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When the worst of the agony has been leached away by the ungentle hands of time, Laufey raises his get to his chest; it makes no sounds, no howling, lusty shrieks; there is only the echo of his own pain, and the fine, sharp music of wind passing through the icicles soaring high above.

First there is shame, shame at what he has brought forth; anger at the wasted effort; a sour, black coloured humour at his presumption to think his own greatness allowed that he could take any such mate as he pleased and still make a worthy child to the mighty throne of Jotunheim.

Wrong.

The word tastes bitter on his tongue, alien in its shape.

He stares down at the silent, shivering creature in his arms and wishes to dash its brains upon the nearest gleaming mound of ice. The red violence of it would please and soothe his high reaching outrage. His first-born child, and it is a tiny, strange thing...a mockery of his own shape and form.

The infant has hair! Black as the deepest, coldest ocean that ensorcells the continent of Thrym. His sire had called it the Shadow of Fafnir, the dýr of the undertide that awaited all incautious Jotun who dared think the Sea was their domain. Laufey had not understood his sire afore now, for what was a shade under the burning brilliance of Vetrljós? He understands now, when he grasps a wet, thin strand of his own child's hair between his fingers; the infant is built of shadows, tricks of light and Jotun skin.

And yet...

The infant is vænn...beautiful. No Jotun is that. Laufey knows what he is, knows the shape of his people as he knows his own; there is no beauty in the Jotun race. Winter is beauty enough, in all its ungentle forms.

But, here, in his hands, is that which all the other nine worlds prizes above all else: something fit to put an Aesir to shame.

It is then that Laufey truly understands what it is that he has borne into his palace, into the long and unbroken line of Jotunheim's Kings.

A tiny little godling all his own.

The first-born son of Thiazi, of Laufey, of Jotunheim.

Prince.

~ * ~

Laufey watches his son with clear, unblinking eyes; his shadow falls like the talons of the blood eagle on any of his subjects who dare touch his tiny, dark-haired child. He watches Loki grow in beauty and intelligence with each blooming of the green-ringed moon that turned its scarred and pitted face to Jotunheim once in each solar year.

His son calls him father, sire, with such plain, naked joy; from Loki's little mouth, curved like the sweet sickle of a blade, the words stab at Laufey with a warmth he has ne'er felt.

Pride, contentedness...love. These words, mere abstractions that Laufey could pick up and discard with all the passion of a disinterested animal, become true shapes under the brittle curvature of his bones. First he fears these things, all that Loki stirs in him, and then he learns to embrace them with a wretched abandonment.

By the time Loki is able to pick his little body up from the shining floors of Harvetrtjald and walk some few steps on his own strength, Laufey takes to holding court with his tiny, bird like son cradled in his lap. Surprisingly enough, it is a fearsome sight to most Jotun, for what sort of creature could so bewitch a King into breaking with untold millennia's ancient practice? The weak, the small, the strange, were given to Fafnir, to the depths, so as not to offend those that were strong and true.

To celebrate his Prince's first birth day, Laufey has the first nine hundred Jotun warriors who dared cast aspersions upon the Prince's worth, shape, parentage thrown unto the very Ocean that they had wished Loki given unto.

From his father's lap, Loki watches with hooded, silent eyes, tiny fingers twined round the fat emeralds woven into his hair.

Laufey knows what is in those carmine eyes; magick. He has birthed a rune-wielder, a mage, a sorcerer – the first in ten thousand years.

As nine hundred unseeing, worthless Jotun sink into Fafnir's belly, Laufey pulls his son into the broad leeway of his chest and wraps the wolf's fur tighter round Loki's shivering frame. Loki makes a sound that might be laughter, and it rings in the high halls of his father's fathers like the munificent chiming of a hundred falling icicles.

It is a beautiful sound, Laufey thinks.

~ * ~

Laufey grows hungry.

The tides of battle shift on capricious winds, and afore the green-ringed moon rises again, War itself comes stalking to the gates of Jotunheim; with a maw red as a wolf's snout, Asgard turns its gaze on Jotunheim, as Jotunheim had turned its gaze on Midgard.

It drags on, on and on.

Laufey grows tired.

~ * ~

When Loki reaches four green-ringed moons of age, his magick burns through him like alien fire; Laufey returns from the battlefield with the blood of his enemies still steaming on his battered shoulders, and is brought low by the sight of his tiny first-born gripped by the ungentle hands of death. The bed swallows Loki, the furs hide his long-fingered, perfect little hands; sweat – sweat! – curls his fine black hair and dulls his bright blue skin into a bitter, frightening grey.

Laufey waits, with the silent, grieving shapes of his other sons flitting in and out of his vision, for Death to choose.

Six days does his child wander in the under-tide, on the seventh day Loki wakes and the whole of Jotunheim shakes with the deafening roar of a godling's newborn power.

Laufey returns to the war with Asgard, joyous, breathing fire and ice upon his enemies with magnificent abandon.

~ * ~

Five green-ringed moons sees Loki in a garden of his own making, guarded by the hulking shape of his younger brother Helblindi.

“Loki, what is that?” Helblindi's unscarred face is crumpled in curiosity.

“A fox,” Loki huffs, in irritation. “Have you still not read the book I lent you?”

“I looked at the pictures, brother.”

“Aye, and that is better than reading.”

“Yes!” Helblindi nods, as if in a great hurry to agree with his older brother. “Is is not?”

Loki finds his lips have curved up into a small, private smile all of their own accord. “Of course it is brother.”

The fox is too small, and its ears are not pointy enough, but he has ne'er seen one in the flesh, and nor shall he as long as father wages his war in Midgard. But Loki has a garden filled to bursting with things, creatures, shapes, that he has ne'er seen – and ice is such a forgiving medium into which he can pour his magicks. There is time enough to get it right, though he would like to see what shape is a real tree, a real flower, real stag. It disappoints him greatly that all his hard won colours crack and fall away like brittle sheaves of ice, leaving only the first shape and the memory of brown, violet, green, red, yellow. It is enough that his garden pleases his father beyond the pale; it is enough to be caught up in Laufey's strong arms and called sweet little mage, little wonder, even before threescore of his father's most wild and fearsome warriors.

Loki warms at the thought, and wears his pride like a crown.

~ * ~

The green-ringed moon rises for the seventh time, and it finds Loki racing through Harvetrtjald's corridors like a fox neath hawthorne brambles.

“Helblindi! Come on brother, you are too slow today!” Loki knows that he should not taunt his younger brother so, but Helblindi has not yet seen five green-ringed moon's, and Býleistr only three, and it galls at Loki to be so dwarfed by their shadows. Helblindi stands nearly as tall as father, but Býleistr casts a shadow broad enough to shame a mountain. He does not play with Loki in the halls of Harvetrtjald.

“Brother!” Helblindi's voice drifts on sharp winds, and Loki takes a moment to let the cold fingers of Jotunheim cut through his heavy furs. “Brother do not go too far, father will be angry with me if you are hurt.” Even at such a distance, the panic is bright on Helblindi's roughly hewn tongue.

Loki smiles; it is good to know that he can still out race and out think his taller, stronger siblings. It is good to know that father holds him dearer still.

The Treasure of Jotunheim, that is what father calls him; the jewel of the House of Laufey.

Loki plucks an emerald from his hair and dashes it to the floor, vanishing in a twist of jealous green vapour.

Helblindi will be searching for hours.

Despite the clever trick, Loki does not even manage to get closed the heavy doors to his chamber afore there is a terrible clamour in the halls of Harvetrtjald, and suddenly father is kicking in the doors, shattering the heavy panes of ice into a thousand gleaming shards.

Loki stares at the towering shape of his father, blind, ignorant terror blooming up within the cage of his ribs. He does not even see Helblindi standing just behind, in the lee of Laufey's shadow.

Blood, all over blood and the stink of War.

“Up my beloved son, and do not look back,” Laufey croaks, raising high his fine, long blade of an arm. “Asgard has broken into the Temple, and the hour is nigh.”

“What?” Loki finds only wild, fierce alarm burning through his mind, his bones. “I – I...Father? Father please! I can help!” A green fire leaps between his trembling hands, crackling with all the thunder of an ice plate falling into the sea.

Laufey can see aught but his tiny, perfect crown-prince falling under the sword of an Aesir, falling under the white-hot blow of Gungir itself, Odin standing above his son's body with a conqueror’s wide toothed smile.

“There is no time left for such a thing, and I would not permit it.”

Loki opens his mouth to protest, sharp little teeth gleaming in the queer green light still held between his tiny hands.

Laufey will hear none of it, not one word.

“Think you I wish to see my child slain, or worse, bound in chains and taken to Asgard, that den of pompous, self ignorant liars and flatterers, to be kept like some beast in a dungeon!” He is no fool, and in his heart he knows Loki is no more a child than he is a snake or a bird, or a Jotun. Loki is Loki – this is why Laufey would sooner bend his neck to Odin than live to witness his sweet little mage twisted by the Aesir and their petty, blinkered morality.

Better Death, better Cowardice and Flight, no matter how it chafes at him.

“Father, please hear me! Do you not trust in my powers?” Loki knows the words are not the right ones, that they have not struck true, as he hoped they would. But he knows nothing or war, or fear, or terror, or enslavement. All these things and more does he see in his father's red eyes: shadows and brief, terrible emotions that flash and disappear with a frightful transience.

“Thou art the crown-prince of Jotunheim, Loki. Should every last Jotun standing against these Aesir fall beneath the sword and you were to survive, then so too would Jotunheim survive.” Laufey watches this burden fall across his little son's shoulders with a resounding crack; it pains him that he cannot look away, that he wishes to look away. “I will not risk this House's greatest treasure for the slaking of my own pride.”

Loki bows his head, and gathers up his courage from the underside of his heart; the world around him feels new and strange, as if he has only just opened his eyes to its true face. He was more content with the lie.

“Helblindi!” There is no shame felt at using his second son as he plans, and it comforts him to feel the chill, familiar detachment a sire should feel for his offspring. “You will take your brother to Býleistr's pavilion.”

Helblindi makes a sound like the shriek of bird plummeting to its death. “But I am ready, can I not fight...”

“No,” Laufey roars, raising high his gleaning, sickle curved arm. “Take your brother, your Prince, to safety. He is in your care now, and if you fail I swear my last act in this life will be to cast you unto Fafnir in repayment.” No warmth, no softness; there is no yielding in Laufey now, in this final hour.

“Where are we to run?” Helblindi pleads, just as there is the awful howling of slaughter and bloodletting breaching through the titan doors of Harvetrtjald.

“To the mountains, to Thiazivarði.” Laufey cannot hear more than the red soaked song of battle, rising like a high black tide to sweep them all away. “Run!

Loki scrambles away, as if to fly into the coming fray, but Helblindi is faster. Catching his elder brother in his long, heavy arms, Helblindi tears from the bedchamber, just as Loki's chiming, twisting stalactites of ice begin to crack and tumble from their moorings. His brother is howling, tearing at his arms; Loki's outrage streaks his silver tongue black, sick with sorrow and the poisonous grip of fear; Helblindi will give his life to ensure his beloved elder brother endures beyond this day. Loki will not even have to ask.

Laufey stands in the crux of his House, hearing the keening of ice and the shattering of nine fold millennia's toil of Jotunheim's Kings breaking round him like his own child's playthings, and knows well that if he should still drawn breath when the eldingstjarna rises he will ne'er forget the sight of his sons fleeing from the gleaming halls of their own ancient, ancestral tjald.

He should feel nothing, would that he could feel nothing. It does not occur to him to blame Loki, for always do the Norns demand a price to be paid in engendering greatness. Laufey is prepared to pay that price, no matter its ruin.

The Temple is calling to him, its sweet, labyrinthine song of death ringing in his cracked and bloodied chest.

Laufey cannot help but smile.

~ * ~

Jotunheim's winds have never loved Loki, and now they love him even less; Býleistr's four feet seem to fly over the frozen plains, and for all his bulk, Loki thinks his youngest brother's shadow a thing of beauty in such a place. Loki's world is truncated, reduced by the weight of the firs wrapped round his frame and the shrieking wind. It is very like looking through the eye of a bone awl; he can see only the bright, gleaming teeth of Thiazivarði scarring the distant horizon, and Helblindi's forearm still holding him bone-crushingly tight.

Forty els to go afore he and his brothers are standing at the roots of the thunder mountains; forty els further from his father, and his home, his birth-right. Loki will not give himself over to the ungentle monsters roaming in the confines of his mind. He will not imagine the exact shade of calciferous red his father's blood will paint the temple walls, nor what face his slayer will wear; to Loki, Odin is a shape in the dark, a horned nightmare with neat, white teeth.

Odin will part Laufey's breath from his body; Loki turns his face into the furs to hide his shame and tears. He fears he will never be warm again.

They do not reach Thiazivarði.

~ * ~

Aesir are utterly alien to Loki's eyes: small creatures with florid skin and fur upon their cheeks – to his wonder he can see that no two have the same colour eyes. Here is blue, green, brown, a strange colour, warm like the yellow sapphire his father plaits into his hair on Ancestor Ymir's cairn-day.

Aesir are vænn, as Loki is vænn.

Staring down at a forest of spears and little glinting arrows, the crown-prince of Jotunheim feels a stab of relief. Death chooses; Loki can abide by that. She keeps no favourites.

Helblindi snarls, grinding Loki's ribs into powder and spurs of bone; a sour frown cuts across Loki's cold face, the muscles pulling in sharp discomfort. They do not have time for this.

It is all too easy to slip one long, wickedly curved hairpin from the knot of his hair and prick his brother's dark blue skin hard enough to draw blood. Helblindi makes an outraged yelp, and then there is air in Loki's lungs and the snow covered plains are bleeding into the iron coloured sky and he is tumbling down, down and...

The blood is bright upon the unmarked snow, and every pair of fascinatingly colourful eyes are piled upon the tiny Jotun child wrapped in the brindles and fletching of a wolf.

A long shadow falls over the snow to touch upon Loki's own small casting; the Aesir is still as the black Ocean, an eagle who is sure of its talons.

Loki has seen this breed of smile before, knows it by the show of teeth and the heavy stink of violence caught just beneath the skin – he has seen Jotun five times the height and breadth of these aesir turn that smile upon him. From the hour the green-ringed moon turned its face to Jotunheim for the sixth time, he has always paid them back in kind, with a smile all his very own.

There is a struggle, hands like claws grasping at him; cries of outrage, of violence, triumph. A sword held high; its brilliance strikes Loki and he finds his eyes falling closed. It is a thing of beauty, this sudden, terrible gleaming. He is pleased to know he will die with this stolen brightness burning under his thin eyelids.

“Thane Brekkr, Aesir do not murder children!”

A voice like thunder, with violence enough to shake Yggdrasil bare.

The impossibly tiny Jotun child vanishes in a twist of jealous green vapour; the snow gives back aught but the poor shards of a fat emerald.

Odin All-Father turns his leonine gaze on the gathered warriors and the ruin made of the jewel cast into the snow, and their plans. He raises his head, the weight of skald magick twisting through his chest and putting ungentle shadows between his eyes.

In the stinging, biting snow there is a hulking shape with eyes like pools of spilt blood and teeth longer than Gungir's golden reach, retreating with such speed as to shame the north wind. The shape turns, and it is nothing but a moment, a tiny span of breath that sparks in Odin's sight like a conflagration.

Cradled in the joint of the monster's arms is a Jotun child; a tiny starling in the lee of a mountain.

But Jotunheim protects its own, and the shapes are lost.

~ * ~

The hight temple's floor is slick with his own blood; Laufey stares into the face of Odin Ginnarr, and cannot feel the press of Gungir at the sharp joint where his neck meets his shoulder. Laufey can smell his beloved son's magick on this vain old Aesir, this high-handed god of knowledge and trickery. This is enough. More than he had dared pray for.

“I would have peace.”

“Would you now?” Laufey laughs, though it is not at all laughter. It is something dark and deep and old, built of what resides in the spaces between he and Odin. “Peace is a strange thing for a warlord to covet.”

“Aye,” Odin bares his teeth, lungs burning with the cold, with the loss of so much blood. “But I would have it still.” His eye is gone, and half his world is dipped in maddening darkness.

“Is Odin Spear-Breaker asking King Laufey for terms?” It is shaped like a question, but it rings truer as an answer.

“Yes.” Gungir plants its gleaming head into the weakened ice of Jotunheim's high temple; Odin would fall, save for the spear, and the mettle of his pride.

Laufey bends his neck.

“I will take the Vetrljós. Jotunheim shall no more roam with all the powers of winter at its disposal. Ten turnings of this world's green-ringed moon shall you and your people remain cut off from the Nine Realms.”

There is a smile cracking apart Laufey's bloodied lips, his sharp teeth curved against his tongue in a silent howl of joy. Odin knows nothing, has seen nothing. Let the Hanged One take the Vetrljós, Jotunheim has a greater power to shelter under its high temple's vaulted bowers.

“As you will,” Laufey sighs.

Odin regards his defeated rival with a crowning sense of being deprived; this does not feel like a victory. Nothing more than a brief acceptance of what is now, and not what shall be. Laufey is a snake beneath his hands, Laufey is vapour and air and hard unyielding ice. The King of Jotunheim plays at surrender, but knows no true part of it.

“Tell me Laufey, what is it you have hidden from me?”

Laufey picks himself up from the slick temple floor, red eyes hooded and quiet.

“I saw it in the snow, near the roots of Thiazivarði.” Odin plucks the Vetrljós from its pedestal and bites off a howl of pain; colder than the heart of a dead star, this thing put fingers of the purest agony through his warm aesir flesh. He does not loosen his grip.

Laufey tips his head back, the long planes of his neck exposed and calling for an answer, and laughs. Near the death mask of his sire Fárbauti, Laufey plucks up his prize; curling his fingers round the sky-blue eye of Odin All-Father, Laufey leaves the god to his triumph, knowing it is as hollow and useful to him as his own eye socket, just as Vetrljós shall be in Valhöll.

~ * ~

Loki wakes to a world undone; the sky hangs by a slender thread, cracked and broken open like his ancient ancestor's skull. Everything is grey and dark, emptied. Býleistr slumbers on, the thunder of his breath echoing in the abandoned tjald he has managed to burrow into. Helblindi roams in nervous circles, the thin blade of his arm dragging mazes in the snow.

They have lost. Vetrljós is gone and Jotunheim is strung upon a tree for all the wolves to see. What beauty was in this place is now a dead thing lying at Loki's feet; Loki wishes to weep, but he's had enough of tears, of childish things.

Five hours from the rising of eldingstjarna sees Laufey stood before the tjald in which his sons have hidden themselves away; Loki lies curled in the crook of one of Býleistr's massive arms, dwarfed into a tiny figure fletched in a wolf's pelt. The emeralds woven into his hair gleam in the dying light, and Laufey vows to keep his son in gems and books and furs till he is forced to steal from Fafnir to replenish the golden hordes of Jotunheim's treasury.

