Chapter 1: Poor Unfortunate Troll
Welcome to this silly, fluffy attempt at a fairy tale AU. If you ever find yourself taking this story seriously, please view my ridiculous ficart for a cognitive recalibration. Thank you and I hope you enjoy! HJB
Thor nearly laughed when he checked his trap the next morning.
By conventional standards, the creature was positively tiny, much smaller than Thor and even the average Midgardian. He was definitely a frost troll—the blue-skinned species of jötunn that dwelled in the cold, snowy realms of Niflheim and Jötunheim. His horns were only just beginning to curve, a sign that he was yet a juvenile. He was gangly and terribly thin, his tail a long, bony appendage sprouting from his bottom. His ribs were visible beneath his skin and he had a crazed, hungry sort of ferociousness about him. He wore only a ragged breechcloth, but this was not unusual because frost trolls were unaffected by the cold. Like the rest of his kind, he wore no shoes; his feet were bare and surprisingly dainty, not thick and scaly as they should have been, nor were there claws on his toes and fingers. He did not possess the heavy, sturdy build typical of jötnar, though he bore their distinctive markings. Faint lines ran all over his naked blue torso and limbs, circles and bevels that Thor suddenly found to be quite intricate, even pretty. This petit specimen lacked the heavy, muscular features and large fangs that were common among his people, and his skin looked to be very soft and smooth. He had lovely hands—a bit bloodied and dirtied from his struggle—and he was not completely hairless. An oily, leaf-littered tangle of black locks hung around his face, and he also had eyebrows. Thor wondered if he might be the product of an unfortunate union between a human woman and a frost troll. If so, this creature would be the first of his kind.
The little jötunn sat on the frosty ground with his ankle caught in a snare made of indestructible golden rope, and on the other end of the rope was Mjölnir, Thor’s mighty hammer. He was stabbing vigorously at his tether with a sharp rock when Thor made his presence known, and he immediately dropped his tool and recoiled, baring his teeth.
Thor squatted on his haunches and stared at his quarry. When he spoke, his tone was calm and level. “So you are the fearsome fiend that has been terrorizing the people of Túnsberg.”
The troll drew back farther, creating furrows in the damp earth with his hands and heels. The fear in his eyes was unmistakable, much more pronounced than his scorn. Thor felt inexplicably sorry for him, so thin and small and frightened. Did the villagers honestly believe this half-starved little mongrel was responsible for tearing a full-grown man to pieces and eating an entire herd of goats? Impossible. Their fears were clearly feeding their imaginations, which was by no means a rare occurrence. Thor had seen it time and time again; something unusual would happen in Midgard, the mortals’ panicked prayers would paint pictures of monsters and giants and blood-soaked paths of destruction, and Thor would descend from Asgard only to discover it was nothing more than a mangy, belligerent wolverine or a howling mad drunkard who liked to run naked through the woods. Occasionally the threats were real, but most of the time it was merely a case of mass hysteria. It was both amusing and tiring sometimes, but Thor had sworn an oath to protect the Midgardians from otherworldly enemies, even imagined ones.
“Can you speak?” he asked.
“Well enough,” said the troll coldly. “Who are you?”
A surprised smile came to Thor’s mouth. What a fair voice! So clear and smooth and pleasing to the ear. Surely this was no common jötunn he was dealing with.
“I am Thor, son of Odin.”
At that, the troll’s blood-red eyes widened. “I have heard of Odinson. You are a troll killer. Lightning-maker, they call you. Thunder-bringer, the terror of all jötnar!”
He turned and began scrabbling vainly through the dirt and slush, grunting in his panic, pulling so hard on his tether that it bent his foot at a gruesome angle.
Thor reached out and grasped the troll’s ankle. His hand encompassed it easily. “Stop that,” he scolded. “You will hurt yourself.”
When the troll turned, tears were gleaming in his eyes. Thor’s heart flew to him, and he knew then that there would be no killing this day.
“What does it matter?” he sobbed. “You mean to destroy me anyway! Well, go on then, kill me! I’ve suffered in this wretched realm long enough. Put me out of my misery, for mercy’s sake!”
“What is your name?”
The troll sniffed and became quiet. “I beg your pardon?”
“Your name. Surely you have a name, don’t you?”
He looked down at Thor’s huge hand on his ankle, then up at his face. “My name is Loki.”
Thor smiled. “Loki. That’s a good name. I like it.”
Loki’s face crumpled and he began to struggle with renewed energy. Thor was quite certain he was going to pull his leg from its socket if he didn’t do something, so he shuffled forward on his knees and gently took him by the waist—his hands nearly fit all the way around, such a tiny thing!—and pulled him out of the dirt and snow. Thor could feel the lean, rabbity muscles working beneath Loki’s warm skin as he squealed and kicked and wriggled.
“No, stop, please!” he wept. “Don’t ravish me, I beg you, just slit my throat and have done with it!”
Thor was quietly horrified. He picked Loki up and sat him squarely onto a fallen tree, then took his hands off of him. Loki went silent, studying his new seat and upright, elevated position, staring eye-to-eye with his captor.
“I am neither raper nor robber,” said Thor firmly. “I want only to ask you a few questions, then I shall determine what must be done with you.”
Loki crossed his arms over his hollow belly and hunched down, scowling to disguise his terror. “Alright. Ask away.”
“How came you to Midgard, Loki?”
“I was banished here.”
“By my father.”
Thor frowned thoughtfully. “Your father must be a very powerful troll if he thinks he can cast his people out to become the problems of other realms. Who is he? What is his name?”
Loki lowered his head and stared at the ground between his small, bare feet, his hands fidgeting in his lap. “His name is Fárbauti.”
Thor’s face went slack. “Fárbauti! King of the frost trolls, ruler of Jötunheim—he is your father?”
“Yes,” said Loki. His voice was meek, his shoulders slumped in shame.
“Then that would make you a prince!”
“I am no prince.” Loki lifted his face, his eyes bright with suffering. “Both my brothers are, but I have been shunned since the day I was born. The only reason my father didn’t throw me to the wolves when I was a baby was because he hoped I would eventually grow to be a full-sized jötunn.”
Thor suddenly found his heart aching for this poor, unlucky little waif.
“Only you never grew,” he finished softly. “You stayed small, and when he realized you would get no bigger, he cast you out. Is that true?”
Loki nodded his head miserably.
Thor stared at him. Of all the realms Fárbauti could have banished his son to, he had sent him to the one protected by the greatest troll-foe who ever lived, the Æsir son of Odin Allfather, who struck terror into the hearts of all jötnar with his thunder and his hammer, who rained lightning upon their armies and slaughtered them by the drove. Looking at this tiny, pathetic, starving creature in front of him, Thor wondered if he would ever be able to raise his hammer against a troll again.
He moved forward to kneel before Loki and loosened the enchanted rope from around his ankle, gently massaging away the indentations left by its cruel grip. He raised his head and saw that Loki was staring at him with an expression of awe on his thin, sad face.
“I am freeing you on one condition,” said Thor as he held Loki’s small foot in his hand and continued to rub the marks from his flesh. “That you return to Asgard with me and allow me to take care of you.”
Loki jerked his foot from Thor’s gentle grasp. “You mean to make me your pet, is that it?”
“I mean to take care of you,” Thor repeated. “Feed you, heal you, give you shelter and a place to call home.”
“I hate Asgard.”
“Have you ever been there?”
“No.” Loki swished his tail petulantly back and forth. “But I hear it’s terrible. A realm of sunshine and warmth, long days and short nights, not enough snow or ice.”
“The palace has many rooms that are cool and dark,” Thor insisted, “and the forests of Asgard are deep and green. You will love it there.”
Loki gave him a doubtful scowl.
Thor tried for a more appetizing angle. “There are streams teeming with fish. Forests filled with wild boar, stags, rabbits, small game, all the fresh blood you can drink. Mushrooms and berries, trees bursting with fruit. There are things to eat during every season in Asgard, unlike here. Won’t you at least stay for a little while and recover your strength? I will not force you to remain against your will. You will not be my prisoner. If you decide you would like to live in another realm, then I shall deliver you there myself when the time comes.”
Loki narrowed his eyes. “Are you trying to tempt me?”
“I am, absolutely.”
“Well, you’ve succeeded.” Loki stretched his thin blue arms out to Thor, his eyes wide and hungry. “Take me.”
A huge, handsome smile split Thor’s face and he reached out and picked Loki up. He felt so light and frail, like a skinny child in desperate need of care—something which, Thor supposed, wasn’t too far from the truth. Loki wrapped his arms around Thor’s neck and clung to his broad chest. He was so small that Thor was able to support him with one arm and rise to his feet, then call Mjölnir to his free hand. Loki jerked a little at the metallic toll that was often the last thing his people heard, and cringed when the weapon smacked into Thor’s palm.
Thor felt Loki trembling with fear and his heart grew even sorer. He tucked his hammer into his belt and coiled the golden rope about its handle, then drew his other arm around Loki’s slight frame, gently laying his hand upon his shivering, bony back.
“Don’t fear, Loki,” he murmured, hugging the little frost troll as he carried him from the wintry Norwegian forest. “I give you my word, no harm shall befall you so long as I live.”
Chapter 2: Welcome to Asgard
Loki was quite docile in Thor’s arms at first; then the Bifröst descended and swallowed them into its dazzling, multicolored vortex, and he began to struggle.
“No, no, it’s lightning! I can’t go! I’ll die! Please, don’t make me go!”
Thor held Loki about the waist, wincing as he was kicked and slapped and trounced by the troll’s flailing limbs.
“Peace, Loki! It’s only—ow—a bit of bright light, it won’t—mmf—harm you!”
But Loki continued to fight and fret, so Thor took up the edge of his long red cape and drew it around Loki like a blanket, covering him in protective darkness. The effect was immediate. Loki went still and clung to Thor like he was a tree, his skinny blue arms and legs clamped around Thor’s torso. He moaned miserably. Thor cradled him like a frightened babe as the Bifröst sped them to their destination.
In a matter of moments, Thor was stepping through the dazzling portal and into the huge spherical chamber that was the domain of Asgard’s solitary gatekeeper, Heimdall the All-Seeing. The watchguard lifted an eyebrow as Thor attempted to walk past with a wave of his hand and a nervous grin on his lips.
“Hello, Heimdall! It’s good to see you again, thank you for bringing me home, I hope all was well while I was gone, it’s quite muddy in Midgard this time of year so I think I shall just—”
“You bring back an unexpected guest,” said Heimdall flatly, for his golden gaze rarely missed anything. “I believe you were sent to dispatch a troll. Were you successful?”
Thor broke out in a sweat. He was a terrible liar and Heimdall knew it. In fact, he knew Heimdall had probably seen all that had transpired on Midgard, so lying was completely pointless. Nevertheless, Thor had sworn to Loki that no harm would befall him, and he was willing to do everything he could to keep that promise, even if it meant stretching the truth a little.
So he smiled cheerfully and said, “False alarm. Another case of mistaken identity, I’m afraid. Nothing more than a poor little elfling who needs some care.” He patted the shivering lump he carried.
Heimdall’s eyebrow went up another notch. “That elf has horns.”
“Yes, indeed, it’s a queer thing. Horny elves, whatever shall be next?”
“Horny elves with troll tails, I imagine.”
Thor’s affable front abruptly crumbled and he looked down at Loki’s long blue tail, dangling out from under his cape. He reached out and carefully tucked it away, then gave Heimdall a sheepish look.
Heimdall lifted his eyes to the unseen sky above and sighed heavily. “You may pass. I do not think one little jötunn will cause much trouble. But if your father finds out . . .”
“I know. I will tell him myself, Heimdall, I swear.”
Heimdall appraised the trembling bundle hidden beneath Thor’s cape. “What are you planning to do with him, if I may ask?”
“Well, he already has a name, so I suppose the next thing to do is give him some food and make him comfortable.”
“You are planning to keep him?”
“Just for a little while.” Thor began to rock absently from side to side, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he patted Loki’s cloaked form. It was a strangely paternal sight. “Until he can look after himself, then I shall release him. Right now he is not fit to survive on his own, surely you saw that for yourself. If he’s sent back to Midgard, he will starve or be devoured by a pack of wolves. I could not in good conscience abandon him to such a fate. He has . . . his life has been difficult enough.”
Heimdall almost smiled at Thor’s melancholy expression. “You have a kind and merciful heart, my prince. I will gladly break this petty ordinance if it means keeping it in one piece.”
Thor beamed, and his face was as radiant as the sun.
“Go. Take care of your little ward. I will tell no one.”
“Thank you, Heimdall!” Thor exclaimed, and hurried from the chamber with Loki smuggled safely beneath his cape.
“Who was that man?” Loki asked as they made their way to the palace. It was taking a little longer on foot, for though Thor would have preferred to fly, as was his custom, Loki had shrieked the moment they left the ground and he had been forced to make a rather clumsy landing. At least he hadn’t fallen face-first upon the bridge and crushed Loki beneath him. That would have been a horrible start to this supposedly lifesaving endeavor.
“That was Heimdall, the great porter of Asgard.”
“Is he a god?”
Thor smiled down at the wide-eyed blue face peering out from under his cape. “He is one of the Æsir, like me. We are called gods by some, but we are not so mighty as the Midgardians believe us to be.”
“He seemed very nice.”
“He is a good man and a great friend. I have known him my whole life. He has taught me much.”
Loki relaxed a little. He had stopped shaking only a few minutes ago, and now he was beginning to get curious about his surroundings. He poked his head out from under his cover and stared at everything around him with wonder, a growing look of delight on his face.
“It’s not as bright as I thought it would be,” he said.
“That’s because it is eventide,” said Thor. “Rather fortunate, I think. I was afraid the sunlight might harm you.”
Loki clicked his tongue and swished his tail. “We don’t turn to stone, you know. That’s just a myth.”
“Good. I would hate for you to be petrified.”
“Oh, I am petrified, just in the figurative sense.”
Thor chuckled, marveling at Loki’s wit and words. He hadn’t thought trolls were capable of being so smart and well-spoken. . . not that Thor had ever sat down and had a conversation with them over a flagon of ale. His interactions with jötnar were usually more straightforward: a demand for unconditional surrender, the threat of action if (or when) that demand was refused, and then the violent, often fatal application of that action. That was his job, after all. Destroy the villains, neutralize the threat.
He never imagined those villains to look like the creature—no, the person—he now carried in his arms.
Trolls are not people, Odin’s voice echoed in Thor’s mind. They are animals, beasts, savages. An ugly, festering canker upon the fair branches of Yggdrasil. They spurn our offers of civilization and return our mercy with malcontent. They are incapable of rational thought. Everywhere they go they bring chaos, violence, and destruction. They are a blight upon all creation and I will be thankful for the day when the last troll-nest is burnt from existence.
Thor clutched Loki a little more tightly. He had never seen a troll-nest before. He wondered if they were like bird- or mouse-nests, lined with sticks and branches and bits of gathered fluff, if the troll mothers watched over their babies while the fathers went out to seek food, if the parents joined together at night—no, during the day, more likely—to cuddle up with their sleeping offspring.
Thor imagined a giant that looked a lot like his father threatening this happy, peaceful scene, shaking the troll nest from its figmental branches and casting the squirming, blind little troll babies onto the ground, hardening his heart to their frightened mewing as he raises his boot over them to—
“Are you crying?”
Loki’s voice snapped Thor from his horrible vision. He gave his head a shake and realized that, yes, there were tears in his eyes. He forced a smile onto his face and gazed down at Loki tenderly.
“It’s alright. Something came over me, that’s all.”
Loki’s eyebrows angled upward in an expression of pity. “I didn’t think Æsir could cry. I was always told that they have no hearts.”
“We have hearts,” Thor sniffed. “And I believe mine just cracked.”
Loki stared up at Thor with large, glimmering eyes and said no more.
Presently they came to the palace and Thor took a meandering, clandestine route to reach his chambers. He sat Loki on the edge of his bed and assured him he would be back as quickly as possible.
Loki didn’t move from his spot. He was afraid he might touch something hazardous and be struck by a bolt of lightning or blinded by a flash of light, so he folded his arms and legs close to his body and waited for Thor to return. And he did, roughly ten minutes later, balancing a tray in one hand as he locked his bedroom doors behind him.
“I am not sure what trolls eat,” he confessed, setting the tray down beside Loki, “but I’ve never known anyone to turn down a hot bowl of bone broth.”
Loki looked up at Thor meekly. “It’s hot.”
“Of course, it’s suppos—” And then Thor realized his error. He grimaced and clapped a hand to his forehead. “I am such a fool. Forgive me, I didn’t think—”
“It’s alright, really,” Loki insisted, raising his hand as if he wanted to ease Thor’s embarrassment. “What’s that in the cup?”
“It’s milk,” said Thor miserably. “Warm milk, because I’m a fool.”
“I’ll take warm over hot any day,” said Loki, and picked up the vessel with both hands. He raised it to his lips and took a long drink. “It’s good,” he said brightly, licking his lips. “I like it. Thank you.”
Thor perked up a little. “It’s not too hot?”
“It’s a little warmer than what I’m used to, but it’s fine. Really.”
While Loki sipped the milk, Thor picked up the bowl of soup and stirred it, blowing on it until it no longer steamed.
“Here,” he said, trading the bowl for Loki’s empty cup. “It should be cool enough now. Just eat slowly. It wouldn’t do to make yourself sick.”
Loki picked up the spoon and studied it blankly. “What’s this?”
“It’s a spoon. You eat with it.”
He gripped the utensil in his blue fist and looked at Thor questioningly. Thor responded with a nod and a smile.
“That’s a good start. But holding it with your fingers is easier. Here, let me show you . . .”
He gently eased the spoon from Loki’s grip and dipped it into the bowl. He blew on it—just in case it was still too warm—and offered it to Loki. Still appearing a bit uncertain, Loki opened his mouth and Thor carefully gave him the spoon.
“Put your lips around—yes, like that. Good. Alright, I think you can—”
Loki swallowed and immediately opened his mouth again, waiting.
Thor chucked. “Oh, no, I’m a terrible nurse. Here, you take it.”
Loki shut his mouth and looked a little disappointed, but he accepted the spoon without complaint and went about drawing up mouthfuls of the nourishing broth as Thor had shown him.
“There, you see? You’re doing fine.”
“I’d rather drink from the bowl.”
“Oh. Well, if that’s how trolls prefer to eat their soup, be my guest.”
“No, this is probably better,” said Loki, blowing on another spoonful. “I don’t want to be sick. It’s very good, of course, but I’d prefer to only taste it once.”
Thor laughed, and Loki actually grinned in response. It was enough to make Thor’s heart glow like a warm, happy ember. What an amazing being he was, this cunning little troll prince. How could his father have rejected him so cruelly, simply for being smaller than the others? Did he not see the other qualities Loki possessed? That he had an indefatigable sense of humor, that he was grateful and smart and playful and lovely—
Lovely? Yes. Yes, lovely. Lovely and utterly worthy of love, from the tips of his curving horns to his clawless blue toes. Thor had never been more sure of anything in his life, and he had barely known Loki for an hour.
That was it. He was instantly determined to do right by this little jötunn. He was going to spoil him rotten. He was going to feed him the most delectable, exquisite foods in all Nine Realms, clothe him in the richest silks, adorn him with precious metals and jewels—silver and sapphire would complement him perfectly—no, wait! Gold and rubies, to bring out the red in his eyes!—and bathe him in the finest oils and fragrances that Asgard ever—
Oh, right. A bath. Loki was certainly going to need one. He still had leaves and dirt in his hair, and that tattered leather breechcloth simply had to go.
Thor rose to his feet. “I’m going to draw a bath for you while you finish your meal. No need to hurry, it will take some time to fill the tub. How cool would you like the water to be?”
Loki lifted his head from his bowl and stared up at Thor. He swallowed loudly.
“What’s a bath?”
Chapter 3: Trollwash
Loki crept cautiously into the bathroom, his bare feet padding across the stone floor and his head swiveling to and fro, as if there might be danger lurking in every corner. Like all the rooms in the palace, this one was extravagant to the point of vulgarity, embellished with gold and silver and ancient symbols and designs that were unique to the realm of Asgard. Those same designs would have looked just as artful carved in oak by a woodsman’s humble hand, but there seemed to be no trace of the natural world in this cold hall of metal and glass. Loki didn’t like it. It was splendid, but it didn’t feel like a place he could ever call home.
When his eyes fell upon the tub, however, terror shot through him like lightning and he turned to flee. He crashed into Thor, who had been following closely behind.
“Steady, Loki,” said Thor with a kind smile. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“It’s a pot,” said Loki. His eyes were huge as he glared accusingly up at Thor. “That’s where you cook your food, isn’t it? It all makes sense to me now. You’re going to boil me in that, aren’t you? Troll soup—I bet it’s a delicacy here!”
Thor tried not to laugh, he really did, but it was a vain effort. “You could not be more wrong,” he chuckled. “That is a tub of water. It’s where you wash yourself.”
Loki blinked. “Water? Are you mad? Don’t you know how dangerous it is? It’s full of spirits and beasts; nøkker and snakes and things that will grab you from below and pull you down—”
“You will not be drowned, I swear. There is nothing in that water but a little fragrance and oil.”
Loki did not look convinced. Thor turned him around and gently guided him toward the tub.
“I am going to be right here, so there is no need to worry. If anything threatens you, I will deal with it.”
“What if I get dragged under?”
“I will jump in after you.”
“You can swim?”
“Of course.” Thor quirked an eyebrow. “Do trolls not know how?”
