Thor threw his drinking horn down to the floor and grabbed another from a passing server. “Brother, let’s go to Midgard!”
“Whatever for?” Loki drawled, contemplating his drunken brother. Thor tilted his massive chair back on two legs, the better to pour an enormous horn of mead down his throat. Three more empty horns and a shattered mead barrel littered the mosaic floor around their table.
Even in the din of this crammed-full drinking hall, Thor’s roaring voice drowned out the shouts of victory and bellows of rage. Few of the mass of people surging around the gaming tables bothered to glance in their direction, occupied as they were with their dicing and gambling.
“It’ll be fun!” Thor insisted, eyes way too bright for the amount of alcohol he had consumed.
Loki snorted at that assertion, but he was already considering the proposition. His own game, amusing as it had been, was getting old, and he was getting bored. Midgard’s wild untamed lands were beautiful and the primitives living there could be entertaining. Just not for very long. “You know Father doesn’t want us going there,” Loki said, just to egg Thor on. He glanced over the crowd again and chose his next victim. A tiny, indiscernible flick of one finger weighted the dice in his chosen victim’s favor, and an instant later a brawl broke out, with shouted accusations of cheating, blows exchanged, broken crockery, and overturned tables.
Loki grinned at the ensuing chaos, but this was the fifth time he’d pulled this particular trick tonight and he was getting restless. Drinking and brawling for the sheer fun of it were pastimes Thor certainly enjoyed, but if it were up to Loki to choose their next destination, he would choose Alfheim over Midgard. “How about Alfheim?” he suggested. There were books of sorcery in their libraries he hadn’t read, and entertaining, well-read companions who could converse on subjects much more interesting than the correct way to skin a bilgesnipe, while Midgard only offered the most primitive of amusements.
Thor made a disgusted sound. “You just want to visit your boy toy there. Or are you his?” he said nastily.
Loki gave him a superior smile. “Jealous?”
Thor’s expression darkened and Loki fully expected to hear the growl of thunder outside. Just then a barmaid, displaying her ample bosom in a tight low-cut dress, delivered a new round of drinks. Thor, distracted, began making oafish comments, but took a second to give Loki a side glance just to be sure Loki noticed what he was doing.
Irritated, and now trifle jealous himself, Loki rolled his eyes, then turned away from Thor. He glanced from one gaming table to another, looking for his next victim.
There. A mountain of muscle, a Marauder by the looks of his dress and ferocious tattoos and ornaments, was shaking a cup full of gaming tokens. His weasel-faced opponent at the table was half his size, but compensated by having four extra arms. The Marauder threw the contents of the cup on the table. Loki gestured and one token wobbled lopsidedly directly to the winning square. The multi-armed alien leapt to his feet, screeching about cheating.
Just then the barmaid, who had turned away from Thor’s inane comments, looked directly at Loki’s hand and the vanishing aura of green emanating from his fingers.
“Sorcerer!” she shrieked. At the very same moment Loki grabbed Thor and pulled him down to the floor just as the multi-armed alien was thrown through the wall next to their table.
The room went still as faces turned in their direction. Furious eyes spotted him, and hands went to swords and axes. Thor stuck out his hand to call Mjolnir.
Norns, not brawling again! Such a boring waste of time. “Right,” Loki said hastily. “Midgard it is. Let’s go.”
There really wasn’t anything sizable enough or dangerous enough on Midgard to hunt. They entertained themselves for awhile by rearranging the landscape. Thor, of course, used blunt force and whacked at a cliff face with Mjolnir. Loki was less than impressed by his attempt to sculpt the likeness of a bilgesnipe into a granite outcrop. “It looks more like a Kronan rock troll,” he commented acidly, then ducked as Mjolnir passed right over his head. Thor was grinning though.
Loki grinned back, then used sorcery to carve a caricature into a cliff wall of Freyja surrounded by four lustful dwarves while holding onto her necklace with one hand. She was looking at the necklace, not the dwarves.
Thor roared with laughter, then scoffed “Tricks!” Thor ducked when Loki threw a dagger toward his face. Thor yelped, a stream of blood falling from a gash across one ear. Loki hadn’t intended to actually hit him, so he didn’t apologize. It wasn’t his fault Thor had ducked in the wrong direction.
Thor tackled him to the ground. Loki, laughing all the while, fought back with knees and hands wielding tiny knives fast as a striking snake. They rolled and punched each other, and it wasn’t long before their mouths met. Loki got rid of their clothing instantly, and they tried out all their favorite positions, battling for supremacy with their mouths and cocks, their hands and legs, until finally, spent, they lay for a while looking at the bright Midgardian sky.
“Shall we go look in on the mortals?” Loki proposed after a while, getting up.
“I thirst for ale,” Thor replied. He stood as well, and Loki reclothed them with a gesture.
“Horse piss is better than mortal ale,” Loki observed.
Thor snorted. “You would know,” he said. Loki cuffed him, but Thor just kept grinning.
Loki sighed. “All you care about ale is how much there is of it.”
“True,” Thor said, not in the least bit bothered. “Shall we?” He took hold of Mjolnir.
Loki grabbed Thor’s waist, Thor swung his hammer in an ever-increasing circle, and they were off into the air.
Loki loved this, loved clinging to Thor’s hard body, loved the rush of the air. Oh yes, he could do this himself in bird form, but being near his brother’s and Mjolnir’s power, being carried off into the air subject to Thor’s whims, filled him with reckless abandon. If he got bored – or if Thor got tiresome – all he had to do was let go. He could transform into bird form near instantaneously and soar away, leading Thor on a merry chase.
“Look down, brother,” Thor said, and Loki did so. They were near land’s end. From this height, the dragon boats departing the fjord below and heading out to sea looked like mere toys. Thor continued flying out over the water, leaving land behind. After a few minutes, something else caught Loki’s attention. “See ahead. That large green island? We haven’t been there yet, have we? Let’s see what those mortals are doing.”
Thor altered course, and a short time later, under an invisibility spell, they settled down in an open area on a hill just above a small mortal village. Meager huts followed the banks of a river draining down to the sea. Thor began quaffing from an enormous cup Loki materialized for him.
Loki huffed, “Thanks would be nice.”
“Thank you, brother,” Thor droned, his attention on a gathering of mortals in a clearing.
Loki manifested a bottle of fine Alfar wine and a delicate crystal glass. He poured the pale blue wine into the glass and savored the scent and taste.
The mortals were setting up some kind of tournament. From their vantage point they had a good view of the entire field. Targets had been placed. Several men were waiting, bows in hand, quivers on their backs. He and Thor exchanged critical commentary as each man took his turn. The targets were laughably near, but they were clearly positioned at the end of the range of for mortal eyes as one after another archer aimed, drew, and shot their arrows at a target and missed the center, some by a small fraction, some half-a-hand’s width away.
The final archer, a brown-haired man, stepped up. He was dressed in dark purple leather breeches and vest, muscled arms bare despite the chill in the air. His movements were pure, powerful grace. When he released the arrow it sailed up, a smooth sure arc, and hit the target dead center.
“Ho, Clint! Ho, Eye of the Hawk!” Several men cheered and came to congratulate the winner. He strutted and accepted their congratulations, a wide grin on his face.
Thor noticed the way Loki was looking at the archer and nudged him. “A fine shooter,” he said.
“For a mortal,” Loki retorted, but secretly he was impressed. There was something about the man’s strong spirit that was compelling.
Another group of men stepped up and took their turns, followed by a third and fourth group as well, with much the same results.
A small man stepped up. He was wearing a homespun dark blue tunic and trousers, the tunic’s hem embroidered with small white and red star motifs. His face and body were so gaunt he appeared half-starved. Bright sunlight highlighted his blond hair which, Loki noticed, was the same shade as Thor’s.
Compared to his competitors, he seemed the weakest – yet his arrow hit the circle in the center of the target. There was scattered applause, and an older woman in front of the crowd called encouragement to “Steven.”
The winners of each round gathered to the far end of the field while the losers melted into the crowd. The targets were reset at a further distance. The smaller man watched the proceedings intently. Loki noticed his vivid blue eyes were as close to the color of Thor’s as a mortal’s eyes could be, and Loki pointed him out to his brother. Thor studied him and then turned his attention to the other finalists in turn, his gaze lingering on Clint, then moving to a tall rangy man with a bushy beard.
“They all seem evenly matched,” Loki observed as the rangy man, first chosen, stepped up to the place marked in the dirt. Next in line was the man in purple. He had a confident smile on his face and an easy physicality. The noisy audience suddenly quieted, aware the next round was about to begin.
Thor pointed out the small man, dwarfed by his competitors, standing at the rear of the line. “I bet on that one to win the competition.
Loki laughed. “That pathetic thing? You’re only picking him because he looks like you.”
Thor ignored this sally and got down to business. “If I win, you’ll accompany me on the boar hunt. And you won’t complain about it or say you’re bored, either.”
Loki laughed scornfully. “You’re on, brother. If you think that puny thing can win, by all means.” He waved toward the man in purple, the one called Clint. “He’s my choice. He’s clearly the superior archer.” He hated boar hunting, but it was pretty clear who would be the winner here. The remaining contenders, including Clint and Steven, had all proven themselves winners of their particular rounds, but Clint’s aim was always precisely at the dead center of the target. “If I win,” – he paused to think – “you will sit still and you will not fall asleep during the next meeting with the council geographers. And you will remember what was said when I ask you about it later.”
“Done,” Thor said, utterly confident as always.
The round went quickly. Each man did their best, their posture precise, their sighting careful, but with the target further away only the man in purple and the short, thin one hit the center the final time. And this time, Loki was dismayed to see, Steven’s arrow hit the precise center while Clint’s aim was a hair off.
Now, the final round. The target had been placed so far away it was hard to believe mortal eyes could even see it. Clint’s supporters had whipped themselves into a frenzy, shouting for the Eye of the Hawk’s obvious upcoming victory. Steven too had gained support with every round and, while not as numerous as Clint’s supporters, his backers were making a good effort to surpass them in the noise they made.
Clint went first. Loki held his breath, determined not to be made a fool of in front of Thor. Clint’s shot went true, but still not quite dead center.
Loki turned his attention to Steven. Noted his firm, confident grip on the bow. Watched him nock the arrow. Saw his pale calloused hands as they moved with skill and confidence, one on the bow, the other on the drawstring. Heard his breath, which seemed slightly uneven. Saw the ferocious determination on the gaunt face. Saw him take aim, his gaze intent.
Loki twisted his fingers in a gesture at the penultimate moment. Steven jerked slightly, the arrow going high and wild, hitting the target a good inch from the center.
Roars of triumph from Clint’s backers competed with moans of disappointment from Steven’s.
Thor turned to him and saw something in Loki’s face before Loki uselessly smoothed his expression into one of pure innocence. Thor opened his mouth to roar in rage.
It was time to visit Alfheim, Loki decided, as he opened a portal, slipped through, and left Thor behind with no way to get back to Asgard without enlisting Heimdall’s help. Thor was going to demand a much bigger payment from him for this than spending time on a boring boar hunt and it would be best to get out of his way for, say, a year or two.
He never saw the blond mortal fall to his knees and hunch over, hands pressed to his eyes.
“He has been god-touched.” Fulla’s voice was gentle but merciless.
Steve sucked in a sudden harsh breath as he started awake at her words. “What – ” What was going on? He could smell torches burning, but –
He grabbed at his face, panicking. He couldn’t see! Why couldn’t he see! His eyes hurt, he squeezed them shut, something had happened, and – he couldn’t SEE!
His last memory: One hand on the bow. One hand on the drawstring. His eyes focused on the target. Calculating distance, trajectory –
FLASH! A blinding white light – stabbing pain in his eyes – he’d staggered, loosed the arrow, fallen to his knees –
Hands on his shoulders, pressing him down. He was repeating “WHAT HAPPENED WHAT HAPPENED?”
The sound of the shaman’s voice and his mother’s voice intermingled, so he couldn’t tell one from the other because his heart was beating so loud and so fast. He began gasping for breath, his old enemy, that clutching tightness in his chest, attacking anew.
A small cool familiar calloused hand pressed to his forehead. He calmed, just a bit, that ancient understanding of the comforting touch of his mother soothing him just enough to be able to hear again.
“Calm, calm,” It was Fulla again, the shaman’s alto voice soft and soothing. Someone with large hands – was it her husband Erik? – propped him up. A wooden cup was pressed to his lips and a bitter scent assaulted his nostrils. “Drink,” Fulla said.
“Yes, drink, please, son,” his mother said.
The harsh taste was worse than the awful smell. He choked on the first sip. The cup was pulled back. The people around him were invisible in the enveloping darkness. His heart was pounding so fast! “Calm, calm,” Fulla said again. The wooden cup was put to his lips again. Reluctantly, he took a sip, managed another, and then pushed it away.
He was settled back against the hard pillow, the scratchy blanket. “What happened?” he croaked, his voice turned harsh by his shouted demands and the tightness in his chest.
Fulla was rubbing an ill-smelling salve on his naked chest, and for the first time he realized his tunic had been removed. Terror seized him again. The Healer was speaking to his mother, not him, as if he wasn’t there. Steven’s heart was pounding hard, lethally fast, his head keeping time, and the stabbing pain that had attacked his eyes had only just relented its ferocity. He could hear his breath, fast and shaky, but couldn’t slow it, couldn’t calm against the oppressive darkness around him. Feeling vertigo, feeling as if he were falling, all the while knowing he was lying flat on his back in a bed in Fulla's home, so familiar with its sharp scents of herbs and smoke and bone and leather. All the healing herbs she had given him, in childhood and later to help him survive winter chills and summer ills, all the times he had lain here in fever and known her voice, all the times he had seen her concerned wrinkled face so close to his, her blonde hair going grey and her washed-out pale blue eyes – all of that rushed over him in a flash and left him still in impenetrable darkness.
He was moaning and his mother’s hand was on his forehead again, her thumb circling comfortingly.
“God-touched!” he heard his mother say.
He cried out, “What have I done? Who did this? What can I do to propitiate – whichever god it was?”
“That is beyond my skill,” Fulla said.
His mother was saying something. He tried to hold onto her words but she sounded as panicked as he was, and his heart began pounding again so wildly he could hear nothing else. He flailed, trying to grab onto something until Erik’s strong hands grabbed his wrists and held them tight.
The wooden cup was brought to his lips again, and this time he drank it deeply, letting the calm wash over him and take him down into a darkness of another kind. He slept.
Heat from the sun warmed Steve, chasing off the chill of the morning air. He turned his face up, eyes closed, though there was no need. Open or closed, all was darkness. Days later, and now panic had passed and cursing and prayers had proved useless. Now a deep sadness had caught hold of him, sunk in its cold fingers, and would not let him go.
He drew in one deep breath, exhaled slowly, drew in another, trying not to think. A breeze came up, rustling through the trees, bringing back a hint of chill. Fall was approaching. He could smell it in the air. Harvest would soon commence, and all the village would be involved. He would stay here, useless, with the old men and women and those too disabled by injury to do the work. From somewhere nearby children were calling to each other, playing a game of sticks from the sound of it. A woman shouted to someone nearby. Someone was doing laundry, he could hear water being wrung from cloth. Hogs were grunting in a nearby wallow, their sharp pungent smell competing with the odors of cooking and people and dogs. Somewhere further away, he could hear the sound of a boat being launched on the river. Above, a hawk called. Closer, something rustled in the undergrowth behind his house.
He rubbed one finger over the wooden figure of a serpent he had carved last winter. He traced the smooth surface that curved and curved again upon itself, tracing its every coil. He liked to spend the long winter hours whittling small animals. When they were complete to his satisfaction, he gave them away, to children, to any who wanted one, as totem or plaything or just for the love of the miniature figures in the smooth polished wood.
He’d tried again, this morning, to create an animal figure out of a wooden block. Touch was essential to it; his fingers knew the wood as well as his eyes, but the gash along his hand, now wrapped in cloth, was testament to his failure. The ill-formed piece, the head and one shoulder of what was meant to be a wolf protruding from a gnarled chunk of wood, had angered him and he’d hurled it to the ground. He slid the serpent carving back into a pocket. For some reason, he’d always carried this piece with him ever since he carved it. He didn’t understand why; he just enjoyed having it near. It was one of the best ones he’d ever made, he supposed. Was there any point keeping it any longer? He’d never make another. Why keep it to remind himself of what he’d lost? Anger flared, and he was about to pull it from his pocket and hurl it as far away from him as he could, when he heard the door opening. That sound was followed by the his mother’s footsteps crunching the first fallen leaves, the rustle of her skirts, the faint rattling sound of whatever it was she was carrying. Food, of course. He could smell meat, bread, and beer.
She stopped before him. He smelled the odor of baking bread on her clothing, caught the scent of her skin and hair. “Son,” she said.
Her voice held that quaver. That sound, all too familiar now. No one knew how to speak to one god-touched. What good was a blind man? When winter came, he’d be a burden. He’d be better off dead.
When he didn’t answer, she held out the food. When he didn’t take it, she sighed. “Please eat, Steve. For me. Please.”
When he didn’t speak or move to accept the food, he heard the sound of her clothing as she bent and set the tray down on the earth beside him. She did something he couldn’t identify by sound. Then she straightened, sighed again. He heard her walk back down the path toward the house.
He sat there for a long time, trying his best to think of nothing. Finally, the smell of the food and drink broke through and he bent down and picked up the wooden tray. His fingers found the well-cooked pork slices and he ate them, then tore off hunks of bread and ate that too. Reaching for the beer, his fingers encountered something – a small hunk of wood. With a protrusion.
The partially formed wolf statue. Mother must have picked it up and put it there. He nearly threw it away again, then for some reason shoved it angrily into a pocket, where it nestled against the serpent figure.
God-touched, Fulla had said. And now he spent his days just sitting. At night, his sleep was filled with dreams in which he could see everything so clearly. When he slept at all, for most nights he lay awake for hours, waking abruptly from what little sleep he caught. Every time he woke, it was to true darkness and nightmare. His future, destroyed. By the touch of a god.
WHY? Anger clawed at his guts, set his heart pounding, with the need to do something, anything. To find out what he had done to deserve this.
He grabbed for the stick he’d been given to help him find his way, misjudged, knocked it down, knelt and scrabbled on the path like an animal until his fingers found it. He pulled it up, wrapped one hand around its gnarled girth, and stood.
One step after the other. He had mastered that now, mastered the use of the stave, knew how to sweep the path ahead of him, acutely alert to any sound that would guide him. He walked through the village. He heard the whispers, knew the way people avoided coming near. Heard the crunch of their feet as they stepped off the pathway, moving as far into the brush as they could, to bypass his house. He’d offended a god. And his mother, now ostracized, was paying the price.
He reached the edge of the village and considered continuing along the path into the unknown. But someone – two someones – were following close behind him. His mother. Fulla.
“Steven,” Mother said, and his slow steps came to a halt. He didn’t turn. It was pointless. He couldn’t see her, so why face her?
“Steven, come back home. Fulla has something she wants to say to you.”
He said nothing for a long time. Nothing but darkness ahead of him. Nothing but darkness around him. There was no point in doing anything. He was of no use to anyone.
He sensed her move around him, in front of him, until she faced him. He could feel the faint stir of the air as she breathed.
“I am a burden to you. I hear what they say.”
Mother’s voice quavered. “I don’t care what they say.”
But she was lying, and he knew it. “It would be better if I were gone.”
“No, son, please!”
“Better for you!”
“Steven.” Fulla had moved to stand next to Mother. “You have never once in your life given up on anything. You have succeeded in doing tasks stronger and more hale men than you have failed to do. Your will to win shines out of you like the morning sun. How can you give up now?”
“There is no way to win now.”
“You don’t know that. Come back to your home. I have words for you, and things as well.”
After a long moment, he gave in. He had no plan. Just to keep walking until he dropped, he supposed.
He turned and went with them, back to Fulla’s home. He imagined it the way he had last seen it: the rafters hung with bags of drying herbs interspersed with long strands of threaded, rune-carved bones. Rough hewn-tables filled with clay jars and wooden vessels, pestle and mortar, knives and whittling implements, all the tools of her trade. In the fireplace, something grassy-smelling was burning.
“Steven,” Fulla said, her voice, as always, confident. Authoritative. “You have a choice to make.”
“What choice is even possible?”
“You can seek answers. You will not find them here. But if you follow the road to the village near the Tree and the Well, you can seek out the vǫlva who dwells there.”
“I have heard of her,” Steve said. “Do you think she could cure me?”
“I do not believe she has that power,” Fulla said. “But I believe she can help you get answers to your questions.”
Which god did this, and why, he thought, but did not say aloud. He had screamed it too many times in the first days, despite the danger in blaspheming gods.
“It will be difficult, without sight, but as long as you follow the road, you should be safe.” She approached him, stopped, then tied something around his waist. He felt it. It was a long piece of cloth.
“White,” she said. “All will know you are a god-seeker.”
He had heard of other such quests made by some of his village in his great-grandfather’s time, and once, when he was a young child, a stranger came through their village. He’d followed him for several yards, curious about the white sash, but his mother had hurried to hold him back. She’d explained to him that the man had been god-touched and was suffering a dire illness because of it. That he was going on to seek the wisdom of the vǫlva, that he was seeking a cure.
