“I talk of you:
Why did you wish me milder? Would you have me
False to my nature? Rather say I play
The man I am.”
– Shakespeare, Coriolanus
The Lady of the Slain, they call her in her youth. It is her custom to walk the fields after the battles, her sword in her hand, listening for the groans and cries of the warriors too broken to be saved, and give them an honorable death. Aesir or Vanir, Dark Elf or Light, it matters not to her. The tale travels, somehow, and she finds herself much lauded for her mercy. The same tales reach the ears of the palace, and bring Odin son of Bor to witness her acts for himself. He has a mocking smile and glittering blue eyes the color of the pale morning sky, and a voice that makes her promises in words that say nothing.
Her parents swear, after, that she was taken by the prince as a war-bride, and offer to pay any ransom for her return, but the truth is simpler: Frigga leaves her father’s house and climbs onto the back of Odin Borson’s horse because she loves him, because he will be king and therefore she will be queen when Bor is too old and weak to continue.
Because she is already carrying his child.
She bedded him on a whim, because he is tall and elegant with dark hair and brilliant eyes, and marries him after due consideration. He is ardent and high-handed and full of ambition, and the first son of the king, and it pleases Frigga to think of being the wife of such a man and king, and the mother of another.
Or, as time proves, mother to a queen.
Birthing the girl nearly kills Frigga, though her handmaidens are all skilled midwives and do their best. But she feels the baby, long before her time of labor, pulling and tugging at the strings that bind Frigga’s soul to her body, and she knows it will be a trial to bring the child into the world.
It takes every ounce of seidr Frigga has to keep herself from slipping away as she bears her child, and her howls of pain nearly crack the sky. When the girl is born, she does not cry, and at first Frigga fears that in her determination not to die, she has condemned her baby instead.
And though the child lived, and suckled hungrily before cuddling against her breast to sleep, Frigga never quite loses that impression, that she and not Odin turned an innocent baby girl into the personification of Death.
But it is Odin who takes advantage of it.
Bor dies not long after subduing the Dark Elves – dies, or is relieved of life. Frigga knows the truth, though she keeps it to herself – and Odin ascends to the throne, with his wife at his right hand and his daughter at his left. Hela looks more like Odin than she does Frigga, tall and elegant and black-haired, with the same slow cruelty hidden in her smile, and eyes that burn with the green flame of the driftwood fires the dead build in Niflheim.
Odin’s daughter refuses to be called ‘princess’. She does not like the title and will not accept it. To all but her parents, she is known simply as “My Lady Executioner.”
After the decimation of Nornheim, Frigga has to concede that it is an appropriate title.
“I suppose you hate me now,” Hela says when she and Odin return, laden with gold and other spoils. Her voice is casual, almost mocking in its nonchalance, but there is a tension to her body that her mother can see all too clearly.
“I could never hate my own child.”
“Fear me, then.” Her daughter strokes her pet wolf, who has lain his head in her lap. He is not even half-grown yet, but one day Fenris will be large enough for her to ride into battle. Large enough, Hela swears with a laugh, to swallow the sun.
“I fear what you are becoming.”
Hela shrugs graceful shoulders. “I am what I was made. What he made me. Would you have me be other than what I am?”
Frigga does not know what her daughter might have become, without Odin’s lust for conquest, and so she cannot answer.
It is thousands of years before she has another child, and when she does, it is not Odin’s, but the get of one of his two younger brothers (she’s not entirely sure which one). Odin is away so often, and when he is in Asgard, he shares her bed too infrequently for her tastes, and she is lonesome. She has grown tired of Odin and Hela’s wars and warmongering, and wading through blood and broken bodies to claim the treasures of the realms. There are nine of them now.
The boy, when he is born, looks like her. He is still red and slippery with birth when her husband enters the palace. Odin takes off his helm at the door to her chamber, and stares for a moment at the new baby that he knows is none of his getting.
“You have a son, my lady,” he says, by way of greeting.