“We’re not overly fond of water,” said Loki, leaning over to peer into the tub. He could see the bottom, which made him feel a little better. He dared to reach out, tentatively dipping his finger in. The water was neither hot nor icy, but felt the same as the air around him. Perhaps this might not be so bad. It certainly smelled nice.
“So how does one take a bath, exactly?”
“Well, you, er. You just take your clothes off and . . . climb in.” Thor could feel his face warming—which was ridiculous. He was a grown man and a seasoned warrior, and nudity was of little matter to the Æsir. Some of their bravest fighters were known to forsake the protection of armor and march into battle clad in nothing but the skins of mighty animals. Sometimes just their own skins. Thor had seen the sexes of all the peoples of the Nine Realms, including trolls. Why then did he find himself blushing like a lad who had yet to receive his first kiss?
“You scrub yourself with a little soap, rinse off, get out.” He shrugged. “There really isn’t more to it than that.”
For a few moments Loki meditated on Thor’s words, gazing into the tub. Then he stiffened his lips determinedly, hooked his thumbs into his breechcloth, and slid it down his thighs.
Thor averted his eyes. No surprises there. Nothing he hadn’t already seen many times before. Loki was just like any other jötunn, only . . . on a much smaller scale.
While Thor awkwardly contemplated the patterns on the ceiling, Loki dragged himself over the edge of the tub and toppled in headfirst, creating a huge splash. Water cascaded onto the floor and he surfaced with a panicked sputter. Thor dropped to his knees and grasped Loki under his arms, holding him up as he coughed and choked.
“It went up my nose,” Loki whimpered, cupping his hands over his nostrils. “It’s in my head now. It burns!”
“It will fade, don’t worry. Just catch your breath, I’ve got you.”
Loki sniffed and stared crossly at Thor. His black hair was plastered to his head, streaming in tangled tendrils over his face and horns. He was the saddest, most bedraggled thing Thor had ever seen.
“I hope this gets better soon,” said Loki, “because so far I hate it.”
“It will,” Thor insisted, lowering Loki back into the water and carefully combing the wet strands from his eyes. “Here, come closer and I’ll wash your hair for you. It will feel good, I promise.”
The look on Loki’s face said that he didn’t quite believe it, but he drew close to the side of the tub, clinging tightly to its rim while Thor removed his armor and peeled off his damp tunic and undershirt. He noticed the way Loki bit his lower lip and how his cerulean-blue cheeks darkened to indigo.
Surely trolls were not shy about nakedness, were they? The fire trolls who inhabited Muspelheim wore very little indeed—mere pieces of metal and a type of gritty, non-flammable fabric—and the wood trolls who lived in the temperate regions of the Nine preferred to dress themselves in moss and ivy, if they dressed in anything at all. Bare skin was far more common among trolls than perhaps any other race. Still, it did not assuage Thor’s doubts. Loki was very different from the rest of the jötnar; perhaps he possessed different sensibilities when it came to nudity.
“Do I offend you?” he asked quietly, and Loki turned to look at him with wide eyes. “I can cover myself if you’re—”
“No!” His voice squeaked and the color of his face changed again. “I mean, no, it’s alright. You’re just”—he suddenly became interested in his hands—“very large and handsome. Like one of our champions.”
Thor was both stunned and amused. “Trolls would consider me handsome?”
“Well, I can’t speak for all of us,” said Loki in a small voice. “You are rather pink and hairy, but I think you’re quite . . . er, y-you said something about a hair-washing, right?”
“Oh. Yes, of course. Just a moment, let me get the bottle . . .”
A few minutes later, Loki sat in the chest-deep water with a drowsy, contented smile on his lips as Thor massaged a combination of liquid soap and sweet-smelling oils into his scalp. Suds dripped down the side of the tub and onto the floor, and Thor’s trousers began to get soaked from kneeling in the puddles that were already there.
“You have gentle hands,” Loki murmured, looking up at Thor appreciatively.
Thor put on a strained smile and continued to untangle the knots from Loki’s silky black hair. His hands had never touched a troll with any purpose other than to destroy. Punching, pounding, pummeling, snapping fangs and bone, wringing necks, breaking jaws, drawing blood. Gentle? No. He did not have gentle hands. Surely Loki was aware of that, even if he had never seen Thor in battle.
You are a troll killer. Lightning-maker, they call you. Thunder-bringer, the terror of all jötnar!
“You have beautiful hair,” Thor blurted, desperate to get away from his own thoughts. “I’ve never seen a troll with hair like this before. Are there many others like you?”
“None that I know of.” Loki sighed. “In truth, it’s a disgrace. My head was kept shaven for most of my life, but it grew back faster and thicker each time. Our healers and magicians tried everything—spells, balms, medicines—but nothing seemed to work. Finally my father gave up and I was locked away in the deepest cavern of our kingdom, where no one could see what an ugly child he had spawned.” Loki hung his head. “That’s what my name means, you know. I would have gotten a new one had I grown to be handsome. But I never did, and so I remain Loki, the ugly shame.”
Thor was so taken aback that for several moments he couldn’t speak. When he finally found his voice again, his words were inflamed and passionate: “That’s horrible! That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard! Being locked away and treated as if you were defective; how could your father have been so cruel? You are neither ugly nor shameful!”
“Oh, but I am,” Loki insisted bitterly. “All the things we jötnar consider worthy of admiration I have none of. Tall horns, thick tails. Heavy bones and big fangs, especially if they’re on the bottom. A troll whose teeth protrude over his upper lip is considered extremely fetching. And long, pointed ears are a blessing; the farther they stick out, the better. Big noses are also very attractive, but I’ve been cursed with these awful, elfin characteristics. There is no greater insult for a troll than to be called an elf. I don’t even have claws.” He studied his small blue fingernails with a look of dismay. “I can’t blame my father for banishing me. I am hideous.”
“You are not,” said Thor vehemently. “Your father is wrong, Loki. You are perfect just the way you are, and I’m going to help you realize that if it’s the last thing I do.”
Loki gave him a sad smile, as if he didn’t quite believe his words but appreciated his kindness.
“Fárbauti is a fool,” Thor muttered, carefully rinsing the soap from Loki’s hair. “If I ever meet him, I will have a few things to say about how he treated his son.”
“It wouldn’t matter,” said Loki. “I am no longer his son. He disowned me. My brothers pleaded with him—Blindi and Bý were always very nice to me and I wish I had been allowed to spend more time with them—but I suppose it’s for the best that I never see them again. I would hate for them to be ridiculed for associating with me.”
For a long while there were no more words between them. Thor finished rinsing Loki’s hair and took up a sponge, lathering it with soap. He gently scrubbed all of Loki’s parts that he could reach: his horns, his face, his ears—small and elfin and very cute—and his neck and shoulders. Loki’s eyes were beginning to glaze sleepily as Thor scooped up water and rinsed the suds away, and the smile had returned to his lips. It faded, however, when Thor passed the foamy sponge to him.
“Erm, here, I shall let you finish cleaning yourself. You know how it’s done now, so—”
“Oh, no, please! This feels so nice,” Loki protested, and stood up with a splash. Rivulets streamed down his glistening blue skin and joined the rest of the water at his knees.
Thor hoped his face wasn’t as red as it felt.
“Please continue,” said Loki, holding out the sponge with large, eager eyes. “No one has ever touched me so tenderly. For the first time in my life, I truly feel like a prince.”
Thor’s heart was suddenly galloping in his chest. The overwhelming innocence and trust in Loki’s voice was enough to make him cry, and he knew then that he could never refuse anything this little frost troll asked of him. He accepted the sponge back with a relenting smile and gently began to scrub the rest of Loki’s body.
Loki gave a joyful wiggle and made himself accessible to the tender ministrations.
Thor washed him as dutifully and directly as possible, reminding himself that this was only a chore, a humble task that he would have performed for one of his wounded comrades or an ill friend who could not care for himself. It was an act of kindness and mercy, not a prelude to romance. He wasn’t even sure how trolls romanced one another, or if they even believed in love. Surely they had to; some form of it, at least, otherwise Loki would not be here.
Loki squeaked and tittered when Thor dipped a soapy finger into his shallow blue navel. “Ah! That tickles!”
“Sorry,” said Thor with an apologetic look. “I didn’t want to miss anything.”
Loki held his bottom lip between his teeth turned around, his expression demure and delighted as Thor washed his back. He gave a violent shudder, though, when Thor picked up his tail and ran the sponge all the way from its root to the flat, spade-shaped point at the end.
Alarmed by the unexpected reaction, Thor instantly let go and asked, “Are you alright? Did I hurt you?”
“N-no,” Loki stammered, peering over his shoulder at him. “It just, em. Felt very nice, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh.” A second later, Thor’s eyes widened and his face heated up a few more degrees. “Oh. I’m. Pardon me, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know that was a—”
“It’s alright. You couldn’t have known.” Loki smiled reassuringly, his tail sloshing back and forth in the bathwater. “Please do continue. I’ve never felt so spoiled. It’s marvelous.”
With a helpless grin, Thor picked up where he left off. There were no further incidents or awkward mishandlings, though Loki had giggled uncontrollably when he stood on one leg to allow Thor to wash his toes. The soapy slither of Thor’s fingers elicited a shriek of laughter from him at one point, and he slipped on the bottom of the tub. Thor caught him around the waist before he could fall, and Loki’s arms shot out to wrap around his neck.
They stared at one another for a few startled seconds, nose to nose and eye to eye, then a look of amazement came to Loki’s face.
“Oh,” he breathed. “I can feel your heartbeat. It’s so strong and . . . is it always that fast?”
“No,” said Thor, his voice cracking. He could think of nothing else to say. Loki’s body was smooth and cool against him, sinewy and small, sharp with bone. He could smell his wet skin and his hair, and the slick, fragrant soap that was responsible for them clinging to each other as they were now.
“How ironic,” Loki murmured. “Here I am, a troll in the arms of the Lightning-maker, and I’ve never felt so safe in my life.”
He closed his eyes and leaned forward, gently rubbing his horns against Thor’s forehead. A moment later he seemed to realize what he was doing and pulled back quickly, his cheeks flushed a deep shade of cobalt.
“I’m so sorry. I, I don’t know what came over me. I must be losing my mind. We barely know each other and here I am . . . fawning.” He turned his head in shame.
“It’s alright, Loki.” Thor gave him a patient smile. “We have much to learn about each other’s ways. There will be plenty of time for us to become more familiar. Come, let’s get you rinsed and dried. My parents will be retiring to bed soon and I’d like for them to meet you.”
Trolls might have been incapable of turning to stone, but that’s exactly what Loki felt like in Thor’s arms just then. He pulled back fearfully, his breath quickening.
“I am to meet the Allfather?” he piped.
“Don’t worry. He is probably in his nightclothes by now. He looks much less intimidating without Gungnir, I assure you.”
Loki didn’t look assured. In fact, he looked terrified.
Thor reached down and pulled the drain plug, and the ominous sucking sound from deep in the tub sent Loki, still covered in suds, leaping into his arms with a sharp cry.
“What is that!” he yelped, attempted to climb his way onto Thor’s shoulders. “What’s happening! Why is that thing drinking the water! You didn’t tell me there was a monster at the bottom all this time! I could have been eaten!”
“It’s only a drain, Loki! Calm down.” Thor carefully pried Loki’s arms from around his face and laughed. His hair was spattered with soapy foam. “I suppose I ought to rinse off, too. I’ve had half a bath already.”
“Well, watch out for that thing,” Loki declared, stabbing his finger toward the whirlpool of water disappearing into the drain. “Because if you get sucked into it, I will not be jumping in after you!”
Chapter 4: Family Matters
A bit more fluff before they're off to see the
After rinsing Loki under a stream of fresh, cool water—which both delighted and calmed him from his earlier fright with the drain—Thor wrapped him in a huge, fluffy towel and left him to dry on the bathmat while he went into the bedroom.
“I should be able to find something for you to wear,” he said, sliding open a closet door and stepping inside. “I still have clothes from when I was a boy, if my little brothers did not steal them long ago. They should fit you.” There came the sound of rummaging and rifling from deep within the closet.
“You have brothers, too?” asked Loki, shaking the water from his ears.
“Four of them,” came Thor’s muffled voice. “Two older ones and two younger ones, two sets of twins, and I am the poor, solitary fool trapped between them. I suppose you’ll meet them all at some point. They—where in the Nine is that box? It should have been right—ah, there it is.” More shuffling noises.
Loki quirked his brow. “Do the Æsir always have such small litters?”
Thor’s laughter exploded from the closet and he poked his head around the doorframe. “Litters? No, we don’t have litters. Twins are not very common, and trios are even rarer. I’ve heard of no greater numbers being birthed in Asgard. Our women usually have only one child at a time.”
“And it’s not a shame?”
“Er, no. Not at all.” Thor paused and stepped out of the closet, his amusement fading. “Is it shameful for trolls to have so few children at once?”
“Terribly.” Loki huddled deeper into his towel, as if it might shield him from a painful memory. “My brothers, Helblindi and Býleist, and I were the only survivors of a litter of eight. Our mother died bearing us.”
Thor was quietly stunned. He opened his mouth to say something—anything, at least an acknowledgement of Loki’s pain and an expression of sympathy for him—but his tongue could find no words.
“That’s not even the worst part,” Loki continued bitterly. “Father blamed me for his death, insisted I was the one who killed him. I was the last one born, after all; never mind the seven babies who came before me. No, it was the ugly runt who stole his strength and his will to live.” He sighed. “I suppose it doesn’t matter anymore. I am no longer part of the family.”
Thor frowned as he entered the bathroom. “Forgive me, I must be misunderstanding, but when you spoke of your mother, you kept saying ‘his’. Don’t you mean ‘her’?”
“Oh—no, actually, I mean hin, in the language of the jötnar. I use your male terms when I speak the common tongue because they sound very similar, but we trolls are all one sex.” Loki held up one small blue finger.
Thor stared. “You mean there are no troll-women?”
“Well, there are no troll-men, if that’s what you’re asking. There are simply trolls.”
“Oh.” Thor’s face went blank. “Well. That’s kind of . . . Actually, that makes a lot of sense now that I think about it. It explains why I’ve never seen what I thought to be a female troll.” He looked down at the clothes that were draped over his arm. “Come to think of it, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a jötunn in anything but armored skirts and vests. I’m not sure if any of these clothes will suit you.”
“That’s alright. I’m no ordinary frost troll, so perhaps I’ll find something.” Loki smiled gently.
Thor returned the smile and passed the garments to him. “Well, if you haven’t found anything you like by the time I’m finished in here, I will help you look for something else.”
Loki hugged the clothes to his chest. “Thank you . . . em.” He looked like he wanted to say more, but either couldn’t find the words or was too bashful to speak them. He tucked his bottom lip into his mouth and turned. Thor smiled as Loki trotted out the door, the tip of his blue tail poking out from beneath the edge of his towel.
Now alone in the bathroom, Thor shucked off the rest of his clothes—boots, trousers and underthings, all heaped together on the floor—and made his way to the large stone stall in the corner. As he turned on the shower, he recalled how much more comfortable Loki had been getting rinsed off in here instead of the bathtub, even though he hadn’t been too keen on the large drain in the center of the floor. Instead of watching him tiptoe nervously around the grate for twenty minutes, Thor had scooped Loki into his arms and simply held him beneath the spray. He didn’t even care that the water was cold or that the rest of his clothes had gotten soaked. Seeing Loki hold his pleased, pretty face beneath the sparkling cascade had been worth it.
In fact, that was all Thor wanted. To see Loki happy, healthy, and healed, sleek and strong, his horns and hair shining, imbued with confidence and laughter. It was such a beautiful image that Thor instantly resolved to make it a reality. The opportunity had fallen into his lap—well, into his trap, actually—and by Odin’s beard, he would see it done.
Thor’s excitement ebbed a little at the thought of his father.
He hoped Loki would be allowed to stay here. Odin was tough and steely, but he did have a heart beneath his seemingly stoic exterior. Once he heard the sad account of Loki’s life, Thor was certain he would be moved to mercy.
Well, there was the small matter of Odin despising trolls and everything to do with them, but he hadn’t met Loki yet. If any troll could change his mind, Loki would be the one. He was the perfect ambassador: polite and well-spoken, charming and humorous, attentive, cute . . . very cute. From his pointy ears to little blue-nailed toes—and his tail, even if it wasn’t thick and heavy like a normal troll’s—every part of him was lovely and adorable.
Thor suddenly found himself wondering just how old Loki was. His horns were too short to be an adult’s, but maybe that was a result of his stunted development. He certainly spoke as if he were an adult, but he could simply be precocious for his age. Thor would ask him at the soonest opportunity. He didn’t wish to insult Loki or say anything inappropriate to him. He was likely still growing (though apparently not fast enough for his impatient father) and perhaps someday he might even be the same size as Thor. That would—
Oh. That. Stars above, he would be stunning, an absolute beauty. Tall, curving horns and long legs, his hair grown out and falling to his waist in a soft black curtain, his arms strong and muscular, the most handsome jötunn to ever set foot in Asgard . . .
Thor came back to reality with a jolt. Damn, he didn’t have time to be daydreaming like this. The hour was growing late and his parents would not be up for much longer. He quickly began to rinse off.
Meanwhile in the bedroom, Loki had laid the armful of clothes out on the broad, soft-looking piece of furniture that sat against one wall. He had guessed it was Thor’s nest, though it looked like no nest he had ever seen before. It was too flat and wide, not rounded enough, and it had too few pillows. It was merely a surface, like a table or a floor. It wasn’t cozy or intimate at all. Who could ever sleep lying stiff and straight like that, stretched out and vulnerable? Loki supposed one might be able to curl up if they wanted to, but it would be very uncomfortable on something so firm and shapeless. Did the Æsir actually make their babies on these awful things? Mercy, perhaps that’s why they had so few children. Who could enjoy making love on that?
A hot blush crept across Loki’s cheeks as his imagination suddenly conjured up several images of his gloriously naked benefactor propagating his species on his weird, flattened nest. A soft squeak escaped Loki’s lips and he shook his head to clear his mind.
He mustn’t get distracted. He was about to meet the Allfather, the most powerful being in all Nine Realms, and picturing that being’s attractive, athletic son engaged in procreative activities, however alluring, was simply unacceptable at this time. He had to stay focused.
Banishing the thought, Loki pursed his lips and studied the various garments lying before him. The only thing that really appealed to him was a dark blue tunic, short of length and sleeve, trimmed with silver. It was lightweight and conservative enough to suit his hosts, and the skirt meant that he wouldn’t have to worry about making a hole in the back of—what did they call them again? Oh, right—a trowsors so that his tail could be free. He would just have to be mindful of swinging it so that he didn’t accidentally lift the skirt and give all of Asgard a glimpse of his bottom. The Æsir didn’t seem very proud of their hind-ends, or at least they weren’t as willing to show them off. Pity. The buttocks were a fine asset, lovely to look at as well as useful.
Loki shrugged off his towel, picked up the tunic, and pulled it over his head. It was obviously tailored with a better-fed person in mind, but Loki was very pleased with how it felt, even though it was a little more clothing than what he was accustomed to wearing. The length was perfect, falling to mid-thigh, and he was idly wondering if Thor might have a belt he could borrow when the god himself appeared from the bathroom, a towel tied around his waist and his long, wet hair clinging to his muscular shoulders. Loki caught a glimpse of him and froze, his mouth falling open.
Odinson might not have the wide girth so revered by the jötnar, but by Jötunheim’s holy mountains, what a magnificent troll he would have made!
Loki was still completely mesmerized when Thor turned his head and met his eyes. He didn’t seem to realize he was being ogled; all he saw was a handsome little frost troll dressed in what had been his favorite boyhood tunic, and the color of its fabric perfectly complemented his cerulean complexion.
“You look wonderful,” he declared, then cringed at his eager tone.
Loki blurted, “So do y—” before his hand flew to cover his mouth. He blushed fiercely.
“I, um, believe there is a belt that goes with that,” said Thor, breaking away from their awkward standoff to duck into the closet. “I will find it for you!” There was a clatter as something fell from one of the closet’s shelves.
“Erm, thank you,” Loki stammered. He put a hand over his eyes and bowed his head.
He had succeeded in embarrassing his host—again—as well as himself. What in the worlds had gotten into him? Barely two hours ago he had been wondering if he was going to eat today, and now he was falling horn over heel for a thundergod. Even in his banishment he was still managing to bring shame to his people. If his father could see him now, he would probably wish he had executed him instead of banishing him.
Loki continued to despair, and a short while later Thor emerged from the closet, haphazardly dressed—his trousers were twisted and his shirt was riding up on one side—and carrying a small leather belt in his hand. He approached shyly and held it out to Loki.
“Here, this is the one.”
“Thank you,” said Loki quietly, accepting the belt. The leather was soft and supple, and he fastened it around his waist with a few clever motions. After giving the tunic one final adjustment, he brushed the skirt and lifted his eyes to Thor expectantly. “How do I look?”
Thor gazed at him with a tender smile on his lips. “Like a prince,” he said, and bowed deeply at the waist, his damp golden hair spilling over his shoulders.
It was more than Loki could bear; his tail curled around his left leg and he hid his face in his hands. “Oh, please,” he whimpered, his cheeks burning against the palms of his hands. “Please, I. I am no prince. I’m—”
“Nonsense. You are the son of a king. We are both princes, you and I, which means we are equals.”
“No, you are a god. I am a troll. An ugly runt of a—” Loki lost the end of his sentence when he felt Thor’s large, gentle hands clasp his wrists and pull them away from his face. He was staring at Loki with nothing but adoration in his kind blue eyes.