“Child,” Laufey calls, an unlooked for pain chewing upon his heart with little, gleaming teeth.

He had thought all was lost.

“Prince.”

Loki wakes and the sound of his laughter is beautiful.

~ * ~

Fárbauti's death mask stares down upon Loki with a ferocity not even eleven thousand years could dull. The temple is shattered, torn, broken; Loki cannot bear to look elsewhere but the unsmiling, untouched faces of his father's fathers. Even the dýr of the undertide must mourn this wretched sight.

“My son, my beloved Treasure, I have a gift for you,” Laufey speaks, plucking his tiny, grieving child from the rubble and the ruin. “It is not much, but I think it should please you.”

Loki wraps his little arms round his father's bruised neck, lays his cheek across the deep, angry black furrows marring his father's strong shoulders. “I would be glad of it, father.”

“Your hand then.”

Loki turns a palm upwards, and his father places in his grasp a single sky blue eye.

“For you. The All-Father will not miss it.”

The smile that graces Loki's face is wide, wide and red like the snout of a wolf. “Thank you. I shall keep it with me always.”

“A reminder?” Laufey questions, pleased with his son's response.

“A promise,” is Loki's simple, naked reply.

~ * ~

Three days later finds Loki in the mostly untouched forges of crafter Ulfr; Helblindi stalks at the mouth of door, and the crafter bows low enough to scrape his forehead against the polished stone floor.

“What service might I offer the Prince of Jotunheim?” Ulfr intones, russet coloured eyes fixed low and unblinking. He has not forgotten what price was paid to see this little wonder honoured, as was his right.

Loki holds up Odin All-Father's sky blue eye.

Ulfr barks out a rough, sharp burst of delight; turning up his wide, scarred palm, he waits.

“Something subtle,” Loki murmurs. “Something sharp.”

~ * ~

It does not take Ulfr more than five score risings of the eldingstjarna before he places a green silk bundle in the Prince's tiny hands.

Loki winds the torque round his neck, the cold touch of the silver chasing shocks down his frame. The dýr of the undertide coils and bites upon his collarbones, scales gleaming in the weak light of the star Loki has moored high above the shattered throne room of his father's fathers. In the dragon's fanged maw lies a single sky blue eye, guarded by the jealous claws of Fafnir himself.

Odin All-Father's eye, kept above the heart of Jotunheim's first-born son and Prince.

Loki touches blue fingers to the glassy orb, and is pleased.

Chapter Text

~ * ~

Thor watches his Father return from the dizzying heights of Valhöll's soaring balconies; he chooses the one that flies above the high rune-doors leading into the throne room. Mother waits below, her fine white hands cradling his Father's sword, her sun-spun hair pooling round the beguiling curves of Odin's throne.

Frigga had wanted her son to be stood at her side, but Thor had wished to see the warriors, see the evidence of their triumph still plain upon the long, long lines of the thanes returning to Asgard, and to Valhöll.

Thor watches with his breath tangled betwixt the splay of his ribs; the lines of Thanes are not so long as he thought. There is no name for the creature that suddenly uncurls its length beneath Thor's skin, but it hurts, it claws. Odin All-Father will know – he always does.

Thor turns from the gleaming balustrade and runs on silent feet towards the shape of his mother, and the brightness of his father's sword.

When the rune-doors part and the river of Thanes flows into the throne-room, Thor stares up into his father's face; he has never seen his father bleed afore, but all of Asgard has taught him to find pride and honour in such a wound. He sees a god come back from War, victorious and shining.

Thor sees no shadows; Thor sees not his Father.

He does not hear his mother's sharp, sudden gasp of breath.

~ * ~

“All-Watcher,” Odin offers in greeting; he will not shift to catch Heimdall in his sight; he will not be ruled by this loss. “What stirs in Jotunheim? What of the child?”

Silence is a heavy, breathing creature under Heimdall's far-flung gaze. Not even Odin All-Father commands word from this Aesir.

“Quiet, still.” Heimdall murmurs, fingers spinning out a voiceless tune on the hilt of his great sword. “Jotunheim is waxing under shadows I cannot pierce.” He shakes his head, and Odin is struck by the light held in the reflection of his horns. “Two cycles of our first Sun and I will see nothing.”

“Gatekeeper, what nonsense is this?” Odin scoffs; the bandages round his eye are thick and muzzling; the wound itches, and the ghost of his full sight sticks in his craw like a barb.

“Do not bandy hidden meanings with me, All-Father.” Heimdall warns, brightly burning eyes tracking inexorably back towards the void, the dark, the stars. “I See. Even you.”

“Heimdall, are you truly telling me that you cannot See the Jotun child?” There is a crown upon Odin's head, and it is weighted like deprivation.

“No. I See around it, near it, behind it. Never the full thing, only the shape.” Heimdall finds humour bright upon his tongue, for it has been many a long age since any living creature so confounded him. “It is skald magick, and my Gaze is aught but a glancing blow upon ice.”

“Ice can be shattered,” Odin intones, and Gungir's thunderous voice rings out in the Bifröst's möbius chamber.

Heimdall does not flinch, nor does he turn his face. “Would the All-Father regret this shattering?” It is not a question; Heimdall has had no true use for questions since he received his Sight from Mother Eyrgiafa.

Odin has no answer for that. In place of answers he has Vetrljós; peace. But curiosity is what marks sentient creatures from the lesser orders; moreover, the species of curiosity that Odin worships is both a beast and a boon. He is never satisfied.

“Victory is victory, Masked-One. Joutnheim is sealed, and none may pass. I cannot undo the All-Father's command, not even for the All-Father himself.”

So newly back from heights of slaughter, from the red song of war, Odin must bite off the keen, clear thought of violence against Heimdall and banishes Gungir into the spaces between.

Heimdall chuckles – a strange, dangerous sound – like the bright rasping of a blade being drawn from its sheath. Above his high gold horns rises the Eagle-head nebula, its burnt orange light casting him in molten colours. Heimdall knows what he is, as does Odin.

“Victory is a strange beast, is it not?”

Heimdall does not answer. He does not think the Hanged One desires a reply.

“In King Laufey's House there is a garden,” Heimdall murmurs.

Odin finds his feet have grown deep roots.

“Jotunheim fell in ruins the hour in which you, Odin All-Father, took the Vetrljós from its temple mount. The garden remains, and the ice whole.” Let no one say that Heimdall abides by the laws and rules of Odin out of fear; he obeys because it pleases him to do so.

Even in defeat Laufey is the shadow that Odin cannot dispel, the sign he cannot parse. A thorn and a punishment and a reward. An unlooked for equal to Odin Ginnarr and Odin Spear-Breaker and Odin Viðurr.

When the tremors of Odin's stride have faded into poor echoes, Heimdall turns his Gaze on Jotunheim once more, eager and patient and abiding.

The Aesir will forget so much of themselves, and no poorly bought peace with Jotunheim will relieve them of their self won ignorance. Heimdall regrets this, but he does not care to change it. Heimdall will stand by and watch his people lock themselves away, for he has Seen, and Seen far.

Far, far on, and on.

Bifröst lulls him with her eternal song, filling the hollows neath Heimdall's carapace as nothing else in in this universe ever will.

He does not close his Eyes.

~ * ~

Odin abides in the crux of Asgard's celebrations and feels each clear note of laughter, each burning note of joy at their return, as if Mjölnir has struck him a mortal wound upon his brow. He raises a hand to his cheek and it comes away with the dull rust of dried blood caught in the valleys and lines of his fingertips. The eye is gone, but still it bleeds, and still his body mourns the loss. A careless, senseless loss. Nothing gained, not like the days strung upon the ash tree, nor the season spent in toil to steal from fair, silly Gunnlöð, nor the price he paid for Mimir's head.

“Father!”

Odin finds a sigh waiting under his tongue; Thor never asks any questions. A different son would see his father sat amongst the finery of his own grand court, with all the life of a thing carved from stone, and wonder what was the cause.

Thor does not wonder.

“Volstagg says that you have brought home the Jotun's greatest treasure,” Thor's face is bright and open, vitally uncomplicated. Odin should hold himself fortunate in this fact. “May I see it?”

He is weary of this hollow, glittering celebration, thus is his answer yes, where he would rather it be no. A glance is all that need speak of his intentions to his wife, and Odin Ginnarr creeps from the too bright hall with his too bright son clipping his heels like a wolf-pup.

The high vaulted halls of Asgard are near empty, and the sounds of their journey echo sharply; the doors to the treasury are bound by Odin's own words, but it is nothing a drop of his blood against the runes cannot undo.

Thor walks the length of Asgard's ancient treasury till he stands afore a translucent cube alive with Winter, in all its ungentle forms.

“Is this...?”

“Aye, the Jotun call it Vetrljós: winter-light.” Odin replies. “This here gave their planet life, power, strength.”

Thor laughs, reaching out his hands to grasp the Vetrljós and suddenly his father's fingers close upon his wrist like talons. He looks up into his father's face and sees a reprimand creasing the corner of his one remaining eye. Thor lets his hand fall away.

“So, you took away Jotunheim's life-force then?” It is a simple question, but it stabs at Odin nonetheless. Thor cannot see the other questions lurking neath the first, the hidden meanings. He cannot see how thin is the justice of Odin's act. The surface is enough.

“I took from Laufey the life-force of his Kingdom.”

“That is a great triumph indeed, father,” Thor replies, turning back to the cube, his mind painting vivid pictures of how strong and terrible his Father must have been, even as Laufey stole his eye and battle thundered round the God and the King. “You must be proud.”

From the narrowed corner of his vision, Mimir's head mocks Odin with all the strength of the long dead.

His father's hand rises to settle on his shoulders, warm and heavy, but...

“Not all treasures are those to be won in battle,” Odin murmurs, feeling the great weight of his ages pressing down upon him with a sudden violence. “Not all treasures are things we might keep.”

Thor does not understand the truer meaning of his Father's words till far too many a century has crept beneath his feet.

Chapter Text

~ * ~

The green-ringed moon rises on Loki's eighth year to find him crouched in the broken open marrow of his ancestor's high temple; his tongue is thick in his mouth, and there is the salt of blood hiding behind his teeth. Between his trembling hands there is a jut of ice pushing up from the cracked stone floor.

He raises his hands, voice a thin keening on the wind.

The ice blooms, unfurling beneath Loki's touch like the secrets caught in the shapes of runes. He would laugh, revel in the surety of his powers, but the cost would be too dear. He enjoys spitting in Heimdall's face far too much to risk losing the thread of the shade-veil that he's flung over the broken spires and darkened tjalds of Jotunheim.

The ice is dim and silent, and it breaks Loki's heart to think that it will never sing as it once did. Save for his garden – his little, imperfect fox, and his towering, misshapen trees and his oddly antlered stag – Loki would have forgotten what was the first and only lullaby he has ever known. He knows some Jotun have already grown deaf to what ever weak pleas still echo from their world.

Mercifully enough, his father has not forgotten. Or perhaps it is no such thing shaped as mercy, but a thing of torment, for Loki cannot imagine how it pains his father to be so reduced. Laufey has masked it well, but there are moments, terribly brief, terribly clear moments, in which Loki can read every word of his father's suffering in the red rings of his eyes. A god made deaf to the bones of his ancestors, a King made blind to the songs of the elements beneath his feet, to all that he once held sway over as unchallenged as the dýr of the undertide holds sway over the Ocean.

Left to hang, for all the world to see.

Laufey climbs to the temple mount, reciting the names of his father's fathers as his feet touch upon the stairs each one had set in place with his own titan hands. Ymir, Þrúðgelmir, Bergelmir, Thrivaldi, Mimir, Vafþrundir, Fárbauti. The cairns are silent, the mouths of his ancestors sewn shut by Odin Ginnarr and his lust for peace. What was peace when all eternity lay beneath their feet? Gods did not die, Vafþrundir is no more dead than is poor, enslaved Mimir; Gods slept, dreamt, made things unseen by those who had yet to break their first form.

Peace, Laufey sneered, was for those too ignorant, or too unwilling, to understand their own nature: there was no creature now drawing breath that did not live for both these heights. One could not love the other without touching both. Odin sought the impossible, the incomprehensible.

A universe without shadows.

Laufey swore, on the spilt blood of First Father Ymir, that as long as he does abide in these realms, he would be the shadow that Odin could not erase from the universe.

It will be such a pleasure.

The last step into the temple mount is cracked in twain; a full turning of the green-ringed moon and still can Laufey smell the All-Father's Aesir blood ground into its pores.

Raising his eyes to the high, broken spires, the fallen walls and voiceless death-masks, Laufey grows sharp with rage; truly the Aesir do not understand. Punish mortals and they die, more spring up in their place, ignorant of all the reasons why they hate, why they war; punish a God-King...and every tiny, senseless offence is remembered unto Ragnarök.

Till Time itself is no more.

Laufey turns his gaze to the heart of the temple, and in the dim light he spies his little Prince, alone.

~ * ~

The tiny jut of ice is nearly as long as his forearm now, but there is a rushing in his ears that grows louder with each twist of seid reaching through his bones; the taste of blood is so strong. Loki wraps his fingers round Odin All-Father's eye, the claws of Fafnir digging deep; the seid magick knows, if Loki does not. The song is so distant, so weak, like reaching for tendrils of fog in the darkness. He is not what he once was, and it makes Loki want to howl.

Suddenly there is the shape of his father falling across him and Loki cannot get out the noise of protest in time. His father sweeps him up into his arms and the song is lost, the ice crumbling away into deadened shards. Loki shrieks, cries out.

“Why is there blood?” Laufey demands, fingers ungentle in the haste to see with his own eyes that his son is unharmed. “Who has touched you?”

Loki cannot bind the grief beneath his tongue, and great, wracking sobs grip his tiny frame.

There is nothing in the broken temple mount save for King Laufey and his Prince, nothing save...

Laufey stares down at the cairn of ice, and watches the frail spark of life leak away; understanding blinds him, strikes at him with more power even than Gungir's golden fire. For a moment, he fears he is only dreaming, only deceiving himself.

“Child,” Laufey breathes. “My child, have you done this?”

Loki only cries harder, the loss is too great; he cannot hear Jotunheim at all.

Laufey wraps his tiny first-born closer still, fingers smoothing through his son's hair, knocking against fat emeralds – a wordless comfort, animal in its shape.

“I heard the song, the ice, the ancestors,” Loki mourns with the taste of blood still clinging to his tongue. “I heard!

It is very like his son has stuck an exquisitely thin blade between his ribs; Laufey bows his head.

“Can you not hear them, father? Please, tell me you can hear...”

“Oh, oh no.”

Loki sobs, a keening, dying thing in his father's strong arms.

“I do not want this!”

Laufey has sense enough to know his son is lying, even if Loki does not. “I am deaf; I am blind. But you, you my Treasure, my son, are not.”

Loki stills in Laufey's embrace, raising his shining, pallid face unto his father's wretchedly reduced gaze.

A smile red as a wolf's snout curves upon Laufey's face, and Odin All-Father's Eye stares up at him with a different species of blindness. “Thereby does this stone, this child of mine, that the architects first rejected, become the cornerstone.”

The green-ringed moon turns.

~ * ~

Eldingstjarna rises to find Helblindi a shape at the foot of his elder brother's bed; Loki scents his blood even afore he opens his eyes. If Jotunheim was dark even during the height of the day-star, it is darker still when what passes for dawn has yet to creep upon the world.

Here, in this strange half-waking, Loki reaches for his brother. He does not need to ask why is there the scent of blood, why is there the shame sitting upon his brother's shoulders.

“Forgive me brother,” Loki murmurs, rising up to stand on the unsteady furs of his bed. “I had not thought that father would punish you thus.”

Helblindi laughs: a dry, uncomplicated acceptance. “Lying becomes you, brother mine. I do not mind.”

Loki has the courtesy to make a thin noise of protest. His mouth folds neatly, unhappily.

It takes little effort to ignite the sol he has moored high within the chiming stalactites that grow upon his high-vaulted ceiling. A pale light, built like the memory of true winter, casts thick shadows upon the brothers; Helblindi smiles and tips his eyes up to the little heart flung up by his beloved elder brother.

“I have not thanked ye, yet.”

“For what, brother?” Loki dips his head, a brief confusion clouding his gaze; Helblindi thinks his dearest brother looks very like those strange, tiny creatures with wings. The ones in the books Loki reads aloud to him in the garden, when they are alone and Harvetrtjald is quiet and still.

A bird.

“The light, of course.”

“Oh,” is Loki's singular reply: a clear, sharp exclamation coloured like laughter.

Helblindi finds his eyes falling shut, though every brittle, pointed inch of his frame is struggling, grasping to reach something it cannot remember. But it remembers with longing, with pain, as if some part of him has been hacked away, yet still does his body long for that which is missing. “It is coloured like before.”

Loki would not be reminded.

“Before the Aesir came.” Only here would Helblindi dare lay this wound out for another's inspection, here beneath this false-light, false comfort.

“Aye,” Loki mourns. “I know.”

There is only the fine, sharp music of wind through the icicles soaring above.

“Did you truly make the ice live? Did it listen?” Helblindi cannot keep the hurt from his voice, nor his fingers from touching upon the clean, deep cut pressed into his flesh.

“Yes.” Loki will not insult his brother again. They have both paid in equal, though all could read what was it that Helblindi paid. “I heard.” Sorrow creeps upon his tongue, and suddenly there is a strange, sharp-toothed thing curling round his ribs. He thinks it regret, or, more likely, shame. It mattered not that it was Father who gave the wound, it was Loki's act that put the blade in Laufey's hand.

“Then I will wear this well, happily.” Helblindi replies, eyes firm and proud once more.

“Father should not...”

“Nai!” Helblindi spits. “You should not have been caught!”

Loki finds himself stood afore his brother, close enough to read what was hid in the rings of his irises, to watch his thoughts move upon his face. “You needn't be punished for my actions. I chose to leave your side. I chose to go the temple alone.”

The smile that touches Helblindi's face is gentle and sure. It shocks Loki into silence. “Father did what was required of him. Think you I do not know my place?”

“What?” Loki snarls, raising his hands as if to strike at...

“We both chose as we did. I allowed you to go, though I knew what would be the debt owed. Blood is a little thing between us, my brother. My Prince.”

Loki drops his hands, tucks his head against his chest. He cannot bear the sight of his brother.

“Next time, we will do better, and you will not be caught.” From seemingly out of nowhere, Helblindi lifts high a net of fat, gleaming emeralds.

“Next time?” Loki sighs, the emeralds unseen. “There will be no more of that.” He does not wish to think of his younger brother as his jailer, but Laufey had been clear. No more was he to try to reach Jotunheim with his magick, being of tender years and unversed in the deeper shades of seid. Father believes it could kill him, crush him, empty him. There is only one now – to here the voice of the ice, of the ancestors, of winter – where once there was nearly a million.

