Word travelled fast in the cramped living areas of the jotuns. Panic travelled even faster. Laufey got aware of the latter before the previous. He heard cries drift up from the streets at he northernmost parts of the area and hurried outside to find out what was going on. He saw his eldest son, Helblindi, come running up the slope, eyes wide and panting heavily.
The jotuns' families only had one parent per household. This parent was the one giving birth to the children, but was still referred to as ”father”. And the children were also referred to as ”males”, even though all jotuns were equipped to both bear children and impregnate others. But the one impregnating another did not have any parental bond to the child. It happened though, that two jotuns impregnated each other, then raised the children together.
Laufey was the proud father of three boys; Helblindi who was six years old, Byleistr who was four and a three months old baby he had yet to name. The baby was small for a jotun, with a tufts of black hair atop his head, and Laufey wasn't sure he would live for much longer, and had therefore not named him yet. He had promised himself that if his smallest child reached the age of six months, he would be properly named and announced.
”Father!” Helblindi called, running up to Laufey and wrapping his arms around his father's leg. Several other jotuns, both young and old, were running along with him. Several of them were clutching infants to their chests, looking terrified.
”You must hide him! The soldiers, they are coming! Odin sent them here, they have already started! Father, you must hide him!”
”Calm down, Helblindi!” Laufey rumbled, patting Helblindi's head. ”I must hide who? And what of the soldiers?” Helblindi swallowed, his bottom lip quivering. Laufey realized his eldest son was shivering in fight.
”Fyrbun, who works at the palace, he overheard the king when he talked to his general. He said that Odin had said to his general to come here and...” he swallowed again and tightened his grip on Laufey's leg and finished in a whisper. ”To come here and k-kill all children under two years of age” he started to cry, but did not seem to notice it.
”You must hide the small one!” he squeaked. Laufey couldn’t believe he was hearing this. It couldn’t be! The aesir were cruel, but Laufey had never imagined king Odin to go this far! Had never imagined that Odin would kill innocent children! And for what extend?
”Father?” The voice belonged to Laufey's next oldest son. Byleistr was standing in the open doorway to their house, his little brother held in his arms. The latter was asleep, tiny firsts clenching the fabric of Byleistr's tunic.
Laufey's chest tightened at the sight. He would not lose his smallest child for something that Odin had ordered! The child may not live for very long, but Laufey refused to let any aesir be the death of him! Now more than ever, he wanted his child to survive! He pried Helblindi off his leg and crouched down on front of him.
”Helblindi, listen to me” he said, placing his hands on Helblindi's shoulders. ”Take your brothers and go hide. Go down to the river and keep out of sight until I come and get you. Do you understand?” Helblindi nodded shakily, crimson eyes wet with tears. Laufey's squeezed his shoulders reassuringly, then pushed him towards Byleistr.
”Now go!” he urged. ”Look after your brothers!” Helblindi stumbled a couple of steps, then took his smallest brother from Byleistr, placing him in he crook of his arm, grabbed Byleistr's hand and began to run towards the river. Laufey watched them for a couple of seconds, then hurried into the little shack of a house and put away all the baby things that were lying around. Then he quickly sat down and picked up the reed-basket he had been weaving.
No sooner had he done so when two guards, armed with wicked, bloodstained swords, stormed their way inside.
”You!” one of them snapped, pointing his blade at Laufey. Laufey jumped and fiddled nervously with the weaving. The guard did not wait for an answer.
”We know you have children. How many are they, and how old are they?”
”I have two sons” Laufey answered, trying not to sound too nervous or too steady. ”One is six, the other four”
”You were registered to have birthed a third child not long ago” the other guard said. Laufey had to swallow hard before he spoke.
”He died a few days ago” he said. The guards glanced around the single room of the house, noticing the baby articles, piled in a corner. They gave each other a look before one of them cocked his head and they moved out. Laufey felt his shoulders slump and he let out a shaky breath.
He closed his eyes and balled up his fists as he heard pleading cries from the house next doors, followed by a sickening, slicing sound, followed by a splattering of liquid. Blood.
That could have been his pleading cry. His son's blood, splattering the ground. He shivered at the thought and sent a quiet prayer to Thanos to care for all the innocent lives that the aesir were taking.
Laufey had to wait several hours, until sundown, before he dared to leave the living area to go down to the river to find his children. The cries from scared children and parents alike still filled the air in the living area and the smell of blood hung thick in the air. There were weeping jotuns everywhere. So many children had been ruthlessly slain by Odin’s guards. And for what? No one knew, but rumours were already spreading.
