“Is it much further, Heid?” Thor dug his spiked boot deeper into the ledge. The chasm dropped away on his side, a yawning void that was more terrifying than any berserkr foe.
She had paused, looking back down the steep incline. The hood of her cloak made her look like an oversized raven. Volstagg was panting like a bellows, little jets of steamy breath puffing around him in a cloud. Hogun, Sif and Fandral eyed every corner of the compass, each fingering their favorite weapon. Even their deep exhaustion could not check their vigilance; they’d learned to be wary of the silence of Jötunheim.
The ice was so thick that Thor had begun to doubt there was any earth at all beneath it. This realm was more benighted than any he had yet known. Now that he’d seen it, he could begrudgingly comprehend their voracious lust to conquer Midgard. If he lived here…he’d have sought greener pastures too. But that was over now. Odin’s army had washed over the land in a tidal wave of giant blood.
“Five hundred steps will see us there.” Heid said quiet, but sure. She was too slight to have much voice but somehow her soft answer came to him over the wind. Thor nodded and offered her his arm up over the cliff’s edge. The way ahead was shrouded in an ugly, dark fog.
“Have they no guardian?” Fandral muttered.
“Would you not say…” Heid was slightly breathless herself, but Thor could hear the wry grin in her voice. “That the mountain was guardian enough?”
There was a groaning assent. The jötunn word for this place appeared to translate into simply ‘The Mountain’. The jutting peaks pierced the indigo sky like a shattered dagger. With the ability to craft and shape the ice, it would have been a challenging climb, without such magic, it was an almost-certain death sentence.
Thor’s blood was still pounding from the last near miss, his forearm still burned from Sif’s clutching hand. The terror in her eyes as she’d scrabbled him back up onto the solid ice made him feel unexpectedly grave even in this moment of triumph.
It was no light undertaking his father had tasked him with. Recovering this relic would surely be a long verse in the saga of the war, if they lived to tell the tale.
Heid paused again after what could only be 100 steps, gazing up at the still mist. She uncurled her right hand and fluttered her fingers gently.
“I would carry you, cousin, if you grow too weary.” Thor tried to sound as gallant as he could, even as he hoped she would refuse.
She flashed a quicksilver smile and reached to flip her hood back. “It’s nothing. Simply that…”
She spread her hands again and closed her eyes. She was working her seiðr and he re-settled the strap of his sword to hide his shiver.
“What is it, cousin?” He murmured, running one thumb down Mjölnir’s haft.
“May be a guardian, after all…” she said simply and there was a light, a pulsing glow between her hands that she flung up into the lowering cloud. It carved a rift that seemed to push aside the darkness for a moment. Thor blinked as a figure resolved itself from the mist, a silhouette that retreated abruptly.
Thor growled and raced forward, heedless of Heid’s warning shout. These thrice-accursed frost giants were like ants, swarming up out of nowhere. The long climb had left him tense and loosing his pent-up rage felt delicious.
There was a cave ahead, revealed in Heid’s witchlight. Curls of mist were retreating, leaving the ridges of the peak exposed, a craggy, angry face with a black yawning mouth. A single figure stood braced for battle in the gap and Thor hefted Mjölnir in anticipation. He could see that the creature was armed, just a cudgel to be sure, but…
A cudgel, not ice. Thor slowed his frantic rush. In the odd, bewitched light, the frost giant glowed pale.
Sif and Hogun ran up on his heels with Volstagg and Fandral just steps behind. They fanned out around him and Thor could hear Heid’s light tread crunch on the thin snow.
“Be careful.” She called and her summoned light flared brighter.
Thor sucked frigid air through his teeth. They faced a youth, perhaps a child and it…he was Aesir. He blinked as they all panted plumes of hot breath uncertainly. Thor wondered if this were some kind of enchantment, some spirit or ghost conjured out of his head to befuddle them and keep them from the Casket.
But the way the youth seemed to take them in, five battle-hardened warriors brandishing a mace, a sword, an axe, a halberd and a hammer with a muttering witch stalking up behind them…Thor watched his throat work while he squared his slim shoulders. That was real, he was no shade. Their opponent was scared, but determined.
“Who…” Thor started.
“You can’t have it.” His voice lacked the deep resonance of the giants. It was an incongruously pleasant voice, spoken low.
“What are you called?” Thor continued. “How came you here?”
“You can’t.” The youth raised his stick a few handbreadths. “Have it.”
“Who’s going to stop us?” Fandral asked, not in a nasty way. “Put that down before you get hurt.”
The youth almost seemed to smile, perhaps he did smile and Thor realized quickly that he was older than he appeared and his stick was glowing green and…magic.
He had just time to duck and shove Volstagg out of the way before a shattering, shuddering blast roared over his head. The youth was speaking again, a snarling bark of words that defied the Alltongue and Thor brandished Mjölnir trying to recapture his former purpose. Mjölnir responded to his will but he couldn’t quite muster the resolve to crush their unexpected opponent’s skull, even as a hail of rocks rained down on him.
He noted at once that open clearing in front of the cave was the base of two ridges that formed a low defile. It was a natural-born trap if he’d ever seen one and he’d run straight into it. The earth was rumbling, they would be tossed down the mountain in an avalanche if he didn’t…he crushed a tumbling rock before it walloped off his head.
A resonant thrum, like the tolling of an enormous bell seemed to shudder up from below while unnatural light poured down on them. And then silence.
He looked for Sif, for Hogun, Volstagg and Fandral and found them all shaken and bruised, but largely unhurt. Heid was striding for the cave with her hood thrown back. Thor smashed a boulder that had landed on his foot and followed her. She paused right before the entrance and Thor realized that she hadn’t simply blasted the strange youth off the mountain.
“How dare you?” Thor had never seen Heid genuinely angry before, “You would stand against me, the Phoenix of the Vanir, with your paltry ice magic?” She reached out as if to slap the youth who was now struggling in the snow as if taken by a fit. He was oddly silent now but for a few low moans that he muffled in his hands. He flailed away from Heid’s outstretched hand.
“What have you done?” Thor wondered if he’d ever become accustomed to her casual displays. Vanir magic always seemed to have a sting in the tail.
“I disarmed him.” She said absently; she was focused on the cave now. With her hands spread wide, she sought warding spells. “You should probably bind his hands as well.”
“You sewed his mouth shut.” Hogun wasn’t prone to state the obvious unless he felt it a matter for reproach.
Thor swallowed. It was true, the young not-frost-giant was pressing trembling fingers to his lips and jaw and Thor watched the youth’s eyes grow larger and larger. He was breathing too fast now through the thick dark threads that marred his face. Blood would have been dripping down his chin, but the cold made it sluggish and it pearled up over his bottom lip.
“You were too far apart for me to shield you properly and he was speaking a spell that would have left both our souls and bodies ash.” She frowned around at their somber expressions. “It was a simple solution, if not an elegant one.”
Thor shifted uneasily while Sif made a face.
“But…”Thor grabbed at the youth who twisted away from him. “He’s Aesir…probably some…” He groped around for some plausible explanation that would leave an Asgardian out on the most far-flung point of Jötunnheim.
Heid blinked at him twice which he knew was her usual stratagem for not rolling her eyes at the crown prince. He flushed under her sardonic gaze. “Thor will you always only believe the evidence of your eyes?”
“Know your place, cousin.” He started angrily.
“There’s a powerful spell on him.” She made a clicking sound with her teeth and Thor fancied that it echoed from deep inside the cavern. “But I can assure you that he’s quite frosty underneath.”
She conjured up more witchlights and sent them hurtling into the cavern. “Set someone to watch him, Thor and let’s go get this casket for your father.”
Thor was recalled abruptly to their purpose. “Is it much guarded?”
Heid turned to look at him and made a face. “There are some old wards, yes, but…”
“Then go, Bright One, I will watch the prisoner.” He waved the Warriors Three along. Sif was already craning her neck inside the cavern, poking at something with her halberd. Thor turned back to deal with their captive who had floundered up onto his knees and was savagely clawing at his own face.
“Stop.” Thor snatched at his wrist and held him. “You will do yourself an injury.”
This creature, whatever he was, was older than Thor had first assumed. And larger…at a distance he had simply been dwarfed by the scale of Jötunnheim, but now Thor felt the weight and strength in the pull under his hand. The creature’s eyes weren’t crimson but they were still scorching with hatred.
