Asgard is quiet when Loki is gone.
Boring, too, although Sigyn would never say as much. But Thor’s stories don’t have the same flair, and Bragi’s, although beautifully wrought, are unreliable. (Loki’s are unreliable, too, but in a wholly different way. It’s part of the game—to pick truth from lie—and the other gods can spend hours at it. Sigyn fancies, quietly, that she’s especially good at it. She knows they can’t be separated.)
The trouble with Thor’s stories is that they’re completely factual. Oh, he exaggerates his own part, Sigyn is sure. But that’s not really the same thing. He doesn’t name the farmers’ wives, or share all their secret thoughts, or describe the weight of snow on pine needles. He rarely deals in motivations. Bragi does, but he leaves no room for ambiguities.
It’s dull, she thinks, for the giant to always be the villain, however realistic.
Sigyn doesn’t like the new wall. There’s far too much finality to it.
She knows that Asgard has had a wall before. Once, years before she was born, its strong palisades—towers that grow taller and grander with every telling—had defined the home of the Aesir. But the wall was destroyed in the war with the Vanir, a war old enough now that it is little spoken of in Asgard. Sigyn herself grew up knowing Freyr and Freyja and Njord only as chief among the Aesir. She was a woman grown before she learned that Heimdall and Gefjon had ever been Vanir at all.
So for her the wall is new and strange. She dislikes its dark, massive stones, the long shadows it casts as the light falls. She mourns the fields and the tumbling stones and sudden splashes of water, and the far off hint of Midgard, now lost to her eyes.
Sometimes, when the evening falls slowly from red to purple, she goes out to the wall alone. She goes to the place with the large ash, some distance south of Freyja’s hall at Sessrumnir. The tree shades the wall and lends a sense of safety, something familiar in the face of a giant. At just the right angle, the ash blocks all vision of Himinbjorg and the watchful god who dwells within.
If she’s feeling very brave, she climbs the wall, small against the twilight, and sits atop it. She can’t see Heimdall and, she assumes, he can’t see her, but her view of Bifrost is unbroken. The bridge lies undisturbed.
The wall was built in just over six months. Sigyn has heard the rumors of Ragnarok, rumors grown stronger of late. The wall is sturdy and impregnable, and she wonders how long it will take to fall.
Her eyes track again to the rainbow bridge, but it remains empty, taunting her. There is no laughter, and no quick, crafty smile. Asgard is much too somber these days.
He comes back in the late autumn, when the world is brown and cold, just after the first early snows. He trots lightly across Bifrost, his stride long and easy, a thoughtless smile marking his lips and his hand extended in a rude gesture of greeting for Heimdall’s benefit. Snowflakes catch in his hair, bone white against red, and long fingers reach up to brush some of the snow away.
He catches her staring, perched high and small up in the old ash, and winks at her.
It’s then she notices the horse.
It’s the strangest horse Sigyn has ever seen. Only a foal, really; it looks too young to be without its mother, and she wonders how such a small unweaned thing can be here alone. The foal seems content, though. It trots along easily, keeping pace just behind Loki, its head tossed proud and high. It’s a grey, with just a hint of dapple, and already the promise of a warhorse.
The foal has eight legs. Sigyn stares at it, follows its graceful movements, its gait like water, strange for an animal so young, even one with only four legs. She can’t imagine how it doesn’t trip over itself.
The other gods have crowded around now, drawn by the promise of a new story, Odin and Thor foremost among them. Thor is boisterous; no one had known where Loki was, and he’d planned a scouting trip to Jotunheim. There are giants that will have to wait weeks, perhaps months now to have their heads cracked. Loki laughs, and apologizes; at this distance, she can’t make out the expression in his eyes.
Odin says, “It’s a fine animal you’ve brought back,” and there’s a secret on the edge of his voice.
Loki goes still. Sigyn doesn’t understand why the other gods laugh. The foal is beautiful.
Loki says, “His name is Sleipnir.”
“He’s hardly old enough to be weaned,” says Heimdall, his mouth twisting, sly. “Where’s his mother?”
Several of the gods snort, and Thor roars with laughter, the sound like thunder. Sleipnir starts, his ears pricking back, and he gives a whinny of dismay and runs to Loki, his head butting, insistent and blind, against Loki’s side.
