Thor’s first thought is that Heimdall was right. He is not dressed warmly enough.
His second is that Jotunheim is even more of a frigid wasteland than he had imagined. The vast and silent icescape stretches out as far as he can see in all directions, jagged and treacherous and barren. The sky overhead is completely black, lacking even stars, much less a sun or moon. The ice itself seems faintly luminescent, or perhaps there are some kind of lights in the crumbling spires and towers, for he can see well enough, but everywhere he looks he sees only destruction, desolation and the ever-present endless expanse of ice. Jotunheim is cold and dark and dead.
It is as unwelcoming a world as he can imagine, and the bitter chill of eternal winter bites deep into his bones as the wind moans around him. Behind him, his friends say nothing, and have no need to, for their misery and reluctance is written plain on their faces. But Asgard’s ancient enemy is lurking here somewhere, and so he sets out, the fire of his outrage enough to keep him warm.
He does not know if he has ever been this angry – his coronation ruined, Asgard’s defences breached, and most maddeningly of all, his father, unbelievably sanguine at the prospect of a Frost Giant invasion force but cutting and cold in overruling Thor’s opinions and plans. He should have been preparing for war as the new King of Asgard, but instead was sent to his room like a small child, to wait and watch while Odin did…nothing.
Well, he will not stand idly by and wait for the monsters to come screaming out of the night; he has come here to get answers and to impress on these upstart giants that there is a new force to be feared in the Realm Eternal.
At least, if he can find any, for as they trek through the crumbling landscape toward the sharp spires that seem to mark a great dwelling, there is only the wind and his mutinous thoughts for company.
“Where are they?” Sif asks as they approach the tall towers.
“Hiding. As cowards always do.” Thor says loudly in reply, hoping to provoke a response. He gets one.
“You have come a long way to die, Asgardians.” The great, slow voice echoes around them, the very ice resonating with its depth and power. Thor looks up, into the shadows, and knows who the tall, hard-faced creature sprawled on the ice throne must be, despite the total lack of crown or ceremony.
“I am Thor Odinson,” he tells Laufey proudly.
“We know who you are,” is the slow, unimpressed response. There is no fear in Laufey as he looks on Thor, and, Thor feels, precious little respect.
“How did your people get into Asgard?” he demands hotly.
“The House of Odin is full of traitors,” is Laufey’s response and Thor’s temper flares.
“Do not dishonour my father’s name with your lies,” he snarls, for who in Asgard would help a Frost Giant?
“Your father is a murderer and a thief. And why have you come here - to make peace?” Laufey sneers. “You long for battle. You crave it. You’re nothing but a boy trying to prove himself a man.”
Thor grips Mjolnir more tightly, fury singing in his veins. “This boy has grown tired of your mockery.”
He expects more insults, more hot words, but instead Laufey sighs and looks away. “You know not what your actions would unleash.” To Thor’s astonishment, he looks…tired. And old. But only for a moment, and there is still the arrogance and confidence of a King in his sonorous voice. “I do. Go now, while I still allow it.”
Thor’s attention shifts to a huge figure striding towards them from the shadows at the base of the throne: a tall, lean warrior with a strange x-shaped scar on his breast. He fixes Thor with a blatantly hostile stare, but says nothing and makes no move to attack or defend.
Thor hesitates. He dearly wants to unleash his anger, to demand answers and to wrench them from this cold, haughty giant, to lose himself in battle-fury and end this day with at least some triumph and glory to his name...but he had expected resistance and aggression from Laufey and his people, not this stillness and restraint. To attack now, without personal provocation, would not be becoming of a Prince of Asgard, and yet if he retreats, what will he have gained from breaking his father’s command?
“My prince,” says Hogun quietly, touching him lightly on the elbow. Thor turns to look at him but he says nothing else, yet as ever his meaning is clear. Let us return, before this strained calm shatters. Behind him, Sif, Fandral and Volstagg’s expressions are carefully blank, for they are now utterly surrounded by Frost Giants, all at least three feet taller than they and all with the same coiled tension. They will not question him in a hostile land, nor shame him by offering unasked-for advice, but their eyes plead for peace and a return home.
Very well. He fixes Laufey with one long last look of utter loathing and turns on his heel to return to the Bifrost site.
As he does so, the tall warrior behind him speaks. “Run back home, little princess,” grates the deep voice and Thor smiles wolfishly. Mjolnir slips through his hand, her haft settling into his palm, electricity crackling as she responds to his own rush of adrenalin. In truth, this is what he came for, this is what he has been waiting for his entire life: a chance to take on the greatest foe in the Nine Realms, to prove himself a mighty slayer of giants, like his father before him. He spins, raising the great hammer, ready to smite the brute who dared insult him and all his kin until not one of these damned monsters is left standing –
- and suddenly there is an explosion of brilliant light that has the Frost Giants shielding their eyes, unconsciously moving back, away from the iridescent brilliance of the Bifrost. The familiar whinny of Sleipnir echoes around the ruined hall and even from this distance Thor can see the shape of Odin and Gungnir astride the fabled warhorse.