The man stumbled up from his knees jerkily, using Thor’s grip as counterweight. He turned about to the four points of the compass for a moment looking like he was communing with the darkening sky even as he left little ruby drops across the snow. He glanced at Thor and then back up at the stars. His eyes were huge in his pinched, bony face and Thor found himself feeling an uncomfortable mixture of pity and shame. Thor was bone-tired; this war would sap even the most prodigious will...
Unexpectedly, the creature jerked his wrist free and raced for the edge of the precipice.
Thor didn’t spare a thought but yanked his cape free of his pauldrons and cast it around the man like a net as he tackled him to the ground. It was a wise precaution because the not-frost-giant writhed like an injured serpent and one of his elbows caught Thor under the chin hard enough to make his head ring.
Thor gritted his teeth and fought to settle his weight evenly. His knee was grinding into the ice and he realized his prisoner’s chin must be as well. They struggled fiercely all the way to the cliff’s edge before Thor managed to regain control. He had to grab a fistful of hair and jerk his captive’s head back impossibly hard before the man stilled his furious resistance.
“Please.” Thor panted. “Please don’t.”
Finally, the man went limp. Thor slowly snaked his arms around his captive, trying to keep him wrapped up tight while he crawled back onto steadier ground. After an ungainly, sweaty battle, Thor finally managed to face his prisoner. His face was all angles and sharp points but he didn’t lack for a pleasing symmetry.
“Of all the monsters that this realm has vomited up.” Thor mused to himself. “I never expected to find such a comely one.”
His nose promptly burst in pain as his captive head-butted him. Thor cursed aloud as he fought to hold him down again. They tussled into the lee of the ridge until Thor could roll over and call Mjölnir to his hand. He finally ended by setting the hammer onto his captive’s mane of long, dark hair.
Thor wiped the blood off his face and then gingerly did the same for his prisoner. Swallowing too much blood wasn’t healthy as he well knew. The man flinched from his hand until Thor grabbed his chin. Thor had to force himself to swab at the stitches, but he figured it was the least he could do.
“I hold no grudge for this ferocity, my….” Thor cut himself off and began again. “Certainly, if I were in your shoes, I would…”
He trailed off again, noting for the first time how very close to naked his captive was. He wore the usual loincloth wrap of the jötnar and he’d lost another fur that had been wrapped around his shoulders but he was almost barefoot. Surely Heid must have the right of it, however galling that might be. There was no way one born to the Aesir could survive in this deep chill dressed like that.
Thor had a thousand questions for this mute and enraged creature, but he realized that even if he’d had full and free use of his tongue his captive wouldn’t be doing anything but cursing him back to some long-dead generation.
“I’m sorry.” Thor said without meaning to. “I would have this otherwise, if I could.”
The creature’s eyes, which had narrowed when Thor began speaking, widened again and he tilted his chin down to make an expression both winsome and pathetic. He fluttered his dark eyelashes, looking at Thor sidelong. He spider-crawled his long fingers over to Thor’s leather braces and up his wrist to his elbow and just when Thor was leaning forward, expecting that the man would squeeze his shoulder in soldierly camaraderie, the man slapped him across the face.
“As you will.” Thor rubbed his cheek. “I probably deserved that.”
The creature grunted at him and blood started pearling up out of the sides of his mouth again.
“My comrade…she’s Vanir and they’re…practical.” Thor explained lamely. “I would not have acted thus, but you did try to kill us with your sorcery.”
The creature rolled its eyes and folded its arms like a petulant child.
“By Ymir, I will be glad when this war is over.” Thor said, almost to himself. “I thought fighting the Vanir was bad, but this has been…”
The creature left off tugging at its trapped hair to stare at him.
“I should not complain.” Thor continued, unthinking. “At least your people have valor and there is no guile in them, but they battered us like waves and there was no reasoning that would stop them.”
The creature tried to speak and winced as the stitches pulled. He raised his hands to scratch at his wounds and Thor grabbed his captive’s wrists as gently as he could. “Please, I know this means little to you, but I have come to the end of my appetite for blood and I would not see yours spilt so unfairly. When she returns, I will…”
He trailed off because the creature was staring at him intently. Thor had a moment to wonder if he’d ever seen one of the Aesir up close; the creature was examining him like it would memorize his face for ever after. In the blue light of Jötunheim’s dusk, the creature’s eyes were almost silver and Thor wondered vaguely what color they’d be in the golden light of Asgard.
“If I take this off.” Thor touched the haft of the hammer. “Will you try to run?”
The creature looked away and seemed to be seriously considering the issue. Finally, he turned back to Thor and shook his head. Thor shifted Mjölnir and helped his captive sit up. He tried to wrap his cape a little tighter around the pale, bruised shoulders, but the creature gave a muffled snarl and shrugged free.
“Come now.” Thor wheedled. “You are so cold, it cannot be agreeable.” He pressed his hand into the creature’s shoulder, wondering if it would be like the other frost giants whose very blood ran like glacial melt-water. But after a moment, the flesh beneath his palm was warm.
The creature was staring at him in a way that made him suddenly remember that he was Thor Odinson and he had manners. “My name is…”
“Thor!” Sif strode from the cavern, flanked by the witch and the warriors. “We have it!”
“Let’s be gone.” Fandral rubbed his hands together. “Before this mountain succeeds in killing us.”
If they thought it strange that he was huddled so close to the captive sorcerer, they did not say. Heid just frowned at the prisoner’s unbound hands, but she seemed a bit distracted by the casket which looked awfully small to be worth such copious blood and sweat. But that was the way of magic, Thor thought to himself. Size didn’t matter.
“Are we taking this unfortunate down to the Allfather?” Fandral tugged at his gloves impatiently.
“Well we cannot leave him here.” Thor looked pointedly at Heid. “We cannot leave him in this state.”
Heid grimaced and sketched a little salute. She handed off the bag with the casket to Sif.
“Do you have honor?” Heid ducked her head so she could face the captive. He narrowed his gaze at her, but finally deigned to nod.
“Then hear me well. I am going to lift this spell, but I want your word on your honor for your parole that you will not raise either your voice or hand or any other part to hurt or thwart us.”
The creature sighed through his nose and nodded. Heid gazed at him for one long moment and then he gasped as the thread unraveled from his injured mouth. Fresh blood welled up over his fingers as he touched his lips to reassure himself. Watching him, Thor swallowed the unpleasant, fleshy taste in his own mouth.
“Who are you?” Thor asked, trying to quell the pity that this creature would not thank him for. The man turned to glare at him and remained silent.
“Perhaps he is one long lost to Asgard, banished perhaps!” Fandral was always one for a good tale.
“Aye, how long has it been since you’ve eaten, sorcerer?” Volstagg asked practically.
“He is a frost giant.” Heid said in the tone of a person who was losing patience rapidly. “Here, let me…”
She grabbed the captive’s wrists and if Thor hadn’t been almost cradling the frost giant in his lap, he would have been halfway to the precipice. The frost giant struggled until she began speaking her words of power and then he stilled. Thor stopped breathing as well because where Heid gripped his wrists the most extraordinary blue color was spreading outward like elaborate vambraces. This close, Thor could see the intricate scarification, feel the cold burn of the creature’s skin as the color spread like rime over his hands and up to his elbows.
She let go with a gasp and the frost giant choked back a sob as the color retreated and he was left pale and unmarked again. Heid rested her hands on her knees, panting and squinted up at Thor. “It’s a very powerful curse.”
“Extraordinary.” Fandral breathed. “Why would someone do such a thing?”
“Whoever did it, they did not love him overmuch.” Sif drew the fur around her neck a little tighter and shivered.
“Indeed, it leaves his magic crippled as he cannot draw upon the ice.” Heid’s breath was coming a little slower.
“But still strong enough to almost pull the mountain down.” Hogun said quietly.
“But what shall…” Thor started when the creature spoke.
“What?” Fandral was helping Heid to her feet; the cold left them all quite pale but now she looked almost bleached.
“My name.” the creature tilted his head until a flowing lock of his hair tickled Thor’s cheek. “It’s Loki.”
“And I’ll wager that it ends ‘Laufeyson’.” Heid scrubbed a hand over her face.
The…Loki flinched hard enough for Thor to feel it. The witch grinned at him meanly. “That’s not hard to deduce. One so young doesn’t have enemies so skilled and so powerful unless they’re royalty. Was it your father…oh, I mean your ‘sire’ who cursed you and banished you?”
The erstwhile frost giant remained silent.
“Or did Laufey-King bear you himself? Is that why you still live, little one?” Heid taunted.
“Enough. We go.” Thor felt that his own curiosity was a bit unseemly after listening to Heid’s jeers.