“You are a prince,” he repeated firmly, “and that is how I shall introduce you to my father. Prince Loki, late of Jötunheim, unjustly exiled and seeking asylum in our fair realm. The Allfather could not deny such a moving petition.”
When Thor slid his hands into Loki’s, Loki didn’t even cower. He stared dreamily at Thor’s face, his tail going lax around his leg.
“Do you really think so?” he murmured hopefully.
“I do.” Thor smiled and clasped Loki’s small blue hands. “But it’s getting late. Come, we don’t want to miss him.”
Thor and Loki walked side by side down the broad, low-lit corridors of the palace, heading for the royal hall where Odin’s chambers lay. Loki stuck close to Thor’s side, taking in everything around him with a sense of wonder and curiosity, his bare feet patting quietly on the polished floor.
Presently they came to a pair of huge, heavy doors. Like nearly everything else in the palace, they were golden and bore elaborate patterns that intertwined with one another like an endless skein of ivy. A raven was carved onto each door and a sliver of warm light spilled from beneath them, an indication that the room’s occupants were still awake.
Thor turned to Loki and smiled gently. “Don’t worry. No harm shall come to you, I promise.” He lifted his hand and rapped lightly on the doors. “Mother, Father,” he said loudly, “I know it is late but I wanted—”
“Come in, Thor,” called a pleasant voice from within, and the door opened on its own with an emerald-green shimmer.
Magic! thought Loki, his eyes sparkling with interest. A very different sort of magic, much more delicate than the kind used by trolls, but sorcery nonetheless. He gulped down his excitement as Thor ushered him inside.
The royal bedchambers were spectacularly luxurious, decorated in gold and silver and draped with intricate tapestries featuring Asgard and its many natural splendors—mountains, forests, streams, fields, all filled with magnificent birds and beasts, and bearing the figures of famous or notable Æsir. To the right was a comfortable sitting-room and more chambers beyond; to the left was an archway that gave onto a wide balcony, and offered a magnificent view of the city below. Stars and moons and nebulae glowed in the night sky above.
In the center of the room, against the far wall, was another of those unusually flat Asgardian nests, though this one was broader and fluffier than Thor’s. The left side was empty but on the right reclined a beautiful woman, propped up by many pillows and comfortably settled for the night. She held a book in her hands and her reddish-gold hair draped down one shoulder in a thick braid.
This was Frigga, Queen of Asgard, the Allmother, and her radiance was as warm and benevolent as her appearance.
She looked up and smiled at her son in greeting, then her eyes settled on the stranger standing beside him. Her eyes widened and the book slipped from her numb hands.
“Mother,” said Thor levelly, “please don’t panic. I can explain ev—”
“Gracious!” she exclaimed, throwing back the covers and springing barefoot from the bed. She hurried toward her son and his guest, holding up the long skirt of her nightgown so she wouldn’t stumble. “What in the Nine! Thor, who is this precious little person?”
Thor was stunned. His jaw wagged mutely as he struggled for words.
After snapping out of his own state of shock, Loki began to bow in the troll fashion—bending the left knee with tail straight out—then he remembered where he was. He quickly corrected himself and bowed at the waist, like Thor had done to him earlier.
“Your majesty,” he said, trying to keep his voice from squeaking. “I am Loki of Jötunheim.”
Frigga walked right up to Loki and took his small face in her hands, staring at him with a look of maternal concern.
“Loki of Jötunheim! My stars, you are a frost troll, aren’t you? What a handsome young thing you are! Are you hungry, darling? Have you eaten? Thor, have you fed him yet? He looks famished.”
“I, uh,” Thor stammered, “yes, Mother, I. He was. Yes.”
Frigga smiled lovingly and patted Loki’s blushing blue cheeks. “Is this your first time in Asgard, Loki? Did you—oh, no, don’t tell me you are an orphan. You poor dear! Do you need a place to stay? Is that why you’re here?”
Loki’s eyes glazed over as he stared at this lovely woman with her soft hands and kind eyes and wonderful, flowery scent. Was everything he had been told about the Æsir a lie? It must be. Every person he had met so far had been generous and patient and—
“Frigga?” came a man’s voice from out on the balcony. “Is that Thor I hear?”
Three heads turned toward the sound. Frigga straightened up, her smile fading as she took her place on Loki’s other side, framing him protectively between herself and her son. Loki’s tail clamped itself anxiously around his leg. Thor took a steady breath and held his head high, waiting.
The Allfather stepped into the room. His silver-white hair spilled loosely onto his shoulders and his beard was thick and well-groomed. His right eye was hidden behind a golden patch, his face stern and his posture regal. Though he was not as tall as Loki had expected, and his midsection had begun to grow soft and thick with age, his mien was one of immense power and wisdom. It didn’t matter that he was not clad in armor or holding his great staff Gungnir, for even in a brocaded dressing gown and slippers, Odin commanded an air of respect.
When he saw that there was a small audience gathered in the room, he stopped short. His eye flitted over each face before finally settling on Loki’s. He blinked.
“Shit,” he muttered under his breath, then heaved a tired sigh. “Thor, what is that thing and why is it in my house?”
Loki’s heart sank to the pit of his stomach. He heard the Allmother click her tongue disapprovingly.
“Father, this Prince Loki of Jötunheim,” said Thor resolutely. “Fárbauti’s son. He has been wrongly exiled and is seeking asylum in Asgard. Will you hear his request?”
Odin’s forehead wrinkled as he lifted his eyebrows. “This isn’t the troll I sent you to destroy, is it? Great gods, lad, why in the world would you bring it back here? Are you planning to have it stuffed and mounted? Skinned and cooked, perhaps? It wouldn’t make more than a mouthful, by the looks of it.”
Loki let out a tiny squeak and Frigga put a soothing hand on his shoulder. She glared at her husband.
The resentment on Thor’s face was plain to see, but his voice was unnaturally calm when he spoke. “Please stop calling him ‘it’, Father. Loki is not a rock or a twig, he is a living being. He is a frost troll.”
“Indeed?” Odin narrowed his eye skeptically at Loki. “Are you sure about that? He looks more like an elf than a troll. Perhaps he’s some sort of mutation, a crossbreed of a troll and a human.”
“You can ask him yourself,” said Thor. “Unless you think speaking to a troll would be beneath you.”
Odin smiled patiently. “Ah, yes. Because I am too mean and proud to converse with a scrawny little jötunn. No, Thor, I am simply afraid of wasting my breath on a creature incapable of understanding civilized speech. But since you appear to be quite taken by him, I shall humor you.”
He leaned forward and spoke to Loki clearly: “Skillur thú mik, little one? Geturr thú toladh algeng tunga, edha ertu hálfvitti?” 1 The words rolled thick and harsh from his tongue.
Loki’s cheeks burned with shame and he shrank against Thor’s side.
“What did you say to him?” Thor demanded, his whole body tensing. “Did you threaten him?”
“I merely asked if he spoke the common language,” said Odin, straightening himself again. “My trollspeak is a little rusty, and quite frankly I hate to use it. It is an ugly language for an ugly people.” He paused and glanced down at Loki. “Present company excluded, of course. Are you sure you’re not part elf?”
Loki gulped and said in a small voice, “T-to my knowledge, your majesty, I am not.”
If Odin was surprised by Loki’s pleasant tenor, his face did not show it. “I see. Then you must be considered an insult to your race, yes? An ugly pariah, cast out for your defects and abandoned by the savages you call your kin. Is that right?”
Loki bowed his head, tears burning in his eyes. “It is, your majesty.”
Both Thor and Frigga were taken aback.
“Father, how could-!”
Odin held up both of his hands and waved them placatingly. “Calm down, calm down. It is a legitimate question. I am only trying to determine the reasons for his exile.”
“He has been exiled because Fárbauti is cruel and impatient,” said Thor fiercely. “Loki has been ridiculed and mistreated all his life for something he cannot help, and his father sent him to Midgard to die. He is in desperate need of sanctuary. He needs care and recovery and a safe place to live.”
Odin opened his arms wide in an exasperated gesture. “What does this realm look like to you, Thor? An infirmary? A harbor for every refugee who comes running to us with a deformity and a convenient story? Oh, don’t look so shocked, lad. Trolls may be stupid as a whole, but they’re capable of being clever on occasion. Some of the most cunning liars and tricksters in history have been trolls.”
He glowered at Loki, who huddled between Thor and Frigga.
“Their deception is legendary, especially among the frost species. How do you think they came to be the rulers of Jötunheim? Through divine birthright? No, they cheated the realm’s original inhabitants out of home and hill, enslaved them, ate them, and ultimately wiped them from existence. Now Jötunheim is a planet of trolls, its resources wasted or gone fallow from centuries of neglect, and its mountains are overrun with a conniving lot of inbred monstrosities like the one I’m looking at.”
Odin bent down to address Loki once more, his lips pulled into a grim smile.
“Er thadh rett, little one? Excuse me: Loki prinsenn. Hm. Ljóki, the ugly one. Is that your real name or did you come up with it when you were charming my foolish son?” 2
Loki couldn’t take anymore; he turned and buried his face into Thor’s shirt, clinging tightly to his side as he trembled with fear and humiliation.
Frigga scowled at her husband. “Now you’re just being cruel.”
“Unbearably,” Thor added, putting an arm around Loki’s shoulders and holding him close. “I brought Loki to you so he could ask for your blessing, so he could live here safely and legally, in compliance with your ordinance, Father. He has been perfectly civil and respectful to you, yet you have done nothing but insult and berate him. Is there not one ounce of mercy in your heart for him, for any person who would come to you in need?”
After a few moments, Odin sighed, his vigor fading. He suddenly looked very old and tired.
“Thor, my son, I am only speaking the truth, a virtue which, sadly, is lost on the jötnar. But they can hardly be blamed for this deficiency; they are born with it. Lying, cheating, betraying—it is in their nature. It is how they survive. Just as ravens and crows prey upon the less intelligent beasts, so do trolls attempt to seduce us with their wiles.”
Loki clenched his small hands and pressed his face even harder into Thor’s side, hugging him tightly. One of his horns was digging into Thor’s ribs, but Thor was too upset to even register the discomfort.
“So what if it is,” said Thor crossly. “I don’t care. Loki has done harm to no one and he will do no harm by staying here. He needs help and I mean to give it to him, and if you try to stop me, Father, I will—”
“Calm yourself, Thor,” said Odin, “before you say something that cannot be unsaid.”
Thor shut his mouth, pinching his lips together tightly.
Odin sighed heavily and turned, shuffling toward the bed. He sat down on the edge with a small huff and turned to look at his family, who regarded him with hurt, harried faces. He tilted his head to one side and vaguely nodded his assent.
“I will permit Loki to stay in Asgard, but I will not abide his presence in the palace. He must go live in the forest. That is the natural order of things. People live in cities, animals in the wild.”
He held up his hand when Thor and Frigga readied themselves for an argument.
“And before you say anything, let me remind you that a thousand years ago I would not have hesitated to kill this unwanted visitor on the spot. But I have grown soft in my old age and developed a tolerance for the intolerable. A troll in Asgard is something the younger Odin would never have borne.”
He stared at Loki, cowering against his son, and smiled despite himself.
“He is rather small, though, isn’t he? I don’t suppose he’ll be much trouble. Like a flea on the back of a dog. It does the dog no good—it drinks the dog’s blood and grows fat and spoiled, and the dog must endure a little itching every now and then—but as long as there is only one flea, there is little harm.”
Odin’s gaze moved deliberately to Thor. “However, if I find another flea has made its way in this realm, I will exterminate them both . . . and any little eggs that they may be hiding. I will not have Asgard infested with trolls. Do you understand me?”
Thor hated it, but he gritted his teeth and nodded. “I understand.”
“Good.” Odin paused, looking at his dejected family. He sighed again. “He can stay the night—just this once. He leaves first thing in the morning.”
Frigga stepped close to Thor and laid her gentle hand on Loki’s head. “Can’t he at least stay for breakfast? The poor thing should have a good meal before he’s sent away.”
Odin physically recoiled. “What? No. No, I won’t have a troll slurping porridge and sucking down eggs as I try to enjoy my morning tea. That is simply out of the question.”
He saw the deadly glint in Frigga’s eyes and his frown wilted slightly.
“Alright. Fine. He can stay for breakfast, but he will not eat at the table and he is to leave immediately after.” He stared hard at Thor. “Have I made myself clear?”
Thor clenched his fists and opened his mouth to speak, but he was stopped by his mother’s hand on his shoulder. Frigga leaned toward his ear and said in a voice barely above a whisper, “Not now, darling. You take care of Loki. I will talk to your father.”
The tension left Thor’s face and was replaced by a defeated, depressed look. He gave his mother a sad smile and turned back to his father. “Very well. Father, Mother. I apologize for ruining your evening. Loki and I bid you both goodnight.”
Odin raised his hand in farewell and released a sigh that sounded like a weary groan.
Frigga kissed her son’s cheek and gave Loki’s head a tender pat. Thor put his arm around Loki and guided him toward the door. The Allmother gave them a soft, reassuring smile as they stepped into the corridor, and shut the door behind them.
When they were halfway down the hall, Loki stopped and raised his face to Thor. His cheeks were wet and flushed, his red eyes even redder from his tears.
“Oh, Thor,” he said wretchedly, using his host’s name for the first time, “I haven’t lied to you! Please believe me, I would never lie! I know my people are known for being false, but I swear to you, I’ve told you nothing but the truth. Th-there’s no way I can prove it, but please, you must believe me. I would never . . . !”
He buried his face into Thor’s middle and began to sob. “Please, my lord, have mercy. Don’t abandon me. I have nothing left. You are all that I . . .” The rest of his sentence ended in a choked-off whine.
With his heart as sore as a fresh bruise, Thor ducked down and gathered Loki into his arms, lifting him up and hugging him close. Loki wrapped his arms around Thor’s shoulders and his legs around Thor’s waist. He sniffed wetly and nuzzled the side of Thor’s face gratefully.
“I am not your lord,” Thor murmured. “I am your friend, and I will not have you thrown into the forest to live like an animal. I’m going to take care of you, Loki. I swore that I would let no harm befall you as long as I live, and I am a man of my word.”
Loki clutched Thor even harder, tears leaking from his tightly-shut eyes. He could find no words to describe the gratitude that filled his heart. All he knew was that falling into Thor Odinson’s trap was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
Thor reached up and gently stroked his fingers through Loki’s dark hair, and carried the sad little troll back to his room.
1 Skillur thú mik, little one? Geturr thú toladh algeng tunga, edha ertu hálfvitti? Do you understand me, little one? Can you speak the common tongue, or are you a half-wit?
2 Er thadh rett (Is that right), little one? Excuse me: Loki prinsenn (Prince Loki). Hm. Ljóki, the ugly one.
Ljóki is a made-up word based on the Icelandic ljótt or ljótur, meaning “ugly”. It’s a lucky coincidence that it starts with an L.
Chapter 6: Day and Night
When they arrived back at Thor’s room, a strong wind had begun to blow outside the palace and lightning was flashing in the sky. The growl of thunder followed every flare and flicker, heralding a heavy rain.
It was no coincidence. Thor hadn’t been this upset in years.
Of course, he thought to himself, it was nothing compared to what Loki had just endured.
Safely inside the room now, Thor leaned over his bed and allowed Loki to crawl from his arms. Loki immediately grabbed one of the nearby pillows and clutched it to his chest, curling up with his tail tucked around his feet. He jolted as a peal of thunder ripped through the sky above, and Thor had to take a moment to shut his eyes and try to calm himself. He could not comfort Loki if the worst fear of every troll was cracking and booming right above their heads.
While Loki hugged the pillow and sniffed away the last of his tears, Thor disappeared into the bathroom. There came the sound of splashing water, and a few moments later he returned with a cool, wet cloth in his hands. He climbed onto the bed to sit beside Loki and laid his hand on his thin, narrow shoulder.
“Here,” he said softly, “lift your face.”
Loki did—his cheeks were cobalt and his eyes were like two huge rubies at the bottom of a clear stream—and Thor carefully blotted the salty tear stains from his overheated face. Loki sighed in relief and looked up at Thor pitifully.
“It seems I’m destined to be a disappointment to fathers,” he said, “even the ones who didn’t raise me.”
“Don’t say that,” Thor insisted, pressing the cloth to Loki’s forehead and dabbing it down the side of his throat. “It is not your fault.”
“But it is. I am either too much a troll or not troll enough. Why can’t I have been one or the other? Why did I have to be like this? Why does no one like me?”
Thor ceased his ministrations and touched Loki’s cheek with his damp fingers. “It isn’t you, Loki. It is everyone else. You may be different, but that doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. Sometimes it’s good to be set apart from everyone else. The world would be very dull if we were all the same, don’t you think?” He offered up a conciliatory smile.
The corners of Loki’s mouth twitched upward. “I suppose so. But it would have been nice to be accepted by both your parents. Your mother is so kind and gentle. I see where you get it from.”
Thor’s smile faded and he lowered his head. “I have much of my father in me as well,” he said. “I am a warrior. I lead armies to victory. I fight, I kill.”
“But you also protect,” Loki insisted, setting the pillow aside and folding his legs beneath himself. “You rescue people, like you did me. You are fair and merciful.”
“You have not known me long, Loki. I’m afraid I shall one day disappoint you.”
“Perhaps not. We’ll just have to see.” He gave Thor a hopeful smile.
Thor was astounded. Even after the disastrous meeting with Odin, Loki offered cheer and consolation to someone who needed it least. If there was any doubt in Thor’s heart that Loki was not as sweet and pure as an innocent child, it was dispelled at this very moment.
Thor reached down and clasped both of Loki’s hands in his own. “You are so amazing,” he murmured. “I’ve never met anyone like you.”
“Nor I you,” said Loki, leaning forward.
This close to one another, Thor could see the sharpness of Loki’s eye-teeth. They weren’t as large as they should have been, but were small and dainty and white. Thor looked down at the hands he was holding.
“You have beautiful hands. It was one of the first things I noticed about you.”
“Thank you,” said Loki softly. “But they are not the hands of a troll. They are small and weak and I have no claws.”
“You may not have claws, but your nails are strong and your fingers are long and shapely. I’ll bet you are an expert at plaiting.”
Loki frowned. “Platting? What’s that?”
“It’s a form of braiding. You know, like . . . well, like this.” Thor pulled one of his long, golden-brown braids from the back of his head and leaned close to show it to Loki. “You see those strands? They are woven together. It’s called a plait. It is a style worn by many people across many different realms.”
Loki reached out and stroked Thor’s braid with his fingertip, staring at it intently. “So that is what these things are. Platts. I’ve seen them before and always wondered . . .” He lifted his face and found himself nose-to-nose with Thor. “Can you do this to my hair, too?”
“When it’s a little longer, yes. If you want.” Thor’s eyes softened as he gazed at Loki. “I think you would look very nice with them.”
A faint smile came to Loki’s lips. His eyelashes fluttered as he let out a breath. “Perhaps I should give up trying to be a jötunn and just become one of you. Your father might like me better if I were to cut off my horns and tail and just—”
“No!” said Thor fiercely, and there came a startlingly loud crack of thunder just overhead.
Loki cried out and threw his arms around Thor, clinging to him. Thor hugged him, grimacing at his outburst.
“I’m sorry,” he said as Loki shivered in his embrace. “That was my fault. The thunder, it’s . . . I cannot help it.”
Loki pulled back and stared at Thor in amazement. “You are doing this?”
Thor nodded guiltily.
“Then it isn’t really your hammer that brings the thunder? It’s . . .”
“It is me. My hammer channels my power, but it is not the source of it.”
Fear crept into Loki’s eyes. “Are you angry?”
“I suppose I am, a little,” Thor admitted. “But not at you, Loki. It was the thought of you mutilating yourself to suit my father, to suit anyone else. It’s . . . simply horrifying. Promise me you won’t do anything like that. Ever.” He cradled the back of Loki’s neck and stroked his cheek with his thumb.
“I promise,” Loki whispered.
Thor’s eyes drifted down to Loki’s mouth, his gaze lingering on Loki’s lips before returning to his eyes one more. Loki was breathing a little faster, his eyes gleaming and full of emotion.
Thor forced a smile onto his face. “Will you be comfortable in my bed tonight?”
“Oh, yes,” whispered Loki, then he paused. “Wait, what’s a bed?”
“It’s what we’re sitting on right now.”
Loki looked down at the mattress as if he just realized it was there. “Oh, is that what you call your nests? Bed? Or beds, should I say?”
“Yes, bed for one, beds for many,” said Thor. “Though I must admit, ‘nest’ sounds much cozier.”
“Hm, nests are much cozier,” said Loki forlornly, stroking the covers, “at least where I come from.”
Thor sat back on his legs, a look of determination on his face “How can I build one?”
“A troll-nest,” said Thor. “I want to make one for you. Tell me how.”
“Oh, no, please, that won’t be necessary. I’ve been making do without one for months, you don’t have to—”
“I want to, Loki. Please. After what happened with Father, I . . . I want to make you as comfortable as possible.”
Loki bit his lower lip and, after a few moments of staring at Thor’s earnest, heartfelt expression, he glanced around the room. “Well . . . we can start by adding a few more pillows . . .”
The rain stopped sometime overnight and the morning dawned fresh and damp. Weak rays of sunlight peeked through the gauzy curtains in Thor’s bedroom, stretching across the floor. The bed was left in shadows, and it was much changed from its usual state. A volcano of pillows, blankets, towels, and even clean laundry was heaped in the middle of the mattress. It wasn’t the ideal troll nest, Loki had said, but it was wonderful compared to his arrangements on Midgard, sleeping in hollow logs and between the roots of trees.