Loki strokes his neck and laughs, unconcerned. “Oh,” he says, “I’m sure she’ll turn up soon.”
There is a feast that night, but Loki does not attend. Sigyn wishes she hadn’t, but she has the honor of offering the cup tonight, which unfortunately makes it rather difficult to slip out unnoticed. Sif is eyeing her from her place beside Thor and politely but ineffectually disguising her laughter behind her hand. Sigyn hadn’t thought she was quite so obviously bored. She concentrates harder on her smile.
Bragi is sharing his newest composition. Sigyn thinks it’s about Thor’s latest trip to Midgard and – something about a goat? But she could be wrong. She hadn’t really paid attention to the first half.
Well, all right. A goat then. Bragi doesn’t describe the goat, so she adds the details in her mind. It ought to be a nanny goat, she decides, a great shaggy brown one, not yet old but beginning to be so, with kind and cunning eyes. A good milker.
But the effort is no good. It only reminds her of the foal.
She’s never seen such a young horse alone. She wonders how they’re feeding it. Did anyone feed it? Her father had the animal taken to the stables earlier, and while no one has really stopped laughing about Loki’s coming back with a horse yet, no more has been said about the foal itself. Will it be all right, alone in a strange place without its mother? Have they any suckling mares? Sigyn doesn’t think so, but then she doesn’t often spend time in the stable. Perhaps they will have to feed the foal on goats’ milk?
She blinks. Bragi seems to have finished his song, and she may never know what happened with Thor and the goat. Her father rises from his chair, his wolves snapping at his heels. The feast is over, and the Aesir spill out into the night, laughing, shoulders bumping together. The occasional song rises on the air. They are still laughing about the horse.
Sigyn doesn’t quite understand, but she’s tired of the laughter turning on her when she asks. So she stays quiet (meek as a mouse, her father has said, as he pats her head), and when Gladsheim is mostly empty, she slips out in the liquid shadows and goes to milk the goat.
She finds Sleipnir easily enough, although not where she expected him. His stall door is open, the stall itself empty save for the scattered straw. Sigyn has a moment of sharp panic, before she hears it: a soft, contented whuffling sound, hushed in an open corner of the barn. She hurries forward, the jar of goat’s milk sloshing against her hand, and there is Sleipnir, quite content beside a warm chestnut mare Sigyn has never seen before. It seems she won’t need the goat’s milk after all.
She stops several steps away, not wanting to startle the mare, whose ears have drawn back at the sound of her approach. Sigyn smiles, and holds out her hand to be sniffed. The mare regards her with intelligent brown eyes, and Sigyn is reminded of her thought about the goat. Kind and cunning, yes. The horse snorts her acceptance and turns to nuzzle her foal, and Sigyn wishes she’d thought to bring an apple.
“I’m glad to see you here,” she says aloud, not overly minded about talking to a horse. She has reputation enough in Asgard, and anyway everyone else is surely asleep by now. There was more than enough mead at the feast. “Loki said you might turn up, but I was worried all the same.”
The mare snorts again, something flickering in her intelligent eyes, and Sigyn wants to stroke her smooth neck. She doesn’t, though. Sleipnir has gone back to his meal and she doesn’t want to intrude.
“How did you get in past the wall?” she wonders aloud, smiling at the horses and taking a seat well back from them amidst the straw. “I hope Heimdall’s wards didn’t give you any trouble!”
The mare nickers at her, and for a moment, Sleipnir looks up, startled by the sound, before returning to his dinner. His mother nuzzles him in apology. Sigyn can’t shake the feeling that she’s having an actual conversation with the horse.
“I know,” she says, “I don’t like the wall either. It feels too much like an ending.” She isn’t entirely sure what she means by that, but that’s the beauty of talking to a horse. She can be free in ways she never could with another person.
When she leaves the stable, Sleipnir is asleep, his mother nuzzling at him, his eight legs curled haphazardly beneath him. It’s peaceful, and Sigyn might have stayed longer, but she is tired, and she has chores in the morning. So she heads home whistling softly under the wisps of cloud and the fitful stars, and almost bowls into Loki.