Helblindi jingles the clutch of gems on one finger, his scarred, broad palm flashing in the dim light. “Don't insult me further brother. There will always be a 'next time'.”

Lifting up his eyes, Loki stares at the string of emeralds in Helblindi's hand and feels as if his face will split under the force of his grin.

“I cannot go where you go, brother. I do not hear as you do. But I can keep others from following.”

Loki reaches for the gems, their empty, glittering hearts begging to be filled with his magick. This was a gift, an honest gift. He would not have expected to receive it from the hands of the one he had allowed to take such an injury. “Thank you brother.”

Helblindi bows his head, slipping the net of emeralds into his brother's tiny hands. He knows what is his purpose, and he is enough the son of Laufey to feel pride at what he has received, and what he has given.

Quick as a fox, Loki reaches for the little blade neath his pillow and cuts a mouth into his pallet, slipping the string of gems away. Father has had the yellow sapphires plaited into his hair, and they are not half so malleable as the green stones. Once the gems are hidden, Loki turns his gaze back upon his brother, and the clean, sluggishly bleeding gash, flying straight as an arrow, from Helblindi's collarbone to touch at the edge of his heart.

Helblindi makes not one sound when his brother's deft little fingers press against the crusted lips of the wound. He does not complain when a twist of Loki's magick touches his flesh and a bolt of heat kisses it closed. Nearly closed.

“Father is clever,” Helblindi sighs. “But you are cleverer.”

Of all the wounds that Helblindi will collect from this day forth, it is this first one – the only one – that Loki cannot keep from scarring.

~ * ~

Half a green-ringed moon's turning finds Loki cutting runes into the stones of Harvetrtjald, useless yellow sapphires gleaming in the dark coil of his hair, emeralds sewn into the folds of his wolf's pelt. Helblindi sleeps in the garden, beneath the branches of the not-tree. Father has grown sharper of late, as have Loki's ears.

Rumours grow like snakes, shedding skin and truths till they are heavy and fat with their own accumulated lies. Loki would laugh, but he knows the limits of his own strength. Others, shadowed, battle-tested others, have begun to speak against him.

It is said he was what caused Jotunheim to fall. It is said the crown-prince has stolen King Laufey's wits. It is said King Laufey gave over Vetrljós in exchange for the life of his Prince, whom he had sent away rather than commanded to stand and die as a proper Jotun should have.

Shadows say many things.

Loki will punish these snakes, these creatures that orbit round his father's throne like the broken teeth of some old dýr. He will be the blade in the dark. Besides, if he does not act with the utmost haste, Laufey will simply raise his hand and cast the bodies to Fafnir – a public spectacle, a cup of blood spilled for the pleasure of it.

Loki has seen nearly nine green-ringed moons, and he cannot hide in his father's strong arms till all the court is but his own brothers and the untidy bones of his rivals. But he can only do so much; no creature can cut itself in three. He cannot feed the shade-veil, restore Harvetrtjald and cut his enemies throats deep enough to spill their blood on the steps of his father's throne. He has not the height, nor the strength. And he will first be cast unto the undertide afore he puts a blade in his brother's hand in place of one in his own.

No.

He will make another way, another path.

It will be simple, all too simple, to become the Terror of Jotunheim, just as he is its Treasure.

The runes begins to sing under his blade, and in his mind he carves great tunnels and high vaulted corridors with his bare hands, flinging up spires thin enough to pierce the sky, and waits. Harvetrtjald will grow as it pleases, and as Loki desires.

~ * ~

Laufey abides in the crux of his House, and round him is gathered all the whispers of discontent, of malice and ignorance and the unhealed wounds of surrender. Such things are hard indeed for a Jotun to bear; no softness, no gentleness, no warmth, nothing to ease the hardship of survival. He feels it keenly, this poor half-waking life that has become his existence. This weak, limp thread lying in his hands; he would be cut from it, save that it would mean death for his son, and the ruin of what price he has already paid to see his child to greatness. To vengeance.

Odin Spear-Breaker, Odin Viðurr, will not stand in triumph over all of Jotunheim simply because King Laufey harbours a deep and immovable loathing of patience, of breathing under such a crushing weight of shame.

He reminds himself that the eye is a promise.

King will he be, till he sets Loki upon those heights with his own hands.

A dry, familiar grunt turns Laufey's gaze; six Jotun knelt afore him, hands bound and shoulders bowed with defeat. Each is known to him, four have waged war by his side, bled for him, sent children to their deaths for him. Frekir, Gunrotd, Skapraun, Hordomr.

Each has threatened their King's child.

“Think you I am deaf?” Laufey speaks, flicking a curl of ice from the mouth of the dýr carved into the arms of his throne. “Think you I am as blind as that high-handed Aesir?”

None dare answer, each knows where his death shall come from, and from whose hand. The hour was upon them from the moment they stepped beneath the false-light of the sol their crown-prince has moored above his father's fathers throne. All knew this, all accepted this.

Laufey would not be their King if it there was aught else but this surety.

“It matters not what is in your hearts,” Laufey smiles. “Only what sits upon your tongues.”

The wind pours its fingers through the titan high hall; Laufey regards the long shadows cast upon his throne-room's floor and spares a moment to wonder if Fafnir truly takes what victims Laufey hurls unto his domain.

He should like to know.

It is gratifying to see the welt of fear in each pair of eyes, the bitter scent of resignation on each neck; the fine, sharp gleaming of his sickle curved arm.

At least he has not lost that much of himself.

~ * ~

A strange, dry rustling shakes Loki from his dreams; it is not his brother, nor is it his father. Without much effort he calls up a light to dance between his fingers, and raises his hands high.

Nothing. Nothing but familiar shadows and dim voices on a sharp wind.

Flinging back the heavy furs, Loki puts his feet upon the floor and rises to pace the length of his chambers.

He does not seen them till he is stood at the window.

Another dry rustling, a croak like some animal in the midst of death.

Birds, Loki's eyes tell him. Black and large, with beaks that chattered and talons that cut. Yet there are no warm-blooded animals in all of Jotunheim – it is an impossible thing.

He paces nearer, till the birds are within his reach; little black eyes stare at him with an alien knowing, a palpable sentience. They have been looking for him. They have found him.

The black, inky creature to the right lets out a shriek that startles Loki into inaction. He does not know what to make of these...things.

He thinks to wring their necks and be done with it.

It is not hard to weave a frightening speed into his frame; Loki reaches out and snatches one of the birds from the narrow ledge of his window sill. The moment Loki puts his hands round the creature he knows what it truly is, and it is no bird.

These things reek of him, of Odin All-Father.

In the space of a moment's breath, with the flapping, shrieking bird-monster under his hands, Loki feels the full and piercing gaze of Heimdall pressing down upon him with ungentle force. Terror sings through him and he releases the bird with a howl.

Heimdall's gaze drops away like the blow of a hammer only half missed.

Quick as a fox he turns to reach for the little blade neath his pillow; afore he can raise it to strike at the birds upon his windowsill they are gone in a burst of noise and dry, black feathers.

Loki returns to his bed, shivering and drained, with the naked blade clutched to his chest; Odin All-Father's eye is heavy and hot against his skin.

Rising under Eldingstjarna's weak light, Loki finds his fingertips cut, and blood upon his wolf's pelt.

Chapter Text

~ * ~

Asgard is, on rare occasions, given over to a quiet that stretches further than Odin's own bedchamber. Tonight is such a night. The silence settles upon Odin heavily, with only the lap of water against the cold stone sides of Mimir's well to break the stillness. He has not turned his face to these particular waters in many a long century; he can still taste the Jotun King's blood in the curl of his tongue.

“Mimir,” he calls.

Hail Odin Bölverkr. The voice is brittle and cold, like a thread pulled too thin. I had nearly forgot the sight of your clever face. Tis good to see the ages have lessened thee.

“The eye is a little thing, Mimir,” Odin replies, fingers following the sweep of gold across his wound; Frigga had crafted it for him with her own hands, and he was pleased to have it if only for the reason that it pleased her to give it.

Laughter bubbles up: a thick, low rasping that pushes unkind shivers through Odin's frame.

Only a creature such as thee wouldst dare say such a thing. You have left a scrap of yourself behind, Skollvaldr. Or should I call thee Odin Hoàrr now?

“You may call me what you like, dead thing.” Odin growls, watching his own reflection snap and bite. “I did not rouse you to hear all that I have worked against thee.”

A sigh; the water ripples. What hast thou come for then? My knowledge is thine own, Hanged One.

“You are not so dead as you would have me believe,” his reflection smiles.

Ah, Mimir sighs. Then it is mine own descendents thou hast set thine reduced gaze over.

“There is a child, a shape I cannot see. A shadow not even Heimdall can throw light upon.” A hard frown creases his face, and Odin sees the new lines pressed into his flesh, the ones put there by Laufey's hands. “The Lord of the Aesir should not be so ignorant.”

But he is, Mimir chuckles. He is.

“Enough, creature!”

Thou hast Vetrljós in this very dungeon where thou hast bound me. What think you I might tell thee? I am deaf; I am blind. My children cannot hear my voice, nor I theirs. All is silent.

Odin finds his neck is bent, throat bare and flashing upon the still pane of waters. So many threads, so many choices, so many many fates. All his; none his.

I think...tis well and truly finished. I am relieved. Mimir's voice pulls on, its thread spooling away so thinly it makes spider's silk into iron chains.

“What is finished, Mimir Once-King?”

Another clot of laughter, dry as the bones in a shaman's circle. My death. I had thought it would have come well afore this hour, but now I think it nigh. I have found Death to be a slippery thing, easily changeable and cruel, but since you wrought Jotunheim a crown of silence...

Suddenly there is a clamour of wings and sharp, crackling voices. Odin raises his gaze from the cold well and finds his birds perched on Kvasir's mead-horn.

Huginn and Muninn.

“Odin All-Father should not have sent us,” Thought crows, shaking his wings.

“No should not have sent us,” Memory chimes.

“All was dark, strange. Cold.” Thought's little claws tick against the fine silver dragon wrapped round the mouth of Kvasir's horn.

“Cold,” Memory shivers.

Odin holds a hand high, and the the ravens alight to perch upon his broad shoulders, whispering their secrets to him in the language of the spaces between.

“Child was hidden from us,” Thought japes. “Saw too little. Green and black and winter coloured hands.”

“Winter coloured hands,” Memory jeers, remembering the grip of the creature's hands round his thin neck. Oh how little it would have taken to see it snapped. Perfect memory is an unhappy thing.

“Where did you glimpse the child, Huginn?” Odin has the thread now; he should have picked it up afore this moment, and the realization chafes at him. Laufey does nothing without a purpose – there is always a reason why. Always is there something hidden beneath. Perhaps that is the gift of winter.

“High in a tower, Odin All-Father. Kept in jewels and furs like a dragon,” Thought cackles. “Though it be little for a dragon.”

“Little for a dragon,” Memory trills, flapping his dusty wings.

“Laufeyson!” Odin roars, and the ravens scatter like stones thrown by an angry hand. “Laufey's Son,” Odin whispers. The ungentle touch of skald magic; the fat shards of emerald left in the blinding snow; the starling in the lee of the mountain.

Mimir's cold, thin laughter chases Odin Spear-Breaker from the treasury; Odin Ginnarr follows on swift feet.

~ * ~

“How far have you Seen, Son of Nine Mothers?” Odin asks; he did not bring with him Gungir.

Heimdall does not turn towards the All-Father, for he does not answer questions shaped like demands.

“I would know what is it I have left on Jotunheim,” Odin demurs; a moment later Huginn and Muninn come to dig their little claws into the leather at his shoulders, knowing eyes trained on Heimdall. He is their Gatekeeper as much as he is Odin's.

“Nothing you might have taken,” Heimdall intones. “You could not have bought a greater peace with it.” Not yet.

Odin turns his gaze out upon the endless black of the universe, tracing the mighty branches of Yggdrasil carved from untold nebulae, countless galaxies, millions of stars, and thinks it is only the knowledge of being deceived that so galls him into action, into plotting and crafting and seeking.

What is ten turnings of Jotunheim's green-ringed moon to the Hanged One?

Nothing.

And yet....

“Father?”

Thor calls unto him, with a young thunder hiding just neath his voice. An age or so will see his son greater still. Would that he could be less proud of this fact. Pride has always been so high-handed a mistress.

“Here, my son!” It is Odin Ginnarr who answers.

Chapter Text

~ * ~

The green-ringed moon turns its face to Jotunheim upon Loki's tenth year of life, to find Laufey's heir and his brothers racing across the shattered plains of Greater Thrym, Harvetrtjald so distant it is no more than a single, broken fang marring the pristine white mouth of the sky.

Býleistr leaves gapping tracks in the brittle ground so plain even a blind old outcast could follow their path.

Nine mighty Naŕþengill, whose thickly ringed horns speak of their great age, ride alongside; the snapping of their valdyrs' jaws being subsumed by the thunder of Býleistr's long, long stride.

“Why are we for the southern tjalds, brother?” Helblindi speaks, low and all too aware of the Jotun, twice his height and four times his weight, riding round he and his brothers like the stones of the ancestors' cairns. “You were most thankful to father for allowing us to travel beyond Harvetrtjald.” It is a simple thing, his string of words. Helblindi is waxing ever more aware of his elder brother, of all that often lurks neath his fine, bright blue skin.

Loki is momentarily undone by his younger brother's keen tongue, by the knowing gleam in his cold red eyes. “There is a reason. A just cause.”

“There is always a reason,” Helblindi laughs, raising his long, thin blade-arm to accuse, kindly accuse. “Last I knew, you were outraged that our father the King had thrown those six to the dýr, to the Ocean. And all afore you could work your own violence against them.”

“Anger is a thin, poor thing to keep,” Loki sighs, turning his face to the wind, bitter and burning against his cheeks. He cannot account for his brother's sudden wisdom, but he can account for the ears of the Naŕþengill.

Helblindi draws in a brittle, unhappy breath. “Keep your secrets, my Prince. I see these here gathered round us, as I am certain Father did, and lo,” Helblindi mocks with as much gentleness as he is given. “All do hate and fear you as they do hate and fear the owner of that Eye you have slung round your neck.”

“A just cause,” is Loki's simple, naked reply.

Six was not enough, not nearly enough to satisfy him.

No more than half a turn of the eldingstjarna and Býleistr has carried them far, far from Harvetrtjald; none might turn back now.

Helblindi reads the rough, singing touch of coming violence in the curl of his brother's hands against the wolf's pelt in his lap. There is not the time to prepare a warning, nor a noise of protest.

Loki plucks a fat, gleaming emerald from the innards of his furs and casts it to the sad, howling earth beneath his youngest brother's shadow quick feet. It makes no coils of jealous green smoke.

Býleistr cries out, a bellow of pain that shakes Loki's lungs to pieces, and stumbles upon the bare, scoured plain.

The wolves are atop them in half the span of one tiny, unheard breath.

Helblindi shrieks a challenge in the voice of the Thunder Eagle, his blade-arm crackling with the heavy sickle curve of his sword. He thinks nothing of hurling his Prince away, into the lee of Býleistr's trembling legs.

First Naŕþengill Svartr howls, a piercing note of joy, sure in his triumph, and thrusts his blade against Helblindi's smaller one. “My King will hold me above all others once we destroy this wretched goðgá upon his ancient House! You have raised your sword to mine, you will die with that little abomination you dare call crown-prince.”

Helblindi is not the get of Laufey because his father grew careless in his couplings; Naŕþengill Svartr leaves no more than a quarter of half an el between them, but it is enough for Helblindi to use the mountain's weight against its own strike, and ram a thin, keen blade into the meat of Svartr's chest. A blade made in his left hand.

Svartr tumbles down, a twist of shock so bright upon his craggy blue face Helblindi cannot keep a bubble of laughter from escaping his own lips. He does not have time to be further surprised by his easy victory.

He can smell his brother's blood in the snow. His Prince.

Loki lands with a thud, near enough to creep neath Býleistr's legs unseen – if that had been at all in his design. The knife's hilt glints from within the folds of his wolf's fletching, calling. His grip is sure: the cut is swift and just deep enough to bring out a flush of steaming red blood along his arm.

Second Naŕþengill Rotkar is closest. Loki raises high his voice, in time with his little blade, and calls out to the force living neath his cold skin.

Rotkar falla! A flash of jealous, bitter green light.

Naŕþengill Rotkar falls away, bright red eyes suddenly and eternally dimmed. It is very like all his bones have been torn from his body, only to be left in an untidy pile upon some un-dug cairn.

“Loki?” Helblindi roars, confusion and fear catching him unaware. His sword arm slips, and it earns him a deep cut against his ribs, given by fifth Naŕþengill Skoll.

There is not the time to answer.

Loki turns his carmine gaze to the next hulking, horned shape bearing down upon he and his brother; the words burn, bite, cost; the shapes fall like great sheaves of ice, the thunder of their deaths ringing out in the white, endless silence of Thrym.

Round and round, in neat, graceless rings.

Nine great and mighty high-horned Naŕþengill – dead and cast into the Dýr's cold realm like broken playthings. Loki stands on the field of this slaughter and tips his face unto the half turned eldindstjarna, and howls his delight; he wears his pride like a crown.

“Look here!” He cries. “Look here First Father Ymir!” He breathes deep, lungs alive and shivering. The skald magic is singing through his bones, making him free with his tongue, free with his joy. “Am I not the first of Laufey's sons?”

Helblindi's long shadow stretches across Loki, across the blood and the dead corpse-kings at his feet; the sound of Býleistr's wounded footfalls echo in his ears.

“I am the crown-prince of Jotunheim, and I will not suffer to be denied.”

“Brother?” Helblindi breathes, eyes wide and unfocused. “What is this? What have you done?”

“Is it not plain, what I have done?” Loki is secure in his belief that it is only the sudden music of battle that makes slow Helblindi's tongue, his mind.

“You, you did not speak of this to me!” Helblindi retorts, anger sitting high upon his sharp, proud face. He is wounded in a manner that has naught to do with the blood he is casting about in the snow. “You,” Helblindi draws up one long finger as if it might be an arrow and points it at his elder brother. “You planned all this, this slaughter and told none of your designs. You permitted me, your brother, to walk merrily into the jaws of a trap! Thou didst put myself, yourself and Býleistr in the most terrible of dangers, in the clutches of nine Naŕþengill, father's best, father's worst. My Prince, you lied to our King!

“Aye,” Loki offers up, gripping his fine, thin blade closer to his chest.

“And all to prove yourself as much a vicious dýr as a Prince of Jotunheim should be.”

Loki's reply is a smile as black and sharp-toothed as any fit to grace Fafnir's ancient maw.