“I will do this thing,” he said. His mother made a sound, at once a sigh of relief and a sob. She threw her arms around him and held him close. He returned the embrace, allowed his head to rest on her shoulder, surprised to find his blind eyes could still shed tears.
"Can I at least go part of the way with him?" his mother pleaded with Fulla.
"You know he must go alone the entire way," Fulla said firmly, and then said to Steve, "Rest now. We will pack clothing and food for you. On the morrow, you must leave. Fall is coming soon, and winter soon after. You have days to travel.”
And days to return, he thought. If he ever did.
The sun beat down on his back as he set off the next morning. The white sash was wound over one shoulder and beneath his other arm, a beacon to all for the purpose of his quest. There was a cloth tied around his face, concealing his eyes. His pack was on his back, filled with a blanket, food, a coat, and a long knife. His staff allowed him to feel out the ruts in the road going from his village to the next. He moved slowly and carefully, and when he heard the wheels of an oncoming cart or wagon, the breathing of the horses loud in this narrow space through the forest, it was easy to step to the side and let it pass.
Occasionally people walking between the villages passed him on the road. Some greeted him, some ignored him. He could tell by the cold silences when he moved past those of intense faith, for he knew they held him to blame for whatever curse whatever god had placed upon him.
Mostly, his walk was filled the sounds of the breezes through the trees, bird calls, and the rustlings of small animals in the undergrowth.
He spent the first night wrapped in his blanket beneath a late-flowering tree a short distance off the road. He dared go no further, but his distance and position were firmly marked in his mind, and the road itself had a particular smell from the passages of many horses so he easily returned to it the following morning.
Several days passed as he travelled from village to village. He was always marked by the white sash he wore. It was hard to travel among strangers and not be able to see their faces, not be able to understand the nuances of their expressions. But the tone of their voices was clear enough: friend or foe, suspicious or curious. Some, following the rules of hospitality, offered him food and drink and a warm dry place to sleep. He was of great interest to everyone he encountered, as strangers always were. He was subjected to many questions. Some people had lost faith in the gods and believed his blindness was some natural thing and not caused by a god at all. Some followed the New Ways and took his affliction as an affirmation they were right and the capricious old gods did not deserve followers.
But there were others ready to spit on the ground before him. The accusations of blasphemy were hard to bear. He had done no such thing, to his knowledge, and yet how could he deny what had happened to him? He was god-touched, outcast to all who followed the Old Ways. Though none dared lay a hand upon him, many threatened violence and gave him dire warnings that an even worse fate awaited him. He did his best to avoid stopping in these villages, travelling further along the road, curling up among grasses in the woods, grateful that the weather was still good.
The events of that one afternoon repeated endlessly in his head as did all the stories he had ever heard of the gods. All knew that, while often aloof to mortal affairs, some disguised themselves as humans and walked among them, pretending to be travelers, tinkers, or seers. Their stories were familiar, but their ways were as unknowable as the wind. All anyone could do is make offerings and prayers and hope the whims of such powerful being would be benevolent.
If not – Steve had seen two others such as he, wearing the white sash, touched by a god, passing through their village. He had been a curious child then, and his mother had answered all of his questions, but none of that knowledge had prepared him for what he faced now. Why would any god turn his gaze on one as insignificant as he?
What could he have possibly done?
The question in turns enraged him and saddened him and left him feeling leaden and numbed.
More days passed and summer turned to fall. The air turned chill even on sunny days. Dry leaves rustled in the wind and rattled across the roadway when they fell. When he neared villages he heard the sounds of harvesting. In friendly ones, he was offered rich cakes and cider along with plain food. In hostile ones, he was chased off by dogs.
Today, the weather warmed again, the last touch of summer before fall would hurtle to winter’s embrace. He didn’t have much time left, but his goal was in reach. He’d been told the previous day his destination lay in the very next village. Even without that information, he could feel it in his bones. There was a restless energy in the air, what Fulla described as spirit-movement. Many could feel it, but few, aside from Fulla, knew what to do with it, save tell stories and remain indoors when these feelings were sharp and everyone was cautious. With a pang, Steve recalled he had always whittled the best animal figures when that energy was the strongest. Then, his vision had been the keenest, his sense of whatever animal dwelled within a block of wood so sure and certain it was as if his hands were being guided by the spirit of the animal itself.
He sensed the forest thinning out and knew the road was now passing through fields. He could tell by the smell of the fresh-turned earth that the harvesting and gleaning were done and the fields prepared for the coming winter and the spring planting to follow.
He kept walking. There were voices up ahead, perhaps seven or eight people standing about as he neared them. They rustled and murmured, but quieted when he approached. He heard one person whisper, “God-touched.”
“Stranger,” a man spoke, his voice rough, damaged, perhaps by injury.
“I seek the vǫlva Bergljot.”
The crowd murmured, but it was not an unfriendly sound. There was curiosity but no hostility.
“I can take you there.” A woman’s voice, low and husky. She stepped over to him, and by the sound of her voice and the feel of the air around them he could tell she was bare inches away from him.
“We can,” came the gruff male voice.
He felt a flash of unease. but knew he had to trust them. He had come this far. He would trust to the Norns as he dared not trust to the Gods.
He was led along a path deeper into the forest. Once away from the village the world became quieter and more still, until the only sound left was that of their breath and the rustling noise their steps made along the leaf-covered pathway.
Unease grew. While he had been on the main road, his lack of sight had been a burden, heavier on his heart than his head. He had known where he was. He had known how to return to his home, if necessary. There had been people nearby, always, and while some were unfriendly, none, by the constraints of custom of the white sash, would be likely to do him actual harm.
Now he was trusting to strangers to lead him to help. But what if they meant him harm? And, if they were honest, what fate were they leading him to?
“Slow now,” the woman said as she touched his arm. The couple came to a halt. He took his place by the woman’s side, already aware someone else was approaching, though there was no rustle of skirt or snap of twig or skitter of dry leaf to announce her presence. He could smell her earthy scent as she approached: her sunlight-heated hair, the pungent odor of the leather and wool of her clothing and shoes, the musk of her body. She paused just before him.
“Seeker,” she said, her voice husky. He flinched when one cool fingertip touched the center of his forehead.
The finger withdrew. “God-touched,” she breathed and the scent of her breath was herbal and its touch on his face made him shiver.
She stepped back away from him. He remained still, caught by the unseen force of her regard. The spot on his forehead where she had touched him tingled. He imagined by her voice she was old. He imagined her with braided grey hair and eyes that saw more in this moment than his eyes had ever beheld.
“Can you help me?” He hated to beg, hated the way the last two words quavered. He sucked in a deep breath. A future of eternal darkness lay ahead of him, and his past and future now balanced upon the knife edge of her reply.
She hummed. “Leave us,” she said to the couple who had accompanied him.
They murmured farewells. He heard them turn, heard their footfalls as they headed back along the path, the sound quickly diminishing to silence again.
“I saw you coming. Your name?”
“Steven of Hofoastrond.”
“Steven of Hofoastrond,” she repeated. “What have you done to offend a god?”
“Nothing, by word or deed, that I know of.” His voice was strong, clear, and sure.
She hummed and stepped closer again. “Do you even know whom you have offended?”
“No,” he said stoutly, all his anger and pain crowding behind his words.
He started as one of her hands clasped the back of his head, the other curled around his forehead. She was so close he could feel her breathing. He shuddered as the tingling strengthened, filling his head, invading his entire body.
“Tell me true: what did you do?” Her voice grew deeper, more powerful.
“I did nothing!” he insisted. “This happened sudden as a lightning strike.”
“Who sent you to me?”
“Fulla of Hofoastrond.” He tugged, without thinking, at the white sash.
“I see it.” Her voice was cold. “But those who lie with words can lie with false objects as well. Are you outcast? Foresworn?”
“I swear it to you, by the names of my father and his father before him, to my knowledge I did nothing to anger any god!” His words were fierce, a shield against the force of the power invading his body, seemingly able to penetrate his very soul.
He heard her exhale, long and considering, keeping her silence. He felt as if he could see her, head tilted, regarding him with far-seeing eyes. She hummed again.
“And yet you found me, blind as you are, coming all the way from Hofoastrond.” There was another long, assessing silence. Then she said, “I shall cast the runes.”
Steve sat crosslegged on a wooden floor inside Bergljot’s dwelling. Fire crackled in a nearby hearth. Something savory was simmering over the flames. His left side felt hot, his right chilled. He was trying to stay calm, trying to keep his breath even, trying to maintain his hard-won outward display of confidence and resilience and courage. But the stakes were high – his entire life was about to be decided in ways he had no experience in.
He focused on his surroundings. The sharp scents of smoke, herbs, and cured meats filled the interior but did not mask the animal smells coming from outside. The cries of goats and chickens penetrated the chinks in the walls.
He could hear the vǫlva moving about the room, her skirts rustling. Finally, she settled on the floor opposite him. His hands had clenched into fists. Realizing this, he unclenched them. “What do I do?” he asked when the silence went on too long.
“Nothing,” she said. Several moments passed. He sensed her become very still, her breath even and slow. Finally she exhaled and he heard the rattle of several pieces of something – hard wood? stones? – then a clatter as objects hit and tumbled on the wooden floor.
“Runestones,” she explained, and he realized she must have shaken them in a cup before throwing them. “Three landed face up. The first: Thurisaz. Chaos. What happened to you was not of your doing.”
Tension suddenly drained away as he let go of the burden of doubt, let go of the fear that he had somehow inadvertently transgressed against the gods. Anger at the weight of this false accusation threatened to replace it. He felt this fists clenching again.
“The second: Kenaz. Lokabrenna. Illumination.”
“Loki,” he breathed with a full body shudder. So that was it, he was just a playing piece to the god of chaos and lies, something to be taken up for amusement and thrown down again. What ill luck that he had caught this god’s eye.
“What can I do to propitiate him?” He said it with false hope, because this god was not one easily satisfied.
“The way is hard and you may not survive it.” Her voice was calm even as she spoke those ominous words. “Do you not have friends and family to care for you?”
He shook his head at that option. If there was any chance at all for him to find a solution, he would not return to be a burden and shame to his mother. He would face anything rather than admit failure and go home and live as a god-touched outcast for the rest of his life. “My mother has cared for me most of my life. Without her, I would have died a long time ago.”
He sensed her appraising look. “You have been ill. As a child. Greatly ill.”
“Yes,” he said firmly. “But I survived.”
“And you are still weaker than most men.”
It stung, but it was the truth. “I have achieved more than any thought I could. I am not going to give up. Tell me what I have to do.”
“Then, the third rune: Dagaz – revelation, enlightenment, change.”
“What kind of change?” Anxiety flared; he hung upon her next words.
“A chance to regain what you have lost.”
“And how do I achieve that?” He grasped at the embers of hope.
“To face a god? To dare to question? To dare to ask for an answer? Of him, as capricious as the wind?”
He swallowed. He kept his voice strong and steady. “Yes. To all of them. Yes.”
“The way is hard. And you – you are fragile. You may die.”
He felt his fists clenching again. “I have faced death before, in the guise of fever, of having my breath stolen from me. To get an answer – to have even a chance – I will face death again.”
“Then rest here tonight. Eat. Sleep deeply. For that will be the last rest you have before death or renewed life.”
Gooseflesh popped up all over his skin. He nodded. “I’m not afraid.” He was, but he would never admit it.
“Then here is what will happen. You will undergo the trial of enlightenment.” He swallowed, remembering how the AllFather himself had suffered greatly in his own question for wisdom. “You will receive your answer – or you will die, and not easily. Choose well, for once you set your feet on that path tomorrow you may not turn back.”
Fear seized his guts. Part of him wanted to flee, to accept life as it was now. The other part was filled with righteous anger. He had done nothing to provoke this notoriously mercurial god, and – if the god answered him – this quest could well lead to a worse fate. But when the next hard winter came – and they always did – he would go away and die in the snow before he became a burden to his mother.
He shoved his fear back. “I will do this.”
“Very well.” Her voice held no encouragement, no pity. Nor did it hold despair. She moved about her dwelling again, removed the pot from the fire, and presently served him stew, thick bread with butter, and beer. She also gave a warning. “Eat all of it. You will need your strength. You will not eat again, after this, unless you return from your journey.”
Once he had eaten, she brewed a cup of tea and led him to a sleeping pallet on the floor. He sat and she handed him the mug. “Drink,” she said, “and sleep.”
He sipped the tea. The taste was complex and very bitter. He forced himself to swallow all of it. though he nearly gagged, then lay down. She covered him with a thick blanket, and sleep overcame him.
He rose with the dawn, and washed in the basin Bergljot gave him. Shortly after, two men arrived. Strong men, he sensed by the way they moved, the way they displaced air. They said nothing.
“Follow me along the path,” she said, and he did so, following the sound of her footsteps, the two men a few feet behind him. They walked for some time. The smell of fall was all around, as was that deep and eerie silence. No birds called to each other from their chosen branches; no animals rustled in the undergrowth. No insects whirred. There wasn’t even the sound of wind soughing through the trees. It was as if this were a place where sound itself had been sacrificed to the gods.
He could smell water ahead, pungent, full of minerals. Bergljot stopped abruptly, and he and his two companions did so as well.
She took his hand and led him to the tree. She placed his hands on the trunk so he could feel its texture. Ash, he knew, the sacred wood. The image of Yggdrasil itself.
“Turn to me,” she said. Her words were slow and solemn. He did so, and she said, “Tell me the names of your parents.”
“Roger and Ingrid.”
“Steven, son of Roger, son of Ingrid, are you ready?”
“I am,” he said, forcing confidence into his voice.
“You will stay lashed to the tree until you find revelation or until you die.”
“I will.” He managed to keep his voice strong and even, but a chill ran down his back, and some cowardly thing inside him insisted he could still turn back, go home, accept his life as it now was.
“Sven,” she said. One of the men came forward. Steve heard the unmistakable sound of him climbing the tree.
Bergljot moved Steve’s hands to the lowest limb. “Climb,” she said, and he did, pulling his way up, the second man following close behind. He was guided by the first man up onto a higher branch. It was strong and sturdy. “Here,” the man said and Steve settled his back against the bole.
The man on the branch with him took one of his hands and knotted the end of a rope around his wrist. He drew Steven’s arm up, tied it to a neighboring branch, did the same with the other. The second man was standing on a different branch. Then he and the other man wound another rope round and round Steve’s waist and the bole of the tree, securing him fast. They descended the tree in silence.
“If the god grants it, you will have a vision. If he does not, you will die. If so, then may you be received into Fólkvangr, for you have truly fought through all the obstacles in your life.”
His heart began racing, but he would face this moment with the courage he hoped he would have shown if he had ever gone into true battle. “Thank you.”
“I will return when I know that it is time,” Bergljot said.
They left him behind in the dead silence. Though the sun was rising toward noon, it was chill in the tree’s shade.
The hours passed, and silence and stillness reigned. It didn’t take long before his hands began tingling and the position of his arms went from discomfort to hurt. Moment by moment, second by second, the pain increased. The ropes scraped and pulled at his wrists and his hands went numb. Minutes went by. Hours, and the pain kept worsening. He pulled at his bonds without thinking and something shifted in an old shoulder wound, bright pain flashed through him and he bit down to keep from screaming. The men had done their job well and there was barely any give to the ropes. He could feel blood trickle from his wrists. The air got colder and then considerably colder and Steve knew that night had fallen.
The pain got worse. And worse. No amount of minutely shifting position helped. Thirst set in, and the knowledge that there would be no relief made it instantly worse. The minutes stretched to infinity. The cold air invaded his lungs, and he began shivering. There was still dead silence and the feeling that he was alone in a void crept through him, nightmarish in its loneliness. What if the god never answered him? What if Loki wanted nothing from him? He was going to die here – he knew it. Why was he sacrificing his life for a god who didn’t care?
The cold air threaded freezing fingers into his lungs, searching out the vulnerable places, the places where illness had once dwelled. He coughed once, and the dryness of his throat and the movement amplified pain into agony. He coughed again and then couldn’t stop, convulsing against his bonds until, exhausted, his knees buckled and he collapsed within them, only the ropes around wrist and waist keeping him from falling, his shoulders screaming at the pressure.
Bright flashes exploded behind his eyes. Every breath he took was like knives within his chest. He fought for air, but it was getting harder to breathe. When oblivion came for him, he fell into it willingly.
…he was adrift in a valley filled with flowering plants. He could see through eyes not his own, in the perspective of dreams and imaginings. The land around him was exploding with color and fragrant with intoxicating scent. He walked along a dark narrow pathway among all the plants. The path itself wound like a river through a fantastic landscape.
He began hearing voices - the voices of three women speaking as one, a chorus of the voices of maidens, of strong women, of wise elders.
On his right, brilliant orange lilies bloomed. The voices murmured, “Take pride in who you are.”
There, to his right. Hundreds of white roses, the edges tipped in a deep seductive pink. The voices whispered, “Many seeds are sown in the dangerous name of love.”
There, up ahead. A flood of deep orange flowers pouring down a ravine, each one of them composed of so many petals they seemed dozens of flowers in one. Marigolds. The voices rung like bells. “You must make a sacred offering…”
There, up ahead. White flowers with miniature starlike hearts. Apple blossoms. The voices echoed and resonated. “Immortality…”
He continued and now he was climbing, up and up and up from the valley and beneath him he trod upon a path of stars. Light and color faded and he began to be afraid. He reached for the knife from his pack. In the way of dreams, the pack wasn’t there, but his knife was. It was a now a sword, a weapon instead of a tool, and he knew how to wield it, despite never knowing battle. The path snaked through an ill-lit landscape. He pressed on , determined to reach the end, no matter how long it went, no matter that on it he might take the last breath of his life. Some part of him knew he was still lashed to the tree, a cloth still wound around his head hiding his blind eyes, but the further he walked, the less that mattered, until he had forgotten his body entirely.
The star path continued through a landscape made of clouds. The star-filled sky cast its light on a dark-haired being. A half-clad man was seated on a lifeless stump which seemed to be rooted in nothing but clouds. His arms and legs were decorated with flowers from the valley. Emerald eyes stared into his. Steve drew his sword.
“Ah.” The god’s voice was smooth, silken, curious, arrogant. “What have we here? Mortal, why seek you me?”
Loki lounged on a luxurious oversized couch in a fragrant bower. Light tinkling sounds rang from chimes and bells somewhere in the distance. Finn, his most recent Alfar conquest, rose from where he had been curled next to Loki, as graceful as a plume of flame, and as dangerous. Loki tracked his movements, keeping his gaze on Finn’s large-irised eyes, and gave him a lazy smile. Finn returned it, then, never one for long goodbyes – or goodbyes of any kind – slipped away. A path bordered by flowering plants of many colors – blood-red, sun-yellow, grass-green, magenta, and lilac – wound its way into the nearby forest. Finn’s translucent clothing changed colors with each plant, his willowy figure blending in with their colors, and the colors of the dusk and the nearest trees of the forest until he’d vanished entire, transformed into a drift of pollen.
Loki sat up, his mind already on other things, but he took one last glance at the forest Finn had disappeared into. The trees clung to the steep slopes of a mountainside, the peak usually obscured by fog. But now, all was momentarily clear, and the glitter of the distant palace of the Alfar King shone briefly in its perch on top of the mountain, before being obscured by mist.
Ah, privacy. Loki looked with pleasure at the crystal chests arrayed upon the paved pathway following the snakelike course of a rill. The gentle gurgling of the tiny stream was also a barrier; he had magicked the sound to conceal their words – what few words they’d shared, being far too occupied with the arts of the flesh – from any prying ears. Each chest was magickally keyed to open only to his touch and to that of the library master. Each was filled with a bounty of books – so many books, grimoires and spellbooks of all kinds, the best Alfar’s vast libraries had to offer.
Right now, what he most desired to learn was divination – and not just for far-seeing, though it would be gratifying to be able to see in ways that Heimdall or Father’s ravens saw. That sort of divination would be difficult to achieve, but not impossible. But another part of his mind wondered if it were possible to truly foretell the future, to cheat Fate, defeat the Norns. To charge ahead, heedless of warnings, laughing at risk. If he were clever enough….
He reached for the grimoire he had been studying prior to Finn’s arrival, opened it, set it on his lap. He glanced around his secluded corner of Alfheim. Color had magick, flowers had magick, and Alfheim had an abundance of both. Everywhere he looked, vivid, exuberant life burst into view from Alfheim’s magickal fertility, stems and leaves and bright splashes of color making a palette of hues and shades few Realms could claim.
He contemplated the magick flowers contained; the pure and focused meaning of color and texture and scent, the power of the spells that could be wrought from them, each wavelength of the light that granted their color combining to create their wholeness. The grimoire lay upon his lap, the spell he intended to cast already memorized. He focused his intent: to gain a deeper understanding and insight into whatever he needed to know now.
With one gesture the spell raced across the ground in front of him, a riot of orange lilies in its wake.