“Whoa there, Odin’s daughter,” he says, laughing, catching at her arms to steady her. His eyes are green this time, or perhaps they’re blue; in the moonlight she can’t quite tell. He’s smaller than she remembers. “Where are you going so heedless at this time of night?”
It’s the first time she’s really seen him since his return, and she has a thousand things she wants to say: Thor tells the worst stories. It’s been too quiet here. I hate the new wall. Where did you go? Where did the horse come from? Tell me a story.
But she doesn’t say any of those things. Instead, she says, “I was visiting the stables.” She smiles up at him (he looks taller again, but she’s sure he hasn’t changed). “I wanted to make sure the foal was well, but you were right. His mother did show up.”
“Oh, did she?” There’s something clever in Loki’s dark eyes. It dances on the edge of familiarity, something she’s seen recently, but she can’t place it.
“I still haven’t worked out how she got past the wall, though,” she mutters. “I don’t think Heimdall let her in. He was at the feast, and all the gates were locked.”
Loki humms beside her. He’s entirely too cheerful. “Heimdall must be slipping on the job,” he says, gleeful. “Letting something as large as a horse slip past his wards.” He clucks his tongue. “That’s bad, very bad indeed. Someone ought to inform the Allfather.”
There’s something unaccountably cheeky in his expression. The horse certainly didn’t slip past, then. And Loki wasn’t at the feast. Sigyn considers him, her eyes narrowed, her lips pursed to hold back a smile. She can tell by the glint in his eyes (light again, now, but shifting toward a darker color) that she hasn’t succeeded at all.
Anyone else might think sneaking a horse into Asgard a challenge, but for Loki, it’s much too simple. No. She’s missing something.
“Well,” she says slowly, as though pondering weighty things, “where were you then? Heimdall was at the feast, but you weren’t.”
Loki laughs again, not a cruel laugh but something mischievous and joyful and almost child-like. She’s always loved his laugh. “Oh,” he says flippantly, “I was here and there. Visiting with kin, reacquainting myself with corners and shapes and secret places.” He tilts his head, regarding her with challenge. His smile is both mocking and, she fancies, secretly fond. “I assure you, I’ve seen no horses but the foal.”
Sigyn considers him minutely: the ease in his shoulders, the artless poise in his movements, the teasing something that dimples the corner of his mouth. His eyes shine; one eyebrow arches. It says, Figure it out.
She’s almost flattered that he’s chosen her for one of his games, but then the mocking corner of his mouth dips: he knows. He knows, and he’s playing with her, and of course she should have expected that. Loki plays with everyone. She narrows her eyes at him. She won’t let herself be distracted that easily.
They’ve stopped walking now, and Sigyn takes a moment to look around. She’s curious, because she realizes now she hasn’t been paying attention to where they were going for some while. So she turns away from him to take stock of her surroundings, and that’s all. It’s not because she’s regrouping.
Behind her, out of her line of sight now, Loki snorts. Sometimes she thinks he’s a mind-sifter as well as a form-changer. She refuses to dignify that with a response.
They’re back at the stable. The moonlight is a slim silver line, spilling through clouds and highlighting now a patch of roof, now a blade of grass. She can’t hear anything inside the stable, and she wonders if Sleipnir’s mother is still there.
Sigyn hadn’t been paying attention to where they were going, but Loki… Loki always knows where he is. She purses her lips, turning slowly in a circle, taking in the stable, the dew-jeweled grass, the quiet moon, and Loki, tall and slender and showing up like fire in a sudden bar of moonlight, laughing at her. If he’s brought her back to this place (and he has), he’s done so for a reason.
Figure it out.
She steps toward him again, and she doesn’t bother to hide her gaze. If she was hoping he’d be abashed, she really should have known better. Loki only grins and quirks a brow at her, his eyes never leaving hers. It’s very distracting. But Sigyn’s not about to give now; she holds her ground.
A spear of moonlight cuts across them and she can see that Loki’s eyes are dark again, probably brown. Kind and cunning, she thinks, and doesn’t know why. But she grasps onto the thought, holds it along with his gaze, until it yields to her and she remembers the goat. And the horse.
