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Innocence

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It is a month until the supply of honeymoon mead is gone.

It is a month, likewise, until Loki is seen again, until the bespelled leather cord can at last be cut and removed. The dwarves, it seems, thought that would be time enough to make Loki miserable, time enough to teach him lessons of couth and caution, but Baldr knows his brother too well to think it likely. Loki disappears from the public eye for those weeks, unwilling to let his visage be seen and mocked, unwilling to do anything but nurse his grudge to the point of sickness.

When he reappears with irregular red scars pocked across his mouth, he is changed. Whatever it was in Loki that once made him quicker to laughter than to hatred is gone, and he hides no longer. In fact he seems to make a point to be seen. In the feasting halls he drinks himself into a frenzy, and he nearly begs those around him to challenge him—the larger and stronger and more fearsome they are, the better—stamping his foot and hurling the wild opening gestures of a flyte at any who attempt to calm him. He refuses to be talked down, not even (or perhaps especially not) by his brothers.

One night just after sundown, when the sky deepens with every passing moment, Loki’s frenzy brings his path to cross with the gathering of Baldr’s companions. And he picks a fight, blindly, with one of the group, with someone who has hardly said two words to him in the past hundred years. As Baldr approaches the source of the commotion Loki looks up and smiles, scars pulling out of shape on his pale skin, grotesque, and Baldr nearly recoils at the sight. Loki is a depraved echo of the brother Baldr grew up knowing, as far from himself as he has ever been. He was not so gaunt and ragged in moonlit Fensalir. His eyes were not so fevered and mad. Yet Loki finishes his insult against one of the men’s mothers—if anything, the dwarves’ treatment has made his tongue sharper and quicker than ever before—and he is still speaking as he meets Baldr’s eyes, surprise flashing across his face followed by pleasure. His thin and bloodless lips curve up into a mischievous smile, as if he is glad to meet his brother there under such circumstances.

Baldr feels his heart in his throat as he speaks to his friends without breaking away from Loki’s gaze. “Take pity on my brother,” he says in a quiet voice, for he is Baldr the ever-kindly, the ever-pure. “Do not hold his poisoned words against him. None of us can help what we are.”

Loki stares at him dumbfounded as Baldr leads his friends away, leaving him to erupt in hissing rage as soon as they are gone.

*

Years pass. It is long enough that when Baldr visits Bilskirnir (as he does more often now), the mortal servants know nothing of the names Roskva and Thjalfi, except as faded entries in the earliest pages of their lineage. Baldr has come to enjoy his eldest brother’s company without reserve, and Thor is always pleased to see him as well, whether he brings along Nanna and their son or not. Thor has taken well to being an uncle; he has promised to assist in the boy’s training when he grows enough for it, but in the meantime he attempts to spoil the child when he believes the parents will not protest.

Baldr wonders if Thor would have liked to have children of his own, but Thor makes no mention of it, and he seeks no female companionship. Baldr does not ask why. He knows that Loki still spurns him—Thor does not say it that way, but Baldr knows. Thor has taken him into his confidence enough to speak to him sometimes of their brother and how he still has not forgiven, the anger and betrayal still fierce in his heart. Sometimes Thor speaks of how much he misses Loki, how dearly he misses the friend he was raised with, the companion he had always relied upon. As he speaks his thumb caresses the weighty head of the hammer that is always slung through his belt now.

Baldr thinks it eases Thor’s mind to have someone to share his loss, someone who can understand what it means to love Loki despite his nature, so he listens. And Thor does not question his youngest brother’s quiet sympathy.

But those evenings are the only times that Baldr ever thinks of Loki anymore, and that he does at all is only for Thor’s sake. Baldr has begun to understand at last what everyone else around him has known for years or centuries. And if in childhood he was blind to Loki’s faults—if he spent his youth adoring his darker brother—then at least he is innocent in that way no longer.