The…Loki submitted to being bound. Loosely, for Thor would not have him risk tumbling down the steep descent. Of course, it was a vain gesture. Loki moved more gracefully with his hands bound than the Aesir fully free. He seemed if not perfectly suited to his habitat, perfectly adapted. Soon he and Thor were forging the trail in silence.
“Are you going to kill me soon?” Loki spoke as if the only matter for concern was the timing.
“I had not planned to.” Thor returned warily.
“You’ve been speaking to me very unguardedly.” Loki continued in the same flat tone. “It’s been my experience that a loose tongue eventually leads to a tight noose.”
“We are going to take the Allfather this casket and allocate the tribute from Jötunheim.” Thor checked the progress of his comrades. “Then we shall return to Asgard.”
“Ah.” Loki slid down a defile on light feet and Thor jumped. “Does Laufey still live?”
“He was alive yesterday.” Thor ventured. “Will he be…”
“He’ll kill me if he can.” Loki did not sound scared or even sorry.
“For failing to guard the casket?” Thor balked. It was odd but he felt the injustice of it keenly.
Loki huffed a quick laugh. “No. That’s not why.”
“Who did this to you?” Thor thought for a second that Loki would tell him until Loki looked back up at the mountain and his eyes shuttered.
“One long dead.” Loki fell into a deep brood thereafter.
When they rode in sight of the large congregation gathered in the ruins of Utgard, Thor felt strangely split in two. He was so delighted by the prospect of leaving this accursed place that he felt slightly drunk with it, but yet…leaving the mystery of the altered frost giant unsolved kind of rankled.
Loki crouched tensely against the pommel of Thor’s charger. Loki had tried so hard to seem nonchalant about riding the spike-shod beast while he was quite obviously terrified…Thor couldn’t help but find it endearing. Loki’s hair was thick and matted, but it didn’t smell unpleasant and he had finally relaxed enough so that they could ride double somewhat comfortably.
Thor found himself wondering what would happen to Loki, if Heid’s deductions had any merit. Was he even now bringing Loki to an ignominious death at the hands of his countrymen who had never been as savage and resentful as they were at this moment? Odin was full aware that the capture of their casket must be the final indignity and that they could take not one more.
Loki did not act as one who was about to be torn to pieces, but then all Thor really knew of Loki Laufeyson was that he didn’t seem to think his life worth much concern. Loki did not make a move, did not shudder or shiver once as they rode in to the acclaim of the Asgardians and the silent regard of the vanquished.
Thor dismounted quickly. It was no great sacrifice to be gracious. Let them draw the conclusions they would, he had no need to impress the thoroughly beaten frost giants and the…Loki had fought valiantly. Thor brooded for a moment on the memory of Loki’s slim, bare shoulders as he’d squared up against the fiercest of the Aesir. Five on one and he hadn’t hesitated a moment.
So when Thor strode to his father to hand over the casket, he didn’t do anything to hide his exhaustion. He might even have limped a little.
“My son returns victorious, I see.” Odin’s even voice held no sentiment, but he could see his father’s pride in the gleam of his eye. They were all too exhausted to stand on ceremony.
“The mountain has been conquered, father, but it was a near thing.” No one commented on how unlike his usual boastfulness this measured statement was.
“Who is your prisoner?” Tyr rumbled in a tone that clearly asked why is his blood not pooling on the ice as we speak?
“A son of Laufey and a sorcerer.” Thor gestured and Hogun pulled Loki further forward. Loki didn’t cringe, even as there was a muffled rumble from the assembled frost giants. Thor watched as their impassive faces seem to set in even deeper lines. Laufey himself looked blank like his face had been scoured of all possible expression.
It was ever as Loki had said. He stood alone encircled by his people like a pack of enormous wolves. Thor was struck again by how Loki did not quail under that heavy, crimson scrutiny. He had drawn his lips back in what was a sneer from one angle and a smirk from another. He did not even seem to note the presence of the Allfather and the assembled might of the Aesir.
“Another heir, Laufey King?” The Allfather beckoned and Loki raised his chin. “I had not known you so gifted.”
Byleistr had died on Midgard. Thor had slain him with aid from Tyr, leaving his bones to puzzle the mortals. There remained another, less vicious than the crown prince. Thor couldn’t remember his name. And now yet another potential heir. Three sons had made Laufey profligate enough to throw one away. Thor tried to imagine what it would feel like to have the eyes of his own people so inimical and repulsed by him. He wondered if he could muster the same defiance.
The Allfather had locked his gaze on Loki and Loki returned it unflinchingly. There seemed to be something passing between them, some exchange that Thor could only guess at. Odin nodded after a time and murmured softly. “Gifted indeed, and this branching seems…” He did not finish his thought.
Thor found himself wanting to crowd close to his father, to bear him up subtly as he seemed so weary. His father’s frailty was disquieting and it left Thor longing for something, he knew not what. Thor pushed to stand a little closer beside him and Odin rested a hand upon his shoulder. Odin’s voice resounded against the glacial cliffs once more.
“Telling it is, this magic.” Odin cast his eye at Laufey and his generals. “Speak to its purpose, Laufey.”
“His sire gave him the form of a liar, murderer and thief.” Laufey rumbled slowly. “All know the perfidy of the Aesir.”
“And yet not perfidious enough to garb our people as jötunn.” Odin was not goaded. Thor felt he might be imagining it, but his father seemed oddly pleased. “They say Fárbauti was fire-maddened, Laufey, but madness often conceals deep-laid purposes that tug at the threads of the Norns themselves.”
“As you will, Allfather.” Laufey bowed his head. “I have not thought on his fate since I declared him outcast. Now that he comes before us captured like the Casket of Ancient Winter, I can readily tell you which loss I will feel the greater.”
“He was a more ardent guardian than you.” Thor was moved to say. The giant behind Laufey snarled in rage.
“It is of no moment.” Odin lifted a hand to the casket and spoke his intentions much to the dismay of his bitter, aggrieved audience. Tyr had already begun moving troops back to the Bifrost.
Thor noted that Loki had not once looked at the Aesir since he’d broken gaze with Odin. It was as if his stare was his shield, as if the jötnar could not lay hands on him if he could only hold their eyes. He was going to need eyes in the back of his head; already a few of their number seemed to jostle closer hungrily.
Thor was at a loss of how to speak his mind until his gaze wandered to Heid. The war with the Vanir had been just as awful and longer, but the hostage-taking had left Asgard much strengthened in the end.
“Do we not require a blood tribute, father?” Thor muttered. “In that the casket will have a guardian.”
Odin turned to look at him very slowly. Thor tried not to appear transparent under that dark, hollow gaze. “That is a prudent counsel, my son. But it signifies a great turning to allow a frost giant into Asgard, into the very depths of our stronghold.”
“I will bear the responsibility.” Thor tried to sound wise and unmoved. “The son of Laufey is not liable to offend the eyes of our people and otherwise he would remain outcast with no other outlet but to make mischief.”
“Perhaps they only feign leaving him outcast, perhaps he is groomed to be the worm in our apple.” Odin demurred.
“The one who made him thus is long dead.” Thor reasoned. “It becomes all the more reason to keep him close. I would not leave such a one to foment resentment and rebellion behind my back. Heimdall will aid me in checking him.”
Odin remained silent and Thor cast about for another argument.
“He is bound to learn much of us, that is true.” Thor paused. “But perhaps that is for the best that he may be steeped in the example of Asgard and bring our wisdom back to this unenlightened realm. That they might rebuild instead of vainly pillaging abroad.”
Odin was silent for so long that Thor despaired, but when his father spoke again it was both certain and simple. “So be it.”
He turned to the assembled crowd and boomed. “We require a peace pledge of Jötunheim.”
“Is it much further?” Loki asked as they passed through the portcullis. He seemed to make a habit of keeping his head very still and straight while just moving his eyes. He didn’t gawk like a bumpkin. Thor was so glad to see his home that he felt a little dizzy with it and he hadn’t been paying attention to aught else. He realized that Loki must be very nervous if he had been moved to speak.
Thor opened his mouth to explain before Heid forestalled him.
“This is where we strip you naked and chop off that horsetail of hair.” Heid said breezily, pushing up her sleeves. “Then we’ll pass through into the great hall and have you lashed until it no longer amuses us to hear you shriek.”
Loki kept walking but he straightened even further if that were possible as if he were a puppet and someone had jerked hard on his strings. Fandral made a sound somewhere between a snort and a chuckle, but Loki looked so cool and blank and wary that Thor was horrified to realize that casual public torture was just about what he expected.