“Father!” he shouts joyously, for this will be a great opportunity to prove himself in his father’s company.
“Allfather,” hisses Laufey, and as Thor turns towards the throne Laufey is standing, leaping forward and then – and then he does something Thor has no words for, calling the ice from the ground with great sweeping arcs of his hands and using it to carry him swiftly across the frozen surface in a great surge. He moves faster than Thor had thought possible, the stunned Frost Giants parting before him as he hurtles towards Odin, who urges Sleipnir forward from the Bifrost site to meet him halfway.
Sif and the Warriors Three seem as surprised as the giants, and all have lowered their weapons, their gazes fixed on where the two kings are rapidly closing with each other. But up ahead, Laufey is slowing, coming to a halt, and he spreads his hands wide in a gesture of peace as Odin canters up to him. They exchange words, and although Thor cannot hear them over the roar of the wind, they seem cordial enough, for Odin holds his golden spear loosely, the point lifting to the sky, and he nods slowly as Laufey speaks.
Thor whips Mjolnir frantically and launches himself into the air, flying as fast as he can to be at his father’s side, for who knows what treachery Laufey is planning? He lands heavily beside them and swiftly puts himself between Odin and Laufey, Mjolnir raised.
“Father -” he begins, eager to explain.
“Silence!” Odin snaps. “Move, boy!”
Thor steps aside, angry and confused.
“Your child is in sore need of patience,” Laufey rumbles, his red eyes sliding over a bristling Thor and back to Odin.
“You’re right,” Odin replies, voice calm. “These are the actions of a boy. Treat them as such. You and I can end this now, before there’s further bloodshed.”
“Yes,” Laufey says, his gaze flickering between the two of them. “We can. It has been a long time since you and I have spoken, Allfather. There is much to discuss.”
“Is there?” Odin asks.
“My Realm is dying,” Laufey says bluntly. “My people are dying. They have paid enough for my pride. I must have the Casket of Ancient Winters back.”
“That is a steep price for foolishness,” Odin says, tone mild, but body taut with tension. “You would risk war over the pride and vanity of a boy?”
“I would have peace,” Laufey intones, his voice rising in volume as the giants and Thor’s friends finally catch up to them, forming a silent and watchful crowd. “I would have a permanent peace with Asgard. We agreed a pact once, you and I. Vows were spoken.”
“And broken,” Odin says, “when you invaded Midgard.”
“Yes,” Laufey agrees, with no hint of remorse or regret. “But now I would make that pact again.”
“In exchange for the Casket?”
“It is not so high a bride-price, when the dowry is a peace to last the ages,” Laufey says.
Thor stiffens. Bride-price? Dowry? What is Laufey talking about? He cannot possibly think that Odin would let him marry a woman of Asgard – and how would such a thing affect the return of the Casket of Ancient Winters?
There is a long pause as Laufey and Odin stare at each other, expressions perfectly still. Thor, impatient, opens his mouth to speak, but a swift hand gesture from Odin changes his mind.
“I too want a true peace, Laufey-King,” Odin says slowly. “And I remember well our vow to wed my first-born son to a child of yours. But after today, I think we can both see that Thor would not be well-suited to one of your sons.” He gestures at the two Frost Giants closest to Laufey: the lean, scarred jotun who had insulted Thor, who scowls furiously, and a heavier, broader giant whose look of shocked horror mirrors Thor’s.
Thor cannot move, cannot think. No. It is – no. This is some strange diplomatic game, an exchange of veiled insults. Odin would never promise Thor to a Frost Giant. This is – this is – impossible.
Strangely, Laufey smiles at Odin’s polite refusal. “I do not mean Helblindi or Býleistr, Odin Allfather. I speak of my first-born, recently returned from Útgarðar.”
“Utgard?” Odin says, and there is a sudden, worrying interest in his voice.
“Loki!” Laufey calls, and there is a low murmuring among the surrounding giants. Thor casts a desperate glance at his friends, who are huddled close to Sleipnir, but their faces only reflect his own shock and confusion.
“Father,” comes a voice from behind Laufey, and as he steps aside to usher his son forward, Thor’s jaw drops.
Loki is like nothing Thor has ever seen.
He is obviously a jotun, with his red eyes, deep blue skin and raised lines, but he looks more like an Asgardian than any of the hulking warriors surrounding them. He looks tiny next to his father and brothers, but his eyes meet Thor’s and he realises he and Loki must be the same height. Loki is leaner than Thor, and has finer features, with high cheekbones and graceful hands. Thor had thought all Frost Giants naturally hairless, but he has long black hair, intricately braided, and unlike any of the others, even Laufey, he is ornamented, with bright emeralds and bronze chains woven into the braids. His skin looks softer than the others, and in contrast to Laufey and his other sons, Loki has no scarred badges of rank across his chest. Instead, he wears a thick golden torc adorned with yet more emeralds and precious gems, and small bands of encrusted and glittering gold circle his arms and legs. Even his clothing is different, made of a striking blackened leather tipped with gold, instead of the practical grey worn by the warriors.