Loki has turned on everyone, as he was always bound to do. And Asgard has returned the sentiment, for the tale of Loki has always seemed destined to come to a bad end.

Baldr learns this for certain one day when he returns to Gladsheim to visit with his parents, and he meets a wandering witch-woman—one of those who craft prophecies—emerging from his father’s hall. Black eyes stare down the curve of her sharp nose at him; she clutches a white wolf’s pelt around her shoulders as she passes, as if to keep out a wintry chill. Later, when Baldr asks, Odin admits that he did not receive the answers he had wanted: darkness and chaos and pain, all in a blur that cannot be untangled or put straight.

But Loki’s fate has always been unclear, adopted son that he is, with no birth-prophecies upon him.

Odin’s aging brow is furrowed, his lone eye distant and grey, its wisdom stretched thin. Baldr sits with his father for a while, wondering.

*

Years pass.

Baldr should be happy. He has everything, and he is no longer a child curling under his blankets while thunder and lightning tear across the sky, no longer a boy wishing to be something other than what he is. He is a married man with a good wife who loves and obeys him. He is the father of a strong and healthy son. He is a prince of the highest of realms, and all revere him. He has a group of companions whose devotion he has earned.

But he is not. Instead, there is a hollow feeling inside him and a heavy tedium of days, and at last it grows bad enough that he simply must escape. So he rides out of the city, feeling that he leaves nothing behind that he will miss, even if he were abandoning his whole life and not just going for a day's ride.

Thor had departed some time ago from Asgard, gone not on the lighthearted adventures of youth but instead on a diplomatic errand on his king and father’s behalf, and he still has not returned. And Loki has not been seen in some time either, though his comings and goings are no longer noteworthy; the rumors that pass through Asgard say he sometimes wanders in other realms, even Jotunheim, where he is not yet instantly known and distrusted for the trickster he is. That is why, as Baldr rides beneath the canopy of green with thin and empty rays of afternoon sun glancing across his face, he knows he will find the place of his destination empty. He goes for just that reason, and because once these woods soothed him. Because once, before everything changed, he daydreamed there of standing in the peaceful stillness, arms outstretched, until he became as a fast-growing sapling. Until leaves sprouted from his fingertips and mistletoe grew in his hair and the blood slowed to sap in his veins.

Yet as he approaches the clearing of the three great stones, he can hear singing, clear and sweet, rising on the drifting breeze.

Baldr leaves his horse beneath the trees; he is lured forward by the voice. It sings of the softness of a lover’s gold hair, the tenderness of a lover’s blue eyes. It is an old song, one Baldr recognizes, but the words that follow make him blush anyway as he walks around the flat stone, water on its surface and the sky shivering on its cold bed.

Loki is sitting with his back to the stone, the tilted column of his neck white under the sun, eyes closed as he reaches the verse about his lover’s adoring lips—his own curve up in mirth even as he sings, and the scars are faded almost beyond sight—and he appears not at all as the wretched madman he has been. He looks contented, alone in the world yet satisfied to be alive in it. He looks beautiful.

Baldr realizes he has been staring, entranced, at the same moment he realizes that Loki’s eyes are in fact slit slyly open, watching him in return.

“Well,” Loki asks, the song abruptly ended, “my dear little brother. I did not know you knew of this place. What brings you here to the wilds?”

With Loki’s eyes upon him, the hardened amber in Baldr’s veins turns back to blood again, hot and aching. He does his best not to show it as he answers. “You should be the one to tell me,” he says, shrugging. “You are the clever one.”

Loki laughs, a warm silver glow, and pats the grass beside where he sits. “Come,” he says, the invitation falling casually from his tongue. “We’ve hardly spoken in years. Surely we can act like brothers once again, at least for a few moments.”