“Pay no attention to our Vanir witchling.” Volstagg snorted.
“Indeed,” Thor regained his voice. “Her little joke.”
Loki nodded slowly. “It was funny.”
He said it so ironically that Fandral and Volstagg guffawed and even Hogun jerked a nod.
“Come.” Sif took charge of their hostage prince, shaking her head. “You should meet the Queen, Frigga.”
The Warriors Three expressed their intentions to repair to the baths at once, so Thor was left to glare at Heid.
“Why did you say that, cousin?” Thor snapped. “That was cruel.”
“Frost giants aren’t known for their subtlety, my prince.” Heid started innocently. “They’re either at your throat or at your feet. And that one’s too clever by half, so I’d keep your boot on his neck if I were you.”
“You’re not me.” Thor folded his arms. It seemed like the Vanir witches did nothing but revel in his displeasure. “And while you are in Asgard, you must adhere to our customs and that means…”
“I should have told him that Asgardian custom dictated you bend him over the high table and take your war bride then and there.” Heid returned and grinned wickedly at his flustered huff. “I noticed how you seem to want either one hand or both eyes on him at all times.” His glower seemed to delight her. “You can think he’s pretty all you like, just don’t start thinking that makes him good.”
“You would know.” Thor said sourly. There was no response that would leave him feeling anything but foolish. And there was no use protesting that he didn’t think Loki was pretty in the least…
“Luckily in this instance your duty is also your pleasure.” Heid chuckled and flipped her red hair over her shoulder. ““In your shoes, Odinson, I would keep a very, very close eye on him. He’s probably plotting something disastrous, plus these hallowed halls aren’t exactly prepared to play host to such a barbarian.”
“I’m sure we will get used to him, as I have gotten used to you and your strange Vanir habits.” Thor replied testily.
Heid arched one eyebrow and practically cooed. “Indeed. Perhaps you’ll find that frosty austerity more to your taste than our louche, wayward ways.” She sidled close enough to brush his hip and he could feel her tiny fingers under the edge of his breastplate. “That is if he doesn’t try to kill you at once.”
“He seems cleverer than that.” Thor said wryly and plucked her fingers free of his armour. “Likewise I feel sure he can get used to us.”
“Oh, I’ve no doubt, Thor.” Heid grinned and flapped away to her quarters up under the eaves of the west wing. “But I don’t think it will be painless.”
The Asgardians fancied themselves urbane, so there was no collective gasp or titter when Loki was presented at the lavish feast to welcome the returning warriors. Rumors had been buzzing for hours that the army had returned with a jötunn envoy, a prince no less. There was a great deal of subtle neck-craning and sideways glances until the doors opened and then they goggled openly.
Thor had made sure that he arrived at the great hall well in time but he was disconcerted when Loki first appeared next to Frigga. Loki was still wrapped in furs in the jötunn style. Fresh, clean furs to be sure, but to the Aesir he still looked shockingly underdressed with his chest and legs mostly bare. After a moment, Thor saw the wisdom in it; his people were expecting a savage Jötunn. Loki thus arrayed looked both startlingly exotic and beautiful, as if to ridicule the bigotry of Asgard. This was certainly his mother’s doing.
“Could you not have…” Thor trailed off gesturing at Loki’s head but his mother seemed to know his thoughts, as always. Loki now wore a plain gold circlet, but his hair was still a tangled nest of snakes.
“There wasn’t time enough.” Frigga smiled and unself-consciously stroked Thor’s own golden locks. “It suits this pageant, dear one, and the prince does not wish to be over-adorned.”
Indeed even now Loki was shooting Thor a quelling look and then he looked back at Frigga with an unreadable expression. Sif and the Warriors Three joined the coterie, already laughing with pleasure, and they swept into the hall together to a great roar of acclaim.
Loki followed them to the high table and stood still for Odin’s introduction but did not even deign to raise his hand to the assembled court as they bid him a hesitant, if cheerful welcome. These people had seen nothing of the war, had only gossiped about the scourge of faraway Midgard. They were willing to be charmed by the jötunn emissary, particularly such a striking one, but Loki remained stiff and silent.
Thor would have liked to be a better host, but his attention was besought by all and sundry. There were myriad tales to be told and retold. Countless songs and poems to be heard and judged, but Thor was never allowed to completely forget himself with the pale, mute presence on his left side. Loki sat and watched everything closely and after a while, Thor observed that he wasn’t eating.
“Is it not to your liking?” Thor suddenly realized he wasn’t sure that he’d actually seen a bite pass Loki’s lips. As he was nominally the host, he felt his discourtesy keenly.
Loki threw him an unhappy look, but he didn’t speak.
Thor wrenched a leg right off the haunch in front of him and took a large bite. “It’s not poison, you see?”
He proffered the meat almost teasingly, expecting that Loki would turn his face away with a cool grimace. But Loki’s eyes flashed and he leaned in to snatch a bite of meat with his sharp white teeth. Thor felt it almost like a touch, like pain, as if it was his finger that Loki had savaged instead of the roast.
And thus were the floodgates opened.
It hadn’t occurred to Thor that Loki might have literally been starving but then, that was foolish surely, stupidly unobservant. Loki’s skin was drawn so tight over his bones and indeed, it had been a great labor to victual their army in Jötunheim, game had been scarce. And Loki had been relying solely on his own resource, perhaps for years.
Loki chewed slowly at first and then his eyes got brighter until they seemed to gleam as if with unshed tears and he had pulled a full handful, two handfuls of meat off the bone. Thor became conscious that Loki had not been fearing poison or that the food would not be to his taste. Rather that it was too much to his taste and now that he had started, he would eat until he burst. Loki had been so cool, so controlled in the face of what must have been deeply overwhelming circumstances but Thor had just carelessly pushed the limits of Loki’s restraint. After a moment, Loki seemed to be barely reining himself in from frenzy and his eyes were growing more desperate as he swallowed bites that were barely chewed.
Thor looked away quickly, but fascination drew him back after ten heartbeats.
Loki managed to stay rather neat but like a fastidious great cat that didn’t want to waste a drop of the blood of its prey. This close, Thor witnessed several moments where Loki tried to stop himself but was unable. Thor felt he was losing appetite for his own meal, but that would be so deeply, deeply unkind to bring Loki to this state and leave him to suffer alone. Already a few people were staring.
“This, try this.” Thor reached and grabbed a platter from a serving boy. “Volstagg, come and tell us the story of those three sisters in Alfheim.” He took an enormous bite from a roast fowl, tore it clean in two and handed half to Loki. Volstagg obliged quickly, declaiming through his own mouthful of venison. Thor roared for more ale and demanded an array of dishes fit for heroes and can you not see that our guest still hungers, is the hospitality of Asgard grown meager in my absence?
After a few tense minutes, it was almost fun, stealing bites off of other platters, finding new, daintier morsels to press on his guest, watching Loki’s face flush with mead and ale. Set against Volstagg’s greed and Thor’s own gluttony, Loki’s insatiable hunger became nothing to remark on.
Finally, Loki paused to inhale…a breath, not food. Volstagg offered him some sweet trifle and he dug two fingers in to taste it. By now there was no one now to point or titter, the Asgardians were all either too deep in their cups or pursuing other sensual pleasures. Thor watched Loki lick his fingers and mopped his own brow with the edge of the tablecloth.
“There will be more tomorrow.” Thor said, almost under his breath.
Loki looked at him sidelong and nodded.
The following night’s feast was more subdued. Loki now possessed handsome Asgardian garb and someone had untangled the mats from his hair with a liberal application of oil and patience. Thor found himself idly considering how long it must have taken to work all the knots free. Now it gleamed like a raven’s wing and flowed almost to his waist.
A few plentiful meals already appeared to be doing him good; he no longer looked so gaunt and ill. His pallor suited the wash of black hair and poison green of his eyes. Thor felt an odd sort of pride, as if he had pulled a diamond from the muck of Jötunheim and now saw it set in a sumptuous diadem.
Loki remained silent through three courses, and then gestured down at Heid. “Why does she not sit with you?”
“The high table is for the house of Odin.” Thor started, surprised. “Honored guests and…”
“Warriors.” Fandral finished. He raised an eyebrow at Sif who laughed into her chalice.
“But you call her ‘cousin’.” Loki pointed out. “And is she not a warrior?”
“It’s an old joke she shares with the Odinson.” Fandral explained. “She is not truly his cousin.”
“And she be no warrior, not like our Sif.” Volstagg grinned across at Heid who blew him a kiss. She didn’t look any more devious than average, Thor was glad to note.