“Does that matter?” she replies, tired from laboring to bear the big baby, but clutching him to her breast with one hand while the other grasps the hilt of a sword between the sheets. “You have your heir already.”
The Allfather, for so he is now called in all the realms, looks from the boy to his wife and nods. He cannot fault her for finding comfort elsewhere, when he has taken all her comfort and lain waste to it. Odin kneels down beside the bed and lays a hand on the boy’s back, and then smiles. “He is a strong one, our son. A fine prince.”
Frigga feels a surge of love and gratitude for her husband that is so strong, she nearly weeps. “Yes... a brother for Hela.” But her joy fades at Odin’s expression.
“I think she will not be pleased with that,” he said, his face growing dark. “Her power grows with each war, and with each conquest, her ambition increases. It begins to out-pace mine. She may not appreciate having a rival claimant to the throne.”
It is on the tip of Frigga’s tongue then to all but order Odin to abjure the son he has just claimed as his own, to name him a bastard and brand her a whore, if it is the only way to protect her child.
But he leans in and kisses the boy’s wet head with a gentleness she has not seen in untold years, and Frigga cannot say the words.
The next day, the proclamations go out, announcing the birth of a son to the king and queen. In the clamor of celebration, no one notices that the king’s brothers have vanished, never to be seen again.
The new prince is called Thor. The nine realms rejoice in his arrival, but the king’s executioner merely curls her lip and will not have nothing to do with him. “A little late in the day to be providing spares, isn’t it, Mother?” she asks, sharpening her ax for the campaign against the Jotnar. Laufey has invaded Midgard, and Odin’s forces are leaving within the hour. “Or do you fear that I will fall in battle?”
Frigga shivers a little at the pointed question, asked so casually, but her smile is fierce and proud as it encompasses both her children. “My fear, daughter, is only that between you and your father, I will forget what the point of death is.”
Hela’s hands pause. “The point of death is that it is pointless. That is the point.”
“You are experienced in war, child, but there are some things that cannot be learned on the battlefield.” Frigga strokes Thor’s fair hair, so like her own, and smiles. There is nothing of any of the Borsons about him; he has her coloring and her eyes, and perhaps some of her own powers, as well. “Death is necessary to make way for new life.”
Hela says nothing, but it is a long, thoughtful silence before her hands take up their task once more.
The queen never sees her firstborn in life again. Later, after Hela is gone, Frigga thinks back to that odd conversation and wonders if she gave her daughter the idea to try making new life herself, for a change.
“You should not have taken him,” Frigga says, unwilling to keep the scrawny infant, wavering between blue and white, and yet unable to relinquish him.
“Would you have had me leave him for dead? That was the birthright she intended for him.”
“She will return to claim him.”
“So long as he lives, she cannot claim him from Niflheim. I have seen to her imprisonment.” As if that clinches the matter. As if Odin Allfather can really lock away Death herself. As if a man can simply box up his mistakes and throw away the key as if naught had ever happened. Frigga bows her head over the boy and seethes at her husband’s presumption.
“And I dared not leave him for Laufey. Hela whelped him to be a wolf, and so he will be, if he remains among Frost Giants. The boy must live, Frigga, else we will hand Hela a powerful weapon. Can you not feel it?”
Oh, but she can. She can feel the tingle of seidr and the frostbite and the slow subtle insidious creep of a magic that was Hela’s alone, and it terrifies her, for the child’s sake. Frigga passes a hand over the cranky boy, settling his features and locking the strange powers away as best she can.
He is barely three days old, his eyes should not even be open, let alone anything but baby-blue, but they are as green as Hela’s, green as the fires that burn always in the land of the dead. She cannot argue with her husband’s logic, even if... “So Thor will have a nephew,” she murmurs, stroking the back of one finger down the child’s soft cheek, “and we will have a grandson. Laufeyson.”
“No. He must not know. No one must know, neither the getting nor the bearing.”