Helblindi throws back his head and howls, laughter ringing high and clear upon the wide, bloodied plains.

“Father will love you yet further for this working.”

“I know,” Loki sighs, tucking his blade back into the folds of his wolf's fletching. He is no fool, he can see the hurt stinging under the hooded lids of his brother's eyes: pride and an unhappy truth – a clearer sight of what it is that lives neath Loki's skin, what drives his thin, small frame. To be so naked afore his brother's gaze is troubling, painful. Only father divines what is in his heart, and that knowledge is given only half so readily as Loki suspects father would prefer.

“Could you not have told me?” Helblindi cannot leave that scrap of understanding alone, though he knows it will earn him little to persist in his searching. Loki is Loki – as Father has told him many a time afore this strange, blood scented moment.

Loki frowns, walking from beneath his brother's shade to chide Býleistr for setting weight upon the hand that Loki's own skald emerald had injured. It does not take him long to pluck the shards from his youngest brother's thick, massive palm; Býleistr offers up a noise of pain, sharp and low. His silence is not the silence of forgiveness, but the silence of necessity: the great, deep cavern that is his chest holds within it a voice that leaves the crown-prince of Jotunheim with blood dripping from his neatly pointed ears. Býleistr has not spoken to Loki one little word since the green-ringed moon turned upon his third year of life.

This saddens Loki, for some strange, poorly shaped reason for which he cannot find the thread.

“Please, brother, why did you not confide in me?” Have I not paid much for the secrets between us? “Is it that I have...”

“Helblindi.” Loki murmurs, smoothing one tiny hand over Býleistr's marked flesh to seal and bind the weakly bleeding cuts. “Would you have leapt into that slaughter with a heart free of fear or forethought? Would your blade have been half so keen?”

Yes, is what sits upon Helblindi's tongue, but there is in the draw of his breath a clot of hesitation, and that is all the answer Loki might desire.

“I know you brother,” Loki sighs, turning to look up, up into Helblindi's cool red gaze. “You would have been worried at the risk, and in that would have lain our doom. My doom. Think you these dead things at our feet would not have scented your fear, your hesitation?”

Helblindi finds his neck bent, bowed.

“I trusted in your blade, Helblindi – be assured of this, for I doubt that trust shall ever be misplaced. But...I must have one of my own making.” Loki smiles, the self made wound upon the length of his arm closing beneath his own touch.

“Tis a great weapon my Prince,” Helblindi laughs, pleased beyond all measure to see just how fine a sword it is that his brother has crafted. Finer by far than the cruel little eye clasped above his heart. “After all, dead is dead.”

“Not quite yet. There is one more task for which I would have your aid.”

Helblindi cocks his head, staring down at his tiny elder brother with a question bit between his sharp teeth.

“I would have thee cut their hearts out,” Loki speaks as if he is requesting from Helblindi nothing so great as to fetch him down a book from the high shelves. “I have a need of them.”

Helblindi sees, with all the bright, ungentle clarity of a truer understanding, that his is to accept, to do, and not to question. There is nothing to be had in understanding a purpose that he might ne'er grasp.

A few steps sees Loki crouching low above the slack, unblemished corpse of Naŕþengill Rotkar, his fine, thin blade pressed to the curvature of the corpse-king's sternum. His first cut is good, clean. The second runs deep, splits the muscles from the hollow, freezing bone. His hands are dyed in red. Loki thinks, as he plucks the heart of his enemy from its cage, that he has been washed away by something that makes him feel as if he is made new and naked, set down in a strange, too-bright world.

It seems no time at all afore the Sons of Laufey are once more racing across the plains of Thrym, nine red and well wrapped hearts tied between them.

~ * ~

Thrym is very like the heart of Jotunheim: a clean, white, shattered heart. Its borders stretch for eight thousand els in any direction one might chose to walk; the Ocean is its only companion, its jealous keeper. Laufey has spoken of the Outlands, the realms beyond the titan shores of his own first Kingdom, but Loki has yet to lay his own gaze upon these grey, poorly drawn shapes upon the maps kept high in the vaults of Harvetrtjald.

Laufey will not permit him such freedom. Twas grace enough to have been given leave to see for his own self what was the destruction wrought upon the southern tjalds, for all accounts make clear that the blind, hobbled peoples of Jotunheim have only that cruel, ever shifting creature called luck to determine how it is they were to endure this Aesir wrought silence. Loki is not unaware that the tjalds ringing round Harvetrtjald like pale, folded stars have fared better than those flung far from the sight and reach of his father's Palace.

Two turnings of the green-ringed moon and still he is only able to hear the voice of Jotunheim in the crux of the high temple, and always must he be utterly alone to catch even the weakest songs that once had the power to seize him with its infinite cadence and shake him clean of all thought.

Laufey will not permit him to test himself.

This is why the nine had to be given over to the Undertide.

Why he has a need of Helblindi's sword and Býleistr's long, long stride.

Loki will make of this a gift to his father, as Laufey had gifted Odin All-Father's eye; if his gleanings from those thick old tomes prove to be the stones upon which he will stand, will build, then perhaps his father will be content to take a different stone from round the sweep of Loki's neck.

Raising his eyes to the distant, boundless horizon, Loki spies the first of tjald Utgarð's Erms, the once towering spires of stone and ice that serve to mark the bounds of its reach, now so sadly reduced to ugly, broken fingers left to rot in the voiceless land.

Loki Laufeyson will make for this place a new voice.

~ * ~

Chieftain Arngrìmr cannot understand why there is a shadow broad enough to put a mountain to shame thrown over the steps of his Ancestors' Hall. Nor why there are the Sons of King Laufey stood at the summoning bell. What is yet more terrifying is the knowledge that it is the crown-prince of Jotunheim in whose little hands rests the hammer. Arngrìmr had not thought he would ever set his still living eyes on the Treasure of the House of Laufey, not in all his remaining ages.

All that has been whispered of Loki Laufeyson is, to Arngrìmr's calciferous red eyes, entirely true. What a wonder. The little, nay, the tiny Prince is vænn, as no Jotun might be – a thin, bright blade that has touched only the finest of whetstones; skin hued in the memory of the winters afore the Aesir came with thunder and fire and Gungir's golden light.

First there is in him wonder, then fear, then terror. For what reason could these children of his King be so far from the high, thick walls of Harvetrtjald? Have the Aesir returned to the slaughter that was halted with King Laufey's bitter surrender?

It would not be the first time an Aesir has broken an oath to a Jotun, King or no.

“Chieftain Arngrìmr!” Loki calls out, leaving the weighty hammer to swing in the cold, bracing wind. “We, the Crown-Prince of King Laufey, have come to heal your tjald.” It is momentarily frightening, and yet, in the same turn, magnificent, to hear how much of his father creeps into his voice.

Arngrìmr knows it would not do to laugh. He does not see the string of hearts tied round the second Prince's fine, broad shoulders. “First Prince, how might you do what is impossible? Vetrljós is taken from us, and we are taken from winter. We are not what we once were.” He does not dare to raise his gaze to meet the little royal shade again.

“Aye,” Loki offers up, head held high and sight unclouded. “But there are yet other means. Other paths.”

Chieftain Arngrìmr fought at the side of this child's royal sire, fought in the stinking mud of Midgard for what purpose he did not care to know, fought here upon this very ground, till his blades were shattered and his tjald was aught a broken thing in a sea of broken things, and lo, he has never been so neatly stripped of his voice, of sense, till now. What other paths! He should like to spit, to howl. What might speak to a child afore it speaks to a King?

Arngrìmr has not survived all these long ages to be undone by an immoderate tongue.

Loki does not even need the pretence of closing his eyes to hear the voices of this tjald's old ones, to hear the mourning song breathing neath the wind. “Give me some of your hours, and I will given back in return.”

“Who am I to deny a Prince?” Arngrìmr replies.

“That is a wise answer,” Loki murmurs. His smile is only built to suggest gentleness.

~ * ~

“Like this, brother?” Helblindi questions, confusion thick upon his tongue. He is unused to crafting such a little blade in his grip, and the runes seem to mock him with their beguiling shapes. “I cannot think how you have not gone mad, all these lines and bridges hidden in these things."

Loki puts his knife between the sweep of two linking runes and raises his head to his brother's tall shape ahead of him in the circle they are carving round the summoning bell of tjald Utgarð. “Nai, Helblindi ōþala must flow into īsa with the bridge I showed you how to carve. Like the skin of a sea-snake.”

“Oh.” Helblindi shakes his head, the day-star catching in the rings of his horns. “I think this well beyond me, dear brother.” The little blade is still unwieldy in his heavy handed grip.

Laughter rings out, high and clear; it is as if they have forgot what was it that is tied between them, what passed between them afore they set their feet upon the broken earth of this tjald. As if nothing so terrible as the shadow of the Dýr himself had stalked beneath their bright, sure blades.

The Jotun of Utgarð watch their Princes with wary, curious eyes.

They are not half finished before the eldingstjarna begins to mark its falling path into the boundless horizon, trailing a million miles of dust and the bones of dead comets in its wake.

Arngrìmr sees that the Princes are fed, though the coastal tjalds have struggled nigh on three turnings of the green-ringed moon to feed the inner tjalds of Thrym. It has caused him no small pain to see his people roaming far and naked in their need for the meagre gleanings that might be had from the roots of Thiazivarði, or the roughage that grows upon the tundra.

He sends young Gunloð with bowls of good whitefish, with seagreens from Rusk, with blackeel meat and best of all, to his high reaching pride, with pink salt from the Titan Steps, the spires of rock that sit astride the mouth of the Dýr's Cradle. It will cost him dearly to feed his Princes in a manner befitting them, but he will do it nonetheless.

When the young Jotun brings Prince Loki his meal, Loki cannot help but feel a bite of shame at the pinched, unhappy shadow sitting upon the other child's face; Loki suspects it is hunger, and being denied. He is glad he eats only half what he should, and since father is not hear to make noise at being unable to finish his meal, Loki gives over its remains to the Jotun with sincere thanks. It would not do to make as if to be dissatisfied with his hosts' fine, costly meal.

He keeps the salt.

Under the pale, waning light of eldingstjarna Loki holds the little crystals in his hand, their pink colour painting a strange blush upon his bright blue skin. On his tongue they melt by fractions, and he swallows their warmth greedily.

The salt will make this night work tolerable, and keep him warm till the day-star rises once more. When Helblindi offers up his own salt, Loki takes the smallest lump and hisses his brother's kindness away.

Hours fall away with the eldingstjarna, lost beneath the patient carving of the princes' knives and the binding, swelling runes cut into the stones of tjald Utgarð. None see the princes dig a cairn, neat and clean edged, within the crux of the circle, nor do they see Helblindi take off from his shoulders the string of cold, blue hearts and unwrap one to press it into his elder brother's hands.

Loki plunges the scrap of flesh deep into the cairn and speaks, beguiles, coaxes the runes to life. They breath. They sing. They bind. The heart lies warm and alive neath the earth, rooted to the magicks Loki has wrought into a true shape.

Though his tongue is streaked with his own blood, and high above his head drifts a second, burning white heart that lights up the heavy night that clings too close to the stones of the tjald, Loki can feel aught but pride.

It is not Vetrljós, but it has been built in its likeness.

Upon the rising of the day-star, the Jotun of Utgarð will once more hear the voice of the ice, the bones of their ancestors, if only as a high, thin keening upon the wind. But they will Hear.

Loki can only hope, with each passing of the green-ringed moon, that the voices will grow, that Jotunheim will seek a way back to its deaf, blind children.

The wind is biting, and he is drained to the marrow of his being. When Helblindi murmurs soft words to him, words of sleep, Loki offers no protest to his brother's stronger arms round his frame, to the ungentle lurching of being carried to a pallet deep in the Hall of Chieftain Arngrìmr.

They lay out side by side, Loki wrapped in the fletching of his pelts and curled into the lee of Helblindi's long limbs, exhausted and nearly sick with their own success.

Loki finds his sleep is dark and strange, overcast by some wild, racing urgency that he does not grasp as the beating of his own heart. He dreams of a wide, dragon-toothed shore line stretching into a horizon forked by tongues of lightning, black water as smooth and unbroken as the ice upon the floors of Harvetrtjald.

Loki Hears a voice, a voice he has never, never heard afore.

Loki dreams of drowning.

The dream is doubly cruel, for no matter how great his struggles, how violent his cries, he cannot see even the shape of the hands holding him beneath the blackness – a twisting, alien voice folding in upon itself in the grip of his mind.

Until Helblindi shakes him awake and Loki feels his brother press the familiar shape of his little knife into his hands, as if to give some small comfort against what cannot be wounded.

It does not help, and so he dreams of black water pouring into his shivering lungs till the eldingstjarna turns its face to Jotunheim once more.

~ * ~

It is a hard thing, to trust in the strength of others, harder still when it is his own child that he must trust above all others. His strange, beguiling little son, his greatest treasure.

It is more than hard. It is agony.

Laufey paces, his feet tracing the rood lines carved by his child's blade. A maddening labyrinth fed by his own dark, bloody thoughts, populated by his own ungentle monsters.

Was it too soon to give Loki the flesh, the sacrifices, into which he might stick his own young blade? There is no denying that he has bought his child's success at a dear cost: Naŕþengill are not playthings to be broken and then mended. Each life he turned over was nigh on five thousand years in the forging. Flawless, heartless, magnificent animals, beasts with eyes and minds that spun solely upon the red music of slaughter and death.

Irreplaceable titans.

Enemies.

Laufey finds an unbearable clot of fear has burst under the cage of his ribs. If his own sire was stood before him, Laufey has not one shadow of doubt as to what would be made of this...display, private or no. Fárbauti would decry a challenge, disgusted by Laufey's own brightly burning distress, and it would end with Fárbauti's teeth round Laufey's neck.

He should not have permitted Loki to believe that his sweet, honeyed words had fooled the King of Jotunheim. He should not have given over the nine to his first-born son and heir.

Too soon.

Too proud.

Too much has he become a creature of this creeping, shameful emotion, this love: warm and gentle and cruel; this thing that binds him, that he permits to bind him.

This love that forces him to see his child's little body savaged and left, like so many of his shape, to paint the cold plains of Thrym with his own blood. Oh how neatly he has been reduced, wherein once he could rightly claim to stand above all Jotunheim, where once he possessed a gaze that stretched from the lowest stones of Harvetrtjald to the distant, salt sewn tjalds of the coast, to the Thunder Mountains, to the soaring, blackstone cairns of his father's fathers ringing round the Titan's Steps like footprints of the Dýr himself. Now his gaze, his world, is very like the ghost of a limb torn from his body. He remembers what was once there, what heights he could reach unto, but now can no more touch, or hear, or see.

All that remains of his greatness is Loki.

Oh how easily he will be broken, if that greatness does not return. It shames him, galls him, leaves him breathless and sharp with rage. What was once a world stretching eight thousand els in any direction he might turn his gaze is now nothing more than the little, fragile shape of his child. The child who still climbs into his lap when Harvetrtjald is still and Laufey has crept into the garden to be reminded of what once was the true voice of ice, of Jotunheim.

Why Loki should have been the one to escape nine millennia's worth of unchallenged practice is a mystery to Laufey, even these ten turnings of the green-ringed moon.

Beneath Laufey's feet the rood line terminates, and he finds himself staring into the reflection he casts upon the floor. A sharp, proud face, the weight of its ages written in the rings of its horns and the scars upon its cheeks. A face bitten by fear, by a terror he had thought foreign to his own nature: the high-handed, bitter understanding that he has been cut by his own sword.

In the years wherein he might have called Loki an infant and truly meant it, his new, ungentle love for his child was the weapon he wielded against those that had cursed at his tiny first-born, even against those that had decried Laufey himself unworthy of the throne, and a lesser son of greater sires. He had lashed out with all the clarity of a creature baited into a trap; he had not cared who paid the debt of the slander, the derision, only that it was paid. Nine hundred snakes and self-flatterers and ignorant, bitter old relics had been the blood to soothe his raging.

Laufey would have fed his own brothers to the dýr if he had thought it would have bought him the silence he so desired.

In the unclouded reflection he casts upon Harvetrtjald's gleaming floors, Laufey can pick up the thread of his own lie.

He knows full well why it was that Loki was spared. He knows just what it was that moved him so, so profoundly as to allow mercy of all things to come creeping into his heart.

Loki is his child.

And if his foolish pride has cost him his child's life, then Laufey will break Harvetrtjald anew. He will tear down every magnificent thing that Loki has gifted unto the halls of his father's fathers and the King of Jotunheim will wait in the thick, unkind shadows of his once-kingdom for that vicious old Aesir with his one gleaming, knowing eye to return.

Seven turnings of the green-ringed moon; not even the span of a breath for one such as he.

Laufey will grip Odin's neck between his teeth and watch each little, red edged breath escape through Odin Ginnar's opened throat. A final, soaring pleasure, afore he parts his own breath from his body with Gungir's brutal, ancient point.

If Loki Laufeyson does not return, Laufey will be Terrible once more.

~ * ~

From the heights of brother Býleistr's craggy shoulders, Loki watches as the half raised spires and still crumbling balconies of his father's fathers palace grow ever larger against the sky; the day is unsettled, but Loki thinks it owing to the biting, snapping thing that is putting claws in his innards. Were it not for the immovable weight of Helblindi pressed against his own small frame, Loki feels as if he would shake himself to pieces, mortified pieces.

Chieftain Arngrìmr's missive is a heavy weight in the folds of his wolf's pelt. He does not like to dwell upon what his father will think of the eight hearts strung round Helblindi's neck, never mind that the scraps of flesh once belonged to nine of his most wicked, wretched weapons.

Loki worries at these sharp, unkind thoughts which burrow endlessly in his mind, picks and picks till those thoughts are scabbed over with nothing more useful than his own fear.

He has disobeyed, lied, entrapped. Done all that his father expressly commanded him not to do, and more. He risked his own life, and the lives of his brothers, for his own gain.

Necessity and curiosity are terrible things to be chained by.

Tis gladdening to feel an echo of his own uneasy, ungentle fear in Helblindi's larger frame, though it does nothing to abate the roiling.

When the titan doors of Harvetrtjald swing open on their ancient hinges, groaning like long suffering beasts, Loki thinks he shall faint, which only serves to raise an even greater agitation in him. It would look poorly if, in his attempt to prove to his father that he was as fine a blade as Helblindi, he could not even stand afore him to face the consequences of said actions.

“Made peace with the ancestors yet, brother?” Helblindi whispers, his own terror marking his tongue with its indignity. “You will speak kindly of me when we meet them?”

Loki can do aught but laugh, though it rings with a sharpness that makes him wince.

When Loki slides from Býleistr's shoulders, it is Helblindi's proffered arm that keeps his knees from folding in like softened ice. He cannot bear to give his thanks in words.

