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Wild Ambition Fortune's Ice Prefers

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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 -”

“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.”

“Yes, father.”

“Jotunheim will be strange to you, but I am certain Laufey will treat you well.”

“Yes, father.”

“And you will treat Loki with all the respect due to him.”

“Yes, father.”

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.

Chapter Text

Loki’s first thought is that Laufey-King was right. Thor Odinson is a petulant child, playing at being a warrior.

His second thought is that his small trick has snared a far greater prize than he could ever have dreamed. It had been easy enough to find three young warriors, unblooded and dissatisfied, desperate for a chance at glory for Jötunheimr, and swear them to secrecy; it had been trickier to find a bitter Aesir willing to act as go-between and to help him open an old and meandering pathway into the heart of Ásgarðr, but it had all proved well worth the effort. He had harboured no illusions of bringing the Vetrformen, the Casket holding the heart of Jötunheimr, safely home from Odin’s vaults – yet – and so his plan had just been the beginning; a feint, a test only, of his skills, Ásgarðr’s defences, and most of all, the nature of the Allfather and his golden son.

And what a result for so small a sacrifice! The coronation halted, Ásgarðr’s Prince in disgrace and, best of all, proof of what all the realms were whispering, that Odin, that great grim warbringer, had grown tired and weary of battle, and sought now peace, for himself and all others - even at the price of his own son’s pride. To have the Odinson here, in Jötunheimr, brought low by his father and forced to pay unwilling court to Loki – it is an outcome that had never even crossed his mind when he first thought of how to sneak a few expendable pawns into Ásgarðr.

Ah, yes, the Odinson. When he had seen the rainbow bridge split the sky, Loki had hidden himself in the shadow of the Throne of Winter, wrapped in stillness and silence, and waited patiently to see what his mischief would bring. He had not been disappointed

The god of thunder moved with a tempest brewing under his skin, overflowing with the promise of destruction and death. Loki had taken one look at him, the taste of ozone on his lips, and sworn by all the ancestors that Thor Odinson would be his. He will cradle the storm in his hands until the time comes to fling its fury at his enemies and dance under rain-soaked skies as the lightning burns them away.

But first he needs to catch the golden prince, and then he needs to keep him. The open horror and disgust on the Odinson’s face at the thought of marrying Loki had only fuelled his excitement, the thought of bending and breaking so great a power to his will so sweet he could almost taste it.

He had felt his bera’s eyes on him as the Allfather and the furious Odinson returned home, but Laufey-King was far too wise to ask questions he would not want answered, or, more likely, already knew the answers to. Instead, he had only commanded that all his children make themselves scarce before the Allfather returned, as he meant to speak to his old adversary in absolute privacy. After so many victories in such quick succession, for once Loki had chosen not to chance his luck, and had nodded and obeyed, withdrawing to his own rooms to prepare for the task ahead.

Now, the Allfather has been and gone, and Loki is called to Laufey’s private quarters. He has not been in his bera’s rooms since he came of age and left for Útgarðar, yet little has changed. The bedchamber is as bleak and spartan as it has ever been, with only the huge low bed stretching across one wall of the room, an immense slab of black granite covered in thick pelts: the white and steel-grey of the hoarfen, the ice-wolves, haunters of the ironwood; the spotted rosettes of the snærgrisnir, the huge hunters of the steppes, and plush snowy furs from the multitude of smaller creatures that flourish in the biting cold of Jötunheimr.

Laufey-King is sitting atop the furs, leaning against the wall with his eyes closed as Loki enters. He keeps them closed as Loki approaches, a sign of trust few earn from this most watchful of Kings.

“Bera,” Loki says, stopping at the foot of the bed. The immense slab of stone is nearly twenty foot long and just as wide, but stands only three foot high.

“My eldbarn,” Laufey replies, eyes still closed. His voice is slow and deep, calm and controlled. “My firstborn, my treasure, my little falcon. I have sold you to the Allfather.”

“Did you get a good price?” Loki asks, stepping carefully onto the bed and padding over to seat himself beside Laufey, mirroring his position.

“Mmm. The return of the Vetrformen. Peace between our realms. The promise of an heir of my blood on the throne of Ásgarðr.”

“And?”

“And, little one?” Laufey shifts and open his eyes to look down at Loki. “Do you think your value so high?”

“Of course,” Loki replies carelessly and Laufey smiles.

“For you to hold the throne in the absence of your husband once Thor Odinson is King. Betrothal gifts from the young Prince to you, worthy of your status and mine. A renegotiation of the old trade agreements, once the wedding has taken place.”

“Recognition of the throne?” Loki asks, for this has always been the fear in his bera’s heart, that the Allfather meant to take the throne and cast the ancient line of the Ice-Kings down, to make of them vassal lords and Jötunheimr a mere province of Ásgarðr’s empire.

Yes,” Laufey says, and the word throbs around the room. “There will always be a King in the Konungsgarðr.”

“Then it is a very good price,” Loki says thoughtfully. After a thousand years of struggle and sacrifice it is a great victory for Laufey-King, and one he has no intention of thwarting, for it ties neatly into his own plans.

Laufey places his hand gently on Loki’s back. He is always careful with Loki, has been so all his life, always cradling his tiny firstborn as if he were something fragile, something breakable. He is wrong, but Loki has never been able to prove it to him.

“Speak,” Laufey says, his fingertips rubbing soothing circles into Loki’s back. “I would hear your thoughts now, before your sibja arrive.”

“I think we will have everything we want,” he says honestly. It is always best to start with a small truth and build the lies upon it. “We need the Vetrformen, and this way, we shall have it without the bloodshed of another war. My presence in Ásgarðr will satisfy the Allfather that you are safe to be trusted with it, and I will ensure that when Thor-Prince becomes Thor-King he will keep his father’s peace. Jötunheimr will lose another íviðja, but with the return of the Vetrformen, more should be born; I will be lost to Ásgarðr, but that is a small thing against the gains to be won.”

“That is the heart of it,” Laufey says. “But it all rests on you. You saw the Odinson today; he is a brash young brute, and will be set against this match. The Allfather intends to send him here tomorrow, to live with us for a season, to see how he fares with you. The Aesir are a sentimental people and not even Odin Spearbreaker will order his child to marry someone he despises.”

“But you would,” Loki says, and it is not a question. Laufey’s hand stills.

“You know I have never thought much of their custom of marriage,” Laufey says, chewing on the word as if it were a piece of spoiled meat. “As if merely saying words could make two strangers lovers and not so much meat bought and sold. But since their menfolk cannot bear children, they must own someone who can, and that gives us an advantage. The only one we have left to us. But I am not so much a fool to think I could order you to do anything you did not wish to do.”

“Yet you have given your word to the Allfather that you will give me to his son.”

“I have,” Laufey says, and there is no regret in him, even though to a jötunn to break one’s given word is an unforgivable sin. He is a King of a broken land and a shattered people, and has always been more a king than a caregiver; this is his nature, as implacable as the encroaching ice. “As your King, I ask that you do this, for me and for your people. You must marry Thor Odinson and you must bear him a child.”

“I will,” Loki promises easily, and he fully intends to, though not for his King and certainly not for his people. But Laufey is not finished.

“As your bera, I ask a different question,” he says, and shifts his hands to grip Loki by the shoulders, turning him so they are face to face. “Can you own him?” he asks, quietly, his eyes intense. “Can you break him to your will and make him yours? Will you be safe with him, far from the ice and the snow and the strength of your kyn?”

“Oh, yes,” Loki hisses and Laufey smiles his cold, cruel smile.

“Then I will not fear for you, my little falcon,” he says, running his thumb along the lines on Loki’s face, the markings of the Ríkikyn, the royal line. “I will send you to shine so prettily in the halls of the robber-king that the Aesir fools will fall over themselves admiring your beauty and forget your strength, until you cut them to pieces with your talons.”

Loki smiles back and makes a sharp, high keening noise of assent; Laufey gives a series of low rumbling grunt in response, signalling his pride in his firstborn. There is little sentiment in the line of Laufey, and much is unsaid between barn and bera, child and parent, but there is great respect and he has never once doubted his bera’s esteem for his wits and his skills.

But their moment of closeness does not last long; there is the sound of two heavy treads approaching, and Laufey turns from Loki to his other children.

“Helblindi, Býleistr, come, sit,” Laufey says, and Loki’s younger sibja settle themselves on the bed. It is a tight fit for three full grown hrimthursar and an íviðja, especially as Laufey and Helblindi are tall even for jötnar, and Býleistr is immensely broad and muscled.

“What news?” asks Helblindi, as impatient as ever even in the presence of the King. Quick to anger and quicker yet to violence, Helblindi seethes with barely-controlled resentment, nursing his grudges and endlessly honing his ice-blade in readiness for the day when he can strike at the Aesir he loathes, no matter what his King says. That said King is his bera and has doted on him since the day of his birth makes no difference to the proud, battle-scarred warrior, who rewards Laufey’s favour with barely-concealed irritation. Tonight is no different, as Laufey motions for his secondborn to sit closer and more comfortably and is refused sharply.

In contrast, despite his great size, Býleistr is the shyest and most gentle of Laufey’s children, although any who have been on the receiving end of his ice-maces would not use those words to describe him. Slow to anger, except in defence of his kyn, many have made the mistake of underestimating the youngest of Laufey’s children, but Jötunheimr is no place for the weak, and once roused, Býleistr is as implacable his elders. In the presence of his bera and his sibja though, he is as meek as a pup, and seats himself close to Loki, carefully folding himself into as small a space as possible.

“I have made an alliance with the Allfather,” Laufey says without preamble, watching them all keenly. “I have promised Loki to his son and heir, and in return, the Allfather has promised to return to us the Vetrformen.”

Býleistr gasps, his hands instinctively flickering towards Loki, as to pull him into a protective embrace. Loki scowls at him and he rumbles an apology.

Helblindi’s hands are clenched and his body stiff with tension. “Why?”

“Why?” Laufey echoes, tone flat. “For peace between our realms.”

“Peace?” Helblindi sneers. “With the Spearbreaker? The Aesir will not keep their word. Better to take the Vetrformen, in war or by stealth. The Allfather is grown old. If he came against us again, this time we would not be broken.”

“And if he sends his son? Who would have killed you earlier, given but a few moments more?”

“He would have tried,” Helblindi says, lips curling to reveal his sharp teeth, filed to pointed fangs. “And he may try again. But I will spit him on my blade and gut him like a fish. I do not fear the old wolf, nor his pup.”

“And what of the pack?” Laufey asks harshly. “We have suffered for a thousand years while the Aesir have grown fat on their spoils. Their armour is strong and their spears long. A second war would go no more in our favour than the first.”

“You do not know that.”

“No,” Laufey allows, “but even if we were to defeat the Asgardians, a war would only further harm our people. Where is the advantage in fighting for the Vetrformen, when the Allfather is willing to give it to us?”

“In exchange for our eldsibb!” Býleistr blurts out. “Bera, you cannot sell him, not even for the Vetrformen! We all saw what the Thunderer wants with the jötnar today. Who knows what he would do to Loki, alone and unprotected in Ásgarðr?”

“I do not need protection,” Loki starts furiously, for he is just as formidable as his kyn, though they will not see it, but Helblindi interrupts as if Loki were not there at all.

“It is a good trade, the Silvertongue for the Vetrformen. We will find another to take his place as the next Lawspeaker.” Helblindi does not so much as look at Loki, his attention fixed wholly on their bera. “But there is more to this alliance than just that. There will be oaths spoken, agreements made. We will be forbidden to raid the other realms and denied access to Midgard. The Allfather would not have it otherwise.”

“Small concessions, and ones likely to change in time, when the Odinson comes to the throne with Loki at his side.”

“They are insults,” Helblindi snarls, “and no insult should be ignored.”

“What would you do, were you King?” Laufey asks calmly, unmoved by Helblindi’s temper.

“Agree to the betrothal, but make no other oath. The Aesir love their spectacles; they will want us to pay court to them in their golden hall, to make a great show of the binding of the Silvertongue and the Odinson. We should wait until the Allfather hands over the Vetrformen and then attack. Destroy the Allfather, his wife and his son, and then escape while Ásgarðr is in disarray. With the House of Odin fallen, Ásgarðr will not be able to secure itself, much less strike against us. All the realms would be in upheaval, and we could take what we want!”

“This is your council? War and death?”

“My council is victory!” Helblindi bellows, the stone bed vibrating with the power of his voice. “Death to those who defeated us! An end to our shame!” He pounds the bed with a fist as he shouts. “Wipe the memory of your failure from the memories of all the outworlders and have them shudder in fear at the mention of our name! Glory and honour and power for Jötunheimr as the greatest of all realms!”

Teeth bared and flushed with anger, Helblindi’s formal deference has completely vanished; now he has risen to his knees and looms over the seated Laufey.

“You are a fool,” Laufey says coldly, “and you know nothing of war. My failure was to choose my pride over my people. You will not be a King until you understand that.”

 “You are a broken King!” Helblindi screams. “And if you will not lead our people back to greatness, I will!”

Laufey roars, the sound filling the room, and lunges forward, grabbing Helblindi by the throat and throwing him down. Helblindi kicks and claws but Laufey is older, stronger and far more experienced, and he pins his furious child with ease, tightening his grip around his throat until Helblindi is gasping and choking, his thrashing becoming more and more feeble until he eventually submits. Laufey slowly releases his hold, his eyes on Helblindi’s face, watching for any further attack, but Helblindi lies still, chest heaving, mottled bruising already staining his throat.

“I am your King,” Laufey says, low and threatening. “You will obey me.”

“You are my King,” Helblindi gasps hoarsely. “And I obey.”

Laufey moves back and turns his gaze to Býleistr, frozen in shock, and Loki, watching intently. The Ice-King stares at them until their own gazes drop – Býleistr first, who lowers his whole head, dropping his chin to his chest in submission. Loki merely dips his head, eyes flicking down and then back up, a gesture of respect. Laufey casts another look over Helblindi, but his secondborn has not moved and remains flat on his back, neck exposed. Laufey grunts in approval and settles himself back in his seated position.

“The Odinson will be our guest for a season, beginning tomorrow. He will be treated with honour and respect and he will not be harmed.” Laufey’s voice is steady and his breathing even, as if nothing has happened. “I have given my word. You will give me yours.”

“You have my word,” Býleistr responds immediately, although he looks unhappy. “I will treat the Odinson with respect and honour, and I will not harm him. This I swear.”

“I will not harm him,” Loki echoes. “And I will treat him with all due…courtesy.” Laufey fixes him with a look and Loki sighs. There is to be no wriggling out of it then. “This I swear,” he adds dutifully.

Helblindi is still panting raggedly, eyes fixed on the ceiling. “I will not harm the Odinson,” he says between breaths. “This I swear.”

Laufey grunts again, and Helblindi rolls to his side and smoothly to his feet. He kneels before Laufey, the very picture of dutiful obedience, and Laufey’s face softens as he raises his hand to his child’s face, rubbing his thumb over Helblindi’s lines just as he had with Loki’s.

Býleistr keens softly and Laufey motions him closer, raising his other hand to Býleistr’s face, rumbling his approval for both his warrior children in a rare moment of closeness.

Loki rolls his eyes. As ever, Laufey is blind to the danger the battle-hungry Helblindi poses, and has allowed his secondborn to only make half the oath Býleistr and Loki have sworn. And Býleistr, for all his strength and size, has sat back and made only one token protest in the entirety of the conversation, all too happy to simply go along with the decisions of his elders.

Neither are worthy of the Throne of Winter, Loki thinks contemptuously. They may resemble their bera more closely than Loki, and they may be warriors as Laufey is a warrior, but he is the one has all Laufey’s wits and cunning and more besides. Yet they are the heirs to the throne, and Loki is not, for only a hrimthurs can become King. Loki’s path was mapped out the day he was born, tiny and delicate in the bloodied hand of the embattled King. He was to be the Āsegas, the Lawspeaker, advisor and strategist for whichever of his sibja is elected King by the Víssmót after Laufey’s death.

But it matters not, Loki thinks, as Laufey releases his sibja and dismisses them all for the night. For that was all before he found the forgotten treaties, the drafts and negotiations of a marriage between Odin’s firstborn and whichever of Laufey’s children would be most suitable, written before the war which changed everything for Jötunheimr. In those dusty scrolls he saw a different future, a chance to be more than his kyn would have him be. To prove himself not just a jewel, beautiful and rare, but the greatest of Laufey’s children, for in that Helblindi spoke true: no matter what the means, victory is all.

Tomorrow the Odinson returns to Jötunheimr and Loki’s keeping. He has his own plans and has always walked his own path; all he has to do now is win the heart of the fair prince and all the power of Ásgarðr and the storm will be his.

In the privacy of his bedchamber Loki curls into his soft furs and laughs and laughs and laughs.

***

For all his earlier sound and fury, on his return the Odinson makes for a surprisingly docile houseguest. The Odinson sat sullen but compliant at Laufey’s right hand for the welcome feast, keeping his behaviour safely within the limits of proper guesthood. Loki, on Laufey's left, was denied the opportunity to properly take the measure of his soon-to-be-betrothed, but learnt things of value nonetheless.

One, that Thor Odinson had no concept of the danger he is in, taking the seat of highest honour from Helblindi without pause, assuming it as his due without ceremony. Better to have crowed over it, better to have been delighted by it, for that Helblindi would have understood, but to take it with neither posturing nor gladness, ah, that insult his grim brother will neither forget nor forgive.

Two, that although he said the right words of thanks, Odin’s son wanted desperately to be anywhere but the Great Hall of Konungsgarðr and was utterly incapable of hiding it. He picked morosely at his food and spoke little, and it did not go unnoticed by the assembled jötnar of the court.

Three, that the Aesir is not quite the brute he seemed when he marched into Jötunheimr to start a war. Now he is here as a guest he seems to have remembered he is a Prince and that he speaks not just for himself, but for all of Ásgarðr; he may not be as charming as the tales say, but he is capable of good sense and self-restraint, if not good cheer, in company he clearly resents. That complicates matters a little, Loki thinks, for a careless oaf would be easier to bait and break, but it bodes well for the long run. It would be unpleasant indeed to spend the next season playing the paramour to a witless cretin.

However, the Odinson’s good manners only lasted so long. He left the feast as early as he could, not quite an insult but certainly not the wisest course, and has remained holed up in the chambers given to him ever since. Loki had let him be through the evening and the night, and did not try to entice him to breakfast this morning either. Best to give the Aesir time to lick his wounds, he had reasoned, and then present himself as an unthreatening, pleasant companion in the strange world of Jötunheimr.

So after his breakfast Loki chose a convenient window ledge and perched on it, ready at a moment’s notice to jump down and be oh-so-casually passing by when the Odinson ventured out of his room. But he has waited and waited, eyes fixed on the door to the guestchamber, and now the day is half gone.

The Odinson looks a creature of simple appetites and Loki is confident in his skills. But all of his plans and all of his schemes will come to naught if the damned fool stays in his room for the entire season. Perhaps the Aesir so spoil their Prince that he expects his meals to be brought to him in bed? He has heard much talk of the servants in Ásgarðr, and while the hrimthursar liked to scoff at those who needed a helping hand to get their own food, clean their own quarters and no doubt wipe their own arses, Loki will admit to rather favouring the idea of not having to perform such dull tasks.

Well, sitting and staring at a closed door is a dull task indeed, and one he has had his fill of. Loki drops from his perch, landing silently, and with one last look at the door pads off towards the hall. There, he fills a slate trencher with the catch brought to the palace early that morning: fresh mackerel, crystalline icefish and artistically curling squid tentacles. He arranges them on a bed of crispy crimson druse, red seaweed from the kelp forests, and despite the lateness of the morning, deftly uncovers three albatross eggs as well as a hunk of cheese. The great soapstone cauldron in the centre of the room is still half-full of thick whey cream, liberally flavoured with hjörth blood and kept hot by the volcanic waters bubbling from the well underneath. He ladles it into a deep bone cup, hissing slightly as the heat stings his fingers. He is not particularly fond of this slightly sour concoction, more drink than food, but it is a great favourite of the warriors before and after training, and if nothing else, the warmth of it should please the Odinson.

Neither of his sibja are about to question what Laufey’s firstborn is doing collecting a second breakfast and bearing it out of the proper eating-place, and none of the hrimthursar scattered about would dare ask him, but he can feel their curious gazes on him as he processes through the heart of the palace to the guestrooms. But the ways of the íviðja are always strange to the hrimthurs, and Loki long ago learnt to ignore the sidelong glances of his bera’s court. Still, it is a relief to take the sloping passage to the small rooms set aside for himself and the Odinson, away from prying eyes a good head above his own.

The Odinson’s door is still firmly shut and Loki’s hands are full and his patience thin, so he simply walks straight up to it and kicks, hard. The door grinds in its hinges, but does not move. So he has locked it, Loki thinks, amused. The stone locks are a sop to the pride of guests, no more, for the House of Winter would never bar its own, and he could force his way in in the blink of an eye. But he is no enemy, and so he swiftly kicks again, and again, so that the grinding and booming sound more like knocks than an attempt to break into the room.

There is a pause and then the distinctive noise of the bar being drawn back. Loki takes a deep breath and slips into his role for the day.

“Good morning, Thor Odinson,” Loki says brightly. “I have brought you breakfast. The hall is crowded this morning, and I thought you might prefer to eat here.”

The Odinson is fully dressed and smells clean, so he has clearly not slept through the morning, but holed himself up in his rooms out of spite or sullenness. He has the grace to look abashed at forcing a king’s child to bring him food, but his eyes are wary as he opens the door wide enough for Loki to enter.

“Thank you,” he says, stiffly, and after a beat, “I would be honoured if you would join me.”

“I would like that, yes,” Loki replies. As if he had any intention of leaving!

The Odinson eyes the food Loki brought without much enthusiasm, but he sits down to eat without complaint. He eats slowly, with no signs of enjoyment, and doesn’t even touch the generous helping of druse Loki gathered for him, nor the eel chunks. It is on the tip of Loki’s tongue to ask if he fears poison or is simply ungrateful, but he restrains himself. He must make a friend of this Aesir before he can make him a husband, and he does not yet know him well enough to bait with impunity. The Odinson seems particularly confused by the whey drink, but he does drink it all, wrapping his hands tightly around the cup, no doubt for the lingering warmth.

“I had thought to take you on a tour of the palace today,” Loki says when it becomes apparent the Odinson will not be making any conversation. “Is there anywhere in particular you would like to see?”

“The training grounds,” is the immediate reply. Loki is not surprised.

“My sibja, Helblindi and Býleistr, are there now. Shall we go and watch them once you have finished eating?” he says, watching the Odinson’s eyes light up for the first time since he arrived.

Despite his obvious indifference, Loki takes the Odinson to the training grounds via a long and winding route, threading their way through the ruined palace. He is careful to avoid the weapons and treasure vaults, and skirts the triple-doored Council Room where Laufey-King, Nedra-Lawspeaker and the Jarls’ representatives are no doubt debating the terms of Odin’s peace. Instead, he points out the remains of the library, the healing hall, the handful of state rooms that still have their decorative carvings intact.

It has been a thousand years since the demands of war ravaged the once-soaring towers, their elegant spires torn apart as desperate warrior-adepts called the ice to their hands and bodies as armour and weapons. The worst of the damage is from the removal of the Vetrformen, the heart of Jötunheimr; when the Casket left the realm, the wards and spells that had been lovingly bound into every stone of the palace had suddenly ceased to be, and the resulting shockwave tore a gaping hole through ice and rock and earth alike.

Another King might have tried to repair the damage, to shore up the crumbling ruins and rebuild in the desolate spaces, though to do so without the Casket’s power would be a poor effort indeed. But Laufey-King has chosen instead to dwell within the wreckage of his attempt to bring glory to Jötunheimr, and does so with pride, flaunting the battle-scars of his land as testament to the fortitude and resolve of his House.

What the Odinson makes of it all, Loki could not say. He barely looks about him, seemingly unmoved by his father’s destruction of what had once been a soaring structure, built on a scale grand even for the tallest jötunn, its geometric lines carved from black basalt and enhanced by the living ice, shaped and illuminated by the Casket’s power. Perhaps this is all he expects from Jötunheimr: ruin and decay, a land shamed and broken. If so, Loki will enjoy proving him wrong.

It is well past the middle of the day when they reach the barracks of the palace, and the training courtyard is full of grunting warriors, sparring, training and exercising. Loki scans the group, looking for his sibja: Býleistr is engaged in a small-scale wargame, leading a small cohort in an attempt to wrest a sealskin flag from a tight-knit group of defenders. There is much shouting and exchange of friendly insults between the teams, and from the loose group of spectators who seem to be encouraging as much as heckling. It takes him a few more moments to spot Helblindi, despite his height, for the elder of his younger siblings is surrounded by advancing warriors and seems to be demonstrating how an individual can best defend against a group to the wide-eyed younglings at his back.

Unlike the hirð of the Jarls, whose warriors only gather in times of war, and otherwise spend their days as herders and hunters, the hirðverr of Konungsgarðr are warriors and only warriors, dedicated to the defence and service of Jötunheimr. It is a great honour to be chosen for their ranks, and at every midyear celebration hundreds of eager youths spend all day battling each other for the chance to be named to their number. Once accepted, they leave behind their kyn and lands, to live in Konungsgarðr and learn how to best serve their king.

That is half the draw, for some; it is the hirðverr who are always at Laufey’s side, day and night, and if one is strong and fair and pleasing enough, there is always the chance of being called to his bed. And if their luck is truly great, they might even have him take the seed of a child from them. It is well known that Býleistr’s own geta was a hirðverr, and while of course he has no claim on the young heir, it is no small thing to say he was once the king’s sváss.

Helblindi and Býleistr are both hirðverr, as was Laufey before he came to the throne. Despite their royal status, they are expected to train and cook and serve alongside their fellow warriors, and wear no adornments to set them apart from all the others. Yet, inevitably, once they were fully trained and blooded, the other hirðverr began to defer to them, and there is a definite split between those who follow the stern and harsh Helblindi and those who prefer Býleistr’s easy charm.

Loki thinks that, by and large, they are all great fools who would do well to train their minds half as much as their blade-arms, most particularly his younger siblings. But if nothing else, they do make an impressive spectacle: half a hundred huge warriors, all dressed in their simple kjalta and little else, a sea of deep blue flesh and flashing ice-blades filling the huge open space in ever-moving eddies and flurries.

He sneaks a glance at the Odinson, whose gaze is fixed on the warriors, a slight frown twisting his features. Loki would dearly like to know how the training of the hirðverr compares to that of the Einherjar, Odin’s shining dogs of war, but he will get no answer but bravado if he asks. Instead, he looks about until he spots a grizzled older fighter, his kynlines almost obliterated by the profusion of scars that cover his arms, chest and face – although his back is smooth and unmarked, save for the sweeping curls of the Hymirkyn and a rough diamond where a spear once punched clear through his shoulder blade.

“Agmundr-Ellri,” Loki calls, and the old warrior turns. Agmundr is a veteran of the Great War with Ásgarðr, and of a multitude of skirmishes and border disputes before that. He gave up his place as a hirðverr just over a century ago, and although he has long since left Laufey-King’s bed, he still has the ear of the King. Every day he comes to watch the training of the new recruits, and although he has no formal role, there is no-one more respected as a general and battle strategist. Even Helblindi confers with him, and if anyone had not heard the whispers that Agmundr was Býleistr’s geta, it would be easy enough to guess from the way the youngest of Laufey’s children seeks out the attention of the Ellri at every opportunity.

“Silvertongue,” Agmundr says in greeting, with a respectful tilt of his head. “And good day to you, Odinson.” If he has any particular feelings about welcoming the son of the man who maimed him with a spear, they do not show on his face. “It is an honour to have you here with us.”

“The honour is mine,” the Odinson replies and for once, he sounds like he means it. “Are these your men?” he asks, openly curious. Agmundr flicks his gaze to Loki, looking for guidance, and Loki gives a shallow nod. Heimdall will undoubtedly see all that the Odinson sees and besides, the strength of the hirðverr is well known to the Allfather; hiding it from his son will achieve nothing.

“These are the hirðverr, the personal warriors of Laufey-King,” Agmundr explains. “I was once of the hirðverr, but no longer. Now I serve as an advisor to my King, and, in a small way, to Helblindi-Öthlingr and Býleistr-Öthlingr. And to Loki Silvertongue, should he ever need advising,” he adds and Loki smiles.

The Odinson still looks slightly confused, but Loki is beginning to think this is just his natural expression. He has heard much of the Odinson’s strength and bravery and prowess in battle but no-one had ever praised his wits. “They are like the Einherjar of Ásgarðr,” Loki says helpfully. “The greatest of our warriors from all of Jötunheimr.”

They watch the training in silence for a moment. The battle for the sealskin flag is intensifying; it has already been wrenched from its original owner and then wrestled back, and is looking distinctly tattered. Býleistr is bellowing a war-cry, rallying his attackers, the low sound spreading through the stone and ice to vibrate under their feet. Agmundr cannot help but grunt in response, a single deep note, and he crosses his arms to keep himself still. Thor looks from the veteran at his side where Býleistr is straining against the holder of the flag, and it is impossible not to see the resemblance between the two, for where Helblindi is tall and rangy, like Laufey, Býleistr takes much more strongly after Agmundr, with his thick stature, broad shoulders and bull-like neck.

The question is obviously on the Odinson’s lips, and Agmundr stiffens. The Odinson hesitates for a moment.

“The Einherjar train in full armour, to improve their strength and stamina,” he says instead. “And when I trained alongside them, I also wore my armour. Is there a reason the hirðverr train without it?”

Loki is impressed, despite himself: he had been expecting a blunt question and an extremely awkward conversation. There is no shame in proclaiming oneself geta to another’s child, especially a child of Laufey’s, but outworlders usually have little understanding that for jötnar, geta and bera are not the same as father and mother, and tend to ask prurient or insulting questions. That in itself is not a cause for concern, for such questions can be answered or rebuffed as one chooses, but for a Prince of Ásgarðr to ask such things of the geta of an Öthlingr of Jötunheimr, with his own future consort present, within hearing of the  hirðverr and half the court...that is a different thing entirely. But the Odinson seems to have grasped the problem without prompting and has avoided it, however clumsily. He is a Prince, after all, Loki reminds himself, and must be no stranger to diplomacy, however ill-suited for it he may be.

The danger past, Agmundr relaxes a little. “The hirðverr wear no armour or robes, for their skill is their shield and their strength their pride,” he says proudly. “They wear no ornaments or badges of rank, for their glory is in their deeds and their names. Their only weapon is the ice, the life and breath of Jötunheimr herself, and like the ice, they are both shield and sword for the King and all of the jötnar.”

It is a speech Loki has heard many times, for it is almost word for word the one Laufey makes when the new recruits are accepted. He watched as Laufey spoke these words to both his younger siblings, and saw the pride in his bera’s face as both shouted their response, pledging themselves as the fighting heart of Jötunheimr.

There was no such ceremony for him, no proud words or formal presentation. An íviðja cannot become a hirðverr, no matter how well they fight, for the jewels of Jötunheimr are rare and precious, too valuable to be placed in the front line. The íviðja have always had a place on the battlefield, but their strength is in seidr and strategy, not sword and shield. Their skills are honed in the gloom of the Ironwood, not the open arena of the training yard. And in truth, though it is little spoken of, it would be unthinkable for an íviðja to commit to the hirðverr and so waste the best of their breeding years in battle.

“They are truly impressive,” the Odinson says, his open honesty cutting across Loki’s bitter musings. “How young do they start their training?”

Agmundr answers at length, always happy to lecture on his favourite subject, and the unlikely pair are soon embroiled in discussions of tactics and organisation. Loki listens with half an ear, just in case, but while Agmundr is more than willing to engage with the Aesir Prince, he is too canny to give away anything that Odin would not already know from the long years of war. Still, it is reassuring to see one of Jötunheimr’s most respected elders so at ease with the Odinson, and their relaxed conversation does not go unnoticed by the warriors of the hirðverr or the assembled onlookers.

But all too soon, they also attract the attention of Loki’s sibja. Býleistr approaches first: he has the tattered remains of the flag in one hand and brings it to Agmundr like a puppy with a stick. But before he can even greet them properly, Helblindi catches sight of the Odinson and abandons his training, stalking away from his surprised sparring-partner with a single-minded determination. Loki braces himself, sketching a few quick runes with his fingers, calling up his seidr for swiftness and defence.

“Odinson,” Helblindi barks as he draws near. The Aesir looks at him, momentarily puzzled, but his expression soon hardens as he recognises him.

“Helblindi,” he says flatly, just within the limits of politeness. “I was just saying to Agmundr that the hirdverr are most impressive. I have never seen anything like them.”

“The hirðverr are the greatest fighters in all the realms,” Helblindi corrects him arrogantly. “We need no shells to hide behind in battle, nor dead tools to wield. True warriors face the enemy with only their own strength and skill.”

The Odinson stares at him, seemingly shocked by Helblindi’s blatant rudeness. This is what comes of half an oath, Loki thinks irritably. Helblindi breaks no guestlaw by bragging of their own glory, and so far his insult to the Aesir is only implied. A red flush is creeping up the Odinson’s neck as he holds his temper and his tongue in check. But Loki’s sibja is not yet done.

“They say the Aesir dress themselves in fancy words as well as shells of gold,” Helblindi continues. “I have heard much prattling of what an Aesir needs to call himself a great warrior.”

“The Seven Virtues,” the Odinson says from behind gritted teeth. “Truth, honour, perseverance, hospitality -”

“Well,” Helblindi says, cutting him off, “you will find that in Jötunheimr, we praise only one virtue in our warriors.” He steps forward, looming over the Odinson, forcing him to crane his head back and expose his neck to meet his gaze.

“Victory.”

The Odinson locks gazes with Helblindi and Loki readies himself with a blinding spell and a cloak of shadows to draw over them should they need to flee. Amusing as it would be, he cannot let Helblindi provoke the Aesir to a fight, for any bloodshed, no matter how brief, would bring Laufey and Odin’s wrath down upon them all and likely ruin the alliance for good. But it is not the Aesir’s fists that he answers with.

“I have never lost a battle,” the Odinson boasts, uncowed by the ten foot plus of hostile hrimthurs towering over him. “I have fought and defeated the treacherous Fafnir, ravening bilgesnipe and hordes of trolls; beneath my hammer have fallen the spawn of Nidhogg, restless draugr, great serpents of the deep -”

“But never a jötunn. Never a warrior of the hirðverr. You brag of overpowering beasts and broken things, but even this you did only with the aid of the star-hammer, never with your own two hands. You would not last a heartbeat against a real foe.”

“Like you?” Thor asks fearlessly. “I have heard no tales of your deeds, Helblindi of Jotunheim. The skalds of other realms do not sing of your glorious victories.”

“I care nothing for the squawking of outworlders,” Helblindi snarls, anger lowering his voice to a deep rumble. “I am Helblindi of the Ríkikyn, Öthlingr of the First House of Winter, born of Laufey, born of Brimir, born of Bergelmir, born of Þrúðgelmir, firstborn of Aurgelmir, He That Made What Is.”

“I am Thor, Prince of Asgard, son of Odin and heir to the throne of the Realm Eternal,” Thor counters, voice rising. “And I will meet any challenge – with or without Mjolnir.”

There is a long pause as the two stare at each other, their hatred almost tangible in the sudden silence. The assembled jötnar wait with baited breath to see who will strike first, for surely violence is inevitable, no matter what Laufey-King has said. Agmundr and Býleistr are practically vibrating with tension, waiting for the first sign of movement so they can leap in and separate the two, but they will not interfere until it happens, Agmundr because he will not shame an Öthlingr of the Ríkikyn, and Býleistr because he will not lay hands on his eldsibb until he must. What the might of the hirðverr behind them would so, Loki is not sure, for they have little love for the House of Odin, and yet they cannot defy the word of their King.

So, once again, it is left to Loki to find a different path.

“While it would be glorious indeed to see two such mighty warriors spar together, I must regretfully ask you to postpone your contest,” he says silkily, slipping from Thor’s side to stand facing the pair of them, forcing them to turn their gazes from each  other to him. “Tomorrow we travel to Thrymstaðr, and it is a long and wearisome journey. To make it more so with scrapes and bruises earned in friendly practice would be very...unwise.”

Helblindi curls his lip in a sneer at Loki’s words, but the unsubtle message has got through. Agmundr steps away and quickly herds the muttering hirðverr away from the Ríkikyn, driving them out of the training yard and towards the baths, save for a few bold stragglers who linger at the edge of the yard, trying to look unobtrusive and failing.

“What business have you in Thrymstaðr?” Býleistr asks, leaping at the chance to redirect the conversation.

“I mean to show the Odinson more of Jötunheimr than just the palace,” Loki replies. “Thrymr-Jarl has been gracious enough to arrange a Fjallmáttr hunt, in honour of the Odinson’s visit.”  Or at least, he will be willing enough to do so, once I get a message to him. “He has new hounds to blood, and with Skadi away, asks me to lead the rituals of the hunt. From Thrymstaðr we will travel on to Útgarðar, and then perhaps to the outlying islands.”

“A pleasure-tour of the northlands?” Helblindi says contemptuously. “Trust an íviðja to think of such a thing. You have never contributed anything of real worth to Jötunheimr.”

“It is true that I do not spend all of my time practising how best to beat someone over the head,” Loki says, grinning mirthlessly, “but there is more to our people than our weapons, and more to Jötunheimr than war. If we are to have peace, we must understand each other better. And besides, this may be the last time I have the opportunity to visit the northern Staðr before leaving for Ásgarðr.”

Býleistr makes a muffled noise that sounds suspiciously like a whimper, but Helblindi just stares down at Loki, mouth twisted.

“The last time for you to get your claws into Thrymr-Jarl before you become the Aesir’s bedmate, you mean,” he says harshly. “Well, it is what you are good for. Bedding and breeding.”

Loki would dearly like to cut Helblindi’s tongue out and feed it to him, to teach him some respect and to silence him forever, but Laufey-King would never forgive him for it. Perhaps he should have let the Odinson fight him...but without his famed hammer, he would have a hard time against Helblindi. His sibb’s arrogance is not entirely misplaced, and Loki has no faith in his promise not to harm Odin’s son.

They appear to have reached a stalemate again. His sibb’s talent for driving all conversations towards a physical confrontation is not to be underestimated. But playing peacemaker to his warring sibja is something that Býleistr is used to, and this time he does step in, laying one hand lightly on Helblindi’s arm.

“Yes, well,” he says awkwardly, “it is growing late. Our eldsibb and the Odinson will be leaving early in the morning, and I am sure they will want their rest. I don’t know about you, but I could do with a bath before the evening meal. What do you say?”

“I am done here,” Helblindi says in response, utterly incapable of retiring with grace. He does not even offer a farewell to Loki and the Odinson, but simply turns on his heel and stalks off.

Býleistr shoots them an apologetic look and hurries after him, but Helblindi dismisses him with more sharp words. Býleistr doesn’t harry him, but turns instead to the watching warriors, who might have been out of earshot for the last of it, but could not possibly miss the tension between Laufey’s children and the Aesir. This is where Býleistr does excel: within moments he is laughing, slapping his friends on the back, no doubt providing an amusing story that paints the vicious infighting as mere banter, hot tempered but of no import.

But the Odinson is still staring after Helblindi, his hand clenching and unclenching, searching for a weapon that is simply not there. He will not let go of his rage so easily.

“Odinson -” Loki begins, wondering how to undo the damage his idiot sibb has done.

“Why do you keep calling me that?” the Aesir snaps, head whipping round as he redirects his ire towards Loki. “Is that all I am to you people? Odin’s son?”

Ah. So he too is a son who longs to step from his father’s shadow. It is a shame indeed he and Helblindi have provoked each other so; they have more in common than either would like to admit. But what a strange thing to finally prick his temper! Well, better to talk of names than Helblindi’s slurs.

 “My apologies,” Loki says smoothly, striving to sound as sorry as he can. “For both my sibb and my own poor words. I meant only to honour you as Ásgarðr’s heir, the shining Prince of the House of Odin. What would you have us call you?”

Loki is familiar with Aesir titles from his research, and he knows that Prince is the Aesir equivalent of Jötunheimr’s Öthlingr, although whereas an Öthlingr is any member of the Ríkikyn eligible for the Throne, a Prince must be the son or brother of the King. He himself may not be an Öthlingr, because he is an íviðja, but by Aesir terms he would still be a Prince, and so he and Thor Odinson are equals in honour and status.

Yet neither he nor his bera nor sibja have called the Aesir ‘Thor’, for to do so without invitation would presume familiarity and after that disastrous first encounter, Laufey had impressed on them the importance of not antagonising the Aesir Prince further. He had made much of the honour of his father’s house, so Laufey-King had judged it best to afford him the honour of ‘Odinson’ rather than ‘Thor-Prince’...but it seems even this has cause offence.

“I don’t know,” Thor snaps, turning away from Loki. “But no-one has said my name since I arrived here. I feel like a prize stallion with all this talk of bloodlines and breeding.”

Does that make me your broodmare? It is becoming harder and harder for Loki to keep control of his own temper, to play the simpering consort when he longs to retort with a barb or insult. Does the fool not see how hard Loki is working to make him welcome here? What does he think would have happened if Loki had not agreed to be sold for the Casket?

But he must stay calm, must play the long game. Displays of temper will not serve him here. You people. None of the hrimthurs are so eager for war that they will call Odin’s son ‘Thor’, as if he were just another Aesir of no rank. Would Thor-Prince soothe his ego? Or Thor Thunderer, as if he were an íviðja like Loki, his title earned by his skill? He cannot afford to misstep, for there have been more than enough insults today.

What does the Aesir want? Loki wonders, watching his scowl deepen. No self-respecting jötnar will ever call him ‘your highness’ or any of the flowery names the Aesir are so fond of. One’s deeds speak for themselves, and if they do not, pretty titles will bring no honour. One name serves for almost all of the jötnar, for who needs to name themselves such-and-such’s child when their House and kyn can be read in the lines on their bodies? Only those of special status are given another: the King, the Öthlingr, and the Jarls, and those like Agmundr, who have proven themselves above and beyond and so are named Ellri, Elder, those worthy of following.

Loki’s fixed smile is more a grimace, but the Odinson is not paying enough attention to him to notice. Instead, he has shifted his attention to Býleistr, who is roughhousing with his friends at the other end of the yard. He looks resentful and unhappy and –

Homesick. Loki moves a little closer, as unobtrusively as he can, and yes, there are a few tears pricking at the Odinson’s eyes. The Aesir are far more open with their emotions than most jötnar, and Loki knows enough of their culture to know that tears are no sign of weakness with them. It is not fear that moves the thunderer but sorrow. Loki had paid little attention to the four Asgardians that had accompanied the Odinson, but now he thinks on it, they must be close companions indeed for them to risk the Allfather’s wrath and follow their impetuous Prince. He misses his friends and kin, Loki thinks wonderingly, and has no hesitation in showing it.

It is a weakness and an opportunity, and Loki has no compunction in exploiting both.

“Thor,” he says, and the Prince’s attention snaps back to him instantly. Loki smiles, and this one is genuine. “I too know what it is like to be sent far from the home you know, and to be surrounded by strangers.” Thor looks faintly suspicious but he is listening and so Loki continues. “I was sent to Útgarðar, to be schooled in magic, when I was but a child. It was a terrible shock to me, to be parted from my bera, my sibja, everything I knew...but it became much easier once I found a friend, someone I could trust.”

Loki curls his hand around Thor’s and the Aesir jerks sharply, though whether at the intimacy of the contact or simply the chill of Loki’s flesh, he cannot say.

“We have not chosen this path, you and I,” he lies, looking earnestly into Thor’s strange blue eyes. “Our Kings have pushed us together and we have had no say in it. I understand your anger, and I know well that you do not want me for a consort. But I would be your friend, Thor, if nothing else. At least for the time you must be here, with me.”

Thor looks at him intently, and his struggle is writ plain on his face. He is wary, but he wants to believe Loki, and that is half the battle.

“I do not know you well enough to call you friend,” he says at last. “But I will call you Loki, and you shall call me Thor. Let others talk of us as if we were no more than our titles and our father’s playthings. We shall treat with other as men at least.”

I am no man, Loki thinks, but he makes nothing of it. Thor slips his hand free from Loki’s grasp but does not move away; instead, he grasps Loki firmly by the elbow. It is a strange gesture to Loki, but it clearly means something to the Aesir, so he mirrors the grip and sees a smile bloom on Thor’s face.

“Well met, Loki,” Thor says gravely. Loki hides his amusement and responds in kind, the very picture of seriousness.

“Come,” Loki says softly once the posturing is done, victory sweet on his tongue. “I have something to show you that may please you more than my sibb’s poor manners.”

***

Loki leads Thor towards the mountains, threading his way through the courtyards and ice-gardens until they reach a large circular space backed against a sheer rock wall. In the centre of the clearing is a huge black dome and scattered around it are the remains of six great buildings, now reduced to a few walls and heaps of stone. A basalt wall marks this space as separate from the rest of Konungsgarðr, but what is truly strange is that the immense courtyard is entirely free of ice. The ground beneath their feet is a vast sheet of black stone, rough but even, and slightly warm to the touch, for below is a vast thermal lake, bubbling with the heat of the heart of the planet. This is the Gestrhof, the Guest Hall, the space set aside for the heat-loving outworlders who came to trade and learn and feast with the jötnar in the days before the War.

Once, the ruined stumps had been the Six Spires of the Smallfolk, each one a tower designed and built to house visitors from the other realms in their own preferred notions of comfort: a golden hall for the Aesir; an artificial house of green and growing life for the Vanir; a hollow hill for the Ljósálfar; a soaring tower for the Svartálfar; a stone fort for the Dvergar, and even a mead-hall for the maðr of Miðgarðr, though few ever made use of it. The Six Spires had ringed the dome of Theyjatjörn, all drawing on the rising heat of the underground pools to create a miniature world of light and heat for those ill-suited to the chill of the icelands. But since Jötunheimr had been exiled from her sister-realms and the Casket stolen, it had taken all of their strength to simply survive, and without the constant renewing of their wards and spells, these microcosms of the other worlds had flickered and died, and their stony shells had been savaged by the jealous wind.

Yet Theyjatjörn itself remains as it has always been, shaped by the skill of the best of the Vanir seidkona and Jötunheimr’s íviðjur: a great domed rock, shaped like a beehive, its surface covered in the arching lines and swirls of the Royal House. Within is a natural hot pool, the thick stone walls of the mineral dome keeping the central chamber a warm and protected space no matter what the weather outside. Two tall rune-inscribed monoliths mark the entrance to the access tunnel, carved from bare rock. It is through this passage that Loki leads Thor, the light growing ever more dim as they move into the heart of the dome, until it opens out into the huge central chamber.

The walkways and passages are wide enough and tall enough to allow a hrimthurs to enter, but the shelves for belongings and steps offering access to the water reveal who this place was built for, for they are sized for the smallfolk who would appreciate the pool’s warmth and the íviðja who alone of the jötnar can withstand true heat. In the gloom Loki can tell the dark waters from the stone pathways easily, but when he stops Thor bumps into him with a curse, and he remembers how poor the Aesir’s vision is without light.

Loki kneels to touch the quartz crystal embedded in the wall beside him. Bright blue light flares into life at his fingertips and flashes around the interior of the dome, rippling through the seam of quartz that run all the way around the room at the waterline before spreading downwards to illuminate the depth of the thermal pool. Thin tendrils of light branch upwards from the quartz seam and spread along the cracks and contours of the rock, forming the ghost of an intricate tree. The rippling of the pool’s waters casts flickering reflections across the branches, giving the impression of azure leaves swaying across the stone. It is an echo of Yggdrasil, picked out in shimmering light.

There is an audible intake of breath behind him. He looks over his shoulder at Thor, who stands amazed, the blue light dancing over his surprised features as he gazes around him.

“I take it you had not thought to find such beauty on Jötunheimr?” Loki asks archly.

“Not like this,” he replies, both awe-struck and oblivious to Loki’s barb.

Perfect, Loki thinks, and stands fluidly. He sweeps his hair up high and uses one of the looser chains to bind it into a long tail. The light catches on his gold and gemstones, throwing flickers of green across the room and he can feel Thor’s eyes on him. Slowly, deliberately, he begins to remove his arm-rings and ankle-bracelets, his bangles and the great torc around his neck, placing them carefully on the stone shelves cut into the wall. Lastly, he loosens his kjalta and steps out of it, bending over to retrieve it from the floor.

The Odinson swallows loudly. Loki smiles to himself but does not turn around; instead, he steels himself and steps forward, descending the stone steps into the heat of the pool. He is told that to outworlders the pool is merely warm, but to him it feels almost unbearably hot, and he opens his mouth to pant a little as the heat spreads through him. The steps take him down to an artificial shelf, where the water comes to his waist; there is a long submerged bench here, and if he sat, the water would rise to his neck. But he wades forward until he reaches the edge of the shelf and then steps off, striking out to the far side of the pool, nothing but the vast illuminated depths beneath him. Now he turns, bobbing in the bright water, his hair a thick, wet rope swirling around him, and looks on Thor.

The thunderer is transfixed, a faint blush staining his fair cheeks, and even with his armour on Loki can see the stirring of his desire.

“Will you not join me?” Loki calls, his voice echoing slightly overhead. “Surely you can swim?”

“I can swim,” Thor replies, struggling to keep his eyes on Loki’s face. “But -”

“I promise not to drown you,” Loki interrupts, bringing his feet up and splashing a little. “And the water is very warm.”

Thor hesitates but steps closer, dropping to a crouch to trail his fingers in the water.

“So it is,” he says, surprised. “Is this sorcery?”

“Is everything you do not understand ‘sorcery’?” Loki wonders aloud, tipping his head back and closing his eyes.

Thor huffs a little but makes no comment, and after a few moments Loki hears the unmistakable sounds of armour being unclasped. Loki opens his eyes and finds Thor has turned his back to undress. Well, the view is pleasing still, and Loki watches avidly as more pale Aesir flesh is revealed.

He is well built, even by jötnar standards, broad and strong, the muscle sliding under his skin as he moves. Loki is relieved to see he is not entirely covered in blonde hair, as he has heard some Aesir men are, for while he would have pressed ahead regardless, he cannot say he finds the thought of a heavily furred mate appealing.

Loki knows his own tastes well, and ever have they run to the exotic, the rare and the new. He has had his fill of huge hrimthursar warriors, has stretched and grown his own body to match theirs and then, more carefully, bedded and been bedded in his present shape and size. He has had his fellow íviðja, in every shape and permutation they could manage, and they have tried so many, based on old books and garbled tales, and he has enjoyed it all. But this is the first time he has seen a true Aesir naked and as he looks on Thor, gold and fair, he allows himself to know that wants, oh, how he wants, simply for the joy of having.

The thunderer turns, naked except for his pendant, and descends into the pool completely without shame. He makes no attempt to cover his manhood, almost identical to Loki’s own cock in shape, although of course he has those curious bulges of skin hanging where his cunt should be. He wades out into the water until he reaches the edge of the shelf and there he waits patiently. Clearly, having decided on a course of action, Thor Odinson commits wholeheartedly: this is something Loki can approve of, he thinks, as he swims back to the shallows.

Loki finds his feet on the stone and stands in front of Thor, close enough to touch. He can see now that the Aesir is in fact covered with hair, just as the rumours say, a fine fuzz like the covering on the smuggled peach he tasted when he was a child. He raises a hand and slowly, gently, runs one finger along the Thor’s forearm. The muscle is hard, taut with tension, but the hair and the skin are soft and warm. Loki strokes back and forth, fascinated by the way the hair reacts to his touch.

Thor remains still, but his face and throat are flushed and Loki can almost feel the energy thrumming within him, barely restrained. He wants more than anything to release it, to have the thunderer turn on him with all the fury and passion he’d shown on the training ground, and he thinks that if he pushed, if he tried to take, the Odinson’s limited patience would snap. But the aftermath would likely undo all his work today in gaining Thor’s trust. The long game is a safer bet – but Loki would not be Loki if he did not chance a little whenever he has an opportunity.

He reaches out and touches the hammer pendant around Thor’s neck.

“This is a powerful charm,” he says quietly, Thor leaning in slightly to hear him.

“A gift from my mother,” Thor says. To keep me safe from you and your kin is the unspoken answer. Loki hums in reply, sliding one hand beneath the hammer and placing his other palm flat on top of it. He can feel the power singing within it; the Queen of Ásgarðr is a powerful seidkona indeed, and a mother’s love is a talisman no other magic can touch. Thor is well protected from the cold and ice of Jötunheimr and from the withering touch of her children. But it will not keep him safe from Loki.

Loki releases the pendant and steps closer again, his hands sliding over Thor’s collarbones and down to his chest.

“If you were mine,” Loki says softly, intimately, his palms flat against Thor’s chest, “you would not need to wear such a charm, for I would bind us with blood and sweat and seed. I would make a cloak of spells and cast it about your shoulders to keep you safe from harm; I would paint runes on your skin with my breath and tongue to keep you young and strong forever. If you were mine, Thor Odinson, you would find a welcome in my flesh the likes of which you have never known. I would be your safe haven and your battlefield, your willing conquest and your loving conqueror. I would teach you the joy of sweet surrender, but only to me. If you were mine.”

The thunderer breathing quickens and this close, Loki can feel his swelling cock brush lightly against his thigh. Thor’s blue eyes are almost black and when Loki licks his lips, they track the movement. Loki leans forward a little more, and begins to slide one hand down Thor’s chest, trailing his fingertips along the defined muscles, tapping out an irregular rhythm over his hipbones. But as he reaches lower Thor suddenly grabs his wrists. His grip is tight and he forces both of Loki’s hands back to his own side.

“I am not yours,” Thor says, low and dangerous, but the warning in his voice is all for himself. Loki waits a beat and shrugs, exhaling a sigh as he moves away, leaving Thor breathing raggedly behind him.

“It is a pity,” he says offhandly, as if it meant nothing at all, as if this is not merely the first trap he will set for this mighty warrior. “But I respect your choice. We are friends, after all.”

Thor is silent, suspicion and desire and warring on his face. Loki turns away and wades to the steps to the pool, taking his time in climbing out, feeling Thor’s eyes on his wet skin. He stretches languidly and makes a show of wringing the water from his hair until he finds a loose gem in the tangled mess of his braids and jewellery. He kneels with his back to Thor and the pool, and then casually lets the gem fall into the water as he plays at fixing his hair, as if it has just this moment worked loose.

The small splash attracts Thor’s attention, and he moves forward, ducking his head under the water to retrieve it. Loki smiles prettily over his shoulder as Thor offers it up to him.

“Thank you,” he says, pulling the long tail of his hair forward to expose the back of his neck, something that always excited the hrimthursar he has taken to his bed.

Thor sighs and rubs a hand over his face. “You are trying to seduce me,” he says accusingly, as if this is a failing on Loki’s part.

“Am I?” Loki says in mock-surprise, one hand fluttering to his chest.

“Friends do not mock each other,” Thor growls, but he sounds more exasperated than angry.

“But they do tease,” Loki counters, grinning at him unrepentantly. “What’s the harm in a little mischief?”

Thor has no answer to that, but instead of scowling he laughs, the pleasant sound breaking the heavy unspoken tension.

“You are a wretch,” he says without malice, looking relaxed at last. “Do not think I will fall for your schemes.”

“I would not dream of it,” Loki lies blatantly and Thor laughs again.

Loki stands fluidly and runs his hands over his body, calling up a latticework of ice that entwines over his hands and up his arms, the ice absorbing the water on his skin and cooling him in the process. He is desperately hot from his immersion in the pool but will not show his exhaustion, for it would spoil the effect of his seduction.

Thor watches, clearly fascinated by Loki’s nakedness despite his earlier rebuttal. Loki teases him a little more, twisting just enough for Thor to be able to glimpse his half-hard cock, but deliberately keeping his thighs pressed together. He does not know yet how Thor will react to jötnar anatomy, for he until he spreads his legs he looks enough like an Aesir man to almost pass as one, and it may be that it is his similarity to Thor’s people that attracts him. If so, that is something he can manage, but it is not yet the time to find out.

Once dry and blissfully cooler, he slips on his kjalta and refastens his torc, conscious always of Thor watching from the water. Fully dressed, he turns back to the pool and smiles.

“Tomorrow, we ride for Thrymstaðr. It would be best, I think, for us to take our meal in our rooms, that we might retire to bed early.” And avoid Helblindi as much as possible. “Are you hungry?”

“Aye,” Thor says, rising from the water. Loki cocks his head and appraises Thor openly for a few long moments, admiring the sheen of the water on his golden skin. Thor crosses his arms and smirks, confident but not inviting. Oh, Loki likes this brazen, stubborn Prince, but will this prove a blessing or a curse?

Questions for another day and Loki has teased enough. He turns and reaches into a storage alcove, pulling out the large fur throw he had placed there yesterday. He hands it to Thor, who murmurs thanks and towels himself dry with it, a curiously wasteful procedure, for although the Aesir dries enough to dress, the fur is left sopping wet. Loki holds out a hand for the damp throw and quickly dries it by calling the excess water to his palm to form an ice jug. He uses the point of his loose gemstone to scratch bind-runes for permanence and containment into its surface and then dips it in the pool, collecting as much warm water as he can.

“For you, in the morning,” he explains to the curious Thor, who seems fascinated by the simple spellwork keeping the ice-jug solid without chilling its contents. “We shall stop by the kitchens and gather a platter rather than wait for the meal to be served in the Great Hall, and then I shall bid you good night.”

“Thank you, Loki,” Thor says, smiling as he takes the jug and extra fur throw from Loki. The bath seems to have improved his mood greatly, and he has taken Loki’s little game in stride. It is a very good start.  

Loki brushes his fingers over the quartz gem as they leave and the light flickers out, leaving them in darkness. As he stands, Thor reaches out for him and silently lays one hand on his shoulder. Loki makes no comment, but as he leads Thor along the winding path, the thunderer’s broad palm is a hot and heavy weight on his skin, and it remains there even as they step into the light.

 

Chapter Text

This is not what Thor expected when Loki said ‘ride to Thrymstaðr’. But then, nothing in Jotunheim has been what Thor expected, least of all Loki. Still, he thinks, a little warning would have been nice.

The...thing...in front of him is enormous. It is at least eighteen feet at the shoulder with hugely powerful arms, a broad barrel chest and a blunt head with strange bony protrusions either side of its fanged mouth, almost like mandibles. It has a thick, leathery hide, a dull grey colour, with pebble-like nodules across its back and shoulder, and its piggy, blood-red eyes make it seem malicious and brutal. Its long spiked tail and powerful claws only add to its savagery.

They want him to ride it.

Reins have been attached to the creature, wrapped tightly around the mandible-like cheek protrusions and passing through a ring attached to a thick collar. There is no saddle, but at the top of the collar, across the monster’s thick neck, the leather collar has been widened and a cushion of furs lashed to it. Býleistr had sat astride the creature’s neck, his legs tucked behind its cheeks, keeping his balance with an ease born of long practice. But Býleistr is almost twice Thor’s size.

Everything here is too big. There is a rising tide of frustration in Thor, a sullen and lingering anger he has never felt before. He has always had an explosive temper, but his fury is like the storm: it builds, it booms and it passes, leaving him at peace with himself. But he has been off-balance ever since he arrived in Jotunheim and his usual good cheer is nowhere to be found.

He is tired of feeling like a child, only half the size of most of the jötnar, every chair and table just oversized enough to make him feel a fool, legs dangling and arms awkwardly resting on the edge. Walking through the palace yesterday he had been dwarfed by the soaring halls and corridors; of course, Asgard is built on just as grand a scale but at home the huge public spaces give way to smaller, cosier rooms with benches to recline on and fires to gather round. Here, the only space that is actually built for his size is his bedroom, and that is sparse enough: a low bed, a few shelves at waist height and a large chest with a heavy lock.

He had stowed his travelling bag inside it rather than unpack, and he hates that too, that he needs to keep his things hidden and safe for he cannot trust that the conniving Frost Giants will not steal something of value. Granted, he has been treated well so far, bar the outrageous arrogance of Helblindi, but he is all too aware of the undercurrents of hostility and unease whenever he is in the presence of the hrimthurs.

That is another difficulty for him: he is lonely and helpless, utterly reliant on the kindness of the strangers he is with, and the Frost Giants do not strike him as a merciful folk. It has only been a day and already he is sick of ice and snow, of fish and seaweed and other slimy things of the deep; sick of being an honoured guest that no-one really wants to be there.

Except Loki. He has offered friendship to Thor and Thor desperately needs a friend and guide. But can he trust this son of Laufey? His seduction in the pool had been blatant and yes, alluring; Thor will not deny that the Prince is beautiful and seeing him naked and openly interested had stirred Thor’s own desire. His words are just as fair and so far he has proved a true and faithful friend, for he had stepped in to try and help Thor when Helblindi had been so provoking, and it was clear that there was no love lost between the two. But Thor does not know what in his mind, much less his heart, and he cannot forget that this welcoming stranger is, as far as their parents and peoples are concerned, his future consort. How can Thor be his friend if he is to reject him at the end of the season?

For now though, he is the only person in Jotunheim who seems to welcome Thor’s presence and have any care for his comfort. It had been Loki’s plan for the two of them to leave on this tour, which he insists will please Thor more than the confines of the palace. Thor can see the wisdom in removing the both of them from daily contact with Helblindi, though he mislikes that they might be thought to be fleeing as if they were afraid. Helblindi had not been present when they took their leave of Laufey-King, and Thor can only hope he is in disgrace somewhere – but he did not feel he could ask. He can only nod and go along with what Loki and Laufey agree, for he knows near to nothing of the ways of the jötnar and yet must do his best to uphold the honour of Asgard.

Mistrust, frustration and helplessness are not feelings Thor is comfortable with. But he cannot see how anything will change, no matter where he is taken in this inhospitable world.

A snort from the huge creature in front drags his attention back to the scene before him, and the imminent prospect of having to climb aboard it. Býleistr is rubbing its flattened face affectionately, crooning gently to the hulking beast, which is making a rhythmic rumbling sound in return that Thor can feel vibrating in his teeth. He cannot bring himself to call it a purr. He has seen many strange creatures in his travels, but never anything quite like this monster. It would make a more than worthy foe to meet with Mjolnir, but as a beast of burden...

“You spoil her,” Loki says beside him. “She’s getting fat.”

“Snarfari is not fat,” Býleistr says with great dignity. “She just hasn’t shed her winter weight yet.”

“It’s nearly summer,” Loki points out, “and you have been riding her every other day. She is overweight. She’s nearly as big as a male and she’s getting twice as lazy.”

“It’s all muscle.” Býleistr insists, scratching Snarfari under the chin, her huge tongue lolling out in pleasure. “She may not be the fastest but she has the stamina for the longer trips. And she’s not lazy. All the Íssdýr hibernate in the ice when they’re not put to work.”

“Yes, but the last time the Pride were allowed to hunt she stayed behind with Digri, and then the pair of them bullied their way through her sisters to the kill! She needs to be kept lean and hungry,” Loki scolds.

“She’s not a huntress!” Býleistr says. “You’ll be glad of her extra padding after a few hours, believe me. You don’t ride often, Loki, and I doubt the Odinson has much experience of mounts this size. You want to go charging about the southern Staðr, I’ll get you one of her sisters. You want a smooth ride all the way to Thrymstaðr, you go with Snarfari. Trust me.”

“When it comes to the Íssdýr, I really have no choice, do I?” Loki sighs. Býleistr beams.

“She’s my best girl,” he says, slapping her on the flanks. “She’s a sweetheart.”

Thor eyes the drooling monster doubtfully. She looks a brute to him, but he will admit to a certain excitement at the thought of having a beast of that size under his control.

“Come and meet her,” Býleistr urges. “Don’t worry, she’s never smelt an Aesir before. She was born after the war.”

Thor had not even considered that, and he suddenly remembers the wilder tales from his youth, of the Frost Giants’ ravenous hordes and their hunger for Aesir flesh. He has long since dismissed them as stories to scare children with, but perhaps they were born from creatures like these.  Perhaps this is a ploy, a trick, a carefully staged ‘unfortunate accident’. Perhaps Býleistr is no more trustworthy than Helblindi, merely cannier in his hatred for Asgardians.

Still, he is Thor, Prince of Asgard, and fears no monster, no matter how huge, so he moves closer.

As he approaches the pair, the huge creature swings its head towards him, nostrils flaring and grimacing peculiarly. Relies on smell, Thor thinks, instinctively assessing it, and probably hearing, since those tiny eyes spread so far apart on its face probably don’t give true binocular vision. A night hunter? Or, given that Jotunheim is a dark, featureless wasteland, perhaps it just doesn’t need to see well to track whatever something this big eats.

Up close, Snarfari seems even bigger – and even uglier, her huge fangs and short jaw giving her a pronounced overbite. But she certainly seems docile enough, snuffling at Thor enthusiastically while Býleistr scratches at the lumpy protrusions on her head.

“Good girl,” Býleistr says fondly. “Give her a stroke,” he urges Thor, “get her used to you.” Thor carefully does so, reaching out to lay his palm against her blunt nose. Her skin has a rough texture, with a sponginess that must come from layers of blubber. She is cool to the touch, as everything seems to be in Jotunheim, but when she exhales noisily her breath is warm.

Snarfari’s enormous tongue flickers out briefly to slobber over Thor’s hand and despite his bad mood Thor cannot help laughing. Big, ugly and monstrous she may be, but Býleistr is right: she’s a sweetheart, just like Volstagg’s family mutts, just on a massive scale. And whatever misgivings he still holds about the Frost Giants in general, it is hard to imagine that Býleistr means him any harm, not when the youngest Prince stands next to him and lets Snarfari enthusiastically lick his face.

“That is a disgusting habit,” Loki observes disdainfully as Thor wipes the drool from his hands onto his cloak. He has swapped his usual red cape for a dark travelling cloak of soft wool trimmed with fur. Longer and looser than his cape, it will provide more comfort during the long ride. He has, however, chosen to keep his armour on.

Loki is also dressed for travelling, although it is not an outfit Thor could ever envision wearing himself. His stiff leather kjalta has been replaced with dark leggings that cling to his long legs and are attached to a wide, embroidered belt that sits low on his slim hips, with two panels of a thick velvet-like fabric, one at the front and one at the back, the green so dark it seems almost black. Scrolling, sinuous patterns are picked out in gold thread and shimmer as he moves, perhaps to compensate for the lack of his bangles and cuffs. The huge torc is gone as well, replaced by a slimmer, crescent moon shaped design that hangs suspended from delicate links of beaten gold that twist around his throat and cascade down his back. His long hair is still plaited with gold and gems and rings, but he has swept it all up high and twisted it into a topknot. Instead of a cloak he wears a white pelt, creamy and immaculate, held in place by a leather strap across his torso, attached to a bronze shoulder piece and decorated with stylised knotwork animals: wolves, falcons, snakes.

Thor does not stare. Loki is more dressed, not less, and so there is no need to stare, to notice how the white pelt and dark leggings make the blue of his exposed chest more striking, or that his cheekbones and facial markings seem even finer with his hair pulled up and away from his face. Thor has seen no-one like him, not in Jotunheim and not in any of the realms. Anyone would look, and so he does, but he does not stare. He has seen many beauties in his long life, and though more women than boys have caught his eye over the centuries, Loki is not the first handsome man to catch his eye...although, of course, Loki is not quite a man.

Loki catches him not-staring and lifts an eyebrow, his crimson eyes bright with amusement, and Thor hastily turns his attention back to Býleistr, who is checking the fit of Snarfari’s collar now he has attached their travelling packs to it. He is no callow youth, to be swayed by a shapely leg and exotic garb. But it is...intriguing, somehow, in a way that Býleistr’s simple almost-nakedness is not.

“Are you sure you don’t want a saddle?” Býleistr is asking Loki, frowning in concern. “The collar is not meant for smallfolk riders. We could shape a seat of some kind...”

“No,” Loki snaps. “I am not a child and I do not require swaddling to ride an issdyr.”

“Will you not shift then -”

“No,” Loki says curtly, cutting Býleistr off. Thor is intrigued; does the six-foot Loki too feel out of place in the giants world? Or is it that his relationship with both his brothers is a strained one? Loki flicks his eyes to Thor and gives him a conspiratorial grin. “We will ride as we are.”

“I am sure you know best,” Býleistr says, although he does not look convinced.

“I always do,” Loki replies mockingly and turns to Thor. “I had thought to give you the reins,” he says, still grinning. “Do you think you can handle her?”

Thor looks at Snarfari, waiting patiently beside them and feels excitement bubbling up inside him. At last, a challenge he can meet. 

Yes,” he says, matching Loki’s grin. “But I need to know where we are headed.”

“Loki -” Býleistr starts, sounding dismayed, but Loki waves him off irritably and the younger Prince subsides. For all his size, Býleistr seems no more formidable than Snarfari, Thor thinks in surprise.

Loki places his palms together and then slowly draws them apart; as he does so, ice crystallises between them, forming a sheet almost a foot wide and perfectly flat. He balances it on his hip with his left hand and begins to sketch on it with his right forefinger, green light flickering as he works his enchantment. It takes only minutes, but when he turns the tablet to Thor there is a map of Jotunheim picked out on its surface, green witchfire glowing faintly against the translucent ice. He offers it to Thor, who takes it in his hands, utterly fascinated. The ice feels brittle, so he is careful with his grip, but it does not melt under his hands, nor does his own skin stick to it.

He has seen maps of Jotunheim before, but only old, dusty scrolls, scrawled with troop numbers and landing sites for the Bifrost. This is entirely different: it is a topographical map, showing mountains, rivers, plains and beaches, with no markings for settlements of any kind. Faint blue lines mark out what Thor assumes are the borders of the Staðr Loki has mentioned, splitting Jotunheim into eight distinct regions.

Jotunheim’s sole continent is shaped like a double-headed battle-axe, with two horizontal crescent moon –shaped areas split into north and south by the central mountains. In the southern half, the map shows four distinct areas: the palace, occupying the centre of the landmass, a curving territory to either side, and a scattering of islands out in the bay. To the north, it is as if the battle-axe’s blade is broken, the western curve of land abruptly ending in a blunt peninsula. This is marked out as one territory, covered by some kind of forest, and the large island sitting off the coastline like a broken tip is another; to the east, the unbroken curve is split into two provinces, one showing a huge expanse of tundra and the other what looks like a wooded lowland. The eastern and western territories are split from each other by a huge glacier, swallowing up the land from the mountain to the sea.

“It is an easy enough route to understand,” Loki says, leaning across Thor’s arm to tap the centre of the southern hemisphere. “We are here, in the Konungsgarðr. We are going to Thrymstaðr, here in the north.” He taps the centre of the large plain to the east of the northern glacier. “We need to travel through the mountain pass – here – and along the edge of the glacier until we reach the Uplands. I have travelled this path many times; it is a long journey but not an arduous one.”

“So we just stay on the road?” Thor says, although he cannot see one on Loki’s map.

Loki laughs. “There are no roads in Jotunheim, Thor. The wind and the snow wear away any trails we make, so each journey requires us to forge a new path.” He takes the ice-map from Thor’s hands and collapses it, the delicate picture shattering into loose shards that are carried away on the wind.

“How will I know if we are going the right way?” Thor asks, a little disappointed he cannot keep the map for future use. He has ranged across country many times when questing or hunting, but there are no landmarks here, and it would be all too easy to get lost amid the endless ice.

“Head north, and when I tell you, head east,” Loki says slowly, as if Thor if being dense.

“There are no stars and no sun here,” Thor says, just as slowly. “How can I track north?”

Loki blinks, as if Thor has said something truly remarkable. “Can you not feel it?”

“No,” Thor says, frowning. Is Loki making of fun of him?

“Ah.” Loki pauses to think a minute, brow furrowing. “Well, I will be sitting behind you; I will correct you if you stray too far off course.” He smiles disarmingly. “It will be an adventure for us.”

Thor regards him carefully, but can detect no hint of malice. “An adventure,” he echoes thoughtfully. Monsters, mountains and no hostile hrimthurs watching them: it sounds an excellent plan.

Býleistr looks like he would dearly like to give Loki a piece of his mind, but he is not bold enough to do so. “Snarfari, niðr!” he says instead, and she lowers herself to the floor, crouching as low as she can, her chin resting on the ice, grumbling as she does so.

With her lying flat, mounting is not as much of a problem as Thor had anticipated, and he scrambles up onto her neck easily enough, using the rings in the collar to pull himself up. He settles himself as far forward as he can manage. The padded cushion is surprisingly comfortable, but he has to sit with his legs much wider apart than he is used to, and his feet dangle awkwardly to the side instead of tucking neatly behind her mandibles like Býleistr’s had.

This is not going to work. He can keep his balance easily enough while she is still, but when she runs...she is simply too big for him to grip with his knees as he would with a horse. Frustration and disappointment war within him. But before he can say anything, Loki climbs up behind him and settles himself close, chest pressed to Thor’s back and knees tucked in behind his. They fit together perfectly.

Thor shakes his head a little, for that is a dangerous thought.

“It will be fine,” Loki says quietly, resting his chin on Thor’s shoulder. “Trust me.” His hands skim down to Thor’s thighs and he taps them lightly, pushing his own legs against Thor’s. Thor takes the hint and closes his legs slightly, bringing his knees up until he is comfortable, but hopelessly unbalanced.

There is a sensation of creeping cold and he glances down to see ice spreading from Loki’s fingers, encasing both their legs and then flowing over the cushion and collar. Snarfari snorts but seems otherwise unconcerned by the block of ice that has formed around her neck. Thor shifts his weight left and then right, pushing a little and then pushing hard but to no avail: he is frozen solid, locked in place with Loki pressed against him.

Well, he is not going to fall. But this is the strangest method of riding he has ever experienced.

Býleistr throws his hands up in mock-surrender. “I should know better than to doubt you,” he says exasperatedly, “but would it not have been simpler to tell me this is how you intended to ride?”

“Where is the fun in that?” Loki replies, moving his hands up to Thor’s waist, ice following him as he does so.

Býleistr sighs. “I would tell you to be safe, but you will only mock me more for it,” he says, reaching over Snarfari’s massive head to pass the reins to Thor. “So I shall only say that I will miss you, and that I wish you well on your travels.”

“Such sentiment,” Loki says drily, but Thor meets Býleistr’s gaze and smiles. He cannot help but like the youngest Prince, who is strangely good-natured for a Frost Giant. He obviously takes after Agmundr rather than Laufey, he thinks, and is all the better for it.

“Are you ready?” Loki asks. In response, Thor tugs on the reins and Snarfari rises up, lifting them high off the ground. Býleistr gently turns her head, gripping her by the mandible, until she is facing the mountains that rise behind the palace. She lifts her head and snuffles the air, seeming to recognise what is being asked of her.

“Farewell, eldsibb!” Býleistr booms as he steps back, waving them off. “Good hunting, Odinson!”

“Snarfari, rás!” Loki shouts behind him, his hands closing around Thor, and the Íssdýr’s rumbling response vibrates through Thor’s legs and up his spine. She whirls on the spot, impossibly nimble for a creature of her size, and then she is off, racing away from the palace and Býleistr, her massively muscled forearms propelling her along the uneven ice at unbelievable speed.

Hela’s teats but she is fast! Thor whoops in surprised glee as they head towards the black shadows of the mountains, Snarfari’s lolloping gait more like the rising and falling of a longship as it skims across the waves than any horse Thor has ever ridden. All Thor can hear is the rushing of the wind in his ears and the Íssdýr’s steady breathing, hoarse but even, her stride steady and sure.

She is surprisingly responsive, turning at the slightest tug on the reins, but she needs little guidance as they leave the palace behind, heading unerringly for the looming mountain pass. Thor’s teeth are bared in a wild grin, for this is glorious, pure glorious speed, almost like flying with Mjolnir, but much more rooted, for he feels every footstep, every time her heavy feet thump into the ice and the long moments between as she races northward. It is fun, and he wishes desperately Sif and the Warriors Three were here, to race alongside him on their own beasts. But since it is just him and Loki and the approaching slope that leads through the mountains he lets go of the thought and lets himself enjoy the simple pleasure of riding such an enormous creature through this bleak and frozen world.

***

Hours later, the pass gives way a landscape even more forbidding than the one they have just left. They are perhaps halfway up the mountains, high above the palace, and in front of them stretches the biggest glacier Thor has ever seen.

“The Élivágar,” Loki says, his breath ghosting across Thor’s ear as he leans in. “The Ice Waves.” Loki has sat quiet and calm while Thor howled with joy, urging the Íssdýr on to greater and greater speeds, his hands firm on Thor’s waist but never tightening in fear or anger. It would be impossible to speak while Snarfari runs, but Thor is not sure quite what to make of Loki’s stillness. He had been half expecting Loki’s hands to start wandering or some other small mischief, but he has not interfered with Thor’s enjoyment. “Best to let Snarfari have her head. If she pauses, give her a nudge right. She’s done this often enough she’ll figure out where we want to go.”

“Aye,” Thor says, looking out over the immense glacier. “Ras!” he shouts, the syllables unfamiliar in his mouth, and tugs sharply on the right-hand rein. The Íssdýr roars in response and he can feel her gathering herself under him, huge muscles clenching as she launches herself forward, heading what Thor assumes is north-east.

Now Thor understands why the jotun have chosen these creatures as mounts, for no horse or dog or oxen could traverse this nightmarish surface. No carriage or sled could possibly cross the plunging crevasses and treacherous ascents, and while it might be possible to cross on foot, it would soon prove exhausting, even for a giant.

But Snarfari tackles the broken surface of the glacier with ease, her thick claws acting like crampons, digging deep into the ice to give her grip, and her heavy tail acting as a counterweight, swinging from side to side and pivoting her as she corners, occasionally using the fearsome spikes to anchor herself. She races across it, her massive bulk skidding across the smooth patches and setting off ominous moans deep with the glacier as she leaps and clings or simply bulldozers her way through the fractured landscape. 

It would be folly to try and pick a route for her, for she navigates with ease and blinding speed. At certain points she hesitates for no reason Thor can see, head swinging back and forth, and each time Thor guides her eastwards with the lightest of touches. Perhaps they are waypoints for other destinations that she remembers from other journeys, or perhaps she is sensing some hidden danger and looking for a safe route.

It is yet another question Thor cannot answer, but it is hard to feel frustrated as they race along the ice at the top of the world, leaping across the milky-blue rivers that slide through the glacier like veins and plunge into the unfathomable depths of its heart. Thor’s world has become the rushing wind, the inky darkness of the overcast sky and the shimmering blues, whites and glittering silver of the ice-waves as they ride on across the great white waste.

***

Without sun or stars Thor cannot say how long it is until Snarfari slows, but he soon sees why she does so. They have reached the outer edge of the glacier, a cliff edge thousands of miles high and continuing on as far as he can see. Snarfari approaches the edge warily, and with good reason, for he can hear the groaning and wrenching cracks as huge slabs break free of the glacier’s main body and plunge to the ground, throwing up clouds of freezing dust as they shatter on impact. But she picks out a safe route and makes her way to the very edge, affording Thor an unparalleled perspective to gaze out over the borders of what must be Thrymstaðr.

Thor stares and stares.

The Uplands are a great swathe of ice and snow, as is all of Jotunheim. But unlike the glacier and the rugged southlands, Thrymstaðr is a vast open plain, flat and even, stretching out to the horizon.

It is alive.

Beneath them is a vast swarm of life, an enormous herd of thousands upon thousands of milling animals spread out over the landscape. They look a little like elk, and a little like the caribou he has seen on Midgard, but more powerfully built and with huge, branching antlers. They have pale silver fur, with creamy patches splashed across their faces, chests and bellies, and swirling patterns of lines and rosettes picked out in deep blue, like the markings of his mother’s tabby cats.

It would be impossible to try and count them, but they must be half a million strong at the least, adults, yearlings and calves, all on the move. Interspersed between them are groups of Frost Giants, some guiding small groups of the beasts with the help of lean, brindled hounds. It takes Thor a moment to grasp the true scale of the scene in this huge landscape, but he soon realises that the deer-like creatures are just as tall as the jötnar herding them, which means the accompanying hounds must be the size of a small pony.

“What are they?” he asks, awe-struck. Everything is oversized in Jotunheim, the giants’ home, but he had never imagined this kind of vibrant life could exist in the cold and darkness.

“The hjörth and their herders,” Loki replies. “The Clans are moving south, to the summer feeding grounds closer to the mountains. That is why we must stay on the glacier instead of crossing the plain, for Snarfari would send the entire Herd into a panic.”

“What do they eat?” Thor asks, for there is no grass to be seen, nor vegetation of any kind.

“They feed on the drífablōmi,” Loki says. “Look to the ice. Can you see the blue – the intense, bright blue – that swirls around their feet?”

Thor looks and sure enough, the ice is stained with a huge slick of rich, royal blue, brightly luminous. He had taken it for a trick for the light but as he watches it does indeed move slowly, bleeding across the ice and scattering and reforming as the hjörth crunch huge slabs of faintly glowing ice, swallowing it and the blue stain alike.

“That is the drífablōmi – the tiny creatures that swim through the ice, feeding on the algae and bacteria that give it its glow,” Loki continues. “From the huge hjörth and Fjallmáttr to the tiny snow lemmings and hares…all graze on the drífablōmi, and in their turn, feed the hunters and the herdfolk. We have no green and growing things as you do; it is the drífablōmi in the ice and the krill in the sea that feed all of Jotunheim, one way or another.”

They watch the scene, Thor fascinated both by the hypnotic mass of the hjörth and the industrious jötnar, who follow the beasts on foot in family groups, carrying bundles wrapped in intricately decorated furs and hides, sometimes on poles and sometimes dragged on long ice-runners. These giants are dressed quite differently to the uniformity of the hirdverr and the simple dress of the court; while the northern jötnar still wear the leather skirt Loki had called a kjalta, theirs are decorated with bone and horn ornaments, painted patterns and animals. Many of them wear fur cloaks, fastened around the neck, or open vests with fluttering fringes and feathers.

When he asks, Loki points out the Clan heads, the elders, instantly recognisable by the heavy necklaces they wear: thick loops of gold studded with gemstones, sudden flashes of colour amidst the wintery tones. Red seems popular, with a multitude of rubies and garnets, and the younger members of wealthier families often sport a bracelet or armcuff in silver or bronze, or an intricate brooch, set with a single precious stone.

It is not what Thor expected, for although he has often thought on Jotunheim, it has always been in terms of its armies, its warriors and its grim King. What the ordinary folk of the realm might be like, or how they might live, is not a question that has ever troubled him, but looking out over the bright and bustling crowd, with children playing, oldfolk gossiping and lovers walking hand in hand, it is hard to imagine that every giant present is the treacherous and bloodthirsty monster he had assumed them all to be. 

Their presence on the glacier does not go unnoticed, with many eyes turning to them, silhouetted on the high cliff of ice. A few of the smaller children wave, but most of the adults seem content just to look and move on, satisfied that they are not predators or rivals.

“Come,” Loki says after a time. “Thrymr has his hall in the centre of the plain, the midpoint between the summer heights and the winter lowlands. We still have a long way to travel. Keep to the glacier’s edge until we are well past the herd, and then just head for the horizon. You cannot miss Thrymr’s Hall.”

***

Hours pass, and the thrill of plunging across the glacier has long since worn off, when at last Thor spies buildings out on the plain and guides Snarfari down the crumbling cliff face and onto flat land. As the only permanent structure Thor has seen on the Uplands, it would indeed be impossible to miss, and he is intensely grateful for this, for he can no longer feel his legs. They had stopped briefly on the glacier, for food and relief, but it has been a long day’s ride and he is desperate for a proper meal, a bath and bed.

Snarfari slows as they approach the granite wall that surrounds Thrymr’s Hall, the dark stone covered in fluid, sinuous carvings. The wall surrounds the settlement, which is not just one hall, but a collection of strange stone buildings, built with no windows and only one door, but topped with glittering ice roofs that arch into fantastic shapes.

Before the wall sits a solitary jötunn on a mound. There are long strips of leather around him, along with brass rings and, oddly, tangled knots of small golden bells, tied up like bunches of grapes. He is focused on the task in hand, carefully braiding the leather into what looks like a large collar held together by the rings.

“Thrymr-Jarl!” Loki calls out as they approach.

The giant turns. “Silvertongue!” he booms, delighted. Thor pulls Snarfari to a halt just before him and she ponderously lowers herself to the ground, tongue lolling out as she pants. Loki shatters the ice holding them in place and slips free to greet the beaming jotun. Thor dismounts more carefully, stretching his aching legs.

“Mirkyn’s blood but tis good t’see you,” Thrymr says with a noticeable accent, slapping Loki on the back with an almighty crack. And then, “yer Íssdýr is a fat fucker, isn’t she?”

“She is,” Loki says, “and so are you. You’ll be too fat to run after fresh younglings soon.”

“Lies!” the giant says cheerfully, although he is, in fact, noticeably heavyset, but with a great deal of power in his wide frame . “Lies and slander! Don’t listen t’a word he says,” he says confidentially to Thor, in a whisper that could likely be heard a mile away. “He’ll have ye eating out of his hand if yer not careful!”

Thor laughs and Thrymr rewards him with a friendly shoulder squeeze that would likely leave bruises on a frailer man.

“Thor, this is Thrymr, Jarl of Thrymstaðr. Thrymr, meet Thor Odinson, Prince of Asgard.” Loki says formally.

“Yes, yes, all know the Thunderer!” Thrymr says. “Welcome t’my lands and t’my hall, Odinson. There’s hot food and a fresh bed for ye both. They’ll be a feast for after the hunt tomorrow, so you’ll be left t’yourselves tonight. You’ll have t’put up with a few gawpers in the baths. The younglings are very excited at the thought of seeing an Aesir.”

Loki sighs. “Can you not keep your little harem under control?” he asks waspishly. “The Prince of Asgard is not here to be pawed at by over-excited hrimthurs.”

“Well, aren’t we possessive?” Thrymr says, grinning broadly. “Afraid one of ‘em will tempt him away?”

“Hardly,” Loki says dryly.

“They know their place,” Thrymr says. “But I’d rather the next generation of Jotunheim’s warriors be giggling behind their hands than sharpening their blades at the thought of Odin’s son in their home. So I’ve not forbidden ‘em the baths tonight. Unless the Odinson is a shy ‘un?”

They both turn their attention to Thor, who has been wrongfooted by the sudden turn in the conversation. Thrymr-Jarl makes a fair point, and he is aware that since this is supposedly a diplomatic visit to Jotunheim, building bridges with the younger giants is probably exactly what his father wants him to do. But he has no taste for being talked about like a prize stallion, yet again, and certainly no desire to be stared at in the baths by young jotnar.

“Not tonight,” Loki says, before Thor can frame an appropriate response. “We are tired and in no mood for company. It will do the younglings no harm to wait one more night to see an Aesir. You can tell them I do not wish for their presence.”

Thrymr sighs. “Yer a cruel one,” he says in a mockingly mournful tone. “Breaking their little hearts like that. No Aesir, no íviðja...they’ll be crushed.”

“I’m sure you can manage to...raise them up,” Loki says, lip quirking. “Tomorrow, Thrymr. The hunt, the baths, a feast...it’ll be excitement enough to keep them talking for years. But tonight, let us keep ourselves to ourselves.”

“Aye, fair enough,” Thrymr says. “I know better than t’argue with ye. I’ll chase ‘em out and have the food put in yer room.”

“Are we in my usual quarters?” Loki asks and Thrymr nods. He and Loki banter easily as they remove the travelling packs from Snarfari and turn her loose; she promptly flops down outside the settlement and goes to sleep, her snore an uneven mixture of blorts and grunts.

Thor trails silently behind Thrymr and Loki as they wind through the settlement. There are dozens of giants here, peering out of doorways and loitering by the buildings, but as Thrymr said, they seem more intrigued than hostile, a refreshing change after the tense Court. But it is not the northern jotnar that have Thor’s attention: he is watching the way Loki smirks up at Thrymr, the continual teasing, the deliberate pauses. Thrymr does not touch Loki, does not so much as brush against him as they walk but it seems obvious to Thor that what Helblindi said was true. They have been lovers.

Are they still? Thor wonders, unwilling to put a name to the uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. Does it matter if they are, since he had refused Loki last night? The thought of Loki, beautiful and elegant, with this crass and fat old giant is repulsive to him, however friendly and good-natured Thrymr seems. But no, as far as Thrymr and the others are concerned, Loki and Thor are to be betrothed. Surely the Jarl would not try to sleep with Loki now that Thor is here? Not even a Frost Giant could be so careless or rude.

Eventually they reach a small building at some distance from the others. It is as tall as the other one-storey cottages, and the doorway large enough for a hrimthurs, but inside the furniture and furnishings are sized for guests from other realms – no, Thor realises, watching Loki smile and thank Thrymr for keeping his things in such good condition, for an íviðja, and one who is a regular guest here.

His mood soured again by his suspicions, Thor barely pays any attention to Thrymr and Loki’s discussion of the preparations for the hunt tomorrow, his eyes drawn unwillingly to the single large bed at the back of the room, which seems perfectly designed to accommodate both an ividja and a hrimthurs. It is not until they both turn to him expectantly that he realises he has been asked a question.

“I said,” Loki says with a slight edge as he realises Thor has not been listening, “that I would prefer to bathe before eating, and that I would like to do so alone tonight, provided you have no objections?”

“None,” Thor says, although in truth he is disappointed. He had not quite acknowledged it to himself, but he had been looking forward to bathing with Loki again – purely to see how far Loki would go in his teasing, of course. At least Loki had said alone; Thor would not have been pleased if Loki had chosen to bathe with Thrymr and not him.  “Will you go now?”

“Yes,” Loki says, “and then shall we eat together?”

“Aye,” Thor says; he feels a little better for the brief walk, and can certainly wait for food and a bath. He would rather not be left alone with his bitterness and bad mood, but it cannot be helped.

“If that be the case, Odinson, I would have a word with ye,” Thrymr says suddenly. “Shall we take a walk while the Silvertongue relaxes?”

“I think -” Loki begins but Thor is tired of being treated like a child. He can speak for himself.

“Gladly,” he interrupts, stepping forward. “Loki, I shall see you later.” He doesn’t turn to see Loki’s expression but he does see the sly grin flicker across Thrymr’s face and is perversely glad. He is tired of being continually surprised; let Loki be the one wondering what he wants with Thrymr for a change.

He and the Jarl wander through the settlement, exchanging the most basic of small talk as Thrymr points out the large Hall for entertaining and feasting, the smaller one-room buildings for those who wish to sleep in private, the huge storehouses for the winter and the vast kennel, a small complex of its own, oddly quiet compared to Asgard’s kennels. “I love my hounds,” Thrymr says cheerfully. “You’ll see ‘em tomorrow, when we hunt. I breed ‘em myself – champion trackers, every one.”

Thor makes the appropriate noises and they continue on. But once they reach the mound outside, Thrymr collects his collars and turns to face Thor, who braces himself in readiness.

“Don’t look so fierce,” Thrymr says, grinning. “I mean no harm. I would just know ye a little without ye worrying what the Silvertongue will make of yer answers. I have known the elder Prince a long time. He wants to keep ye close, but sometimes, tis good for a warrior t’talk t’other warriors, eh? So what do ye think of the Uplands?”

 “I did not expect to find such a welcome,” Thor says honestly, relaxing a little.

Thrymr lets out a bark of laughter. “The southerners treat ye like brittle sea-ice, did they?”

Thor thinks of Helblindi, looming and angry. “Something like that.”

“Ah, that’s the Konungskyn for ye. Fancy manners to yer face and whispers behind yer back. You won’t find their kind up north. We speak as we find. But the hirðverr has a long memory all of its own, and I don’t think it’ll ever forget what yer father did t’Laufey-King.”

“To Laufey-King?” Thor says warily. “Not to Jotunheim?”

“We were beaten,” Thrymr says bluntly. “Every war has a victor and it weren’t us. That’s in the hands of the Norns. But Odin-King put Laufey-King on his back and walked away and that, well, that were something else. Better he’d killed him. Better he’d had him on his knees. But on his back? The hirðverr won’t forgive him that.”

“I don’t understand.”

Thrymr’s gaze slides over Thor and Thor shifts uncomfortably. “Has the Silvertongue not explained it t’ye?”

“We haven’t – we haven’t talked much,” Thor says awkwardly, wondering how he has – yet again – managed to blunder into a conversation he isn’t sure he wants to have.

“Oh, really?” Thrymr leers, winking at him. “Well, I remember how that goes.”

A wave of heat sweeps up Thor’s neck. He would dearly like to correct Thrymr’s assumptions but he has a strong sense that anything he says at this point will only make this worse.

“Well, I don’t know how the Aesir do things -” Thrymr pauses expectantly, but Thor is not walking into that one, and after a long moment he continues. “But here, with us, tis the stronger that puts the weaker on his back when -”

“Yes, I see,” Thor interrupts quickly. “Laufey-King was made to look like a woman – like the weaker jotun, I mean. He was shamed.”

Thrymr looks at him oddly. “There’s no shame in being put on yer back,” he says slowly. “There’s great pride in giving yer seed t’a strong mate, and besides, it only means you have to wait for yer own turn on top. Laufey and the Allfather are both Kings, both equals. When Odin-King put him on his back, well, all that means is that the Allfather proved stronger that day. But then he walked away. He left Laufey-King lying in the snow, before all of Jotunheim and that – that be a great insult.”

“Oh,” Thor says weakly. Did Laufey want – did the jotnar expect his father to –

“How Laufey let go of the hate for that I’ll never know,” Thrymr muses, oblivious to Thor’s burning desire to talk about something else, anything else. “If it were me, I’d want to kill him. I’d want to put him on his back and press a blade to his throat. I’d want him t’know it were me. Yet Laufey-King has let you come here, and has even offered ye his firstborn. Ye! The son of Odin! I don’t know how he can do it. But that’s why he’s King and I’m only a Jarl.”

Thrymr grins suddenly and slaps Thor on the back.

“But that’s the past! Yer here t’court the Silvertongue, aye, and the rest of us if ye can. Laufey-King like as not wants us t’be courting ye, and not mentioning the fact that the last Aesir to come here was yer father, and he was here t’crush us.”

Thor blinks and says nothing.

“Ye and the Silvertongue, you’re the future. I’m old and I’m fat and I want peace, Odinson. A real peace, not this – this stalemate. So yer welcome here, and if ye don’t like me and mine, well, that’s too bad, but I’m not going to start a war over it. Yer my guest, and I’ll treat ye like any other. That’s the way forward.”

“I agree,” Thor says, when it becomes apparent that Thrymr has finished at last. “And I appreciate your...directness.”

“That’s me,” Thrymr says, his jolly smile clashing with his clever, focused eyes. “Blunt as a club t’the face. But I think we understand each other a little better now.”

“Indeed,” Thor says and now he is getting over the shock of the thought of Laufey and his father...fighting...he thinks he does understand why Thrymr has told him this story. And he would rather deal with Thrymr and his bluntness than the cold, suspicious gazes of Laufey’s court, for at least Thrymr is helping him to understand what his presence here means to the jotnar.