Pride, he thought, considering the symbolism of the flowers. He let his mind wander, making connections, then suddenly leaps. The pride of the Aesir. Pride in their might. Pride in their unchanging traditions. He imagined Thor, boasting and drinking, and so vividly alive, always so proud. Sometimes he wanted to tear down Thor’s arrogance, humble him. Sometimes he reveled in his brother’s sheer power.
He thought of his own pride, in his magick, in his ability to slide between worlds and learn and grow and change, like the Losalfar, changeling and shapeshifter, becoming one with air and earth and water. He let it fill him, the power, the magick, not for any purpose, just for the intoxication itself.
Where should he go from here? The seed of restlessness had already sprouted in him, and despite all that Alfheim had to offer, it was time to be off again, for mischief, new tricks to play, laughs to be had. But where? Where do I need to go? What do I need to do?
He swept a hand again, hands forming a gesture of divination, and new flowers appeared. Caroline roses for a dangerous love, hydrangea for indifference. He contemplated the conflicting message. Finn was certainly dangerous, but he was fickle and could go from lust to boredom in an hour’s span.
No, not Finn. He expanded his magickal awareness, and the air grew colder.
And colder still, like the kiss of the Void, like the breath of stars. He saw beneath and beyond his current reality as a dark slice of nothing cut its way through the air and traced the path of the rill.
He was still seated in the bower, but all of his focus was on the interesting magick approaching him. Alfheim itself fell away from his awareness as he entered other-space and opened his awareness to the star path forming close by. Something was approaching.
He watched with the pure focus of a falcon, bespelled daggers near to hand in case a few simple gestures wouldn’t immediately contain or conjure away whatever this was. It felt – not hostile, but not friendly. He let it form, accepting its reality, claiming the meager throne of a Midgardian stump for himself, balanced now on an ocean of cloud, a glory of unfamiliar stars above. He did not rise. Let whatever it was approach him with the deference due a prince and a god. A smile curved his lips. He gathered power in his hands.
The pathway snaked toward him, inky black, flecked with pinpricks of light from the distant stars. Its magick flooded over him. His eyes widened.
A star road. From Midgard. How curious. He’d heard no prayers directed to himself – though, few mortals ever prayed to him, enamored as they were by Thor’s arrogant prowess or Freyja’s beauty or Mother’s aid in marriage and childbirth. Who deliberately calls down mischief and lies? Some, yes, dark wizards who viewed him through some binary lens of power and helplessness, of domination and victimization. These, he found most entertaining. It was usually to their regret, but there were always one or two who felt that they alone could wheedle or deceive him into aiding them in their goals.
The figure of a man was walking along the star path, coming into closer focus the nearer he stepped. A mere mortal, short, scrawny, with a barely-tended beard.
How very odd. He had a cloth wrapped around his eyes, and he moved as if struggling for every step, and yet there was an aura of fierce determination around him even though Loki could sense his life force flickering and guttering some place very far away.
Not a summons, nor a prayer.
The man was wearing the white sash mortals used when one of their own offended the gods. But it had been decades, perhaps centuries, since one of the mortals had so offended him.
The man approached and stopped directly in front of him, and though no mortal eyes could see through the binding cloth around his head, still he seemed very aware of Loki’s presence. He was holding a sword.
“What have we here?” Loki said. He smiled, showing his teeth. “Mortal. Why seek you me?”
The man reached up, tore the strip of cloth from his head, revealing whited-out eyes, with no trace of iris or pupil.
Loki suddenly remembered. Thor’s mortal champion. The archer.
“Ah. My brother’s champion from Midgard, come to call upon me. Why?”
“Give me back,” the human demanded, “what you have stolen from me.”
“And what,” Loki responded dangerously, “might that be?”
The man didn’t flinch, and his voice was strong with anger when he replied. “Don’t you even know?” He spit a harsh, ragged laugh, full of rage and horrified comprehension. “You stole my sight – and don’t even know you did it?”
“Ah,” Loki said, remembering the bright flash of light he’d created to distract the archer from his target. “I forget, sometimes, how fragile mortals are.”
The man’s chest heaved with angry breaths. His blind eyes seemed to be staring directly at Loki. “You forget?” He lifted his sword higher, and Loki grinned at the effrontery. Amused and curious, he held out his hand. Grasping the mortal’s sword, he used his blood to forge the connecting path.
Steve gasped for breath, suddenly back inside his body, alone again in darkness and agony. He was sagging against the ropes binding him, the fibers burning their way into his skin. His arms had gone completely numb. He gasped and struggled for breath, each inhalation a stab of pain, each exhalation feeling like his last. He struggled for countless moments, and then –
Something alighted upon the branch with a flutter of wings, then grew weightier. The branch creaked and bent further as the weight increased with each second.
He knew who stood before him. He could feel the god’s presence, towering, powerful, filled with an energy that sparked around them both.
“Hmmm,” the god’s voice sounded. “Think you to gain wisdom like the All-Father? How truly presumptuous.” Steve quailed at the reminder of how weak he truly was. The voice went on, amused. “Mortals can be so entertaining. You confront me to seek a boon from me.”
Norns damn you, restore to me what you stole! an inner voice shouted, but he choked it back. He could visualize him now, from that brief glimpse, which made the darkness even more terrifying as he realized his extreme vulnerability. “Tell me what I must do,” he rasped in a voice lacerated by thirst.
Another hum. “Mortals make offerings to gods. What have you for me?”
His breath caught. What gift could he give? He had nothing, save the clothes on his back and whatever was left in his pack, wherever it might be now.
The silence carried on too long. He felt the god’s weight shift on the branch. “Nothing? And yet you do have coin to repay me. A pity,” the voice sighed, “that you have lost the little measure of comeliness you once possessed.”
Steve swallowed hard against the insinuation, imagining the god’s face, his expression filled with condescension and arrogance because, of course, as a mortal Steve was nothing but a plaything to him.
Plaything. He suddenly remembered what lay in a pocket. Something he had refused to part with, though he had no reason to keep it.
“I give you my skill in whittling, High One,” he gasped out. “In my lower pocket. Left side.”
He felt a long-fingered, powerful hand delved unhesitatingly into his pocket, quickly removing what lay within.
Loki laughed lightly. “This is your offering, then?”
Steven’s heart plummeted. Of course his whittled serpent was not worthy of one who dwelt in halls of gold, who had every wonderful thing in all the Realms at his fingertips. “It is my humble offering, yes, High One. I put my heart and soul into it.”
“And what of this one?”
So he’d pulled out the wolf as well. “A rough and paltry thing. I tried without sight to do the carving,” he said.
Another long moment, while Steven’s hopes were gutted.
“Accepted,” Loki said.
Disbelieving, he fell forward as his bonds suddenly gave way, into the strong arms and icy hands of a god.
Something powerful yanked at him, stealing his senses, and took him into true darkness.
Steve started abruptly awake, gasping for air. He realized he was lying face down on some hard cold smooth surface. Everything hurt – the burn where the ropes had cut into his flesh, the strain in every abused muscle, the deep pain in his chest with every breath. His head pounded.
He opened his eyes and hope died within him. Darkness enveloped him, as disorienting as when it had first happened.
“Turn. Over.” He focused on the voice like a lifeline. The tone was cultured, those two simple words sounding like music, better than the best of the bards, as if each word contained an entire story.
He struggled to obey. He pushed himself up on his elbows.
The voice chuckled. “That wasn’t what I asked you to do.”
Fear froze him for a second, and then he scrabbled back even further, up on his hands and knees, awkward and uncoordinated and in so much pain his thoughts crashed against each other. Nothing made any sense.
A sigh. “All right then. Sit up.”
Steve, after a moment, managed to do that, awkwardly rolling over onto his ass. He stretched his legs out in front of him. Still blind, but other sensory input intruded. The air was warm and scented with flowers, there were tinkling sounds he couldn’t identify and the burble of water close by.
“Open your mouth,” the voice commanded.
He didn’t want to, but he knew he wasn’t being offered a choice. He obeyed. A small morsel of something cool and delightfully sweet burst upon his tongue. He bit down then went still as a tingling feeling spread throughout his body.
“Chew.” The voice had become patient, if still amused.
He chewed, and the taste of the juice, the fruit, was glorious, ecstatic, speaking of every good thing that had grown in the earth since time itself began. He moaned in the grip of pleasure and swallowed, then shuddered as some powerful force tore its way through his entire body. He jerked as the energy sank deep into flesh and blood and bone. He could hear himself crying out, but the sound was distant from his ears, and the world, for so long utterly dark, whited out into a light so bright it seared.
Too much. He felt blackness claim him again. His fight was now over, for good or ill. He let go.
He woke – minutes? Hours? Days? – later, suddenly aware he was lying on the softest, most luxurious, most sweet-smelling bed he had ever slept on. He moved – and realized all the pain from his overstressed joints and muscles was gone. He rubbed his wrists and realized the wounds the ropes had torn into his skin were healed, with only thin lines of scar tissue remaining. He inhaled cautiously, but when he didn’t break into a heavy cough, he pulled in a deep breath and let it out again. The feeling of being able to breathe deep clean air was glorious.
His eyes popped open – and he SAW!
A confusion of color, of shapes, of forms, everything intensely bright and clear and clean. Nothing he saw was in the least bit familiar. Some distance above his head was what he took at first to be the sky, pale blue and marked here and there with clouds. But it was full of so much more. When he finally managed to focus his eyes he saw that, directly overhead, naked men and women were cavorting sexually with men and women alike. He blushed and glanced away, only to find one wonder after another. There were fantastic beasts - horses with horns, wolves with the bodies of otters, serpents with the heads of men. There were people with wings and people with fish tails. All were done in a riot of color, in the shades of dawn and dusk, and the brightness of flowers everything alive and seeming to glow. The images were so clear and detailed he thought at first the people and beasts must be real. It took him a moment to realize that nothing, not even the clouds, was moving, and then realized it must be some kind of ceiling and these images had been magickally put there. He thought of the images painted inside certain hill caves, images of people and familiar beasts, done in reds and ochers. Nothing like this. Nothing so real.
He bolted upright, heart hammering, saw a blur of gold and marbled stone and delicate furniture. He swung his legs to the floor, stood – and went utterly still, heart pounding, skin prickling with danger’s warning.
A row of giants faced him. He took a defensive pose and waited, but none of them moved. His gaze swept up and down their figures, uncomprehending. They were paler than death, white as snow or bright cloud, not just their flesh but their draped sleeveless robes as well. They seemed to be holding the eaves of the room on their heads. Beyond, some kind of complicated flooring lay, and beyond that, profusions of plants bloomed, but after one bare glance outside and finding nothing threatening there, he turned his attention back to the giants.
He stepped cautiously closer. Still, they did not move. Their lifeless eyes stared past him. Their chests did not move, nor did he hear or see or smell any signs of life within them. He stepped closer yet, and reached a cautious hand out to touch a forearm. Cold! Smooth, utterly poreless. Lifeless.
He snatched his hand away and stared for a long moment. Then touched again.
The figure did not flinch or attack and he ran one hand along the forearm. It was smoother than a river stone. He stared up into the alien face. Long white hair flowed in arabesques around the figure’s head and shoulders. The high cheekboned face looked like no man or woman he had ever seen, and the long pointed ears were those of an elf, not a giant.
He glanced up and down the row, and counted. Six. Was this some enchantment?
No, he realized. No matter their perfection, these figures were crafted out of some kind of stone. But the purity of it – the beauty – the skill that had formed these! It made every carving he’d ever made seem paltry and feeble by comparison.
Someone chuckled and he whirled around.
A man – an extraordinary man - was standing in an arched doorway regarding him with a wolfish smile. Perfect white teeth gleamed in a predator’s mouth. His flawless skin was nearly as pale as those giant carved figures, and completely unmarred by scars or disease. His long hair was as black as a raven’s wing. His eyes were as green as grass, a color echoed in the green accents highlighting the black leather clothing he was wearing.
“Who are you?” Steve managed to keep his voice even.
“Who do you think?” The man cocked his head, as if looking at something new and unusual.
He recognized that voice from his vision and fell to his knees, overcome with the miracle of his restored sight, gratitude warring with bitter resentment. “Thank you, High One.” Why did you do this to me? his mind demanded. “Thank you,” he said again, feeling breathless.
The god strode closer and looked down at him from his considerable height. He was more than a head taller than Steve was; he was taller than any of the men in Steve’s village. The tallest man Steve knew, the blacksmith’s oldest son, would have only come to eye level with the god’s chin. “Do you know who I am?”
Steve forced words out of numb lips, still shuddering with disbelief at the strangeness around him. “The vǫlva told me I had been god-touched by Loki.”
Loki bowed his head graciously, but Steve caught a trace of mockery in the exquisite manners. Steve looked up into Loki’s face.
Steve dared to glance around, at the gilded, glittering room around him. He twisted his neck to see everything, trying to take it all in, while glancing back at Loki every few seconds. Loki seemed amused by the sheer wonder on Steve’s face. Furniture, bedding, tapestries – all work of the highest perfection, undreamed by any human. And clean. Everything smelled so clean and fresh, no stench of man or animal or preserved food or rot or shit from privies and middens.
“Am I…” dead, he wanted to ask, because perhaps he had died on that tree? “In Fólkvangr?” Bergljot had said he might be welcomed into Freyja’s hall if he died on the tree.
Loki grinned, “No.”
“Asgard?” he ventured, because all the tales said it was a golden place and there was gold aplenty here, in what looked like drinking horns and decorations on chests and tables and bedposts and wall hangings.
“Guess again,” Loki suggested, and settled down on the bed. Steve realized that’s where he had awakened. The rumpled bedding was the snowiest white and, he remembered, soft beyond imagining.
“High One, I cannot say.”
“Oh, Loooooki…!” a melodic voice called. Without thinking, Steve regained his feet as a tall sharp-featured being drifted into the room. Steve realized the being was male, as his flowing near-transparent leaf-green garment left nothing to the imagination. Like Loki, he was beardless, and Steve wondered at the oddness of this. All the tales he had heard of Thor and Odin and Tyr and the other male gods had described their luxuriant beards. But not this being, and not Loki. That thought disappeared as the being moved forward, so gracefully it was if his feet were barely touching the floor. His waist-length hair, so pure white it seemed to glow, didn’t fall so much as float weightlessly in the air. His ears were long and pointed, and decorated by a dozen rings each, some of them weighted with multicolored gems.
The being ran his tongue over his lips teasingly, his eyes fixed on Loki, then turned and gave Steve a speculative glance. Steve tore his eyes away from the pointed ears and focused on the being’s ageless yet ancient face. Startled, he found himself staring into eyes with purple irises so large very little white showed. “Oh, it’s awake,” the being said. Steve stayed absolutely still, wary of that strange being’s curious, contemptuous regard.
“Finn,” Loki murmured, drawing the intruder’s attention back to him. Loki smiled lewdly at the being and lounged back on the bed. He wrapped one pale, long-fingered hand around a golden bedpost topped with a jewel-eyed serpent-head that looked so alive that Steve wouldn’t have been surprised if it and its duplicates on the other corners of the bed came slithering toward him.
Loki posed provocatively, but Steve, shocked by the lust in the grass-green eyes, realized that the god’s gaze held something more. Something that implied gameplaying.
Still in shock he watched in silence as Finn sauntered to the bed, sat down next to Loki and whispered something in his ear. Finn then turned and rummaged around in the bedclothes, and with an “Ah ha!” pulled out a transparent rose-colored length of cloth. He wound the fragile-looking fabric around his neck, letting the ends fall loosely down his back. He leaned against Loki, who turned his face to him. Their mouths met in a deep, lascivious kiss.
Steve, horrified by this shameless ergi display, watched in dead silence as Finn pulled away from Loki. Finn grinned suggestively as he stood up. He favored Steve with a wink, gave Loki a tiny wave, and strolled back out again to the open area outside. Steve watched, shocked to his bones, as the being stepped off the pavement and vanished beyond the profusion of plants ringing the area.
Steve finally looked back at Loki, who was still lounging on the bed, his attention focused on where Finn had disappeared.. There was something other than lust in Loki’s grass-green eyes. Something like triumph; an enjoyment of skills that aligned with the thrill of the hunt.
Loki looked back at Steve speculatively, then took a bite out of a golden apple that had suddenly materialized in one of his hands and just as quickly disappeared. The scent of it lingered, fresh and sweet, and Steve recognized it, still felt the taste of that fruit inside his mouth. Loki licked his lips, and Steve felt a sudden and horrifying surge of lust. No. He was not ergi. He was not. He had denied his feelings for so long it had become second nature, but now, watching Finn and Loki, forbidden thoughts were forcing themselves to the surface.
Loki took a sip from a jeweled goblet that appeared in his other hand and Steve caught a whiff of mead. Loki looked over the rim at Steve, eyes flashing with enjoyment. “Alfheim,” he said.
“What?” Steve said, feeling stupid.
“We’re on Alfheim.” Loki stretched luxuriously. A goblet appeared in his other hand and he offered it to Steve.
Steve, without thinking, stepped over, took it and looked into the contents. It smelled like ale. He took a cautious sip. It was ale, the same as any he might have at home. He blinked in surprise and looked up at him.
“Thank you,” he said again. Then, cautiously, “What did I do to offend you?”
“Ah.” Loki took a long draught of his mead. “Yes, that,” Loki began. “I had forgotten how fragile mortals are.” He set his goblet on top of an ornate, gold-topped table, and stood. “But I fixed it, so all is well.”
“All… is well,” Steve said, the fear and anger and pain of the last few days rushing back in on him, unable to keep his feelings out of his voice.
Loki narrowed his eyes, and Steve felt a jab of fear. Loki was well known to be capricious and volatile. The last thing he needed to do was offend him again. He looked around, casting for something to say, and his gaze fell on some remarkably evenly spaced shelving, full of odd objects.
Loki followed his gaze. “What are those?” Steve asked, for want of anything else to say. “I mean, I recognized everything else here – and how very fine everything is – but not those.”
Loki said a word, but Steve didn’t understand it. Loki frowned for a second, “Ah yes, Midgard. Your people do have the basic concept but haven’t developed this way of keeping knowledge yet. Others in your realm have, but they are far to the south.” The half-eaten apple disappeared from Loki’s hand. Loki pulled one of the objects off the shelf. He placed it on an intricately-carved tall chest. When he noticed Steve hadn’t changed position, he gestured, and Steve moved over to look at the thing.
Loki pulled the top of the object up and to one side and rifled through a series of pale squares covered with strange markings. Most astonishing – there were pictures on some of the squares and the beings in them – all elves it appeared – moved! He drew in a breath. “What is this?”
“A book.” Steve looked blank, and Loki got a condescending look on his face. “You do have runes, yes?”
Steve nodded. “That is the part of the wisdom of the vǫlur.”
“And they keep their secrets, do they not?” Loki didn’t seem to require an answer. He brushed his hand across a leaf filled with these marks, some of them in jewel colors, some in black, some in pure gold or silver. “Each of these marks represents a sound or a word. Taken together, they tell many things. Spellwork, and the wisdom of many philosophers, and tales of the past, and tales of all the realms.”
Steve struggled with the concept. “A type of bard?” he asked.
Loki laughed. “Yes indeed, a type of bard.” He circled around Steve, and returned to face him again, plain admiration in his face. “You are remarkable. Small of frame as you are, and I sense more than the usual mortal weakness in you, and yet you have skill and strength and sureness of eye. It is no surprise my brother chose you as his champion – ”
“What?” Steve asked.
Loki ignored him. “All of that is unusual but thus are all champions. But you – you have the touch of seiðr and, I think, do not know it.”
Steve bristled at the insult. “Seiðr is for women – ”
Loki’s gaze darkened, and Steve hastily added, “and gods, not mortal men. For does not the All-Father himself possess the most vast seiðr of all?”
Loki appeared mollified, but his smile had twisted into something less pleasant than it had been before.
“How can I, a man, possess magic?”
Loki shook his head and huffed a laugh. “Mortals have odd concepts.”
“But what magic do I possess?”
“This.” Loki closed his fingers and when he opened them, Steve’s wooden serpent figure lay on his palm.
“That’s – just something I enjoy doing, during the long winter months. Many men do.”
“You are not many men. You have the spirit of something greater.” In Loki’s hands the serpent figure began to glow. He offered it to Steve, who took it, and felt something, some vibration, reaching out to a feeling inside him, dormant, but waiting. He closed his fingers around it for a bare moment, entranced by the beauty of what he felt. This was what he felt, when the energy Fulla called spirit-movement was in the air, but so much stronger than anything he had felt before.
He slowly relaxed his fingers. Remembering this figure no longer belonged to him, he handed it back to Loki. “This is yours.”
“Yes,” Loki said. “And the wolf, as well, half finished as it is.”
“I can complete it now.”
“No. It’s complete as it is.”
Both serpent and wolf suddenly appeared on the gold-topped table and Steve winced to see his work, so crude and flawed, displayed against the perfection of the room.
Loki stroked the top of the wolf’s head, the left front leg, the beginnings of a flank as it emerged from the wood. “Have you made more of these pieces?”
“Many. I started whittling them when I was young – grandfather showed me – I made stories in my head about these beasts.”