The long, long trail of steps that lead to their father's throne-room sways before them like an angry sea-snake. Loki puts his little feet upon the first stair and lets the echoing rote of his progress steal away his fear as best it can.

It does little to soothe him; Father stands at the base of his throne, as still and unmoving as the black Undertide; eyes as sharp as the Blood-Eagle's talons.

Laufey raises his eyes to his second prince.

Helblindi understands perfectly what is desired of him; he does not even spare a moment to offer some few words to Loki, only turning to walk from the throne-room of Harvetrtjald with a disturbingly quiet step. Less than the sound of snow upon snow, even as he closes the massive doors through which he and his prince entered.

If Helblindi made no sound, then Loki makes even less. The reflection his father casts upon the floors of Harvetrtjald is long and terrible; his footfalls are silent, graceless lurching.

When Loki stands beneath his father's red, red gaze, he falls first to one knee and then the other, arms spread wide and palms upturned to the false light burning from the star he has moored above the throne of his father's fathers.

Abject fealty, abject supplication.

Laufey stares down at his tiny first-born child, bereft.

Words are weak, paltry, barren; words are hardly strong enough to hang Laufey's heart upon.

Joy, pride, anger, unspeakable relief, love – first and foremost that love which he so cuts himself upon – all tangled, all bound neath the splay of his ribs in a heavy, immoveable knot.

Loki raises his gaze, and the word that sits upon his lips is father, but he finds it silenced, dead upon his tongue.

Laufey raises up his son into his arms, gathers him into his embrace; Loki curls himself around his father like water collapsing against stone.

Laufey finds his fingers have knotted in his son's thick black hair and his cheek pressed against cold yellow sapphires, an unbearable something caught in his lungs.

He breathes in the skald heavy scent of his child.

He breathes in deeply.

Oh how little it would take to break the King of Jotunheim.

So very, very little.

Chapter Text

~ *~

The hammer is not heavy in his hands.

There is so little sound here, only the thin sighing of distant trees; it is so still Thor can hear the crackling snap of sudden tension in the taut length of rope, hear the twist of fibres grating. Thor can hear every tiny, unread movement of the man and the two lengths of rope that ties him into an unbreakable orbit round the scarred, ancient níðstöng.

The wind is sharp and too warm for this business.

Thick, dun coloured mud squelches between his toes, half his side is already slick with its leavings, grass clinging to his chest and his hair, rough chalk in his eyes.

The man shivers, pupils blown wide and nearly unseeing, consumed by the knowledge of who shall gift him his final breath. A sword gleams in his bloodied hands.

“Strike!” Odin roars, Gungir's golden voice ringing out in the scarred, muddy green dell. “Blood for blood, my son,” Odin cries.

Thor does not intend to hesitate; the hammer flies from one hand to the other, and he revels in the keen, high shriek of its shape cutting through the wind. He cannot help but find a scrap of pity for the condemned Thane. But for a moment's clarity, this ǫ́ss would not be a lump of flesh given over to the judgement of hólmganga.

No creature is above the laws of Odin Hangadróttinn. None.

“Strike!”

Thor finds an oath of challenge on his lips and his hammer stooped like an eagle in its descent: a shadow above his head. The condemned Thane bares his teeth – with the thin, grim face of a skull yet to be made – and makes to put his dull blade between Thor's ribs.

A mistake.

He has chosen to see his Prince as a child, new to fighting in the mud for one's life.

Thor is no such thing.

A little span of breath sees Thor ducking neath the Thane's broad swing to roll in the mud like a wolf. He brings the hammer down, down across the fragile joint at the back of the Thane's knee.

A satisfying crack; a bright, sharp howl.

The dead thing turns to snap at Thor, and his sword parts the air near enough to Thor's right ear to sing.

“Good!” Odin bellows; his face is as telling as the surface of a mirror: it gives nothing but a deft reflection of...nothing.

All-Father's one eye is a bright and knowing beacon at the thin edges of Thor's mud clouded vision.

The rope snaps tight, just as the Thane's weight comes crashing down upon Thor, knocking the air from his lungs. He struggles for a moment, legs slipping in the mud. The Thane lands a blow to his cheekbone, and Thor catches the scent of his own blood. Another blow, and there is not the time to shake the searing exclamations of white from his eyes.

Thor gropes blindly, and comes up with a rock.

The sound is thick, dull, wet.

He lays in the mud gasping for air, his bones singing with the music of combat; three of his fingers are broken.

“Get up, boy.” His father barks – a cold fine blade held upon the edge of his tongue. “See this done.”

Thor picks himself up from the mire, red now with their blood, and for a moment he is bent like a dog, breathing in the scent of the earth and the knowledge of what is to come.

His hammer is not far from him, but lying in the pock-marked circle like a silver-skinned serpent; his grip is sure and firm, and his hammer becomes the shadow of a prey-bird once more. A trick of the eyes and the mind.

The Thane is dyed in his own bright, vivid blood. His gaze is quiet, distant: eyes like deep black pools, all the blue chased away by fear, by acceptance.

Thor watches the man's chest shiver and heave like a hare's little heart. He knows this will not be the death this Aesir once imagined, for who wishes to die in the mud with a rope tied round the brittle stalk of their neck? Who wishes to die on their knees, arms wide in unkind surrender? No, this is not a good death, but it is the one that has been earned.

As his arms begin to shake, Thor swings the hammer round his head in a high, thundering arc.

The music is terrible, beautiful and final, in its conclusion.

Gravity carries his swing, and with just enough space between himself and this man's death, Thor is witness to the strangest thing – always that thing which haunts him after he has slipped a fellow Aesir from his first form.

The Aesir stares at the shape of his death with eyes unseeing, with eyes distant and calm. It is as if the dead man is not here in the mud with the shadow of his Prince's hammer flying towards his skull, but elsewhere. Far, far and away.

It is like plunging his hands into the soft meat of an over-ripe fruit, warm and stinking and only just enough yield to put a finger of disgust up the length of his spine. The crude wet noise of the hammer against bone is what Thor loathes most. That vile exclamation of blood in a new, useless mouth.

At least he no longer finds bile souring his throat when he pulls the hammer from the shattered remains of the Aesir's skull. Odin had not looked upon the weakness of his knees and stomach with much kindness. No kindness, if Thor is to be frank with himself. That first high spring day, half rotten with the bursting of new green against withered brown, in which his father led him down unto the fields of the hólmganga, Thor had known only terror and the ungentle howling of his shameless desire to survive. That Aesir had died by unintentional inches. Thor had spilt his own blood, and then mixed it with the acid of his retching. He thinks it must have been all that quivering pink flesh, and the fact that it had been so distorted from its true shape that the sight of its remains were terrible to behold, knowing he had been the one to make it thus.

Well does he remember his father's words to him, though they fell upon his ears like muted, roughly hewn thunder.

A Boy were you, when first you went down into the mud. Now I raise you up from this mud, a Man.

Stand.

Thor had fallen, and his father's hands had pulled him from the mire like the talons of the Blood-Eagle.

“It was well done, my son.” Odin calls, raising himself up from the moss heavy stones ringing round the níðstöng. At first he had despaired of his only son, his only legitimate child. The Norns had been cruel, unthinking, in giving out Thor's day of birth, for it had left no space into which Thor might grow up under the red song of War. A child no more understands War than does a bird, or a beast.

Odin has had to seek out other means of shaping his son into the warrior prince for which his thick, heavy frame is undeniably suited. His son is a particular forging, and there is no sense in breaking him from that first mold.

Crossing the muddy circle, Odin plants his feet and waits for his son to raise his gaze from the ugly mess that was the condemned Aesir. None may murder with any species of impunity under the auspices of the All-Father's high halls. Valhöll is many things, but it is not a den of rash, snarling beasts with little better in their minds than a blade in their hands.

He had hoped, beyond all reason, all sense, that this last rote of slaughter would be enough to break the Aesir of their bloodlust. Enough to truncate their gaze into something gentler, smaller, and infinitely better. But Odin, for all the names his face bears, sheds, consumes, is still little mightier than a fool striving against the tide, a fool chasing the horizon.

An old man, an old god, and well used to the taste of being denied.

So he will teach his brightly uncomplicated, bitterly uncomplicated, golden son what is the particular feel of a death upon his own shoulders, what is the particular enchantment of a name earned by slaughter and turmoil and ruin. Odin will teach Thor what it means to be a weapon, what it means to breathe War across countless stars and galaxies. He will teach him these things by the shadow of the níðstöng and the cold stone circle of the hólmganga.

“Father,” Thor ventures, raising his eyes from the field, from the scarred face of the towering níðstöng. “Is that what Death does to all Aesir?” He points a finger to the eye he can locate under all the black mud and red blood. “I do not understand why it is the same shape for all.”

Odin finds he must bite his own tongue to keep his confusion from bleeding across the space between he and Thor. There is an eye – pale blue and turning cloudy – in the mire, and what is left of a face not too far away from that eye. What questions could possibly be worth answering, when it is nothing more than an eye in the dirt? “What is it you do not understand, my son?”

“When Death is upon them, always do I see,” Thor searches, grasping for the right words to fit into the puzzle on his tongue. “I see nothing. In their eyes. It is very like they do not see me. All is emptied, gone, distant.”

“Fled,” is Odin's reply. He does not bother to check the motion of his hand to settle upon Thor's mud caked left shoulder, though the scent of blood and sweat catches heavily in back of his throat. “Understand, Thor, that when you give a man his death, you give it only to the body. What was the man flees well afore you stop his breath. That is why you see only your own reflection in their eyes.”

Thor opens his mouth as if to protest, a frown cutting against his bloodied face; the motion opens up the fresh scab upon his cheekbone. He cares not to wipe the fat trail of blood away.

Odin sighs, a dry tired exclamation of breath.

“Would you desire your last sight in this living realm to be the shape of a hammer, the sight of your knees in the mud, bent like a dog? Would you be nothing more than a beast who has seen the flash of the knife?”

Thor shakes his head, throat suddenly, painfully tight. In his mind he reassembles the face of the Aesir, imperfect memory bleached by the too bright nature of combat touching upon how he looked afore the hammer fell.

“That Aesir was far from this field, Thor. Far, far distant from here. He was dwelling in the halls of his fathers, under the light of a better day. Perhaps he was being lulled by his mother's gentle voice, or his wife's knowing hands.” Odin smiles, but it is nothing like what might be a smile. Something shaped like a brief acceptant of what could not be changed, or denied – perhaps. “Or yet revelling with childhood allies and green, unfinished loves.”

The warm wind against Thor's back is intolerable: mocking, bright, and clean. He draws in a deep, poorly felt breath and slips his wrist into the leather thong at the haft of his hammer. Two cycles of Asgard's first sun he has been led to the hólmganga by his father to serve as the arbiter of Odin All-Father's justice. Only now is he beginning to understand why.

No life is too small, nor too grand.

None may sit above the Throne.

Call no Man happy till he is dead; call no life Good till it has ended.

Be only so merciful as each has earned, whether it be friend or enemy.

Most of all, let justice be done; let each have justice for every act, every choice.

Thor thinks he will take much joy in bringing justice to Jotunheim when he is King.

~ * ~

Frigga's first child was not her own. Frigga's first was the get of her husband in the bed of a dark-eyed, sharp-tongued ásynja; both had cared little for the young Queen's heart. The babe was the price Frigga asked, the coin for her silence, for her acceptance. She would not suffer a bastard to be raised under the halls of another, where she could not watch for serpents being slipped into its breast.

The girl-child had turned out well: a boisterous, cocksure thing with a crown of hair coloured like tree-bark and eyes that reminded her not-mother all too clearly of Odin All-Father's gaze.

When Frigga had chosen the child'd name, her dour, weakly apologetic husband had frowned, and politely asked her to choose another.

Frigga refused.

Skuld; a child's name was no little thing, and honesty often was a greater helpmeet in choosing what was to be hung upon the first shape of the child. Skuld is no more or less than what is the shape of her name.

Odin's first valkryja. Certainly not his last.

The strange, ungentle daughters of Odin Grimnir.

Once she had asked him plainly, with no portion of the hurt she felt at his proclivities touching upon her voice, what it was that he hoped to achieve with these nine bastard daughters ringing round the throne of Valhöll. Odin had smiled, a quiet thing that softened the hard, unyielding shape of his face, and plucked the shuttle of Frigga's weaving from her hands.

“Wife, would you be as bound by your sphere, as I am by mine?”

Frigga had left the shuttle in her husband's hands, forgetting the warm yellow thread she had been planting into the woad-dragon's scales; she had been weaving her hope for a boy-child, for that was what was expected of her, what was required of her.

Her husband's eyes had been bright, sharp and clear. Far seeing, she had thought. “They will not live easy lives, my lord. They will be strange cuts against familiar cloth. Outcasts and curiosities.”

“Necessary, mín vegvísir.”

“Then you would break the spheres we dwell in, All-Father?”

“No,” Odin had replied, shuttle still held in his grip. “I would do away with them entirely.”

Frigga had laughed at him then, laughed at his presumption. “Do you always seek the impossible?”

Odin had given to her a true smile, and returned her shuttle. She remembers a moment spared to look upon the fine woad-dragons against green silk thread and then the echo of his footsteps.

Even then she had known what was left unsaid. The All-Father would leave round Asgard all the road signs to a realm more open than it is now, a realm freer with itself, and with others. But he would not set any upon that path with his own hands – Asgard would have to find this road unaided.

“My Queen?” A quiet voice calls to her, neatly upending her reminiscence. “Lady Ölrún is here for her daughter's thread.”

Frigga shakes her head, a vain effort to dislodge her tangled thoughts, and motions for her young page to permit the Lady in question to enter the Weaving-Room. She watches the girl-child, with a sleek braid of golden hair, dash away, heedless of her long, purposefully complicated skirts, and thinks of her son.

A tall, thin blade of an Aesir drifts into the silent, sacred space of the weaving room; Frigga can scent her nervousness on her pale skin, see her worry in the twitching of her fingertips. It is a common sight, for she has seen very nearly every ásynja in Asgard at one moment or another in her life.

The Lady makes the customary gestures of fealty and obeisance; no words are spoken. It would be inappropriate.

Frigga sighs and passes a length of soft, well woven cloth from her hands into those of the mother standing afore her.

The Lady looks down at the length of blue cloth, and then up into the face of her Queen.

“It is a good match, Ölrún.” Frigga answers, with what she hopes is a thimble of comfort upon her face. “A good life. Happy.”

“Thank you, my Queen,” is the Lady's whispered reply, her fingers wound round the cloth tightly. “I am content.”

When the high doors slip closed, Frigga waves away her page and returns her attention to the loom, to her shuttle and her gazing pool and her thread. To the little sword hid against the right led and the silver shears resting open on the bench. She dares not return to the gazing pool, though there is a thin, high murmur lapping at the low stone lip of its waters. Urðr has spoken to her once this day already, Frigga's hair is still damp and curling at the edges from the cold grasp of the Norn's vaporous arms; she has had enough thread whispered into her ear for one rising of Asgard's first sun. It had been shock enough to see the ancient Jotun maiden's pale, insubstantial face reflected back upon her own, an even greater shock to see that face break the water's surface to speak to her.

Her King and Husband is planning something, and this time she will not be caught unaware; this time she will be well prepared for Odin Ginnarr and his sharp, beguiling tongue. She will be on watch for his little entities that only bear the shape of birds. The thread she is following is tangled and strange, a poorly tamed thing neath her deft hands: it is her son's thread, and she has paid much to see her child tall and strong. His father may not have all of him. After all, she did her duty, she gave the All-Father a son. She had the right to demand something in return.

And lo, where is her daughter?

~ * ~

Valhöll is full to bursting with noise this evening, and there is a warm, summer bright wind ghosting through the high-vaulted dining hall, carrying on its back the scent of Iðunn's golden orchard, and Tyr's crackling forges. It seems as if the smith-god is at work: Frigga can scent that particular blue haze of smoke hanging over the revellers like a familiar hand.

She feels disquieted and sharp; her memory has been dredging up only bones, only the barest remembrances by which she can piece together her husband's labyrinthine intentions. All those years she had spent believing his dalliances had been the result of the emptiness in the cradle at their bedside, till he had deigned to tell her what had been his purpose! An experiment, a fancy, a fruitless quest. Though she would ne'er go so far as to wish away her nine not-daughters. She was grateful for each of them, but they would never be hers.

Thor is hers. Just as much her child as Odin's, and she is tired of abiding in the lee of her husband's shadow. So she will let the men of Asgard think her nothing more than a Goddess of Marriage and Childbirth, let them think she is nothing more than their King's helpmeet.

Frigga knows what she is; she knows what strength is in her bones.

Odin Ginnarr is using her son to reach for another of his impossible desires. But he will not give over what he hides neath his breast, he will not give up the secrets of his designs, just as he no more would speak of what he earned hung upon that ash tree.

“Honoured Mother!”

Frigga turns to her bright, naked-tongued son and smiles. He ambles towards her peaceably enough, though it sticks in her throat to see the first blooms of over-reaching pride in his wide step. Thor knows he is the only son of Odin All-Father. He knows what are the rewards of such an unparalleled, unassailable height.

“Honoured Mother how does this evening find...” Thor trails off, a sudden flush coming to rest upon his cheeks; the scab itches and he must resist the urge to pick. It will bleed again. His mother regards him quietly, a gentle reproach in her fine, sea-grey eyes.

“Mother, how are you? I did not see you at noon meal.” This earns him her true smile, and he feels less shamed at his unintentional formality. She has never been fond of the stiff, unbending protocol that rules his own interactions with his father's court. “I missed you.” Thor has learnt that his mother loves nothing more than his honesty. He truly feels her absence, most especially after his father leads him up from the hólmganga. It is the silence of her chambers that he misses, the ease with which his mother can parse out what clings beneath his skin. Her patient acceptance.

With a soft laugh, Frigga waves a bird like hand, proffering the seat next to her; the colour of her eyes forbids him from refusing. Those same hands chide him from resting his hammer next to her fine, gleaming mead-horn. “Will I be forever teaching thee manners, my son?”

“Yes,” Thor replies. “They are tedious and silly. What is wrong with being proud of the weapon I wield? Father is ever with Gungir at his side.”

“He is King,” is Frigga's answer. Thor opens his mouth to protest but Frigga raises two fingers and the motion neatly silences her son. “You may be Asgard's Prince, but you cannot throw about your privileges simply because they are your privileges. No other Thane here in this dining hall has brought with him his sword, and if they respect Odin All-Father's laws, then so too must you.”

At this Thor frowns. A sly glance at his mother tells him that he cannot escape this request by feigning the appropriate chagrin. “I apologize, Mother. I will not bring Tilkváma into the dining hall again.”