The queen gazes at her husband and monarch in astonishment. “You would deny him his parents? And would you deny him a name as well? If he is not Laufeyson, then what is he to be? A nobody? An anonymous ward of the crown?”
Odin raises a hand to the newly-affixed patch over his right eye. It is a gesture she does not yet recognize. “No. Not Laufeyson. Not Hela’s. Odinson.”
Reflexively, her arms tighten around the infant. The motion shocks the boy out of his complaining, and instead, his tiny fists knead her breast, still heavy with milk, for Thor has not yet been weaned. “Name him elsewise as you like. He is your son now, Frigga.”
She wants to protest the secrecy, but she has no heart for it. She has lost her daughter, and in some ways, lost her husband, too, but in their place she has gained a son. Not a grandson – that reality falls from her mind like a leaf in autumn when she guides the baby’s mouth to her breast, feels him latch onto her nipple with a strength that makes her gasp. A son. Hers alone, for she knows that in spite of having Odin’s blood and Odin’s name, her husband would rather lay claim to her bastard than to this little blue slip of ice that their daughter had gotten from a conquered king.
“Loki,” she murmured over the little head, with its cap of dark hair. “My flame.”
And in that moment, she gifts to him as his inheritance all the love she can no longer show her daughter, and all the pride that she can no longer feel for her husband.
She recognizes Hela’s hand in Loki’s illness, when he falls limp during weapons training one day and does not get up again. The other boys and the trainers all think he is foxing, trying to trick them into taking pity on him so that he can stab them unawares and laugh at their faces. He has done it before.
But Frigga feels the cold mocking hand of Death breaking through her confines and passing over Asgard with one purpose in mind. She rushes into the ring and picks up her teenage son, and all but flies with him to the healers. He is as light as a fledgling raven in her arms, and cold.
“Ssh, Loki. I am here. All will be well.”
“I feel so strange... like I’m floating...” His voice is still high and boyish, and tugs at her heart until she thinks he will pull it from her chest. “There’s someone...” Suddenly he gasps as though in pain, and grips her hand so savagely that she feels small bones break. “Don’t let her take me! Please!”
She sends word to Odin that his daughter is trying to unchain herself, and returns to caring for her son. She can feel the power of Niflheim, his birthright, surging in his veins as Hela comes closer and closer, and it is all she can do to subsume that fell magic once more. She loves Hela, but Hela is lost to her, and she will not allow Loki to be stolen down the same path.
The palace rocks and quakes as Odin fights, but Frigga stays by Loki’s bed, barely noticing the healers attending to her broken hand. When his fever finally breaks, his eyes flutter open and he smiles weakly at her. “I knew... you wouldn’t let her get me,” he murmurs, before drifting off into a healing sleep.
For the rest of her life, every day and every hour and every breath, she wants to tell Loki the truth. Prince of Jotunheim, Wolf of Niflheim, rightful wielder of the Casket of Ancient Winters and the Eternal Flame. Rightful heir to the throne of Asgard. True-born son and heir of Death.
But it is a secret that she takes with her to the halls of Valhalla.
“You kept him from me,” Hela says, when they speak again, for Niflheim and Valhalla are not so far apart.
“I kept him alive.”
“There’s no difference,” the goddess of death snarls, like a wolf. “I wanted him back. He was to be my heir, my champion. My son...”
Frigga gazes into eyes so like Loki’s and yet so unlike. She knows she should feel sorrow for Hela’s loss, but she cannot. There is power there in Hela’s words, and pain, but no spark of love or even of regret. And so she smiles calmly at her firstborn. “You whelped him for a purpose, but he was never your son. He was only ever to be your weapon.”
“I made him to be what you and Odin made me, for Asgard.”
“I know. And for that, I am sorry. But how could I return him to you, knowing that?”
