The feasting hall at Vingólf buzzed with activity, music mingling with ritual boasts and laughter and the shuffle of dancing feet on the stone floors. It was rare for General Tyr to host a celebration feast rather than a simple dinner for his household, but with three guests of honor that evening, it had seemed only appropriate. Master Völund the Smith and his apprentices had come, and now the apprentices were flirting with the serving girls while Völund himself sat at the high table chatting with the other two guests, Master Seidmadr Mimir, and Loki himself.
"I do not know if you will remember it," Loki was saying; "it was hundreds of years ago, now, but you gifted me a set of throwing knives, when I first left the palace to come and live here."
"Aye, of course I remember," said the Vanir. "I am pleased that you have kept them."
"Kept them? They are the best knives I have," exclaimed Loki. "When I began advanced knife training with Master Frodi, he forbade me to use them at first, because he said they would compensate for any flaws in my technique. And he was right to do so, I think. When he did permit me to use them, the knives seemed even better than I remembered."
"Heh. They do reward good behavior, or so I like to say," replied Völund.
"Good tools always do," agreed Mimir. "I still remember the day I first acquired a good scrying bowl, during my days as an apprentice."
"It is hard to imagine you were ever a beginner," said Loki.
"We all were, once."
"Indeed." Völund chuckled and reached for his drink. "Now, the very first blade I ever forged… well, it was about what you would expect for a beginner. Unbalanced, poorly tempered… wouldn't keep an edge if you prayed over it! Heh. My master made me keep it, and had me bring it out every year on the anniversary of my apprenticeship to him. I still have it."
"Do you?" asked Loki, intrigued.
"It still serves the purpose my old master wanted it to—reminds me to remain humble, that I am not perfect, that there is always room to improve, and to be kind to myself when I make mistakes."
"Surely you do not make so many mistakes anymore," said Loki.
Völund admitted the point with a smile. "Well, no, and that is why I have the title of 'Master', same as your teacher here."
"I still cannot believe I am so close to achieving that rank myself."
"You've earned it," said Mimir fondly. "Though you will still be the brat who gave me my white hairs, no matter what your title."
"Your hair was white when we met!" Loki protested, and they all laughed.
There was a lull in the conversation as the leader of the musicians announced a dance, and someone else stood to give toasts to the three honorees.
"I was beginning to think they were ignoring us," said Mimir under his breath, as he acknowledged the toast.
"Oh, they are," said Loki. "It was like this in the palace all the time. The party is grand, the food plentiful and rich, and the mead flowing freely, and that is why most of them are here; we are just a good excuse to throw the party in the first place."
Völund snorted at the same time as Tyr, making both men laugh again. "Nonsense," said Tyr. "The people of Vingólf hold great affection for you, Loki, and I think you do know it."
The boy—nearly a grown man, now—blushed. "It still seems excessive to me, even being raised as royalty," he said. "All this just because I go to Alfheim to continue my training. And Seidmadr Mimir goes to… his ancestral homeland, and Master Völund goes to Vanaheim with a completed commission. My brother would probably take all this as his due, but I would have been just as happy with a dinner in your study, Father."
"You deserve to be feted, my son," said Tyr. "And yet, I suppose you are right, in that the old dirt pile has not seen a feast like this in many years, and the three of you all leaving at the same time is, in fact, a good excuse for such revelry."
"I knew it," said Loki, but he was smiling impishly as he did.
"Well, my own journey shall be little more than a delivery of goods," shrugged Völund. "And the king will get no more from me for a good while."
"He was a poor customer?" asked Mimir.
"Not in the least; it is only that Vanaheim is a mess, all those petty warlords calling themselves kings and fighting one another for supremacy. A thin excuse for raiding and marauding, if you ask me. Meanwhile the true rulers have their hands full just trying to keep their heads above water, much less rule the realm effectively."
"So it isn't Njord you're delivering to, then," guessed Tyr.