In the center of this strange pile of linens lay Thor and Loki, Thor curled up on his side with one foot sticking through the wall of cloth, and Loki propped upright between two pillows, knees and arms tucked to his chest, one hand holding on to his tail for security.
Thor was the first to wake, taking in a deep breath and stretching his limbs with a quiet groan. A few inches away, Loki’s eyes fluttered open and he yawned, his little blue tongue curling.
Thor smiled at him sleepily. “Good morning, Loki.”
Loki returned his smile and gave a shy wriggle. “Good morning, Thor.”
“Did you sleep well?”
“Hmm, better than I have in a long time.” He unfolded himself and stretched, his tail going straight as an arrow before relaxing again. “Though I am rather hungry now.”
“I’d be worried if you weren’t. It will take more than soup to put the flesh back on your bones.” Thor sat up and popped a few joints, flexed his arms, rolled his head back and forth. “I’ll go and get something for us. Do trolls eat breakfast in bed? Or in nest?”
“Not usually. Only if we’re ill or have babies to keep.”
The image of the troll-bird nest came back to Thor’s mind, and suddenly he pictured Loki cuddled up around a litter of tiny blue baby trolls. It was . . . strangely appealing. He wondered if Loki would find a mate who didn’t mind his less-than-jötunn characteristics, if he would ever have children of his own someday, either siring them or bearing them. He wondered if Loki’s little body would be even able to handle the strain of pregnancy or if—and this was horrifying to consider—he would end up like his poor mother, overloaded with a huge litter that would claim his life and the lives of over half his offspring. Suddenly the image of Loki with a half-dozen mewling babies didn’t seem so appealing anymore.
Thor snapped himself out of his reverie and stood from the bed. “Alright, I, er, you just stay here and rest,” he said, “I’ll be back shortly with some food. Is there anything in particular you would like?”
“At this point,” said Loki honestly, “I will eat anything that doesn’t eat me first.”
“So . . . two of everything?”
Loki waved his tail happily. “Please.”
Thor’s heart was still soaring through the clouds as he neared the large patio in the east gardens, the place where his family typically took their morning meal. Birds were singing and the air was fragrant with flowers, fresh from the rainfall. Odin, looking rather unrested and rumpled, was sipping his tea at the table while Frigga sat across from him, paging through a different book than the one she’d been reading last night. This one looked much older, its edges soft and worn and its pages yellow with age.
Not far off, a pair of ravens—Odin’s ravens, Huginn and Muninn—stood on a high, gilded platform planted at the patio’s edge, one that was built especially for them. They gobbled down their usual breakfast: bits of boiled egg, raw meat, nuts, and fruit. Ever sharp-eyed and watchful, they lifted their heads when Thor’s shadowy movements from within the palace caught their attention.
“Here comes the son,” said Huginn, and his subsequent chuckle sounded more like a croak.
“No,” rasped Munnin, bobbing her head merrily, “here comes the thunder!”
The two ravens cackled at their meteorological humor and Odin muttered something under his breath that sounded like a prayer for the preservation of his sanity.
Frigga looked up and smiled when Thor emerged onto the sun-drenched patio.
“Good morning, darling,” she said pleasantly. “How is Loki? I hope he was able to get some rest. It was rather stormy last night.” She flicked her eyebrows and tilted her head toward Odin. “Metaphorically and literally.”
Thor gave his mother an affectionate grin. “He is doing quite well. Hungry, naturally. I shall take some food back for him”—he gave his father a sidelong glance—“since he is not allowed to dine with us.”
“That’s a lovely idea, Thor. Be sure to bring him lots of protein.” Frigga lifted the book she held. The title read Know Thine Enemy: A Guide to Trolls, Thurs and Risi. “The propaganda in this thing is awful, but there appears to be some good information regarding diet and biology in the later chapters.”
“Mind the nuts, Thor.”
Frigga and Thor slowly turned to look at Odin, who was glowering blankly at the shrubbery over the rim of his teacup.
“That book focuses more on wood trolls,” he murmured. “They are the only species of jötnar that can eat nuts. Frost trolls cannot. If you give them to Loki, he will be sickened. Remind him of this before you take him into the forest. He’s probably never seen a nut in his life. His ignorance could kill him.”
Thor narrowed his eyes. On one hand he was disappointed that Odin had not changed his mind about allowing Loki to stay in the palace; on the other hand, however, he was astonished by the sudden concern for Loki’s well-being.
“That’s oddly considerate of you, Father,” he said.
“I don’t wish him ill, lad. I merely wish him gone. As soon as possible.”
Frigga sent Thor an expression that seemed to say I tried my best, darling before she closed the book and laid it in her lap. “Aren’t you forgetting something else, dear?”
“Something . . . oh. Yes, that. Hrmph.” Odin set down his teacup with a sigh. “Your mother has persuaded me to allow Loki to visit the city once a month. He is not to come into the palace, though. He is to remain outside. I know he is an exile of his race, but he is still a troll and I don’t want him skulking under the same roof where I conduct the affairs of this realm. Understood?”
“Yes, Father,” said Thor quietly.
“Good.” Odin made an awkward pause. “The cooks have set out a great deal of dried fish and venison. I suggest you avail yourself of it. Avoid the bread. Trolls have a low tolerance for wheat.”
Thor and Frigga shared an impressed look with one another.
“Thank you,” said Thor, almost smiling. “I will keep that in mind. I assume I shall see you again before we leave?”
“Your mother will see you off. I have more important matters to attend to this morning.”
Frigga rolled her eyes and picked up her own teacup. “Thor, darling, stop by the west garden before you leave. I have something I’d like to give Loki.”
“Of course. Thank you, Mother.” Thor gave her a respectful nod and turned to make his way to the kitchens. Odin’s quiet voice stopped him:
He turned. “Sir?”
Odin was hunched down in his seat grumpily. “They, ehm. They love honey. Just a measure of it will turn the foulest, meanest jötunn into a gentle kitten. You won’t find that in the book, but I assure you it’s quite true.”
This time when Thor glanced at Frigga, she looked both shocked and amused.
“Well,” she declared, patting the Guide to Trolls, “perhaps it’s time to revise and update this archaic, ignorant book with some new material, yes? And what a stroke of luck, we happen to have an actual jötunn to advise us!”
Odin gave her a dubious, one-eyed glare. “Don’t get any grand ideas, Frigga.”
“It’s a little late for that, dear.”
Odin sighed. “That’s was I was afraid of . . . Thor, what the devil are you smiling about? Run along to the kitchens now, hurry. Before that troll thinks you’ve abandoned him and starts eating the furniture.”
With a broad grin on his face, Thor gave his mother a wink and disappeared into the palace.
Thor stepped into his bedroom with a loaded tray in his hands. Loki was nowhere to be seen. “Hello?” he called to the seemingly empty room. “Loki?”
In the blink of an eye, Loki popped up from the center of the bed-nest like a rabbit from its hole. His eyes were gleaming. “I’m here.”
Thor lifted the tray. “Would his highness care for some breakfast?”
Loki answered by scrambling from the mound of pillows and blankets and planting himself on the mattress, legs folded beneath himself and tail flicking back and forth eagerly. Thor couldn’t help but be amused at his enthusiasm. He strode over and set the tray on the bed, then sat down across from Loki.
Loki stared down at the bounty with a look of utter rapture and reached out to grab a fistful of dried fish. He paused suddenly, remembering his manners, and lifted his face to Thor, his fingers curling with embarrassment.
“Oh, go ahead, please,” said Thor with an encouraging wave of his hand. “All this is yours. I helped myself on the way back.”
With a delighted shiver, Loki dove into his first Asgardian breakfast.
It was divine. He tried to control his zeal, but it had been so long since he’d had a decent meal that even things he normally didn’t care for—like raw tomatoes and cheese—tasted delicious. He demolished a cold leg of turkey, a bunch of grapes, a goblet of sweetened milk, and a small ham steak in a matter of minutes. He further surprised Thor by biting into the ring of bone that was left behind, crunching and grinding it between his teeth as easily as if it were a piece of candy.
Thor watched, truly impressed. He had been bitten by trolls before, though always through several protective layers—mercifully. The strength of jötunn jaws was legendary, and their bites had not only crushed the metal of Thor’s armor, but left terrible bruises in his flesh that took days to fade, even with special poultices.
As fearsome as this strength was, Thor was glad that Loki had inherited it, not only for the sake of his few and precious jötunn characteristics, but because it meant that at least he had some way of defending himself. He would need it when he went to live in the forest.
The happiness that Thor had been feeling was abruptly snuffed out like a flame from a candle.
Loki noticed the melancholy look come across his host’s face and he swallowed down the last of the four pickled eggs he’d been devouring.
“Is something the matter?” he asked gently.
Thor shook his head and sighed. “Father is still adamant about sending you to the wood. I had hoped he might change his mind. I don’t know how I shall look after you if I cannot be near you.”
A sullen silence fell between them for a few moments.
“Can you not come live with me?” asked Loki softly.
“If it were up to me, I would not hesitate,” Thor answered. “But I am the protector of this realm and many others, and I am bound by my duties. If the king calls me, I must be prepared to answer him at once.”
Loki wilted, his tail thumping lifelessly onto the mattress and his whole posture drooping with sadness.
“I’m so sorry, Loki. I feel as if I’ve already broken my promise to you.”
For a moment Loki sat still, his head bowed and his lips silent. Then he pushed the tray aside and crawled over to sit in front of Thor.
“When my father banished me to Midgard,” he said, “I had never even seen a forest. Pictures of them, yes, but never in real life. I was so frightened.”
He picked up his tail and began to fiddle with it, stroking the tip as if to soothe himself. Thor watched him, his heart aching.
“I don’t know how long I was there. Several months at least. Long enough to see the leaves fall from the trees and the first snowfall of winter. The days are so short there.” Loki smiled a little. “You can imagine what a shock it must have been for me, a naïve little troll who had spent his whole life inside his father’s mountain. I would have perished if you hadn’t saved me, but . . . I did manage to last all that time without you. I shall be able to do it again, I think, especially under your care.”
He reached out and laid his small blue hand on top of Thor’s large tan one.
“I hope I don’t sound ungrateful. Living in the forest, it isn’t so bad. It certainly can’t be as bad as what I came from. At least I shall have you watching over me, and if this realm is as fair and fruitful as you’ve said it is, then I should be fine.”
Thor stared into Loki’s hopeful, happy eyes and the heavy feeling in his chest began to disappear. He picked up Loki’s hand and raised it to his lips, pressing a kiss onto the faint blue markings there.
Loki went stiff. “Wh-what is that? What are you doing? Are you . . . t-tasting me?”
Seeing the suspicion in Loki’s eyes, Thor smiled gently and petted his hand. Apparently the fear of being eaten was still very real to him. He began to wonder if the tales about cannibalism among trolls were true.
“No, Loki, it was a kiss,” he said. “It’s a gesture of affection. Nothing sinister, I assure you.” He paused before asking, “Do your people not show their affection this way?”
“No, it’s. Erm, it’s just that our jaws are fearsome weapons,” said Loki, blushing a little, “and our teeth—well, everyone’s but mine—are too large and sharp for making a, a kiss, as you call it. A troll showing affection with his mouth would be odd and dangerous.” He ducked his head bashfully. “But yours is very nice. Your lips are soft, and the little hairs on your face tickle, too.”
The indigo color on Loki’s face darkened. “I would . . . I’d like to get used to kiss.”
Now it was Thor’s turn to blush. He swallowed dryly and licked his lips. “Well, uh. Perhaps in time . . . if you want.” The question he had been meaning to ask finally found the opportunity to be addressed. “If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you, Loki?”
Loki sucked his bottom lip into his mouth as a guilty expression came over his face. In a voice barely above a whisper he said, “Twelve.”
Thor paled. “Wha—twelve?”
“I know, it’s shameful. Twelve times I’ve witnessed the journey of Blárdrek across the northern skies of Jötunheim, yet I look as if I’ve only seen half that,” said Loki mournfully. “I ought to be three times as large as this, with a magnificent set of horns and great big teeth, but . . .” He sighed and shook his head.
Thor frowned. “Blárdrek? You mean the comet, the one with the long blue tail?”
Thor was familiar with this stellar phenomenon. The Blue Dragon, known as Blárdrek or Blådrag, if he recalled correctly, passed through the star system shared by Niflheim and Jötunheim once every thirty-three years; which (Thor quickly did the calculations in his head) would mean that Loki was nearly 400 years old—396, to be exact, making him precisely a hundred years younger than Thor himself.
The relief that flooded through Thor at this moment was indescribable. His shoulders slumped and he heaved a huge breath.
“Is everything alright?” asked Loki worriedly.
“Yes. Yes, it’s. Everything is fine. No problem.” Thor smiled wanly. “We are almost the same age, you and I. Sometimes I forget that the people of the Nine each have their own way of reckoning age.”
“So I’ve heard. The Midgardians use single years, don’t they? Is that because they are so short-lived?”
“I’m not sure if it’s because their lifespans are so brief or if it’s just the easiest way for them to remember. In any case, it seems to work for them. Of all the Nine, they age the most rapidly.”
“Hm.” Loki nodded thoughtfully. “We jötnar use the stars to measure our ages. Is that not also how the Æsir do it?”
“It is, though we use different celestial bodies. On Asgard I am nearly twenty-one star cycles old, so you would be”—he scrunched up his face—“a little over sixteen, I think? You do look a bit younger, though. That is why I wanted to ask you outright. I would not want to be, um . . . untoward.”
Loki smiled shyly. “That’s very decent of you. I assure you I’m an adult in the eyes of my people. My father would not have banished me if there had been any hope of me growing into a normal troll. But after eleven, much of our growing is done.”
Thor gave Loki’s hand a squeeze. “Perhaps you will grow here in Asgard. You never know.”
They gazed at one another for a few quiet, contented moments, then Thor reluctantly released Loki’s hand and stood from the bed.
“I have some things to gather,” he said, though he didn’t sound too eager about it. “Supplies, tools, clothing, anything you may need to see you through your first few days in the wood. I swear I will do all I can to make you as comfortable as possible, Loki.”
“I know you will.” Loki smiled sweetly and his tail coiled up into a tight spiral. “Thank you, Thor. As long as I am in your hands, I have no reason to fear anything.”
By the halls of Valhalla, Thor felt like his heart was glowing with the strength of a hundred suns. If he were to open up his chest, he had no doubt the light would blind every living thing within a mile radius. Never before had he felt such a deep-seated longing to make things right, to care for and nurture and protect, to love and to lavish another with all the good things he could provide. The fact that it was a frost troll who had had awoken these feelings in him didn’t even matter at all.
He smiled at Loki’s innocent face. “Then I shall return shortly. I, uh, I did bring you some honey, though I think you might have missed it.”
Loki’s wide-eyed expression told Thor that he had; he looked down at the mostly-empty tray beside him. “Honey? There is honey here?”
“Yes, in a little pot. I thought I saw it just a moment ago.”
Loki swept his hand over the remains of his breakfast, revealing a small jar that had been hidden beneath a napkin. He clutched it to his chest and looked up at Thor as if he were the patron saint of all trolls.
“I don’t understand,” he said breathlessly. “I didn’t think anyone outside our race knew.”
“That honey is more precious to trolls than gold and gems! It’s practically sacred. We use it for healing and all sorts of rituals: mating ceremonies, royal feasts, courtships, tokens of allegiance, everything! H-how in the worlds did you know?”
“I heard a rumor.” Thor grinned helplessly and shrugged. “Go on, enjoy it. There is plenty more where that came from.”
“You . . . you mean it?”
“Of course. Asgard is full of honey. There is no need to be stingy. Eat as much as you like.”
With shining eyes and a weak, giddy smile, Loki opened the jar and dipped his finger inside, coating it with golden, gooey goodness. When he stuck his finger into his mouth, there was no mistaking the resulting look on his face for anything but complete ecstasy.
“Oh. Ohhh my,” he groaned, his eyelids fluttering. “It’s so. I haven’t had honey in . . . oh, it’s incredible. Thank you, Thor!”
Thor’s eyebrows lifted up until they were somewhere around his hairline. He cleared his throat and averted his eyes, his cheeks coloring slightly.
“You’re very welcome. I shall, uh . . . leave you to enjoy it, then.”
While Loki swooned and salivated over this unexpected treat, Thor stepped into the closet and changed into his day clothes and boots, then slipped from the room to begin his palace-wide scavenger hunt.
He went to the armory first, grabbing two knapsacks from the supply room, then he visited each wing of the palace, going room by room and gathering provisions for their journey into the forest. He filled one of the sacks with basic necessities, such as dried meats and fruit, rope, knives, blankets, twine, a few small plates and bowls, and anything else he could think of. The other sack he filled with clothes and personal items: a hairbrush, some soap and oils, a little sewing kit—another thing for which Loki might have a talent, given his fingers were so slim and agile—and a few towels and cloths.
When he returned to his room over half an hour later, he found Loki draped over the edge of the bed in a happy stupor, his tail waving back and forth like a thin blue vine, his eyes glazed and dreamy.
“Thorrr, you’re back!” he sang, rolling over and pointing one of his tiny feet into the air. “That’s wonderful! You’re such a wonderful man. I’ve never met a wonderful man before. Or a man at all. Aren’t I lucky? The first man I meet and he’s wonnnderful!”
He hugged himself and giggled and rolled around on the bed.
Thor gawked at the transformation. All traces of the timid little troll he had rescued from Midgard were gone. Odin had been right; honey indeed rendered jötnar into docile, kittenish creatures. The knowledge of such a condition—some might even call it a weakness—could be used to terrible effect by their enemies, Thor thought. He wondered if his father had ever used honey as a weapon against his lifelong foes. He hoped not. It didn’t seem like a fair way to fight. If their reactions were anything like Loki’s, a honey-drunk troll would be totally helpless.
Thor set the satchels on the floor and walked over to the bed, gently moving Loki away from the edge so that he wouldn’t topple over. Loki was as limp as a cloth doll, arms and legs flopping, head lolling lazily. He was definitely relaxed—emotionally as well as physically. A less fretful version of himself. Thor hoped the effects wouldn’t last long. The morning was growing late and it would soon be time for them to leave.
“You liked the honey, I take it,” he said, and was surprised when Loki boldly climbed into his lap and hugged his neck.
“Every drop!” Loki chirped. “I’ve never had that much in my entire life. It was so good and sweet. Just like youuu . . .”
Thor felt his body temperature rise a few degrees. “Er, do you think you will be ready to leave in a little while?” he asked, placing his hands on Loki’s narrow waist to keep him from falling over. He seemed a little clumsy and uncoordinated. “Can you even walk in this state, or shall I carry you?”
“Oh, no. I’m fine. I’m wonderful,” Loki insisted, his words coming slow and slightly slurred. “And you’re wonderful, too. Everything is going to be wonderfully fine, I just know it.” He squeezed Thor and nuzzled the side of his head with his horns. “I can’t wait to see my new home. Can we leave now? I want to feel earth beneath my feet again. Soft, cool earth . . .”
Thor patted Loki’s back. “Yes, we can leave now, if you like. Everything is ready.”
“Heyrahhh! Vidh adh farra!”
“But first let me give you a cloak to wear. It’s bright out this morning and I don’t want you to get burned.”
“You’re so wonderful, Thor. You think of everything.”
“I try to.” Thor flashed Loki a smile. “Mother has something to give you, by the way. I’m not sure what it is, but she—”
“It could be. She told us to meet her in the west gardens before we set out.”
“Excellent! Let’s go!” Loki scrambled from Thor’s lap, accidentally jostling some of Thor’s more sensitive parts.
Thor grimaced and grunted, cupping himself. Gods, did that troll have some bony knees!
“Come on, hurry, we don’t want to keep her waiting,” Loki urged, grabbing Thor’s arm and trying to pull him to his feet. He was hilariously ineffectual. Like watching an over-excited rabbit trying to move a boulder.
Thor eventually recovered from his mauling and rose from the bed with a soft groan.
“Alright, alright, just let me find you a cloak and then we—” He laughed when Loki threw a towel around his shoulders and waved his tail. “No, I don’t think that will do. You need a proper cloak, something that will keep the sun off of you.” He touched the side of Loki’s head affectionately. “I don’t want my little snowflake to melt.”
Loki smiled in response and, ironically, the only thing in danger of truly melting was Thor’s heart.
Next chapter: Loki meets more members of Thor's family; Thor takes Loki into the forest and helps him get settled in his new home.
By the time Loki was safely cloaked and Thor ready with the two satchels of supplies, the morning had grown late and the sun was much higher, spilling its golden light onto the city. It was a little too bright and warm for Loki’s comfort; the sunlight had a sobering effect on his honey hangover, though that could be seen as a good thing since they were to be meeting the Allmother shortly.
Loki followed Thor out of the palace, squinting his sensitive eyes against the shocking glare of the outdoors. He walked in the shadows as much as he could, but the ground was warm beneath his bare feet and his cloak was just another layer of cloth that he wasn’t accustomed to wearing. It wasn’t long before a film of sweat was gleaming on his neck and forehead.
“Is it always this hot in Asgard?” he asked weakly, walking alongside Thor.
“Not really. As a whole, this realm is quite mild. It feels hotter in the city because there are fewer trees here.” He gazed at Loki sympathetically. “I will try to keep this meeting brief. The forest is much cooler and I’d like to get you there as soon as possible.”
“I appreciate that,” sighed Loki, wiping his wrist across his forehead.