“Oh,” Sigyn says out loud, and now she does step back, and her eyes drop as though scalded. She’d known he was a shape-changer, but she hadn’t thought—
The laugh this time sounds forced, which is so unusual for him that it draws her eyes back again in spite of herself. Loki blinks in the moonlight. She’s sure his eyes aren’t brown any more. She wonders, briefly, what their natural color is.
“Oh?” he asks, and the smile now is distinctly more mocking. “Did you figure it out then?”
Sigyn shifts, dew wetting her feet through the leather of her shoes. She swallows. “I didn’t think you could do that.”
Loki isn’t saying anything, just standing there and mocking her with his eyebrows. He lets out another, much louder snort, and this time the sound is echoed from within the stable. She knows it’s Sleipnir, and that’s all the confirmation she needs.
“I mean,” Sigyn stumbles on, not even sure why she’s talking any more, except that Loki is never an obvious liar and something must be wrong. “I thought— I didn’t know you could become a woman. Well, a mare, anyway. Female, I mean. I—”
Loki laughs, and this time it doesn’t sound forced at all. Sigyn is surprised at the strength of her own relief.
“Oh,” he says, “is that all?”
But his voice sounds…different. Smoother, maybe, and not so deep, with just a hint of lilt. Sigyn looks up again, blinks once, and tries, with very little success, not to stare.
It’s not a dramatic change. It’s more subtle, which makes it all the more noticeable. Loki’s face has softened slightly, the line of her jaw changed, brows shifted and nose just slightly straighter, the sweep of her throat now perfectly smooth. Her breasts are small and round. Her eyebrow is still arched, teasing.
Sigyn blinks. “You!” she says, and then she’s laughing. “You’re the Jotun woman from the feast last year!”
She sees something barely perceptible relax in Loki’s shoulders, and then the tell is gone and there’s nothing but innocence on her face.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Loki says jauntily. Her eyes are shifting again, and her mouth quirks at the corners. Sigyn’s gaze follows the curve of her mouth, traces the arc of her cheekbones, reaches her eyes again. The lashes are short and thick, dark smudges against her skin where the moonlight strikes. Sigyn realizes she is staring.
“Yes, you do,” she says, partly because she’s right and she knows it, but mostly to deflect attention. “You refused Heimdall, twice, in public.” She thinks she probably shouldn’t laugh, remembering it, but she’s beyond trying to stop the laughter at this point. And she knows what she knows. True, Loki doesn’t look much like that woman from last year, not now, but there’s a hint of similarity in the jaw and the sweep of her brow, and there had definitely been something familiar in that woman’s scorn for Bifrost’s guardian.
Loki demures. “I’m sure it wasn’t me,” she says with such sincerity that Sigyn almost doubts herself. Loki chuckles, a dark, throaty sound that’s both very similar to the one Sigyn knows, and not like it at all. She feels something flutter beneath her ribs. Loki seems not to notice, and adds, “But I would certainly love to meet the woman who did.”
This time it’s Sigyn who snorts, and she doesn’t care that it sounds unfitting for a goddess. “Suit yourself,” she says, and then fixes Loki with what she hopes is an intimidating stare. “But you won’t fool me again.”
Loki smiles serenely at her. “Of course I will,” she says. “You just might catch on sooner than some.”
It certainly doesn’t sound like a compliment, but Sigyn feels the words settle warm and comfortable in her belly all the same. She’s more than a little embarrassed to realize that she’s blushing, and she looks quickly away, as though that won’t draw even further attention.
When she looks back again, Loki is a man.
“I thought you might be more comfortable with this,” he says. His lips quirk, and for just an instant the scars show harsh in the moonlight. “You seemed…distracted before.” His eyes flash, dark and then light, and there’s something there that makes her feel breathless, like she’s run too far and too fast, without any clear idea where she was going. She knows he’s laughing at her.
But she pushes it away and she says, “You lied to me, before.”
Loki grins at her. She’s suddenly very aware that they haven’t moved in some time, that her shoes are soaking through, and that she should have been asleep long ago. The world is very quiet.
“You’ll have to be more specific,” he says.