“See that you do not.” Aught else she might have said is bitten off when she catches sight of his fingers. Poorly bandaged and crooked; little half moon nails still black with mud. She had forgot, only for a moment, that her son had gone down to the hólmganga this day. A flush of anger touches her cheeks: the despair of a mother struggling against the needs and customs of a world she will likely never fully understand – the world of Men. Such strange creatures.

Thor makes to slip his hand beneath the table, but the awkward lurching of youth hasn't quite left him, and all his effort earns him is the crack of his knuckles against the low edge of the golden mead bench.

“Silly boy,” Frigga hisses, gripping her son's hand with just enough roughness to encourage him to be still. “This is no war-wound. Why must you forever be playing at giving up some scrap of your flesh?” Like your father. The darkling scowl her words call up troubles her. “It is hardly a thing worthy of the first son of Asgard to aspire towards.”

“If I am to be a warrior, must I not have all...”

“You are to be a King,” is Frigga's sharp, knowing reply.

“But I do not understand,” Thor protests, just as his mother slips the smallest of his fingers back into its abused socket. “Ah. Mother, what is the difference?”

“This will not do,” she mutters, whether to her son or to her self she is unsure. “I will speak with your tutors tomorrow. You shall learn the whole of the Hávamál by rote if needs be. And if you are not diligent I shall have you learn it from Muninn's tutelage.” But I will speak with your father tonight.

Thor makes a low, unhappy noise and watches as his Mother erases all evidence of his task in the hólmganga. “I do not wish to be schooled by birds...by creatures pretending to be birds.”

He would rather be taught by wolves.

The dinner hour passes quietly, with only the Rímur of Helgi and Sigrún to stir up the dinner guests into bright, uncomplicated enjoyment. The dwarves, a kinsmet of brother-smiths and one poor, harassed accountant, seem to take great pleasure in the Rímur's soaring verses, and crafty, twisting allusions. Not an easy song for any to follow, never mind the peoples of Nidavellir.

Frigga applauds as is expected of her, drinks her mead-horn to its dregs, and rises to go chase her husband from whatever tree he has strung himself upon this day.

~ * ~

“Wife,” Odin smiles. “Did you take your fill of good-tidings in the dinning hall?”

The royal chambers are a shade's breath from dark, but there is enough light to see that her husband has retrieved her sword from her weaving-room. It stands proudly beside his, two suns with no moon between their light; Nothung and Gram.

“Our son did his utmost to see that I did not want for company.” Frigga replies, drifting towards the wide, bowed sweep of the bed; it does not escape her attention that the skald-knots trailing across the high-vaulted walls have re-arranged themselves tonight. Odin's hand. Has he caught some note of her discontent, even walking amongst the strange, far-ranging paths that he travels? “Was there some misstep within the hólmganga?” She would give him more of her distaste, but she understands how Terrible it is when one Aesir murders another. Gods should be above such petty outcomes.

“No,” Odin sighs, taking in the tall, unbending shadow of his wife. “Today was well done. Thor is growing more sure of himself with each passing cycle of our third sun.” Upon his wife's patient, lovely face he reads this: and therein lies the problem. “But Thor must be what he will be.”

Odin has collected one hundred and seventy two names by his last reckoning – all branch from the same first root, that root of war and victory and deception. Few speak of smaller things, of the things he gives to his wife.

Frigga raises one sharp, graceful eyebrow, and closes the distance between herself and her husband. It does not escape her attention that Odin has discarded the many interwoven layers of his formal garb; her eyes linger upon the strong, heavy line of his shoulders beneath his fine ivory tunic. A touch of her fingers against the antler crowned stags entwined upon his collar is all that Odin might need in place of words.

Odin slips strong hands round the hollow of his wife's back to part the gleaming seam of her gown; she favours this one, and he makes the effort to keep it whole. His reward is a breathless hitch of anticipation and the sight of his wife slipping out of her dress like a bright, subtle blade through water.

They are too familiar with one another to play over-much upon the pretences.

Odin lays his palms upon the planes of Frigga's thighs; he traces and glides along familiar flesh till he is between her legs and she is a breath ghosting against his ear, her long fingers coiled in the silver of his hair. A deft, press of his thumb against her clit and Frigga rocks into his hand; Odin can hear each little, sharp burst of air catching between her teeth. He chuckles, bending his neck to put his mouth upon his wife's warm, honey coloured skin, over the ungentle shivering of her pulse.

“Do not tease,” Frigga manages, before stealing any more of the All-Father's laughter with her tongue. Odin has never minded if she draws a little blood. Frigga breathes in, tasting the sweat gathering between them and the faint, oh so familiar scent of leather and that frisson of ozone that never quite leaves her husband's skin, all beneath her hands.

Frigga is right, as always. A few awkward shifts and Odin finds wife's hips straddled across the points of his hips, her strong hands digging into the blades of his shoulders. The world left to him by his one eye is curtained in the wild, sleek curls of his wife's sun-spun hair. Her smiling mouth a curved bow, and her breasts firm in his hands.

If the rhythm they collapse into is one of ease and the knowledge of ages spent together it is of little concern; Odin's teeth are curved like a wolf's against her tongue, and Frigga revels in it. Revels in the sounds that she pulls from her ungentle lord that bleed ever so close to the grunts of a wolf in all his red-snouted perfection.

After the lassitude as seeped into her bones enough to make her high-handed with her tongue, Frigga turns to the shape of her husband in their bed, intent on one thing.

“I know you husband,” she sighs, watching his one eye as a hawk watches a mouse. “I see enough of your plans that I would give you my voice afore you beguile any further.”

Odin does not offer a reply, but waits with the patience his wise Queen has earned.

“Heimdall has spoken to me of the shadow upon Jotunheim, and your birds. The Norns have gifted me my own son's thread.” She hangs her head, but only for the briefest moment. “And lo, husband, All-Father, I cannot read it half so well as would please me.”

Odin finds he is more than tired. It is that wretched crown again, the one that is weighted in his knowledge of being deprived. “What did you read of it, my Queen, my wife.”

“Nothing. A nest of tangled thread.”

Odin slips his hands into hers; it is cruel to hope the act will comfort her, and therefore stem her questioning. Frigga is master in her own sphere, just as Odin is in his.

“You wish to make that shadow an orphan.” Frigga offers up, eyes bright and knowing. “Heimdall is a power unto himself, and yet he is Blind? I know you, Borson, and you do not share your treasures well. Neither does your son.”

You think yourself robbed is what she wishes to say, but she would not dare to speak the King of Jotunheim's name in her own bed.

“Asgard does not share its power.” Odin retorts, a tendril of heat creeping into his voice, his one sky-blue eye turning sharp and ungentle. “We did not triumph over the Vanir by giving back to their King the hostages he gave us. We took Freyja and Freyr, we made them ours. They are no more Vanir than you or I.” There is a burst of shame, but it is easily cast away from him like nothing more than a burr. He has not the time for true regrets – Odin All-Father is enslaved by a far mightier beast than something so little as regret.

The throne of Asgard is a cruel mistress.

“No, our Goddess of Love and our God of green things are not Vanir any longer,” Frigga laments, thinning her mouth into a fine, keen blade. “but once they were, my Lord.”

Odin makes as if to protest, his neat white teeth gleaming in the gloaming darkness.

Frigga will have none of it.

“Do you truly think either has forgotten the home of their blood, the bright and gentle halls of their father Njörðr? The true Sea that cradles their planet?” She would have her husband and King see sense. None might buy peace through such means as Odin was surely set upon. Thor would not sacrifice his own happiness for the abiding peace of this realm, he would not be another royal scrap of flesh fed to the throne.

“Yes,” Odin replies with all the force of finality. “And look you here, Goddess Frigga, we would have no peace save by their sacrifice.”

Frigga finds she has no voice left to her that would serve as keenly as she has a need of. But there will be other nights. Other means. Other paths. She rises from her bed, leaving behind the shadow of Odin Borson to his thoughts and his tricks and his plans. But she does not leave him without one final word.

“In the House of King Laufey there is a garden...and a little starling.”

Odin turns from her, from the gentle echo of her steps against the cold, gleaming floors.

Some things you cannot keep, and so you must bind them, no matter how ungentle the chains.

Chapter Text

~ * ~

The green-ringed moon turns for the eleventh time, its scarred and pitted face gazing down upon a world still more silent than it should be.

The heart of Harvetrtjald is still a weak, limp thing in Loki's small hands; a bird with shorn wings, lying dead at his feet. The sol is not enough, and the runes are new, untested lances that do not cut half so deep as Loki would have them reach.

This silence – this brittle, atrophied carapace that once was a House crowned in the lingering Voices of every god-king stretching back unto the very first Titan – is wearing upon his father with an especial violence born of being each day taken farther and farther away from one's own memories.

Laufey plays at happiness, at peace, but it is a poorly fitting thing, and covers so little of his despair that Loki cannot sleep, cannot read, cannot even intone the songs of his ancestors each morning, each evening, without a creeping, shambling guilt which comes to nest between the little, cold bones in cage of his chest.

Even though they be only whispers, Loki can Hear; Laufey cannot.

It hurts. Oh how it hurts.

This ever growing divide leaves Loki feeling as if he is always neath that black tide, that burning roil of Ocean that swallows him as if he were no more than a scrap of flesh and near picked clean bones. No matter how near he stands to his father, no matter how he creeps into Laufey's lap to be consoled, there is what cannot be named sitting between them. A ghost on both their chests.

Chieftain Arngrìmr's missive had proved worth cost of the heart Loki had cut from Svartr's chest: enough to convince his father that his trust, both in Loki and in his magick, would not be misplaced. A great deal of blood has been spilled to buy the trust of King Laufey, even more to earn the trust of father Laufey. The success of his working in tjald Utgarð has all but sealed his place, immovable, as the greatest treasure in Laufey's crumbling House. But there are yet many more workings to accomplish afore he might be content with his high seat upon the stairs to the throne of Jotunheim.

That is why Laufey is waiting just beyond the towering, crudely carved doors that open up into this...place. This secret neath the First House of Jotunheim. Loki cannot imagine a worse sight than seeing his father kneel before the doors were shut, a terrible, unformed weight bending his neck. Loki knows that weight is for him, and that it is built of fear.

His father fears death will be the reward for this piece of magick. The price asked of Loki. Perhaps that is why no words were given to him afore he and Helblindi descended into the darkness; Laufey would not give voice to any thread that might lead to his son's death. After all, the Norns need little encouragement to weave upon the ill-spoken words of gods.

“Brother, please, is this wise?” Helblindi whispers; he raises his hands, and Loki drifts from his reach like a curl of smoke.

“Is that fear, brother? We are not made for fear. We have not that luxury.” Loki does not intend for his tongue to be such a fine, cutting edge, but he has a need of his brother. Always does he have a need of Helblindi. The thought of being deprived of his younger brother's familiar shadow is a terrible thing. Unwavering, unbending loyalty has gifted Helblindi enemies as thickly abundant as Loki's own. An consequence he should like to regret, but he has found that regret is a silly thing, a thing which ties a great many creatures tighter than any chains, but twice as hard to be shed of. He has no desire to be bound by regret.

Helblindi is a warrior prince in every manner that Loki is not; Loki is assured of his brother's prowess, loves him all the more for all the many differences between them, for surely it is better to have four hands with two wholly unique purposes than only one pair and one purpose. Surely.

In the early mornings, when he slips from his high tower to weave his own songs in the shattered heart of the great temple, with only Helblindi's long, fine shadow as his company, Loki has often thought of putting his knees upon the broken plinth of Vertljós to offer his own blood in thanks to First Father Ymir for this un-looked for gift. Loki is sure Helblindi will be every el as fierce a dýr as their sire. Every el a Son of Laufey. A mirror undistorted.

He does not remember the years afore Helblindi came unto the high halls of Harvetrtjald, but all his distant, childhood soft memories speak of one clear, simple understanding: in his own manner, Laufey had been proud. There was no shame in his younger brother's shape. Nothing more than an abiding, soft footed pride. Another son well crafted, another length of breathing flesh proof positive of the worth of Laufey's ancient House.

Helblindi frowns, stung. “My Prince, can you not see how we might call this...dangerous?” He cannot tear his gaze from the black, black heart of the cavernous chamber. It is very like gazing into nothing, into the very meaning of emptiness, all while knowing it once had a Voice. Helblindi is still waiting for that Voice; it creeps upon his skin, puts ungentle fingers against his spine.

Where is the Voice of Harvetrtjald?

Where are the tongues of his fore-fathers?

Where is the Ice, Winter, Jotunheim?

Where?

He is sick unto death of this silence.

“It matters not, the danger.” Loki replies, shrugging out of his heavy furs. The little noise echoes in a manner unlike their voices, and Loki finds his heart shivering as if he were nothing more than a warm thing pressed flat to the earth by the blood-eagle's shadow. “We must do this. Please, brother, we must try. I cannot bear to see how...”

Helblindi snarls, hides his shame by turning his face from the brightness of his elder brother's gaze.

“If thou art suffering, then so too is all of Jotunheim. I have no right to call myself Crown-Prince if I permit our people to endure in this world, always caught in the spaces between. This half-waking life, so poor in its remains that even does it embitter the memories of what we once were.”

“The Chieftain.” Helblindi sighs, awareness creeping upon his face like Eldingstjarna's first light. “You needed to be sure it was not just our House bound in these fetters.”

“Aye. You remember his face as clearly as I do. He Heard, Helblindi. There was no room for lies, or half truths for the sake of a Prince. Chieftain Arngrìmr wept. Openly. And Jotunheim took back her child.” The memory is a bright one, inlaid with all of Loki's overweening pride, the fever blush of his first, magnificent success.

“I remember. Did you have to choose that particular Chieftain, brother? Arngrìmr is one of father's.....”

Helblindi snorts, a dry burst of laughter that knocks against the echo of his footsteps in a maddening tumble of noise. “Will it always be thus brother? You racing ahead, and me left to chase your little shadow?”

“Perhaps,” Loki smiles, his sharp teeth flashing in the black, immovable shadows like a dýr's multitudinous grin. His brother's hand is twice the size of his own, but it is rough and familiar in his grip. “But the chase is nearly all the fun, is it not?”

“As you would have it,” Helblindi replies, following his prince deeper into the dark, shattered heart of Harvetrtjald.

*

They do not walk far; the floor whispers beneath the bare soles of Loki's feet: there is a shallow divot, worn away by great ages and the presence of innumerable others who once made journey here. Every King, every God, every Son. As if Ymir had reached down from the peak of the sky to press a finger into the crux of his father's House a tiny, immovable beacon. The needle point upon which the world once spun.

Helblindi hears the rasp of his brother's little blade, and he moves with all the instinct of a sea-snake whose tail has been treaded on. “What are you doing?” He bellows, fingers wrapping round his brother's tiny wrist; Loki's feet are dangling off the pitted floor, and there is an angry hissing in his ears. “I grow tired of watching you spill your blood.”

Loki makes a noise of poorly strangled rage, born of realizing he cannot even swing his little body with enough force to knock his younger brother to the ground. “Put me down! Helblindi!” Loki spares a moment to be rudely thankful that no one might see this shameful display of his own little reach. “For Ymir's sake, brother,” Loki spits. “Release me.”

“Nai.”

“Ou!”

“What is your intent?” Helblindi presses. A bruise is easier healed than a cut to the throat. This reeks of sacrifice, and if that is the Crown-Prince's plan...Helblindi will have none of it. He will offer his own throat first. “Are you come here to die? To gut yourself for the King and his House?”

“Nai!” Loki breathes, utterly thrown by what a picture he must have been presenting to his brother. “Oh, Helblindi, no. Never that.” Loki feels very near mortally wounded. Hurt.

When his feet touch the scarred floor again, Loki sags with relief, all his anger leeched by the bowed shape of his brother under all these shadows.

Helblindi sinks to his knees, proud shoulders collapsed and tongue thick in his mouth. He cannot bear to breath. This wretched thing tangled and sharp in his throat. This miserable terror.

“I fear nothing so greatly as you,” Helblindi confesses, even as his brother bends to rest his dark head upon his shoulders, arms thrown round his neck. “As losing you. Nothing.”

Loki will not belittle his brother's fear. He will take pride in it, for it comes with a keenly felt responsibility. To go so naked afore another being is the height of trust. He would rather die than abuse that trust. It has saved his life, will continue to save his life.

What sort of creature would he be if he denied that?

“Forgive me, dear brother. It was never my intent to have you think thusly. But you must understand...blood is the only way left to me, to us. All we have left is blood.” Loki speaks his words into the sharp curve of his brother's neck, and beneath his cheek he can feel the rigid fear being washed from Helblindi's bent frame. “But it is not just mine I need. It must be Our blood.”

Helblindi laughs, daring to squeeze his prince tight, if only for a moment.

“Just a cup,” Loki trills, “and a little cup at that.”

Releasing his brother, Helblindi stands and proffers his arm.

The cup is indeed small, more of a bowl by all the sight Helblindi's eyes afford him in this darkness. He does not complain at the sting, for Loki does not cut deeply. The bright, heavy scent of blood fills his mouth and Helblindi waits with an impatient tongue to hear what magick his brother will weave neath Harvetrtjald's broken spires and darkened halls.

“You must get beyond the fourth circle, brother.” Loki murmurs, mixing his blood and Helblindi's with the tip of one long finger. “They do not come for you. I fear what might be in their...hearts.” It is a silly thing to say, for it does not communicate what he intends it to, but he has no better words. These creatures, shades, that he is calling have nothing shaped like what might be a heart. None have had flesh, bones, hearts, breath, in so many thousands of years he very much doubts any save Fárbauti might remember these things.

There is Helblindi's particular noise of protest.

“Please, as you trust me, brother.”

Another moment's breath.

Brother...”

Loki does not breathe again till he cannot hear Helblindi's retreating footsteps.

Silence, absolute, silence; not the silence of still night, nor the quiet peace of the hours he spends in his little garden, nor the lassitude of the time he whiles away in books. All around him is a great emptiness shaped like the abiding peace of death. How very dull. How very frightening.

There is no need for words or gestures or even the slippery, cutting shapes of runes; blood is the gear that turns any machine, the key that opens any lock – that thing which is the fastest route to any point in the universe. Blood is in all the shapes of life, in all the expenditures of death, the undeniable constant, even if it is not blood, but Blood. With this in mind, Loki unceremoniously upends the little cup, spilling blood into the mouth of Ymir's needle point. His hands are shivering, and if there might be any light down here, his blade would be a fish in his grip, a quivering length of quicksilver.

It is like standing upon some alien shore, watching the tide rise up into waves.

It is like waiting for those waves to sweep him away.

Slowly, slowly they come creeping from the earth, from the air, from the emptiness.

Gods. Kings. Sons. Fathers.

He does not even have to call them all that loudly. Perhaps they were waiting.

Aye Laufeyson. We were waiting.