It was a proven fact that all trolls disliked sunlight, and with the exception of the fire trolls of Muspelheim, they disliked the heat even more. Wood trolls preferred damp, chilly environments and were fearful of fire, but could tolerate a little warmth every now and then, especially for the sake of growing mushrooms, their favorite food. Of all the species of jötnar, frost trolls were the ones most affected by the heat, and while sunlight wouldn’t exactly turn them to stone, it would singe and blister their skins after many hours of direct exposure and give them a gray, ashy appearance. By the time this happened it was usually too late to save them, and like all trolls who died in this manner, their bodies became stiff and rigid, joints locked and muscles frozen, never to move again. It is assumed that this was where the myth of trolls turning to stone originated, given the similarities between their corpses and actual rock. Death by sunlight was considered by all trolls to be the worst way to die, and only the most reprehensible, unforgivable crimes carried this method of execution as their punishment.
The west gardens were still partly shaded, thankfully, and that is where Thor and Loki found Frigga waiting for them. She was not alone; two men were with her, identical in height and build and handsomeness. Both were tall and fair of face, with heads of dark, wavy hair, though one wore his beard longer than the other and his eyes were cloudy white instead of hazel, like his twin’s. He was holding a thin wooden staff and talking amongst his company when he suddenly paused and inclined his head.
“Hello, Thor!” he called from across the wide courtyard, which made Frigga and the other man turn in surprise.
Thor smiled broadly and called back, “Hello, Hodur! Baldur, Mother. How fare you this morning?”
“We fare fair enough,” answered Hodur playfully, “but we are more interested in the little guest you brought back from Midgard yesterday. Do you carry him, or is he as soft-footed as a mouse?”
Loki gravitated to Thor’s side and held on to his cape nervously.
“He walks on his own, brother,” Thor replied. “You will meet him in a moment.” Under his breath he said, “Do not fear, Loki. Baldur and Hodur are good men.”
As they began to cross the courtyard, Loki whispered, “That man with the stick. Hodur. Can he not see me?”
“Hodur has been blind since birth,” said Thor. “But he sees more with his ears and his nose than we ever could.”
“Blind?” Loki was stunned. “He would not have lasted a day if he’d been born on Jötunheim. Defective newborns are all cast out. My father wants only the strongest jötnar to be in his kingdom.”
Thor was profoundly horrified, and his expression reflected it. However, he didn’t get a chance to respond to this awful news before they reached the others. He put on a strained smile and struck the thought from his mind, if only to keep his mother from worrying.
Frigga greeted Loki with the same warmth and affection as she had the first time they’d met, smiling down at him as if he were her own child. Hodur also looked pleased, his face kind and gentle and quick to smile. Loki instantly liked him. He wasn’t sure about Baldur, though; the man stared at him with a thoughtful frown and stroked his beard, his arms crossed over his chest. Both he and Hodur looked to be the same height as Thor, but Thor was much bigger and more heavily muscled—a warrior versus a nobleman, as they clearly were.
“We were all just discussing the little bit of bad weather we had last night,” said Hodur casually. “But I trust everything is alright this morning?”
“Not all is right,” said Thor, “but it’s getting better.”
“I wish I had been there,” Baldur muttered. “Perhaps I could have persuaded him to be a little more lenient.”
“I thank you for the thought, brother,” said Thor, clapping his hand on Baldur’s arm, “but I don’t think there was anything you could have done. You know how Father feels about trolls.”
“Aye, and outsiders in general. That is one of the first policies I plan to reform when I am king. Insularity is not very diplomatic.” He turned to Loki and placed his hand to his chest in apology. “Excuse me; I do not mean to speak as if you were absent. I am Baldur.”
“And I am Hodur.”
“On behalf of this family, I would like to apologize for the king’s ungracious manner towards you last night.”
“He is old and set in his ways,” said Hodur bluntly.
“Yes, and his ways are not a reflection of ours.” Baldur reached down and clasped Loki’s forearm. “We welcome you to Asgard, Loki of Jötunheim. We hope you will be happy for as long as you stay with us.”
Flattered beyond words, Loki nodded shyly and returned the curious gesture. Though his arm was much smaller than Baldur’s and they weren’t quite balanced, he seemed to answer the greeting correctly. Baldur grinned and Loki saw in his face the same honesty and friendliness he had seen in Thor’s, and was immediately reassured.
“Th-thank you, your highness,” he said once he’d found his tongue again. “Highnesses, I mean.”
“Well met, Loki,” Baldur replied. “Or do you prefer Prince Loki?”
“Er, just Loki, thank you.”
Baldur’s grin widened and he released Loki’s arm. “It’s been my experience that those most worthy of their titles seldom choose to use them. It is enchanting to meet one of those worthy individuals in person.”
Loki blushed to the tips of his horns and performed a clumsy but endearing bow, his tail curled into a shy loop. “That’s very kind of you, your highness.”
“Please, call me Baldur. We are all equals here.”
Thor and Frigga shared a wink with one another, pleased with how well the introductions were going.
“I couldn’t help noticing what a lovely voice you have, Loki,” said Hodur, leaning forward. “May I ask if you sing?”
“Me? Oh, no, I,” Loki stammered, “I’m afraid not. My voice is too . . . erm, and singing isn’t really . . . well, it’s very different where I come from.”
“I’m certain it is, and that’s what interests me,” said Hodur. “For years I’ve been building a collection of songs of all the peoples of the Nine—the dwarves of Nidavellir, the elves of Ljosalfheim, the humans of Midgard. I've found there is something beautiful to be heard in the music of each of these realms, and I would very much like to hear the songs of Jötunheim someday, if you would be willing to share them.”
For a moment Loki was too surprised to say anything. Finally he managed to squeak, “Of course. It would be an honor.”
“Have care, Loki,” Thor warned. “Hodur here is the greatest composer in three realms. He will have you recruited into Asgard’s choir and royal orchestra before you know it.”
“I know talent when I hear it, little brother,” said Hodur, tapping his ear smugly. “How else do you think I can discern your thunder from natural thunder, hm? By smell?”
At that moment, Frigga happened to glance down at Loki and notice the dark blue flush on his normally cerulean-colored skin. She put a concerned hand on his shoulder.
“Oh dear. You’re overheating, aren’t you? And here we are, making idle talk.”
“I’m fine, your majesty,” said Loki, though his skin was prickling beneath his tunic and a drop of sweat ran down the side of his face. “Thor tells me it will be cooler in the forest. I ought to be alright once we get there.”
“Of course, we won’t delay you two any longer. Here, the main reason I wanted to see you before you left was to give you this.”
Loki watched as Frigga reached into an embroidered pouch on her girdle and withdrew a simple-looking necklace: a small, iridescent white orb strung onto a thin leather cord. Perhaps it was the light getting to Loki’s eyes, but he thought the orb radiated a faint glow. It almost looked like a tiny moon.
“This is what we call a månesten, or moon stone,” said Frigga, holding it up, “one of the many precious gems forged by our friend Ægir, the steward of the sea.”
“A moon stone,” Thor murmured, his voice full of amazement. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of such a charm myself. This should be a great help to him.”
Loki’s eyes darted back and forth between them. “What’s a moon stone? How can it help me?”
“Moon stones are a type of pearl that possess a special kind of magic,” said Frigga, reaching beneath Loki’s hood and slipping the necklace around his head. “They are natural talismans used to restore balance to places that need it. By wearing this stone, Loki, you will be protected from the full force of our sun, shielded from its light and its heat.”
Loki certainly believed it. The moment the necklace settled around his collar, the blinding brightness of the outdoors seemed to diminish and the worst of the heat faded. It was still very warm, but his skin no longer felt as if it were being pricked by a blanket of needles. He looked up at the Allmother with wonder.
“I can feel it working already!”
Frigga patted his cheek. “The power of the pearls work miracles, but they do not last forever, I’m afraid. All of them must eventually return to the sea, but this one shall help you acclimate to Asgard’s temperatures in the meantime. And if you ever need a new one, all you have to do is come to me.”
Loki touched the pearl at his throat. Even after lying against his hot skin, it was as cool as if it were still sitting at the bottom of the ocean.
“Thank you,” he murmured, looking first at Frigga and then at Thor, Baldur, Hodur. “All of you. You’re all so kind . . .”
“Ah, bless him,” murmured Hodur, for he could hear the tears coming several seconds before they filled Loki’s ruby-colored eyes and trickled down his cheeks. Thor stepped close and put his hand on his back to soothe him.
“You are all doing so much for me, an enemy of your realm and your people.” Loki sniffed, using the edge of his cloak to dry his eyes. “I don’t know how I will ever repay you.”
“You don’t have to,” said Baldur gently, “and you are not our enemy, Loki. We are simply trying to do what is right and good. I only wish we could do more.”
“If you did, I don’t think my eyes would ever dry out.” Loki raised his tear-stained face and smiled at the four Æsir standing around him, and promptly melted their hearts.
“We should go now, Loki,” said Thor softly, giving him a pat, “before the day grows any later. I hope to find you a place to live before nightfall.”
“Yes, that’s probably wise,” Loki agreed, wiping his wet nose. “How long of a walk is it to the forest?”
“Oh, hours,” said Thor, adjusting the packs on his back. “But we’re not walking. We’re flying.”
Loki’s eyes widened and he seemed to shrink inside his cloak. “F-flying? But I can’t fly! I’m a troll, it goes against my nature!”
Thor cocked an eyebrow. “And what nature is that?”
“The one which says the only thing trolls fear more than lightning is the sky from which it falls!”
Thor looked at Frigga questioningly and she nodded her confirmation. “He’s right. According to The Guide, trolls aren’t very fond of heights or being beneath the open sky.”
“But you said you lived in your father’s mountain,” said Thor, turning back to Loki. “Mountains are both high and surrounded by open sky.”
“Yes, but we live inside them, don’t you see?” said Loki desperately. “We aren’t like the goats that gallop all over the outer sides. Trolls are born underground, we live underground—long, sane, non-airborne lives underground—and we don’t like to venture to the world above without good reason. A flying troll, whoever heard of such a thing?”
At that precise moment, the bell of a nearby tower struck out its first loud peal, and Loki, despite his earlier insistence, flew quite literally into Thor’s arms.
“What is that!” he yelped, clinging to Thor’s chest, his eyes huge and terrified. “What was that awful sound! Was it a monst—”
Frigga put her hands to her face. “Oh dear, I’ve read about this,” she fretted. “Thor, take Loki away from here at once! Trolls cannot stand the sound of bells—it will drive them completely mad!”
“What a curious phenomenon,” Hodur mused, tapping his lips thoughtfully. “I must research this. Perhaps I can find a cure or—”
Another toll sounded and Loki howled as if he were being stabbed with a red hot iron. He clapped his hands to his pointed ears and buried his face against Thor’s shoulder. Thor put one arm around him and hugged him close.
“I will bring him back in a month’s time,” he declared over Loki’s panicked shrieking. “You may all say your goodbyes then!”
He slipped Mjölnir from his belt and began to spin it by its strap. The great hammer whooped and hummed as it gained momentum.
Just as another of Loki’s screams pierced the air, Thor leaped up and shot away into the sky, taking the scream with him. It gradually faded until only the sound of the ringing bell tower remained.
Baldur turned to his mother. “So, when are we adopting him?”
Frigga rolled her eyes and laughed. “You have three younger brothers already.”
“Yes, but we didn’t get to choose them,” Hodur complained. “We want Loki.”
“Then you must first work on changing your father’s mind,” said Frigga. “He is the king of this realm and the head of this family, and if we wish to make Loki a part of either, we must persuade him to see Loki as something other than his enemy.”
“You could put a spell on him, you know,” Hodur suggested with a wily smirk. “Your seidr is as powerful as his.”
“Yes, I could do that,” she admitted, “or I could simply let Loki enchant him by virtue of his innocence and kindness. I can change Odin’s mind, darlings, but I cannot change his heart. Loki can, however, and I believe in time he will.”
“Yes, but who knows how long that might take,” Baldur muttered. “Father has hated trolls longer than we have been alive. I don’t see him embracing a frost troll as his son anytime soon.”
“Or anytime at all,” added Hodur dourly.
Frigga stepped between her two eldest sons and put her arms around their strong shoulders. “There is no need to be depressed, you two. In a few weeks we shall all be reunited again, and in the meantime we can try to collect as much information from your father as we can. He may consider trolls his enemies, but he knows more about them than any non-jötunn in the Nine, and I say we use his knowledge to our advantage. We may not be allowed to bring Loki inside the palace, but we shall make him feel at home nevertheless. What do you say to this scheme? Are we in agreement?”
Baldur and Hodur grinned identical grins. “Aye!” they chimed.
If you'd like a visual for all the sons of Odin that will appear in this story, you may view one right here. Also, I know I said Thor would be house-hunting with Loki in this chapter, but as usual, I got too wordy and decided to split it into two parts. The next chapter will be all about their adventures in the woods, I promise. Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed this chapter! HJB
Chapter 9: Waterfalling in Love
Loki stopped screaming when the cold air of the lower atmosphere blew back the hood of his cloak and cooled the sweat on his face. He opened his eyes and sucked in a startled gasp, locking his arms around Thor’s neck and his legs around Thor’s waist. Two hundred feet below them, the city of Asgard was a swiftly-moving blur of gray stone and brown roofs.
Thor grimaced and made a strained sound in his throat. “You—nghk—don’t have to hold on so tight. I have my arm around you. You’re not going anywhere.”
He gave Loki a reaffirming squeeze, and after realizing he was indeed secure, Loki loosened his stranglehold on Thor’s neck. His heart was still pounding with fear and he kept his face pressed to Thor’s shoulder, but at least his ears were no longer ringing in pain. He wondered what kind of monster had made that terrible sound back there. He’d never heard it before, nor did he care to hear it again; his head had felt as if it were being split open by an axe.
But now there was only the calm sound of the wind rushing past his ears and the gentle flap of his and Thor’s clothing. It was cool up here, peaceful and serene. The air passed through his damp, sweaty tunic and dried it out, and eventually the queasy feeling in his stomach began to fade.
Slowly he removed his arms from around Thor’s neck and forced himself to look downward. He was amazed, his eyes wide and the corners of his mouth curling up slightly.
“Still afraid of flying?” asked Thor.
“Not quite as much as before,” Loki replied with a nervous grin. “But I think I’ll always be afraid of falling.”
Thor smiled tenderly. “I will not let you fall, Loki.”
Powered by Mjölnir’s momentum, they flew northward over the city, the wind rustling their cloaks and tousling their hair. Soon the rooftops thinned and the land between the houses widened, pastures and orchards and grassy footpaths replacing the stone roads and huge bridges. It was as if Asgard itself was relaxing, changing into something more rustic and natural.
The houses became fewer the farther they went, until soon all signs of habitation disappeared and the landscape became lush and thick with forest. The topography changed subtly, becoming steeper and full of hills, deep gorges, and thundering falls. There were sprawling valleys and rocky ridges, sparkling blue lakes and wide rivers. Far ahead in the distance, emerging from the edge of the forest, rose a jagged gray range of snow-capped mountains.
Loki leaned out to marvel at it all, no longer concerned about falling. Thor watched him from the side with a fond look on his face.
“If you see something you like, let me know and I’ll take us down,” he said.
“I like all of it,” Loki answered, and he put his arms around Thor’s shoulders again, but not because he was frightened.
After a few minutes of leisurely flying, Loki pointed to a small clearing at the foothills of the mountains and asked if Thor could take them there. They descended and touched down lightly onto the grass. Thor stooped to release Loki from his grasp, and as the little troll finally stood on his own bare feet again, Thor was suddenly aware of how empty he felt without Loki’s weight and warmth pressed against his side.
“Is this where you would like to live?” he asked, watching as Loki explored the clearing, his tail poking out from beneath the hem of his cloak in a curious “S” shape.
“No, not really,” Loki answered, shading his eyes and looking around. “There’s too much sky and not enough cover. But it looked very pretty from above.” He paused, staring into the trees expectantly. “Is it safe to go in there?”
“Of course. Here, I’ll come with you.”
Loki grinned brightly and waited while Thor strode over to join him, then they entered the forest together.
The great northern wood of Asgard was a beautiful place, carpeted with grass and moss and clover, wildflowers blooming in patches of sunlight, birds singing and calling to one another from above, does striding cautiously between the trees with their fawns. There were springs and shallow brooks in abundance, ponds and pools full of fish and leaping toads, waterfalls tumbling down staircases of slippery stone.
“You were right,” said Loki reverently, his eyes gleaming as he took in all the natural beauty around him. “This is indeed a lovely realm, like a picture from a book of fairy tales.”
“Trolls like to read books?” said Thor.
Loki winced. “Not exactly. Aside from a few symbols and runes, we jötnar have no written language. The only books we have are the spoils collected from raids on other realms.”
“Ah.” Thor nodded. Trolls were known to be indiscriminate hoarders, placing the same value on common objects like buttons and marbles and glass bottles as they did on gold and jewels. They knew the value of money, but they seemed to treasure far humbler things. The usefulness of these trinkets didn’t seem to matter. Books were certainly useless to a people who couldn’t read or understand the language written in them, but if the trolls liked them, nothing was going to stop them from amassing a library of literature, even if just for show.
“I am not the best instructor,” said Thor, “but if you like, I could teach you to read.”
“Really?” said Loki, blinking with surprise. “You would do that? Could you do that? Is it even possible?”
“I certainly think so. What could it hurt to try?” Thor smiled. “It would mean I get to spend more time with you, after all.”
“Oh,” Loki murmured, blushing a little. He folded his hands together shyly. “Yes, that would be very . . . I, I would like that.”
Although the sight of Loki flushed and flustered was adorable beyond words, especially when his tail curled up tight like the furl of a fern, Thor liked him a little better when he was relaxed and comfortable.
“Are there any trolls who can read and write?” he asked, going back to their original subject.
“Hm, some,” said Loki, “but not many. Most don’t care to learn. They think it goes against tradition. We jötnar like to speak our stories. Every clan has its own loremaster, usually one of the elders. There’s nothing we like better than to gather together at night’s end and listen to tales and songs and riddles of the ancient days.”
“My own people like to do the same,” said Thor cheerfully. “Only we do it at the end of the day, usually around a fire.”
“Do you eat and drink while you listen to your loremaster?”
“Almost always. There is hardly an event on Asgard that doesn’t involve food of some kind. We Æsir like to eat.”
“So do the jötnar. Only I think we prefer drinking a little bit more.”
Thor laughed. “Your people are beginning to sound a lot like my people. Perhaps they are not so different after all.”
“Perhaps not,” Loki agreed, gazing up at Thor with his large, hopeful eyes.
For a long while they walked through the forest together, a troll and a thundergod, climbing over rocks and wading across streams, talking about their realms, their people, their different customs and foods and traditions, all while keeping their eyes open for a place that might make a good abode for Loki.
The day grew warmer and, at Thor’s suggestion, Loki took off his cloak and gave it to him for safekeeping. There was little need for extra cover beneath the pleasant shade of the trees. Loki could move much more easily now, dashing ahead of Thor and peeking into hollow logs, crouching down to smell flowers, chasing butterflies, and springing up rocky façades with the grace and stamina of a young goat.
Thor followed him as best as he was able, though he was not as agile as Loki and his boots were made for protection and not long distance travel. By mid-afternoon he was beginning to feel hot and weighed down when suddenly the trees thinned and they found themselves standing before a lovely little waterfall with a wide, deep pool at the bottom. The pool fed into a shallow stream that ran a winding path into the forest. It was as picturesque as could be.
Loki seemed to think so, too. He stood on the grass and stared up at the water crashing down over the rocky hill with a dreamy look his face. “It’s such a dangerous thing, yet it sounds so beautiful,” he murmured. “It’s almost as if the water is singing.”
Thor grunted as he unburdened himself of the satchels. He stood straight, his face red and glistening with sweat.
“It could be a nøkken,” he said as he unbuckled his protective leather vest and tossed it onto the ground. “According to legend, they like to live near waterfalls and play their enchanted music.”
Loki’s eyes widened and he took a few steps backward.
“But it is only a legend,” Thor added. “I’ve never seen or heard a nøkken in real life. But if there is one in that water, I doubt it will be a match for me.”
Loki stiffened with fear. “You . . . you’re not actually going to swim in there, are you?” He jabbed his finger toward the dark green pool.
“I’m certainly not going to drink it,” said Thor with a grin, then peeled off his sweaty undershirt.
Loki pressed his lips together and tried not to stare at Thor’s broad chest and toned, muscular abdomen. Or his bulging biceps. Or his powerful, veiny forearms. Or that curious trail of hair that began at his navel and disappeared into his trousers. What was at the end of it, he wondered?
“B-but what about eels and snakes?” Loki sputtered, coming back to reality. “What if there’s a great fish at the bottom waiting to swallow you? What if there’s a . . . a drain?”
The expression on Loki’s face said he would rather face a six-headed, flame-belching dragon than be confronted by another one of those awful drain creatures.
Thor took off his belt and chuckled. “There are no drains in the forest, Loki, and if anything slimy or scaly tries to eat me, then I’ll give it a mouthful of lightning.”
He began to pull off his boots, hopping from one foot to the other. “Why don’t you join me?” he asked, raising his head. “That is mountain water in those falls. It’s sure to be nice and cold.”
Loki’s tail went as straight as a pin. “Wha—j-join you? No, absolutely not, I don’t care how cold it is, I’ve never set foot into wild water before and I don’t intend . . .”
He lost the rest of his sentence when Thor turned aside and pulled down his trousers. Loki’s tail dropped limply onto the ground, his lips parting in awe.
Even the biggest, tallest, most conceited champions on Jötunheim would have had to admit that Thor Odinson was indeed admirable.