Loki nodded, nibbling on his lower lip.
“Vanir are…strange.” Thor had drunk a little too much, that wasn’t quite the word he wanted. The others spoke up at once in demurral.
“Not strange, strange as such.” Sif said. “Different, certainly.”
“I rather like them.” Volstagg put in.
“They certainly have some attributes to recommend them.” Fandral added with a lascivious wink. He turned to look down past Frigga to where Freya sat and Freyr leered back at him.
“It is just that they are not…plainspoken.” Thor tried to explain. “I would love them better if they did not twist and turn so, always so full of guile, and their motives so opaque.”
“I wouldn’t call the Bright One’s desires ‘opaque’, would you?” Fandral elbowed Hogun in the ribs. “Heid loves gold more than a cat loves cream.”
“True enough.” Thor conceded.
“We need them, I think.” Sif said. “The AllFather always speaks so highly of accord between us. Just because they love things we scorn or differ in their strengths, it does not make them less than we.”
“I see.” Loki said. Thor did not doubt it; Loki’s eyes seemed to be everywhere. He fancied that Loki’s gaze followed him as Freya called him to her side.
It was hours before he bethought himself of his guest again and by that time Loki had left the table. Thor scanned the room for him and grinned. Loki was practically getting chased around the floor by a determined cadre of Asgardian maidens who didn’t seem put off by his stubborn silence. They twittered at him like birds, not waiting for an answer to one question before posing another.
That was inevitable, Thor guessed. One of them reached out to finger a lock of Loki’s hair and Thor snorted at the incredulous expression on Loki’s face as he eased away from her casual touch.
“Has anyone explained the concept of an outrageous flirt to him?” Heid appeared at his elbow and clinked her tankard against his. “Does he even understand male and female?”
Thor blinked. It was possible he was drunker than he realized. “Why should he not?”
Heid looked up at him and he had to quell the urge to rest his elbow on her head. She was so…tiny.
“Oh, Thor.” She shook her head, smiling indulgently. “You were talking of me earlier, were you not?”
“Aye, Loki was wondering why you did not sit at the high table.” Thor gulped his ale.
“I wonder that myself sometimes.” Heid said archly.
“I think he must rather like you.” Thor went on. “Seeming strange as you are faultlessly unkind to him.”
Heid raised her finger. “He respects me, which is far better than being ‘liked’ by a frost giant. You really have no idea, do you Odinson? Consider what he’s come from and that he’s known nothing else. I confess myself rather astonished that he’s not already done something quite unforgiveable.”
A thin scream cut over the babble of conversations and Thor unconsciously grasped at Mjolnir.
“And so it begins.” Heid snickered. “Best go rescue your pet Jötunn before Sigrid claws his eyes out.”
But Sigrid was flittering out of the great hall, crimson-faced. Thor caught up to her in the receiving room, before more than a couple of tears had time to dampen her sleeve. She wouldn’t tell Thor quite the whole story but it seemed she’d done something that Loki had taken awry and he’d snarled at her most fearsomely.
He reassured himself that Sigrid was more shaken than hurt. He did his best to smooth her ruffled feathers before striding to the balcony where Loki had retreated. Loki was pacing back and forth angrily but when he saw Thor he seemed to deflate.
“What’s this all about?” Thor tried to sound tolerant and even-tempered.
“I thought…she was going to…” Loki scowled and hunched in on himself. “She put her face so close to mine!”
“She probably just wanted a kiss, Loki.” Thor had the urge to shake him. “And you act like she tried to bite you!”
Loki pursed his lips and glowered mulishly. Thor could see the remnants of the scars where Heid’s threads had been cut away and he reflected suddenly that perhaps frost giants didn’t kiss.
Thor wanted to ask if that were so and yet some odd, giddy feeling held him back. “She wasn’t going to hurt you.” Thor explained carefully. “It is something we do to indicate approval and affection for someone and it doesn’t hurt.”
He rather hoped that Loki didn’t ask him to demonstrate. Best to keep it vague. If Loki were very curious he could ask Freya. She was the expert.
“Well it seems foolish.” Loki protested, looking very defensive. “Why not declare such intent? As I have no desire for the approval and affection of particularly silly Aesir.”
Thor tried to stifle his chuckle. Considering tonight’s debacle, Loki wasn’t likely to get kissed again for a while. Loki turned away from him and gripped the marble ledge, looking out over the sea and the road to the Bifrost.
“I’m sorry I didn’t give you fair warning about our gentle maidens here. They’re very…determined.” Thor advised. “Best to be careful.”
“What else must one be wary of here in Asgard, Odinson?” Loki turned his face back to the torchlight and Thor’s mouth went dry. He must be imagining that the mocking tone was tinged with some dark allure.
Me. He didn’t say. “Bilgesnipe. Gambling. Hogun when he’s hungover. In the western mountains there are dragons.”
Loki looked at him sidelong and nodded.
The third day Loki vanished. Thor had gone to the chambers that Frigga had set aside for Loki’s use with an invitation to go hawking on his lips only to find a confused squire who confessed he hadn’t seen the prince since sun-up and then only from a distance. He’d been in the eastern courtyard.
Thor went down to that courtyard, ascertained that Loki had most definitely been there, but was there no longer. An old woman thought she’d seen him out through a lower gate and a guard confirmed the story, but he wasn’t sure.
Thor tried to be very subtle about the fact that he was now actively looking for Loki. It did not speak well for his stewardship that Loki had absconded in slightly less than three days.
Thor made his way down to the treasury and idly asked a guard to show him the plinth where they’d set the Casket of Ancient Winters. The guard was only too pleased to oblige and Thor regarded it unhappily.
East. Thor went down to the stables. The problem was that Asgard had rather a lot of ‘east’.
He made some excuse to Sif and the Warriors Three and then rode out alone. Loki might just be out exploring on his own. The wiser thing to do would be to go back and wait for his return. The bramble on the high plain scored his horse’s flanks leaving shadows on the velvet nap of its pelt.
The sun was now almost overhead. The most vexing thing about all of this was that the plains that spread out in front of him were open, empty and almost featureless. If Loki had not changed himself into one of the circling hawks, Thor was at a loss to think where he might have gone in such a short time. He would have to return and speak to Heimdall and then conceivably his father and then…
His horse’s hoof squelched into a boggy patch. Thor frowned at the mud. He was quite sure that it hadn’t rained here for a while and if the Ifingr was overflowing its banks, he really should investigate.
The ground got soggier as he shoved through the thicket down to the river’s edge. It was curious: the Ifingr seemed oddly swollen, choked up somehow like someone had rolled a boulder into its flow.
Thor picked his way a few steps downstream until he came to the resistance. Loki sat at the base of a small waterfall; the water swelled in waves over his shoulders and gushed around him almost up over his chin. He had left most of his clothes on the bank. Now he looked like some mostly-submerged water spirit. He started when he saw Thor and a few of the river stones around his feet shifted heavily.
For a brief moment, Thor was tempted to wade in and grab Loki from the river’s clutches. He discarded the thought as quickly as it came; the idea of wrestling with Loki when he was already slippery seemed beyond foolish.
They stared at each other for a while. Thor was at such a loss for words that he knelt and plucked a grass stem to chew on. Loki seemed to relax when Thor did not immediately speak. Thor could feel the chill of the water radiating up to him, soaking up with the damp. It must be icy-cold where Loki sat submerged.
“Is it too warm here?” Thor was finally moved to ask.
Loki might have wanted to sneer at him, but it was hard when he had to spit out water to do so. “Is that your theory, Odinson?”
Thor shrugged. “Legend says that this river flows down to Jötunheim.”
“Does it.” Loki said tightly.
Thor closed his eyes and let the sun turn his eyelids scarlet for a moment, soaked up the warmth, listened to the chirping birds. It was hard to fathom this homely pleasure ever being alien and bizarre, but he remembered what Heid had said last night.
“I imagine it does feel too warm here.” Thor leaned back on his haunches and regarded the sun. “Too bright, probably too smelly. It is passing strange for me to be back as well, after so long away.”
Loki just looked at him and his lips twitched.
“And if you stay there much longer, you’ll certainly turn blue, if that is your wish.” Thor mused. “But then I think you will die.”
Loki did not smile, but his eyes glittered.
“And then float down with the current, is that your plan? To go back to your people as a corpse-king?”
Loki shrugged and the water babbled in protest. “You persist in thinking I must have a reason for what I do.”
“Do you not?” Thor made his disbelief plain.