His father's fathers are the shadows of Titans. Great mountains of smoke and suggestion and shape. Things forgotten, lost, hidden by the unbridgeable vale of death. Terror and Form and nothing like what he thought they might be: faceless risings in the clinging dark. Loki would scream, had he the tongue to give the noise life.

No mouth in any Shape opens, but there is something come slipping into his mind, something that once might have been a Voice. If a mountain's roots possessed a tongue great enough to give its bones a voice, then it might sound as these Titans do.

It is not a Voice; it is a Multitude; it is all.

All.

But he must stand.

Child, we are broken from our House, from Jotunheim. We are less than bones. We would not be wakened to this agony once more, not for any little, passing reason. We would not be again alive to what was done to Us.

“O-Odin,” Loki wheezes. “Odin Ginnarr. That creature is to blame!”

Not just. Not by the Aesir alone.

“What? I do not understand!”

Let each have justice for every act, every choice.

Loki finds his skin pulled tight over his bones, teeth bare and sharp against his lips.

Laufey is our Son, as you are. But you must have a clearer gaze.

“Why?”

We would seek an End.

“An end to what?” Loki breathes, reaching for the little silver heart he has tied to his belt.

An End.

For the first time, in what seems like a great age to his small gathering of years, Loki does not understand. Perhaps if he makes his offer, they will gift him some scrap of knowledge. Why would Gods broken from their first forms seek an End? Did they not already have as good an end as any might find? What was to be ended?

The heart is cold in his hands, the runes dancing beneath his fingers, the motionless gears simply awaiting the forces that would give it life, give it power, give it voice. A perfect little machine, a perfect little engine to turn the bones of Titans.

Is that what you would offer We, Laufeyson?

Loki dips his head in agreement, raising high the little object. As if these gathered had eyes to see. “Pure,” he offers. “No memories bound to its flesh, no ghost in its chambers. Yours.”

It will suffice. Go.

“But!” Loki cries, his gaze trained on the headless mountain towering nearest his diminished gaze. He cannot bear to look upon Ymir. Nor Fárbauti. “I have not... there are things I would ask of thee!” There are things he would ask of one in particular.

You cannot give that We a Voice, child. Mimir is enslaved to another's Hall.

Go.

The heart rests in the needle point, its silver skin bright against the offered blood; Loki does not dare look back. Cannot look back.

*

When he reaches the fourth circle Loki finds his brother shivering, eyes blind to all around him, and curled upon the polished black stone as if he were lying neath the not-tree. Still as the deep, black tides of the Ocean. Far, far too still.

“Helblindi?” Loki croaks, sweeping down to push against his brother's frame. Helblindi's frame is heavier than Loki remembers, and it is very like slapping at rocks. “Open your eyes!” That is terror sitting so boldly on his tongue. What has he bought here?

There is a flash of white; then roaring. A cascade of brute noise, insensible, indistinguishable chaos that knocks him to the polished stones of the floor as if he is nothing more than a snapped lance of ice.

What is the unseen shape of Harvetrtjald raises up its head once more. Winter breathes, stretching across the flat, hallowed plains of Thrym, stretching across the Princes and the earth, and Jotunheim itself. True winter.

Loki howls, howls with joy.

“Oh,” Helblindi breathes. “Oh I had forgot so much.”

*

Time passes in fits and starts, till Helblindi is again himself enough to push open the doors and they can both stumble up into whatever light remains of the day, if any at all. Neither of the brothers speak; Laufey waits beyond these doors. If this working of Loki's has brought children to their knees, what has it done to the King, to the greatest of all Jotunheim's children?

Loki cannot keep a burst of crude laughter from his lips, though it is just sharp enough to ring like a note of distress. The light that spills through the opening doors nearly strikes them blind for the second time: it has been one full rising of the Eldingstjarna, they have spent one full day under the soaring towers of Harvetrtjald. Yet, even under all the hard light, their stricken eyes do not fail to see their father, the King, stretched upon the ground like some untidy mound of bones.

“Father!” Loki shrieks, a bird plummeting to its death. He scrapes his knees in his haste, but it is worth it to be greeted by the sight of father's knowing red eyes beneath thin, sickle curved lids. To his unending shame, Loki bursts into tears, laying himself across his father's broad chest. A breath, he needs to hear a breath.

“A good price, my son?” Laufey croaks. He raises an arm, though it feels as if it weighs immeasurably more than it should, and settles his palm across his little Prince's back. Loki has more than earned this comfort.

“None,” Loki sobs, though he knows not why he is crying. “No price.”

Laufey would like to say there is no such thing, but he is too consumed by Jotunheim, and his need to feel out the shape of his other son. He cannot see Helblindi.

“Father?”

Laufey's hand finds the sharp crown of Helblindi's knee; he rests his hand there, feeling the familiar lines and whorls of his second son, and is content to speak nothing.

They all of them rest there, quiet, for a long, long while.

Tomorrow, they will build Harvetrtjald anew.

Chapter Text

Laufey does not beg of himself some few risings of the day-star to become again familiar with being whole. He does not ask his sons to abide in patient silence while he pulls the thorns from his mind and the fractures from his memories.

No.

Harvetrtjald is alive, and there is nothing shaped like patience in Laufey.

Not one moment would he spend in idle wondering; he would build.

The first attempt he makes is crude and strange, too much of the gnawing things hiding in his thoughts; his second is less twisted, but no more pleasing than the first. When the King of Jotunheim buries his heavy hands in the bones of his own House, he drags up towers that pierce the sky like the fine, long daggers he gives to his eldest son; Laufey carves out soaring halls and little, oddly-shaped chambers, passage ways that twist and bite back upon one another like sea-snakes mating in the silt of the Ocean. Laufey drags up the shapes of his own heart. The unspeakable shapes and thoughts he would ne'er dare give breath to.

It is not an image he finds pleasant to behold. He had not thought that wicked-tongued Aesir could have wrought so much damage, he had not thought he had permitted that quicksilver liar such power over himself. Tis best to put the weight of that blame upon his years stumbling round his own Kingdom blind and deaf, torn from all that he should never have ceased to be.

Easier than to say he has simply forgotten. But Loki, his little Prince, is watching with eyes growing ever sharper, ever clearer.

Laufey tears down a high spire, the cracking of the ice ringing in his ears: a familiar, strangely bitter music. Palms flat to the earth, to the living ice neath Harvetrtjald's floors, Laufey sinks once more, pulling away from his first form as easily as he might glean blackeel meat from its little bones. The Voice is unchanged, but...

King Laufey is not.

He smashes down the towers, snaps the slender bridges between the new and the old growing within the heart of his ancestral House, and wonders at himself, that he cannot leave this bitterness behind him like so much of his long shadow.

*

The late hour, caught between the fourth and sixth el of the day-star's descent, finds the sons of Laufey gathered under the growing shade of the not-garden's tall trees. They are attempting to eat, but, there is still too much of the din of re-awakening for either to think of something so menial as food.

A drop of green colour splashes against Loki's shoulder, from the oak tree he has unsuccessfully attempted to imitate, and he wipes away the little trails, rubbing the colour between his long fingertips. He sighs, angry that even in his act of restoration, he cannot keep something so simple as green on the leaves of his trees. Always does every thing fall back into the Ice.

“Brother,” Helblindi finds his tongue first, though a similar thread has been weaving between their silence since the day-star's earliest turning, when father had raised up that first new tower, only to tear it down again. “I will confess I never expected to be even half what we once were again, but now that we are restored." There is a stone upon his tongue, suddenly. "Why does it not feel...” His fingers itch to pluck one of the little flowers curling nearest his elbow, but that would incense the Prince; Helblindi has learned that Loki does not like having his experiments touched. “The King is...”

Loki has not failed to notice his father's agitation, his anger. He has eyes, as does Helblindi.

“Father is...” Loki searches, rolling a chip of pink salt between his tongue and his sharp teeth. “Overwrought.”

Helblindi snorts, picking at the remains of his food. He does not know quite what to speak to his Prince just yet; it disturbs him greatly that father seems so dissatisfied, but he does not think speaking of his own discomfort will be of any true aid. The King could not possibly desire to hear that his second son could not sleep for all that the Voice pushes into his mind.

Helblindi had not been lying when he had spoken those words to his brother. He truly had forgot so much.

Perhaps so had Laufey.

“We are all overwrought,” Helblindi offers up. “I think it is a hard thing to forget our Silence.”

“Aye,” Loki replies, his mouth shaped by gentle mourning. “Too long reduced.”

“Surely you have a plan, brother.” Helblindi murmurs, flicking his own portion of salt towards Loki. He does not want to be warm tonight; perhaps the cold will soothe him.

“I would, if I could understand what it is that father is so bent on erasing from Harvetrtjald. I do not know all his heart, Helblindi.” He is betrayed by the nervous shivering of his fingers, he cannot keep still, keep quiet. Even the little open-mouthed dýr he is carving into the underside of his black skinned bowl is crudely shaped. A poor working of distracted hands.

At this Helblindi laughs, tipping his head back to give his brother his throat. “I am not asking you to breathe as father does, brother mine. Do you have a plan? Some shape that would please him enough to settle what it is that galls him so. Why can we not build together?”

The blade in Loki's small hand ceases its quiet scraping.

“Together?”

“Yes. A new tjald, for a new House.”

Loki chuckles, and the cracking of the salt crystal between his teeth is satisfying.

A plan indeed.

*

When one rises from a long, long sleep, there is always a moment of utter dislocation, as if a bone has been slipped from its socket; it takes a moment of bright pain to bring back the pieces that have been dislodged from one's body.

Laufey has been wandering in this strange, newly wakened state for nigh on five risings of the Eldginstjarna. Still he cannot quiet force those fragments of himself back into the familiar curvature of his body: everything is over-bright, sharp, loud.

He has not slept, for all the Voices that have come rushing back to cling to his knees; all those multitudes who come fill his head with that particular rasping belonging only to the music of his ancestors. The Kings and Princes of Jotunheim, long dead but never buried, never silent.

The very worst of the wounds he took by the hands of Odin Ginnarr. That prideful Aesir with his quicksilver face that wears a dozen names in the blink of an eye, a hundred smiles, and a thousand unknowable voices. Ginnarr and Grimnir and Spear-Breaker, Hangadróttinn and Viðurr.

Warlord and Liar and Fool; and yet the only creature worthy of Laufey's own sword.

An impossible thing.

Incomprehensible.

Laufey slips from his high throne to sit upon the smooth, knife-bright steps, head bowed and fingers curling round the rough rings of his horns. This should be joyous; he should be joyous. But he is not. He should be revelling in the great working of his beloved prince. But he is not.

The King in him fears what this will bring, and who's Gaze it will draw.

The father in him is utterly stricken; terrified.

Of course he shows none of this to his sons, not even to Loki. The shame would be too great, too choking to bear; Laufey will keep his wars to himself, for the last one nearly cost him the entirety of his planet, and the very breath of his people. Worse, it was not he that brought his people out of the silence and the darkness, it was his son...though perhaps by that logic he has every right to be an equal in this victory. After all, Loki is the child of his body, the prize for all that time and pain, and it was his choice that day to keep that prize. Had he chosen differently...

Laufey has to bite his tongue to pieces to keep the grief of that unborn thought away.

What a fool he would have been to so disregard all that his tiny infant might become, has become. His pride would have bought an ever-lasting surrender for Jotunheim, with no hope for a better day.

How long it is that he pulls at the thread of his own dissatisfaction, his own tangled musing, Laufey is unsure, but it is enough time for his thoughts to drag black silt through his heart. Enough to miss the subtle warping of the silence within the throne-room into something not at all bred of an evening's particular quiet.

It is not till Laufey raises his head that he sees what has come creeping into his throne-room, unto the high seat of Winter.

Fárbauti is a long, high horned shadow, and a mouth full of white, gleaming teeth.

“Third Son, what have you brought into my House?”

Laufey regards the shape of his sire, and for a moment he cannot find his own teeth.

This shade is one Voice he had not wished returned to him.

“You are dead, and this is not your House. It is mine.”

Fárbauti laughs, a vicious thing that bites at Laufey with all the familiar ease of thirteen thousand years under the dead King's broad thumb.

“The House of Laufey!” The shade chuckles again. “What arrogance, third son. You are King by your own clever hand, not by my design.”

“And you should be grateful Death took you afore I cut that ugly throat of yours.” Laufey spits, rising up from the steps of his throne to tower above the shape that is the King who gave him birth.

“And lo, look what you have done,” Fárbauti replies, raising high his arms, though the wind snatches and pulls them apart like so much smoke. “No King has ever given so much to an Aesir as you have, none have lost such a War as you have!”

What was, and still is, Fárbauti drifts on silent feet to orbit round his third son like the bones of the dead comets that ring round Eldingstjarna. He had forgot what were the particular delights of having a tongue, a Voice. He had forgot how his clever, vicious third born child angered him so. “That creature you have the spite to call your Crown-Prince... it is an insult to me, an unbearable insult. I would have left it to die, I would have broken its little skull on the nearest mound of ice. As should you have done.”

“Art thou Blind?” Laufey roars, his blade-arm thick with ice. “Has Death taken more than your flesh and bones?” It dawns upon him, with all the speed of a knife between two ribs: Laufey has never felt aught for his sire. He does not like his sire. Only Death brought something for Laufey to feel when thinking upon his father, and that was a giddy satisfaction at the old dýr's stopped breath, that morn he had discovered Fárbauti stretched out and thread cut by the Norns and their shears.

Laufey laughs, bares his teeth.

“Look round you, dead thing. Look.” He raises high his arms, and oh how satisfying it is to see the long shadow of his blade-arm pierce his father's insubstantial form.

Fárbauti snarls; Death has bought him much, but always there is a price to pay for its gifts. What might be called his physical sight is a poor thing indeed.

“Harvetrtjald is alive to your Voice by the strength of my child, that same child you would have given over to the Dýr of the Undertide. Had I been any more your get, I would have forever condemned our people to the fetters Loki has cast off.” Oh how he longs for more than the mere shade of what was once his sire; oh how he longs to spill blood, to bury his face in Fárbauti's red guts. “You are a fool, even in death you are a fool.” Laufey hisses, curses.

“Think you thus?” Fárbauti smiles, and the sight is a hideous thing, with no lips to gentle the rows of his sharp teeth. “But you forget, third son, that Death has gifted me with a wide Gaze. I see as you do not.”

“What,” Laufey mocks, scraping the long, fine blade of his arm round the gleaming floor, “could you possibly see from that black cairn of yours, shade?”

“What memory remains to thee of the fourth cycle, ninth cycle, the eleventh, the seventeenth?” Fárbauti replies, drawing himself up to tower above his air and vapour son, his son of many faces and few words. His son of hidden things and secrets kept well guarded.

All the violence of his anger flees from Laufey, torn away by a fell wind. “Little. So very little. It never differs, only my Death is the slippery, changeable thing.”

Fárbauti raises his head, and though he lacks eyes, lacks purchase in this world, he makes certain that his son is struck by the great crown of his horns. He makes certain Laufey remembers who ruled Jotunheim for thirteen thousand years.

“I rarely die in my bed. Old age is not my friend in any life.” The words are stinging upon his tongue, and though he would not speak them, they have a mind of their own; his mouth betrays his heart with effortless cruelty. “The best are earned in battle, with my own blade in my hand and the taste of another's blood in my throat. Many are by Gungnir,” Laufey laughs, though it is not at all laughter. “Most are.”

“Then you should know this one is a shape unknown to me,” Fárbauti growls; beneath his clawed hands he cannot feel the cold, sharp perfection of his throne, but the memory is enough. It galls that his third son is who keeps it now. “And it is your Loki,” he spits out the name as if it were some bitter poison, “that muddies the waters. What and whom shifts the path.”

Laufey finds his tongue dead in his mouth; a fist has gripped the sinews of his heart and he cannot breathe.

“Ofttimes he is the one who brings you your death, or you his. In many he is not your son, but a trinket stolen from our high temple by the whims of Odin Thief, Odin Bölverkr. Some see him kept a pink skinned Aesir, raised unknowingly to be a terror and a nightmare and a thing spoken of in hushed voices. A construct of chaos and not one thing greater than that.”

“Why?” Is Laufey's bitter, naked question. Why would his sire, this hateful creature, reveal so much?

“There is great danger in uncertainty.” Fárbauti replies. “For it is not truly a new path, only different.”

“You come here to my hall to scold me for clouding your Sight?” Laufey bellows, rage sparking hotly beneath his cold skin. His teeth are bright points of violence against his tongue. “From all your black calumny I hear nothing more than the whispers of a thing better dead than alive!” His feet have carried him away from the shade of his father, and in his hands is a useless, impotent need to break bones and shatter swords. “You would dare belittle me for choosing differently? By my hand do we have a new road to walk, by my son's hand!”

“No!” Fárbauti howls, raising up one cruel finger to accuse, to deride. “It is not a new path, there is no such thing as new in this universe, in any universe. Only different. We are Blind to this path and you, you have sacrificed what little control We have clawed unto Ourselves.”

“I do not care. I will hang next to Odin upon the branches of Yggdrasil afore I care for the words of a dead King and a fool, some earth bound shade born of my son's offered blood.”

“Blasphemy, third son.” The shade snaps, teeth bright and always unsheathed.

“Happily,” Laufey grins.

There is a long two els between shade King and living King; Fárbauti regards Laufey and does not understand how he did not see this mighty snake coiling round his House till all his elder sons were dead by that snake's hand. “Do not think I have forgotten what you did in your wanderings, Laufey. And with whom. Think you I knew nothing of Thiazivarði and the company you kept? You may be King in this realm, but thou wilt never cease to be my get.”

“Out,” Laufey intones with measured force. “Get thee away ghost, shade-King, Blind-One.”

“Are you not eager to have your reward for your daring, King Laufey?” Fárbauti mocks with false kindness.

“It matters not. I know what it shall be.”

“Do you now?” The shade-King laughs, falling away into the clinging darkness like so much smoke and black remembrances. “Tis a poor reward.” Fárbauti's parting word is no more than a suggestion upon unseen winds, something left to creep into Laufey's heart.

When the silence of night slips back into the throne-room, Laufey dares to breathe again, though it is a miserable, half dead thing in his lungs.

He knows what will be his reward – and it shall be pain: that Love, which he so cuts himself upon.

Pain is the only reward he might have. But at least it is a pain of his own choosing.

*

Harvetrtjald is quiet and dark as ever, save for the baleful winter light seeping from the few little sols he has moored within the soaring bones of his father's palace that waken at his passing. Loki turns his face from their brightness and creeps through the halls of his ancestors, quieter by far than any shadow.

As he passes the titan doors, there comes creeping softly, softly into his ears a sound. He stills, wrestling with a bolt of fear that threatens to send him back whence he came. There should be only silence in his father's throne-room. Quieter than his own breath, Loki steals up to the slivered light and peers through the meagre gap.

