Queen Frigga of Asgard pushed and moaned, while a servant wiped a cool cloth across her brow. She tried to grit her teeth against the pain.
She remembered, with surprising clarity, her first labor - all those long years ago. It had been equally painful, but had been worth it; it had given her Thor, her beautiful son.
She pulled her mind away from thoughts of those other times; those long, hard labors that ended in nothing but misery and heartbreak. She would have a strong, healthy child this time, she was convinced it would be so. She had done everything within her power to ensure it.
She had taken such care to eat everything the healers recommended - liver, green vegetables, plenty of fruit. She had taken moderate exercise every day - enough to keep her body in shape, but not so much that the child in her womb might suffer. She tried to stay calm and happy, despite the fact that war was raging throughout the realms and she had to be hidden away, in case she should be seized as a spoil of war. What a prize for an enemy that would be - the pregnant wife of Odin, unable to defend herself while her belly was so large!
That was why she was giving birth, not in the beautiful palace of Asgard, but hidden away in a fortified castle with a small but trusted skeleton staff.
Her women rushed back and forth with towels and hot water, sharing concerned glances, while her good friend, Eir, did everything she could to ensure the queen would produce a healthy child.
But Frigga recognized the feeling in the room, the heavy weight of words unsaid. Tears began to run down her cheeks and she cried, "Eir?"
Eir didn't respond. Instead, Frigga heard the healer call to the other women. "Leave us now. Tell the cook to prepare your supper. I'll come and get you when you're needed again."
Frigga heard the sound of footsteps and the door closing. At Eir's urging, she pushed once again, and this time she felt the release as the baby left her body.
There was no cry. There was no sound at all.
She saw Eir move away and fuss for a few minutes before the healer turned back to her. The pity in Eir’s eyes was enough.
Frigga began to cry. "What was it?"
Eir sighed. “My lady…"
Frigga gritted her teeth. "WHAT WAS IT?"
"A boy, my lady."
"Let me see him."
Eir began to shake her head. "I don't think…"
Eir turned away and lifted the small, lifeless bundle. Frigga reached out and Eir reluctantly handed it to her.
He was beautiful.
She ran her hands over his tiny fingers and toes, noticing the perfection of them. He had long, dark eyelashes and a small shock of dark hair. She ran her fingers over it; it was silky soft to her touch. Again, she thought of Thor; he had been born with dark hair, but it had soon lightened to blond. She wondered if it would have been so with this child.
She began to sob. Eir leaned forward and took the baby from her. She returned quickly and pulled Frigga close, running her hands over the queen’s hair in a soothing gesture.
“Hush now… it's going to be alright. Everything will be alright." It didn't seem strange. They had been friends long before they were queen and subject, and in this moment they were friends again.
"W..what if I..I… n..never have a..n..other?" Frigga stuttered out between her sobs.
“Then you have the satisfaction of knowing that you have a fine, strong boy in Thor - a boy that would make any mother proud!"
Frigga wiped her eyes and tried to calm herself. She knew that Eir was right, that she still had her darling, golden Thor; but she had wanted another child so desperately - not just for Odin and the throne, but for herself. She longed to hold a baby in her arms again, to nurse it and love it. Thor was growing older, he didn't need her as much anymore. These days, he spent more time with his father than with her. She missed him.
There was a knock at the door, and they exchanged surprised glances. Eir had sent the other women away - who would dare to interrupt them in defiance of her orders?
Eir marched angrily to the door and wrenched it open, prepared to give the intruder a piece of her mind.
The words died on her lips and she stepped back, lowering her head. “My King!"
Frigga stared at her husband in shock. "Odin? What are you doing here?" She twisted on the bed to see him better and her hand flew to her mouth. "Your eye! What happened? Are you alright? Eir, help him!"
At her words, Eir raised her head and saw the large bandage covering the king's eye. She stepped forward, but he waved her aside and pulled a chair close to his wife.
"It was done by sorcery, you cannot repair it. Laufey's mate, Faubarti, was a sorcerer of some skill, although it didn't save her in the end. She paid highly for her trickery."
Frigga gently lifted the field dressing and ran her hand across his empty socket. “She is dead?"
"Yes. I did not deliver a killing blow, but I have heard since that Laufey blames me for her death." As he spoke, his eyes took in the scene before him and his expression changed to one of sadness. He quickly guessed what had happened; it was a familiar scene.