Not knowing quite why, Baldr does as he asks, sitting on the cool ground with his back against the stone, their shoulders nearly touching. He doesn’t know if Loki means it; Loki—as Thor has so often said—holds grudges long after everyone else would forget them, and a smile from him is no promise that he does not mean you harm. But Loki is not really smiling at him; he is smiling at the sky, at a grey-winged jay that soars over their heads, at the swaying treetops at the edge of the clearing. He gives a contented sigh in the quiet.

Baldr frowns. “Why are you here?”

“I’ve known of this place for years. Thor and I... we used to come here sometimes, because no one else ever seemed to. And I like it.”

Baldr feels his face grow hot, yet he does not let himself look away in awkward discomfort, only watching as a twinge of longing passes briefly across Loki’s face.

And suddenly Baldr can guess that Loki has not been wandering, as has been said of him. Instead he has been here, in this exact spot, dwelling here on the twilight edge of Asgard and waiting until the moment comes when the whispers will fade enough that he can bear to go back, until the people have nearly forgotten why they call him scarlip, why they call him ergi and craven and stirrer of poisons, so that he will be able to walk unashamed in their midst, head held high. Or waiting until Thor is sufficiently repentant that he can justify offering his forgiveness.

Maybe this time when Thor returns Loki will come home to him, and warm summer storms will gather again over Bilskirnir when they are together.

Baldr’s hands grip tight upon the grass. He knows his knuckles must be white. He feels he can neither draw breath nor release it.

Loki rolls his head to the side to look at Baldr with a secretive smile. And he lifts a hand, fluffs the persistent cowlick that has been on Baldr’s head since he was a boy. It grates him, the familiarity and condescension of the act, but he only grits his teeth and stares down at the ground.

“Poor Baldr,” Loki murmurs, white fingers in Baldr’s hair sending a tremble of icy anticipation down his spine. “How terrible it must be for you.”

He knows.

For a brief instant Baldr thinks that Loki somehow has become aware of what Baldr saw, somehow, after all this time. Yet before he can blurt out a single word, Loki goes on, his voice light and easy. “Do you know, I had always thought Thor’s road a rough one: the golden firstborn, the champion of the house of Odin. Until you, at least, I thought that. But you—how truly terrible, to be so loved,” Loki purrs. “And as you said, none of us can help what we are.”

The glint in his eye is emberous, mocking.

“And that is why you have come out here to the wilds, to escape from that. Yet all you find here is me,” Loki adds with a single low laugh.

Baldr lets out a breath—no, Loki does not truly know—yet feels no relief at all. The dull haze that had crept across the world is gone in his brother’s presence, but the knot has returned to his insides, tightening more each moment.

He watches as Loki’s head tips back again to gaze at the sky, his long pale throat bared, and as his dark brows twitch down as if at a sudden thought.

“Tell me, have you ever seen a sacrifice? One of the rituals the mortals carry out in an attempt to curry our favor?” Loki asks.

Baldr shakes his head, which makes Loki smile a predatory smile.

“They are brutal things. Some young boy or girl dragged out to a lonesome stone on a cold night, stripped naked, and held upon it while they shiver, staring up in terror at the stars before the knife plunges in and lets out their blood to pool and swirl,” Loki muses, drawling out the words as if he enjoys the taste of them. His fingers draw shapes, swirls that might be of blood or the fire he used to paint in the air by magic to amuse his younger brother. “And the mortals think to prophesy by the patterns it makes, or cry out prayers in the passion of the moment. As if their pleas could matter more because they are carried by a dying soul.”

Loki’s throat bobs as he swallows, and his clever green eyes slip shut for a moment.

Baldr cannot help but envision what Loki describes. But he has spent so many eternal years imagining other things…

His mind is filled with the thought of Loki, sprawled naked on the stone, a sacrifice. He is wiry and quick and hard, but Baldr knows he could be held down, could be pinned as Thor once did. Hair turned into a spreading inky cloud in the standing water, plastered to his pale neck as he thrashes like a trout in the runnel trickling at a fisher’s feet. Chest rising and falling, gasping, dripping with sweat and grey rainwater. Beating his own brains out against the rock—dazing himself until he lies limp in helpless surrender, eyes unfocused, red smears leaking from his mouth and nose, until he can no longer fight back, his body bare and white…

Baldr's hands clench so hard his nails seem to cut him.