"No," replied the smith. "No, this king is called Nidhud, and he's perhaps a little stronger than most of his fellow warlords, but we don't know much else about him. Which is why I will not deliver any more goods to him beyond this commission; he has promised payment of the full sum, and has a history of keeping those promises, but we don't know where he's getting that kind of money. So many of these 'kings' only rule over about three hundred people or so… and of course you already know that many of them are little more than bands of pirates." Völund sighed, shaking his head. "I've little desire to contribute to the chaos; I would see my people unified, but preferably under the hand of the true-born rulers of the realm, and not of some upstart tyrant."
"Do you fear this Nidhud might be such a tyrant?" asked Loki.
"No idea," said Völund. "That's the problem. We simply do not know enough about him to gauge whether or not he's a threat. But I will not be a party to making him one, if he isn't already."
"Well, safe journeys to you, in any case," said the prince.
"My thanks. Still, Nidhud has a reputation for fairness, albeit tempered with a healthy dose of self-interest. I expect no trouble on this trip."
"May it be so," said Tyr, and the talk turned to other things.
"I wish I could be in two places at once," said Loki, a few days later. He passed Mimir a neatly folded cloak to add to the bundle the older man was packing for his journey.
"With those doubles of yours, you already can," said Mimir. He tucked the cloak away in his travel bag and reached for other clothing.
"Not across realms, just yet. And you know what I mean. I do not like that I will not even be able to correspond with you while you are on Jotunheim."
"I'm sure you understand why."
Loki sighed, and recited, "'Messages passed between Asgard and Jotunheim must have the official approval of the All-Father himself', yes, I know," said Loki. He dropped down to sit on the edge of Mimir's bed. "I will not even be on Asgard."
"You have already broken the letter of the law by traveling to Jotunheim. Several times," Mimir pointed out. "There is only so much that the king can overlook before he has no choice but to intervene."
"I know. Still."
Mimir paused in his packing to catch Loki's eye. "If I thought there were a way for us to communicate that would not be subject to bad timing, at either end, then I would happily suggest dream walking. But I will not risk interrupting you in the middle of a delicate enchantment, any more than you would risk me being distracted at a crucial moment in my search."
"Do you truly think you will find the Lost Library?" Loki asked.
Mimir shrugged, reaching for a few books he might need. "I have high hopes; after all, you have narrowed the search considerably over the years. If not on this journey, then soon."
"It will help that you can actually reveal yourself to some of them without it causing an uproar," said Loki. "I… I am fairly certain that Angrboda still does not know who I am. But I haven't dared introduce myself to anyone else."
"For the best, I think," said Mimir. "Someday, you and I will be able to travel to Jotunheim openly once more. Until that day, it is best to be cautious."
"Odin said once that he had wanted to craft a permanent peace between Asgard and Jotunheim, through me. I don't know how he imagined he would go about it, other than installing me as Jotunheim's king, nor do I imagine them ever simply rolling over and accepting me." Loki shook his head. "No matter. I am not forbidden to travel there—"
"So long as you do not flaunt it where Odin must stop you," Mimir reminded him.
"—and you are not forbidden to travel there, because you yourself are Jotun. And between us, we might find one of Jotunheim's greatest lost treasures. And if we do that, perhaps the people there will be more open to other overtures of peace between us."
Mimir snorted, amused. "Do not pretend you seek out the Great Library of the Winter Realm out of a desire for peace, boy."
"Well, no," Loki admitted. "But it is an added benefit."
Mimir made the same noise again, shaking his head. Such thoughts, his student had. "You should pack for your own journey, if you haven't already."
"I have," Loki said simply. "I couldn't sleep last night, so I took care of it then."
Mimir hid a smile. "Excited, are you?"
"You have no idea." Loki grinned then, sitting up straight. "Miiran of Cor Caan herself has agreed to teach me."
"I know, Loki. You've told me over a dozen times."
The boy grinned sheepishly, then sobered. "I will look in on you, from time to time. Even if we do not converse. Just as I have promised to correspond with Father, and Mother. And Thor." Loki rolled his eyes at that last. "Though I don't know why, it isn't as if the great oaf listens to me much anymore."
"He is still your brother," said Mimir gently.
"I know. But we are not as close as we used to be. He spends his time among the warriors, and fits in there like a weed in a meadow. I… don't."
"Mm. Give him time. He'll grow up, and come around, and remember who is most important to him."