He looks at Thrymr, confident and relaxed, and decides to take a risk. “You and Loki…” he says slowly and Thrymr exhales.

“The Silvertongue has often been a guest at my Hall,” Thrymr answers calmly. “Tis a short distance from here t’Útgarðar and he be curious and fond of travel. I like t’think of myself as a friend t’him, though he might not like to hear me say so.” He sighs, and his ever-present smile slips away, leaving him looking suddenly old. “He’s not my sváss, if that’s what yer after. I lost my Thjazi a long time ago and no-one’s ever taken his place. No-one ever will.”

Thor is quiet, conscious that he has likely overstepped his bounds. He is not rude enough to pry further, but the question nevertheless remains lodged in his mind. He has picked up enough to see there is a difference between a sváss and a bedmate, though he does not quite understand it. Bedding and breeding, Helblindi’s voice sneers in his memories. That’s what he’s good for. Loki and Thrymr may not have been lovers as the jotnar see it, but have they slept together? He does not know why it matters so much to him, but it does.

“Tis about time we found out what yer betrothed has been up t’all this time, eh?”  Thrymr says, interrupting Thor’s thoughts, and Thor does not miss the emphasis on your betrothed. They are not betrothed, not yet, and Thor has no intention of actually going through with it, but there is no need to antagonise Thrymr by pointing this out. He forces a smile.

“Oh, some kind of mischief, I imagine,” he says and Thrymr flashes him a proper grin.

“Yer learning fast, Odinson.”

***

By the time they make their way back to the sleeping quarters, Loki has finished his bath and is waiting for them, wrapped up in plush white furs and reading a book with an air of pointed indifference. There are many books and scrolls in the room, now that Thor looks properly, and he wonders how they survive the cold, damp climate. More magic, he supposes.

“All talked out, are we?” Loki says icily, not bothering to look up and Thor feels a grin spreading across his features. It will not help matters, but he is more than a little pleased to have triggered such a reaction in Loki. What had Loki said last night? What’s the harm in a little mischief between friends?

“Just about,” he says cheerfully, just to see Loki scowl. Ever since Loki’s teasing in the pool he’d suspected there was more to this jotun Prince than the sunny good-nature he’d shown so far. “I am going to wash up before dinner – if you have no objections.”

“None,” Loki says silkily and turns the page. “I am perfectly content as I am. Take as long as you like.”

“Well,” Thrymr says from the doorway, clearly enjoying himself, “I’ll go and keep the younglings entertained, so ye may bathe in peace. I’ll send some food up shortly. Enjoy yer evening, Silvertongue, Odinson.”

Loki sniffs and offers a lacklustre “Good night,” as Thor and Thrymr leave again. Thrymr eyes Thor with open amusement as he points out the bathing chamber, thankfully free of any giants, but offers no comment beyond bidding him farewell.

The bath is nothing like the pool in Konungsgarðr, being merely a huge tub in the centre of a roofed structure. The enormous, roughly circular bath is made from granite, large enough for Thor to swim in and surely big enough to hold half a dozen jötnar. Water flows from a stone spout high above one end and overflows the tub to drain into the surrounding grate, but where it comes from Thor has no idea, for it does not have the heat of the hot springs, nor the icy cold of the glacial rivers. It is lukewarm at best, and frankly, not very pleasant to sit in and so Thor washes himself quickly, having no desire to linger.

It is not until he climbs out and down the stone steps that he realises there are no towels and remembers Loki’s trick of drying himself with ice. Obviously it is something all the jotnar can do and Thor immediately regrets leaving his travelling cloak in the guest room. He has just about resigned himself to using his clothes when he spots a thick white fur tucked away in the corner, identical to the ones Loki had swaddled himself with. He dries himself off with it, feeling guilty at his poor temper earlier. Loki has been nothing but kind to him, and he has repaid him with irritation and suspicion. He will do better, he tells himself as he dresses, starting with a proper conversation over dinner.

It is a short walk back to their quarters and he is pleased to see that their meal has already arrived. He is famished and the plates of steaks and ribs and cheeses are far more appetising than anything he was presented with in Konungsgarðr. Loki seems to have forgiven him for his earlier daring and has put his book away in favour of explaining the new foodstuffs to Thor.

“This is hjörth,” he says, pointing out the marbled steaks and marinated ribs, “and the cheeses are made from hjörth milk. This is a stew, made with snarinna meat, druse and the eggs of the Snow Geese. I am sorry there is no whey drink, but the warriors likely finished it this morning. I could heat your kumis if you wished?”

Thor shakes his head; the kumis reminds him of small beer and is pleasant at room temperature. He attacks the rich meat with gusto, finding it to be not unlike venison or particularly good beef, and the stew tastes strongly of rabbit. This is more like it, he thinks, spirits lifting with the good food and drink.

Loki is also in a better temper, telling Thor amusing stories of mishaps that have befallen the hirðverr and Thrymr’s own hirð on various occasions; he does not say as much but hints heavily that the pranks were of his instigation and design. Thor cannot help but laugh, for Loki is a gifted storyteller, his eyes bright and smile wide as he describes the misfortunes of the large and dim-witted victims of his tale.

Thor is so enthralled in Loki’s stories that it takes him quite by surprise when Loki breaks off to eat the bones left on his plate, crunching them up with ease as Thor stares. He knows it is rude for him to do so but it is just so…strange. Loki and the jotnar do not seem as peculiar to him as they had when he first arrived, but seeing him eat is an unwelcome reminder of just how different they are.

Loki seems to sense his unease and stops. “My apologies,” he says, face placid, and Thor hates that, is coming to know it is a mask.

“No,” Thor says hastily, wanting to preserve the camaraderie they have shared. “No, please, continue. It is I who must apologise for my rudeness.”

Loki looks at him carefully before picking up another bone and biting down on it with an ear-splitting crunch. Thor grins and tears off another rib. It is not so strange, really, he tells himself. There are no plants here, and so the jotnar must eat what they can. It is only like the dogs that roam the halls of Asgard being fed sneaky table scraps, eating up the leftover bones and gristle and less choice cuts of meat.

Loki takes the pause in the conversation to ask Thor for a tale of his own, and Thor is happy to oblige, deciding on the time he and his friends snuck into Vanaheim for a little mischief of their own. It is a long story and he feels he tells it well; at least, Loki seems happy enough to listen and makes no attempt to interrupt as he describes at length Sif’s ingenuity, Fandral’s quick wit, Hogun’s determination and Volstagg’s steady reliability in both feasting and fighting. As he talks, Loki leans forward to steal the rib-bone from Thor’s platter, his cocoon of furs slipping from his shoulders as he moves, exposing his slender shoulders and bare chest. Thor abruptly realises Loki’s travelling clothes and jewellery are piled on a shelf on a shelf behind him. He stalls in his story-telling, gaze skittering over the furs wrapped around Loki. He has been naked all this time?

It does not matter, he tells himself firmly. He has already seen Loki naked and alright, yes, he will admit that he would rather like to see him naked again. But attractive as Loki may be, hair swept high, skin so very blue against the pale furs, it would not be fair to act on it. Loki is not just a beautiful stranger but a fellow Prince. After all, Thor cannot just tumble him and then refuse the betrothal, not without starting a war that could last another thousand years. Better to just befriend him, in the hope that their amicable relationship may go some way in helping forge a peace without a marriage.

It is hard, though, to hold on to that thought when Loki looks up at him from under his eyelashes, licking his fingers, one fur slithering from his body to pool on the floor, exposing yet more of long, lean legs and flat stomach. Thor coughs and resumes a much shorter version of his story with the sneaking suspicion that Loki knows exactly what he is thinking.

He finishes his tale and Loki thanks him for it politely. There is a gleam in his eye that worries Thor and so he casts about for further conversation.

“If I may ask,” he says, “what are ‘younglings’? Do you mean children?” It has been bothering him since it was mentioned.

“Oh, no,” Loki says, pushing their platter aside as Thor finishes his drink. “Younglings are adults. Hrimthursar children stay with their Clan until they become mature and are given their hjalmr – their helm, the hrimthursar headpiece, you understand? - and then they leave for a time, to live on their own, to learn new skills and to meet others. Some join the hirðverr, some wander the Staðr, and some come to their Jarl’s hall. They do this for a few years and then they go home, or they find a place for themselves. But while they’re in their travelling phase, the older jötnar call them younglings. You can recognise them easily enough; they are adult, but not quite fully grown. Most of them are our height or perhaps a foot or so taller, and they all wear wrist cuffs with the bindrunes for safe travelling on them.” Loki grins wickedly. “They are great favourites of certain older jötnar, because they are curious and fresh and very, very eager to learn.”

“Ah,” Thor says. “And they want to...watch us bathe?”

“I imagine they want a great deal more than that,” Loki says impishly, “but I am not in the habit of indulging them. You need not concern yourself with what they or Thrymr want. You are the Odinson and a guest. You may do as you choose.”

Thor nods but he knows it is not as simple as that, else he would not be in Jotunheim at all. But something about the wording strikes him as odd. “So if I wanted to, ah, indulge them, you would not mind?” he asks, incredulousness creeping into his voice.

Loki does not seem to mind the question at least. “You are not my sváss,” he says, “and despite the assumptions of our peoples, we are not yet tied together, by your laws or mine. I have no claim on you. If you wish to take a lover here, none would prevent it. Indeed, I believe many would be delighted, for it would show a great deal of trust and open-mindedness in both parties.”

“Surely there would be consequences?” Thor says, looking for a reaction. He should not be pursuing this line of questioning, not with Loki naked and teasing opposite him, but he cannot seem to stop himself. “For me to take a lover right under your nose?”

“It could be seen as something of an insult,” Loki says, and surely his indifference is a façade? “For you to spurn me and choose another. It would be assumed that you did so with my blessing, for it would be inconceivable to most that you would prefer a hrimthurs over an íviðja, or that you would risk the proposed alliance by dallying with a youngling instead of pledging yourself to a child of Laufey-King’s. But you are Aesir. Your ways are no doubt different. Much would be forgiven you for the sake of peace.”

“I am asking what you would think,” Thor says, exasperated with Loki’s calm, looking for a sign that he is not the only one wrestling with the awkwardness of their situation. “Are we not friends? Did you not offer more?”

“Ah,” Loki says, but remains silent for a long moment. It is not until Thor opens his mouth to ask again that he replies. “I would wonder why,” he says thoughtfully. “Why you would choose another and not me. You must know I am a shapeshifter, and so if it my body that is displeasing to you, I could easily become another. I would wonder why you would choose a stranger, unknown and unproven, when I am your friend and, I hope, have gone some way in earning your trust. But more than anything, I would be disappointed.”

“Disappointed?”

“That I had not had the pleasure of your body,” Loki says with breath-taking casualness. “And that another had. I would dearly like you to fuck me, and I confess that I cannot understand why you will not. But as you say, I am your friend. Whatever you choose to do, I will accept.”

Thor makes a strangled noise that he tries to turn into a cough. Loki smiles gently at him.

“Are all Aesir as shy as you?” he asks and he sounds so genuine Thor cannot think how to respond. “Or do I make you nervous?”

“No,” Thor manages, “not nervous,” and he speaks the truth. It is not fear or coyness that has him shying away from Loki even as he cannot help but glance at where the furs sit loosely across Loki’s lap.

“Good,” Loki says brightly and he stands, holding the furs in place. “Shall we to bed, Thor? Much as I am enjoying our conversation, I find I am quite exhausted.”

“Yes,” Thor agrees, head spinning. Going to bed sounds wonderful. He would dearly like to not think or talk for a while.

But as it turns out, going to bed is not the solution he thought it would be. He hadn’t thought much of it until this point, but they are in a one room, single storey building. No partitions, no hidden spaces, bar the small adjacent toilet area. One large living space with just the shelves, chests, table and chairs and large bed in it. The one large bed he had noticed earlier.

Loki throws his furs onto the bed and looks over his shoulder at Thor, one hand on his hip. “Nervous?” he asks again, smirking.

Thor silently curses the Norns, his parents, Laufey-King, himself and especially his treacherous body which has a distinctively different response to the prospect of sleeping in the nest of furs with Loki than his frantic brain.

Loki laughs at his consternation and climbs into the bed. He makes two distinct heaps of fur with a visible gap between them, and curls up one side, leaving Thor plenty of room on the other. “You may trust me, Thor,” he says, once safely covered up again. “I am your friend.”

“You keep saying that,” Thor grumbles. He cannot keep up with this slippery Prince and it is worrying how much he enjoys the unpredictability.

“And I will continue to do so until you believe me,” Loki says, burrowing so deeply into his bedding that only his eyes peek out at Thor. “I have few friends. You should be honoured.”

“Should I?” Thor says, amused. “Is not Thrymr your friend also?”

“For his part,” Loki says, yawning. “But to him I will always be Laufey’s child and an íviðja of Útgarðar. Whereas to you I am Loki, and Loki only. That is worth much to me.”

Thor hums thoughtfully. That he can understand. And if Loki will insist on teasing him, well, there is no malice in it. And it is refreshing to be able to tease back, to have an equal at his side whom he need not fear agreeing with him out of fear of his father.

He is being too slow; Loki rolls his eyes and then rolls over. Thor actually has no qualms about undressing in front of Loki; he has been naked before his fellow warriors and friends all his life and he knows with no small pride he is good to look on. It is not Loki he distrusts as he slides naked into bed and carefully shapes the furs into a barrier between him and the huddle that is his companion. It is himself.

Loki’s hand emerges and as he sketches a shape in the air the faint light suffusing the ice-roof fades and vanishes, leaving them in the dim evening light. They lay side by side but worlds apart, and Thor stares up at the crystalline arches of the roof in silence, wondering at how he has found himself in such a strange place and with such company.

“What is Vanaheimr like?” Loki asks after a moment, a soft voice in the shadows.

“Hot. And green,” Thor answers, somewhat confused. Had Loki not understood his tale? Why ask now and not during his telling?  

“And what is hot and green like?” Loki asks.

Thor shoots a glance at him, for he has had enough of being made fun of for one day. But Loki is not looking at him at all, instead playing idly with a corner of the bedding, rubbing the fur the wrong way and then smoothing it out, and Thor suddenly remembers that ever since the War, Jotunheim has been a closed and crippled world. Travel to the other realms is forbidden, and there is nothing hot or of a living green to be found on the ice fields or in the frigid oceans of Winter’s kingdom. How could Loki know anything of either?

But how is he to describe something that Loki has no reference for? He vividly remembers the intense, damp heat of Vanaheim’s rainforests, of how the lush jungle seemed to swallow you up and hold you tightly in it smothering embrace. He remembers the feeling of being surrounded by life, with shrieking animals, calling birds and great swarms of insects; the turquoise seas teeming with coral and flashing fish. He remembers Nóatún, the white city, rising elegantly from an outcrop of rock and coral, only reached by the delicate guest-boats that bob along the shore, a glorious jumble of tiny winding streets and white buildings with precarious extensions and balconies clinging to the island’s stone, wildly decorated with bright shells and feathers.

There is nothing at all like it in either Asgard or Jotunheim. But this is the first time since he arrived here that he has known something Loki hasn’t, and he finds he wants desperately to share his memories. He casts his mind about for something he can equate it to, and suddenly has a flash of inspiration.

“It is – it is like being in your volcanic pools,” he begins, remembering the warmth of the thermal bath Loki had taken him to. Loki does not glance at him but does nod, which is a reassuring sign.

“The air is damp and humid, but it is not from the pools of water. Instead, it is from the jungle – from the trees and vines and leaf mould.” He pauses, but cannot think of a better way to frame the question he needs to ask. “Have you ever seen a jungle? Or a green leaf?”

“I have read many books, and seen many illustrations,” Loki replies with a perfect calm, “including many fine colour plates of Vanaheimr’s tropical rainforests and great cities. But I do not know what it feels like to stand in the forest and feel the heat of the sun through the canopy. I had hoped that a seasoned traveller such as the great Odinson might be able to describe these strange lands to me in a way my books cannot. But I fear I am to be disappointed.”

Thor feels a great fool, but he knows a challenge when he hears one, and for all the arch tone of Loki’s rebuke he did not miss the way that Loki’s hands stilled when he was speaking. He may be no skald, nor a Silvertongue like this maddening Frost Giant prince, but he thinks he knows what Loki wants to hear.

“It is like being swallowed up by a great beast,” he tries, and this time, Loki turns to face him, edging closer. “The jungle feels alive, and if you listen closely, you are sure you can hear it breathing, hear its heart beating all around you...”

Loki listens raptly as Thor describes Vanaheim to him, striving to recall everything he saw and felt in that lush and tropical world. The more he speaks the closer Loki gets, until they are lying alongside each other, Loki now idly braiding and unbraiding sections of Thor’s hair where it spills beyond the fur barrier, prompting Thor with questions whenever he begins to run out of steam. It is pleasant, and strangely peaceful, and he talks and talks and talks, slowly and drowsily, until sleep claims him and Loki both.

Chapter Text

Loki wakes and for a moment cannot quite understand the heavy, warm weight draped over him. At some point in the night Thor has squirmed half-free from his nest of furs, and has flung one arm around Loki and pulled him close. There is a still a crumpled barrier of fur between them, but it is an embrace nonetheless.

 It is strange for Loki to be held so and he cannot think how he has slept so closely pressed to Thor. He slowly extricates himself and slips free. Thor grunts in his sleep and rolls over, searching for new warmth, and Loki frowns down at him. He had begun his teasing last night in a deliberate effort to win Thor’s confidence and hopefully the pleasure of his body, but he had found himself unexpectedly enthralled by Thor’s tales of the worlds he has visited and adventures he has had. Loki would dearly like to see more of the realms and listening to Thor, he had been surprised to discover that he would like to do so with the Aesir Prince, instead of alone, as he had always imagined.

Without thinking, Loki reaches out and brushes Thor’s hair back from where it is tangled over his face. It had been…pleasant to lie and talk and run his fingers through Thor’s oddly soft hair, to be at ease with someone in bed instead of rutting and then leaving, as Loki usually prefers to do. Thor shifts under the attention and Loki snatches his hand back.

Sentiment, he tells himself sharply, will not serve him here. He needs Thor, needs to convince him to agree to the marriage, else all of his planning will have been for naught. That he finds himself happy in Thor’s company is a benefit only in that it makes his manipulations easier.

Loki chooses not to dwell on the uneasiness that still coils in his belly when he looks at Thor, and instead briskly washes his face and selects a plain, dull grey kjarta for the day’s hunt. He looks longingly at his torc and jewellery, but Thrymr is a stickler for tradition, and so today he must go without. He removed his hair jewellery last night, while Thor was having his little chat with the Jarl, and he feels rather naked without it.

Ah, yes. Thrymr. Thor has fallen into the same trap as Helblindi and has assumed that Thrymr’s easy affection is borne of an affair between he and Loki. Not so; oh, yes, Loki, when bored or ill at ease, has joined the Jarl in teaching a youngling or three the finer points of fucking, but he and Thrymr have never gone to bed together. Thrymr holds the memory of Thjazi too closely in his heart and Loki will be no-one’s second best.

Loki has his suspicions about why Thrymr was so eager to speak to Thor alone, but he cannot push the Jarl too hard, for he needs his favour in order to ensure the northern Staðr will accept Loki’s marriage to Thor. Where Thrymr leads, many will follow, and Loki needs him on side. Still, he does not appreciate being ganged up on like that, and so with one last, slightly puzzled glance at the sleeping Thor, Loki silently slips out of their room and goes looking for the master of Thrymstaðr.

Unsurprisingly, he finds him at the kennels, putting the finishing touches to the new collars. His beloved hounds are massed around him, slobbering and sniffing, alternating wrestling with each other and pestering Thrymr for attention. Loki would never believe these were the finest war-hounds in all Jötunheimr if he had not seen them on the hunt before.

“Mornin’, Silvertongue,” Thrymr shouts over the noisy animals. “Did the Odinson and ye sleep well?”

“Amongst other things,” Loki replies with a suggestive smirk and Thrymr laughs, easily pleased. “Are we ready for the hunt?” he asks as he picks his way through the pack of enormous hounds. The brindled mjǫllhundr of the herders are one thing, coming up to Loki’s chest and therefore capable of knocking him down if he is not careful, but Thrymr’s veiðihundr are something else entirely. Six foot at the shoulder, bulky and with huge, elongated jaws, they are large animals even next to Thrymr; they are fearsome predators, bred to run down and overpower the largest of game and the most well-armoured of enemies alike, and could easily rip Loki in two. Yet as he move between them, not one of the heavily muscled hounds will meet his gaze, and it is only the lead dog who ventures to lick his hand in passing.

“Aye,” Thrymr answers, fastening the last belled collar to the over-excited hound at his feet. “Me girls be ready and raring t’go; the hunters are chosen and are preparing themselves, and I have Skadi’s staff for ye.”

“And how is dear Skadi Snowstrider?” Loki asks, all innocence. Thrymr shoots him a dark look.

“Well, Silvertongue, and will continue so in yer absence.”

“Really, Thrymr, it is not I who holds a grudge over so small a slight -”

“This be a poor conversation for us t’have,” Thrymr rumbles and Loki sighs. It is not his fault that some people have no sense of humour, and while he cannot blame Thrymr for being protective of his favourite child and last link to Thjazi, it does make him tiresome sometimes.

“The Odinson will need to be armed,” Loki says, abandoning subtlety for a direct approach. “We cannot expect an Aesir to fight bare-handed.”

“Will he not take the star-hammer?” Thrymr asks and Loki shakes his head.

“He does not have it. It is being kept in the ice at the Bifrost site, as a symbol of his peaceful intentions. He brought no other weapon with him.”

“That be either mighty wise or mighty foolish,” Thrymr muses. “Well, it may be I have an Aesir axe or two, but will he accept it, knowing it be the spoils from his father’s army?”

“I do not think he will mind, so long as it was taken honourably in battle,” Loki says with a perfectly straight face and Thrymr snorts.

“Oh, aye, tell him whatever tale yer like,” the old jötunn says. “If it make him happier t’think I killed his kind for it rather than took it out the body of my own kyn.”

“The Aesir are a peculiar folk,” Loki observes, a generally safe statement whenever the Great War is mentioned.

Thrymr gives a low rumble of agreement. “And ones who travel poorly,” he adds. “Will ye see that he keeps up? I do not expect him t’keep to all the traditions, but it would be a poor thing if he must ride or be carried.”

“What, like a babe on your back?” Loki asks, greatly amused by the thought of Thor wrapped up in a child’s sling, head poking over Thrymr’s shoulder. “Worry not. I will help him keep the pace.”

“I have every faith in ye,” Thrymr says and this is why Loki is so fond of the old Jarl: he means it utterly and yet will have his own contingency plan in place in case Loki’s methods fail. There is a reason, after all, that Thrymr is the unofficial leader of the north and second only to Agmundr in matters of war.

Thrymr eyes Loki thoughtfully and Loki looks back at him as blandly as he can. “All right, all right,” he says after a moment. “I just wanted t’get the measure of the boy. See what he understood.”

“And?”

“He has more sense than I’d have thought, though he could do with some teaching – which ye’ll do, I’m sure. He’s a long way from being a King like his father, but that’s not all t’the bad. Especially for us.”

Loki crosses his arms and says nothing.

“Ooh, yer a cruel ‘un, Silvertongue. All right! He’s a pretty ‘un and I fancied my chances with him alone. Is that what you want t’hear?”

“Liar,” Loki says, sniffing in disdain.

“He is pretty though,” Thrymr says with an unrepentant grin. “You’ve done well there. Though it seems a hard bargain, losing ye t’Asgard. Will ye not find it strange there, without yer kyn and kind?”

“I’ll adapt,” Loki says dryly; he is already tired of this question.

“Aye, I know ye will,” Thrymr agrees. “Well, I’ll say t’you as I said t’him: I want a true peace and I’ll do everything I can to make it happen. He’s yers and yer his and I’ll treat yer both as such. If Helblindi gives you trouble, I’ll stand with ye.”

“He has been less than welcoming,” Loki says, for while Thrymr cannot know yet of the almost-fight between his sibb and Thor, it does not take much imagination to see why Loki would come to the north so suddenly with Thor after only a day in the palace.

“He’s a fool, and a damned dangerous one,” Thrymr says bluntly, for he is no fonder of Helblindi than Loki. “And will be a poorer King without ye as Lawspeaker. I see trouble there, in time.”

“He is not King yet,” Loki points out. “He may never be King.”

“Býleistr won’t stand against him,” Thrymr says. “More’s the shame, for with more confidence and some good counsel he’d make a fine ruler. Jötunheimr has had its fill of battle-hungry Kings. A little softness would suit her well.”

Loki says nothing. He is certain that both his sibja put together would not make half the King he would, and yet he will never be so much as mentioned in the endless discussions of Jötunheimr’s future. What use is all his power and skill when he is denied the opportunity to truly put them to use?

“But today ain’t a day for talking shop,” Thrymr is saying while Loki fumes, giving his hound one last pat before rising and stretching. “You’d best get the Odinson out of bed. I’m going t’run the hounds a while, get some of the silliness out of ‘em. A herd was sighted not three days past, so it won’t be a long hunt, and I want ‘em less eager when they meet an Aesir.”

This is sensible and Loki is in a poor enough mood already without disagreeing with Thrymr further, and so they part after making a few brief arrangements. On the way back, Loki takes the time to go and check on Snarfari; he has no doubt Thrymr’s people are taking excellent care of her, but she is Býleistr’s favourite, and he would never be forgiven if anything untoward were to happen to her. But all is well: well-fed and well-watered yesterday, Snarfari has curled into a great domed mound, head and tail tucked in, and already a film of ice has crystallised over her body. By tomorrow she will be sleeping in an ice-cocoon and the braver children will be able to climb and play on her freely.

Satisfied, Loki returns to their room to find Thor already awake and dressed, and tucking into a breakfast platter. He smiles broadly as Loki slips into place opposite him and bids him a heart good morning which Loki returns before concentrating on filling his own plate. Thor has pulled his meat off the bone is small strips and left the bones themselves for Loki, alongside the hjörth ears Loki likes best, a small gesture that soothes some of Loki’s irritation. They eat in an easy, comfortable silence, broken only when Thor asks Loki to reheat his whey-drink.

Only a fool would try and stalk game on an icefield in shining metal and vivid red, and Thor is not half the fool Loki first took him to be. The Aesir Prince has at last swapped his armour for something simpler: soft and supple dark brown trousers tucked into simple boots, a faded grey-green shirt and a well-worn sleeveless jerkin with wrist guards laced tight. He is over-dressed for this particular hunt, but the other jötnar will not mind it. He is an outsider, after all.

“Will this do?” Thor asks once they finished eating. “These are the only hunting clothes I brought.”

“Oh, they will do very well,” Loki answers, appraising Thor. He looks less a Prince and more a comrade-in-arms in his simple, unadorned leathers, which will appeal to the hrimthursar. But yet again, he has left his hair loose, which will appeal to the warriors in a very different way. By custom, the íviðja braid their hair back as soon as they reach maturity, to be seen long and loose only by those they take to their beds. Thor is an Aesir, and none expect him to act as an íviðja, but still…out of his armour and with his hair unbound, he seems suddenly far more inviting, and Loki has enough to manage without defending his prize from smitten hrimthurs. Better to tie it back, and more practical too.

Yet beneath this practicality, Loki will admit to his own sudden urge to have the golden strands in his hands again, and he wants to braid it for reasons all his own: to see Thor’s hair match his, the two of them unique amid the skull-capped warriors they are to hunt with.

 “It is our custom to have our hair tied back,” Loki says, gesturing to his own. “Might I braid yours?”

“Aye,” Thor says casually, apparently unconcerned as Loki gets up and moves behind him. “Is there ought else I need know for the hunt?” he asks as Loki separates his hair into sections.

“For the northerners, a Fjallmáttr hunt is much more than just killing a beast. They are rare and special creatures, and there is much ritual to be followed,” Loki says as he works, fingers sliding through Thor’s hair. “There is always an íviðja, to guide the hunters, and to observe, so that the song can be properly sung to the rest of the folk. There must be no more than seven hunters, who take as little as possible with them, and use no tools other than their own bodies.”

“We will hunt bare-handed?” Thor interrupts, sounding shocked.

“No, no; the hrimthurs will use their ice-blades. Thrymr has offered you the use of one of his most prized treasures, an Aesir axe taken in battle from a worthy and honourable foe.”

“What kind of beast do you hunt with an axe?” Thor asks and Loki chuckles.

“A very, very large one.  It is the ultimate contest of strength: one hrimthurs against one bull. Thrymr-Jarl is master here, so it will be he who stands against the bull. Your role will be to guard his back, to keep the rest of the herd from regrouping and charging him.”

“That is all?” Thor asks, clearly disappointed.

“It is no small task, Thor. No northern hrimthurs is considered fully-grown until they have stood firm against a charging Fjallmáttr. All the younglings here are desperate to take your place, but none have been judged strong enough to accompany the hunters. This is a great honour for you.”

“I see,” Thor says, perking up a little. He is easily pleased, Loki thinks, for he himself finds hunting in such a large group and in such a ritualised way rather dull. But it will be a great step forward for the word to spread that the Odinson stood beside Thrymr-Jarl and faced the Fjallmáttr with courage and strength – and Loki has no doubts that he will do so.

Loki steps back to admire his handiwork. Thor’s hair is too short for the complicated styles Loki prefers, and so rather than twisting it back, he has simply separated it into half a dozen sections and added small plaits. It looks good, but would look even better with some jewellery, Loki thinks; perhaps another day Thor would allow him to weave rubies and garnets amidst the loops of hair, or better yet, in the future he might be able to persuade him to grow it long and then he could dress it properly, deck Thor in shimmering gemstones and rings engraved with runes to keep him safe and mark him as Loki’s…

“Loki?” Thor asks and he abruptly realises he is staring. What is wrong with him today?

“It suits you well,” he says honestly and he is too flustered to add a suggestive wink. “We should go now. To join the others. For the hunt.”

***

At the mound outside the boundary wall, Thrymr and five fully-grown hrimthurs are waiting for them, each dressed only in a plain kjarta and with a thick leather rope wound across and around their chests. The veiðihundr are no longer milling, but are arranged in a loose wedge formation, straining at their leashes, the cluster of tiny bells on their collars trilling as they pull towards the faint scent of their prey.

Thrymr is, for once, solemn and serious as he hands Thor an old but sharp battle-axe, mercifully free of any specific decoration or symbols. Thor takes it with a respectful head nod and balances it over his shoulder with a casual ease. With equal care Thrymr offers Loki the ceremonial staff: as long as Loki is tall, the bone staff is intricately carved with hunting scenes and bindrunes for success and good fortune, and topped with a large ring with yet more bells dangling from it. It is ancient and fragile and rather a nuisance, but Loki will take good of care of it, for if he damaged it Thrymr would tan his hide, Ríkikyn or no.

It is a tradition, the word that weighs heaviest on Loki’s hopes, but it is also a thing of beauty, and so he takes it carefully and raises it high before letting the reinforced base thud to the ground, the pealing of the large bells low and deep compared to the hounds’ incessant tinkling. It is all the jötnar have been waiting for and the hounds are unleashed: they leap forward, baying madly, falling into a long line as they plough through the snow, their heavy bodies creating a trough for the hunters to follow in. The hunt is on.

Thrymr sets off immediately, calling up the ice beneath his feet and surging forward in the easy, loose-limbed gait that will carry him for miles with a minimum of effort. His hunters fall in without a word and they are soon accelerating away, following the hounds further north, towards the coast.

Thor looks to Loki, and Loki is quietly pleased to see his expression is trusting rather than confused. “How are we to travel?” Thor asks; he should really not speak at all now the hunt has begun, but Loki is easily bored with silence and so neglected to mention this part of the ritual.

“Our own way,” Loki replies, and stepping aside from the well-trodden path of the others, he places the staff carefully on the ground and kneels at Thor’s feet. Thor watches curiously as Loki fashions two tapering, boat-shaped pieces of ice that he scores with the symbols for swiftness and safe travels, and then locks to the soles of Thor’s boots. “Have you been skating before?” he asks, as Thor tests his balance.

“Long ago, in Midgard, on bone skates and frozen lakes,” Thor replies. “They were not shaped like this.”

“Well, the principle is the same,” Loki says, “but these are better over long distances. I shall make a trail and you will follow.”

He concentrates for a moment and sweeps his palms wide; the churned snow and broken rock around them ripples and flattens and becomes a large circle of flat, smooth ice for Thor to practise on. Loki calls up his own skates and kicks off, gliding slowly around Thor, demonstrating the proper stride. Thor watches attentively and attempts to skate around Loki the moment he stills, but he is almost instantly unbalanced by the axe in his hands.

“Easily fixed,” Loki says, taking it from him and moving it to his back. A bit of improvisation with a belt and some laces and it rests in a harness of sorts, secure enough for short-term travel. Thor leans forward to counteract the pull of the heavy axe and tries again, and within minutes is gliding around Loki, settling into a smooth, alternating rhythm surprisingly well.

“It is like flying,” Thor laughs as his speed increases, braids whipping around his face as he turns. It ought to irk Loki how easily he takes to this, how the physical comes so naturally to him, but instead it makes him smile. No hrimthurs would ever stoop to such a trick, preferring to call their own ice and do as they have always done, but Thor embraces it with the same enthusiasm he had shown with Snarfari and his excitement is infectious. He will clearly be fine and so Loki picks up the staff and tucks it under one arm so he can hold his other hand outstretched in front of him. It will be a little awkward to manage the staff, his ice-calling and his own skating all at once, but he would be a poor seidr-master indeed if he could not rise to the challenge.

He kicks off, creating a wide path for Thor to follow along, and doesn’t look back; he would be furious if any did so to him, if they thought him so weak as to need help, and he is confident in Thor’s skills. Still, as Loki steadily builds up speed, he keeps an ear cocked for Thor’s breathing behind him. Sure enough, he can hear Thor closing, and he widens the path further, allowing him to come up alongside.

“We are lighter than the others,” Thor says, grinning wildly. “Shall we see if we are faster?”

Loki cannot help a laugh and picks up the pace as the two of them race after the hunters and the hounds, moving in perfect sync across the slippery ice.

***

They do in fact overtake the hunters, and if part of that is because Loki summons a swift wind to help them along and to confuse the hounds, then what does it matter, for Thor is whooping with joy as they flash past the baffled hrimthurs like a pair of oversized children. Thrymr looks less than pleased at their antics, given that a Fjallmáttr hunt is supposed to be a serious matter of honour and ritual, but he knows Loki well enough to recognise a small act of revenge and Loki is confident there will be no more private chats with his Odinson.

Thor remains oblivious to all of this and having swept past the others at least once is content to fall in alongside them once the lead hound begins to bay, a deep, mournful sound utterly at odds with the palpable excitement of the pack as huge, dark shapes loom over the horizon. As they draw closer, the vast monoliths reveal themselves to be not boulders but beasts, and the hunting party slows as they approach the Fjallmáttr herd.

It is mating season and so the herd is a small one with only one male, no larger than the rest, but easily distinguishable due to his massive spiralling horns, which curl down and flare out around his jaw, as opposed to the horns of the females, which arch up from their heads and curl inwards. He has established a harem of six females, who have with them this spring’s calves, only a few months old, with fluffy spotted-and-white baby coats and tiny bud-horns, and their immature yearlings, only half the size of the adults, their shaggy fur still transitioning to an adult coat, slate-grey along their backs but with long curtains of pale grey hair that is still white at the very tips.

There are less than twenty animals all together, but from a distance the herd looks more like a group of houses than living, breathing animals, for each adult stands more than twenty foot high, with huge, dense bodies and thick, coarse fur that makes them look even bigger than they are. Each is bigger and bulkier than Snarfari; they were the prey of the Íssdyr, back before the jötnar tamed them and the wild kind died out, and they have evolved to defend themselves from attack by predators far more massive than the hrimthurs.

 “Do you see now why you have an axe?” Loki asks sweetly and Thor muffles a curse.

“Are they the -”

“Fjallmáttr,” Loki supplies. “Yes, Thor. A herd of them. Our quarry is the bull – the one whose horns are lower and curled at the jaw. You will be defending Thrymr from the cows, who will be very, very aggressive. Their hides are thick and their hair long, so strike hard to turn them aside. You will not easily harm them. We do not wish to bring down any of the cows this day, but if you feel in danger, do not hold back. This is a dangerous quarry, even for the mightiest hrimthurs - if they trample you, you may not rise from it. However, you must be very careful not to harm any of the young animals – do not so much as strike at them. It is both taboo and an invitation for the entire herd to turn on you.”

“I understand,” Thor says, reaching over his back to wrestle his axe free from Loki’s bindings. “I expected large but nothing quite like this. They make Snarfari look like a pup!”

“Nervous?” Loki asks, knowing what the answer will be.

“Not in the least,” Thor replies with a feral grin. “But I wish I had Mjolnir with me. This may be the biggest foe I have ever faced and I am sorry not to have her in my hands.”

“Another time,” Loki says softly. “We will come again, just you and I and Mjolnir, and you may set yourself against your own bull, while I will defend you. It will be glorious.”

“I would like that,” Thor says, eyes shining, and Loki smiles to himself.

“We must not speak any further,” he says, ignoring the fact that their entire conversation has been the subject of disapproving looks from the more conventional hrimthurs. “Watch and copy the others. I will stand apart, for I am here as an observer only, but if you find yourself in difficulty -”

“I will not,” Thor says, with something of his previous arrogance. “You have never seen me in battle. I need no help from any man.”

“I am sure you are something to see,” Loki murmurs, irritation flaring. He had considered binding a small luck charm into Thor’s hair earlier, but had decided against it; he would know if Thor’s boasting is all noise or if he is truly the warrior all say he is. And if he is not? Well, Loki will not let him come to any true harm, but he will admit that he would rather enjoy seeing Thor getting knocked on his ass.

“Good luck,” he says as he melts their ice-skates with a flick of his wrist, and then he withdraws, calling up a churning column of ice to lift him high into the air. From his new vantage point he has an excellent view of the action, and he watches as Thor follows Thrymr and the others towards the agitated herd.

This close, Loki can smell the dominant male, who stinks of musk and his own pungent urine, a warning and declaration of status to any bachelor males in the area. It clashes horribly with the cloying scent of the females in heat, and is driving the hounds wild, and their frantic yelps mingle with the ringing of their collar bells. The herd has long been alerted to their presence by the noise, and has drawn itself up in a protective circle, calves and yearlings on the inside, with the adults a fearsome barricade of snorting, stamping muscle.

Thrymr barks his commands and the hounds howl in response, lunging and snapping at the adults, darting away when the Fjallmáttr attempt to charge them. The cows are focused on protecting the calves, and so it is easy work for the swift hounds to shift the circle sideways while isolating the male, two sets of sharp teeth baring his path as the rest of the pack feigns interest in the bleating youngsters.

The bull does not realise the danger at first, and actively tries to engage with the hounds, to keep them focused on him and not his offspring. But once the rest of the herd has been moved a good distance away, the pack peels off to surround him, and now he paws the ground and bellows, a hoarse, throaty sound, keeping his head low and swinging his huge horns from side to side. Thrymr calls the hounds off and despite their excitement, they obey, loping away from the bull to form a wide circle around the lowing cows, who are hard-pressed to watch both the veiðihundr and the hunters closing on the bull.

The five hrimthurs and Thor form up into a rough line between the herd and the isolated bull, who is still holding his ground, looking for the most immediate danger. Thrymr steps out and places himself immediately in front of the bull, stance wide and shoulders low, two thick ice clubs growing from his clenched fists. The bull bellows again and repeats his threat display. It is time.

Loki raises his staff high and brings it down with a sharp crack, the bell singing out and he screams, starting at a high point and climbing higher still, a piercing shriek that rings in the ears of all present. The other jötnar add their own deep shouts and the sudden sound panics the Fjallmáttr and especially startles the uneasy bull, who launches almost immediately into a charge.

The bull thunders towards Thrymr, intent on overrunning him, and Thrymr waits until the beast is nearly on him before he steps aside and slams his club into the side of the bull’s head. His club shatters, but he is already reforming it as the bull veers, unhurt and angry, skidding across the ice as it tries to turn and charge again. Thrymr stays close on it, trying to keep close to its side as it turns and turns, out of reach of the huge horns and sharp hooves, pummelling the bull’s flanks with his clubs, his grunts of effort clearly audible even to Loki. He cannot truly hurt the bull, not yet, and so is merely trying to tire it, to keep it maddened and straining as it tries to gore him.

Were Loki ever permitted to join this hunt, he would take a very different approach, but this is the time-honoured way to do things. Brute strength against an even bruter strength, with little thinking required on either part. Given his age and appearance, Thrymr’s power is indeed remarkable, but it is a familiar sight to Loki, who has seen him perform this feat before. His attention turns instead to Thor, who is holding the line with his fellow hunters, for the cows have realised the quarry is not their calves, and are massing to attempt a rescue.

If this were battle, the hrimthurs would raise a defensive ice-wall or fashion shields for themselves, but since this is a matter of honour their only defence is the blades, clubs, maces and hammers they call up along their hands and arms. The more experienced hunters dart forward and taunt an individual cow, luring her into a brief rush they can easily turn aside by swinging their weapon of choice at her face, leaving her snorting and pulling up, turning back to the safety of the others. They do not want to go far from the calves, and as long as they do not move as one, the hunters are in far less danger than Thrymr, grappling alone with a creature twice his size.

Thor looks tiny next to them, his metal blade flashing amid the ice and flesh, but even from this distance Loki can see his wide smile as he catches a retreating cow across the flanks, the blade edge repelled by her shaggy coat but the blow spurring her on as she kicks out and lurches back to the herd. Thor handles the double-headed axe with ease, obviously familiar with it; perhaps they still train with them in Asgard. He is tireless, keeping his axe high, going for the soft nose or eyes since he cannot reach as high as the others, and his strength is truly impressive, for the beasts he strikes seem even more dazed than those hit by the hrimthurs. The Fjallmáttr seem confused by their inability to mow this small, strange-smelling creature down, and bunch together anxiously until the hounds move in to break them apart again.

It is a fine spectacle: the pawing, champing animals, the fierce, brave hunters and Thrymr, Master of Thrymstaðr, straining against the beast, one hand now tightly clamped on its horn, dragging the head lower and lower, forcing the creature to its knees, the bull carving deep furrows into the ground as it fights back, tries to find the leverage to toss Thrymr over its head so it can trample him under its feet.

Loki smothers a yawn. This is not how he hunts, all sly cunning and fleet chase, pitting his wiles against those animals so stealthily even to see one is thought an accomplishment. He has hunted for pleasure and hunted for food, and while he is more than capable, it is not so exciting as to be one of his favoured pastimes. But then, he did not have this hunt arranged so swiftly for his own sake, and since he has already seen enough to be able to recount the tale later tonight, settles himself down cross-legged and watches Thor instead and wonders if he is one of those Aesir who can be roused to the bloodlust of the berserkr.

A great crunch diverts him from his musings and he realises Thrymr has broken the bull’s legs. The Fjallmáttr cannot rise, but lies helpless on its side, kicking wildly. The cows are moaning in distress, repulsed by the tang of blood that fills the air, and begin to back away, closing up around the calves and shepherding them away from where the bull has fallen.

Thrymr lifts its great head by the horns and swiftly, mercifully, draws a sharp ice-blade across its throat. The bull gives a gurgling sigh as Thrymr gently lowers its head, eyes glazing over as it slips almost immediately into death. It is done.

Thrymr stands over it, chest heaving, and then he tips his head back and howls, a long, undulating cry that echoes over the landscape. The other jötnar pick up the cry and add their own voices to it, even Loki on his high perch, a cacophony of sliding, sobbing notes. Thor seems bewildered for a moment, but then adds his own shout of victory, a raw and ragged sound amid the wailing giants, only to think better of it; Loki catches his eye and gives a small nod, and so he does it again and again, barely audible over the deep cries of the jötnar and the shaper baying of the veiðihundr. Loki lets his voice rise, clings to the highest notes, able to reach a pitch the others cannot, and lets the sound throb through him, swaying with it, exulting in a moment of unity that for him never lasts.

The sound disturbs the unsettled herd even further, and they swiftly move away, calling to each other mournfully. Once they have moved off, the giants fall silent and Thrymr steps forward. He opens the fallen Fjallmáttr’s mouth and, with a few brutal strokes of an ice-blade, hacks out the huge tongue. He holds the chunk of bloody meat in one hand and tears off a piece with his teeth, bolting the tough flesh as the hunters gather round him. He offers the tongue to them, and each steps forward and rips off a piece for themselves.

Thor steps forward without hesitation, and though he must use both hands to do so, confidently grasps the meat and tears off a small piece which he puts in his mouth and swallows without attempting to chew. Loki imagines it must be vile to someone raised on fruit and grains and flame-seared meat, but Thor does not grimace or gag. It is well done, and as Thrymr divides the remainder of the tongue between the delighted hounds, Loki collapses his pillar and re-joins the group, now the only one with unbloodied hands.

He picks his way across the churned ground and positions himself before the downed bull. He places one hand lightly on its filthy muzzle and, yet again, lifts the staff high and then brings it down, letting the bell peal out a final time.

“Victory is yours, Thrymr of Thrymstaðr,” he says formally. “A great song will be sung this night.”

The ritual thus completed, the hrimthurs breaks out in cheers and rush to slap the grinning Thrymr on the back, playfully shoving at each other and talking over each other, high-spirited as children. Thor is momentarily taken aback by the abrupt change in mood, but it suits him well, for he joins in without a second thought, heartily congratulating Thrymr and admiring the size of the bull.

Loki shoos them aside as they chatter, competing to describe exactly what they did not two minutes ago and in each other’s sight, for he has one more task here. Once he has enough room, he calls and shapes the ice around the dead bull, lifting it up on to a plinth of solid ice and then shaping long, broad runners for it and a flat seating platform at the front. Any jötunn could do the same, but only he can reach out to the ice-sled and inscribe it with the runes for permanence and lightness, and thus be able to step away and leave the pulling to the others without the entire thing collapsing.

The other jötnar unwind the leather ropes from around their chests and loop them around the hooks and rings Loki has built in for this purpose, while Thrymr gathers his hounds and lashes them to the front of the sleigh. It is Thrymr’s privilege to ride home while the others pull, for the butchering of the carcass will be done back at Thrymr’s hall. It will take the strength of all five hrimthurs and the hounds to drag it and Thrymr back there. Loki would normally ride on the sleigh, and turns to invite Thor to do likewise, as an honoured guest, but he stops short, for Thor is deep in conversation with the hunters.

It is unsettling to see Thor grinning and slapping the larger warriors on the back, unfazed that he must stand on tip-toe to do so. He has the same easy charm as Býleistr, without his younger sibb’s diffidence, and Thrymr and his hunters are responding to it, laughing and joking with Thor without the restraint all but the Jarl show toward Loki. Thor is pale and overdressed and he shines bright even in his dull clothing; he should be even more out of place than an íviðjur and yet…he is not and the realisation burns, tastes foul and bitter in Loki’s mouth. The hrimthursar like him. They like him better than they like Loki.

Loki’s skin crawls and he is furious and envious and heartsick, all at once, and this is not what he wanted, not what he bargained for in ingratiating the ignorant Aesir Prince with the northerners. Damn Thor, damn Thrymr, damn them all.

Loki tosses his ceremonial staff carelessly to the side, creating a fearful racket as it crashes to the ground, and Thor is turning, smile sliding into confusion but Loki does not care, does not wait for him to speak, but begins to run, building up the speed he needs, a short, sharp dash across the ice, his hands moving jerkily as he sketches the runes of transformation and to call up the wind. His body twists, bones popping, hollowing out from the core, and as the wind rises he stretches his arms wide, feels them flatten and his feathers sprout and then the wind catches and lifts him and he is soaring, flying, leaving the wide-eyed Thor behind as he climbs into the sky.

Loki beats his wings, settles himself more comfortably into his familiar falcon-shape, and lets himself scream, lets the rushing wind and his own powerful wings carry him further and further up, until there is nothing but the endless, inky black of Jötunheimr’s starless sky, the hunting party a dark smudge on the otherwise pristine landscape. A gyrfalcon is a creature of pure purpose, of instinct and passion honed to one simple end: to dive and strike and kill, but his belly is full and nothing moves swiftly enough to catch his hunter’s eye and so in this shape Loki can forget how to feel, how to think, and simply circle, holding on to only enough of himself that he tracks the hunters back towards the settlement, letting his rage and jealousy and desperate desire bleed away into the shifting air currents.

It is a dangerous mood to fly in, for the longer he stays like this, the harder it will be to come back, to remember that there is anything more than flight and strike and feed and rest, but he cares not, revelling in his freedom, both from the bounds of the earth and the simmering hunger that drives him on. He banks and wheels, the wind sliding over his body like a lover’s hands, his pointed wings scything through the air, the world spread out beneath him, ripe for the taking.

***

By the time the tiny figures far below reach the cluster of angular shapes Loki dimly knows as buildings, he has almost forgotten why he has tracked them so far when they are neither good eating nor potential threat. But then the smallest figure breaks apart from the group and looks up, arm raised, and his hair shines golden in the ice-light and his eyes are as blue as the highest edge of the heavens that Loki has reached and he remembers want and need and desire, and he closes his wings and drops like a stone, hurtling through the howling wind, only to fling his wings wide open at the last moment, talons lifted, momentum arrested, and he grasps the raised forearm tightly, shearing through the leather to score skin and flesh and then he has landed. He shifts his weight and fixes Thor with an unblinking stare, fluffing his feathers proudly.

“Loki,” Thor says, his voice rich with an emotion Loki’s bird-mind cannot hope to comprehend, and he runs a finger gently over Loki’s breast. Loki considers nipping it for the impertinence, but instead he allows it, preening as Thor continues to admire him, apparently indifferent to where Loki’s fearsome talons have opened ragged wounds along his arm.

Loki can only stand to be petted so for a short time and he is soon restless, and chatters irritably at Thor, who immediately drops his hand and holds his arm out. Loki launches himself free, but the touch and the sound of Thor’s voice have been enough, and he abandons his falcon-shape before he climbs too high, dropping back to the ground and landing in a crouch, chest heaving and arms trembling from the strain.

He gathers himself and rises, affecting nonchalance. The hunters have dragged the Fjallmáttr carcass towards the storage huts and almost everyone in the settlement is now helping to butcher it, freezing the meat to be kept through the months to come, removing the bones for stock and carving and building, the hide removed in large sections for leather-working and tanning. No jötnar has spared a second glance for his transformation, for all know the íviðjur are fond of changing their shape and all here have seen Loki’s falcon plumes a dozen times or more.

But Thor is looking at him in wonder, one hand pressed over the bleeding scratches that are visible through his torn wristguard.

“You can fly,” he says and a sharp retort bubbles up in Loki, bred of anger mixed with the falcon’s urge to strike, but it is not so savage as it was before and he chokes it back down, thinks of the freedom and the touch of the wind, and forces himself to hear the awe and envy in Thor’s voice.

“I can,” he replies proudly. “I may not have faced a Fjallmáttr, but I have hunted on the wing and in the depths of the sea; I have raced across the plains and lurked amidst the ice-floes. I have brought down more game than any jötunn here and fought harder for my prizes.”

He had not meant to boast, but he is tired of being thought less, most of all by Thor. That Thrymr would let an Aesir stand in the hunt when he has always denied Loki that honour is a wound he has only just realised he has suffered, and one that smarts all the more that no-one else would see the injustice.

But Thor, charming, shining Thor, seems oblivious to the darkness roiling within Loki. “Would you hunt with me?” he asks, openly excited. “As a falcon? I have never seen such a beautiful bird as you make.”

It is a strange first compliment to receive from one’s soon-to-be-betrothed, but it is genuine, as is Thor’s desire to have him as a companion, and it helps to soothe him from irritation back to relative calm.

“Yes, of course,” he says. “Another day. You should bathe and rest before the feast tonight. Nothing more will be expected of you today.”

“And you?” Thor asks with a shrewdness that startles Loki. “What more is expected of you?”

“I will sing the song of the hunt at the feast, so that all might celebrate your victory,” Loki tells him. “That is why I was allowed to accompany you at all. So I may bear witness to the prowess of the hunters and share it after.” And never, ever be counted among the victors or have my own prowess praised.

“Ah, yes, you are a skald as well as a shapeshifter,” Thor says, as if he has only just remembered what Loki is. Singer and sorcerer, bedmate and broodmare, a jewel of Jötunheimr; as valued and cared for and thought as much capable as any other shiny bauble. But Thor does not stop there. “Would I had half your talents,” he says cheerfully. “Well, I will listen closely, so I can tell your tale with some skill after our own hunt.”

Loki stares at him, so angry and so stunned for the first time in his life he cannot even shape the words he needs in his own mind. Thor does not understand, is not even capable of understanding how Loki feels and yet – and yet in the same breath has treated Loki more as an equal than any other warrior, and casually referred to their future together. Loki’s skin itches and he is half a step away from throwing off his form and fleeing, finding another, any other, and leaving the tangled mess he has become behind. Why is this happening? His plan is working, the Aesir Prince trusts and values him, and yet he himself feels lost and confused the more time he spends in Thor’s company.

But then Thor slings a friendly arm around his shoulder and Loki would not run even if he could. “Come,” Thor says, blessedly and blastedly innocent; “I need a bath and the water here is vastly unpleasant. Do you think you could heat it for me?”

“I suppose,” Loki says, resisting the urge to lean into Thor’s extraordinary body heat. “But what would be in it for me?”

Thor laughs as if this is a fine jest, but Loki is still wondering what the answer is as Thor pulls him toward the bath-house.

***

Loki does end up heating the bathwater to a near intolerable temperature, although it is more to discourage the incessantly giggling younglings who would otherwise insist on joining them. Even the older and supposedly wiser Thrymkyn develop a sudden fancy for bathing in the middle of the day and wander in and out of the bath-house to blatantly gawp at Thor, and not even Loki’s fiercest glare can get rid of them. Thor tolerates it surprisingly well, given how uncomfortable he seemed with the idea yesterday; he is more relaxed and happier than he has been since Loki met him, and Loki can only assume the hunt has loosened the knot of tension he has clearly been carrying with him.

The casual atmosphere of Thrymstaðr obviously suits Thor better than the formality of the court, a fact which Loki should be analysing to better understand him, but it is impossible to focus on such things when Thor is stretched out, head tipped back on the rim of the bath, eyes closed and sighing happily in the steaming water. Were they alone, Loki would be curled next to him or attempting to climb into his lap, but he will not be a show for what feels like the entire population of Thrymr’s hall. So instead he pants and pretends the heat is not affecting him and watches the younglings like a hawk.

After the bath, Thor falls into bed, intent on sleeping away the afternoon. Loki politely declines his invitation to join him, sadly lacking in any innuendo, and settles himself on the furthest corner of the bed with his hair jewellery, meaning to re-dress himself for the feast. Thor is soon asleep and Loki lets the gemstones and rings fall from his hands as he re-evaluates his plans.

He had thought to remain in Thrymstaðr for a month or so crossing the glacier to visit Vafthruðnirstaðr and Hraesvelgstaðr, and from them travel via the sea to Útgarðar and the Ironwood. But he can see now what this will bring: Thor will no doubt endear himself to the gruff warriors of the north and as Thor seems to be getting over his dislike of the jötnar, he will almost certainly begin to gravitate toward the hrimthurs for sparring and hunting and all manner of foolishness, and so slide further and further from Loki’s grasp. He has been too caught up in trying to please Thor to realise that for all his size and strange appearance, Thor is closer in spirit to the straightforward warriors than an outsider like Loki, and so will prefer their company.

This will not do. He is quite accustomed to being met with a touch of uncertainty wherever he goes in the Staðr, but he will be damned if he will suffer the indignity of watching the close-minded hrimthurs welcome an Aesir Prince with all the fondness they deny their own King’s firstborn child. They will stay in Thrymstaðr for at most a fortnight and they will not visit the other northern Staðr at all; instead, Loki will take Thor straight to Útgarðar.

 Let Thor be the one who is off-balance and out of place in the castle of the íviðja. In his own rooms and amongst his own kind, Loki is certain he will have the advantage and will be able to think more clearly. It will mean dealing with Angrboða and Járnsaxa, who present a certain set of difficulties, but he will cross that bridge when he comes to it. Another benefit is that Útgarðar is shrouded from the sight of Asgard’s Gatekeeper; Thor seems unconcerned that Heimdall can see all he does, but Loki has never been fond of uninvited scrutiny.

Decision made, Loki feels a little calmer. The feast tonight will at least provide an opportunity for him to show off and perhaps even enjoy himself. Thrymr’s feasts are always entertaining and even with such short notice he will have spared nothing to properly host the Odinson in his hall. This night will be talked of for years to come; Loki had best be sure his performance is truly outstanding, and so he leans back and hums quietly to himself as he re-braids his jewellery into his hair, thinking through how he will tell the tale of the hunt, while Thor slumbers on unaware beside him.

***

It is hours later, and any enjoyment Loki had managed to find has long since ebbed away. He had dressed in his royal finery for his performance, his favourite torc and best kjalta, and he sang the tale well enough that almost the entire hall had joined in for the victory cry unprompted. But once it was done, the attention of the assembled jötnar had shifted from him entirely to Thor, seated at the high table with Thrymr, and Loki has had to endure countless simpering and fawning hrimthurs monopolising Thor in conversation and pressing drinks on him.

That Thor has carelessly accepted the attention as his due and had the cheek to invite a few of the more interesting conversationalists to sit with him and Loki as he regales them with seemingly endless hunting and battle stories has only made it worse. The feasting is long since over and now Thor and everyone but Loki is roaringly drunk on Thrymr’s potent araka. Loki too has drunk his fair share of the milk-based spirit, but his bitterness has lingered and kept him little more than tipsy and foul tempered as Thor has laughed and arm-wrestled and generally been charming and popular and beloved by the Thrymkyn.

But for everyone else the araka is doing its work: already some of the younglings have passed out, their bravado getting the better of them, while the older jötnar are laughing and shouting, forming into couples and small groups, stumbling out to the private quarters or cosying up where they lounge on the raised platforms. Loki estimates that within the hour there will be a full-scale orgy involving whoever elects to remain that long. Thrymr’s hospitality is legendary, after all.

Time to leave. Thor is still laughing and drinking with the rest of them, face flushed and eyes bright, but he starting to slur and some of the other, drunker jötnar are watching him too closely for Loki’s liking. Despite their conversation yesterday, he has honestly no idea how Thor would react to being invited to join a group and no intention of finding out. Thor is his and he means to keep it that way.

“Thor,” Loki says, leaning forward and placing his hand on Thor’s thigh. “It grows late and my head is spinning. Might I ask you to take me back to our room?”

“The night is young!” Thor says, a shade too loudly, and as he turns to Loki he pitches forward and must right himself by grasping Loki’s shoulder. “You cannot be tired yet!”

“He ain’t tired,” bellows someone a few seats down, which sets off a chain of over-loud sniggering. Loki thinks quite seriously about summoning a brief but violent swarm of fleas but the innuendo seems to completely bypass the intoxicated Thor.

“Are you unwell?” he asks anxiously, peering at Loki. “Have I upset you?”

The sweetness of the sentiment is spoilt by Thor’s liquored breath, but it pleases Loki a little nonetheless. “I am not upset,” he says, striving to sound merry, “I just want to go to bed and I want you to take me there. Now. Please,” he tags on the end belatedly, but Thor is already moving, lurching out of his chair, still hanging on to Loki’s shoulder.

There’s a riot of whooping and hollering behind them, but Loki grits his teeth and ignores it, practically dragging Thor out of the hall and towards their room. Thor is stumbling and listing badly, and is becoming a steadily heavier weight against Loki the longer they are moving. It is a relief to finally tow him to the bed and throw him on to it.

“You are sure you are not upset?” Thor says, blinking up at him, as Loki wrestles him out of his clothes, cursing the Aesir fondness for laces and layers. He seems fixated on the idea of Loki being upset and will not stop asking, and it is starting to truly annoy Loki.

“And how would you make it up to me if I were?” he snaps as he tugs off his trousers, leaving Thor only in his underwear. Thor puzzles over this under his breath as if it were an immensely complicated question and Loki is on the brink of gagging the idiot when Thor suddenly sits up and seizes him by the shoulders.

“However I have offended you, I am deeply sorry for it,” Thor says haltingly, struggling to get the words out coherently. “You have treated me with kindness and I want to do the same. I want to be your friend. I want -” Loki waits, genuinely interested, but Thor has lost his train of thought and now seems fixated on the loose strand of Loki’s hair that is hanging over his face. “You are so beautiful,” Thor tells him, face crumpling into confusion. “I wish – I wish we had just met, just stumbled across each other and we could just -”

“Just what?” Loki asks as Thor trails off again. This is pointless; Thor is a Prince of Asgard and he the child of Jotunheim’s King. They would never have ‘just met’.

Thor pushes the offending strand of hair behind Loki’s ear. “Just this,” he says and he leans in and kisses Loki. He tastes too strongly of araka and his beard scrapes across Loki’s chin but he is sweet and earnest and irrespective of his foul temper Loki has been craving this moment ever since he saw him, fierce and arrogant and brash before Laufey-King. He kisses him back, and leans closer into Thor, and Thor gives a low moan as Loki slides his hands over his bare chest.

Thor kisses him more hungrily, blindly reaching for him, and so Loki slides into his lap and gives himself over to the fierce heat of his body and the softness of his lips. He is still angry, though he could not say if it is with Thor, with his own people or with himself, but he twists that anger, uses it to fuel his lust, and pushes Thor down onto the bed. He breaks off from kissing Thor’s lips to mouth at his neck, wanting desperately to bite and claim him, to assert his dominance over this precious, perfect Prince, but he restrains himself, for he does not know how an Aesir would react to such a thing.

Thor makes a strange snorting sound and Loki stills. “Thor?” Loki asks, sitting up, but there is no answer: Thor just lies there, eyes closed, unresponsive. “Thor!” he says more sharply but no, Thor remains flat on his back, his slow breathing interrupted by the occasional drunken snore.

He is asleep.

The bastard has fallen asleep. Loki is furious. He – he is going to – he is going to slap him, no, punch him, wake him up and scream at him, throw him out of the room and let him sleep in the ice – except that then the others would know and no-one, no-one has ever fallen asleep on Loki before and – and –

Thor grunts and gropes at Loki, tugging him closer and wrapping his arms around him. He nuzzles his face into Loki’s hair and huffs, restless, until Loki relaxes his clawed hands and lays flat again his chest again.

He will make the Odinson pay for this. Dearly. But not tonight. A drunken brawl will not serve his interests and he will not make a spectacle of himself, nor let any of the other jötnar know what insult has been paid to him. But he will not forget.

Thor Odinson is going to suffer.

Chapter Text

Thor wakes, and for the first time in decades, rather wishes he hadn’t. His head is pounding and there is a foul taste in his mouth; when he tries to stir, the room spins and his gorge rises. By the Norns, what is in the araka that it could give him such a hangover?

It takes a few false starts, but he manages to get himself up and something approximating dressed without being sick, and he dunks his whole head in the bowl of freezing cold water in the small bathroom to try and wake himself up properly. He is so consumed by his own misery that it is not until he is squeezing the excess water from his hair that he abruptly realises he is alone in the guestroom.

Loki must have given up on waking him, he guesses, and gone to breakfast alone. It seems a shame that they will not be eating together, for Thor is already fond of this private time together in the mornings, but he does not begrudge Loki for leaving him in his stupor. He is fairly confident that breakfast will be served in the same great hall as last night’s feast, for it is the only building of its size in the settlement, and so once he has pushed his hair from his face and managed to get his boots on, he sets out to find Loki and food, preferably in that order.

For once, he is very grateful for Jotunheim’s perpetual twilight, as it means he does not have to deal with the sun’s glare as he stumbles towards the hall. It feels like mid-morning, but there are not many signs of life within the settlement; it seems he is not the only one worse for wear after the celebration last night.

As luck would have it, just as he rounds the corner of the hall, he spots a familiar figure walking away, and he hurries over to him – well, for a certain value of ‘hurry’, anyway.

 “Good morning, Loki!” he says as cheerfully as he can as he catches up to him. “I trust you are feeling better than I am?”

“Define ‘better’,” Loki says, tone sharp, and Thor chuckles. So Loki too is feeling a little delicate today!

“I don’t suppose you have any tricks for curing self-inflicted ills?” he asks.

Loki freezes and, very slowly turns; Thor takes a step back as he sees the expression on his face. “Tricks?” Loki hisses. “I can assure you, Odinson, using my tricks to make you feel better is the very last thing on my mind this day.”

Thor stares at him, dumbfounded, mind working sluggishly through the fog of his hangover. What can have prompted this?

“Loki? Have I offended you?” he tries.

Loki throws his hands in the air. “What do you think?”

I think you are making my headache worse, Thor thinks irritably, but he is in no mood for an argument, and decides to tries mollification instead. “However I have offended you, I  -”

However you have offended me?” Loki snaps, eyes narrowing; somehow Thor’s choice of words have pushed him from irritation to fury. “How dare you - do you even know why I am angry?”

“Ah, well,” Thor hedges but it is too late.

“You are a brainless, witless, worthless oaf,” Loki spits, fingers flexing as thin filaments of ice creep over his hands and begin to coalesce into what looks suspiciously like a knife. “I cannot stand the sight of you!”

Thor is so surprised by Loki’s sudden insults that it takes a moment for his own anger to flare into life, but once it does his outrage burns brightly. How dare he speak to him so! Loki is acting like an insulted fishwife, when all Thor did was ask, quite reasonably, if he would consider alleviating his hangover – a small and easy spell the healers of Asgard have cast for him many times!

This is no way for a Prince of Asgard to be treated, not even by a fellow Prince, and Thor means to tell him so at once. But he is slowed by tiredness and his hangover, and by the time he finds the words to express his own anger, Loki has already turned on his heel and stalked away.

Well, fine. If Loki wants to stomp off and sulk over imagined slights, let him. Thor is in desperate need of a drink and, although his stomach roils at the thought, something to eat. Loki can come and apologise to him later, Thor thinks self-righteously. He is not going to chase him around the settlement!

Thor ignores Loki’s retreating silhouette and heads for the hall’s entrance. Mercifully, there are dozens of jugs of fresh water on the table as soon as he gets inside, and Thor grabs the closest one and drains it as fast as he can, then another, and then another. Feeling better already, he puts together a plate of meats – no eggs, no cheeses, not yet – and looks about for somewhere to sit. At the back of the room, he spies the unmistakable bulk of Thrymr, and makes his way over, stepping around the jötnar slumped over the table or crashed out in the corners, still sleeping off the night’s revelry.

“Ye look as shit as I feel,” Thrymr says by way of greeting as he takes a seat near the Jarl and four younger jötnar. “Get some of this down ye,” he says and shoves a large bone cup full of the whey-drink towards Thor. The milky smell has Thor heaving for a moment, but he grits his teeth and downs it, and in fairness, once he gets over the immediate urge to retch, having something warm in his belly does start to help.

They eat in silence after that, the younger jötnar noticeably pale-faced and trembling as they pick at their breakfast, but the delicious smoked meats and plentiful water soon does its work, and conversation has picked up by the time Thor clears his plate and sits back, sighing in relief.

“Ye met my barns last night,” Thrymr says when he notices Thor has finished eating, “but I don’t expect ye t’remember their names. This be Bergfinnr, Thrívaldi and Hrungnir – and this one ain’t mine, but I knew his bera well, if ye catch me drift, and I’m right fond of him.”

Thor nods at Thrymr’s children, whom he does vaguely remember talking to last night, and at Eivind, who he distinctly remembers arm wrestling at one point. They all have something of Thrymr’s looks, but his gaze lingers on the eldest, Bergfinnr, who despite having the same broad frame as Thrymr, has much more delicate features. Is there something of Loki in his face?

No, he decides after a moment, a little ashamed of the thought. But Thrymr has caught him looking and grins. “He’s a pretty one, isn’t he?” he says proudly slapping Bergfinnr on the back. “Much prettier than me! Takes after his geta, he does.”

Bergfinnr rolls his eyes. “As if ye even know who my geta be,” he says cheekily, and dodges as Thrymr aims a mock-punch at his arm.

“Aye, it were a good night!” Thrymr says with a bawdy laugh. “Whichever one he was, he were very pretty. I do like a pretty face,” he adds, winking at Thor in a most disconcerting way, and the whole table erupts into guffaws and wolf-whistles. After a moment, Thor laughs too; really, it is funny, and he can see no insult in being thought fine to look on.

“Urgh, bera, must ye?” Bergfinnr complains loudly, grinning just as widely as Thrymr before turning to Thor. “I don’t know yer preferences,” he says, voice heavy with innuendo, “but as for me, I find a good workout the best way t’chase away the demons of drink! I ain’t so great a warrior as my bera, but I would face ye in the sparring-ring, if you be up for it?”

“Aye, that is a sound plan,” Thor says, brightening: at last, a chance to spar with a Frost Giant! “Let me put on my practice tunic and I will meet you there.”

“Ye ‘ave clothing just t’practise in?” Hrungnir says curiously, and somehow Thor ends up explaining sweating to the confused looking younglings, who seem alternately repulsed and intrigued by the concept of one’s skin becoming wet during exertion.

Despite Thor’s offers to help, Thrymr’s younger children clear the table and head out to prepare the training ring, giving Thor a few moments alone with Thrymr before he will join them. Since the opportunity has fallen into his lap, he decides to appeal to the older hrimthurs for help, and recounts to him Loki’s inexplicable behaviour earlier.

“Ah,” Thrymr says, his sage expression spoilt by the twinkle of amusement in his eyes. “Ye’ve discovered our Silvertongue’s famous temper, then. Pay him no mind, Odinson. Just give him some space and he’ll come out of it.”

“So you do not know why he might be wroth with me?” Thor says, slightly disappointed.

Thrymr shrugs. “Who knows why the íviðja do anything?” he says, “and I’ve bedded one and birthed another! See t’yerself for a day, that’s my advice. He’ll tell ye what ye’ve done when he’s good and ready. Just weather his tantrum and nod along t’whatever he says. It’ll blow over.”

Thor makes a non-committal noise and thanks him for his advice. Thrymr has many duties to see to today, he says, and so Thor leaves him to it, picking up another flagon of water to take with him as he heads back to his room. Loki is still not there, and Thor has seen no further sign of him, so he quickly strips and redresses in an old pair of leggings and a well-worn sleeveless tunic. He is not at all convinced by Thrymr’s oddly dismissive advice concerning Loki, but since Loki has not made himself available to talk to, he might as well try following it, since Thrymr has known him so much longer.

***

The practice ground turns out to be a scrap of land near the kennels, with a rough circle raised from the ice to mark out a sparring ring. As Thor arrives, the small group of casual watchers parts to reveal that Bergfinnr and Thrívaldi are busy finishing off a fresh coat of ice to flatten the churned ground, while Hrungnir and Eivind have thoughtfully prepared a selection of metal weapons for Thor to use. He has brought his borrowed battle-axe, but seeing the effort they have gone to, decides to put it aside and try an old, battered sword, deliberately blunted, that looks to him to be dwarven in design.

“Swords first, then?” Bergfinnr says when he sees Thor with the dull blade in hand. “No edges, touch the tip t’score?”

Thor has not trained in such a playful way in a long time; he put aside the blunted youths’ weapons ages ago, and these days almost always uses Mjolnir – holding back with his strikes, of course, but fighting hard with either the Einherjar or his friends. It will be fun to play these training games again, he decides, and not too strenuous after last night.

After half an hour, he reconsiders this assessment.

Oh, it is fun – exhilarating, breath-taking fun, as he is forced to use every ounce of his skill to outwit and outmanoeuvre an opponent so much larger than himself, without using the sweeping blows and brute strength he usually employs – but it is not easy, by any stretch of the imagination. Only taps of the very point of the sword count, and while Bergfinnr does not have anything like Thrymr’s power, nor Thor’s, he has a strong defence, and Thor is finding it a real challenge to find weak spots for him to jab into, while dodging the thick point of Bergfinnr’s ice-blade.

He tries desperately to remember Sif and Fandral’s techniques, since this is much more their fighting style, and by the time an hour has passed, he is breathing heavily and his cheeks ache from grinning. When they break to drink and argue over the score, his loose training tunic ends up discarded on the ground; the enchanted pendant around his neck is so powerful that he feels as if he were training at the height of the summer, and he is far too hot to keep it on. There is a rush of whispering as he takes his place opposite Bergfinnr without it, and after the next round of blows, he is not surprised to see that the number of observers has doubled.

This is nothing new for Thor. In Asgard, he has trained publically with the Einherjar for a century or more, and always drawn a crowd while doing so. He should be more mindful of himself here, be careful to acquit himself well, and above all, try not to fall flat on his back as he dodges Bergfinnr’s sledgehammer blows, but all he can think of as he scans the fascinated crowd is that there is no black hair amidst the sleek and craggy heads, no slim and sparkling figure watching with that distinctive half-amused, half-contemplative gaze.

Loki is nowhere to be seen.

It sits at the back of his mind all through the exhilarating session with Bergfinnr, even as he focuses on adapting his usual techniques to meet a challenger taller and broader than himself without Mjolnir, and it continues to worry at him as he agrees to demonstrate some basic Asgardian techniques to a few interested warriors. The exercise has done him good, as it always does, and he feels clear-headed and restored as he makes his way to the baths.

His usual entourage do not follow him, apparently satisfied with ogling him in the ring, and so he has some peace and quiet to think as he scrubs away the sweat with handfuls of tingling snow and plenty of soap, making sure to sluice himself off properly before climbing in to the regretfully tepid bath water.

His anger has passed with his hangover, and now he begins to wonder what exactly had provoked Loki to such a surprising display of temper this morning. As far as last night goes, Thor remembers clearly the feast and Loki’s performance; remembers all too well watching, entranced, as Loki danced and sang in his rich ceremonial skirts, jewellery chiming softly as he moved, the perfect accompaniment to his velvet voice. Loki’s song had been more sound than words, liquid notes rippling from his throat, rising and falling in complex patterns.

It had been strange and wonderful to Thor, who though accustomed to the long stories sung by Asgard’s skalds, often with great passion and skill, has never seen a skald dance as they told the tale, never seen one gasping for breath as they re-enacted the great blows of the hunter, the thrashing and sinking of the prey. Silvertongue does not do justice to half of what Loki can do, and Thor had cheered him as loudly as he could and heaped him with praise when he returned to his seat.

Loki had been happy enough then, soaking up Thor’s sincere admiration, but beyond that? Thor remembers drinking, remembers the deceptively sweet flavour of the jötnar’s spirit drink and the fierce burning aftertaste; he remembers roaring with laughter at Thrivaldi’s long, meandering joke about a bear and a hunter, though the punchline eludes him. Otherwise, the evening is a blur, a black hole in his memory. He dimly remembers leaning on Loki and being surprised at his strength; he has an unpleasant memory of the floor of their room pitching beneath his feet and a sense of spinning as he hit the bed, Loki’s hands on his shoulders – but that is all.

Thor is not a fool.  It does not take much thought to see a link between him being blind drunk and being put to bed by Loki and Loki’s being angry with him this morning. Thor is not surprised he made some kind of advance while drunk, for he has always been over-affectionate and, he will admit privately, somewhat lustful when in drink, but he has never caused offence by it; and besides, Loki has been perfectly open about his interest in Thor’s body. He has learnt already that the jötnar attach no intimacy nor intention of courtship to sex, and certainly not to two friends finding pleasure together at such an event, so it is not as simple as assuming that he attempted a seduction and was rebuffed.

No, he must have done or said something truly vile in his intoxicated state – and it is likely, he is forced to realise, that it was something deeply offensive connected to the jötnar unique anatomy. He does not want to think so of himself, but really, what else could he have done to upset Loki so?

Thor forgets the unpleasant coolness of the bath and the lingering ache in his muscles as a creeping horror steals over him. If this is so, he has dishonoured himself and Loki, and proved himself no better than the vain, cruel boy his father had accused him of being. The fact that he cannot even remember what happened does not mitigate his sense of responsibility. Loki has been nothing but welcoming and kind, and this is how he repays him?

The fault is his, he decides, burning with shame, and he has only compounded it by reacting poorly again this morning. Whatever must Loki think of him, acting like a boor in bed and then spending the next morning joking with the other warriors, careless of Loki’s feelings? Just because he has no intention of marrying him does not mean he can treat him however he likes. Loki is due the proper respect, and beyond that, Thor promised him friendship; that means he owes Loki an apology – right now.

Thor scrambles from the bath and dries and dresses as speedily as he can. He should have pursued Loki first thing this morning, but there is nothing he can do about that now. Where is he likely to be?

Thor has no idea. He has grasped the layout of the settlement quickly enough; though it is large, it is nothing close to a city, and there are few places Loki could be hiding. But all around them is the open expanse of the plain, and as Loki demonstrated so beautifully yesterday, he also has the entirety of the sky to soar in if he wishes to avoid company.

Best to wait for him in their shared room, Thor decides, even though he was not there earlier. Better to be found waiting than to waste the afternoon wandering aimlessly around the settlement and be thought idling and indifferent.

As he walks the short distance from the bathhouse to the private rooms he is greeted warmly by the groups of hrimthursar he passes; it seems the Thrymkyn too have thrown off their hangovers and normal life is returning to the settlement. He politely declines the friendly invitations that come his way, but does ask in return if any have seen Loki. He is answered with grins and playful comments, but nothing useful, and so he resigns himself to a long wait as he sinks down into one of the chairs in their empty room.

***

In the event, it is only an hour before Loki returns, though with nothing to do and too many thoughts it feels much longer. Loki seems utterly unsurprised to find Thor waiting, and says nothing upon entering, taking his time in moving around the room and inspecting the various trinkets and belongings Thor has disturbed in his anxious fidgeting.

“Finished playing with the younglings, have we?” he says at last, lips curled in a sneer as he leans against the table, looking down his nose at Thor.

Prevarication is not Thor’s style. “Loki, I am sorry,” he says, looking up and directly into Loki’s eyes. “I have wronged you, and I regret it.”

This knocks some of the wind out of Loki’s sails and it takes him a moment to recover. “An apology means little when you do not know what it is for,” he observes icily. “Or are pretty words all an Asgardian will offer after offence has been given?”

Thor thinks on this. If he truly offended someone and they did not want his apology, he might face them in the holmgang, where both might prove their honour; were it a lesser matter, he might offer weregild or his time in repairing the damage – he had spent many days labouring after wrecking taverns in drunken brawls, as his furious father would not let such behaviour slide, even though the nervous owners had insisted they did not need reparation from the royal family. But this is completely different. What can he offer Loki?

And, just like that, he has it.

He has humiliated Loki. He will offer his own humiliation in return: a small, private one, a humbling, as payment for the hurt he has caused.

Thor stands and Loki stands his ground, head tilted slightly up: a challenge, since they are of a height. But Thor is not looking to fight, with words or blows, and so he drops, one knee flat to the ground, the other leg bent, and he drops too his head and places one palm on the floor; the other hand he places flat against his heart.

“I ask you for your forgiveness and I offer you my sincere apology and my hope for our continued friendship,” Thor says formally, looking up at Loki. “I will not disrespect you again. You have my word.”

Loki stares down at him, lips parting in surprise, and Thor hopes that he will understand the importance of this gesture, for he has knelt to no-one but his parents in well over a century, and the last time he did so was the swear his coronation oaths. It is no small thing for him to do so now, to bend the knee to another Prince and a jötunn, no less.

To kneel and pledge is a common practice in Asgard, and Thor has accepted such displays of respected and loyalty from just about everyone he knows. A warrior offers his allegiance in such a way, though with a clenched fist over his heart; a lover plights his troth in this position, though with one hand outstretched to the beloved; the lower-ranked acknowledges his superior by making this self-same pose, though they would drop their gaze to the floor.

He has not seen anything like this so far in Jotunheim, for the jötnar have little ceremony, and seem careless of formalities and titles. There is a hierarchy here, certainly, but it seems enforced more through small gestures and precedence than the ritual and careful respect he is used to. Nevertheless, surely Loki will take his meaning and see the sincerity of his words?

The moment drags out as Thor looks up into Loki’s eyes, and Thor begins to fear that his actions, though heavy with import to him, mean little to Loki. Loki looks quite stunned and cannot seem to stop staring at Thor, frozen in place as he wrestles with something beyond Thor’s comprehension.

Thor tries again. “Loki?” he prompts, eyeing the way Loki’s hands flutter and start towards his face and neck before falling back to his side. “Can you forgive me?”

 “I - hmm,” Loki says, but it has none of his usual thoughtfulness, nor does he seem to be as composed as he usually is. “You are – either Asgard’s ways are very different, or -” He stops, still staring at Thor and Thor does not know what to make of his silence nor his scrutiny. Why is this so fraught for them?

After another long pause, some of the stiffness goes out of Loki’s frame and he cocks his head to side and gives Thor something of his more usual assessing look. “Tell me: what would one of your friends do, in Asgard, if you insulted them?”

“Box my ears,” he says wryly, thinking of Sif.

“Ah,” Loki says, and now his eyes sparkle as some new mischief occurs to him. Thor reigns in his relief; he is willing to forgive him then, so long as he can extract some price for it. Loki regards him, turning possibilities over in his mind, and as he reaches a conclusion he straightens up and lets Thor’s hand fall away.

“Then you must take your rightful punishment, Thor Odinson,” Loki says, as imperious as his father, but the corner of his mouth twitches slightly, and that makes it more a game than a surrender. Thor can live with that. And so Thor remains kneeling, keeping his expression as solemn as he can, though a grin is hiding just behind his lips. Loki is a challenge, yes – but Thor has never run from a fight yet.

Loki looms over him, and abruptly delivers two light punches to the side of his head. Thor barely feels a thing. “Be grateful I am willing to forgive you so easily,” Loki decrees, and though he is being playful, Thor can sense a warning lurking behind his smile.

“I am,” Thor says, meaning it absolutely.

“You are welcome,” Loki says, a beautiful smile blooming across his face, and he leans down and presses a soft, chaste kiss to Thor’s forehead, his long hair sweeping forward to brush against Thor’s cheeks. He is making a low, rumbling sound; it takes Thor a minute to recognise it, but it is the same sound of approval Agmundr made for Býleistr back in the Konungsgarðr.

Loki releases him and Thor stands. That should be the end of their strange little spat, anger averted with humour and silliness, and yet it doesn’t seem enough; Loki is looking at him with an air of faint puzzlement, as if he is not quite sure how they have reached this point, and Thor has a sudden, powerful need to touch him, to also give a physical reassurance of their renewed friendship.

“Thank you,” he says, and almost without thinking, he slides his palm over Loki’s cheek to cup the back of his neck and Loki stares at him, wide-eyed, as he leans forward and rests his forehead against Loki’s own. “Friends?” he asks, trying not to focus on the coolness of Loki’s skin nor the intriguing feeling of his raised Kynlines against Thor’s own. He does not quite know what has possessed him to do this; it just feels…natural.

“Yes,” Loki says, voice thick, and Thor wishes, with all his heart, than he were not a Prince of Asgard, nor Loki a child of Laufey, that there was not so much riding upon what they are to each other, that he could be careless and free and –

But if he were not a Prince of Asgard and Loki not a child of Laufey then they would never had met. A lover is a fine thing, and Thor has cherished all he has brought to his bed, but he values his friends far more highly, and the likelihood of having Loki as a companion and honoured guest in Asgard one day is far greater if he builds a firm foundation of respect and trust between them than if he tumbles into bed with him. For bedding may mean nothing between two jötnar, but between two Princes all but betrothed? It would mean something, and for all Thor’s growing fondness for Loki, he still has no intention of being forced into marriage.

“I am glad,” he says, and pulls away, doing his best not to let his gaze linger on Loki, hoping his own face is not so openly painted with hunger and want. “Did you have any plans for this afternoon?”

It is an awkward segue, and for a long moment Loki simply looks at him, and Thor fears he may well start another fight. But then Loki drops his gaze, and the blatant desire in his face is muted, shuttered away and replaced by relative calm.

“Nothing too exciting,” he says, once again perfectly controlled. “I had thought perhaps we could play a game or two? Of cards or dice or halatafl?”

A quiet evening of simple gaming sounds ideal, as does the prospect of a table between them, and Thor is happy to agree to it. When Loki returns with the playing boards and pieces, halatafl turns out to be a Fox game, which is a something Thor fancies he plays well, and they while away the time before dinner with increasingly aggressive gameplay as Thor marshals his defenders and does his best to pin Loki’s sly, slippery Foxes down. It is a good distraction, and as they bicker and banter and accuse each other of cheating, the tension between them eases, and as the night draws in and they eat their evening meal together, swapping ever more outlandish stories, Thor can at last relax in Loki’s company again.

It is not until he is once again lying in bed and staring up at the high ceiling that he pauses to marvel at what the last few days have wrought. Six days ago he stormed into Jotunheim for the first time, intent on bringing the Frost Giants to justice for wreaking his coronation; today, he has apologised wholeheartedly to their eldest Prince after spending the morning sparring with one of their warriors with no malice, only good spirits and a burgeoning friendship. It is a startling transformation for him, and as sprawls out amidst the plus, luxurious furs, he wonders what more strange and unexpected things await him in his time here.

***

All is well between them the next morning, and over breakfast Loki talks animatedly, outlining his plans for the two of them for the next few weeks. Thor is a little surprised at the news that they will be moving on in just two weeks, and to Utgard, rather than visiting the other northern Jarls; still, he supposes, it would be a great inconvenience for all the lords of Jotunheim to play host to him, and he suspects more than one would be happier not to see him here at all.

Loki is enthusiastic in describing Utgard to him, and it is obvious that where they will go and what they will do is solely in his hands. It is most peculiar: this is not the first diplomatic tour Thor had endured, but it is the first one where his itinerary has not been planned and organised by either the realm’s ruler or their council. It genuinely seems that he is here solely as a companion to Loki, and his activities are at Loki’s discretion. It is the most informal kind of exile-cum-matchmaking Thor can imagine.

Yet this is not a bad thing. Without any formal duties or events, his time will be spent living alongside Loki, sharing his life and actually getting to see something of what Jotunheim is like beyond the careful formalities of the Royal Court. If he were truly looking to see if Loki would make a good husband for him, and for Loki to also take the measure of him, it would be ideal indeed. As it is, it is looking to be something unique and exciting for him: a chance to be a young Prince again, with no responsibilities, with nothing expected of him except that he enjoy himself, and all in the most intriguing and entertaining new company he has found in centuries.

It is a hard thing for him to admit, but he was wrong in thinking that this season in Jotunheim would be a hellish penance to endure, and as the next two weeks pass swiftly, he sees over and over that he has indeed been wrong about many, many things.

He was wrong in thinking that Jotunheim was a dead and deserted wasteland. He and Loki have ranged widely over the frozen icefields and he has seen more game than he would ever have imagined, from the tiny, scurrying lemmings that Loki had plucked from their tunnels in the form of a hljóðvængjar, a great, grey owl, to the massive snærgrisnir that menace the great hjörth herds, and which Loki tells him are the ancestors to Thrymr’s warhounds. They have hunted huge, plush-footed snarinna that raced across the plains like the wind, and Thor has had the unrivalled pleasure of launching Loki at them, of watching the sickle-winged gyrfalcon fall like a star from the heavens and seize the swift running hare with a brutal elegance that calls to Thor as thrillingly as battle-fervour.

He and Loki have helped Thrívaldi and Hrungnir in running Thrymr’s hounds, the two hrimthursar struggling to control the surging beasts as they practised calls and commands and strove to impose their will on the unruly creatures. He has seen vast clouds of birds swirling overhead, their honking calls echoing across the settlement; on their way to and from the sea and the mountains, Loki says, glancing up, and pointing out the differences between circling raptors and sure-winged seabirds and the tiny, darting snow petrels that carry messages back and forth between the Jarls and elders and so on.

He was wrong in thinking all the jötnar were cold, brutish killers. Thrymr laughs more than anyone Thor has ever met besides Volstagg; his gaggle of children have all inherited his easy humour, and Thor has become fast friends with Bergfinnr and Thrívaldi. They, in turn, have welcomed him into their home and they and their friends have been only too happy to train with him, pushing him harder than any Asgardian has in decades, and cheerfully slapping him on the back afterwards without a hint of rancour.

The Thrymkyn are great lovers of games, and play far rougher sports than those most popular in Asgard. This suits Thor fine: sparring is well and good, but he can see it is not the most diplomatic of pastimes, given how he came to be here. Wrestling, throwing and weight-lifting contests and tugs of war are just as good for training, and give him ample opportunity to pit his strength against the giants. And in truth, it is great fun to throw off the dignity of royalty, which he has been trying to adopt in preparation for his coronation, and laugh and whoop like a child, charging across the playing field in a game of knattleikr, something like hockey, but where the curved stick is for hitting the other players rather than the ball. Everyone plays it, even Thrymr and Loki, and so Thor is free to join in too, swinging his broad bat just like Mjolnir, bulldozing a path through the opposing team until he scores, unless he is forcibly halted by a sheer mass of bodies; at which point, he slips the ball to Loki, who invariably finds his way to Thor’s side at just the right moment in the crush, and who then races away, hair streaming in the wind, dancing around the huge hrimthursar with ease to score himself.

It is an easy game to learn, and provided one is not fussy about bruises and a few fractures, easy enough to play; Thor has high hopes of introducing it to the Einherjar and his friends. There is no distinction between ability or strength – the younglings are in there too, often bowled over by the bulk of their elders and left half-trampled, which is a source of great amusement to those who choose to watch. Players leap in and limp off as they please every time a point is scored and the teams line up again for possession of the ball, and it is just the kind of wild high-spirits that Thor has always loved and his father has been so keen to wean him off of late. Thrymr tells him there are mass contests at the festivals, and even occasional competitions between Staðr – at least, in the good times.

Aside from all this entertainment, Thrymr has been quite insistent in taking Thor and Loki with him as he tours the scattered Clans of Thrymstaðr, and while Loki grumbled at being put to work, Thor has quite enjoyed meeting with the herders and listening to their variety of filthy stories and long, rambling jokes.

The Clans are on the move, as Loki had pointed out when they first arrived in Thrymstaðr, meandering from the coast towards the mountains, following the drífablōmi. Thrymr has not taken them south, claiming that there was no need, as the Clans already at the summer feeding grounds had Skadi, his íviðja child, to see to them; intrigued, Thor had asked more about Skadi and learnt swiftly that he was not a topic to be mentioned when Thrymr and Loki were together. There is some old disagreement there, and Thor hopes to have the story of it, at some point; but for now he lets it lie.

He is fascinated by the nomadic lifestyle of the Clans. Like the farmsteads of Asgard, each Clan is in essence a large family, of parents and siblings and children, headed by an Elder. But whereas Asgard’s farmers tend to group into loose villages, or a cluster of related homesteads around a shared grazing ground, the Clans move with their semi-domesticated herds across the great plains, forming sturdy huts of ice each night for the family to gather in, surrounded by brightly-coloured tents for those who wish a little more privacy.

Still, it has been a great adventure for Thor: sleeping out on the plains in an ice-hut, surrounded by the best furnishings the Clan could offer the visiting Princes, marvelling at the vast spread of the hjörth milling all around them and happy to join Thrymr and the family for kumis and storytelling, or curling up with Loki in their nest of furs, building on their mutual peace by talking in low murmurs through the night.

Some of the older jötnar are wary of him, true, but their children were fascinated by his hair and eyes and skin, and all too keen to meet him. Thor has sat and listened to Thrymr’s justice, which seemed to mostly involve listening to people’s complaints and then telling them off for complaining, and patiently ignored the stares and whispers until small hands abruptly yanked on his braids and he had whirled round to see a group of wide-eyed little ones – well, wide-eyed children, definitely, most were more than half his height already – who had scattered, screaming with laughter, when he growled and flung himself after them.

He will admit that he had found it disconcerting at first, seeing a huge and heavily muscled jötunn reach over their shoulder to pluck a babe from the sling across their back and put them to the breast, but he is not so rude as to comment on it, and after a while, it no longer seemed strange for a tough, grizzled hrimthurs to break off from his discussion of the state of Thrymstaðr to see to see to the needs of the newborn in his arms, nor to share a ribald joke with a heavily pregnant warrior as another rubs his back and calls commentary on Thor’s technique.

Yet he had still been shocked the first time he stumbled across Thrívaldi and a youngling Thor did not know rutting in a shadowy corner between the huts. He had swiftly turned to leave, cursing his own stupidity, for shadowy corners are just as well used for the same purpose in Asgard, and he should have made more noise when approaching late at night. It was not the sight of the two entwined that had disturbed him, for why should it, but more that Thrívaldi had looked up from where he was riding the youngling and shouted a greeting.

Thor had awkwardly replied, trying not to look at where the youngling’s cock was buried inside Thrívaldi, nor where Thrívaldi’s own erection was bobbing against his belly, but he had not felt truly embarrassed until Thrívaldi had casually extended an invitation for him to join them, followed by an enthusiastic plea from the youngling.  He’d declined, more bluntly than politely in his surprise, only for Thrívaldi to shrug ruefully and assure him he was still welcome to stay and watch, if he liked, and then start moving again, wrenching a moan from the youngling. Thor had gaped for a few moments more than he should have before hastily bidding them goodnight and all but fleeing back to the safety of his own rooms.

It had taken him a while to unravel his confused response to what was, after all, nothing particularly remarkable. Thor is no youth to blush at the sight of a pair of lovers, and it is not the first time he has accidentally stumbled across a private moment. He has, of course, had plenty of his own, and has been stumbled upon himself; so why was this small thing so troublesome for him?

It is, he decides at last, only that the arrangement is unusual to him. He has heard enough gossip to work out that the jötnar do not share Asgardian views on romancing and lying with one’s partner, and while he had accepted it in theory, it was still new and shocking to see the more powerful Thrívaldi astride the youngling, clearly dominant in the coupling but still taking the other into his body. It is…jarring for him, and in truth, makes him uneasy; but he has the sense to know this is a problem only in his own mind, and he chooses not to dwell on it when Thrívaldi cheerfully greets him the next day.

Bergfinnr and Thrívaldi accompany Thrymr on most of his visits, acting as his aides and learning how to govern what is more a loose-knit group of independent families than a unified province. Loki explains to him, in the evenings, that one of them will become the next Jarl, in time: the Ellri of the Clans will come together after Thrymr’s eventual death and vote for who should succeed him. It seems peculiar to choose a lord in such a way, especially as there is not even a guarantee that one of Thrymr’s children will be voted in – any hrimthurs can stand to be Jarl, Loki tells him, though it tends to run in the family, simply because the children of a Jarl are raised to know his business, and serve a long apprenticeship at his side, just as Bergfinnr and Thrívaldi are doing now.

“Will it then become Bergfinnr-Staðr?” Thor asks curiously and Loki laughs.

“No, rather he will become Thrymr-Jarl, and after a while all will forget he ever had another name. Our Thrymr is not the first of his name, nor was he always Thrymr. It is a tradition, of way of showing that once you become Jarl, you put aside your loyalty to your blood-Kyn in favour of being bera to all the people of the Staðr.”

“But Thrymr loves his children,” Thor points out; no-one could miss how he dotes on them.