“Perhaps I am mad.” Loki mused. “How would you know?”
“You are not mad.” Thor scoffed. “At the moment you are just bathing eccentrically.”
Loki turned his face away but not before Thor caught his tiny grin. “A smile! Rare currency indeed from the exiled jötunn prince.”
Loki shook his head and pursed his lips which had gone an odd shade of purple. Thor picked up a river stone and cupped it in his fist.
“You are not what I expected.” Loki said, tilting his head up to speak. “I had heard that the Odinson was like unto his hammer.”
Thor couldn’t help but feel a small bloom of fondness. He ran his finger along the carved runes on Mjolnir’s head.
“Thick, brutish and unsubtle.” Loki said sweetly.
Thor felt rather nettled.
“Well, I would tell you how well you matched the legend of Loki Laufeyson.” Thor returned. “But I have never heard such legend or aught of you.”
“Indeed.” It was not a smile, just a baring of teeth. They fell silent. Loki closed his eyes.
Thor tapped his stone against his hammer before bursting out. “So you are just going to freeze to death on a whim?”
“I do have a reason, Odinson.” Loki’s lips curved, as predicted they were turning blue. “But you shall not know it.”
Thor squeezed the stone until it cracked into six pieces and he flung them downstream into the stiller water. Time to employ another tactic.
“You know my father is renowned for his seiðr” Thor said absently, as if he didn’t care two ways about it. “If you wish to have the curse upon you lifted, you have only to...”
“Ask Odin Allfather?” Loki snarled. “He has no reason to aid me.”
“He has no reason not to.” Thor returned, startled. “There is no need to fear…”
“I am not afraid.” Loki snapped. All at once, he pushed himself almost clear of the water and promptly lost his balance. Thor managed to snag his wrist before he fell and the look Loki gave him was openly murderous. But Thor waited until Loki had set his half-frozen feet again between the river stones before letting go.
“Well, I shall…” Thor shifted his weight back gingerly. Loki’s skin was now blooming from a purple-blue back to a hectic pink and Thor was finding it very uncomfortable to look upon him. Loki was also holding himself in such a way that suggested that he would not shiver in the sight of Thor Odinson. “Leave you to your next caprice.”
“Why do you call that Vanir witch ‘cousin’?” Loki squeezed the water out of his hair as Thor turned to retreat.
“It’s an old…” Thor paused. “I’ll tell you if you walk back with me.”
He glanced back at Loki who shrugged wryly as if to say well played.
“We fought the Vanir for an aeon.” Thor plucked another grass stem and played with it. “It went on and on and it was like grappling with mist.”
They walked very slowly. Loki had probably stayed in the icy water long enough that his every muscle was cramping and his skin was on fire but he made no complaint. He just set his feet very carefully and Thor ambled beside him, leading his horse.
“And Heid helped you to victory?”
“She did.” Thor shrugged. “Which was odd or perhaps fitting because she’d started it. After years of grinding our bones on their whetstone, she could sense the direction of the tide and she came to believe an Aesir victory was better than more rivers of blood. They can shape-shift, you know. Their fiercest warriors would put on the forms of women and children and they’d strike just when we’d try to protect them.”
Loki nodded and gestured for him to continue.
“So.” Thor sighed. “When your enemy starts doing something like that, it leaves you with a rather unpleasant choice, does it not? You can turn your back on what you think is a harmless refugee only to have them slice at your hamstrings and kidneys or you can pre-emptively hack into what may, in fact, be a child. I didn’t relish it.”
“So Heid at long last…she’d been our hostage from the beginning, you understand…spelled a sword for me, that it would glow in the presence of a warrior. So I would know what I was up against, a genuine crying child or a bloodthirsty soldier. And that was that. We took their surrender a fortnight later.”
Loki squinted at the horizon where the palace was gaining shape. “Do you still have the blade?”
“Indeed.” Thor gestured vaguely. “I did not use it on the…ah, last campaign. I confess that I was grateful that the Jötnar keep their vulnerable ones well-hidden.”
“In a tribal conflict, a warrior who fell pregnant would be untouchable.” Loki acknowledged. “To slay one would be quite taboo, but it’s not unheard of.”
Thor blinked. He opened his mouth and then closed it. Loki continued before he could formulate a question. “When the Jötnar speculate about what the Aesir do for leisure, it’s usually quite obscene. I presume that’s just base chauvinism?” He cocked an eyebrow at Thor and gestured at the palace.
Thor was still pondering the ‘pregnant warrior’ idea and he could not muster up much wit. “We hunt…we have tourneys and …feasts.”
“I see.” Loki said dryly.
“When the moons are full.” Thor cast about for entertainment. “Iðunn will wed Bragi, it should be…amusing.”
It took ten days to weave Loki into the warp and weft of Asgard. For the first four days he’d been content to walk around and watch Thor have a hundred drinks in a hundred taverns and a thousand conversations to catch him up with the doings of his people and their concerns. Then Thor had made a significant tactical error and thereafter Loki had scorned his company.
On the fourth day, Thor had shown him the library.
It had been momentarily worth it. He’d had the inspiration while breaking his fast, but had gone on a general round, showing Loki the stables and the lower gardens which stood far enough away to make a picnic luncheon worthwhile. There were two towers down the east wing that Loki had not seen; one of them was an observatory. They did not trek to the library until the sun was lowering.
Loki had just blinked once and taken a deep breath, but he could not seem to twist his lips into their usual sneer.
“Do you like it?” Thor himself thought it rather fine, with the afternoon light limning the leather and parchment with a golden glow.
“Like it?” Loki had repeated as if he was learning a new language. He had walked down the first row of books and even though Thor could still see him, Loki was for all intents and purposes, gone. Loki now had all he needed of Asgard and Thor could not craft an invitation that would shift him.
But Thor would continue to find him in odd corners and strange places. He once found Loki in the kitchens when he was seeking a mid-meal snack, Loki deep in discussion with a scullery maid. He found Loki perched on the wall on the lowest edge of the lower city, watching children play at war with sticks and shuttlecocks. He found Loki outside the city walls, chatting with a crone as she fed her chickens. Loki would tilt his head to acknowledge Thor and sometimes that was all he got. Acknowledgement.
It would be unseemly to simply demand Loki’s company, as if he were some thrall. He was a prince of Jötunheim, a royal hostage to their treaty and no slave. And Thor had plenty of friends to claim his attention; he should not feel the lack of one haughty, sneering, bespelled frost giant. But it didn’t feel good to be abandoned so easily in favor of dusty tomes which had never done anyone an ounce of good as far as Thor could see.
The only thing that kept him from feeling completely hurt was that Loki was somehow almost always present when he sparred with his fellow warriors. In the early morning before the warmth grew heavy, Loki would sit high above their arena and watch, cocking his head like a clever raven.
Loki watched every match very closely, but it did not seem to amuse him in the slightest. Thor did his best to be unself-conscious under that piercing green gaze but Loki’s hard, assessing scrutiny made it difficult to preen after his inevitable victories. While other spectators would cheer or gasp at particularly well-fought or brutal moves, Loki remained silent, hunched over his bent knees. It made Thor feel oddly brutish, like an animal bred for blood sport.
Well to be sure, Loki was accustomed to that ice magic. Perhaps he thought the hammer a ‘thick and unsubtle’ weapon. Thor spent a fortnight honing his blade work with Fandral, Hogun and Sif until he was as smooth and deadly as a striking snake and still Loki said not one word. Just watched and twisted a lock of hair into a petulant coil. Thor would have thought that Loki would have left over watching as it seemed to make him so glum, but Loki never missed a bout. He watched every move avidly even as it appeared to fill him with something that might have been contempt.
One morning Loki did not show up to observe. Thor kept glancing unobtrusively to where he usually perched until Hogun managed to slide a sword over his shoulder for his lack of attention. It stung like a wasp.
“You’re awfully slow this morning.” Sif jibed. “Your mind on absent not-friends?”
Thor snorted and went to take a dipperful of water.
“I’d have thought you’d be glad to have him gone.” Fandral panted. “His eyes make me… It feels like he only seeks to find our weaknesses.”
That brought Thor up short. It had not occurred to him before, but surely that was what Loki was doing. But Loki didn’t watch them, Loki watched him. It was…
“Hey ho.” Volstagg rested his spear on the ground. “What’s that ruckus?”
Thor hefted himself up onto the parapet and the shouting clamor sounded clearer. It sounded more exultant than fearful. Hogun was already taking a look through his glass, after a moment he shrugged, puzzled and handed it to Thor. From here it looked like a jubilant crowd of ants on the edge of the city.