“Craft me another.” That smile again. “You gave me your skill in whittling, after all.”
Steve felt anxiety rise; what had he truly bartered away, while tied to that branch? “What would you like me to whittle for you, High One?”
Loki held his hands a few inches apart. A greenish light filled the gap, and Steve watched in fascination as something appeared.
Loki closed his hands upon the object then showed Steve a smooth square block of ebony wood. “A raven. Wings in flight.”
Steve tried not to gulp, thinking of the complexity of the task. But when he looked at the wood he already saw its possibilities, the way the bird itself would emerge under the skilled cuts of his knife, the way its head would be turned, the way its beak would be open, the spread of its wings – it was all there.
He realized he’d been staring at the piece of wood for a moment too long when he looked up and saw Loki smiling indulgently. “I – do not know if my skill is sufficient,” he said, trying to be humble.
“Your art is your magick,” Loki said.
That idea made him uneasy. “When I finish it – will you – ” Steve chose his words carefully, “return me to my home?”
“Will I ever see my family again?” He couldn’t keep the note of fear out of his voice.
“Ah, you have heard those tales, of children taken by the fae and brought back to find themselves among their great-grandchildren and themselves still not grown?”
Steve nodded, forcing back his fear that the same fate awaited him.
“Finn’s done that. Taken mortal children.”
Steve shuddered in horror and for an instant vertigo nearly overcame him. He breathed through it and concentrated on Loki’s voice. “Why the Alfar like doing this I do not know. For yourself…” Loki paused, and Steve stopped breathing waiting for the next words of this powerful, mysterious being, “I will, if you wish it, take you back to your home and people as you left them. Later. First, I have a gift for you.” Loki’s eyes gleamed.
“A gift?” he repeated and tried to smile, but inwardly his heart sank. Despite Loki’s promise that he would return him to his people, this mention of a gift brought up memories of other old tales, All too often these stories told of gifts from gods that ensnared, entrapped, destroyed. But he had to appear to be grateful.
“Follow me.” Loki made the block of wood disappear. Steve stared at the place where it had been. Loki abruptly turned and headed outside, so quickly that Steve had to run to keep up with the other’s long stride. Surprisingly, running was easy. His lungs felt clear and light, an unexpected and very welcome feeling. Had whatever Loki fed him that restored his vision restored him to better health? His body looked the same as it always did, but he felt full of energy. He quickly caught up as Loki led him along a winding path among the most astonishingly colored trees he had ever seen to a clearing where a very strange black object rested.
It looked like a boat of some kind, but it wasn’t in water and it was somehow balancing itself upright on its keel. Steve wanted to stop and examine it, but Loki hurried him up a ladder that had magickally appeared and settled him into a seat toward the rear. He’d opened his mouth to ask a question when it suddenly shot straight up into the air.
Steve shouted and grabbed on to the nearest thing he could reach. He held tight and stared in terrified astonishment as the boat skimmed at speed several feet over the treetops of a vast colorful forest. Loki, at the other end of the craft, holding on to some kind of curved bar, gave him a manic grin as the skiff hurtled toward a nearby mountain range. Steve held on for dear life, struggling to keep his fear in check, knowing that in the hands of a god he was helpless, and that what would kill him would never harm Loki.
Steve’s knuckles went white and he started to shout as Loki raced toward a cliff and inside a rift so terrifyingly narrow they scraped against its sides. Steve managed to suck in another breath, and an instant later they were out again, now in a landscape so strange and horrifying it made Alfheim look like home. He took another breath – and nearly choked on the stinking air. The foulness coated his lungs, and he coughed to get the taste out.
Poison green and muck-dark clouds swirled overhead in a blood-red sky. The land looked like it had been scraped by giant claws and the gouges, like open wounds, bled rivers of oily dark liquids. Flames leapt up from the crevices as if the water itself was burning. There were no trees, no bushes, no plants of any kind that he could see. Smells of stagnant water, of rancid oil, thickened the air.
The skiff slowed and settled gently down on a barren rock by a river of dark sludge. “Where are we?” Shaken, everything that he knew about the Realm of the dishonored dead racing through his mind, Steve demanded. “Is this Helheim?”
“Nidavellir.” Loki wrinkled his nose, but his eyes were alert as he turned in a circle to scan the landscape.
“The land of the dwarves?” Everywhere Steve looked revealed a fresh horror. Off in the distance it looked like an entire mountain had been decapitated. Runnels of some thick pus-yellow substance ran down the sides of what was left.
“Yes,” Loki said, his eyes tracking some strange thing approaching in the sky. It was black and full of spikes, about the size of a cabbage, and made a strange whirring, buzzing noise. It hovered for a few seconds several feet above their heads, then suddenly darted off.
“What was that?”
“Our welcoming committee,” Loki seemed quite calm. He circled until he had taken in the entire landscape, then gestured, and a ladder reappeared at the side of the skiff. The god descended without glancing back at Steve, who immediately followed. Loki stopped a few feet away, his gaze focused on a nearby cliff.
“Why are we here?” Steve demanded, joining him. Loki turned and looked at him levelly, and Steve, appalled at his lack proper respect to this god, quailed. He opened his mouth to apologize, but Loki grinned and ruffled his hair. “I had no idea mortals could be so entertaining!” His green eyes were filled with mischief as he looked down at Steve. “We’re here because, as I said, I want to give you a gift.”
“A gift? Why?” Was Loki was apologizing for what he had done? Looking at the merriment in those green eyes, he dismissed the idea.
“Because I feel like it.” Loki held his gaze.
Steve wanted to ask the obvious questions – what kind of gift? Why are we here? He held his tongue and took another look around the blasted landscape. The things he had heard of dwarves had never been pleasant ones. “I have heard tales of dwarves.”
“You have doubtless also heard the tale that I bore an 8-legged horse.” Loki’s smile was not a nice one.
Steve desperately wanted to ask if it was true, but Loki’s expression made him decide to keep his mouth shut. Silence stretched between them, but was interrupted when a stone slab rumbled open in a nearby cliff, revealing the mouth of a cave.
Out strode several rough-clothed heavily bearded stubby men, each the size of a half-grown child. They all smelled of smoke and beer and a mineral scent Steve could not place. They quickly surrounded Steve and Loki. Steve gave Loki a questioning look, but Loki didn’t seem in the slightest bit discomfited, though his grin showed no humor at all.
The one in front, a fierce-looking man with a bristly, braided red beard mismatching his darker hair, said gruffly, “He’s waiting.”
The dwarf turned without ceremony and he and the men flanking him walked briskly back into the cave. More dwarves flanked Loki and Steve. Loki, towering over them all, nearly twice the height of the dwarves, matched his pace to them. Steve followed close behind Loki, though not quickly enough for the dwarf directly behind him who prodded him in the back with something blunt. He whipped around instinctively, old memories of being jumped from behind by bullies surfacing. The dwarf grinned up at him, staff ready to prod him again, but Loki’s gentle tap on his arm brought his attention back to the god. Loki gave him a look, and Steve understood the message of caution. He continued following as they moved through a shallow cavern to its rear and stepped into the torchlit darkness of a tunnel carved out of solid rock and leading into unknown depths.
Pale light flared from the oddest torches Steve had ever seen. The light glowed sure and steady, and the flames – if it was truly fire – seemed to be captured inside some kind of clear bowls stuck to the rocky tunnel walls every few feet. The deeper they followed the odd pathway – smoother than any road Steve had ever seen – the hotter it got. They walked and kept walking, through twists and turns in the pathway. With each turning the air grew thicker with ugly smells. Steve found himself breathing shallowly, trying as much as possible to keep his lungs clear of the smell of closed-in bodies and hot metal and all the earthen materials used in forging blending with the seep of the polluted air that penetrated even this far underground.
Loki kept moving through the corridors as if he were this land’s ruler, his straight back, his arrogant posture all testifying to his ease in this strange land. Steve kept following, nearly overwhelmed with the strange experiences he had had in the past few hours.
Somewhere distant, but getting closer, was a cacophony of sound, sound that turned into a roar when the tunnel suddenly widened into a vast chamber bounded by smooth tall walls that appeared to be made of sword-metal. Steve had never before seen their like. He tried to look everywhere at once. The chamber was filled with enormous concentric wheels attached together with a bewildering array of bars and staves all rolling and whirring and grinding. Steve could not even begin to guess their purposes. One on side huge bronze basins half-filled with molten metal liquid hissed and steamed and filled the air with a harsh odor.
The air here was thick, humid, and lifeless, and stinking of rancid oil and hot metal. It took Steve a moment to catch his breath. The dwarf leading them zigzagged through the chamber for what seemed the better part of a mile. The floor was smooth in places, and covered in a dozen closely-spaced parallel metal bars in others. The first time Steve encountered the bars and looked down between the bars he saw a black pit descending deep into the earth. He carefully walked around it, but when Loki trod across the bars without any hesitation Steve decided to follow his example. The bars were clearly strong and stable. Steve continued following Loki, but whenever they crossed over one of those pits he carefully did not look down.
Finally they reached their destination: a huge table, the top at least a foot or two above Steve’s head. Crane his neck as he would, Steve could only catch a glimpse of a clutter of items on the top, his main attention focused on the huge bearded man seated behind it.
The man rose to his full height, head and shoulders and half-his-chest taller than Loki. He stepped to the side of the table, and bent to look at them. Long shaggy hair framed a glowering face, the lower half obscured by a bristling beard.
“Eitri,” Loki said in greeting.
“You’re here,” the huge man stated in a deep rumble.
“I am.” Loki tilted his head up and smirked. “I see the rumors are true.”
“I asked Karnilla for the power of a giant, not the size,” Eitri rumbled, his thick brows pulled down in anger.
“Yes, well,” Loki said. “Karnilla does like her little jokes. I could have told you – ”
“Do you have it?” the giant dwarf snapped, the scowl deepening on his huge face.
Loki reached into what appeared to Steve to be thin air and withdrew a gleaming silver spear. The top half was intricately carved with runework. Eitri reached for it, but Loki pulled it back. “Do you have the payment?”
Eitri gestured, and a dwarf hurried forward, carrying a long metallic chest.
Loki waved it open just as the dwarf was reaching for the lock. The dwarf looked at Loki in irritation, and Eitri laughed.
“Always so showy,” he sneered.
Loki ignored him and inspected whatever was inside the box, waving an aura of green over its contents. Then, satisfied, he turned to Eitri and handed him the spear. “Would you like a demonstration? Or is our business concluded?” He held one hand over the now-closed metal box and raised his eyebrows expectantly.
“A demonstration,” Eitri demanded. “Brokkr!” A dwarf the size and shape of a thick tree stump clumped forward and gave Loki a suspicious glare. “Let’s test the Sly One’s detector, shall we?”
Brokkr growled something unintelligible, jerked a thumb at Loki and stomped off toward a large metal platform in the furthest corner of the room. A wall half Steve’s height followed the platform’s perimeter. Brokkr stepped through a hinged gate onto the platform. Loki and Steve followed, as did Eitri, who sat on a metallic box. Steve gasped when the cavern’s roof suddenly opened overhead and dim starlight filtered in. Then the platform suddenly moved up and he lost his footing and fell to the hard floor.
The dwarves laughed. Loki held out a hand. Steve grabbed the icy fingers and swallowed a curse. Swaying, he stood close to Loki, who put a steadying arm around him. Steve felt his eyes going wider as the platform continued to rise, moved through the opening in the rocky ceiling and began to fly across the ravaged landscape. At least it was moving more slowly than Loki’s skiff. “How many things fly around here?” he whispered to Loki, suddenly remembering the ceiling painting of people with wings.
Loki hummed noncommittally. Steve inhaled deeply, forgetting there was no fresh air to be had here – and nearly choked as his lungs filled with polluted air.
Eitri handed Brokkr the spear and turned his full attention to Loki. “How does it work?”
Loki gave him a lazy smile. “You’ll know when it senses the presence of gold.”
Steve, his initial fear over, was filled with a sense of wonder as the platform moved at speed soundlessly above the ravaged land. They had been travelling for some minutes when the tip of the spear began glowing a faint gold color. Brokkr exclaimed and Loki waved a lazy hand in the direction the spear was pointed. “That way.”
Eitri watched intently from his seat on the box as the platform moved in a new direction, while the spear tip glowed a brighter gold. Finally, a gold aura glowed around the tip. Loki said, “There,” and pointed down.
The platform descended and despite the uneven ground it settled evenly. Brokkr hopped off. Eitri stayed behind, sitting like the King he was, but his gaze was fixed on Brokkr’s progress. Brokkr took a tool and began digging and shortly exclaimed, “Gold!”
Steve glanced at Loki. An amused expression flashed across Loki’s face for a moment, then left just as quickly, replaced with a satisfied smile. Eitri left the platform to inspect Brokkr’s findings, then they both returned. “Find another,” Eitri ordered.
So the platform continued across the distances, finding a second and then a third site. After the fourth also yielded gold, Eitri pronounced himself satisfied that the spear was a genuine gold-finder and ordered their return trip.
Back in Eitri’s stronghold, Loki took possession of the metal box. Steve watched as they exchanged some final pleasantries and then, escorted by several dwarves, they were taken back to the surface. The dwarves watched closely as they entered their skiff, which rocketed off at Loki’s command.
Steve could hardly catch his breath during the precipitate flight back, but once they sped back through the rift, the skiff soared smoothly for several minutes over a forest-covered land. Loki settled the skiff in a mountain meadow and they stepped out of the craft. Forest surrounded them on three sides. On the fourth, the land sloped up to a rounded peak, its sides littered with exposed boulders. The trees were just as colorful here as they had been where Steve had first awakened, every shade of blue, purple, yellow, and red. The air was fresh and pure and Steve took in great lungfuls of it, then swallowed, trying to rid himself of a rasp in his throat. Steve cleared his throat and asked, “Where are we now?”
“Still Alfheim,” Loki said. “But further to the north. I felt like a change of scenery.”
He turned his attention back to Loki. Steve looked around for the rectangular metal container but it was nowhere in sight. Had the god made it invisible? “What happened to the box he gave you?” He added, daringly, “You said you want to give me a gift.”
Loki looked amused. “I have more than one in mind, actually.” Loki headed toward the nearby hill and, without a pause, began climbing. “But later. I came here to see something magnificent.”
Steve followed more slowly. He was beginning to feel some of his usual aches and pains, and by the time he reached the summit he was out of breath and panting. The thick taste of Nidavellir’s air had settled in his lungs, and breathing the cold air was becoming painful. He suppressed the urge to cough.
Loki wasn’t paying any attention to him and for that Steve was grateful. It was humiliating, getting out of breath so quickly. Weakling! You’ll never be a warrior, came the jeering voices of the boys, now men, he had grown up with. And it was true, of course it was true, so why couldn’t he just stop trying? But no, he couldn’t give up; he’d never give up. He’d die before he gave up. And he knew mother worried about just that thing.
When Steve finally felt that he could move again without feeling dizzy he joined Loki where he was standing looking out over the world.
Steve looked down – and stared in awe. It was as if they were truly on the very top of the world. The land fell away from them on all sides. Up here, the land was bare of trees and only thin grasses grew on the sloping side of the hill. Below was the treeline, but beyond that the land fell away again in high ridges and deep ravines, all clad in the riotous colors of what seemed an endless enchanted forest. Even when the mountain flattened out, at some inconceivable distance away, the forest dominated, though the trees looked to be paler, more pastel shades than the ones closer by. Somewhere nearby the glint of a river wound its barely visible way through the trees.
Steve looked up at Loki’s profile. The god was contemplating the scenery and Steve suddenly wondered what it was that Loki he saw. What would it be like to look through a god’s eyes?
The sun was edging down toward the horizon, and a cold breeze blew up, ruffling his hair, sending Loki’s dark green cape shifting around his tall body. The cold invaded his lungs. It was getting harder to breathe.
Loki kept watching the landscape, waiting with the pure purpose of a predator sure of its prey. The sun vanished in a final glory of oranges and reds and pinks. The sky darkened quickly and the temperature dropped equally swiftly.
“Look up!” Loki said suddenly, and Steve tilted his head back to watch where Loki was pointing at the sky.
A flash and then another. Steve had seen this before, racing stars that tore themselves from the heavens and brought their gifts to the earth. So they had these things on godrealms, too?
Another two, then ten, and Steve’s interest shifted to awe. Still breathing shallowly, still fighting against a catch that now seemed deep inside his chest, he pushed the discomfort away, as he had so many times before. He knew he should rest, but it wasn’t his choice now, and besides, the stars were falling, thick and fast. Wonder and awe abruptly transformed to fear. “Is this the end? Are all the stars falling?”
Loki made an amused sound and looked at him indulgently. “Firefall,” he said. “A different kind of magick, from Realms that never truly formed, or Realms that have died. This happens seldom. I always try to be here when it happens.” He laid a hand on Steve’s arm. Steve shuddered at the touch at the cool touch. Loki trailed his fingers down Steve’s arm, brushed them against the back of Steve’s hand, then withdrew his touch. “We will go down soon,” he said. “The best of the meteorites leave traces of themselves, from pebbles to small stones, each imbued with the power that comes between realms. They are not all the same…”
Loki continued to talk, and Steve tried to listen, but there was a thick sensation in his chest and throat and he suddenly felt very cold and then very hot, as fevered as if he were lying on a heated rock at noontime, the sun beating directly on him.
Not this, not now, he thought. He tried to focus on Loki’s voice, on the god’s voice, telling him who knows what kind of secrets no mortal had ever heard. But it was getting colder and colder yet. Steve sucked in another mouthful of icy air, coughed, and then couldn’t stop coughing. Doubling over, his hands pressed tight to his ribs, he struggled to breathe. He fell to his knees, then felt strong hands grasp his armpits and pull him upright.
His eyes blurred with tears. He tried looking up, but all he saw were streaks of light from the firefall. Then the sky dissolved into a smear of light. He could barely see, his vision narrowing down to two bright green eyes. Then even those disappeared. One arm caught him under the knees, another wrapped around his chest, and he felt himself pressed to a strong body.
Everything was hazy for a while, then reality itself went away for a moment. Everything went dark then bright then loud then quiet. He blinked and blinked again, and saw a dark sky filled with more stars than he had ever seen, and were those three moons in the sky? There were more things that weren’t stars or moons – streams and whorls of color wheeled across the night sky.
He realized he was lying on his back, one hand clutching sharp wet blades of grass, the other resting on his chest. There was a cold wind blowing, and he shivered as it quested knifelike through his clothing, chilling his body. He tried to move, coughed again, pressed his hands to sore ribs. Booted feet entered his field of vision and he looked up.
Loki, from his considerable height, was looking down at him with a contemplative look on his face, the sharp-eyed view of a cat seeing something strange and interesting. Loki crouched down and reached for his shoulders.
Steve sat up an instant before the god’s hands touched him, then leaned back on his elbows. His chest hurt, a deep, familiar ache, and he knew well what it foretold. The coughing sickness, fever, weakness. Possible death. He began shivering violently.
The god huffed impatiently. “So proud, you mortals, and so weak.” Loki sat on the ground beside him. One wave of a bone-pale long-fingered hand and suddenly small light-filled globes were floating in the air, casting a pale illumination over the ground. A fire sprang up next, and Steve, suddenly too exhausted to maintain even the pretense of trying to sit up, lay back down.
Then, suddenly, warmth enveloped him and he found he was cloaked in the finest fur robe imaginable, a soft brown, seeming all of one piece. Though he had not moved he realized he was resting upon it, that he was completely wrapped in it, its warmth shielding him from the cold ground that had been leaching all the heat from his body. It seemed to have its own internal heat as he felt the chill retreating from his flesh. Gratefully, he wrapped his arms around himself. “Thank you,” he said, knowing his eyes were round with amazement.
Steve, finally feeling warmer, lay very still, concentrating on his breathing. One breath in – no coughing. A small victory. One breath out. Another in.
He failed at the third, and when he recovered from the paroxysm he found Loki watching him, his expressive face gone blank. The feeling of heat, of fever returned, and he stirred restlessly, wanting as much to remove the warmth of the robe as he had welcomed its comfort from cold.
Loki made a sudden gesture and Steve started when a knife appeared in one of Loki’s hands, its blade glinting in the firelight. Loki contemplated the blade for a moment, then gestured again. A golden apple gleamed in the firelight. Steve lay there, without expectation or fear, the fever filling him, draining him of the ability to think.
Loki’s hands moved almost too quickly for sight. A tip of the knife sliced through the apple’s skin and then Loki carved out a small chunk. Its flesh glowed as if lit from within and its skin was of the purest gold. The memory of the sudden restoration of his sight flashed through his mind. The memory of the taste of the apple flooded him, better than honey cakes, better than anything else he had ever tasted.
He wanted to reach for it, and shifted, tried to raise a hand, but it dropped again, his muscles too weak to lift.
Loki bent forward, the piece glowing between two fingers. “Open your mouth,” he whispered.
His eyelids, when he blinked, seemed made of fire, and every breath was a knife stab. He felt Loki slide a finger across his upper lip, then along his lower. Then Loki pressed the apple slice against his lips and his mouth dropped open, almost without his will.