“Of course he does,” Loki says, as if this is a stupid thing to say. “You do not understand. For us, there is no greater loyalty than to your Kyn. Barn, bera and sibb; Clan, Staðr and Jötunheimr. This is the order of our ties, of who we cherish and who we cleave to in times of strife. By giving up his name, the Jarl gives up his Clan, his family, in favour of the Staðr. It is no small thing, Thor. Only a handful stand for the vote when the new Jarl is chosen. Most do not want the responsibility, nor the consequences.”

This seems a little extreme to Thor. Why should one have to publically and symbolically give up one’s family just to wield power? “And what of your sváss?” he asks, the word now tripping easily off his tongue. “And where does the King come into it?”

“The King is Jötunheimr,” Loki answers, “and the ultimate authority. He is bera to all the jötnar, and that makes my brothers and I sibb to all jötnar – hence the respect we are shown, even by the Jarls and Ellri.”

“And your sváss?” Thor prompts again, noting how Loki turns his face aside before he answers.

“Your sváss is…your everything,” Loki says. “Perhaps even more than your children. But they have no place in talk of duty and responsibility. It is a private thing, a personal thing. We have many stories of loss and grief and sadness, where one’s love for one’s sváss must be weighed against the love of Kyn and one’s duty to Jötunheimr.”

Stories of forbidden or disastrous love are nothing new to Thor; Asgard has plenty, usually told late in the evening when the audience are in their cups and ready to sigh and sob over star-crossed lovers. But the way Loki says it, he can sense there is something deeper, something more that he is not quite grasping. The jötnar do not marry, do not formalise romance between two individuals, something that Thor is still struggling to fully understand. But they obviously do love, and it must mean much to them, for so far all he has heard of sváss is, as Loki said, stories of loss and grief. In fact, though he has been introduced to scores of parents and children, siblings and nephews, grandparents and grandchildren, he has yet to meet a pair of sváss at all.

“Is it so different in Asgard?” Loki asks, and now all his attention is focused on Thor. “Is love worth more than honour or ambition or duty?”

“It is…not a simple thing to decide,” Thor says after a moment. How can he possibly answer such a question? “Few must face such a choice. For most, you just have to find someone you love, marry them, and build a life with them. There is no conflict with that and fulfilling your duties to Asgard.” At least, that is what Volstagg says, and he is the happiest married man Thor knows.

“It can be no small thing, finding someone to love,” Loki points out, and he is only teasing, tone light and friendly, and yet Thor feels a chasm beneath his feet, can sense how this conversation is skating over depths he does not wish to know. He pauses, looking for a neutral reply, but Loki picks up on his hesitation in a heartbeat.

“Tell me more of Asgard,” Loki says as Thor’s gaze slides away from him. “You have not Staðr, but provinces, yes? How are your Lords chosen?”

“They are hereditary, for the most part,” Thor answers, grateful for Loki’s escape route. “But Lords can be raised and broken by the King, and it is with my father that all authority finally lies.”

“Does this not cause discontent with those of high birth not given their own province?” Loki asks, and the conversation moves on, Loki asking more and more perceptive questions, forcing Thor to think back on his old lessons and words of advice from his father. But the image of Loki turning his face aside as he said sváss stays with Thor, and he cannot help but be aware that he turned aside a perfect opportunity for them to discuss the marriage all but he seem to assume will be going ahead.

It is not cowardice, for he is not afraid, but he is not yet ready for that conversation, and he has no desire to have it here, where they are surrounded by hrimthursar and have no way to avoid each other without it becoming fodder for gossip the very same day. No, he will wait for Utgard, where he may find more privacy and fewer distractions. After all, Loki has made no attempt to draw on him the subject either; it will be better for them to know each other more thoroughly before discussing their respective futures.

At least, that is what he tells himself as Loki’s gaze, curious but shuttered, moves over his body and lingers longest on his face as they prepare for bed and lie down, side by side but not touching, separated by a barrier of soft pelts so thick that only their eyes can meet.

***

The days continue to pass swiftly and seeing Loki amidst the whirl of the Clans is…interesting. He seems so out of place, not just because of his smaller stature and shock of dark hair, but because there is always a space between him and the others, always a pause, a hesitation, a sense of otherness. The hrimthursar jostle and backslap and elbow, in just the same way the warriors of Asgard do, and after their initial wariness, most enfold Thor into their banter and casual physicality, and he gives as good as he gets.

But Loki walks alone, head held high and eyes always moving, always watching, always with a quick word or pointed look, and he cuts through the easy familiarity of the Clans like a hawk through a flock of birds, the conversation scattering and reforming around him. Thor had thought, bluntly, that they would be delicate with him, offer him the same polished courtesy that Fandral is so fond of, for he cannot help but think that Loki is more like an elegant lady of Asgard than the rough and ready warriors.

But it is not so. It takes him a while to decipher what he is seeing, but it slowly sharpens into focus as he sees hrimthurs after hrimthurs ask Thrymr, tentatively, confidently, or with great reluctance, would he ask the Silvertongue to do this? Would the Silvertongue help me with this? Might he speak to the Silvertongue on my behalf?

They fear Loki, Thor realises belatedly, for all they honour and desire and value him; some cover it with bluster and some with suspicion, but all look to him as you might look at a lion at your fireplace: a glorious and novel wonder, so long as its claws are sheathed and jaws tight shut.

And Loki knows it.

Thor does not yet know what he thinks of it. Loki is different, so why should they not treat him as such? He has been told, and he well knows, that Loki is a rare and precious jewel; after all, that is exactly why he is being offered to Thor, as something equal in value and worth to the Casket of Ancient Winters itself. But as he watches Loki, sees him hold himself apart, as aloof and proud as a palace cat, it rankles him, though he could not say why, and he finds himself cleaving closer to him, favouring his company over the other warriors, eager to show that he, at least, does not fear him.

He can see though, why Loki might be keen to return to Utgard, the home of his fellow íviðja.

Yet all this is but an undercurrent, the kind of strange new thoughts he has only at night, as he lies weary but not yet sleepy, and listens to Loki’s quiet breathing as he slumbers next to him in the nest of furs.

He is thinking many new things during the long nights in Jotunheim.

***

During the day, as they circle further and further from Thrymr’s Hall, it becomes more and more obvious that the Clans bringing up the rear of the seasonal procession are in a far sorrier state than the first throng Thor had encountered. These stragglers are the families from the furthest edges of Thrymstaðr, and it quickly becomes obvious to Thor that they are also the poorest. Their hjörth are few and many were ill, or underweight; the Clans themselves are not much better, usually being only a few individuals – a parent and a child or two, perhaps an elderly sibb struggling to keep up.

These are the Clans Thrymr spends the most time with, asking after relatives and the state of the drífablōmi in the coastal frontiers, and the same story is told each time: of how the drífablōmi was failing, as was the health and fertility of the hjörth; how it was becoming harder and harder for the jötnar themselves to successfully conceive and bring a healthy babe to bear; that the poor summer last year had led to a harder winter this year, and that many of the elderly and frail had died, leaving the families depleted and struggling to survive.

It comes to a head as a group of only three jötnar approach today’s temporary camp, leading a thin and limping hjörth whose every breath rattles ominously. A hundred yards out, the hjörth makes a shrill bleating sound and just crumples – one moment it is on its feet, the next it has crashed to its side, legs held stiffly out from its body, head thumping as it tries unsuccessfully to rise.

“Silvertongue,” Thrymr says quietly, and though Loki sighs in displeasure, he rises swiftly enough and follows Thrymr out to where the tallest hrimthurs is kneeling beside the downed hjörth, removing the halter and crooning softly to try and calm it.

“Ellri,” Thrymr greets him, and the jötnar stands and inclines his head in respect.

“Thrymr-Jarl,” he responds, stepping  away from the hjörth. “I had hoped t’seek yer aid, but I fear it be too late.”

“We’ll see,” is all Thrymr says in return, and all fall silent as Loki kneels beside the hjörth and runs his hands over the wounded animal, eyes closed, face twisted in a frown. The hjörth pants heavily, froth bubbling from its slack mouth, clearly in pain, and kicks feebly as Loki’s hands ghost over its abdomen.

“It is dying,” Loki says bluntly as he opens his eyes and moves away from the distressed hjörth. “Kill it and be done with it.”

 “I thought as much,” the Ellri says, looking down at the stricken beast. “But I wanted t’be sure.” The ice coalesces around his hand as he speaks, forming a sharp, curved blade; in one swift movement he cuts the hjörth’s throat and the animal is dead in seconds.

The Ellri looks at the carcass and exhales slowly. “She were our last breeding female,” he says, voice devoid of emotion. “We ‘ave a few immature cows, but they won’t come int’ season for two year or more.”

“Yer last?” Thrymr says. “Why have ye waited so long t’ask for aid?”

“We ‘ave done well enough wi’ just her for t’past year,” the Ellri replies stiffly, “since it be just me and the two little ‘uns. We ‘ave bred good bulls and have traded wi’ t’others whose herds be shrinking. She were young and strong and we should ‘ave had a good decade left wi’ her -”

“But now ye don’t,” Thrymr says bluntly. “How many Clans do ye trade with, who struggle so?”

“There be eight or nine of us, out by the coast,” the Ellri says. “We ‘ave given our word t’treat each other as bloodkyn.”

“I see,” Thrymr says, thoughtful. “Are ye bringing yer herds together then?”

“We may have t’, now.”

“Then I’ll ‘ave my Skadi bring ye a dozen breeding cows,” Thrymr says, and he just keeps talking as the Ellri splutters and tries to protest. “Ye calves will be too inbred t’survive wi’out new blood. There’ll be a trade, aye, for hjörth be too precious t’simply give. But I’ll not ‘ave another Clan fail. Not when the worst be nearly behind us.”

“Then…the rumours be true?” the Ellri says hopefully, glancing at Thor and Loki. “The Vetrformen be coming back?”

“Aye,” Thrymr says. “So put aside yer pride. Things will be better, soon.”

The Ellri subsides at that, and he and Thrymr begin a loud and vigorous discussion of the struggling Clans, and how many of them might need, as Thrymr puts it, some fresh younglings along with the hjörth.

Thor looks at the dead animal and then to Loki, puzzled. The hjörth was clearly in a bad way, but it was not sick, nor old, simply underfed and exhausted. “Could you not have healed it?” he asks Loki in a low voice and Loki glares at him.

“I am not a healer,” Loki says, obviously annoyed. “And if I were, I would do better to save my strength for my people, rather than their beasts.”

This seems strange: every sorceress in Asgard starts out as a healer, and it is where most of them choose to stay, studying under Eir and either staying within the palace or moving out to the farmsteads to provide aid and assistance to the outlying communities. Thor has had every manner of injury healed under their talented hands, and in their absence, has a box full of healing stones, which he has used for headaches, hangovers and all varieties of bruises and training aches. Restoring strength to a weak animal would be the work of a moment for them.

Do they not have such things in Jotunheim? Is healing so difficult for them? It would explain the heavy scarring on most of the adult jötnar, Thor realises. They must save their magic for otherwise fatal wounds, and leave all else to heal with time. No-one in Asgard bears such scars and the only permanently injured men are his father, who lost his eye, and Tyr, who lost his hand, and the battles that caused those injuries are the stuff of legend.

Is this because the Casket was taken, or is it just the nature of jötnar magic? Thor has no idea, and is not about to ask. It is clearly a sore point with Loki. But he continues to think on it as Thrymr finalises the agreements and the Ellri and his tiny Clan move on. The next day, so do Thor and his party, and it is just another judgement as Thrymr looks after his people and Thor and Loki help where they can. But now Thor has noticed it, he sees the herds and the herders differently, and sees, time after time, the signs of stress and loss, the battle-scars and sickly animals, the gaunt frames and hollow eyes.

Jotunheim is dying, his mother had said. They need the Casket to ensure their survival.

All his life, Thor has dreamed of fighting a second war with Jotunheim, of finding honour and glory in defeating the brutal, powerful monsters that lurked in the darkness. He grew up listening to stories which extolled his father’s greatness in winning the war, his great mercy in leaving Laufey, the despotic invader-king, alive, and his magnanimousness in taking only the Casket of Ancient Winters as a trophy. He was told, over and over, in his lessons, that there was more to that Great War than this; that Jotunheim had been crippled and exiled both as punishment for attacking Midgard, that most vulnerable and helpless Realm, and as a warning to the other Realms, that such behaviour would not be tolerated even outside Asgard’s own dominions.

Jotunheim paid a heavy price for her defiance, his tutors had said, shaking their heads sadly, but Thor could not have cared less; who could follow the dry and dusty version of history the librarians tried to teach him, and who would even been interested when they could instead listen to the rousing songs of battle and victory sung in the taverns and training yards, where the warriors bellowed their version of how Jotunheim tried to fuck Asgard over and got right royally fucked instead? Who cared if their Realm was dying – they were still a threat, and one Thor had had high hopes of wiping out for good.

He no longer thinks such things; he sees now how wrong he was, and he is sorry for what he has thought and done in the past. And while he is not so naive as to think that all welcome him here, he has the sense to see that Jotunheim itself is not his enemy, and that for the most part, her people want what most of Asgard wants, namely peace and prosperity and the freedom and security to enjoy both.

But Jotunheim is dying.

A thousand years of slow, incremental decay; a thousand years of resources slowly running out, of magic fading and the health of both people and animals with it; a thousand years where each harvest is a little more meagre, each winter a little harsher, each loss felt more keenly. One thousand years of suffering as he grew and played and laughed in the sun of Asgard, and yet when he came here, full of foolish vanity and bloodlust, Laufey-King had put aside his pride and the bitterness he must surely feel, and instead of striking out against him, had offered him his greatest treasure, all for the good of his people.

Thor fancied himself ready for kingship that day, but looking around at the price Jotunheim has paid for its King’s fondness for battle, and the sacrifices that self-same King must now make to save his world, Thor thinks in truth he still has much to learn. Thor can see now why Laufey and his father leapt at the chance to force him and Loki together. Had he come to the throne of Asgard without ever knowing Jotunheim, he would have moved to war from arrogance and foolishness, and would have found in Helblindi a foe equally blind and ignorant, with an even greater hunger for battle. The proposed marriage is an elegant solution, and this brief exile is indeed for his own good, just as his mother had said.

Asgard must return the Casket. Now Thor has been here and seen the state of Jotunheim for himself, he knows it must be so. Yes, they need assurances of peace and yes, the threat of another war must be contained, but they cannot simply hold on to it, leave it just another trophy amidst the vast treasures of Asgard’s Vault, when to do so means misery and suffering and death for the jötnar.

But Thor still does not wish to marry Loki.

This simple fact weighs heavy on his mind the longer he stays in Jotunheim, even as the friendship between them grows and he finds himself fonder and fonder of the firebrand Prince. He wakes every day glad to have Loki at his side and yet even as he smiles and jokes and laughs with him, he does so with a growing sense of unease, for he feels that he does so under false pretences.

All of Jotunheim believes the marriage will go ahead. He hears the whispers, sees the nudges and grins, and does not begrudge them, for they see in Thor and Loki’s burgeoning affection the peace and prosperity the Realm so desperately needs. Loki is harder to read, but he has made no secret of his desire for Thor, and as he has been more than welcoming to Thor from the very start, it seems certain that he too wants the marriage to go ahead – or that he sees it as his duty, Thor assumes, after that tentative discussion of love and responsibility.

Thor knows it is his duty too. He is Asgard’s only Prince and holds the future of two Realms in his hands: he should accept Loki and agree to the marriage and so usher in a bright new future for both their peoples. It is the selfish act of a spoilt child to refuse such a fine and diplomatic match, simply because there is no love in it.

And yet…how can he marry without love? Is love worth more than honour or ambition or duty? Loki asked him, and he cannot say it always is, but then, is honour and ambition and duty always worth more than love? Thor grew up secure in the knowledge that for all they were King and Queen of Asgard, the Allfather and the mother of the realm, his parents were also husband and wife, and ever since he was old enough to understand it he has seen the love they bear each other shining from their eyes and threading through their voices, shared and sought in every brush of their hands, every time he stumbled across them sitting and talking, of nothing in particular, their bodies tilted towards each other as if love was like gravity, an irresistible force pulling them into each other’s orbits.

He never doubted that one day he would know love like that; never paused to think that his future could be any different. Thor knows he is a Prince, and that as far as royal marriages of convenience go, this would be a good one: after all, he likes Loki well enough and he is would be more than happy to have him in his bed and at his side, at least for a time.

But he does not love him. And he cannot sell his heart so cheaply, not even for the sake of two Realms and all their peoples.

Thor wrestles with this dilemma, quietly and alone, after he and Loki retire to bed each night. For the first time in his life, what he is supposed to do and what he truly wants to do are not in alignment. He is no longer a child, choosing to flee from his lessons in favour of playing with his friends, though he knows he should not; this is a momentous decision, and one with a lifetime’s worth of consequences, and so he thinks on it, over and over, looking for a middle path between the extremes.

It takes him nearly all of the two weeks spent roaming Thrymstaðr to come up with a solution, but after watching Thrymr and Loki navigate the complex web of feuds and fears of the Clans, he at last hits upon a way out of his difficulties.

He will ask his father to adopt Loki.

It is perfect: Thor has always wanted a brother, and a formal adoption by Odin, alongside a vow of blood-brotherhood between Loki and Thor would ensure Loki retained his Princely status and would be just as high an honour for both him and Laufey as a marriage with Thor. Loki would come with Thor to Asgard and there reside, and so the Casket could be safely returned, and Helblindi’s aggression tempered by the bonds of kinship. Loki seems interested in the other realms and seems perfectly comfortable with the idea of becoming part of the Royal family of Asgard; surely he too would prefer to be a brother rather than a consort, for it would give him the freedom to find his own partner outside of marriage, as the jötnar prefer?

Loki has mentioned, once or twice, that before the marriage was proposed, he was preparing to become the Āsegas, a sort of advisor and counsellor, to whichever of his sibja became King; well, he can still have that role, only he will be Thor’s right-hand man instead. Thor can already see how Loki’s quick mind and multitude of skills would be a boon to any King, and he is certain they would work well together. And in truth, after the past few weeks realising how little he truly understand about both the other Realms and the nature of kingship, he would be grateful indeed to have Loki at his side when he becomes King of Asgard, for the Silvertongue seems well suited to the intricacies of royal rule.

The more he thinks on it, the more he likes the idea. He would dearly like to discuss it with Loki, but it seems wiser to wait and see what his father makes of the idea first, for it would be disastrous for him to turn down the marriage, promising brotherhood instead, and then have to renege on that offer too.

But it is a plan, at least, of his own devising, and the first one Thor has had since being left here by his father. With a clear goal in mind, he finds his good spirits rising, and now, quite unexpectedly, he finds himself looking forward to the next two months in Jotunheim. A season is not a long time after all, and there is plenty of adventure to be had and new sights to be seen, and so, against all the odds, Thor rises on his last morning in Thrymstaðr happy and excited and entirely at peace with himself.

***

At last, the two weeks are up, and Thor is back where he began this part of his tour: Thrymr’s Hall, now a place of fond memories and good friends. The farewells were said last night, during dinner, and as the jötnar do not dwell on such things, there is no-one to see him off as he walks through the settlement for the last time. The lack of ceremony and complete disinterest in his comings and goings is peculiar; while he does not expect to be feted and fawned over, in all his previous tours of the realms there had always been a contingent of officials and lords with him and his father, and in Asgard, he is constantly aware of the scrutiny of the people when he moves about the city.

To walk alone, carrying his own pack, all but ignored by the handful of hrimthursar busy with their work, would have seemed an unimaginable insult two weeks ago. But now, he knows it is just the way the jötnar are – for they pay no more attention to their own Prince, and as he leaves the Hall behind he sees Loki waiting for him, equally alone and unremarked. Loki is again wearing his travelling outfit, and Thor is confident enough now to comment on it, to tell Loki that the green velvet skirt suits him well, and to offer a smile when Loki praises his own casual outfit. He has carefully packed his armour away, in favour of his more comfortable sleeveless tunics and leggings; the jötnar wear little clothing and, outside of the hirðverr, no armour in their day to day lives, unlike the warriors of Asgard, and after the hunt his usual breastplate and greaves and so on seemed rather unnecessary.

“Will we be taking Snarfari?” Thor asks, eyeing the huge block of ice and snow now so shapeless you would never guess it housed a living creature, much less a sleeping Íssdyr. They have ranged widely over the plains of Thrymstaðr but now they will be heading north-east, towards the sea and the Ironwood. The Uplands stretch out to the horizon, with no hint of trees or shore, and it is impossible to guess how far away Utgard might be.

“No need,” Loki says, fussing with their packs. “Útgarðar is less than a day’s run away, at my pace; we will be there by this afternoon.”

“We are running there?”

Loki just laughs and leaves off rummaging through their belongings. “Are you ready to leave?”

“Yes,” Thor answers, resigning himself to a long slog through the wilderness. Perhaps Loki will call up the ice-skates like he did for the hunt? Loki gives him a sly look as he sketches the angular shapes in the air that Thor recognises now as a prelude to his shapeshifting, and Thor’s heart sinks: surely Loki does not intend to fly there and leave Thor to trudge through the snow beneath him, alone and exhausted?

But instead of leaping into the air and abandoning Thor, Loki drops to all fours, and as he does so he shimmers, shape flickering and growing, before coalescing into the smuggest looking wolf Thor has ever seen. He’s smaller than Thrymr’s hounds, but big enough to look Thor in the eye, and he grins as he does so, revealing frankly huge, sharp teeth.

Thor grins back. Loki is gorgeous, as ever, with utterly immaculate thick white fur and a pleasingly fluffy tail. He’s not as heavily built as the wolves Thor has hunted in Asgard, but is far sleeker, with a thinner, shorter muzzle and small ears, presumably adaptations for the cold.

Thor reaches out and scratches gently at the base of Loki’s ear, marvelling at the plushness of his fur. “You never cease to surprise me,” he says and Loki lolls his tongue out and squints at him in pleasure. Thor gives him one final pat and moves away to pick up their bags. It will be difficult to carry them both and travel on foot, but he’s not sure how Loki will react if he tries to strap them to him. He shoulders them with a grunt and turns.

Loki huffs a loud sigh and drops to the ground, pressing his muzzle to the floor just as Snarfari did. Thor grins again, even wider, and quickly climbs on to his back, looping the straps of the bags around himself so they are secure and settling himself so that he can grip the scruff of Loki’s neck. Loki is far more comfortable to sit on than Snarfari, and he is looking forward to this immensely.

“Ready when you are,” Thor says, leaning forward, and Loki slowly gets to his feet, shifting his weight to compensate for Thor. He starts off at a brisk walk, getting a feel for Thor just as Thor is getting used to riding him – it is entirely unlike riding a horse or even Snarfari, for Loki moves with a smoother gait, his shoulders bunching as he moves up to a trotting speed, and even given that Loki is a large wolf, Thor is much closer to the ground than he is accustomed to being. Without a saddle, Thor must grip Loki’s flanks tightly with his knees, and since there is no question of Thor guiding him, he is free to hang on to Loki’s fur with his hands, staying low and flat along his back rather than sitting up as he would on a horse.

It is almost intimate, especially as this is Loki and not just a wolf, and Thor takes a moment to rest his chin against Loki’s flat head, to feel his velvety ears flick against his cheek. “Go on,” he murmurs, “show me what you can really do.”

Loki yips and Thor feels his muscles bunch as he leaps forward, accelerating into the easy wolf-lope that eats up the miles, his body rippling like a wave under Thor’s hands, and if Snarfari was raw power in Thor’s hands then Loki is pure grace, racing across the snowy plains like light over water. Loki’s fur is soft against his skin and he can feel him breathing, feel his sides expanding and contracting with every breath even before he hears his panting, sees his breath steaming in the frigid air.

It is exhilarating and Thor laughs for joy as Loki runs on, faster and faster, his speed surely augmented with more magic, and Thor would not be anywhere else but here, pressed close against Loki as the endless vista of Thrymstaðr stretches out before them, the snow and ice glowing faintly in Jotunheim’s endless night, the sapphire luminescence scattering under each crunching footfall as they race on towards the Ironwood.

***

After the monotonous flatness of the great northern plain it is something of a relief when the land begins to undulate, rising into low hills with the shadows of higher peaks shrouded in mist and fog. Soon, they reach what looks like the treeline, and a dark, shadowy forest appears, blanketing the foothills and presumably the mountains too, though a bare peak or two gleaming with snow looms in the misty distance. Even here, the ground remains carpeted with snow and ice, though there are patches of black rock about the base of the trees.

Loki comes to a halt before they enter the wood, panting heavily, and Thor dismounts quickly, taking the packs with him. He rummages through them to find a flask and some dried meat, a parting gift from Thrymr, and by the time he turns to offer them to Loki he is once again in his jötnar form, and greedily reaches for the food and drink. For a few brief moments they eat together in companionable silence, and Thor takes the opportunity to get a better look at this new landscape.

Stooped, shrouded figures stand like sentinels, their heads bowed by the weight of the snow clumped on their branches. There is something strange and wrong about the trees, though at this distance Thor cannot quite put his finger on what it is. They are a mixture of twisted, branching trunks and branches, reminiscent of pine trees but entirely leafless, and what might be fir trees under the blanketing snow, their streamlined silhouettes rising tall but peculiarly conical. It is not what Thor would consider a welcoming vista, as a greyish mist swirls between the contorted black trees, but it is a different one, and is quite unlike what he has seen of Jotunheim so far.

 “So this is Utgard?” he asks once they have finished eating, thinking a conversation will give Loki a chance to rest before they press on.

“No,” Loki says, licking his fingers clean. “As I told you, Útgarðar is a castle. This is Járnviðr, the Ironwood.”

“I did not think to see trees in Jotunheim,” Thor remarks.

 “They are not living, growing trees,” Loki says, keen as always to explain. “They are metal and mineral, formed from volcanic fire in the ages before the ice. They are like vents, and they bring some of the heat of the planet’s core to the surface. The hrimthursar find the Ironwood too warm – though to your kind, it would still be bitterly cold.”

“And this is where you grew up?” Thor says, striving to sound anything but horrified. It is dim and grey and unpleasant, and nowhere he would want to raise a child.

“Útgarðar is where I studied seidr,” Loki corrects. “The castle lies deep within the wood, on a lakeshore, with easy access down to the sea. It is less grim than it first appears,” he adds, smirking at Thor’s face. “There is plenty of life in the wood. In fact, there is more small game here than on the plains, for there is both lichen on the trees and the drífablōmi in the ice, and without the hjörth, the smaller creatures flourish. The hjörth do not linger in these woods.” Loki grins nastily. “They are not safe here. This is the home of the hoarfen, the icewolves, and this is where I first learnt to change my shape and stalk my prey.”

Well, it still doesn’t look like much to Thor, who grew up riding through the sunlit forests of Asgard, a world of oak and ash and hazel, of green and gold and trilling birdsong. But if this is home to Loki, then Thor will not speak against it.

It is difficult to imagine Loki as a child. Was he bookish and serious, or precocious and demanding? He was sent away from his father and brothers young, Thor recalls, and mentioned finding friends here. It is hard work trying to picture a group of small blue boys at play in this dank wood, but presumably at some point there was. What kind of games might they have played, here on the edge of the forest and the plains?

Thor eyes Loki and grins to himself. Time for a little fun.

“Of course, not all of the Ironwood looks like this,” Loki is saying, looking away from Thor and into the gloom. “The borders are not supposed to be enticing -”

The snowball explodes against Loki’s chest, covering him in a fine dusting of white powder. A hit, a good, solid hit. Loki gapes at him, looking totally shocked, and a laugh bubbles out of Thor.

What do you think you are doing?” Loki says, outraged.

“You cannot tell me you have never had a snowball fight?” Thor says, still laughing, his head still full of a tiny Loki playing with equally tiny friends.

“Oh, you have no idea,” Loki snarls, and for a heartbeat, Thor thinks he has miscalculated, that Loki is angry again; but no, Loki’s face splits in a feral grin and he spreads his arms wide, like a dancer, and then drops to a crouch, spinning as he does so, palms gliding over the snow, and then, faster than Thor can follow, he flicks his hands forward, like he’s throwing knives, and before Thor can even raise his hands in his own defence, he’s peppered with a furious barrage of snow pellets.

He’s blinded, battered and choking on snow, and all he can hear is Loki saying smugly, “Never challenge an íviðja, Asgardian.”

Perfect.

Thor doesn’t stop to wipe the snow from his eyes, but instead drops to his knees and grabs great handfuls of snow, packing it together as fast as he can and then flinging it at the direction Loki’s voice is coming from. He rolls to the side immediately, now scrubbing his face, and his vision clears just as another snowball – a perfect sphere, obviously magically-shaped – flies past his face.

Loki is laughing more freely than Thor even thought possible, gleeful and silly as a child, and as Thor chokes on snow he is glad of it, delighted to see Loki so carefree and happy. They screech and flail around like idiots, a riot of noise in the silence of the treeline, and surely no-one who saw them would believe they were the foremost princes in the Nine Realms.

It’s an act of idiocy to have a snowball fight with a jötunn sorcerer in the middle of an icefield but Thor goes for it anyway, and in fairness, Loki is gracious enough not to simply turn all of Thor’s projectiles against him. He doesn’t bother raising any defences either, and restrains himself to using his natural affinity for ice to create perfectly balanced snowballs, and this makes it a contest indeed, Thor doing his best to dodge and failing miserably, while Loki dances between Thor’s cruder missiles, crowing triumphantly.

Thor soaks up his punishment manfully, concentrating on working his way closer and closer to the flickering shape in his vision that has to be Loki, until he is finally within striking distance: gathering himself, he waits for a pause in the snow barrage and then throws himself forward, exploding upwards in what is almost a leap, his entire body momentarily airborne before he slams into Loki, arms locking tight around his knees and thighs.

It’s an old trick from when he was a young boy play-fighting with the much older and bigger Volstagg, and it works just as well now as it did then, as Loki crashes down under the sudden impact of Thor’s entire bodyweight.

“You selfish brute!” Loki shouts, struggling in vain to get enough legroom to kick Thor. “You are only doing this because I’m winning!”

“You were winning,” Thor shouts back cheerfully, and proceeds to drag himself up Loki’s body, using his greater size and weight to keep Loki pinned, until he can simply flatten out, crushing Loki beneath him. The stream of curses and insults make it abundantly clear that Loki’s breathing is not impended, and Thor boxes in Loki’s thrashing limbs as best he can and balances himself on his elbows so he can catch Loki’s face in his hands.

“I win,” he says proudly, flushed with victory.

“This battle, perhaps,” Loki says as he stops struggling, panting heavily, cheekbones dusted with an intriguing lavender flush Thor has not been close enough to notice before. “But the war is not over yet.”

“I will rise to any challenge you set,” Thor brags.

“Oh, really,” Loki purrs, rolling the word deep and low, and heat prickles over Thor’s skin.

“Will you ever stop teasing me?” Thor asks in mock-exasperation and Loki smirks at him, unrepentant as always.

“Never,” he says, and then he arches up so he can purse his lips and press a quick kiss to the tip of Thor’s nose.

“Stop that,” Thor warns, tone skittering on the edge of playfulness, acutely aware that his entire body is pressing Loki down into the snow.

“Make me,” Loki counters, just as poised between play and passion, and Thor’s breath catches at how their bodies are entwined, faces only inches apart, and how Loki is gazing up at him, daring him to do something, and oh, he can’t keep doing this, can’t keep holding back, when all that prevents him from taking what Loki is whole heartedly offering is his own rapidly fraying sense of what the consequences might be –

 “Well, well, well,” comes a dry voice to his left, faintly burred with the accent Thor now thinks of as northern, and Thor freezes, dragging his attention from Loki to finally realise they have an audience. Two íviðjur are sitting in the snow a few feet away, cross-legged and entirely too comfortable, both of them grinning widely.

They are the first íviðjur Thor has seen apart from Loki, and even in his surprise he is struck again by how Aesir they look compared to the rugged hrimthursar he is now familiar with. One is lean and fine-boned, not too dissimilar to Loki, with the same deep blue skin but with a mass of fiery red hair, sporting only a handful of thick braids tipped with silver. He is wearing far less jewellery than Loki usually does as well, with only plain wrist cuffs and a single pendant, a strange, angular shape that mimics his Kynlines, and his kjalta is plain brown leather.

The other is quite different, with silvery-blue skin and ash blonde hair pulled back and arranged in a complicated knot on top of his head; instead of jewels and metal, dark leather strips have been woven through the strands, with a multitude of white and black feathers sprouting forth. He is noticeably shorter than the redhead, perhaps five and a half foot, which is small indeed for a jötnar, and next to the redhead and Loki, looks much more like the voluptuous women of Asgard. He is dressed more flamboyantly too, with white fur wrapped around his legs and arms, and a jewelled, fringed shawl draped around his shoulders. His kjalta is also heavily embroidered and again fringed, and falls to his calves, though it is slit all the way up his thighs.

The redhead is unarmed, but blonde is carrying a spear tipped with a long blade, as long as he is tall, in the crook of his arm. However, the point is resting lightly on the ground in what Thor takes to be a sign of peaceful intentions.

“Oh, do not stop now,” the blonde one says, his sharply accented words rising and falling in a sing-song pattern, his grin sharper than his spear. “We can wait – what, five minutes?”

“Twenty at least,” Loki says, voice suddenly twice as breathy, and Thor gapes at him. He sounds – wait, they weren’t actually - “You could have announced yourselves, you know.”

“You were clearly occupied,” says the northern íviðja, and while it is impossible to tell if he is disapproving or teasing, it is entirely obvious what he is assuming.

“And it is not often we can sneak up on you,” the other says, rising to his feet. “Greetings, Thor Odinson, and welcome to the Ironwood. I am Járnsaxa, and this is Angrboða.”

“I am honoured to meet you,” Thor says, belatedly pushing himself away from Loki, doing his best to ignore both Loki’s overt pouting and the way he remains sprawled in the snow, legs spread carelessly wide, his velvet skirt pushed up almost to his waist.

“No, really, you can carry on,” Járnsaxa says, waving his hand languidly, utterly unembarrassed. “We will head back to Útgarðar and meet you there, if you prefer. We only came because we were out hunting and heard the screeching.”

Thor represses a wince. While their seemingly-interrupted intimacy might not be cause for interest here, being caught romping like an overexcited child cannot have given a good first impression of him to the íviðjur. He turns to Angrboða, meaning to exchange formal greetings with him too, but Angrboða is already speaking solely to Loki.

“We do not have a formal welcome planned for the Odinson,” Angrboða says, and Thor does not miss the way his eyes are fixed on Loki, now rolled on to his side but still flushed and bright-eyed and altogether too appealing. “My bera is away; we did not expect you for a month, at least.”

“Plans change,” Loki says idly. “I wanted to show Thor something more than warriors and herders. We have had our fill of feasts and formality. I want him to see my home.”

That does not quite ring true for Thor, but it clearly means something to Angrboða, for a tangle of complicated emotions flit across his features before settling back into perfect blankness. “I see,” he says, utterly flat. “We shall leave you to it then, and await your arrival at the castle. It is only I and Járnsaxa in residence at the moment, so dinner will be whenever you want it.”

“Thank you,” Loki says, and Thor echoes him, feeling all at once the stranger he is here. Angrboða gives them both a long, cool look and then, entirely without fuss, rolls his shoulders and in the blink of an eye is an enormous silver wolf, the transformation swift and fluid, much less showy than Loki’s.

“See you later!” Járnsaxa calls, relaxed and casual, leaping onto the wolf’s back and waving farewell. The wolf dips his head and then they are gone, loping away towards the shadows of the trees.

“My apologies,” Loki says as they disappear into the distance, though he sounds anything but sorry. “I should have thought. Sound carries in strange ways in the wood, and we íviðjur hear more than most.”

Thor is not entirely sure what to make of this, nor Loki’s little…performance in front of the two íviðjur. It is almost like…Loki was staking his claim, or warning them off, and for all Thor knows such a thing is entirely unnecessary, he cannot help a flicker of smug pleasure at the thought of being fought over so.

“I think we will be seeing rather a lot of Angrboða and Járnsaxa over the next few days,” Loki continues as he stands and adjusts his rumpled skirt. “Járnsaxa in particular has always been keen to meet an Aesir, and it is rare for us to receive visitors at Útgarðar. No hrimthurs has ever set foot in the place.”

“They are…your friends?” Thor asks, to be sure: no other jötnar have been anything like as informal around the two of them, not even Thrymr. It seems the ways of the íviðjur are different indeed, and he is not yet sure if he likes their complete disregard of his status as a Prince of Asgard. It is one thing to be solely himself around Loki, but he does not yet have the measure of the two sorcerers.

“We were raised together,” Loki answers. “When I first came to Útgarðar, Angrboða and Járnsaxa were the only other children here. They are both some decades older than I, but I soon caught up in my studies, and so we spent most of our time together, in lessons and in play. Angrboða’s bera, Skrýmir, has always been keen for us to be close – you see, my geta, Fárbauti, was Skrýmir’s sibb, and he likes to think of me as kyn, since Fárbauti bore no children of his own.”

A cousin, Thor thinks, and a childhood friend too, with a father who sees Loki as family even if no-one in Jotunheim acknowledges the relationship. Well, he can see why Angrboða would be less than impressed to find them apparently rutting in the snow, but still, he had not actually bothered to speak a single word directly to Thor, and Thor cannot help but see that as an insult. Is it that Angrboða resents him because he is an Aesir and Odin’s son? Or, given the way his gaze lingered on Loki, is this a more personal grudge?

Well, this is going to be an interesting visit.

“Come,” Loki says, turning to Thor with bright eyes and a rich smile. “Let me show you Útgarðar, the castle of the íviðjur. Neither Aesir nor hrimthurs has ever walked within its walls, not even Laufey-King. We are a mystery even to your Gatekeeper; and this is the one stronghold your father’s forces could not overcome. ”

“I did not realise,” Thor says, the enormity of the honour sinking in, alongside the belated remembrance that this is the one place in Jotunheim hidden from Heimdall’s sight.

“It is a place of many secrets,” Loki says, voice dropping as he moves closer, and Thor leans towards him, barely aware that he’s doing it. “And I cannot wait to show them to you.”

“I look forward to it,” Thor murmurs, barely thinking, hyper-aware of Loki’s crisp, cool scent and the knowing humour in his smile.

“Good,” Loki says, stepping away, fingers crooking as he sketches his shapeshifting runes, and the white wolf sits and laughs with his long, lupine tongue as Thor must go scrambling back for their packs before returning to his side.

Thor scratches gently at the base of Loki’s velvety ears, and receives a pleased whine as they set off, a ghostly white shape amidst the shadows of the Ironwood; within moments the only sound is the patter of Loki’s paws and his soft panting as the grey mist swallows them whole.

They are in Loki’s lands now, and Thor can only twist his fingers deeper into Loki’s plush fur and wonder what awaits him within the towering walls of Utgard.

 

Chapter Text

Loki’s breath steams before him as he races on through the Ironwood, snow crunching under his paws, Thor’s hand twisted tightly in his fur. He feels like he could run for days, run forever, tracing the old, familiar paths between the coral-like trees, Thor a familiar and comforting weight on his back. He has been running all day, with more time spent on four feet than two, and he knows that he is falling into wolf-thoughts, that his pleasure in being back in familiar territory is stronger than it ought to be.

But he is happy, with the taste of the mist and the tang of fresh water drawing him on, and happier still with the feel of Thor’s body against his, Thor’s scent surrounding him, no longer alien but safe and sweet on his tongue and in his throat. Mine, he thinks, the thought hazy, my Thor, and the thought makes his burden seem light as he lopes on towards the castle.

They weave through the dark forest, over undulating hills and along jagged cliffs, until they find a valley, the ground sloping sharply underfoot. Here Loki slows, pads more carefully through the rough terrain, and as the mist clears, their path unfolds before them. They are tracking down to the shore of a fjord, the deep waters a rich sapphire blue against the more muted cobalts, silver-greys and blacks of the wood. They are close now, and Loki can smell traces of his fellow íviðjur along the well-used trail, old tracks built up by frequent use.

The trees begin to thin and part and as they reach the wood’s edge Loki slows to a halt and looks out over Útgarðar. Though he has never seen them, Loki has studied at length the illustrations and maps of the great cities and palaces of the other realms. Nothing on Jötunheimr can compare to Asgard, nor Vanaheim’s capital of Nóatún, and he is keenly aware that Thor, as Odin’s son and heir, has spent his entire life being shown glittering castles and spectacular dwellings. Jötunheimr’s glory was always in the ice, not her basalt towers and granite walls, and that was before half her buildings were ripped apart in the war. The shimmering, carven ice roofs and glittering, delicate decorative draperies of living ice used to soften the harshness of Jötunheimr’s volcanic-birthed rock, but even so, her architecture has always been stark and simple – an aesthetic chosen and celebrated by the jötnar but which, he assumes, looks crude and dull next to the golden wonders of Ásgarðr.

But not Útgarðar. Hidden by the mist and protected by the Ironwood, Útgarðar is a world apart, a treasure chest for the jewels of Jötunheimr, and here, on the shores of the fjord, clinging to the steep cliffs, a succession of great builders have created something else entirely. Útgarðar has been shaped from the steep sides of the mountains, the coral-like pseudo-trees parting to reveal bare rock overlooking the depths of the glacial lake, and Útgarðar perches on the mountainside like a swift awaiting flight.

Loki’s ears flick as Thor whistles, a strange, low noise, and he whines inquisitively.

“This is a fine castle,” Thor says, slipping from Loki’s back and taking the packs with him, so Loki can shake off his fur and stand again, vision blurring momentarily as his perspective shifts. Thor smiles at him, and Loki moves forward instinctively, some half-formed urge to lick his lips strong within him – and then he shakes himself and jerks back, pushing the wolf away.

“I am glad you think so,” he says, tongue thick in his mouth, struggling to reconcile his lingering good mood with the uneasy sense that too much is bleeding across in his shapeshifting. Animal instincts have never caused him these kind of problems before: it suggests a disconnect in his sense of self. Hmm.

“Come,” Loki says, pushing aside his tangled thoughts to concentrate on Thor. “Let me show you around.”

***

Another day, another tour: Loki is starting to feel like one of the trained monkeys in his Vanir storybooks. But at least Útgarðar is a place dear to him, and, more importantly, a place both safe and secure for him, and he need not concern himself with who might be watching him and Thor. Asgard’s intrusive guardian can no longer see them; no hrimthurs is peering down at them, and as Angrboða and Járnsaxa are still out hunting, the castle of the íviðjur lies empty for them to explore.

Útgarðar is a place of tall, slender towers, with huge windows framed in gemstones, and a warren of private suites, with secret staircases and fine, airy chambers, decked out with gems and jewels, luxuriously decorated with shelves and alcoves for items of power and keepsakes and trinkets picked up by the íviðjur in their wanderings. This time, unlike their stilted and silent traipse through Konungsgadr, Thor is keen to see the fortress, and seems better pleased by it than by the cold grandeur of Jötunheimr’s royal palace. Part of that is likely its construction: though its halls are large and ceilings vaulting, this castle was built by the íviðjur and for the íviðjur and so, for once, they are not undersized next to the furnishings, furniture and structures.

The castle boasts the largest library in Jötunheimr, rivalling even Ásgarðr’s in its size, for once this was a centre of learning, and alongside the carved tablets the íviðjur prefer are stacks upon stacks of warded scrolls and enchanted books in a dozen languages, memory-stones and embroidered tapestries recording the histories of other worlds. Once, the íviðjur were kept busy carrying their knowledge back and forth to the library of Kongunstadr, where outworlders could stay in the Gestrhof, and in whose meeting halls and austere rooms bargains were struck over the loan of a grimoire or the return of an almanac.

There is also a Great Hall, at ground level, with an imposing set of double doors hewn from granite, with space enough to hold three hundred íviðjur; but it was only ever used rarely, for ceremonies and mighty spell-working, and the doors have been closed for nigh on eight centuries now. In truth, a large part of the suites also have been sealed off, all their treasures labelled and stored in the lower levels of the library, for so many íviðjur died in the war that with none born since – none after Loki – those who remain are so stretched seeing to the other Staðr that only Skrýmir-Erilar and his barn Angrboða live here permanently. As it is spring, and Jötunheimr’s rivers have been unlocked for travelling, even the íviðjur who still keep rooms here are away helping the hrimthursar with their herds or with the new season’s fishing, and with only Skrýmir, Angrboða and Járnsaxa here for the season, most of the castle is shut up, more a mausoleum than a home.

But Loki does not tell Thor this. He must find the castle quiet, and perhaps he wonders at the multitude of corridors Loki does not lead him down, but Loki does not give him the opportunity to question, instead acting the perfect guide, teasing him with mildly salacious stories and exciting tales of the artefacts they pass, such as this very goblet – yes, you may touch it, dwarven work, yes – and that very spear – no, it must stay in the statue’s hand, lest the binding runes fail, oh, yes, it is very dangerous indeed, why, let me tell you about the time when – and in this way, he shows Thor only the very best of a castle nine-tenths empty and broken.

***

Loki ends the tour in the south wing of the library, which has a cheery reading room with a wide balcony overhanging the lake. This is the communal area most used by himself, Angrboða and Járnsaxa, and so it is comfortable, well-lived in, and strewn with projects, half-finished or newly thought of, giving a somewhat misleading impression of scholarly idleness and leisure. Odin’s son does not need to know quite how far the íviðjur have fallen; the state of Útgarðar is perhaps the only secret Jötunheimr has left, and Loki has no intention of giving it away.

It is also home to a small fireplace, which burns with pale blue magelight. There is a reason the íviðjur have always returned to Útgarðar, and a reason why their castle was built here, in the otherwise over-warm and unpleasant woods, and part of that reason is the closeness of the realm’s fiery heart to the surface. There is power here, great power, and in the diminished days since the Vetrformen was taken, Útgarðar is the only place left where an íviðja can carve and cast the most taxing bindrunes, for fire, and growing life, and all things far from the nature of ice, and have them work at all.

Thor does not know this either. All he sees is the first fireplace aside from the cooking pits he has seen since he arrived, and his face lights up at the sight of it.

“So, how do you find the castle?” Loki asks, surreptitiously renewing the runes of fire, causing the pathetically small flames to swell and grow and generate more heat.

“I should be used to surprises by now,” Thor says cheerfully, reaching out to the luke-warm flames. “And yet here is another. I can see why you wanted to come home.”

Loki represses a snort. Útgarðar is not home, no matter what he said to Angrboða. He does not tend to think of anywhere as home – Útgarðar is a refuge for him, yes, but so are his chambers in the Konungstadr, his private guesthut in Thrymstaðr, and the half dozen other bolt holes he has scattered across Jötunheimr.

“Is it more to your liking than the palace was?”

Thor grins ruefully. “Aye, though I should probably not say so to anyone but you.”

“Good,” Loki says, aware of a thin tendril of sneaking pleasure at how much trust Thor now places in him. “I had thought for us to stay here for most of the season. We will return to Koungstadr in the last week, but otherwise, we can make this our base.”

“We will tour no more of Jotunheim?”

“We can, if you wish. But one Jarl’s Hall is much like another, and I find camping grows wearisome quickly. Unless you want to keep moving?”

Thor shrugs. “You know this land best,” he says, “and I am in your hands. Is there work you wish to do here?”

“Work?”

“You have been minding me for weeks,” Thor points out. “I am grateful for your company, and have enjoyed myself, but I imagine you do not usually wander around the wilderness for days on end with no more purpose than entertainment.”

Actually, Loki does, when the mood takes him; he has no place in the King’s Council nor in the hirðverr, like his sibja, and though Laufey-King may seek his counsel from time to time, Loki is not his advisor, nor his Lawspeaker, though he has been trained for that role. As an íviðja, he should spend his time acting as lawgiver, arbitrator, healer, skald and helper to his people, but the very idea of it bores him rigid, and as Laufey’s child no-one has ever actually tried to make him take up the duties Skadi and the others take such pride in.

Since completing his education here in Útgarðar, Loki has been at something of a loose end, and while research and study are one of his favourite pastimes, he has no desire to become a scholar, locked away in the quiet library. He has been instead a wanderer, moving from place to place, causing a little mischief here, solving a few problems there, as his fancy takes him, and generally doing as he pleases, unless the King finds some specific task for him to do. Thor is the first serious responsibility he has had in decades.

But Thor sees him as a fellow Prince, and has assumed he has similar duties and obligations to his Öthlingr sibja. Helblindi and Býleistr could not wander off on a pleasure-jaunt for an entire season, and doubtless back in Asgard, Thor, as sole Prince and Heir, would not be allowed to go off questing, or whatever he spends his time doing, for more than a few weeks at a time.

“I do have a few tasks I have neglected,” Loki says, as vaguely as he can. “But nothing that cannot wait. I would rather spend my time with you.”

Thor smiles at that, easy and fond, and Loki, foolishly, cannot help smiling back. “Then we are both free,” Thor says, with the air of someone relishing the idea, “to do as we like – until the end of the season, at least.”

Ah. Loki has been wondering when and how to broach the subject of the real reason they are here, for, of course, they are not free at all. This is how Thor wants it to be then: a short window of ease and idle amusement, a time to pretend that they are friends by choice and not their King’s design. Thor would prefer a mayfly spring, a dream of simple companionship, with the vast consequences and unpleasant reality of their relationship put aside until the very end of the season. 

That Thor does not wish to discuss their betrothal is as good as a refusal of it, Loki thinks. Avoidance and hesitation seems out of character for the Aesir prince, but then, since Loki told him he knew Thor did not want the betrothal on that first day together, has Thor assumed that the matter is null and void between them, and this entire season a sham of courtship to appease Laufey and Odin?

For all Thor seems straightforward, Loki is not entirely sure how best to turn this to his advantage. Thor likes him; after such an intensive period of time together, Thor’s affection is obvious and genuine, and Loki is confident that he has won him over as a friend. His desire is equally obvious, but he is not yet willing to act on it and that, like his awkward pausing when the conversation brushes up against their potential marriage, reveals he is not as firmly within Loki’s grasp as he needs him to be.

It is…infuriating, really, for how can Loki shape his thinking when Thor will not share it with him? Thor’s initial objections to the match were probably founded in his hatred of the jötnar and a distrust of Loki himself; now that Thor is happy in Jötunheimr and happy in Loki’s company, what can be holding him back? Stubborn pride? Does he think there is a better match for him in Asgard or in one of the other realms?

Loki must know. But if he asks directly, he risks angering Thor, or worse, alienating him, and he has no intention of being the one who must apologise for another quarrel. Best to continue reeling Thor in, slowly, carefully, so that when he accepts Loki, he will think it his own idea.

Surely he will accept Loki, in time? Loki needs him too, desperately – surely Thor finds the same enjoyment in his company that he has found in Thor’s? Is he mistaken in thinking Thor wants him as he wants –

“Loki?” Thor asks, and Loki realises abruptly he has been staring into the fire as he thinks, rather than continuing their conversation.

“I am just wondering what to show you next,” he replies, a little flustered at the direction his thoughts have taken.

“Show me how you relax,” Thor says, bumping against him companionably. “Really, Loki, you have been taking too much trouble over me. Let us be idle tonight and tomorrow.”

“I would not have thought you one for idleness,” Loki says; Thor has the air of someone constantly looking for action, and this is why he has filled their time so far with hunting and excursions. He cannot imagine Thor simply lying around Asgard in his free time.

“I do not do well with it for long,” Thor admits, flicking his fingers in and out of the mage-fire, which is clearly not as hot as he is used to. “But I think you are overdue some time to do what you would like. I can entertain myself.”

“Oh,” Loki says, unaccountably pleased. “In that case, shall we have dinner?”

“Do you not want to wait for your friends?”

“They will not mind,” Loki says. “There is no formality here, not with Skrýmir-Erilar away.”

“Erilar?” Thor says, stumbling a little on the word.

“The ruler of Útgarðar,” Loki says; he is so comfortable with Thor, he is beginning to forget how much Thor is still ignorant of. “It is the word for the leader of the ividjur, instead of Jarl.”

“Ah! Then by all means, lead on,” Thor says, and they make their way down one of the many concealed staircases in the library to the kitchen, where they make a pile of whatever catches their eye, like naughty children raiding the larder. It is silly, but fun, and after weeks after being careful about who see what, so very refreshing to just relax and laugh loudly and screech wildly when Thor throws a bone at him.

After they have eaten, they settle back in to the common room, and Loki helps Thor make a pile of furs and padded cushions in front of the fire, so he can flop down and stretch out. Loki sits opposite, leaning against one of the chairs, with his bare legs rest comfortably alongside Thor’s clothed ones, their feet brushing. He has a pile of books to read and Thor is pouring over a parchment map of Jötunheimr, cup of kumis in hand; it is all very domestic, and though he would never admit it out loud, Loki remains oddly happy, far happier than he ever expected to be.

***

The idyll lasts for barely an hour.

“Ah, here you are!” Járnsaxa shouts as he rushes in. “’Boda, I’ve found them!”

This is the second time Járnsaxa and Angrboða have managed to sneak up on him without even trying; Loki has fallen into a bad habit of focusing his attention on Thor whenever they are together and it is something he really must address. He nods a greeting to the pair, noting how Járnsaxa immediately gravitates to Thor, practically bouncing with excitement even as he sits down, whereas Angrboða slinks to the corner and looks pointedly out the window. Subtle, he thinks dryly.

“Did you have good hunting?” he asks, directing the question at both of them.

“We got plenty of game,” Járnsaxa replies. “Enough to feed four for a while. I’m getting much better at being a wolf,” he volunteers, “but I’m finding the mass conversion down to smaller creatures tricky – and it’s difficult to cope with the change in perspective. You’d think I’d be used to being smaller than everyone else, but looking up at Angrboða when I’m a stoat frightens me half to death!”

“You find shapeshifting difficult?” Thor asks curiously and Járnsaxa shakes his head.

“Oh, no, it’s as natural as breathing. But I’m from Hraesvelgrstaðr, and we don’t have many animals on the islands. It’s all seabirds and seals. I’m also used to whales and dolphins and sharks and plenty of other sea creatures, but running around a forest on four legs? Much harder.”

“I see,” Thor says thoughtfully.

“Hraesvelgrstaðr is made up of the islands to the north-west,” Loki clarifies, gesturing at Thor’s map. “And Járnsaxa is a Sækonungar – a sea king – which is quite a different form of seidr to the rest of the north.”

“I am called Waverider,” Járnsaxa says, flushing with excitement, “but it is a little more than that. We islanders live most of our lives out at sea. I am a ship-builder and work spells for speed and safety and so on; I track the movements of the shoals and the soaring of the seabirds -”

“And so on,” Loki interrupts; he has no particular interest in what Járnsaxa is good at. But it is too late.

“Weather working?” Thor says. “You have storm magic?”

“Not exactly,” Járnsaxa says. “Not like you. I have some small skill in calming the storm, in singing it down, in whistling up a wind to speed a sailship; I can read the clouds and look for when a tempest will come. But I have no power over it – that is elemental magic, far beyond me. I work with the ice and the sea, not the sky.”

“I did not know there was such variation in jötunn magic,” Thor says.

“We are all drawn to different things, and we have certain innate strengths,” Loki says. “But it is more about studying and practice.”

“That’s why I’m still in Útgarðar,” Járnsaxa says, “to learn from Angrboða and his bera –and Loki – so I can master a wider variety of skills.”

“And what is your speciality?” Thor asks Loki.

“I’m good at everything,” Loki replies, and Thor snorts with laughter. “And that is a skill in itself.”

“And modest, too,” Járnsaxa puts in, ducking his head and smiling to show he is only teasing. “But never mind us – I want to know more about you. Is it true you can fly without wings?”

“I suppose so,” Thor says, grinning back, “though I wouldn’t put it like that.”

“And is it true the Aesir eat golden apples every day? And that it never snows in Ásgarðr? And that you can walk for an entire week and still not cross the whole of the city? Oh, and what does a bilgesnipe look like? And what does honey taste like?”

“I think what Járnsaxa is trying to say,” Loki says as Thor struggles not to laugh, “is please tell us about Ásgarðr.”

“I’ve always wanted to see it,” Járnsaxa says wistfully. “A whole world of gold and green.”

“I am sure one day you will,” Thor says, and he seems genuine, though his gaze turns from Loki. “Hmm, let me think. Well, the heart of the city is Idavollr, the Royal Palace, and I have my own wing, called Bilskirnir.”

“You do not live with your parents?” Járnsaxa asks. “Are you not lonely, living without them?”

Thor blinks. “Well, we all live in the palace, so I am not alone. Most children live with their parents, but once you come of age…it depends on what work you do, and whether you move away…” He pauses to think. “We value family,” he says slowly, “but adult children are not so close to their parents as you seem to be. I mean, I have my own quarters because I am Prince, but my friends too have their own living spaces, separate from the home they grew up in. Volstagg has his own house, which he shares with his wife and children, but Sif and Fandral live in their own lodgings in the city, and I keep guestrooms in the palace for them too. Hogun has a house, I think, in Vanaheim…or at least, I know his family does. Most of the Lords and Ladies of the court have rooms in the palace and their own homes further afield, but most of the people of Asgard have only one house. I do not know how and when they leave their family home, or if they keep to it. You know, I’ve never wondered much about it.”

That does not surprise Loki, and he does not see why Thor or Járnsaxa should be the slightest bit interested in the lifestyles of the commonfolk, but Járnsaxa seems captivated by the idea of city life top to bottom, and continues to pepper Thor with frankly inane questions about the metropolis. Where do people get their food? How do they live so closely packed together? What about hunting and fishing? How are they taught their crafts and skills if they do not live off the land? What are the gowns of Aesir ladies like? What jewellery is in fashion? Why are the Aesir so fond of capes?

Who cares? Loki thinks irritably; he is happy for Járnsaxa to tease more information about Ásgarðr out of Thor, for he too is wildly curious, but has been careful not to seem provincial or naïve, and so has limited himself to asking for personal stories about Thor and his friends. Járnsaxa obviously does not care that he is coming across like a backwater bumpkin, and luckily, Thor seems charmed by his enthusiasm for all things Aesir. It would be far more helpful if Járnsaxa would ask, in his guileless way, about the Lords and Ladies mentioned, about how Odin actually rules his glittering city, about the Privy Council and the army and what, exactly, the Crown Prince and Heir is responsible for; however, he and Thor instead talk about towers and gardens, skiffs that flit across the churning waters and the patches of forest and farmland that are cradled between the denser urban areas.

Still, it is interesting to listen to Thor describe his homeworld. Loki has no great love for Jötunheimr or her people – it is his stage and they his playing pieces; for all he knows it intimately he cannot say he cares for it. It is what is it, and he is more interested in what he can do with it than for it. But Thor speaks with pride and affection, and his earnestness is rather…endearing. Even Angrboða is intrigued: he has not moved the scroll he is pretending to study for twenty minutes. Loki has been listening to Thor’s stories for weeks now, but never quite in this way, and he can’t help but be fascinated by the picture Thor paints, and he sits quietly and listens closely as Thor talks of shining spires and crowded streets and a world Loki is aching to see for himself.

***

Járnsaxa would likely keep wittering at Thor for the entire night, but after a while, Loki can see that Thor is tiring, and he begins to cut into the conversation, supplying some of the answers himself and drawing Járnsaxa into discussing the myriad differences between their two realms with him and not only Thor. In his excitement, it takes Járnsaxa far too long to catch on, but eventually he recognises Loki’s tone and draws back, shifting away from Thor and letting the conversation die down. From there, it is easy to give him a pointed look and when that fails to register, a very pointed hand gesture when Thor looks away.

Járnsaxa gives a poorly-faked yawn. “Well, I am exhausted!” he exclaims brightly, and if Loki were closer he would kick him. “’Boda, will you come to bed with me?”

“At last,” Angrboða mutters, forgetting that he is supposedly absorbed in his reading. “Good night, Loki, Odinson,” he says flatly and leaves without a word more, dragging Járnsaxa behind him, who ends his good nights with a ‘looking forward to talking more tomorrow!’ that has Loki wincing.

Thor just seems amused. “I never expected to find a jötunn so interested in Asgard’s plumbing,” he remarks.

“Járnsaxa is very…keen,” Loki offers with a conspiratorial smirk.

“I do not mind,” Thor says. “He’s rather sweet. But it has been a long day, and I thank you for coming to my rescue.” So he did notice, Loki notes, with an unwarranted flush of pleasure.

“I think I am ready for bed too,” Thor continues, yawning, and Loki agrees.

There are plenty of spare rooms in the castle, but Loki has no intention of separating from Thor now, and so he leads him to his own set of rooms without discussing it. All the beds are large enough for half a dozen íviðjur, as it is unusual for any jötnar to sleep alone. Most families pile together in one large bed, whether babe or fully-grown, and before the war, when the young íviðjur left their families to come to Útgarðar, they were put in a communal suite, to help with the homesickness. Though all the adults have their own rooms, most tend to flit between them, sleeping two to a bed at least; the íviðjur like their privacy more than most, and tend to be more solitary than the Clan-orientated hrimthurs, but still, given the chance most like to have someone beside them as they sleep.

Loki is, as ever, something of an exception: growing up in the royal palace, he had been removed from Laufey’s bed immediately after weaning so Laufey could get on with producing a true heir for the Throne of Winter – and, Loki suspects, because the sight of him, so small and with his rapidly growing dark hair, reminded Laufey too painfully of Fárbauti. Even after Helblindi was born, Loki had continued to sleep apart from them, and though there had been some effort to bring him into the family bed after Býleistr was born, by then Loki was used to having his own space, and had not particularly wanted to sleep with his far larger bera and sibja.

From what Thor has said, Loki gathers the customs of Ásgarðr are very different, and Thor likely finds sleeping with another as strange as Loki does. But Thor makes no comment as Loki closes the bedroom door behind them, and he seems unsurprised to find his travel bag stowed beside the low bed. They fall into their usual routine and are soon curled up in Loki’s plush furs, comfortably close though not yet touching, and it brings Loki a sense of safety and security he has never found sleeping alone.

“Thank you for bringing me here,” Thor says, sleepy and slow, and Loki is not quite sure if he means Útgarðar or to Loki’s own bed.

“I am glad you are here,” Loki whispers back, glad that in the darkness Thor cannot see his face.

***

The next morning, Loki puts together a quick breakfast and serves it in his room, determined to keep this small, private routine going, before he and Thor make their way to the library common room where, sure enough, Járnsaxa is eagerly awaiting them, and Angrboða is once again playing at being indifferent.

“I hope I did not bother you too much last night,” Járnsaxa says by way of greeting, and Loki suspects Angrboða has had some sharp words with him.

“Not at all,” Thor says. “I am pleased to be making new friends in Jotunheim.”

“Oh, I do hope we will be friends,” Járnsaxa says, delighted. “I always wanted an Aesir friend.”

Thor laughs and Loki joins in, but Angrboða remains still and sullen and ignores Thor entirely.

“Do you have plans for today?” Angrboða asks Loki.

“We were discussing what to do over breakfast,” Loki answers, directing his response to the group at large in an effort to keep things civil. “I was thinking of catching up on some reading, while Thor -”

You like to read?” Angrboða suddenly says to Thor, lip curling, and Loki has to repress a growl at his sheer rudeness.

“On occasion,” Thor says with admirable patience, given Angrboða’s tone. “But I am not much of a scholar.”

I had thought Thor could -” Loki starts.

“You have been dragged from pillar to post for nigh on three weeks,” Járnsaxa says, cutting across Loki to address Thor directly and Loki will cheerfully throttle his fellow íviðjur if they do not stop interrupting him. “What would you like to do?”

“This is clearly a place of learning,” Thor says, eyeing the enormous piles of scrolls and tablets with limited enthusiasm. “But what do you do for fun?”

“Read,” Loki says dryly and catches Angrboða’s smirk out of the corner of his eye. “But we also play hnefatafl and skáktafl, which is like your game of chess; when there were more of us here we played skinnleikr and had singing and dancing competitions; I myself am a master of flyting -”

“Don’t challenge him,” Járnsaxa says in a mock-whisper, winking at Thor. “He’ll skin you alive with his tongue.”

“We have cards and dice and all sorts of games,” Loki continues, ignoring the pair of them. “Of course there is always hunting and skating -”

“Or fishing!” Járnsaxa chimes in, clapping his hands together. “In the lake or out at sea. Do you like fishing?” he asks Thor, practically begging for a yes.

“I do,” Thor says. “I take it that you are fond of it?”

“Oh, very much! I am a sea-lover; Útgarðar is beautiful, but after a few days, I miss the taste of salt and the roar of the tides. I’ll always be the Waverider at heart.”

Thor grins. “It has been a long time since I went out to sea.”

“Then I shall take you,” Járnsaxa says immediately. “We have kayaks here and can follow the fjord out to the bay.”

Loki does his best not to scowl. Járnsaxa means no harm: he is affable, cheerful, and almost entirely without guile, and Loki has always seen him as something of a Býleistr-substitute, useful enough and easy company when Angrboða’s slyness needles him. Járnsaxa has no thoughts of wrecking Loki’s plans or trying to win Thor’s favour for himself alone; he is, in his own way, trying to help Loki by doing what he can to please Thor, to keep the Odinson happy and thinking fondly of both Jötunheimr and the íviðja to ensure the bright future every one of them knows rides on Thor’s and Loki’s relationship.

But as he beams at Thor and talks animatedly about sea- and ship-craft, hands fluttering, innocent as a kitten next to Loki’s polished royal bearing and Angrboða’s tangible animosity, Loki tastes a familiar jealous bile. Járnsaxa’s looks and ways are almost the polar opposite of Loki’s own – what if Thor prefers them? What if the warrior-prince is taken by Járnsaxa’s fondness for rougher pursuits and decides to try his taste for a jötnar lover with someone simpler both in manner and circumstance than Loki, Laufey’s child?

Loki grits his teeth and forces the swelling insecurity away. It is intolerable how easily the Aesir Prince brings him to this! No-one has ever given him cause to doubt himself before – but then, no-one has ever mattered to him as Thor does. No, as the Odinson does, he thinks blackly, ignoring the easy, entirely unweighted conversation between Thor and Járnsaxa. To become the future Royal Consort of Asgard is his aim: the status and power is an object to win, and Thor’s trust and affection should be nothing to him but the key to holding that prize.

But still…it is galling to watch, again, as another of Loki’s people falls under Thor’s easy spell, as Thor shares his smiles and attention, freely, carelessly, so obviously a man unencumbered by doubt. He will never know jealousy. He would never think to be careful in distributing his favours, lest it be seen as a slight upon one who would lay claim to him. A King’s son and a King to be and an arrogant, witless, selfish -

“And I am sure Loki would enjoy some time spent with his friends, without having to babysit me,” Thor is saying to Járnsaxa, and the sound of his name attracts Loki’s attention again. “But I would like to spend some time with him tonight – if that would not interfere with your plans?” he asks, turning to Loki, who scrambles to pick up the thread of the conversation.

“No, not at all,” he replies, having as yet made no plans, and now he is listening properly, he realises that Járnsaxa and Thor have decided they will spend most of the day out at sea, doing something wet and stupid, leaving Loki with Angrboða; however, Thor intends to reclaim Loki, and Loki alone, for the evening. Thor says this easily, and laughs uproariously as Járnsaxa’s rowdy insinuations and really, if Loki didn’t know better, he would swear they actually were the lovers everyone assumes they are.

How…strange.

Putting his black mood aside, Loki is, in truth, glad of Járnsaxa’s efforts to entertain Thor. It is a welcome opportunity to have time away from Thor, not because he is tired of Thor’s company, but because he is not. With anyone else, be it his kyn, Angrboða, Thrymr, after being with them every day for two weeks he would be climbing the walls, desperate to get away; but with Thor, he finds himself waking every day with a smile, all too happy to find Thor slumbering beside him, more than willing to spend the entire day finding new things to do with him.

It is disgustingly sentimental and Loki is well tired of it. He is also, in his heart, a little afraid that he has fallen more under Thor’s spell than Thor is under his.

***

After a brief flurry of noisy equipment gathering on Thor and Járnsaxa’s part, and quiet protective spell working on Loki’s, the pair leave the castle in high spirits, Járnsaxa promising not to let the Odinson drown and Thor intent on catching a ‘proper, normal fish to fry’, whatever that may be. From his high window, Loki watches them drag their kayaks to the water’s edge and notes how comfortable Thor is casting off alone in a small boat: this is not new to him, and though he has nothing like Járnsaxa’s skill, as the tiny crafts begin to skim across the water, he keeps up well enough, leaving a trail of choppy, churning water behind he as he powers across the lake.

Behind him, Angrboða sighs in exaggerated relief. “Peace at last,” he says, slipping an arm around Loki’s waist and cuddling in closer than Loki would like.

“Shall we walk in the garden?” Loki says, turning from the window and extricating himself from Angrboða’s embrace as subtly as he can. “You can show me your latest work.”

“Yes!” Angrboða says. “I have been busy since you left. I wanted to have something spectacular ready for your return.”

Now that Thor has left, Angrboða’s sullenness melts away, and he is all smiles and enthusiasm as they leave the library and make their way down to the walled garden within the castle keep. While Angrboða’s greatest skill is his shapeshifting, which has earned him the name Skinchanger, it is far from the sum of his talents. Angrboða is one of the few remaining Skrýmirkyn, and can trace his lineage back to Bergelmir just as Loki does; he is the last of the line of Útgarðar, an íviðja born of an íviðja, just as all his kyn have been. He has lived here in the Ironwood all his life and while Loki fancies his own raw power is greater, Angrboða is even more skilled, for he has studied seidr day in and day out here at the castle for the entirety of his life – perhaps to the detriment of his social skills, it has to be said.

Still, only his own bera knows more of magic and ice-shaping, and Angrboða’s garden is his pride and joy, and is the result entirely of his own efforts. The courtyard itself is plain enough: a large, roughly rectangular space open to the sky, with a covered walkway around the edge, its open arcades a succession of columns and gently pointed archways, like much of the rest of the castle. There are a few benches scattered about, but that is the extent of the stonework.

Everything else is ice. The garden bursts with elaborate, incredibly detailed ice sculptures, from twisting, latticework colonnades and vases, to crystalline figures of jötnar and animals, churning seascapes executed in glistening white and blue, fantastic visions of fractal, geometric shapes designs, endlessly repeating, mapping out the lines and whorls of kyn and Clan and House, an entire symphony of symbols infinitely fragile and startlingly beautiful. Since Loki was here last, Angrboða has more than doubled the level of detail, adding layer upon layer to his basic designs, creating a riot of shape and form over the simple stone backdrop.

It is truly spectacular and Loki is open and, for once, entirely honest in his praise. Few in Jötunheimr have the urge to create beauty in these dark days, but Angrboða is intent on restoring at least part of Útgarðar to glory, and though Loki’s own plans will take him elsewhere, he too shares Angrboða’s appreciation for the beauty and potential still present in the ice.

They take a seat on a curving bench beside a carefully constructed cascade of rippling ice, and talk idly for a few moments before Loki fixes Angrboða with his most knowing smile.

“Go on,” he says. “You’re dying to ask me about him.”

Ask you about him?” Angrboða snaps. “What is there to ask about? I read Laufey-King’s message to my bera – all the details of the proposed alliance, the marriage, the Vetrformen – I know as much of it as you do! The northlands are alive with rumours about you and him – my bera has gone to speak personally with the Jarls about receiving the two of you – it is all so sudden! Everyone is in an uproar about it.”

“We are not going to the northern Staðr,” Loki says. “We spent long enough in Thrymstaðr. I have other plans now.”

“Then you need to send word to the Jarls,” Angrboða says. “You may be used to coming and going as you please, but the movements of the Odinson in Jötunheimr are causing great unrest.”

“I know,” Loki allows. “I have already sent a message to Vafthrudnir, Hraesvelgr and to Suttungr too. I did not send one here as we were still coming.”

“A warning would still have been appreciated,” Angrboða says tartly. “We did not look for your coming for months. To come across you grappling with him -”

“Thor Odinson,” Loki says, just to see Angrboda’s face scrunch up at the name. “And it was only a bit of fun.”

“He looks like a walrus,” Angrboða says contemptuously and Loki rolls his eyes as dramatically as possible. “Fat and pink and bristly.”

 “I think him very handsome, for an Aesir.”

 “He is hideous,” Angrboða insists, and he’s not stamping his foot, but it’s a near-run thing. “And all that hair on his face! I don’t even want to imagine what kissing him would be like.”

“I rather like it,” Loki says carelessly and Angrboða takes the bait like a starving wolf.

“You have not,” he gasps. “Loki, why?”

“To try it, of course,” Loki lies. “We’ve played Aesir games together, you and I and Járnsaxa. I wanted to see how the real thing differed. And besides, he is my betrothed. All the Aesir courtship stories we have read start with kisses.”

“He is not your betrothed,” Angrboða says, truly angry, and Loki’s temper is rising in response. “Nothing is certain. No vows have been made.”

“I have agreed to the marriage,” Loki says. “It is as good as done.”

“We have plotted to take the Vetrformen back,” Angrboða says bluntly. “I would have helped you do it. Better to be a thief than a sacrifice.”

“I am not a sacrifice, and this is a far better way for us all,” Loki insists. “A thief could be captured, could start another war – this way, Jötunheimr gets the Vetrformen and I get the most powerful mate in all the realms. Surely you can see that?”

“I do not. You do not have to marry him. You do not have to go to Asgard. There must be another way -”

“I want to marry him,” Loki cuts in and Angrboða leaps to his feet.

“You cannot,” he snarls. “You cannot go to Asgard. The Allfather has killed too many of us already. Bestla died birthing him; Thjazi died for defying him, your own geta died by his hand, spitted on a spear like a fish -”

“Fárbauti died in battle,” Loki corrects smoothly, standing so that Angrboða cannot loom over him. “None can say for sure who dealt the fatal blow.”

“A battle led by Odin Borson,” Angrboða points out. “In a war that wiped out more than half of all the jötnar, hrimthursar and íviðjur alike; a war that we have never recovered from. He took the Vetrformen to ensure we could not rise again, could not even replenish our numbers or repair the damage he wrought on our world, and now you will sit at his feet, chained to his son? A son more dangerous and more battle-hungry than even the old wolf?”

“Thor is not what you think he is.”

“He is Odin’s son!”

“He is not his father, any more than I am my bera. And you are not yours. These are his words – will you not give me your own?”

 “I don’t want you t’go,” Angrboða bursts out, accent thickening with his distress. “We have always been close, you and I, and I know I am not yer sváss, but -”

He grabs at Loki, trying to tug him close, and Loki jerks back, pulls out of his grip. Angrboða snarls at him, teeth bared, and tries again, comes at him hard and fast, looking to knock him down with brute force. They are of a size and evenly matched: their battles have always been rough, but there is only ever one victor between them.

Loki sidesteps just as Angrboða closes with him and jabs an elbow sharply into his solar plexus. Angrboða turns, gasping, but his heart is not in the fight and his mind not on his stance, and in moments Loki hooks an ankle around his calf and drops him. Angrboða sprawls in the snow, flat on his back, and he stares up at Loki in mute appeal.

This is how almost all of Loki’s fights end: his opponent flat on his back, waiting to be used for Loki’s pleasure; Angrboða is a favourite partner and well used to playing these little games with Loki. But those days are done, for he knows well how the Aesir think, and he will not risk his hold on Thor for momentary satisfaction with a friend, not even Angrboða.

And so Loki ignores both Angrboða’s desire and his despair and waits, arms crossed, until Angrboða rises to his feet.

“So you are his now,” Angrboða says bitterly. “And he will let you have no other but him.”

He is mine,” Loki stresses, holding himself stiffly, head high and shoulders back, and for all his bluster Angrboða cannot help but cower a little in automatic response, pulling his chin to his chest and letting his gaze drop. “He does not own me. No-one does. Not my bera, not yours, and not you. I have more to gain in Asgard than I have ever had here, and if the price for the power he will bring me is that he has sole use of my body, so be it. I will make that choice. You are not my sváss, Angrboða. You have no claim on me.”

“That I well know,” Angrboða snaps, but his aggression is muted by his misery. “I have never meant much to you at all.”

Loki sighs, and reaches out to run his palm affectionately over Angrboða’s throat before catching him under the chin and lifting his head back up. “’Boda,” he says softly, “you know I care for you. I will miss you. But this is a chance as there not been for a thousand years. I must take it.”

“I know,” Angrboða says, soft and malleable in defeat, and he comes easily as Loki offers him a companionable embrace. “I only want you to be happy. And safe. And I cannot believe you will be either with that idiot Aesir.”

“Trust me,” Loki soothes, petting Angrboða’s hair, “I know what I am doing. There is nothing for you to fear.”

Angrboða turns his face into Loki’s neck and gives a low, mournful cry, his whole body vibrating with the sound. Loki lets him do it, and does his best not to show his impatience with Angrboða’s unnecessary dramatics. He considers telling him of Thor’s extraordinary submission after their brief argument in Thrymstaðr; of how Thor knelt for him and exposed his throat, vulnerable and penitent, shocking Loki almost to speechlessness.

That one so strong, so confident, should humble himself before Loki, and for it to be no trick; for Thor to face Loki’s aggression and not strike at him, as he has just done to Angrboða, as any jötnar would do, but instead offer himself, head at Loki’s waist, gentle and asking – actually asking! – for Loki’s forgiveness, as if Loki’s withholding of it meant something, as if Loki had power and he, Thor, must supplicate himself before him…and then, even stranger, to have Thor reassert himself so meekly after, standing face to face with that peculiar touching of foreheads, which must be an Aesir custom to confirm their equal status, his hand not at Loki’s throat, which he would have understood, but at the back of his neck, cradling Loki’s head as if he were something precious, like a child …of course he will be safe with Thor! Safer than he has ever been, with such a mighty Prince at his command!

But no, he will not tell Angrboða any of this. It is too precious a memory, too strange and valuable, and the sight of Thor on his knees before him, looking up at him with those bright, beautiful blue eyes, his throat bare, and then the feel of his breath on Loki’s face, the warmth of his palm on the nape of Loki’s neck is something he will never forget: no, he will not share this with Angrboða. It had quite wiped out his lingering anger at Thor falling asleep beneath him, and has given him confidence enough that he has not tried to seduce him again since, choosing instead to trust in the long game, and secure Thor with affection and not his body. That, hopefully, will come in time.

But in the meantime, he has had more than enough of Angrboða’s whimpering.

“Really, ‘Boda, you are making this far too personal,” he says, keeping his tone light and not accusatory. “This is statecraft. It is not about me and Thor, but Jötunheimr and Ásgarðr. And I am not being exiled to Ásgarðr – the whole point of the alliance is that Jötunheimr will have access to the trade routes again, and we will be able to move between the realms.”

“You cannot talk me into being happy you are leaving,” Angrboða says as he lifts his head and finally gives Loki a little room to breathe. “But I understand.”

“Good,” Loki says briskly. “Now, tell me what news I have missed while I have been with my bera and in Thrymstaðr.”

For all that he has never left Útgarðar, Angrboða is one of the best informed jötnar in Jötunheimr, for he manages his bera’s messenger birds, and nothing moves across the Staðr that Skrýmir-Erilar is not told of, and Angrboða has always been as dutiful in repeating the news to Loki as he has to the Erilar.

At first there is little of interest in the news Angrboða gives him today, at least from an interworld perspective; the petty feuds and quarrels of the Kyn are all too minor to trouble Laufey-King with, and while Loki notes the latest scandals and changes in loyalties for future reference, he is not overly concerned with the internal business of the Staðr. What he is interested in is that Jötunheimr is alive with talk of Thor’s presence and the proposed alliance, details of which have by now spread across the realm, only mildly mangled in the telling.

Many are concerned with the thought of Thor appearing in their home, either because they worry that Ásgarðr will see how vulnerable they are and they will be shamed, or worse, under threat; others simply do not wish to ever see an Aesir again, an understandable if short-sighted viewpoint. Thor’s good relationship with Thrymr has settled most of the unease in the Northlands, who are, as ever, prepared to follow where Thrymr leads, and who have felt most keenly the decline into poverty since the trade routes were closed and the land began to fail. Few love Loki, but most agree on his worth, and though the general feeling is that Thor is getting the better of the bargain in having Loki as consort, losing Loki to gain the Vetrformen is seen as an excellent exchange, better than most had ever hoped.

The feeling in the south is more muted, for they were hardest hit in the war, and there is a great deal of illwill towards the Aesir still. Two of the southern Jarls, Hverglmir and Suttungr, have spoken out against peace and against the marriage, and though both have since publically submitted to Laufey’s will, the stirrings of rebellion and resentment have not been entirely quashed.

“Is there talk of attacking Thor?” Loki asks, entirely unsurprised by the southerners millennia long grudge-holding. “Assassination, or anything of that kind?”

“Only some small mutterings,” Angrboða says, “which is better than nothing, for silence would suggest a plot well kept. The usual hotheads splutter wild plans of holding the Odinson for ransom, or some such nonsense, but none are seriously planning to do him harm. Laufey-King has given him guestright, and none would dare to break it.”

“Would you tell me if it was your plot?” Loki teases and Angrboða taps a finger against his lips in mock-thoughtfulness before grinning.

“I will not harm him,” he says, “for the word of my King and because it would displease you. But you cannot make me like him.”

“Fine,” Loki says, smiling. “Just don’t set his hair on fire.”

“Once! I did that once! And it was an accident!”

“As I remember, you were more excited about having created fire than worried about the fact that Járnsaxa’s hair was burning,” Loki recalls and Angrboða laughs.

“I was excited because I’d managed something you couldn’t,” he says fondly, “but you caught up soon enough.”

“’Saxa never quite got the hang of it though – or has he learnt, at last?”

“No,” Angrboða sighs. “He makes slow progress, to be honest. He is very, very good at water and wind and ice, and he can hold a bird shape for days now with no after effects, but it is so hard trying to teach him anything contrary to his nature. I think he stays because he likes it here, not because he actually wants to learn anything more.”

“And for you,” Loki points out and Angrboða tilts his head in thought.

“We enjoy each other,” he says, “and I am glad to have him with me. But he will return to his islands in a year or so, I think. It is not anything lasting between us.”

“It is often better that way,” Loki says, and moves on before Angrboða can respond, teasing out the lighter part of the rumours and gossip gathered from around Jötunheimr, and hopes that he has done enough to impress the change in their relationship on his one-time lover.

***

It is late in the afternoon by the time Thor and Járnsaxa return, soaked to the bone and stinking of saltwater and fish. They have actually managed to catch a fair haul of herring and cod and icefish, a wriggling, shimmering net-full, which Thor has slung over his shoulder; some of them presumably count as ‘normal’ for Thor, for he talks animatedly about cooking them over the fire in the common room. This, Angrboða will not stand for, and Thor, Járnsaxa and the fragrant catch are banished to the kitchens. Loki has no inclination to help with the gutting, and continues on with his book in the calm of the library, leaving Angrboða to glower and demand that Járnsaxa whistle up a small wind to clear the air of the lingering fishy smell.

Once the catch is cleaned and neatly stored in blocks of ice, and once he has cleaned himself up, Thor comes looking for Loki just as he said he would, and whisks him away from the library and to one of the better-kept antechambers. They do nothing more exciting than play guessing games and hnefatafl, yet it leaves Loki with a warm glow, for Thor seems more relaxed with him than he does with the group, and because it means he is the sole recipient of Thor’s attention. It is also something of a private pleasure to let himself be easy with Thor, no longer mindful of Angrboda’s sulking or Jarnsaxa’s demands on Thor, and since neither can see him, he need not mind what he says or does.

They rejoin the others for dinner that evening, where despite his grumbling, Angrboða eats plenty of the fried fish proudly dished up by Thor. After tasting the lightly grilled fish Loki mentally adds cooking to his ever-growing list of Thor’s skills. His initial belief that Thor was a coddled, spoilt brat used to being waited on hand and foot was completely wrong; in fact as Thor settles in to Útgarðar he proves more inclined to be helpful than Loki, and all too happy to lend a hand in the dull daily chores needed to keep the castle habitable with just the four of them living there. Angrboða remains standoffish with him, but unbends enough that Loki is confident he won’t provoke Thor into a fight, by accident or design, and thankfully, as time passes, Járnsaxa’s intense interest in Thor dies back to a less worrying fervour.

The fortnight in Thrymstaðr was punctuated by frustration, jealousy and a smouldering anger for Loki, as he struggled with how easily the Thrymkyn accepted an Aesir Prince while remaining wary of Loki, and his irritation had bled over into his enjoyment of Thor’s company. But in Útgarðar, there are no such complications, and though Angrboða and Járnsaxa are an annoyance at times, for the most part they leave him and Thor be.

It is a time of fun and games and even freedom for Loki, and though he tries to keep in mind that all this has a purpose, that his time spent with Thor is not for his own pleasure, but to bind the Prince closer to him, the two aims begin to merge, and he forgets to be the ideal mate for the Odinson and finds himself being…himself. Thor has an uncanny knack for irritating the life out of him when it just the two of them, and he begins to snap more, to push back against Thor’s infuriating optimism and relentless thrill-seeking. Oddly, this seems to bring them closer together, for after every squabble and argumentative flurry, they come back to each other, and while apologies remain few and far between, they find that making up is not so difficult as that first fight.

He and Thor settle into an easy rhythm, spending most of their time together; but they and Járnsaxa and Angrboða do join together for story-telling and game-playing, time honoured pastimes of all íviðjur, and they just about manage a game of skinnleikr, with even Angrboða joining in, whooping and screaming as they charge about and fight for the tightly rolled ball of skins. Thor, the great warrior, unsurprisingly excels at this rough and tumble, but still blushes an extraordinary pink colour when Járnsaxa and Angrboða, thoroughly worked up, start pulling each other kjalta’s off in the makeshift games room.

“Come on,” Loki says, pulling him away with a laugh, “let us give them some space for a time,” and he and Thor end up having a swimming competition in the lake, an activity Loki chooses with the sole purpose of calming himself down. Thor’s glorious nudity does not help at first, but after half a dozen swift laps in the cold water, he gets over it, and though he can feel Thor’s curious gaze roaming over his body, he cannot imagine that Thor is repulsed by it at this point. As far as he knows, Thor has still not had the opportunity to properly study any jötnar intimately, but Thor remains respectful and does not stare overmuch.

Loki finds the icy water invigorating, but after a short while realises Thor’s lips should not be turning that rather attractive shade of blue. Apparently the enchantment in his pendant has limits, and immersion in water is one of them; it must work somehow with the air, a useful tidbit of information, but more importantly a wonderful excuse for Loki to get his hands on Thor’s body again, drying him off by calling the water from his skin to ice and playfully building it into a winged helmet for his head.

“Fit for a King,” he pronounces and Thor grins.

“My helm is not quite this…grand,” he says, feeling the enormous feathered cheekguards that fan out a good ten inches from his face.

“Show me,” Loki says, reaching out, and Thor guides his hand over the ice, helping him skim off the more theatrical touches, reshaping it into something simpler and more practical. Thor’s hands have warmed up again as the pendant re-stabilises his body temperature, and Loki is keenly aware of the lingering drops of water clinging to his eyelashes and beading at the curve of his lips, the impossible blue of his eyes.

I want you, he longs to say. Forget the marriage, forget our rank and Realms; I will play along with all your dreams of us ‘just’ meeting, if you will just love me, as I love you –

Suddenly Thor’s body heat seems scalding and he jerks away, heart racing, the ice helmet shattering around the startled Thor. No, he – it is not – he has become fond of Thor, yes, but this is just lust, just desire, as he has known a thousand times before, for once coupled with affection and respect and –

“Are you well?” Thor asks, concerned and beautiful and too damn close; Loki hates it, hates him, hates everything and a bitter laugh escapes before he can help himself. “Loki?” Thor repeats and Loki sits back, pushes the loose tendrils of hair from his face, and plasters on his best smile.

“A cramp,” he lies, “nothing more. I am fine.”

“If you are sure,” Thor says, frowning, and Loki is suddenly sick of talking to him.

“I would like to stretch my wings,” he says. “If you would not mind?”

“Your – ah, yes!” Thor says, pulling his tunic and leggings back on. “Are you going to hunt?”

“Perhaps,” Loki says; the forest is not the natural hunting ground of a gyrfalcon, and he has no particular fancy for trying to pick off lemmings today.

“Can I follow you?” Thor asks, eyes bright in anticipation. He loves to hunt with Loki in falcon form, something else Loki lov – something else Loki likes about him, usually.

“No,” Loki snaps, and then forces himself to soften. He needs Thor. He needs him for his plans, and yet, this is not what springs to mind at the worry in Thor’s face. “I – I do not quite feel well,” he admits.

“Then perhaps I should accompany you back to your room?” Thor suggests and Loki is so snarled up in his own feelings he cannot even think of a reason to disagree. Thor ends up putting him to bed, and decides to sit with him, perhaps still wary of stumbling across Angrboða and Járnsaxa who have clearly decided to make their own entertainment. Loki watches Thor move around for a while before settling with his back to Loki; as quietly as he can, Loki makes a person-shaped pile of furs and then stealthily slips away to the window and throws himself out of it.

Success at last: Loki spreads his wings and soars away over the lake, finally able to release the scream that has been building in him all this time.

***

Thor seems quite put out when he returns, empty handed but of calmer mind, and in truth Thor’s lingering irritation makes it easier for Loki to provoke him into a short, sharp argument which gives Loki the breathing room he suddenly needs. He has been a fool, a blind, ignorant fool; a liesmith indeed, to keep this secret from himself and walk himself into his own trap.

He has fallen in love with Thor.

He is an idiot.

But this is still salvageable. It is unfortunate that he has fallen in love; it is a weakness, a vulnerability that he does not need, but now it has happened there is not much he can do about it. What matter now is that he goes ahead with the plan regardless: marrying Thor will give him access to Ásgarðr and the life of luxury and power he deserves, but which will never be given to him in Jötunheimr. That it will make him happy is a side benefit; that if he succeeds in his primary goal he will have Thor in his bed and at his side and oh, he cannot help but think of it, think of Thor warm and welcoming, just as he is now, but Loki’s, all Loki’s, his sváss, his husband…

Loki can feel himself smiling and quickly twists it to a scowl. He can control this. It is nothing. It is not important. He will control himself, and think carefully, and keep planning. Emotion will not serve him here; this is too rare a chance to falter now, simply for how much he enjoys having Thor smile at him. Power is what matters, power and a way out of Jötunheimr’s limited horizons, a way to make more of himself, to have more for himself than anyone will ever give him.

Yes. He must remember that it is the marriage that matters, not how he feels. Throwing himself at Thor now and being left behind at the end of the season is not good enough. He must continue on, must have Thor come to him and not the other way around, and he is confident Thor will, soon enough.

Well, he thinks he will. He hopes. Very soon. Surely?

Damn Thor for doing this to him.

***

A few hours later, as the four of them come back together for dinner, Loki blames his erratic behaviour on feeling unwell, and Thor is happy enough to forgive him, though he insists on embracing Loki to confirm that their squabble is past. Loki grits his teeth and endures it and does not, in any way, lean in to Thor’s firm chest so he can feel his heartbeat, nor turn his head into Thor’s neck so he can inhale his scent. He is not horribly aware of the smell of sex still clinging to Angrboða and Járnsaxa, nor their sated smiles or the way their hands brush together easily as they take their seats around the table. He is calm; he is in control.

“You still look rather peaky,” Thor says with a frown. “Are you sure you are well?”

“I am perfectly fine,” Loki replies, perhaps too quickly.

“You have not taken anything,” Thor says, watching him far too intently. “Have you no potions or spells that will make you feel better?”

“I have told you before that I am not a healer,” Loki says, feeling Angrboða’s attention shifting from Járnsaxa to him. “I am fine.”

“You have been ill?” Angrboða says, sounding worried. “In what way?”

“I. Am. Fine,” Loki snarls; Angrboða and Thor exchange looks.

“Can you do anything for him?” Thor asks Angrboða, and Loki nearly kicks him under the table.

“No,” Angrboða replies, sounding more regretful than annoyed for once.

“What, nothing?” Thor persists, looking between the three of them. “I know you do not like to waste your magic, but you will not even heal your own?”

“It is not about waste,” Járnsaxa says, looking slightly puzzled. “None of us are healers.”

“Surely you do not need to be a healer to have a few magic tricks to help with illness,” Thor says. “Not all the sorcerers in Asgard are healers, but I have never come across one who did not have small spells for headaches, or recipes for a sleeping draught.”

“We are jötnar,” Angrboða says slowly. “The healing arts are no more in our nature than fire. With the help of the Vetrformen, we could manage much more than we can now, but still, we have never used our seidr the way your Aesir women work their magic, and never will.”

“I really do not understand the difference,” Thor says ruefully. “I have seen more power in you three than I ever saw in Asgard, and yet things I thought all sorcerers could do seem impossible here.” He looks from face to face and continues hastily: “It is my ignorance I speak of, only. Your gifts are truly impressive, and something I have very little knowledge of.”

Loki’s expression is fixed in an understanding grin, but behind the mask he is completely and utterly shocked, and in the silence that follows he can feel Járnsaxa and Angrboða’s astonishment. After all, if not for the…mishap…in Asgard’s Vaults, Thor would now be crowned King and, in theory, the new Allfather. How can he not know these things? How could Odin have decided to hold the coronation ceremony when his son knows absolutely nothing of magic?

These are the most basic principles of seidr, the very first thing Loki was taught here in Útgarðar: the nature of the Nine Realms and the forces that define them and bind them, and how he himself fit into the web of fate and branches of Yggdrasil. Jötunheimr is the Kingdom of Winter and her nature is Ice; the power of the íviðjur is rooted in their bodies, in the water that is the dominant element in all living beings. Water falls as rain, blankets as snow and grows as ice, and so transformation is the most intuitive power for every íviðja, and the most basic skill learnt is how to manipulate one’s own body into different shapes, changing form just as a drop of water changes into an icicle.

All the inhabitants of the realm have something of her power, of course; the jötnar are the Heirs of Winter and the power to call and shape ice is within even the tiniest child. But only the íviðjur can harness the heart of this power for their own metamorphosis and for much else, given the right skill and training – or at least they could, when the Vetrformen resided within the temple. Without its living heart, the realm is dying, and the íviðjur have access to less and less power every year. Their healing spells have long since ceased to work, and they cannot even bring their own children to bear without the Casket, much less turn the power of ice against its inherently destructive nature.

And so it is in all the realms. Vanaheim is the Kingdom of Summer, and her nature is profusion and the bountiful powers of the Earth and Sea; both her men and women draw on this power, though the men are stronger with oceanic magic, with the ebbing and flowing of tides and the stillness of the great deeps, whereas her women draw on the fecund earth and the vitality of living creatures. Their power, like the íviðjur, is in their bodies, and so despite seeming so different on the surface, the íviðjur and seidfolk have always worked together with ease, creating works of great beauty and strength in both realms, in the time before the wars.

Niðavellir is the Kingdom of Autumn, and so balance Ásgarðr; the Dvergar too work magic with tools, acting as vessels for their realms power and binding it into artefacts and talismans. Her nature is Sky and Stone, and her richness cannot be harnessed but only channelled and stored, just as the bounty of an Autumnal harvest must be consumed to be of use.

