Loki hurried through the forest, heedless of the sharp pine needles beneath his bare feet. As another pang hit him he slumped, grasping desperately at a low-hanging branch for support. He gritted his teeth through it, one arm supporting his swollen belly.
As the pain ebbed he forced himself to stumble on – he was close, so close to where he needed to be. The spot where the leylines converged was oddly barren – the ground covered only by a springy and resilient moss.
Loki cried out where no living person could hear, crouching as his whole lower half was given over to the agony of his quickening.
The child was born screaming before it had even taken its first full breath, before Loki had even swiped the mucus from its mouth with his trembling fingers. He laid it aside to cut through the sinewy umbilical cord with his teeth.
The afterbirth was a thing too imbued with his body’s own magic to leave to strangers or wild beasts, and Loki had eaten less appetizing things in his eternities.
Left to its own devices, the child had quietened and Loki looked it over as he pondered his next move. Ten fingers, ten toes. A purple mark in the shape of a wolf on the inside of his left thigh – Loki would divine the auspices of that later. He looked at the sun’s position in the sky and nodded in satisfaction – undrentide, that would be significant.
The crackle of twigs alerted Loki’s attention to the presence of an intruder upon his privacy. A white doe sent up clouds of vapour with her nostrils as she stepped cautiously around the perimeter of the clearing, half glimpsed among the bars of sun and shadow created by a copse of silver birch.
Yes, thought Loki. That will do very well.
The sound of a high, eerie scream rang through Asgard’s great hall, penetrating even the dinnertime hubbub. Warriors covered their ears as it grew louder and nearer, but the sound vibrations still ran up through their feet to reverberate in their teeth.
Loki entered the hall with something bundled in a cloak resting in his arms. The female form he had taken to wearing was swathed only in a loose robe, and his legs and feet showed streaked with blood and grime as he walked.
Balder rose from his seat and came forwards, carefully lifting the shrieking thing from Loki’s arms. As he pushed back the fabric to see the child’s face, the noise subsided into whimpers, then stopped altogether.
“Why is it so caked in blood, Loki?” he asked, wondering at the thick, sticky layer that covered the child’s face and body.
“There were some complications,” Loki responded, all too smoothly for one whose hands, face, and limbs bore similar traces of atrocity. “Calm yourself, Lord Balder. All is now well.”
“Hail, Asgard’s newest son,” Balder’s face shone as he gazed upon the child, who fixed him with a similar gaze of soft wonderment.
Loki’s eyes took on a blank quality as his knees buckled beneath him and he went down with a thump upon the stone-flagged floor.
Loki woke in a bed, taking in first that he was warm, and then that he was clean. He opened his eyes to see a figure seated near his bedside - though he couldn’t tell if the brightness came from the window or Balder’s countenance.
“How fares the child?” he asked, raising himself on the pillows.
“He thrives, though he has so far refused all the wet nurses we have brought.”
“Tch,” Loki made a face that expressed his lack of surprise. “Bring him to me.”
A servant was dispatched and the infant brought. He screamed again at being placed in Loki’s arms, but accepted the breast offered to him. His purplish newborn face remained deeply furrowed as he gave suck.
Balder sat on the side of the bed and watched Loki’s display of maternal instinct with fascination. “I was afraid he would be a monster.”
Loki smiled and said nothing.
“He should have a name,” Balder ventured.
“How should we name him before we know his character? I haven’t even cast his charts yet.”
“Well, there should be a formal celebration of his birth.”
“I doubt that Thor would allow it. He seemed minded to have me grow to full term with ‘the abomination’, as he terms it, within a dungeon.”
“Thor will have to acknowledge a prince of the realm.”
Loki’s smile became broader. He stroked the suckling child’s cheek and it seemed to recoil from the contact.
Balder knelt on the bed as Loki straddled his lap, shifting back pressed to the god of light’s broad chest.
Loki was so wet that their fucking seemed almost frictionless, just the pressure and heat of Balder’s prick stretching him open as they rocked together. One of Balder’s hands was on the curve of Loki’s hip, the other cupping his pubic mound, middle finger dipping into his slit but no longer rubbing with a fast enough rhythm to get him to climax – Balder was too near the height of his own pleasure for that just now. Loki pushed back more roughly, clenching around him just to hear his startled moan.