Loki stood gaping on the grassy shore while Thor waded into the pool, hissing as the water sloshed first around his knees, then his thighs, then his ample, beautiful buttocks. His taillessness didn’t even matter—he had the most gorgeous hindquarters Loki had ever seen. The moonstone around Loki’s neck glowed as its workload suddenly doubled.
“Alright, I’ll join you!” he blurted, fumbling with his belt. He whipped it off and pulled his tunic over his head, then bolted straight into the water, splashing and slapping and stumbling. He flung himself at Thor, who laughed and grasped his hands, threading their fingers together and pulling Loki toward him.
“Look at you!” he exclaimed happily. “Jumping into the water in spite of all the nøkker and snakes! Where did this sudden fearlessness come from?”
“I got hot,” said Loki seriously.
Thor grinned and walked backward across the bottom of the pool, taking them deeper. The water rose to Loki’s chest, then his neck, then his ears. Then his feet touched nothing and he began to struggle.
“It’s alright, don’t panic,” said Thor gently, squeezing Loki’s hands. The waves lapped against his throat and his long hair drifted in the water like strands of golden silk. “Relax. Let your body float. I’ve got you. Take a deep breath.”
Loki inhaled slowly and tried to calm himself. Thor was with him. Thor wouldn’t let anything happen to him. He hadn’t let Loki fall when they flew, and he wouldn’t let Loki drown now.
“That’s it,” Thor murmured encouragingly. “Just enjoy it. You are in no danger.”
He pulled Loki around in slow, easy circles, allowing him to get used to the feeling of being practically weightless. Then he instructed him to move his legs up and down, and soon Loki was able to power himself, the end of his tail poking up out of the water like a thin blue stick. He finally managed to smile after a few minutes of practicing.
“Am I swimming?” he asked hopefully.
“Not yet,” said Thor, “but I will teach you that, too.”
Loki let out a huff of laughter. “First flying, then reading, and now swimming. I’m going to be the most un-jötunn jötunn who ever lived! I won’t be scared of lightning or the open sky anymore, and the Thunder-bringer will be my friend.”
“He already is your friend, Loki,” said Thor. He lifted Loki’s wet hand to his lips and kissed it, his lips warm and his beard bristly.
Loki smiled and gazed into Thor’s eyes as if he were more beautiful and perfect than the moon over Jötunheim.
After a long, lingering grin, Thor turned and pulled Loki’s arms around his neck. “Want to go under the waterfall and check for nøkker? Perhaps if we catch one, he’ll teach us how to play his music.”
Loki wrapped his legs around Thor’s waist and clung to his broad, powerful back. “Nøkker are musicians?”
“That’s what the legends say. Perhaps that was their music you heard when we first arrived.”
“Oh.” Loki blinked and nibbled his bottom lip thoughtfully. “Well, if they make such beautiful music, how bad can they be?” He put on a brave face and pointed his small blue hand toward the waterfall. “Forward, Thunder-fish! To the nøkken’s lair!”
With a huge laugh, Thor did as his rider commanded.
They played in the pool for over an hour, snickering and splashing, exploring the waterfall (no nøkker, unfortunately) and talking at great length of water spirits and fish tales. Thor was instructing Loki how to float on his back—the first and most important part of swimming, he said—when Loki frowned and pointed to something at the left of the falls.
“Is that a hole?”
Thor squinted his eyes and tried to find it, but his eyesight, while sharp and clear, was not as keen as Loki’s. Loki insisted that there was some kind of opening in the rock up there and was desperate to take a look.
“It could be a tunnel to somewhere,” he said, his tail twitching excitedly. “Or even a cavern. Come on, Thor, let’s go and see what it is!”
Thor guided Loki back to shore and together they got partially dressed, then went to investigate. The rocky slope leading up was difficult to climb, but it was far enough from the waterfall that at least the stones were not slippery and damp.
Near the top of the falls, they came to a wide ledge and found the little triangular hole that Loki had spotted. Thor was too broad to enter, but Loki crawled in like a delighted mouse and disappeared from sight. The last thing Thor saw was the pointed end of his tail as it was swallowed by the darkness. He crouched down and peered inside the hole, squinting his eyes. He could see nothing; it was absolutely pitch-black. He could hear Loki shuffling and scraping and moving around inside. He sounded very far away.
“Loki,” he whispered. “Is everything alright? Can you see anything?”
There was no response. Worry began to simmer in Thor’s stomach.
Suddenly Lok’s head popped out of the hole. Thor shouted and recoiled, thumping flat on his bottom.
“It’s perfect!” Loki cried, his pupils still dilated from being in the dark. “It’s deep and there are no bats or snakes, and the ground is dry and flat. I think there are more chambers in the back, but even if there aren’t, it’s a lovely cave, just the right size for one troll.”
Thor recovered from his fright and laughed to see Loki so happy. “So I take it you’ve found a home, then?”
“Oh, yes! Yes, this is exactly where I want to be. But”—Loki reached out and grasped Thor’s hand, his smile fading—“I want you to be able to fit inside. I don’t want you to have to sleep out here in the open when you come to visit me. I want us to—” He stopped himself and blushed indigo.
Thor curled his fingers around Loki’s small hand. “You want us to be able to sleep together, is that it?”
“Well, y-yes.” Loki lowered his gaze shyly. “That is how all jötnar sleep. Families share nests until the children take mates of their own. It’s how we bond and . . . that’s how it’s always been.” He blinked rapidly and sniffed. “But Blindi and Bý were taken away and given their own nest in a separate cavern far from mine. Father thought they were coddling me, and he wanted me to be strong, so he made me sleep alone.”
Thor’s heart was suddenly aching again. His thumb began to unconsciously rub the back of Loki’s hand. “How long ago was this?”
“Long. A long time ago, when I was still a jötling.” Loki raised his head and gave Thor a sad smile. “That’s what made last night so wonderful, Thor, for so many reasons. To sleep that close to someone again, it was . . . I can’t . . .”
Loki couldn’t finish. He swallowed roughly as the tears began to roll down his smooth blue cheeks.
For a moment Thor was too overwhelmed to react. Then he reached out and grasped Loki’s other hand and carefully pulled him from the hole and into his lap. He put his bare arms around him and hugged him close, closing his eyes and relishing the feeling of Loki against him once more.
Loki squeaked and returned the embrace with his whole body—even his tail, which wrapped around Thor’s waist like a living vine. He nuzzled his face against Thor’s neck, rubbing his horns against the side of his head and getting them tangled in his long, damp hair.
“I wish I had a family like yours, Thor,” he whispered. “Your brothers were not taken away from you for being kind and caring. You have a mother who loves you, and your father would not have cast you out if you’d been born small or blind.”
“Oh, Loki,” sighed Thor. He could feel the tears building in his own eyes. He reached up and stroked Loki’s damp black hair, petted the small curve of his horns.
“Perhaps someday you will be reunited with your brothers,” he said, his voice low and deep and rumbling—like thunder, only it didn’t cause Loki to tremble with fear. “But until that day, I want you to think of me as your family.”
Loki laughed through his tears and pulled back to look Thor in the eyes. “You volunteer to be my hairy, horn-less troll-brother, who teaches other trolls to fly and to swim and do other un-jötunn things?”
Loki shook his head in disbelief. “I would be delighted.”
Thor smiled, leaned forward, and placed a tender kiss onto Loki’s forehead. “So would I.”
Since Loki wanted Thor to stay in the cave with him, the first thing that needed to be done was to make a proper doorway. Thor called Mjölnir to his hand and, with a few careful, well-aimed strikes, was able widen the mouth of the cave to a more accommodating size. Loki inspected the progress as Thor chipped away smaller pieces of rock with his hammer, fashioning a round entrance that was not very tall; the only people who would not have to stoop to enter would be elves or small children.
Loki asked him why he did this, and Thor replied, “It is a safeguard. If an attacker were trying to force his way in, he would have to lower his head to enter. Then you could easily cut it from his shoulders.”
Loki’s face paled to ashy blue.
“It—it is only a precaution,” said Thor gently, raising his hand. “I am a warrior. I cannot help but think of these things. I don’t believe you are in danger of being besieged out here, but it’s always wise to have a good defense.”
He turned to look out across the waterfall and over the clearing below, resting his hammer upon his shoulder and his boot upon the ledge. He narrowed his eyes and gazed long at the horizon, a sea of treetops and distant mountains.
“I want to make sure you are well protected, Loki,” he said. “I want to defend you and keep you safe from danger, and I will fight anything in this realm that threatens your peace. This I swear.”
Loki’s tail coiled around his ankle and he clasped his fidgeting hands together. The sight of Thor standing there, bare-chested and radiating an aura of strength and power, filled Loki with an overwhelming sense of assurance. He tried to remember the last time he felt so loved and protected.
It had been so very long ago.
Helblindi and Býleist had done all they could to shelter and sustain Loki before he had been wrenched from their arms. When Loki had been forced to eat the sludgy, bitter gruel that the apothecaries insisted would help him grow, Blindi and Bý carefully reserved portions of their own meals and stuffed their pockets, then snuck the scraps to Loki. It was perhaps the only thing that had prevented their little brother from wasting away when he was young.
And when Loki fell sick, as he often did when he was a jötling, Fárbauti would send the healers away, claiming that his weakling son would either die according to fate or survive and come out stronger for it. He had no idea that his other two sons were secretly watching over Loki in turns, giving him medicine and herbs and healing soups, snuggling up beside him to help him sleep, encouraging him, cheering him on, insisting that things will one day be better.
That day had unfortunately never come. Fárbauti had lost his patience and permanently separated Loki from his brothers, and later became harsh and abusive, his disgust at his insufficient progeny increasing to the point of cruelty. Loki’s last days on Jötunheim were miserable ones, full of despair and loneliness.
It had been decades since someone had last protected him and loved him. So long since he had felt a gentle touch or heard a kind word.
And then Thor Odinson had come into his life, the greatest troll-foe in all the Nine, and he had shown Loki more mercy and charity in just a few hours than Fárbauti had in all the years of Loki’s life. Perhaps that might explain the astonishing speed at which this seed of love was growing in Loki’s heart.
“This is good, high ground,” said Thor after a long and careful appraisal of their surroundings. “A secure position. Much can be seen from this point. I will feel confident leaving you here.” He turned and offered up a melancholy smile. “Not that I wish to leave you, Loki.”
Loki smiled back, grateful that he was under the care of such a thoughtful and powerful man . . . then his stomach suddenly let out a cantankerous growl. He cringed with embarrassment, but Thor laughed it off.
“I am hungry, too. It’s been a long time since breakfast. Come, let’s go down and get something to eat.” He held out his hand and Loki accepted it, though he wasn’t the one who needed help when it came to climbing down the steep, rocky slope.
“I suppose the next thing I need to do is carve a staircase,” Thor muttered after slipping for the third time and landing hard on his tailbone. He grimaced and rubbed his smarting bottom. “Even if I am the only one who uses it.”
“You would do well to take your boots off,” Loki suggested, lifting one small, agile blue foot and wiggling his toes. “Your feet can grip the rocks better.”
“But my feet are not as clever as yours, Master Troll,” said Thor with a grin, “nor do I have a tail to balance me.”
Loki smirked and gave his tail a proud little shake before scrambling the rest of the way down and landing lightly on his feet. He moved much easier since he had traded Thor’s childhood tunic for a simple sash tied around his waist, and he was certainly more comfortable. His tail stuck out between the folds, able to move freely and naturally. Though he was practically as naked as Thor had found him on Midgard, this light dress seemed to suit him. His thinness still made Thor’s heart ache—his lean, undernourished limbs and skinny chest, the bones that showed beneath his skin, his prominent ribs and his hips—but he would gain weight eventually, Thor knew. Soon he would be padded with a healthy layer of flesh again, and he’d be a plump, happy little jötunn. How nice it will be to embrace him and no longer feel the sharp angles and lightweightedness from his days of deprivation.
Thor abruptly slid down the last three feet of the slope and ripped the leg of his trousers on a sharp rock. Loki quirked his eyebrow at him.
“You could have flown down with your hammer and landed,” he said pointedly. “Why didn’t you? Now you’ve gone and torn your trow-sores.”
“Yes, I suppose I could have,” Thor admitted with a breathy laugh, “but it is more fun to crawl around with you.”
The corners of Loki’s mouth curled up sweetly and he extended his hand. Thor grasped it but didn’t really use it to pull himself up. He weighed thrice as much as Loki; he could pull his arm out of the socket or send him tumbling face-first into his chest, and that would not be good at all. Those horns might be small, but they were sure to hurt with enough force.
Hand-in-hand, they walked into the clearing. Loki picked out a shady place on the grass beneath the trees, and Thor brought over the satchel he had filled with food. They sat together and ate a late lunch of ham and apples, bread and cheese, and filled their cups with the clear, cold water from the falls. Loki didn’t care much for the bread—Thor recalled what Odin had said regarding trolls and their intolerance of wheat—but he happily partook of everything else. He got his first taste of blackberry jam, and his tail stuck out straight and shivered with delight.
“It’s so good,” he exclaimed, which made Thor chuckle. “It’s sweet like honey but yet it’s . . . oh, what’s the word? Like ‘sour’, but not unpleasant. Tárt is the word we use, but—”
“Tart?” Thor repeated. “We use that word as well. It is a sharp taste, like the kind berries have.”
“Yes, exactly!” cried Loki. He trembled with excitement. “Tart! This blakk-berry jamb is tart and sweet and I love it. Is it common in Asgard, like honey?”
“There are many kinds of jams and jellies,” said Thor. “I will be happy to introduce them all to you.”
“Really?” Loki said, his elfin ears twitching. “How many? Dozens? Scores?”
“Probably hundreds. Strawberry, grape, plum, currant, there are more than I could name.”
Loki’s red eyes sparkled. “I want to try every single one!”
“Then I will make sure you get every opportunity,” said Thor with a wink.
Loki grinned toothily and licked the last traces of jam from his hand, his little blue tongue darting out from between his lips to clean his fingers. He looked rather feline. Thor wondered if troll tongues were rough like a cat’s or smooth and slick, if they ever used them for anything other than eating.
That opened the door to some rather interesting notions Thor had not yet considered.
While Loki cheerfully crunched into an apple, Thor wondered how trolls made love, if it was quick and purposeful, like how animals mated, or if they took their time and tried to please each other. He wondered if Loki had ever known the touch of another jötunn. How was sex accomplished among their single-gender species? Each troll needed to have both parts in order to reproduce, which meant that, aside from what Thor had already seen and recognized as a masculine organ, there had to be another thing between Loki’s legs, a special place, probably not unlike what Æsir women had. A soft, subtle cradle of power and mystery, where seed went in and new life came out.
Thor felt a sudden pang of shame. Imagining the shape and layout of Loki’s intimate biology was none of his business; his responsibility was to help him get well and healthy again, to be caring and nurturing, to show him familial love—a love he had been denied and desperately needed right now.
Loki glanced up and met Thor’s gaze, giving him a shy smile as he munched his apple. Thor smiled back and his heart filled with more affection than he had ever felt toward another person before. He had barely known Loki for a full day, and already he was as dear to him as his own family.
By the time they finished eating and Thor packed the leftovers away in the satchel, Loki’s eyelids were drooping and he began to look very sleepy. He kept yawning and sighing, and he seemed to grow more lethargic with each passing moment.
“Are you alright, Loki?” asked Thor, touching his shoulder.
“Yes, I’m just a little tired.” Loki rubbed his eyes and squinted at the sunny clearing beyond the shade. “I’m not used to being awake at this time of day. We trolls are night-folk.”
Thor patted him. “Rest here, then. I will continue to clear out the cave.”
“But it isn’t fair for you to do all the work by yourself.”
“Don’t worry. It pleases me to help you, so let me help you.” Thor smiled and rubbed Loki’s shoulder. “Rest now. I can handle this.”
“Well . . . alright, if you insist. Thank you, Thor.” Loki sighed again, his body sagging. “I only need a short nap. Just a few minutes . . .”
“It is no trouble, Loki. Sleep for as long as you need. Here, allow me.”
Loki waited while Thor fetched his cape and spread it onto a soft, shady patch of grass. It had barely settled before Loki was crawling onto it, turning in circles a few times before finally dropping down on his side. He curled up into a comfortable bundle with the end of his tail tucked under his chin.
“Hmm, it smells like you,” he murmured, burrowing into the thick red fabric and closing his eyes. “Big and strong. Safe . . . so good . . .”
In a matter of seconds his breath was coming slowly and evenly. He was fast asleep.
Thor gazed down at him, a small blue troll lying on his huge red cape, and brushed back a strand of hair that had fallen over Loki’s forehead, tucking it behind one of his horns. A sweeter, more innocent image he had never seen.
He rose to his feet and made his way back to the falls, mounted the cliff, and resumed his toil. The cave was indeed perfect, as Loki had said. It was cool and dark and dry, an adequate environment for a nocturnal, warm-natured being. It had a low ceiling and a smooth, level floor, and it only needed a few structural alterations—the removal of a few stalagmites, perhaps some windows knocked out of the front face to allow for fresh air, and a few shelves or niches carved into the walls would be nice . . .
Thor was so preoccupied with his destructive construction that the hours slipped by without his notice. When he emerged from the cave with the last load of rubble, he was surprised to discover that the sky was filled with the rosy, amber hues of sunset. He wondered if Loki had woken yet.
He walked out onto the cliff and peered down, and went completely still. He slowly lowered himself onto one knee, a smile growing on his face.
Down below, Loki was sprawled on his cape, still sound asleep. He wasn’t alone, though; there was a small circle of wild animals gathered around him—a doe and her two speckled fawns, three or four rabbits, a family of chipmunks, a quartet of squirrels, a gathering of various birds in the branches overhead, and one brave hedgehog that was snuffling at Loki’s small blue toes. They were undoubtedly curious about this new creature in their forest and wanted to investigate it. One of the fawns crept forward and smelled Loki’s horns, his hair, then gave his forehead a cautious lick.
Loki stirred and batted open his eyes, then let out a yelp of terror. The animals exploded, crashing into each other as they scattered in all directions, racing back to the safety of the forest.
Thor stifled a laugh with his hand and continued to watch, interested in what would happen next.
Loki sat up with a disheartened face and looked in the direction the animals had fled. “I’m sorry,” he called softly, “I didn’t mean to frighten you. You can come back. I won’t hurt you.”
He sat still and waited, staring into the trees. The hedgehog was the first to peek out from behind a rock. After a few twitches of its snout, it began trundling in Loki’s direction.
“That’s it,” said Loki, smiling and holding out his hand. “I don’t want to run you out of your own forest. This is your home, too. It’s very nice. I’m looking for a new home myself. Maybe we can share?”
A chipmunk scuttled out from between the roots of a tree, followed by one of the fawns. One by one, the animals emerged from their hiding places and crept toward this strange new creature, their eyes keen and bodies ready to bolt at the slightest sign of threat.
The hedgehog arrived first, scurrying onto Thor’s cape and sniffing Loki’s knee, its little nose wiggling up and down.
Loki was enchanted. “Oh, my. Halló, líttil frindur,” he murmured, smiling. “Ég veist eki hvadh thú art. Ert thú medh naffen? Ég heiti Loki.”1
The animals perked their ears up at the strange but gentle sounds this stranger was making and moved a little closer. The rabbits, not to be outdone by the chipmunks, were the next to arrive. They hopped to edge of the cape and began to pad around it, sniffing the fabric.
Loki extended his hand and let one of the rabbits smell him, its pink nostrils fluttering. “Serdhu? Allt er gott. Ég munn eki meidha thig.”2
He touched the rabbit’s head with his fingertips, petting it delicately. It recoiled at first, but when nothing bad followed, it relaxed and permitted the caresses.
This seemed to embolden the rest of the animals; they came forward and resumed their close-up investigation of Loki’s person, staring and sniffing, licking and poking with their noses. Loki squeaked and tittered as the doe began to wash his face with her tongue, and the hedgehog, perhaps feeling neglected, clambered up Loki’s leg and waddled its way into his lap. Loki gave it a careful brush with his hand, stroking its bristles. The hedgehog grunted and stretched out its skinny little legs, basking in the attention.
Thor looked on with amazement. The woodland creatures of Asgard were known to be bold and curious, but he had never witnessed anything like this before. This was their first ever encounter with a troll, and they had no idea what Loki was or just how fearsome trolls could be.
Unless trolls were not naturally fearsome. Thor realized he had only ever seen jötnar during battles or raids, when they were at their most aggressive and defensive. He had never seen them in peaceful times, when they tended to the needs of their families or listened to their loremaster tell stories or slept in their nests. Perhaps they were really a gentle, trustworthy folk who lived in harmony with nature. Perhaps they were just like Loki.
If that were true, Thor never wanted to go to war against the jötnar ever again. Surely there was a way their people could coexist with one another, he thought. Surely there might one day be peace between Jötunheim and Asgard.
There came the sound of flapping wings and a familiar caw, and Thor turned around. Huginn and Muninn alighted on a nearby rock pile and folded their wings onto their backs.
Thor’s mouth turned into a grim line. He knew why they had come.
“How’s it going, Thunderprince?” said Huginn cheerfully. “I see you’ve lost your shirt again. Trying to impress someone, are we?” He winked and let out a croaky chuckle.
Thor didn’t answer; he gazed sullenly at the cave door and the two new windows he had carved. Normally he enjoyed jesting with his father’s feathered friends, but he was suddenly too depressed to even speak. Huginn noticed and cleared his throat with an awkward, raspy sound.