Alfheim and Svartálfheimr stand in opposition to each other as the Realms of Light and Darkness, and the power of the alfar is thus shaped. The Ljósálfar of Alfheim work with light to create glamours and illusions, baffling the sight of others but also gifted with foresight and farsight; the Svartalfar use darkness to conceal and protect, and their strength is in potions and poisons and incantations, and all that cannot be seen.

Muspelheim is the Realm of Fire, and the eldjötnar there are even closer to that element than the jötnar of Jötunheimr are to ice. They are born of living flame themselves, and embody that power. Niflheim is the Realm of Cold, quite a different thing to Winter, for that realm is a place of silence and stillness, and none live there at all. It is a realm of death, and its power is the cold void between the stars and the breaths of the living, and none have ever harnessed that power and returned to tell how it could be done.

Ásgarðr is the Kingdom of Spring, though they have long since abandoned the name in favour of thinking of themselves as the Realm Eternal, as if change could be staved off with mere words. New growth and new life are her defining properties, and so their seidkona have a great skill in healing, in helping both their people and their land repair and regenerate and become fruitful. Thor too has this power, though it is fainter and more diffused, and he hardly seems aware of it. Perhaps this is because Ásgarðr’s power is not of the body but of the mind: her seidkona work magic with tools, with loom and forge and instruments of power, and Thor seems to think of Mjolnir as a weapon only.

That Thor does not know even this much is troubling; not so much for his sake, as he does not need to be a seidmar to learn this rudimentary knowledge, but for what it speaks of Odin. He all but crowned his son without ever explaining the nature of the worlds to him. What is in the Spearbreaker’s mind? Loki wonders. Does he think to keep a leash on his son by keeping him ignorant and so dependent on his father’s wisdom? Did he mean to make Thor King but to remain the Allfather himself? Or, more tantalisingly, does he mean for the next generation to uphold Ásgarðr’s insistence on the separation of magic and law, to have a King to deal with the governance of the realm and a sorcerer-Queen to hold its power?

For Odin Allfather is unique amongst all the rulers of the realm in that he is the living incarnation of Ásgarðr. All other realms have a living treasure, a Casket of their own, kept safe and secret and secure somewhere within their lands. In the time of Bor Ásgarðr too had such a treasure, but no longer: now the Allfather is a living artefact himself, the physical embodiment of the magic of the realm.

No-one knows quite how he did it, but eons ago, just before he rode out to subjugate the other realms, Odin-King had become Odin Allfather by taking into himself the heart of Ásgarðr. It had given him a power beyond anything else in existence, but the price he paid was heavy indeed – and is heavy still, for all know that Odin’s body is ravaged by the unnatural power he wields, and he falls into an unresponsive sleep regularly so that he can heal. In fact, Odin is overdue such a sleep, and most had seen the sudden coronation of the crown prince a sign of his impending incapacitation.

This weakness poses a grave threat to Ásgarðr, for the pattern of the aptly-named Odinsleeps is widely known, and an obvious opportunity for unrest or attack. Odin is unique in being both ruling King and leading mage; although Queen Frigga rules just as well as her husband in his absence, because of what Odin has done, she cannot wield the life-force of Ásgarðr herself – none can, but him, leaving their Realm sorely lacking in magic and power during his regular sleeps. Given these problems, and Thor’s complete lack of seidr, it would make more sense for his Queen to take on the burden of embodying Ásgarðr’s magic and its resultant enchanted sleep.

Is this why Odin agreed to the betrothal with Loki?

Loki loses the thread of the conversation as the enormity of that thought sinks in. Though he has often thought on Odin and what the limits of his power might be, he does not like the thought of Odin thinking on him at all. Before all this he was certain the Aesir knew and cared nothing for him, as he is not in line for Jotunheim’s throne, and he had assumed that even now he was nothing more than a bargaining chip to Odin, a useful womb for his future grandchildren and a mechanism to ensure Jötunheimr’s placidity in the future. That the Allfather might have his other plans for Loki, beyond his role as bearer of Thor’s children is…disquieting, to say the least.

It cannot be. Surely Odin would never, ever give the heart of Ásgarðr to a Frost Giant, not even one married to his son. There must be some deeper plan at work here, some trick to have Loki pay the price of the Allfather’s power while keeping it in Thor’s hands.

Yet if such a thing can be done, why has Odin not shared his burden with his own wife?

Loki has no answers, and he likes it not at all.

***

The conversation turns to lighter things as they eat, and Loki remembers to laugh and smile at the right moments, and manages, for a few moments, to lose himself in the pleasure of the company. After dinner, they exchange a few stories, as has become the norm, but thankfully Járnsaxa and Angrboða announce soon enough that they are retiring to bed. Thor is insistent on seeing Loki takes to his bed again, somehow convinced that Loki is still unwell; once he has him settled to his liking, he takes the chance to take a bath – Thor seems eminently fond of them since he has been here, presumably because the water here is that much hotter than the rest of Jötunheimr. He has, quite effortlessly, charmed Loki into giving him a fire-stone to make it hotter still; Thor has no concept of the rarity and value of the enchanted ruby now set into the mouth of the faucet, and Loki will have hell to pay if Angrboða realises what he has done with it. Loki waves him off with a smile and once he has gone, very quietly and very deliberately closes the door and slides the lock home.

Odin does not mean to give the throne to Thor. Loki had assumed that the coronation meant that Thor was soon to be King and ruler of all the realms, but since he knows nothing, understands nothing, it cannot be so. Odin means to give him the title only and to continue to rule himself; it is a sop to Thor’s pride and the next stage of his training to one day take the throne, not a true ascension of a new ruler. This means that while Loki may, one day, be consort to a new Allfather, and so co-ruler, for now he will certainly not hold power in Ásgarðr. He will be only the helpmeet and broodmare of the heir-in-waiting, whose title is just more empty Aesir words, and this makes Loki available for some scheme or other.

And Odin is planning something, Loki knows it. The more he thinks on, the more certain he is. Odin did not come to retrieve his son from his ill-planned invasion of Jötunheimr thinking to settle the matter with marriage; it was learning that Laufey was willing to part with his íviðja child that changed his mind and led to the revival of the old pact. Odin wants not a bride for his son, but an íviðja in Ásgarðr, and is happy to sacrifice Thor’s happiness and even the Vetrformen for it.

This changes everything. All his plans changed the moment Thor set foot in Jötunheimr, and inadvertently gave Loki a chance at the throne of Asgard; though he has already mistepped in falling in love with the damned fool, he had thought his scheme to be consort eminently superior and far safer than his previous plots, but now…now, it turns out, he will be at risk in Ásgarðr, not from Thor, who he trusts will treat him well, but from Odin Spearbreaker, Odin the Deceiver, Raven-feeder and Battle-bringer, the terrible High God himself. Who knows what he has planned for Loki?

Perhaps Loki should kill him, after all.

Loki opens the small box on the recessed shelf above his bed and takes out his casting ring. The full finger ring looks delicate, with its careful filigree detail and tiny studded emeralds, but the point that curves over Loki’s fingertip is both strong and sharp and to Loki, the piece fairly vibrates with the enchantments embedded it. It was Fárbauti’s and it is one of his greatest treasures – but not for sentiment, no, for the power it holds. It is bound with runes of secrecy and knowing, revelation and obscuration, a small masterpiece, and one of its more prosiac uses is for the sending of hidden messages.

Loki slips the ring on and takes a small stone from the box. It is only a river-pebble, washed smooth and round, carried from the highlands down to the fjord bed, and is entirely unremarkable.

Plans change, he writes, scratching the runic script into the stone. I need your assistance in Útgarðar. He pauses and taps the metallic point against the stone thoughtfully. Give me nine days.

Once inscribed, the message flares green and then fades, the runes wriggling and reshaping themselves into an innocuous message informing Skrýmir, Lord of Útgarðar, that Thor and Loki have arrived early and look forward to his return. Almost the same message; an entirely different meaning.

He makes his way to the aviary at the top of one the still-open towers and binds the small stone to one of the snow petrels snuggled into the purpose-built nooks and crannies. The bird grumbles in his hands, but with a few words and a brief gesture he lays a compulsion on it, and as soon as his grip loosens it launches for the wide windows, eager to reach Hraesvelgrstaðr and the familiar face of Skrýmir-Erilar.

Message sent, Loki leans on the window, absently petting one of the petrels that is butting hopefully at his fingers, looking for a treat. He had hoped he could manage this himself; he had thought, that with Thor bending slowly to his will, he would not need any help and might even make it out of Jötunheimr without seeing Skrýmir again.

Ah, well. It cannot be helped. None other knows even the half of Loki’s plans, and whatever else Skrýmir wants, he is the one jötunn in Jötunheimr who wants Loki in Ásgarðr as badly as Loki wants to be there. There is much to do and not enough time left for Loki to go it alone.

At least he has nine more days where he can simply be with Thor and pretend, as Thor is pretending, that there is nothing else but their growing fondness for each other, and nothing more to happen save fun and folly and freedom. It is an indulgence, but it also serves his purpose, and, more than anything, he wants it, and so he will have it, consequences be damned.

“Loki?” Thor’s voice echoes strangely around the castle, but Loki hears him, clear as a bell.

“I am here,” he calls back, and puts all his schemes aside, just for now, and unlocks the door to let Thor in.

Chapter Text

“This is what you wanted to show me?” Thor says incredulously. “A rock?”

Loki clicks his tongue at him. “It is more than just a rock,” he says, waving expansively at the worn, pitted surface of what is most definitely a rock. “This is one of the most secret and magical places in Jötunheimr.”

Thor looks at Loki and then back at the rock. They are deep within the Ironwood, far from the castle, and have reached a dead end in the forest, for the way is blocked by a craggy escarpment, a solid, sheer rock face with a huge boulder at its base, broken and misshapen from its fall somewhere higher up in the cliffs. The boulder has no markings or carvings of any kind, only a hairline crack snaking from top to bottom, and apart from some doggedly persistent lichen, is clearly devoid of life or interest.

“You know I do not mind your games, Loki,” Thor says with what he feels is great patience, “but I do not see why you had to drag me all the way out here just to make fun of me.”

He does not see why Loki has dragged them out at all; it has been a hectic few days of hunting and fishing and chores, since Angrboða and Járnsaxa have left on some sort of training, and are currently making a slow circuit of Útgarðar’s borders, leaving Thor and Loki to fend for themselves. A day in the castle, idling away their time in talk and games was all he wanted today, and so he found himself somewhat irked when Loki tossed him a heavy pack and told him to prepare for a day’s exploring.

Útgarðar has changed many things for Thor, and an appreciation for a quiet afternoon with good company is only one example. He has been in Jotunheim a month now, and he is quietly amazed at how quickly the time with Loki has flown, and just how well they have settled into a rather domestic routine. Waking together; breakfasting together; making plans for their day while Loki rebraids his hair: it should be startlingly strange and yet it is not, and Thor wakes every day happy and content and looking forward to the new adventures he will have with Loki.

So far, though, this adventure is not ranking as one of their most exciting.

“I am not making fun of you,” Loki says, sounding horrified at the very idea, and Thor rolls his eyes. He knows now that Loki is at his most innocent-sounding when he is just about to spring the jaws of a trap shut.

 “You know, your grandmother once walked with Borr in these woods,” Loki continues with feigned casualness, watching Thor’s reaction from out of the corner of his eye. “I wonder if they ever came here as part of their courtship.”

“What?” Thor asks, completely nonplussed.

“Your grandmother? Your father’s mother? Is that not the right word? Odin’s bera, I would say, but that is not how you reckon kinship, is it?”

“You mean Bestla?” Thor says, wondering where Loki is going with this. “I never met her. She and Borr died long before I was born.”

“But you know of her? Bestla, born of Jotunheim, wooed by many and won by Borr, the great warlord of the Aesir? Bestla was an íviðja, like me, and so she made her home here, in Útgarðar, before she was taken to Ásgarðr. Surely you know this?”

Thor has never thought much on his grandparents – having never met them, they are merely characters in his mother’s tales, figures from a time unimaginably long ago. He has been told before that Bestla was of Jotunheim, but that she died well before Laufey’s conflict with Odin, and he has never dwelt on it, never thought through what it meant for his father or for him. Of course she was an íviðja; how else could she have lived happily in Asgard?

“Aesir men have no more seidr than our own hrimthursar,” Loki continues, and Thor really cannot follow him in all this. What does this have to do with the stupid rock? “Where did you think your father’s power came from?”

“Freyja of the Vanir taught him spellcraft,” Thor answers sharply; Odin’s magic is not something he likes to discuss.

“Yes, but the reason he could learn it was because of Bestla, because of the íviðja blood in his veins. And it is because of that blood that you have some power of your own.”

“I need Mjolnir to summon the storm,” Thor says uneasily. “I have no magic.”

“You are no seiðmaðr, no, but without your jötnar blood Mjolnir would be no more than a hammer to you: a great and unique weapon, but nothing else. Tell me, what other man of Asgard wields a power like yours? There are dozens of enchanted blades, spears and staffs scattered through the nine realms, but what warrior summons blazing fire or the fury of the oceans? Is it not only you who brings the thunder to the battlefield, who uses his weapon as a conduit for an elemental force?”

Thor is silent, for he has no answer to these questions. No, there is no other man in Asgard who has a power like his, but he has always thought it a gift of Odin’s, something bound up in Mjolnir’s forging, not in his own flesh and blood. He does not like to think of his father as a sorcerer, but it is true that he is the only man in Asgard to wield both magic and spear, to be both a warrior and a spellworker. His father rarely uses magic in public and so Thor had thought it a secret part of kingship, a distasteful necessity, and one he had hoped to avoid. But if this is true, then magic is in his blood, a legacy from his jötunn grandmother. It is a peculiar thought.

Loki seems determined to make his point. “There is magic in you, as there is in me,” he says. “Mjolnir is a wondrous tool, yes, but you embody the storm – you are a vessel for the thunder and lightning, just as she is.”

“Get to the point,” Thor says, exasperated, and Loki flashes a grin at him.

“I can use that power,” Loki says, wild-eyed and gleeful, reaching out to seize Thor by the hand. “I am certain of it. We can leave Jötunheimr.”

“Leave?” Thor says, wary of the manic gleam in Loki’s eye. “What do you mean, leave? You want to go to Asgard now?”

“No, no,” Loki says, fingers tightening around Thor’s; “you misunderstand. This rock marks one of the weak points between the worlds, and I am saying that if you are with me, I can open one of the hidden paths to another realm – we can sneak out, you and I, and sneak back, quite unseen.”

“Why?” Thor says bluntly.

“For adventure,” Loki replies, radiating excitement. “You can show me something of the other Realms you have told me so much about. We can go, not as Princes, bound by tradition and protocol and so on, but just as ourselves. Come on, Thor, let us have some fun, before -” He stops and for a heartbeat, something wavers in his face, something too complex for Thor to identify. But it is only for a heartbeat, and then he smiles again, eager and engaging. “Oh, let us have some fun,” he repeats. “Because we can.”

Thor regards him, all too aware of the murky undercurrent to Loki’s words, in which he can see only a flicker of truth, like a silver fish glimmering amid dark waters. Loki does not fully trust him, and that is a sore thing for Thor, for he has certainly given him no cause to doubt. But he can see that it is something in Loki that has unsettled him and he finds – he finds he wants to soothe, wants to help, and above all, wants to have as much of Loki as he is willing to give.

Besides, he thinks, as Loki’s excitement bubbles over him, sending a shiver of anticipation along his spine, this sounds like a grand plan, and he very much likes the idea of showing Loki something utterly new.

“You are certain you can keep us hidden?” he says and Loki makes a high keening noise that seems to be some kind of assent – or a victory cry, Thor thinks ruefully, as Loki beams at him.

“You will not regret trusting me,” Loki promises, far too glibly for comfort, but Thor lets it slide. He wants to trust Loki, and their little spats aside, has been well served by doing so. Besides, how much more trouble can he get into for trespassing in other Realms? He can only be offered up as a husband to one foreign royal at a time, after all.

“So, where do you want to go?” he asks, squeezing Loki’s hand.

“Álfheimr,” Loki replies promptly. “Show me sunlight, my golden Prince.”

Thor laughs at his over-the-top flattery, but is somewhat relieved by Loki’s choice. There can be no danger in going to Alfheim – there is nothing there but forest and sunshine, and the Light Elves are an inward-looking people, unconcerned with the affairs of Jotunheim or Asgard. And Ymir’s stones, but it will be good to see daylight again!

“Show me the way and I will show you the best of the Realm,” Thor boasts, pleased and happy, and entirely unsurprised when it turns out Loki has just about everything they need for his magic already packed in Thor’s bag.

***

The preparations are brief; clearly, Loki has been working out how to circumvent the closure of Jotunheim’s borders for some time. Loki produces two hooded cloaks, which have a soft, almost furred texture, like velvet rubbed the wrong way, but which are feather light, with none of the familiar weight and sweep of Thor’s cape. They are dove grey and feel entirely too insubstantial for Thor’s liking, but he settles one over his shoulders and notes that it is far too short and too small to cover either of them properly. Obviously not jötunn made then.

“These are shadow-cloaks, from Svartálfheimr, gifted to us for something or other, long before the war,” Loki explains as he bends to grab the hem of the cloak, currently hanging just past Thor’s knees, and tugs sharply; to Thor’s amazement, instead of ripping, the seemingly flimsy fabric just stretches and stretches until it brushes the ground. He inspects Thor carefully, tugging and stretching the cloak out, until it covers Thor from head to foot, and has enough excess for Loki to gather the one of the front panels and sweep it over Thor’s shoulder. “They’ve been tucked away for centuries, but I’ve re-warded them, and the original spells are still strong.”

“These will make us invisible?” Thor guesses, reaching out to help Loki stretch his own cloak. The Svartalfar are a smaller people than the Asgardians or the jötnar, and it seems these cloaks have never been worn before.

“Not exactly,” Loki says, peeping out at Thor from the shadow of his hood. “We’d need a helm for that. Anyone physically close to us will see us as we are – two hooded figures – but from a distance, whether a few yards or even from the fabled Observatory of the Bifrost, we will appear like shadows, just blurred darkness of no particular shape or interest. If your Heimdall happens to look to Alfheim this day, he will see two mysterious travellers, but there will be nothing to indicate that it is two Princes under these hoods. And the beauty of this plan is that even if he is looking for us, he will no doubt be watching the borders of Útgarðar, not the elven forests.”

“So we will be stuck in these all day?” Thor says, feeling swaddled already.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Loki says. “To be safe, we will need to stay mostly hidden at least.”

“It is very hot in Alfheim,” Thor warns him, as Loki bundles himself up entirely in the grey cloak. “And if we cannot take these off -”

“I will be fine,” Loki says confidently. “It will be a good learning experience for me.”

Thor is not entirely convinced by this, but at least if he is with Loki, he can look after him if anything goes wrong, and if the worst happens, he can always throw off the cloak and call for Heimdall.

“Ready?” Loki asks and Thor nods.

The knife is sharp and the wound shallow: three drops of Thor’s blood is apparently all Loki needs from him, and Thor gives them freely. One is for Loki’s forehead, dabbed on to his Kynlines; another Thor presses to where his pulse flutters at his throat, acutely aware of how Loki swallows hard at his touch there; the third, worse still, must sit on Loki’s tongue as he casts his spell, and Thor does his best not to focus on Loki’s lips closing around his forefinger as he licks the bright bead into his mouth.

He rather fails at that, and Loki’s gaze is still too bright to ignore.

After that little display, the rest of the spell is anti-climactic in the extreme. Loki draws some rune shapes in the air and makes some strange sounds, though whether they are words or not, Thor cannot tell, and with that done, takes Thor by the hand and makes to step forward – straight into the thin crack in the boulder, which is just as solid and unmagical looking as before.

“Loki -” Thor starts but he is tugged forward insistently and before he can get another word out, Loki is pushing him against the rock and suddenly, the crack is not a mere sliver but a yawning chasm and there is blast of hot air against his face and a relentless pulling: he is being dragged forward, the world tilting and twisting, almost like he is falling, gravity a sick tug low in his belly. He instinctively reaches back for Loki, managing to get a solid grip on what must be his shoulders, and he holds him close as they tumble forward, down, away – he cannot tell, for there is only darkness, but then, suddenly, a light, blindingly bright after so long in the twilight, and he screws his eyes shut against it –

Only to find himself stumbling, standing in the fresh air, the sun warm on his face, and as he blinks his eyes open, he is met with a sea of green leaves and the buzzing of a thousand busy insects. He is standing in another forest, a different large, misshapen rock behind him, and he tilts his face up to feel the bright sun of Alfheim beat down on him.

“It worked!” Loki gasps, sounding almost as shocked as Thor feels, slumping heavily in Thor’s arms.

“Aye,” Thor says, grinning, as he looks about and gets his bearings. “We did it!”

***

Alfheim is a warm and sunkissed land, of rolling hills and olive groves, luscious figs and tall cypress firs standing proud against the horizon. If Asgard enjoys an eternal spring morning, Alfheim embodies an endless, lazy summer’s afternoon, the light breeze bringing the scent of wildflowers and the sharp tang of the sea into the shade and shadows of the forest. The very air seems drenched in a living, honeyed gold quite unlike the bronze glamour of Odin’s city, and it is all too easy to while away day upon day roaming the endless rise and fall of the hills, wandering from valley to valley, emerging from shaded slopes to the undulating grasses of the flood plains and then following the slow, meandering rivers to where they met the warm and vibrant sea.

There are no cities of any kind to be found in the land of the Light Elves, and precious few towns. There is the great palace of Freyr, perched atop a rocky outcrop, Gerda’s graceful tower soaring into the sky, made of a warm sand coloured stone that glows in the evening sun. Instead of the hall that is the heart of most lords’ homes, Freyr’s sprawling state- and guest-rooms are organised around an open square with a fountain at its centre, a huge gathering space for the rare occasions the Light Elves find themselves in need of counsel, or the far more frequent times they come together to dance and sing and celebrate.

For the Light Elves do not farm or fish, but live on the fruits and wild vegetation of their bountiful land, and devote themselves to the arts, to music and poetry and all manner of beauty, in stone and paint and canvas. They have only one real industry and that is the care of the enormous vineyards and the fermentation of their wine, the best in all the nine realms. Each vine-master will trade as much or as little wine as they choose, for jewellery, or cloth, or trinkets, or whatever they find themselves in need of, and that is the extent of their care for the business and politics that shape the other kingdoms. All that has changed since Odin decreed Alfheim was now conquered, and a Lordship under Vanaheim’s exiled Prince, is that some of that wine is now bound for Freyr’s stone haven, from whence it is given to Asgard as tribute.

For Thor, it is inextricably linked with memories of his youth, for Alfheim was the first realm he explored with Sif and the Warriors Three, crashing through the stillness of the forests and plunging into every pool and stream they could find. It is a good country for small game, and an excellent one for boar-hunting, although Lord Freyr’s permission must be sought to kill one of the huge, golden-bristled barrow-boar that roam the woods. The elves themselves were friendly enough when encountered, although liable to appear suddenly and then slip away without warning, retreating at night into the heart of the hills, where no outsider was ever brought. Thor and his friends slept out under the stars, finding the night air pleasantly warm, or returned to Freyr’s palace for the feriae vinalia, the wild summer festival, where they drank and danced and were careless in their pleasures.

It has been a relaxed and relaxing land for a young Prince and his companions, but for many years now, an overly familiar one. But with Loki at his side, Thor sees it again as if for the first time.

It is quite something to see Jotunheim’s poised and smirking Prince lost for words, but it is not in Thor’s heart to mock as he watches Loki walk through the dappled sunlight of the wood. It is spring here, as it is in Jotunheim, but the difference could not be more stark: here, the broad-leaved trees soaks up the exuberant sunshine, spreading a canopy of verdant green over the forest floor, and the whole wood is bursting with the colour, emerald and jade and peridot, interspersed with tawny bark and flashes of the blue sky.

Loki ought to look out of place here, a creature of sharp sapphire angles amid the riot of colour and honey-thick sunlight, but it feels natural to have him here at Thor’s side as they wander through the woods, retracing the old paths Thor dimly remembers from his youth. Back then, he had charged about in great haste, forever looking for the next adventure, and even a few weeks ago he would have scoffed at the idea of simply walking around in another realm.

Yet now, he is more than happy to amble at Loki’s slow pace, watching him stop to marvel at the moss on the trees, to trail his fingers over the rough bark and pluck at the green leaves, clearly fascinated by the texture of the plant life. He holds a huge oak leaf up to the light, examining the tracery of veins on the underside, and the sun throws the rich green over his fingers, tinting them an extraordinary turquoise colour that Thor finds himself equally fascinated by.

As they continue on and the tree cover breaks, the rolling hillside is carpeted with flowers, an impossible tapestry of bright blue chicory, pink, white and red mallows, poppies and oxeye daisies and almond-scented bindweed. They come to a halt at the edge of one such clearing, and stand at the brow of the hill, gazing out at the view before them.

“It is beautiful,” Loki says, pushing his hood back, and there is a wonder and simple joy in his voice Thor has never heard before. Thor looks at him, a tall, slim figure in a silver cloak, surrounded by a thousand springtime blooms, wide-eyed and with parted lips, and his heart swells with a great rush of pride and affection.

“Yes,” Thor agrees, and, thinking of gifts given and received, and all he has been offered in Jotunheim, he bends to pick a messy bunch of wildflowers. He offers them to Loki, who inhales their faint scent greedily, dusting his nose and cheeks with golden pollen in the process. Thor reaches out to brush it away as Loki gazes at him over the flowers, but only succeeds in smearing streaks of gold across Loki’s faintly indigo cheeks.

The wind picks up and Thor shivers, glancing up; a blue-black cloud is rolling over the sun and he can feel the promise of rainfall in the sky and the air, the familiar sensation skittering over his skin.

“We should look for shelter,” he calls, moving back towards the trees, but Loki ignores him, watching the dark cloud sweep towards them. In seconds the heavens open, a sharp sudden deluge, one of the many heavy showers that keep Alfheim green and fertile. He unfastens the drape of his cloak and holds it over his head in a futile attempt to keep dry before looking to Loki.

Loki is standing out in the open, face upturned, smiling beatifically as the rain beats down on him. The loose strands of his hair are plastered to his face and his travelling cloak is utterly soaked, but he looks blissfully happy. Thor watches him, wondering, until as abruptly as it started, the cloudburst passes and the sun remerges, a sudden burst of heat and light that hits the sodden landscape like a blow.

Loki turns to him, still smiling. “So that is rain,” he says conversationally as Thor approaches.

“Surely you have rain on Jotunheim,” Thor says, though even as the words leave his mouth he realises it has not rained during his entire stay.

“Sleet, hail, driving snow – but not rain, not like that. Not as a sudden reprieve from the sunlight,” Loki replies, swinging the long rope of his hair to his front so he can squeeze the excess water from it. “It is…surprisingly invigorating.”

Invigorating is the last word Thor would use to describe Alfheim’s sudden and vicious showers, but his reply dies in his mouth as Loki licks at his fingers, tasting the rainwater that glistens on his skin.

“At least water is still water,” Loki murmurs quietly; it seems a peculiar observation but then, as the meadow begins to steam in the sunlight, the multitude of colours and scents all the richer for their sudden soaking, he thinks that Alfheim really is nothing like Jotunheim. If he finds the hammer-blow of heat and light a vivid change after the darkness of the Winter Realm, Loki must find Alfheim strange beyond all reckoning.

 “Is Asgard like this?” Loki asks, as Thor looks around and picks a relatively dry spot to sit down on.

“Not really,” Thor allows, “It is less hot, for one thing, and our forests are different – more pine and conifers, and they cluster more thickly on the mountains. Most of Asgard now has become part of the city – there are outlying farmsteads, obviously, but it is not as wild as this.”

“But still a land of green and gold,” Loki says. “And heat and light.”

“How are you finding ‘hot and green’?” Thor asks, remembering that first true moment of friendship between them.

“I think I could get used to it,” Loki says with a faint smile.

“I came here often when I was younger,” Thor says, looking out over the rolling hills to where, at the very edge of the vista, a patch of the cobalt-blue sea can just be seen winking in the dazzling sunlight. “I think we are in the west, the most remote and least visited part of the great forests. It is a shame, for you would like Freyr’s palace, and the marketplace in the piazza below. And Gerda’s Tower is a truly wondrous sight.”

Loki settles beside him, fastidiously arranging his cloak to best protect himself from the damp earth, and for a long moment says nothing at all, focusing all his attention on plucking the petals from the soggy flowers in his hands. “Have you ever met Gerðr?” he asks, when there is only one bloom left intact, studying the crimson markings as if they contain the answer to his question instead of Thor.

 “Many times,” Thor answers, idly playing with the fallen petals.

“What does - she look like?”

“She is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen,” Thor answers honestly and Loki snorts with laughter.

“Well, of course she is,” he says, cradling his last flower; “no íviðja would settle for less. But what, exactly, does she look like?”

“She is tall,” Thor starts, trying to remember the last time he saw her. “She has long black hair – at least, I think it is long. It was curled and piled up on her head, in the style of the Vanir. She has dark eyes, I think, and is dark-skinned, like Freyr and Freyja -”

“I imagine she looks a lot like Freyja,” Loki says and Thor frowns, dragging up his memories. In truth, he has not had much to do with Gerda, and when he has seen her, it has been at feasts and festivals, at which he was usually drunk and looking for other entertainment than talking with the Lord and Lady of Alfheim. Freyr travels back and forth between Asgard and Alfheim quite frequently, but almost always comes with a contingent of elves, and not his wife.

“Yes,” he says after a moment. “There is a likeness in the face between them, and they are both, ah, voluptuous women. I have not seen them together, but they are both great beauties. Why do you ask?” he adds curiously.

Loki looks at him as if he is stupid. It is a look Thor has come to know well over the past few weeks, and he is not any fonder of it now than he was the first time Loki looked at him so.

“Gerðr was one of the last íviðja to be given away in marriage for the sake of peace,” Loki says. “Freyr was exiled here after the war with Vanaheim, and Gerðr was banished with him, as recompense from being parted from his sister, who should have been his wife.”

“So?” Thor asks, for this is old history, from far before even of them were born.

“So, I wonder how she has survived here, in this heat and light,” Loki says. “No-one in Jotunheim has seen her since she left, and I wanted to know if she took the form of a Ljósálfar, for comfort, or of a Vanir, to please her husband.”

Thor thinks on Gerda as he last saw her, smiling politely at the Asgardian delegation, sumptuously dressed in a cloth-of-gold gown that draped over one shoulder and clung to her curves, offset by a wide girdle studded with fat ruby grapes and enamelled leaves. He remembers her careful manners and her stillness, her quiet reserve, so different to Freyja’s quick wit and temper.

But that was not really her, he realises, looking at the curling lines that decorate Loki’s blue skin. That was a form she had put on, to cope with the climate of a land utterly foreign to her, and now that Loki has pointed it out, he can see it is one designed to be a reflection of the sister Freyr lost to Asgard.

“I wonder if she is happy here,” Loki says thoughtfully. “She left Jotunheim before I was born, and has never returned. Perhaps it is easier for her that way.”

“She and Freyr are very happy together,” Thor says, feeling a little defensive, though of whom or what he is not quite sure.

“Oh, yes,” Loki says, still not looking at him. “Even in Jotunheim we have heard so. She has stayed here, after all, unlike Skadi.”

“Is Thrymr’s Skadi the same one who was married to Njord?” Thor asks; he had assumed so, but there had never been a good time to ask in Thrymstaðr, given how prickly both Loki and Thrymr were whenever the name came up. “The one who could not bear to be parted from the snow and ice, and so left her husband to return to her homeland?”

“Well, that is the story that is told,” Loki answers with a small smile. “Yes, Skadi Snowstrider is Thrymr’s child. This was all before I was born, you understand, but Thrymr says his heart broke the day Skadi was taken to Vanaheimr, and only healed when he found his way back. Skadi is the image of Thrymr’s sváss, Thjazi, and is all he has left of him.”

“What happened?” Thor asks; he dimly remembers being told about the trouble with Njord and Freyr’s jötunn brides at some point, but history and such studies have never been of much interest to him, and so he remembers few details.

“It is not a happy story,” Loki says, “and not a short one either. Perhaps another time?”

“We have time now,” Thor says, letting himself fall back into the grass, the crush of his body releasing a cloud of scent and scattered pollen. “And I enjoy listening to your stories.”

“Very well then,” Loki says, laying down beside him, but on his belly so his face remains shadowed by his hood. “This tale begins in the aftermath of the war with Vanaheimr, when Njord and Nerthus, brother-King and sister-Queen of the Summer Realm, were defeated by Odin, King of Asgard. The land was war-torn and with the death of Queen Nerthus in battle, King Njord was broken by grief, and could only stand by as the Allfather claimed his realm and his people, to do with as he pleased.”

Thor closes his eyes as the sun beats down on his exposed face, revelling in the warmth and the softness of Loki’s voice as he spins his tale, slipping into his easy storytelling rhythm. He has often heard stories of Asgard’s victory over Vanaheim, their first great victory back when the realms were more fractious, before Asgard brought peace and order to the universe. But already he can tell that Loki’s tale will be a little different to the versions he knows.

“The Allfather split the royal family apart, so that no vengeance or rebellion might be planned between them. Njord was left in the ruins of his palace, an empty figurehead, to mourn his sister-wife, and his children were taken from him, as hostages for his good behaviour. His son Freyr was given the Lordship of Alfheim, a position of great honour and little use, for the Ljósálfar needed no governing and would not be stirred to war, no matter what Freyr might do. His daughter Freyja was taken to Asgard and given her own great hall, where she might teach magic to the Aesir women and to the Allfather himself, and where she would be watched, night and day, to see she did no harm.

“Now, in Jötunheimr, Laufey-King looked on his old allies brought low, and sought to heal some of their wounds, without attracting the ire of the Allfather. There was little he could do to help Njord, desolate and grieving, but he saw that Freyr and Freyja had been separated before they could marry each other, and that would likely to be lonely and afraid in their exiles, and Laufey-King bent his mind to how he might bring them some comfort and help build new bonds for the future.

“After much thought, Laufey-King offered a threefold gift.  First, the íviðja Gerðr would be given in marriage to Freyr, for only a shapeshifter could withstand the heat of Alfheim, and no Vanir woman would take Freyja’s place at his side. Freyr had long looked fondly on Gerðr, and Laufey strove to show that despite their terrible losses, Jötunheimr still had great respect for the Vanir, and hoped to continue as their allies, even though they were now brokered to Asgard.

 Second, for much the same reasons, the mighty Thrymr of Thrymstaðr was offered to Freyja as a husband, for as a seidkona herself she could come to Jotunheim to live, and so would not have to live alone in the house of those who killed her mother. The jötnar and the Vanir share similar views on Asgardian marriage laws, and since Thrymr already had his sváss, Thjazi, living with him in Thrymstaðr, he would make a most gracious and easy-going husband, and the marriage would be one in name only. Freyja would have something of her old freedom, and could make her own home close to Útgarðar, who would welcome a seidkona of such power with open arms.

“Third, to ensure that Thrymr and Freyja made no mischief together, an íviðja of Útgarðar would go to Asgard in Freyja’s place, to teach magic and to be matched to an Aesir of Odin’s choosing, so that Asgard would lose nothing in this bargain, and also to show that Laufey-King desired peace with all realms and an alliance with both the Vanir and Aesir.

“And so, once the armies had disbanded, and the peace with Vanaheimr was settled, Laufey-King sent a delegation to Asgard, to put his offers were put to the Allfather, with every point carefully explained and many assurances given. Laufey-King and all the realms awaited his response most eagerly, and yet, when it came, it was not what any had hoped for.

“Odin agreed that Freyr was due a wife as well as a realm, having being deprived of both, and since this seemed a good bargain to all parties, this one offer was sworn and vowed ahead of the others, and Gerðr went to Alfheim, to live in exile with the Vanir prince. Some say that she went willing, head held high, for she had seen Freyr before and thought well of him, and looked forward to having a power and place in Alfheim she had never thought to have in Jötunheimr. Some say she went weeping, feet dragging, for she knew that she would never be allowed to return to Jötunheimr, and would live out her days in another skin, under a fierce sun and in the company of strangers, and that it took the command of Laufey-King in person to make her go.

“But whichever is the truth, all say now that she does well in the land of the Ljósálfar, that she is a good and gracious Lady to them, and that she welcomes that title and holds it in her heart, alongside a true fondness for the Vanir Prince. While he will always love his Freyja, and she will always mourn the ones she left behind, they have forged a respectful partnership, and they have both found comfort in each other, and in the company of the Ljósálfar.”

Thor grins to himself; the stories of Freyr and Gerda and their mutual fondness for the Light Elves Faradei and Aeltri are one of Fandral’s favourites. This isn’t quite what he meant when he asked for Skadi’s story, but he is happy to lie here, in the first sunshine he has seen in a month, and listen to whatever tale Loki wants to tell him.

“But Odin Spearbreaker did not agree to the other matches. He would not give Freyja up, for she was too valuable to him as a seidkona and daughter of Vanaheimr, and he judged the íviðja willing to come to Asgard unworthy of taking her place. The delegations went back and forth, back and forth, and the negotiations dragged on and on as Laufey strove to find someone else to exchange for Freyja, for no jötunn of high enough rank wished to go to Asgard to live among the Aesir. Likewise, Odin offered other women of Asgard to be given to Thrymr-Jarl, saying he truly did wish an alliance with Jötunheimr, but Laufey-King would not sacrifice an íviðja for anyone other than Freyja.

“But all this time Thrymr’s sváss, the íviðja Thjazi, was looking desperately for a way to have Freyja in Jötunheimr that would not see her married to Thrymr. It is said that he was mad with fear and jealousy, for all agree that Freyja is the most beautiful of all women, and he feared that despite the marriage being in name only, she would steal Thrymr’s heart and he would no longer be his sváss. As time dragged on, this foolishness grew in his heart, and his sense and reason broke. Thjazi transformed himself into a giant eagle and flew along a hidden path to Asgard with the intent of seizing Freyja and transporting her to Jötunheimr, thinking that if he brought her to Laufey-King, there would be no more talk of marriages, for it would then be a matter of defending Freyja in sanctuary, for he truly believed, as did all the jötnar, that Freyja would freely choose Jötunheimr over Asgard for her exile.

“It was madness, utter madness, and had he succeeded, would have meant war, for Odin would never have allowed such a theft to go unpunished. But as it happened Freyja was too well guarded and so Thjazi snatched instead the Aesir Idunn, keeper of the golden apples, and brought her unwilling to Thrymstaðr. Who can say what pitiful scheme was in his mind? All in Jötunheimr were horrified at his recklessness, but the damage was done.

“Of course the Allfather pursued them, and in the chaos that followed, Thjazi was slain and Idunn returned to Asgard. To avoid the war now on the brink of erupting between them, Odin and Laufey finally came to terms: to appease Odin, Thjazi’s child, the íviðja Skadi, would be given to Njord, a hostage and a punishment for what Thjazi had done, and Freyja would remain alone in Asgard. In return, the Allfather promised his as-yet-unborn heir would be wed to a child of Laufey-King, so that in the fullness of time Jötunheimr and Asgard would be united through marriage and not conquest.

“It was a poor bargain. But when one of his own had kidnapped an Aesir, for reasons none could properly explain, what choice did Laufey-King have? So Skadi went to Vanaheim, to be wife to Njord, an outcome desired by none in any of the realms. And of course the marriage failed, as all knew it would, for Skadi could not bear the heat and noise of Vanaheim, and Njord wanted no new wife, but still mourned for his beloved Nerthus and for the loss of his children. Skadi soon returned to the silence and snows of Jötunheimr, to live in Thrymstaðr and provide some comfort to Thrymr after the loss of his sváss, but in so doing, many treaties were broken and pledges undone. Odin Allfather and Laufey-King went to war soon after, though on other pretexts, and Jötunheimr has suffered for it ever since.

“As I said,” Loki finishes quietly, “it is not a happy tale, although Gerðr, at least, is said to be happy here, and Freyja too in Asgard. The rest of it is just old foolishness and pride. It is a sad story of little glory and many mistakes, and perhaps one best forgotten.”

Thor is silent. He has never heard this version of events before, and while he recognises that of course the skalds of Jotunheim would think differently on the war with Vanaheim than his own tutors, his history certainly never mentioned Laufey’s offers of marriage alliances as a way to broker peace between Asgard and the other realms.

More worryingly, it has never before crossed his mind that a jötunn would rather stay in Jotunheim than be consort to a foreign king. It seems foolish now that he thinks on it properly, but he has always believed that as Asgard is the greatest realm, all peoples would long to live there, and that the jötnar were envious of their beauty and wealth and wished it for themselves.

That the jötnar might want instead only to be free of Asgard’s control, and might prefer their icy winter to the warm spring of the Realm Eternal is a new and troubling thought. Does Loki want to go to Asgard, or would he, like Skadi, rather stay in his homeland and serve his people there? If he goes through with his plan to bring Loki to Asgard is he condemning him to a life of exile, surrounded by hostile strangers in a land too hot and bright and strange for him to bear?

Does Loki have a choice? Thor thinks, suddenly horror-struck. There has been much talk of exchange, of giving and receiving; Loki for the Casket, Loki as the price of peace. Thor has his mother’s word he can choose freely whether to accept Loki in marriage, but has Loki had the same choice? Is he choosing to marry Thor, to help his people or please his father, or is he being forced, being literally given to Thor, like the battle-axe from Thrymr?

Thor does not know. Loki has certainly seemed willing all this time; in fact, it was Loki who made the effort to bridge the gap between them, to forge a truce and a trust between them. But is that all because he must wed Thor and so seeks to protect himself by winning Thor’s affection before he is exiled to Asgard, where he will be friendless and alone?

Thor would be a brute indeed if such a thought did not disturb him. “Loki,” Thor says, propping himself up on an elbow and leaning towards him. “Do you want to go to Asgard?”

Loki looks at him, faintly surprised. “Yes,” he says. “Is this because of the story? It is only history, and was over and done with before either of us was born.”

“I know,” Thor allows. “But we have not spoken of our future much -”

“We have not spoken of it at all,” Loki points out, and Thor grimaces a little.

“Well, I am speaking of it now. If you would rather stay in Jotunheim, like Skadi, I will understand, and I can speak to my father -”

“No,” Loki says quickly. “No, I want to go to Asgard.”

“Truly?” Thor asks, needing to hear Loki’s answer. “You are certain you would not rather stay in your home, with your family? With Angrboða and Thrymr?”

“Of course not,” Loki says, as if it is a foregone conclusion. “I want you to take me to Asgard, Thor. I have spent a thousand years exploring Jötunheimr – I know every nook and cranny, every mountain and plain, every sea and shore. I want more. I want to walk in Asgard’s sunlight at your side. I want – oh, there is so much that I want, and Asgard is where it will all begin.”

“I am glad,” Thor says, feeling a weight lift from his chest. Loki’s enthusiasm is too vibrant, his excitement too palpable to be a lie. He does want to go to Asgard; there is certainly pressure on him to agree to the marriage, as there is on Thor, but he is not being forced into leaving his home, and Thor can rest easy.

“Truly?” Loki says, leaning in even closer. “Then you will not leave me at the end of the season?”

Leave you?” Thor says. “No, I – I would like to have you with me when I go home. I just wanted to be sure that you wanted the same, since we have not talked about it.”

“Oh, yes,” Loki says, eyes shining. “I cannot wait for you to take me to your home.”

Thor can see the faint traces of pollen still clinging to Loki’s Kynlines, the violet flush of his cheeks, and the rich ruby red of his eyes, so much deeper and more vibrant than the poppies that surround them, his cool, crisp scent tantalisingly sharp against the marzipan sweetness of the crushed bindweed they are lying on. Once, he would have seemed exotic and strange to Thor, a living embodiment of the fantasies revealed by warriors too deep in their cups to know what they were talking about. But now? Now, he is no stranger, not an enemy sporting a pretty face, but Loki, proud, prickly and utterly captivating, and Thor cannot imagine his life without him in it.

Thor is kissing him before he even realises he means to do it.

Loki gives a faint mewl of surprise but he kisses back, shifting awkwardly until Thor wraps his arms around him and hefts him bodily, settling Loki on top of him. He cannot feel much through the tangled folds of their cloaks, but Loki is a pleasantly heavy weight on his chest and across his hips, his legs tangling with Thor’s, and Loki slides one palm over Loki’s cheek and cradles his jaw and runs a thumb over the soft skin behind his ear, keeping his other arm slung over Loki’s back, the brushed velvet of the cloak bunching under his fingers as he squeezes Loki tight.

He is captivated by the feel of Loki’s Kynlines under his fingers, raised from his skin and yet soft, almost like scar tissue, and the low, vibrating moans rising from the back of Loki’s throat even as he kisses him. Loki is clutching at his arms, though whether it is to keep his balance or to keep Thor close, he does not know, and he can think of nothing but the taste of Loki, strange and yet familiar, his lips cool but his breath and tongue hot.

Desire roars through him at the knowledge that though Loki is but a swaddled form pressed against him, they are in perfect alignment, bodies fitting together just as neatly as their lips do, as if they were made for each other. Thor has wanted this since he first saw Loki, wanted far more than simple kisses; there is no sense in denying it, and yet, now he has Loki in his arms, he finds not only lust rising within him, but something richer, deeper, and it gentles him, keeps him languid and slow as he kisses Loki softly and sweetly.

When they finally part, Loki cannot seem to stop staring at him, and he remains still and relaxed within the span of Thor’s arms, regarding him with a quiet delight that Thor is sure also shows on his face. There is a single strand of loose hair falling across his face, loosely curled after the rain earlier, and Thor tucks it behind Loki’s ear in a gesture that feels more intimate than the hand on Loki’s waist.

“Well, well,” Loki says, voice thick, “it took you long enough, Asgardian.”

Thor laughs and Loki lowers his face even closer, rubbing his cheek against Thor’s, his Kynlines rasping against Thor’s beard as he nips lightly at Thor’s ear and tracks kisses along his jaw and down and over his throat. There, he presses a wet, open-mouthed kiss to where Thor’s jugular beats below his adam’s apple, and he is practically purring his approval and happiness, his chest buzzing with the sound as he stretches out, tucking his face into the crook of Thor’s neck.

Thor holds him close, heart swelling with joy, and kisses him on the crown of his head, indifferent to the harshness of the jewels amidst Loki’s dark hair.

He loves him.

There ought to be a great thunderclap at such a revelation; this new knowledge should burst over him like a wave, sweeping away all his certainties, for after all it should have been impossible for Thor, Prince of Asgard, to fall in love with a jötunn sorcerer and Laufey’s child to boot. And yet, as the words sink into his mind, there is no sudden shock, no fear or horror or unwanted surprise. Rather, it feels like the first time he hefted Mjolnir and felt her singing in his palm: a deep and profound peace, the sensation of finding a piece of himself he never knew was missing.

He loves Loki, and as he breathes, calmly and evenly, Loki rising and falling with his chest, he feels it expanding with each breath, feels the width and breadth of the new force that has grown within him, not a storm but a living tree, rooted deep at the heart of him and even know springing into new life at his fingertips. An Yggdrasil of his own making, picked out in shimmering joy.

A delighted chuckle falls from his lips and Loki stirs, shifting imperceptibly closer, his own fading rumblings still vibrating through them both.

“Something amuses you?” he asks, stroking Thor’s beard, dragging his fingers over the bristles to fluff them out and then smoothing back down.

“Only myself,” Thor answers. Months of fretting and planning, of worrying over how to escape his fate, and it turns out he was fighting the wrong battle all along. He will marry Loki, and forge a peace between their peoples, just as his parents want, but he will do so with a glad heart, and not for duty or honour, but because he wants to, wants Loki, and would have him whether he were a Prince of Jotunheim or the most wretched of outcasts.

I am going to marry you, he thinks, excitement fizzing inside him like sparkling wine, and you will be mine and I will be yours, always. It is on the tip of his tongue to speak the words, to roll Loki over and continue what they have started, to take what Loki has been offering him all this time…ah. No.

Loki is strange to him no longer, but their ways are not the same, and Thor does not want to misstep now. He wants Loki, desperately, now, but it would not mean to him what it would mean to Thor. The jötnar do not court the way Asgardians do, and Thor needs Loki to understand how much he loves him, that he wants more than just two friends sharing a pleasant interlude on a spring day.

It is a wrench to do it, but he catches Loki’s hand with his own and stills it before rolling over, gently easing Loki away from his body. Loki goes willingly, the tip of his tongue pressed to his upper lip, but Thor looks away and pushes himself to his feet, suddenly glad of the constricting cloaks, for it hides both his and Loki’s reactions to their aborted embrace.

Thor clears his throat as Loki slowly gets to his feet and stands by him, his face a perfect mask of calm. “Loki,” he begins, proud at how collected he sounds despite his tumult of emotions. “I give you my word I will take you to Asgard. But I want you to understand that -”

“Oh, do not fret,” Loki says with a slightly forced laugh bending down to brush petals and grass from his cloak, hood falling over his face as he does so. “I understand perfectly.”

“Let me explain,” Thor says, not at all sure that he does, wondering how best to explain the difference between bedding a friend and courting one’s beloved, and why the latter takes longer and involves more restraint. “You are dear to me, and I -”

“Yes, yes,” Loki says as he straightens back up. “But surely now is not the time to speak of such things? We have an afternoon of adventure to plan instead.”

Thor blinks. Is this – did their kiss mean so little to him? Does he already know how Thor feels – or does he think that Thor kissed him on a whim? And what does he feel? “I think we should talk now,” Thor says, keen to make himself clear. “Loki, I -”

Swift as an arrow Loki is before him, brushing a feather-light kiss over his lips before dancing away. “Later,” he says, eyes gleaming in the shadow of his hood. “Let us just have this afternoon? Please, Thor?”

Thor looks at him for a long moment before deciding. “If that is what you want,” he says with a shrug. He still cannot follow the twists and turns of Loki’s mind, but what does it matter so long as Loki is smiling and happy? They have time, after all, and if Loki does not yet love him, well, he will just have to try harder to prove himself a worthy mate, starting here and now.

 “So what do you want to do here?” Thor asks, fully expecting Loki to have some scheme in mind; Loki likes to chastise him for his restlessness, but he has yet to spend a day with Loki without being subject to one of Loki’s plans.

“Well, since you ask,” Loki starts, radiating innocence, and Thor tamps down his knowing grin; “Before you…side-tracked me, I was thinking that we might look for a gullinbursti.”

“You want to hunt a barrow-boar?”

“Not hunt, exactly; it would call too much attention to us, and besides, spring is a poor time for baiting. But I am keen to have some of the golden bristles from the boar’s back, and I think that together, we could manage it.”

“What do you want with pig’s bristles, of all things?”

“I mean to make a gift of them,” Loki says mischievously, and Thor has no idea if he is serious or not. Ah, well, what does it matter? Plucking bristles from the mane of a boar sounds like an exciting test of skill and courage and an excellent way to impress Loki and win him a token – however peculiar.

“I have not hunted boar here in years,” Thor says thoughtfully, “but from what I remember, the gullinbursti favour the thickest parts of the wood.”

“Excellent,” Loki says briskly, obviously setting their interlude in the meadow aside. “We shall start there.”

***

Thor fancies himself a good tracker, and Loki’s eyes are sharp, even in this unfamiliar and brightly lit terrain, and yet it still takes them some hours to pick up the trail of a small family of boar and stealthily creep up on them. He and Loki crouch in the bushes upwind of the group, and look for a target. It is a very small group of only two adult females, heavy set and covered in golden fur, with a thick ridged mane of bristles so bright they almost seem to glow, currently sleeping side by side and surrounded by their plump, marbled young.

Thor has often hunted boar here, but always with dogs and spears and a great company; he has not ever had the chance to face one of the legendary golden barrow-boars with only one companion, and certainly not unarmed. He cannot kill the beasts, not without causing enormous offence to Freyr and the Light Elves, and he has no intention of starting any more inter-realm conflicts. A solitary male would be easier to outflank, and less vicious than the breeding sows, but Thor is raring for a challenge and more than happy to try his luck with this pair.

“I want a good handful of bristles,” Loki whispers, mouth pressed against Thor’s ear so as not to wake the snoring sows. Even in the blistering heat, Thor shivers a little before nodding his assent and moving away. He begins to circle around the group as Loki melts away, moving almost silently despite the inconvenience of the damn cloaks. Once Thor is in position he waits, counting off the beats in his head, and then leaps out, bellowing a war-cry that has the startled animals scrambling to their feet in seconds.

Thor rushes forward to make a grab at a female, but manages little more than knocking her snout away as she opens her mouth and screams at him. She may not have a male’s curved tusks, but her teeth are still sharp and her jaws snap at Thor’s arms as she lunges for him, stinking of animal musk. It is pandemonium after that, the rotund piglets exploding outwards in all directions, squealing in terror, and Thor is whooping in savage pleasure as both females round on him, gnashing their teeth just before they charge, terrifyingly swift for such big, stocky animals and utterly fearless in defending their young.

There is no possibility of Thor capturing one of them now, but then, he had no particular intention of doing so: his job is to be a distraction and he is managing it wonderfully well, if he does say so himself, for both sows are intent of wreaking vengeance on his flesh and rush in again and again, twisting their heads to gore and bite, spittle streaming from their jaws and eyes burning with a fierce porcine cunning. Thor is somewhat hampered by the long cloak, and almost trips on a trailing edge; the moment he is unbalanced a sow is there, battering against his knees, and he grins and throws his weight squarely back against her, bowling her over in a flurry of screeching fury.

He’ll be in real trouble if he goes down, but he’s faced far worse than a pair of maddened mother pigs. Loki is somewhere overhead, perched in the branches awaiting a chance to swing down and pluck at the bristling manes, and the thought of Loki watching him spurs Thor to far greater effort than he would normally bring to bear in so light-hearted a game.

It is rather silly to use his battle skills against a couple of boars, but it is sure to make Loki smile and hopefully impress him, just a little, and so Thor puts some real thought into his ducking and weaving, actually managing to get a good grip on one of the sows as she barrels past, and with a grunt lifts her off the ground and fairly flings her away – she skids across the ground, screaming defiance, but is a little warier in approaching Thor now, feinting and bluffing, moving to try and put herself between him and the few remaining piglets.

It is a shame that he only has a handful of her regular fur for his pains, but as the sows snort and shuffle just out of his reach, they are in the perfect position for Loki to unfurl himself from an overhanging branch, legs locked tight, and reach out to pluck a thick tuft of the golden bristles from the boar’s neck.

The boar whirls nimbly on her back trotters and snaps at Loki, but he twists away and up, out of her reach, and she can only roar her outrage at him before deciding this is an indignity too far and bolting for the undergrowth, her companion hustling the last piglets away.

Thor is dripping with sweat and stinks like a pig, but he cannot stop laughing. What a mad thing to do!

“I trust you have your bristles?” he calls and a few moments later there is a thump as Loki lands from the trees, clutching his clump of golden hair.

“This is – thirsty work,” he says, breathing laboriously, and Thor is about to tease him –clambering about in the branches is not work, not next to Thor’s scuffles with the angry swine – when Loki’s pants turn to heaving gasps, and he slumps to the floor, shoulders heaving with the effort of simply breathing.

“Loki?” Thor says, rushing over; did the boar gore him somehow?

“I am – I am just overwarm,” Loki manages, struggling to stand, and as his hood falls back Thor can see he has flushed a strange purple colour, though his lips are pale and drawing back from his teeth as he pants.

Belatedly, Thor realises they have been walking and tracking for hours, and while it is cooler in the forest than out in the clearings, it is still very hot, even by Asgard’s standards. They have not paused for food or drink and now Loki is trembling violently as he tries to push the golden bristles into Thor’s pack.

“You have heatstroke,” Thor tells him, taking the bristles from him, worry and guilt roiling within him. “Why did you not say you were suffering?”

“I am fine,” Loki insists, swatting ineffectually at Thor’s hands, but even that effort is too much for him, and he is limp and listless as Thor hunts through the pack and offers the water skin to him.

“We need to go back to Jotunheim,” Thor says sternly, as Loki drinks half the contents and pours the rest over his overheated skin. “We can return another time.”

“I suppose so,” Loki grumbles weakly, and he is so groggy that he does not put up a fight as Thor scoops him up. His skin is warm against Thor’s, almost as warm as his own, which cannot be a good thing for a jötunn. “I do not need to be carried like a babe,” he hisses, but Thor ignores his blatant lying and simply sets off back the way they came, too concerned over Loki’s shallow breathing to find any enjoyment in carrying him so.

Thor has a few false starts, but manages to find roughly the area they arrived in, and thankfully Loki is awake enough to guide him back to the unassuming rock that marks the path between the worlds. It takes Loki much, much longer to cast his spell this time, and Thor must steady him as he stands, one arm around his waist, leaning him against his chest and supporting his head as he struggles to speak the words and sketch the runes. As soon as Loki is done, Thor picks him up again, and carries him through the breach, and this time Loki makes no complaint at all, but lets his head loll against Thor’s chest.

Thor cradles him close as the light fades away and they remerge into the cool gloom of the Ironwood, the cold like a shock of water as they fall to their knees in the snow. Thor hurries to lay Loki down, stripping them both of their bulky cloak and stuffing them into his pack. He watches Loki anxiously until his breathing slows and his colour returns to normal, silently cursing himself for thinking only of showing off, and not keeping an eye on how Loki was coping with the heat. It is a mistake he will not make again.

“What can I do for you?” Thor asks when Loki blinks and makes to sit up.

“Nothing,” Loki says quickly, affecting nonchalance as badly as an offended cat. “I am fine. I do not need help.”

“There is no shame in accepting aid from a friend,” Thor tells him pointedly, grasping him by the forearm and helping him to stand. Loki looks like he is trying to think of a reason to argue, but he stumbles the moment Thor lets go of his arm, and seems to think better of protesting.

“Thank you,” he says stiffly as Thor loops one arm around his waist and lets Loki lean on him.

“Well, apart from this little mishap, I would call that trip a success,” Thor says as they slowly make their back to the castle, hoping to tease Loki out of his embarrassment. “Would you agree?”

“Perhaps,” Loki says, but he is smiling slightly, and he remains pressed tightly against Thor even as he regains his strength, and that’ll do for now; their talk can wait until they are both rested and fresh.

***

Loki remains tucked in to his side all the way back to the castle, but as they walk through the main doors he stiffens suddenly and makes to pull away.

“Loki?” Thor asks, alarmed at the look on Loki’s face. “What is wrong?”

“Skrýmir-Erilar,” Loki says, but he is looking past Thor, to the grand sweeping staircase they have rarely bothered to use. Thor follows his gaze and blinks in surprise at the jötunn standing at the top, watching them both with an entirely flat expression.

“It is good to see you again, Erilar,” Loki says, carefully formal, inclining his head and Thor takes his cue as Skrýmir begins to descend.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Skrýmir-Erilar,” Thor says politely, letting Loki put a little space between them without a fuss. “I am honoured to be a guest here in Útgarðar.”

“Thor Odinson,” Skrýmir says, entirely without inflection, and even if Thor couldn’t see the likeness in the face, it would be patently obvious this was Angrboða’s bera simply from his attitude. “Welcome to my castle.”

As he comes closer, Thor realises that despite obviously being an íviðja, with one thick braid starting from the crown of his head and forming a tightly-knotted rope of hair down his back, Skrýmir is tall – very tall for an íviðja – a little over seven foot, and as such he seems slightly out of place in the castle, looming like a father in a nursery, able to perch on the children’s furniture but clearly too big for it. Like Angrboða, he favours plainer dress, with his kjalta closer to the plain leather of the hrimthurs than Loki and Járnsaxa’s elaborate fabrics, and he has a warrior’s look to him, with the sides of his head clean shaven and his jewellery restricted to dull copper and silver rings in his hair and on his fingers, and a thick but plain torc around his neck.

All in all, he is far fiercer-looking and more intimidating than the íviðjur Thor has met so far, but what is most noticeable about him is the way he lifts his head so he can look down his nose at Thor and Loki, and the curl of his lip has Thor’s hands itching for Mjolnir in the same way they did for Helblindi.

“Loki,” Skrýmir says, once the silence has stretched into uncomfortableness. “We have much to discuss.”

“Yes, Erilar,” Loki replies, almost meekly, and Thor cannot help glancing at him in astonishment. “If I might have a moment to freshen up -”

“No,” Skrýmir says bluntly. “I have been waiting for you too long already. You may have time to jaunt about in the woods, but I have much to do. Come, now.”

Loki darts a look at Thor before nodding. “Yes, Erilar,” he says, and Thor cannot quite believe what he is seeing. Why, Loki was not so cowed even when he was with Laufey-King and his sibja back in the south.

“I would like to speak to you, also,” Skrýmir says, turning his attention to Thor, who can feel a hot prickle of anger creeping up his spine. “Once I am done with Loki. You might wish to bathe in the meantime.”

Thor feels the insult, but he can sense Loki’s pleading eyes on him, and lets it go, choosing to remain silent since he has no fair response to offer such a poor host. He watches Loki trail up the stairs behind the Erilar and wishes dearly that Járnsaxa or even Angrboða were here, so he could ask something more of this lord. He had been curious about an íviðja Jarl, wondering if he would be warm and friendly like Thrymr, or stiff and cold, like Laufey, but nothing any Loki and his friends have said about Útgarðar’s master mentioned his insufferable arrogance.

Thor seriously contemplates not washing simply to annoy the Erilar, but since yes, he does rather stink of sweat and boar, he does make his way to the baths, where he scrubs himself quickly, quietly seething and rather worried about Loki. This done, he filches some dried meat from the kitchens – why should he change his habits simply because the Erilar is here, he thinks mutinously, willing someone to catch him – but there is no sign of anyone anywhere, and so he ends up kicking his heels in the library reading room, black mood growing with every minute he must spend waiting to be summoned.

At last, Loki appears, looking ill at ease, and Thor bolts upright from his chair and hastens over to him.

“Are you well?” he asks, and Loki nods, glancing over his shoulder.

“Yes,” he says, “yes, I’m fine, it’s fine, but Thor -”

“Odinson,” Skrýmir says, looming behind him, cold and imperious, yet again looking down his nose at Thor. “I would have words with you alone. Now.”

Loki’s gaze darts between them and Thor can practically see the wheels turning in his head, spinning lies to get Thor out of the impending confrontation. But he is not one to run from a fight, of any kind, and so he steps forward and lays a stilling hand on the small of Loki’s back.

“Very well,” he says, holding himself tall before Skrýmir. He is a Prince of a greater realm, and if this sorcerer-lord thinks he can treat him like an underling he is sorely mistaken. “Do you have a solar?”

Skrýmir’s eyes flash at Thor’s tone but he gives a curt nod and turns on his heel, clearly expecting Thor to tag along behind him. “I will meet there you in a moment,” Thor says to his back, and grins at how Skrýmir’s gait stiffens as he stalks away without a response.

Beside him, Loki swats him on the arm. “Must you antagonise him?” he says testily, tension strumming through his frame. “I know the Erilar can be gruff, but he holds great power here, and it would be wise to make a friend of him, as you did Thrymr.”

Unlikely, Thor thinks, given that Thrymr had a good heart and an easy manner, whereas this puffed-up jötunn seems made of naught but pride. “What does he want with me?”

Loki pauses and then smiles over-brightly. “To discuss our wedding,” he says lightly, teeth bared. “It is the talk of the realm, after all.”

“Loki,” Thor starts, heart racing a little, “we need to -”

“I know,” Loki says, serious again, his whole body turning towards Thor. “But you cannot keep the Erilar waiting. Speak to him first, and then we will talk.”

Thor grumbles a little, for he knows which conversation he feels is more important, but Loki has been oddly skittish around the Erilar, and for once, rank and precedence seem to matter. “Fine,” he says with bad grace. “But if I have not reappeared in ten minutes, I want you to come and rescue me. I am no conversationalist without you.”

Loki seems pleased by that, and so Thor takes his leave, confidently moving through the castle to the suite of rooms Loki has told him belong to the Erilar. While he cannot say he feels exactly at home in Útgarðar, the open parts are of the castle are now familiar to him, though the doors to the east wing have remained locked while Skrýmir has been away. Now they stand open, and Skrýmir is waiting impatiently by the large window of his solar. Skrýmir personal hall is less cosy than the reading room of the library Thor and Loki have been using, but is finely furnished and spacious, with everything on a slightly larger scale than Thor has become accustomed to. The furniture must all have been made to Skrýmir’s exact specifications, for it is too small for a hrimthurs, but slightly too big for Thor and the other íviðja.

Skrýmir is standing in the open space by the window, arms crossed, and he makes no attempt to invite Thor to sit in any of the half dozen or so chairs scattered around the room. A battle it is, then; Thor takes his place standing opposite the Erilar and offers neither greeting nor pleasantries.

Skrýmir slowly looks him and down and Thor returns his scrutiny with insolent ease.

“Odinson,” Skrýmir begins, mouthing Thor’s name like a curse. “I never thought to see you in my Staðr, much less my castle.”

“I never thought to be here,” Thor replies honestly. This is important to Loki, he tells himself; he cannot fathom why, but Loki puts great stock in this jötunn. He will try to be diplomatic at least.

“I have spoken to Loki about all this,” Skrýmir says, making a broad sweep with one hand, presumably encompassing Thor’s presence in Jotunheim, their proposed marriage, and who knows what else, “and I am not entirely pleased with his answers. I am not convinced this is the right path for him or for Jötunheimr.”

“I am here at Laufey-King’s request,” Thor points out sharply; who is this Skrýmir to decide what is the right path?

Skrýmir snorts. “Laufey may have borne him, but I have raised Loki since his magic first showed, and I love him as dearly as my own children. Loki is my sib’s child and the only thing I have left of him. Laufey has other children, two great warriors, two Öthlingr for the throne. I have my Angrboða and Loki, both rich in power and skill, true jewels of our realm. They have had their futures mapped out for centuries, and I have raised them, trained and taught them in preparation for their roles, so that they might bring glory and honour to Jötunheimr, and help to tend the wounds inflicted on her by your kind. Yet now my Loki is to be sacrificed? Now I am to accept that we must exile our greatest treasure to Asgard, simply to get back what is rightfully ours?”

“I understand that this is hard for you,” Thor says, temper rising in the face of Skrýmir’s contempt and his casual claiming of Loki. “It was a shock to me too, when my father told me of the marriage -”

“Your father?” Skrýmir barks. “Oh yes, Odinson, let us speak of your father and what he has done for the íviðja of Jötunheimr. Your father killed my sibb. Your father killed Thrymr’s sváss Thjazi and took Thrymr’s child as payment for what Thjazi had done. Your father gave Gerda to Freyr of Vanaheimr as payment for taking his sister from him, and exiled them both to Alfheim. Your father -”

“I am not my father,” Thor interrupts angrily, aware of the importance of this sea of names and old grudges, but refusing to tolerate such disrespect. Skrýmir only sneers in response.

“No. You are as much a playing piece for him to control as the rest of us. Or will you tell me you came to Jötunheimr of your own free will and not because he commanded it? That you would have chosen Laufey’s child for your bride without the Allfather forcing it upon you?”

“Laufey first suggested the marriage, not my father,” Thor counters, since he has no answer to the rest of it.

“Laufey pins his hopes on you,” Skrýmir says in disgust. “He looks to the future and sees you both as founders of a new dynasty. But I see no King here, only Odin’s son, as much a pawn as a Prince. I can well believe you have no thoughts beyond getting your hands on one as beautiful as the Silvertongue. But in giving you a bride we are delivering our greatest treasure into Odin’s hands. Do you expect me to believe that the Spearbreaker wants my Loki in Asgard solely to be your consort and bearer of your children? That he has no other plans for an íviðja of the royal blood so conveniently close at hand and shackled to his house?”

Thor is silent for a moment, mind racing. He has not thought anything of his father’s insistence that he marry Loki beyond what it means for him, but could Skrýmir be right? Is there something more that Odin wants from Loki than a settled peace with Jotunheim?

“When I take Loki to Asgard, he will be under my protection,” he says slowly, “I will protect him from any who would do him harm. Whoever they might be.”

Skrýmir snorts. “Oh, yes, Odinson. I can just see you defying your father and your King for the sake of a jötunn.”

“For Loki I would,” Thor says hotly. “I may not be his sváss yet, but I -”

“You dare,” Skrýmir snarls, stepping forward, and Thor instinctively braces himself, settles his weight forward and squares his shoulders. “Do not bandy that word about as if it means nothing. You are in Jotunheim, Asgardian. You do not name someone your sváss unless you would die for them. I may not be able to stop you taking Loki as your wife or husband or whatever empty word you call your enslaved broodmares. But I will not stand here and listen to you make a mockery of real love.”

“I do not know where you have gained such a twisted view of marriage,” Thor growls, “nor of my character. But I am telling you that Loki will be safe with me.”

“And you think that is enough?” Skrýmir says, and there is a fine white mist stirring over him, a sudden cold emanating from his body that Thor can feel even with the magic of his mother protecting him. “This is the love you offer him? You will make him a slave, but tell him he is safe as such, and think the word outweighs the shackles?”

“I am not making him my slave!” Thor shouts, temper snapping at the sheer injustice of Skrýmir accusations. “I am no tyrant, and will not stand to be named so. It is your people who talk of selling Loki to me – I am trying to do him honour and see him happy.”

“Words are cheap,” Skrýmir shouts back, his voice becoming deeper, louder, and the mist and bitter cold seem to deepen with it. “As is your bride-price. We do not muddy what is with empty air and hollow promises. Loki is worth as much as the Vetrformen to us and that is why we offer him up – to Asgard, to your damnable father and his greedy, grasping avarice. But what are you worth, little Princeling? Why should we give Loki to you?”

Thor grits his teeth and tries to remember that he is an ambassador for peace and that this is someone who is dear to Loki, though at this moment he really cannot imagine why. “I am his friend. I would be his -”

“Friends and sibja he has here,” Skrýmir snarls, and as he steps forward, Thor suddenly realises he is taller and broader, and growing more so every minute, his body swelling and thickening with every breath – he is becoming like a hrimthurs, towering over Thor as Helblindi had done, trying to overshadow and intimidate him. Thor is not impressed.

“You can give him nothing of value,” Skrýmir finishes, now as tall as Laufey and looking down at Thor with a sneer. “You are worth nothing to him, Asgardian.”

Thor punches him in the face.

It’s not as effective as he would like it to be, given that he must jump a little to reach, and he dearly wishes he had Mjolnir to properly smash the bastard’s face in. But it is gloriously, wonderfully satisfying, and though Skrýmir does not stagger back, he does rock with the impact, and there is a great spray of blood as Thor’s fist crushes his nose.

“I will give him everything,” Thor bellows, ducking to avoid Skrýmir’s incoming fist, dancing nimbly to the side and delivering a solid blow to Skrýmir’s vulnerable flank, just as he learnt to do while sparring with Bergfinnr in Thrymstaðr. “He will be my Loki, not yours!”

Skrýmir roars, the sound oddly musical but weighted with fury and power, and comes straight for Thor, slamming into him heavily. But Thor has been expecting it and rolls with the impact, not even trying to brace against Skrýmir’s superior size and weight, and instead uses that force to roll him clean over and get another good punch in as well.

Battle-fever roars through Thor’s blood, the fever prickling over his skin, and he loses all track of time and effort after that, aware of nothing more than the foe before him and the sudden coppery taste of his own blood as Skrýmir head-butts him, the crunch and crack of the furniture as they smash into it, the sensation of pure righteousness as he deals out punishment for the insults made against him –

But suddenly, there is another figure flickering at the edge of his vision as he strikes out at the Erilar, a flurry of dark hair and movement, and he comes back to himself in a rush.

“What is this madness?” Loki shouts, darting between them, flinging up great curved shields of ice on either side. Thor cannot stop his swing, but pulls the blow, and it glances off the shield, throwing up a flurry of shards; Skrýmir does the same, and Loki stands between them in a cloud of glinting icedust, glaring ferociously from one to the other. “Please tell me the Erilar of Útgarðar and the Prince of Asgard are not brawling like children!”

“Watch your tongue,” Skrýmir growls, looming huge and angry over Loki, though looking distinctly battered. “I am Master here.”

“Do not speak to him so,” Thor snarls, moving closer to Loki, reaching out to pull him behind him.

“Thor, enough!” Loki snaps, though he lets Thor pull him to his side. He looks up at Skrýmir and slowly, deliberately, bows his head and then tilts it back, exposing his throat. “Erilar, the Odinson has guestright here, and this is perilously close to violating it. Whatever the cause, this fight must end.”

Skrýmir makes a hissing sound of displeasure, surprisingly low and deep, but after a moment he steps back and gives the two of them some space.

“Thor, come,” Loki says, threading his fingers through Thor’s. “Please,” he adds, turning from Skrýmir to Thor, and though Thor would dearly like  wipe the contemptuous expression from Skrýmir’s face, given a moment to pause and breath, he knows that he must not. Skrýmir is not worth it.

And so he turns, squeezing Loki’s hand tightly, and walks away, doing his best to ignore how Loki keeps looking back over his shoulder.

***

Loki leads him from the hall down yet another of the castle’s twisting passageways until they emerge into the fresh air, threading swiftly through the castle grounds and out into the Ironwood. It is not until Útgarðar has vanished from sight, and Loki has led them to a clearing high up in the hills, that he stops and lets out a deep sigh.

“Oh, Thor,” he says, sounding disappointed. “What happened?”

“It was not my fault,” Thor replies angrily, wiping the blood from his mouth. Beyond such superficial scratches, he has come away from this just about unscathed, and he thanks his training with the Thrymkyn for honing his skills. “He insulted me!”

 “Skrýmir-Erilar insulted you?” Loki says in surprise. “What did he say?”

“He -” Thor stops, struggling to recall the words, licking at his swelling and bleeding lip. Loki comes in closer and lifts his hands to Thor’s face, ice thickening over his palms and fingers as he does so, and he gently applies the makeshift icepack to Thor’s bruises and split lip. Thor can barely feel the cold, but a pleasant numbing sensation soon spreads through his injuries, and it helps his head clear a little.  “He said I was no friend to you, and that I was taking you as my slave; he said – it was something about -”

“Me?” Loki finishes, sounding confused as he moves his hands over Thor’s exposed arms and places firm pressure against where the worst of the bruises are likely to be on his chest. “But Skrýmir is in favour of our marriage. All the north is.”

“No, he is not. He thinks me a brute, thinks that you will come to harm in Asgard, that I would not protect you -”

“Oh, I see,” Loki says; “Well, you must understand, Skrýmir has looked after me since I was very young, and thinks of me as his own. He is just worried. I am sure he meant no real insult.”

“He called me worthless!” Thor explodes, frustrated with Loki’s reasonable tone. “He said I was too weak to protect you, that I am my father’s pawn and nothing more!”

“Oh,” Loki says again, a small, flat sound that does nothing to soothe Thor’s sense of unjustness in this entire affair. Why is Loki not angry? How can he be taking the damned Erilar’s side in this?

“I was insulted,” Thor says again, sticking to what he is certain of. “I was well within my rights to defend myself.”

“Yes, of course,” Loki says, still infuriatingly calm. “Still, it is a shame you and the Erilar came to blows. It will make the rest our stay somewhat awkward, and I am in no hurry to return to the Konungsgarðr before our season is up.”

Thor’s temper snaps. “Awkward?” he bellows; Loki’s cool hands move away, but Loki himself stands his ground, right in front of Thor. “A lord of Jotunheim calls me a slave-master, sneers at my feelings for you, and all you care about is whether we will be welcome in his castle? Od’s blood, Loki, but I am beginning to think he is right, and I mean nothing to you at all!”

You doubt me?” Loki’s reasonable façade splits as he barks a laugh. “You have been here for nearly half the season now, Thor, and while all of Jötunheimr gossips about our upcoming marriage, you have said nothing to me! Why, until today, I did not even know if you meant to take me with you when you leave!”

“You have said nothing either!” Thor snaps. “Until today, I did not know if you even wanted to come to Asgard!”

“Don’t you dare blame me,” Loki flares, jabbing at Thor’s chest with his forefinger, the ice cracking and splintering away. “You are the one who does not wish to marry me! You made that quite clear! Do you know how hard I had to work just to get you to talk to me?”

“That was months ago!” Thor shouts, knocking Loki’s hand away. “And I was wrong!”

“Yes! Yes, you were!” Loki shouts back, resuming his jabbing, fingers mercilessly driving into Thor’s weak spots. “And so we are friends! But that is all!”

“You are more than my friend, you insufferable bastard!” Thor roars, seizing Loki by the arms and pinning him in place.

“Am I?” Loki spits, eyes gleaming with unshed tears, thrashing in Thor’s grip. “You talk of taking me to Asgard, but you shy like a spooked cub when I come close to you! You have kissed me twice and yet when I come to your arms, you want only to lie on your back and do nothing! What I am to make of this?” 

“I have only kissed you once,” Thor says, well tired of false accusations, “and I stopped because I am trying to court you properly!”

“Court me? What is this nonsense of courting? Our Kings have commanded we marry! We are Princes, not lovesick younglings!”

“I will not marry for duty! Only for love!”

Loki jerks as if slapped. “And I am not worthy of your love? Is that it? You could never love a jötunn, and so no matter what I do, you will not marry me?”

 “Of course I’m going to marry you! I love you! That’s why I want to court you -”

What?”

“What?” Thor echoes, wrong-footed by Loki’s disbelief.

“You love me?” Loki says suspiciously, eyes narrowed.

 “Yes,” Thor replies, tasting the truth of it. “I – yes.”

“And you do mean to marry me?”

“If you wish it,” Thor says, the words awkward on his tongue. He has not thought it through himself, but it feels important to be clear now, to lay out what is still only half-formed in his own mind. “I know it is an arranged marriage, and that being married does not mean to you what it means to me. You do not – I mean, I do not expect you to feel the same. I understand that ‘husband’ is not the same as ‘sváss’, but I think we could find a way to make it work together, like Gerda and Freyr, if that is what you want.”

“You mean take other lovers?” Loki says, eyes narrowing, and Thor’s stomach turns over at the thought of Loki with someone else.

“If you wanted them,” he says, trying to tamp down the jealousy that flares in him just at the thought of it. “I would not chain you to me, Loki, not when you might – you might find a sváss of your own, someday.”

 “You idiot,” Loki snarls, “you stupid, ignorant, selfish idiot. You are my sváss. I am already chained to you, whether I will it or no.”

“What?”

Habjakk,” Loki hisses, and the tone conveys what the Allspeak struggles to parse. Thor opens his mouth to protest, but Loki lunges at him, arrow-swift, twisting in his grip like a snake, freeing his hands so they can tighten cruelly in Thor’s hair as he drags his face down for a kiss, fiercer and wilder than before, as if he is trying to steal the very breath from Thor’s lungs, and Thor meets it, kisses him furiously, holding him as close as he can, their bodies pressed together until the only space between them is where their lips part to gasp raggedly for air.

“You love me,” Loki pants, trembling with emotion, eyes bright and teeth bared. “Say it.”

“I love you,” Thor says with a smile that threatens to split his face in two. “My Loki. My sváss.”

“Your betrothed,” Loki prompts, low and intense.

“Yes,” Thor says, and Loki tosses his head back and screams his victory to Jotunheim’s dim and clouded sky.

Chapter Text

Loki’s scream echoes over the mountains until it is swallowed by the sky, and as soon as the sound leaves his mouth he presses it to Thor’s again, kissing him as fiercely and as hungrily as he can, desperate for the taste of him.

Mine, Loki thinks as Thor’s mouth opens for him, mine, mine, and there is no room in him for any other thought, not of the future, not even of all he has won: he has been hollowed out by his hunger, by the frenzy of his love. He must have Thor beneath him; he must have him buried in Loki’s own flesh, must have all of him, or else he will surely be consumed by the need that blazes within him, the liquid heat melting at his core.

“Loki,” Thor groans when they part, and there is a storm in his eyes that has lightning crackling along Loki’s spine.

“Do not make me wait,” Loki pants into his mouth, unwilling to put so much as a hand’s span of space between their bodies. “I will wait no longer.”

He had planned – he had wanted – a long, slow exploration of each other, something languid and sensual, in the privacy of his room so that they might have time to know each other, so that he could keep some control over Thor’s understanding of him, where it would be gentle and easy enough that he could smooth over any difficulties in their coming together.

But he can’t, he can’t stand the thought of letting go of Thor long enough for them to make it back to the castle, and what would it matter when every fibre of his being is screaming for him to claim his sváss, now, this minute, sense and sensuality be damned. He wants to fuck him and if he did not know better he would swear this was his heat come upon him at last, for he can barely think through the madness of his lust.

Thor is saying something to him, but Loki cannot concentrate on the words, can only hear the way desire has thickened Thor’s voice, clawing at the vowels and burring the consonants, adding raw need to the warmth and affection threaded through his tone. That is what he needs from him, what he craves: a hunger to match his own, the power and the glory he saw in Thor when he first stepped foot in Jotunheimr.

“Now,” he snaps, releasing Thor’s hair to claw at his tunic, searching for skin. “Now, Thor.”

“Yes,” Thor growls, the word vibrating through his chest and along Loki’s questing fingertips, and in a blur of frantic motion and messy, wet kisses they are pulling at each other’s clothes, all patience gone, until they can tumble to the ground, Thor naked except for his pendant and Loki freed from all but his torc, for Thor cannot seem to manage it’s complicated fastening and Loki will not stop long enough to take it off himself.

He may have seen Thor naked a dozen times now, but it is still a striking sight, and even more so now he can touch with abandon, grasping at handfuls of golden flesh, sinking his fingers into the meat of Thor’s powerful thighs, his thick arms, and he sees the flash of Thor’s white teeth as they roll around in the snow, tangled together in a writhing, twisting knot of limbs and lust. There is no finesse, no seductive posturing here: Loki’s pure, animal need will not allow it and Thor responds to him in kind, unleashing his great strength not so much against him as with him, holding Loki close and keeping their bodies trapped together as Loki bucks and whimpers, frantic for more, until they end up side by side, legs hooked around each other, chest to chest and face to face.

“Loki,” Thor says as Loki laps at his jugular and rubs his forehead over Thor’s chin and jaw, seeking out the delightful friction of his beard, “Loki, can I -”

He has one hand on Loki’s hip and he strokes the dip at Loki’s hipbone with his thumb, a small motion that just fails to brush along Loki’s thick cock, which is pressed along Thor’s,  trapped between their bellies. Loki can feel his hips twitching, can feel the tension in his thighs, his body trembling with the need to push forward, slide against him. It is not enough.

“Yes,” Loki says, but when Thor’s hand slides to grip Loki’s cock, Loki has his own meet it, and guides Thor’s hand lower, has him slide his palm over the shaft and lower still, until Thor’s blunt fingers meet the sopping folds of his wet cunt. He can feel Thor staring at him, his breath hot against Loki’s face, but Loki does not meet his eyes; instead, he places his fingers over Thor’s own and continues to guide him, maps out with him the soft lips and slick opening, feeling with him how open and ready Loki is.

Loki withdraws his hand and flicks his gaze up to Thor, a sliver of fear slicing through his madness, but Thor is staring at him in wonder, pupils blown wide and lips parted, and he continues to stroke Loki’s cunt unprompted, circling over his hole and tracing a path upwards to where Loki’s cock starts, his own hips jerking slightly forward every time Loki exhales. Another victory, and Loki would scream again, had he breath left, but the hunger in him is only building at Thor’s touch, at being so close to what he needs.

He works a hand between them so he can close his fist around the head of Thor’s cock, and he takes a moment to rub his thumb over the wetness at the head, squeezing until Thor grunts and thrusts up properly. Loki swallows the grunt with another kiss and then tightens where his legs are gripping Thor, shifting himself into position so that he can guide Thor’s cock to his own waiting cunt. He rests the head against his hole and Thor moves his hand away, lets it rest again on Loki’s hip, smearing wet fingerprints over Loki’s skin.

“Are you sure?” Thor asks, still far too coherent for Loki’s liking. Thor is shaking with the effort of his restraint, heart thundering against Loki’s where their chests are pressed together, and Loki would have no more questions, no more words. “We can -”

Fuck me,” Loki snarls, furious and desperate and so frantically, hopelessly in love with him that he cannot help the howl that erupts from him as Thor finally does, as he breached wide and Thor slides into him, as he swallows Thor’s flesh and claims it within his own.

Finally, finally, Thor’s restraint breaks and he falls as hard and as far as Loki, head falling into the crook of Loki’s neck, his hands clamped firmly around Loki’s hips, keeping him steady as he fucks into him, hard and fast, his deep bass grunts ringing in Loki’s ear as Loki grabs both of his buttocks and drags him imperceptibly closer.  Oh, and it is glorious, it is perfect, it is everything Loki has wanted since the moment he saw him, and he gives himself over to it, to the aching sweetness between his legs, the drag of Thor’s cock inside him, the delicious and new sensation of his cock sliding against Thor’s sweat-slick belly, so different to Loki’s rougher, dry skin. He must pant, sucking in air in short, shallow gasps, each one less than a word, merely a mass of broken syllables, but it drives Thor on, has him pounding harder into Loki, body flexing as Loki arches in response.

“Loki,” Thor says through gritted teeth as his rhythm falters, as he shudders and the vowels draw out into moans, “Loki,” and the sound of his name in that beautiful, broken voice sparks something low and deep in Loki’s belly, something he has never felt before, that throbs and throbs as Thor comes with a low moan, emptying himself into Loki in a great rush.

Loki is caught on the edge, pleasure a wildfire in his veins, burning him up and yet not enough, and he squirms in Thor’s grip, trying to cant his hips back and forth against Thor’s now slumped and inert form. But Thor is having none of it, and breathes a joyful laugh against Loki’s skin before gathering him up and rolling them both over, so that he can sit up and hold Loki on his lap, cock still buried within him. “I want to see you,” he says, bright-eyed and blissful, cheeks flushed the crimson of Loki’s eyes, golden hair dusted with snow, and he keeps one huge hand steady at the small of Loki’s back as he reaches for his cock with the other.

It takes but a few pulls and Loki is there, white-hot ecstasy sweeping over him like an avalanche, his cry rising and rising as his orgasm hits. When he returns to himself Thor is smiling broadly, a miniature sun in Loki’s hands, and Loki must cover that red mouth with his own, must drink down that light and life as his breathing slows and his frenzy dies away. He has never reacted like this before, never known a hunger like it; but then, he has never loved before, and he has never felt so bone-deep a satisfaction, a pride so fierce he can almost taste it as Thor eases him and he feels the wet gush of their consummation slick upon his thighs.

He has never wanted to be held after sex before, either, but he find it pleases something primal in him to press their bodies together and continue to touch, lazily and with love, not lust, Loki marvelling at the plush peach of Thor’s chest and his curiously pink nipples, Thor fascinated by Loki’s Kynlines, tracing them over and over, chasing the graceful curves along his arms and shoulders and up to his face.

So this is what it is to have  a sváss, Loki thinks dreamily, body sated and mind, for once, still and calm, and he lets himself drift in his happiness, all plans and dreams put aside in favour of listening to the thunder of Thor’s heartbeat beneath his breast.

***

Loki could not say if they lay together for mere moments or some hours, but at last he is pricked from his languor by a dull roar, a low, sobbing sound that reverberates around the valley clearing. Loki lifts his head and looks to the mountains: there are thin, wispy clouds swirling around the peaks, not white but iridescent, flickering with golds and blues, and he pushes himself up, ignoring Thor’s vague protests, to look at it properly. It is a beautiful sight, but, more importantly, it is a warning. There is a storm coming; one of Jötunheimr’s sudden, vicious spring gales, and in but an hour or so, this whole area will be swallowed up by blinding snow, driven by hundred mile an hour winds.

They need to move. Such a storm would not be dangerous – not for a child of Jötunheimr, nor for Odin’s son protected by Frigga’s magic – but they would be trapped here, unable to see more than a handspan ahead of them, utterly disorientated and forced to wait through the whiteout.

 “Thor,” Loki says urgently, but as he looks down, he sees that Thor is already staring at the shimmering mountain top, gaze unfocused. “Thor?” he says, more loudly, but Thor does not hear him, attention caught by the roaring wind and the building clouds.

The storm is singing to him, Loki thinks in wonder, watching Thor’s blue eyes deepen. Even without the star-hammer, even without any knowledge of weather-working seidr, Thor can feel the storm’s power and it resonates with his own. What could he do if he embraced his power? How mighty would he be if he made himself a vessel for the storm, and called down more than just the lightning?

Heady thoughts indeed. But for now – “Thor,” he says, grasping him firmly by the shoulder, feeling him start at his touch. “Time for us to return to Útgarðar. There is a storm coming.”

Thor nods slowly. “I know,” he says, and he sounds confused. “I did not think – without Mjolnir, I thought I would not feel one building. Not outside of Asgard.”

“You are the Thunderer,” Loki says, smiling. “It is your nature.”

“It is…different to the storms in Asgard,” Thor says, still distracted. “It feels…more savage. The wind is fiercer. There will be no lightning, no thunder. And yet…”

“How do you feel?” Loki asks, fascinated by the effect the coming storm is having on Thor.

Thor inhales and then sighs, a long ragged exhale, teeth flashing white as he grins. “Good,” he says, eyes flashing as he finally turns to look at Loki. “It is good to feel a storm again.”

Loki looks from him to the building storm and wonders – but that is for another time; right now, he must look to practicalities. He rolls away from Thor, already mourning the loss of contact, and surreptitiously grabs a few handful of snow to rub at his thighs with, for their mingled wetness is now a sticky mess, and rather uncomfortable. When he turns his head, however, he realises that Thor is watching and imitating him, and he abandons his attempt at subtlety.

“We have made a glorious mess,” Thor says with a crooked smile, scrubbing at his flat stomach, generously striped with Loki’s seed. “Perhaps next time we will make it to a bed.”

“Where do you think I intend for us to go now?” Loki responds, half-teasing, and Thor’s slow smirk strips all humour from the remark in favour of a sultry promise.

“Good,” he says, openly eyeing where Loki has splayed his legs apart, “for I have much to learn, and would begin my lessons immediately.”

“Immediately?” Loki drawls, staring just as blatantly at Thor, getting a good eyeful of the tangle of blonde hair at his crotch and his heavy balls. “Aren’t we…confident.” Much to learn indeed, he thinks, cock twitching a little at the thought, and then remembers the approaching storm. He sighs. Clothes first, lessons later.

Their clothes prove to be rather more scattered than anticipated, but the hunt for them put a little breathing room between them, and lets Loki’s head clear a little. They had stormed out of the castle as a result of Thor’s quarrel with Skrýmir, he remembers belatedly; much as he would like to stroll back to Útgarðar and jump straight into bed with Thor, the Erilar will have to be dealt with first, lest the fight spill over into feud.

Thor has clearly come to the same conclusion.  “Are you certain we should return to the castle?” he asks, brow creasing. “With Skrýmir there? I will not stand for his insults.”

“Well, we will have to do our best to avoid him then,” Loki says. “Do not worry. He will feast you tonight, but after that I imagine he will be in no hurry to speak to you again.”

“Feast me?” Thor says, horror-struck. “You cannot seriously expect me to sit down and eat with him after today?”

“You must. It is part of the laws of hospitality – you have guestright here, and so must be properly made welcome. It is one thing to neglect tradition when it was just us and ‘Boda and ‘Saxa in the castle, but if the Erilar does not hold a feast for you, no matter how small or strained, then he is shaming you before all of Jötunheimr. And if he does prepare a formal meal for you and you refuse to attend, you would be offering a terrible insult.”

“I do not see that it matters whether or not he makes me dinner, after the fight we have just had,” Thor grumbles, pushing his bottom lip out in a sulky pout. It is rather charming, but Loki will not be swayed.

“There have been enough insults already,” he says, crossing his arms and fixing Thor with a disapproving look. “There must be a feast.”

Thor sighs with bad grace. “Very well,” he says; “stop looking at me like that. I will do it.”

“And you will not punch anybody?”

“I won’t if he won’t,” Thor says cheekily and Loki throws his hands up in mock-despair.

“You must have been a delightful child,” he says dryly. “If it is any consolation, I am not looking forward to this meal any more than you are. I will see if I can put it off until ‘Boda and ‘Saxa return, so at least it will not just be the three of us, but it something that must be endured.”

“Skrýmir and Angrboða glaring at me over supper,” Thor groans. “What did I do to deserve this?”

“Trespassed in my bera’s kingdom,” Loki says, ticking off the sins on his fingers. “Tried to start a war with Laufey-King. Failed to leap at the chance to marry me. Nearly started a war with Helblindi. Got disreputably drunk in Thrymstaðr. Punched the Erilar of Útgarðar in the face -”

“All right, all right,” Thor laughs, covering Loki’s hands with his own. “You need not remind me. Just promise you will not leave me alone with Skrýmir again. I truly cannot stand him.”

“Leave Skrýmir to me,” Loki says, kissing Thor’s fingertips as he entwines them with his own. “I can manage him.”

***

Once back in Útgarðar, Loki leaves Thor in his room with a strict instructions not to venture out until he comes back; Thor is not at all happy with this, and will not let him go until he has a kiss and a promise that Loki will not be gone long, and will shout for Thor if Skrýmir does or says anything untoward. Loki parts with the promise and the kiss easily enough, though he know which he prefers, and makes sure to smooth his kjalta and tidy his hair before proceeding to Skrýmir’s solar and knocking lightly at the door.

“Come,” is the immediate reply, and Loki enters. Outside, the storm has hit, and a ferocious wind howls around the castle, rattling the window glass and moaning in the eaves, but Skrýmir’s room is quiet and still. All signs of the earlier struggle are gone both from the room and Skrýmir’s person, and the Erilar is now sprawled in his favourite chair, watching and waiting as Loki approaches.

“Erilar,” Loki says, dipping his head slightly. “I bring an apology from Thor Odinson for the unpleasantness earlier.”

“No, you do not, little liar,” Skrýmir says, and Loki smirks at him.

“No, I do not,” he replies, taking a seat. “But we shall all pretend I do and that you have graciously accepted it and offered one of your own, and so we shall all be dear friends.”

“Indeed,” is the dry reply. “Your bera will be most pleased to hear so.”

“You have my thanks for your help with Thor,” Loki says. “I did not expect so…volatile a reaction from him.”

“You asked me to goad him,” Skrýmir points out. “A baited bear will maul, sooner or later. I was expecting it. All that matters is how he is with you.”

Loki smiles, and for once in Skrýmir’s company, it is entirely genuine. “He is mine,” he says, savouring the words.  “At last.”

 “You’ve fucked him, then,” Skrýmir observes bluntly. “I trust it was not too unpleasant?”

It was everything I had hoped for and more, Loki thinks, still warm with joy, but he takes the feeling and buries it deep, tidies it away behind his smooth mask, for it is not something he would ever share with Útgarðar’s Erilar.

“He has given his word he will go ahead with the marriage,” he replies instead, cutting straight to the point.  

“Good,” Skrýmir says, watching Loki too closely for comfort. “I still think this too convoluted a plan. If you had waited, as I told you to, instead of rushing in and trying to steal the Vetrformen before we were ready -”

“It was a feint only,” Loki points out irritably, “and it has served us well. Neither of us ever thought to see the old marriage alliances talked of again, much less to have Thor given to me on a silver platter. We are closer now to getting the Vetrformen back then we have been for a thousand years.”

