The rich scent of berries clung to the wind, calling to you like a siren’s song. Thick thorns protected the sweet berries from hungry predators, their sharp tips laced with a poison that could bring down a grown bilgesnipe. Thankfully, only those local to your secluded part of the kingdom knew of the thorns’ existence. If others knew, they’d no doubt rape the land and steal them as a weapon for their own good. The palace constantly sought new weapons and gave no consideration to the impact of their actions on the ecosystem.
The creatures of the forest had long since worked out how to avoid the sharp thorns and filled their stomachs with the small berries. They were an integral part of their diet. Years of careful study had allowed you to learn their secrets too and as such the berries were a delicious staple of your life. You were one of the few who knew how to avoid the thorns and harvest the berries, also able to judge the ripeness and determine which were safe to consume. Such knowledge was strong currency in this area but the kind you were not so keen to share.
As you rounded the corner, the ground soft under your bare feet, you came to a halt. Beneath the bush lay a man, unconscious. You crouched beside him and pressed your fingers to his throat, relieved to find a pulse. It was slow, weak, but he was still alive and for that you were grateful. The last thing you wanted to do today was bury a body.
His injuries were limited to a few scratches on the back of his hand, no doubt from trying to reach into the foliage for food. He was lucky. The cuts weren’t deep which meant the poison hadn’t yet spread through his body. If his luck held, you’d get him back to your cottage with enough time to administer an antidote.
You tried to rouse the man but garnered no response. Neither a gentle slap nor water from your pouch revived him. With no other choice, you slung the man’s thick arm over your shoulder and groaned beneath the weight. You shouldn’t have been surprised that the man weighed a tonne; well muscled beasts such as he were often far more dense than they looked.
The walk back to your cottage had never been so long but then you’d never dragged a 600 pound unconscious body through the trees before. You set the man on your workbench, brushing aside the papers and books which had littered the surface. Any other time, you would have cursed the ancient scrolls hitting the ground however your patient’s skin was taking on a disconcerting blue-green tinge and that took precedence.
On the bookshelf you kept a selection of antidotes, one of which was, gratefully, the one your patient required. Lamenting the use of your last dose on a stranger, you held his nose and poured the thick liquid into his mouth. Combined with a healing paste spread across the wounds, the effect was almost instantaneous. His pulse grew stronger, his natural complexion returned.
He would live. Your conscience was clear.
It was at that point you finally allowed your limbs to give out. You couldn’t bring yourself to rest for long, though. Curiosity was a terrible thing. You wondered who this man was and what had driven him so far off the beaten path. From the very first glance you’d known he didn’t belong here; he was as much a man of the forest as you were a bird of the sky. Dream of that though you might, it was a life far removed from your own.
His clothes radiated status. The dark cloak, although torn, was of the highest quality, made from the kind of fabric which felt like money and power beneath your fingertips. The seams were laden with gold and then of course there was his broach: a small pin engraved with the symbol of the palace. Only the highest ranking soldiers bore the honour of Odin’s mark.
Your examination was cut short when the man began to stir. You took a step backwards to give him space and kept your expression soft
He lunged at you like a great beast, his thick hands immediately clasping at your throat. You easily ducked beneath his arms, his attack going wide. The entire cottage shook when he collided with the wall but he was not deterred. Turning on a gold piece, he narrowed his eyes until he resembled the feral cats that occasionally frequented the edge of your land in search for scraps. “What did you do to me?”
“I’m a healer, sire. I healed you."
You lifted your hands placatingly and took a step backwards. This achieved two things. Firstly, the extra space between you injected a level of calm to the tense situation. Secondly, it brought you closer to the corner in which you stowed your weapon. In other circumstances your odds against a warrior of Asgard would be slim to none but his co-ordination was still out of sync and the poison that lingered in his system would leave the man weak enough to give you a fair chance at besting him, should the situation take a turn for the worst.
"Please, I mean you no harm."
He considered your words for a moment, the effort physically exhausting. Steadying himself against your bookshelf, knocking one of your more precious scrolls from the far edge, he nodded shortly. The suspicion didn’t fade from his expression but he accepted for now that your words were true. "Where are we? Who are you?”
“My name is Y/N. We are roughly an hour south of Aumrauth.”
“I do not know of the place you speak.”
You weren’t surprised. There was a small garrison nearby (with whom you ardently avoided crossing paths) but the village was forgotten by most in the realm. It offered little to the central city and a high ranking soldier would likely have never heard of the place. Only those sent to the outskirts as punishment knew of its existence. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, Aumrauth was a beautifully peaceful village which ignored all royal business and was ignored in return.
Gently, you explained, “Aumrauth lays on the outer edges of the kingdom, sire, about as far from Asgard as one can travel without falling out into space.”
The warrior hummed in acknowledgement, not really taking in your words. He swayed on his feet, his gaze growing distant before he fell to his knees. Your bookshelf was an unfortunate casualty, unable to hold his weight, and crashed down alongside him as dizziness took ahold.
“Allow me to help you, sire.” You once again bared his weight across your shoulders and pulled him to his feet. The muscles screamed out as you dragged him across the room, the pain unrelenting even after you set him down in the chair.