Muninn hopped over to the edge of the cliff and peered down. “Awww, look, Hugi, the little troll is making friends,” she said, ruffling her feathers. “He’s so cute. Is he a baby? I’ve never seen one that small before.”
“He is grown,” Thor murmured, “he’s just small for his age.”
“Ah, poor little guy,” Huginn clucked, sailing down to stand beside Muninn. “I feel sorry for him. Is that why you spared his life? Because he’s puny?”
“I spared his life because he wasn’t a threat,” said Thor sharply, and gestured down toward the clearing. “Look at him. In ten minutes he has tamed a dozen wild animals. Not even Mother could do that, and you know how she is with all living creatures.”
“Ah, yes,” Huginn agreed. “The legendary love of the Allmother.”
“But it’s not only the animals,” said Thor. “Loki is one of a kind. He is compassionate and intelligent and humorous, the most charming person you could ever meet.”
“He certainly seems to have charmed you,” said Muninn, cocking her head in amusement. “Are you falling in love with him?”
Thor’s face turned bright red. “N-no,” he mumbled.
“Oh, boy,” Huginn cackled, “Odin’s favorite son, in love with a jötunn! That would give your Oldfather a heart attack for sure.”
“I’m not his favorite son and I’m not in love,” Thor snapped. “I care about Loki and I want him to be happy. That is all.”
“You care about him and want him to be happy,” echoed Muninn. “That means you love him.”
“No, it—well, yes, I suppose, but it’s not—”
“I know, I know. Different type of love, I understand.”
Silence fell between Thor and the two ravens as they watched the heartwarming scene below, Loki sitting on Thor’s cape and petting the heads of the little fawns, talking to them softly in trollspeak.
“Your father wants to know if you’ll be home for dinner,” said Huginn at last. He sounded reluctant. “What should we tell him?”
“You already know what to tell him.” Thor rose from his crouch and went back to the cave, picked up his hammer. “I will return home sometime tomorrow, but I cannot leave Loki out here alone on his first night. I will not.”
Muninn sighed. “Somehow I knew that’s what you were going to say.” She spread her wings. “Alright, Hugi, come on. We’ve been flying all day and I’m ready to go home.”
“I know. Me, too. Well . . . take care of yourself, Thor,” said Huginn, preparing for flight. “I mean, I know you can take care of yourself. Take care of that little troll is what I really mean.”
“Yes,” added Muninn, “and shower him with your love.”
“He’ll bloom like a little blue frost-flower.”
“If frost-flowers had horns.”
“And big red eyes.”
“And sweet, charming dispositions.”
Thor swatted his arm at the two snickering ravens and tried hard not to smile. “Get out of here, both of you. I’d rather break rocks in silence than listen to your gibbering tongues.”
Still laughing, Huginn and Muninn took to the air and were gone with a flapping of their sleek black wings.
1 Halló, líttil frindur. Ég veist eki hvadh thú art. Ert thú medh naffen? Ég heiti Loki. Hello, little friend. I don't know what you are. Do you have a name? I am called Loki.
2 Serdhu? Allt er gott. Ég munn eki meidha thig. See? All is well. I will not hurt you.
Once Huginn and Muninn disappeared from sight, Thor took a deep breath and decided to go down and check on Loki. Perhaps he would be ready to inspect the progress on the cave, offer a few suggestions, make requests. He wanted Loki’s approval before going any further; there was still much to be done before the cave was truly home-worthy. If Loki found everything to his liking, he could begin moving in immediately. Even though nighttime was hardly a reason to stop work, especially for a nocturnal jötunn, Thor at least wanted to have Loki somewhat settled before it was completely dark.
He climbed down the steep, rocky slope and crossed the clearing as stealthily as he could, hoping that his presence wouldn’t cause Loki’s merry menagerie to flee. His hopes were in vain, however; the animals snapped to attention when they spotted him coming their way. A second later they turned and scattered—all, that is, except for the hedgehog, who didn’t seem to care one way or another that a large, heavy apex-predator was approaching. It was basking in the lap of luxury—a troll lap, specifically—and nothing short of a wildfire could compel it to abandon its post.
Mildly alarmed by the sudden loss of his guests, Loki turned to see what had scared them off and smiled when he recognized Thor. His tail rose up and began to curl cheerfully back and forth.
Thor was so mesmerized by the way Loki lit up that he stumbled over a clump of grass and barely even noticed. Or cared. The only thing he was aware of was how much he adored this little frost troll.
“I see you’ve been making a few friends,” he said, crouching behind Loki and peering over his shoulder. The hedgehog was snugly cradled between Loki’s thighs, lying on its back with its long, skinny legs stuck into the air, half asleep and enjoying the gentle caresses of Loki’s fingers.
“One or two, perhaps,” said Loki with a grin. “This spiny little creature is adorable. What do you call it?”
Thor sat down with a grunt and stretched out his legs, framing Loki between them. “That is a hedgehog.”
“Hedge-hog,” Loki repeated. “A little hog that lives in bushes? A shrub-swine?”
Thor’s laughter was deep and warm, and Loki felt the vibrations against his back even though they weren’t touching.
“I think they are kin to shrews, actually. I don’t know why we call them hedgehogs. It seems a bit silly, doesn’t it?”
“Not really. They do look a little piggish. Maybe it’s their noses.” He scratched the hedgehog’s furry chin.
Thor gazed fondly at the side of Loki’s face, watching him pet the small animal and smile down at it with wonder.
“Most of the other creatures were shy, but this one was very tame,” said Loki, stroking the soft fur on its underside. “I like its little belly-button.” He patted the pink nub in the center of its stomach.
Thor covered his mouth with his fist, trying to keep a straight face. “That is his penis.”
Loki froze. Thor could almost feel the heat radiating from Loki’s face, and he pressed his hand tighter against his lips, trying to stifle his laughter.
“Oh. Dear, I,” Loki stammered, “I didn’t know that was a—oh my.” And then he put his hand over his eyes and grimaced with embarrassment. “I have been fondling this poor thing for the last ten minutes. No wonder he likes me so much.”
Thor couldn’t hold it in anymore; he broke into a round of rich, deep-bellied guffaws.
Grinning despite himself, Loki politely turned the hedgehog right-side up again and set him onto the grass, then gave him a gentle nudge. “Alright, prickle-pig, I think that’s enough petting for one day. Off you go now, shoo shoo. I’m sure your mate is wondering where you are.”
The hedgehog gave Thor a disgruntled glare—as if the loud, obnoxious man-beast were the cause of all his worldly troubles—and scuttled over to a nearby tree, finding a sheltered place among its roots to sulk.
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he was jealous,” Thor chuckled.
“Jealous? Of who?”
“Of me. Everything was fine until I came over and stole all the attention. He is probably cursing me in his little hedgehog language right now.”
Loki smiled and bit his lower lip. Thor’s breath was falling on his ear, tickling it slightly. It felt nice—very nice. His tail shivered and he leaned a little closer.
“Hedgehoggish? I wonder what that sounds like,” he said idly.
“Probably a lot of grunting and grubbing, I imagine. How would one say that in the jötunn language?”
Loki pursed his lips, thinking. “Well, we don’t have hedges on Jötunheim, so I suppose brodgöldur would be the best translation.”
“Broad . . . gelder.”
“Brod,” said Loki gently, rolling the R. “Göldur.”
“Brrrodd,” Thor recited, “geldoor.”
“Brod. Göldur. Brodgöldur.”
Loki nodded proudly. “Frábær!”
Loki laughed and looked over his shoulder at Thor. “I was saying ‘very good’. Nothing to do with hedgepigs. Erm, hedgehogs.”
Thor stared into Loki’s bright, happy eyes and a flood of inexpressible feelings rushed into his heart, filling it with warmth and gladness. The words were spilling from his mouth before he even had a chance to think about them: “Teach me your language.”
Loki’s smile fell. “Wh-what?”
“Your language. Trollspeak. Jötnin. I want to learn it.” When Loki said nothing after a few moments, Thor began to worry. “Is . . . that alright?”
“Well, I.” Loki blinked rapidly, confused. “I mean, yes, of course, but. May I ask why?”
Thor didn’t have an answer right away. He had to search for it, frowning and sighing while he plumbed the depths of his heart.
“I suppose I feel that I am crowding you with all these new experiences,” he began slowly. “Flying, reading, swimming. Things uncommon to your people. I am not trying to . . . to un-make you, Loki. De-troll you, turn you into an Æsir or anything else.” Thor laid a gentle hand on Loki’s knee. “I like you the way you are. I think you are wonderful and I want to know more about you and your culture, your people, your ways. I want to be able to speak to you in your own tongue and . . . say things that are important and meaningful.”
Loki’s heart skipped a beat when he felt Thor’s large, warm hand slide down to touch his ankle, the one which still bore the marks of the rope that had snared him.
“To start, how does one say he is sorry?”
Loki licked his lips. “Fyrír giffdhu.”
“Yes.” Loki smiled. “To which I say, samthyki. I accept. Medh ölla hjarta mínu, samthykir ég.”1
Thor let out a breath and grinned, a look of amazement on his face. He didn’t know which was more beautiful—the jötnin words coming from Loki’s mouth or the meaning behind them. All he knew was that he loved the sound of them and wanted to hear more.
He took up Loki’s hand and kissed his knuckles, and twined their fingers together, pink against blue. “And how does one say thank you in jötnin?”
Loki turned cobalt and shyly ducked his head. “Thaka thér.”
“Thocka thee-air,” repeated Thor haltingly, trying to roll the R. His tongue felt clumsy and the phrase didn’t sound half as lovely as when Loki spoke it. But he would try to get it right.
“Thaka thér, Loki. For forgiving me, and for teaching me your words.”
“Thadh var ekert, Thor. You’re welcome.”
Thor squeezed Loki’s hand, and for a few moments no further words were spoken between them. At least not with the tongue. Then Thor smiled and that seemed to pull them out of the trance they had fallen into.
“I have reached a good stopping point,” he said. “Uh, with the cave, I mean. Would you care to inspect it? I’d like to know what you think of it.”
“Of course.” Loki tilted his head to one side. “Though I must warn you, after my time on Midgard, I’m not very picky when it comes to living arrangements.”
Thor grinned. “Then I hope this makes you feel utterly spoiled.”
He stood and helped Loki to his feet, and they walked across the clearing, their hands still clasped together. They parted reluctantly to mount the cliff. Loki hopped onto the rocks and crawled up as nimbly as a lizard while Thor lagged behind, searching for footholds. Loki paused halfway up and looked down at him, his tail curling into an inquisitive S shape.
“Should I wait?” he called over the rush of the waterfall.
“No, you go ahead,” said Thor, waving his hand and wincing at his own clumsiness. “I will be there soon enough.”
Loki scampered up the cliff and pulled himself over the ledge. He noticed the renovations made to the exterior—one round little porthole window on either side of the entrance—and instantly liked them. How thoughtful it was of Thor to include something so quaint and practical. It made the cave look very welcoming.
Loki wandered inside and let out a soft gasp. Though it was almost totally dark, his keen eyes could see the extent of all the work Thor had put into it. The floor was cleared of stalagmites and snags and other irregularities; now it was smooth and safe for bare feet. There were long shelves carved into the far wall—rough-hewn, not the most level, but they were charming and functional and would hold many things, like dishes and pots and—
Loki pressed a hand to his chest as he realized:
Books. Lots of books. Books that Thor was going to teach him to read. Loki could see it as clearly as if he were already happening: the two of them sitting together under that window there, Loki curled up in Thor’s lap and holding a book, not just looking at the pictures in it, but reading what was written on the pages. Reading. What power he would have. The things he would learn!
Bubbling with excitement now, Loki continued his exploration of the cave. There were several chambers beyond the main cavern that could be used as rooms or storage pantries. Perhaps they could even be turned into tunnels that would open onto the other side of the ridge. A true troll-warren.
In one of these larger chambers there was a natural hollow in the floor, ovoid in shape and about hip-deep if Loki were to stand in it. He could see where Thor had knocked away the jagged edges and polished the sides until they were smooth and round. It would make a perfect and permanent sleeping nest. Thor must have been aware of that when he had been working on it. There was no other explanation for this level of careful craftsmanship.
Loki’s heart swelled at the thought of Thor crouched in this hollow, pounding away with his hammer, building the frame of a nest that they would sometimes share together. It was—
A rush of heat flared through Loki’s body, causing the moonstone around his neck glow.
It was exactly the thing a courting jötunn would do for his beloved. Thor had no idea—how could he? These were special rites and secrets known only to trolls—but to Loki it was completely obvious. His mind reeled as his hindsight suddenly became crystal-clear:
The nest-building, the food-sharing, the giving of gifts—especially the honey earlier that day. The hand-holding, the embracing, the kind words and oaths of protection. The home-making. Even the intimate conversations. These were all ancient traditions, jötunn love overtures, things that Loki had given up on ever experiencing for himself. After all, what troll in his right mind would want him for a mate? He was ugly and hairy, thin and frail-looking, and entirely too small. Loki doubted he would be able to sire any children, much less carry them. The mere act of having sex, one of the greatest pleasures in life as far as the jötnar were concerned, would be a terrible hardship, perhaps even physically impossible; even the smallest trolls on Jötunheim were girthsome and lengthy. Even if Loki’s wish came true and he did manage to conceive, how in the Nine would his little belly accommodate a normal-sized litter of normal-sized babies? How would he birth them?
It was only a dream, Loki knew. A home, a mate, a family. Any jötnar who looked at him did so with pity or contempt in their eyes, sometimes even outright disgust, and their gazes never lingered long.
But Thor’s did. Thor looked at him as if he were beautiful, and it made Loki feel as if he actually was beautiful. He knew that he wasn’t, nor would he ever be, but something about Thor gave him hope. Hope that if an Æsir could find him attractive, so might one of his own people, someone who cared more about what was on the inside rather than the outside. This wonderful, imaginary troll didn’t have to be handsome or wealthy or even that smart; as long as he loved Loki, nothing else really mattered. They would be wed and mated and live in a nice cavern together, probably not as nice as this one, so spacious and comfortable and idyllic, but they could be happy. As long as there was love, everything would be—
Loki started and turned. Thor was standing in the passageway, his face illuminated by the ball of softly-crackling lightning he held in his hand. He smiled with half of his mouth, the blue shadows settling into the handsome contours of his face.
“What do you think? I know it’s not really fit for a prince, but—”
“No, it’s lovely.” Loki folded his hands together at the base of his throat. “It’s perfect. Better than any of the caves and caverns in Útgard, and they are beyond number.”
Thor released a breathy laugh and lowered his head. “I’m sure you’re exaggerating, but thank you.”
Loki took a few steps forward, until he stood within the circle of light. It made the tears in his eyes shimmer and sparkle like jewels. “I’m not exaggerating. I love it. And I love”—his voice caught, he swallowed dryly—“l-love that you did this for me. Out of the kindness of your heart. I’ve never . . .”
Thor smiled tenderly and the ball of light in his hand suddenly magnified to a blinding intensity, filling the entire chamber. Loki squeaked and turned away, shielding his eyes with his arm. Thor cursed and clapped his other hand over the ball, forcing it back down to its original size.
“Sorry, sorry, forgive me,” he uttered. “I’ve only just learned to illuminate and I’m still learning how to control it. I . . . am not sure why that happened. I hope you are not blinded.”
“I’m alright,” said Loki, lowering his arm and blinking away the spots. “Your light doesn’t feel the same as the sun’s. It’s warm, but it doesn’t hurt me.”
“That is unusual. Perhaps the moonstone is responsible?”
Loki touched the pearl that hung around his neck. He knew this protective talisman had had nothing to do with the innocuous nature of Thor’s light. Thor had sworn to never harm him. That was why it hadn’t hurt, Loki was sure of it.
It might not be true, but it was a lovely thought.
“Well,” said Thor, looking around at the empty chamber, “shall we begin to fill this hollow? Make it into a home?”
Loki’s tail shivered at the implication. He knew what Thor meant, of course—bringing in the two satchels and unloading their contents, getting a makeshift nest assembled, perhaps putting together a light meal, that sort of thing—but he couldn’t deny how truly romantic this felt.
He would not tell Thor. He couldn’t. What could be gained if Thor knew he was inadvertently performing jötunn courting behaviors? Nothing. In fact, he would probably find it embarrassing and distasteful, being part of this ridiculous charade, indulging the silly domestic fantasies of a troll.
No, this must remain Loki’s secret, his happy little fairy tale dream—for now and possibly ever.
He forced a smile onto his face and flicked his tail. “Yes, let’s.”
Thor’s empty chair at the dinner table was somehow louder and more noticeable than when he was actually present. He and Baldur were often the ones who dominated the dinner conversation, talking of inter-realm politics and war and diplomacy (or the lack of it), and the latest petitions coming to Asgard from the people of the Nine. Hodur, Frigga, and Baldur’s wife Nann liked to discuss the arts and sciences, academia, and anecdotes of a lighthearted nature, and Valí and Vídarr, the youngest members of the family, interjected with blood-soaked comments about their latest hunting expeditions or long-distance hiking trips.
They were twins, Valí and Vídarr, seventeen by Asgard’s reckoning, blond-haired and blue-eyed like the older brother they worshiped. Of all Odin’s sons, they were perhaps the closest to nature, rustic and wild in their dress and manner, devout followers of the old ways venerated by Grandfather Borr, who was as great a hero in their eyes as their own father. Like many adolescent boys, Valí and Víthurr were adventurous and enthusiastic about their interests, which included horsemanship, hunting, sports, and loud, heavy music. They thrived on tales of gore and glory, epic quests for treasure, and violent battles with fearsome beasts. They were sorely disappointed when they returned from their four-day camping trip and learned they had missed Thor’s return from Midgard, especially since he’d come back with a real, live frost troll in his keep.
“And he actually brought it into the palace?” asked Valí with a wide grin. He was eating his dinner with his hands again, and he had mutton sauce smeared on his cheek and all over the front of his tunic. It didn’t look as if he or Vídarr had bothered to wash before coming to dinner, either.
“I bet you screamed Thor to pieces, didn’t you, Father?” said Vídarr, gleeful at the thought of family drama that for once didn’t involve him or Valí.
“Elbows off the table, Vídarr,” said Frigga flatly. “And no, there was no screaming whatsoever. Thor brought Loki to us as soon as he could, and except for a few remarks from your father, the conversation was quite civil.”
“There is nothing civil where trolls are concerned,” Odin muttered into his goblet.
The twins buzzed with excitement. “Wow, so it could talk? Did it know our language? What did it look like? You said it had a name? Loki? What does that mean? Did Thor give it that name?”
“He already had a name and title,” said Baldur, glaring across the table. “He is Prince Loki of Jötunheim, Fárbauti’s son, who came here seeking—oh, for goodness—Valí, wipe your chin. You’re not living among wolves anymore.”
Vídarr’s eyes widened while his twin obediently wiped his face—using the edge of the tablecloth. “Whoa, the son of a troll-king!”
“That is so awesome!” Valí exclaimed. “A big ugly troll prince! I bet he’s vile!”
“Eight feet tall and covered in warts!”
“With toenails like bear claws!”
“How many skulls has he crushed? Did he carry a belt made out of human skin?”
“I bet he’s a huge, scaly, stinking beast with dragon’s breath. That would be fantastic!”
“And the flesh of his enemies rotting between his teeth!”
“And mushrooms growing in his armpits!”
Hodur abruptly dropped his forkful of sautéed mushrooms. “Valí, I swear to Ymir . . .”
But the twins had already worked themselves into a froth. Their chairs could barely contain them, they were so brimming with energy.
“When can we meet him, this fearsome Loki of Jötunheim?” Vídarr asked, forgetting about keeping his elbows off the table as he leaned eagerly toward his father.
“Is he dangerous?” said Valí. “Should we arm ourselves? Is Thor the only one who can control him?”
Odin set down his goblet and gave his two youngest a long, serious look. “That troll,” he said slowly, “is the greatest fiend I have ever seen. He is completely out of control. Lethal. Insane with rage.” He bent his hand into a claw and gestured to his face. “Blood-red eyes that burn into your soul. Foaming at the mouth. Teeth like needles. Claws like daggers, a tail that could spear a man like a fish. Do not let your guard down around him for a single moment. He will tear the flesh from your bones like bark from a tree.”
Valí and Vídarr were nothing but two pairs of unblinking eyeballs and a matched set of gaping mouths. It was difficult to tell if they were more frightened or fascinated. Frigga covered her grin with her napkin and coughed to disguise her laughter. Baldur and Hodur were similarly trying to hide their amusement. Only Odin was capable of keeping his expression neutral.
“You have a month to prepare yourselves for this meeting,” he said ominously. “I suggest you plan for every eventuality. There is no such thing as being too cautious, especially when it comes to trolls . . . isn’t that right, Frigga?”
Frigga cleared her throat and smiled politely. “Yes, of course. Loki is very surprising, never to be underestimated. I doubt there is any troll like him in all the Nine. You will be utterly shocked when you see him, of this I have no doubt.”
Valí and Vídarr looked at each other and crowed with triumph, clasping their hands together and raising their fists into the air.
“Yeaaah, finally!” they cheered and began to talk over one another like a pair of chattering squirrels. “V and V Odinson, face to face with a frost troll!”
“I’m gonna feed him a live goat!”
“I’m gonna put a saddle on him and see how fast he can go!”
“Val! Val! We should totally put him in a pit-fight against a bilgesnipe! Do you think Thor would let us?”
“Oh man, he’d have to! That would be so wicked!”
Hodur smiled and put his hand on his twin’s shoulder. “Baldur,” he said quietly, “I am counting on you to describe their faces to me when they meet Loki.”