“I want more than the return of the Vetrformen,” Skrýmir growls. “I did not teach you all I know just so you could slip into Ásgarðr and steal it. Or have you forgotten all our plans?”

“I am not likely to forget your obsession with assassinating the Allfather,” Loki snaps and immediately regrets it as Skrýmir surges to his feet and grabs him by the throat – not tight enough to hurt, just enough to make his point. Loki wants to scream, to claw and kick, but he chokes back his fury and lets himself go limp in the Erilar’s hands. He still needs him.

“That dog will pay for what he did,” Skrýmir hisses, pupils contracted to two tiny dots, blind rage twisting his features as he drags Loki forward, half out of the chair. “He will die choking on his own blood, just as my sibb did, in the knowledge that his precious son will die next and his House and his Realm will fall. This is what you have been trained for, Loki Silvertongue; this is why I have let you run loose around Jötunheimr like a masterless whelp. Now, I will agree that this marriage is a better opportunity that we could otherwise have hoped for. But you will remember your place and your purpose.”

“You are master here,” Loki manages through gritted teeth, “and I obey.”

Skrýmir lets him go and Loki  resettles himself in his seat primly, resisting the urge to rub his throat. “It pains me to be rough with you,” Skrýmir says, sitting back, and Loki represses a scoff; “but these are trying times.”

“Indeed,” Loki says with faint irony. “But to return to Thor -”

“You have done well to ensnare him,” Skrýmir says, absently rubbing at his nose. “He is a dull brute, even for an Aesir.”

“I trust you have suffered no lasting effects from your little brawl?” Loki cannot resist returning. “He is a formidable fighter, even unarmed. The rumours do not do him justice.”

“He fights well enough,” Skrýmir says grudgingly. “But I am not interested in justice for him. Tell me what you mean to do next.”

“I mean to marry him,” Loki says, crushing the tiny ember that flares low in his belly at the thought. “Jötunheimr will have the Vetrformen and I will be in Asgard, perfectly poised to strike during the next Odinsleep. It cannot be far off.”

“And then?” Skrýmir asks flatly and Loki summons up his most winsome smile. And then, he thinks behind it, I will do what is best for me, not you.

“And then I will open the Bifrost and the House of Odin will fall,” he lies glibly. “As we have always planned.”

Well, as Skrýmir has always planned. He means for Loki to be a hidden blade, a knife in the dark and a thief to boot, taking the Allfather’s life and the Vetrformen and if possible, slaughtering the Queen and Prince of Asgard on his way out. A stupid plan, just as stupid as Helblindi’s dreams of a new war, and one Loki never meant to see through. His plan has always been a little subtler and now? Now he plots moves Skrýmir will never see coming.

“Hmm,” Skrýmir says slowly. “It is the long game you mean to play then.”

Longer than even you know, Loki thinks, and nods. “But I will need your help.”

“Of course,” Skrýmir says, arrogant as ever. “You will need protection in Ásgarðr. Something to keep you safe from the Spearbreaker until he does succumb to his unnatural rest. I mistrust his intentions in offering this marriage – he has some scheme afoot, you can be certain of it. And for all your Thor makes a lot of noise about keeping you safe, you cannot trust him. He is of Odin’s blood. Treachery is in his nature.”

Then what is in mine? Loki wonders darkly, given that I am of Laufey’s House and my geta was your sibb?

“I will be most grateful for your aid,” he says, edging closer so he has tilt his head up to look at the Erilar, schooling his expression to gratitude and need. It is a combination that has always worked well on Skrýmir. “And I do not ask empty handed. I have brought you a gift in exchange.”

“A gift?” Skrýmir says, a smile tugging at his lip. “What is it you think I do not already have, and finer far than you could get for me?”

Loki ignores his contempt and wordlessly produces the golden bristles of the gullinbursti, letting the thick tuft sit on his upturned palm, where they glow faintly in the dim light.

Skrýmir sucks a breath through his teeth. “You have been to Álfheimr,” he says, reaching out to take the coarse hair. “How?”

“He is of Odin’s blood,” Loki echoes. “And he trusts me.”

“Then he is twice the fool I took him for,” Skrýmir says with a wolfish grin. “You will have all the help I can give you, my dear Loki. This I swear.”

***

It takes Loki a little while longer to escape from Skrýmir’s rooms and return to Thor, but he does manage to extract an agreement that the contentious welcome feast will be delayed until Angrboða and Járnsaxa return, and that Skrýmir will steer clear of the library and Loki’s rooms in order to avoid Thor. In return, the Erilar does demand to see Loki at least once every three days, to keep an eye on what progress is being made, but it is a good bargain, and Loki leaves their meeting feeling it has gone well. Skrýmir’s knowledge and skills are unparalleled in Jötunheimr, and though Loki would rather it were otherwise, having him back in Útgarðar will ensure Loki’s plans move ahead much faster.

And time is an issue, now: there are less than four weeks left to the end of the season, as Asgard reckons it, and soon Thor will be leaving. Their separation should be brief – however long it takes for the formalities of their betrothal to be concluded between Laufey and Odin, and for the arrangements to be made for Loki to be ceremonially brought to Asgard – but Loki has much to do before all of that happens, and since he needs Thor to open the ways between the realms, he needs to move swiftly.

It is something of a problem, then, that they do not leave Loki’s room for the next three days.

Loki has outlined a plan for the rest of their time together, whereby they will remain in Útgarðar a while longer, and then make a slow progression back to the Konungsgarðr, so that they may have a week with Laufey and Loki’s Kyn before Thor returns home. Since the best thing for both Thor and the Erilar is for them to stay as far apart as possible, Loki suggests that they spend most days either out in the Ironwood or adventuring in the other realms, rather than staying in the castle, and Thor is enthusiastic about the prospect of continuing their explorations.

He is also enthusiastic about exploring Loki, and Loki cannot help but give into temptation.

It is just so difficult to find the impetus to leave his bed when Thor is lying there naked in it, warm and welcoming, when there is just so much golden skin for Loki to trace with his tongue, so much softer than his own despite the hard muscle packed underneath. His breath stirs the fine blonde hair that dusts Thor’s body, so curiously sensitive, and he is so easy to bruise, for wherever Loki bites and sucks at his flesh, a wonderful blue rises to the surface, as if Loki were leaving his own frostbitten finger marks across him.

They never last, for Thor heals fast and Loki is not looking to wound, merely tease, but that does not matter when he gets to remake them, over and over, Thor welcoming his fervour and well aware of what seeing him marked means to Loki. He is the stronger, Loki knows it, and yet he lets Loki bite at his neck, lets Loki ride him, head high and teeth bared, Thor held fast beneath him, and there is no resentment, no sense that he does it grudgingly. He is as happy on his back as Loki is on his knees, and because of this Loki allows him a little more, tries every other position either of them can think of, though he will not yet let Thor put him on his back.

It is the best three days of Loki’s life, and in the blissful, brainless moments after orgasm, when his body sings with pleasure and he cares for nothing except the weight and girth of Thor, his smile and his long, low groans, he thinks that he could live like this forever. But of course, such lust-addled dreams do not last long, and he knows that sacrifices must be made.

“Tomorrow,” Loki gasps, late into the night on the third day, kicking lightly at Thor’s shoulder blades with his heel; “tomorrow, we have to go out. There are – ngh! – places I want you to take me.”

Thor gives what sounds like his agreement, the noise muffled by the way Loki’s thighs are clamped around his head, and does so again, perhaps two or three hours later, when he is sprawled out at Loki’s side and humming happily as Loki braids and rebraids his sweat-soaked hair.

“It will be good to get some fresh air,” Thor says as his eyes fall closed. “And even better to come right back here.”

“You are insatiable,” Loki scolds and Thor grins unrepentantly.

“With you, aye, I am,” he says smugly, pulling Loki alongside him and nuzzling at his hair. “But right now, all I want is some sleep – and you in my arms.”

Loki is sure he will think of some clever retort, in just a minute, but it is simpler and so much sweeter to let Thor hold him close, to tuck his face into the crook of Thor’s neck and soak up his warmth, feel his pulse beat rhythmically against his lips, his skin so soft and thin here, so vulnerable, offered in perfect trust and faith.

Mine, Loki thinks sleepily, conscious of the faint tang of salt on Thor’s skin. Wherever we wander and whatever may come, you are mine, and I will keep you, no matter what it takes.

***

“So where do you want to go today?” Thor asks the next morning, once they have finally dragged themselves out of bed, washed and shared their breakfast, but before either have bothered to pull on any of their scattered clothes. What to wear has been something of a non-issue for the last few days, bar the regular runs to the kitchen for sustenance.

“Svartálfheimr,” Loki replies. “I have heard many stories of the marketplace in the City of Spires. I have always wanted to go.”

“Svartalfheim?” Thor says, frowning. “It is very warm there, Loki. Not so hot as Alfheim, but warmer again than Asgard. It will have to be a short visit.”

“Not necessarily,” Loki says. “Since the cloaks proved less than ideal, I have been working on a different way for us to have our little escapes without being discovered.”

“Oh?”  

“I have been digging through the archives,” Loki says, picking up a wooden box from one of the nearby shelves and opening it. “And I have found something rather special.”

Sitting within the box is a brooch with a simple ,repeating design of interlocking circles. At its centre is a good-sized onyx, unblemished and well seated within the bronze, but that is the best that can be said for it, for it is an unremarkable and common enough piece.

Loki hands it to Thor who examines it closely, turning it over to check the back and clasp – undecorated but sturdy – and tilting it to catch the light. “It looks plain enough to me,” he says, “but I have learnt that lesson well. What does it do?”

“It is an amulet of misdirection,” Loki replies, rather pleased at that Thor knows better than to take the brooch at face value. “It is a small spell and a subtle one. It changes nothing about you, but projects an aura of ordinariness, encouraging those around you to pay you no particular interest. If you were wearing a full glamour or had some powerful enchantment to hide you from sight, you would actually be more likely to attract attention, for such magic would be more likely to trigger any wards other magic-users are using. No-one will be looking for the Prince of Asgard outside of Jötunheimr, and without your armour and Mjolnir, most will only see a tall, blonde Asgardian. This amulet will build on that, and stop any from thinking too hard about why you look familiar.”

“Clever,” Thor says, “but what about Heimdall?”

“It will work on him too,” Loki says confidently. “Unless he bends his will to find you, you will not attract his interest – and why would he be searching for you, when all know you are here in Útgarðar?”

“I am amazed at how many useful trinkets you seem to have stashed away,” Thor observes with a knowing smile.

“Útgarðar is a place of many secrets,” Loki says with a conspiratorial wink. “And it just so happens that some of those secrets are not so secret as certain Erilar think they are, nor as secure.”

“You stole this from Skrýmir?” Thor asks, sounding more amused than condemnatory.

“Would I do such a thing?” Loki responds, the picture of innocence, and Thor claps a hand on his shoulder in congratulations.

“Will it matter how I wear it?” he asks, hunting through the chest Loki has given him to keep his clothes in, and pulling out a fresh burgundy tunic and loose trousers. He really doesn’t have the knack for blending in, Loki thinks fondly; even if they did not recognise him as Asgard’s golden Prince, anyone looking at the rich fabric and skilful embroidery of his clothes would have him pegged as a rich and powerful Aesir Lord in Asgard the minute they saw him, and that is just asking for trouble in the kind of places he means for them to go.

But that is why he chose this particular amulet from the many Skrýmir had found for him, in the brief time they snatched together when Thor was bathing or sleeping, and why they have both spent that time carving runes into its heart. Asgard’s Gatekeeper must not see what he is doing, and the runework allows Loki to draw on Thor’s dormant power, and will boost Loki’s ability to keep them shrouded from Heimdall’s sight without draining him as it normally would.

“You can wear it anywhere you like,” Loki says as Thor swiftly dresses. “Just be careful not to lose it.”

Thor has not bothered with an undershirt, and simply pulls the loose tunic on, leaving his arms bare. He fixes the brooch at its neckline, but it is rather heavy, and pulls the vee even deeper, exposing his pendant. “It would be better if that were hidden,” Loki points out and Thor agrees; he fiddles around with the brooch for a while longer, until Loki tsks in annoyance and takes it from him.

“Are all Aesir men as careless in their dressing as you, or are you just a hopeless lout?” he asks as he fixes the brooch high on Thor’s collar, where it looks far better than anywhere Thor had tried to pin it, and is far less likely to be loosened as Thor moves.

“You sound like my mother,” Thor grumbles fondly as he looks at himself in Loki’s tall mirror. “Well, this work well enough for me. But what are you going to do? And how will you cope with the heat?”

“Wait and see,” Loki says, far more airily than he feels, backing away from Thor. It is time for a new trick.

 Loki takes a deep breath and calls up the runes for shapeshifting, their angular forms familiar and easy, but his focus new and untried. He concentrates, hard, willing his body into a new shape, feeling his skin ripple and bones ache as the change comes over him, and as it happens he feels, for the first time, sweat break out on his forehead from the sheer effort.

When it is done, he holds himself stiffly, eyes closed, doing his best not to tremble. It is not so dramatic a change as his wolf or falcon shapes, he tells himself, nor as disorientating as adding three or four feet to his height. It is only a new skin and a slight rearrangement of his body. But it feels different, for all his other shapes are of Jötunheimr, born of the ice and snow, whereas this one is from another world entirely, another kind of being.

For the first time in his life, Loki shivers with cold. It is not a pleasant sensation.

Opposite him, Thor seems to be holding his breath; Loki opens his eyes and Thor exhales slowly, staring at him in wonder.

“Oh,” he says, eyes and mouth wide open. “Oh.”

“Am I so different now?” Loki asks, aiming for arch and failing miserably. He sounds rattled, even to himself.

“Yes…and no,” Thor replies unhelpfully, his gaze travelling slowly from Loki’s face to his feet and back again, unsurprisingly lingering on Loki’s crotch. Loki has retained his dual sex rather than try to emulate Thor’s complicated Aesir anatomy; it is just too strange and he thinks it not worth the effort since Thor likes him well enough as he naturally is. “You are still you – you have the same face. And yet, you look so…”

“Aesir,” Loki supplies flatly, flexing his hand to convince himself that the crab-like pale fingers are his. His new eyes are not half so good in dim light as his old, and he is annoyed that the room seems dull and dingy instead of bright and airy.

“I knew you could do this,” Thor says, more to himself than Loki. “And yet, I have never pictured you as an Asgardian.”

Because you  never meant to take me to Asgard? Loki wonders. Or because you find me more desirable as something new and exotic and not of your kind?

“So how do you find me?” he prompts, trying to shake off such thoughts. “This is how I will have to be in Asgard. You had best tell me now if I do not please you.”

“Please me?” Thor replies, quite unable to take his eyes off him. “Loki, you are stunningly beautiful. You will turn heads whatever realm we are in, whatever form you take.”

“Flatterer,” Loki says, unsure of how he feels about this reply. “But I am not looking to turn heads,” he continues with what little humour he can manage. “We are looking to blend in, and for that I will need to borrow your clothes.”

He feels a little better once Thor has helped him into an Asgardian outfit, despite how constraining the shirt and trousers are. As they mostly of a size, the clothes fit, more or less; but of course, Thor is broader through the chest and shoulders than he is, and so the shirt is very loose; it does not want to sit properly on his shoulders but keeps sliding off one or the other. It is not uncomfortable, exactly, but compared to what he is used to, the tubes of fabric cling to his body and follow him as he moves, and it is a strange sensation.

At least he feels a little less cold, and when he grabs one of the furs from the bed and wraps it around him he feels warmer still. He will not need it in Svartálfheimr, but he had best dig out one of Thor’s cloaks to wear through the Ironwood. For now though, Thor is still staring, and seems just as taken with an Aesir Loki in his clothes as out of them. It pricks Loki on, and so with only his pale hands and feet and face to look at, he is confident enough to approach a mirror.

It is not so bad, he forces himself to admit. As Thor said, his actual features have not changed: he is as bleached as whalebone and just as smooth without his Kynlines, but he is still recognisable as Loki, even with his grass-green eyes. He had thought of making them blue, like Thor’s, for he is very fond of them, but he has chosen green in memory of Álfheimr instead, and he thinks the effect against his dark hair and milky skin is very striking.

 “You look lovely,” Thor offers.

“I know,” Loki answers absently, running his palm over his cheek and forehead, tracing the lines that are no longer there. Thor is so obviously trying to help that Loki cannot be too angry that he seems oblivious to Loki’s real struggle. Of course he can look lovely as anyone or anything; he is a shapeshifter, and change is his nature. But this is the shape he will have to wear in Asgard, for the rest of his life, the shape he will marry Thor in and be known in forevermore, and that is no small thing.

But it does not help to think on this, and so he puts it aside to focus on getting used to his new body, running through his old meditations, describing slow arcs through the air with his arms, stretching to tip-toe and dropping to a crouch, moving slowly and gracefully through the familiar routine. Thor watches him quietly as he grounds himself, waiting until Loki has finished both stretching and looking at himself in the mirror before he broaches what is clearly on his mind.

“Why did you not do this for Alfheim?” Thor asks.

Because I wanted to see if I could stand heat and light without having to change. Because  I knew that once you saw me like this, this would be all you would want. Because I wanted to have you first in my own skin, before I had to put it aside for this one.

“Because in order to take on a new form, I must know it…intimately,” Loki answers with a wink, the lie effortless and easy. “I could not become an Aesir man without some, shall we say, hands on experience.”

Thor laughs, taking his explanation at face value, and Loki doesn’t so much as flinch when he steps in close and runs his palm over Loki’s newly-smooth cheek and cups his neck in what is becoming a familiar and fond gesture. “You are just as handsome now as you were before,” Thor tells him warmly. “This shape suits you well. But you must still tell me when you grow tired of Svartalfheim. It is warm and humid, even to me, and I would not have you suffer.”

“I will be fine,” Loki says, trying to repress his irritation and failing. Thor is beginning to sound like his bera and sibb, and he does not appreciate being thought weak. “I am more than capable of managing my own comfort.”

“Do not be so prickly,” Thor says, smiling to take the sting out of the words. “I have not treated you with as great a care as I should, and I would make amends now. That is all.”

“Yes, well,” Loki says, not exactly mollified, “we had best be going. According to my research, the pathway will bring us out in the jungle, quite a distance from the City of Spires. We will have to walk to the marketplace.”

“That is a shame,” Thor says, releasing him so he can tug on his boots and buckle on his swordbelt. It suits him less well than the battle-axe, but will arouse less interest, and that is more important, given the relative fragility of the amulet. If they get into a brawl, a push towards misdirection will not help them stay unremarkable nor unremembered. For his part, Loki tucks a few throwing knives into his shirt sleeves; he seriously doubts they will need weapons at all, but he would rather be over prepared than found wanting. “The Bifrost site is at the gates of the Citadel, at the heart of the Philosophers’ Quarter. It is a fine introduction to the city.”

“Back doors are not usually sited for grandeur,” Loki observes. He could do without the constant reminders of how much better-travelled Thor is. Thor’s eyebrows twitch upwards at his tone, which is perhaps not as soft as he intended. Loki ignores his expression and reaches confidently for Thor’s spare boots. This is the first time he has ever worn coverings on his feet, but he’ll be damned if he’ll let Thor see how peculiar the thought is to him.

“Allow me,” Thor says, swiftly kneeling, and Loki likes that enough to allow it. “I have only ever visited as part of a formal delegation,” Thor says as he slides the leather boots on, confident and sure, skimming over Loki’s legs as he checks the fit, letting Loki rest one foot and then the other on his bent knee. “I was shepherded around by eight lords and ladies the entire time, and certainly was not given leave to wander the back streets of the Traders’ Quarter. I am looking forward to seeing the Common Marketplace at your side. There is so much for us to explore together.”

Thor’s hand rests heavy on Loki’s calf, and Loki can sense the warmth of it even through the leather – or perhaps that is only his imagination, a sense memory as Thor smiles up at him, gaze heavy with promise. He really is damnably attractive, Loki thinks, letting his own smile unfurl. “You are not subtle,” he tells Thor with a sniff, prodding his chest with his oddly-confined toes. “Let’s get going, before we fall back into bed and go nowhere, yet again.”

“Very well,” Thor says, rueful if not regretful, sneaking a kiss to Loki’s inner thigh that he cannot possibly feel through the stupid trousers, but which throbs through him anyway. “To Svartalfheim.”

***

As it turns out, Loki’s scrolls were somewhat out of date: the City if Spires has grown wildly in in the thousand years since anyone from Jötunheimr last set foot in it, and Thor and Loki emerge not in the jungle but from a sliver of broken, craggy ground strewn with wind-carved rock towers wedged tightly between undulating rice-paddies. The rice fields spread out for as far as they can see, their flooded pools flashing like silver when the sun peeks out from behind the clouds, the fertile paddies clinging to the valley sides and climbing to the edge of the hulking mountains to the north. To the south, the paddies merge seamlessly with village huts and winding roads and lead the way to the city walls, a crowded mass of houses and sentinel towers rather than the smooth, shining walls of Asgard, and even from this distance the mass of bullocks, carts, people and assorted goods queuing to pass through the massive South Gate is clearly visible.

It is unpleasantly humid for Loki, compared to the brisk cold of Jötunheimr and the dry heat of Alfheim, but no worse than the hot baths he has been enduring with Thor, and his new form is far more comfortable in the warm, muggy climate. The boots give him a little trouble at first, as he gingerly highsteps through the wet and muddy ground, but Thor is gracious – or sensible - enough not to laugh at his odd gait, and by the time they reach the Gate he has adjusted to it, and strolls along as if this is something he does every day.

There is no guard at the Gate, merely a few bored sentries overhead in the high tower, and even from below Loki can see that they are playing cards and some kind of intricate board game rather than watching the ground.  The queue has formed simply from the pressure of so much traffic trying to pass through the archway, for all it is the width of six carts, and because it leads not to a main thoroughfare, but to a warren of narrow streets weaving between narrow-fronted houses and tall taverns, their gridlike perfection overwhelmed by the profusion of stalls and shops and milling people that choke them up.

The Traders’ Quarter is open to all outworlders, to visit or to settle in, and so as Thor and Loki slowly make their way forward, content to merely meander through the network of lanes with the flow of the crowd, they are surrounded by the folk of all the realms, all here to buy or sell every kind of good and service imaginable.

All the riches of Vanaheimr are here: bright macaws and dusky swifts, fierce-eyed harpy eagles and screaming spider monkeys, sullen jaguars and snarling pumas, wide-eyed guacos and pugnacious peccaries; jewel-like frogs, thick-bodied serpents and wavering chameleons; rare flowers, toxic seedpods and lush, waxy leaves. The jungles of Svartálfheimr yield similar treasures: iridescent beetles and tiny, delicate hummingbirds, bee-eaters and fly-catchers, belligerent golden takin, and snub nosed monkeys that screech like playful children; every creature imaginable caws and growls and chirrups between the paper lanterns and jewelled lamps, packed in alongside amulets and potions and charms, grimoires and spellbooks, and all the treasures that might be had by might or magic.

From Niðavellir’s vast steppes come feathers and furs and jewellery, spears and wicked knives and luxurious swathes of dyed and decorated fabrics, displayed alongside the more familiar crafts of the mountain’s forges; rich elf-wine, precious truffles and smoked meats are rarer, but some of the Ljósálfar have taken to trade and it is to the bazaars they come. There are even sparkling jewels and gemstones from Múspellsheimr, sold by scarred and gruff treasure-hunters, their prices high but unanimously agreed to be fair. In shadowy corners hooded figures claim to have goods from Niflheimr, but what they might be is a closely guarded secret, as are the mysterious objects supposedly from Miðgarðr, smuggled in from that closed and protected world.  

Weapons, armour, gifts and foods; clothes, furniture, pets and jewellery; potions, poultices and charms; books, scrolls and mechanical wonders: everything and anything to be found in the nine realms can be found here, in this vibrant, sprawling quarter of the Svartálfar’s largest city .

Loki knows all of this; he has read many books and scrolls ,travel guides and bestiaries, and he can name each and every thing he sees. But he has never been to a place like this before, has never been surrounded by a throng of peoples of all sizes and shapes, Vanir jostling with Svartálfar, Aesir laughing with Dvergar, a hundred accents and voices, in a flurry of colours and scents and sounds, and for a heartbeat it is so disorientating he baulks and freezes in place, standing stock-still in the stream of people.

“Come on!” Thor says with a grin, taking him by the hand and tugging him forward, so at home in this strange, crowded place, even though he has never been here before. He and Loki are taller than most of the crowd, and even with the glamour-stone turning people’s attention away from him, Thor is large enough that he finds them a path through the crush of people with ease. Following along eases some of Loki’s stress, and since Thor sets a slow place, mindful of Loki’s comfort in this climate, it takes only a little more time for Loki to adjust, to find the vibrant marketplace exciting rather than overwhelming.

They traipse along the winding streets for over an hour simply getting a feel for this Quarter of the city; they browse the stalls and shopfronts with nothing more than entertainment in mind, pointing out anything that catches their eye. Loki has brought some coin and jewels from Útgarðar’s supposedly sealed storerooms with an eye to making the most of this first opportunity to trade outside of Jötunheimr, but he quickly realises that if he starts bartering for what he wants, he will be penniless in minutes. There is just so much here that he wants for his own, and the plethora of choice is mind-boggling. Thor trots along with him happily enough for a while, his attention also caught by curios and rare treasures, but Loki is keenly aware of the limits of his patience and his own growing fatigue, and when they pass a relatively quiet ale stall he suggests they stop for a drink.

There is enough space to sit comfortably, but when Thor returns with two mugs of foaming ale and a platter of some sort of fried food he chooses to squeeze in next to Loki on the narrow bench by the counter, thigh pressed firmly against Loki’s own.

“So how are you finding it?” he asks as he leans in to pass Loki his ale.

“I am well,” Loki replies, “but we would need a week to truly explore here.”

“Indeed,” Thor laughs beside him. “Once we are married, we will have to come back, so you can shop properly. I saw how your eyes lit up at all those spellbooks.”

Loki covers his flutter of pleasure by lapping lightly at the beverage in front of him, too suspicious to risk a draught of the unknown, but it is merely a form of kumis, with a curious aftertaste that Thor tells him is hops and barley. The food is rather more peculiar to him, being comprised of buckwheat noodles, bamboo shoots and other assorted vegetables, not to mention what Thor calls batter. Even the meat tastes different, but then, that might be a consequence of Loki’s new tastebuds as much as the new food.

It is good, and Loki sends Thor back to buy a little of everything the cheerful Svartalfar cook has to offer. There are no bones to suck the marrow from, alas, but there are plenty more snacks and treats on offer as they wander slowly from street to street via the drinking and eating-stalls until they end up in what is presumably the main square, where there is some kind of auction going on in the central paddock.

The crowd is too thick for them to get close, but as they make their way around the enclosure, they stumble across what seems to be the holding area for the livestock already bid on, and accidentally wander into a dead-end between cages and crates, where a slender Svartálfar with  sharp features and a pointed chin is haggling furiously with a unimpressed-looking Vanir. Both are too absorbed in their own affairs to pay any attention to two strangers idling by the cattle pen, and while Thor would go back immediately, Loki lingers, curious as always.

“Look, that’s how an auction works,” the Vanir says, picking at her fingernails, when the Svartálfar finally pauses for breath. “You were outbid. Try again tomorrow, or go buy a hunter’s contract and send them out for you.”

“But I can offer an exclusive contract with a Philosopher of the Third Rank,” wheedles the Svartálfar, who, judging by their ink-stained fingers and sheaf of papers, is a clerk of some kind. “My gracious lady is both wise and prosperous, and would be a most generous patron to a hunter as skilled as yourself.”

“Sorry,” is the bored reply. “But you lost, fair and square, and I don’t do back alley deals.”

“But I can pay you double!” the clerk says desperately. “Please, my mistress will have my head -”

“If you could pay double, you would have bid double,” the Vanir snaps.

“But this is for the Royal Wedding,” the Svartálfar cries. “The greatest event in a millennia! Whoever presents Her Excellency Alflyse with gift she chooses to give to Asgard will stand forever in her favour!”

“I know that,” the Vanir says. “Everyone here is desperate for an unusual gift, but you and your Philosopher have missed out on this one, all right? You’ll have to find something else to impress her with.”

The Svartálfar looks crushed as the Vanir stalks away, muttering under her breath as she passes where Thor and Loki are lurking. A few moments later, the clerk too comes scurrying past, too absorbed in pouring over the item list for the auction to pay either of them any attention.

Loki eyes the cage the Vanir was leaning against thoughtfully. So news of the wedding has spread then, and the dignitaries of the other realms are already preparing for the ceremony, despite the fact that there has not yet been a formal betrothal. Either the Allfather has supreme confidence in his ability to force Thor to his will, or there are loose tongues wagging in Asgard.

“Loki, really, this is not very interesting,” Thor groans when Loki approaches the cage and starts tugging at the covering. “Can we not find a tavern again?”

“In a moment,” Loki replies over his shoulder, moving around the cage, trying to peer through the top bars, wrinkling his nose at the heavy animal stench rising from the pen. “Do you not want to know what our wedding present is going to be?”

Possible wedding present,” Thor huffs, but he joins Loki so they can both have a look at the interior of the cage.

Four golden eyes look back, marbled pupils huge in the gloom, and then all hell breaks loose as the creatures start kicking and bucking wildly, snorting and braying and making a racket of unholy noise. Loki drops the cloth, startled, and then stares open-mouthed as one of the foul beasts seizes it in its blunt teeth and starts eating, regarding Loki with a wary and worrying intelligence while its companion merrily continues to alternate kicking at the wooden struts with cloven hooves and headbutting the locked door with its enormous curved horns.

“Oi! What are you two doing with my goats!” comes the Vanir’s angry shout from behind them, and Thor and Loki beat a hasty retreat.

“Why in Hel’s name would anyone give us a pair of goats?” Thor asks as they slump against a wall six streets over, and Loki shakes his head. He has no idea. He thinks they might be enchanted, but the tang of magic is so strong here it’s hard to be sure, and what exactly one would enchant a goat to do does not bear thinking about.

“Perhaps they make good eating?” he offers, but it seems unlikely. “I hope the others here present more suitable gifts, or I fear we will find out in due course.”

“The Svartalfar place great stock in gift-giving,” Thor says, rubbing at his face. “Especially for formal occasions. But to have a competition to find the best one for our wedding…it is a strange thought.”

“Strange indeed,” Loki muses, rather pleased by the thought of all the realms scrambling for gifts for them. “You will have teach me the customs for an Asgardian wedding. It is not something the jötnar have ever cared for, so I know little of it. Our last weddings were Gerðr and Skaði, and they were small, private affairs, done in the style of the Vanir. They certainly did not receive gifts from Svartálfheimr!”

He speaks playfully, but Thor surges to his feet, looking suddenly guilt-stricken. “Yes,” he says, “yes, of course – Loki, might I have some time to myself here? There is something I have just remembered – a surprise, a – do you think you will be all right by yourself?”

Loki blinks. “Yes, fine,” he says, wondering what has gotten into Thor. “Shall we meet by the gate at the next striking of the gongs?”

“Perfect,” Thor says, brushing a kiss over Loki’s cheek before disappearing into the crowd, leaving a rather puzzled Loki staring after him.

Hmm. Whatever can he be up to? Still, this is a good thing, he decides, for it saves him the trouble of having to manufacture excuses for the ingredients he needs to buy, and he is in no way disappointed at being deprived of Thor’s company while wandering the marketplace. He has him nearly all of every day; of course he will not miss him for an hour or so while he shops.

The fact that he does, actually, is not something he chooses to dwell on.

Once has found and bargained for the seven items on the list Skrýmir had dictated to him, as well as a pouch to keep them in, he finds himself hurrying towards the meeting place, hoping that Thor will be there ahead of time. It is an intolerable impulse, and so he forces himself to slow, to take his time making his way back to the Gate. He has waited his whole life to visit the other Realms and he should be savouring every moment, every new experience.

He still ends up at the Gate well before the gongs ring out over the crowded streets, and the cries of the time-keepers have long since faded by the time Thor appears, apologetic but excited.

“I see you too have been successful in your browsing,” he says, admiring Loki’s new otter-skin bag. There are no such creatures on Jötunheimr, but the pelt is silky and soft as well as being waterproof, and should stand up well to Jötunheimr’s harsh climate. The careful enchantments woven into the interior lining are the real reason he chose it, for the hidden compartment is both spacious and secure, and will open only to his touch; however, he pretends it was an aesthetic choice and proudly points out the richly embroidered emerald velvet, and the dense, swirling golden patterns.

Thor too has bought something, elaborately wrapped in printed cloth and secured with chunky red cords tipped with silver beads, but he grins and hides it behind his back when Loki reaches for it.

“Not yet,” he says. “Let us return to our rooms, where we will have some privacy.”

Loki’s interest is piqued: has Thor ventured towards the Pleasure Quarter, whose entrance is flanked with willow trees and crimson lanterns? He saw, from a distance, a cluster of stalls where the displays were kept behind heavy drapes, and had meant to return, only to be distracted by the poisons he needed to find. He doubts there is anything there new to him, but perhaps Thor thinks to prove his adventurous spirit, and has bought something for them there?

“Oh, I cannot wait,” he purrs, making sure to brush up against Thor despite how hot and sticky he is. “To my bed chamber it is then.”

***

Jötunheimr is deliciously cool after the humidity of Svartálfheimr, and Loki basks in the refreshing frigidity of the snow-dusted wind for as long as he can before his Aesir form begins to shudder in protest. It is a great relief to let the skin to bleed away and relax back into his jötunn self; Thor makes no comment at all about his transformation, talking excitedly about all they have seen and what they shall do when they return, and Loki is grateful for it. He has had a good day, but what with the new shape, the humid climate and the constant undercurrent of magic needed to ensure they were hidden from Heimdall, he is quite exhausted and not at all in the mood to deal with the tangle of emotions Thor’s admiration of his Aesir form stirs up.

In fact, despite his flirtation, when they finally reach their rooms he wants nothing more than to collapse into bed and nap. He manages the first part, not even bothering to remove his borrowed clothing before sprawling on his furs, but even as he yawns in contentment, Thor is at his side, shaking him by the shoulder.

“Loki!” he says, vibrating with excitement. “I would show you what I have bought now.”

“Very well,” Loki replies, not best pleased but forcing himself up into a sitting position. “Show me.”

But instead of sitting beside him, Thor drops into the strange position he took when he first apologised to Loki: one knee flat to the floor, the other leg bent, one hand placed over his heart, looking up at Loki’s face. This time, he reaches out with his right hand and waits patiently until Loki returns the gesture, suddenly wide awake and very wary.

“Loki, my love,” he says, voice rich and proud, and despite his sudden anxiety, Loki feels again a throb of desire and love as Thor looks up at him. “I offer you my hand,” Thor continues, squeezing Loki’s fingers; “and I offer you my heart.” He turns Loki’s hand over and gently kisses the back, eyes never leaving Loki’s face. “And I offer you this.”

Slowly, deliberately, he releases Loki’s hand and places the wrapped bundle on Loki’s lap. A prickle of unease at Thor’s formality runs over Loki as he pulls at the cord and unfolds the midnight blue silk, absently noting the fine cream floral pattern – whatever this is, it is expensive. This all has some special meaning to Thor, but it means nothing much to Loki, and he is conscious of his disadvantage.

Nestled within the silk is a pair of slippers.

Oh, they are very fine slippers, in heavy silver and gold brocade, with a gorgeously soft angora rabbit-fur lining, but, well. They are slippers.

Loki looks from the slippers to Thor and back again. “Thank you?” he says.

Thor looks like he is trying not to laugh as he takes the slippers from Loki’s lap and slides them on to his feet. They fit perfectly; he must have had them made in the market and given Loki’s measurements from memory.

“It is a betrothal gift,” Thor says, rubbing his thumb over Loki’s ankle, a small smile playing over his lips. “A traditional Asgardian one.”

“A betrothal gift?” Loki says, puzzled. “But the arrangements have not yet been made. The terms are being debated between my bera and your father even now.”

“The formal gift-giving, aye,” Thor replies. “But that is between Asgard and Jotunheim. This is from me to you. In Asgard, a betrothal is made when a man offers a kiss, a ring and a pair of slippers, and his beloved accepts. We have already had our kiss, and the ring will come when we pledge ourselves in front of witnesses. I know I have done none of this courtship as I should, but I would do this one thing right.”

“I do not understand,” Loki confesses. “I did not expect a gift from you until after the wedding. Is this custom the groom’s part of the payment for the marriage? Or a sign of ownership?”

Thor’s smile falters. “No,” he says. “A man should – I mean, the person pledging their love should have a token of their affection to give to their partner . The slippers are – it is a promise of future intimacy. You are supposed to wear them in the morning, when you rise from bed, you see, so it is a way of saying ‘I want to be with you even when the night is over’. It is like a small joke between lovers.”

 “Ah,” Loki says inelegantly, even more confused. Truly, the Aesir are a peculiar folk. “We have no such custom here. It is one thing to exchange gifts, to trade like for like. But for one party to give and the other to merely receive, for no reason or purpose – it is only Jarls who give such gifts to their vassals, or Ellri to their Kyn, in gratitude for services rendered. No jötunn would give such a love token to their sváss, and no sváss would accept one.”

And certainly not something so pointless. They have been sleeping together for months – Thor has seen him every morning since he came to Jötunheimr! And Loki does not wear anything on his feet, much less flimsy silken slippers that will be ruined the moment snow or ice touch them. What was Thor thinking?

He wasn’t, Loki thinks sourly. He was simply following tradition, like all fools do, without thinking about the reality of the situation he is in. In fact, surprising Loki with a gift at all is actually something of an insult, in fact, for it implies that Thor sees himself as Loki’s overlord. Sváss do not need to exchange gifts; naming someone your sváss is the highest honour you can give. How can an object, no matter how carefully chosen, ever hope to represent such depth of feeling?

“It does not matter,” Thor says, failing to conceal his disappointment at Loki’s reaction. “It was just a thought.”

And yet, Loki says nothing of this, for Thor looks sad and a little hurt, and it sparks an uncomfortable flicker of guilt. He is very aware that in Svartálfheimr, Thor had spent his time looking for a gift for Loki, to honour him in the way of his people, while for his part, he had sought and found only the tools of treachery.

Thor is so forlorn, face crumpled in disappointment as he kneels before Loki, that Loki cannot stand it. “Well, they are lovely,” he says, smiling through his teeth. “And you are Aesir; your ways are different and so I am happy to accept your gift. But you must allow me to give you something in return.”

Thor brightens instantly. “Perhaps a favour?” he suggests. “A token of your affection?”

Loki grimaces. He has read enough courtly romances of Asgard to know that it is the Lady who offers her champion a favour, and that smacks again of master and mastered to him. He dreads to think what other Aesir customs he will be subjected to over the next few weeks.

 “I would wear your favour with pride, as proof of how lucky I am in having you,” Thor says earnestly . “It is also so that all who see my deeds in battle will know that they are dedicated to you, that all my victories are in your name.”

That is the stupidest thing that Loki has ever heard. Thor’s victories are Thor’s, and he has been gaining them for himself for all the millennia he has lived without Loki. Saying they are Loki’s now is just more empty Aesir words, a lie that even he would be ashamed to spin, and smacks of condescension. He means to have his own victories, in his own name, in public and in private. He does not need to claim Thor’s!

But Thor is looking at him like an eager puppy, enthralled by the idea of wearing something that proclaims Loki’s ownership of him, and that idea that is far more pleasing to Loki than meekly accepting an unwanted and unwelcome gift.

“Let me think on it,” Loki says, carefully removing the slippers and rewrapping them as Thor finally gets up off his knees and sits sensibly beside him on the bed. “I will find a suitable token for you, and we shall exchange gifts properly, before we return to my bera’s court.”

Thor is a little deflated that Loki will not wear the slippers now, but does his best to be gracious in accepting Loki’s terms. It would be easier to just put the damn things on and gush over their beauty, Loki admits to himself, but the idea rankles more than he could have imagined it would, and he would rather have a little time to reflect on it. He has not accepted a gift without a price from anyone other than Laufey and Skrýmir since he came of age, and it is proving rather hard to brush it off as simply an Asgardian custom.

Still, he approves of Thor’s impulse to court him, and his efforts, though somewhat misplaced, do not go unappreciated, and so after he stows the rewrapped slippers away, he makes sure he is directly in front of Thor before biting his lip and tugging ineffectually at the laces of his trousers.

“Will you help me with these?” he asks coyly.

“Of course,” Thor replies, troubled expression smoothing into amused affection as Loki turns and returns to the bed, spreading his legs wide and waiting expectantly.

A little later, as Thor makes to tug the shirt over Loki’s head, Loki catches his hands and shakes his head.

“Leave it on,” he says, letting go of Thor to play with the hem of the undershirt, pulling it back down to its proper length so that it skims enticingly over his hip bones. “I find I rather enjoy wearing your clothes.”

“I rather enjoy seeing you in them,” Thor admits, as if Loki had not noticed how he swept a possessive gaze over Loki in his clothes in both his forms, and is noticeably cheerful for the rest of the evening. Sadly, the shirt ends up stretched beyond repair, and yet Loki is far more comfortable keeping it to wear in the morning than the expensive slippers that meant so much to Thor.

***

This is only the first trip of many to Svartálfheimr’s markets, and Loki does an excellent job in whittling down his list of ingredients for Skrýmir and his stash of coin and jewels. Thor was at least listening during the awkward slipper interlude, and refrains from surprising Loki with any more gifts, confining himself to pointing out new and interesting trinkets Loki might like. It takes him a while to learn Loki’s tastes, but he is diligent in doing so, and Loki has great sport in pretending to like the most random curios and then watching Thor try to find something complimentary to say about them.

It is good fun while it lasts, as are their frequent trips back to Álfheimr, where Loki learns how to cope with the heat in his Aesir form, and where they swim and hunt for small game and nuts and berries. Even with Álfheimr’s bountiful climate, it is too early for fruit, but Thor promises plenty of it when they reach Asgard, and Loki does not mind the lack of it too much as they laze around in the woods, swapping stories and jokes between bouts of lovemaking.

As they near the end of their time in Útgarðar, Angrboða and Járnsaxa finally return from their wanderings, and Thor is keen for Loki to have some time with them. Since their return to the Konungsgarðr draws closer, he wants to be sure that Loki will not regret leaving Jötunheimr and his Kyn behind to be with him; Loki tells him, at some length, what he has already told his fellow íviðja, namely that he is not leaving for good, for Jötunheimr will no longer be a world in exile, and he will be able to return to see them with relative ease. Of course, Loki is in truth desperate to get to Asgard, to have their wedding formalised and recognised, and to do much else besides, but he remains silent on this topic with everyone, and indulges Thor by continuing their games and entertainment in Jötunheimr as well as out of it.

With ‘Boda and ‘Saxa back, despite the incongruity of the timing, the much dreaded welcome feast must be faced. It is an excruciatingly unpleasant evening for all involved, with Skrýmir hurrying through the bare minimum of the formalities and the castle’s supplies not at their best due to Thor and Loki’s constant raiding. Though Thor glowers at him through the entire thing, they do not start another quarrel; the fact that they actually do not say a word to each other helps with this, and so the burden of the painfully stilted conversation falls to Loki, Járnsaxa and Angrboða, and since ‘Boda takes his cue from his bera and makes no effort to speak to Thor at all, Loki is immensely grateful when Skrýmir takes his leave a bare hour after the feast begins, just at the very limits of acceptable politeness.  

With the Erilar gone, things liven up immensely, and Loki can leave Thor in Járnsaxa’s and Angrboða’s suddenly much friendlier hands, and follow Skrýmir to his suite with an excuse of smoothing over the last of the unpleasantness. He makes a quick detour to his own room to collect his bag, it’s hidden compartment now bulging with goods.

 “Do you have everything we need?” Skrýmir asks as Loki slips into his solar, and once the door is locked and bolted, Loki nods briskly before spreading his treasures out on the table.

The scales of a qilin from Svartálfheimr’s jungles; the tears of a tages, from Alfheim’s hills;  the spines of an ahuizotl, from the cave pools of Vanaheimr; the feathers of a tulpar, from Niðavellir’s steppes and, most importantly, a dragon’s claw from Múspellsheimr, a realm that has never come under the Allfather’s control. All powerful talismans in their own right, and he has spent much time and coin in getting them. But they are nothing compared to the Allfather’s power, and there is much to do still.

“I have prepared the iron of Ásgarðr,” Skrýmir says, showing Loki a painstakingly hollowed-out spear point. “And I have ground down the horn of a Fjallmáttr. It will take me three days and three nights to add all this to the powder, and then I will need the Odinson’s blood.”

“I will add the blood,” Loki says quickly, “so that it is fresh from the source.” There is nothing in Asgard or Jötunheimr that could persuade him to give Thor’s blood to Skrýmir. The risk to Thor is too great.

“That may be better,” Skrýmir allows. “Once the blood is added, you will have to take the iron to Niðavellir. I can mix a potion, but I cannot bind it to metal – that is Dvergar magic. They will be wary of such a making, so have your wits about you. You may have to pay a heavy price to see it done.”

You would have me pay all the price for your vengeance, Loki thinks, trapping his anger behind a reassuring smile. “I am sure I am up to the challenge,” he says glibly. “And when the potion is bound?”

“You will have two reginnaglar,” Skrýmir says. “Nails to bind a god. If the Allfather ever tries to raise his hand against you, these will penetrate even his magical defences, and once you drive through his flesh he will be as any Aesir, and you may kill him at your leisure.”

“Such power,” Loki says suspiciously. “And yet we have never used it against the Allfather before?”

“It is forbidden to make such things,” Skrýmir says with a shrug, “and always has been, for they can be turned against any seidr-wielder. Before the war, what need had we for such a terrible weapon?”

“And during the war? Why did we not use them then?”

“The ways between the worlds were shut to us the moment the Spearbreaker invaded,” Skrýmir says, mouth twisting. “I tried to forge a nail with what we had, but it could not be done. Our seidr is of the body, not the mind. I could not make the iron take the enchantment, and without the iron, the Allfather’s own seidr was too strong. His spear, his rings, his armour – all items of power and protection, and they turned all my spells and runes aside. That is why this time we will add his son’s blood. You have already proved it can be used to circumvent the Spearbreaker’s wards.”

Loki hums quietly, mind racing. Can he trust that these nails will be as powerful as Skrýmir says? Are they too powerful and too dangerous for him to risk taking them to Asgard, where, if discovered, they could mean his own downfall?

This is a dangerous game. But it has been so from the start, and if such power does indeed exist, he would rather have it in his hands than any other’s

“I will keep the Odinson busy for three days then,” he says. “And then I shall ask to be shown the delights of Niðavellir.”

“Good,” Skrýmir says. “But mind you do not sate him too thoroughly, Silvertongue. You are an exotic toy for him now, but he is a spoilt child, and will weary of you quickly. You must not let him grow tired of your company before the wedding ceremony, or it will all have been for nothing.”

“He loves me,” Loki says sharply and Skrýmir barks a cold laugh.

“I am sure he thinks he does,” he says, crimson eyes glittering with cruel mirth. “But you should know better. The Aesir are a faithless folk, and for all he proclaims ‘sváss this’ and ‘sváss that’, he will never understand what it means for a jötunn to love. We know that fucking is one thing and loving another, and we keep to what we swear. But the Aesir? They talk of love and promise eternity to the one in their arms, and the next day they are chasing another, swearing that their adoration for them will last the ages.

“How many loves has Asgard’s beloved Prince had before you? How many fair women of all the realms has he whispered sweet words to, in and out of bed, before his father sent him here to sniff around you? Why, I bet he has a sweetheart back in the palace who even now is pining for him, who believed him utterly when he promised he would not forsake her for a jötunn Prince, no matter what their King said.”

“Bedding is not wedding,” Loki counters, fighting to ignore the fear Skrýmir’s words have unleashed. “He has promised marriage to no other, and that is what matters.”

“Promises,” Skrýmir says bitterly. “Empty air and hollow yapping. The Aesir do not know how to keep their word, Loki. Oh, they always mean to, when they give it. But it breaks like brittle sea-ice the moment you set any weight on it. Remember this.”

Half a dozen retorts spring to Loki’s lips, but he lets them die away, and does his best to look chastened – not a difficult feat, given how unsettled he feels. He can trust Thor. He know this. And yet – Skrýmir has a point. Thor arrived here with nothing but hatred in his heart, and now he is as ardent a lover as Loki has ever had. If he has proved so changeable in only a few weeks, how differently might he feel in another month, or in a year, or a decade?

Loki has him now, but how long can he keep him?

“You are wise, as always,” Loki says, face schooled to blankness. “And I am grateful for your help.”

“Do not fret, ungr-Loki,” Skrýmir says, and the child’s nickname sets Loki’s teeth on edge. Laufey may have chosen his name to please Fárbauti, for Skrýmir too was once called Loki, before he took up the title of Erilar, but as all that happened long before he was born, there has never been a need to distinguish between them. Skrýmir calls him Younger Loki merely to remind him of how long he has been Loki’s teacher and master. “I will always look out for you.”

Loki cannot wait to outrank him as Consort of Asgard.

He takes his leave and stalks away, jaw clenched. Thor loves him and Skrýmir is a bitter, obsessive schemer nursing old grudges more fondly than he ever did the children in his care. Loki needs him now, needs his help to ensure his safety in Asgard, for he knows more of seidr than any other jötunn living, even Loki and Angrboða, but once Odin is dead and Thor is King? Then he will never have to see him again, and he will be all the happier for it.

Thor loves him. Skrýmir is wrong.

Loki walks faster, bare feet slapping against the cold stone floor, and suddenly, foolishly, he wishes he had Thor’s fur-lined slippers to protect him from the most un-jötunn chill that seems to be settling into his very bones.

 

Chapter Text

“This is not right,” Loki says anxiously. “Where are the trade roads? Where is Sindri?”

Thor raises a hand to his brow and looks around carefully, for all the good it does. All around them, a vast, flat steppe stretches from horizon to horizon, rippling gently but entirely without forest or scrub or so much as a few large rocks. Far off in the distance, snow-capped mountains rise implacably upwards, their scale unimaginable, but even these provide no clue to where they are, for these are not the mountains Thor knows.

He knows well Sindri, the dwarves’ capital city and seat of Ivaldi, the High Queen of Nidavellir, having been taken there often as a child and a young Prince: he remembers the way the mountain erupted from the savannah, a monolithic slab of rock stark against the richness of the veldt and scrubland. The Bifrost site is close to the grand ceremonial entrance, a wide path cutting into the largest of the three volcanic cones, paved by generations of cityfolk, and leading to the hollowed-out core of the mountain and the royal suites.

There is no way one of the mountains clawing at the sky on the edge of this bleak and barren plain houses Sindri. They must be somewhere in the north, on the high plateau at the foothills of the backbone of this world, and a very, very long way from the lush south and its cities, forges and bazaars.

Loki is swearing and cursing up a storm, his breath steaming in the frigid air. “There is no-one here!” he cries, near-frantic. “How are we to find a city?”

“We won’t,” Thor says. “The northern dwarves are fiercely independent folk. There are dozens and dozens of small queendoms up here.”

“Dozens?” Loki says, obviously rattled. “But I thought the Dvergar of Nidavellir lived in a great city in the heart of a mountain, where the forges blaze with fire, day and night -”

“Not all live in Sindri,” Thor replies, turning his face to the sky. “Ivaldi and her people are famous for their metalwork and so on, and since most come here to trade or learn, it is to her city and the famous forges they go. But though Ivaldi is High Queen, she is not the only Queen. Nidavellir is a varied world, and a rich one. There are many smaller settlements scattered across the land.”

“My books make no mention of this,” Loki says and Thor shrugs.

“Perhaps they did not know,” he says, “or did not think it worth mentioning. You cannot understand a whole world through books alone. I learnt of them when I came here as a child and was taken to some of the remoter farmsteads as part of our safari.”

“Not all of us had the luxury of travel in our childhoods,” Loki spits and Thor turns to look at him properly.

“What does it matter?”

“It does not,” Loki snaps instantly and Thor gives him a flat, long-suffering look.

“Clearly it does,” he says. “I know you wanted to see Sindri’s University, the library, the public debates, but they are not going to vanish if we do not reach them today. We shall visit again, and I will show them to you – in fact, we can make it part of our diplomatic tour as consorts. And today, I can show you something even better – something you did not even know existed. Is that not more exciting than a library, however grand?”

Loki draws a sharp breath and then very obviously bites his tongue, eyes narrowed and temper blazing on his face. Really, all this fuss just because they cannot visit Sindri today?

“I suppose you are right,” he says. “But it is not – I need -” He stops again, glowering, and Thor steps closer, brushes lightly against him.

“Talk to me,” he says. “I can see you are unsettled, but I do not understand why.”

Loki looks at him, a struggle written clearly on his face, but Thor can only gaze at him blankly in return. If he had ever thought that loving Loki and having his love in return would make his company any easier, he has been rapidly disillusioned. Loki is as prickly and perplexing as he has ever been.

 “I wanted – something made,” Loki says, and while the hesitancy in his words is momentary, Thor feels it like a slap. Another half-truth from the Silvertongue. “I do want to see the University but I – in truth, I had hoped to persuade you to leave me there under a pretence, so that I might slip out and commission an artisan.”

“To do what?” Thor asks. A half-truth is better than an outright lie, he tells himself.

“I have not yet found a gift for you,” Loki mutters, glancing away. “And there are certain things I wish to take with me to Asgard, when I go. Once you leave Jötunheimr, these paths will again be shut to me.”

Thor wants to believe that this is the true reason for Loki’s shiftiness. But he knows a storm brewing better than anyone, and the gathering clouds in Loki are born of more than an irritation over getting a gift Loki is not over keen on giving.

He exhales and forces a smile. Patience, he thinks. Either Loki’s awkwardness is born of Útgarðar, in which case it will be resolved when they leave it tomorrow, or it is born of anxiety over leaving Jotunheim for Asgard in a fortnight or so, which again they can resolve once they reach the Konungsgarðr. Time is short and passing swiftly. Why invite more conflict between them?

“You need not fret,” he says, with more confidence than he feels. “The dwarves are all great crafters. We do not need to find a city to find a forge. I am certain someone here will be able to make you what you need.”

Some of the tension leaves Loki, and he leans into Thor. “I hope so,” he says, entirely without sarcasm. “But how are we to find them out here?”

“Do not worry about that, either,” Thor says, risking a kiss on Loki’s cheek and earning a brief peck on the lips back. “They will find us, soon enough.”

***

In fact, after more than an hour of walking they still have no caught sight of anything resembling civilisation; this particular path to Nidavellir is a secret and stealthy one indeed. Herds of heavy-horned ibex interspersed with solitary, slow-moving woolly rhinoceros break up some of the monotony of the grassland, as does the circling interest of the lammergeiers overhead, the bearded vultures apparently curious about the two strange, tall figures striding over the steppe, but otherwise this a bleak place for a visit.

It is, however, new and unknown, and that in itself would be enough to buoy Thor’s spirits, were Loki not so determined on being miserable.

There could be good hunting here; Thor makes a few attempts to persuade Loki to swap his two feet for four so that they might chase down one of the huge horned rhinos, or at least cover some more ground, but to no avail. Likewise, the placid, mirror-like lakes do not tempt Loki to swimming; the puffing chiru antelope and their strange shrieks do not interest him; neither do Thor’s attempts at conversation, whether playful or serious. Not even the lure of venturing into the distant peaks to look for the brightly-feathered winged horses, Nidavellir’s famous tulpars, beloved of the Valkyries, rouses no interest, and Thor resigns himself to a dull afternoon of walking about. At least Loki is willing to tuck his hand into Thor’s arm and nestle against him, frowning against the chill of the wind as if it is personally offending him.

Thor’s own irritation flares at Loki’s unnecessary sullenness, but he does his best to keep it in check. Up until a day or two ago everything had been blissful, and not even the sullen shadow of Skrýmir in the castle could spoil it. Loki had smiled and laughed and seemed free and happy, whether wandering in the other realms in his Aesir form or curled up in bed with Thor in his jötunn shape; it has been, for Thor, like having the honeymonth before the marriage, or at least just shy of one: three weeks of delight in other’s company, full of love and joy. But since ‘Saxa and ‘Boda returned to Útgarðar and the night of the dreadful feast, Loki has withdrawn, the open light of his love in his eyes becoming muted, shuttered, as if something – or someone – has cast a shadow over him.

It is easy enough to point a finger at the likely cause, and Thor can understand this, but it is beyond frustrating to be guessing in the dark when all Loki need do is tell him what troubles him, and Thor will help make it right.

Thor is so busy brooding he does not quite notice that the horizon is, somehow, approaching them, and it is not until a bar-necked goose comes honking overhead and then plunges down before them that he realises the endless flatness has, in fact, ended.

They are standing on an overhang and below the earth drops away into a deep and jagged gorge, tucked away in which is a sudden, startling forest, sheltered from the plateau’s bitter winds and teeming with life. After the monotone steppe, the creeping vines and tangled trees seem a riot of colour, as does the river snaking through the valley floor. There is a small town perched atop a rocky outcrop which rises from the forest like an island reef, a jumble of tiled roofs and painted wooden houses, with row upon row of bright flags fluttering in the breeze, streaming between pillar and post and eave.

It is a hidden treasure, tucked away like a jewel in the hollow of a hand, and Thor’s heart leaps with excitement. He has never seen anything like this before.

Loki sniffs. “I can fly down into it,” he observes, “but without your hammer, you cannot.”

Thor grits his teeth. Right now, he would like to have Mjolnir with him for more than just the freedom of flight and the comfort of his own worthiness.

“The dwarves do not favour flying crafts,” he says instead. “And there are no tulpars here. There must be a path of some kind. Perhaps a tunnel?”

“I suppose,” Loki sighs, as if being here and seeking out the dwarves were not all at his own specific request, as petulant as a spoiled child.

“Loki,” Thor growls, temper fraying.

Loki does not move, but his face smooths over, frown lines and pursued lips vanishing. “Come on,” he says, a smile appearing from nowhere as he leans into Thor. “I bet I can find the way down before you can!”

It is so blatant an attempt at appeasement that Thor could cheerfully throttle him, and all the more infuriating because an apology or explanation is nowhere to be seen. But still, it is better than the sulking, so Thor forces a smile of his own and they begin looking, their amicability a narrow and creaking bridge between them.

***

There is no bridge, no tunnel, no mountain path down into the valley.

But there is a zip-line.

Thor looks at Loki and for the first time today, sees genuine amusement in his eyes.

“Afraid, Asgardian?” Loki says, stepping fearlessly into the admittedly rather flimsy looking harness attached. It is a complicated contraption, carved with dwarven signs and symbols, and the line itself is set at a far more steep angle than seems necessary.

“Never,” Thor grins, reaching for his own. He tugs on it experimentally: it has obviously been made for someone half his height and of a slimmer build, but it seems sturdy enough, and he is sure that if it breaks, Loki will catch him. Well, fairly sure. It is quite a drop.

He steps out into empty space.

He cannot tell if it is his own whoop, Loki’s high keen or simply the rushing of the wind in his ears, but the high-pitched peal is torn away as he careens down the thick line, the dwarven mechanism gliding as smooth as silk and at impossible speed as his weight propels him down the incline. It is more like falling than flight, but has the wild, heady rush of both, and he laughs for joy as the ground ripples beneath him, the green of the trees, the brown of the rock, the blue of the river – and then, rising up before him, the honeyed limestone of the cliff, for they have soared down and across the gorge in minutes and now, as his feet brush the treetops, leaves slapping against his ankles and calves, they pass a twisted pillar of rock and suddenly there is a cave mouth yawning open and they are plunged inside.

Thor crashes bodily into the cave, as poor a landing as when he first had Mjolnir and had to learn to fly, but he is laughing and when Loki barrels into him, no more graceful, he finds they are both laughing and they cling to each other in the wreckage of the landing site, wheezing and wiping their eyes.

“Get me out of this mess,” Loki laughs, tugging ineffectually at his straps, for he is as snarled up as a fish in a net. Thor disentangles himself from his own harness and the landing platform they have half-destroyed and is just reaching for him when Loki draws a sharp breath and shouts: “behind you!”

Thor whirls but it only means the first blow catches him squarely in the chest and knocks him clean over, as he skids back through the broken wood and metal, grunting as he lands heavily amidst the cogs and gears.

The creature’s beak opens and it screams, great white clouds erupting from its maw and shrouding its bulk.

“Steam!” Loki shouts from the other side of the cavern, invisible in the hot, stinging cloud. “It’s steam-powered! I can freeze it!”

“Do it!” Thor roars back, leaping to his feet as the thing screams again, recognising that it is not, in fact, a war-cry but the sound of the mechanisms grinding as they vent the high pressure steam powering it. It is not a beast – it is not alive at all, but an automaton, a machine, obviously dwarf-built, and like all their craftings, it far outstrips anything even Asgard has. It should be ponderous and clunking, but it moves with the speed and easy grace of the Destroyer – a dwarven gift itself – and it is advancing on Loki with the same single-minded intent as the Vault’s protector.

Thor grabs one of the loose cogs from the floor and hurls it at the bird-shaped head: it has glowing eyes, so even if it is not alive, it senses the world as if it were, and that should get its attention. Sure enough, the thing rocks with the impact and turns, whiplash quick, to lunge for Thor, finally ceasing in its hissing of great clouds of steam. He can see Loki, face twisted in concentration, still tangled in the wreckage on the floor, too absorbed to bother changing back to jötunn form and instead simply calling up his power as he is.

Is the cavern feeling a little cooler already? Thor is not sure, nor does he know how long it will take Loki to call enough ice to stop a dwarven-made artefact with fire in its heart. What he does know is that the steam is clearing and he can get a good look at it. It is beautifully made, all bronze and silver, with an eagle’s head and wide spread wings, but the torso and limbs of a man, tipped with eagle’s talons, just as powerful and as a sharp as the real thing. There is a deep cherry-glow in its belly and behind the eyes, again not unlike the Destroyer’s internal fires, but it is much less organic, more obviously made of moving parts, with gears and wheels exposed at the joints and rivets and seams visible amid the carvings and decoration.

It is big, filling the cavern and looming over both he and Loki, but he has fought bigger.

Thor grins. “If you have aught of reason or life,” he tells the thing, “you will surrender to me now.”

“Really?” Loki says, his breath now also steaming, misty white and sparkling with ice crystals. “You are trying to threaten it?”

“I am offering it a chance to survive,” Thor says, unsheathing the old and battered sword Loki has been lending to him for their travels, gooseflesh prickling along his arm as the water in the air is drawn into Loki’s ice magic and the temperature drops. Ice is crackling along the machine, delicate and beautiful, but not, so far, of much use. The sword is looking like a better bet and one more to Thor’s taste.

Thor charges. His first strike is an overhead swing, gripping the sword in both hands, bringing all his weight to bear: as he thought it might, it bounces harmlessly from the machine’s head in a shower of sparks.

“Well done,” Loki observes from the floor. “You’ve discovered the triple-reinforced shielding.”

“Are you actually casting a spell or just lying back and enjoyed the view?” Thor shouts, dancing away from the clumsy grasping of the talons and dodging abruptly as a wing jerks outward, bringing a fan of sharped metal feathers into play. This is a lively beast!

Thor ducks and springs forward, moving in close to the humanoid chest, and he slams one shoulder into it, pushing back against the brute force of the steaming machine. He’s too close for the thick arms to be able to seize him – a real concern, as he suspects once the thing has him in a bear hug, it will not go well for him – but it can scrabble at him with its claws and it is well programmed enough to recognise the danger and make a real effort to stab down at his exposed face with its beak. He shoves forward, harder, driving it back, roaring like a bull as he pushes, forcing one foot in front of the other, straining until the huge beast meets the cave wall, the impact ringing like a gong.

Loki says something withering, no doubt, but Thor is too busy jamming the sword into the cogwheels whirring at the machine’s neck to listen, intend on using the Asgardian steel as a lever to prise the head clean off. The exposed moving parts are not as well shielded as the armour plating, which is good, but the sword is an old one, and, he suspects, was cheap in its day. It is not proving as sturdy as he had hoped.

Thor is panting as he works the sword into the champing machinery and he can feel the cold air rasping in his lungs, mingling oddly with the dull heat of the mechanoid’s body; it is slowing, parts grinding audibly as ice infiltrates its extremities and works down into the core.

“Are you even listening to me?” Loki demands suddenly – Thor looks up and there he is, perched atop the machine’s jabbing head, scowling furiously. “I swear -”

He punches down, ramming his ice-coated fist into the other side of the gears to where Thor has impaled it, and there’s a terrible screech as the intense cold bites into the metal, springs and coils and delicate clockwork snapping and disintegrating as the bitterest of winter frosts takes hold.

“Now,” Loki snaps, face creased with effort as his cold wars with the dwarven flame powering it. Thor grunts as he gives an almighty shove, throwing his weight against the ice-covered chestplate and hearing it finally crack at the pressure of heat within and cold without. He thrusts the sword further in, puts his back into it and wrenches up – and Loki neatly somersaults over his head as the great eagle head is ripped clean off, a cloud of steam and whirring, broken machinery following it, the cherry-red glow dimming away to nothingness.

Thor’s sword is bent at nearly ninety degrees and charred to pieces; he throws it aside and slings an arm around Loki’s waist so he can drag him in for a victorious kiss.

“Well, that were a bit dramatic,” says a voice behind them, and Thor wheels round instantly to assess this new threat.

The newcomer throws up both hands as Loki thrusts an ice spear and Thor snarls. “Easy, easy,” she says. “Just sayin’. Having a bad day, are we, boys?”

She’s bundled up in thick furs, with a somewhat conical felt hat atop her head, the flaps pinned up and tied at the back, scraps of brightly embroidered fabric peeking through the rough seams. Thor feels Loki stiffen beside him and glances to see his eyes widening in surprise, though he is careful not to look too shocked.

“The Elders will be pissed,” the dwarf says conversationally as her shaggy mastiff shakes itself, momentarily haloed with an enormous cloud of russet fur before the pair pick their way over the uneven cave floor. “They haven’t had to replace a Gate Guardian for, ooh, eighty-odd years.”

“Perhaps they should consider making the next one a little less prone to attacking peaceful visitors,” Loki says waspishly, but the dwarf laughs.

“You trashed the gear,” she says, pointing as the landing platform and the wreckage of the end of the zip line. “The Garuda thought you were invaders. Thieves. Scum.”

“You dare -” Thor starts, but Loki quiets him with a pat.

“A small mistake,” he says, eyes and teeth glittering. “As was our…self-defence.”

“Fair cop,” the dwarf says, eyeing them with open interest, as does the huge dog she sits astride. Thor has seen the mountain Riders only once before, during a festival of some sort many years ago, where a small troop had given a stirring display of mounted archery and hunting with golden eagles almost as large as they were. He had been fascinated, but they had been but one of many wonders displayed for the visiting Asgardians, and as a boy all he had taken from it was a desperate desire for a mountain mastiff of his own, swiftly denied by his parents. They are a large breed even by Asgard’s standards, and this one is as high as Thor’s waist, which means that its rider can look him in the eye.

How the pair got down the cliffs and into the cave is a mystery. The dwarf’s role is less so.

“Well it’s not much of a gatekeeper if it lets any old caller through,” she says. “We’re in the arse end of nowhere, lads. ‘Peaceful visitors’ ain’t what we get up here. So who the hel are you?”

“Travellers,” Thor replies shortly.

“We are lost,” Loki adds immediately, with his most disarming smile.

“No shit,” the dwarf says, looking less than impressed. “But we’re a long way from Asgard. You didn’t just take a wrong turn off yer sparkly bridge and decide to drop in for tea an’ cucumber sandwiches.”

“Indeed not,” Loki laughs. “I have been making a study of ancient artefacts in Sindri, and was certain I could use one to fold space between the city and the suburbs. So I invited Vidarr here to watch me practice and, well…” Loki leans forward, rubbing at the back of his neck in rueful embarrassment. “I was showing off and the next thing I knew we had ended up here.”

“A likely story. Only Asgard’s womenfolk have magic in ‘em.”

“I am of Vanir blood,” Loki says with a shrug. “I have some small talents, a few tricks. I have certainly learnt my limits this day.”

“That were more than tricks,” the dwarf says, face wrinkled in suspicion. The dwarves of Nidavellir have never been famous for their hospitality but Thor has never experienced so faint a welcome. Then again, he has never before been in disguise and wandering in the remotest corners of another realm.

“Since we have arrived, however unexpectedly,” Loki continues, manner as smooth and polished as a river stone and just as treacherous underfoot; “perhaps we might meet with your elders? I would be most grateful to discuss magic with such famous crafters.”

“Get us to work for you, you mean,” the dwarf says with a sniff. “You Asgardians, you’re all the bloody same. Well, I ain’t gonna stop you. This job’s not worth the aggro. I likes my head on my body, ta.”

“Then you are a Gatekeeper too?” Thor asks.

The dwarf hawks and spits. “I’m a sentry, thanks much,” she says disdainfully. “Wide patrol. Me and Nyima here have been out all night, and we’ve not so much as a pika to show for it.”

“Then we are both in luck,” Loki says warmly. “For you are in need of breakfast and we are happy to provide a most generous one, once you show us into your home.”

The dwarf perks up instantly. “Eh, grand!” she says, throwing a companionable arm around the nearest part of Loki, which happens to be his arm and, Thor notices sourly, a good part of his chest, particularly at nipple height.

The dwarf notes his scowl and withdraws her wandering hand to pat Loki more sedately on the shoulder. “I’m Rabten. Pleased to meet ‘cha.”

“I’m Dagfinnr and this is Vidarr,” Loki says, gracefully extending his hand to shake in the dwarven way, a trifle old-fashioned, but quite proper.

Rabten gives a low whistle and pumps it enthusiastically. “’Scuse my manners, like,” she says, offering Thor a much more lackluster handshake, her attention fixed on Loki. “Didn’t realise you were gentlemen travellers. Gotta like a man who can handle himself, and talk sweet after, eh?”

“As I have must have the greatest respect for so diligent a guardian,” Loki says, faux-gallant, and just like that, the pair sweep off, leaving a bruised and sweaty Thor standing and staring, slack-jawed at the sheer cheek.

After a moment he laughs ruefully and sets out after them. This should be entertaining.

***

Rabten isn’t one for ceremony, as Thor had already guessed, and takes them straight through the main avenue toward the Forge, the temple-cum-marketplace at the centre of most dwarven settlements. But what she is one for is drama, and as they walk through the town there are curious eyes everywhere. Rabten sits up, straight-backed and chest puffed out, clearly delighted with being the centre of attention, and even Nyima begins to strut, each paw lifted high, for all the world like a warhorse on parade.

Thor supposes they make quite a sight, being so tall and so strange, in their deep tunics and leggings, hair worn loose and heads uncovered, quite different to the richly embroidered clothing and headdresses favoured here. Questions are being shouted from the people on the streets, hanging out of windows, even scrabbling up on to rooftops, and Rabten bellows her answers back. ‘Destroyed the Garuda’ and ‘totalled the cave’ feature loudly in her responses and Thor resists the urge to rub the back of his neck in embarrassment.

The Misdirection Amulet is having precious little effect, though it does seem to push the attention more towards Loki, with Rabten and the others directing their conversation almost exclusively towards him – an odd experience, and one he associates, uncomfortably, with being with his father.

Thankfully, the crowd remain outside the Forge precincts as Rabten shepherds them in to present them to the Elders, though they can still be heard, their whispering like a waiting storm.

“Dagfinnr and Vidarr,” Rabten says as five wizened old woman break off from their council – or gossip, it’s hard to tell – to scrutinise Thor and Loki closely.

“What do you want?” says the oldest and crabbiest looking, her rich gold and persimmon robes making her almost as wide as she is tall. The current Mountain Queen, Thor presumes; her thick-soled shoes and huge winged headdress making her just about equal to Thor’s chin, and she fixes her scowl about there as well.

Loki smiles. “Revered Elders,” he starts, and Thor lets his mind wander as Loki spins a pretty tale, building on the lies he fed Rabten. He cannot see why they should be honest about all but their names, for surely there is no harm in saying that they came here to trade, but he lets Loki have his fun. He is to return to Asgard soon, and he is unlikely to come to this remote corner of Nidavellir ever again: a cheerful, mischievous Loki is to be preferred to a sulky, stubborn one.

“Hmm,” the Mountain Queen says, lips pursed as if she is sucking on a prune. “That Garuda were five year in the making, you know.”

“You have our humblest apologies,” Loki says. “Alas, we have but little coin. Is there not some service we could provide, to make amends and foster a spirit of new friendship?”

“Ain’t he flash,” murmurs one of the others, elbowing her companion.

The Mountain Queen’s eyes light up. “As it ‘appens,” she says, turning gimlet eyes on Thor, “we got a bit of heavy liftin’ we could do with a hand with…”

Thor sighs.

“I get my breakfast first, though, right?” Rabten says loudly, sticking to Loki’s side like a limpet. “I were promised one.”

“Fine, fine,” the Queen snaps. How such a foul-tempered woman was ever elected to her position, Thor cannot fathom. “Welcome to Yara, travellers. I suppose we’d best feed you.”

***

Now that hospitality has been extended, however grudgingly, it is not wanting in the least: the feast laid on is the equal of any in Asgard, though with smaller portions and less meat than Thor is used to. There may be no lush fields on the high steppe, but the Autumn Realm is bountiful and her people great traders, and so even here in the north there are heaps of bright apples, plump berries, roasted nuts and pickled plums, rich cheeses and juniper wine, sausages and haunches and salted pork slathered with chutneys and cooking sauces, pastries, pies and jams served with thick cream and a sprinkling of sugar.

Loki takes his time in trying each new food; even now, he is cautious with new foods, unused to the strange tastes on his Aesir tongue. There is nothing here to alarm an Asgardian’s palate though, so Thor lets him be and eats with gusto, belching after each dish to show his appreciation. The wizened matriarchs nod approvingly as he devours what is placed before him, covering for Loki’s less-than-polite finickiness by wolfing down the titbits he leaves on his plate – until they reach the desserts and Loki licks hesitantly at the sugar dust on his fingers. Then, it is a battle royale as Loki attempts to steal every sweet from Thor’s plate.

Plates cleared and thanks given, Thor is bustled away before he can so much as blink, and handed over to a heavyset dwarf who introduces herself as Jinpa. Her crossed arms bulge with nearly as much muscle as Thor and she wears the Forgemaster’s unofficial uniform of multi-coloured striped leather apron, iron-tipped boots and perpetually singed eyebrows.

“Watch yer head,” she says in the same instant that Thor’s skull cracks into the low beam; the ceremonial spaces of Yara are large enough for all the races, but the workspaces are cramped and cluttered and not Asgardian friendly. “Oh, this is gonna be good,” she mutters, not quite below her breath. “Come on then, beanpole. I got work to be doing.”

Loki has, mysteriously enough, managed to wriggle out of this part of their amends, and has ensconced himself in the Forge’s bright central hall, still visible through the wooden grates, and he is talking animatedly to the Elders with Rabten a quite unnecessary shadow at his side. Banished to the wings, Thor must crouch and watch how he goes; Jinpa slaps him on the rump to get him moving  and Thor thinks, quite seriously, about starting a brawl and dragging Loki out by his hair, just to show how absolutely infuriating all this is.

“What’s the matter, gorgeous, you ain’t never done a day’s graft?” she shouts at him as they exit the building and take to the ladders, which bow alarmingly under Thor’s weight.

“Touch me again, and I will put you through a wall,” Thor says cheerfully as they clamber onto the roof and Jinpa curses him roundly, white teeth flashing in a smile just visible amid the grime on her face. The six dwarves already tinkering with the contraption bolted over the central beam watch avidly.

“Think yer hot stuff, don’t’cha,” she jeers, settling her goggles over her eyes as she picks up a blowtorch,and Thor knows he’s won her over. “Tell you what – you stick wi’ me for the next few hours and I’ll see if there’s anything like real strength in all that puppy fat you call muscle. You stick by me and my girls, and I’ll forgive ya for wreckin’ my Garuda, eh? Fair deal?”

“A fair deal,” Thor says and gets to work.

***

A few hours later, he returns to the hall, ears ringing with praise and curses and a promise of ‘whatever yer need, boyo, any time,’ from his new friends. He has rather enjoyed his afternoon, seeing something of Yara and bantering with Jinpa and her team, and he refuses to feel guilty for it, given how difficult Loki is being today. Still, he has had more than enough for one day, and he is hoping to collect Loki and return to Jotunheim promptly, where they can stop the lies and misdirection, and get back to enjoying each other.

But he finds the hall a far more subdued place than earlier, as Rabten and the Elders have vanished, leaving Loki in the company of the Mountain Queen, arguing quietly but fiercely over the contents of Loki’s otter-skin bag. Loki is clearly not finished yet.

Loki sighs with genuine impatience. “I had hoped to have something made – but the Dvergar in Sindri said it could not be done, that it is simply beyond their skill.”

The Queen snorts. “No need to lay it on so thick, boy. Show me proper, like.”

Loki hands over something – no, two somethings, small and dark and metallic. Thor cranes his head to look, but they don’t look like much to him. Hollow nails, filled with some kind of…dust? Powder?

Her head jerks up sharply. “This be old magic. This is -”

“Something of my own design,” Loki says soothingly. “Nothing to be troubled over. It is a gift, a protective charm, to keep someone safe as they venture into new places.”

The Queen  narrows her eyes. “What you do wi’ it is your business,” she says sharply. “But this ain’t a small crafting. How you gonna pay for it?”

“Is it not the artisan who sets the price?” Loki says, smile fraying just a little.

“Not for this,” she says darkly. “Like for like, Asgardian. What you gonna give me to make this worth my while?”

Loki’s smile freezes. “What would you have?” he says. “You can see I have little money. Is there a boon I can give you? A service I can perform? We are quite the questers, my companion and I. Let us serve you.”

Thor growls at being volunteered for more menial labour and Loki flashes him a pleading look. But it matters not.

“You’re a liar and I reckons worse,” is the Queen’s swift answer. “An’ I don’t wanna be tied to the likes of you. No, boy. You wants me to give you this power, then you’re gonna gives me power back.” Her hand shoots out, a bony finger pointing straight at Thor’s throat. “Give me his talisman.”

Thor instinctively brings his hand up to shield the pendant his mother gave him. “No,” he says. “This is not for barter.”

“Neither is this,” she says, waggling the strange objects in her hands. “This ain’t a market place. This be an exchange of weight an’ merit. And that pretty necklace is the only thing either of you has that be worth anything likes what your whey-faced friend wants me to make.”

“Please,” Loki says, turning to him. “I promise -”

“No,” Thor says firmly. “You need to tell me what all this is about.”

“I will,” Loki says, eyes darting from Thor to the Queen. “I will tell you everything. But I need this made and we are running out of time.”

“No,” Thor says again. “This was made by my mother – it is not to be given away to make a gift for me. And besides, I need it for – for when we go back to your home.”

“No payment, no work,” the Queen says, pushing the nails back at Loki. Loki glares daggers at Thor, but he refuses to budge.

“Not payment then,” Loki says after a moment. “But what about a wager?”

 “Go on,” the Queen says; the dwarves’ love of gambling is well known, as is their propensity for winning.

“A game of riddles,” Loki suggests. “We will stake the pendant, and you, the enchanting of my talisman. Three guesses, winner takes all.”

“And why should I agree to such a thing?” the Queen scoffs and Thor nods in agreement, anger rolling within him.

“For the challenge,” Loki says with a smile. “And because I am not the only liar here. This is an easy crafting, for I have done all the preparation myself. I need you only to bind the essence to the shell. As you say, it will be no small thing, once made, but in truth, this is but a moment’s work for you. You balk because you are afraid.”

“Careful,” the Queen says, face flushing.

“You are afraid,” Loki says again, slowly, enunciating each word. “And fear makes you greedy. You want a great payment for a tiny risk. And you are stupid in your greed, for if there were any consequences of this crafting, would the blame not fall the harder on you if it were known you took a powerful piece of Asgardian spellwork as payment for your part in it? Would it not be safer to be able to say it was but a game, a diverting entertainment, and you had no knowledge of the scope of what was being made?”

“That’s a piss-poor excuse,” the Queen counters, but she is wavering, her temper rising. “And you watch yer mouth.”

Loki sketches a mocking bow. “I offered my jewels and coin as fair payment for the amount of work I ask for,” he says, “but you refused me, for, as you say, you are not hawking your skills at the roadside. You are a Queen of your queendom, unknown and unremarked, safe and secure and…oh, but it was, at least, before we destroyed your guardian in mere moments. It is a good thing your other defences are so strong, and that outsiders such as we have little experience of them.”

He flicks his gaze to Thor and the Queen looks at him with new suspicion. He has just spent the afternoon aiding in the repair and maintenance of those defences.

“Perhaps you are right,” Loki muses. “Why should you agree to such a thing? Perhaps we should simply leave and turn to one of your neighbours for aid. I am sure we would have something to bargain to them that we would be happier to part with.”

The Queen hisses a curse, but Loki’s threat is a good one, provided, of course, that Thor would betray what he has learned of Yara’s defences to their enemies. Loki must know that he would not – but the Queen knows nothing of him, of Vidarr, who has neither Thor’s reputation nor responsibilities.

“I would rather we remain friends,” Loki says silkily, “so I will ask again: shall we make a friendly wager? That I might have a trifling enchantment made? I would not shame you, after all, by forcing you to do something for nothing.”

The Queen nods sharply. “Three riddles,” she says through gritted teeth. “First who gets it wrong or can’t guess be the loser.”

“Very well,” Loki says.

“Wait,” Thor interjects. “You forget, my friend, that I have not agreed to the stake.”

Loki looks at him with pure fury for a heartbeat before his face clears again. “What’s the matter?” he says with a little laugh. “No taste for danger?”

“No taste for treachery,” Thor says quietly, each word cold and clear, but Loki does not so much as flinch.

“Oh, such dramatics,” Loki says lightly, eyes burning. “Really, it wounds me to be so little trusted. I will not lose, dear friend. But, just for you, shall we make a second wager, hmm? If I do lose, you may present a challenge to her Highness here, to win it back, or earn it back through more good, honest work?”

 Thor turns reluctantly to the Queen, who alone of the three of them is making no effort to hide her hatred at this situation. “I ain’t got much choice, do I?” she says lowly. “Sure, blondie. I win, I’ll let yer get yer pretty necklace back, however yer like. But this first bet stands seperate, liar. I ain’t doing yer craftin’ lest you beat me in riddlin’.”

Thor does not like this. But Loki is not going to back down and he is too lost in the maze of his manoeuvrings to be sure what, exactly, is happening here. Right now, he just wants this done and for them to be back in Jotunheim, where they can have words, and it seems the fastest way to do that is to get this idiotic farce over with.

“I accept,” he says.

“I’m asking first,” the Queen says, just as eager to get this done.

“As you wish,” Loki purrs.

The Queen begins, her speech shifting, each word sharply enunciated but more heavily accented. Thor remembers this from his youth: she has switched to the dwarves’ High Tongue and the Allspeak is responding, reflecting the archaic vocabulary as best it can.

“Who is the one that in the ashpit sleeps: and is only struck out of stone? Neither father nor mother has the greedy fiend - there he wants to live his life.”

“Fire,” Loki says without a pause. “The fire hidden in the hearth, sparked by flint.”

“Aye,” the Queen says unhappily.

Loki smiles his very prettiest smile and launches straight into his own riddle. “My lord likes to stick his head well inside me, push it upwards into the smallest part. It is my fate, adorned as I am, to be filled with something rough if that person who possesses me is virile enough. What am I?”

Thor inhales sharply, but the Queen barks a humourless laugh.

“A helm, pretty boy,” she says harshly. “That one is old indeed.”

“It is,” Loki says easily, “but amusing still, in the right company. One for one and two to go. Your turn again.”

The Queen glares at him. “Harshly he clangs, on hard paths treading, which he has fared before. Two mouths he has, and mightily kisses, and on gold alone he goes.”

“Ah, another classic,” Loki says, condescension riding on his words. “The goldsmith’s hammer, of course.”

The Queen nods jerkily. Loki smiles and taps a finger to his lips, feigning deep thought.

 “A strange thing hangs by man's hip, hidden by a garment. It has a hole in its head; it is stiff and strong and its firm bearing reaps a reward. When he hitches his clothing high above his knee, he wants the head of that hanging thing to find the old hole that it, outstretched, has often filled before.”

Thor could throttle him - must he choose these riddles? – but the Queen only sneers.

“A key,” she says and Loki inclines his head, the picture of innocence.

The Queen is silent for a long moment, wrinkled hands clenching and unclenching, until at last she speaks, the Allspeaker struggling to parse the complicated ancient dialect. “What marvel is it which without I saw, before Delling’s-door? Were twain briskly, and breathless withal, boiling a wand-of-wounds.”

Loki is silent, again tapping his lip, brow creased as he thinks. “Why,” he says, just as the Queen begins to smile. “The smith’s bellows. For they are cleaved in two, and they blow, but have no breath.”

The Queen hisses; Thor’s pendant is safe. But Loki has one more riddle to offer.

“Often I open wide to that which pricks against me, when, wound with rings, I press firmly against a hard one; pierced from the rear, I push for what my lord hopes to get a midnight. What I am?”

Thor chokes slightly. The Queen eyes Loki, full of loathing. “A quim,” she says at last, or at least, that is what Thor hears. It sounds like a curse in her mouth.

“Sadly, no,” Loki says, gleeful in his triumph. “The answer is a keyhole. Everyone makes that mistake.”

The Queen looks frankly murderous, and Thor squares his shoulders, readies himself to fight their way out, quietly furious that it should be necessary to do so at all. He might have been in a fair few scraps in his time, but he has never so blatantly proved a confrontation for the sake of it –

He checks and thankfully, so does the Queen. In herself she might be of little threat, old as she is, but Thor has no doubt that there are dwarfs aplenty just behind the doors and wall hangings, keeping an eye on their unpredictable visitors.

“So,” Loki says, bright and cheerful, “shall we begin the enchantment?”

***

It does not take long, in the end, once the Queen has called back the Elders, who seem much less pleased with Loki’s glib tongue than before. How much they heard, and how many watched from the shadows and around corners, Thor does not know, but there is a heavy fugue of hostility in the air and he will be glad to leave.

Loki and the matriarchs bend over his bits and pieces, doing something complicated while Thor paces, keenly aware of the unseen eyes prickling over him, with suddenly rather too much to think about. How many times has he thrown himself into a fight while behind him Sif or Hogun or Fandral huffed to themselves, their attempt at dispelling the situation ruined by his lust for battle? How often has Volstagg’s deliberate humour and friendliness been wasted because he couldn’t wait to throw a punch?

Loki’s fighting might be with wit, not weapons, but he has just provoked a conflict for as flimsy a reason as Thor ever had, and it has angered Thor no end, particularly as he has been dragged into despite having no agenda with the dwarves either way. Have his friends often been this angry with him but held their tongues?

Yes, he thinks, a trifle embarrassed: he has felt the rough edge of Sif’s tongue more than once, but rarely heeded her good sense. He knew that no matter what their own reservations, they would back him to whatever end, and he has gambled on that endlessly all his life. Is that so different to Loki’s blithe confidence that Thor would go along with his scheming and defend him bodily if it blew up in his face?

Something to think on, at any rate, once they are safely away – but after he and Loki have a reckoning of their own.

At least Loki was honest about one thing: the work itself takes little time. There is a brief hold up when Loki asks Thor for a little of his blood and Thor baulks, patience frayed to nothingness, but for once this day, Loki is forthcoming with answers, explaining that it is a part of the protection magic, that it is no different to the few drops they use in their ‘exploring’, that because of Thor’s ‘unique nature’ it is absolutely essential. The dwarves are not happy with the vagueness, but Thor takes his meaning.

Loki goes first in adding his own drops while the Elders can, somewhat reluctantly, assure him that Loki is absolutely right in what he is saying, and that the spellwork is not a curse, nor a way to harm or control him – something they seem rather surprised about.

“Very well,” Thor says in the end, to get it over with. “Just be quick about it.”

Loki is careful to take but nine drops of blood, and lets it fall only on the nails, refusing to let the dwarves have any part in the transfer. There is none spilled or wasted or left here for the dwarves to take for themselves – a small comfort.

A few moments more, of complicated tools and techniques, and the work is declared done.

“Wonderful,” Loki proclaims, stuffing the finished products into his bag with haste, already turning on his heel to go. “You have my thanks.”

“Wonderful,” the Queen returns sourly, the Elders crowding and glaring behind her. She makes a beckoning motion and, unexpectedly, Rabten peels herself from behind a convenient pillar, and joins them, expression hard and fists clenched. Presumably she has been there for most of it; another potential friend lost then.

“She’ll show yer out,” the Queen snaps. “But before you goes, answer me true. Who are you? Really?”

Loki looks at Thor and then back over his shoulder. “I am Loki,” he says. “Of Asgard.”

“We’ll remember the name,” the Queen promises, a sneer on her lips and darkness blooming in her eyes.

***

Rabten, once again mounted on her mastiff, leads them out of the valley, via a path hidden by overhanging trees and winding in and out of caves and crevasses, until they reach the high steppe again. Loki is silent the entire time, and Thor is in no mood for conversation.

Loki does stir himself to offer a brief farewell to Rabten, but the dwarf has lost her earlier fondness for him, and merely grunts in reply. Loki affects indifference and begins to walk back towards their arrival point, not bothering to check if Thor is following, head held high and back ramrod straight.

Thor nods a curt goodbye, but Rabten catches his arm as he passes.

“Do you see that? Over there?”

Thor squints: in the far distance, a hazy blur resolves itself into a bear, small by Asgardian standards, with a shaggy coat and large tufted ears.

“The bear?”

Rabten grunts. “And by ‘is left?”

Thor looks again, and sees only the bear, who seems to sense his scrutiny and rears up, snuffling at the air as he staggers on his hind legs. He is flighty too, by Asgardian standards, for he drops back to all fours and hurries away in a curious rocking gait – ah! And there, following along behind him with an effortless lope is a fox, with a square jaw and a twisted, knowing smile.

“Some says they be partners,” Rabten says as the unlikely pair vanish over the horizon. “The fox follows him everywhere. See, ‘cause the bear, he ‘as the strength to dig for pika, even when the ground be frozen solid, an’ the fox, he be a weakling beside ‘im. So the bear, he’ll go in one end of the burrow, right, and the fox takes the other, and he snatches at the ones that run scared – snap, snap!”

“An effective strategy,” Thor says, waiting for the point.

“For the fox, sure,” she replies, face half-turned away from Thor. “He gets an easy meal from it. But I ain’t ever seen him sharing wit’ the bear, not even when the bear goes hungry. Some might calls ‘em partners, but I don’t. I says the fox’s a thief and the bear’s a fool.”

“Perhaps the fox can offer something aside from food,” Thor says tightly, unamused. “You do not see all they do together.”

Rabten hawks and spits. “A thief’s a thief,” she says. “Whatever else they might be. You can’t trust them. An’ it’s always the fool who pays, in the end.”

Thor bridles at that but she’s already moving away. “Watch yourself,” she calls over her shoulder as the mastiff begins to descend. “This day won’t be forgot any time soon.”

“No,” Thor says, taut with anger, “it will not be.”

***

Back in Jotunheim, the sky is dark and brooding, heavy with the promise of snow. The wind is but a breeze, but with a bite that promises bad weather to come, and anyone of good sense would immediately head back to Útgarðar, to be safe and dry and warm.

Loki rounds on him the moment they are clear of the pathway, dropping both his Aesir form and any semblance of good humour. “You idiot,” he snarls, “you selfish, brainless cur! Why would not help me? You were never in any danger of losing that stupid necklace!”

“Me?” Thor shouts, outraged. “What in Od’s blood was all that? Lies and nonsense! You have alienated an entire queendom just to have your precious trinket!”

“A trinket,” Loki says, grinning mirthlessly. “Lovely. When all this was because you had to have a gift from me, for your ridiculous Aesir courtship!”

“I said a token, only – I would be happy with a jewel from your hair, or an arm-band, or nothing at all! It does not matter!”

“It does! Or else you would not have made such a fuss over it, and those damnable slippers –”

“I give you a gift, try to court you formally, to show how much I care, and it is all thrown back in my face! I should not have bothered!”

“No, you should not have! If this is the depth of your so-called love!”

“What?” Thor says. “Wait, are you – this was a test? Of my love?”

“And what wondrous proof have I received,” Loki spits, two spots of plum burning high on his cheeks. “You accused me of treachery!”

“You lied to me,” Thor says, low and furious. “You used me and made me look a fool before everyone we met there. You treated me like your slave, like a - I am not your tool,” he says bitterly, “nor a thing to be bartered about with. You accuse me of not loving you, but it is you who have treated me shamefully this day. It is your love I find myself questioning.”

“I knew it,” Loki says instantly, gesturing sharply. “I knew it. You are a faithless dog after all. I knew you would turn away from me soon enough. Your promises are air, just pretty words with no weight – you have no honour, Odinson! You mean to cast me off -”

 “No,” Thor says loudly, cutting him off. “Stop this nonsense now.”

Loki laughs bitterly, his eyes shining with unshed tears. “Liar,” he says. “You are a spoilt child who will soon grow bored of his shiny new toy and throw it away.”

Anger swells inside Thor. These are insults he will not bear.

The wind is picking up, a low, angry moan, and it stirs Loki’s long hair and tugs at the hem of Thor’s tunic. The sky overhead has darkened to black, throwing the day into a deeper gloom, and Thor can feel the strange pressure, the swooping in his stomach and tingling across his shoulders that speaks to him of an impending storm.

“I am not the spoilt child here,” he says through gritted teeth, pitching his voice to carry over the wind. “I am not throwing a tantrum over idle words.”

“Idle words? Is that what you think they are? You are an even bigger fool than you look, Odinson.”

“Do not speak to me so,” Thor warns, voice low. “Do not provoke me further.”

“Or what?” Loki says, leaning in closer, his grin fixed but his eyes still shining. “What will you do? Hit me? Hurt me? Do you think your fists will silence me? Is that the kind of man you really are?”

“No,” Thor says. He is not that kind of man. He would fight Loki, aye, to settle a score or for honour’s sake, for he does see Loki as an equal, and that is the way of such things; he has scrapped with Sif and the Warriors Three before, and they have walked away still friends. Ymir knows Loki’s viciousness warrants meeting him in the holmgang. Thor has fought over less before to protect his name and reputation. But he would never raise his hand to win an argument like this.

“Why not?” Loki says, and he is dangerously close to Thor now. “Do you think you are the first to threaten me? Bigger jötunn than you have said worse, and tried worse, and they learnt swift enough that an íviðja can fight as well as a hrimthurs, and fight smarter too. Try me, Thunderer. I will put you on your back soon enough.”

“I will not fight you now,” Thor growls. “But not because of what you are. Because of who you are. You are my sváss and I do love you – and while you might be a damned difficult bastard to deal with, I won’t hurt you like this.”