Hela husks out a laugh, a low and broken thing. “Is this the fabled mercy of the Lady of the Slain? Pity for your daughter’s half-Jotunn pup? You should know better. You taught me better. Kindness and sentiment are not mercy, Queen of Asgard. He was nothing to Odin, or to you. He is Odin's grandson and the rightful king of Asgard, not Thor. A giant baseborn ox Odin merely decided to call his son. But my child? To Odin, he's nothing more than a troublesome stunted creature who can’t fight, can’t rule, and can’t even die when he tries. You should have put him out of his misery long ago, and left him to my care. I had a better use for him.”
“I know all of those things, child. They are why I kept him at my side.”
Green eyes burn like sulfur across the uncrossable chasm that separates the two lands of the dead. “I will have him back, Mother. I will send your pretty blond bastard to you in the golden halls of Valhalla, where he cannot come between me and my child. And you will not be able to interfere again.”
She visits Loki in his dreams, nearly every night, while he is masquerading as Odin and trying, clumsily and resentfully, to undo some of the damage he has done. Rarely does she let him remember that she was there, but she spends the hours of Loki’s exhaustion fighting back the nightmares that have plagued him since his birth, tempting him to harm himself and others.
It is only after Odin’s death that she speaks to him truly.
“Who is she?” he demands, as they stand on the dark scoured plain in Svartalfheim where he once died. “Who am I?”
Frigga holds back both tears and a smile. “Always so perceptive,” she murmurs, moving closer. He is dressed not in the strange clothes of the hedonistic alien world where he has taken refuge, but in ordinary wrap tunic and leggings. She wears her armor and her sword, and his eyes go wide at the sight of her.
“Is Valhalla under siege, that you come to me armed for war?”
“She has tried many times since I arrived, and failed.”
Loki’s lip curls in a sneer. “And now that Father is there, I suppose it’s no longer worth the trouble, so she turns back to the Nine Realms.”
“She is not a monster, Loki. She is what she was made.”
“Oh, she gets to have that excuse, I see.”
“No... we tried to unmake you. And we nearly succeeded... to our cost.”
His eyes flare with a familiar fire. “She told me... when I fell... she told me that she was my mother. And here... you were both here, calling for me. Calling me son.”
“I raised you, Loki. When Odin brought you from Jotunheim, I cleaned you and named you and fed you as I fed Thor, from my body. I kept you because I loved you, because you were my blood and Odin’s, and I wanted to protect you. I tried. But I did not bear you.”
He straightens suddenly, his face going even paler. The wind whips his unkempt hair around his face, and there are shadows under his eyes. “Not Odin’s son... His grandson.”
Frigga takes his hands, turns them palm up, makes a bowl of them. It is time. Whispering, she passes her hands over his, releasing a power she had bound and buried within his bones on the day she named him. “My flame,” she says fondly, her voice lost in the wind as he gasps, the full force of Niflheim flooding through him.
The ice-blue skin of the Jotnar folds around him like a shroud, but the astonished eyes he lifts to her are as green as ever, as green as the fires of Niflheim, whose flames are now dancing over his fingertips. “Why?” he asks. “Why would you give me this power now? I cannot wield this against her.”
She does not ask how he knows. “Because when Hela is gone, the dead will need a leader.” Frigga inclines her head, and in her eyes and her voice is the cold mercy of long-ago battlefields. “And you, my prince, have a debt to settle.”
Loki stares at his hands, and laughs.
When he was only the God of Mischief, he stood before the Eternal and quaked, as Thanos’s hand on his shoulder reduced him to screams of madness and terror. But he is more than that now.
“You think to best me, Thanos?” Loki’s lips peel back from his teeth in a skeletal smile, and suddenly the Mad Titan knows what fear is. “You think to frighten me with your ‘power’? I am the fosterling of the Butcher of Asgard. I was suckled by the Lady of the Slain. I was sired by the last king of the Frost Giants, and I was whelped by Death herself.” He feels Frigga at his back, sword in hand, as the vacuum of space around Sanctuary begins to fill with ice and green fire and the wails of the dead. “I have nothing left to be afraid of.”