Loki slid the slice inside his mouth. The instant Steve registered the taste he began sucking at the juices. Loki’s eyes, pupils dilated, were intent on his mouth. Steve kept his gaze as he chewed slowly, savoring the morsel, enjoying the overwhelming taste, an initial sweetness on his tongue that changed to a tart flavor as he swallowed. He swallowed, swallowed again, and moaned as the fruit’s magick filled his body, centering in his chest, his lungs.
Loki rested one hand on his forehead, the other on his chest. The cool touch was soothing. He felt the fever begin to leave his skin, felt a blissful languor seep through him instead. He stared up into Loki’s eyes. He began counting his breath, waiting for the cough. One. Two.
Thirty. His eyes slid closed.
“Sleep.” Loki said. And he did.
Loki sat crosslegged on the ground, watching the mortal. He was sleeping easily now, that horrible noise in his lungs quieted to normal breathing. So frail, so weak. And so full of spirit. It blazed out of him, in his courage and his reined-in defiance. Loki knew full well what the mortal must think of what Loki had done to him. How had he had the courage to go on a vision quest to confront him? How did he have the courage to speak calmly and plainly, with clear intelligence, in the face of one so much more powerful than he?
How one as fragile as he had survived this long was unknowable. There were those whose spirit burned so brightly that they could defeat obstacles other, stronger men could not.
Old memories intruded. Of being the weaker one, the smaller one. Of knowing the scorn of others who were filled with pride in their strong bodies and had no interest in understanding those who did their best and still could not measure up. The scars of those memories still marked his soul.
He needed to go. It was best to capture what he needed immediately after firefall, before the Alfheim soil absorbed and changed the power the meteorites possessed. Yet, he hesitated. On impulse, he brushed one hand against the mortal's hair, in a way very different than the way he would pet a favored hound. Then he reached out and cast a ring of protection around the mortal. Rising, without looking back, he strode down the slant of the land toward those places where most of the meteorites had landed.
Everything was hazed with a green tint when Steve woke. Alarmed, he stood up. Had something else happened to his eyes?
The green glow surrounded him. It did not obscure his vision, but tinted everything around him with a faint emerald tinge. Trees, grasses, even the patchy glimpses he caught of the river beyond its border of trees - everything was bathed in green light. Except –
His hand, his body looked as they always had, and the grasses and tiny flowers growing near his feet shone in their true colors, undimmed by any filter.
He reached out, then stepped forward, but no matter what he did he could not quite touch the – what was it? – just beyond him. It remained as elusive as a rainbow.
He took a deep breath of cool, forest-scented air, reveling in the feeling of being able to breathe easily and without pain. He felt – well. Better than he had ever felt in his life. The taste of the apple still miraculously lingered on his tongue. He remembered other times the fever had caught him, times when his mother had feared for his life, and yet he had always pulled through. But now he felt as if he had never had fever, never had pain in his lungs in his entire life.
Where was Loki? He turned in a slow circle, searching out every hidden place beneath every tall tree. There was no sign of the god. Why had he left him here alone? Would he come back?
The thought was alarming. Knowing the god’s reputation, he could easily have gotten bored and abandoned him. He might well be on another Realm by now, consorting with who knows what manner of strange beings. Dwarves, elves, giant dwarves – so many strange beings, and the Realms held even stranger ones, if all the stories were true.
If he’d been abandoned – what would he do? Follow the river, he supposed. Maybe one of the Alfar would be kinder to him than their reputation – and Finn’s attitude – would suggest.
Remembering the terrifying tales of the Alfar he had heard, and Loki’s casual confirmation of at least one of the tales, made him suspect he’d be far better off in Loki’s company than in theirs. “Where are you?” he called and listened intently, looking around at every sound heard. Wind soughed through the trees, rose and sun-yellow and violet leaves drifting down in its wake. High above, a huge bird soared, its silhouette dark against the sunny sky, shrieking in a near-human voice. From somewhere close by, a raucous voice screamed in reply. Startled, hair rising on his skin, he looked around, but whatever owned that voice remained hidden.
Nothing else happened. Maybe drawing attention to himself in this forest fastness was ill-advised. He wished he had his knife. He was still wearing the clothing he had been wearing when he was tied to the tree. He scratched his beard – then noticed, with surprise, that the scars on his wrists from the wounds the ropes had inflicted on him had disappeared completely. He rubbed at them anyway, marveling at the smooth texture of his skin.
Feeling thirsty, he turned toward the river – and froze.
Loki was standing several feet ahead of him, a bright aura surrounding him like a million sparkling grains of gold.
The green around Steve vanished. He blinked as this world assumed its true, if strange, colors. “What was that green glow around me?” He extended his arms then brought them in a circle around his body to demonstrate.
“Protection,” Loki said succinctly. The golden glow was fading now – not disappearing, but somehow sinking into Loki’s skin.
“And that?” Steve gestured.
“Firefall. As I said, it has its powers, for those who can make use of them.” He looked supremely self-satisfied. He looked Steve up and down. “What was that odd thing that happened to you? Your breathing – so ragged. Your skin – so hot. A mortal malady?”
Steve felt oddly embarrassed and compensated by being defiant. “Yes. A mortal illness. I expect gods are not troubled by such things.” He gave Loki a hard look, then softened his expression. Loki had saved his life. He wanted to be more grateful, but it was hard to get past the reason why he was here.
“Not naturally, no. I did think at first you had been bespelled, but there was no trace of magic on you.” Loki considered him for a moment. “Mortals need to eat frequently, do they not? Would you like food?”
Steve suddenly realized he was ravenous. “Yes.”
Loki made a complicated gesture with his arms and Steve’s jaw dropped as an elaborate pavilion, open in the front, materialized from thin air. Four columns held up a golden roof. The interior was curtained on three sides with a thick fabric embroidered at the edges in runes done in gold. Inside was a table perched on delicate curved legs, laden with food, and behind that a wide bench with a back, upholstered in pale leather.
Steve felt another sense of utter unreality. How could he be here, among gods, witnessing these miracles? Part of him suddenly ached for home, for normality, where the dwellings of the gods did not simply appear. Part of him want to stay and see everything he could.
Loki smirked at the expression on his face. “Don’t just stand there. Your feast awaits you.”
The delicious odors called to him and he stepped onto the pavilion’s smooth stone floor, intricate with curving designs. He could feel the magick it held, a different kind of spirit-movement. The feeling was like the sense he had when seasons changed, or a storm was coming, and everyone was aware different circumstances were upon them. Like, but not the same. It was like a touch on his skin out of nowhere, a sound he couldn’t distinguish, a pattern in wood that wanted to be something but hadn’t yet told him what.
Loki took a seat in the center of the bench and gestured for him to sit. Steve did and contemplated the array of food before them, waiting for permission to begin eating. He wasn’t going to start eating before the god gave him explicit permission; it would be like sitting before the village elders had taken their seats, only even more consequential an error.
Loki filled a golden plate with morsels from various serving dishes. The bowls and plates, many of them transparent and colored in the pastel shades of the petals of spring flowers, looked so delicate he hesitated to touch them. Loki seemed pleased by his deference, but then he rolled his eyes. “Do you intend to starve?”
Steve copied Loki’s choices and ate meat and fish and the fruits of the earth and plants and trees, all delicious beyond any imagining. He ate more than he thought he could hold and when done he leaned back, supremely content.
Loki shifted position, lounging at the end of the couch, He looked Steve over. “So. Mortals. Are they often afflicted with such maladies?”
“Yes,” Steve said. “Many babes die. Many infants. Rare is the family where most of their children survive to adulthood.”
Loki considered that. “It is such among all the creatures of Midgard, or so I have been told. And you? You must be strong to have survived this long. And yet other men of your people are so much larger than you.”
Steve winced and Loki’s eyes widened at his expression. Feeling utterly out of his depth, Steve explained, “I was sickly. I heard them say how I barely made it past my second year. My mother,” he stopped, swallowed, his eyes prickling. Was she well? How long would it be before he saw her again? “…and Fulla – our shaman – saved my life, many times.”
“But you did survive.”
“Do gods even know of such things?” How could they, he wondered. Loki was perfection – as was the Alfar. Strong, beautiful, immortal. Why would they even care about the travails of mortals?
“I understand more than you could possibly know.” There were undertones in Loki’s voice that Steve did not understand. But how could he? He, a mortal, in a Realm few of his kind had ever been taken to. The gods doubtless viewed him and his village and his entire life exactly the same way as he viewed the lives of ants. A faceless multitude, busy with meaningless tasks, quick to die. He shifted, uncomfortable, not knowing what to say or do. Though fully clothed, he felt fully exposed to the god’s considering gaze, felt like some strange creature being studied. Or, perhaps, something interesting, like the pattern he could see inside wood before he began carving it.
There was something more than curiosity in Loki’s gaze. Something that hinted of memories best forgotten. Steve tried to stay absolutely still, not knowing what to say or do. Loki said at last, “You are frail, for a mortal. Yet you lived. You have a strong spirit; you have heart. And despite your maladies, you are a champion of your people.”
“I am no warrior.”
“Do they not use the skills of archers in their battles? I have seen such, among others of your kind.”
“I am not strong enough to go with them. I tried. I tried so hard. But I wasn’t good enough. I weary too easily. I become ill too quickly.”
Loki was looking at him as if he were seeing something new and unsettling. “When you were a child, did you want to do more than all said you were fated to do?”
The strange note in his tone and the odd look on his face made Steve shiver. “I wanted to be a hero. I wanted to do great deeds. But when I grew from a child to a young man I became ill again. It is hard to breathe when I run. It pains me and I cough. I knew I could never be a warrior. I would never be able to protect my village. Not in the way of the warriors, anyway. But if I could not protect my people that way, I could become a good archer, even if I could not do so many other things. I could at least take part in battle if it came close. I wanted to be the best at something, and this I could do.”
“Yes. Archery. You drove yourself to be the best, even though others at first looked like they would be the hero everyone acclaimed.”
“Like Clint,” Steve agreed. “I looked up to him. He was always the best. He didn’t mind when I asked him for lessons, though I know he thought it a joke. But I persevered. I had to be able to do something in case my people needed to be protected. I could not go out on the hunting parties or the war parties, and when I was a child, our village was attacked by thieves who stole and burned. My mother hid me away. We watched through a crack in the cellar floor as our home was torched – we only escaped because of the tunnel my father had dug from the cellar out to the shed, and then we fled through the rear door. I was ill with fever for weeks after. I still have nightmares.” He paused, looked down. “Nor could I go out with the war party when the Great King died and his sons went to war. My father never came home.” His last words were whispered. The pain should be too old to feel this fresh.
Loki nodded. His face had gone dark and brooding.
“But what do gods know about such things?” Steve asked, genuinely curious, now that he knew Loki knew so very little about something as simple as illness. “You have such greatness to behold, such deeds I hear in the tales.”
Loki put a smile back on his face that seemed very false to Steve. “What indeed?” He picked up a crystalline goblet and took a long drink. He tilted his head back, exposing the pale length of his neck, and for a long time he just lay there, eyes half-closed, the goblet dangling from his fingers, its facets glinting in the shafts of sunlight pouring into the lower part of the pavilion. Steve sat still, waiting, wondering what would happen next,
In the near distance he heard birds calling to each other. Several emerald-green birds arrowed up from a tree and disappeared over the roof of the pavilion. One enormous rose-colored creature fanned an enormous purple-pink tail, then folded it and lifted off into the air, the tail trailing several feet behind it. It had wings, so Steve decided it must be a bird, but he had never seen its like before.
After what seemed like an endless wait, Loki sat up and faced him. “Mortal,” he said, and then, leaning closer, his eyes intent on Steve’s face, took another breath and said, “What is your name?”
Feeling as small as an insect, he said softly, “Steven of Hofoastrond.”
“Steven of Hofoastrond.” The word rolled off Loki’s tongue like an incantation. “I have a gift to give you.” He stood. The table and the remains of their repast shimmered and disappeared. Steve dragged his gaze back from the now empty floor to where Loki was standing in front of him and quickly got to his feet. Steve watched in anticipation – but whatever it was Loki intended to give him didn’t happen because suddenly someone else was there.
Steve recognized the tall figure immediately. It was that elf who had been in Loki’s chamber, the one who had kissed Loki so lewdly. Finn.
He glanced at Loki and surprised a look of irritation on the god’s face. Loki smoothed the expression away and lifted his eyebrows in an expression of mock surprise. “Ah, Finn. Tiring so soon of your pursuits?”
“Ah, but you, of course, are prime among them.” Finn sauntered closer, his white hair and his translucent purple and silver garments swirling gently as if in a breeze even though the air was still. Colorful jeweled rings climbed the outer length of each pointed ear, and two emerald rings pierced the ends of his eyebrows. He stepped close to Loki, and bent forward. Their mouths met. For an instant the elf’s white hair nearly obscured Loki’s face. All Steve could see was a glimpse of Loki’s black hair.
Steve tracked Finn’s every movement. He ought to be respectful and wary of this obvious powerful being. But his presence gave Steve ideas he would rather not have of forbidden desires. Finn’s presence annoyed him and he hoped Finn would leave soon. The way Loki had spoken Steve’s name had seemed so significant, and his offer of the promised gift so intriguing. He yearned to learn more.
Loki stepped back from Finn. He and the Alfar gazed at each other, identically crafty looks in their eyes.
Finn stepped into the pavilion as if he owned it and settled on the couch in a movement so graceful no human could possibly imitate it. Steve kept his gaze on Finn’s uncanny eyes. The Alfar spread out his arms and gave them both a benevolent smile, as if he were the rightful owner of the pavilion and they his guests. He leaned back, smirking at Loki.
Loki conjured two chairs and waved for Steve to sit in one. He took the other, gestured again, and the same table reappeared, without its burden of food. He began another gesture but Finn extended a ring-laden hand and a bottle and two goblets made of transparent green spiraled glass appeared. The goblets filled themselves.
“Show-off,” Loki said snidely.
“You should talk,” Finn retorted, and offered a glass to each.
“Don’t drink that,” Loki said to Steve sharply. Snatching the glass away from him, Loki set it down on the table, placing his own besides it.
Finn raised his eyebrows, one corner of his mouth tilting up in amusement. “Why, it almost seems as if you don’t trust me,” he purred.
“I trust you exactly as much as you trust me.” They exchanged lethal smiles.
Steve watched them in amazement as they traded hard stares.
“It’s insulting,” Loki said in a low tone, “to think you believed I wouldn’t recognize your spellwork.” He gestured. The bottle and glasses disappeared, the table as well.
Finn laughed. “Nothing malevolent, I assure you. I just wanted to get your seiðr off me. When you touched that glass your spell was cancelled. It doesn’t matter where you sent the glass.”
Loki stepped closer to loom over Finn. “It was just an ordinary protection spell. I wanted to keep you safe from your enemies,” he said with overdone sincerity. “You do have them, you know,” he added in a confiding tone.
Finn huffed a laugh. “How kind. But I recommend worrying about your own enemies.” His violet eyes gleamed with a type of malevolent amusement. He didn’t move from his relaxed position on the couch. “Eitri is furious. Your little trick didn’t hold for long. I’d get out of here if I were you.”
Loki laughed, and sprawled lazily on the other side of the couch. Steve, without thinking, moved to stand by his side. “I gave Eitri what he paid for. The gold-finder does what I said it would. What cause does he have to be dissatisfied?”
“Hmm, let me think. Maybe,” Finn showed his teeth, “it’s because he didn’t find any gold.”
“Oh, well, that.” Loki shrugged. “How is it my fault he and his people have mined every bit of gold from their realm and haven’t even figured that out yet?”
“So,” Finn pounced on his admission. “You knew all the gold was gone before you ever got there.”
“Why, yes. Trust me, Finn – if there was any gold left on Nidavellir save for what he hid away to test me, my device would have found it.”
“And it didn’t occur to you to tell him?” Finn’s eyes were dancing with an unholy glee.
“Whatever for?” Loki seemed genuinely baffled.
“And you can’t figure out why he might be angry with you?”
Loki shrugged and pretended to yawn. “If he can’t keep track of his own business how is it my responsibility to do it for him?”
Finn roared an actual belly laugh. “Well,” he said. “You really need to leave Alfheim before he shows up here. He’s liable to make a mess of things, and I can’t have that. Drop by again, oh, in a decade or so. Once you’ve taken care of this little matter, well, my bed is always open to you. Bring Thor next time.”
Loki snarled. “Oh oh oh!” said Finn. “You’re not nearly as beautiful when you look that way. Still lovely, though,” he added thoughtfully. He glanced at Steve. “Enjoy your new toy.”
“I’m not a plaything!” Steven said hotly.
Finn snorted. “Aren’t you? Well,” he made a theatrical gesture. “It’s been fun, but…”
Steve had opened his mouth to argue – but suddenly Finn just wasn’t there.
Much to Steve’s relief, Vanaheim was utterly different from Alfheim. It was also much closer in appearance to Steve’s own home, and that made him feel more at ease, more able to accept all the strange things that had happened to him now that he had a moment or two to relax and breathe in air that smelled like home.
Loki had made the decision to leave Alfheim an instant after Finn left. Another terrifying but thankfully brief ride in that skiff, and they’d landed in another forest. These trees, aside from their height – they were so tall they seemed to touch heaven itself – resembled ones he was used to at home. The air, unlike Alfheim’s flower-sweet breezes, was leafy and rain-fresh. Even the village they had spotted from the air resembled his own home in some ways, though the people themselves looked very different, both in their black hair and the shape of their eyes.
Steve experienced another instant of terror as Loki guided the skiff directly toward a narrow opening in a cliff. Unlike their previous rides, this approach was slow. Guiding the skiff into what opened into what he called a “box canyon” Loki settled the craft on bare ground.
Loki hopped out, Steve following. The reddish stone walls leaned toward each other, shadowing the earth below. The canyon sides almost touched in places, and the canyon itself ended in a blank wall. The only other way out was a gap at the topmost point at the end of the canyon. Loki pointed out the gap was just the right size for their skiff to pass through, should they need to leave that way.
“We’ll set up camp here,” Loki said – and proceeding to prove that what he meant by those words was magicking into existence an elaborate structure with several rooms, including one entirely devoted to bathing. The animal paws holding up the tub looked so real that Steve expected it to walk off by itself. Another room was just for dining and contained a fireplace guarded by golden statues of fantastic animal figures. Yet another contained a bed so fancy and so enormous it would easily have fit three men of Loki’s size. It was so elaborate with its embroidered bedding and jeweled posts it surpassed even the one Steve had awakened in on Alfheim.
Loki’s conjurings still astonished him. No matter how many miracles he saw, the next one always felt like something entirely new and equally impossible to the ones he had already witnessed. But these were the powers of gods he was seeing, and part of him found it easy to accept each fresh wonder.
What was disturbing, though, was watching Loki as he moved about their “camp”. His beauty, the grace of his movements, his towering height, his lithe body – Steve watched him with naked admiration. He tried to keep his gaze from creeping down below Loki’s waist, but the tight breeches did not conceal what was clearly a godly manhood.
Finn’s words – calling him Loki’s toy – had infuriated him and filled him with hot shame. The way the Alfar had looked at him was as if Finn knew and understood and was amused by every forbidden fantasy Steve had harbored for other men.
He felt himself harden at these shameful thoughts and turned away, not wanting Loki to see the evidence of his arousal. He pretended to examine the intricacies of a table that looked like it had been pieced together from various types of wood. “What kind of carving is this?” he asked.
Loki ran one hand along the tabletop. “The Vanir excel in woodwork of all kinds.” He touched Steve’s arm, turned him. Steve’s skin tingled at the touch. Loki was so close Steve had to crane his neck at an extreme angle just to look up into the god’s eyes. This close, Steve inhaled Loki’s heady scent – a mixture of the clean scent of air after rain with an earthier, very male note beneath. He turned away, trying to hide his reaction, and found himself looking at himself.
Desire suddenly dashed away, he stared at what looked like an open doorway. It must be a reflection of some kind, but the size of it! He stared at himself, eyes huge in his half-starved face. The clothes he had been wearing when he set off on his quest, now worn and ragged, hung from his already thin frame. The village chief had a prized metal mirror, and he had once been allowed to look at his own image in it, and he knew his face from seeing it reflected in the water – but this mirror showed him in every detail. How small he looked, how frail compared to any man in his village, much less the god behind him. He took in the whole image and realized he could also see Loki, standing behind him, and the table behind them both. Loki was looking down, probably at the back of Steve’s head, not into the mirror. Steve tried to interpret his expression, to compare it with Loki’s other looks. He’d seen him looking amused, speculative, pleased, arrogant, condescending, all toward himself. And to the Alfar – to Finn – entertained, lustful, angry, competitive. But this was a softer look, more contemplative.
Loki lifted his gaze then, looked in the mirror, and Steve saw that Loki was looking at Steve’s face, not his own. Loki’s expression changed again, became decisive. He watched as one of Loki’s hands rose and settled on his shoulder. He turned to face the god.
“I promised you a gift. Let me give it to you now.”
His voice was quiet, almost hushed. Steve turned and looked at him inquiringly.