Children. A pack of schoolboys frolicking and…Loki was dragging a dead bilgesnipe through the lower gates. He’d rigged some kind of travois-sledge that wrapped the enormous carcass and kept it safe from flies, but Thor could still recognize the antlers.
“What is he about, our frosty not-friend?” Fandral laughed in disbelief.
“Did he hunt that by himself?” Sif was shaking her head. “This I must see.”
They found Loki between the tanner’s yards and the slaughterhouses, apparently haggling with some butcher’s broker. The Asgardian was trying to convince Loki that the antlers weren’t all that impressive.
“Quit this nonsense, my good man.” Thor felt infected with the schoolboys’ jubilation; it was such a feat! “The antlers alone are worth a hundred gold pieces. I have seen many of these beasts and this one is exceptionally fine.”
“And delivered right to you!” Volstagg tugged at one of the claws. “How ever did you manage it, Loki?”
“With much stealth.” Loki looked a bit haggard, he had a glowing red scar seaming down from his collar and his clothes were splashed in multi-hued blood. Thor wanted to urge him to the healers, but Loki was far more interested in the pouch the broker finally handed over. It looked heavy and Loki’s eyes gleamed with tired satisfaction.
“Will you not take one trophy from your kill?” Thor asked.
Loki looked puzzled for a moment. “No, that…no.”
“Do you have any plans for that gold?” Volstagg looked significantly at the swinging sign of the nearest tavern.
Loki nodded. The clink of his pouch seemed to give him new energy. He turned down a street that opened up into the livestock market. “I’m going to buy some goats.”
Thor, Sif and the Warriors Three exchanged sixteen glances between them.
“Goats?” The Warriors Three said in unison.
“Why?” Thor asked, falling into step with Loki’s long strides.
Loki looked at him sidelong and curled his lip. “I shall buy some remarkably fine ones and have a chariot made as a gift for my most gracious host, so that the thunder god might travel in exceptional style.”
Volstagg burst out laughing and after a second everyone else did too. Merriment overcame them. Fandral could not stop himself from patting Loki on the back and Loki did not even flinch.
“Fairly spoken, Loki Laufeyson.” Thor choked back a snicker. “What beast will see you so well mounted, so that I might reciprocate?”
“You need not trouble yourself.” Loki gave a slight, sardonic bow. “I will secure my own.”
They joined Loki at the marketplace, lending their voices to his when it came time to bargain. It was surprisingly diverting sport for the warriors and it was not long before Loki owned a small herd of surpassing heftiness and fecundity. Volstagg seemed prepared to spend the day gossiping with farmers and butchers and only agreed to go when Thor expressed his intention to stand the first round in honor of Loki’s hunting prowess.
“I might’ve guessed that you would be an accomplished hunter.” Thor slammed down his second tankard and called for another. “But I never would have guessed that you consented to come to Asgard to become a farmer.”
Loki sighed and played with one of the coins he’d earned, flipping it back and forth between his fingers. “This is not the game, Odinson, it is just the first move.”
“What is the game then?” Thor took a gulp of fresh ale, trying to wash down a sense of foreboding.
Loki glanced at him sideways and took a sip of his own, and said softly, “a long one.”
Loki hunted bilgesnipe twice more, once in Thor’s company, though Thor naturally rejected Loki’s offer to split the money that the liver, antlers, pelt and claws yielded. Thor took two claws as a memento of the sport. Loki refused any token but gold.
Loki bought no more goats, but he visited his charges every so often in their corral down below the royal stables. Thor was surprised to learn that Loki had made arrangements for their care days before he’d successfully brought down the bilgesnipe.
And he was more than a little curious about Loki’s plans for the coin he was amassing. After hunting for prize money, Loki turned to games of skill in the coarser taverns, then games of chance in slightly nicer taverns and it was not long before most residents of the Golden City refused to play him for any stake.
Thor sought him out in the library one evening and found Loki and Heid hissing at one another like cats.
Loki cast one startled glance at Thor before striding away deep into shelves of maps and astronomy charts. Thor was too conscious of his dignity to call out after him. Heid greeted him rather churlishly, “And what can I do for you, my prince?”
Thor canted his head toward the retreating Loki, “What were you discussing with…”
“…the tight-fisted Jötunn?” Heid rolled her eyes. “The price of a few lessons in spellcraft. ”
Thor was taken thoroughly aback. “Do you think that’s wise?”
“Well I certainly don’t think it’s wise to sell my expertise cheaply.” Heid scowled down at her parchment and began rolling it up peevishly.
“I mean do you think it’s good for Asgard to teach him…” Thor gestured vaguely. He tried to think of a nicer way to say ‘Vanir trickery’.
“The good of Asgard is your concern, not mine.” Heid returned with impeccable logic. “And the state of my purse is my concern, not yours.”
Like a cat loves cream, thought Thor and sighed. “I only mean…”
“Thor, I would gladly teach you my fearsome skills if you professed even the slightest interest.” Heid tucked a book under her arm and walked away. “For the right price, of course!”
Thor steeled himself and went to visit his father. He found Odin carving a knot of wood into a pipe on a balcony outside a lesser banqueting hall.
“Heid may teach Loki seiðr.” Thor had tried to think of several ways to address the issue more gracefully or diplomatically, but it proved beyond him. “If they agree on a price.”
The Allfather nodded down at his wood shavings. “And this troubles you?"
“Well, no…not as such. Yes.” Thor reflected miserably that he really should have composed his thoughts a bit better. Odin was not one to disapprove of seiðr ‘just because’. “He is not frank with his intentions.”
“Has he been behaving suspiciously?” Odin asked, wiping the shavings off his blade.
“He bought some goats.” Thor said finally.
“Hmmmm.” Odin examined his pipe. “Clever of him.”
“…” Thor chewed on that. “Truly, what might he be using them for?”
“Milk, meat…” Odin’s eye was piercing. “…some breeds have hair that can be spun. Surely you know this, my son?”
“He is always doing things that seem strange.” Thor complained, feeling very childish.
“Do you consider, my boy,” Odin said gently. “That Loki is trying to make his own way in this world without the benefits and resources that you may take for granted? That he is accustomed to being alone in a harsh realm and has therefore made plans on top of plans, should some go awry?”
“Yes, and I would like to….” Thor thought about it. “…forestall him, if he’s plotting something underhanded.”
“Well, then.” Odin stuck the pipe in his mouth and took a tentative practice draw. “You will have to keep watching him.”
“Loki, did you forget the wedding was tonight?” Thor shifted his weight uncomfortably. “You’re not dressed quite...”
“Then how?” Loki clenched the tunic he had been about to draw on and hurled it to the floor petulantly. It looked like several outfits had already been sacrificed to his temper. A servant cowered just inside the doorway and Thor waved him away. Loki was snarling and pacing in front of his barren wardrobe half-dressed and Thor paused a moment to regard him.
“How am I to keep track of these blasted rules that you’ve been steeped in since your birth, Odinson?” Loki snapped. “Forgive me, for while I have devoted countless hours to your history, law, philosophy and art, I have not yet made an exhaustive study of your fashion!”
“Calm yourself.” Thor plucked an embroidered tunic from the floor. “This will serve.”
Loki was not mollified and he snatched the clothing from Thor’s hand.
“And you keep saying that word as if I should know it.” Loki continued testily.
“Which word?” Thor was thoroughly taken aback.
“Wed-ding?” Loki spread his hands in aggravated inquiry. “Is this some new game or tourney that will surely scale fresh heights of tedium?”
Thor gaped at him. And then abruptly felt a fool. “You don’t have weddings in Jötunnheim.”
Loki folded his arms and visibly clenched his teeth.
“Uh.” Thor opened his mouth for a quick explanation then realized that there were bound to be awkward questions attached to the issue and he shouldn’t run the risk of a revealing blush. “Will you come with me?” He was a journeyman in need of a master.
“Where are we going?” Loki still looked mulish, but he fell into step with Thor obligingly.
“To visit Freya.”
Freya was so delighted to be asked to explain Aesir wedding rituals to a foreign dignitary that she actually left off the arranging of her golden curls. She opened a bottle of delectably scented liqueur and led them to a comfortable private nook in her quarters and then expounded on all aspects of the Asgardian marriage contract with such wisdom and aplomb that Thor found himself enthralled, even though he could have sworn he understood this part of his culture perfectly.