“But we… we have forever,” Loki adds, noticing nothing of the stone figure of his little brother beside him. “And we have no one to cry out to but ourselves.”

Clumsy with cold and with a sudden decisive fear, Baldr climbs quickly to his feet, takes a few steps away.

He is smothered. He is choking. The secret inside him burns like a smoldering coal that he can’t spit out, yet in this moment he knows he will.

In the very place where it happened.

The grass whispers all around them, and Loki sits there looking up at him as if nothing is amiss, watching him, untroubled, with wide-eyed interest.

Baldr’s voice is quiet as the wind when he speaks, humble and soft.

“I’ve been having dreams,” he says.

Loki waits, saying nothing. Waits, patient and expectant, for him to explain.

“I’ve had dreams in which I die... in which I am killed... some in which I am already dead.” Baldr doesn’t know why he says it. He does not know where the words come from—they are not true, he has had no such dreams, he has never before had such thoughts. Yet he feels himself blushing as if he has given away the knowledge of some terrible hidden shame.

A bright and greedy curiosity comes into Loki’s eyes then, and he gives a sly smile as if the two of them were sharing a wonderful secret.

“What could possibly steal eternity from Baldr the Bright?” Loki asks.

And the shadow of the tallest stone in the clearing, the spear-stone, falls dark between them as Baldr answers, his heart clenching in the center of his chest.

*

Days later, Baldr cannot stop thinking about what he said, what he told Loki about a dream he has never had. He cannot stop hearing his own voice and feeling his pulse racing, dread spreading like an itch of red poison beneath his skin.

And then the dream comes to him in truth, and he is not surprised. He wakes from it in the early gloom, a throbbing ache behind his breastbone, and though the dream did not frighten him while he was in it—there was blood, yes, but there was also peace, and salt waves, and blue sky—when he wakes he begins to shudder, and not all for the predawn chill.

He still does not know why he said it. But he feels sure that the nightmare came because of the words he spoke. He brought this, though perhaps there is some deeper source that he does not know and cannot see.

For a while he sits on the edge of the bed, clutching the corner beneath his fingers, Nanna still sighing on her pillow, curled beneath the coverlet.

Then he slips away while the morning is fresh, and he reaches Fensalir before the sun edges bright over the horizon. When he finds his mother, she is at her loom, working as if she too woke early from unsettled sleep. Her fingers are tense on the threads, plucking at them as if she could deny the future taking shape in the patterns. When he touches her shoulder she stiffens, sobs. She turns and gets quickly to her feet, pulling him into her motherly embrace, her golden hair against his cheek.

She knows what he has dreamed, and she murmurs to him that she will find a way to stop it.

He wonders if she can.

*

Time begins to pass swiftly then, for many things seem to happen all at once.

Thor returns from his long sojourn in Vanaheim, and there is a great feast held in Odin’s hall, with songs and tales, with ale and wine, with great merriment. All the gods attend, or nearly all. Baldr sits with his family at the head of the high table, Nanna and Forseti beside him, and Frigga reaching over to squeeze his hand every now and then. And across the laden table, Thor, smiling out across the gathering that has come together to celebrate his safe homecoming.

Baldr makes no mention to his eldest brother of where he went only a few days before and who he met there. Instead he listens as Thor offers up a brief and genial version of the tale of his travels, glossing over what must have been endless political maneuvering among the Vanir and instead relating to his listeners mostly the more exciting moments, though they are few and thin compared to the stories he used to be able to tell after his adventures. Baldr listens and he watches his eldest brother’s eyes—there is a look of deep weariness in them that Baldr has never noticed there before, and he is not sure if it can all be attributed to the road.