“About the horse. You said you’d only seen Sleipnir.” It’s clear enough now what he meant by “visiting kin,” and even corners and shapes, but Sigyn wants an accounting for everything. He hasn’t outright admitted anything, and she wants to be sure she’s not being tricked.
“And so I had,” Loki says, unconcerned. “There are precious few mirrors in stables. I haven’t seen myself all night.”
In spite of herself, Sigyn laughs. Loopholes. Of course.
“All right,” she says, “you win. And of course I can’t prove anything.”
Loki humms again, the very picture of innocence. It’s ridiculous, Sigyn thinks: she’s laughed more tonight than in all the last seven months. Time to bow out gracefully while she still can.
“Now that I know that Sleipnir has no need of goats’ milk,” she says, watching the way the laughter slides across his face and settles in his smirk, “I really should return to my mother’s hall.” She gives him a stern glance, as though this is entirely his fault, but she knows it’s not. “I do have chores in the morning, you know.”
“What, cleaning the meadhall?” Sigyn starts, completely failing to hide her surprise, and Loki laughs again. His smile has gone distinctly crafty. “I wouldn’t worry about that,” he says, waving an airy hand.
What are you up to, Loki?
But she doesn’t ask. She’d not get a straight answer anyway, or if she did, it wouldn’t be true. Instead she says, “Perhaps you wouldn’t, but I have my duties, and now I am going to bed.”
It was, she reflects immediately, a very unfortunate choice of words. Loki doesn’t even have to say anything. His right brow angles up and he looks at her with lowered lashes and tilted mouth, hints of scars showing around the edges. That something flutters beneath her ribs again, and Sigyn thinks that she wants to taste those scars.
“A wise enough plan,” he says, low and not a little mocking. “I’d join you—” And he leaves it hanging there, leaves his words twisting in the air like living things while Sigyn’s face grows hotter and hotter and she tries to remind herself that somewhere in them, the possibility of an innocent meaning exists. There is always more than one meaning to anything Loki says.
“But,” he says, grinning, taking pity on her at last, “I am needed here tonight.” And he gestures back over his shoulder, toward the stable. Sigyn follows the gesture, her eyes taking in the moonlit walls, suddenly remembering where they are and why. Very faintly, she can hear the uncertain sounds of a foal that’s found itself alone too long. Sleipnir wants his mother.
Sigyn turns back to Loki, but Loki is gone, and in his place there’s the beautiful chestnut mare. The mare snorts softly and lips at Sigyn’s hair.
“Oh!” she laughs, pushing the animal away. “Go on, go see to your son, he misses you.” She snorts, and then giggles when the mare matches her with another snort of her own. “Get out of here,” she says, and shoves at the mare’s shoulders. “I am going to bed and so should you.”
It sounds significantly less awkward when she’s saying it to a horse.
The mare whinnies, and Sleipnir answers from within the stable, and Sigyn laughs one more time tonight to make up for the last year, and then she turns for her mother’s hall and sleep at last.
Sigyn wakes early, far earlier than she would have liked, and drags herself out of bed, cursing Loki and refusing to examine all the ways in which she doesn’t mean it. She returns to the meadhall, only to find the servants standing about in surprise, and the hall itself sparklingly clean.
She blinks, once, twice, and then she turns on her heel without a word and makes for the stable.
She finds Sleipnir asleep and his mother still there, curled in the straw and nuzzling gently at her foal. She looks as though she’s been there all night, but Sigyn knows better.
“You!” she says, leveling a finger at the horse and not bothering to modulate her voice, “I don’t know how you did it, or why, but curse it all you might have told me I didn’t need to wake early this morning!”
The horse snorts and bares her teeth, as though to say, Quiet, human, my son is trying to sleep. For a moment, Sigyn almost feels guilty.
“All right, Loki,” she says, and in spite of everything she does keep her voice down this time. “You’ve had your fun, and I might even have thanked you for it, if only you’d given me some forewarning. But don’t think this is over. You are going to explain!”
Sigyn draws a deep breath in conclusion, her finger still pointing dramatically. The horse looks at her, entirely unimpressed.
Sigyn sighs and lets her arm drop. “Oh fine. I’m going back to bed.”
She could swear the horse is laughing at her as she turns to go.