Loki gestured and out of nowhere pulled the long metal box he’d obtained in Nidavellir. He placed it on the table. “This is for you.”
Steve lifted it. It was very heavy, smooth, and cold. He set it down again and felt for some kind of latch or seam and found nothing.
“Grasp it on either end,” Loki directed. Steve did so. He started when his hands suddenly felt hot, but before he could snatch them away the feeling vanished.
“It will now open to your touch alone. Press it.”
Steve obediently pressed the sides, and the upper half opened and flattened. Another wonder, Steve marveled, and then smiled in delight at the sight of an unstrung bow and arrows inside. The bow lay inside a compartment made just for it, held in place by some thick soft material. His hands tingled when he touched it. Arrows – more than it seemed could possibly fit into the available space – were held inside their own compartment in the other half.
He took the bow out, examined it, held it. It felt like it had been made exactly for his hands. He examined the arrows – many were the same in appearance to the ones he ordinarily used, but of finer materials. Some had differently-shaped arrowheads. The materials they were made from were the finest he had ever felt, ever seen. He looked up and saw Loki smiling at him.
“Such a wonderful gift!” Steve exclaimed.
Loki smiled, satisfied. “The dwarves make fabulous weapons and tools and items of great beauty. Eitri has crafted a bow with which you may hit any target you aim true at. And a quill that is never empty, and certain arrows that can do different things. This one – ” he pressed a finger to one of the unusual ones, “ – can throw a net, and this one a hook and rope you can use as a grapple, and this one will split into three and take out any close adversaries. And you will always have whichever arrow you need to hand. This one,” Loki said, “is bespelled to emit a cloud that will put an enemy into a deathlike sleep. Quite useful if you need to ask questions before killing your adversary.”
Steve paused, one hand still caressing the bow. He pulled his hand away and closed the case. He forced himself to look Loki in the eyes. He forced himself to speak these words, knowing only too well the price mortals paid for any effrontery to the gods. He squared his shoulders. “I want to be known for my own skill,” he said, keeping his voice strong and even, “not rely on a magic bow that barely needs my touch.”
“You would dare reject a gift from a god?” Loki’s face had gone completely blank. His emerald gaze seemed to spear into Steve, pierce him where he stood.
Here it comes. Steve froze, dreading what must surely come from such insolence. But he would not take those words back.
Then Loki’s eyes danced with merriment. “Ah, mortal. I have never met one like you.” He stroked a finger along the bow. “You misunderstand me. The bow will require all your strength and skill. But your range – ah that will be much further away. The furthest bird in the sky, the enemy on horseback on a distant ridge – all will be visible to you as if they stood at the furthest end of your archery field. I gave you back your vision but now it will be as keen as that of any mortal who ever lived. But your aim must be true. If you succeed it is by your own skill and if you fail, it will be because your own skill failed you.”
Steve looked down at the bow again, longing for it, reaching for it. He pulled his hand back. “Is it right for me to have such an advantage over others?”
Loki snorted. “What a thing to say! Never have I once heard anyone say such a thing. All I ever hear is braggadocio, everyone extolling his own might of arms, his prowess, all claiming to be better than everyone else.” There was an unmistakable thread of bitterness in his voice. Then responding to whatever it was he saw in Steve’s eyes, his own gaze hardened. “Hard times are coming to your land. You will need this, to protect your people.”
Gooseflesh ran over Steve’s arms. “Can you see the future?” he demanded with a shock of urgency.
“I can see the present.” Loki gestured off to some distant, unfathomable point. “There are those who dwell across the water from your land. There people hunger for land. And your land is closest. They are sending forth large dragon boats, to sail, to explore, to find fresh soil. It is only a matter of time before they find your home. They are well-armed. They will take what you have, animals, grain, goods, slaves, and burn your towns down.”
Steve could see it, as clearly as if it were happening now. So much had happened in their past, tales of raiders and marauders, and he had experienced such himself. The memory of squirming through that the tunnel to escape the bandits attacking his village, the feel of being closed in with the possibility of dying underground, frequently came back to him in his dreams.
But this seemed so very many times worse.
“I give you this gift – the bow and the knowledge to protect your people. Will you accept it?”
“I will,” Steve said. The image of himself, standing on high ground, rapidly taking out their enemies, to be a true champion and protector of his people had already formed in his mind.
“My debt is now repaid.” Loki held his gaze.
The words sounded ritualistic. Steve was surprised and gratified that Loki felt indebted to him, but a tiny voice whispered, You shouldn’t have done it in the first place. He decided it was the wiser course not to let those words pass his lips. “Thank you.” He took the bow from its box and strung it.
The god’s smile was soft and pleased, and Steve suddenly felt they had crossed some boundary that should have been impassible. He gave Loki a true smile, one he would have offered to any friend in his village. If anything, Loki looked more pleased. “Now,” Loki said, “you should test its measure.”
Steve sighted the bow. It fit his hands perfectly. He knew it had been made for him, but this was beyond mortal perfection. No man could have created anything as wondrous as this.
Loki had set a target at the very outer limits of his vision. Now, standing at Steve’s side, he settled his hands on Steve’s right shoulder and hip, adjusting his position by a minute fraction of an inch. Steve did not need Loki’s hands on him to help him choose the correct position. He was certain Loki knew that too. But he didn’t object to Loki’s touch. He found it exciting, even though it gave him forbidden thoughts.
He found it very pleasant to watch Loki – the perfection of his form, the carved lines of his face, the perfect pale skin, his every movement the epitome of grace. When Loki had walked back from placing the target, Steve’s attention had been riveted by Loki’s lithe body, displayed by the black leather clothing he wore. Square silver studs protected his shoulders, elbows and waist. The bronze torc drew attention to his chest. Every part of him was beautiful.
Watching the inhuman grace of Loki’s movements, he couldn’t help remembering the way that Alfar had kissed Loki. Kissed him thoroughly, obscenely. It was different for gods. They could do anything they liked. And he was here, with them.
He found himself wondering what it would be like to be kissed by Loki that way. He found himself imagining what it would be like to watch Loki and the Alfar coupling on that palatial bed, and found himself hard and simultaneously gripped with envy. What would it be like to couple with Loki? He shifted uncomfortably, hoping his tunic covered his hard-on, but by the expression of interest on Loki’s face as he approached he knew he’d been seen and understood. He tried and failed not to blush.
Now, with Loki’s hands on him, his skin tingling even through his clothing, he forced himself to remember the reason they were here. He turned to the target. “All right.” He nocked the first arrow to the bowstring, placing his fingers around the arrow. He took in a deep breath, exhaled as he lifted the bow. Sunlight sifted through the canopy of the forest, sending stray shafts to illuminate patches of ground. The target was an impossible distance away, barely visible through the intervening trees. Concentrating, he focused on the target until everything else dropped away and all he saw was the center. Pulling the bowstring back, inhaling as he did so, time slowing down, he readied himself for the shot. The feeling of the curve of the bow in one hand, the nocked arrow and string in the other, felt so right in his hands. Perfection.
All that existed now was the target. He let out a fraction of a breath and relaxed his fingers.
The arrow flew sure and true through the intervening space and struck the target dead center.
He lowered the bow, turned and looked up at Loki, who nodded with approval. He found himself grinning widely, and an instant later Loki’s smile matched his own. For once the god’s expression seemed pure and honest; there were no layers of hidden meanings behind Loki’s obvious pride in what Steve had accomplished.
The day drew on. He shot arrows one after another, and all hit his intended goal. Loki moved the target several times to even more obscure locations, but after several successful shots Steve lost interest in the stationary target. Loki pointed out a soaring bird, a barely visible speck in the brief gaps in the branching tree limbs above their heads. A target that would have been far beyond the range of any previous bow he had ever held. But there, ahead, a clearing. He understood the trajectory, could feel the breezes, instinctively knew which way the bird would follow the air currents. He aimed, he shot. The arrow soared through a gap between the trees and the bird dropped, its body disappearing in the maze of undergrowth.
Loki led him to retrieve it. It was a cock pheasant, with coppery body feathers, a red-and-blue face, and a white-ringed neck. When Loki had it in his grasp, he asked, “Would you like it as a trophy or a meal?”
“A trophy,” he said. The bird disappeared from Loki’s hand. Nothing immediately reappeared. Instead, Loki used an expansive gesture to include every part of the forest around them. “Would you like venison for dinner?”
Steve was on the hunt, then. This he knew very well, having provided for his mother many times. At the merest flash of brownish-red he aimed and moved and shot. When they reached the carcass the hart lay dead, shot through the heart.
He looked down at the body, struck again at what he could now do. “I will never take part in a contest again,” he told Loki. “But when the invaders come I will be ready.”
The afternoon hours spun on. He tested all the arrows, except the one which caused a magickal sleep. He caught another deer with the net. He killed three rabbits with the arrow that split apart. He shot the hook into a high branch in a tall tree, then dropped his gaze to the ground, realizing his limitations – he would never have the strength to climb that height. Loki pressed his left hand against Steve’s right one, and Steve looked up, feeling ashamed of his weakness, the vicious mocking taunts thrown at him by other boys when he was young, the slights about his lack of height and physical prowess that other men still said to his face burning in his memory. The way he had been pushed around and tripped and struck. He always retaliated. He always lost the fights. But he never backed down.
Loki was looking at him closely, and Steve blinked and pushed the pain of these memories behind him. He wondered if Loki had the power to read thoughts. Loki’s expression seemed so understanding, but there was also a darkness in his gaze. Steve understood instinctively it had nothing to do with him, but he wondered what that expression hinted at.
As the afternoon wore on he noticed that Loki took every possible occasion to touch him, fingers on his forearm, a hand on his side, a hand on his shoulder. Steve’s skin sang with every contact. Loki’s expressions promised forbidden joys and the terror of being led to a precipice and asked to fly.
He was exhausted by the time the sun was setting, and Loki looked at him with some concern.
“Now what is the trouble?” the god asked.
“I’m just tired,” Steve said after a reluctant pause.
“Already? Oh yes. Mortals.” The word, previously spoken condescendingly, now held fondness. “Well, let us rest. Do you want to dine again?”
Steve agreed and an instant after they got back to Loki’s “camp” food was magicakally on the table. This meal included roasted venison and well-cooked root vegetables. This time he didn’t wait, but dug in. He didn’t bother trying any of the strange delicacies that Loki savored, just ate some of everything he recognized until his hunger was appeased
One hunger, anyway. But he couldn’t admit to the other. Though the way Loki’s gaze was lingering on him…
He started thinking of the tales he had heard, of the maidens and childless women who had worshipped in Thor’s grove and how Loki’s brother was known to be the god of fertility. Many women had sworn their unexpected babies were the children of Thor, though many grew up to look like certain men in the village. But Loki – other women had sworn they had borne his child; the unclaimed babes who were born with black hair.
“What are you thinking?” Loki asked.
He blushed at that discerning gaze and tried to think of something to say other than his true thoughts. “There are those women in the village who say…” He stopped. He hadn’t meant to say this either.
Loki leaned forward, his chin on his fist, his elbow on the table. “What do they say?”
“That you fathered their children.”
He laughed. “I haven’t been there recently enough. Not within your lifespan.” He paused to think. “Perhaps their great-great-grandmothers. It’s hard to say. A century goes by so fast.” His gaze rested on Steve for a long moment – was that a moment of melancholy he saw in the god’s eyes?
And wasn’t that a thought? He was reminded again of the vast gulf between mortal and god. Generations of people were born and died, like the tide on the shore, and yet the gods lived on, immortal but still vulnerable in their own cycle of time. A stab of homesickness struck. He wondered when Loki would return him to his home. He wondered if Loki would return him to his home. He wondered what his mother and the people in the village would think of him when he returned.
He swallowed, feeling a stab of grief. No matter what happened, nothing would ever be the same.
“Do you… Did you enjoy… being with humans?” Another thing that he hadn’t intended to say, but didn’t regret.
Loki’s gaze sharpened, and he took a frank look up and down Steve’s body. Part of him wanted to blanket himself away from that gaze.
Part of him wanted to expose himself completely.
Loki held his gaze, selected a berry from a bowl, and inserted it slowly into his mouth. He sucked on it then swallowed, never taking his eyes off Steve’s.
A surge of desire flooded Steve. “That Alfar,” Steve said, feeling bold. “You and he are – ?” He hesitated. He had no word for this, other than the ugly and toxic word ergi.
“Yes?” Loki looked amused, clearly unwilling to help Steve.
“You – do things – together,” Steve went on awkwardly. “Intimate things,” he ended on a whisper.
“Ah,” Loki said in a broad pretense at surprise. “Yes. We do. Did you first suspect this when he put his tongue in my mouth?”
Steve blushed bright red, knowing to a god he was simplicity itself. “But you don’t even like each other.”
“Why? Why not make it simple?”
“I like complicated.” Loki stretched like a lazy cat, and Steve decided he should stop attempting to figure out the workings of the god’s mind. “Would you like for us to do the same?”
Steve felt that his face was on fire. “It’s just that – this is forbidden.”
Loki’s expression darkened, and Steve quickly added. “To us. To mortals.”
Loki drew himself up haughtily. “Nothing is forbidden to me.”
“But you are a god. All say it is wrong for men.” Steve said, reluctant.
“True. I am a god.” Loki leaned forward and caressed Steve’s face. Steve, despite himself, leaned into it. Loki stood, lifted him as lightly as if he were a mere babe, and set him on the hearth step so their faces could be level. Then his lips were on Steve’s. Steve shivered as Loki slid his tongue between the seams of his lips and opened his mouth. Overwhelmed by Loki’s cool touch and heady scent, Steve held on as tightly as he could and let his mouth be plundered. Shyly he returned the kiss, cautiously allowing himself to stroke Loki’s smooth cool beardless face, as soft as he imagined a woman’s face would feel, with not the slightest trace he had ever grown a beard. Loki held the kiss for a long breathless moment, then pulled away slightly and scratched his nails through Steve’s beard, sending prickles down Steve’s neck and back. Loki hummed some soft unintelligible word, then nipped his way down Steve’s neck.
Loki bent down, his lips trailing along Steve’s throat, and then he pressed a kiss to the bare skin below the collarbone. Steve shuddered, realizing with shock that their clothing had vanished, and their bodies were pressed skin to skin. Pleasure flooded him, the delightful sensation of heat and hardness consuming him, but when he gasped for breath and realized he was rutting against Loki’s body a wave of alarm ran through him. He pulled back, his body protesting the loss of pleasure.
“Is this right for me, a mortal, to do?” His voice was hoarse, scratchy; his cock keened, demanding attention.
Loki stepped back a bare inch. “Whatever we do, you can still say truly you were never with a man.” But there was some hidden hurt behind the insouciant smile, some hint of fracture in the modulated voice.
Steve caught his breath, the old fear rising that his breath would be short and difficult again, and breathed in and out twice before he felt he had enough breath to speak. His skin was still alight with Loki’s touch, his cock leaking with need. “So there is no one to judge, to call judgment?”
“I do what I want,” Loki said. Steve knew he was evading the question, as elusive as a silvery fish in a fast-running steam. “As can you – here and now. So tell me, Steven of Hofoastrond, what do you want?”
Steve was suddenly, acutely aware, not only of his need, but of how poorly his body looked compared to Loki’s perfection. Even standing on a step he still was the shorter. He was skinny, poorly muscled, slight of stature. Weak. No man at all, truly, except for his will and determination, but stripped of his clothing he felt naked in soul as well as body. Desire ebbing, he asked, “Why would you want me?”
Loki looked at him as if questioning his sanity. “Do not question my desires.”
Steve saw that Loki meant it. “But I am – ”
“A mortal? Yes. I noticed,” Loki said silkily. “Now, choose your own desire.”
Steve did what he had always done – chose his own path and followed it. Decision made, he closed the gap between them, wound his arms around Loki’s back, and brought his lips close to Loki’s. “Tell me what you want.”
Loki’s pupils widened and a sliver of a smile touched his lips. He touched a hand to Steve’s back, pushed lightly. “Down there.” Steve descended the one step and looked up at Loki towering over him, then down. Loki was erect, the foreskin back, the cockhead fully exposed.
Steve got to his knees in front of him. He’d never done any of these things but had fantasized, his cock in hand, over what he had seen by accident over the years. The god’s cock was long, like his body. He opened his mouth, let the tip slip in, tongued the foreskin, tasted the inhuman strangeness of it, opened his mouth wider. Loki hissed and tangled his fingers into Steve’s hair as he pushed further in. Steve didn’t even try to take his full length. He grew bolder, experimenting with his tongue, using his hand to grasp the root. Loki threw his head back and growled out encouragements, and the sound of that lustful voice, the smell of him had Steve’s own cock ragingly hard.
Loki uttered encouragement and directions to him and he found he was a quick learner. When the god cried out his pleasure and spilled down Steve’s throat, he swallowed and wondered what it would do, to take this part of the god inside him.
“Rise,” Loki said, and Steve did so, still hard, but shivering in air that had suddenly turned chill.
Loki noticed, gestured toward the fireplace, and a crackling hearthfire sprang up, quickly and evenly heating the air. Then Loki took him by the hand and led him to the bedchamber.
“I have seen you thinking of me,” Loki said, and Steve blushed, remembering how Loki had strode to him from where he had placed the target, his body betraying his fantasies, not even his tunic hiding his hardness. “Your desire cannot have been only to please me.”
“No,” Steve admitted.
There was a mass of fancy multicolored pillows on the bed. “Lie down,” Loki said, and Steve did, cock fully hard again, nerves quivering in anticipation.
Then with his mouth and hands, Loki explored every part of Steve’s body with the care and skill that the finest players of flute and lyre could only dream of. When Loki’s cool mouth surrounded his cock he shouted, squeezed his eyes shut, consumed by rising tides of pleasure, sharp, ecstatic, and all too quickly done. When he was able to think again Loki was lying next to him. He could feel the gentleness of the strong arms around him, the care Loki took, and Steve knew it must come from previous experience with fragile humans.
He tried to keep his eyes open, but the day’s exhaustion took him into sleep.
Steve awoke some time later – he couldn’t tell how long it had been. He lay still for a moment, eyes closed, trying to sort through his thoughts and feelings. He had done something he had never done before; he was no longer a virgin. He had done the forbidden ergi act, and it had been wonderful, and he had done it with a god, and that made it right. And why should it not be right? It had been a revelation, ecstasy, every good thing in the world.
He thought of the guilt and shame he had felt, feeling these thoughts, this desire, this need; thought of the ways he’d hidden it away. He’d pretended to himself that he had admired the bodies of strong men because he desired to be like them – not that he desired to couple with them. He had told himself, over and over again, that he could not think of them the way he was supposed to think about women, and had been filled with burning shame when his denials of his nature had been swept away by the truth of his need.
All other men his age had wives and babes. But no father, no mother, wanted a man who was likely to die young as a husband for their daughter and that, while another crushing reminder of his difference, and the acknowledgement that he was destined for an early death, had also been a relief for he would not be asked to do what he did not want to do.
He wondered whether men could ever have the same freedom as gods.
He finally opened his eyes. It was now full dark. Light from two huge moons streamed in through the windows, one of them directly above a window set in the roof itself. Round lights glowed serenely around the room, hovering near the ceiling. He turned on his side and saw Loki lying on his back next to him. Loki didn’t notice him at first. The god, supremely unselfconscious of his nudity, had arranged himself among the pillows, the pale length of his body spotlit by the hovering lights and set off against the dark green of the bedding. He held a glass of some honey-colored liquid in one hand, and was looking intently at one of his “books”.
After a second, Loki noticed Steve was awake, closed the book and set it aside on a small table. Steve was suddenly conscious of his own nudity, his own mortality, his own lack of comeliness, to use the word Loki had spoken in their first true conversation. He reached to pull a covering over himself, but Loki stayed his hand.
Loki was looking at him with interest, not disdain. Perhaps all mortals looked equally frail to him? His face, so close to Steve’s, was flawless in every way. His green eyes, the color of new leaves, were framed by inky lashes; his clever mouth, curved in a slight smile, offered temptations Steve’s body wanted to accept.
Loki moved forward, claimed Steve’s mouth, and pressed a light kiss to his lips. Steve daringly reached out to hold one hand behind Loki’s head, card his fingers through the long black hair. But when Loki pulled back, Steve’s mind became active, and he again wondered, what was he, a mortal, doing in a god’s bed? What was happening now? He thought of the magic bow and arrows he’d been granted, and wondered what would happen when – if? – Loki returned him to his home. How would his people receive him? Would he still be shunned? What was happening to his mother?
“What are you thinking of?” Loki asked, settling a foot away from him. His face had lost its look of desire and transformed into – was Steve imagining it? – concern?
“I am thinking of my mother. If she is well. It was autumn when you brought me to Alfheim. Is it winter now? How does she fare?”
“It has only been a handful of days in any of the Realms. Are you so eager to depart?”
“Part of me wants to see more, learn more. But I’m worried. Now that I can see again, I can provide for my mother once more. She is a strong woman, do not doubt it, but I’m worried about what you told me about the invaders. I need to be there for her, for everyone. To protect them.”