Laufey knew that he could not have been the only one to have managed to hide his child. And he knew Odin's guards knew that too. They would be back. But for now, they were safe. Laufey couldn't tell for how long, but they would not come back tonight, he was fairly sure of it. That gave him time to bring his boys home and feed them and let them sleep for a while before he sent them away to hide again.
He reached the river just as the final rays of sunlight disappeared beyond the horizon.
”Helblindi, Byleistr!” he called quietly. He walked up and down the river bank a couple of yards, calling to his children.
”It is alright now, you can come out!”
”Father!” Helblindi's voice shook and he, Byleistr, carrying the small one, emerged from the shadows of the tall reed and hurried over to Luafey. He crouched down and wrapped his arms around them, pulling them close to himself as they started crying.
”I am here” he said. ”You are okay. Let us go home!” He picked his children up with ease and carried them back to their house, through the streets of weeping jotuns and bloodstained ground.
There was a collective reluctance to go to the building site the following morning. So many were burdened with sorrow for their lost children. Crying could still be heard all over the area and the ground was still dark from blood. The parents who, like Laufey, had managed to hide their children were at a loss at what to do. They could not stay at home, as that would give them away, but they could not simply leave their small ones.
The final solution came from one of the eldest, one who had become too old to do any good at the building site.
”Leave your infants here, with me, and I and the other children will look after them” he said. ”It is the only solution that will not look suspicious” That was agreed and parents left their infants in the care of the old and the children.
Laufey put his small one in Helblindi's arms.
”If the guards come back, run. Run and hide by the river” he said quietly. Helblindi nodded.
”I will look after my brothers, father” he said with a small voice. He was still very shaken up from the previous day. As was Byleistr. He had not said a word and he was clinging tightly to Helblindi's side. Laufey gave his sons a quick hug, then left for to go to work.
Though it was not as much ”work” as just plain slavery. They did not get paid and the guards showed little to no mercy and were not afraid to use their whips or cudgels on anyone who they considered not working hard enough. Laufey's own, blue skinned back was showing scars from such occasions. As did his face and hands.
The aesir were shorter built than the jotuns, but they carried the same amount of strength and stamina. And since they were the ones who carried the weapons and the ones who could still their hunger each and every day, any attempts to rebellion were futile. There had been several attempts, Laufey could remember, but they had always ended badly for the jotuns.
Though Laufey had hope. And so did many others. Laufey prayed every day to Thanos that he would free them from this slavery. He had never received any form of answer, but he was not loosing his hope that one day, the jotuns would marsh out of Asgard as a free people.
On the evening two days later, the guards returned to the jotun living areas. There was much less time to hide the children this time and cries of agony and sorrow rose into the sky again. Laufey had just been tending to his small one when he heard the first cries from the northernmost parts of the living are.
”Helblindi!” he bellowed, trying to as quickly as possible, wipe his small one clean and wrap him in a blanket.
Helblindi ran into the house as his father called his name. He, too, understood when the cries meant. Byleistr did probably not understand what the crying meant, but he understood that something was happening again and he clung onto Laufey's leg, whimpering.
”I am here, father” Helblindi said. Laufey thrust his small one into his arms.
”Go hide by the river again. Hurry! Run!” Helblindi nodded, blinking tears out of his eyes and ran. He could feel his heart beat hard in his chest. Why was this happening? What had they done to deserve this nightmare? Why were the aesir so cruel?
Sounds of clattering armour ahead of him broke Helblindi from his thought and he threw himself into a narrow alleyway between two houses. He crouched down and tried not to move as the patrol of aesir guards passed him by. He prayed to Thanos that he and his brother would go unnoticed.
The guards passed the mouth of the alley without even looking his way and Helblindi let out the breath he had not noticed he was holding. He rose on shaking legs, peeked out of the ally. The street was empty and Helblindi turned and ran towards the river and the hiding place he had Byleistr had found last time. He reached it without encountering any further obstacles and he curled up with his little brother secured in his arms. The small one seemed completely content, making small gurgling noises and sucking on his tiny fists. Helblindi gave him a sad smile.
”You are lucky you do not know what is going on” he whispered.
The sun had once again set as Laufey came to fetch his sons. Helblindi scrambled out of the hiding place and ran up to his father, who scooped him and his small one up into his arms, sighing in relief at seeing them. The small one made a little happy shriek and waved his tiny fists, crimson eyes sparkling. Laufey returned the smile, if not a bit tired. All this worrying about his children’s safety was making him exhausted.
”Why are they doing this?” Helblindi asked as they walked back home. Or rather, as Laufey carried them back home. Laufey shook his head.
”I do not know”
”When will they stop?”
”Soon! I promise” Laufey answered with a deep sigh, suddenly feeling weary to his bones. He walked the last few yards with heavy steps.