Sigyn does go back to sleep, and when she wakes again she’s in a much better mood. She’s most of the day free, now. So she gathers fresh goats’ milk, Fulla’s warm brown bread, and a small hunk of cheese. After some consideration, laughing, she selects a few plump and juicy apples, as well, and then she heads for the wall.
There’s a place not terribly far from her tree, midway between the stable and Sessrumnir, that’s all open grass running straight up to the wall. It’s here she finds Sleipnir, bucking about on his long, spindly, too many legs, and with him is Loki.
He’s in his usual guise: red hair, mostly green eyes (though they flicker, now and then, flirting with every color imaginable and some that aren’t), a slight build and a crafty twist to his smile. Male, which until last night she would have thought went without saying. She wonders now how much of this is truly Loki, and how much is merely concession to Asgard’s customs.
“You still owe me an explanation, horse,” she says, and tosses one of the apples at him.
Loki catches it neatly. “I’m not a horse,” he says good-naturedly, but he bites into the apple anyway. He regards her over the cusp of the fruit, taunting with his shifting eyes. “And you should know by now that I never explain anything.”
Sigyn lets out a huff of frustration, mainly to hide her laughter, because if he makes her laugh then she’ll have no chance at all.
“Maybe not,” she says, voice turning serious. “But I’m willing to let that go if you’ll tell me about the wall.”
It’s looming there, behind her, ever present and fierce and implacable. She hadn’t meant to ask about it. She’d meant to press him about the meadhall, to ask if that’s what he’d meant by his joking dismissal of her chores last night. But the wall is there, inescapable. Unease settles in her gut; she doesn’t like having her back to it. She fights the urge to turn.
Loki, though, is facing her, and so he is facing the wall. She watches his eyes, and wonders how he will twist his way out of telling this story. But he surprises her, as he so often does.
“What do you want to know about it?” he asks, with seriousness to match hers.
Sigyn’s eyes fall on Sleipnir, who seems enraptured with the feel of brittle grass beneath his hooves. She wishes it were spring, so he could feel the soft young shoots instead.
“Do you—” She stops. “Are you glad of it? Or what do you think of it?”
One red eyebrow quirks. “The wall I helped to build, you mean?” Loki asks, and Sigyn wonders now what could have possessed her to ask such a question.
“I didn’t mean—” she begins, but Loki laughs, sudden and sharp.
“I hate it, of course,” he says.
There’s a finality to his words that is nothing like the finality of the wall. Sigyn isn’t sure how to respond. The air feels cold, gusts of first winter on the wind. She agrees with him, and feels a traitor for it.
“Why?” she asks, a whisper, and Loki’s reply is equally quiet. They speak as conspirators who don’t wish to be overheard.
“I have little love for walls,” he says. There’s a far off distance in his eyes that she’s never seen before. “They’re meant only to keep what’s interesting out, or worse, to keep the monsters in.”
Sigyn shivers. She isn’t entirely certain what he means, but it settles cold and breathless in her gut like a foreboding. She wishes that she hadn’t asked him.
But Loki laughs again, and the distance in his eyes disappears, fading into blue. “You seemed less than happy with the wall yourself, last night, when you were talking with the horse.”
She blushes. She’d forgotten that of course he would know about that conversation.
“I don’t—” She flounders, weighed down momentarily by that strange voice that whispers traitor every time she thinks the less of her father’s wall. “That is, I understand the Allfather’s reasons. He is the wisest of us, and, and we must beware the Jotuns of course, but—”
“Oh yes,” says Loki darkly. His voice dips, honey-sweet and deadly. “Of course we must beware the Jotuns.”
She’d forgotten who she is talking to. Or not forgotten, truly, but forgotten this aspect of him. Sigyn swallows. He speaks of monsters, and she’s never heard him sound quite so dark, but what roils in her gut isn’t fear. She doesn’t know what to say.
Loki’s voice gentles then, and he prompts her softly. “But?”
He’s given her an out. She wants to apologize, but she doesn’t know how, and she isn’t completely certain that she wasn’t right. They all know he isn’t like the other Jotuns. So she takes the out gratefully.