“Oh, oh you demon,” he murmured, burying his face against Loki’s neck, damp strands of the other’s thick, abundant hair sticking to his cheek.
Loki reached back to scratch lightly at Balder’s scalp with his nails, then leaned down to ease himself onto his hands and knees on the bed. Balder slipped out of him, prick hitting the curve of Loki’s arse with a wet slap and making both men gasp and then laugh softly. The god of lies looked over his shoulder to grin slyly at him as Balder gripped himself and pushed back in.
Balder settled his hands on the Loki’s hips, thighs trembling as he tried to control the rhythm of his thrusts. “Ah, we should have another child... we should have dozens of children.”
“Would you have an army of our offspring?” Loki moaned as he pushed backwards with a rough shove, tilting his hips to take Balder to the hilt. “Or do you just prefer me kept barefoot and pregnant?”
“Loki... let me...”
Loki’s eyes flashed as he looked back. “No.”
Balder made a sound as if it tortured him as he pulled out, but after a moment Loki felt the warm trickle of seed running down the length of his spine.
Balder’s strong hands turned Loki onto his back, the god of light resting his cheek against Loki’s thigh and kissing the soft flesh there as he regained his breath. Then he pressed his mouth to Loki’s cunt, licking him until his spine arched and toes flexed, long nails rending the sheets as his hands gripped and unclenched.
When both gods were satisfied, Balder moved up the bed to lie by Loki’s side, pressing soft kisses to his lips and neck until the peace was broken by the preternaturally loud screams of the infant housed several rooms away.
Loki raised himself on his elbows and rolled his eyes at the doorway. “What were you saying about more of those?”
Balder failed to answer as he was staring fixedly at a drop of milk which had leaked from Loki’s right breast in response to the child’s cries.
“What?” Loki snapped.
“It is interesting that your body has sympathy for the child when you yourself have none.” Balder leaned over and licked the droplet away. It tasted bitter as gall and made the tip of his tongue tingle.
“That is not for you,” Loki said, pushing his head away.
The trickster god rose from the bed and threw a robe over his shoulders before striding from the room. The door at the end of the hallway opened and the furious screams of the child grew louder and angrier, before they suddenly subsided, leaving in their absence a silence that seemed, somehow, to ring.
Loki nursed the child for three months before one day unceremoniously hefting him into Balder’s arms and announcing, “there, it’s finished.”
“What is finished?” Balder asked, laying the baby against his shoulder and rocking him until he stopped his outraged shrieking.
“My role in this, for now at least.” Loki shimmered and became his male self (a version which Balder had come to believe was just as much an act of will on Loki’s part as the female).
“You haven’t even named him,” Balder pointed out.
“I’m sure you’ll work something out, Balder. You’re not as unimaginative as everyone says.”
“That’s it – a year and you’re leaving?”
“A year and a day, and yes.” Loki took a step back and ran his hands down the length of his tunic, as if testing the boundaries of a body grown unfamiliar. “Oh, and despite what you might think later, this wasn’t a trick.”
Balder’s reasonable objections fell on empty air as Loki simply vanished in a flash of green.
Midgard was nothing if not useful in its many nooks and crannies. Loki had always liked gaining higher ground, and Bulgaria’s mountain caves gave him somewhere to curl up and sleep when he grew tired of walking to and fro and causing strife among the humans.
He was woken from a season-long slumber by the crackling and warmth of a fire. He sat up and looked over at the intruder, a small, slender figure sitting upon a rocky outcropping wearing a hooded cloak which shaded his (or possibly her) face, leaning against a staff fashioned from a spiral-twisted branch.
“Well, it isn’t often I have visitors. What is your name, stranger?”
“I have been called by many names,” the voice was that of a male youth. “Eavesdropper, backbiter, meddler, overreacher, barrow-lurker, harbinger of ill news. My king calls me ‘abomination’.”
“What does your father call you?”
“‘Son’, what else?”
Loki smiled. “How is Balder the Brave?”
“How dying? He’s a god.”
“We don’t know. Thor thinks it’s a curse.”