“You are a true hero,” Loki mused, then added with a trace of surprise, “Though I have never met one who first thought of protecting others instead of seeking his own glory first.”
Steve blinked. “What else do heroes do?”
“Each boasts of his prowess. Each swears he can slay a hundred of the enemy. When battle is over, each describes, in tedious detail, every slice of his sword or axe, every strike of his hammer, every amputation and decapitation.”
Steve swallowed. “I know of war, of course. But when I think of wars I think of the losses – the men slain, the widows and orphans, the homes burned, the land wasted.” He swallowed again, and his eyes pricked with tears. “My father died in one.”
Was that surprise in Loki’s eyes? Was that tenderness in his expression? “Ah, Steven of Hofoastrond. I have never met one such as you.” Loki ran his fingers through Steve’s hair, trailed his fingers across Steve’s face. Goosebumps broke out on Steve’s skin and desire reawakened. His fingers wanted to reach out, to slide along Loki’s flank, to touch every inch of that beautiful skin. He almost did, but Loki withdrew the touch, then rose.
Steve followed. The witchlights accompanied them, their soft light hovering a few feet above their heads, lighting their path, as Loki headed into the dining chamber.
The room was very cold. Steve shivered, conscious of his nudity in a wholly different way than moments before. Loki seemed entirely unaffected. He looked puzzled when he noticed Steve hugging his arms.
“What is wrong?” he asked.
“I’m cold. Gods don’t get cold?” Steve managed to say through chattering teeth.
“I have heard tales that the elder warriors who fought in the battle on Jotunheim experienced true cold, but no, not on civilized Realms.” Loki made a gesture. Steve shouted in alarm as clothing suddenly covered his body. He looked down at himself and realized he was wearing his own clothing, but cleaned and fully repaired of the tears and snags that had marked his tunic and breeches before.
When he looked up, Loki was clothed as well, mostly in black, but now with green and gold accents instead of the silver and bronze ornamentation he had been wearing before. Loki summoned a fire to the large hearth and Steve moved to stand close by it, its warmth on his face and hands chasing away the remnants of chill.
Loki took a pitcher of water from an ornate table and poured some water into a delicate goblet. He handed it to Steve who drank thirstily.
“Steven of Hofoastrond, would-be protector of your people. I wish to offer you something other than what I have already given you. Do not fear,” he said at the expression on Steve’s face. “It is a gift rarely given to mortals, but I choose to do so now.”
A wild tangle of fear and anticipation sang through Steve’s nerves. All knew gifts from the gods were permanent, irrevocable, likely dangerous, and not to be refused. He had already been given that splendid bow; how could he imagine anything better? What price would he have to pay for this?
Loki clearly read his thoughts in this regard as well. “You can say no, and I will return to your home exactly as you are now.”
Loki’s face had gone blank. He turned his gaze away from Steve, glancing down at his hands. “I will return you now, if you like.”
Steve tried to make sense of what he was feeling. Loki’s touch had awakened something in him that had lain dormant deep in his soul. Everything he had seen since he had been here had been both strange and terrifying and fascinating and compelling. He again wondered, what would it be like when he returned? If the village considered him outcast would he need to take his mother from there, find some other village willing to accept them? And if they were allowed to stay there, how much would he himself have changed after all he had experienced?
Steve knew he must return, and soon. But he was itching with curiosity to find out what Loki meant. What other gift would the god give him? Steve was well aware his expressions hid none of his thoughts, that he would never have made a good liar. And Loki looked as if he could read every one of those thoughts.
Loki seemed irritated by his lack of response, and Steve resisted the temptation to apologize. “You must know how strange and marvelous all this is to me. Everything you’ve shown me, everything I’ve experienced, is nothing I could ever have dreamed of. I’m merely a man, and I’ve known all my life that what we cannot foresee is often difficult to accept.”
“You are not alone in that. We are gods, to your people, but there are those who are gods to us. The Norns alone know the fate of all.”
This was a concept Steve hadn’t considered, though of course the tales spoke of destiny and the cycles of time that even the gods themselves must submit to. “None of us can know our fates,” he agreed, speaking words he had often heard said by others in his village.
“So perhaps then I am simply offering you what destiny intends. Steven of Hofoastrond, I have told you that enemies are near your shores. I now ask you this – would you be a true protector of your people? A true champion in every way? Because, though I have given you the bow, what if you still cannot protect your people?”
Steve shivered. He immediately understood what Loki meant. His human frailty. Steve lifted his chin. He couldn’t deny the truth. But he would fight it as long as he could. “I will not give up.”
“No,” Loki agreed. “Not while you hold breath. But you came close to death, when I brought you down from the mountaintop. What happens if your enemies arrive when you have been stricken ill again? I understand how very frail your mortal life is. Perhaps my gift of the bow is one you will not live to use.”
Steve squeezed his eyes shut for one helpless moment, then opened them again. He couldn’t deny Loki’s words. If Loki had not healed him, in that meadow by the mountaintop, he knew the fever might well have led to his death. This prospect awaited him every winter. How many winters did he have left before he succumbed to the enemy that dwelt within his lungs? “I will do everything I can for as long as I can. I will give my last breath to defend my people.”
“But what if you did not have to be a slave to mortal maladies? What if there were a way to give you the strength of a true hero to defend your people against your enemies? To succeed in driving them from your shores?”
Steve was stunned by the enormity, the seeming impossibility of what he was being offered. But if there was any way he could do this, protect his people, save them from the fate Loki seemed certain awaited them, how could he shrink from this responsibility? “Yes. Of course. But what do I have to do? To agree to?”
“I can make it so you never suffer from such weaknesses that your mortal body is subject to again. But understand this. I said that there is no need to fear the gift I give you. But perhaps you should. It will change your life, irrevocably.”
Steve caught his breathe, released it. “What will happen to me?”
“You will become a demigod, a being who will become legend. There are others like you, in other parts of your Realm, granted these gifts by other gods.”
Steve had heard the tales of great heroes, chosen by the gods to be something more than mortal. Of their bravery, their deeds, of the ways they had defended their people. He had often fantasized himself as one such, hale and strong and powerful. A man all looked up to. A man who was sure and constant and – in the tales – who always prevailed and made whole what had been broken.
Loki was still speaking. “Like these others, you will be forever marked apart from your people, and that you must accept. But has not this always been the case with you?”
“Yes. I’ve always been different,” Steve admitted. This admission had lost some of its bitterness when he became a man, no longer a boy, but some lingering traces remained etched in his soul, and he could hear them in his voice.
“Weak. Looked down upon. Set apart from others.”
The words hurt, but Loki was not looking at him. Rather, his gaze had gone distant for a moment, and Steve wondered at the pain on Loki’s face, as if he understood all too well what being marked apart was like. Steve did not entirely understand what he was seeing. But he did remember that, though Loki was a god, many tales had it that he was set apart from the other gods as well. He swallowed and wondered what he could possibly say in empathy, but when Loki cut his gaze back to him he tried not to show the slightest sign of the revelation he had just had.
“If you say yes you will be strong. Perhaps a leader, if you choose. Your chief is elderly and has no son.”
“There are others more suited than I am.”
“There are others more ambitious. That is not the same.”
Steve nodded. “There are those who will not acknowledge anyone but themselves as the rightful leader.”
“And all the while the enemy approaches your shore. It is your choice to make. Do you wish to think on this?”
“No.” Steve already knew what would happen. Factions would break out – they had already formed – and when they needed to be united the most, they would be divided and quarrelling instead.
Here was the fulfillment of a childhood dream. But he already knew it was far more complicated than that. Loki was right – this would change everything.
But Loki had already changed everything, with that one careless gesture.
For a moment he wanted it back – his old simple life, in which the gods seemed unconcerned with mortal doings. But returning to his old life was never going to happen. He knew that now. “Yes,” he said. “I agree. I truly wish this. Yes.”
Something glimmered into sight on top of an ornate chest on the far side of the bed chamber – a cloth of gold, and on it, a bowl so clear it looked like it was made of dew, if such a thing were possible. A golden apple was inside, glowing from some inner light. A knife made of gleaming crystal appeared beside the bowl.
Loki picked them both up and with the tip of the knife cut a small slice. “Come here,” he said. Steve stepped close, and Loki ran the apple slice along Steve’s lips. Steve shivered as a tingle ran through his body. He opened his mouth, intending to take it, but Loki pulled it back. The god licked both sides of the slice and then put it between his lips. Loki caressed Steve’s face and ran one finger across his lips. Steve shivered and let his mouth fall open. Loki inserted a fingertip inside Steve’s mouth. Arousal surged through his body as Loki bent his head down. Steve leaned his head back to allow Loki to kiss him. Loki’s lips and tongue gently pushed the apple slice inside Steve’s mouth.
Steve bit and chewed and the juices seemed to go directly into his veins. He shuddered as energy rushed through his body, erasing any trace of weariness. His eyes went wide. He stared up into Loki’s eyes. The god’s gaze was lustful, and Steve felt himself responding, his cock heavy and hardening.
Loki led him back to the bed. “I would have more of your body than just your mouth, if you like,” Loki said. His lips curved in a lecherous smile.
“Yes,” he said, apprehension and shame warring with desire. If he did this he would be truly ergi, but being taken by a man was something he had fantasized about, cock in hand spilling quickly, for many years.
Their clothes were suddenly gone again. Loki embraced him, his hard erect cock pressed into Steve’s belly. The god’s hands explored his body, leaving trails of fire along his skin. Steve felt fragile and small in the embrace, the top of his head barely coming to Loki’s chin, but his cock was urgent in its need and he pressed himself against the god’s cool skin and daringly rubbed and rutted while he ran his hands along Loki’s back and ass. Loki took in a quick inhalation, and Steve felt dampness where Loki’s cock touched his skin.
“Lie down,” Loki commanded. Steve obeyed, but when he went on his stomach and made to go to his knees and lift his ass up, Loki stopped him with a touch. “I need to have you looking at me.”
Steve rolled over and looked up into Loki’s beautiful, ageless, immortal face. He met and held Loki’s gaze. A full-body shiver ran across his skin. He felt suddenly, truly seen in a way no one had ever looked at him before. Just himself, here, without the weight of his past, timeless. Wanted. Desired. The need to understand why dissolved, disappeared, in the reality of this one moment in time.
Loki slid into the bed next to him. He was holding the apple. Steve watched those long pale fingers as he slide the crystal knife-tip into the apple skin and twice smoothly scored a long line. He broke out another slice of apple and drew one end along Steve’s upper lip. Steve opened his mouth, and Loki slid the slice inside.
Steve bit down, letting the juice trickle into his throat. He swallowed, and shivered as a tingle spread through his body, like a faint breeze on bare skin. Loki’s hand traced along his shoulder. He was still holding the knife, and Steve felt the blunt end of the hilt press his skin in one long line down his arm to his elbow. He watched as Loki continued the caress down to his right hand. He cut another slice from the apple, crushed it in his fist, then nudged Steve’s fingers open and rubbed his hand, sticky with juice and pulp, against Steve’s. He entwined his fingers with Steve’s, and held his hand tightly. An intense and pleasurable warmth flowed into Steve’s hand, up his arm, and he gasped, hyper-aware, as Loki repeated his motions with Steve’s left hand.
Steve was breathing quickly now, so quickly that he could feel a faint tug in his lungs, could hear the annoying whistle that was sometimes there. He kept his eyes on the god. Every place Loki touched him sent shudders through his skin, straight to his cock.
Loki went to his hands and knees, arranging himself over Steve’s body, enclosing him with his knees. He moved over him slowly, until he looked down directly into Steve’s eyes. Quick flashes of light and the crystal knife had divided the rest of the apple into equal pieces. In quick succession, he pressed juicy pieces to the top of Steve’s head, to his forehead, to his throat, his heart, his solar plexus, and his belly, all the while whispering unintelligible words that seemed to echo off the walls. Loki closed one hand, crushing the apple slice within. Steve moaned as Loki’s sticky hand grasped the root of his cock, the juices of the apple running over his balls. He jerked his hips up and Loki pumped his cock. Pleasure spiraled higher and higher. He grabbed for Loki’s shoulders, wanted to touch, to dig his fingers in, clutch him closer. Loki suddenly let go and he keened in frustration.
“Please,” he gasped. Suddenly it was hard to breathe again. Something was happening, something terrifying. His skin, sensitized beyond bearing, felt too small for his body. Sensation cycled from lighter than air to heavier than stone. He was making incoherent noises.
Everything came in flashes. Loki, lifting Steve’s legs, setting them on his own shoulders. Loki’s hand, exploring beneath his balls, finding his entrance, delving within. Something wet and slick on those fingers. Then, fingers replaced by something hard, hotter, larger. When Loki entered him everything else fell away but the feeling of being filled, the ecstasy of Loki’s slick hand on his cock. It flooded him, the thrust and glide, the body over him, claiming him, transforming him. Now he could breathe, great inhalations of air, so easy, everything so easy, and he was grabbing at Loki’s arms, his thighs, anything he could reach, desperate to touch and then to hold on tightly as Loki thrust and thrust again, claiming him, possessing him, filling him.
Loki slowed, let go of Steve’s cock. Steve wanted to protest, but Loki’s face was suddenly above his again. One hand was holding a final slice of apple. He pushed it against Steve’s mouth. Steve opened his mouth completely and took it in. The bright sweet-tart flavor fizzed through his flesh and bones. Loki was still moving inside him, the juice from the apple slices running free along their skin, Steve’s cock rutting against the god’s belly. Arcs of light shot through the room, first emerald, then white, then the purest gold. Steve clenched his teeth as a feeling too large for pain or pleasure ripped through him, gasped for breath, then screamed when every cell in his body opened to an incomprehensible force as he was remade.
Steve stood before the mirror. Reached out. Pressed his palm against the glass. His reflection mirrored the gesture. He still could not believe this body was his. Was him. His eyes, his hair were the same color, but everything else had changed.
Wonderingly, he examined every part of himself. Powerful – godlike! – muscle carried by strong bones had replaced every part of his scrawny body. Each inhalation moved a chest so massive the strongest warrior in town would weep in envy at their very first glimpse of it. His cock, half-hard, would be something to brag about if he were that type. He hoped he would never become that type.
He searched his body for its scars. There, when he’d fallen and an iron spike had grazed his skin. It had left a nasty scar. Now his flesh was smooth and unmarked. There, when a neighbor’s hound had taken a dislike to him and bitten his leg – there was not a trace of the damage those teeth had left. He examined his body thoroughly, but every scar testifying to every injury his body had ever taken was gone, as if they had never existed.
He ran one hand over his chest, feeling disoriented, dislocated. How could this be him? Was this some fever dream caused by one of Fulla’s potions and would he awaken in his village, finding all of it unreal?
The mirror showed Loki approaching behind him. The god stopped just behind his back, and Steve’s heart thudded when he realized the change in proportion. Before, he had been a head shorter than Loki. Now –
He turned – and looked the god directly in the eyes.
Loki looked pleased by his handiwork. “Were you a true god,” he murmured, settling his hands on Steve’s waist, “you would be superior to many I could name.”
“Will this last?” Steve asked, still half-thinking it was a dream.
“Oh yes. You agreed, remember. The change is irrevocable.” Loki caressed Steve’s sides then began exploring his shoulders and arms.
Steve inhaled. Exhaled. Inhaled again. Had he ever in his life felt this ease in taking a simple breath? Knowing it would last? That he did not need to fear illness?
“Thank you,” he said, awed.
Loki’s lips curved in a gratified smile. His hands were now exploring Steve’s pecs, and desire flared. Steve looked down and saw Loki was fully erect.
“You can come back to bed now. I wish to have you, in your new form.”
Steve complied with pleasure. Going to Loki’s bed, he lay on his back, and waited for Loki to claim him. The witchlights traveled along with Loki, then hung in the air above the bed. The green bedding appeared inky black in the soft light. Loki joined him and moved above Steve. He held Steve’s gaze, his black hair a curtain around their faces as he bent to kiss him. Steve opened his mouth, allowing Loki’s tongue inside, and took hold of Loki’s sides. Becoming bolder, he chased Loki’s tongue back inside Loki’s mouth and they kissed deeply for several moments. Loki dragged one hand through Steve’s hair and beard, then trailed his fingers down Steve’s neck.
Loki broke the kiss and nipped his way down the column of Steve’s neck. Steve gasped as sharp teeth grazed the skin where his neck met his shoulder, desire arrowing to his cock. He moved restlessly, hard and needing movement, something to grind against. He dug his fingers deeply into Loki’s shoulders and moaned as one of Loki’s fingertips circled a nipple then explored lower, tracing the line of his ribcage. He moaned as Loki moved further down his chest and abdomen, gentle nips alternating with stripes of his tongue. Loki’s tongue and teeth traced lines of fire down his torso, the god’s long hair trailing along sensitized skin. Steve propped himself on his elbows to watch as Loki continued to kiss and mouth his way down Steve’s abdomen. His flesh sang with heated desire, his skin was slick with sweat, gleaming in the witchlight, but for brief instants of time it was as if he were watching Loki caress another man. The sight of his own body still seemed unreal – how could this perfection be truly his?
Then Loki bent his head lower, and Steve squeezed his eyes shut and forgot everything as Loki’s mouth engulfed his cock. Loki did something amazing with his mouth and throat, taking him in completely, and then pulled back.
Steve panted in confused and frustrated desire, then his mind started working again for just one brief instant as Loki went up on his knees.
“Wait – you – ” was all that Steve was able to say, and then Loki reached a slick hand to position Steve’s cock, lowered his body, and guided Steve inside his hot tight channel.
Steve cried out in astonishment and pleasure, and began thrusting, the pleasure overwhelming every sense. Loki was moving up and down, riding him, and he was tight and impossibly good. Steve was thrusting, and Loki met his every thrust. Loki was looking down at him, his face shadowed by his hair, his eyes partially closed. Loki’s mouth had fallen open, and Steve could hear the sound of his breathing, between his own gasps and moans. Loki was hugely erect and Steve reached for him, grasped him, did what he knew felt best. Loki made a sharp sound, tilting his head back, his grip on Steve’s sides bruisingly tight. A fragment of a thought flashed across his mind – Loki wanted me enough to forget his strength – and then the pleasure rose and arrowed to its peak, overwhelming his body and mind.
Later, with the witchlights dimmed and floating high up near the ceiling, Steve turned on his side to look at Loki. The god was awake, and he slanted a look in Steve’s direction.
“You – you did that for me.” Even here and now, collapsed in the aftermath of pleasure, Steve found it hard to believe that anyone – much less this powerful being – would do such for him.
“I only do what I want to do,” Loki said in a low and satisfied tone, and gave him a sideways grin.
Steve considered that remark. “Then I’m very glad you wanted to do that to me.”
Loki chuckled, rolled over, and kissed Steve’s mouth. Steve relaxed even further, awash in amazement and joy and the tiniest thread of disbelief, when he glanced down at himself, that what had happened to him was real. All he had ever learned in the past about how men should not be with men seemed very wrong. When he looked back up, Loki was watching him. “Thank you,” he breathed.
At dawn, Loki fed him a large breakfast, magicked a larger version of his clothing for him, then took him outside. The vast forests of Vanaheim stretched in all directions. The sun sailed in a half-cloudy sky and there was a hint of rain on the breeze.
There was a plain, sturdy wooden table and chair in the shade of an elaborate awning. On it was a smooth square block of ebony wood. Beside that were whittling knives.
Steve stared at it in surprise. Loki’s words when they first met came back to him. “Your art is your magick,” Loki had said. “A raven. Wings in flight,” he had said.
“I – do not know if my skill is sufficient,” he had said. But he’d seen the possibilities when he looked at the wood – the way the bird itself would emerge, the spread of its wings, the turn of its head, the shape of its open beak.
He looked at the block of wood again, and yes, he could still see it there, the raven inside the wood.
Loki was looking at him intently. “Now I require you fulfill your own promise of a gift. You said, ‘I give you my skill in whittling, High One.’ That gift was not solely the two pieces you gave me, but your skill itself.”
Steve felt a coldness seep through him. His whittling had kept him occupied through many long winter nights, allowed his mind to soar freely, kept him focused and calm. It was more than a simple craft. When he whittled, he felt as if he were in some other space entirely, the images in his mind flowing through his fingers and into the wood. What if he could no longer do that? What if this skill had been taken from him?
Shame followed. He had been given two incredible gifts? How could he mourn the consequences of a bargain that he himself had made. Not of his own will, his mind insisted. It had all been Loki’s fault. None of this had been of his choice.
Loki was looking avidly at the wood, and for a moment Steve doubted the affection and warmth he felt toward Loki that had crept into his soul. How and why had his feelings changed so very much? And yet there were still threads of doubt and resentment toward the being who had blinded him in a careless accident and not apologized
No. He was wrong. Everything Loki had done since has been an apology. “My debt is now repaid,” Loki had said. And he had, though not aloud, accepted the apology.
So. That matter was settled, in accordance with honor and with mortal law – and apparently the laws of the gods as well. The remnants of the burden of resentment and doubt lifted.
