, astonished.
Behind him, George said,
"Well, that's unexpected."