He did actually have a suspicion as to why the aesir – why king Odin – was doing this. He believed the aesir were beginning to fear that the jotuns were getting to be too many and wanted to keep them in control. It was a horrible way to do that and Laufey did not want to tell his children that reason.
Laufey fed his children, then put them to bed. They fell asleep almost instantly, the fear probably making them exhausted, too. Laufey watched them fondly.
”Oh Thanos” he whispered to the night sky. ”Please do not let us suffer any longer! Can you not hear how your children cry? Please, deliver us from the aesir!”
The pattern repeated again two days later. The guards entered the living area when most of the jotuns had left to go to the building site. One young jotun saw the troops as they entered the living areas, this time from the west.
”The guards!” he called, voice cracking. Laufey felt his blood run cold and he froze in place. Several others turned around and ran back, hoping to reach their children in time to save them from the guards. Laufey was just about to follow when another couple of guards blocked the way, and with whips and cudgels, urged them to the building site. Laufey knew that trying to go back now would result in defeat on his part. He prayed quietly that Helblindi or Byleistr or both of them had taken his small one and run to hide.
The day passed painfully slow. Every brick seemed to weight its double weight in Laufey's hands. Worry was making him feel sick and he got distracted over and over, pausing and staring back at the living area. It eared him several bruises and minor cuts, but he hardly felt the pain over the worry.
The day finally ended and Laufey walked back to the living area as quickly as he dared. He did not want to run, as it would look suspicious, but he wanted to go back as quickly as he could to find out if his sons were alright.
”Oh please Thanos, let them be safe” he mumbled under his breath as he came onto the street where the house of the old jotun was. There were already a couple of other fathers there, all weeping. Laufey's breath caught in his throat and he felt his heart hammer in his chest. He did not need to go inside the house to know what had happened. He swallowed thickly. His little unnamed child...!
It suddenly hit him, where were his other sons?! He looked around desperately. A couple of other young children were huddled together in a corner. Laufey crouched down in front of them.
”Have you seen Helblindi or Byleistr?” he asked them with soft voice. The children shook their heads.
”Th-they ran as the guards came” one piped up quietly. Laufey felt his hope return. Maybe his little one was still alive!
”Thank you” he said and straightened up. ”Go find your fathers, they must be worried about you” He turned on his heel and began running down to the river bank.
He skidded to a halt outside the usual hiding place, gasping for breath. He could hear an infant crying and a voice trying to shush the infant and he was flooded with relief.
”Helblindi! Byleistr!” he called softly. The two boys burst out of their hiding place.
”Father!” Helblindi cried and held out the little bundle of an infant to his father. The small one was making unhappy little whimpers and twisting and turning. Laufey took him into this arms and rocked him carefully.
”Shh, shh, it is alright. You are safe!” Luafey looked to his other two sons and pulled them close to his chest with is free arm. ”You are all safe! Thank Thanos, you are safe!”
The little family stayed curled up tightly together on the river bank for a while, before Laufey decided they needed to go back home.
”Come. You must eat and sleep. My brave, brave boys!”
As they walked back, Laufey thought about what to do. He could not keep doing this for long. He knew he had to be one of the very few who's child was still alive. And he could not rely on Helblindi and Byleistr to always get away, despite how much he wanted to. He needed to find a solution.
The solution came to him as he stepped into their house and saw the reed basket he had been weaving. What if he hid his small one in the basket and put the basket in the water by the river bank? It could work! Helblindi or Byleistr could go down there to feed the small one and clean him once in a while. The guards would not look for any infants there.
Yes, it could indeed work. Laufey set to work immediately, finishing the basket. He would not have it done today, but maybe tomorrow. And the guards were most likely not to return in two days. But Laufey doubted they would stick to the patterns any longer. Not if they wanted to take the jotuns by surprise.
Laufey put his boys to sleep and stayed awake himself for another couple of hours, working on the basket.
The basket was finished the next evening, and not a minute too late. The guards were already returning! Laufey snatched up a soft blanket and put it in the basket, then picked up his small one, hushing him as he made small sounds of protest.
”Helblindi, take the basket” Laufey said. Helblindi picked it up and they left the house. They ran down streets and alleyways and just barely avoided being seen by the guards. Laufey had to grab Byleistr and haul him back once as they were hiding under a viaduct and a patrol of guards ran by.
They left the hiding place as the patrol had passed and came out from the living area and down to the river bank. The small one had started fussing again, whining and crying. Laufey shushed him as Helblindi put the basket in the water and removed the lid, then looked back up at his father. Laufey rocked his small one in his arms and began to hum a quiet lullaby. He had sung it to both Helblindi and Byleistr when they had been infants and the two of them knew it by heart by now.