“But I miss the views of Midgard. I miss seeing the little trickles of water over the rocks. I miss the mountains of Jotunheim far off in the distance, and all the stories I could touch with my eyes.”
Loki looks unaccountably pleased. Before she can ask why, he says, “Well, that’s easily enough fixed. Would you like to hear a story of Midgard?”
She thinks about telling him, then, about Thor’s stories, and Bragi’s, but decides against it. “Oh yes,” she says, “I’d like that.”
The promise of winter turns quickly to fulfillment, and it is a bitter and dark winter indeed this year. The whispers grow in Asgard, talk of the great winter, the winter of winters, and many times Sigyn overhears hushed rumors of Ragnarok. Heimdall turns his eyes to the east, toward Jotunheim, and the Aesir are intensely glad of their wall.
And yet, for all the stories and all the hidden whispers, it is a quiet winter. The bitter cold and the seemingly endless snow which put the Aesir in mind of that greatest of winters also prevent any real efforts at war. The Jotuns remain in Jotunheim, and Thor, restless and seemingly always drunk, remains in Asgard. Sigyn spends most of her time in her mother’s hall, and Loki divides his time between Odin’s counsels and the stables. He is weaning Sleipnir.
The horse grows faster than others of his kind are wont. By midwinter he is weaned, and the rumors in Asgard turn for a time to jokes about the horse’s mother, who is seldom seen now. But Loki himself is also seldom seen, and so the rumors return with greater force.
Water freezes in the crevices of the wall and expands, creating little tremor-cracks through the stones. At the place by the tree, several stones have already tumbled down. Once, Sigyn spies Loki eyeing them with a kind of joy on his face. She doesn’t ask him about it, though, afraid she will find herself too much in agreement.
Spring comes late, too late for Thor, who sets off for Jotunheim even before the last snow. Loki goes with him, and when they come back, there are new stories in Asgard again.
With the coming of spring the secret talk of Ragnarok grows less. Sigyn is glad; the rumors frighten her, and she dislikes the walls they build in her friends’ eyes. And yet, for all that, she finds herself wanting to ask Loki about it.
Sleipnir is well and fully weaned of any need for his mother now, and one night in Gladsheim Odin announces his intention to break the foal for his mount. There is general acclaim; everyone acknowledges that Sleipnir is a fine horse. Sigyn’s eyes track to Loki. His scarred lips are twisted in an expression that passes very well for a smile, but is not really one at all.
Sigyn goes out to the wall every day to watch the breaking. Usually, she brings carrots or apples or other treats, and she waits until Sleipnir has been left alone in his stall afterwards to sneak in and reward him for his work.
Sleipnir is a fierce horse, full of power and ill-inclined to the bit. The talk in Asgard is that only Odin is able to break him. Sigyn thinks, traitorously, that breaking is not the same as riding, and that Loki would have no trouble at all. She sees the way Sleipnir butts fondly against her own shoulder and whuffles at her hair, and thinks that she might have little difficulty herself. It’s an uncomfortable feeling. She’s not used to feeling herself at odds with her father, and less still with the Allfather.
Loki himself is seldom seen at the breaking, but many of the other Aesir come to watch, and sometimes strangers passing through Asgard. Today, Sigyn finds herself next to an old woman, worn and shriveled by years and wrapped tightly in a ratty old shawl. She’s stooped, and tends to creak when she moves, but her eyes are clear.
“Old Mother,” says Sigyn politely, “what brings you here today?”
The old woman turns and smiles at her. Sigyn catches a glimpse of shifting eyes, grey then brown then red then faded green. Her own eyes widen, and the old woman winks.
“I am looking for my son,” she says, world-weary and ancient, and whatever the story she spins next, Sigyn doesn’t doubt that this, at least, is true.
The old woman tells her a tale of war, a tale of kinship ties and blood and a lost son, and her own years of searching. The story is so honest, raw, and even brutal that Sigyn has to remind herself of the shifting eyes, and the wink. Loki has always been the greatest of story-tellers.
The old woman subsides, her eyes turning back to the horse, and to Odin who is goading him. Sigyn considers only momentarily, and then she says, “Lo—Old Mother. You have seen much of the world. There have been many rumors in Asgard of late, and I wonder what you think of them.”