He remembered Loki’s other promise – that he would return him to his family after Steve gave him this gift. He would take these splendid gifts back home to his people, that marvelous weapon, and his newfound strength,
No, none of this had happened by his choice or will. But it was done. Fate was a wider wheel than he or any mortal could comprehend, and only in retrospect was anything clear. The Norns had woven a pattern, and he and Loki were part of it, but the pattern they’d created would, hopefully, mean the safety of his mother – of all his people – from the approaching danger Loki had warned him about.
Those gifts made everything he had suffered worthwhile. Loki’s debt to him was truly paid.
He looked at his hands, strong and sturdy. After he finished carving the raven, would his hands remember how to whittle shapes from wood once he got back home?
What difference did it make, if he could no longer create these animal shapes? When he’d been given so much more? But that potential sadness remained a sharp pain.
Loki, seemingly reading his mind, laughed airlessly at the expression on Steve’s face. “No, I have not stolen your skill, Steven. I merely wish to make further use of it.” There was sorrow in his eyes.
Steve looked at him apologetically. He didn’t try to deny his thoughts. “I’m sorry for thinking you might do that.”
“Well,” Loki’s face went blank. “I expect you do have a good reason.”
Before Loki could say anything else, Steve stepped forward and embraced him. He let his head rest on Loki’s shoulders for a long tense moment, then relaxed as Loki’s arms crept around him and held hold him tight. He felt Loki’s lips brush against his, and he returned the kiss, as soft as a breeze.
Finally, they both let go, but for a long moment Steve looked into Loki’s eyes. The god returned his gaze, and in Loki’s eyes he saw a type of approval and affection he could not quantify. Not that of a master to a successful apprentice. Not quite a lover, not quite a friend, not that of a king to a favored subject, but somehow a little of all these things. “I’ll get started,” Steve said, now ready to do what he hoped would be the best work he had ever done.
Steve sat down at the table, picked up the wood and examined it from every side. He looked over the knives and selected the one he would need to start with. Loki watched in fascination as Steve made the first cut.
Then came a time without time. Steve found his fingers stronger, more nimble, than they had ever been before. There was an energy in the wood; he could feel it through his fingers, sense it like an aura surrounding the dark block. Because of his newmade strength and stamina, what would have taken days became hours; what would have taken weeks became a handful of days. They ate, they drank, they coupled, but most of Steve’s time was spent here, at this sturdy table, working with the always-sharp knives that Loki had given him. He was completely focused on his task: coaxing the raven who existed inside the wood to come out, one delicate precise stroke of a knife after another. Slowly it emerged, head, then wings, then back and tail.
One morning it was done. It was the best thing he had ever carved. He studied it, surprised and pleased at his success. Every moment he had spent working on it had been in that other space, where all that mattered was what he was creating.
Here it was: a raven in flight, perfect in every detail.
Loki looked at it, then Steve, with delight. It barely seemed made of wood. The sunlight glistening on its wings showed the feathers in every detail. The eyes were bright and searching, the mouth seemed ready to cry out. The color of the wood was as black as any raven that ever took wing. Flawless.
“Be still and watch,” Loki told Steve, then reached out both hands and touched his fingertips to the wings. Steve watched in wonder as gold specks suddenly sparkled on Loki’s skin, growing denser and brighter, an aura surrounding the god’s body. Steve remembered the magick of the firefall and realized its power must have been inside Loki all along. The golden motes and particles began to move in one direction, flowing along his arms, into his hands, through his fingertips, surrounding and coating and disappearing into the black wood.
An instant later, the last of the particles vanished inside the figure. With one shuddering motion, one gasping inhalation of breath, one triumphant shriek, the raven came to life.
Astonished at this latest miracle, Steve wondered if Loki had been among the gods who had created life. Awed, he stared at Loki, ready to fall to his knees, but Loki’s attention was on the raven.
Loki held out his arm, now protected by a leather bracer. The bird hopped on, gripping with clawed feet. “My father has his ravens, and I have him.” Loki smiled with pleasure, looking at the bird. Its eyes watched Loki intently. Loki ran one finger over its head. The bird called out, and shook its feathers.
Loki kept staring into the bird’s eyes. “I name you Sýn, Vision, my fetch, my shadow-self. You will be my eyes when I cannot go to see. Your eyes will be equal to those of the Guardian. You will be present and unseen when I must needs be fully elsewhere. Go now, eat, drink, sleep. Come when I call.” The bird lifted up its powerful wings and launched itself into the sky.
Loki’s eyes gleamed triumphantly as he watched it disappear into the further distance, then turned back to Steve. “That was magnificent! You are quite skilled with knives. I admire that. Once you are home, if you ever need any kind of familiar creature, carve it, then call to me.”
“Don’t you need the firefall?”
“Best to start small. There will not be another firefall of that nature for some time in any of the Realms, but when there is, I shall be there. In the meantime, small stones always fall to the ground from space and can easily be found.”
“What if I were to make a carving of a person?” Steve had already fantasized carving a portrait of Loki. Some pale wood, he thought. “And you brought it to life?” The idea gave him chills, but he could not unthink it.
“It would have no soul. It would be a tool, like the raven, created for some particular purpose.” He was looking off into the horizon again, though the bird was no longer visible. “On the morrow,” he said softly, without looking at Steve. “I will return you home.”
“Thank you,” Steve said, torn between eagerness to see his home again and sorrow at the sense of loss. Once he was home, would he ever see Loki again? Already feeling alone, he caught Loki’s hand, and the god looked back at him. For an instant, Steve saw the same sorrow, the same sense of loss in Loki’s eyes. “But we still have tonight.”
They spent the following hours eating, drinking, coupling. Steve napped for awhile, but he didn’t seem to need much sleep anymore. Loki told him amusing tales of his childhood, something that surprised Steve as he had always thought of the gods as ageless and unchanging.
It was mid-afternoon when the raven returned. They were back outside again, lounging on two chairs Loki had conjured, Loki telling him a funny story about Thor, when the bird plummeted from the sky and landed on Loki’s outstretched arm. It spoke rapidly, in bird language. Loki clearly understood every word. He looked concerned and Steve stood up, alert.
Loki nodded and the bird flew away again. “Eitri’s mercenaries are approaching. Dwarves make weapons, they don’t use them,” he explained as he stood.
It took bare seconds for Steve to retrieve his bow from inside the house. But when he stepped back outside, the entire dwelling vanished, leaving nothing behind but the shadowed interior of the box canyon.
Steve, on alert, followed Loki to the skiff. It rose as swiftly as before, but it was so much easier to maintain his balance that its movement didn’t bother him at all. Adrenaline pumped. This would be his first battle. But there were only two of them. How many men would Eitri send? Would they be able to prevail? Had Loki no other allies?
Loki flew swiftly over the mountainous terrain, over the ravines and ridges. The cloud cover was low and the air had gotten cold. Steve realized with pleasure he could breathe easily, when before cold air often caught in his lungs and brought on coughing fits. Loki flew the craft until he reached a high plateau. But instead of landing, he kept the skiff hovering motionless in mid-air.
Even in his former body, Steve had always had good eyesight. Now, even from this height, Steve could see clearly at a very great distance. Far away on the plateau below, he could see – himself and Loki, swimming nude in a small lake, with an elaborate house visible on the far shore.
Loki cautioned him to silence. He watched, suddenly horrified, as a great gash formed in the air itself. Out poured hundreds of armed men and other beings, some made from rock, some like giant trees. They hit the ground with mighty shouts and raced toward the two men in the lake. The false Loki and Steve scrambled out of the water as if surprised, but when the men overran their positions – everything disappeared.
Loki moved the skiff forward as a shimmer filled the air and the landscape vanished.
The shimmer died away. Clouds were rapidly scudding across the sky which was darkening by the second. Steve looked down and saw that where the lake had been was now the edge of a deep canyon.
At the foot of the canyon lay the broken bodies of the attacking horde.
“But…” Steve stared down at the bodies. “The lake – an illusion to fool them. To kill them.” This wasn’t right! He turned to Loki, appalled.
“An army against two people? A sneak attack?” Loki leveled a look at Steve as if he’d read his mind – once again Steve’s face had revealed his every thought. “Eitri should have known better than to send an army against me.” Loki studied the bodies below, watching for movement, then turned back to Steve. “You are a warrior now, or will be. This is a lesson you must learn, to protect your people. Do not ever expect to face an honorable enemy. The ones approaching your shoreline expect to overwhelm you by their numbers and by their weapons. They will pillage, they will rape, they will burn and destroy. You will need every advantage you have to win. And I will be there to help you, if you need me.” He paused, his lips forming a tight line. “If you want me,” he added.
Steve swallowed, still appalled at the scale of the slaughter, but the memories of the marauders who had attacked their village returned, how they had taken their village by surprise and stole and burned and killed without mercy.
He saw it clearly: these new invaders attacking – overwhelming – their village. His mother, dead. Slaughtered broken bodies everywhere. Everything ravaged, everything in ruins.
He shuddered in horror. “You’re right,” he said. He looked down again, and let the thought sink into his bones. “”It’s not how I would wish it, but you’re right. And I’ll need your help. I’ll want your help.”
Loki’s expression cleared, but he waited until Steve stepped forward before moving forward himself. This time it was he who embraced Steve. Steve opened his mouth and closed his eyes. Lost in the taste of Loki’s mouth, in his body’s response to Loki. It took him a moment to really understand one thing Loki had said: I will be there to help you. Part of him had assumed – feared – that once Loki took him home he would never see him again.
Now, that fear was gone.
The wind was rising and the sky was darkening. When he opened his eyes and looked up, a forked spear of lightning slashed the sky. The ground shook at the impact of something heavy. Suddenly a huge blond man was right by them, storm flickering in his eyes.
Loki huffed a sigh. “Damn.” He pulled away from Steve. “Brother, you have the worst timing.”
The other man scanned everything around him, then turned back and growled, “Eitri is exceedingly wroth with you.”
Loki gusted a sigh. “I am aware.” He pointed to where the land dropped away. Steve watched with interest as the other man looked into the valley, then turned on Loki. “Tricks, brother?” He looked angry and frustrated.
“Well, of course.” Loki offered the huge man an insincere grin. “My apologies for denying you the chance to commit mayhem. I expect Heimdall told you where I was. Where’s Eitri now?”
“Complaining to Father.” The huge man took a quick glance at Steve, but immediately focused back on Loki.
“And what did Father say?”
“He told Eitri he was a fool to trust you. He also agreed to give him all rights to the moon of Gaviloon in exchange for him fashioning a new weapon without further payment. He has in mind a giant suit of armor with no need for a warrior inside. He wants it to throw flame and respond only to his will.”
“Hmmm.” Loki considered it. “That could be quite useful. Father should thank me, for giving him a reason to demand this price.”
Thor laughed and shook his head. “Eitri will send more men after you.”
“I expect he will.” Loki bared his teeth in a wolf’s grin. “I’ll be ready.”
“This time allow me to join you in joyous battle.”
“I’ll think about it, Thor.”
Steve had already figured out the huge man’s identity. That giant hammer could belong to only one being. The God of Thunder, here before him, as massively muscled and steely-eyed as the stories portrayed him.
Whatever anger Thor had felt when he arrived had disappeared, along with the clouds in the sky. He slapped Loki on the back and turned to Steve. A puzzled look crossed his face. “Do I know you?”
“He’s your mortal champion. The archer.” Loki lazily stroked Steve’s hair. Steve flushed bright red.
“What?” Thor studied Steve closely. “Loki, what have you done? This cannot be the same man.”
“It is,” Loki said simply.
“Loookiiii, what have you done? And why did you bring this man here?”
Loki shrugged. “Because I felt like it.”
Thor gave an exasperated sigh. “You know father doesn’t like us bringing our playthings home.”
“Hey!” Steve said.
“Well, we aren’t in Asgard.” Loki pointed out. ”And as it happened, he found me.”
“You just said you brought him here.”
“I did. To Vanaheim. But he found me in Alfheim.”
“How is that possible? He’s a mortal.” Thor gave Steve another look. “Or is he a mortal? Loki, will your twisted tongue ever find a way to speak truth plain?”
“I prefer to twist my tongue around words, and,” Loki gave Steve a side glance, “other things.”
Steve felt his face get even hotter. Thor shot Loki a look that combined irritation with jealousy.
“Aren’t you brothers?” Steve blurted, suddenly aware of the sexual tension between the two men.
“Yes. So?” Loki raised his brows.
“We are gods,” Thor said stoutly, as if that explained everything. And, Steve guessed, it did, and, though it made his mind hurt, he decided to let it go.
“What did he do to you?” Thor demanded of Steve, his steely stare now concerned.
Loki shot Steve a look that he couldn’t interpret. He decided on a brief version of the truth. “Something Loki did while you were watching the archery contest injured me, so he decided to heal me.”
“I want the whole story,” Thor demanded.
“Later, brother.” Loki sounded bored.
“I expect you stole one of Iðunn’s apples. She’ll be wroth too.”
“She should be used to it by now.” Loki gave him a cheeky grin.
Thor gave Steve another close look, then gave Loki a look of brotherly exasperation. “Well, it is good that you have paid weregeld.” Thor glanced around again, as if hoping another enemy would drop from the sky so he could smite them. “Heimdall will be watching Eitri’s movements.”
“And that of his agents?”
Thor ignored that. “You should come home, brother. It will be boar hunting season soon.” He gave Loki a wide, self-satisfied grin, then began spinning his hammer. A second later, to Steve’s astonishment, he was shooting off into the sky. Loki gave him a tiny wave and smirked.
“Nothing seems impossible anymore.” Steve shook his head.
Loki didn’t comment, but led Steve back to the skiff. The craft sped along in the deepening dusk, finally settling down just as the first of the moons was rising by the shore of a vast sea. Loki did his usual magic, and the same dwelling they had occupied in the box canyon appeared on a promontory overlooking a wide, white beach. They went inside. Steve found it comforting that the interior remained exactly the same. “Is this a real building somewhere?”
“Yes. On one of the outer Realms. I open a path to it every time I want to use it.”
Steve tried to understand that concept. “It doesn’t move – we do?”
“Yes. So long as we remain inside, none can find us.”
Loki ignited the fire again, and it was soon crackling away in the fireplace. It was beautiful, but Steve found that the cool air inside didn’t bother him anymore. Watching the patterns in the flames, he said, “One thing I don’t understand. You restored my sight. You gave me weregeld when you gave me the bow and arrows.” He turned to look at Loki and gestured his hands along his body. “Why did you do this for me?”
Loki shook his head then stared into the flames. “You wouldn’t understand.”
Steve watched the firelight flicker on what he could see of Loki’s face. He remembered Thor, glorious and golden and so huge that he dwarfed his own brother, a god taller than any man Steve had ever known. All the tales spoke of Thor’s magnificence. The tales were not nearly so kind to Loki. He understood, or thought he understood some of it. But one look at Loki’s stiff posture told him he should not dare to question him or put into words that which Loki wanted to remain unsaid. So, instead, he said, “Thank you.”
Loki glanced at him then narrowed his eyes at Steve’s expression. “Because I felt like it. Because I wanted to see what would happen.”
“Is that all?” Steve said softly. He hadn’t expected Loki to say anything else but because Loki had, despite Steve’s decision not to question Loki, the words slipped out.
Loki looked down, then met Steve’s gaze again. “Because I have never known one like you.” He leaned slightly forward, closing the small distance between them. “Because you surprised me, in a way no one has. Because you are a good man, Steven of Hofoastrond, a true hero, and I have never met one of those before.”
Steve looked down at his magnificent new body, still feeling almost as if it didn’t belong to him. “You’ve made me a hero.”
“You were one all along.”
Steve swallowed, accepting Loki’s assessment. “I’ll do my best.”
Loki began restlessly wandering around the room, while Steven stayed still in the center. “If you should need me, once I return you to your home, call my name. I will give you whatever aid you need. If I do not answer, summon Heimdall. He will have Thor assist you. I will speak with Father to have you counted among Asgard’s allies.” He turned to face Steve again, his eyes a bright and brilliant green, shining in the dim light almost like a cats. “But do not think you only need call me when danger is upon you. I find I would like to see more of Midgard. With a Midgardian. Yourself.” He lifted his chin slightly, but Steve had seen for one instant an unmistakable glimpse of Loki’s vulnerability.
Steve gave Loki a wide, relieved smile. “Visit as often as you like. I will always welcome you.”
This time, Loki’s smile was warm and welcoming, and Steve went back into his arms.
Loki and Steve appeared on Steve’s village green in a flash of rainbow light. Loki was dressed elaborately in armored black and green leather. Steve was still wearing the new version of his old clothing.
It was mid-day, and as Steve had expected, only a few people were around. Most everyone would be engaged in winterproofing their residences. The air was crisp, and most of the surrounding trees were barren of leaves. Old John the wainwright was sitting on a stump in the sun. He could no longer repair wagons. His hands, crippled in an accident, could no longer hold tools, and his sons, well-trained, now did all the work. He peered at them with rheumy eyes. Creighton’s daughters, Fern and Demelza, dropped their baskets in astonishment, and fell to their knees. Young Erik ran away shouting.
“Demelza,” Steve said. Her small terrified face swung away from Loki to him. “You sound like…” she started. “But he’s gone. And you’re not him.”
“I am Steven, son of Roger, son of Ingrid.”
Demelza began shaking. “You can’t be! He was god-touched. Blinded! He left weeks ago.”
“What’s happening?” John called, and Fern shouted, “The gods are among us!”
“I’m back now,” Steven said. “I’ve come home.”
Loki, by his side, remained silent, but he was taking every detail in.
A few people showed up, asking questions, but at the sight of Loki and Steve, they halted. Some fell immediately to their knees. The girls offered garbled explanations, but all they had to hear was “rainbow” and all they had to see were two men, taller than any of them by far, with perfect face and form to realize gods were among them. They too fell to their knees.
More people arrived in a cacophony of voices, and that is when Loki chose to speak.
“I am Loki of Asgard.” His voice rang out more loudly than possible for a human voice, but remained strong and clear.
Everyone shut up. Stragglers arrived, but they, too, had heard Loki’s announcement, and all fell to their knees.
Loki smiled in delight and, to Steve, he seemed to grow even taller.
“I chose Steven of Hofoastrond to be your champion. I have given him the power to protect you from dangers of both man and beast. There is danger coming to your shores – invaders and mauraders. They will be upon you soon.” As he spoke, Loki looked from face to face among the crowd, making eye contact with all. Everyone remained stone still, eyes round, some with mouths open in astonishment, some looking terrified, some ecstatic. “Steven has earned my favor, and that of the gods.” Steve noticed that Loki did not name any of the gods whose favor he had supposedly earned. “I have given him gifts to protect you. I gave him the strength of the gods. But I do not need to make him your champion.” He paused, looked into Steve’s eyes, and gave him a glorious smile. “I don’t need to make him what he always was.”
One woman pushed her way through the crowd and broke free. Steve stepped forward as his mother staggered toward him. She looked gaunt and pale and ravaged with grief. She grabbed his hands and started to fall. Fear seized him and he brought her up to her feet. She stared up into his eyes, speechless, and then began to weep. “It’s you. It’s truly you.” Fulla and Erik had followed her, but remained a respectful distance away.
“High One,” Fulla said as she and Erik dropped to their knees, “Our gratitude and prayers to you. What may we do to please you?”
“Altars and offerings,” Loki said, and Steve heard the note of pure gratification in his voice.
“What shall we offer?” Fulla asked in a low, respectful tone, staring at the ground.
Loki’s voice softened and he turned his gaze to Steve. “Marigolds and roses, orange lilies.” His voice was warm, his eyes pure seduction. “And apple blossoms. Each in its season.” He grasped Steve’s hands, held them tightly. Then let go.
Loki disappeared in a flash of green and gold sparks that flared dozens of feet in every direction. People gasped, cried out, and one or two even fainted.
“Show-off,” Steve said fondly, and smiled.
All who could turned to Steve round-eyed in a show of respect. Most bowed to him.
“Don’t do that,” Steve said, his arm still around his mother. “I’m not a god. I’m still Steve. You all know me.”
Nothing would ever be the same again, Steve thought later that night, after talking with his mother for hours, with her now finally calmed and sleeping from the effects of one of Fulla’s potions. He moved quietly to where he had earlier set the metal box containing his bow on a high shelf. Soon afterward, he’d caught a glimpse of another box suddenly appearing on top of it. He’d itched to open it immediately, but pushed aside his curiosity. Reassuring and calming his mother was far more important than any surprise Loki had left him.
The box was tied closed, but simple to open. Light flickering from the fireplace and three hanging lanterns caught a feathery pattern, a copper glow.
He lifted the trophy out carefully. It was mounted on a branch, flattened on the bottom. Setting it down, he admired the pheasant – the first creature he had shot with his new bow. It had been mounted in a lifelike pose, and there was not a trace of the arrow that had pierced its body, its heart.
He set it back on the shelf. “Thank you, Loki,” he said, wondering if he was heard.
Something popped in the fireplace. There was a brief flare of light that vanished seconds later.
He smiled and went to get his whittling tools and to look through his selection of wood pieces. He chose a piece of birch. This one contained a magpie. He could see it already. Once done, he’d stain the appropriate places black.
He set his knife to the soft wood and began carving.