”Hush now, my baby. Be still love, don't cry. Sleep like you're rocked by the stream. Sleep and remember, my lullaby. And I'll be with you when you dream." The small one was still whimpering and the horrible cries had started up from the living area again, now a lot less than the first time. Laufey kept singing.
”Drift on a river, that flows through my arms. Drift as I'm singing to you. I see you smiling, so peaceful and calm. And holding you, I'm smiling, too” The small one had stopped fussing and was now merely looking up at Laufey with big eyes in his little blue face. ”Here in my arms, safe from all harm. Holding you, I'm smiling, too” Luafey put the small one down on the blanket in the basket. He was yawning now, blinking slowly and holding onto Laufey's finger.
”Hush now, my baby. Be still love, don't cry. Sleep like you're rocked by the stream. Sleep and remember this river lullaby. And I'll be with you when you dream.” The grip on Laufey's finger slipped off and Laufey leaned down and brushed a kiss to his small one's forehead. ”I'll be with you when you dream”
He straightened up and put the lid back on the basket, then carefully manoeuvred the basket into the reed, making sure it lay still before he slowly backed away and back up on the shore.
”Will he be safe now?” Byleistr asked. It was the first thing he had said in nearly a week. Laufey took his sons' hands and gave them a sad smile.
”I hope to Thanos he will!” he said. ”Now come, we must go back home!” They hurried back the same was they had come. Most of the guards had already left and they did not have to hide this time.
”Helblindi” Laufey said as he put his sons to bed. ”Will you go tend to the small one tomorrow, after I have gone?” Helblindi nodded sleepily.
”I will look after my brothers” he mumbled. Laufey stroke his back with a smile.
”Father” Byleistr said quietly. ”Will you sing tu us too?”
After the living area had been emptied the following morning, Helblindi made his way down to the river to tend to his little brother. He looked around, making sure no one saw him, then waded out to where they had left the basket with the infant. Only to find that the basket was no longer there! Helblindi panicked and sloshed around the area in search for it.
”No!” he cried. ”No! It cannot be... please!” He ran up on the shore and followed the river down stream, desperately looking out over the water, trying to spot the basket.
He did spot it after a while, and his heart flew up in his throat as he saw that it was heading straight towards where big, aesir ships were gliding over the water. Helblindi let out a little squeak and wanted to cover his eyes. But it felt like if he did that, the basket would really be crushed, so he kept watching it, praying that it would make it.
And as if by a miracle, the basket passed the ships unharmed. It rode on a wave and was pushed towards the shore again. Helblindi sighed in relief and made his way over to pick it up. He didn't reach it before the stream had caught it again and pulled it a bit further downstream before it headed for the shore again. Only it wasn't the shore it headed to, but the palace. It glided in behind a veil that hung above the water. Helblindi swallowed, gathered his courage and carefully pushed the veil aside and peeked inside.
He had never seen anything like it before! White, marble pillars supported a glass roof and snow white stone steps led down to the water where lilies grew. In the water stood a beautiful aesir woman with golden hair and a golden gown. In her arms she held a golden haired boy who could not be much older than Byleistr. The little boy reached down towards the lilies and the woman laughed softly and picked one up for him. Helblindi realized it had to bee queen Frigga and prince Thor.
There was a sudden whimper from the small one in the basket and the aesir woman looked its way, frowning as she saw the basket. She put her boy down on the lowest stone step and walked over to the basket. Helblindi held his breath as she did. She was an aesir, and the small one was jotun. What if she wanted to kill him? Helblindi almost rushed inside when the woman opened the lid of the basket ans saw the small infant inside.
The small one whimpered again and began to cry. The aesir woman's face softened into a smile. She put the lid down, then reached into the basket and carefully picked the small one up.
”There there” she cooed. ”Don't cry. It's alright!” She rocked the small one in her arms and stepped out of the water. The small one's crying subdued slightly and he hiccuped.
Two younger girls were standing on the stairs and they looked at the little blue skinned infant curiously. The queen cleared her throat and scowled slightly at them and they lowered their heads, mumbling quiet excuses.
The golden haired boy made a displeased sound and reached his arms up, hoping that his mother would pick him up again. The queen only smiled down at him.
”Come Thor, we must show your father your new little brother” One of the maid girls took Thor’s hand they headed back up the stairs.
Helblindi smiled to himself. He might only be six years old, but he understood that his little brother had just gained a new family. One who's living conditions were far better than his old! And if his little brother was going to live as a prince – a prince! – he might be the saviour the jotuns were praying would come and deliver them from the aesir.
”Grow up strong, little brother” Helblindi whispered and let the veil slowly slip back into place. ”Grow up and deliver us from the aesir's evil!”