"I hope so. I fear he will grow arrogant without me to keep him in check. He's already completely obnoxious half the time I see him, as it is."
"Heh. That is simply because you are brothers."
"Perhaps." Loki did not sound especially convinced, but the heir to the throne was not Mimir's concern. Odin would either train up a suitable replacement, or the Thing would convene to choose a better king when the time came.
The seidmadr looked around his chambers, hands on his hips, checking that he'd packed all the supplies he thought he might need. "Well, then," he said. "I do believe that is everything. With luck, some of my old kin yet survive and will welcome me."
"I hope so," said Loki.
"Ride with me to the Bifrost?" Mimir offered, and the boy—nearly a boy no longer—smiled and stood.
"Let me collect my things," he said. "We can leave together."
Tyr rode with them, as did Master Völund and one or two of his apprentices, hauling leather satchels filled with new weapons bound for Nidhud on Vanaheim. The apprentices chattered excitedly, but the other men were quieter, in no particular hurry as they enjoyed the beauty of the day.
"A good day to travel," remarked Tyr. The others nodded or made little noises of agreement. He glanced over at them, one corner of his mouth turned up. "Your thoughts are elsewhere, I take it."
"Sorry, Father," said Loki. "I suppose I am a bit nervous. Not at being away, not really, but…" He tossed one hand in the air. "I've not been gone from home for such a long period before now."
"I admit I am already pondering where to begin my search," said Mimir.
"Trying to remember if I extinguished the forge properly this morning," said Völund, and the others chuckled. "And keeping an eye on these louts," he added, gesturing to the apprentices, who rode ahead, oblivious.
The arrived at the great Bifrost Bridge soon enough, and Völund stopped the apprentices before they could set foot on it. "Here; load everything up," he said, dismounting from his horse and helping them fasten the bags to his saddle. With a few words of farewell and some slaps to the shoulders, the apprentices bowed and left.
The remaining four crossed the bridge to the Observatory at its far end, where Heimdall waited, his golden gaze as impassive as always. Loki had met the man only a few times in his life, and never quite gotten the impression that he was liked by the gatekeeper. Whether that had to do with Odin's mistreatment, or Heimdall's own personal judgment of Loki himself, Loki couldn't say.
"Greetings, good Heimdall," said Tyr. "How fares Asgard this day?"
"Asgard is well, General."
"And her Gatekeeper?"
Heimdall allowed the barest hint of a smile to show on his face. "I am well, also. It is courteous of you to ask."
"I presume you know where these three wish to go."
"I do," said Heimdall; "however, travel to Jotunheim is forbidden. I will be unable to send you there directly."
"As I had suspected," said Mimir calmly. "I will go with Loki to Alfheim, then, and continue my journey from there."
"The All-Father will not like it," warned Heimdall.
"I do not answer to the All-Father," replied Mimir. "Asgard need not be involved in my affairs once I am gone, and will not have violated the treaty with Jotunheim; that is what is important to him."
After a moment, Heimdall nodded. "Very well," he said. "Vanaheim first. If you would prepare, Master Völund."
Loki watched as the master smith blindfolded his horse while the gatekeeper inserted his great sword into the control system, and the inner and outer shells of the Observatory began to spin. A low vibration started, which he could feel in the soles of his feet, growing to a hum which continued to increase in pitch and volume, until the very air seemed to quiver with the purity of the tone. Arcs of energy began to crawl along the walls of the Observatory, and the smell of lightning filled the air. Finally, with a rush of air, a portal opened, leading to another realm entirely.
The Bifrost was beautiful, and spectacular, Loki had to admit; it was also, however, not at all subtle, and Loki had always been one to prefer subtlety over grandiose displays. Perhaps that was why he and Heimdall had never seemed to develop a rapport.
It was too loud now to hear what Tyr and Völund said to one another, but they clasped forearms and then embraced, slapping each other on the back before separating. Loki smiled at the sight; the two men had not known one another except by reputation when Tyr had first adopted Loki, but over the centuries had become fast friends.
Finally, Völund led his horse through the portal, which collapsed behind him after a few seconds, with a fading sound like a lightning strike. The sudden silence was jarring, as the shells of the Observatory began to spin down.