Thor sucks in a breath. Loki is a bright and brilliant and shining jewel in this dark world. He is beautiful.
“An ividjur,” Odin says softly. “Of the Royal House.”
“A worthy match for the son of Odin,” Laufey says proudly, one huge hand gentle on Loki’s shoulder. Loki’s considering gaze slides over Thor’s skin, sweeping him from head to toe, a small smile playing on his lips. Thor swallows heavily.
He has heard, of course, of the ividjur, the jewels of Jotunheim; he knows the ribald songs and salacious tales told in every drinking-hall in Asgard, of the beauty and the allure of the jotun sorcerers, half the size of the Frost Giant warriors but twice as dangerous. Skilled in song and dance and magic, the old tales say, a night with an ividjur of Jotunheim is a prize beyond compare.
No. Thor shakes his head, and forces himself to think. Loki is Laufey’s son. He is a jotun and an ividjur. And that means he is neither man nor woman, and not even a warrior, but a sorcerer, a shapeshifter, a creature of foul magics and wickedness, who is probably using some kind of trickery to make Thor think of – well, the point is, he reminds himself firmly, is that there is no power in any of the realms that will make him marry a Frost Giant, however pleasingly formed.
“I see we do indeed have much to discuss,” Odin says at last. “And I will hear your words. But first I must return my son to Asgard to cool his head.”
And with that Thor’s confusion vanishes and his fury comes roaring back. How dare his father insult him so in front of Laufey and all his followers? He is no boy, but a mighty warrior, and he will be King of Asgard soon; how will he rule if all of Jotunheim remember him being scolded like an errant whelp?
He realises Loki is still looking at him and deliberately glares back, striving to look as imposing and threatening as he can. Loki only seems amused, eyebrows quirking, and Thor feels a fool. He takes a step forward as Odin and Laufey continue to talk, searching for some insult, some threat to wipe the smile off the princeling’s face.
But there is no time to act, for the Allfather raises Gungnir and as the roar of the Bifrost drags him away, Loki’s smile is the last thing he sees.
It is only when they arrive back in Asgard that Thor realises how angry his father actually is. Odin chases Heimdall and Thor’s friends from the Observatory with furious yells, and Thor does not blame them for fleeing the wrath of their king. But Odin is his father and his own anger swells within him as he turns on him.
“You stupid boy!” Odin shouts. “Do you have any idea what you did – what you could have started? You put the entire kingdom at risk – and the lives of your friends!”
“There won’t be a kingdom if we are afraid to act!” Thor shouts back. He has been spoiling for a fight ever since he saw the remains of the Frost Giants in the vault, and while this is not the one he wanted, he feels he must say his piece or explode. “The jotuns must learn to fear me, just as they once feared you.”
“That’s pride and vanity talking, not leadership,” Odin snaps. “Only a tyrant rules through fear. A true king rules through respect and admiration. You have forgotten everything I ever taught you.”
“The old ways are done. You’d stand giving speeches while Asgard falls.”
“You are a vain – greedy - cruel boy!” Odin roars.
“And you are an old man and a fool!” Thor bellows.
The sudden silence that follows is deafening.
“Yes,” Odin says quietly. “I was a fool to think you were ready.” He looks old and tired, Thor thinks, surprised, almost – almost like Laufey had, in that strange moment earlier. But Odin straightens up and it is Asgard’s King who stares down at Thor from the dais, not his weary and exasperated father.
“Thor. Odinson. You have betrayed the express command of your king. Through your arrogance and stupidity you have opened these peaceful realms and innocent lives to the horror and desolation of war.
“To think that on this day, that I have had wiser counsel and greater respect from my old enemy than from my only son! That Laufey-King would speak of peace while you – the Prince of Asgard – yapped and snarled like a dog before him!
“You are unworthy!” Odin snarls and with a wrenching moan Mjolnir leaps from her place at Thor’s side to his father’s hand. Thor is silent, cowed at last, for Mjolnir has heeded no call but his since he first laid hands on her, and yet now his father holds her and he does not know what Odin will do.
“I should banish you for your actions,” Odin continues furiously, “but I will not unleash your wilfulness and ignorance on yet another peaceful realm. You will go to your rooms and there you will stay until I decide what is to become of you.”
“Father!” Thor protests angrily, for he is no child, to be sent to bed without dinner, but Odin snarls wordlessly at him and he quickly subsides.
“Go. Now. Before I regret my clemency,” Odin growls. There are a thousand things Thor would scream at his father in this moment, but the loss of Mjolnir has shocked him enough that he can see the foolishness in further angering Asgard’s king. But he will not bow his head nor apologise, and so instead turns on his heel and stalks out of the Observatory, ignoring Heimdall’s carefully blank gaze as he passes him – only to be faced with a problem.