The dutiful firstborn. The champion of the house of Odin. A gold-limned stormcloud with no shadow beside it, while far away the shadow wanders on its own.

Baldr says nothing to Thor about where he went or who he saw, but he begins to wonder if Thor indeed already knows where Loki is. It is easy to forget that they grew up together as brothers before Baldr was born; it is easy to forget how well they know each other, even after so long apart. And Baldr begins to believe that all this time Thor knew, and that he has only been waiting, as patiently as he can despite his heartache, until Loki will at last acquiesce and come back to him.

Baldr wonders if, were it not for his responsibilities as the first prince of Asgard, Thor would have gone instead to be with him, followed to wherever he dwells.

But Loki has not returned yet, in any case. And Thor’s gaze falls into the cup in his hands in a flash of sorrow that he casts aside in the next moment, unwilling to sour the celebration with his own private grief. He musters a smile when he sees Baldr looking upon him with an expression of worry.

Baldr hates what he feels in that moment.

That night, Baldr has the dream again. And he begins to think that the nightmare has come not because some compulsion made him speak the words but because he wants it.

Perhaps even the fates bow to the whim of Baldr.

*

It is not many days later that Frigga reveals her plan to save him, asking a vow from every force and every being not to harm Baldr. But carrying it out reveals also the threat against him, the cause for her fear, and soon enough even the trees whisper of it. That Baldr the Bright has had dreams of dying; that Frigga, his mother and the highest of the goddesses, has seen it in her weavings.

As word spreads, Baldr’s group of friends and companions swells, their number growing as the idea of his peril strikes to the hearts of the Aesir; they are a people who fear no danger to themselves, but Baldr has always been beloved among them, and they would protect him. Or stand near enough to try, and to tell the tale when all is done.

At home Nanna likewise stays a little closer to him, Forseti carried in her arms. Yet she believes in Frigga’s certainty, in Frigga’s plan, and she smiles to reassure him. At night, when they hold each other, she kisses his shoulder and swears that no fate can separate them.

But none of them understand that he is not afraid, and there are other things happening that no one else seems to notice but him.

He hears the barest whispers that Loki might have returned. That he might be insinuating himself back into the frayed edges of Asgardian society. Sometimes Baldr will chance to see a thin figure in the distance, in the far-off shadows, giving him a secretive wave, and when this happens his insides knot in nervous anticipation.

He has had the dream so many times, by this point coming nearly every time he closes his eyes, blood and pain and a lonely sky, that he understands it at last.

Baldr knows it is only a matter of time.

And when comes the great celebration, the yearly feast of all the immortal gods at which all the great prophecies are again recited, Baldr is not sure who suggests it (they wish to see, to know for sure) but when they do he stands, smiling.

He is no longer Baldr the Innocent, no longer Baldr the Bright. He is Baldr the Invulnerable, made so by his mother’s care, and he spreads out his arms a little as the first missile is thrown, landing feather-light and painless, bouncing away from his body.

He looks around at the crowd, wondering who it will be, seeking for the flash of green eyes among them, the shadow of dark hair, the sly narrow shape, knowing already that he will not see them, yet he does not need to. He accepts that he will not. He knows this is how it must be.

He understands the dream now, and he welcomes what must come. What must happen.

So many years before: Loki speaking of mischief like a compulsion, telling of the tricks he’d played, lust heavy in his voice. Baldr has seen what Loki will do to those who offend him. He has seen how Loki is unable to resist when told he cannot.

And now Baldr is invulnerable. Nothing can harm him now.

They will be bound together by this.

At last, Loki will be his. And it will be the end of them both—of all three of them, of all of this that Baldr has lived with and suffered and known for so long—the end of all in one swift stroke.

He welcomes it.

*

The slender bough pierces his chest, and there is pain, but it is dull and distant.