“Well it wasn’t my doing, if that’s what you think.”
“No, but he has asked for you.”
“Thor has asked for me?” a raised eyebrow expressed the trickster god’s incredulity at this.
“Balder. He murmurs your name.”
“And you have come to take me to him?”
The youth stood up, dropping his hood to reveal features which were much like Balder’s – except for his teeth, which showed sharp and vulpine as he drew back his lips. “I have come to take you back by whatever means necessary.”
Loki laughed at that. “Indeed? Are you a fearsome warrior, then?”
“I have many abilities.” The staff, Loki realised as the boy came nearer to the fire, was decorated with runes.
Loki hid his smile by rubbing his hand over his face. “Then I suppose I’d better come peaceably.”
The healers drew back from Balder’s bedside at Loki’s approach. Thor was pacing in the hall beyond, and had given Loki only a distrustful glare as he passed by.
“We think,” said the boy, “that it is some manner of sorcery that afflicts him, and no ordinary malady.”
“Hmm, has he taunted any witches or demons lately?” Loki seated himself on the edge of the bed and took in Balder’s colourless, sweat-slicked complexion. The sick man’s eyelids fluttered but did not open, yet his hand clasped Loki’s sleeve weakly.
“Not that we know of.”
“How long has he been thus?”
“He drinks no water, takes no food?”
The boy withdrew, taking the healers with him. Loki crossed to a chair and sat there in contemplation of the prone figure. As the room drew dark he closed his eyes and thought.
Near midnight he rose from the seat and lit a candle stub, then crossed to the bed and pulled away the heavy coverings. The long linen shirt Balder wore was soaked to near translucence. Loki rolled him over, as gently as he could manage, and drew a knife from his belt, plunging it into the mattress where Balder’s body had lain, then reached in with one hand, rooting among the horsehair stuffing. Using the long nail on his smallest finger he withdrew the thing secreted within.
Loki crossed to the window and laid the object down, noting that the brief contact had turned the lower half of his fingernail black. It was a section of shinbone etched crudely with symbols – a man’s shinbone, which Loki wondered at before he remembered the boy’s epithet ‘barrow-lurker’.
“What is it?” Balder asked, swiftly rousing from the spell now that its malevolent source had been taken away.
“A nasty little thing. The product of a nasty little mind.”
“But not your handiwork, trickster?”
“No. Though I don’t think we need look very far to find out whose. Tell Thor to destroy it – Mjolnir will be more than capable. Then scatter the dust to the four winds.”
Loki turned and gave Balder one appraising glance before moving towards the door.
“Loki – you will not leave Asgard so soon?” what was meant to seem enquiry sounded painfully like a request to Balder’s own ears. “It’s...” he shook his head. “There is much I would say to you.”
“I will speak to you later, Balder. Rest for now, and I will send your brother to you – before he wears a trench in the floor outside.”
Loki returned to Balder’s rooms in the early evening of the next day. Balder was dressed in a tunic and leggings and had moved to a chair near the fire. Loki removed his helmet and seated himself on the side of the hearth, one leg bent at the knee and the other stretched out before him.
“You have stayed away a long time, Loki.”
“In that time I have earned my banishment hundreds of times over.”
Balder nodded and took a deep breath before continuing: “I tried with the boy, Loki. I really did.”
Balder clasped his hands together in his lap and stared into the leaping flames. “I tried to give him a name, but he wouldn’t answer to it. I tried to give him guidance, but he wouldn’t follow it. I tried to give him love, but he wouldn’t return it.”
“It is not your fault, Balder.”
“There should have been a way.”
Loki shook his head. “The Aesir all dance to a tune that is not of their own composition.”
“You have said that since we were children, but I have never believed it. How can you ask me to accept that all my efforts are meaningless?”
“Not meaningless. That the child can’t return your love doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have cared for him.”
“I suppose I should curse the day you placed him in my arms, yet even now – knowing what he is – I cannot.”
“Then you are a better father to him than Odin was to me.”
“Do you regret it - bearing my child, I mean?”
Loki showed him a bitter smile. “Regret is the one emotion I am not capable of.”
“Perhaps that is your blessing, Loki.”