The horses he and his friends rode from the city are long gone, and only Sleipnir now waits on the bridge. Thor could not steal him for a mount even if he was feeling reckless enough to increase his father’s wrath, for none can mount the great warhorse but the Allfather. And yet, without a steed and without Mjolnir to take to the air with, Thor has no choice but to walk the long, long road back to the city and the palace of Idavollr. It will take him at least an hour on foot to reach his own rooms.
Behind him, he hears the whirring of the Observatory’s great machinery and catches the flicker of light in his peripheral vision as the Bifrost blazes into life again. It can only be his father returning to Jotunheim, for further discussion with Laufey.
Thor grits his teeth and starts walking.
The long walk talks the edge off his fury, and after a hot bath and sending a servant to assure himself that his friends are suffering no ill effects from Jotunheim or his father’s fury, Thor is finally feeling calmer, if not of any better temper. His own hall, Bilskirnir, feels cramped and suffocating and yet he dare not risk leaving it for the company and comfort of the great dining hall Vingolf. The palace servants have cleared away the table and feast he had destroyed earlier in the day and have quietly brought him another meal. He eats it alone and resists the urge to destroy yet more of his furniture.
He feels unbalanced without Mjolnir’s presence and his anger and frustration still simmer beneath the surface, but he is able to think more clearly now that the heat of battle has passed, and what he thinks is this: that he is on dangerous ground indeed. Laufey had spoken seriously of a marriage alliance between Thor and Loki, and terrifyingly, Odin had not dismissed it out of hand but had promised to hear Laufey’s words at a later time – which was no doubt what he had done.
Surely his father would not promise him to a Frost Giant, no matter how small? And he would never exchange the Casket of Ancient Winters, Jotunheim’s most dangerous weapon, for Laufey’s child as a bride for Thor?
No, Thor thinks, that could never be. This must be some scheme of his father’s, some design far beyond Thor’s understanding, as many of Odin’s plans are. Perhaps this is how his father means to punish him, by leaving him in suspense, imagining the horror of being wed to a jotun sorcerer, until Thor is humbled and afraid, begging for his father’s pardon?
Thor leans against a pillar and stares out over the city to where the darkened sky merges with the vast swirling clouds of Yggdrasil’s cosmic foliage. The silent beauty of Asgard holds no answers for him.
The more Thor thinks on it, the more certain he becomes. Odin is using this betrothal idea to trick Laufey into…something…while also keeping Thor in his place. But of course there will be no marriage, and so Thor has nothing to fear. Provided he understands his father correctly.
There is a muffled boom as Bilskinir’s golden doors swing open and Thor looks up as Frigga enters the room. He has never been more pleased to see her.
“Mother!” he says and rushes to her as she opens her arms for an embrace. No doubt she will have much to say about their disastrous day, but for a moment he closes his eyes and simply soaks up the sense of peace and love he always finds in her arms.
“My foolish boy,” she says fondly, but with a hint of censure.
Thor sighs. “Father -” he begins, but Frigga swiftly interrupts him.
“Your father has long since returned and told me everything. Such trouble you have found for yourself!”
Frigga motions for him to sit on the rising steps of the hall and perches gracefully beside him. She takes his hand before continuing. “We have spoken long together, about your actions and intentions, and about the reaction of Laufey-King to your…visit. You do understand how close we came to war because of what you did?”
Thor nods but keeps his peace.
“Luckily, it seems that Laufey-King is no more inclined to further war than your father, and seeks to ensure that the peace between our realms is not threatened. In truth, he goes further, for as you heard, he wishes to make a permanent alliance between Asgard and Jotunheim, by pledging his child Loki to you.”
Thor grimaces. Frigga looks at him intently and squeezes his hand.
“Your father spoke to Laufey-King at length about this proposal, and he and I have also discussed it. We feel that it is a unique opportunity to unite our worlds, and to build a peaceful future for all the realms.”
“You cannot be suggesting I actually marry a Frost Giant!” Thor blurts out, horrified by his mother’s calm and reasonable tone. His father’s threats are one thing, but this…this sounds too real a suggestion for his comfort.
“Jotunheim is dying,” Frigga says bluntly, her grip on Thor’s hand tightening. “They need the Casket to ensure their survival, not to mention repairing the damage done by the war. Laufey-King’s dreams of empire have been crushed by their long exile from the other realms, and I believe he is sincere in his desire to ally with us. But in order for your father to return the Casket, he must have an assurance that Laufey does not intend to war on weaker realms with it. By sending his firstborn to Asgard, Laufey is demonstrating that he truly wants only peace.”
“That is all well and good,” Thor says desperately, although he believes none of it. “But surely there is a better way to make peace with Jotunheim than marrying me to a jotun hostage!”
“You do not understand,” Frigga says softly. “Laufey is offering his greatest treasure to us in order to save his people. This Loki is a rare prize indeed: an ividjur of the Royal House, a Prince of Jotunheim as you are a Prince of Asgard. Were we to take him in simply as a hostage we would bring great shame to him, to Laufey and to Jotunheim. Sooner or later, that shame would erupt into resentment and yet more violence. But if he comes to us to be your consort, and to one day stand beside the throne of Asgard as I stand beside your father, then we do him the highest honour. And when he bears your children he will unite the two realms in eternal friendship, for it will be one of his brothers on the throne of Jotunheim after Laufey, and so, in time, our two houses will be not just allies but blood kin.”