From his dreams he knows the copper taste that floods his mouth in the next moment. The wetness that edges his lips when he sputters, his chest clamping down so that he cannot breathe.

From his dreams he knows the sound of cries of alarm, the chaos of shouts and weeping.

From his dreams, and from outside of them, he knows the feeling of a lodestone in his belly and the feeling of sickness burning inside him, his heart pulling and dragging on his veins. He lets it all drag him down to the ground, falling to his knees, to his back, staring up at the sky.

In the faces that blur above him, he does not see either of his brothers, and that, he thinks, is as it should be. Someone braces his shoulders as he lies, pulls the spear from between his ribs, and he sees for one brief moment the stain upon it like a streak of bright rust before they cast it aside to press their palms against his wound.

Instead of pain he feels satisfaction.

And then, soon enough, he feels nothing at all.

*

It is Odin who blows upon the sails of Skiðblaðnir until the ship looms upon the water, the greatest ship that has ever sailed out from the shores of Asgard.

It is a group of Baldr’s friends who lift his white-wrapped body and place it among the grave goods that will go with him into the flames, into Hel.

It is Frigga, her voice not trembling only through force of will, who calls out the invocation to hallow the ship to carry the greatest and mildest and most beloved of all the gods to his rest.

It is Nanna who falls to her knees at the water’s edge, weeping as her heart breaks.

It is one of Thor’s mortal servants, a placid, reticent man with dark eyes, who calms Forseti, still too young to understand where his father has gone, and tends to him while the gods grieve.

It is Thor who waits until the ship is shoved from its mooring and then strikes it with one great burst of lightning, turning it into a floating pyre.

It is Loki who sits at the edge of the crowd, arms around his knees and his face in shadow, so that it is possible to think he too mourns.

It is Baldr who does not feel the flames but passes through them. And somehow, he is purified by them.

Some stain on his soul is burned away.

*

Hel, Baldr finds, is unbearably quiet. Its ruler even more so. When she does speak, there is a ravaged edge to her voice, the air hissing past bone and bare teeth on one side and past full, red lips on the other.

Being dead, though, Baldr finds this fact does not disturb him any more than does her presence beside him, the way she stands as close to him as a young girl in love, or the way the odor of graves clings to her, of damp dust and turned loam.

“He won’t weep for you,” she says, sounding satisfied, as together they watch the events of the living world unfurl before them.

Since he died, Baldr has come to realize so many things, and he knows she is right, but its truth seems somehow distant.

And he never wept for Loki, either, so he cannot see it as unfair.

*

By the time Aegir gathers the Aesir to his hall, the place overflowing with ale and ringing with cheer, the fire’s work is fully done, and Baldr remembers.

He remembers how it felt to be a child with his brothers on either side of him. He remembers how it once was when his world was so small, a golden haze at the edges, and all he knew was that he loved his brothers and they in turn loved him, and that nothing could be wrong in a world in which that was true.

He remembers it enough that he can feel only dread as Loki arrives alone at the door of Aegir’s hall, with feral desperation in his eyes. Loki demands a place, as a prince of the realm—demands it, teeth bared, and swallows down a stinging mouthful of liquor before seeming to smile. Baldr remembers, and he knows the look of spiteful pleasure on Loki’s face in the next moment as he prepares to let loose every rumor he has collected over the years, weaving them into verse too skillful to match what the drunken gleam in his eyes would say.

Baldr remembers how it had felt, dying and knowing that Loki would destroy himself afterward. He remembers how much he wanted that. Yet as he watches the destruction unfolding now he feels only horror, so vivid it is like he is alive again to feel it, hot and cold and prickling down the center of his chest. He watches the wrath of all the gods rise, watches as Loki calls that wrath down wholly upon himself, as if once begun he cannot make himself stop.

Hela hisses again beside him, reminding him of her presence. “The mortals believe I am his child. Which would make you my uncle,” she says. “It’s not true. Though I will see him in the flesh before the end, and you will not.”