Frigga saw the understanding in his eyes and looked away. "I am sorry, my lord. He was born dead."
He - it had been a boy. Odin’s heart twisted, but he tried not to show his disappointment. "You have nothing to apologize for, it was nothing you could have helped. Perhaps I should apologize to you. Giving birth under these circumstances could not have been easy."
She fought back more tears as she thought of all the other unsuccessful births. "I don't think it made much of a difference, do you?"
He didn't reply. Instead, he looked at Eir and seemed to come to a decision. “My dear, I have something to ask of you and I fear it is not a little thing."
Eir moved towards the door but he held up a hand to her. "No, wait. If my queen agrees, we will need your help.”
Glancing curiously at her friend, Eir returned to the bedside.
"We won the battle."
“That is wonderful news." Despite the words, Frigga's tone was flat. The world seemed very far away and all she could think about was her own grief.
Odin didn't seem to notice. "Yes, Laufey has been forced to submit and Asgard has taken the Casket of Ancient Winters as part of their forfeit."
This got Frigga's attention. "But without the casket, Jotenheim will surely perish. Is it not the source of their power?"
"Yes, indeed. They may survive for another thousand years - perhaps even two - but the loss of the casket ensures their eventual destruction."
Frigga tried to rise, only to feel Eir's hand on her shoulder. "Be still, my lady. You need to rest."
Frigga lay back. "Husband, you cannot cause the destruction of one of the realms under your care. Certainly, Jotenheim has erred, but the loss of the casket is a death sentence. We cannot be responsible for the destruction of one of the nine realms."
"I know. I will have to return it before that happens. But to return it to Laufey - after he has spent centuries brooding over his wrongs - would be equally foolish. I could return it only under the protection of someone I could trust. Someone who would use it wisely, for the benefit of Asgard."
Frigga gave an uncharacteristic snort. "And where in Jotenheim would you find such a paragon as that?"
Odin reached for her hand. "And thus we come to the favor I would beg of you. When I went to the temple to retrieve the casket, I found something I was not expecting. A newborn baby - a runt, by all appearances - left to die in the cold and the ice."
Frigga made a small sound and Eir moved closer and put a hand on her shoulder. It was too soon to speak of a child dying.
"When I went to examine him, I saw that his markings were familiar to me. They showed him to be the child of Laufey and Faubarti. This, then, was their heir - third in line to the throne of Jotenheim. As I laid hands on the infant, his appearance shifted to that of an Asgardian."
He didn't tell her that he had been thinking of Hela, his beautiful but crazed daughter - the child he had failed so badly and been forced to send away. He believed the baby had gleaned something of his thoughts, and had taken on the form that would be most pleasing to the finder.
"Instinctive magic such as that is rare; it speaks of a potential for great power. When he left him there, Laufey could not have known what gifts his heir possessed; but if he survived through the night and his powers were discovered, the boy would soon become a formidable enemy to Asgard. I could not risk it. I decided to bring him here.”
He watched her as he spoke. Her usually open and loving countenance was replaced by a face as cold and hard as granite.
“In this boy, we have a prize as valuable as the casket. With your consent, we will raise him as our own, until such time that we can tell him of his true history. When he comes of age, we will return him to Jotenheim, to serve us as a prince of both realms - a Jotun and an Asgardian! If the Norns favor us, he may even become their king - a king we could trust and advise. A king that will be, for all intents and purposes, one of us - an Aesir in thought and deed."
While he had been speaking, Frigga found herself staring at him with a mixture of incredulity and horror. Her mind whirled. "Raise him as our own? A frost giant?!"
"But a runt. If we are lucky, he may not grow to be substantially larger than Thor. And I can modify his own spell to make sure that his form stays in it’s Aesir aspect. Not even he will have any idea that he is different until we tell him so. In every real sense, he will be as any other Asgardian."
He wanted her to treat this... creature as her own, to raise him with their own beautiful boy! The thought made her afraid.
"Husband, surely you do not mean that we will raise him side by side with Thor? As a brother? He is a frost giant! Thor would never be safe! A frost giant’s touch alone will burn an Aesir, but a frost giant with seidr - it does not bear thinking about!"