“We took in Freyja as a hostage for Njord’s good behaviour in Vanaheim without any uprisings,” Thor argues. “We have made alliances with Nidavellir, Alfheim and Svartalfheim without any royal marriages!”
“We have alliances with Nidavellir and Svartalfheim because during the Great Wars they chose to submit without battle rather than face the armies of Asgard,” Frigga points out gently. “Njord fought and was conquered. As a consequence, your father chose to make Vanaheim a province of Asgard, and to make the Aesir and Vanir one people under his direct rule. Freyr went to Alfheim and Freyja came to Asgard to divide the royal family, to ensure that they could not try to take power again.”
“And we defeated Jotunheim!” Thor protests.
“But we did not conquer them. They are too fierce, too proud and too strong, even without the Casket, for us to make them unite with us through force. This marriage will do what a thousand years of warfare and treaties have not.”
“But Mother,” Thor says, and his voice has a frantic edge to it. “I cannot marry a monster! Not even for the good of the realm!”
“I understand that this idea is a shock to you, and that you had not thought to be married until you have been crowned king,” Frigga says sharply. “But Loki Laufeybarn is not a monster. He is a Prince and an ividjur of Jotunheim, and as such is worthy of your respect.”
“He is a Frost Giant! And a sorcerer! And not even a woman!” Thor bellows, fear and anger loosening his tongue. “They are all monsters, so twisted and deformed that their sorcerers can unman a warrior and even their warriors can be taken and bred like women! You cannot expect me to wed and bed such a creature!”
The crack of his mother’s palm against his cheek fills the room. Thor gapes at her, his face stinging, more shocked than hurt. His mother has not raised a hand to him since he was an unruly small boy.
“Thor Odinson, your father told me you had lost all sense today and I can see now he was right,” his mother hisses, furious. “I do not know where you have heard these things, but you will listen to me now. The jötnar are a hard and cold people, and have long been our most formidable enemy. But they are not monsters and I will not have that kind of talk in my home and from my son.”
“But nothing,” Frigga snaps. “Thor, I love you dearly, and as your mother I would never force you into a marriage you truly could not bear. But you have proven today that you are not yet the man your father and I thought you had become.”
That hurts, and Thor drops his gaze to the floor.
“We have not agreed to the betrothal,” Frigga says after a long moment of silence. “Only to consider it. But what we have agreed is for you to spend the next season in Jotunheim, as Laufey-King’s guest, to foster a better understanding between you and Loki. If at the end of that time you decide you cannot agree to the marriage then we will refuse it, although I do not know what better alliance we can make in its place.”
“You are banishing me to Jotunheim?” Thor asks, head snapping back up.
“Not banishing,” Frigga says, clearly exasperated. “We are sending you on a diplomatic tour. To try and undo the damage you did today.”
“And what will the Frost Giants do to undo what they did this day?” Thor growls. “Or are we to simply forget that they invaded the Vault?”
“Those that did so are dead. And as Laufey-King disavows all knowledge of their actions -”
Thor scoffs. His mother fixes him with the glare that silences even the Allfather and he quickly pretends to cough.
“As I was saying, Laufey-King’s willingness to have you as his guest, and as a suitor to his child, despite your attitude earlier, speaks more for his purpose than the misguided attempt of a few desperate individuals to take back the Casket,” she says firmly. “The betrothal aside, it will be of great benefit to you and to Laufey’s people for our realms to begin talks again.”
“And what if those ‘misguided individuals’ attack me?” Thor says angrily. “You would have me alone and defenceless in a strange land?”
“Oh, darling,” Frigga says, “you would not be alone. Heimdall will be watching, always, and would summon your father immediately if there was any treachery. And if any jötunn is foolish enough to raise a hand against you, then they will answer to Laufey-King, for the laws of hospitality are absolute, and the jötnar keep them far more stringently than we.” She pauses. “And truthfully, my son, I should think that you would welcome such an attack, and meet with it with joy, for I do not think you ‘defenceless’, even without Mjolnir.”
There is truth in that, and Thor makes no reply. He is so angry he can barely speak at all, but he has never spoken harshly to Frigga as he has with Odin, and he cannot bring himself to do so now. That is no doubt why she is here and not his father.
“I have no choice in the matter then,” he says at last.
“No,” Frigga says, with utter finality. “This is the command of your king and your queen. You will go to Jotunheim. You will act with the proper manners, dignity and honour that befit Asgard’s prince, and you will treat your hosts with the utmost respect. You will learn what you can about the realm and its people, and you will treat Loki Laufeybarn with courtesy and gentleness.” Her face softens and she reaches out to pat his hand gently. “And you will come home,” she says, “and we decide then – together – what will come of Laufey-King’s proposal.”