Loki rose to his feet. “Hardly – it means I never learn.”
Balder reached out and grasped Loki’s wrist in a firm, insistent grip, drawing him closer to the chair. He then paused, gazing downwards for a long moment as his thumb rubbed circles over Loki’s pulse point. Finally, he raised his head to meet the trickster god’s curious stare, admitting: “I always resented that you never gave me the chance to lie with you as a man.”
Loki pursed his lips to show his amusement. “Clearly, it was remiss of me.”
Balder stood, still grasping Loki’s arm with one hand while raising the other to cup his cheek.
As they kissed, Loki paused to wonder why he had never tried to trick Balder into thinking of him as a lover – now that he reflected on it, it would have been very easy.
“Come,” he said, teasing. “Invalids should be in bed.”
A libertine would no doubt scoff at the idea that there could be pleasure in something as simple as another’s hands and mouth, but living for millennia had long-since cured Loki of reveling in taboos.
He felt strangely overwhelmed by the soft way that Balder said his name, his voice a low throb of sound like a thrush’s call – as if the word didn’t mean ‘trickster’ or ‘liar’.
More disorientating still was the familiarity of it all – rushing back to him like the attendant words to a song at the first strain of its melody. The scrape of Balder’s teeth on his hipbone, the shifting pattern of muscles on his back, the curve of his prick as it was held tight in Loki’s working hand.
A sudden stab of resentment rose up within him, and Loki would probably have done something on purpose to ruin everything if Balder hadn’t taken the moment to press him down on the bed with his greater weight, holding Loki’s wrists and rocking harshly against him.
When Balder finally said “there” with quiet satisfaction, brushing Loki’s hair from his face, Loki was simply too drowsy to argue.
Loki woke with a start, dislodging Balder’s arm from across his waist as he raised himself to sit upright.
Moonlight spilled across the bed, illuminating the slack, peaceful expression of Balder’s face beneath the rumpled hair covering his brow.
Loki’s gaze snapped to the corner of the room where he could make out the outline of a figure occupying a chair.
“I would speak with you,” the youth said.
“Would you indeed?” Loki sneered.
The youth merely stalked from the room, cloak fluttering. He left the door open in arrogant expectation of Loki choosing to follow him.
Loki rubbed his eyes and sighed heavily before sliding from the bed to retrieve his scattered clothes.
He found the boy in a chamber which clearly served as his study. Candles burned low in the wax-covered wall fixtures and assorted grimoires, bestiaries and books of lore were stacked in uneven piles on the floor around the large, sloping desk.
The boy sat with his back to him for a long moment, calmly finishing his copying of a passage onto a piece of parchment. His handwriting was messy and blotted – careless – and he had torn the page in places through the savagery of his scribbling.
Eventually he laid his quill aside and turned on the stool to face Loki.
“Give me my name, mother of monsters. I assume you have a reason for not wanting me to know it, but you will give me my name.”
Loki gave a bark of laughter. “Or what? What will you do, spiteful little mage? You think you can pit yourself against one who has had thousands of years to learn dark magics and plot how to destroy those who cross him? What small, stunted ability you even have is what I painstakingly gave you!”
The youth smiled, and Loki found it unsettling to see his own expressions so perfectly mirrored. “You think I believed you wouldn’t come, that you wouldn’t find out what I had done? That little stunt was just to prove what I already knew.”
“What do you think you know, stripling?”
“What you never wanted Lord Balder to learn. That for all your betrayals, protestations and shows of indifference, your love for him is more than you know what to do with.”
“And you think I would be shamed if you told him?” Loki folded his arms over his chest. “He wouldn’t believe you.”
The youth considered this for a moment, pulling at his bottom lip with his ink-stained fingers. “Despite what you may believe, I am fond of my father. He has ever loved me, and honoured me – trusted me, even when I did all I could not to deserve that trust. He is truly the best and bravest of men.” The boy’s eyes glinted with cruel enjoyment as he continued: “but think on this – when you are not here, he is at my mercy. And if you think I would not kill him just to vex you, you have no conception of how much I hate you.”
Loki laughed again, bowing his head in resignation. “And yet, Váli my son, you are so much like me.”