"Do not distress yourself. The boy will be carefully watched, and I am hopeful that under our influence he will learn to reject his baser Joten impulses. Away from that environment, I'm sure we can teach him to be a credit to us. And I will, of course, ensure that Thor will be safe. I intend to limit the child’s seidr - he will not be able to access enough of his magic to hurt any of us or do any real harm."
"But how would we even raise him? We know nothing about Jotuns, much less their infants! Do they even have the same physiology? Would he even survive the heat of an Asgardian summer?"
"You are right, my dear, of course. There is much we do not know. We would simply have to do as many other parents have done in the past and figure it out as we go along."
She suddenly thought back to his words. “Wait - you said the child is here?"
"Yes. I thought it best to leave him outside in the hall while we talk."
Eir rushed to the door. Frost giant or not, a cold hallway was no place for a newborn babe. A small bundle lay on the floor and she stooped to pick it up. She pulled back the blanket he was wrapped in and was pleased to see that he still looked like an Aesir. She passed him to her queen.
Frigga took the bundle by instinct before she thought to refuse. She stared down at him. To her eyes, he looked remarkably similar to the child she had just lost - her child. The only difference between them was the startling green of his eyes; they looked unnatural for a newborn. Well, she realized, they were. His true eye color must be red. She felt a sudden wave of hatred wash over her. Why should this unwanted child live, when her own precious baby had to die?
She thrust him back to Odin. “Show me his true form."
Odin waved his hand and suddenly she was staring at the red eyes and cold blue skin of a Jotun.
She couldn't help the natural reaction that most people had when they stared at a frost giant - she shivered with horror. “Take it away, I don't want to see it."
Odin frowned. Spying the cradle in the corner of the room, he moved towards it.
Frigga cried out in alarm. "Not in there! That is for our child!"
Odin ignored her and placed the infant in the cradle. "Frigga… wife… our baby is gone. We did not make another heir for Asgard, but we have found something better!"
Eir winced as he spoke the words. Odin may have been a great king, but she often thought he lacked tact.
Frigga drew in a shocked breath. "Are you mad? You are speaking of our child! Our own son! How could there be anything good in the death of our boy?"
Odin realised his mistake. "Of course that is not what I meant. How could the loss of our own flesh and blood be anything other than a tragedy?"
He moved towards her and put an arm around her stiff and resisting waist. "I did not mean to imply that I do not mourn. I only meant to say that now we have a chance to prevent future wars and thus save the lives of our people. By taking in this foundling, we can prevent the deaths of children throughout this realm. And perhaps, with this act of charity, the Norns will reward us with further offspring of our own."
Frigga allowed herself to soften in the arms of her husband. Almost in a whisper, she said, "I had such hopes this time… I was so careful."
"Do not blame yourself; there was nothing you could have done. We will have a healthy heir when the Norns decree it so and not before. In the meantime, we have a babe without a mother and a mother without a babe. Might it not be that this is meant, that we are fated to act as parents to this boy? Thor would like a brother, I think."
He led her to the cradle. “See? He is nothing more than a helpless waif in need of a home."
She looked down and felt resentment wash over her. This wasn't her child; her child was dead. This was an imposter, a cuckoo in the nest, lying in their son's cradle, already stealing things that weren’t his by right.
She turned away from him. "If it were not for the sake of Asgard and the love I bear for you, I would not do this thing! I will raise him, if I must, but know this - I will not treat him as my own. I cannot love this child and I never will."
Odin bowed his head and took her hand in his. He knew that his wife was stubborn and determined, and that her heart was broken; but he also knew that her capacity for love was boundless. Once her heartbreak had healed, she would grow to love the boy. There was no hurry; they had millennia.
Her voice broke into his thoughts. "Is there not a danger in having him so near our throne?"
"I had considered that. We will raise him to be a king, but it will be made clear that he is second to his brother in all things. He will know that Asgard is meant for Thor."
She considered and nodded slowly. "Alright."
He kissed her. "Thank you. I must leave, no-one must know that I was here."
As he turned to leave, a thought occurred to her. "Wait! What of Heimdall?"
"I will explain matters to him, he will understand. Heimdall is loyal to me and to Asgard. We can trust him not to say anything." He walked out the door and disappeared from her sight.
Sighing, she turned back to the room and the child she didn’t want.