“Coward,” Loki sneers, and Thor is half-expecting it, looking for the movement out of the corner of his eye and he manages to dodge just as Loki’s fist hurtles towards his face. He definitely expects the follow up and strikes first, grabbing Loki by the arms and forcing them down, pinning them to Loki’s sides. Loki struggles and snarls and twists in his grip enough to land a sharp kick to Thor’s shins. It stings like hell and Thor glances down to see Loki has scratched him. Scratched him!

It was a mistake to look away. The impact of Loki’s head against his own briefly stuns him, and the sheer surprise does the rest; his grip loosens slightly and Loki wrenches free and kicks him properly, the heel of his foot connecting with Thor’s solar plexus, hard enough to wind him. Thor doubles over, gasping, but he has sense enough to bring his forearms up to block his face and Loki’s jab bounces off.

Loki backs off. Thor straightens up, breathing hard, and locks gazes with him. A whirlwind of emotions flash over Loki’s face, too fast for Thor to possibly understand, and then he bares his teeth and attacks again. He’s fast and flexible and wily as hell, and Thor is severely handicapped by his refusal to actually hit back.

He wants to hit back; oh, by the Norns, does he want to – to settle all this anger and frustration, to beat some sense into Loki, to work out the tension strumming between them. But this feels wrong; this is not a squabble a simple fight will sort out. If he hits Loki now it will not be a contest between them, but something darker, something born of whatever Loki is carrying within him. Thor grew up in a Royal Court and in the company of soldiers. He knows the difference between fights picked in anger and those started in despair.

So he does his best to defend, to simply soak up the punishment that Loki is dealing out, and it seems to work in his favour in so much as it is clearly driving Loki crazy. Loki’s hits are becoming sloppier and less focused, designed to hurt rather than to actually break down his defence.

“You,” he hisses, slapping at Thor’s arms, palm open. “You – you -”

“Me,” Thor agrees and makes another grab for him, pulling him against his body and holding him still as he spits and curses but makes no attempt to break free from Thor’s embrace.

“Damn you!” Loki cries. “Fight me! Don’t make me -”

“Make you what?” Thor says, struggling to keep control of himself and Loki. “What don’t I understand? What aren’t you telling me, Loki?”

Where is all this poison coming from and how do I lance it?

Loki sobs and then he bucks up, pressing his mouth to Thor’s, digging his hands so hard into Thor’s chest that he feels his tunic tear and Loki’s nails pierce his skin. This isn’t an answer, but it is a battle they both can win, and perhaps that counts for something.

The wind is screaming around them, throwing a spattering of snow against Thor’s heated flesh, yanking at his clothes with the same force as Loki’s kisses, chilling and harsh but with a ferocity that matches Thor’s own. Thor kisses him back just as fiercely, lets his anger bleed to lust, letting Loki bite and bruise him, giving him the same rough caresses in return. They’ve not been like this before, not with this kind of savage desperation, too much unsaid and not enough undone. They tug their clothes away, tangled in each other and their passions, and there’s a sensation of easing, as if each scrap of bare skin revealed to each other is a secret shared, or a weakness exposed, and Thor attacks Loki’s cool flesh, his hunger building with every touch, with every cry.

Once naked and panting, a mess of grinding and slickness, Thor grabs Loki by the hair and the hip and rolls them over, lifting Loki into position so he can sink down onto Thor’s ready cock, as he prefers. But Loki stills, teeth bared, eyes shimmering, and the moment Thor relaxes, gives him his freedom, waiting for his choice, Loki swings himself over and takes Thor with him. They are back as they began: Loki flat on his back, Thor pressing down on him.

 “Are you certain?” Thor says as Loki stares up at him, defiant and half-frantic with desire. “Like this? Now?”

The rain begins to fall, very lightly, a fine patter over Thor’s exposed skin, sprinkled with snow. Sleet, then, but it does not matter now. Thor will stop at Loki’s word but nothing else.

 “Yes,” Loki says fiercely, always so fierce when there is nothing truly to fight. “Stop talking, I am sick of the sound of your voice -”

Thor kisses him, with no gentleness at all, and then he lifts Loki’s hips and slides into him, sheathing himself in Loki’s tight, wet heat in one smooth thrust.

Loki screams and the sky cracks. The storm is on them, and the pattering rain begins to pour, lashing the ground and their bare skin, the wind a frenzy around them as the thunder rolls overhead, in time with Thor’s own rolling hips.

“What are you doing to me?” Thor groans, the storm a second pulse within him, a racing heartbeat that builds and builds alongside his own, anticipation and mounting excitement licking along his spine, his skin and arcing between his lips and Loki’s.

“This is you,” Loki pants, wild-eyed and wildly excited. “Thor, this is your doing -”

“No,” Thor says, struggling to form words as the lightning builds and builds, as his senses stretch and synapses sing with the growing pressure in the air, the yawning gap between heaven and earth feeling thinner and thinner, the fire just waiting to be unleashed. “This is – this is us -”

Thor has called the storm a hundred thousand times but not like this, never like this. He cannot find the words even in his own mind to truly describe what he is feeling, but it as if – as if he has become the storm, as if the howling winds and lashing rain are as much a part of him as his panting breath and rushing blood. He knows well the hum of Mjolnir’s power in his hand, her throbbing song as she spat lightning and roared with thunder, but he never realised – never truly understand what she was. Not merely a weapon, not only a tool, but a conduit.

For the first time he knows in his bones that he is the storm: that he does not use Mjolnir to call it, nor as a way to control it, but as a vessel, a channel, an amplifier; she shapes and focuses the power within him – and that is what Loki is doing now.

Loki, who is gasping in the deluge; Loki, legs locked tight around Thor’s waist, moving with him, guiding him; Loki, whose seidr Thor can feel, like an ocean around him, vast and deep and unknown, but feeding the rains, rising and falling with the storm, even as he can feel Loki himself, a part of the ice and rock of his land in a way no Aesir can be. Loki has made himself a vessel for Thor, has opened up a path between the lightning in Thor’s heart and the rich and waiting earth of Jotunheim, whose hunger and passion is driving the winds and rain and thunder just as Thor’s is.

Old magic, he thinks dimly, as he drives into Loki’s flesh and feels both Loki’s body and his seidr surge up to meet him. The marriage of the sky and the land, the most ancient and primitive of spells – and he does not know where the knowledge has come from, nor why he should exalt in it, and yet he does, his laugh booming like thunder, the thunder but an echo of his laughter, and Loki keens in response, high and triumphant. Thor fucks him hard, all further thought flying from his head as the pressure builds, in his blood, his bone, trembling in his thighs and burning in his belly, his cock throbbing and leaping and –

Thor roars his ecstasy and the world erupts in flame.

The pure white torrent of the lightning slams into the slick snow all around them, a thousand sparking points of light, and a great cloud of steam explodes outward as the ice simply evaporates under the force of the strike. Their new-made crater is surrounded by strange, twisting patterns of fractals and liquid curves, as the melt- and rain-water at the edges of the shockwave refreezes almost instantly in Jotunheim’s deep cold, the ground still shuddering from the power and the lingering rumbles of thunder as the storm dies, the wind and rain vanishing just as suddenly as they struck.

Loki is staring at him, his mouth a perfect, cherry-ripe ‘o’, stomach stained with his own seed, surrounded by an ethereal cloud of sparkling ice crystals, hanging in the suddenly still air.

“What just happened?” Thor says slowly, as the aftermath clears away, both clouds above and lassitude in his limbs, easing himself from Loki but not going far.

“I am not entirely certain,” Loki says, sounding completely honest for this first time today. “But I think it was more you than me.”

Thor rolls his eyes. Of course. But the core of his anger is spent, and he feels oddly at peace, more relaxed than even so fierce a fucking can account for.

“I meant your seidr,” Loki says, eyeing him with a new respect. “Your power is – you are untrained in using it, in wielding it as seidr, and yet it is always there, always just beneath the surface, even more so than most sorcerers or mages. It is tied to your heart, to your emotions. You are far more powerful than you realise.”

“When I was younger the sky boomed every time I lost my temper,” Thor replies. “I have long since learnt control of it. But never before has a storm appeared on strange soil without Mjolnir being in my hand.” He pauses and tugs gently on a lock of Loki’s hair. “That should say much for what you stir in me, Loki.”

“Yes, well,” Loki says, turning to him. “Stirring up the temper of a man known throughout the realms as half a berserker is not much to brag about.”

Thor reaches for and kisses Loki’s hand. “Do not do that,” he says, softening the words with another kiss. “I am being honest with you. You must trust in what I feel for you. I love you.”

Loki’s face twists.

“Is it truly so hard to trust me?”

“Yes,” Loki replies, his gaze frank and open. “You are a fool to think that trust can or should be given so easily.”

“Easily?” Thor says incredulously. “Loki, we circled each other for weeks – months! – before there was anything like honesty or trust between us. I trust you now because I know you – because I love you. If you love me, surely you must trust me too?”

Loki huffs irritably. “Love and trust are two very different things.”

“No,” Thor insists. “It is all part of the whole.”

“Sometimes,” Loki says, voice tight, “I forget we are speaking entirely different languages. I have just allowed you to put me on my back, Odinson. I am preparing to leave my people, my world, to be with you. I opened my seidr to you, gave myself over to your power, and let you loose the storm through me. If this is not trust, what is?”

“You are safe with me, and it gladdens my heart that you know it,” Thor says. “But you are not honest with me. You will trust me with your self but not your secrets. That is no way to begin a marriage.”

“Asgard is a magical place indeed,” Loki says in a sour tone, “if her husbands and wives have no secrets at all.”

“I will not bandy words with you,” Thor says, exasperation creeping in yet again. “You know you will win. Hear me, Loki. Please.”

He catches Loki’s face with his hands and brings their foreheads together, so close that Loki’s face blurs a little, so close they could be sharing one breath between them.

“I love you,” he says. “I do trust you. But I know you are keeping something from me. I will trust that you do not mean me harm, for I know that you love me. But it pains me that you will not share your burden with me, when I can swear to you that whatever it is, I will help you with it.”

Loki exhales a long, shuddering breath, eyes fluttering closed. “I believe that you mean that,” he says. “And I thank you for it.”

“But?”

“I love you,” Loki says softly, opening his eyes again. “But you must understand that I will always have some secrets.”

It is more than just disappointing; it is a wrench, a dull, low pain in his guts. Have neither words nor actions have solved anything between them?

“I understand,” Thor says, resolve hardening. “But I hope you will come to see, in time, that I am worthy of keeping them with you.”

Loki leans in and brushes a kiss over his lips and Thor accepts it as a peace-offering.

This – all this – whatever this is – is born of insecurity and fear. Thor is certain of, and he is also certain that he has the cure. He has, oddly enough, enjoyed his time in Jotunheim, but now he is done. He is counting the days now until he can return to Asgard, with Loki, and have the marriage over and done with. That will settle Loki, as will being away from Utgardar; there will be the wonders of Asgard to show to Loki, and a new life to build with him.

Loki is wrong. This is not an infatuation turning sour. Thor has had many lovers and many little loves, mostly in his youth: he is well acquainted with the bloom of desire at the beginning of a courtship and how swiftly it fades when there is nothing else to be shared. But this is not the lust of youth, nor the casual intimacy of comrades turned to bedsport – he has fallen in love with Loki, as he has no other, as he had not known he could. All new couples find friction in learning to be together, and that is all that is, exacerbated by Loki’s secrecy and the awkwardness of their circumstances.

Once they are home, things will be easier, surely.

 “Shall I give you your token, then?” Loki says in the quiet as they break apart, his casual affection only slightly forced, and Thor forces his own smile, makes the decision to let his misgivings go. They need to move on.

So he watches attentively as Loki dips his hand into the abandoned bag, thrown carelessly to the side with his clothes. He pulls out two metal shapes, identical in size and shape, but one with a leather thong looped around it, making it a necklace, and the other with none. He hands the one with the leather thong to Thor, who looks at it closely.

It is an odd thing: sleek and shining silver to look at, but rough as granite to the touch. The simple, hollow nails the Mountain Queen had taken from Loki seem entirely absent, replaced by exquisitely forged shining metal in a rough T-shape. The long shaft tapers to a point, almost like a nail, plain and smooth save for some small fletchings, while the broad head is slightly flared, with notching reminiscent of wings, or perhaps leaves.

It is hardly the favour Thor was hoping for. But at least it is something. To return to Asgard without any token, any favour, any gift at all from his lover – it would not matter, really, but it would be a little disappointing. And it will be much easier to explain to his friends and family that he is marrying for love and not for duty if he can tell them the ah, highly edited story of his courtship and demonstrate Loki’s willing before Loki himself arrives by producing some kind of tangible proof.

“Thank you,” Thor says, accepting the pendant and slipping it over his neck. “It is a fine gift.”

The pendant catches against his tiny Mjolnir, making a peculiar grinding noise as they slide over each, and Thor shudders a little as the two amulets vibrate out of sync, his mother’s work blazing like fire and Loki’s biting like frost. But after a moment they seem to settle down and be but jewellery once more.

“You do not need the hammer,” Loki says, his eyes on where they two jostle at Thor’ neck. “The Irminsul will keep you just as warm here. And even without it, I can weave charms for you. You would have been in no danger, had we lost it.”

“That is not the point.”

“I know,” Loki says, glancing away. “But I would have you know it, all the same. They are a pair,” he continues, holding out the other. “But mine is a hairpin. They are linked by our blood and breath.”

Loki tucks his own into his dark hair, not actually using it to style his tangled braids but instead pushing it deep with the dark mass, until only the winged tips can be seen, dull and uninteresting amid his jewels and chains. “Keep it with you,” he says as Thor taps the pointed edge, testing for sharpness and finding none. “Always. These are talismans of great power – this will keep you safe when I cannot be at your side to protect you.”

“Safe from what?” Thor asks.

“Everyone,” Loki says, eyes shadowed. “Even me.”

 

Chapter Text

The castle of Útgarðar is quiet and peaceful at night, something Loki is grateful for, after all the drama of the day. He reaches up and removes the reginnaglar from his hair so he can get a good look at it – his first opportunity to actually study it, to see what has been made from the magic of all the realms and the mingled blood of princes.

Loki holds the godsnail in his hand, marvelling at its innocuousness. It seems a hairpin, plain and simple, with not so much of a whisper of any magical power. He probes at it with his seidr, feeling for a signature, a resonance, but it is only when he pushes deep into the heart of it that he feels the low throb of its true nature.

Whether it is capable of what Skrýmir says it is, he cannot tell. But it had better be, for the damage done in forging it.

Beside him, Thor is sleeping, his two pendants tangled around his neck. Next to the steady pulsing of the Mjolnir’s pendants enchantment, his godsnail is just a lump of metal; even when Loki brings his hairpin into contact with it, absolutely nothing happens. This is good, for it means that when Thor returns to Asgard wearing it, it will raise no suspicions.

He had not intended to hand the second nail over to Thor. He had thought he would have time enough to have the nails forged while Thor was distracted, and then also to have some of his hair jewels refashioned into something an Asgardian would wear. Weapon and worthy gift safely in hand and hidden in his bag, they could have spent the afternoon hunting something large and ferocious, to put a smile on Thor’s face, and then Loki would have presented him with the token with as much ceremony and sentiment as he could manage.

It was a good plan, and he is still bitter at how badly it fell apart. Damn the dwarves and their suspicions, and damn Thor for his too. The look on his face when he refused to help Loki overcome the Mountain Queen – it had hurt, to see doubt and anger so clear on Thor’s features, to feel himself shamed before the dwarves. Thor had not even tried to defend him against her constant insults; his adoration has proved short-lived indeed.

That Loki is a liar, and a treacherous one at that, is irrelevant; Thor does not know that. He should have defended Loki’s honour as he would his own.

He is not happy, either, at how he lost control of their fight afterward, how his own anger and fear and – not guilt, of course not, but – but irritation, yes, at the convoluted half-truths he must argue with, to throw Thor off – he had lost himself in his own emotions, and it left him vulnerable and exposed. He had been desperate to give Thor something, and since it could not be the truth, he had offered his submission instead – and yet Thor had stilled and asked, and even in his fury, he spoke of love and – oh, he should never have fallen in love with Thor!

This is not what he wanted! If he could, he would claw out his weak and bleeding heart, would replace with one of ice, pure and cold and unable to harm him. It is all very well for Thor to prattle of love and trust, as if honesty would help in all this – he can fall in and out of love as he pleases. He is not jötnar. If only he were – if only Loki could trust that what Thor feels now will last the ages, if only he could be sure that when Thor speaks of love he means the same bone deep ache that has taken root in Loki. For all his strength and power, Thor seems such a fragile vessel for Loki’s hopes; for all his glory and the light in his eyes, the warmth of his touch, Loki cannot shake the burrowing fear that his love outweighs Thor’s and that, in the balance, it is he who will suffer for his desperate need.

There is a reason all the songs of sváss are sad ones.

There is a war in Loki between his heart and his head, between his ambitions and his desires, a cauldron of churning fear and doubt, and he is choking on the taste of it, drowning in its depths. Why is it that the closer he comes to success, the harder he has to fight himself? Why is it every declaration of love from Thor only frightens him further, has him torn between lashing out and driving Thor away, and clinging to him in a frenzy of need?

Loki shakes his head and tries to focus, to think on deeds and plans, not his turbulent emotions. It is Thor’s fault. It must be. Giving him the second godsnail for a token had seemed the only way to settle things between them, and to settle the squirming feeling in Loki’s belly that made him snap and snarl at Thor’s affection. It was probably a mistake, but now it is done, and Loki cannot very well ask for it back. Perhaps he can have a copy made in Asgard and swap them while Thor sleeps? He may not actually want them to assassinate Odin, as Skrymir would have him do, but the thought of being without a proper defence against the Allfather…he is, again, reliant on Thor, on his goodwill and affection, and after weeks of scheming to get this weapon, he has only half of it in hand! What a waste this has all been!

He scowls down at the sleeping Thor, who remains oblivious to Loki’s difficulties. He is beautiful now, as he always beautiful, but he in sleep he looks younger, gentler, and fondness stirs sluggishly in Loki despite his buzzing frustrations. To think that earlier this peacefully slumbering man had blazed with righteous anger and the electric heat of the storm – that he had roared with the voice of the tempest, every word a crack of thunder, every touch the searing bolt of the lightning. Loki thinks on how he looked them, power a sparking second skin illuminating his eyes and swelling all around on him, and even now, in the silence of the night, he exhales shakily, desire throbbing deep within him.

No. It was worth it. All the mistakes, the shame, the hurt – all worth it, just to be at the heart of Thor’s storm, to taste the rain and shudder beneath the lightning. Such power – Loki fancies himself one of the greatest sorcerers in his realm and he rather thinks all the realms, and yet he has never known such pure, raw elemental force as the storm they called between them. Could Thor harness his power in true seidr, like his father, he would be unstoppable; luckily for Loki, the thought does not seem to have occurred to him, not even after today’s glorious demonstration. The thought of being Thor’s vessel grates across his pride, but the practical benefits…who knows what spellwork they can manage between them with more experience, more control? What Loki could do with the power crackling through Thor’s blood…

And after all, he thinks, tidying one of Thor’s loose plaits with deft fingers, a faint smile creeping across his face, there is some benefit in all this. A good fucking is a far more pleasant way to harness power than sitting hunched over runes or swaying alone on a cliff top. It is not an easy thing for him to submit, even when it suits his end, but he will admit he likes being on his back for Thor far more than he ever thought he would. Somehow, it felt less a submission, and more a joining, a meeting, even in the heat of their argument. Thor did not even bite him! Perhaps this is the nature of sváss; perhaps it is because Thor is Aesir and thinks differently about these things. But in any case, it was not the moment of shame Loki always feared it would be.

I would not love you if I could, he thinks, bowing to the inevitable and curling back into Thor’s arms, but since I do, I must turn it to my advantage. There is much to be gained in your bed and at your side, and if it so happens that that is where I am happiest, then is not a double victory?

So Loki gives into to temptation and kisses Thor lightly, nuzzling his bristled cheek; even in his sleep, Thor turns towards him, returns the ghost of a caress with a quiet murmur, and Loki’s heart leaps despite himself. His feelings for Thor will always be a weakness; he knows this well. But they cannot be helped and neither can the hope that blossoms within him – for all he wants is almost within reach, and all he must do now is hold on and hold fast, and all his dreams will come true.

***

Loki spends the morning packing and organising his room, fiddling and faffing in an effort to draw out the preparations for leaving, but by mid-afternoon his last task cannot be put off any longer. He must report to Skrýmir one last time, show him what he has wrought, and assure him of his commitment to their plans. He explains this to Thor as a final, private leave taking with a mentor and caregiver; if only, he thinks, as Thor tells him gravely to take as long as needs to say his goodbyes.

Loki finds Skrýmir in his solar and begins with explaining why he only has one reginnaglar in his possession. Skrýmir is not best pleased.

“You cock-addled halfwit!” Skrýmir bellows at him, and Loki replaces the proffered reginnaglar  in his hair with a grimace. So much for a fond farewell.

“It was necessary,” he says, looking the enraged Erilar straight in the eye. “Thor was growing suspicious, and the dwarves were -”

“You have given our best weapon against the Allfather into the keeping of his son!” Skrýmir rages, swelling up before Loki’s eyes. “You will need both nails to bring Odin down if he has Gungnir with him. What will you do now if he catches you alone?”

“It will be easy enough to take the pendant from Thor should I have need of it,” Loki says, willing himself to believe it. “And it is better to bring the reginnaglar into Ásgarðr separately, just in case some ripple of their presence alerts Odin. I will be with you and my bera and half the court when I first arrive. There is no danger.”

“You are a stupid, lustful brat with no more sense than a dog in heat,” Skrýmir says in disgust. “The Odinson has made you so. There is little I can do for you now.”

Loki grits his teeth. “It is done, at any rate,” he manages. “We leave tomorrow, for Konungsgarðr, and from there it is but three days until Thor returns to Asgard.”

“Good,” Skrýmir says. “I am well tired of having the whoreson in my castle.”

“We will travel south by sea,” Loki says coolly, striving for dignity. “Will you take Snarfari over the glacier, or do you mean to go your own way?”

“I am not going to the Konungsgarðr yet,” Skrýmir says, and Loki struggles not to let the shock show on his face. He had not expected that answer.

Loki knows, as Skrýmir knows he knows, that Laufey summoned the Jarls a week hence, to bear witness to and ratify the negotiations with Asgard after Thor leaves, and to discuss the changes that will come when the Realm’s banishment is lifted. Since as far as Jötunheimr is concerned, the formal betrothal is as good as done, the Jarls have rightly interpreted this as precursor to the first diplomatic journey to Ásgarðr in a millennia, and the past week has seen a flurry of snow-petrels and messages, all dutifully reported to Loki by Angrboða, as the Staðr empty of their lord and his retinue, all converging on the palace, eager to be a part of this next chapter of Jötunheimr’s history. By the sounds of it, half of Jötunheimr is on the move, one reason that Loki favours taking Thor back via the sea and not over land.

Whatever Skrýmir is up to, he has no  intention of sharing it with Loki, no matter how skilfully he probes; all Loki can get out of him is that he will be part of the delegation to Asgard, when Laufey and Loki finally get there, but otherwise, he will be absent from all proceedings concerning the Odinson.

Fine, Loki thinks, ending their conversation on as civil a note as can be managed. He will be glad to be free of the Erilar’s company and so will Thor. Skrýmir’s obvious scheming is no doubt aimed at the Allfather; Loki will just have to deal with it in Ásgarðr.

His uneasiness lingers, despite all efforts to let it go, and he is thankful that at least the goodbye meal with Járnsaxa and Angrboða that evening is less antagonistic, though overly sentimental for Loki’s taste. From the moment he arrives Angrboða is cuddling up to Loki while radiating a misery so tangible Loki wants to catch it in his hands and ram it down his throat, while Járnsaxa, oblivious as ever, cares only that he is losing his exciting Aesir friend, and is hanging off Thor’s arm and words as if he would chain him up and keep him forever, given half a chance.

“Tell me more,” Járnsaxa demands as Thor finishes his fifth story of the evening; he seems no keener to start another tale of his own exploits than Loki is to hear one. “Oh, do, please – who knows when I will ever see an Aesir again?”

“There will be plenty of Aesir about in the future,” Loki points out for the hundredth damn time. “And as an íviðja you can travel to them or with them, as you like. You can even go to Ásgarðr yourself, once the trade routes reopen.”

Járnsaxa flaps a hand at him and Loki fixes him with a hard stare – entirely wasted, as Járnsaxa only has eyes for Thor. “Tell me about your Queen,” he says, very obviously picking a topic at random. “We hear much of the Allfather, but less of his consort. It is Frigga who bore you, yes? Even though you call yourself Odinson?”

“Queen Frigga is my mother, yes,” Thor replies, face lighting up. “I am truly blessed to have so wise and loving a mother. She has been a constant source of strength and patience – and she is much beloved by all of Ásgarðr.”

“She has a hand in ruling, yes? Even though Odin is your King?”

“My mother stands at my father’s side in all things,” Thor says. “She is his most prized advisor and a champion of those without their own Councillor. She has fought with him in war and she rules in his stead when he is absent from the throne. I cannot imagine my father ruling without her. No King should be without such a Consort.”

His eyes meet Loki’s and Loki smiles.

“It must be so strange, having two parents and two rulers,” ‘Saxa says. “Is it not difficult for you? Knowing which to obey, which to honour, which to love more?”

“I love them both the same,” Thor says, looking confused. “And I trust that I do honour  to them both.”

“But they cannot always be of one mind,” ‘Saxa presses. “Who do you listen to when their opinions clash?”

“I make up my own mind,” Thor says, slightly hesitantly. “Where it is a matter of opinion. I obey my King, as you do, and I obey my Queen. But they are also my parents, and sometimes – well,” he says, with a wry glance at Loki, “sometimes I disagree more loudly than I should. But I am learning well just how wise my parents truly are, and, I think, a little of how wise I will have to become before I can ever be a good King.”

“I suppose,” ‘Saxa says, brow wrinkling; he has likely missed Thor’s diplomatic point. “I am glad I have but one parent and one King to listen to, though. To have to worry about my geta too – ugh, it would be too much trouble.”

“You know your geta, then?” Thor asks curiously.

“Oh, yes,” ‘Saxa says. “He and my bera are old friends. My bera is geta to his children too – when I was younger, we spent many summers fishing together, my Kyn and his. I like him well enough.”

“Are they sváss?” Thor asks and ‘Saxa shakes his head.

“Nothing that deep,” he replies. “They just enjoy each other often. My bera has many friends – the Clans are close knit on the Northern Isles, less spread out than the hjörth herders. But I am closer to my bera’s sibja than to any of his friends. They are the ones who helped raise me, before I came to Útgarðar.”

“I see,” Thor sees, and he seems a little disappointed. His gaze drifts to Angrboða, obviously wondering about his geta – the Aesir put so much stock in them; who knows why.

“I do not know anything of my geta,” Angrboða says suddenly, swapping misery for thinly-veiled scorn. “Save that he was an íviðja; the House of Útgarðar breeds for power, and my bera took only the best seidr-workers to bed, to be sure of a strong child to carry on his line. That is the proper way to do it. All this nonsense of sváss and husbands – it has never done anyone any good.”

That is not quite true – Skrýmir might have bedded the powerful in his season, for better breeding, yes, but outside of that he did as best pleased him, as they all do. And while even Skrýmir is not sure exactly which íviðja gave him the seed for Angrboða, it comes to a choice between three or four, one of which is still living, and bears no resemblance at all to ‘Boda. And who knows if Skrýmir had a sváss in his youth? He is not the kind to reminisce fondly, especially not after Fárbauti’s death.

Thor ignores ‘Boda’s provocation, willing to ascribe it to his obvious unhappiness with Loki’s leaving. Loki is not inclined to be so generous, but before he can do anything about it, ‘Boda sits up and pulls away, red eyes narrowing.

“Do you wish to know the tale of Loki’s geta?” he asks, suddenly spiteful. “Has anyone told you that Loki’s bera and geta were sváss? That Fárbauti was a Consort to his King in all but name, that he was to Laufey what your Frigga is to the Allfather, what you would have our Loki be to you?”

“’Boda!” ‘Saxa says in the same instant Loki hisses at him, but he ignores them both, intent of staring Thor down.

Thor meets his gaze steadily. “I have not heard this tale,” he says. “I am sure that Loki will tell me when he is ready, if it is something I need to know.”

‘Boda laughs, and he has never sounded more like his bera. “Oh, this you should know,” he says bitterly. “It is a shameful story. What the Allfather did -”

“’Boda,” Loki says sharply. “Stop it.”

“No,” ‘Boda says, lips peeling back in an unpleasant smile. “You are his now, Silvertongue. And he is yours. You have been saying it for months. You are leaving us for him and for Ásgarðr – you are giving up your place here, your rights and duties as an íviðja of Jötunheimr, as a descendant of the Royal House. Why should I heed you any longer?”

“Please,” ‘Saxa says anxiously, stepping forward, hands spread wide. “’Boda, Loki, calm down. We are all upset -”

“I am not upset,” Loki snaps . “I simply do not see why we should waste our time on old stories that serve no-one – on old grudges that should have been set aside long ago.”

“Old grudges?” ‘Boda says, eyes filling with tears, voice burring into a northern accent. “Old stories? You heartless fucker! He were my Kyn! And now yer panting after his killer’s son, now yer throwing away all we are an’ everything you should be, to put on an Aesir skin an’ whore yerself in their kingdom! You should have been mine, Loki! Geta t’my children, as I would have been geta t’yours! But now – now yer won’t even speak of Fárbauti – you would forget it all to have the Aesir’s between yer thighs!”

Loki growls and jerks forward, hand raised to strike – but ‘Boda is already turning and fleeing, door banging behind him as he storms out, running, no doubt, back to his bera. For a moment Loki thinks of chasing of him – but what is the point? He will not change his mind, not now, and if this is how he feels, then let him rot. Loki has done nothing wrong, nothing at all.

“Loki,” Thor says, gently placing a hand on the small of Loki’s back, to comfort and not to restrain. “I am sorry. I did not mean to provoke him.”

“It was not you,” Loki says stiffly, trying to swallow his anger. “It is Skrýmir – that is his filth coming from ‘Boda’s mouth.”

“He loves you,” Thor says, and there is no jealousy there, only sadness. “I can understand that. You have been together a long time. You should not part like this.”

“This is his doing, not mine,” Loki says firmly. “I will not go after him.”

“Some time apart might be best,” ‘Saxa says, appearing beside them, concerned and upset. “There is nothing Loki can do to appease him – save for forsaking you and staying here. He will see, in time, that this marriage is for the good of Jötunheimr – and that we are not losing you completely. I will speak to him as he calms down. I am sure that when you return, after the wedding, he will have realised this, and you can repair your friendship.”

Sound advice: ‘Saxa might be a little fool, but he knows ‘Boda well and he has a good heart.

“He was not entirely wrong though,” ‘Saxa says, biting his lip as Loki glares at him. “Loki, Thor ought to know Fárbauti story. It does touch on you both, and ‘Boda is not the only one thinking about it as your wedding approaches.”

Loki could cheerfully throttle him, but he is right, if only to avoid a scene like this again.

“Fine,” he says shortly. “But I will not tell it. It is overdramatic and dull.”

“A strange combination,” Thor says, offering a touch of levity, but Loki cannot find a smile. “Just tell me the facts,” he continues, watching Loki carefully. “If you think I should know them.”

“I will tell it,” ‘Saxa says. “Though I am not half the storyteller Loki is. It is not so long a tale.”

“Just tell the heart of it,” Loki says resignedly. “My birth; his death. That is the part ‘Boda meant.”

‘Saxa nods and steeples his fingers in thought, lips moving slightly as he skips through the beginning of the tale, looking for the right thread.

“The war on Midgard lasted little more than a year, for it was not so great a prize as it had seemed, and the cost of taking it was proving far too high,” he begins, and this is where he is not so good a teller as Loki: he relies on the rote versions, learnt by heart, rather than inventing the tale anew each time. But Thor is nodding: he too knows the story of how the war between Jötunheimr and Ásgarðr began on Midgard, and he knows that Ásgarðr drove the jötnar out of the middle realm.

“Laufey-King fell back to Jötunheimr, to lick his wounds and rethink his plans. But the Allfather followed in force and began to lay siege to the icelands. Laufey-King fought back, furious at the insult, but as the war dragged on and the northern Staðr began to fall he realised that this was no retaliation but an invasion, and in his heart he began to fear that Odin Speakbreaker meant to cast him down and take the Throne of Winter for his young son, just as he had taken Alfheim and given it over to the Vanir Prince Freyr, for Laufey had no heir and was the last of his line. This must not be, and so he withdrew from the front line and took his sváss, Fárbauti Farstriker, with him.

“In the security of the Temple they lay together until Laufey quickened with child, and then Fárbauti returned to the war, for he alone of the íviðjur could call fire and flame to harry the enemy, and deflect it when the Aesir tried to burn the warriors weapons away. Laufey paced and snarled within the Temple, but knew this was how it must be, for he would surely die in driving back the Allfather, and this he could not do until his child was born.

 “The months passed and in time Laufey bore a healthy, beautiful, strong child –but no heir, for this firstborn was an íviðja, like his geta. This was a terrible blow, but Laufey did not break. Instead, he nursed the tiny child for three days and three nights, always thinking, always planning, looking for a new path to victory.

“But after three days and three nights dire news came. Fárbauti had fallen, at the hands of the Allfather himself, and with him the last of the free Staðr. The army of Asgard was at the gates of the Royal Palace.

“The rage of Laufey-King was a terrible thing. He swore that Odin meant to take everything from him: his love, his land, his life. He stood before the Casket with his child in his arms and it was in his heart to leave them both, to abandon his child to fate, to live or die with Jötunheimr’s freedom. But at the last moment his heart softened and he called Agmundr, his most faithful warrior, injured by the Allfather and recovering in the temple. Laufey gave him charge of the child and commanded him to see him safe, above the King and the Casket. Agmundr did not hesitate but took the babe and vanished from the palace without a word.

“Laufey-King, alone, broken-hearted and in despair, bound his breasts and marched for war.

“The Ice-King broke the lines of the Aesir that day, never failing, never slowing, no matter what wounds were left on his body. He moved with a single purpose: to find and kill Odin Allfather, or die in the attempt. The massed ranks of the Einherjar could not stop him and soon enough he closed with Ásgarðr’s King and-”

‘Saxa falters in his tale and his gaze drops to his hands. When he picks up the story his voice is hushed and the rhythm is broken. This is no well-practised song of the past, but a memory, an old and painful one.

“And it was – like nothing I have ever seen before or since. Laufey was half-mad with grief. It was more a mauling than a fight. He bit and clawed and fought like a mad thing…but Odin was strong and well-armoured, and in the end all Laufey managed to take was an eye and it ended with Laufey on his back before both the armies, with Odin’s spear at his throat. It seemed death was certain but…but Odin did not strike. He looked down at Laufey, at his torn bindings and bleeding flesh, and he lifted his spear to the sky and walked away.”

There is another long pause.

“The rest is known. Odin Allfather rode for the temple and took the Casket as the price for his mercy. Jötunheimr was exiled and crippled, but Laufey’s firstborn survived, and was returned to the palace once the Aesir armies left for Ásgarðr.”

“You were there?” Thor asks, sounding stunned. “But – you are not so much older than I?”

“I was a child,” ‘Saxa says quietly, and now he does sound old. Loki forgets, sometimes, that he is that much younger than ‘Saxa and ‘Boda, for they spent so long at Útgarðar together, they seemed of an age, when in fact, ‘Saxa and ‘Boda both remember the days before the war – and in ‘Saxa’s case, the war itself. ‘Boda had been hidden away in the castle, safe from the Aesir, but ‘Saxa –

“I was old enough to work the runes,” ‘Saxa says, “old enough to be of some use. The Aesir had reached the Konungsgarðr – we were desperate. My bera took me with him when we sailed south, trying to outpace Ásgarðr’s army. I am a Sækonungar, remember. So many íviðjur had died – they needed me, to hold the iceships together, to try and summon the wind. I was not much help, in truth. But I think my bera would rather I was with him, than leave me alone in the north.”

“You saw the battle,” Thor says, obviously struggling. “You fought my father’s army?”

“Ancestors, no,” ‘Saxa says with a small grin. “I was too small to fight. I was on a ship in the bay, away from the danger. I did not really know what was happening…but I did see Laufey-King charge Odin, and I saw him lose.”

“So what happened to Laufey?”

“Laufey lived. Jötunheimr lived. But all was struggle and strife in the aftermath, and so he had little time for his newborn child. The child was a boon, the last íviðja, for with the loss of the Casket there would be no more. But Laufey still had no heir, and now, more than ever, he needed one, to build a future for Jötunheimr, to show that he had chosen life and not death. And so he took to his bed every Jarl, every warrior of the hirðverr, two or more a night until he quickened again. This time there was to be no doubt and sure enough, his secondborn was a hrimthurs, an heir for the Throne of Winter. In time, he took lovers again and bore a third child, but since Fárbauti he has had no íviðja in his bed or in his heart, and he will never do so again.”

“Yes, thank you,” Loki interrupts; really, he is not fond of this story. His own birth made over into a doomed romance, with his failure to be an adequate heir in the middle of it. Wonderful. “As I said, it is an overdramatic tale.”

Thor opens his mouth to speak and then closes it again.

“I do not know why everyone makes such a fuss about it,” Loki says. “It was war. I am sorry for my bera, to lose his sváss that way, but he was hardly the only one to lose a loved one.”

“The loss of a sváss is agony,” ‘Saxa says to Thor. “You can see why we worry. Fárbauti died to defend Laufey and Loki from Odin and now Loki has found his sváss in you, Odin’s son. It is a lot to think about.”

“I do see that,” Thor says, looking troubled. “’Saxa, you – you were at that battle, and yet when we met, you told me you had always wanted an Aesir friend. Do you not hate my people for what happened in the war?”

‘Saxa smiles. “I was fascinated by them,” he says, cheerful again. “I am fascinated by you. So strange, so different – I always wanted to know more. The war ended before I was ever truly a part of it. I was angry for a time, yes, but it passed, and now I barely think of it at all. It was a long time ago.”

Thor looks at him with a new respect, which Loki does not think is entirely warranted. What,  ‘Saxa should be celebrated just because he is not the kind to dwell on past wrongs?

“I am grateful for your friendship,” Thor says, and ‘Saxa beams at him. “And I look forward to welcoming you to Asgard, whenever you want.”

“Oh, thank you!” ‘Saxa says, and he launches himself into Thor’s arms. Thor gives a startled squawk, but the embrace is over in moments and ‘Saxa is doing the same to Loki despite his protests. “I will see you both again soon,” he says, “you can count on it! But for now, I will say goodnight, and tomorrow I will start working on ‘Boda. All will be well in time, you can be sure of it.”

“Goodnight,” Thor calls as ‘Saxa skips off, shrugging off the unpleasantness of the evening like seaspray, and for a moment, Loki rather envies him. It would be nice to be so carefree.

“I am sorry tonight did not go well,” Thor says after a moment, opening his arms for Loki. “But even I can see that it is because your friends truly love you.”

“Yes, yes,” Loki says irritably, accepting Thor’s embrace rather than look at the concern on his face. “I am quite overwhelmed by all the love I have been shown recently.”

Thor chuckles, a gentle rumble vibrating through his chest. “Do not worry,” he says, rubbing soothing circles over Loki’s back. “I will take good care of you. There are so many people I want you to meet in Asgard. I know they will love you too.”

Loki could not give two pins for whether the Aesir will like him, Thor’s friends or no, so long as he has the status to overrule them, but it is sweet of Thor to try and reassure him.

“Thank you,” he says, the words muffled by where he is resting his face in Thor’s neck. “But for the love of Mirkyn, can we just go to bed now?”

 At least the disastrous evening has completed the smoothing of things between them; once they make it to his bed, Thor is as attentive as ever, lavishing kisses on Loki’s skin, trailing them from his lips and down his neck, brushing over his nipples and mouthing a trail down his chest, teasing little open-mouthed kisses over his belly and the inside of his thighs, dancing around his cock and cunt until Loki is cursing him in impatience. Thor will not be hurried though, and when he finally presses his face to Loki’s cunt, it is to lap agonisingly slowly at the very root of his cock, where it meets the plump lips, and then lower still, licking at Loki’s juices and pushing his tongue into his wet hole, ignoring Loki pleas and demands, catching and then restraining his hands when Loki tries to touch his cock himself.

“Bastard,” Loki moans, head slamming back as Thor flicks just the tip of his tongue against his slit before returning to his lapping at Loki’s clenching cunt; “fucking – selfish – Thor, Thor, fuck me, now,  NOW -”

But Thor doesn’t; he waits until Loki is quivering, shaking, delirious with how close he is but not quite able to get there, and then he swallows his cock, then he pushes a finger into Loki’s desperate cunt, and then he hollows his cheeks and swirls his tongue around the head and a thousand other tricks Loki regrets ever showing him, until Loki comes apart with a scream, clawing frantically at Thor’s hair, bucking up so wildly he nearly pushes Thor off and some of his seed spurts over Thor’s chin.

“Better?” Thor asks as Loki lies there, boneless and lazy and relaxed for the first time in days, and while there’s a familiar smugness there, there’s a hint of worry too.

“Yes,” Loki says, too blissful to lie, and he spreads his legs and welcomes Thor in, wraps them tight around his waist and whispers soft, fond things as Thor slowly rocks into him, gentle and sweet, as far removed from storms and wars and fury as could be imagined, and when he comes, he groans “my sváss,” without hesitation.

It’s enough, for now.

***

They leave the next morning, with no more ceremony or drama, and Loki does not bother to turn back for a final look at the castle as they make their way to the border. There is no room for nostalgia here. They are travelling light; Thor has only his pack and he has only a small bag with useful bits and pieces. His most treasured belongings have already been packed and sent down to Konungsgarðr already, courtesy of Thrymr, who sent a pair of younglings to Útgarðar’s borders to collect the boxes of his possessions Loki has been preparing ever since Thor agreed to the betrothal.

Since Skrýmir will not be needing her, they will be taking Snarfari with them, and when they reach the edge of the plain, there she is, looking fat and healthy the morning of their departure, ridden by yet another youngling keen to see the Asgardian before he leaves. Loki cannot be bothered with so much as his name, but Thor makes some small conversation with the adoring youth, who bites his lip and does his best to look up at Thor from beneath his lashes, despite being a good few inches taller.

Thor, inexplicably, seems concerned that the little flirt will be making his way back to Thrymr’s Hall alone and on foot, but Loki reminds him sharply that the northern Clans are used to perpetual roaming and that younglings generally are supposed to wander about on their own. He is not sharing Thor any more than he has to for this last romp of freedom.

The youngling has sense enough to see his danger and beats a hasty retreat, all smiles and longing glances, and once he has vanished over the horizon, Thor starts laughing.

“Green is certainly your colour,” he says; Loki does not know exactly what to make of this statement, but the implication is obvious enough.

“I do not suffer fools gladly,” he says with a sniff and then quite happily lets Thor cajole him back to smiles with soft kisses and gentle words. He is inexplicably quite at ease today, the shadows and sorrows that have been plaguing him kept at bay by the warmth of Thor’s company, and he is rather looking forward to a straightforward journey south, just the two of them, with nothing to think about except each other.

Having Snarfari with them changes his travel plans somewhat, but he still wants to show Thor the coastal path to Konungsgarðr, and so he has Thor climb aboard the Íssdyr’s thick neck and then freezes him in place with an ice-collar. Thor has no qualms about riding her alone – in fact, he seems thrilled – and so Loki is free to swap his feet for feathers and take to the skies in his falcon form.

Loki spreads his wings wider and lets the wind take him, rising up, up, the shadowy woodland of Útgarðar falling away beneath him as he turns his head for the plain and the distant, sparkling cliff face of the Ice Waves, the great glacier stretching to the south. They will track along it for a time, to make up some speed and let Snarfari stretch her legs, and then they will turn for the coast and skirt around Jötunheimr’s south-eastern flank, coming in to Véstaðr directly from the south.

Behind him Thor shouts, “Snarfari, fylgja!” Snarfari lifts her head, half-rearing as she snuffles at the air, and Loki cries out to her, shrill and high. She roars in response, tiny eyes squinting as she tries to spot him; she cannot follow well by sight, but she will track as best as she can and, more importantly,  let Thor guide her away from her usual paths back home, trusting in her rider to know what to follow.

It is a good run and a good flight, racing across the open plain, scattering the straggling hjörth and the honking, fearful Snow Geese; the sheer face of the Ice Waves rising to meet them in an eternal crest, the wave that never breaks; Thor a constant, steady pulse of light beneath him, a flash of gold to his raptor eyes, blazing brightly, his gaze fixed on Loki, trusting in where he will lead him –

It is a good way to leave Útgarðar, and far, far better than how they arrived here.

They camp on the Ice Waves that night, and Thor sings silly, pretty songs of Asgard for him, his tenor far rougher than Loki’s own voice, but pleasing nonetheless. Songs for children, Thor says, when Loki asks, the ones he remembers best, and Loki cannot help but love him for how easy he is, how unembarrassed.

As they move together, later, he feels the press of the godsnail against his back, cool and pointed next to the warm and blunt hammer, and for a moment, the truth of what it is and why he made it is on his lips, borne of a conviction that if he only explained, Thor would understand – but as he twists his head Thor kisses him, whispering his name, and Loki is lost in the pleasure of what he has, what his lies and treachery have brought him. Honesty is too uncertain, too dangerous a path now; he will trust in himself only, in the plans he has made.

“I love you,” he says softly as Thor holds him, and he means every word.

***

The next day, Loki soars along the cracked and fissured surface of the glacier, tracking the pale milky blue of a meltwater stream until it abruptly drops away, tumbling into the darkness of the tunnel it has carved out from the ice. He can hear Snarfari’s panting breath behind him, and behind his hooked beak he smiles to himself – and then folds his wings and drops like a stone, a sudden, rushing dive as he plunges after the glacial river into the darkness of the ice-cave.

Darkness, but then light: the ice sparkles, gleams, glows and shimmers with the drífablōmi and its own luminesce, a muted world of cerulean and cobalt, filled with the churning meltwater as it rushes towards the ocean. All ice seeks the sea, and this winding tunnel will lead them there, Loki knows, and besides, his falcon’s eyes can already sense the brighter light in front of them and he can sense an open vista somewhere ahead.

He gives a high, sharp cry, a hunter’s call, and speeds on, wings keep tight as he twists and turns through the tunnel, and he hears Thor whoop behind him as Snarfari crashes into the tunnel, pure power and no grace, but agile nonetheless. She must be barrelling along behind him, grunting and snorting as she leaps from floor to wall to ceiling, tail thudding into the ice to keep her steady – a meltwater cave is no challenge for an Íssdyr. Thor is perhaps a little more at risk in the places where the tunnel narrows, but Loki trusts him, and so he only keeps an ear cocked for any sounds of distress and does not look back.

Onward – onward – a world of azure walls and sapphire shadows, of rushing wind and raging water – and then – Loki bursts out into the open sky and banks and wheels, screaming his exhilaration as Thor and Snarfari surge through the debris blocking the cave-mouth, launching themselves into the surf with an almighty crash.

Snarfari is a strong swimmer, and the glacier has carved out a shallow shore beneath it’s broken fingertips, but even so, Loki is glad to see Thor urge her up and out of the water and on to one of the huge icebergs that has wrenched itself away from the glacier’s mouth. Loki drops down to meet them, shrugging out of his feathers and landing on two feet.

Thor is drenched and shivering, but laughing still. “An exciting shortcut indeed,” he says as Loki draws off the cold water and reshapes it into a jug so they may drink. “What next?”

Loki forms a flat basin from the excess and calls and then melts fresh water from the iceberg to allow Snarfari to drink. “We will travel by sea,” he says, “so you may see something of the islands and the coast.”

“I do not think Snarfari will fit in a kayak as Járnsaxa and I did,” Thor says. “Show me what we will do instead.”

His enthusiasm is contagious, and Loki is trading smiles with him before he quite realises it. He may not be a Sækonungar like Járnsaxa, but the sea is as familiar to him as the sky, and his power stronger here amid the ice floes and frigid waves.

The fishing Houses in the south favour longboats and sculling-ships, made from expensive imported woods, each one a Kyn heirloom, scorning the rough and ready old-style kayaks of the north. The larger and more numerous of the Hverglmirkyn, the southern islanders, had – before the war – many íviðjur amongst them, and they were famed for the ice-galleys, glittering and glorious, that bobbed in the bays and struck out into the vastness of the First Embrace, the encircling ocean, that cradles Jötunheimr’s sole continent in her loving arms.

All ice seeks the sea; it is from the sea the jötnar came, long ago, it is said, and it is to the sea that they return, to become part of the endless cycling of water and ice. It is also said that the First Embrace is the most generous, and it is true that the sea is the most bountiful domain of the Winter Realm. The drífablōmi and the herds it supports in the north are nothing next to the richness and wealth of the ocean, with its seabirds and whales, seals and walrus, kelp, crustaceans and krill, sea-snakes and sea-slugs, and, of course, its multitude of flashing, darting fish, vast shoals beyond imagining, like great clouds of scales and fins soaring through the deep blue of the ocean.

Asgard has a sea too, Loki knows. But from he has read and what Thor has told him, it is a tame and neutered thing compared to the black depths and silver spray of Jötunheimr’s Embrace. Thor might be finished with his sight-seeing in Jötunheimr, and it is past time for them to be going, surely. But Loki would have this one last voyage upon the whale-roads before he learns to love the cobbled streets of the golden city.

And he will have Thor marvel a little, if he can.

He is loath to admit it, but he does not quite have the skill to shape a true ice-ship from scratch, not one large enough to hold them and an overweight Íssdyr, nor to hold her together for the entirety of the journey. So instead Loki places both hands upon their iceberg and pours himself and his seidr into it, setting the fractals and crystals awhirl, making them dance in the shape of his bindrunes, carving the jagged hunk into something more streamlined, easier to manoeuvre.

It takes longer than he expected, and costs him more dearly than he would like, but when he comes back to himself, he is pleased with his work. It is still unmistakeably an iceberg, but it is boat-shaped, lighter and sleeker, and the rudder is sturdy and strong. He scores it carefully with the marks for permanence and responsiveness, and then has Thor guide Snarfari to the centre of the now-flat surface, where she flops down happily, a useful ballast.

She grunts as Loki hollows out something like a hull around her and raises a mast – he does not fancy rowing all the way to the Konungsgarðr! – and Thor is all too happy to stretch out a shadowcloak to act as a sail. Loki stashed these, and a few other trinkets from their travels in his pack; most of his belongings may be waiting in crates, but some things he will not trust to other hands.

“Impressed?” he asks archly as the sail stiffens in the prevailing wind, secretly thankful that he will not have to try and work the weather as well. He is tired, and would likely need to have Thor’s nascent power help him, and that – he is still not sure how he feels about that.

“Always,” Thor says, fond and teasing, eager to try his hand at steering an iceberg, and Loki lets him take over, content for now to simply sit and instruct.

***

It is late spring in Jötunheimr, shading to summer, though it might not seem so an outsider’s eyes. Frost flowers bloom amongst the sea-ice, cracking and shattering as it breaks up, and there are already many channels deep and wide enough to sail their odd ship through. Spotted seals watch them blandly from the ice-floes large enough to bear them, many with a plump, snowy pup lying alongside, blinking their limpid eyes curiously at them as they pass by. They must share their open water with beluga and narwhals, both of which dwarf their craft, and who have an unnerving habit of popping up before and behind them, rolling their eyes at them as they exhale noisily. Far off are the flashing dorsal fins of orca, a pod perhaps forty strong; Loki entertains Thor with stories of being hunted by them, slipping through the water in his sealskin, leaping and dancing for his life until the pearly teeth grazed his flipper and he leapt to the skies, laughing at their consternation.

Their pace is slow and they moor up at night, Loki stretching out filaments of ice to tether them to larger bergs, and they sleep in a heap of clothes and furs on deck, watching the blank, dull sky. Loki asks about Ásgarðr’s stars, the wonder of fire burning brightly in the night, and Thor tells him of the constellations, the clouds of cosmic dust, the stellar nurseries and nebula, what it is like to chase a shooting star across the sky and watch it land in a cascade of ice and rock and flame.

“We had lights in the sky, once,” Loki says, his mind ablaze. “The pulsating heartbeat of the Casket illuminating our day. And at night, the clouds would lift, and we could see out into the cosmos, as you do, see the branches of Yggdrasil and the fruits she bears. But I have never seen any of it.”

“The stars are out there,” Thor says confidently. “And the clouds will lift when Jotunheim is opened up to the Realms. I will show you my stars and my sky. And then we will come back here and we will see yours for the first time together.”

Loki cries, softly, when Thor has fallen asleep, his tears both cold and burning, like a comet’s tail, and the worst of it is that he knows exactly why.

***

The next day they must skirt Hverglmirstaðr, the Southern Archipelago. There are wild straits of water between some of the islands, and of course Thor insists on running through each stretch of white water, laughing as their craft lifts and crashes in the rough waves, hair flying and eyes shining as he and Loki run the gauntlet of each pass. Snarfari is less than pleased with their exuberant sailing, and complains loudly, her guttural moans startling a crowd of seabirds from their cliffside roosts. Guillemots and auks whir overhead, chattering angrily, and mers and skewers scream frantically, filling the air with beating wings and a cloud of feathers.

As they swing round the islands, they come in sight – and smell – of the penguin colonies, one of the riches of Hverglmirstaðr, for the giant birds are good for meat, eggs and guano, and so they have been encouraged to breed in huge numbers all along the beaches and rocky slopes. They are much less bothered by a ship full of strange creatures, and some of the smaller varieties come out to investigate, bobbing alongside and shouting out to them in their demanding tongue.

“I have never seen birds such as these!” Thor marvels; no, he will not have, Loki thinks, for they are creatures of winter and so live only in Jötunheimr – and in the furthest reaches of Midgard, according to his reading, but that world is a peculiar one, scattered with microcosms of all the realms, a jumbled, kaleidoscopic mess of climates and creatures. It is no wonder, given Thor’s accounts of his short and sporadic trips there, that he has not seen penguins before.

It is easy enough to lean over and create some rough steps down to the water’s edge, and as soon as he do so, one of the bolder individuals hops up and peers at them inquisitively. They are used to being treated kindly by the Hymirkyn, and this one in particular is unnaturally trusting, jumping clumsily onto the deck and shuffling around, nipping at their clothes and pecking at the packs.

“Mother would like you,” Thor says to it, attempting to pet it and getting a sharp peck for his trouble.

“This one is young,” Loki says, nudging the bird away from their food suppliers with his foot. “After a few years, she will be as tall as us. The Hymirkyn feed them up when they are small, to have a better harvest once their egg-laying days are over.”

“An excellent creature,” Thor pronounces, fascinated, but the bird is far less impressed, and since she cannot make off with their food, she slides overboard and splashes back into a crowd of companions. “Do you keep them as pets?”

“No,” Loki says, wrinkling his nose; the reek of rotten fish and droppings is unpleasantly strong even at this distance.

“A pity,” Thor says, watching the squawking mass intently, and Loki hastily steers them away before he gets it into his head to ask for some as part of the wedding settlement. Enough of the scenic route; time to put to land.

The Bifrost site sits to the east of the Konungsgarðr, nestled in the shadow of the mountains, a short and easy walk from both the Throne of Winter and the Temple of the Ancestors, and so ideal for formal delegations - and, of course, Asgard’s army, when it came for Laufey-King and the Casket. But it is not the road the jötnar use.

Some take the high mountain passes to the north and west, on foot or on the Íssdyr, as Thor and Loki did, but for most, the Konungsgarðr is approached from the south, from the sea, and Loki turns them now toward to the lively harbours of Audumbla’s Bay, a long curving crescent of rock and shingle and the home of many of the Vékyn.

They cause quite a stir, sailing an iceberg-ship into the busy shipping lanes, but Loki stands tall at the prow – such as it is – and once the fisherfolk and traders and travellers see it is an íviðja, and particularly once they are close enough to recognise his lines and know him as the Silvertongue, they are let through at speed. The story of the Silvertongue and the Odinson’s arrival in such a state will be all over the Realm by nightfall, and Loki smirks to himself.

Rather than try and moor such a thing, Loki has Thor guide it as close to the shore as can be safely managed, dissolving the bulk of the iceberg as they approach, and once he persuades Snarfari to scrabble overboard and wade to the shingle beach, it is easy enough to thin their craft to a crust and have it beach itself. Thor seems quite taken with the bustle of the harbour, and the muted but persistent interest from the passers-by, but they do not have time to linger, and so they remount Snarfari and press on.

It is impossible to miss the Konungsgarðr; the twin spires of the temple soar into the sky, striking even against the mountain peaks at their back, and even half-crumbling as it is now, the palace complex is huge, sprawling out for miles, with dozen of twisting towers and delicate arches, fluted columns that sing in the wind and scattered, oft broken pillars and pinnacles. The King’s Home stands tall, a beacon for the people, and there is a busy informal highway of folk coming and going from the harbour to the palace.

It would be awkward, and, of course, rude, to force their way through the stream of people with Snarfari, and so they lope alongside, cutting across the quieter, ceremonial spaces that lie in the shadow of the palace. The parade ground, for when the hirðverr goes to war, or is gathered fully in peacetime; the ringed amphitheatre of the Midyear Festival, when the young come to compete before their King, and, as they come within the shadow of the walls, the large exercise yard of the Íssdyr, currently occupied by most of the Pride. Here, they dismount and take their packs in hand before turning Snarfari loose; her sisters and Digri are happy to see her, the ground shaking as they ponderously leap and tussle together.

They slip in a side door and take the smaller, less used visitor corridors to their rooms, which are undisturbed; in fact, it looks like no-one has ventured into this part of the palace since they left. Excellent. They wash and change, swapping their travelling clothes for something more suitable for an audience with Laufey-King. Thor is back in his full armour, and Loki cannot resist running his hands over it, admiring the sculptured fit of the silver mail and the vibrancy of his red cloak. He has loosened his hair for the first time in weeks, and he looks, suddenly, much more the Prince of Asgard – not a stranger, but not just Loki’s companion either.

“You will have your own set of armour soon,” Thor says, helping Loki with his large formal torc. “If you want one.”

“One?” Loki says, tugging at Thor’s chest piece. “I shall have three, at least.”

“Well, now I know to give you five,” Thor promises, grinning. He tips his head to the side and then shakes it, his hair flying around his face. It has grown noticeably longer in their time together. “Will you do something with it?” he asks, running his fingers through it. “It is a habit of yours I intend to keep.”

“Of course,” Loki says, pleased, and he tidies it back, pulling the top layers back and plaiting them neatly into one braid. It’s still short compared to his, and woefully lacking in decoration, but when he is done, he finds it suits Thor well, something of a halfway between the shaggy mess he first arrived with and the complex íviðjur-style braids Loki has been attempting on him.

“How do I look?” he asks, when Loki is done, and Loki makes a play of inspecting him critically.

 “Like someone I would not be embarrassed to call my betrothed.”

“Good,” Thor says with a smile. “Then let’s go find your bera and tell him the happy news.”

***

The palace is teeming. The six Jarls have arrived ahead of them, and each has brought at least a dozen hangers-on with them, children and younglings and Kyn and hirð warriors, advisors, sváss and old friends, and the ice hums with the weight of their prescence, their rumblings and mutterings. The palace has not been this alive since before the War, and it is strange and wonderful to think that once this was just the way the capital was, a hub for travel and trade and talk. Not even the midyear celebration, with its contests and feasts, brings this many people into the palace itself.

Thor takes the packed crowd in his stride, assuming room will be made for him and, of course, it is, the press clearing ahead of the small, golden-haired figure walking confidently at the side of the slyly smiling Silvertongue. The Thrymkyn are familiar with Thor, but because of Loki’s decision to spirit him to Útgarðar, he is an exotic novelty to just about everyone else, and every pair of the eyes in the place is fixed unwaveringly on him.

Laufey had impressed on the hirðverr the importance of being restrained and careful with the Odinson when he first arrived, and there had been space enough then for them to leave him be. But with the palace full and the betrothal the favourite topic of conversation for nigh on three months, the mood of the jötnar is entirely different from Thor’s first few days here; sullen suspicion as given way to cautious optimism and boundless curiosity, and as they move through the crowd they are preceded by a ripple of nudging and whispering and much craning of necks and jostling for a better view.

And Thor too is different, for now he is smiling and jovial, slapping Bergfinnr on the back when he catches up to him, heedless of the astonishment of the others. Bergfinnr and Thrívaldi  have come down from Thrymstaðr with their bera, and the banter and easy conversation between them all suits Thor far better than his dourness that first day in Jötunheimr. He glows with that peculiar charisma Loki cannot quite understand, and slowly, surely, in ones and twos and little knots, the Kyn of the far-flung Staðr creep into Thor’s orbit and begin to fall under his spell.

Loki lets his jealousy flare, sucks on its bitter dregs, and then deliberately puts it aside. This is excellent, for as each jötunn, whether hrimthurs or íviðja, comes to see the Odinson for themselves and finds him neither a monster nor a misfit, their gaze flits to Loki with new respect. For Thor, in fairness to him, will not be parted from Loki, and speaks constantly of we and us and my Loki, and those who have never had a kind word for the Silvertongue must at least see that here he has outdone himself.

With so many eager visitors dogging their every step, it takes an interminable time to work their way to the Council Room, where Laufey is most likely to be. Here at least there is some peace, the milling crowds careful to stay beyond the triple doors.

Laufey looks up as Thor and Loki come in, and Loki sees his shoulders relax, ever so faintly.

“Odinson,” Laufey says, placing his illuminated scroll back on the basalt table. “Loki. You have returned.”

“Bera,” Loki returns with a deferential head tilt.

“It is good to see you again, Laufey-King,” Thor says cheerfully, and though no-one is crass enough to actually do it, there is a general sense of jaw-dropping from everyone within earshot. “I trust we are not interrupting?”

“Nothing of importance,” Laufey replies, cool and collected on the surface, but his eyes flick to Loki, looking for answers.

“We seek an audience with you,” Loki says, stepping in smoothly before an awkward pause has time to take root. “There is much for us to discuss.”

Laufey nods. “Then let it be now,” he says. “Our other business can wait.”

Loki scans the room: there is Thrymr, Hraesvelgr and Vafthruðnir, the northern Jarls; Nedra-Lawspeaker and Gunnlöð Goldweaver, who represents Útgarðar in Skrýmir’s absence, Agmundr, who represents the hirðverr, Býleistr and – hmm. Helblindi is nowhere to be seen, and neither is Hverglmir and Suttungr; there is only one southern Jarl here, and that is Hymir of the Eastern Shores. One or two Jarls missing is nothing unusual, for the Víssmót is not technically in session yet, but given the rumours Angrboða has been whispering to him about those two in particular, he makes a note to find out where, exactly, the three hrimthurs are and in whose company.

“We shall meet again tomorrow morning,” Laufey is saying to them, a dismissal met with no rancour and the Víssmót members begin to file out, most offering polite but brief greetings to Thor.  Býleistr moves to go as well, but Laufey checks him; looking faintly surprised, Loki’s younger sibb settles into a chair and waits quietly.

 “Good t’see yer both,” Thrymr says as he passes, grinning hugely. “’Bout time, too. I’m off t’see Agmundr – come an’ find me, when yer has a minute. We missed yer up north.”

The two other northern Jarls are more reserved, but Hraesvelgr and Vafthruðnir both make a point of saying how pleased they are to finally meet the Odinson, and after them, Hymir goes so far as to declare himself delighted by Thor’s presence in Jotunheim, beaming in a matronly way at the pair of them. “Just delighted!” he says again, and there is a real worry that he is about to sweep them into a bearhug, but thankfully remembers at the last moment where they are and settles for a pumping handshake instead.

 The two íviðjur, Nedra and Gunnlöð, linger longer, openly intrigued by Thor, and Gunnlöð in particular hints heavily that he would like to see more of Thor that evening. Unlike the youngling yesterday, he is not trying to flirt; Loki knows Gunnlöð well and learnt much of Asgard’s traditions and history from him, as a self-proclaimed expert in the ways of the other realms. Gunnlöð probably wants to know what has changed in Asgard in the thousand years since the War, but he will have to wait.

Like many íviðjur who have settled to one Staðr and so spend their days surrounded by the same hrimthurs, Nedra and Gunnlöð have chosen to shift to a taller and broader form so that they are not perpetually overshadowed  by their peers and undersized for the furniture. This means that no allowances have been made for íviðjur in the palace’s formal rooms and so everything in the Council Chamber is, once again, too high and too large for Thor and Loki. As the others leave and the doors are closed behind them, they have to remain standing by the table, like naughty children being called to punishment. Something to be addressed before the Aesir start coming in person, Loki notes.

“Laufey-King,” Thor starts, his shoulder brushing Loki’s but otherwise being respectful of Loki’s space before his family. “We have good news.”

He offers his hand to Loki, quaintly formal, and Loki slips his own into it, letting just the hint of a smirk blossom on his face as Thor looks back to Laufey. “We have -”

“I see,” Laufey interrupts harshly, and Thor falls silent, looking confused. “I will grant you an audience alone, Odinson, to talk over these matters fully. But first, I would speak with my children. I would ask you to leave us for a short time, and we will send for you when we are ready.”

Thor looks taken aback, and Loki can see why, but he understands his bera’s instincts. He would have the truth of the situation from Loki before he agrees anything with Thor, for now Thor is no guest but Asgard’s representative, and the negotiations are almost certainly in a delicate stage, given that everyone is assuming the marriage is agreed but no-one has actually been told anything. Thor is not just Loki’s sváss, not just a suitor come to tell a parent that he has found love with their child: he is the heir of the House of Odin, and Laufey must know more before he says or does anything with the news they bring.

Laufey has been considerate, in his way, by having the others leave before telling Thor he must wait to speak to him; not many others would merit such concern over their pride. But to Thor it must seem an abrupt dismissal, and Loki is not sure how he will take it. Will he be angered and act as rashly as he did before? Will he be sullen or insulted?

Loki could have prevented this by asking Thor to wait while he found his bera…but where would be the fun in that?

“Very well,” Thor says after a moment, and Loki squeezes his hand, proud of his restraint. “I shall be with Thrymr when you have need of me,” he adds, but there is still a rebellious streak in him, for he kisses Loki full on the mouth before leaving in a whirl of red and gold.

There is dead silence for a moment and then Laufey turns to Loki. “My falcon,” Laufey rumbles, voice thick with joy. “What a prize is in your talons!”

“He is like a pup ready to eat from your hand,” Býleistr says wonderingly, face split with the width of his smile.

Their elation buoys Loki. “He loves me,” he says aloud, and the gleeful assent of both bera and sibb does much to gloss over his sense of loss and the dark tug of fear. “He has agreed to the marriage.”

“Well done,” Laufey says, bending down to rub his cheek over Loki’s, a startling display of affection.

“Bera,” Loki breathes, eyes screwed tight, feeling triumph unfold inside him, its wings brushing over his ribcage and catching in his chest. Laufey’s hand is heavy on his shoulder, thumb sweeping over his Kynlines, and Laufey’s obvious confidence in him feels like a cloak of furs, thick and warm and comforting.

“It is no small thing to lose you,” Laufey murmurs, still holding Loki close, his enormous frame tucked around his tiny child. “But I have no fear for you, my Loki. Not when you have proved the power you wield. So much strength in so small a frame. Like your geta.”

There is a strange twisting joy in Loki at his bera’s words. Laufey never mentions Fárbauti – all Loki’s knowledge comes from Skrýmir’s bitter memories and the tales told by the other íviðjur, and who knows how much of what he has been told is truth and how much myth? The King’s sváss, cut down by the Spearbreaker – it is a grand tale, but not much for Loki to hold on to. And nor should he, for what is a geta to a child, except – except that he is so different to his Kyn, in shape and nature, and he has always wondered if there is more of the Farstriker in him than he knows.

For Laufey to liken him proudly to Fárbauti now, after ‘Boda and Skrymir’s endless talk of vengeance…it is another talisman to take with him when he leaves.

“Tell me how it has been with the Odinson,” Laufey says, straightening up and putting a little space between them, and Loki is happy to do so, sharing the shape and flow of what has happened between him and Thor, if not the actual truth. Laufey seems pleased with how Loki has enchanted him, and if Loki is a little remiss in describing his own slow slide into loving Asgard’s wayward prince, well, no-one can be expected to tell their bera everything of their first love affair.

He leaves out their journeys outside of Jötunheimr, their matings, their more substantial arguments, his own doubts and confusion, the mingling of their magic, and Skrýmir’s endless plotting, and yet it still takes a good hour or so, what with the interruptions from Býleistr and Laufey’s keen awareness of the gaps in Loki’s tale.

Then Laufey tells him of the negotiations with Asgard, of the tricky questions of dowry and marriage fee and morning-gift, of how he has calculated Loki’s worth and what is due to both of them. It is pleasing to see such a drawn-out contract, the weeks of offer and counter-offer in missive form strewn about the table, the arguments about Loki’s worth translates to jewels and furs and land and titles. It cannot be said he was sold cheaply, nor swiftly, and his bera’s insistence on the fine detail of his price lights another warm glow in Loki’s heart.

When all this is over, Loki waits, to see what the question lingering on his bera’s lips will be, mildly amused by Laufey’s uncharacteristic hesitance.  He expects a barrage of questions about bedding and befriending an Aesir from everyone else, but surely Laufey knows all he wants to about the Odinson and his kind?

It is not what he was expecting.

“Did Skrýmir show you the trick to wearing their skin?” Laufey asks.

“I have mastered it myself,” Loki says, suppressing his irritation; underestimated again. After all he has managed – this is what his bera is concerned with? “Asgard’s heat and light will not weaken me.”

“Show me,” Laufey says, holding himself very still. “I would see it now.”

By now, it is but the blink of an eye to shift to his Aesir form, and thanks to his jaunting about with Thor, it is as comfortable as any of his shapes, however long he holds it. But this time, when he opens his grass green eyes and looks up into the face of his King, he is suddenly conscious the otherness of his furred and bleached skin and its uncontrollable shivering in the winter cold.

His bera seems darker, half in shadow, his face unreadable in the gloom, and Loki feels, also for the first time in an age, just how small he is next to a hrimthurs of Jötunheimr, particularly the lean and looming Laufey-King. Býleistr, off to the side, is even harder to pick out with his Aesir eyes, but Loki is sure he is not imagining the pure horror on his sibb’s face and the rigidity of his stance.

Laufey nods, seemingly to himself, and reaches out for Loki – only to check himself at the last moment, fingertips hovering just over Loki’s cheek.

“Can you bear my touch like this?” he asks, voice steady, but Loki sees the tension in his knotted shoulders and the muscle leaping in his cheek. To see his own eldbarn, his firstborn, in the skin of their oldest and greatest enemy – a new wound for this battle-scarred king.

Loki leans forward and nuzzles, just a little, against Laufey’s open palm. “Always, bera,” he says, and Laufey grunts, running his hand over Loki’s smooth face,  so flat and undefined without his Kynlines.

“I do not like seeing you like this,” Laufey says, and it’s not soft, not gentle – it’s the truth, harsh and jagged as it is. “It makes you ugly to me. But the Aesir will love you better if they think of you as one of them, and it will be easier for you to wear this skin in their daylight. When we arrive there, you should change as soon as you can.”

“The Jarls will not like it,” Loki says, very aware of Býleistr, making no move to approach, overcome with disgust and doing a poor job of hiding it. “I am going as a Prince of Jotunheim. Should I not be welcomed as such?”

“You are going to be the Odinson’s bride,” Laufey corrects. “Gerðr and Skadi both took the shape of Vanir women for their marriages. You should do the same.”

“Thor has come to love me as I am,” Loki says. “He makes much of us being equals. Jötunn, Aesir man or Aesir woman, I think it matters not.”

“Perhaps,” Laufey allows. “But he has had you for months. His kyn, his people – you will be strange to them. The Aesir are often small of mind as well as body, and they have hated us for a long time.”

“As we have hated them,” Loki says. “And yet Thor has been made welcome by many of our people. He did not need to change his skin.”

“He is a guest only,” Laufey points out. “A fleeting one at best. You go to make a life amongst them.”

Loki will concede the point; in truth, he has been thinking on it, and he knows it will be better for him if he adopts his Aesir form before the heat of Asgard drives him to it, and it might stake his claim to authority more swiftly if the Aesir see him armoured like Thor and not, in their terms, half-naked in his kjalta and jewels. “Would you have me arrive in Asgard in this skin and in their dress?” he asks. “It might be better for the Jarls to see me change here, so it is not so shocking to them.”

Laufey looks thoughtful. “It is a hard thing to see,” he says slowly. “But I would present you to the Allfather as my child, as an íviðja arrayed in the best of what we have. We will have to discuss this properly once the Odinson has left.”

He takes a step back and turns to Býleistr, hanging back as if he might be forgotten. “Go to your sibb,” he says flatly and Býleistr is too caught up in his internal struggle to even think about protesting.

Loki’s youngest sibling sidles up to him as if he might bite, eyes huge, so obviously wanting to be anywhere else. “It is still me,” Loki says, a trifle impatiently, and he punctuates his sentence by tapping Býleistr on the arm.

 Býleistr flinches. “I know,” he says hurriedly, trying to ward off Laufey’s disapproval, but not quite able to meet Loki’s eye, despite being nearly a foot taller.

“Frightened of the Aesir monster under the bed?” Loki taunts him, the unpleasant roiling in his belly giving his words a sharp edge. Disappointment and something neither guilt nor shame, but flavoured with both, is putting him on edge.

Býleistr tenses and lifts his gaze. “You are my sibb,” he says quietly, eyes raking over Loki’s face. “And yet – without your lines – we have never looked much alike,” he says, with a forced chuckle, “but like this – who would ever know what we are to each other?”

Pain sparks in Loki’s chest, a sensation of loss all the more sudden for not realising there was something there to lose. “Sibb,” he says, looking up at Býleistr’s wrinkled brow. “I will know. My lines, my blood – it is not lost, not given away. Just hidden under a dusting of snow.”

He shifts his form slowly, letting the blue creep in over the white, letting the lines and whorls of his own form spread over his skin like frost forming over a window pane, the room slowly brightening as his eyes change, the awkward frown on his sibb’s face blazing to life.

Býleistr manages a jerky nod, obviously still uncomfortable. “Is it not something to at last be the beauty in the family?” Loki teases, looking for the easy-going, easily neglected younger sibling he has had all these years. He had known and yet not known what all this would mean to Býleistr, and it is a burden he does not want to carry.

“I would rather have your wit,” Býleistr says with a wan smile. “Since someone will have to keep Helblindi on his toes in your absence.”

It is an opening for the question that has been on Loki’s mind, and he refuses to feel guilty for taking the opportunity, for turning away from Býleistr, for not reaching out to him as his sibb has so often reached out for him.

“Ah,” he says, “I have been wondering. Bera, where is our sibb? We parted last on poor terms. I would not want to leave Jötunheimr without clearing the air with him.”

“Helblindi has taken the newer members of the hirðverr out to the Western Coast to train,” Laufey says; whatever he made of that little exchange between his children, he is keeping it to himself, as is his way. “He will not return until after the Odinson has left, but he will be accompanying us to Asgard.”

“We are all going?” Loki says, surprised. To take the King, his heirs and all the Jarls, including Skrýmir-Erilar, out of Jötunheimr and to the heart of Asgard? It seems an unnecessarily dangerous gamble, even though he believes in Odin’s good intentions.

“Yes,” Laufey says, slow and deep, and when he uses that tone, it is not worth trying to question him. His bera might be in an extraordinarily good mood today, but there are limits to arguing with the King.

Still, limits are meant to be tested. “He did not conduct himself well with the Odinson,” Loki says. “Should we not test their capacity for civility before Thor goes home? One day, they may be Kings, and if they cannot so much as speak politely to each other -”

“Then it will be your role to go between them,” Laufey says, cutting him off. “You are the price of peace and its future keeper. Kings need not be fond of each other to be allies.”

That may be, Loki thinks, but if they cannot exchange pleasantries without starting a fight, the best diplomacy in the world will not keep their realms from following them to war. And Helblindi’s absence now, with the hirðverr, and the most outspoken of the southern Jarls…he does not like it.

“I will need to speak with the Odinson alone,” Laufey continues, in the voice of the King and not the bera. “We must discuss the terms of the marriage, and I would see how he conducts himself without you. Go, and bring him to me now.”

Loki inclines his head. He expected as much and there is no purpose in pushing further at the moment.

As he leaves, he sees, just out of the corner of his eyes, Býleistr moving towards Laufey, head bowed, whole body carried low, a picture of distress.

Loki walks away and does not look back.

***

He finds Thor not in the training ground nor the bath, as he had expected, but perched on a courtyard bench, talking animatedly with Agmundr and Thrymr, with a steady stream of people supposedly just passing by and actually having a good ogle. Thrymr is chortling loudly, which is no surprise, but it is slightly jarring to see Agmundr smiling and relaxed with Thor. Loki guesses that Thrymr has been diligent in recounting how brave Thor was at the hunt and what a fine guest he has made and so on to everyone he meets; he must remember to give the canny Jarl his thanks for smoothing the way for them in their absence.

“Is everything well?” Thor asks as they leave the two old warriors reminiscing and make their way back to Laufey.

“Yes, of course,” Loki replies. “I hope you are not offended – it was only that my bera and sibb had missed me, and wanted to see how I was. You will understand that they had their own private concerns for me in all this.”

Thor considers this small lie thoughtfully. “Laufey-King did not seem keen to hear that we had agreed the betrothal,” he says. “I had thought him the one keenest to see it done, since it was his idea.”

“And so he is,” Loki explains, “but you see, once he is officially informed that you are to marry me – once you tell him face to face – it is the first step of the contract, of finalising all the business of law and negotiation and so on between Ásgarðr and Jötunheimr. He wanted only to have me to himself for a moment before that.”

“Ah,” Thor says, looking a little relieved. “I had not thought of it that way. Everything is suddenly so much more complicated.”

“I know,” Loki soothes, patting his arm. “Our little adventure is over for now. But all this has a purpose, remember – and it will all be worth it once we are married and it can be just the two of us once again. But first, we must dance to tradition’s tune.”

It will never be just the two of them again, for they are Princes of their Realms, and therefore will always be more than just themselves, but Thor does not want to hear that.

“I am looking forward to it,” Thor says with a sigh.

Loki stays with him all the back to the Council Room, holding the door open for him as he enters – but he does not go in. Thor looks at him questioningly and he shakes his head. “This is between you and my bera now,” he whispers. “I will see you after.”

“Now you tell me,” Thor grumbles, squaring his shoulders. Loki takes the opportunity to pinch his buttocks as he sweeps past, just for the mischievous thrill of it, and then lets the door close tightly behind him, smile vanishing.

Let Thor worry about the formal details of their marriage. He has much to do elsewhere – starting with what, exactly, Helblindi has been up to in their absence. Loki pats his hair and adjusts his torc, rolling his tense shoulders and stretching until he can be light and merry and unconcerned on demand; he will stop off at the kitchens for a jug of kumis and find something dainty to offer as gifts to those infatuated enough with him to trade information for foolish trifles.

He is back in his bera’s Court, and will need every weapon at his disposal. The season’s idyll is over. Now the real work begins.

 

Chapter Text

 “This is between you and my bera now,” Loki whispers, hovering just outside the door. “I will see you after.”

“Now you tell me,” Thor grumbles, squaring his shoulders; Loki pinches his buttocks as he walks past, the minx, but it does help Thor find his smile as he enters the Council Chamber. He is not thrilled to be speaking to Laufey-King alone, and is most certainly not pleased by being dismissed so abruptly earlier, but he will acknowledge that his own manners have not been the most polished around Laufey and his children, and so he must expect a little rough handling in return. He has been treated well in his exile-cum-adventuring here, in fairness.

The door closes behind him with a muffled boom and Thor is left alone with Laufey-King, the giant he spent his entire childhood slaying in countless war games, the foe he has dreamed of vanquishing for most of his adult life.

“Sit,” Laufey says, flicking a hand at him. “Drink. You have travelled far these last few months.”

“I have seen much,” Thor replies, reluctant to take one of the high chairs and be perched there like an infant, legs dangling above the floor. He busies himself with the flagon of kumis instead, looking about the room until he spots a low bench he can reach without having the indignity of hopping up onto it. “And learnt much.”

“And what think you of Jötunheimr?”

“It is more than I ever expected,” Thor says easily. “I was a fool blinded by my own arrogance when I first came here. But now I see a realm as great and wondrous as any other, though struggling and in need of aid.”

“Not aid,” Laufey says with some sharpness. “The return of what is ours. What was taken.”

Thor will concede that, though given the damage Jotunheim has suffered, she will need aid even once the Casket is returned. Whatever fertility and power the relic will give to the land, food and supplies and outside trade will still go a long way in helping the families struggling on the edge of survival.

“I agree,” he says smoothly. “And so I have agreed to marry Loki.”

Laufey pauses. “You have spoken to the Allfather?”

“No,” Thor says, confused. “I meant I have agreed with Loki. That we will be married.”

 “And this is the decision you will take to the Allfather?”

“Yes,” Thor says, at a loss in this conversation. Laufey said they had much to discuss – does he not want to hear what Thor thinks of Loki? What he means to do about marrying him?

Perhaps he does not understand Thor’s change of heart. Perhaps he is waiting to see what Thor will say unprompted, if Thor is willing to declare his feelings about Loki to him, to gauge if his love is real? Such behaviour would not be strange in a parent concerned about an arranged marriage – though the thought is hard to reconcile with the stony-faced warrior-king looking down at him.

He remembers Járnsaxa’s words, that last night in Útgarðar. You can see why we worry, he had said. The loss of a sváss is agony. He tries to picture Laufey cradling Loki on the day he was born; thinks of him mad with grief at Fárbauti’s death, imagines what fear for his child must be buried beneath the stoic mask, what memories of his own lost love are being stirred up by all this.

“I will look after Loki,” Thor says with what he hopes is a reassuring smile. “I love him, and I will make him happy, I swear it. I will make a home with him in Asgard, but we will come here as often as we can. I will be a good husband to him.”

Laufey acknowledges this without a flicker of emotion. “Your marriage to Loki promises peace and prosperity for Jötunheimr and Asgard,” he says. “It is good that you have come to see this.”

“I am looking forward to our marriage,” Thor replies slowly, surprised by Laufey’s flatness. Surely Loki’s happiness means something to him?

“As am I,” Laufey says, sounding anything but excited. “I intend for the ceremony to take place quickly. We have been too long without the Vetrformen and I would have Ásgarðr acknowledge Loki as soon as possible.”

“Yes, I am keen to show Loki my home,” Thor says pointedly, but Laufey seems indifferent to Thor’s not-so-subtle barb.

“The Allfather and I have been discussing the terms of the marriage,” Laufey says, indicating with a sweeping hand a high stone bench littered with scrolls. “We are close to an accord. The mundr and heimanfylgia are agreed upon, but the Allfather would have you returned to him before the morgen-gifu is finalised. Loki must be equal in status in Ásgarðr as he is Jötunheimr, yet as we do not hold land as you do, there is some question over his provision. Half your income is not enough and yet what is there to be parcelled out otherwise?”

Thor can feel his jaw dropping and makes an effort to close it. He knew that the negotiations would continue while he explored Jotunheim with Loki, but he had not expected everything to be so finalised so fast, nor for Laufey’s reaction to be so…business-like. Does he care nothing for what kind of man he is giving his child away to? Would he push on like this even if Thor were still angry and mutinous and taking Loki only for duty? Doesn’t he care that Loki has found love with Thor?

No, Thor decides, and he aches for Loki, cursed with Laufey and Skrýmir as caregivers. Odin is not an easy father, but Thor has never doubted that Odin wants the best for him, though they tend to disagree on what that is, and his mother has been a constant source of love and affection and warmth in his life. He cannot wait to take Loki to them, to have him join his friends and be surrounded by his friends, and he is certain Loki will be grateful for it after centuries of the cold harshness of Jotunheim and his family.

And if he must attend to business before he can do that? Well, at least Loki has explained some of this to him: the mundr is a bride-price, paid to Laufey from Odin, in theory a payment to compensate for the loss of Loki, and thus something of equal worth. Of course, in reality, it is quite the other way around, and all the Nine Realms know what it will be: the Casket of Ancient Winters.

The heimanfylgia is a dowry, which is a common enough custom throughout the realms: Loki’s dowry, paid by Laufey and given to Thor to hold in trust. It is Loki’s security, and an expression of Laufey’s trust; if Thor or Loki end the marriage, it will return to Loki’s hands, as it will when Thor dies, or when Loki bequeaths it to his children. What exactly Loki’s dowry is in terms of wealth, whether jewels or pelts or trading rights, Thor does not know – nor does he care. To him, Loki’s dowry is peace with Jotunheim; whatever else Loki will bring with him to Asgard is between Loki and Laufey, and if they and Odin are happy with its value, so is Thor.

The morgen-gifu is something new and strange though. This is to be paid from Thor to Loki after the wedding has taken place, and will be Loki’s and Loki’s alone. Thor had thought at first they meant a gift, a token, perhaps something like a trousseau, but Loki had swiftly corrected him. He is to be given an income, a source of wealth and power independent of Thor, since otherwise, he would be entirely dependent on Thor in Asgard. It does make sense, Thor will admit, especially for the previous marriages, as Gerda and Skadi were all but abandoned in a strange land.

But as Laufey has just pointed out, it presents something of a problem in their situation, since Loki comes to the marriage as a Prince equal in honour and status. Where is Asgard to find income for a second Prince without depriving someone of what has been their’s for a millennia? Simply giving him half of what is Thor’s seems an easy solution, but in truth would be a slight: is Loki only worth half of Thor?

Thor does not know what the solution is. He has not thought on it – while it is his gift to give, he had not actually thought he would be consulted on it, since it is part of the political negotiations. Since agreeing to the marriage, he has been thinking only of Loki and his mercurial moods, not the tedious business of land revenues and the royal purse.

“Have you considered gifting Midgard to him?” Laufey says as Thor fails to answer. “I do not know what tribute you collect, but given how zealously Ásgarðr has always laid sole claim to it, its revenues would make a fitting provision.”

“We do not receive tribute from Midgard,” Thor says, scarcely believing his ears. “We have no contact with the mortals – and we do not claim the realm, only defend it.”

“Strange,” Laufey says, eyes narrowing. “I remember well the mortals’ gifts of song and mead and sacrifice to the Aesir that favoured them so. Midgard would be an excellent gift: it is a bright and delicate little world, full of variety and tiny creatures, and one that would please my Loki well.”

Thor can only shake his head: true, he and many others have occasionally snuck out to the middle realm, out of curiosity and foolhardiness, but there has been no formal relationship since the war ended, and he cannot simply offer it up to Loki as a gift. His father’s laws about the protection of that fragile world are explicit about their duty and responsibility to leave it, and its young, untried mortals, to mature in its own time.

Clearly, his confusion is painted on his face, for Laufey regards him carefully. “Speak,” he says, face implacable but tone not unfriendly. “I would know what you make of this.”

“Little enough,” Thor replies honestly. “I do not understand all your customs.”

Our customs? Marriage is not a custom of ours, Odinson.”

“But the giving away of íviðjur is,” Thor replies, careful to avoid all accusation in his tone. “In Asgard, we did away with dowries and bride-prices long ago. Now, marriages are between lovers, with only tokens given and received. I have made my gifts to Loki, in the fashion of my people, and had one from him. But all of this negotiation has been between you and my father, as is your way. I have faith in my father’s wisdom and am pledged to his will. But I would be grateful if you would explain to me what you require of me.”

Laufey regards him with a new interest. “Fairly spoken,” he allows, cold gaze lingering on the pendants around his neck. “It has been an age since any íviðja was given in marriage, and never before to an Aesir. It is as new to us as to you. But I will not sell my child short simply because one so valuable as he has never been married before. As the one who is taking possession of him, I would know that you understand his value, and the importance of what you are being given.”

Worth and value, giving and possessing…it is like bartering for a mare, not discussing a bride, Thor thinks, but it does not rankle so much as it once did. He has heard it enough over the last few months to know it is simply the jötnar way. Though Thor still thinks him a cold and ruthless King, he can see that this nitpicking over wealth is a sign of how much Laufey values Loki, even if he shows precious little evidence of caring for him.

“Loki is…precious to me,” Thor says. “I would have all know how much I value and cherish him. I cannot speak for my father, but this I can swear: Loki is worth everything that I am. He is my equal and I will treat him as such. And in any case, once we are married, all that I have will be his too. That is our law.”

Laufey nods. “And he will be known as your equal in Ásgarðr?” he presses. “The morgen-gifu will reflect his worth?”

“You have my word,” Thor says and Laufey snorts.

“Without a fixed price, such a promise is a vague and slippery thing,” he says and Thor bristles.

“You have my word,” he says sharply, “and upon my honour, I will keep it. But if you want a price for your child, then I will swear the same, before witnesses, and upon the head of Mjolnir, that she be forfeit if I fail to gift him his worth. She is proof of my worthiness. Is she sufficient for yours?”

Laufey grunts, a low rumble that tingles through Thor’s chest. He is pleased, then, for all his expression remains fixed.

“That is all I require of you,” he says slowly. “The rest will be arranged between the Allfather and I, and will be sworn at the ceremony in Asgard. All that remains is for you to choose a date for the handsal.”

Loki has not mentioned this word. “What is the handsal?”

Laufey’s concept of ‘explaining’ is far more curt than Loki’s. “The betrothal pact.”

“A formal agreement to the marriage?” Thor guesses, dearly wishing Loki was here to help him.

“A betrothal, a marriage – it is all the same,” Laufey says. “The handsal is what matters to us. You must swear to uphold the compact in front of witnesses. Under our laws, you are then Loki’s, and Loki’s is yours, and it is done.”

“And it must take place here? After the contract is agreed?”

“It can be done in Ásgarðr, so long as it is before your own ceremony. The details of the compact can be confirmed after – you have just sworn to honour Loki as he should be honoured, and I will accept it in good faith. So long as you give your word on the star-hammer, before Loki, and before a witness for each Staðr, I will be satisfied.”

Thor’s confusion clears. This is a problem of language – betrothals, weddings, marriages – the jötnar have no words of their own for such things, and the Allspeak is muddling the waters. Laufey wants Thor’s word that he will marry Loki, and he wants it done in a way that binds him under Jotunheim’s laws before Loki swears to Asgard’s. Wealth and value and status are matters for the negotiators – this is about Thor’s intentions and Thor’s honour. He can answer for that.

“Then I choose tonight,” he says, grinning.

Laufey is silent but a muscle in his cheek leaps and throbs and Thor’s grin broadens. A reaction at last.

“You understand that this is binding?” Laufey says after a long moment. “That it is not an idle promise – that you are sworn to him and all else in the contract?”

“Yes,” Thor says as solemnly as he can with a reckless fever burning through him, getting to his feet so he can look Laufey properly in the face. “The details of the contract I leave to you and my father to agree upon before the Casket is returned to you and before Loki comes to Asgard. But I will marry Loki, Laufey-King. I will swear to that as often and to as many people as you like, aye, and on Mjolnir and on my name and House and anything else you can think of. And I think it should be done here, in Loki’s home, so that all may know that Thor, Prince of Asgard, loves Loki Silvertongue, and takes him willingly as a consort and sváss.”

Laufey stares at him for a moment. “You are a strange Aesir, Thor Odinson,” he murmurs, but there is a tiny smile quirking at the corner of his lips, and his words are thick with a rumble so low Thor cannot hear it, can only just feel it tingling in his chest. “I am glad.”

He reaches out, slow and stately, and, perhaps a little hesitantly, giving Thor plenty of time to move away. Thor stands his ground, looking up at a King so terrible he robbed the Allfather of an eye and had to be punished with the breaking of his world, and he sees, for the first time, a genuine warmth in those dark crimson eyes. “I am glad,” Laufey-King says, his hand huge and heavy on Thor’s shoulder, “that my Loki has you.”

***

Things move swiftly after that: Laufey may not have been expecting the handsal to be this very night, but he spoke truthfully of his desire to see Thor and Loki married swiftly, and it turns out all the preparations for the formal ceremony are already in place, neatly stored for a journey to Asgard. It takes but a few hours for them to be unpacked and for the witnesses to be gathered, for most of the Jarls are already here, and there are representatives available for the two not yet arrived – and Gunnlöð can stand for Útgarðar in Skrýmir’s absence, something that suits Thor down to the ground.

A public swearing, a feast and some kind of brief procession is all that there will be: it is not much of a ceremony by Asgard’s standards, where even something as small as a betrothal celebration would warrant at least a full day of feasting and drinking, but perhaps that is for the best, for Thor can well imagine the reaction in Asgard when he returns and reveals he is, technically, now betrothed; if he were to admit he had already properly celebrated it without his family or friends – well, he is glad, at any rate, that their real celebration will be in Asgard in a few days or weeks. This is more a formal leavetaking, something for the jötnar and for Loki, and not worth troubling himself over.

Thor offers to help with the buzz of activity his pronouncement has caused, but is politely and firmly shooed away; not a surprise, for after all he has no real idea what is happening around him. As he meanders through the palace at something of a loose end, he can feel the gazes of the tall warriors resting on him and hear low whispers all around, but when he lifts his head to meet their eyes he is greeted with a respectful nod and the occasional smile. The southern jötnar seem dour compared to Thrymr and his Kyn, but though their faces give little away, the palace reveals the truth: everywhere he walks, every door he touches and wall he brushes past is vibrating, the stones and ice humming with the deep, subsonic rumbling of the pleased hrimthursar.

In contrast, once he has caught up to him and given him the news, Loki is openly radiating glee and his happiness fuels Thor’s, the two of them giddy with laughter amidst the quiet jötnar court. This is the reaction Thor had been hoping for when he presented Loki with the slippers, and he basks in a warm glow of satisfaction at having finally done something exactly right. Loki is even more insistent than Laufey in outlining exactly how binding the handsal is, but with every affirmation that yes, Thor understands and yes, he still wants to do it now, before he leaves, Loki’s smile grows broader and broader until he is all but quivering with excitement.

“Are you so surprised?” Thor laughs as he pulls Loki into a messy kiss, Loki squirming and nibbling at him. “Have you so little faith in me?”

“It is not a question of faith,” Loki replies. “You should be flattered. Few have ever surprised me as much as you do.”

Thor is indeed flattered, given how much he has been surprised since meeting Loki, but moreover he is thrilled by how happy he has made Loki. There is a calm in Loki there has not been for weeks, and he suspects a good deal of it comes from knowing that even if Thor were to have second thoughts after he returns to Asgard, or be lying, or whatever other nonsense has taken root in Loki’s mind, it would be of no avail.

“You must explain the ceremony to me,” he says, unable to take his hands from Loki. “What I must do and say. My first attempt at diplomacy here was not my finest. I would do right this time.”

Loki beams at him, his eyes for once entirely free of shadows and secrets, and he is only too happy to instruct Thor in what is required of him while all around them the walls sing in affirmation of Thor’s choice.