“Have you nowhere more comfortable?” he grumbled, shifting so viciously in the chair that you feared for its stability. It was a sturdy piece, made by the finest craftsman in Aumrauth no less, but it hadn’t been designed with a mannerless brick of muscle in mind.
“You may always join me on the ground,” you answered, taking a seat beside the unlit fireplace. There was still some heat to it from this morning and the gentle warmth on the back of your neck quelled your irritation slightly. A long breath passed your lips, releasing the tension in your muscles.
The warrior turned his nose up at your suggestion, arrogance pouring off of him. “I shall do no such thing.”
“I thought as such. Pray tell, sire, from where do you hail? I shall point you in the direction of your posting and then you may return to the comforts you are most accustomed.”
He opened his mouth to answer but no sounds fell from his tongue. A joke, no doubt, but as the moments passed you realised that he was being serious. “I do not know.”
You rose to your feet instantly, so fast that the world momentarily dipped to the side, to check his skull for injuries. How stupid of you not to check beforehand. Unnoticed, head wounds could be just as deadly as poison. The warrior hissed as you tugged his long, blond hair aside to search for wounds but there were none. Not even the slightest bump blemished his large head. Curious, indeed.
A spell, you wondered. There were those capable of wielding dark magic strong enough to curse a man but they tended to prefer transmogrifying their victims or remove specific parts of their anatomy. Never had you heard of a witch wiping their victim’s memory before. Strange. Very strange.
“Well,” you said, pushing the thought aside for now. “I cannot allow you to wander the forest after nightfall with no memory or where you are heading. You may stay here until morning then we shall head to Aumrauth and you may speak with the garrison leaders there. Perhaps they will know from where you’ve travelled.”
He glanced around your home, once again slightly more aware of his surroundings. His gaze settled on the mess across the floor, the mess which you’d made in the course of saving his life, with great judgement. “There are no other lodgings in the area? Somewhere more… Befitting?”
Biting your tongue, you said stiffly, “I’m afraid not, sire. Tis either with me or the bilgesnipe that you may stay tonight. Have you any recollection of your name? I would like to know whose life I saved today.”
“Thor,” he answered, surprised as you were that the answer came so quickly. Then again, curses were unpredictable things and even the strongest could not erase something so central to a person’s identity. His name. His noble arrogance.
You lowered your head in a polite bow, recognising his status yet withholding any sign of respect for the man. “My pleasure, I’m sure. I have work to do but I assume you are capable of entertaining yourself without breaking anything. If there’s anything you need, sire, let me know.”
“Where are the bathrooms? I wish to cleanse myself of this awful odour.” He took a sniff of his underarms and, deciding they weren’t the cause, turned his attention to the paste on his wrist. “What is this? It smells positively foul.”
“It prevents infection, sire. If you wish to bathe, there is a stream not two minutes west from here."
Never had you seen someone so offended by the notion of getting close to nature. Thor’s entire face twisted in discontent, deep and sincere hatred for the idea, and possibly for you, burning in his soul, the very concept of being so common utterly repulsive to him. If you’d been in any doubt before, you’d know for certain now that Thor was absolutely of noble stock.
Though the urge to shake your head and roll your eyes was intense, you managed to contain yourself. "I have a small tub if you’d prefer but it will take time to heat and fill."
"I shall wait.” Thor pushed himself up from the chair and began to run his fingers along the edge of your nearest bookshelf. Not content to simply read the titles and move on, he pulled them from their place, flicked through the pages without any real interest then set them back in the incorrect spot.
When he tired of leaving dirty finger marks throughout your collection, he turned his attention to the shelf of medicines and potions. The combination of scents, a mixture of tart solutions and sweet aromas which you found rather pleasing, left him sneezing and contaminating every vial. He was briefly very interested by one potion, one you almost wished he’d drink. Another type of deadly poison, used to deter the vermin from hollowing out the foundations of your home, which would quickly and quietly bring an end to your unwelcome guest’s rudeness. Sadly, Thor returned the poison to its original position and moved on.
Thor caught glance of your reflection in the window and frowned. “I believed I had made myself clear. You are excused from my presence, Y/N. You may attend to the bath now.”
“Right. Of course. I’ll just stop my own work and go outside to collect some firewood then.”
You grabbed a shawl and tossed it over your shoulders. The evening chill was already taking hold, sending a chill up your spine. Your breath was visible in the air, the ground cold and damp beneath your feet. It would take you almost an hour to prepare and heat Thor’s bath, you calculated, by which point you’d be frozen to the core. Then you would face the absolute opposite, preparing dinner for you and your ungrateful visitor in front of a stoking fire for a similar period. To top it all off, the potion you’d intended to complete this evening was now ruined and would have to be restarted next week from scratch.
The only positive you could find was that the curse would wear off eventually. A small comfort for your troubles. No matter what the witches proclaimed, there were none in the kingdom strong enough to cast a permanent spell of this kind. Hopefully tomorrow at the garrison one of the guards would recognise Thor and grant him shelter. If not, the curse would wear off within a week or so, at least you hoped. Then you’d be free to send the noble tool on his way for good and not a moment too soon.