Baldr watches as Loki runs. And he says nothing in reply to her prediction, for there is nothing he can say that is not now too late.

*

There is still pain. Even in death there is still pain, and Baldr feels it as he watches after Loki has been captured in a net of his own making.

Loki spends one night in the dungeons of Asgard, one final night before his punishment is called down, and Thor goes with him.

Earlier, before the council of the high gods, the eldest Odinson had stayed silent as Loki was accused and as his drunken confession was recounted. But Thor, looking stricken, caught between anger and misery, had refused to add his own renunciation of his brother to the rising clamor.

Loki, no more than a pale and haggard thing slumped in the center of the circle, had looked up aghast, his green eyes wide, at what came next: Odin had raised his hands and offered the traditional gesture, asking if there might be anyone who would choose of their own will to accompany the criminal so as to soften the punishment to which he had been sentenced… and Thor had stood. He had gotten to his feet, unsteady, his mighty form gone clumsy with his haste, and said that he would do so. That he would endure it with his brother, if only to spare him some of the pain.

No one present had seemed so surprised as Loki at those words, his mouth gaping open and his face blanched.

So Baldr watches the door of the dungeon clang shut, closing them in together. And the part of him that remembers being alive now shudders as if he has been shocked as Loki, with shackles on his limbs and faded scars on his mouth, disappears into Thor’s embrace.

He spent his life wondering why he was not part of their forbidden brotherhood, and this time he does not run from the sight of how they are together when there is no one there to see. He has to know what love was there that was not for him.

Thor’s shoulders are trembling. Loki’s bound hands lift, brushing blond hair back tenderly. They whisper to each other in the gloom, apologies and promises. Loki’s dark, thin laughter and Thor’s desperate show of bravery. They do not bother with recriminations. They touch each other, hands running along each other’s bodies as if unsure that they are both real. Taking this last chance before Loki’s torture makes any comfort impossible.

They kiss, and more than that, and if Baldr had a heart to beat it would be racing. Hela is still beside him, impassive as she watches—so much that he wants to tell her to turn away, that this is between the sons of Odin only. But he does not, for he has no right either, yet he does not want to stop.

He watches as at last they fall asleep together, surrendering in their exhaustion to the loss of these last few hours.

In Hel, Baldr finds that though the dead are not given the respite of slumber, they can still weep.

*

And then, when morning comes, Baldr watches from afar as his brothers descend into the cave, to the place where Loki has been cursed to abide in penance for his crimes.

Odin oversees the terrible ceremony, resigned in his sorrow, all of his sons lost.

Frigga stares after them as they pass, cold bitterness written on her face.

Thor follows at Loki's side, the hammer missing from his belt, left behind as a necessary condition, his head low and shadowed with pain. He stays close to Loki but lets him walk on his own these last free steps in a show of pride and strength.

And Loki looks back over his shoulder for just one brief moment as they reach the mouth of the cave where the snake resides, before he goes within to be bound. Sunlight glints off his eyes, yet he gives no hint of what he feels or what he sees.

And then at last it is over, and the gathered crowds who came to witness this scene return to their own homes. And they will pass the tale to others, repeating it in all its horror and sorrow. Brother and brother. Murderer and victim.

And Baldr, in Hel, knows that what he wished when he was alive has come true. He and Loki are bound together now; the tale cannot be told without both their names. Yet it will not be told in full. The stories will not say what precisely drove Loki to do it, what drove him to that final, fatal malice, what drove him to turn it on the kindest and gentlest of all the gods. And they will not say why, as some reported, Baldr perished with a smile on his bloodied lips. Those things will be lost, because they are not what Asgard knows. They are not what Asgard believes. Because, of all the things the folk of Asgard believe, the one thing that will forever be certain is this:

Baldr, alone in all the tragedy, was innocent.

***