Thor can only nod, not trusting his words. Frigga sighs and then abruptly pulls him into a fierce hug. “This is for your own good, my son,” she says. “You know we would not do it otherwise.”
“Aye,” he murmurs, although he does not mean it, allowing himself to relax into his mother’s embrace. He hates to fight with her.
After a while she pulls back and stands, smoothing the front of her dress. “You have much to think on,” she says with a wry smile. “I will bid you good night. I am sure your friends would be glad to see you at breakfast tomorrow.”
Thor nods, understanding that this means he may leave his rooms in the morning. “Good night mother,” he says, forcing himself to smile. Frigga leans down and kisses him gently on the cheek before sweeping out the door.
It is late indeed, but Thor remains seated in his hall for a long while, thinking on how his coronation day, his greatest triumph, has turned to bitter ash and failure, and all because of the cursed Frost Giants.
Morning, bright and brittle: Thor wakes in not much of a better mood than when he finally dragged himself to bed. He can think of no clever argument to sway his parents’ minds, and since to flee from their command would be base cowardice, and to refuse it treason, he has resigned himself to his fate.
But the prospect of a season in Jotunheim, trapped in that savage realm with Laufey and his brutes for company, would be enough to depress the spirits of any man, and so he feels fully justified in unsettling the servants by scowling and muttering under his breath as he makes his way to Vingolf.
Sif, Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun are clustered anxiously at the breakfast table, talking quietly among themselves even though there is no-one else within earshot of the high table. His friends, at least, are overjoyed to see him, and desperate to know what has transpired between him and his father. He recounts his plight and is a little gratified at the outrage and horror they express on his behalf.
After the flurry of shock and wild promises to sneak into Jotunheim after him, they fall silent while they gather plates full of fruits, meats, cheeses and a whole flagon of small beer. It has been a troubling morning, after all. Thor continues to bemoan the unreasonable behaviour of his parents, starting first with their ridiculous underestimation of the dangers of Frost Giants and concluding with the unfairness of the arranged marriage.
“It is a great shame to be tied down to marriage so young,” Fandral says mournfully. Sif shoots him an unimpressed look.
“It certainly is a shock, since your father has never spoken of your marriage before,” she says diplomatically. “But Thor, really, you are Asgard’s only Prince. Of course your marriage would be a political match – or did you think you would simply meet a girl and ask for her hand?”
“No, of course not,” Thor replies irritably, for in truth he has not thought of it much at all. He had assumed that at some point, long after he was king, he would choose a daughter of one of his Lords, a noble lady of good breeding and fine countenance, and she would bear his sons and that would be that. He had imagined it, of course: a delicate and dainty maiden, with dark hair and a winning smile, who would make him laugh and who would not be afraid to argue with him, with a quick wit and a fierce intelligence, someone a little like Sif and a little like his mother; but these were idle daydreams, and he had never seriously looked to the ladies of the court with an eye to marriage.
“Marriage can be the making of a man,” Volstagg says reassuringly. “I am twice the man I was since I married Hildegund,” he adds, patting his stomach with a wink.
“I do not need yet more talk about the benefits of marrying Laufey’s brat,” Thor growls.
“Then think of the benefits of spending a season in Jotunheim,” Sif says, her patience with Thor’s sulking clearly wearing thin. “You have been talking about a new quest for months now, and if nothing else, Jotunheim will be an entirely new realm for you to explore.”
“Full of Frost Giants that I cannot smite,” Thor points out, for he will be constrained by the rules of hospitality.
“It is a rare opportunity to understand more about them,” Hogun offers sombrely.
“Yes,” Sif exclaims, brightening, “you will be able to assess their strengths, weaknesses -”
“And see if the rumours are true,” Fandral interjects, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.
“Rumours?” Thor asks, his mind full of possibilities. Why, he will be in the Royal Palace itself, the perfect place to observe their armies, weapons, tactics – and perhaps, if he plays the docile houseguest well enough, he might even find out what Laufey and his treacherous brood are really planning.
“Oh, come now,” Fandral says, grinning roguishly. “We’ve all heard stories of the, ah, unique anatomy of the Frost Giants and their accompanying...appetites. While I wouldn’t fancy one of the big ones, the sorcerers are supposed to be something else entirely. Bedding one would be the experience of a lifetime!”
Sif sighs pointedly, but Volstagg and Hogun are nodding along sagely.
“The little ones are all shapeshifters,” Fandral continues, eyes bright, “so they can be anything or anyone you want them to be. After all, Freyr’s wife, the Lady Gerda, is a jotun and a sorcerer, although you wouldn’t know it to look at her.”
“The Lady Gerda is a beauty beyond compare,” Volstagg muses, “present company and my lady wife excepted, of course.”
“And woman enough to keep even Lord Freyr at her side – and in her bed,” Fandral adds, clearly relishing the conversation. “Why, I once heard -”
“That is enough,” Thor says sharply. “The Lady Gerda aside, the Frost Giants are enemies of Asgard, no matter their size or appearance. And I have no intention of going through with this farce.”