Loki had so many questions that eventually Freya advised him that he should bear witness to the ceremony and come to her the following day with any remaining queries. Thor took the cue that it was time to leave her to complete her toilette. He sent Loki on to dress in order to pose some questions of his own.
“You have my thanks, Lady.” Thor nodded a bow. “I’m only sorry we didn’t come to you earlier.”
“It’s of no consequence, my prince.” She swept a curtain of hair off her shoulders. “How were you to know the depths of his ignorance? We consider the rites so fundamental that naturally he wouldn’t find the details in any book.”
Thor shrugged and asked in what he fancied was a bluff, idle tone. “Surely they must have something like in Utgard? Or are all frost giants birthed from glaciers, like icebergs?”
Freya arched one perfect eyebrow. He felt in an instant that she saw right through him, but her tone was equally nonchalant. “Well, I’m no expert, Thor, but I’m given to understand that most jötunn unions begin with the phrase ‘brace yourself’.” She grinned at him cheekily. “They’re not very formal.”
“So how do they…” He cleared his throat. “No courtship rituals at all, truly?”
“They’re a warrior race, even sterner than the Aesir.” She examined her pearlescent fingernails. “I imagine that they battle for the privilege of mating, winner takes all.”
He had nodded, shrugged and turned to go as she continued casually. “Probably why your enchanted prince is still untouched.”
Thor gripped the edge of the door to keep from flinching. Of course, Freya could probably smell virginity at fifty paces and was among the few who thought it a fit topic for conversation. Thor grimaced as a hot surge of lascivious want made his fingers tighten into claws and his eyes screw shut. He half-turned and took refuge in his reputation for being deliberately obtuse. “Is that what they’re calling him now? ‘The enchanted prince’?”
He tried to chuckle but it came out as a kind of strangled caw.
Freya had lounged back in her chair to toy with her mirror. “Why…” Her tone was just as studiously idle as his, but he caught a flash of her eye’s reflection. “Don’t you find him enchanting?”
Thor snorted and left to a peal of her laughter like ringing bells.
It seemed so strange; so hard to fathom that there was something so very basic that Loki was ignorant of. More than anything Loki projected an air of knowing all kinds of secrets. But then he’d seen plenty of evidence that Loki had huge blind spots in all his hard-fought knowledge.
It was exciting.
No, Thor thought, tilting his tankard up quickly at yet another toast. That was not the right word. It was interesting. Culturally.
It was important to keep Heid’s words foremost in his mind: that Loki, despite his Aesir appearance, was not one of them, would never be one of them, he was a cold, unfeeling frost giant, a glacier-prince. That Loki likely only watched them to mock and sniff away at their weaknesses.
And yet, it was more complicated than that. Perhaps it was because Loki made every token of friendship so hard-fought, for one as accustomed to fighting as Thor was…it was strangely intoxicating. Thor watched Loki out of the corner of his eye, telling himself it was both a command from the Allfather and Heid’s sound advice.
Loki seemed to find the whole long ritual intensely interesting. After the fifth toast, he seemed almost…jovial.
When Thor recovered from his wedding-feast hangover, the sun was setting on the day after. Or rather he believed it to be the day after. It might have been any number of days after. But he was awake with a purpose in mind. He left Sif and Fandral to make sure that Volstagg did not fall asleep in his porridge, gave Hogun a wide berth and used his best hunter’s stealth to slink into the library.
Loki and Heid appeared to have put aside their differences for they were bent over an old book so close that their hair was nearly tangling together, Heid’s red looking even more brazen against Loki’s coal-black. The sight might have pricked him if Heid hadn’t been declaiming in her most hectoring tone. Thor backed away slowly. Like spiders, he thought. Better when you can see them.
Once in the rows, it became very obvious that he had no clue what he was doing. He was now in a section that seemed to be largely devoted to elven lore, but whether it was their poetry or poetic renderings of their history he could not discern. There was a great deal of runic script that he found completely unintelligible.
He supposed it was too much to ask to find a hefty book with large lettering proclaiming it ‘On Frost Giants’. He sighed and found a stack of maps and sorted through them until he found one of Jötunheim. It was both worm-eaten and bloodstained. On his way up to an unobtrusive table, he found a small parchment in a holder that named itself ‘A Chronicle of Utgard.’ Upon unrolling it, he discovered it was a genealogy.
Or…he thought it was. The spiky, oddly-formed script made a chart of names which varied in color. But the names were conjoined in odd swooping lines that seemed to list heirs on a diagonal. Thor squinted and saw that what he’d assumed was a slashing line was actually script. He leaned closer to try to decipher it. The only names he recognized were ‘Laufey’ and ‘Farbauti’ and they were at the very bottom.
“This seems out of character, Odinson.” Loki’s voice cut through his absorption.
Thor glanced up quickly to where Loki now sat across from him. Loki seemed quite settled as if he’d been sitting for some time. Thor flushed, wondering if he’d been mouthing the words as he read.
Loki tilted his head to the side. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“I was coming to find you actually.” That was true in an extremely roundabout manner of speaking. “Would you like to sup with me?”
Loki shook his head. “Not tonight.”
Thor consoled himself with the thought that his invitation hadn’t been completely sincere.
“What have you got there?” Thor asked quickly to deflect attention from his grimy parchment. Loki rolled his eyes.
“I do believe Midgardians may be the thickest sentient race ever to blight the Nine Realms.” Loki wrinkled his nose at the spine of the book he carried. “But they have surprisingly good poetry.”
“I will take your word for it.” Thor attempted to pull a map over his own reading.
“Indeed. My blood is quite pure, you know.” Loki said, completely out of the blue.
“Ah…yes?” Thor blinked.
Loki leaned forward. “You appear to be examining my antecedents.”
Well, fortune favored the bold. “What do the colors mean?” Thor pointed at a name in scarlet and then at one rendered in a dark indigo.
“Died in battle.” Loki said simply. “Went back to the ice.”
“Went back to the ice?” Thor repeated.
Loki scratched his chin. “Natural causes?”
“Aha.” Thor noted how very few names stood in dark purple. He pointed one of the many diagonal lines. “What does this phrase mean?”
“Out of.” Loki was frowning down at the vellum now, shaking his head gently.
“What, like a horse?” Thor replied without thinking and then bit his tongue.
But instead of getting angry, Loki almost chuckled. His eyes flashed a wicked humor back at Thor. “Yes, Odinson. As in ‘Farbauti begot Loki out of Laufey.”
“I see.” Thor said and he was beginning to, even as his mind boggled.
Again, Loki seemed to be infused with a sudden, unexpected good humor. “Are you so set on stuffing your face at table right now?” Loki gestured to the darkening sky.
“Do you have a better proposal?” Thor said and hoped that it sounded innocuous.
Loki raised one eyebrow. “I’m going to the observatory.”
Loki stood up and was five steps away before he turned and said stiltedly, “If you…”
Thor couldn’t help but grin as he stood up, leaving the map and parchment where they lay.
“What is that?” Thor jerked his chin at the heavy book that Loki had hefted on their way to the hall.
“Astronomical calendar.” Loki was cradling it like a babe. “And star map.”
Thor nodded and stayed silent until they came to the far end of the East Wing. The sun had truly set and the stars were shimmering into view.
“What are we looking for?” Thor squinted up at the sky while Loki fiddled with lenses for the glass.
“There are some auspicious signs.” Loki frowned around for a table and finally ended up arranging his book in Thor’s arms. He found the page he wanted and checked the glass. He stood back and indicated Thor should do the same. While Thor was unsure of what he was supposed to be seeing, he took a moment to admire the beauty of the spangled sky. He came back to himself to discover that Loki had been talking all this time.
“…and I don’t wish to share. They may not wish to journey so far for such a slim chance of glory.” Loki shrugged one shoulder. “More than a few meals might be skipped which might be too much to ask of doughty Volstagg, just going on my whim.”
“What are we talking about?” Thor craned his neck to see if he could read the book upside down.
Loki blinked and scowled. “Dragon hunting. Western border. I am going. I am not asking your friends.”
Thor nodded and then the idea caught fire in his heart. He squeezed the book a little tighter to mask his enthusiasm and spoke very carelessly.
“It occurs to me that you must have some purpose in telling me this.” Thor ducked to take another look through the glass. “Otherwise I would not know about it until you were successful or dead.”
“Well.” Loki looked him up and down. “You were marginally helpful with that bilgesnipe. I figure you might wish to lend your talents to my dragon hunt.”
“Then by all means, lead on.” Thor said acidly. “How could the god of thunder pass up the opportunity to be ‘marginally helpful’?”
Loki almost smiled.