Then Heimdall adjusted his grip on the sword and twisted, and it was Loki and Mimir's turn; the shells began to spin once more as the vibration resumed. Loki took a shaky breath, turning to see Tyr watching him fondly. "I will miss you, Father," he said.
Tyr stepped forward and embraced Loki fiercely, with rough kisses to his cheek, his forehead, and then his other cheek. "I am so very proud of you, my son," he said. "And I will miss you, too. Write often!"
"I shall." Loki blinked back tears, but he was smiling and helpless to stop. "It is only five years. The blink of an eye, and we shall see each other again."
"I am counting on it." Tyr laid his hand on Loki's head in a gesture of blessing. "You are loved, my son; never forget it."
Loki nodded. "Try not to beat up too many of the recruits."
"Heh." With a last slap to Loki's shoulder, Tyr stepped back, smiling proudly. He turned to say something to Mimir, and the two men clasped forearms as Mimir laughed.
And then the portal was open, and it was time to step through.
"I prefer my pathways," said Loki once they landed. The breeze rustled through the tall grasses of the Tandoor Prairie, but otherwise the stillness was absolute. The activation of the Bifrost tended to frighten wildlife away from the area for a while, and today was no exception.
"I can imagine," said Mimir. "I do wish it were a skill I could learn."
"I am sorry that it isn't," said Loki. "The closest I could imagine would be if you were to ride Sleipnir, but I do not know if even that would work for anyone without seidr."
"Mm. An experiment for another time," said the elder seidmadr. "Shall we begin walking, or wait for the elves to come to us?"
"We wait," said Loki. "It is against their custom for foreigners to travel the plains unescorted. We might disrupt a hunt, or endanger ourselves without realizing it."
"Fortunately you will not have to wait long," said a third person, and both men turned to see an elven woman walking toward them, wearing the facial tattoos that marked her as a shaman of her people. "Although I would not worry over disrupting a hunt; your Bifrost does that well enough on its own."
"Miiran of Cor Caan," said Loki with a grin. "Great is my luck."
"And my luck is great as well, to again see Loki son of Tyr," said the Miiran, bowing to him with the particular hand gestures that the elves used as a sign of courtesy between users of seidr. "And whom has luck brought with you, this day?"
"This is Mimir, son of Bolthorn," said Loki. "My mentor."
"Great is my luck," said Mimir. His hand gestures weren't quite as precise as Miiran's, but close enough that she smiled to see them.
"As is mine," she said. "You must be very proud of your student."
"I am indeed."
"Do you accompany him on his studies?" she asked, beginning to lead them through the grass.
"I would not insult you thus," said Mimir. "It is best that he learn on his own, and too many instructors can confuse the lesson. But I would ask a favor of the seidr-wielders of Alfheim. I wish to travel to Jotunheim, and require your aid to do it."
"Jotunheim," said Miiran. "Unusual, but it can be done."
"I am most grateful. How may I settle the debt?"
The woman looked him over with an expression of surprise. "You know our ways," she said.
"Some of them," said Mimir. "I have been to your world before, but it was long ago. And I never had the opportunity to meet the people of Cor Caan."
They spent the rest of the day idly, walking until they reached the elves' encampment and then celebrating the arrival of not one but two seidmenn from Asgard. Miiran sent out a message to her fellow shamans, and they arrived in ones and twos over the next few days until there were enough of them gathered to send Mimir on his way.
"I will miss you, Seidmadr," said Loki.
"And I you. Listen to your teachers."
Loki laughed. "Of course."
"Cause them less trouble than you cause me. It's only polite," said Mimir, and Loki laughed again.
"I learned half my pranks from them," he said. "But I'll do my best. And to you—good searching."
"Thank you." They clasped forearms, then Mimir picked up his bag and slung it over one shoulder. "I'll see you in a few years."
The shamans began to chant, and before the sun had moved very far at all, the energy had built and the gateway was opened. With little fanfare, Mimir stepped into it, and was gone in a flash of light.
Loki moved in then with the other apprentices, to distribute drinks and food to the shamans, who sat or lay back in the grass catching their breath. Miiran opened her eyes and grinned up at him when he passed her a piece of fruit.
"So you wish to be a combat mage, eh?"