“And if you act like that, then all of Jotunheim will know it, and you will learn nothing,” Sif points out. She is right, as usual, and Thor nods in reluctant acknowledgement. There is an awkward pause as they all consider the prospect of an angry Thor at a hostile Royal Court of Jotunheim.
“A season is not so long a time,” Volstagg says with forced cheer. “You will be back before you know it. And we will have a feast prepared in your honour!”
“You have a feast prepared every night, in honour of yourself,” Fandral teases, and Thor makes himself relax into the familiar banter of his friends. He will miss them sorely, but they are right: it is not forever and, if the Norns are kind, he may even learn something of use.
He lingers over breakfast as long as he can but must eventually say farewell to his friends; although the Allfather recognises their actions yesterday were born of loyalty to Thor, they still betrayed the command of their King and so have been duly punished with a full week of unpleasant menial tasks, beginning with helping to deliver the manure from the palace stables to Idunn’s orchards. The farewells are brief but poignant, for he has not been separated from them for more than a few days since he was judged a man and given Bilskinir and his own household.
Waiting for him in his hall is his mother. She has in her hands a large pack with a long strap and a small wrapped bundle. The bag is familiar: easily slung across his back or carried on his shoulder, its brown leather is well-worn, as soft as butter, and has been much abused, for Thor has taken it on every major excursion from the palace since he was a youth, whether hunt, quest or just a long jaunt in Vanaheim. Seeing it in his mother’s hands makes his impending departure suddenly and frighteningly real, and he hesitates.
Frigga smiles warmly and Thor recovers himself, moving forward to take the bag and then kiss her hand in greeting.
“I have a gift for you,” she says, and presses the small bundle into his hand. Thor unwraps it carefully and cannot help but smile: it is a Mjolnir pendant, a silver hammer finely wrought and decorated, suspended on a leather thong. From anyone else he might think it a taunt, a reminder of what he will not be taking to Jotunheim, but from his mother he knows it is a kindness, a symbol of all that is best in him, and what he will return home to when this is over.
“Thank you,” Thor says, relieved that his mother is no longer angry with him. “It will remind me of home while I am away.”
“Yes, but it is more than just a keepsake,” Frigga says. “Jotunheim is an unforgiving realm to those not born of it. Wear this always, and you will be protected from the cold and the ice.”
The pendant feels ordinary to his touch but he does not doubt it will prove enormously powerful. Although she uses it rarely in public, his mother’s magic is as formidable as the Lady Freyja’s, perhaps even the equal of the Allfather’s. Yet this is the first time his mother has crafted an amulet for him, for she has always taught him to rely on his own strength and wits rather than magical objects and the spells of others. Without Mjolnir, he will need her lessons in Jotunheim, as well as the warmth she has gifted him. He is touched that she has taken the time to enchant the hammer herself and grateful for her foresight, for it means he can pack more than just furs and cloaks for his journey.
“Have you thought about what clothes to take?” Frigga asks, following his thoughts with her uncanny intuition, and he shakes his head; given the choice he wears nothing but his armour, despite a wardrobe groaning with formalwear and luxurious outfits, and it is a point of longstanding contention between them. His mother tuts in fond disapproval and heads for his bedroom, wondering aloud how any son of hers could be so badly dressed at all times.
Frigga packs for him and he makes little effort to do any of it for himself, fetching and carrying as he is bid, as his mother frets about whether he should take the blue undershirt or the grey. Her efficient affection is a warm balm that soothes away the last of his residual fear: she will not leave him trapped on Jotunheim, nor exchange his happiness for the promise of peace. This is just another excursion, another penance to be served for displeasing his father. All will be well.
Packed and ready, the last thing she does is slip the enchanted pendant over his head and kiss him goodbye.
“Be good,” she admonishes, eyes twinkling, just as she did when he was a boy and about to face a long afternoon of weeding the palace’s extensive gardens after destroying a fountain in a playfight. “And if you can’t be good, be careful.”
“I will,” he promises, as he always did, and she pats him on the head – although she never used to have to stretch on her tiptoes to do so.
“You’ll be fine,” she says firmly. “Now get to the Bifrost. Your father’s waiting.”
Thor takes the long route to the Bifrost, luxuriating in the sights and sounds of the city, but all too soon he reaches Heimdall’s Observatory. The sight of his father waiting for him in full ceremonial armour, with Gungnir in one hand and Mjolnir in the other, is enough to dispel the good humour his mother had restored to him.
He dismounts in silence and walks the last few feet, passing an impassive Heimdall whose golden eyes are fixed on a tiny white dot amongst the vastness of the swirling dust clouds.
“I hope you understand the importance of this visit,” Odin says by way of greeting.
“Yes, father,” Thor replies tonelessly.
“This is not a punishment, but an opportunity.”
“Jotunheim will be strange to you, but I am certain Laufey will treat you well.”
“And you will treat Loki with all the respect due to him.”