A laugh trembles on the edges of the old woman’s mouth, but doesn’t escape. Still, it’s enough of a confirmation. “Tell me about the rumors,” she says.
Sigyn doesn’t doubt that Loki knows all about the whispers of Ragnarok, probably even more than she does. But she tells the old woman all the same.
“Ah,” says the old woman when she’s finished. “Prophecies. The Norns have declared an end, and that’s that, I suppose.” She frowns in distaste. “A load of nonsense, if you ask me.”
This, Sigyn hadn’t been expecting. She looks at the old woman in surprise, and for the first time wishes she would change. It’s easier, in many ways, talking to Loki like this—an old woman is not nearly so distracting. But she can’t read this woman either. There’s no familiarity there, and she can’t be sure how much of what’s said is Loki, and how much is the old woman who has wandered forty years in search of her lost son.
“I would like very much to hear why,” says Sigyn, her voice going softer. And then she raises it to add, “Come, Mother, I will show you a place where the view is much less obstructed, and where you can rest yourself.” And she takes the old woman’s elbow and leads her toward the ash tree beside the wall. It’s not completely secluded, but Sigyn hopes that it will do. She leads the woman to the tree, and turns to pile fallen stones from the wall to make a seat.
When she turns back, Loki is laughing at her with his eyes.
“It’s very thoughtful of you, Odin’s daughter,” he says, “but I like those stones just as well scattered in the grass.”
She scowls at him. His eyes are sparkling green at her, and she curses herself for a fool. It was much easier to talk to the old woman.
“Don’t call me that,” she snaps, unthinking, and she sees Loki’s eyes widen before his mouth turns up.
“Oh?” he asks, voice smooth and teasing, like water on stone. “Will you forsake your father for me, then?”
She freezes, caught by his words, trapped in all the multitude of meanings and too afraid to answer because her answer might be yes.
Loki’s eyes soften and his smirk turns to something gentler and almost (but never quite) apologetic. “I only jest, Sigyn,” he says, and she sees that once again he’s giving her an out. She’s too relieved to be grateful.
“You were supposed to be telling me about Ragnarok,” she says.
“Is that what they’re calling it?” he laughs. The foreboding she feels at the word doesn’t seem to touch him at all. “It’s appropriately dramatic, I’ll give them that.”
“Loki,” she says, almost whispering now, though she doesn’t know why. “I’m serious.”
He tilts his head at her, considering. His eyes are shifting, green then blue then red then brown. She wonders why she’d never noticed that, before the night at the stable. Or maybe he had always held himself more firmly in one form? Did she pass some sort of test, and not even realize it?
“I don’t believe in inescapable fate,” Loki says.
Sigyn stares at him. “But the Norns—”
“The Norns see patterns, nothing more.” He smiles at her. “It’s a consequence, I think, of knowing a lot of stories. When you’ve heard and told enough stories, you begin to see how they go, and you can predict what will happen next merely from what’s come before. But, of course, even then you can be wrong.”
He makes it sound so simple. Sigyn wants to believe him. She thinks that she’d prefer to live in a world where there are only patterns, and not necessities. But her father has bent every thought for years now on preparation, and all of Asgard is still praising the wall that will hold off the end. And Loki is standing there in the sun, laughing at prophecies and talking about stories.
“What, then,” she asks, “is it not going to happen at all?”
“It might,” says Loki. She’s never heard him sound sad before. “But if so it will be because of the choices we make.” And his eyes turn to the wall, and to the fallen stones at its base. Sigyn finds herself wishing, more than ever, that she could catch that far off glimpse of Jotunheim and its shining cliffs, and wonders if it’s this that glimmers like sadness in Loki’s eyes.
“What about you?” she whispers. “Do you have a role in the prophecies?”
Loki smiles at her, that rare fond smile that sets the something beneath her ribs aflutter. He turns from her and she follows his gaze, back to the field and Sleipnir, and Odin who is breaking him to the bit. She thinks that Loki’s eyes harden, but she can’t be sure.
“No,” he says. Sleipnir bucks against the bit, and Loki’s scarred lips turn up in a sharp smile. “Not yet.”