“Trust me, brother,” said Baldur, leaning close, “I wouldn’t let you miss out on something that hilarious for all the gold in Nidavellir.”
1 Medh ölla hjarta mínu, samthykir ég. With all of my heart, I accept.
Chapter 12: Trollnesting
I apologize for the long wait on this chapter—thank you for your patience, I hope you enjoy it! HJB
Night fell in the forest of Asgard. The stars and auroras that had been muted by sunlight during the day now shone brightly against the darkened sky, glowing in an ever-changing multitude of colors: greens and blues and purples, a twinkle of red, a glitter of gold.
Loki sat on the ledge just outside the cave, Thor close beside him, and stared up at the sky, his eyes wide and sparkling.
“I have spent most of my life underground,” he said softly, “living beneath stone and earth and ice, unaware that this terrible sky could hold so much beauty and wonder.” He shook his head, mesmerized by the faraway novae and nebulae. “Never have I seen anything so marvelous.”
“Nor have I,” said Thor, gazing at the side of Loki’s face. The starlight glowed silver on his blue skin, bringing out the delicate markings on his cheeks and forehead, shining faintly on his horns and in his inky black hair. Thor was unable to take his eyes off him.
Loki turned and his smile dropped when he realized Thor had been speaking about him. His cheeks flushed cobalt and he lowered his eyes, his tail curling into corkscrew.
“You keep saying such nice things to me,” he said, his hands tangling together anxiously in his lap. “Why? Do you… want something from me?”
“What? Of course not. I’m only speaking the truth, Loki. I think you are amazing.” Thor reached out and untangled Loki’s hands, holding them gently in his own.
They were so big, Loki thought, biting his lip and staring down at them. So powerful. Thor could close his fists and break every bone in his hands if he wanted. But he wouldn’t. Thor was gentle. He was merciful, he was kind. He was astonishingly handsome, even if he wasn’t jötunn. He was too good to be true. In fact, this whole situation seemed impossibly wonderful. Loki found himself wondering why would anyone treat him so well without expecting anything in return.
Perhaps he did expect something in return and simply hadn’t said anything yet. These sweet odes and soft touches were surely no coincidence.
He carefully slipped his hands out of Thor’s and put some space between them, keeping his eyes downward.
Thor frowned. “What’s wrong? Have I offended you?”
Loki shook his head. “No, it’s. I’m just, er… thinking we really ought to finish the nest. You must be tired after working so hard, and you’ll need a place to sleep tonight.”
“Actually, I’m wide awake. I don’t know where this energy is coming from. I suppose it will catch up with me eventually.” He gave Loki a warm smile. “But you’re right, we’ve admired the sky long enough. We should finish what we’ve started.”
They stood together and returned to the cave, making their way into the back chamber where the nest was currently being assembled. Earlier that evening they had unpacked the supplies from the two satchels and arranged everything neatly in the cave, then they had taken the empty bags and gone to find nest materials to fill the smooth, stony depression in the floor. The few blankets that Thor had brought would not be enough.
A trip into the forest yielded them what they needed, and soon they had stuffed the satchels with fresh green leaves and long grasses that grew beside the river.
“Every troll nest is different,” Loki explained as he and Thor had dumped their findings into the hollow, “but the basic construction is all the same: there is a thick pad at the bottom and lots of curved pillows around the sides, and loose pillows are kept in the center, to be arranged by the occupants. They’re usually stuffed with animal hair and feathers, dried grasses, anything soft, really.”
“Well, it looks like we’re off to a good start,” said Thor with a cheerful smirk.
Now returned from their stargazing break, there were only small adjustments to be made before the nest was fully complete.
They crouched at the edge of the hollow, smoothing the lumps out of the grassy, leafy mattress, packing it all down, and covering it with blankets. For the finishing touch, Thor unfurled his cape on top of the bed, almost covering it completely, like a huge red sheet. It looked very comfortable.
He smiled up at Loki. “This should get us by for now. We will have something more permanent in the future.”
Loki blushed and lowered his eyes.
As if Thor building a nest with him wasn’t already enough of a courting gesture, his repeated use of “us” and “we” seemed to solidify the permanence of his dedication. He would make an Æsir a very happy mate one day, Loki thought, and was surprised by the sudden wave of despair that washed over him.
Thor’s smile faded. “What’s wrong? You look sad. Is it the nest? Did I make a mistake?”
“No, no,” Loki fibbed. “I was, em, thinking about building a night-nest sometime. Yes, a night-nest would be good.”
Thor looked down at the comfy bed in the floor. “Is this not a night-nest?”
“We jötnar sleep during the day, if you’ll remember,” said Loki gently, “so this is actually what we call a day-nest.”
“Oh.” Thor nodded to himself. “So what is a night-nest?”
“Well, as far as appearances, it’s similar to a day-nest, only a little bigger. It’s where trolls lounge and nap during the night, or entertain friends.”
Loki crouched down on all fours and crept into the nest, his tail high in the air, looking very much like a cat. He began to turn in circles, seeking out a comfortable position. Thor watched, enchanted, until at last he lay down on his side and tucked his tail around his folded legs.
“But this is the most important type of nest,” said Loki with a grateful look. “Night-nests are a luxury. Sleeping nests are a necessity.” He patted the spot beside him in invitation.
Thor bent down to pull off his boots before climbing in. He moved slowly and carefully, not wanting to create furrows in the nest’s leafy layers. “Are there any other types of nests?” he asked, stretching out on his side and propping his head up with his hand.
Loki’s tail curled into a shy coil. “Well, there are sleeping nests, like this one, where families sleep together. There are night-nests for visiting with non-family members. There are sick nests—small, usually just big enough for one troll, and he will stay there until he’s well enough to join the family nest again. Then there are the, erm”—he licked his lips nervously—“love nests, for having sex. These are separate from the family nests, unless it’s a newly-mated couple just starting out.”
“Ah.” Thor grinned faintly. “So the love nest comes first, then a family nest is built for when jötlings are expected?”
Loki’s blush deepened. “Y-yes. But babies are born in brood nests, and they remain there for the first few months until they are big enough to sleep safely with the family.”
Thor’s face softened and grew melancholy. “Do you think you’ll ever have a family of your own someday, Loki?”
Loki’s gaze drifted to the side, focusing on something far away. “I’m not sure. It doesn’t seem very likely. I don’t even know if my belly works. Nothing else about me seems to work.” He pulled his lips into a thin line. “Perhaps it’s for the best that I never have babies. They would surely be runts.”
“Would you love them any less if they were?”
Loki’s eyes shined like rubies. “No. I would love them no matter what size they were, even if they were born without horns or tails. Even if they had hair. Even if they looked like…”
“I was going to say ‘elves’, but yes, if they looked like Æsir, I would still love them. They would be beautiful to me because they were mine.”
Thor smiled fondly.
“Do you have a mate, Thor?” Loki blurted, and his eyes widened as soon as the words left his lips. He put his hand over his mouth, horrified.
“Me? No, no mate yet,” said Thor with a nervous laugh. “I am unwed and unattached. Baldur, though, he’s married. The only Odinson thus far…”
An awkward lull fell. The moonstone around Loki’s neck was glowing as brightly as an actual moon. He bit his lip and squirmed.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just that… well, if you did have a mate, I didn’t want to keep you from him—or her. You’ve spent so much time with me already and I’m sure you must have other things you’d like to do besides look after a weak, ignorant little tr—”
He reluctantly raised his eyes to Thor’s.
Thor was staring at him determinedly. “You are one of the most important things in my life right now. You are my responsibility. I swore an oath to protect you, and protect you I shall.”
Loki pressed his lips together tightly and gulped. He didn’t want to speak his next words, but he simply couldn’t bear it any longer. He had to know. “How can I repay all that you’ve done for me?”
“There is no need for that, Loki. I do this willingly.”
“But”—Loki frowned, unable to believe that someone would go through this amount of trouble—for him, a defective, pathetic excuse of a jötunn—and have absolutely nothing to show for it—“surely you must want compensation, something to make it worth your while...”
Loki was utterly bewildered. He blinked rapidly, his mind trying to comprehend this level of graciousness. “Then why? Why are you doing this? Why do you even care?”
Thor smiled, but his gaze remained serious and steady. “Because it’s the right thing to do. It’s what family would do. I did not speak lightly when I said I wanted you to think of me as your brethren. I meant every word of it.”
Loki could only stare, his lip quivering and his eyes brimming with unshed tears.
After a brief silence, Thor reached out and combed his fingers through Loki’s fine black hair, tucking a few stray locks behind his little horn.
“I’m no replacement for Helblindi and Býleist,” said Thor, “but I will do my best in their stead. Why don’t you tell me more about them? What do they look like? What are your best-loved memories of them?”
The tension and strife left Loki’s face as he thought of his littermates, and Thor knew his tactic had worked.
“Well,” began Loki haltingly, “Blindi is the bigger of the two and his skin is very light, even lighter than mine. When he was born he was so pale that it was said he could blind Hel herself. He has been called Helblindi ever since, and now I hear he is such a fearsome warrior that he could blind Hel with his maul instead of his skin.
“Now Býleist, he was called Rólgurd when he was born, until one night when Father caught him playing in the beehives high up on the mountainside. Bees hate trolls and sting them every chance they get, but for some reason they weren’t stinging my brother. Everyone in Útgard thought him a bee-charmer, and his name was changed to Býleist, the Bee-Tamer…”
Thor grinned as Loki spoke at length about his brothers, how they cared for him when their Father was being mean and neglectful, the games they used to play together (when they were allowed to play, of course), the songs they would sing, the stories they would tell. These were the happy moments of Loki’s life, ones that had given him hope and courage all those years ago and now made him smile fondly at their recollection.
Thor hoped there would be more moments like these in Loki’s future. In fact, he would make certain of it.
The following two weeks were busy ones. Thor visited Loki daily, except for when there were matters on Midgard that called him away. He would typically arrive in the late afternoon and stay through the night, during Loki’s waking hours. It was inconvenient at times, but Thor wanted Loki to get a normal rhythm established as soon as possible, and if that meant keeping odd hours at home for a little while, well, that wasn’t too much to ask.
It also drove Valí and Vídarr insane with curiosity.
They knew their brother was going out to take care of “his” troll, but because of Thor’s unpredictable schedule, the only chance they had to speak with him was at dinner. Odin, however, had made it abundantly clear that the family were not going to be discussing trolls at the dinner table every single evening for the next thousand years, so the twins were forced to hunt Thor down whenever they knew he was at home. They would bounce at his heels like eager pups, begging him to tell them more about Loki.
“Baldur said he was smaller than most trolls. How much smaller?”
“Does he have big horns? What about teeth? Could you make a dagger out of one?”
“How much can he lift? Can he throw boulders?”
“What’s he like? Is he mean? Have you tamed him yet?”
“What does he eat? How much does he eat every day? Two goats? Three? Does he swallow them whole or chew them first?”
Thor took great pleasure in being deliberately vague with his answers. “You will meet him soon enough,” he would always say. “Just wait.”
But patience was not a virtue that Valí or Vídarr possessed. They would groan and moan and pester Thor with even more questions, some with unintentionally hilarious results.
“Have you mounted him yet?” Vídarr asked one day, and Thor’s ears had gone as red as his cape. “What kind of saddle would work best? Do you think he’d break easily? How fast do you think he can go? Would it be a rough ride or a—”
Thor had promptly thrown his brothers out of his room and continued packing his satchel in peace.
He always brought more provisions whenever he came to visit Loki—a blanket or pillow, a broom, a bucket, a rug, anything that Loki requested—but most of the supplies consisted of food: dried meats, eggs, fruits, herbs and spices, and the occasional sweet. Thor knew that teaching Loki to provide for himself was his chiefest priority, and while Thor was no fool when it came to roughing it, his knowledge was small compared to Valí’s and Vídarr’s. They were the true experts.
The twins had been deliriously happy to share their survival tactics and woodsy know-how with their older brother, supplying him with fishing hooks and snares and ropes, rambling about medicinal herbs and trees and finding one’s way without the aid of stars or sun. They assumed Thor was simply taking care of his new pet out in the wilderness. They had no idea he was actually bringing this information back to Loki and teaching him to do all these things on his own.
Thor taught Loki how to catch fish using both hook and net, but Loki proved to be naturally adept with his hands; he could stalk a fish while crouched on the riverbank and then dart forward and snatch it, wriggling and writhing, from the water.
It was all very sweet and amusing until Loki actually began to eat the fish, tearing into its belly and pulling out its entrails with his teeth and slurping them down like noodles, blood and gore and scales on his cheeks, smacking his lips noisily as he ate.
It reminded Thor that regardless of his size or mild-mannered personality, Loki was still a jötunn and possessed jötunn instincts.
It made Thor feel strangely proud for some reason. His cute, vicious little snowflake, he thought wistfully. It was reassuring to know that Loki had grit and guts—aside from the kind that were smeared all over his face.
In addition to fishing, Thor showed Loki how to gather berries, forage for mushrooms, grub for worms and snails—Loki loved snails, he would eat them whole, shells and all—how to identify and avoid tree nuts, and how to build a basic snare.
“Like the one you caught me with?” Loki asked, waving his tail back and forth mischievously.
“Yes,” Thor chuckled, “very similar, only this one is smaller, for rabbits and squirrels and—”
Loki’s face drained to lilac-blue. “I could never!” he cried. “The rabbits and squirrels are my friends! They trust me! They let me pet them and hold their little ones! How can you even suggest I kill and eat them? It’s monstrous!”
Thor calmed Loki down and reassured him that he didn’t have to add any of his furry little friends to his diet. The following day, Thor brought over an extra large ration of dried beef and salt pork from the palace kitchens. It would keep for quite a while in the cool recesses of the cave, he said, and at least Loki wouldn’t be forced to live on fish and frog caviar for the next month.
Loki had been very appreciative, and kissed Thor’s cheek in thanks.
Vicious little snowflake, indeed.
Loki typically slept from midmorning until the early evening, when the sun grew low and the shadows began to lengthen. Thor liked to arrive just before sunset and quietly enter the cave, tiptoeing through the dark and casting a dim glow from his hand so he could gaze upon Loki, curled up in his big nest and sound asleep. Oftentimes he looked so small and lonely that Thor couldn’t bear it; he would slip off his boots, remove his armor, and carefully crawl into the nest, settling against Loki’s back or side, and wait for him to wake up.
Occasionally Thor dozed off listening to Loki’s soft breaths and gentle snoring, which sounded like a sleeping kitten’s mews. He would be woken again by Loki snuggling tight against him, pressing into his chest as if unconsciously seeking out his heartbeat. Then he would go still again, his tail tucked between his folded legs or held in his hands. It was a sight so sweet and innocent that it made Thor’s heart ache, and he couldn’t resist placing a kiss on Loki’s head.
This particular visit, however, came after a full day of no contact. There had been business in Midgard yesterday that required Thor’s attention: farmers asking a blessing for new land they had received; warriors praying for protection in escaping from their enemies; a few weddings where his name was invoked on behalf of the couple’s future children.
Huginn and Muninn brought him the news while he was at home, and he had left promptly to fulfill his duties. He had been the protector of the humans’ realm for a few hundred years now—a relatively short time in the life of an Æsir—and he was gradually beginning to hear their voices in his heart, their prayers and petitions, their unspoken wishes. He still relied on Heimdall, Odin, and the ravens to deliver most of the mortals’ requests, but soon enough he would be able to sense their words as quickly and clearly as they were spoken.
As soon as he returned to Asgard and got changed into something less formal, Thor had flown to the forest to see Loki. The sun had not yet sunk and he was looking forward to curling up and napping with him for a little while.
But when Thor stepped into the cave, he discovered that Loki was already awake, sitting in the comfy pillow-chair in the frontmost chamber. He looked as if he had been up all day. His eyes were purple-rimmed and puffy, his face anxious. The healthy glow he had gained in his two weeks of living on Asgard was gone, replaced with a dull, ashy blue pallor.
Thor crossed the room in two strides and kneeled down in front of him. “Loki, are you alright? What’s the matter? Are you ill?”
Loki rolled his lips inward and said nothing; he held out his fist and slowly opened it.
On his palm was a single tooth, sharp and small and white.
“It had been hurting the last few days,” he began in a watery voice, “but I thought it was because of all the dried meat I’ve been eating this week. Then yesterday it got so loose that it just… popped out.”
He pulled his lips back in a grimace. Thor recoiled, shocked.
Loki’s right fang was missing.
“My other tooth feels loose, too,” he choked, starting to cry. “My whole mouth hurts. My teeth are all going to fall out and I’m going to starve!”
He fell forward and buried his face against Thor’s chest. Thor folded his arms around Loki and tried to quiet his sobs.
“You’re not going to starve, Loki, I will not let that happen. I will… I’ll chew your food for you if I have to.”
Loki cringed and moaned, “That’s the kindest, most disgusting thing I’ve ever heard.”
Thor smiled and pulled away so he could tilt Loki’s chin up. “Here, open your mouth. Let me have a look.”
Loki opened his mouth wide and Thor lowered his head, peering inside. Loki’s teeth were indeed small, he realized. Almost childlike.
“Have you ever lost your teeth before, Loki?”
“When I was a jötling, yes,” he answered awkwardly, trying to keep his mouth open. “We lose our baby teeth and then grow our adult set. I’ve already lost mine, so this is not normal.”
Thor squinted his eyes and carefully used his smallest finger to inspect Loki’s new gap. “Are you certain of that?” He poked at the tender flesh that had been exposed. He thought he could feel something sharp and pointy beneath, like perhaps a—
Loki squeaked in pain and reflexively bit down, and Thor, who was more surprised than hurt, barked and jerked his hand back. Loki was pulled forward, the legendary strength of jötunn jaws coming into play; he collided with Thor’s shoulder, Thor felt a small pop, and then Loki began to wail.
Both of them were bleeding now—Thor from his lacerated finger, Loki from his nose.
They looked at each other and then began to simultaneously pour out their apologies.
“I’m so sorry, Loki, I didn’t mean to hurt you—”
“Oh, Thor, your finger!”
“I hope I didn’t break your nose—”
“You’re going to need stitches! I’ve ripped it open!”
“It was my fault. I am such an oaf. Forgive me, Loki—”
“I’m so ashamed of myself!”
Thor tried to wipe away the small rill of blood trickling down Loki’s lip, but Loki turned his head to the side, refusing his help.
“No, yours is worse,” he insisted, and picked up Thor’s wounded hand. “Let me fix it.”
Thor stared, stunned, as Loki pulled the torn finger into his mouth and began to suck away the blood. He could feel Loki’s warm, slightly-rough tongue lapping at the cut, his mouth contracting as he swallowed.
It made every hair on Thor’s body rise.
Trolls were blood-drinkers, he knew, and Loki was evidently no exception. No wonder he had jumped at the opportunity. He probably hadn’t had any fresh blood in quite some time. Perhaps it was a crucial part of the jötunn diet. It might even be the reason Loki’s teeth were falling out. If that were the case...
Thor shifted his weight a little, watching Loki tend to him. “You can open the wound a little more, if you like. I heal quickly. It doesn’t hurt that much.”
Loki pulled his mouth free and looked at Thor as if he were mad. “Why in the Nine would I want to make it any worse? I’m trying to heal it.”
“You… you are?”
“Of course. This is basic jötunn medicine. We lick our wounds before treating them. It helps the blood clot faster and stop bleeding.”
“It does?” Thor was impressed. He could have used this knowledge when he was battling the fire trolls on Vanaheim several years ago. All he would have had to do was ask his enemies to spit on him. And they would have, he imagined. Gladly.
“Yes. I mean”—Loki paused to lick Thor’s oozing cut—“we drink blood, but not each other’s. Not as food.” He lifted his head. “Your blood tastes very good, though. Much sweeter than jötunn blood. I can almost see why…”
“See why what?”
Loki hunched down under the weight of his shame. “Why trolls consider Æsir blood a delicacy. It’s not because you’re our enemies. It’s because you… taste delicious.”
Thor was quiet for a long while. Then he laughed and said, “Well, I’m glad your people consider us good for something, even if it’s just a beverage.”
Loki smiled, his tail wagging happily over his shoulder. His missing tooth gave him a very sweet, childlike appearance.
“Don’t worry, Loki,” said Thor, reaching out and finally wiping the blood from Loki’s upper lip. It left a blue smudge on his thumb. “I don’t think you’re destined to remain toothless. Before you bit me—”
“I’m so sorry about that.”
“It’s alright. Like I said, it was my fault. But before that happened, I thought I felt something in the hole where your tooth had been. I think there might be another tooth coming in behind it.”
Loki’s eyes widened. “Really?” He started inspecting his gap with his little blue tongue. “I ‘oo feel a li’l fumfing...”
Thor picked up the lost fang—it had fallen onto the floor during the unintended melee—and studied it for a moment. “Perhaps we ought to offer this to the fairies. Their gifts are almost always helpful.”
Loki gave him a suspicious look. “Are you… you’re really serious? Fairies? The creatures whom unbelievable tales are named after? The tiny little people who fly around and tend flowers and cause all sorts of mischief?”
“They can be mischievous,” admitted Thor, “but if you treat them with respect, they are quite beneficial. They already know and like me—I am responsible for bringing them to Asgard, after all—and you’re very nice so I’m sure they’ll—”
Loki held up his hand. “Wait, I. I’m afraid I’ve missed something. You what? You brought fairies to this realm? How?”
“It’s an interesting story,” said Thor with a shrug and a grin, “and it’s all thanks to Heimdall, really. Come, let’s take a walk in the woods. I’ll tell you all about it.”