Odin wheels round, temper flaring. “Ymir’s stones, boy -”
Thor faces him, unflinching and Odin visibly restrains himself. He stares at Thor for a long moment, searching for something, and at length he sighs, a deep, hollow sound. “Thor,” he says quietly. “You represent not only our House, but our entire Realm. Make me proud, son.”
“I will,” Thor replies, although he suspects he has a very different idea in mind for embodying the pride of Asgard than his father. Odin seems about to launch into yet another lecture, but Heimdall’s discreet cough diverts his attention.
“Laufey-King has set out,” Heimdall says and Odin nods.
“Let us go,” he says and they enter the chamber as the Bifrost comes alive around them.
As they arrive in the blistering cold of Jotunheim, the pendant at Thor’s neck seems to flare into life, a sudden burning heat at his throat. The sensation quickly spreads along his skin, almost too intense to bear, and he gasps involuntarily. As he does so, the burning fades and he blinks in surprise, for although the wind still tugs at his cloak and snow speckles his exposed face, he feels warm – as if he were still standing in Asgard’s golden sunshine. His mother’s spellcraft is powerful indeed.
Beside him, Odin holds out his hand, palm downwards and murmurs under his breath. There is a low reluctant groan and then slowly, very slowly, the ice begins to respond, a thick twisting pillar rising up from the ground until it just touches the Allfather’s fingertips. It is intensely disquieting to watch his father call and shape the ice and Thor does not know what to make of it.
Odin places Mjolnir on the newly-formed plinth; as he does so, the frost begins to creep over her, sealing her within the ice with only her shaft remaining free. Odin whispers to the hammer and she sings a deep, resonant note in return, her hidden carvings flaring in response to whatever command Odin has given her. Thor watches, envy a bitter taste in his mouth. He can still hear her singing but she will not answer him.
“Mjolnir will remain here for one Asgardian season,” Odin says. “At the end of that time, the ice will melt, and you will again be able to lift her. Heimdall will then open the Bifrost to you.
“But I would not leave you unprotected,” he continues, turning to Thor. “If you truly have need of her, Mjolnir will come to you. And she will be here to bring you home.”
“I – understand, father,” Thor manages, inwardly seething. Is his separation from Mjolnir not enough? Must he have to see it here, trapped in the ice of Jotunheim, while he counts down the days of his unwilling exile? He tries to comfort himself with the thought that no Frost Giant can lift her, no matter how strong, but it is a small comfort when, at the moment, he is not sure if he can take her from the ice by force either.
Odin seems less than pleased with his sour expression and lacklustre response, but there is no more time for recrimination, for Laufey and an honour guard of his warriors are approaching. As they come closer Thor can just make out the small figure of Loki at Laufey’s side, his jewellery glinting in the eerie light of Jotunheim.
The Frost Giants form a loose semicircle around the Bifrost site in complete silence. Neither Laufey nor any of his entourage so much as look at the newly formed pillar and the entombed hammer. Thor cannot help finding their stillness and quiet threatening; after all, this is supposed to be a joyful occasion, the arrival of a honourable suitor for their King’s firstborn. But there are no smiles, no signs of celebration. Do they resent the idea of this marriage as much as he does? he wonders sourly. Or are they simply incapable of feeling joy or any of the finer emotions?
Laufey and Odin are exchanging formal greetings that interest Thor not in the slightest, for fancy words will not bring your enemy to his knees. His attention is fixed, once again, on Loki, who is the only jotun smiling, although this time his gaze is not on Thor but on Mjolnir. He looks positively thrilled to see Thor’s hammer swallowed up by the ice.
“Welcome to Jotunheim, Thor Odinson,” Laufey intones at last and Thor tilts his face up to meet his flat gaze. “We are honoured by your presence as our guest.”
Thor would dearly like to hit something – or someone – but carefully restrains himself. “I am grateful for your hospitality,” he grinds out in a monotone. His father shoots him an irritated look but Laufey seems indifferent to his sullenness.
Thor had been expecting a long and formal presentation to the Frost Giants, or at least a recitation of the terms and reasons for this visit, but this short exchange seems to be all the ceremony there will be. Laufey inclines his head in a respectful nod to Odin, who returns the gesture, and just like that it is over, Laufey and his warriors striding away over the snow. He looks to his father, who places a heavy hand on his shoulder and squeezes tightly. Thor feels he should say something, but before he can think of an appropriate farewell Odin steps back, lifts Gungnir high and the shuddering brilliance of the Bifrost snatches him away. Thor is left alone in the frozen waste.
Or almost alone, for Loki is still there, watching and waiting.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Thor Odinson,” he says when Thor meets his eyes. “I am so looking forward to getting to know you better.”
Thor scowls at Loki’s open amusement and says nothing. “Shall we begin?” Loki prompts after a moment, his smile never slipping.
“Aye,” Thor says gruffly, for he has no choice, and he follows Loki and the shadow of the jotuns towards the high, jagged towers of the ruined palace, his steps slow and his heart heavy.