***

There is only one moment of doubt.

Thor’s fingers hover over Mjolnir’s handle as he hesitates, suddenly unsure of whether she will answer him. If you truly have need of her, Mjolnir will come to you. And she will be here to bring you home, his father had said when he sealed her in the ice. The ice will melt tomorrow, when the long season of his exile is over and the Bifrost will take him home; but today, she is still entombed, and he almost regrets his rash promise to Laufey. If she does not return to him – if he cannot lift her – what will Laufey think? And Loki? Does the handsal count as a true need?

Is he worthy of her?

Loki is watching him expectantly, waiting to see him in his full power and glory. How strange – when he stood here last with Mjolnir in hand, his only thought was for vengeance and war against the Frost Giants, and when his father locked her away in the ice, he had been furious and angry still, with nothing but hate for the jötnar in his heart. But now he wishes to have her in his hand again not to wage war but to broker a peace: to build and not break. A worthier purpose, surely.

Thor closes his hand over her shaft and grips tight.

For a moment, nothing – and then she screams for him, a pure, resonant note that judders through his bones and fills his mind with silver sparking stars, her song filling him up from the inside and exploding out of him, a song he had not known how deeply he had missed until now. The sky cracks with thunder and lightning is dancing along his skin, flickering behind his eyes, but that, he knows now, is his heart-song: Mjolnir’s is older, darker, born of the death of stars and the deep, ancient silence of the cosmos, the yawning void that births the storm.

He is himself again and he laughs at the heart of the storm, feeling his armour surging around him, and it with a great effort that he keeps his feet on the ground and stills the storm brewing overhead. The ice that held Mjolnir has splintered and cracked, and requires but one wrenching tug to shatter to dust. He cannot resist swinging her, feeling her weight and humming power, and he slams her broad head against the ice pillar she has rested on all this time and watches in satisfaction as it is utterly obliterated.

He turns, twirling her easily in hand, and holds her out, handle up, to Loki.

“Touch her,” he says, brimming over with power and joy. “Let her know you.”

Loki stares at him, wide-eyed and hungry, and then he moves, swift and sudden and without a hint of hesitation. He grabs Mjolnir’s handle, fingers flexing around her and brushing against Thor’s as he tries to take her weight, and for a moment, Thor wonders – but no, Loki cannot move her, not one inch. Loki’s mouth twists for a moment but it swiftly smoothes away and he gives Thor a wry smile.

“She is everything they say she is,” he says, and Thor feels Mjolnir hum in response, almost as if she is curious. He remembers that feeling of depth and space when they called the storm together, the sensation of being surrounded by Loki’s seidr, and he tries now to reach for him again, concentrates on the well of energy he has always sensed within Mjolnir, wondering if those two forces can meet where his hand touches both Mjolnir and Loki.

He can feel something, some kind of bottled charge, like a storm brewing, the potential for power far off in the distance but not yet rolling around him. He can also feel a skittering of sparks from Mjolnir’s heart, the odd feeling he has sometimes when he hold her, as if she truly were alive and her attention had suddenly turned to him, as if she is trawling long fingers of electricity through his mind, seeking, probing – but then it is gone and he is simply standing there with Loki, the hammer a heavy weight in his hand and nothing more.

“Your father will know what you have done,” Loki says, as if nothing unusual had happened, withdrawing his hand, and Thor wonders if he felt anything other than uru in Mjolnir. “What you are doing. The Gatekeeper will surely tell him all that is happening here.”

“Heimdall may,” Thor says, letting Mjolnir hang at his side and feeling properly balanced for the first time since he arrived. “But I trust his judgement. And besides, this is what my father wants as well as your bera. I doubt he will come here to stop me.”

“Hmm,” Loki says, sounding less than convinced and entirely too serious for Thor’s taste.

“Come,” Thor says, reaching out for him. “We have a few hours yet before the handsal. Let us make our own entertainment out here while it is still just the two of us.”

“Getting that hammer has put you in a very good mood,” Loki says, arching an eyebrow. “Something you want to share with me?”

“Many things,” Thor says with a wink; Loki’s hand around Mjolnir’s shaft has given him all kinds of ideas and he judges from Loki’s smirk that he has already thought of most of them. “But for now? There is something I have been wanting to do with you since that hunt in Thrymstaðr.”

“Oh?” Loki says, cocking a hip, but Thor steps back and lifts Mjolnir up, spinning her faster and faster until she is a blur beside him and then leaping into the air, letting her carry him aloft and oh, he has missed the freedom of flight more than he ever thought he would. He soars on the wind, still stirred up from his reunion from Mjolnir, and he closes his eyes to better feel it rushing past him, his hair streaming back, the air cold and sharp and flecked with snow which melts in tiny bursts of rain against his lips and eyelashes.

When he opens them, it is see Loki in his gyrfalcon shape hovering alongside him. It is not possible for a bird to smirk and yet Loki seems to be doing it anyway. He gives a short cry and Thor does not need the words to know a challenge when he hears one.

“Race you to the temple pillars!” he shouts about the wind, banking hard as Mjolnir tugs him forward, and then he is flying as fast as he can, eyes narrowed against the wind, keenly aware of a white blur in the corner of his eye, and though his teeth ache with the cold, he cannot help but smile in joy.

***

Between the twin spires of the temple is a platform crowned with a vaulted arch; it cannot rightly be called a room, for the space is open to the howling winds and flurries of snow, without walls or balustrade. In the centre of the space is a thick pillar, carved with the same repeating curves and lines that cover the palace and mimic some of the patterns on Loki and his family’s skin. Its top is flat and rectangular, with flared corners to hold something deeply previous in place, and there is nothing at all around it and no other decoration here. It is a bleak and lonely space, haunted by shadows and silence.

Loki had said nothing when they landed here earlier in the day, and now, here again in the presence of Laufey-King and the Jarls, Thor does not need this place explaining to him. This is the seat of the Casket of Ancient Winters, high and hallowed, built over the throne that serves and defends it, open to the sky and looking out over the sea. Asgard’s heart and highest point is their great hall, where all the people of the realm can gather at the foot of Odin’s golden throne, a place to see and be seen, its curved and polished walls designed to reverberate with the pronouncements of Asgard’s King. But Laufey’s hall is hidden deep in the stone and ice of the palace complex; it is these spires that can be seen from the assembly space beyond, and no doubt when the Casket was here, its light could be seen for miles, no doubt a beacon of faith and power for all the people of this realm.

Thor had expected the handsal to take place in Laufey’s throne room, before the Throne of Winter, or in his Council Chamber or some such state room in the palace, but no: Laufey will have it done here, next to the empty plinth at the heart of this dead and desolate space. Thor recognises a pointed gesture when it’s being levelled at him, but he shrugs it off. He may only be getting Loki because of the Casket as far as Laufey-King is concerned; Loki’s obvious and smug triumph in getting him more than makes up for it.

The ritual words opening the ceremony are mercifully brief, and all eyes turn to him as he takes a deep breath and begins to recite the speech Loki has spent the past hour hammering into his head.

“I, Thor Odinson, Prince of Asgard, declare myself witness that you, Laufey-King, do bind me in lawful betrothal, and with the taking hold of hands you promise me the dowry and the person of your child. I do swear to fulfil and observe the whole of the compact between us, and do promise you the bride-price agreed in the hearing of these witnesses here with us, and I do further swear to pay your child the morning-gift he is due. All this I do swear, without duplicity or cunning, and I declare myself bound by my word to fulfil all this, or else be an oathbreaker and all that I have forfeit; all this I do swear on my honour and on Mjolnir.”

The dry and dusty words of contract spoken, Thor would like to add something personal, something meaningful, just for Loki, but that is not the jötnar way. Instead, he holds out Mjolnir with his right hand and places his left on her head; Loki then places his hand atop Thor’s and that is his consent and sole part in this ceremony, strange as it seems.

Laufey takes a leather rope, soft and supple but thick, and twists it around their hands, tying them together where the rest on top of Mjolnir. The jötnar are not fond of symbols and trinkets: this is a true binding, and Thor would be hard pressed to break away.

“As I bind their hands with this cord,” Laufey says as he does so; “all here bear witness, that as Loki Silvertongue is my heir, so Thor Odinson becomes my heir, that as Loki is my child, so Thor Odinson becomes my son. He is Kyn as my child is Kyn, and his children will be Kyn as my child’s children are Kyn. He is of my House and my line, and all that is Loki Silvertongue’s is now his, for they are one and cannot be parted, save by death or dishonour. This I swear, and this I call upon all here present to swear.”

“This we swear,” comes the cry from the jötnar all around them, curiously flat rather than joyful, as Loki’s fingers tighten around Thor’s beneath the creaking leather. “This we have seen. Hail Thor Laufeybarn. Hail Loki Laufeybarn. The contract is made.”

Laufeybarn? Thor mouths silently and Loki gives the tiniest of nods, amusement dancing in his eyes. Brothers after all, Thor thinks, a grin tugging at his mouth, and so what if there is no laughter, no weeping, no cheering or congratulations or any of the joy there ought to be in a wedding? They will have a proper ceremony in Asgard, a real wedding with his friends and his family at his side. This is for the jötnar and it is meaningful to them.

It is something of a surprise when Laufey moves away without another word and Loki tugs at their still bound hands so that they can follow; a handfasting is not usually so prolonged. But Thor hooks Mjolnir back into his belt and lets Loki lead him down the twisting stairs and along the labyrinth corridors to the feast hall, the low central table already laden with the most elaborate feast Thor has yet seen in Jotunheim. The other jötnar file in behind them as they take their seats, a double bench rather obviously adapted to their size with blocks of ice part covered by furs. They have the place of honour, just to the right of Laufey’s decorated throne; Býleistr sits to the left of the King, and the others arrange themselves without formality along the long bench.

Because their hands are so securely bound, they have no hope of using them as the feast begins, and so must work together, Thor using his right and Loki his left hand to manage the food between them. There is strictly speaking no need for Loki to press the cuts of meats to his lips, nor for him to feed Loki the rich cheeses and peculiar red seaweed he enjoys so much, but Loki seems to expect it and Thor finds himself enjoying the touch of intimacy between them after the dry formality of the vows.

Compared to the feast at Thrymr’s, and even his first, awkward night here, it is a very dull occasion indeed. There is no dancing, no story-telling or singing, and while Thrymr gives him a broad wink and a thumbs-up when he catches the old Jarl’s eye, it is otherwise a very restrained and dignified affair. Do the Jarls not mix much? Thor wonders briefly. Is it being in the presence of their King? Or is it because of him? Laufey rises at one point and give a curt speech about the bright future to come; Thor follows with genuine thanks for the hospitality he has been shown here, but the fine words do not lead to applause or a toast or anything like a real celebration.

Ah, well. The food is good and the gleam of satisfaction in Loki’s eyes even better. And without drinking and merry-making, the feast winds down after barely an hour, the jötnar becoming quieter and quieter as the plates are cleared. Just as the silence is becoming oppressive, Loki stands, tugging Thor up with him.

 “Take me to bed,” Loki says, his words over loud in the hush, but there is a solemnity where his teasing would usually be, and Thor guesses this too is part of the handsal and not just the end of their feast.

He is right. As they make their way from the high seat to the huge doors, each jötunn they pass stands and falls into step behind them; when they reach the doors, Loki halts with a gentle pressure on Thor’s hand and together they wait as the jötnar file out before them. They form two rows stretching down the corridor, silent and watchful, and once they are in place, Loki sets off again, head held high.

An honour guard? Thor wonders, following Loki’s lead in looking straight ahead. It reminds him of the torchlit processions at Dvergar weddings, when the couple is put to bed, supposedly for the first time, though those occasions are full of laughter and jokes. But bedding is not wedding here, as Loki keeps telling him, so why this formality?

In silence they go to their chamber, flanked by the towering hrimthurs, Laufey pacing at Loki’s side and Býleistr at Thor’s, the younger prince looking grimmer than Thor can account for. Silently, all the jötnar watch as they cross the threshold together. Loki and Thor turn together, facing out, and Loki lifts their joined hands and holds them out towards Laufey.

In utter silence Laufey loosens the binding and slides it from them. He holds the leather rope high, so those behind him can see it in the dim light, and then, wordlessly and without further ceremony, hands it to Thor. Thor takes it and waits for further instruction but that is it: Loki and Laufey exchange a long look Thor cannot hope to read, and then the jötnar are leaving, moving away in an eerie quiet.

Loki closes the doors and they are alone.

“That went well,” he says as he turns to Thor, smiling brightly, and Thor hopes he is right, for he is baffled by it all.

“They did not seem – happy,” he says. “I had hoped for more joy at our coming together.”

“Joy?” Loki says, seeming puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“Mirth,” Thor tries. “Cheering. You know, excitement, celebrating. Something like the feast after the hunt in Thrymstaðr.”

“Rowdiness?” Loki says, eyebrow quirking. “That is well and good for every day occasions, but this was something that has never happened before in Jotunheim and may well never happen again. A handsal between a Ríkikyn and the heir to Ásgarðr’s throne – such a rare and wonderous event is to be respected and treated with the dignity and solemnity it deserves. We and they can fuck and fight and whatever else tomorrow and every night there after if we choose. Tonight can only happen once.”

“I suppose,” Thor says. “But it seems a shame not to see you dance at your own wedding.”

“Then I will dance for you in Ásgarðr,” Loki says, smiling. “Once for your people, to tell the story our courting, and once for you, after we wed in your fashion.”

“An excellent suggestion,” Thor says with a wide grin. “You must explain another thing to me, though,” he says, offering Loki the heavy binding rope. “What does this mean? The words I understood well enough, but the rest of it I cannot fathom.”

“It means that we are seen to be one,” Loki replies. “It is an acknowledgement that we are Kyn – that your children are my children, and my children yours, no matter who bears them. For us, that means -”

“- that I will be their bera in name and law, and will have a claim to them,” Thor supplies, nodding thoughtfully. He understands the great honour in being called a bera, despite not carrying the child himself. A geta is not a father, after all. Quite why they have to be stared at as they walk to their bed he does not understand but then, traditions are traditions. At least they are not required to prove their physical union before witnesses!

Loki takes the rope and runs it through his fingers. “It is the words spoken and witnessed, and a public demonstration of willing that matter. A simple point of law,” he says. “But one that changes everything. Legally, we are a single entity. Otherwise, our heirs would inherit only what is yours in Ásgarðr, for under Jötunheimr’s laws I am being given to the House of the Odin, and becoming part of their line. But now, we are still of the House of Laufey and so our children will be of the Ríkikyn – just as you are now of the Ríkikyn.”

A laugh bubbles out of Thor at that. “So I am a Prince of Jotunheim,” he says, the title unbelievably strange on his tongue. “Prince Thor of Jotunheim.”

“Thor Thunderer,” Loki says, returning his smile. “Thor Laufeybarn.”

“Laufey’s son,” Thor says, shaking his head. “Oh, I cannot wait to see my friends’ faces when I tell them of this.”

Loki makes a noncommittal noise. “But, more importantly,” he says, putting the rope aside; “now, you are mine. In Jötunheimr at least, we belong to each other, and none can take you from me.”

“I would not be taken in any case,” Thor replies lightly, but he knows what Loki means, and for all its peculiarity, he is glad he did this here, now, and not as part of the grand wedding in Asgard.

It is done; the contract is made.

The thought fills him with a warm glow and he reaches for Loki, gathers him into his arms and kisses him softly. “My husband,” he says as Loki’s eyes darken and his lips part, and what does it matter if it is not yet true? It will be soon enough. “My sváss.”

He kisses him again, skimming his hands lightly over Loki’s flanks and hips, mapping out his Kynlines and adding lazy, random patterns over Loki’s skin. Loki is far more focused, tugging impatiently at the clasps and joints in Thor’s armour, but getting nowhere until he jerks his head back with a hiss.

“This is the stupidest clothing I have ever seen,” he says, jabbing a finger into Thor’s breastplate. “Get rid of it!”

“Not handfasted five minutes and you are already making unreasonable demands of me,” Thor says sadly, shaking his head, and laughingly catching Loki’s hand as it whips towards him. “Look,” he says, “here, and here, and then release here -” and he shows Loki how to take the armour off properly. It is not that complicated and he says so.

“You try being pressed up against it,” Loki grumbles, but he is easily distracted as Thor steps out of the last of his clothing and returns to caressing as much of Loki as he can reach.

“Am I to be the only one naked?” he sees, cupping Loki’s pert buttocks through the kjalta. Loki reaches down and unclasps the jewelled belt; the skirt slithers to his feet and he kicks it carelessly aside.

“Sensible clothing,” he says smugly, “and more attractive too.”

“On you, I must agree,” Thor says, putting a little space between them so he can admire Loki in nothing but his jewellery. Loki preens and turns for him, and Thor is more than happy to voice his thoughts, to tell Loki just how beautiful he is, and how much he wants to touch him.

“Wait,” Loki says when he tires of talking and reaches for him again. “Let down my hair first.”

“Your hair?” Thor says; he has not ever seen Loki without his mass of braids, and only once or twice without the jewels and chains he wears in them. Loki says nothing, sitting perfectly still with his back to Thor, shoulders a little stiff. Another tradition, Thor guesses, settling behind him, looking hard at Loki’s hair. Jewellery first seems the best way to approach it, and so he gingerly begins to pull at the pieces attached to the thick plaits, putting them in a pile beside him as he works. Then he looks to the bottom and releases the tiny clasps worked around each braid and slowly unwinds them, separating hair from metal, pausing many times to work out how it has all been woven together.

It takes a long time, and Thor wonders how long it has been since Loki last took all of this out. He remembers Loki saying it was tradition for the íviðja to keep their hair styled like this; he hadn’t thought much of it, but now he wonders if they ever go about with it loose and flowing. It seems a shame if they do not, for as he loosens the final braid Loki wordlessly hands him a comb, and as he brushes out the tangles, he realises just how long and thick Loki’s hair actually is. It is a waterfall of black silk, down to the small of his back, and as he runs the comb through one last time, he admires the sheen of it, and just how striking it is against Loki’s cobalt skin.

He sets the comb aside and presses a kiss to the back of Loki’s neck, inhaling his faint scent. “You look beautiful,” he murmurs.

“I know,” Loki says, turning to face him as he removes his torc, armrings and other bits and pieces and adds them to the hoard. He does look different with his hair loose and falling around his face – not gentler, exactly, but less defined, less polished. A diamond free from its setting, Thor thinks fondly, still brilliant but with fewer sharp edges.

“Do you always wear all this?” Thor asks, waving a hand at the pile of jewellery. “Or has it been for my benefit?”

Loki laughs. “All this?” he echoes. “For your benefit? Oh, Thor. You must learn to look more closely and see more clearly. Not everything is about you.”

There is no malice, no jeering in his tone, only amusement, and so Thor chooses to take the advice and does look more closely at the tangle of gemstones and fine chains – and yes, now he does see, for the first time, more than just pretty, shiny stones. Each and every one is scored with runes, the work tiny and delicate, decorating the facets and creeping along the inside of the chain links. Likewise, as he examines them, he finds bindrunes and symbols inscribed on the rest of Loki’s jewellery: the cuffs and bangles and rings he had thought merely decorative all bear a meaning, and not just pretty patterns of angular shapes.

“Did you think it vanity?” Loki says. “That the íviðja chose to wear trinkets where the hrimthursar have none solely to please the eyes of those who would be their lovers?”

“I thought it…fashion,” Thor replies honestly. “A mark of status, of wealth.” Like the ladies of Asgard, he thinks, but does not say, whose elaborate hairstyles and jewellery change from season to season according to whims he does not care to understand.

“That too,” Loki allows, taking one of his emeralds from Thor and tilting it so he can see the bindrune flickering in the light. “My torc is a mark of my blood and the honour of my Kyn; it has been worn by the íviðja of the Royal House since the time of Bergelmir, three generations back. We are Jötunheimr’s treasure, after all. But the rest? Spells and talismans, to boost my powers; protection against ill-will and ill-health; charms for all sorts of little things to help us with our seidr. The íviðja have always worn such things, but since the loss of the Vetrformen, we have needed them more than ever.”

“And yet you do not wear them now,” Thor says and Loki smiles softly.

“It is a privilege of a sváss to see an íviðja with his hair unbound,” Loki says, toying with the great mass of dark hair tumbling over his shoulders. “And an even greater one to see an íviðja without his jewels. A privilege and a sign of great trust. After all, I am at my most vulnerable now.”

“But still dangerous,” Thor says, reaching out and running his blunt fingers through Loki’s loose curls.

“Always dangerous,” Loki says, turning his face into Thor’s hand, rubbing his lips over Thor’s palm, less than a kiss but more than a touch. “You would do well to remember that.”

“I will remember everything of this night, forever,” Thor answers, and feels Loki’s lips curve against his skin.

Their loving is slow and languid, for this is their leavetaking; Loki will not take him to the Bifrost site tomorrow, will say no farewell, nor watch him leave the realm, for that is not the jötnar way. All their goodbyes must be said now, here, where they are so close their breath skitters over each other’s skin, where no-one can see or hear what might be exchanged.

Thor coaxes Loki to orgasm twice with tongue and fingers, his head buried between Loki’s thighs, Loki’s fingers twisting tightly in his hair, before he is dragged up to meet Loki’s lips with his own, Loki lapping at his own taste in Thor’s mouth, his hair falling forward and sliding over Thor like a silken shawl. Loki is slow in licking his way over Thor’s body, but there is a pent-up desperation in his touch, in his deliberate tasting of every inch of Thor.

When he rolls to his back, pulling Thor with him, his focus turns sharper still, his gaze burning as if he would scorch Thor into his memory, too sharp, too hard for a night such as this. It will not do, and Thor lifts him onto his lap instead, spreading his legs wide to make a better seat for him, easily balancing Loki just above his cock, the two of them sitting up, backs straight, pressed chest to chest and face to face.

“I love you,” Thor says, resting his forehead against Loki’s, feeling Loki’s breathing quickening.

“I love you,” Loki echoes, the words small and fragile, and even as they escape him he is biting his lip and sinking himself down onto Thor. His eyes flutter closed as his wet heat envelopes Thor and as he comes to rest they open again, and now that fiery focus is gone, his pupils blown wide and the crimson a ring around their dreamy blankness.

Thor wraps his arms around Loki and rocks up, very gently, and hears Loki’s breath hitch. Slowly, gently, they move together, their limbs and hair tangling about them as they sigh into each other’s mouths, flesh to flesh and heart to heart. Pleasure builds like a tide between them, ebbing and flowing, building until it must break, and as it does Loki gives a long, shuddering sigh, boneless and relaxed as Thor thrusts even deeper into him until his own release sweeps over him and drags him under.

After, they lie curled into each other, bowed bodies forming a perfect circle.

“It will only be a few days,” Thor promises, stroking Loki’s hair where it has fanned out across the furs. “I will bring you to Asgard as soon as I can.”

Loki says nothing, but he bares his throat and Thor feels him swallow him hard as he gently kisses his neck and nips at the hollow there.

“I will miss you too,” he murmurs, gathering him closer. “Husband.”

***

Thor wakes alone in the too-big bed, stretching and yawning in the gloomy light that passes for early morning. He is a little sad, but not surprised; he puts out a hand to the indention in the furs next to him, and feels a faint, lingering warmth. He imagines Loki lying there, watching him sleep, slipping out just as Thor begins to stir. A little dramatic, for a separation of but a few short days, but he does understand it, for Loki does not like to be seen vulnerable, even now, and more goodbyes could only lessen last night’s.

And perhaps it is for the best, for as Thor gathers up his pack and Mjolnir, he cannot help the smile blooming on his face, nor the lightness in his steps. He wishes he did not have to leave Loki behind – but by the Norns, it is good to be going home. It is a short flight to the Bifrost site, and he sees not a soul as he exits the palace and takes to the air. Loki’s doing or Laufey’s – hard to know, and harder to care, for all it means now is that he can be on his way without any delays. Jotunheim has been a greater adventure than he could have ever imagined, but all he can think about now is his city, his people and his world.

“Heimdall, open the bridge!” he shouts to the overcast sky, joy and relief bubbling up as the rainbow incandescence crashes over him almost before he can get the words out. He soars through the wild rush of colour, held aloft by interstellar winds, Mjolnir’s pleased song blending harmoniously with the ringing cry of the Bifrost, and then bright light explodes around him, the world tilting, and he steps out into warm bronze and a glimmer of sunlight.

 “Welcome home, my Prince,” Heimdall says, the faintest of smiles flickering across his usually impassive face.

Home. Thor grins like a schoolboy. “It is good to be back,” he says, clapping Heimdall on the shoulder. The Gatekeeper raises an eyebrow.

“You have been busy in Jotunheim,” he says, as ever, giving nothing away. “Your father is very keen to hear what you have to say.”

“What have you told him?” Thor asks.

Heimdall grins. “Nothing,” he says. “For my duty is to look for danger to this realm and all I have seen points to safety and security for us all.”

“Thank you,” Thor says, grateful for his discretion. He pauses, but then carries on, for Heimdall has seen much, if not all, and so there is no need to dissemble. “Will you keep watch over Loki? Until I see him again?”

“Of course, my Prince,” Heimdall says, amusement sparking in his unfathomably deep eyes. “So long as he will let me.”

That is enough for Thor; he nods his thanks and steps past Heimdall, out of the Observatory and to the glinting bridge beyond. There, as he expected, is his welcome party: the Warriors Three and a handful of Einherjar, here to escort him to the throne room and his parents in a manner befitting a returning Prince.

“Thor!” Volstagg shouts, waving madly, in case he has somehow managed to miss the heavily armoured party a dozen paces in front of him.

“My friends,” he says, smiling and waving them forward, and they surge towards him, eager and expansive in their greetings. It is so good to see them again, and he hugs each of them tightly, laughing at their barrage of questions.

“You look well,” Sif says, looking him up and down, gaze lingering on his braided hair. “Jotunheim was not that bad, then?”

“Jotunheim was exactly what I needed,” he says, grinning at their shocked expressions. “And I will tell you all of it. But first I must see my mother and father.”

They are all burning with the desire to ask him about Loki, the proposed marriage, what he has been doing – but they are kind enough to put it aside at his word. They have brought him one of his favourite horses, to ride with them rather than fly to the palace, and though it is slower, he enjoys making his way at an easy trot, surrounded by banter and gossip, the sunlight warm on his face and the air filled with the familiar tang of salt and the fragrances of Asgard’s flowers and fruits. They wind through the city, past lively fountains and babbling streams, the people shouting his name as he passes, and he basks in the simple pleasure of being back where he belongs.

“It is good to see you happy,” Hogun pronounces, and even his usually calm tone is riddled with curiosity

“It is good to be happy,” Thor reassures them. Were they expecting him back in the same foul mood as when he left? Even he would be hard pressed to maintain his anger over a whole season! But they have not seen what he has seen, he reminds himself. They will understand when he explains.

“It has been a long, dull season without you,” Fandral says cheerfully. “Why, I have only managed a dozen quests, two dozen nights of debauchery and three dozen daring romances with ravishing beauties.”

“All of which you found by looking into your own mirror,” Sif quips and Fandral pulls a wounded face.

“But now it is summer!” Volstagg picks up, waving a hand through the droning insects busy in the sunshine. “And we have many weeks of hunting and adventuring to catch up on.”

Thor makes a noncommittal noise. Loki will likely need some time to settle in before Thor takes him out adventuring, especially after all they have already done together. But Asgard’s summers are long, and his friends will just have to be patient.

“So tell me,” he says as they look at him expectantly. “What news is there of dread beasts and bandits that has you so fired for sport?”

Sif frowns faintly as he turns the conversation to gossip and not planning, but makes nothing of it. His answer to the marriage question hovers in the air, looming large and unspoken, but he cannot say anything of it, not even to his closest companions, until he has seen his parents, and they are all experienced enough courtiers to know and not press, though they are clearly making their own guesses based on his good humour.

He must shoo them away with promises of many drinks and many tales later as he reaches Idavollr. They reluctantly leave him, only too obviously to discuss how he seems, but he does not mind it. It is only with them back at his side that he realises how much he has missed them – but also, with a strange, sad pang, how used he has become to having Loki always at his side in their stead. Even the short, oft-travelled path from the Bifrost to the palace had a dozen sights he wanted to point out to Loki, things so ordinary that he had not thought to describe them in their many conversations about Asgard, but which now, seeing them after his time away, strike him as something Loki would be intrigued by.

He is led by the Einherjar not to the great hall Valaskjalf, the scene of his aborted coronation, bustling with petitioners, lord, ladies and serving folk even now, but to the smaller audience chamber beyond it, where his father holds his private interviews. Quite what the realm has been told while he was in Jotunheim, Thor does not know; there can have been no formal announcement of Laufey’s offer, not while uncertainty remains over Thor’s acceptance of it, for his mother had promised he would be free to refuse it. This will be a private homecoming for him and his parents, away from curious gazes and wagging tongues.

The guard begins to announce him, but this is not a public event, and he has no patience for formalities today.

“Thor!” his mother cries as he strides in, thoroughly confusing the guard who stumbles over his last few words and beats a hasty retreat, pulling the door shut behind him as Frigga rushes from beside the throne to sweep Thor up in a tight embrace.

“Mother,” Thor says, holding her tightly, doing a much better job of not crushing her than she is to him, despite how small she is in his arms these days. “It is so good to see you.”

“And you,” she returns, kissing him on the cheek. “I like these,” she adds, skimming her fingers over his slim braids. “They suit you well.”

 “And how did Jotunheim suit you?” his father asks, stepping down from the throne and coming to stand beside them. “Laufey has not sent a declaration of war, so I trust you return in a better frame of mind than when you left?”

His father has an unparalleled skill in making him feel a chastised boy again, trying to hide his scuffed knees and bloodied knuckles.

“I have learnt much,” Thor says, resisting the urge to fidget under his father’s stare. “And I see now why you sent me there, for I was full of foolish pride and ignorance. The jötnar have treated me well, and I am glad to call them friends.”

Frigga pats him on the arm. “I am very glad to hear that,” she says, beaming. “Heimdall has been keeping a watch, and he has told us that you have conducted yourself well with the jotnar, as befits a true Prince. We are so very proud of you.”

“You have done well in lasting the season,” Odin says. “And in repairing the damage you caused. We are on better terms with Jotunheim that we have been for a millennia. But what of the marriage? What of this Loki?”

“Oh, hush,” Frigga says instantly, still smiling but with real steel underneath. “He has just this moment returned. There is no need for a decision right now.”

“I did not send him on a pleasure tour,” Odin replies firmly, “nor simply a gesture of goodwill between our realms, whatever the people may think. This was for one purpose: to see if Thor could bear to marry Laufey’s child or not. We must have an answer, for them and ourselves.”

“We will not force him,” Frigga says, rounding on her husband. “He’s not back two minutes and you are playing the Allfather when you should be simply his father.”

“What need has he of a father with such a mother?” Odin mutters, and Frigga gives him one of her particular looks.  

“It is so good to have you home,” Frigga says, turning back to Thor and enfolding in an embrace again. “We both missed you terribly.”

Odin makes a noise as if he is clearing his throat, but Thor feels his mother’s smirk against his cheek, and cannot help a smile of his own. “I am truly glad to be home again,” he addresses to his father. “And I know now how lucky I am to have so wise a father and so gracious a mother.”

“You have proved you are on the right path once again, my son,” Odin says gruffly. “Once this marriage business is finished, we shall talk again about you taking up the regency.”

“Thank you, father,” Thor says; in truth, his failed coronation had all but been forgotten and he finds now it does not sting at all. He is not yet ready to be King, after all, and he would rather have the freedom of a Prince to settle into his marriage with Loki than the burden of the throne and all its responsibilities. He is still looking forward to taking his place on the high seat in the future, and feels he is better suited now than he was that day – but it is not yet his time, and he is curiously happy about it. “But neither of you need fret about my marriage. I have made my choice. I have agreed to marry Loki, because I love him and he loves me.”

Frigga and Odin look at him in astonishment. “You love him?” Frigga says in the same moment that Odin says, “Does Laufey know this?”

“Yes,” Thor says. “he is my sváss, mother, and I have given my word to him and to Laufey that he will be my husband as soon as it can be managed.”

“Oh!” Frigga says, shock flowing into excitement. “Oh, Thor, that is wonderful! You must tell me everything about him.”

“First,” Odin says, brows knitting together; “You will tell me exactly what you have done.”

***

It proves easier, in the end, to simply tell it as it happened, from that first day in Jotunheim, to explain how he came to know and love Loki, to skim over their time together while assuring his parents of the depth of his feelings. Frigga would have every last detail, but that will have to wait, for Odin’s countenance grows more and more stern as he comes to the end of the story and tells them of the handsal and his vows.

His parents exchange glances. “You swore on Mjolnir and before the Jarls?” Odin says, looking as he cannot quite believe it. “You were handfasted?”

“Yes,” Thor says, and now he has said it all aloud, he can see that, perhaps, he has been a little reckless in doing so – but he does not regret it, not at all.

“Foolish,” his father says angrily. “Foolish and unnecessary. What were you thinking?”

“You are all but married,” Frigga murmurs, “by their law.”

“I know,” Thor says, reaching for her hand. “It was for Loki. And it would have happened anyway, before the wedding here.”

“But after we had agreed on the contract!” Odin snaps. “In taking him, you are giving away the Casket. Your actions have consequences that affect more than just your own future!”

“You are certain this is what you want?” Frigga says, ignoring her husband to search Thor’s face. “You were so against this marriage. I understand you have enjoyed your time with him, but you are certain that you want to marry him, and be with him for the rest of your lives?”

“I am certain,” Thor says earnestly. “I want to marry him, mother, believe me. That he is a Prince of Jotunheim and this will bring peace is a great advantage, but it is not why I have said yes. I have said yes because I love him, and I will love him forever.”

Frigga stares at him, her gaze locked with his, and Thor offers her a smile. “You do,” she whispers, her eyes beginning to well with tears. “I am so happy for you, my son.”

Thor turns to look at Odin. “Father?” he says. “Do I have your blessing in my marriage?”

“I sent to Jotunheim so that you would see there why you must take Laufey’s son for your consort,” Odin says. “And to teach you some damned sense. I have been negotiating with Laufey to show my good faith in the match, and in the belief that you would see how important repairing our relationship with Jotunheim is, and do your duty to Asgard. That is why you should being saying yes to me now – not coming home to tell us of more rash deeds! That you have fallen under the boy’s spell is all well and good, but you need to learn to think like a King before you act like a boy.”

“I went there with war in my heart,” Thor throws back at him, “and rather than return resigned to a fate I desire, I come home having earned the friendship not only of their Prince, but their King and many of his people. The marriage you want so badly is going ahead with our once-enemies blessing, and I am glad to be a part of it. Is this not better?”

“We will see,” Odin says flatly. “The Privy Council has been party to the negotiations, but this news will come as a shock to the rest of Asgard. The question of the morgen-gifu remains, as does some issues around the inheritance rights of your future children. The marriage contract is not yet finalised and we have nothing in place for the arrival of the jotnar. You should have waited, and now your Loki will have to do your waiting for you.”

 “What do you mean?”

“He cannot come to Asgard for a month,” Odin says firmly. “At least.”

“A month?” Thor says, heart sinking. “I told him it would be only a few days. Why should we delay?”

“Only fools blunder in unprepared,” Odin snaps. “This is not some springtime romance, boy. You may fancy yourself a lover, but you are a Prince, and my only son and heir. We will do this properly, with the dignity and ceremony that befits Asgard. I will finish the negotiations in my own time, and only when I am satisfied with the treaty will I allow Laufey to bring his child here.”

“Then I will go back to Jotunheim,” Thor flares. “And tell Loki myself that the delay is not of my doing.”

“You will not,” Odin growls. “You have duties here, and I will not have you undermining the seriousness of this business by playing footsie under the negotiating table.”

“That’s enough,” Frigga says as Thor opens his mouth to tell his father what he thinks of that. “This is supposed to be a happy occasion! Thor, I understand how you feel. But we will only do this once – so let us do this right. You have been away a long time. Spend some time with your friends, go out into the city and talk to the people about your Loki, let them see how happy you are. Your father needs time to finalise the political details, for they are important, and I need time to organise a proper welcome, not just for Loki, but for his Kyn and his people. It is the first state visit from the jötnar in a millennium – we ought to make it a grand occasion, yes?”

“Yes,” Thor says reluctantly.

“And of course you shall write to Loki,” she adds, giving Odin a warning look when he grunts irritably. “A personal letter, explaining why it will take some time to bring him here. And, you will remember, there is the matter of the betrothal gifts. I see no reason why they should wait for the ceremony here, since you have already completed the handsal. You can help me choose what he will like, and we will send them to him while he waits.”

Odin harrumphs and Thor opens his mouth to argue, but Frigga is having none of it. “A month is not so long,” she says firmly. “Loki will understand. You have given him your word at the handsal; he knows, and his people know, that you will keep it. You have done what is right in Jotunheim. Now you must do what is right in Asgard. As we,” she adds, glancing at Odin, “will do what is right as parents. Marriage is not to be taken lightly, whether it is for duty or love. We want to make sure the two of you have the best possible start as consorts.”

Thor really does not see why he must wait a month, but his parents’ wisdom has led him down this most unexpected and rewarding of paths, and so he will trust in it a while longer. If Jotunheim and Loki have taught him anything, it is that he has much to learn, and it would do poor justice to their teachings to start shouting and demanding his own way the moment he returns home. See more clearly, Loki had said. Not everything is about you.

Thor sighs. For Asgard, he thinks. For Jotunheim. “A month, then,” he says. “And how long then to the betrothal ceremony and the actual wedding?”

“We do not mean to torture you overmuch,” Frigga says, squeezing his hand. “I should think the welcoming would last a week, and then we will hold the betrothal ceremony; another week and then Laufey and his retinue will return to Jotunheim and Loki will stay here. A formal betrothal should last a year at least, which will take us to midsummer next year. The jotnar have their great festival then – so we will hold the wedding just before, and you and Loki can go back to Jotunheim with Laufey and be presented as husbands to his people then – is that not what you have been thinking, dear?”

“Yes,” Odin says slowly, and Frigga gives Thor a subtle wink. “Yes, that seems the way to do it.”

 “As you say, dearest,” Frigga says. “Now, with all that out of the way, I think I should like to have some tea and to hear more about Loki. We will take up no more of your time, for I know you have much to do today.”

She offers Odin her hand and as he takes it to kiss, bends forward and whispers something in his ear. Thor looks away, and when he looks back, his mother looks angelic in her innocence and his father looks decidedly more cheerful.

He does not want to know.

“Come along, darling,” Frigga says, sweeping past him a flurry of gold skirts, and he follows her out of the audience chamber ever so slightly bemused and rather impressed. How has he never noticed how well she handles his father before? And why has he not learnt this skill?

 “Pay him no mind,” she says as they walk along the corridors to her hall, arm tucked into Thor’s and mischief dancing in her eyes. “He finds change hard. We had thought to find you still stubborn, or, at best, resigned; we thought to drag out the discussion with Laufey, to give you time to make up your mind. Your father hates surprises. They happen so rarely to him that he does not know what to do with them. Give him a little time and he will come round.”

“This will be a long month,” Thor sighs.

“For you,” Frigga says, laughter bubbling in her voice. “Oh, darling. Love is always hard for the young. The lonely nights, the endless sighing: how ever will you pass the time without him?”

“You make me sound like a lovesick youth,” Thor grumbles and Frigga raises her eyebrows in mock-surprise.

“Would I tease you so?”

“Yes,” Thor says, “yes, you would,” and his mother laughs aloud.

She insists on Thor removing his cape and some of his armour before they can settle into her hall, and Thor obliges but putting aside the bulk of it as her servants lay out the tea and a selection of fruit- and honey-cakes, sticky with syrup and dusted with sugar.

“Put your mind then to presents,” she says as the servants bow and leave them. “Your father will arrange suitable gifts for Laufey, but have you given any thought to what Loki would like?”

“These cakes,” Thor says with a smile. “But I fear giftgiving may not please him overmuch.”

“Ah,” Frigga says, “but this is part of a formal exchange, not a private giving. ‘Gifts worthy of his status’ were promised as part of the agreement. I think he, and his family, will be very keen to seen what we mean to give, for it will be a reflection of his worth, not yours.”

Thor looks at her in surprise. “You know about the jötnar and gifts?”

“Of course,” she says. “Before the war, back when we were close with Jotunheim, we often visited them, and they us, and we had to be mindful of such things. And you forget – when I was a new bride and a new Queen, I had someone close at hand to guide me, who knew everything about the jotnar, and who was happy to help me understand her people.”

“Bestla,” Thor says wonderingly.

Frigga inclines her head. “It is a great shame that you never met her or your grandfather,” she says. “I did not know her long myself, but she was always kind to me. I hope to be as welcoming a mother-in-law as she was. It is often hard for parents to see their children growing up and becoming independent.”

Thor tries to picture his grandmother. An íviðja in an Aesir skin, looking on at his parents’ wedding. Bestla and his mother sharing tea and spellwork together. Odin talking with her about Frigga as he is talking to her about Loki. He truly cannot imagine any of it, and he feels oddly sad at the fact.

“I had thought a trousseau would be appropriate, since it will not be part of Loki’s dowry,” Frigga continues, pressing a veritable mound of cakes on Thor before sipping at her own tea.

“What did you have in mind?” Thor asks, visions of delicate undergarments and lace filling his head for a heart-stopping moment.

“A set of armour,” Frigga says, ticking off on her fingers, “to complement yours; at least three sets of court clothing, something more casual for informal dining, something more impressive for formal dining, a set of gowns should he prefer them, and, of course, some slippers. A trousseau is rather old fashioned, but Asgardian attire will be strange to him, so having a few outfits to try in private before he comes might make the transition easier for him, and he then can choose whether he wants to keep his kjalta or wear the armour for the ceremony.”

“I have given him slippers,” Thor says, deciding not to mention that Loki is already comfortable in Asgardian clothes. “And received a token in return.”

“How lovely,” Frigga says warmly. “Very traditional. I trust you had a kiss, too?”

“Aye,” Thor says with a cheeky grin. “I said we would exchange rings later.”

“So what were the slippers like?” Frigga prompts.

“Silver and gold brocade,” Thor says, “with the softest fur for lining.”

“Beautiful,” Frigga says, gaze sharp. “And where did you find those in Jotunheim?”

Thor chokes a little on his cake and falls silent.

“I thought so,” Frigga says with a wicked grin. “That tale you told us was very pretty, but as full of holes as a child’s embroidery. What have you two been up, hmm?”

“Nothing,” Thor says automatically and winces at how defensive he sounds. “Mother…”

“You needn’t tell me everything,” Frigga says, lips pursed. “So long as you know I know when you are hiding things.”

“Nothing that matters,” Thor assures her hastily. “Only private things between us.”

“I do not mean that,” Frigga says. “Your mother does not want to know some details!”

“It has not been a smooth courtship,” Thor says in lieu of responding to that comment. “We struggled with each other for a long time. Or, I struggled with him, I suppose. He was much more inclined to me from the start.”

“I see,” Frigga says, a tiny frown flickering across her face. “But he says he loves you now?”

“Yes,” Thor says confidently. “He cannot wait to come here and be married.”

“And he gave you this?” Frigga says, reaching out to tap his pendant where it rests atop his armour, next to the small Mjolnir. He had forgotten he was wearing them, as he has had them on for so long; he loops them both over his head and offers them to her.

“Loki had it made,” he says. “It is his work at the heart of it. He said it would protect me.”

“From what?” Frigga says, laying aside the Mjolnir to inspect the strange nail pendant more closely.

“The weather in Jotunheim, I think,” Thor says. “Or just general protection. I do not know why he thinks I would need it, but it was a kind gesture.”

“Yes,” Frigga says absently, staring at the pendant. “There is something here, but it seems – it is old magic and very strange.”

“Something of his own design,” Thor says. “He said it would protect me even from him.”

Frigga’s mouth twists for a moment. “Perhaps that is what I feel in it, then,” she murmurs. “Jotnar seidr is so different from ours…”

“It is but a token,” Thor says, reaching for it, a little unsettled by his mother’s intense interest in what he had thought to be a simple pendant. “Of no great value in itself.”

“Oh, I would not say that,” Frigga says, handing it over, her thoughts still far away. “It represents his love for you, yes? That makes it precious to you – and to me.”

Thor looks at the pendant, but it remains simple and rather dull in his hand. The forging had been so fraught, and the dwarves so reluctant that he suspects there is something more to it than what Loki has said.

“There is no danger in it,” he says, with just the faintest hint of a question as he puts the pendant back around his neck.

“No,” Frigga says. “Not to you. Whatever is in it is buried deep. I think it must be a magic of Jotunheim, and will be more powerful there, or else will only come into effect when some condition is met.”

“When I am in danger?”

“Perhaps,” she says. “It does feel protective. It is so long since I felt anything of jotnar make. It should protect you from the cold and freezing touch of the jotnar, at any rate, as my pendant did.”

Thor relaxes. Loki would never harm him; the frostbite touch is probably all he was referring to. “I had hoped for a jewel or scarf or something,” he admits, “but this is truer to who Loki is.”

Frigga looks thoughtful for a moment, but presses no further. “Learning to compromise with each other is a good start to a marriage,” she says reassuringly. “As is learning what your partner cherishes and what they need. The ividjur always prided themselves on their treasures: is this still true?”

“Yes,” Thor says with a chuckle. “Loki likes his clothes and jewellery very much.”

“So he would welcome a trousseau, then. What colours does he like best? Red, to match you? Or blue, to remind him of home?”

Thor thinks carefully for a moment.

“Green,” he says, thinking of Loki’s moss-green eyes in his Aesir form, the rich colour of the forest leaves where they first came together. “And gold,” he adds, remembering the pile of jewellery and Loki’s jewel-encrusted torcs – and how he loves to touch Thor’s hair.

“Green and gold for the formal armour it is, then.” Frigga looks at him fondly. “You should see your face when you think of him,” she says. “You light up like a star.”

“Mother, really,” Thor says, embarrassed.

“Hush,” Frigga says, swatting at him. “Let your mother have her moments. Now, I want you to tell me your story over again – and fewer holes, this time, please. Let an old woman relieve the joy of young love.”

“You are hardly old,” Thor scoffs, but he does feel younger than he has for years, sitting back in his mother’s comfortable seats and talking animatedly as she sips tea and gives him her undivided attention. The more he speaks of Loki, the more at ease his mother becomes, and her faith in his faith soothes an uneasiness Thor had not known was there.

“It will be a long month, waiting to meet someone so special,” she says as he finally runs out of steam. “But it will be worth it in the end. I’ll make a start on the trousseau – no, please, let me do it,” she says when Thor half-heatedly protests. “I would have him know I am looking forward to meeting him, and besides, you know nothing of fashion or style.”

Thor groans and put his hand to his side as if wounded.

“It is true,” Frigga sniffs; “I gave you that lovely leather coverlet and I have never seen you in it.”

“I have my cape,” Thor protests.

“There is more to life than capes,” Frigga admonishes him. “And armour. I am very hopeful your husband will be more successful at dressing you than I have managed to be.”

Thor snorts, but cannot help a pleased smile at your husband.

“Now go on,” she says. “I am quite out of tea and your friends will be champing at the bit to hear from you. The city is alive with rumour, so your father and I will arrange the official announcement of the betrothal tomorrow. Do try and look nice for it, hmm?”

“Armour and cape it is,” Thor says promptly and his mother sighs dramatically.

“Shoo,” she says, flapping her hands at him. “Before I force you to help me embroider.”

Thor rises and turns to go, pausing at the doorway. “Thank you,” he says, quite serious. “For all of this.”

“I am sorry we sent you on such bad terms,” Frigga replies, just as seriously. “It was not easy for us. But it was for the best, and I hope you can see that now.”

“I can,” Thor says. “And I hope never to disappoint you like that again.”

Frigga tilts her head to the side and regards him carefully. “We only want you to be the best we know you can be,” she says. “For your sake, not ours. One day you will be King of Asgard and hold more power in your hands than any other. That is a great and terrible privilege. You must prove yourself worthy of it, as you are worthy of Mjolnir. Not for us, but for all the people who will look to you for protection and guidance. A crown is a heavy burden.”

“I understand,” Thor says, and he does. He thinks of Laufey, swallowing his pride and pain to welcome him into his realm and gift him his child; he thinks of Thrymr, holding his dwindling people together, and he thinks of Skrýmir, holding onto personal grudges to the detriment of the future. He has always found it easy to be a leader, to win support and friends and admirers in all he does. But now he has seen hardship and he has seen loss, and he sees what sacrifice might be asked of a King, and what price a throne asks.

He is lucky indeed that his heart and his duty have met and mingled in Loki. But once he is King, he will be faced with many such choices, and luck is a fickle beast at best.

“You will be a better King for having someone to share that burden with,” his mother says, as ever reading more in his face than he expects. “So do not fret over it now. You are home, my son. Enjoy yourself.”

“Thank you,” Thor says again, feeling he ought to say much more, but not quite knowing how or why. His mother has been as constant as the sun in his life, warm and illuminating, and like the sun, he has always taken her steady presence for granted. Never again will he be so complacent.

But for now, the greatest compliment he can pay her is, for once, to do just as she says, and so he bids her farewell and goes to find his friends. He would very much like to go to a tavern, for he and Loki found few in their wanderings and Jotunheim has none at all, but given the announcement tomorrow, he will be mindful of gossip and keep to his quarters tonight.

He spies a servant as he winds through the palace and calls for ale and mead and a great feast to be brought to his dining chamber to share with his friends. If he cannot go to the revel, the revel will have to come to him.

***

An hour in to the best food and drink he has had for weeks, and he has still not found the revelry he was looking. This is not quite the homecoming he had imagined all those cold nights in Jotunheim.

“You’re really going to marry him?” Sif says, and her shock is mirrored on the faces of the Warriors Three.

“Yes,” Thor says for the third time, patience beginning to slip. “As soon as I can.”

“I cannot believe it,” Fandral says, looking horrified. “You really can’t get out of it?”

“I want to marry him,” Thor says, a shade too loudly.

Really?” Fandral says and Thor slams his goblet down on the table, making the piles of food jump and Volstagg tsk in annoyance as loose grapes fountain from his plate to the floor.

“I know this is unexpected,” Thor growls, “but I am going to marry him, not because I have to and not because I think I should, but because I love him. I would marry him if he were a spit-turner in Laufey’s kitchens, or the poorest peasant farmer in the realm. He will be here in a month and then we will be formally betrothed, so you had best get used to the idea.”

“Peace, Thor,” Sif says, holding up her hands with a wry smile. “We are not your enemies.”

“No, you are my friends,” Thor says with a touch of hurt. “Are you not pleased that I bring such happy news? That I went angry and bitter and came back in joy?”

“It’s a lot to take all at once,” Sif says bluntly. “We did not know what it was like for you over there. For the first week at least we expected you back with a dozen Frost Giant heads in hand!”

“I was wrong,” Thor says. “Wrong about them, wrong about Loki and wrong about myself. What did you think I was doing all this time? Stewing in my own anger for an entire season?”

“Getting into fights,” Sif says in a deadpan tone. “Annoying your prospective bride. Being generally disagreeable so they would send you back with a note saying ‘the wedding’s off’.”

“Looking and learning,” Hogun says as Thor scowls. “But not falling in love.”

“You took us to Jotunheim to start a war,” Sif points out, exasperation creeping in. “For years it has been ‘when I am King I will lead the army to Jotunheim’, ‘when I am King those bastards will learn to fear my name, ‘when I am King -’”

“Enough,” Thor says with a wince. “I was a fool. I have said it more than once today.”

“It’s just so strange!” Fandral says plaintively. “You – and a Frost Giant!”

“Me and a fellow Prince,” Thor corrects. “Me and Loki, who is witty and daring and intelligent and beautiful -”

“And a sorcerer,” Hogun says. “And not exactly the buxom maidens you have loved thus far.”

“I have not loved before,” Thor says firmly. “I have admired and courted and bedded, aye, and enjoyed many ladies who I trust enjoyed me as well. But not like this.”

Fandral gives him a despairing look. “You sound married already,” he complains. “Are you sure this Loki hasn’t enchanted you?”

“Not with magic,” Thor says irritably. “Why such suspicion? You have fallen in love with every kind of beloved in all the realms! You were the one who wanted to woo an íviðja yourself!”

“Well,” Fandral says awkwardly, glancing at Sif, who resolutely ignores him, “it’s just – look, we just always expected you to end up with someone – more like you. A warrior and a friend. Not a stranger.”

“Loki will bring balance to my rule,” Thor explains, “for his strengths complement, rather than match, my own. He is no stranger to me, and in time, will be no stranger to you either.”

Fandral shrugs. “A prince’s answer,” he says, smiling to take the sting out of the words. “I merely worry, my friend, that you will come to regret this choice later.”

“I thank you for your concern,” Thor says stiffly. “But it is misplaced.”

His friends look slightly uneasy and Thor makes no effort to dispel the tension. He is not at fault here.

“Fandral has always quailed at the thought of marriage,” Sif says as lightly as she can. “He runs screaming from those who speak as lovingly of it as you do.”

Fandral spreads his hands wide, looking relieved at the out. “It is my nature,” he says. “I am but a honeybee, drawn to each fresh new blossom I see -”

“If you make the stinger joke again, I will put your sword through your thigh,” Sif says and Fandral quickly shuts up.

“You are but a pup who knows no better,” Volstagg says, having finally finished his enormous chicken leg so he can join the conversation. “Marriage is a wonderful thing. Having someone to come home to, who will welcome you back with open arms and a refreshing drink and a twelve course roast -”

“You are very lucky to have found Hildegard,” Hogun observes. “Truly, a fortuitous match.”

“I tell her everyday how lucky I am to have her,” Volstagg says enthusiastically. “Pay no heed to these whippersnappers. We married men have loftier concerns than they will ever know.”

Sif and Fandral roll their eyes but Volstagg doesn’t seem to notice. “I made a new home with Hildegard after we were married,” he says thoughtfully, looking about the room. “But I suppose you will remain in Bilskirnir. There are no other quarters so fine, saving your parents’ rooms, of course. Will Loki have rooms of his own when he comes or will you both move into one of the larger guest chambers straight away?”

“Won’t he just move into Thor’s room?” Fandral asks. “Seems easier.”

“A couple need far more space than a man alone,” Volstagg informs him with boundless marital superiority. “Loki will want to decorate and such, anyway. Happens to all new wives – uh, husbands. Consorts. Nesting, it is. Besides, you both need somewhere to hole up when you can’t stand the sight of each other. A room to romp in and a room to retreat to, that’s the secret of a good marriage.”

“I thought ‘happy wife, happy life’ was the secret to a good marriage?” Sif says, looking incredibly unimpressed.

“Or ‘all your ups and downs should be kept between the sheets’,” Fandral adds.

“Surely it was ‘two words: Yes, dear’.” Hogun says, straight-faced.

“There are many secrets,” Volstagg says indignantly. “You should be grateful I am willing to share them so freely. Who else can advise our Prince in matters of matrimony? Or child-rearing, when the time comes?”

There is a sudden silence at this prospect.

“I do not know how we will manage our rooms yet,” Thor says after a long pause, tearing himself away from the thought of little ones clambering on his lap, Loki fond and attentive at his side. “The jötnar share beds and living space more than we do, but Loki likes to do things his own way. I will put it to him, when he comes.”

Volstagg nods approvingly, but the others seem caught in their thoughts. “Your children,” Hogun says quietly. “Half Asgardian, half Frost Giant. An unusual legacy.”

“So?” Thor says, his blood running cold at the careful tone. “That is the purpose of the match. Our children will unite the realms. Besides, my grandmother was jotun. My children will be like my father – wholly of Asgard, but kin to Jotunheim.”

The silence, somehow, grows even busier as his friends very carefully say nothing.

“That is a long way off yet,” Sif says with a forced smile. “First, we must meet your Loki, and get to know him as you do.”

“Yes,” Thor says. “Then you will understand.” They are as he was, he reassures himself, caught in ignorance and fear. Once they meet Loki, they will see that all the tales of Frost Giants are just old war-stories, and once they get to know him properly, they will see that he is the best thing to ever happen to Thor.

“Well, we have a month yet,” he says, forcing himself to be more cheerful. “Tomorrow, I have my duties, but after that, shall we ride to Skornheim and hunt down that lindwyrm you were telling me about?”

That cheers them up no end, and the conversation turns to what they will do, and then, inevitably, to the many glorious things they have already done, which grow ever more glorious with every recounting. Their shared history helps Thor relaxes into their company, and they drink and boast and laugh long into the night, blunting the sharp edges of the awkwardness that has been born of Thor’s time away. As the mead flows, Sif begins to ask more about Jotunheim, about what the jötnar were like, what he did there, and soon the questions tumble out of all of them. What is a land without sun like? Do they really eat only flesh? Are they as savage as the stories say?

Thor explains and explains and does his best to try and share with them a whole season’s worth of new knowledge; he is not sure all the detail is sinking in, but they hang on his words at least. There is one brief moment where the questions about Loki turn personal – too personal – and he wavers for a moment between answering honestly and being offended on Loki’s behalf. He settles for pointing out that the question is an unseemly one to be asking about his future husband, which earns him odd looks but no further prying into what is beneath the jötnar kjalta.

“He does sound wonderful,” Fandral says, gaze unfocused. “You said he had brothers?”

“Hrimthurs,” Thor laughs, picturing poor Býleistr faced with an ardent Fandral. “True giants. You would like one of his friends, though. Járnsaxa is as merry a companion as anyone could ask for – and he is keen to come here and make as many Aesir friends as he can.”

“Oh?” Fandral says. “Well, let it not be said that Fandral the Dashing was ever found wanting in diplomatic skill! I would be happy to escort this Jarnsaxa around our fair city.”

“In the name of peace and friendship between the realms?” Hogun says dryly.

“Of course, of course,” Fandral says quickly. “Jarnsaxa was the blonde one, yes?”

“Oh, please,” Sif mutters. “Go back to the bit about the sparring. What was it like facing a giant in the ring?”

“A challenge,” Thor admits freely. “Fighting an opponent so much taller and with a strength closer to my own is not something I am used to.”

“I know,” she says with a smug grin. “Tell me how often he knocked you on your arse.”

“No, tell us again about the hjorth,” Volstagg interrupts. “Beasts as big as the jotnar, eh? Good rack of ribs from them, then?”

“Show us this battle-axe,” Hogun adds. “It sounds a fine gift.”

“I cannot do three at once!” Thor says. “And I need more mead. This is thirsty work!”

The mead is plentiful and now his friends are over their shock, they quickly adopt his enthusiasm about the jötnar and Loki, to the point that they begin to hatch ridiculous plans for sneaking Thor back to Jotunheim to see him.

“I can wait a month,” Thor assures them, “and so can you. We cannot disobey the word of our King just because we do not like it.”

“Nothing can stand in the way of true love!” Fandral proclaims, clutching his hand to his breast. “What is disobeying your King next to fulfilling your heart’s desire?”

“Treason,” Thor supplies, giving him a friendly shove. “Don’t tempt me, my friend. I need you to keep me occupied until he comes, not get me into another mess.”

We are not the ones who got you into ‘a mess’,” Sif points out. “We were shovelling horse shit for days.”

That sparks a list of the evermore inventive and unpleasant duties inflicted on them as punishment after Thor left for Jotunheim; Thor certainly got the better of the deal there, and laughingly agrees he owes them a great many pleasant things to make up for it, starting with the lindwyrm hunt tomorrow.

Still, he waves them off to bed somewhat earlier than he usually would for such a celebration, and makes his way to his bedroom with a heart almost as heavy as his feet. It is both comfortingly familiar and painfully strange to stretch out alone in his own bed. The linen is crisp and smells of meadow flowers; it has been freshly made today for him, a thoughtful gesture. The down stuffed mattress is wonderfully soft after the stone beds of Jotunheim, and it is far more pleasing to stare up at vibrant red hangings and the ceiling carvings than rock and ice. His brown and black furs are just as plush as those of snowbeasts and the view from his window far more appealing, the velvety blackness of the night studded with stars and dusted with bright nebula clouds, their light reflected in the thousand lit windows of the city and shimmering over the water. He is home, and all is well.

Thor sighs and closes his hand over his pendant, trying and failing to pretend that its coolness is anything like Loki’s touch. A month has never seemed so long.

 

Chapter Text

Loki’s first thought is that travelling by Bifrost is infinitely more pleasant than drawing on his own reserves of power to open the secret paths between the worlds.

His second is that even the blinding rush of colour and light that swept him here is a poor reflection of the brilliance of the Realm Eternal. It is night here, it must be, and yet the city glows with light within and without. The towering columns of the royal palace gleam in gold and bronze and the walkways and dwellings of the city proper spark with a thousand points of light, from the flickering flames of open fires to the steady burning of Ásgarðr’s cool but intense lamps. The bridge itself has a faint iridescent glow, as does the intricate mechanism of the Observatory and even the eyes of her guardian seem to blaze with golden light.

And, as Thor had said, there is the sky. Loki tilts his head back and gazes up at the velvet blackness of the night sky, studded with stars and dusted with nebular clouds. Like a bride, he thinks, lip curling, arrayed in jewels and wrapped in gossamer silks, beautiful and cold and wholly without the warmth of the sun. How appropriate.

“Welcome to Asgard, Laufey-King,” Odin says, heavy-helmed and armed with his great spear. “It is a great honour to have you and your people here.”

“We are grateful for your hospitality,” Laufey-King says evenly, he and Helblindi and Býleistr towering over Odin and the assembled Asgardians. “It is our honour to be your guests.”

“Loki Laufeybarn,” Odin says, turning his attention to Loki. “It is a pleasure to personally welcome you to Asgard.”

“I am so happy to be here, Allfather,” Loki replies, offering a ceremonial bow with every scrap of grace he can muster. The Aesir are all staring at him as he straightens up and he pulls forward his most enigmatic smile and lets his long plait slide over his bare shoulder. After careful discussion, he has arrived in his own skin, every inch an íviðja of the Ríkikyn, dripping with the finest jewellery, including a ceremonial torc so thick it reaches halfway down his chest, studded with malachite and emeralds, topped with a pair of snarling wolves heads. It was Farbauti’s: a last gift from his bera.

He is a gift fit for a Prince, a treasure worth the return of the heart of a realm.

Loki’s fury burns as fiercely as Ásgarðr’s stars, but just as cold, and he keeps it just as fixed and remote as the bright sparks that glisten overhead. If his unexpected month’s wait in Jötunheimr has taught him anything, it is the value of patience and the absolute importance of keeping his plans well hidden. He is so very close now. No more mistakes; no more weakness. This is to be his triumph.

“My son is most eager to see you,” Odin says, expression impossible to read beneath the horned helmet. “As is all of Asgard.”

See which me? Loki wonders. Laufey has told him he will be formally presented to Thor before the people; it is clearly this event that prompted the gift of the green and gold armour, complete with cape and helm, the first gift to arrive in Thor’s absence. The Aesir might have expected him to arrive in it, to come to their Realm looking like one of them, but Laufey-King has decided otherwise. He will be presented like this, a living symbol of Jötunheimr’s glory and what remains of her wealth. Laufey, Helblindi and Býleistr are dressed as plainly as always, the better to set him off, and even the northern Jarls have adopted a simpler look, to make a show of austerity as a choice rather than reveal just how far their fortunes have fallen.

“I have missed Thor,” Loki answers, offering a small truth in good faith. “And I look forward to meeting my new people.”

“I see,” Odin says, gaze lingering on Loki before he raises his hand and brings Gungnir down with a clang. In perfect synchronicity, a pair of boats rise either side of the bride, humming faintly as they float into position and metallic walkways extend from them to the bridge. The Jarls exchange looks and Býleistr takes a subtle half-step back, but Laufey does not hesitate and follows Odin and the Aesir as they board the flying vessel.

Thor had told him of the skiffs, but it is the first time he has seen one, much less been in one, and it is somewhat off-putting to look over and see this ship’s twin hovering without support or obvious propulsion. He is used to flying under his own power, at least; the hrimthurs are not, and though they are covering it well, he can sense their uneasiness – all except Laufey-King and Nedra Lawspeaker, who are perfectly at ease. Laufey has done this before, Loki realises. Before the war, his bera visited Ásgarðr as both King and heir, when diplomatic tours between the Realms were not as fraught as they are now, and Nedra was once a renowned diplomat. They must have journeyed this way before, for of course the beasts of Ásgarðr are not suitable for carrying a royal hrimthurs from the Observatory to Idavollr.

Loki, his bera, his sibja, the Jarls and Skrýmir and Nedra, each with a dozen or so of their Kyn and an honour guard of the hirðverr, plus Odin, his Councillors and an assortment of Asgardian dignitaries and soldiers; it is a large party in all senses, and it is a good thing all the boxes and crates they brought with them are being loaded on to the other ship. This one must have been adapted, or maybe even newly made to accommodate them, for there is ample room for the jötnar, and seating benches for both their size and Loki and the Aesir. One of the Councillors, whose name Loki cannot be bothered to recall, is giving some kind of commentary as the vessel rises smoothly and sets off in a wide arc for the palace, obviously a scenic route rather than a practical one.

The streets of the city are curiously empty as they speed overhead; the Aesir must already be gathered in their hall, Loki guesses, for surely the arrival of the Frost Giants would not be ignored by the ordinary citizens. Ásgarðr is spread out beneath him, a world of flowing water and soaring buildings, a hundred green-flushed islets in a darkened sea, crowned with gold and spring-fresh blossoms, but he cannot bring himself to focus on it, and he stands at the prow willing the ship to move faster.

 A month. An entire month of waiting, trapped in the palace, forced to listen to everyone, from the Jarls to the younglings debating his relationship with Thor, whether his looks and skills will hold the Aesir Prince, what Ásgarðr will make of him, whether this marriage will truly go ahead. There has been outright protest from some, Helblindi unsurprisingly at the fore, arguing against the marriage settlement, the peace treaty terms, the trade agreements. There have been bitter feuds between old rivals who normally live entire Staðr apart, cooped up for too long in the Konungsgarðr; there has been gossip and bickering and scuffling in the corridors, all of Jötunheimr on edge, waiting for the Bifrost to open and their whole world to change.

And through all this, Loki has had to endure Býleistr’s sadness, Helblindi’s sneering, Thrymr’s heavy-handed advice, Agmundr’s concerns and a host of impertinent questions about Thor’s body and techniques; and in the last week, Skrýmir’s constant scheming and barely concealed contempt, as the Ellri finally arrived, along with Hverglmir and Suttungr. Despite his best efforts, Loki still does not know what they and Helblindi have been plotting, though he is now certain they are indeed plotting something. Some mischief here in Ásgarðr or some madcap scheme for once the realm is opened, he guesses, likely nothing to worry him overmuch; still, it is another aggravation that he could not discover which.

It has been a long month. Despite Skrýmir’s whispered poison, he does not think that Thor’s affection has waned, that without Loki at his side day and night his has lust turned back to the women of Ásgarðr and their uncomplicated adoration of their Prince. Thor’s insistence on performing the handsal before he left has finally laid that fear to rest. They are bound in law, Thor knows that, and he believes, even after a month apart, in Thor’s love and in his sincerity. He had not needed the letters and gifts, neatly wrapped in a beautifully carved wooden chest, spelled against damage and smelling of sandalwood, to be reassured that the delay was Odin’s doing and not Thor’s, though he will admit the wonderful armour and outfits have been the best part of his last few weeks.

But, however faithful, a distant lover is the not the same as one at hand. It has been a long month for Loki, time enough to think long and hard on his future, to reflect more coldly on his marriage without Thor’s maddening warmth to confuse him. He had lost himself in Thor; he sees that now, had allowed his love for him to cloud his sense. Their time together was a dream, a most pleasant one, but insubstantial as morning mist. Thor can afford to idle away his time in dreams and dew, for he was born to the greatest throne in all the worlds, and there is no-one to challenge him for it when Odin dies. It has never been so for Loki.

Love can be found anywhere. But thrones are few and far between, and Loki means to do more than stand in the shadow of one all his life. A sváss on the throne is a far better prospect than a sibling, especially one as intractable as Helblindi, but it still will not serve him if all he can do is kneel before Thor, addled in his wits by something as commonplace as love.

He has Thor and he will keep him. He cannot do less, not with the need that courses through him, a wildfire he is determined not to be burnt by. But now he is, finally, in Ásgarðr, he cannot be simply a lover reunited with his betrothed. If he wants more, he will have to take it, and Loki has always, always wanted more.

So he looks not at the city, fine and glittering beneath him, but at her King, who is introducing a swarm of blank-faced Councillors to Laufey-King, the King who had refused to bring Loki to Ásgarðr before the month was up, who is insisting on a year-long wait between betrothal and wedding, giving no reason at all for why. Helblindi had been inclined to see it as an insult, perhaps the first time in eight hundred years that he and Loki had agreed on something, but Laufey-King would hear none of their complaining. “This is the Aesir way,” he had said curtly. “You will both have to become accustomed to it.”

Well, Loki had held his tongue and he is holding his tongue now. The delay proves that Thor has not the power Loki thought he had, and that it is Odin’s will that will rule them both once Loki is left here. Skrýmir is right in this one thing: Thor is more pawn than prince, it seems, and so Loki must be wary. He must endure this week, and all its pointless formality, play both the dutiful child of Jötunheimr and the charming new bride of Ásgarðr, and then – then he can begin laying the groundwork for his true ambitions, in the long year before he is crowned Thor’s Consort.

He will also have to find out what Odin truly wants with him. He does not relish the thought.

“It is all so bright,” Býleistr murmurs, coming up behind him, struggling to look calm. “And so strange, eldsibb.”

Oh, yes. This is supposed to be his first experience of another world too. “I know,” Loki says, widening his eyes and pretending to be a little overcome. “And it is not even daylight yet.”

Býleistr exhales. “It is more than warm enough already,” he says. “Helblindi was saying something about going down to the warrior’s yard in the day to test the mettle of the Einherjar, but I think it a poor idea.”

“A stupid one,” Loki mutters. The Aesir have arranged all the major diplomatic events for the jötnar in the evenings, so that the hrimthurs can rest through the heat of the day, as well as enchanting the palace for a level of cold bearable to both parties. Helblindi would not cope well with the blazing heat of the open sparring ring on a summer day, whatever he likes to boast of his own endurance, and after the stunt he pulled with Thor that first day in Jötunheimr, he wouldn’t make it halfway there before Laufey reigned him in, if Loki has anything to do with it.

“Ah,” Býleistr says as they approach a wide, open balcony, one of many dotted about the palace walls. “We are here. Last chance to jump overboard.”

“For me or you?” Loki asks, watching Býleistr wince, and then he abandons all thought of either of his sibja and hurries to his bera so they can process down a large corridor. Odin and Laufey walk side by side, carefully in step with each other, and Loki trails behind them, head held high, locking everything away behind a proud façade as they reach a set of huge golden doors.

A shouted announcement is made and the doors swing open to a wall of noise that conveniently covers Loki’s gasp.

The room beyond is huge. The scale of it dwarfs even the Konungsgarðr, and it is filled with thousands of people – every person in Ásgarðr seems to be here, cheering and shouting, a dense forest of people as glittering as the curving metallic walls. There are rows and rows of Einherjar holding them back, making an open pathway to the high golden seat at the opposite end, where two tiny figures wait.

Thor, Loki thinks, trying to be subtle as he cranes around the Kings in front of him to catch a glimpse of red, relief and anticipation flooding through him. He does not want to admit it, not at all, but now he sees him – being without his sváss has been painful, more painful than he had ever imagined it could be, and while he would like to pretend he is calm at the thought of being in Thor’s arms again, inhaling his scent and tasting his skin, his whole body is tingling, craning towards Thor, and it is all he can do not to break into a run. He hates this despicable dependence on Thor. But he is half-dizzy with want already.

What the Jarls behind him make of the noisy crowd as they make their way to the throne Loki cannot guess, nor what, exactly, the Aesir are seeing and celebrating, but it all seems very remote as he finally comes to Thor. Thor is standing below the steps that lead up to the throne, smiling broadly and looking so very handsome in his armour, just as he did as he swore himself to Loki at the handsal. Loki, he mouths, my sváss, and as Loki is led past him he reaches out for him.

“I missed you,” Loki says, caught in the warmth of his gaze, thoughts scattering as joy and desire flare in him. “So much.”

“As did I,” Thor replies, careless of the thousands of watchers, and he bends to kiss Loki’s hand and then his cheek. He moves as if he would sweep Loki into his arms but he checks at the last moment. Loki cannot think, not with Thor so close, and he leans into him, desperate to reclaim him.

“Loki,” Laufey rumbles, brushing a cold hand across Loki’s back, frost creeping from his fingers, and the cold clears something of the fever from Loki’s blood. They cannot – he cannot – they are Princes and this no reunion but a political statement. He jerks himself back and takes his place beside his bera, filling himself up with anger at his own lack of control.

Odin moves past them, climbing the steps so he can be more easily seen. He does not take his throne, but stands instead near Laufey, his Queen and Thor just to his side, Loki and his sibja at Laufey’s, and quiet settles over the hall as he launches into another speech welcoming Laufey and Loki and the momentousness of this occasion. Loki hears none of it, too busy staring at Thor, noting the pendant cord disappearing into his armour and the thin braids in his hair. Thor stares back, joy and longing mingled on his face, as the Allfather drones on. He is still mine, Loki thinks, anger settling into a churning low in his stomach. But I am even more hopelessly his. This would be so much easier if only I did not love him.

***

Once the speeches are done, Loki keeps a tight grip on Thor, looking for their chance to escape, but it is not to be. While the general populace mills about in Valaskjálf, the jötnar are whisked away to a smaller hall and yet another round of introductions starts, as every Lord and Lady of Ásgarðr pops up to be formally introduced. Small talk must be made and drinks drunk, the mead thick on his tongue and burning afterwards, and then there is the matter of the dinner to come. They are surrounded by people, whether they be courtiers or servants, too many eyes and ears for Loki’s liking, and despite his best efforts he cannot get a word to Thor without another Aesir jumping in with a smile and banal pleasantry.

If Loki had any sense he would be in the thick of it, watching carefully to see whose smile is sincere and whose compliment faintly damning, looking for allies and enemies in this new court. No-one is foolish enough to look disgusted at the arrival of their old enemies in the heart of Ásgarðr, but equally no-one here is foolish enough to think that everything is over simply because the marriage is going ahead. There are faultlines here that could swallow both Realms whole, and Loki needs to discover and exploit them.

It’s been a month since he was with his sváss. His sense and his patience are just about non-existent.

Thor looks no happier with this politicking than Loki, but for whatever reason, he makes no attempt to fight it, instead politely introducing Loki to every Aesir who approaches.

“Lord Tyr,” Thor says, as a scarred, gruff warrior gives a jerky nod, assessing Loki carefully. “My father’s advisor in war, and commander of the Einherjar.”

“Prince Loki,” Tyr says, just on the correct side of respectful. Loki forces himself not to narrow his eyes.

“Lord Tyr,” he replies, conjuring a faint smile. “I have heard much about you.”

“And I you,” Tyr says flatly, before bowing again, just about, and allowing the next in line to step up. Loki expects little more from the man famous as Odin’s right hand in battle, but what he does notice is that from him Tyr goes next to Thrymr, the Jarl closest to him – meaning he has spoken to Laufey-King, Helblindi and Býleistr before bothering to greet Loki.

In fact, all the Lords and Ladies of Ásgarðr – no, of Asgard, he must remember this – take their own time in coming to welcome him, performing a slow circuit of the royal family that always ends with Loki, all of them offering the same tepid welcome and innocuous conversation, the words thin and awkward. It suits them ill and Loki not at all.

 “Thor,” Loki says quietly, in a brief lull, “is your Court always like this?”

“What, so formal? No,” Thor admits. “Everyone is on their best behaviour. You have come with your King and your Jarls – the most important people in all of Jotunheim. To offend even one would be unthinkable. It is easier to start a war than keep the peace.”

“I do not need to be told that by you,” Loki snaps. Best behaviour. Then this is a matter of precedence, and it means that Loki ranks the same here as he did in Jötunheimr: below his hrimthursar sibja. Thor is not being introduced to anyone, since he alone knows all here; it is Loki’s status that is being insulted. Is he not Thor’s equal and thus, like Thor, the most important guest after the King?

“Loki?” Thor asks, frowning. “Are you well?”

“If I said I was not,” Loki says, “would you take me to my room?”

“I would like nothing better,” Thor replies, eyes darkening. “But -”

“Our absence would be commented on,” Loki supplies. “I know.”

“I -” Thor starts, but breaks off as their time is up; a bell is rung and they are being ushered into yet another golden, gleaming hall, this one with a high table surrounded by curiously individual chairs, some high and some low. More servants appear and show them to their seats, each marked with a nameplate, and now it makes sense, for most of the Aesir and jötnar are mixed together, and the uneven chairs allow them to be of roughly equal height as they eat.

Loki is seated at one end of the table, with his family, though below Helblindi, Býleistr and Laufey, while Thor looks longingly at him from the other, flanked by Odin and his Queen. Loki could make a scene, he supposes, but what would that serve? His Kyn will be leaving soon, and he must stay and live with these people – and to complain over his status would hand Odin a weakness and thus a weapon to use against him. He stews in silence instead, hyper-aware of every gesture, every protocol that places him lower than the rest of his family.

At any rate, nothing of any other interest happens during the meal: everyone, jötnar and Aesir alike, is so concerned with making the right impression that barely any wine is drunk or conversation made. This will be a tiresome week indeed at this rate, but Loki does not care. He is the one who must live here, not his Kyn, and if all the Aesir think when they leave is that the jötnar are a dull and dour people, it will be much better than trying for friendliness and being thought brutish or rude.

The food is just as adequate as the company, with each guest served an individual meal, tailored to them. The portions seem small, but the jötnar eat their ribs and steaks and fish without complaint, not asking to try any of the exotic fruits and vegetables and thick sauces covering the Aesir plates, and the Aesir do not so much as blink as the jötnar eat the bones and skin as well as the meat given to them. Thor has been telling tales of them, then, or they have been coached in how not to break this fragile peace with scorn or surprise. How wonderfully civilised. No-one would ever guess that not two days ago Jötunheimr’s royal family was screaming at each other in a violent dispute over whether the Aesir could be trusted or whether they should attack the minute the stepped from the Bifrost; no matter how polite and poised the courtiers and nobles at the table may be, Loki is certain that there will have been similar scenes here as Asgard learnt that their ancient enemy would be coming to dinner and leaving one of their own in the heart of the city.

Loki hopes to get away quickly, but once everyone clears their plate, a bevy of servants suddenly appears to take them away and replace them with a slightly different selection of food, in slightly larger quantities. This is repeated five times, for Norns’ know what purpose, and with each new dish Loki’s irritation grows. But at least, the plates are cleared and remain cleared, and after a few toasts – some to Laufey, and some to Odin and Laufey, but none to Loki – both Kings rise and Laufey announces smoothly he and his will retire. There is a distinctive ripple of relief from everyone at the strained banquet, and as the assembly rises and parts, Thor hurries over to kiss Loki – again, infuriatingly, only on the hand and cheek.

“I am sorry,” he says as Loki’s body betrays him yet again and he turns into Thor’s warmth and delicious scent. “I wish -”

“Prince Loki,” Odin says, suddenly looming behind them. “I trust you have had an enjoyable evening?”

“Yes, lovely,” Loki says, painting a smile on his face. He will not let Odin catch him off guard.

“Good,” Odin says, his attention caught by his Queen, who seems to be insisting he come to her side with all haste. “Thor, I leave you to arrange the next few days with our guest; I have spoken with Laufey-King and all is in hand as agreed.”

“Yes, Father,” Thor says but Odin is already turning away.

“You are sorry?” Loki prompts as the assorted guests begin to file out. They have a few precious moments and he must make the most of them.

Thor groans. “To Hel with all this,” he says bitterly, “if I had known just what a ‘proper formal welcome’ was, I would have kidnapped you like the men of old and brought you home as a war-trophy.”

“I am ready and willing for an abduction at any moment,” Loki replies, almost serious, and Thor huffs a laugh.

“I may just take you up on that,” he says. “But for now – more bad news. Since my father will be busy all week with Laufey-King and your Jarls, I will be performing some of his duties in his stead. Tomorrow, I am taking his place in court all day, and again the day after that, and then – well, my father has not left me much time to actually see you.”

“Does he not approve of me?” Loki says, mouth barely moving. What is all this?

“Norns, it’s nothing like that,” Thor says earnestly. “Just protocol – protocol we haven’t used for a damned millennia, but protocol all the same. There is a history to these things. We are not really supposed to see each other at all until the ceremony, but I refused that! We just have to last the week and then it will all be over and we can get on with being together, I promise.”

“I see,” Loki says. “So what am I to do tomorrow?”

“Mostly what you please,” Thor says. “We have not organised anything until the evening. At some point this week I know my father wants to speak to you alone. He will send a servant for you when he is ready – it is not a formal meeting, only a chance for him to talk with you. For him to get to know you, a little.”

Loki nods jerkily. It is to be expected – but he had thought Thor would be with him. None of this is as he planned.

“Do you want me to come to your rooms after?” Thor asks. “If you send a servant for me, we could lunch together, no matter what I am supposed to be doing?”

“There is no need,” Loki says. “I will be fine alone.” He will be vulnerable, more like, and cannot bear for Thor to see him so. Who knows what he might say in such a state? “When am I to meet your friends?” he asks in a deliberate attempt to change the subject. The four warriors Thor spoke so fondly of are notable by their absence in the round of meetings and greetings despite their high status.

“Not for a while,” Thor says. “With so many of our nobles tied up with all this diplomacy, they are being run ragged to fill in the gaps. But you will have plenty of time to get to know them after the betrothal.”

“I see,” Loki says again, not knowing what else to say. He is not interested in Thor’s friends for themselves, but he had thought Thor would be keen to bring them together, to start making Loki a part of his life. He feels like a war-trophy, in truth, a new conquest to be paraded about while the real business of the realm continues elsewhere.

“I do not like it either,” Thor says, and now Loki is paying more attention to him, he can see the beginnings of anger in the tightness around Thor’s eyes. “This should be about us – about our love and about welcoming you to Asgard as a new member of my family. But instead we have statecraft. All these dinners and events and tours for Laufey and the Jarls and your embassy – all this diplomacy! Surely this could have waited until after we were married!”

It is darkly amusing to see Thor’s frustration, a warped mirror of his own. The machinery of the alliance has taken over, as if Thor and Loki had never met at all, duty and responsibility and the burden of the realms riding roughshod over the personal. Thor is taking it as an affront but Loki would expect nothing less: his anger is borne of his limited regard in the proceedings. He is not just an item on the list, a bargaining tool, to be referred to in the same breath as trade and borders and the matter of the army. He should be at the heart of all this ceremony, not shunted to the side.

“And do you know the worst of it?” Thor says, face twisting. “It is not you I must escort in all this, but your siblings! I mean, I am happy to be paired with Býleistr, and to show him Asgard, but Helblindi! I cannot stand him and I know he feels the same! What are my parents thinking?”

“That I am bought and paid for,” Loki says aloud, tasting bile. “That you have had your wooing of me and I am a settled account. Your father must now woo my bera, and he sets you to wooing Helblindi and Býleistr, as security against either of them inheriting the Throne of Winter. I will be here forever. They must be won over in the next few days.”

Thor is stunned into silence.

“Did you tell your father Helblindi was an arrogant cur and that you saw all but nothing of him and Býleistr?” Loki asks, bitterness seeping in. Thor nods. “Then you have doomed yourself to a week of their company. The Allfather is too wise to pass up a second chance. You are an Heir and must be matched with Heirs. I – I am but your bedmate, and all know you have me well in hand.”

Loki is livid. He had thought – he wanted – this is not how it should be, not at all, and yet he cannot think of a way to make this better, to still his racing mind or find the answers he needs. Thor loves him, he is at least certain of that and yet – it is not enough. What is his place here? What do the Aesir think he will be? He seems less than Thor’s lover, not more: a treasure of another realm, to be stared at and admired and kept locked away, high on a pedestal. Do they think him a trinket, a relic, a thing of Thor’s, like Mjolnir, with neither will nor worth of his own?

Is he to be nothing more than the new Casket of Ancient Winters?

“No,” Thor says, as if denying it will help. “No, Loki – don’t say that. You have it half-right at best. I did tell my father that Helblindi and I had, ah, a disagreement; he is probably pushing us together this week to force us to overcome it, as you said. And I suppose there is less need to show you Asgard this week, when we have the rest of lives to explore it together. This is a momentous occasion – we must play our parts as Princes, just for now, in the name in peace. But after – after I will give you a proper welcome, and so will my friends and my people. It will be worth it,” he says, taking Loki by the hand. “You managed my sourness for much more than a week in Jotunheim before we came together. Can you manage a week of ceremony and nonsense now, knowing that I am here and eager to have at my side again?”

“Of course,” Loki says flatly.

Thor looks torn between annoyance and genuine concern; it is a look he has worn before around Loki, but it gives him no pleasure now.

“I love you,” Thor says fiercely, searching Loki’s face. “You know this.”

“I do,” Loki says, irritation mounting: love is not the answer to everything, nor does it change anything! He glances about; they are very nearly the last people in the room and, again, he can feel curious eyes on him, judging, assessing. This is no place for this conversation.

“Then do not look so sad,” Thor says, concern winning out. “You have been here but a few hours. Things will be get better, you will see.”

 “Yes,” Loki says, dissatisfied and irritable, and too aware of the other Aesir to act on either feeling. “I am sure they will.”

He lets Thor escort him to the guest quarters prepared for the jötnar, colder and darker than the rest of the palace but still bustling with servants and guards, heart sinking with every step.

“Good night,” Thor says at the door, not looking much happier than Loki, and though he is warm and strong as he gathers Loki into a brief embrace, Loki can find no comfort in him.

“Good night,” Loki says, and he does not let himself linger as they part once again.

Inside, the guest room is tastefully and sympathetically adapted for jötnar taste, with one large bed in the centre, made of wood but low and draped with furs. The windows have been covered with heavy drapes and there is a discreet layer of warding and weather spells woven into the black velvet, bringing the temperature down to more normal levels. From the plans Loki had snuck a glimpse at, the bathing chamber is spelled for both cold and warmer waters, in an attempt to replicate something of the volcanic baths; the whole thing has Thor’s fingerprints all over it, a sign of how he has been thinking of Loki these last few weeks, and yet he would rip it all apart in a heartbeat if it might mean he had to take his Aesir form and be lodged with Thor.

Or further from his Kyn. He and his sibja have not been cooped up like this for centuries.

Helblindi and Býleistr have large, interlocking suites of their own, to the left of him; Laufey has his own suite, presumably the other side of the large doors to the right. If the doors were open, as they are in the Konungsgarðr, Loki could see if his bera is sleeping or still stirring, could join him there and find some measure of peace in discussing strength and weaknesses, could defer to the King’s greater knowledge of the Aesir and their strange ways. But the doors are shut and likely to be noisy to open; the walls are thin here and he will not risk waking his sibja and have them interfere in the conversation.

So there is nothing to do but retire to his small bed. The room feels overcrowded, as his boxes and chest have all been stowed here, rather than the room he had assumed he would move into after the ceremony – a room with Thor or adjoining him, he had imagined, fit for the new Prince in Asgard. Is he to stay here, in these cramped guest quarters, for the whole year of their betrothal? Kept away from Thor and the family he is supposed to be joining? Is this because his parents fear Loki’s influence on him, or to prove to the people that the jötnar invader is under control, or because there is no room for him in Thor’s life in Asgard, bar a few conjugal visits to this Frost Giant pen?

It is no better than being the lastborn íviðja of Jötunheimr. He is no closer to Hliðskjálf than he was to the Winter Throne: he is still kept to the shadows, a glittering prize but one without power of his own. He thought Thor’s love would bring him so much more.

But Thor is not here.

Loki curls into a ball on the shabbily thin pelts of ancestors’ knows what Aesir creature and closes his burning eyes, his triumph turned to ash and dust in his mouth.

***

The next few days are not much better. If Odin is trying to impress Laufey and the jötnar, he is succeeding: Loki has never seen such careless wasting of wealth. They are games of all kinds, to watch and for a few of the younger, less valuable hirðverr to participate in; tourneys and mock-battles and demonstration matches, most of which Thor wins, wearing Loki’s ‘favour’ and loudly dedicating all his victories to his betrothed. There are crafting competitions, as the metalworkers and woodworkers and weavers and artists all compete to create pieces to celebrate the new alliance of Asgard and Jotunheim in sculptures and vases and tapestries and paintings; there are competitions of singing and dancing, of poetry and story-telling, none of which Loki may enter; there are endless dinners and speeches and oh, so many false smiles and polite lies on both sides.

Thor spoke truly when he said they would have little time together: between his princely duties in the day and the endless round of entertainment and events, they barely exchange two dozen sentences over the next four days. Thor is trying his best, making a point to come and bid Loki good night, to be seen with him and he keeps up his restrained but genuine affection, offering gentle kisses to Loki’s hands and cheeks, speaking warmly and loudly of him whenever they happen be passing each other. But it remains that passing is mostly what is happening: while Laufey and Odin spend all their time together, remote and unapproachable, and Thor has been forced into Helblindi’s and Býleistr’s company, the Jarls and Skrýmir have each been assigned a Lord or Lady to be their personal guide and escort – and so has Loki.

He had expected Frigga, for it seems nicely symbolic, the old Queen and the new, but no, with Thor gritting his teeth and taking his place at Helblindi’s side for each new performance, Frigga has taken up the mantle of rulership and remains in the palace, doing whatever it is that cannot wait for the end of the visit. Loki would not know, of course, being only an honoured guest – and apparently neither does Tyr, or he is not willing to share.

Loki has thought of a hundred different reasons why Odin would assign him the lord of battles as a companion, but after the second day, he decides it must be to stop him gathering information. He does not find many warlords prone to interesting conversation, but Tyr is the most taciturn general he has yet encountered, pacing at in silence at Loki’s side more like a gaoler than a guide. If he had Frigga to talk with – or even Thor’s friends; he could make a start on manipulating them, at least! – then the pointless expanse of days before the ceremony might have been put to use. But with Tyr his ever-present shadow, he dares not show too much interest in anything, since it will so obviously all be reported straight back to Odin.

It is no insult, at least, for Tyr is so close to Odin that he might well be considered the next most powerful person after Thor, but that is small comfort every time he sees Thor in the company of his sibja while he is doomed to follow after Tyr and listen to his brusque explanation of whatever event they are attending now. He would have liked to see the libraries that Thor described so enthusiastically to him; he would have liked to take a boat out to sea, to sail as close as he could to the impossible edge, to see the waterfall at the edge of the world; he would have liked some conversation, just for the sake of it, or to ask about Thor, to hear the memories of those who have watched him grow; he would have liked, obviously, to have someone foolish enough to tell him more about the inner workings of the court, but he would have settled for a courtier, witty and sharp, with whom he could verbally spar during in the long afternoons. But no, he has the most solemn of warriors, a man who can barely bring himself to talk to Loki at all, icily polite and nothing more.

Flirting gains him nothing, and neither does solemnity; his few small attempts at humour fall flat and he is not foolish enough to provoke one of Odin’s favourites with barbs or threats. In the end, Loki takes to holing up in his rooms as much as possible simply to spare himself the futility of trying to learn anything from Tyr. With nothing much else to do, he falls to brooding, and this makes him sour and disinclined to go along with what diversions are offered to him. He makes an attempt, on the fourth day, to sneak out and learn something, but he makes it only to the outmost doors of the jötnar suite before the Einherjar appear.

“Can we help you, Prince Loki?” they ask, apparently sincere, and Loki can only make a poor excuse of wondering where Thor is, only to be told he has taken Helblindi and Býleistr to see a horserace. Laufey-King is, again, in conference with Odin; would he like them to summon Lord Tyr?

Loki demurs as fast as he can and retreats. How are his sibja wandering around in the day? Talismans, he guesses, like the pendant Thor had from his mother. But why does he not have one? A snub, a deliberate snub!

He is so incensed that he goes the wrong way, walking straight past his own corridor and wandering down another, until he finds himself in the smaller rooms allocated to the rest of the party. The doors are open and they are all quite empty. He has seen neither hide nor shadow of the Jarls since he arrived; not Thrymr, not Skrýmir, not anyone – is he being kept isolated? Do they all have talismans and he does not?

No, he realises after a moment, paranoia subsiding. He has been avoiding them; there was talk last night of freezing one of the smaller halls, of some sort of display of ice sculpture for the citizens or some such stupidity, a sop to jötnar pride if ever he heard one. He had declined, seeing no profit in it, and being in no mood for company, but apparently he is now the only one not there. What a wonderful message that will send.

How is this going so badly? He has wanted to be in Asgard for years and yet –

“We shouldn’t be here!” comes a voice from around the corner – an Aesir voice. Loki’s ears prick up.

“Oh, come on,” says a second. “Let’s just peek. They’re not here anyway. The whole pack of them are in the Silver Hall. We’re quite safe.”

“I don’t know what you expect to find,” says a third, sounding bored. “My sister helped with the enchanting. It’s just cold and dark and big. There’s nothing interesting.”

“She’s right,” says the second voice, disappointed. “Look, it’s just a big bed.”

“Yes, but that’s a bed for the Jarl and his attendants,” says the second voice. “They all sleep in one big pile, like dogs!”

“Then it’s true! They do have no morals!”

“I still can’t believe they’re here at all. I never thought I’d see the day when there were Frost Giants being put up in the palace. I can’t believe any of this happening.”

“You’ve been saying that for days,” says the third voice, impatiently, and Loki edges closer, concealing himself behind one of the open doors and peering around the corner. It’s three servants in palace livery: a redhead, a fat old man and a bored-looking youngster with noticeably cleaner clothes. She might have been a server at one of the feasts, but Loki wasn’t paying much attention and can’t be sure.

“A royal wedding should be a happy occasion,” the redhead says. “But Prince Thor and a Frost Giant? Ugh, I don’t know how he can bear it.”

“Well, the big ones are ugly,” the old man says, “But the little one is pretty enough. I can see why our Prince is taken with him.”

“Can you imagine him being our Queen though?” counters the redhead. Loki crooks his fingers and calls up a shadow to hide in; it’s a poor thing in the shining corridor, but it does let him creep a little closer still, close enough to see them all pull disgusted faces.

“I don’t fancy another war,” the presumed page is saying. “But do we really have to have a jotun here? Even a little one?”

“He’s a sorcerer, too,” gossips the old man. “I heard he’s put some kind of spell on the Prince, a love spell, and that’s why the Prince agreed to marry him. That’s why the Allfather has been keeping them apart, you see – he’s broken the enchantment, and he’s going to lock the jotun into those ice-rooms for a year while they work out how to muzzle his magic.”

“Nonsense,” scoffs the page. “The Allfather wants the match, or it wouldn’t be going ahead.”

“Yes, but who wants a jotun Queen? His own people have sold him, they say. He’s here just so our Prince can get his own heir on him. Then they’ll probably ship him back to his own kind.”

“Oh, I hope so,” says the redhead. “He’s so strange. And they’re all such savages. Have you seen them eat? It’s disgusting.”

“Have you seen them naked?” asks the old man, shuddering. “Imagine it! I couldn’t get a child on one if you paid me.”

“Oh, I would pay to see that,” chortles the page. “You on a stepladder with the King of Jotunheim!”

This passes for great wit, for the three of them fall apart laughing and Loki wonders if anyone would find out if he just killed them here and now. Probably, he decides, and with a flick of his fingers he calls up an illusion instead, a shapeless terror of flashing teeth and mind-numbing fear, and sets it loose down it the corridor. It works as well here as it always did at home: the three take to their heels, screaming in terror; the thing will haunt them up until the moment they run into someone and beg for help, at which point they will be left looking like madmen, gibbering at thin air. It’s a simple trick, but one he’s always been fond of.

Loki turns on his heel and stalks away. As if it matters what such lowly creatures think!

It does matter, comes an unwelcome whisper in his mind, if this is a taste of how you are to be treated for the next year. It matters, because if this is what the commonfolk are saying openly, what are the nobles saying secretly? It matters if this talk surrounds him and Thor for the rest of the lives, it matters if this is what the kingdom really thinks, will always think, it matters if he has escaped one burden of rumour only to be tarnished with another –

“Prince Loki,” says the guard at the entrance to the jötnar suite, dropping a small bow. He’s run the whole length of his cage yet again.

Loki sweeps past him without a word, head held high, fists clenched. He knew he would face this. He knew he would not be welcomed by all, and this gossip is not the worst it could have been. He need not be beloved by all to rule, so long as he is beloved by Thor.

Thor, who has been shunted away from him, kept busy by the Allfather. Kept away from Thor’s friends, who might have proved allies out of love for him, also kept busy by the Allfather. Kept away from everyone, it seems, and making it seem his fault by pairing him with Tyr, who wants nothing to do with him.

Oh, this is all the Allfather’s doing, and Loki likes it not one little bit.

***

Loki has adopted a habit of sleeping late, in the absence of anything better to do, but the next morning he is startled awake early in the day by a hammering at the door. He opens it brusquely, no doubt looking less than pleased, and the guard flushes.

“My apologies, Prince Loki,” he says, clutching his spear. “The Allfather requests your presence.”

“I require some time to make myself ready,” Loki says; the guard is not happy, but that is easily solved by shutting the door in his face. Loki’s mouth is dry and his hands shake: unacceptable. He takes a few deep breaths and forces himself to calm. He knew this was coming.

Well, there is nothing for it, but to swiftly wash and dress – though that presents a challenge. Is he to take his Aesir form and adopt Aesir dress? He cracks open the drapes and peeks out at the blindingly bright day, squinting at the light. It will be warm outside these rooms; his other skin would be much more sensible, and might please the Allfather. But then, being in his own will let him plead exhaustion, or even provide an excuse for a well-timed faint, and s extricate him from an awkward situation. No, he decides, he will let the Allfather see what he has bought for his son: the greats íviðja in Jötunheimr.

Some time later, Loki sweeps out into the corridor, startling the guard leaning against the wall. He has chosen his heirloom torc and best kjalta, but more importantly, he has swept his hair up and arranged the plaits into a knotted crown that better hides the godsnail hairpin buried there. It has not left his person since its forging, and he will not be without its protection. Hopefully, since nothing has come of Thor wearing his for a month, he should be safe with it even in Odin’s company.

“Come along,” he snaps at the guard, who is openly staring. “I will not be kept waiting by the likes of you.”

The guard does not like this, and so they process in utter silence through the labyrinth of corridors, turning and twisting in no pattern that Loki can follow. He will need a map, he realises in frustration, at least for his first few weeks, or else be reliant on asking servants to take him everywhere. He will ask Thor for one as soon as he can.

All this walking is proving more tiring than it should: he is warm already, and wondering if he has made a mistake by retaining his jötunn form. Eventually, they reach a set of doors that do not swing open as they approach, flanked by more Aesir with spears and ridiculous amour, and his guard motions for him to wait as the doors are drawn back.

“Prince Loki of Jotunheim,” comes the announcement, and Loki steps into a smaller, darker room than he was expecting, dominated by a huge winged throne, golden again, and framed with circular wall motifs haloed in soft light. The room is pleasantly cool and full of shadows; as he moves into them, two small shapes detach and resolve, two large, black ravens, wheeling through the rafters and coming to land on the curving wings of the throne. Loki eyes them warily. Huginn and Muninn, the Allfather’s spies. Treacherous, wicked creatures; when he was a child, Skrýmir used to tell him they would peck out his eyes if he told lies.

“Prince Loki,” the Allfather says from the high seat as the doors close. “Do come closer.”

Loki draws nearer to the throne, noting that there is no-one else at all in the room. “Odin Allfather,” he says. “I am honoured to be granted a private audience.”

“You need not be so formal,” Odin says. “I have brought you here only because this room suits your kind. I have given Laufey-King an enchanted stone that he may move freely about the palace in the day without the heat proving oppressive. I had assumed you would not need one, but if you want one, I am happy to provide.”

“You are most kind,” Loki says, imagining his bera choking on the indignity of accepting such a gift from Odin. Though it does explain how Laufey has managed so much in the daytime; Helblindi and Býleistr must have one too. So why is he only being offered one now? “I can bear more than my Kyn as I am now, and I have been practising changing my form.”

“Good,” Odin says, looking him up and down. “It will be best if you adopt Asgardian looks as soon as the ceremony is over. Summer is here, and it will go poorly for you in that skin.”

And your people will not accept me in it, more to the point, Loki thinks, nodding and smiling.

“I would speak plainly with you,” Odin says. “Your father and I have finished the arrangements for your marriage to my son, and for the handover of the Casket of Ancient Winters. We have agreed that the Casket will not be returned at the ceremony. Instead, you and the Casket will stay in Asgard for a year for a trial period. This is a momentous time for our realms, and there is no need to rush. Of course, it will be a difficult year for your people, but Laufey-King has vowed to keep the peace and pledged you as security, and we will send aid to Jotunheim, and welcome her back from exile. Should all be well, in a year you will marry Thor, the Casket will be returned and you will take your place as Consort as Thor is crowned Prince Regent of Asgard.”

“I see,” Loki says, maintaining his calm with some difficulty. A year before the Vetrformen is returned? A year where he is a hostage, not a Consort? And his bera has agreed? Does Thor know of this? The insult, the shame of being kept here, neither Consort nor Prince, known to all as a hostage for his bera’s good behaviour – and Thor is not even to be King at the end of it! A Prince Regent only! With Odin still looming, still controlling all from the shadows. Why? What does he know?

It is his worst nightmare, come to life.

“It will be a difficult time for you as well,” Odin continues, staring down at him. “Asgard is strange to you. You must have many questions.”

“I – I would know my place here,” Loki says cautiously, reeling from this revelation. “We have neither Queen nor Consort in Jotunheim. I am to give Thor heirs, I know this. But what am I to do for a year?”

“Learn how to be a Prince of Asgard,” Odin says. “You were not raised to a throne as Thor was, and even if you were, Asgard’s ways are her own. I could have found a dozen wives to give Thor strong children. I have chosen you for him because you can be more.”

“How so?”

“My son has a lion’s heart,” Odin says. “But a King must be both a lion and a fox, and I fear Thor lacks the subtlety he will need to rule Asgard once I am gone. He needs a fox at his side, and I should think a child raised in Laufey’s court – especially an ividja – would be well versed in cunning and statecraft.”

“So I am to be his major domo as well as bear his children,” Loki says, forcing a careless smile. “Is there more you would have of me, Allfather?”

Odin looks at him, and Loki cannot read his face, does not know what his stern expression means. What are you planning, he thinks, fighting to remain in control of his body language as fear mounts in him, refusing to dip his head before such power. Damn you, I will not bow!

“I proposed the alliance between my House and that of Laufey’s long ago,” Odin says, slow and heavy. “And in my mind was the good of the realms and the honour of our kingdoms. After the war, I had thought this path closed to me, only to have it reopen after Thor’s own blundering. I had hoped he would learn humility and some good sense in Jotunheim, and would see the value of a Consort chosen for his family and skills, if not himself. But now…”

“Now?” Loki asks, heart hammering.

“You must think me cruel, to delay the wedding for so long. But I would protect my son as well as my people. Let this year be a time of learning for all us, so that when we all come together, it is for a lasting, prosperous peace. My boy is a romantic,” Odin says, and there is something rueful in his tone. “He thinks himself in love with you – and perhaps he is. But here you are, asking what I would have of you. I would have you be a helpmeet to my son. I would have you make him smile. And I would have you be a Queen to him as my Frigga has been to me. I have faith you will be make a fine Consort for the King. But whether you will love Thor? Not even I can know that.”

Loki stares back, mind racing, looking for the trap, for the peril and the pitfall. There must be a scheme behind these mystifying words, if only he can discover it. Lies and half-truths flit through his mind, shaped and discarded with each racing heartbeat. What will serve him best here?

He does not know. This old man, stern but not severe, is not what he imagined at all. It is a poor fit for the Spearbreaker, terror of Jötunheimr. Loki does not doubt it an act, as much as his own obedience, and yet, since he cannot see the cracks, the edges in the façade, he cannot hope to know what it is behind it. He does not know Odin, and without knowledge, he is terribly vulnerable. He itches to reach up, to touch the god’s nails hidden in his dark hair, but he dares not.

The silence stretches out, Odin content to wait for Loki to speak, reading Norns knows what in Loki’s hesitation. His gaze remains heavy on Loki’s skin, as flat and unwavering as his damnanble ravens, unnaturally still and focused beside him. It is flaying Loki open, the burning of the single eye melting all Loki’s defences, he is certain of it, and the sensation of being trapped prickles over him. Though the room is large it is closed in and there is no sky to take to, no window to flee through, nowhere to go -

“Thor is my sváss,” Loki blurts out, the truth squeezed from him by the pressure of Odin’s attention. The moment the word leaves his lips the ravens start up, wings fluttering, croaking harshly as they skip and dance along the arms of the throne.

Odin nods gravely, a half-smile incongruous on his weathered features. “Thank you,” he says, cutting across the riotous birds. “For your honesty. It sets an old man’s heart at ease.”

Liar, Loki thinks, furious with himself. To succumb to panic now!

“You must be fatigued,” Odin continues, insufferably calm, that liar’s smirk still playing over his lips. “After all, this is your first visit to another realm. I will trouble you no further.”

A game? A test? Does he know what Loki has been doing with Thor? Or is it courtly manners from an old King welcoming his son’s intended? Loki is uncertain and exhausted with guessing. “Thank you, Odin-King,” he replies, sticking to his jötnar style of address. Playing up the baffled foreigner seems a safe strategy. “You are quite right. I will retire to my rooms.”

Odin inclines his head graciously. “My wife is most anxious to speak to you,” he says. “Perhaps once you have rested, you might find time to visit her in Fensalir? She likes to take tea there in the afternoons.”

“I would be delighted to,” Loki says smoothly, wondering both what tea might be and what fresh torment will be visited on him by Asgard’s Queen.

“Good day, Prince Loki,” Odin says to him as he backs away, careful to keep his eyes low and face towards Odin, as the books of Aesir manners had stressed. Thor might be careless of such things, but he is not sure that he has earned the right of intimacy with the royal family – and Odin’s deliberate stress on his new-fangled title reassures him that he has chosen rightly, even if it sounds suspiciously like the ravens are chortling at him as the doors shut and he can breathe freely again.

It takes every ounce of self-possession he has to walk calmly through the palace rather than run back to his rooms, and when – after a few false starts – he finally sees the familiar doors to his guest suite he cannot help but race towards them, fumbling at the handle and all but throwing himself inside. He tears through the suite, flinging aside his clothes until he reaches the private bathroom, cool and dim and glistening with ice, and there he huddles in the freezing water of the bath until he has himself properly under control.

I am not afraid of Odin, he tells himself, over and over. He does not know. He cannot know.

He wishes he had sent for Thor, after all.

***

A few hours later, Loki carefully tidies his hair and redresses, making sure he is presentable before he visits the Queen, nibbling on a hunk of cheese as he does so. Earlier, there was a knock on the door, which had startled him from his thinking; there was no-one there by the time he opened it, but he had found a platter of fruits, meats and breads on the ground, presumably left by a servant. He had felt a burst of pleasure at the thought that Thor had sent it for him – but had swiftly remembered that the Aesir ate far more frequently than he was used to, and a midday meal was a standard custom for them. This is the first time he has been about in the palace in the daytime – some industrious servant has seen him and included him in their midday meal, or, worse, Odin has sent this in the name of hospitality to his exhausted guest. He wasn’t hungry but still, biting into the plump, jewel-like grapes and tearing apart the fluffy warm bread had given him something to do, and had reminded him that eventually the great wealth and luxury of this world will belong to him, if only he can keep his nerve.

So it is with only a little hesitation that he sets out for Frigga-Queen’s hall, wishing he could sweep past the unsmiling Einherjar without deigning to notice their presence, much less ask for directions – but being forced to do just that, and follow yet another interchangeable guard to Frigga’s hall. Fensalir turns out to be not far from Odin’s smaller throne room but on the opposite side of the enormous great hall, making it south-facing and probably designed with a view of the Bifrost and the coast. After all, Loki reasons, this is part of the Royal family’s private suite, and must therefore be the best in the entire city.

He is, reassuringly, quite right.

“Prince Loki,” the guard announces, white light spilling across the threshold as the doors open and all Loki can see is the brilliant sky, the blue of Thor’s eyes, bright and beautiful and endless. After a moment, he realises this is because Fensalir is not so much a hall as it is a terrace, an airy, open space looking out over Asgard. There is no far wall and no windows: the terrace is open, its vaulted ceiling supported by tall, elegant columns that frame the view, balanced on a low, white wall no higher than Loki’s knee. There are potted plants and flowers scattered around the terrace, adding colour and sweet scents: exuberant roses, lilies and peonies nestle against more practical mint, thyme and rosemary, while riotous honeysuckle, jasmine and passionflower have tackled the walls and each other in a bid for domination.

“Loki,” says Frigga as she stands amid her garden, hands open in welcome. “I’m so pleased you could come.”

“Frigga-Queen,” he says politely, moving towards what seems to be a seating area, plush couches scattered in a semi-circle with a low table in the centre, all positioned to make the most of the view. There is some kind of crockery and food arranged on it, but he keeps his gaze on Frigga as she takes his hand and leans forward to place a soft kiss on each of his cheek. She smells of the flowers and of honey and her hair is soft and fair like Thor’s.

She, and everything in this dazzling space, is saturated with Aesir magic. He fancies he can taste it beneath the blossoms.

He turns his gaze from the vista before him and sees that the back wall of the terrace is just as vibrant, for it is filled with huge tapestries, richly embroidered and filled with scenes of family life – Thor’s life, he realises, seeing a golden child repeated across the weave, growing steadily into the man he knows. A large loom stands at the opposite side of the terrace and he can all too easily imagine the Queen working it, looking out over her city, watching the sunlight creep across the stones, weaving charms and spells and portents into the silken thread, all of Asgard dancing to the tune she hums under her breath.

“You have a beautiful home,” he says as he shifts his gaze back to Frigga.

“I am glad you like it,” she says, guiding him to a seat with a gentle but firm hand. “Since it is to be your home too.” Loki smiles politely and waits for the trap to close. “I am sorry that it has taken so long for us to meet,” Frigga continues, her long skirts spreading around her as she sits. “How are you finding Asgard?”

“It is wonderful,” Loki says automatically. “I am so happy to be here.”

Frigga hums lightly. “Happier, I hope, than Thor was when he first arrived in your home,” she says. “You have my thanks for treating him so kindly.”

Loki could use many words to describe his treatment of Thor; kindly is not the one he would pick. “It was my honour to have him as my guest,” he says, retreating to platitudes. “I am glad to have had the time to better understand him before our wedding.”

“He speaks well of you,” Frigga says. “This has been a long month for him.”

“Has it,” Loki says, bitterness creeping over the words like winter frost; he immediately regrets it, for Frigga gives a slight nod, as if she has been waiting for him to slip.

“It has,” Frigga says with a fond smile. “My son is in love with you. I know it. And from what little I have seen of the two of you together, you seem happy with him. But, as we both know, appearances can be deceptive. I would be honest with you, Loki – I would know if you come to us willingly, or if this is a cage for you, however gilded.”

Loki tilts his head and regards her carefully. A blunt question, however neatly phrased. He will offer bluntness in return. This is not just Thor’s mother, but Asgard’s Queen, her foremost sorcerer and Odin’s advisor, as powerful as an íviðja has ever been. She plays the same game as the Allfather, no doubt, but on different ground, for Loki is to take her place, in time. “Did you ask this of Gerda?” he asks, tone flat. “Did you offer Skadi freedom from a marriage she had to be dragged to, kicking and screaming? Or is it only your son’s bride that merits such concern for what an íviðja of Jötunheimr feels?”

“I did not speak to Gerda or Skadi,” Frigga says, pouring a dark liquid from a heavy pot without a hint of anger at Loki’s words. “But I think now that I should have. And so I am asking you, Loki Laufeybarn, are you truly happy to be here in Asgard? Do you wed my son willingly, with or without love, for love can grow in time? Or is this all a lie, and given the choice you too would flee back to the snows of your homeland, to be free and unmolested?”

“And if I said that yes, I am happy, how will you know that I speak the truth, since you suspect that I have resigned myself to a fate I despise?”

Frigga offers him a china cup painted with yet more gold, this time in a delicate pattern of grapes and vine leaves. Fragrant steam rises from the black liquid, and Loki sniffs it as subtly as he can. Leaf juice, he thinks, desperately unappetising, and so he merely cradles it in his hands, letting its warmth seep into his fingers, the tingling discomfort a reminder that this is no mere social call.

“You know, Odin and I once discussed putting me aside,” Frigga says after a moment, perfectly calm, and Loki nearly drops the cup in shock. “Oh, yes, a long time ago,” she continues, eyes twinkling as Loki tries to cover his surprise. “Before Thor was born – just after the war with Vanaheim. You see, when the Vanir princess Freyja came to Asgard, there was some talk of wedding her to my husband, to ensure peace, and to provide an heir that would bind the two kingdoms. I am Aesir, and so I brought nothing but love to our marriage, for my family’s loyalty was already guaranteed. But Freyja? She had the loyalty of the Vanir as her dowry, and the obedience of her father and brother – and she was, and is, the most beautiful woman in all the Nine Realms.

“We talked about it for hours,” Frigga continues after a sip of tea. “And we decided, together, that it was a good match. Odin would divorce me, with all honour and a fine, fair settlement, and he would wed Freyja of Vanaheim for the good of the realm. It was all decided – it was the best thing to do.”

“So what happened?” Loki asks, leaning forward. Frigga matches him and drops her voice to a conspiratorial whisper.

“We went to bed,” she says with a filthy grin. “And in the morning, my husband welcomed Lady Freyja as an honorary sister and second Lady of Asgard.”

Loki stares at her and she laughs.

“What is best is not always what is right,” she says, patting him on the knee. “And while a King and Queen must sacrifice much to the Throne, I refused to lose my husband and the man I love.  I certainly have no intention inflicting that loss on my son – or on you. So tell me, as honestly as you can. Do you want to marry my Thor?”

Loki manages a nod.

“Do you love him?”

“Yes,” Loki breathes, and Frigga smiles at him with the same golden warmth as her son.

“I believe you, dear,” she says. “And I do look forward to getting to know you better. Now, drink your tea. By now it should be lukewarm, instead of hot.”

At something of a loss, Loki lifts the cup to his mouth and obediently takes a sip. The tea is indeed only lukewarm and comfortingly bitter, and Loki makes a surprised mewl before he can stop himself.

“Not so bad, after all, is it?” Frigga says, impossibly wise and with real humour lurking beneath her elegance and grace.

“I think I will learn to like it well,” Loki replies, smiling back over the rim of the cup, and thus earns himself a knowing grin and a savoury biscuit.

***

The afternoon passes swiftly in Frigga’s sunkissed terrace, discussing Thor, and magic, and Aesir tradition, and Thor, and the duties of a Queen of Asgard, and Thor. Frigga’s eyes sparkle with amusement every time Loki drags the conversation back to Thor, but she is only too happy to talk about her son, to offer Loki hundreds of years’ worth of childhood tales and embarrassing stories, and she even send a servant to fetch two huge leatherbound tomes, both filled with the vibrant shifting images the Aesir favour in their books. One is full of useful Aesir spells, a primer for new students, and comes at the price of Loki’s word that for every Aesir spell he practices with Frigga he will share with her a rune of Jötunheimr; the other they pour over together, and Loki relaxes enough to mock every bright and blurry imprint of Thor, so busy rushing from place to place the page can barely hold the recording.

He is very aware of the seidr curling around him as sits at Frigga’s side, leafing through the memorybook. There is nothing too deliberate, nothing specifically aimed at him, but there are charms and spells woven into this room, for calm and for peace, for security and harmony, and the tang of Aesir magic is strong for all it is unfamiliar to him. He cannot tell if the power comes from Frigga, from her clothing and accessories, as his does, or whether she has embedded it in the artefacts and furnishings of the room. It is gossamer thin and fine, a nudge towards ease rather than a compulsion to be peaceful, and as such, easily kept at bay by Loki’s own talismans. But Frigga’s company is curiously soothing nonetheless, particularly after the stress of speaking with Odin, and he ends up leaving her hall and returning to his suite feeling much lighter of heart.

He carries his new measure of confidence with him to the early evening meal, once again a needlessly overblown affair. Tonight’s so-called private dinner involves all the jötnar party, Odin, Frigga and Thor, the Privy Councillors and a handful of other people Loki could not care less about. He’s seated opposite Thor on the long table, Odin at one end and Laufey at the other, but with all the food, flowers, candles and assorted nonsense crowding the table, he can barely see Thor at all. Thor gives him a helpless look between courses and nudges him under the table – at least, Loki assumes it was Thor’s booted foot caressing his ankle; it’s hard to tell when all the Aesir wear such heavy footwear.

It’s easy enough to be charming though, since he’s feeling so inclined for once, and he smiles prettily at the old men either side of him, telling them endless stories of his own, his smooth voice rising and falling like a wave as they sit entranced and attentive and most of all silent. It’s the only way to be sure of intelligent conversation, after all. Compared to the welcome feast, this one is thankfully short, though the food is still changed three times. It seems such so pointless – why not save the trouble and just put it all out at once? – but then, it is the scurrying servants doing the fetching and carrying, and perhaps that it is the purpose. An extravagance of work and waste to impress the visiting savages.

Laufey-King must suspect the same, for he is even more restrained than usual, and all save Loki take their cue from him, eating sparsely and speaking slowly, even as the Aesir devour the array of dishes and call for yet more mead and wine. They are not carousing, not truly, but it is still noisier than Loki would have expected for a dinner with the royal family, and he has quite the headache by the time the sugar-dusted desserts are cleared away. Without an Aesir tongue to enjoy the sweetness with, the other jötnar have not bothered with the pastries and honey-drenched fruits at all, beyond a few curious bites; Loki sees Frigga whisper quietly to a servant and moments later a rich platter of cheeses and marrow bones appears, unobtrusively placed next to the unwanted sweets. While the Aesir have had the sense to provide a meat and fish-heavy supper for their guests, it seems there is much their hosts do not know about Loki’s people.

Thor, on the other hand, knows Loki well; he manoeuvres a double helping of marchpane from his plate to Loki’s alongside a selection of delicately crunchy wishbones. There is no point eating the sugary concoction in this form, but the gesture is welcome, as is the heart crudely scored into the goldleaf atop the marchpane cake. Loki gifts him with a genuine smile and sees Thor’s face light up: he is easy to please, and with a little effort, easy enough to keep dancing to Loki’s tune.

Perhaps he should accept the fate the Aesir have laid out for him: a year of watching and learning, of making a place for himself, and then a grand wedding, a spectacle for all the realms, and the start of Thor’s reign, helping to shape him into a King before the Allfather’s death, a dutiful and respected Consort, offering his counsel in the throne room and his body in the bedchamber. He will be loved, and perhaps, in time, respected, to a certain extent.

Most people would leap at such a life. But it grates on Loki like a rusty blade. Yes, he will have more power as Consort to Asgard’s King than he would as Lawspeaker to Jötunheimr’s. That is why he set his sights on Thor in the first place. But it has never been the endgame: it is still not enough. He deserves more. He is worth more.

The betrothal will still go ahead, and since he cannot think of a way to fight it, so will the year’s delay; he will just have to bide his time and carve out a niche for himself in Asgard. After the wedding? His longest laid plans have not changed, and he will await their unfolding in their own good time. In practical terms, nothing has changed, and he is closer now to his goal than he has ever been.

So why is he so unhappy?

***

The thought niggles at him as the dinner ends and Thor arrives to take him by the arm and lead him on the tour of the city. Tonight he has finally been given leave to escort Loki and not his sibja, and while it will not be just the two of them, it is the closest they have been to each other since that first night.

This evening, the jötnar party is to be shown the wonders of Asgard on foot, and they exit Idavollr to see that the sun is still setting, despite the late hour. The summer days are long in Asgard and the nights short; it is cool enough, especially with the breeze coming in from the sea, but it is still the lightest sky most of the jötnar have ever seen, the stars still hidden behind gauzy veils of gold and crimson, the sun a gleaming disc just slipping over the horizon. The realm basks in the late warmth, and Thor turns to Loki and smiles, so much a part of all this glory and so brilliantly burnished that a moment Loki is dazzled.

“Let me show you the city proper,” Thor says. “You will love it.”

Asgard, even at day’s end, is impossibly bright. Loki has never seen so much gold and bronze and silver and marble; how rich this realm must be, to waste so much treasure on its doors and floors and statues! The grand buildings and towering monuments dwarf even the architecture of Jötunheimr, an extravagance in space and size for the tiny, child-sized Aesir who crowd the city. They are everywhere, swarming along the pathways like lemmings, chattering and glinting in the last of the sunlight, beady eyes greedily raking across the jötnar even as they grant them a path.

They split up into smaller parties, the better to wind in and out the streets, no doubt steered through the finest areas of the city by their Aesir hosts. Býleistr and Helblindi vanish into the crowd with the highest ranking officials; Thor and Loki are left with perhaps a dozen companions, or, more accurately, chaperones. Thor is in an expansive mood and proudly shows off his home to Loki, pointing out his favourite taverns, the most elegant statues, the shops and markets and artisans Loki will surely want to visit. The Realm Eternal is a place of marvels indeed, glorious and luxurious and idyllic, a veritable paradise of wealth and wonder.

I am a pauper come to sup at the grandest of tables, Loki thinks sourly, squinting as he is dazzled yet again by the reflection of the setting sun bouncing between a golden wall and the needless armour of the staring passersby. What use was there in showing Jötunheimr to Thor when he grew up knowing that this entire city was his and would one day be his alone? With every exquisite, flower-filled square and gushing fountain, his good mood is further spoiled; by the time they reach a viewing platform to gaze out over the islets and rainbow-spotted sea, shimmering in the last crimson rays, his frustration is back in full force.

“What do you think?” Thor asks him, bright and beautiful and oblivious. “Do you like it? See, the stars are coming out.”

“Magnificent,” Loki says, and a crease appears between Thor’s brows.

“What’s wrong?” he asks quietly; not so oblivious, after all.

Everything, Loki thinks. I am snubbed, I am disparaged, I am being kept away from you – I am facing a future not so glittering as I had hoped, and I am afraid that I – that what I plan will -

“I have missed you,” he says instead; a truth and a lie.

“Oh, Loki,” Thor says, falling easily into the trap, one arm sneaking around Loki’s waist, the other teasing a stray strand that has escaped from his crown of braids. “I am sorry this is not the reunion we had hoped for. But soon it will be.”

Soon. Loki has spent his whole life waiting for soon.

 “Did you know the Vetrformen will not be returned until our wedding?”

“No,” Thor says, frowning. “I thought it was being presented to Laufey-King the day after tomorrow, during the ceremony?”

“Your father says otherwise. It is to stay here while I learn to be an Asgardian Prince, and will only be handed over once we are married and you are crowned Prince Regent.”

Thor looks troubled. “That seems unnecessary,” he says. “I know it is part of the marriage settlement, but surely…” He thinks on it for a moment, and then his face clears. “But Jotunheim will resume trading with us immediately?”

“Yes, but -”

“Then is no matter,” Thor says. “We will send food and aid, especially to the struggling families, to help see them through another year without the Casket. And I am sure that once Father visits Jotunheim and sees for himself the famine and the troubles, he will let your family have it sooner. I am sure he is only being cautious – or perhaps he means to give you a little room, to decide if you like Asgard, after what happened with Skadi?”

Loki stares at him. How can he – does he not understand the insult? The whole purpose of all this long, wearisome process was to get the Vetrformen back! To get Loki a throne! And now it is being pushed back a year, at Odin’s whim – what if in a year he decides to postpone again? Neither Thor nor Laufey can speak against it, not when they are agreeing so readily now. Do none of them see what position this puts Loki in? Betrothed but not wed? A Prince of both realms and none, Thor’s little pet and little else?

Suddenly he understands. Suddenly his treatment all makes sense. It is a warning from the Allfather, a sign of just how powerless he is here. Odin is trying to frighten him, so he will be docile and accommodating when the Allfather reveals whatever grand plan he is hiding. Frigga’s kindness was a bluff, to throw him off guard: he is under attack, he is sure of it.

And Thor does not see it. Thor is not protecting him.

Thor must see some of his turmoil in his face. “What else?” he asks, quieter again, enfolding Loki into him so he can whisper in his ear. “Loki? Has something happened? Has someone insulted you?”

For a heartbeat, Loki could happily claw the idiot’s eyes out. But pressed so close to Thor it is a sob that wells up inside him, a desperate need to speak the truth, to ask for help and have Thor help him fight, for surely he would, if he understood.

“Thor,” he says, and is horrified that his voice shakes. “I need -”

But there is a small cough behind them and Thor looks up sharply.

“What?”

“My Prince,” says someone, no-one, some interchangeable noble of the court. “If there is something wrong…the King said…”

Thor growls and the woman backs off, but it has broken the moment, and Loki pulls himself away. Of course. They are not alone. A dozen jötnar and Aesir mingle around them, stilted and careful with each other, and there are hordes of ordinary citizens going about their business around them, curious and watchful of their Prince and his strange new companion.

“My father has become a prude and half the court with him,” Thor says with a touch of anger. “As if it matters now!”

“It doesn’t,” Loki says, suddenly very tired. “As you say. Do not worry, Thor. I have not been insulted. I am fine – but the heat, the light, the people – I need to rest.”

“Wait,” Thor says. “What were you trying to say?”

“Nothing,” Loki replies, forcing a small smile. “I am just overtired.”

 “Then I will walk you back. We can take our time, we can talk -”

“No need,” Loki says. “I just want to sleep. Why don’t you find your friends and enjoy their company. Is there not some Asgardian custom of the groom celebrating before a wedding? Now is as good a night as any.”

“But I have not seen you all week -”

“No,” Loki says, too sharply. Thor gives him an uncomfortably intense look.

“If you are sure,” Thor says doubtfully. “If you are so tired…” 

“I am,” Loki says, snapping his fingers at a guard, since an escort of some kind is unavoidable. “Good night, Thor. I will see you tomorrow.”

There is some nonsense while Thor calls for a skiff, so he will not have to walk, but thankfully one is close to hand and so he escapes back to the palace without much more talk, though Thor watches him with sad and worried eyes the entire time. He sits alone, silent and straight-backed, as the Aesir pilots the ship and then shows him the way to his room. In his over-thinking, he completely forgot to ask Thor for a map.

He waves the guard away as soon as he spots his own doors, and lets himself in with a sigh of relief. He needs time to think –

“What are you doing here?” Helblindi says, straightening up and looking down at him. “The Odinson bored of his broodmare already?”

“Why are you here?” Loki hisses, clenching his fists. “This is my space.” When did Helblindi leave the tour? How has no-one noticed? The doors to the adjoining suites are wide open; Loki glances at them to check that Helblindi has not been rooting through Býleistr’s possessions – but no, he has only come through Býleistr’s quarters to get into Loki’s without being seen. He should have reinforced the locks.

“I was looking for our bera,” Helblindi says blithely. “The quickest way to his rooms is through yours. Why do you care?”

“You are a poor liar,” Loki says, anger roaring in him as he sees the open chest behind his sibb. “You have been in my things.”

Helblindi considers him for a moment and laughs. “Only an íviðja would care about ‘things’,” he sneers. “Or an Aesir. What’s ours is ours and all of ours. That is the true jötnar way. Why shouldn’t I see what the Odinson has gifted you? The Aesir have been prattling on about treasures and gifts and goods all week. I would see what price they are willing to pay.”

Loki doesn’t believe him for a second. But what could he want? There are powerful artefacts here, but they are in his seidr-locked boxes. Helblindi has only been going through his wooden chest from Thor. There is nothing there he could use or steal, since all of it is very publically Loki’s. Sabotage? How? Ruin his Aesir clothes? A nuisance at best, and easily fixed. Loki cannot find an answer, and it only stokes his rage.

“What do the Aesir matter to you?” he says instead, pushing past Helblindi and slamming the chest shut.

Helblindi turns on his heel to follow Loki’s movements. “The Aesir are insects. Always buzzing and chittering, always pestering. What an utter waste this is. If we are to sell you, let us sell you and be done with it. Why seven days of this nonsense?”

“You had never even seen an insect before today,” Loki snaps; a petty point, but Helblindi still bristles at it. “If it were not for me, you would never have seen one. I want you here no more than you want to be here. If they want to take a week to exchange me for the Vetrformen, it is because we are both rare and precious things, unlike idiot hrimthurs warriors. So be silent and be patient. It will be over soon enough.”

“And we will be rid of you,” Helblindi growls, “thank the ancestors. Stay here and witter away your days in worthlessness and weakness, as the Aesir’s new pet. Jötunheimr will be stronger without you, and so will our House.”

“I am worth more than you,” Loki snarls, fraying temper snapping under this new pressure. “I am worth more than anyone else in Jötunheimr.”

“You?” Helblindi laughs. “The failed heir? If you were worth anything, our bera would not have been desperate to have me. Face it, eldsibb. You are worth nothing. Just another íviðja, pretty enough to look at, but of no more use than one of your rings. If you were that valuable, our bera would not be so eager to part with you. What is so special about you?”

“I am the one the Odinson wants,” Loki hisses. “I am Ríkikyn, just as you are, but I am the only one in all the Realms Odin Allfather would give up the Vetrformen for.”

“We could have taken the Vetrformen by force – or we could have sold another íviðja, if one of your little bedmates in Útgarðar had caught the Odinson’s fancy. No, Silvertongue. You are breeding stock for the Aesir and nothing more. You’ll bed and birth kings, but you’ll never be one.”

There’s a blade in Loki’s hand before he can even think about it, and he’s striking in a heartbeat, frozen dagger tip slicing at Helblindi’s sneering face – but there’s a heavy hand at his elbow and the blow goes wide as Loki twists from Býleistr’s grip.

“No, sibb,” Býleistr gasps, staggering as Helblindi wrenches away from his other hand. He had been at the viewing platform with another group; are all the jötnar now returned? Is his bera coming back? “We are Kyn! We do not shed each other’s blood!”

He’s right. It’s the only reason Helblindi isn’t dead a dozen times over. Not even Loki could talk his way out of Kynslaying. “Lucky for you,” Loki spits at Helblindi as the tall warrior shakes off his frost armour, a belated response to Loki’s attack.

“And you, runt,” Helblindi says, not bothering to disguise his hatred. “Run along to someone else’s bed. I’ll not have you at my back.”

Familiar, oft-spoken words from their youth, and Loki could scream in rage. “These are my quarters,” Loki shouts at him, “not the chambers of the Ríkikyn at home. You cannot order me from here. Get out! Get back to your own den!”

Helblindi just ignores him, and strides out without sparing him or Býleistr a glance, slamming his door behind him as he reaches his own suite.

“Eldsibb,” Býleistr says, very obviously shaken by the conflict he has just witnessed. “What – why -”

“Leave me,” Loki snaps. “Just leave me alone.”

Býleistr looks like he wants to argue, but, as ever, he says nothing and obeys, shuffling out of the room with far too many looks over his shoulder. He closes his doors softly, and Loki leaps to lock them, struggling with the heavy Aesir locks and then throwing up a net of seidr and a web of ice, so he will know if anyone tries to get in. Unnecessary, since Helblindi has either found what he wanted or decided it is not here, but it makes him feel a little more secure.

He looks to his other door, the one that leads to his bera. Did Laufey hear any of that? Is he there? He could speak to him, ask about the business about being a hostage, confess his fears and ambitions, listen to what his King has to say…or he could call for Thor; with the slightest push he is sure Thor would cast off all this formality and take him to his rooms. In fact, he rather thinks Thor has been waiting for him to ask all this week, or give him the slightest encouragement, so that can he can be wild and reckless and Loki’s lover again.

No. It is too late for that. He will make his own way.

Loki settles into the shadows and begins to plan, anger and fear blazing through him. He can figure this out. He can play this game to win. He is so tired, but he cannot rest. He must find his opportunity; he must take every chance presented to him. Soon. So very soon.

 

Chapter Text

XIII: He meditates revenge who least complains

Thor did not know it was possible to be this bored and this frantically busy, all in the same breath: this week, he has read reports, dry and dull and requiring close attention before being ratified with his father’s Great Seal, held meetings with disgruntled the ministers not roped into escorting the jötnar, received officials from all over the realms with petty concerns that could easily have waited a week, but who had jumped at the chance to be in Asgard to see the Frost Giant delegation, issued rulings in the law courts, since his father had insisted justice would not wait for diplomacy, fought in the tourneys (and won them all; the high point of the week so far), eaten  half a dozen official dinners, none of which had enough mead, gritted his teeth through Helblindi’s surly arrogance, found Býleistr to be a surprisingly easy companion and fond of dirty jokes and guessing games, of all things – though it might explain Loki’s skill at riddles – and he wanted to do through all of it was race to Loki, sweep him up and carry him to his rooms and not come out until the betrothal ceremony.

By the fifth day of this palaver, he had been on the brink of doing just that – only to find Loki quiet and evasive and desperately unhappy. He does not take Loki’s less than sincere advice to enjoy himself with his friends, but instead takes some time to walk the city deep in thought before retiring to his room. This has been a stressful week and nothing like the welcome he wanted to offer Loki, but it is almost over – must Loki be so difficult? What does he want Thor to do? He took pains in Jotunheim to remind Thor of their status of Princes – he cannot be surprised at the formality now, and surely he knows that it is a temporary state of affairs and everything will be different in but a few days more?

Thor’s instinct is to push, to chase Loki down and demand answers, but he simply does not have the time – the day before the betrothal is the busiest yet, what with a long and dry meeting with his father and the lawkeepers going through the fine detail of the marriage contract to ensure he understands and can recite every last paragraph before swearing to it tomorrow, and then last minute fittings for his outfit – armour, thankfully, despite his mother’s pleadings for something more elegant. It is an entirely new set, gleaming and decorated and, perhaps a little too snug – and by the time that was done it was late – very late – and since there are no events tonight, it seems he will not see Loki at all before the ceremony. Spotting him at a rare loose end, his friends had swooped down and dragged him out for a celebratory drink, and given he has seen less of them than Loki this last week, it had seemed only fair to spend some time with them too.

His friends are all very put out at not meeting Loki nor the other jötnar, and Thor cannot really answer for why his father seems so intent on keeping them away. He suspects it was to keep him focused on his diplomatic duties, but that hardly seems fair. Fandral and Volstagg have been heavily involved with Asgard’s defences and the Einherjar for years, and have always been welcome to offer Odin counsel before; Hogun has been a de facto cultural attaché for Vanaheim in discussions around those who still live in the old settlements there, and Sif has been a welcome presence at many a Council meeting and particularly with the training reforms. They would hardly embarrass Thor at so important a time. At least they have been granted a place close to him at the ceremony itself, as befits his closest companions.

“Are you excited for tomorrow?” Volstagg asks. “It is not quite a wedding, but still a momentous occasion.”

“I am,” Thor replies; he must sound flat, for his friends exchange worried glances.

“You hardly seem it,” Sif says. “What troubles you?”

 “Loki is not happy here,” Thor says, frowning at his tankard.  “He seems ill at ease.”

“Well, you are not exactly happy this week either,” Sif points out. “It is…trying, for everyone.”

“He probably misses you,” Volstagg offers, a little misty-eyed. “I remember when I first met my Hildegund, every hour apart seemed like a lifetime…”

“…or he’s playing up to get your attention,” Fandral says and shrugs when Thor glares at him. “I’ve had it before. You have been spending all your time with his brothers. Maybe he’s jealous?”

“It’s not my choice who I am spending my time with this week,” Thor says, “and he knows that. This is something else.”

Fandral rests his chin on his hand, deep in thought, before slapping his thigh and jumping up. “He’s pregnant!”

What?” Thor spits, to the guffaws of his friends.

“Moody? Irritable? Impossible to please?” Volstagg says with a thoughtful air. “Could be, could be.”

“It’s possible, I suppose,” Sif says with a wicked grin. “A month or so…has he been eating at the feasts? Does he seem sick?”

“That is not funny,” Thor says but without heat: his mind is full of the image of Loki carrying his child, an image that sparks pride and joy and fear all at once. One day, but not now.  “He would need to be in season to conceive with me. Aesir and jötunn blood will mix, but not that easily.”

“Ah, but your Loki is a sorcerer,” Fandral says gleefully. “Who knows what fertility charms he had tucked away every time you and him -”

“Enough,” Thor says, clapping a hand over his mouth. “I need your help, not your mockery.”

“Asgard is a new world for him,” Hogun says quietly as Fandral claws theatrically at Thor’s hand. “And he will be here for the rest of his life. That is a hard thing to get used to, no matter how much you wanted it before you came.”

The table is quiet at that, mirth dying away. Hogun rarely speaks of leaving Vanaheim, but they have gathered it was not under the easiest of circumstances.

“I’m sure he will be fine,” Sif says eventually. “Just get through the ceremony, and then he can really settle in.”

“We can take him on a hunt,” Fandral says. “And invite some of his friends.”

Sif rolls her eyes.

“What?” Fandral says defensively. “It might make him feel better.”

“And give you the chance to ogle some more íviðjur,” Sif supplies. “It is not a bad idea, nonetheless.”

“Or we could throw him a welcome feast!” Volstagg adds and everyone groans.

Thor sits silently as his friends think up wilder and wilder ideas to welcome Loki to Asgard, unease gnawing at his stomach. They mean well, but they do not understand the first thing about Loki. He believes this will change in time, but – but it does not help him now.

“You are truly concerned,” Sif says to him quietly, later, as he moves to leave far earlier than he would normally. “And we have not helped.”

Thor offers her a weak smile but does not contradict her. She looks at him for a long moment and then sighs. “Go and see your mother,” she says, swiping him on the arm. “She will know what to do.”

***

“Loki is not happy here,” Thor says, frowning at his tea cup.

“Oh, I think he will be, in time,” Frigga says, adjusting her shawl. If she is not best pleased at being dragged out of bed in the middle of the night to talk to her son about his relationship issues, she does not show it. “We had a lovely afternoon together yesterday.”

“Do you like him?” Thor asks, surprised at his own anxiety.

“Very much,” his mother says, eyes twinkling. “I can see he is struggling with his place here, but that is to be expected. Be kind to him and let him know he is loved. All else will come after.”

Wise words, but Thor is not as settled by them as he had hoped. “I do not think love is the problem,” he starts, struggling to find the words. “Something troubles him, deep within. But he will not share it and I cannot fathom it.”

“Hmm,” Frigga says, eyes half-lidded in though. “You know him better than I, my love. But he seems the type to resent being pushed as much as being led. Tell him the truth. Tell him that you see his burden and ask how you can share it.”

“I have done that!”

Frigga smiles faintly. “You cannot force him to give up his secrets,” she says. “It is a hard lesson to learn.”

“This would not be happening if I had spent the week with him,” Thor says. “Instead of playing nursemaid to Helblindi and Býleistr.”

“Perhaps,” Frigga says, expression firming. “But here is another lesson. The throne makes little allowance for your heart. If you would be King, you must learn to set aside your own wants for the needs of the realm.”

“I know that!” Thor says and he sounds a petulant child even to himself. “I have done my duty all week, just as Father wanted. Mother, please. Loki is hurting, I can see it. I just want you to tell me what to do.”

Frigga sighs, even more deeply than Sif. Thor is getting very tired of being sighed at. “You should think carefully,” she says, shaking a finger at Thor when he tries to interrupt. “And let me go to bed . I am going to bed with my husband, because in the morning I will have to be Queen of Asgard and will preside over the most important inter-realm event in a thousand years. I am going to bed, because in the morning, my husband will have to be King of Asgard and will spend the day with his fellow King, working to build a bridge over the bad blood between our peoples. I am going to bed, because before the morning, I would like to have the time to be a wife to my husband and have him be a husband to me. A crown is a heavy burden, and one that requires great strength and sacrifice. But even the greatest of Kings can take it off, from time to time, and this is a good thing for the man. Think on this, my son. Goodnight.”

Thor stares after her as she leaves, puzzling over her words. The throne has no room for his heart, but he should take his crown off to be a good husband? It makes no sense at all!

He has done his duty as a Prince of Asgard for over a month, following his father’s commands, keen to prove how much he has changed, to show he is humble and willing to learn and no longer a brash boy in love with the sound of his own thunder…

…but he is, and always will be, the god of thunder, and storms do not wait for duty’s call.

I am not yet a king, he thinks, rebellion roiling within him. And first I would be a good husband.

***

“Loki!” Thor hisses, risking a second knock against the cold door. The Einherjar had let him into the jötnar suite without a question, even in the dead of the night, but even their incuriosity will be tested if Thor manages to rouse Laufey-King and all the rest along with Loki. “Loki!”

What?” comes an extremely irritated voice from the other side of the door.

“Open the door!” Thor says and the grinding of the bolts sliding back does not quite muffle Loki’s grumbling.

“Do you realise what time it is?” Loki says from around it, eyes narrowed. “Should you not be in bed?”

“Not without you,” Thor says instantly.

Loki scowls at him. “You  have managed without me thus far,” he says. “The ceremony is tomorrow. I am too tired to service you tonight.”

“That is not what I meant!” Thor protests, though the sight of Loki sleep-tousled and presumably naked beneath the fur clutched to his chest does in fact lend itself to such happy thoughts. “Come on, I want to show you something.”

“Now?”

“Now.”

Loki sighs and Thor grits his teeth. “I am exhausted,” Loki says. “Surely it can wait?”

 “No,” Thor says, too loudly. “Please,” he says, dropping his voice and edging closer. “I should have done this on the first night. It will not take long. I have missed you so much – let me show you this one thing tonight.”

He is much closer to Loki now, close enough to see his eyelashes flutter as Thor cups his neck and brings their faces together. Loki sighs again, a low, trembling exhale that is far better than all the others today. “Very well,” Loki murmurs. “Let me get dressed. Do you want me as a jötunn or an Aesir?”

“However you please,” Thor says. “No-one will be seeing us.”

That sparks a flicker of interest at last, and when Loki reappears a few moments later, he is dressed simply and without his usual jewellery, but still in his jötnar skin.

“You have quite the taste for sneaking out,” Loki says primly, but there’s mischief dancing in his eyes and Thor can’t resist leaning in and giving him the long, filthy kiss he’s been dreaming of.

“I have a taste for you,” he says.  Not be the most eloquent of responses but Loki makes a choked whimpering noise and grabs him by the hair. Thor has him up against in the wall in seconds, hands roaming over azure flesh, blood roaring in his ears. It has been too long, too long –

“Wait, wait,” he manages, flushed and aching. “I really do have something to show you.”

Loki stares at him, lips parted. “This had better be good,” he manages after a moment, pointedly adjusting his kjalta. “Very good.”

“You will like it,” Thor promises, slipping an arm around Loki’s waist and waiting until he turns into him, one eyebrow arched in an obvious challenge.

“Well -” The word turns into an undignified squawk as Thor whips Mjolnir with his free hand and then launches them upward, repressing the urge to laugh as Loki clings to him like a limpet. The last time he flew through the corridors his father had him on potato-peeling duties for a week, though that was also due to the mess he made in botching the landing. Now though, in the middle of the night, the hallways are empty and he can skim along at head height with some confidence he will fly into anyone.

“You are the biggest idiot I have ever met!” Loki screams in his ear, but he’s locked his legs around Thor’s waist and there’s a persistent tingling that Thor thinks means he’s using his seidr.

A few hair-raising moments more and Thor dives for a balcony, all but falling over the edge of it, cape billowing as he they freefall, Loki berating him loudly and at length, but he’s not letting go and that’s all that matters as Thor whips Mjolnir again and lifts them higher, using their momentum to pull a sloppy barrel roll, just to hear Loki squawk again.

“I am going to give you wings,” Loki tells him when they even out, soaring high over the city and inland, towards the mountains. “Big, beautiful feathers, in silver and gold. And then I am going to rip them off you because you do not know the first thing about flying with a passenger.”

“I haven’t dropped you yet,” Thor says happily and Loki pinches him.

Thor has never flown this way at night, but he knows the land well, and he tracks along the river that winds through the forest and into the mountains in the wilder outskirts of Asgard. the thin silver ribbon of the river by moonlight vanishes into a gorge and he circles the area for a while, to get his bearings, before spotting the break in the trees and plunging downwards. Loki clutches harder at him as they plummet toward the dark forest, but he doesn’t seem afraid, and as they land on the rocky outcrop Loki remains close to him, looking around with interest.

The city is but a faint haze in the far distance, fainter than the stars wheeling overhead, and all around them the forest is pitch black and sighing with the breeze. Thor shifts his grip on Mjolnir and she crackles to life, radiating a bright white light as electricity arcs and sizzles across her head, and he places her on the edge of the stone next to the rushing water. Asgard is full of waterfalls, but this one is special: here, one of the countless, nameless rivers has cut away at the gorge to form a wide cascade that tumbles endlessly into a roughly circular pool before dancing away between the boulders that mar the river-bed. It was a favourite spot of his in his youth, for the plunge pool is deep enough for diving, which was its chief draw then, but it also has a deep shelf of stone behind the curtain of water, which is cool and damp and wide enough for a grown man to lie out on – or a íviðja of Jotunheim.

It is cold and dark, even on a summer’s night, and Mjolnir’s light and the moon cast a silvery glow across the water and stone, turning the lush plant life to shadowed carvings and the pool to mirrored ice. It is not Jotunheim, it will never be Jotunheim, but it is the closest Thor can offer in the Realm Eternal.

“I thought this might please you better than my poor manners,” he says quietly and sees Loki’s teeth flash in the gloom. “Would you like to swim?”

The water is absolutely freezing, and the moment Thor slips into it his teeth start chattering; he can only manage a few laps with Loki before he is jack-knifing in the water, shuddering uncontrollably as he tries to swim. Loki outpaces him with ease, laughing every time Thor flounders, as smooth and swift in the water as an otter, and he darts in to pinch Thor in all his soft places before kicking away in a swirl of bubbles.

Thor can only take so much of this provocation in the cold, and so regretfully climbs out of the pool, choosing a good sized flat rock to sprawl out on and shake himself dry. Loki is pleased enough with him to come and call the water from his chilled flesh without asking, drawing it off into a fine patina of frost that he wraps himself in like a blanket before falling back into the frigid water.

Thor wraps himself in his cloak to take the edge off, but out of the water it is not truly cold, and before long he is recovered enough to lay out on the boulder and watch the stars, the satisfaction of having done something right a warm glow in his belly. There is some brief splashing as Loki dives, and Thor keeps a careful eye on his surfacing, but after a while Loki tires of playing alone and swims over to Thor’s rock, laying himself out in the shallow bed around its base, the swift river rippling over his skin.

They lay there in peaceful silence for a little time, faces turned up to the jewelled sky , and when Thor lets his hand fall, Loki reaches up and clasps their fingers together. Thor rolls over so he can watch Loki instead, and it is wonderful to see that Loki is the happiest and most relaxed he has been since the handsal.

“This is a pleasing place,” Loki says, eyes bright and hair plastered to his back, looking more a river-elf than a jötunn. “What is called?”

“I do not think it has a name. There are so many falls and pools in the woods and mountains; only the largest and most popular have earned names. But this place…my mother used to bring me here when I was small, and she used to tell me the same story every time we came. So I think of it as Nanna’s Tears.”

“It sounds a sad story,” Loki observes, untangling his hand and idly trailing his fingers in the current.

“It has a happy ending,” Thor says. “I have never liked sad tales.”

“Tell it to me, then.”

“I will not tell it well,” Thor warns. “I have not your gift, nor my mother’s.”

Loki shrugs, undulating in the stream. “Tell it to me anyway. Then I can tell it better.”

Despite himself, Thor smiles. “I do not know if it is a true story, a skald’s song or something Mother made up for me,” he starts, thinking hard. “But she said that in the elder days, before the worlds were as they are now, there was a woman named Nanna, who lived alone in the forest. She hunted alone; she dined alone; she bathed and danced and sang alone, but she was happy, and wanted for nothing. But one night, a strange visitor came to her small house: a great white bear, three times the size of a man. Nanna was a little concerned, for he was such a large bear, but she welcomed him to her house and gave him a supper, as she would for any visitor. The bear was grateful for her kindness, and offered her great riches if she would be his wife, but she refused, saying she hardly knew him.”

Loki fixes him with an unimpressed look. “Is this really the story your mother told?”

“Yes,” Thor says indignantly. “I told you I was not much of a storyteller!”

“Hmm,” Loki says. “Go on.”

“I can’t quite remember the next bit,” Thor says, having lost the thread. “I think the bear tries to take her to his castle? Or offers her treasures and things? But anyway, he keeps coming back, and over the dinners and the gifts and such, they get to know each other, and Nanna comes to realise he is a good and gentle soul.”

Loki scoffs.

“She says she will not marry him,” Thor continues loudly, “but at his request she agrees he may spend the night, if he gives his word to stay by the fire. He swears, and so they go to bed, Nanna in her pallet, and the bear by the fire. The fire dies down, slowly, and the light fades, until there is only shadows and darkness, and Nanna hears a sob. “Bear?” she says. “Why do you weep?” The bear only sobs again, and so Nanna rises from her bed and goes to him, reaching out to him in the darkness. To her surprise, she touches not a bear, but a man’s bare shoulder: she runs her hands over him and discovers it is a man by her fire, laid out atop a bearskin.

“How old were you when you heard this story?”

“Nanna realises the bear is no bear, but a man under a curse,” Thor says, swatting at Loki. “And so they fall in love, and exchange their true love’s kiss.”

“You mean they fuck on the bearskin,” Loki supplies. “I approve.”

“They live happily like this for many months,” Thor says, struggling not to laugh. “A bear by day and a man by night, with Nanna always at his side. And yet in the night, the man often sobs, and will not tell her why. So one night, exasperated, Nanna strikes a flint, to see his face and talk to him – but in that moment a great wind rises and the ground shakes and the man vanishes.”

“Let me guess,” Loki interrupts. “She sets off the find him, and finds he is held in a castle by a powerful sorceress, who demands impossible tasks be completed before the maiden can have him back?”

“Yes,” Thor says. “She asks for the sun and -”

“We also have this story,” Loki says. “But there is no weeping. Skip to the end.”

“You are a terrible audience,” Thor chides. “I have listened to all your stories, whether I knew them or not. But, as you say, Nanna overcomes the tasks, with her wits and her courage, and the sorceress realises she is not cruel and heartless and did not willingly cause the bear pain, and so she reunites them and they live happily ever after.”

“Wait,” Loki says. “That doesn’t make sense. The sorceress is the villain of the piece. The maiden is supposed to defeat her and then the bear-prince is freed from his curse”

“The sorceress is the bear’s friend,” Thor corrects. “She thought Nanna had hurt him. She wanted only to protect him.”

“That is not in any story I know.”

“Well, this is my mother’s story. She is fond of changing things.”

“But the bear was cursed?”

“No,” Thor explains. “Nanna was wrong. The bear was a bear who fell in love with her from afar and asked the sorceress to make him human at night so he could love her. The bear was crying because he was lying to her, and because she had asked to see his face, and he kept refusing. He thought if she saw his face – which was still bear-like – she would be repulsed and leave him.”

“But he vanished when she saw him!”

“Because he wanted to hide from her,” Thor says. “The sorceress was again granting his wish. He was being a coward, and he too was wrong. Once Nanna understood, she forgave him, and she loved him just as he was. So they lived happily together, Nanna still as she had ever been in the day, the bear off hunting, and at night they came together in her house.”

Loki stares at him. “That is not a story I have ever heard,” he says. “I do not think I understand it. You are sure the bear was not a prince in disguise?”

“The bear was a bear,” Thor confirms. “I have not told it well.”

“The bear was a bear and she lived happily ever after with the bear,” Loki says, shaking his head. “What a tale to tell a child. But there are still no tears.”

“Oh, I forgot that part,” Thor says. It is hard to tell a story properly with so many interruptions! “Nanna fails the last task. She cannot drain the salt from the sea, and the sorceress tells her she will never see the bear again. She sits and begins to weep, and it is the first time in her life she has ever wept, for she has never cared for anyone as she cares for her bear. She cries a river of tears, and the sorceress sees her heart, and realises that they do love each other and it is all a misunderstanding. Mother used to point at the waterfall and say that Nanna’s heart was just as powerful as the river, and that love can wash away anything, if only it is free to flow.”

Loki sits and thinks about this. Thor had not thought it so strange a tale; it is one he was told often when he was younger, and has never really thought about. It is a bit odd, he supposes, for Nanna to love a bear, but it is only a story. Strange things always happen in stories.

“It was easy for her,” Loki says, ducking his head so his face is in shadow. “She had only herself to please. We are not so lucky.”

“Loki?” Thor ventures after it becomes clear Loki has nothing else to add. “…are you well?” Are you regretting your choice already? he thinks, but does not add.

Loki reaches up and brushes his fingers over Thor’s dangling hand. “I love you,” he says, but Thor likes not at all the sadness threaded through the words.

“And I you,” he replies, squeezing Loki’s cold fingers. “I will take care of you, Loki. I swear it.”

Loki smiles wanly. “Always so sure it is I who needs taking care of,” he murmurs. “You would do well to look to yourself.”

“I have no need to,” Thor says intently. “For I have you.”

Loki drops his gaze. “So you do,” he says. “So you do.”

Talk to me! Thor thinks fiercely. Just tell me what is wrong! He could push this: could provoke another fight between them, in the hope of squeezing some small truth from Loki. But tomorrow is their betrothal ceremony, and he did not bring Loki here to fight.

“Do you still want to marry me?” he asks bluntly.

“Yes,” Loki says, gaze snapping back to Thor. “Never doubt that.”

Very well. Thor leans down and Loki obligingly rises up out of the water, catches his face in his wet hands and kisses him. His skin is cold beneath Thor’s touch once again, and the water trails over his Kynlines, sparkling like frost in the moonlight.

“I do not think you brought me here for children’s stories,” Loki says, a slow, sweet smile lighting up his face. “You had something special to show me?”

Thor takes him by the hand and leads him over the wet rocks, treading carefully along the narrow path until they slip behind the waterfall. The shallow cave wall is furred with moss as green as Loki’s Aesir eyes, and Thor lays his cape down on the damp floor to make it more comfortable for them. Thor shivers in the cool of the shallow cave, the spray of the waterfall scattering diamond-dust droplets across him, but it is nothing compared to the lust and love burning in his blood as Loki stalks toward him.

He wants to be gentle, slow and loving, he truly does, but Loki will not have it, and he attacks Thor with the same ferocity as that first time, greedy for the taste of Thor’s lips, his skin, his flesh. His head is in Thor’s lap and his nails digging painfully into Thor’s thighs, and Thor throws back his head and shouts his name as he comes, embarrassingly fast.

Loki licks his lips and looks up at him with half-mad eyes. “You had no-one else,” he says, absolutely certain. Thor nods anyway.

“Come here,” he says, drawing Loki up and into his lap, “sváss,” and Loki clings tightly to him, hips undulating as Thor slides a finger over his slick cunt, teasing at his folds before pushing inside. Loki is tight, so tight, and he shudders as he rides Thor’s fingers, hair falling forward as he leans down for more kisses, keening softly when Thor closes his other hand around his cock. Loki too is undone swiftly, biting down hard on the meat of Thor’s shoulder as he comes, and yet as soon as he is done Thor is hard again and desperate for more.

Thor groans as Loki sinks down on his cock, pressing his forehead against Loki’s back as Loki twists to face the waterfall, letting Thor keep him upright with one firm palm against his chest. Thor cannot help grinding into him, chasing his pleasure as Loki works his own cock, drenched in the waterfall’s spray and  sliding slickly up and down in Thor’s lap.

“I missed you,” Thor says, the words spilling from him as he climbs towards orgasm, licking the water droplets from Loki’s spine. “So much, Loki. I will never be parted from you again, I swear it, never -”

Loki comes again with a scream, as sharp as a knife, cunt clenching around Thor’s cock and Thor follows him down, this second orgasm longer and sweeter than the frantic first. Loki slumps back against him, languid and lovely in his arms, and they sit there in peace once again, watching the endlessly tumbling water, a veil of snow and lace in the moonlight, the river’s roar as steady as the beating of their hearts.

***

Thor oversleeps the next morning, unsurprisingly, and has to be woken by an extremely flustered servant brandishing a breakfast platter in one hand and Thor’s helm in the other; he wolfs the meat and fruit while a small army of maids and pages manhandle him into his new armour and fuss over his cape and beard and braids.

He does not have time to be nervous, not as another servant arrives to hurry him along to where his parents are waiting, but if he did, he might find himself still a little uneasy at heart – not about the betrothal, but about all this ceremony, so different to the handsal and so much more strained. Is this the best way to do things, after all?

“Late to your own betrothal,” Frigga admonishes him as he takes her by the arm, the doors opening in front of them before he can even catch his breath. “Not a good precedent.”

“Not unexpected,” Thor replies under his breath and she winks at him before composing her features into a regal smile as they move forward, his father grave and silent and possibly less than impressed with him on his right. The citizens cheer and whoop as they make their way to the high seat; it’s  so like and utterly unlike his failed coronation that he can’t shake the feeling he is dreaming all this, that he will wake and find himself back in his own rooms and Loki nothing more than a figment of his imagination.

It’s a disorientating thought and it has him feeling a little strange as he takes his place before the throne, next to the golden pillar brought in especially for today. He has seen the Casket of Ancient Winters many times in his visits to Asgard’s Vault, but it looks different here in the great hall. Without the Destroyer’s cage behind it, it is easier to see just how large it is, and how fine the detail; it is now more obviously a casket, a chamber for the power curling within it, a seething, shifting cauldron of blue, an endless, dancing ocean of liquid light.

The heart of Jotunheim. It will be the first time any jötunn has seen it since his father took it from the temple: he and Loki will swear their vows on it, their love made statecraft in its cool glow.

Thor tears himself from contemplating the Casket to pay more attention to those around him, conscious of the solemnity of the occasion in a way he had not been for his coronation. His mother and father stand behind him, raised up on the steps, splendid in new robes, serene gazes fixed above the crowd; to his left are his friends, struggling not to grin as they catch his eyes. To his right are the lords and ladies who acted as companions for the Jarls: Tyr, Lord of Battle, looking uncomfortable in his formal robes; Bragi, Lord of Poetry, nodding to himself, his grey beard bouncing up and down as he hums; Gefjon, Lady of Agriculture, looking dignified and respectful and perhaps ever so slightly bored…his gaze skips over these familiar faces and returns to the heavy doors at the end of the room. Given he has just walked it, the room has never seemed so large nor the path so long.

After a small eternity of sweating palms and stomach-churning turmoil, the doors open and Laufey-King enters. He and the jötnar look as imposingly severe as ever, but Thor cares nothing for them, not even Helblindi’s curled lip or Skrýmir’s supercilious glare, for trailing at the back is Loki, his Loki, and he is so very beautiful.

His kjalta is studded with seed-pearls and diamonds, shining like stars against the black velvet and leather, and he has swapped his usual golden jewellery for mother-of-pearl and  sapphires set in platinum, in delicate, fern-like patterns, like frost on a window pane. He has loosed most of his hair, keeping just a crown of plaits atop his head and around his face, and these too are studded with quartz and tanzanite and plump white pearls, like meltwater from a glacier. His torc is huge, covering half his chest and sweeping just over his shoulders, made of interlocking pearl and lapis lazuli scales, the gold-flecked blue blending into the iridescent mother of pearl and then shading into black pearls and finally creamy white pearl. He is an ice prince, a gift from the sea, arrayed in snow and frost and deepest blue, the only other colour the crimson of his eyes, and Thor’s breath catches at the sight of him.

He is not the only one. Every eye in Asgard is on Thor’s betrothed and Loki’s lips curve in satisfaction as he stands before the Casket, its ethereal light playing across his skin and jewellery and creating a thousand glittering rainbows as he moves.

Thor should say something but all he can do is stare. If this is a dream, he does not ever want to wake.

His father begins to speak and a hush falls over the crowd. Thor really, really ought to be listening, but he heard all this yesterday, and none of it seems to matter next to the gleam in Loki’s eyes. He says the right things in the right places, or close enough that the ceremony plods on without him, promising to uphold the contract, to marry Loki in a year’s time, to return to Jotunheim with him at the midsummer celebration and return the Casket to Laufey-King, and Loki promises – something, some words falling from his lips while Thor sees only their movement, their plumpness, the tiny flash of tongue.

He is taking Loki to his room the instant this is done and they are not coming out for the whole damn year.

“And so,” Odin says, lifting both their hands, “I -”

There is a sudden roar, behind them, and Loki turns faster than Thor, eyes narrowing and then widening, his mouth opening a stunned o as Skrýmir charges forward, shrouded in mist and growing larger with every step, lunging at them with hand outstretched – but it is Thor he collides with, his hand bitingly cold as it closes around Thor’s neck, frostbite blooming where he brushes over Thor’s skin. Thor is already raising his fist, striking back, but Skrýmir is not after him: his hand closes over the pendant at Thor’s neck and with a sharp tug he pulls it free. Loki is screaming something at him, scoring runes in the air, pale green fire flaring at his fingertips as he flings some kind of spell at Skrýmir, but the Erilar simply absorbs the impact and keeps moving, casually backhanding Loki across the face and knocking him down, taking a step – two – and coming face to face with Odin.

It takes precious minutes for Mjolnir to hear his call and slap into Thor’s palm with a ringing cry, moments more to bring her down squarely at Skrýmir’s exposed back, even as his father sweeps Gungnir round and his mother snatches up a dagger and tries to cut between them, but it’s too late, too late.

Skrýmir drives Thor’s pendant into Odin’s chest, the seemingly blunt point of the nail tearing through armour and flesh with unholy ease, so hard that Thor hears Odin’s ribs crack. Mjolnir connects with Skrýmir’s spine with a wet crunch but Skrýmir has already called an ice-dagger with his other hand, has already thrust it into the open wound, and Thor hears his father’s choked gasp as he begins to fall, heart’s-blood spurting and splashing across Skrýmir’s face.

Odin falls, face ashen, Gungnir dropping from his limp fingers, bleeding and helpless and – and dying, and the shock is so great that for a moment Thor cannot move.

In that instance all hel breaks loose.

“Protect the King!” Tyr shouts and the Einherjar surge towards the platform just as Frigga drops to her knees and thrusts a hand into the wound in Odin’s chest, face white as she pulls the nail free from his body and throws it aside. She rips a swath of fabric from both her and Odin’s clothes and wads them up to press over the wound, magelight flaring around her as she draws on her spells.

Laufey makes a sharp gesture and the Jarls check their followers, demanding that they stay still and silent as the Asgardians move into position around them. “Peace,” he rumbles, coldly furious. “Peace.”

“Stand down!” Agmundr roars, Thrymr bellowing behind him, “Don’t ye fuckers move!”; lightning crackles at Thor’s fingertips and he is seconds away from launching it at Skrýmir when Loki is suddenly in his path, screaming furiously at Skrýmir, his own hairpin in his hand. Thor checks the crackling electricity and starts to circle, shouting at Loki to get out of his way, for though Skrýmir is limping, obviously hurt, Thor’s blow has not struck him down. But before he can attack, Loki is there, stabbing at Skrýmir, again and again, with ice-daggers and his hairpin, vicious and fast and in Thor’s way

And in that moment, Helblindi grabs Gungnir from the floor and drives it straight through Laufey-King’s throat.

Bera!” Býleistr screams, the sound reverberating around the room, so loud and so deep that the Aesir must clap their hands over their ears as they flee, the lords and ladies scattering, the Einherjar rushing forward, a great clatter of armour and shields, only to be met by Hverglmir and Suttungr and their followers. The other jötnar stand stunned for a moment and then, inevitably, turn on each other, some rushing to their King’s side, some joining the fight against the Aesir, some falling to blows with their neighbour as the reality of the coup sinks in, the air filling with shouts of rage and desperate pleas. The jötnar come together with a great shattering of ice, their frost weapons brittle and weak compared to their strength in Jotunheim, but making up for the lack with dirty, brutal hand-to-hand fighting.

Loki freezes in his attack against Skrýmir, horror painted on his face, and he takes a single step towards his bera, mouth open in a wail. But Skrýmir has no such sorrow and he slams a heavy fist into the side of Loki’s head, knocking him to the floor.

Thor is moving before he can even think about, pure, primal rage propelling him across the intervening space and he has Skrýmir by the throat in seconds. He should have killed the bastard in Jotunheim – but his fingers are blackening, frostbite creeping over him, and it burns as fierce as fire. He is no longer protected.

“He’s mine,” Loki says, back on his feet and yanking at his arm. “Thor, get the Vetrformen.”

“What?”

“The Casket, get the Casket! Before Helblindi!”

It takes Thor a moment to see the sense in this, but it’s hard, so hard to let Skrýmir go, despite the pain in his hand. His father – dying; Loki, hurt – everything in him screams for vengeance, to take his bloodprice from Skrýmir’s battered body.

“Thor!” Loki says, nails digging into his arm until they draw blood. “Thor, Helblindi is the threat! With the Casket -”

With the Casket, Helblindi can wreak havoc on this world and all the others. Loki is right.

Thor releases Skrýmir, who staggers back, hands coming up in attack or defence, who knows – and Thor certainly does not care as he slams a fist into Skrýmir’s face. It’s not nearly enough, but the slick slide of blood is all the balm he needs for his frostbitten fingers.

Even as he steps back, Loki is dancing between them, seidr flaring.

“This is your fault,” Skrýmir spits at Loki, blood pouring down his face, ice bristling from his body. “You betrayed me. You abandoned your own people to be an Aesir’s broodmare.”

“So you threw your lot in with Helblindi?” Loki returns, striking out with green flame, eyes gleaming in its light. “You sacrificed our King just for a chance to kill the Allfather?”

“Laufey lost his purpose,” Skrýmir hisses, “Helblindi would have been a strong king. With me at his side, perhaps even a good one. Better for Jotunheim than a broken Laufey and better him than his idiot sibb -”

“You fool,” Loki says, shaking with anger, and, Thor realises, with tears in his eyes. “I would have been best for Jotunheim. I have always known what is best for Jotunheim, and it is not the Allfather’s death at our hands.”

“You?” Skrýmir says, and there is an odd note in his voice, almost a question. “But you -”

“You are right about one thing, though,” Loki says, face twisting into pure hate. “I have betrayed you.”

He darts forward, hairpin clenched tightly in his fist, and just like Thor’s pendant, it cuts through Skrýmir’s flesh like a knife. Loki is locked tightly with the Erilar, hissing something that Thor cannot make out, but he does not have the time to stay and watch this play out. Loki is clearly capable of handling Skrýmir, and Thor’s duty takes him elsewhere.

The Casket still sits on its pedestal, below the throne, which is ringed with Einherjar with Tyr at their head. The rest of the palace troops are fighting in tight knots, back to back, to avoid being overwhelmed by the larger hrimthursar, though it seems most of the jötnar are fighting each other rather than the Asgardians. Helblindi has perhaps half the delegation on his side: it’s hard to tell in the melee, but it looks like it is mostly the Southerners and the younger jötnar who are following him, the ones who have never fought in a war, who grew up hearing much of the same stories Thor did, but from the other side.

It is these youngsters who flank Helblindi now, and while they may be fools, they are still well-disciplined and strong, and they are pressing hard against Tyr and his defenders. Behind them, his mother is cradling Odin in her arms, face blank and eyes closed, a faint glow surrounding them both. The Allfather needs a healer more than another warrior right now, and only she is powerful enough to battle whatever dark magic has injured him.

Sif is also close at hand, having sprung instantly to the Allfather’s defence as Thor charged after Loki and Skrýmir; the Warriors Three are more spread out, each caught in fighting those of the hirðverr not occupied with their own kind. He scans the jötnar they face and sees that Thrymr is now struggling with Suttungr, two huge battle-axes growing in his hands, while Býleistr has been caught off guard by Hverglmir and is now locked in close combat with him, a brutal affair of teeth and elbows and head-butting that is, for the moment, keeping him away from  both Helblindi and where Laufey fell.

He cannot see Laufey at all.

All his life, Thor has been dreaming of fighting the jötunn horde, proving his mettle in a noble battle against wicked, treacherous monsters. But not like this. Not like this.

“Damn you,” he growls, cursing Helblindi, Skrýmir, the Norns, the war-torn past that will not rest easy in the hearts of the living – but he was born for battle, not curses, and if this is the battle he is to be given, this is the battle he will win.

Helblindi is close at hand, forcing his way through the massed Einherjar with sheer brutality, his father’s warriors screaming as they are blinded by frostbite, face and hands and any exposed weak spots burnt black with cold and crushed in Helblindi’s huge hands. The battlefield  is too closely packed to throw Mjolnir at him so Thor must shove his own way though, holding Mjolnir right under the head until he can get close enough to punch with her, using her as an extension of his own fist.

The jötnar fall in the face of his fury, a tangle of too-long limbs and too-broad chests, blocking his way, and the more he hits, the harder it becomes to move forward, everyone locked together in the tight space between the throne and the steps, and he can see Helblindi – can see his sharp cheekbones, his hooked nose, so much like his bera. How could he? How could he? – but he’s just beyond Thor’s reach, and as Thor drives up, catching a startled hrimthurs under the chin and lifting him clean off his feet he loses him and then – there’s a crash as the Casket’s pillar topples onto the steps, a solid chunk of gold and metal now bouncing into the melee, and that means –

In Helblindi’s hands the Casket roars to life, burning like a star, and with a triumphant shout Helblindi raises it high overhead, white light spilling from it, and a thousand spears of ice erupt with a scream like breaking glass, so cold they steam faintly in Asgard’s warm air.

The crush around him magically clears, the jötnar scattering and the Einherjar falling back, horror on their faces as the spears race towards Thor and his parents, and he faces them with the promise of death thick on his tongue. Freed from the thick of battle, he can throw Mjolnir in a wide arc, and she gleefully smashes through the spears, shattering them into ice-dust, but there are so many, forming and reforming, and he calls her back, lays about him left and right, keenly aware that it will take only one to pierce him, to pass him by and fell Frigga and with her his father.

A great grey shadow looms at his side and he spins, ready to fight - but the jötunn shoves past and roars a battle-cry, ice leaping from his hands, forming a crude shield that the frozen spears clatter harmlessly against.

It is Agmundr, and he is protecting them with a wall of ice. Helblindi spits a curse in their general direction, and lowers the Casket, looking around for Gungnir – but it is in the hands of Bergfinnr, Thrymr’s child, and he has retreated to where Laufey – or his body – is surrounded by Thrymr and most of the northerners, who snarl openly at him. Helblindi lifts the Casket against them, but Býleistr has seen him distracted and closed with him, and he wrenches at the Casket, trying to take it from his sibja.

Hverglmir and Suttungr turn from their attacks on the Einherjar and start struggling towards Helblindi as he and Býleistr wrestle for the Casket; Thrymr is on his feet and moving forward too, leaving his children to guard Laufey.

Thor turns on Agmundr, Mjolnir still raised.

“I will protect Odin-king,” Agmundr says with a grimace, his ice-shield spreading outwards, protecting both Thor’s parents and the guards. “The Vetrformen does not harm her own.”

“Why?” Thor asks, blunt in his anger.

Agmundr snorts. “My King is dead. No Kynslayer will ever be a King of mine.”

“That is a reason to fight Helblindi,” Thor says. “But why would you protect my family?”

“You stood at the handsal and pledged yourself to us,” Agmundr says, the scars on his chest standing proud as he flexes, driving more power into the ice-wall as a group of Helblindi’s troops  regroup around them and begin to hurl themselves against it. “I gave my word to treat you as Laufey’s child. You are Kyn. But more than that – you and Loki are the key to peace. There must not be another war. Not now. Not from this madness and treachery.” He glances down at Thor, a bone deep fury glinting in his eyes. “You cannot let Býleistr kill Helblindi.  They are sibja before all else. But you - my King named you Laufeybarn, Thor of Ásgarðr, but Helblindi is not of your blood.”

“I will not forget this,” Thor says, and he means it. Thrymr and his Kyn he would count as friends; Agmundr he does not know well, but he has proved himself again a honourable warrior and one Thor is proud to have fight by his side.

“Nor I,” Agmundr replies wryly, “I never thought I would ever fight the hirðverr in defence of the Aesir. I will protect your kyn, Odinson, have no fear. Now go. End this.”

Thor does not need to be told twice. But in the melee of ice and flashing blades, it is near impossible to tell friend from foe in the packed mass of warring jötnar. The Einherjar cannot stand down, not with so many rogue hrimthursar intent on slaughter, and so Thor cannot loose the lightning to clear a path, not without harming his own people.

Thor whips Mjolnir in hand and leaps high, clear over Agmundr’s shield, throwing himself into the thick of the fighting. He lands heavily, slamming Mjolnir to the ground, and the golden tiles of the palace floor ripple and buck at the impact, throwing the attacking hirðverr warriors off balance. A swift swipe to the back of their knees drops them, and Thor can slam Mjolnir’s head into one – two – three of them in as many heartbeats, knocking them effortlessly aside.

It is glorious and wonderfully satisfying, righteousness swelling as he punishes all those who dare to face him, the world narrowed to the snarling giant in front of him, to his flanks, at his back, a world of blue-black blood and freezing blows, the anger of the jötnar low and throbbing, the resounding cries of the Asgardians mingling with the clash of metal and the meatier thumps of flesh on flesh. He fights and he fights, and not one asks for mercy, not one offers surrender, and he is glad, he is glad, he will kill them all –

“Thor-Prince,” pleads a rasping voice. “Wait -”

Thor wipes his face, flicking away the tar-like jötunn blood, blinking away battle-fever to see Bergfinnr before him, hands raised. He shakes his head and checks his bearings: all that fighting and he is still near the throne, near where Laufey fell.

 “Peace,” Thor says, but he does not lower Mjolnir.

“Peace,” Bergfinnr replies swiftly, some of the tension bleeding from him, and Thor lets Mjolnir slacken in his grip.

“Is Laufey-King -”

Bergfinnr steps aside numbly to reveal Laufey, sprawled on the floor, eyes glassy and chest still. There is blood everywhere, soaked into the hands of the jötunn who obviously tried to save him, a terrible river of it pouring from his throat, sluggishly dripping over the King’s chest and pooling beneath him. No-one could survive such a wound.

“I am sorry for your loss,” Thor says, genuinely saddened. He will not pretend to liking Laufey overmuch, but he had come to respect him, and to admire in his strength and dedication to his people. This is no way for such a King to die.

The small party protecting the body only manage to nod at him, teeth gritted, as if to start grieving will mean they will not be able to stop. “Yer father?” Bergfinnr asks.

“He lives,” Thor says, the next words sticking in his throat. “Though I do not know for how long. My mother is with him.”

“Good,” Bergfinnr says, exhaling. “Good. The Erilar?”

“Loki had him,” Thor says, “and I have not seen them since.”

“’Ere,” Bergfinnr says, gesturing to another youngling, who solemnly offers Thor Gungnir. He takes it in his left hand but the spear is dull and inert: a symbol of kingship, but not the force it is – was – in his father’s hands. He does not have the skill to wake its true power.

“Keep it safe,” he says, giving it back to Bergfinnr who looks at him in open astonishment. “I need only Mjolnir in this battle. Get it to my mother if you can. But do not let Skrýmir near it.”

“I – thank ye, Thor-Prince,” Bergfinnr says, holding the golden spear reverentially.

 “Where is Helblindi?”

“There,” Thrívaldi snarls, and his companions growl along with him. He points at a knot of young hirðverr, who have formed a loose semi-circle, sheltering Helblindi; now Thor knows to look, he can see flashes of light between them as Helblindi bends over the Casket, doing Norns knows what with it. Laufey nearly levelled Midgard with the Casket: Thor must get it out of Helblindi’s hands.

He still cannot see Loki, but he cannot think of that now.

“What do you mean to do?” Bergfinnr asks and he turns to see the northern jötnar standing tall, every eye on him.

“Kill Helblindi,” Thor says and the jötnar grunt in approval.

“Then we will follow you,” Thrívaldi says. “We can do no more for our king.”

“You can avenge him,” Thor says shortly. “And help me make the peace he died for.”

Some of them grimace, but there is a show of nods and a flexing of fists as they reform their ice-weapons and armour, falling in behind Thor.

“For Asgard!” Thor roars, lifting Mjolnir high as a symbol for the Einherjar. “For Laufey!”

“For Asgard!” reply the Einherjar and his friends; he knows Sif and Tyr will hold the line around the father, but now the rest of Asgard’s warriors will rally to him.

“For Laufey!” comes a deeper, more ragged chorus, as stray jötunn loyalists see something to rally behind.

Without waiting to see what numbers will answer his call, Thor charges Helblindi’s group: a few step back, afraid or unsettled, and one even bolts, but the rest hold firm, lowering their heads and calling up fresh blades for the assault, roaring a challenge back at him, a wordless, rumbling cry.

An ice-spear flies towards Thor’s face but he knocks it aside, teeth bared, dimly aware of the thundering feet of the jötnar behind him, the Asgardians running into position for a v-shaped wedge around him.

A handful of paces away – four – five – and Thor leaps as the two sides crash together, throwing his weight into the jötnar in front of him and from there it is a mad crush of bodies, ice and blood and blade and raw, heaving breaths as he lays about him with Mjolnir, pushing forward, ever forward, forcing his way between the bigger, broader bodies in his path. They fight hard, and given the press he realises that the other jötnar scattered about the room have come together, some to defend and some to attack, but all that matters is the taste of winter and the white light just visible between the defenders.

“Helblindi!” Thor roars and suddenly the bodies in front of him part like water and he is face to face with Helblindi.

You,” Helblindi sneers, face twisted, surging to his feet, the Casket in his hands. He thrusts it at Thor and the pulsating light within explodes like a supernova, blasting out a beam of pure cold that catches Thor squarely in the chest. He cannot breathe, cannot move, and he is so numb he cannot even feel the ice he can see swallowing him up. If only he had his mother’s pendant – or Loki’s –

Býleistr slams into Helblindi, knocking his elder sibling flying, the ice-beam stuttering and failing as he loses focuses. The siblings tussle on the ground, silent and fierce, leaving Thor half-entombed in ice and wrenching at his trapped limbs. He is still struggling free as Býleistr begins to choke, kicking and thrashing in Helblindi’s grip, Helblindi’s arm locked around his throat; there must be a dozen jötnar around them who can see what is happening, who are not locked into their own battles, and yet not a one moves to help their younger Prince. Thor curses: he will not stand by and watch Helblindi kill more of his family!

He throws Mjolnir directly at Helblindi’s head where it looms above Býleistr’s, trusting his aim will be true. It is, but just before she impacts, Helblindi jerks to the side and the blow goes wide, slamming into his shoulder with a loud crunch. Helblindi grunts in pain, a pleasing sound, but more importantly, his grip on Býleistr goes immediately slack. Býleistr slides from him, half-throttled and too dazed to get back up. Helblindi leaves him, attention fixed on Thor, who has already called Mjolnir back and who shatters the ice around him with one blow.

But it seems it will be for naught: Helblindi raises the Casket again, and Thor knows he cannot hope to dodge or block its power. How is he to fight if Helblindi keeps locking him in ice?

“Aesir dog,” Helblindi snarls, “You and my habjakk sib will both die this day.” He thrusts the Casket of Ancient Winters before him like a shield and a whirlwind of ice and cold scythes towards Thor.

Thor raises Mjolnir to block - but Loki suddenly steps in front of Thor, smooth as silk, and raises one hand, fingers crooked in a runesign. The cold splits in two around him, sheering cleanly in half at his fingertips and streaming harmlessly past. It’s still brutally cold, a hurricane wind robbing Thor of breath, ice crystallising over his cape where it flaps in the wind, but the paralysing numbness does not touch him, nor frostbite bloom on his exposed skin.

“I am Ríkikyn,” Loki says, quiet and cold, though madness dances in his eyes. “The Vetrformen is as much mine as yours – but I know her secrets and you do not.”

The heart of winter howls around them as Loki turns, one hand held out in front, the other reaching for Thor.

“Here,” he shouts over the rushing winds, thrusting his hairpin at Thor. “You need it. It will protect you from the Vetrformen.”

The hairpin is wet with blood and hard to hold; Loki spits a curse and takes a jerky step back so he can push it roughly into Thor’s hair.

“Skrýmir?” Thor shouts.

“Dead,” Loki says, face creased in concentration. “As Helblindi soon will be.”

“Not by your hand,” Thor says and feels the madness in Loki’s gaze turn upon him.

“You think I cannot -”

“He is your sibb,” Thor says, willing him to see reason. “This must be my fight.”

Loki hisses, eyes wild, and visibly bites off his response to settle for a nod. “You are safe from the touch of winter,” he says instead. “But that will not save you from being gutted by his blade.”

“I do not fear him,” Thor replies. “And you still have not seen me in battle.”

Loki rolls his eyes, a curiously reassuring gesture. “I will not be watching with breast heaving this time, either. Or had you forgotten there is a small war going on behind us?”

“I trust I can leave it in your capable hands?” Thor asks and is rewarded with a flickering smile.

“I’ll watch your back,” Loki says. “But don’t make this a habit.”

“Fighting your sibja or fighting without you at my side?”

“Both,” Loki says, teasing and light, and Thor laughs as the light from the Casket finally fades, leaving them standing between two waves of ice, their breath steaming in the air. 

Helblindi howls in frustration as both Loki and Thor emerge unscathed from the power of the weapon; since he gives him no advantage, he drops it, letting the priceless artefact skid across the floor like an abandoned toy as he squares his shoulders and calls the ice it has birthed to his body.

Thor grew up with tales of what the Frost Giants could do in war, and yet it still takes him a moment to understand what he is seeing. A fine patina of frost settles over Helblindi’s skin and begins to thicken and grow, rippling in silver-touched fractals as it blooms like thorns, spike and studs erupting as it thickens into true armour, including a spiked helm very obviously modelled on a crown. Two enormous maces erupt from Helblindi’s clenched fists and sprout outwards, nearly doubling his reach before they too blossom into spikes. The other jötnar are weakened by being here, but Helblindi is of the blood royal and is drawing on the power of the Casket. He is strong, very strong, taller, heavily armoured and he has already proved himself a deathdealer this day.

Good. Thor readies Mjolnir, a wolfish grin stealing over him, bloodlust singing in his veins: a noble cause and an enemy who deserves a beating. He will enjoy this.

Thor smashes Mjolnir into Helblindi’s left hand, hearing a sickening scrape as the impact forces Helblindi’s injured shoulder further out of alignment, the ice-mace shattering as Helblindi rocks back. He follows this with a swing at Helblindi’s unprotected face, but Helblindi uses the momentum of the first blow to lean back, out of the way, and he tilts his body around Thor’s swing to send his right hand – and mace – barrelling towards Thor’s chest. It’s a good hit, made better by the way the ice-spikes break and reform instantly, the shards digging into his armour, one catching him in the tiny gap between chestplate and arm. A good hit, and Thor reels with it, at the sheer power behind it, a solid punch from a giant.

He laughs and lunges, battle-fury sizzling over his skin, and the struggle petering out behind him, the wounded and the regretful, his father and mother, his friends, even Loki – all vanishes away in a grey fog, a dull backdrop to the blazing hatred that lights Helblindi up like a star, the one point of glorious colour in Thor’s world. He hits and ducks and jabs and weaves, every trick he learned in Thrymstaðr coming effortlessly back, every game of wrestling he played as a boy with the men of the court alive within him, moving on pure instinct as he hammers against Helblindi’s weapons and armour. He was made for this, for battle and for glory, and Helblindi spoke true in one thing: this is a fight such as he has never known.

His bones ache and he shudders with every earth-shaking impact, but nothing can stop him, there is no need to hold back, and he looses he strength against the giant before him, lost in the savage joy of the fight, his knuckles bloodied and a thousand cuts stinging, his body groaning with the sweetness of his exertion. Helblindi is fast, but he is faster; Helblindi is strong, but he is stronger, and the certainty of it grows with every moment. He will win this.

Helblindi has been swiping at him with his superior reach, while Thor does what he can to dance around his huge hands and dart in close, so very different to what he is used to. He knocks aside an ice-blade, sprouting suddenly from Helblindi’s elbow, and ducks in low, aiming for Helblindi’s vulnerable flank – but Helblindi suddenly abandons the ice weapons around his hands and reaches for him, grabbing for Thor’s shoulders and throat and trying to slam him down onto the floor. Thor yanks one arm loose and hurls Mjolnir away.

“Fool,” Helblindi spits, dragging Thor in closer, his pupils tiny pinpricks of hate as he pants heavily. “You are nothing without the star hammer.”

“I am Thor, Prince of Asgard, named Laufeybarn by Jotunheim’s King,” Thor roars at him, just to see his face contract in fury. “And I am a better son than you.”

Helblindi punches him in the face and blood blossoms on his tongue, a rich, metallic taste. Thor flexes his hand and feels Mjolnir hum in response.

He grins a blood stained grin and waits for the faintest hint of doubt to cross Helblindi’s face.

Mjolnir slams into Helblindi’s jaw as Thor throws his hand up, and as Mjolnir leaps from the impact to his hand, as he called her to do, he follows up the blow with a left uppercut that has the reeling Helblindi flat on his back in seconds.

Thor drops Mjolnir on Helblindi’s chest and closes his hand around his throat. “You are done,” Thor tells him, victory sweet and satisfying. “Yield, and you have my word no further harm will come to you here.”

Helblindi is silent, livid with rage, but Thor can wait. He is no murderer, to strike while a foe is defenceless.

“I yield,” Helblindi says at last, barely intelligible.

Thor steps back and calls Mjolnir back to let him up, utterly focused on every move Helblindi makes. Mercy is one thing; trust another. Helblindi gets stiffly to his feet, and as the rush of battle leaves him, Thor realises both how utterly weary he is, bruised and aching and with what feels unpleasantly like fractured ribs, and how utterly silent the room has become.

He turns, doing his best to keep one eye on Helblindi as he surveys the room: the battle is done, has been done for some time, for there is a row of mutinous jötnar being forced to their knees by Thrymr, Bergfinnr, Thrívaldi and other familiar faces – including the Warriors Three, looking comically undersized next to their huge captives. In the distance, Agmundr, Sif and Tyr have their own assortment of wounded hrimthurs around the throne; Býleistr is still down, and is being tended to by Nedra, the íviðja Lawspeaker, and two of the Einherjar. The Casket remains where Helblindi abandoned it, a few paces behind Helblindi, but none have made a move towards it. All eyes are now on Thor and where Helblindi stands, disgraced and furious.

Thor exhales. It is done.

“You will die for this,” comes a voice from behind him; the crowd parts and Loki stalks forward, ignoring Thor in favour of glaring at Helblindi. Now he has a moment to look properly, he can see Loki is a mess: he is covered in blood, some of which seems to not be his own, his formal clothing ripped and torn and his jewels broken or hanging by threads. It looks like someone has ripped a chunk of his hair out, and that is going to be a spectacular black eye in the morning, but he moves with most of his usual grace, head held high and back straight, a warrior Prince if Thor ever saw one.

Helblindi stirs at his approach, standing straighter, jutting out his chin. “You will not decide my fate,” he sneers. “Traitorous runt.”

“Traitor?” Loki spits. “You killed our bera!”

“I did,” Helblindi says without a flicker of shame. “But I am not an Aesir pet. I did not sell myself to them. I took the Vetrformen back in battle, as we should have done long ago. I fought for my throne, like a true King. I do not hide between the Odinson’s legs!”

There is utter silence from the watching jötnar, a worryingly flat, heavy silence, every word clearly audible as it bounces from the curved walls.

“Loki,” Thor says, closing quickly. “This is not the time.”

“This is nothing to do with you,” Loki snaps without turning his head. “You are no King,” he hisses at Helblindi. “You are a Kynslayer, You have made yourself outcast. You will die.”

Helblindi shrugs, for all it must hurt him, contempt written in every inch of movement. “I do not fear death,” he says. “And I see no dishonour in overthrowing a King gone mad, a King who would bow to the Allfather and beg for scraps, a King more interested in breeding Aesir bastards from you than keeping the line of the Ríkikyn pure. I would have led our people to glory. At least now I will not see them crushed to dust.”

The focused attention of the watching jötnar prickles at the back of Thor’s neck; the mood is growing tense again, Asgardians watching all the jötnar with some suspicion, the jötnar listening too carefully to Helblindi’s words. There is far too much fight left in all of them for Thor’s peace of mind.

“Enough,” he says loudly. “Tyr and I will take the prisoners to the cells; there will be healers there to help with the wounded. Loki, can you and Nedra help with the healers here?”

Both Helblindi and Loki swing around to look at him, and their expressions of disgust are so uncannily similar that for a mad moment Thor wants to chuckle and sob in the same breath.

“I will face my people’s judgement, not yours,” Helblindi says in the same breath that Loki says, “This is for Jötunheimr to decide, not you.” 

Oh, for the love of – Thor struggles for an appropriately diplomatic response before his rapt audience, but even as he frames one, Helblindi realises Loki has turned his back on him and he takes a step forward, a right hook whistling through the air – and missing entirely as Loki drops, spinning on his heel even as he crouches, flashing past the blow with ice-daggers in hand, opening a sharp cut across Helblindi’s chest. Helblindi give him a rousing clout across the head in response, before Loki can dodge again, and within seconds the two are locked in close combat, screeching insults at each like bad-tempered children.

There is nothing childish about their conflict, however, as fresh blood spatters across the floor. The Asgardians start forward, looking from the scene to Thor, who raises a hand to hold them back. This is too personal and too likely to restart the conflict. Thor gives Thrymr a hard look, willing him to step in – but Thrymr gives him a tiny headshake, his amicable features creased in a scowl. Some sort of problem around rank and the rights of the Ríkikyn, Thor guesses, but really, this cannot happen. He can understand Loki’s grief, but he cannot allow him to assault a prisoner so, even one so unrepentant as Helblindi.

 “Stop,” Thor bellows in his best command voice, catching Loki’s arm – only to have Loki pull away sharply in the same instance that Helblindi swings for him, and in the confusion they a