There is a shadow ghosting round his father like all the bones of those dead comets ring round the Eldingstjarna. A Voice like the hiss of a sea-snake, like the tongues of smoke and flame that rise up from the high tower of a funeral pyre, yet with all the depth of a mountain's roots.

A Voice built of horrors, and the unkind hand of Death.

The shade creature slips away afore Loki can hear more than the remains of its words, but he sees the ruin writ upon his father's face shining brighter than any sol he has ever crafted. He would look away, if only to spare himself the shame of having intruded upon so much lying so nakedly across his King's proud frame.

But he did not come to his father to steal his secrets under cover of darkness.

Loki rustles the sheaves of parchment he has clutched in his hands. Pointedly and loudly.

Laufey is pushing open the titan doors just in time to watch his little son pick up an errant curl of parchment from the shining floors; it looks as if Loki has dashed from his own chambers in his haste, and that is the only reason Laufey does not chide him for walking the halls of Harvetrtjald without his brother's blade at his side.

“Child, what are you doing at this late hour?” Laufey sighs; he finds he must not look at Loki directly for fear of what still lies so near the surface, what he has not yet locked away from his son's keen eyes.

“I brought you something, father. A...gift...in a manner of speaking.” He clutches the parchment to his chest and waits to be invited unto the high throne of Winter.

“Have you now?” Laufey chuckles, reaching down to take Loki into his arms. “I would be glad of any gift from thee.”

Three els to the foremost stairs winding up to the crown of his throne, and a hundred score steps to climb, Laufey walks with his dark-haired, red eyed little mage till they are both seated and quiet again. He spares a moment to tuck an errant yellow sapphire back into the constellation Helblindi has woven into Loki's hair afore motioning to his son to reveal what is in the bundle he has bound in his lap.

Loki sucks in a sharp breath and unrolls the first of his parchment.

A thing of brightness and beauty and sharp, cutting edges unfurls itself before Laufey's eyes. “What is this, my Prince? I see your hand in these, and your brother's.” This is something new, something proud of its violence and its long shadow. A shape aware of its own perfection.

“A new tjald,” Loki offers up, fighting with the instinct to turn his gaze up towards his father's face; he has seen, has stolen, too much from Laufey tonight, enough to kindle in Loki an understanding.

Under a certain light, it is often best to leave a King to his own secrets.

“This is Harvetrtjald? Our House as you see it, as you would have it?” Laufey breathes, caught up in the lines and planes of this inky drawing, reading every sharp, fractal edge his son's desires and designs.

“Yes.” Loki replies with all the confidence he can muster, which is not inconsiderable.

“A new tjald, for a new House.”

Laufey roars with laughter, with delight, and finds he must blink away the salt gathering in the corners of his vision.

“As you will, my treasure. As you will.”

~ * ~

One half a turning of the green-ringed moon finds the royal House of Laufey sheared of all its elder bones – reduced to a clean, bright skeleton. The shadow of Harvetrtjald is a strange thing, now no longer that crooked fang which once marred the boundless curve of Jotunheim's horizon.

Stripped bare, torn down, smashed by its own children.

Ready.

Laufey stands in the crux of his House, with the shapes of his three sons ringing round him like unbroken Erms, and peels away what is his self to fall beneath the munificent, enfolding Voice of Jotunheim. An unbroken chain, a welcome thread, a thing so sorely missed and yet more painful than he dared to remember. All that he is, all that he ever shall be, all that he ever need be.

Jotun,
Son,
Father,
King,
God,
alive.

Loki parts the shifting morass within Laufey's mind to plant in his father's grasp the image of their new tjald, their new House. Laufey invites him in, utterly certain that he has built walls more than strong enough to keep from Loki what he does not wish his Prince to witness. Each of his sons is an impossibly familiar, yet entirely alien, shape in this place, in this space between the worlds belonging neither to death nor to life nor to the ordered universe in which they spin in their untidy orbits.

Laufey breathes in, and it feels as if he is drawing in the long dead ghosts of every star that has hung above Jotunheim, taking unto himself all the forgotten things of his world in exchange for breathing out the new.

The earth sighs and groans beneath them, awake to the designs and desires of its King.

Laufey tips his head back, bares his throat and flings up his arms; his sons echo like bright mirrors.

First are the towers, the spires, the long, thin stems of Harvetrtjald's new crown. One for each God-King who has broken their first form, one for each ghost that will never leave these soaring ancestral halls. Even one for poor, enslaved Mimir. One in his memory. Towers to pierce the sky and mark the land; towers to remind and strike terror and stop breath; spires to recall unto any who might look upon the First House of Jotunheim of its power and strength.

Between each tower Loki strings a web of bridges thinner than the strings that ties his yellow sapphires into his hair but strong enough to bear the weight of hundred fold generations more. Býleistr carves out great, great windows that pull the breath of the wind into their mouths to sing through the halls Helblindi is shaping to flow like rivers and twist like snakes.

Next come the high balconies curved like sickle blades against the gleaming hide of Harvetrtjald, no boundaries, no borders; nothing but all of Jotunheim sprawling out before any who would stand upon its curvature. Flat, high new moons. Laufey shapes these; he would have back his unchallenged Gaze, stretching eight thousand els in any direction he might choose to turn unto. He would see the black coils of of the Ocean ensorcelling Thrym; the roots of the Thunder Mountains; the weak and foggy line of Þrymheimr; the distant, foreign shores of Járnviðr.

Laufey would be King of his Land once more.

The House of Laufey sways in the crux of Harvetrtjald for a full descent of the Eldingstjarna, till they are weak and drained and stretched too thin. When their working is complete none have the strength to give words to their success; it is the brightly gleaming triumph each holds in the shape of their mouth which speaks for them instead.

Perversely, it is the four remaining Naŕþengill who first dare to return to the newborn halls of their King; the Naŕþengill who prostrate themselves afore their little wolf brindled Prince and his brothers. Loki is not above understanding that it might be fear which motivates each ancient corpse-king, fear that bends their knees. As if what he did to the other nine was not enough to make these beasts here gathered peaceable. It matters not.

He has made Harvetrtjald a place without shadows, where no lies may grow like thick snakes beneath its labyrinthine floors; moreover, the only shades that will ever touch upon these floors will be the shades of his father's fathers. Only the truth, no matter how ugly or unlooked for.

Loki has made the black and gleaming planes of his father's palace into mirrors, into pools of reflection that speak only the truth of any who stand upon its surface. Lie to the King and your own reflection shall betray you; hide a blade within your hand and the blade shall shine brighter than the day-star; keep a snake in your breast, or a clot of anger, of dissatisfaction, of regicide, and your tongue will spill your secrets upon the first of the stairs unto the high throne of Winter.

None might dare challenge the Crown-Prince of Jotunheim ever again. Not when he has eyes that are not eyes, and hands that are not hands, but shapes and dreams and suggestions that walk beneath the feet of all those Jotun how come to lay themselves afore his father's power. After all, as Helblindi spoke to him those six green-ringed moon's ago: dead is dead, no matter the weapon used.

*

Eldingstjarna rises and falls in its unchallenged orbit for three days before Laufey has strength enough to truly admire what he and his sons have pulled from the air and the ice and earth; Harvetrtjald is a thing of magnificence and violence, of clever paths and open truth masquerading as deception. A labyrinth and a machine for his sons to lose themselves in, to gather their powers and test their strength.

Twice has Laufey caught Helblindi racing through the halls with an over-bright grin upon his face as if he were still that lean, arrow slender child who laughed like a wolf-pup on the heels of his elder brother. They chase each other now, but it is only half a game, and to see them play at the innocence of childhood strikes an unhappy, discordant tone in his mind. Strange, for he looked away only a moment, not even the space of a little breath, and now what he sees does not marry to what he remembers. There are so few years left in which Laufey might call his sons children with any manner of honesty.

Laufey knows just how many faces of the green-ringed moon he will see before the day comes that Helblindi will earn his scars, and then his face will truly be the mirror of his father's own image. He knows how many moons will see Loki's horns begin to grow, though it is long over due; he is sure the day will come when his son has a fine, sharp crown all his own that touches not upon the one Laufey will one day place upon his head.

He struggles as best he might not to dwell amongst the sharp blades of his father's prophesying.

Time is a God unto itself, and the only shape in any universe that might cast so long shadow over even the greatest of entities, the most high of gods. Laufey is no exception to this principle.

Thusly is he privately and profoundly grateful for the many yet unfinished workings that he and his sons must attend upon. Harvetrtjald might be whole and gleaming once more, but there are nearly three hundred and forty six tjalds who still wallow in silence and darkness, still deaf to the voices of their old one and blind to the tongue of Jotunheim.

Arngrìmr had been frank and unsparing in his missive, and so Laufey knew what road he must take to see this corrected as best as was within his not inconsiderable power.

First must be the tjalds strung along the western coast of Thrym; Laufey has spent four turnings of the green-ringed moon wandering blind and in fetters throughout the dead halls of his palace, all the while incapable of addressing the growing desperation of his people. Food is a resource best described as adequate even in years of what might be called bounty, and that had often reseted on nothing more fickle than good fortune.

Now it is starvation and depredation.

Rusk is struggling to keep open the trade routes for their goods – sea-greens, salt and black basalt stone – against those clans who are too few and too fierce to be gentled by the breed of terror that Laufey holds in his grip; Íþrótt, Hvítna and Geuð, as well as a half-score other tjalds cannot fish the necessary quantities of whitefish, blackeel and sea-snake when those who were spared the bloodletting of the war with Asgard are left with no defences against all that does lurk beneath the Undertide, for no Jotun loves the Ocean, when the Ocean does not love Laufey's people in return. After all, it is hard to keep the beasts away when the only weapon one has ever possessed is unreachable; without the Vertljós the lesser Jotun cannot call upon their blades half so well as they had been wont to do.

As if to add insult to injury, iron is a rare thing in Jotunheim – along with all the other finer metals – thusly they have little material that might be given over to make fine, useless weapons for a people who crafted weapons upon their own limbs. Only the Royal House, Utgarð and þrymheimr have the means to keep forgers and workshops for such uncomfortable, dangerous work.

So it must be the hard road, the road that costs.

Laufey stares down at the long, long map unfurled upon the plinth he has raised from the floor of his private chamber, soft as old, bleached bones and yet strangely yielding beneath his fingers, and attempts to dole out his Crown-Prince's strength like so much dearly bought silver.

How far can his beloved son reach? How deep do the roots of that magick, that force which makes Loki all and nothing of what he is, run? Most of all, will he be brought low if he seeks out these roots? What will be the cost? For Laufey knows there is nothing given in this universe without a price, without a sacrifice made in return. His wanderings in Thiazivarði taught him that principle, and yet so much more.

What the King of Jotunheim is willing to sacrifice atop the altar of fulfilment in pursuit of his own ends has diminished, even as his Gaze has once more widened unto its unchallenged height. No Blood of his own will stain an altar ever again. And with no coin to barter with, what will the universe give him in return?

After all, Loki has coin enough for only the first eight.

In his heart, his King's heart, Laufey knows who shall give over the balance.

*

“Father has been planning,” Loki sighs, breaking off the ears of his little fox to try at them again. Six green-ringed moons and still he cannot find that right shape, that particular sharpness that will trick the eye into thinking, if for only a moment, that there is a true fox in the not-garden of Harvetrtjald, rather than a not-fox. “This is the seventh time I have gone to the great archives to find the bindings on the map scrolls tied incorrectly. He has taken out the maps of Thrym, the western coastal tjalds, even of Járnviðr.”

“It has been a full turning of the green-ringed moon, Loki!” Helblindi chuckles, from his indolent sprawl across Býleistr's shoulders. “Father is bored! I am bored!”

Býleistr has the sense not to point out that Helblindi is very nearly always bored. There are not many left in Harvetrtjald who would actively seek out to match their blade against his, and Naŕþengill Einarr is kept away seeing a child to term, so there is no one to fight and scrape with. Helblindi never lets go of what lies between himself and Loki enough to make sparring with his elder brother truly useful, and so Býleistr will speak to Helblindi after their Prince takes his leave of them, when he either solves his dissatisfaction with the fox, or retreats to his books to make a better try of it another day.

Loki snorts, all too aware of the truth in his brother's words. The King of Jotunheim is roaming like some caged beast in a too small pen, but each moment that Loki thinks is the right moment to speak something of this to his father he finds...silence...of all things upon his tongue. Father knows that Loki is watching, and he knows that Loki is aware of this fact. And so here is Loki, idling away his days in his ever growing not-garden, all too aware that there is something great stirring in his father's mind, but with no blade fine enough to pry what that might be from his father's grasp. Yet, in all truth, Loki does not truly wish to know what it is that might stay the hand of his King.

It cannot be anything good.

“If you are bored, brother, then let us go make our own amusement,” Loki calls, leaving the fox with half an ear and in a sorry looking state. “There is a book I wish to read, but it is not mine to take.”

Helblindi slides from Býleistr's shoulders, a grin burning brightly upon his un-scarred face. “And who's tome are we to steal, my Prince? You would not bother, lest there was some mischief to be had in the stealing.”

“Angrboða.”

“The Naŕþengill who plays at being a mage? One who has always been loyal to the House of Laufey?”

“Aye,” Loki crows, already at the edge of his not-garden, with one foot through the window which is the only way in or out of his masterpiece of waking dreams and little, impossible shapes that he will never see with his own eyes. “That one, brother.”

Helblindi tips back his head and roars with laughter, till Býleistr knocks one great claw against his back and he goes sprawling to the black earth in a heap of ungainly limbs.

Do not encourage our Prince, sighs the mountain, and Loki scatters like brittle leaves in a wicked wind, his sharp laughter an ungentle echo against the gleaming, reaching branches of his not-tree.

Helblindi gives chase: an arrow straight and fine and sure.

*

The King of Jotunheim has found his Crown-Prince stretched beneath the false shade of a towering shape playing at being a real tree; Laufey would not say that Loki is hiding but it is not out of the realm of possibility. Loki gazes up at his father, red eyes knowing and unapologetic and yet honest enough to stir a familiar humour in Laufey.

“Your hand,” Laufey sighs, keeping the mirth from his hard voice. He spares a moment to be proud that Loki does not flinch, nor shy away, but shows his father the flat of his little palm without hesitation. Laufey returns the shards of Loki's skald emerald into his son's outstretched hand, and disregards the chagrin that Loki is also only mimicking, and poorly at that.

“If you desire something, Loki, simply take it.” There is a sliver of laughter sitting on his tongue as he thinks of his little son creeping through Angrboða's chambers wearing a cloak of jealous green vapour to hide his shape, and his hapless younger brother pacing at the cavernous mouth of the door. “You need not steal. Most especially not from one who would have given you what you sought without complaint.”

“But there is no challenge in that!” Loki replies, though he must bite his tongue.

Without much thought as to what it means for the dignity of a King, Laufey folds his long legs beneath him to lean against the towering not-tree; he remembers what leaves are meant to be shaped like, and though Loki has made a valiant effort to re-create what he has never seen, the effect is jarring to his own eyes. A distorted mirror so to speak. It would be most unwise to take his Crown-Prince to Járnviðr.

“Then you should test yourself at greater things,” Laufey replies. “Not little tricks and jokes done under the cover of your own unmatched skill, my son. A true challenge is grasping at something you had thought far, far beyond your reach.”

“By that logic, father, I have reached for much already.”

“I will not deny it,” and it is both Laufey father and King who makes the reply. “But, my Treasure, there is always something greater to reach for.” Laufey finds that humour bright upon his tongue again. “There is a boundless universe beyond our Kingdom, and thou art young, and new.” With eyes cast up into the twisting branches of the not-tree, Laufey spares a moment to idle wondering. Three turnings of the green-ringed moon will see much changed, much returned. All by Loki's hand, and his.

“You do not like the leaves,” Loki interrupts, his little, bright blue hand resting against his father's thigh. “They are wrong.”

Laufey opens his mouth to protest, canines sharp against his tongue, and thinks better of it. “Child, you can hardly fault yourself for what you have never seen.” Laufey gives thanks to his ancestors that he had not mentioned the fox, nor the stag. Those are Loki's favourites.

“That hardly matters,” is Loki's sour reply. “I would be better.” He knows how sharp is his tongue, and how sharp are his little fingers.

“As you will,” Laufey murmurs, watching as Loki clambers up, up into the branches of the misshapen tree to await the rarity of seeing his father call up the Ice. Harvetrtjald has so far been one of only three workings Laufey has ever made which were not in some manner destructive, or bent towards the needs of War. He does not make things in the Ice for the sheer joy of it; for too long has his own life been bent towards purpose, use, and nothing of his own pleasure. Not since....

Not in a long, long collection of ages, years, forms.

Perhaps he will learn differently now, in this age.

“What are their colours?” Loki calls, red eyes bright and wide and eager. “Real colours, and shapes. Do they whistle as these here do, or are they silent in the wind. And what of my fox?” he barks, teeth bared between smiling lips.

“This is an ash tree, yes?”

Loki nods, reaching forward to pluck a leaf from its twig; the All-Father's eye knocks against his chest and Loki watches his father smother the urge to jerk to the collar of wolf's fletching he wears up over its sightless gaze.

Odin's sky-blue eye wrapped within Fafnir's claws unsettles the King of Jotunheim as much as it pleases him, most especially because it is kept round his son's little neck.

Laufey twists off a stem of ice, more brittle and fragile than any ice he has ever touched, and holds it aloft for his Prince to see. “The trees of Midgard are different than these here by wide fractions. First, there should be seven leaves to each stem, each with its own joint, shaped more like spear heads than coins. I cannot speak for its colours, green is a thing that must be seen, and those emeralds you keep are only one shade in a hundred or more.” It does not take much of his power to coax the thin little sheaves of ice held between his fingers into a better form.

Laufey pulls and shapes and beguiles till between he and his son they have what might be called an ash tree between them. Loki's keen, far seeing eyes never leave the sight of his father's fingertips within the Ice. The tree's shade is deeper than before, and it casts the day-star's light round the black earth like silver coins thrown wide.

Loki climbs down from the arms of the tree, the magick resting beneath his skin itching to breathe any and every shade of green, brown, red – for something his father calls Autumn – upon the towering frame of the ash tree. But it will only crack and melt away, and there are other creatures in his not-garden that he would see made better. The little fox, and the stag that plays at being proud, and the tiny birds he has hidden amongst the branches of the hawthorne bush. He would know all of these shapes better, hear from his father what is the truth of them, rather than the imitations he has seen only within the pages of dry, tired old books, some dyed red in the evidence of their providence.

Spoils.

His father's spoils.

*

The Eldingstjarna has given up eight of its twelve portions to the horizon, and Laufey is rightly tired; Loki is insatiable in his curiosity, and he cannot mimic the voice of the fox, no matter how Loki complains that he wishes to hear it – the higher tones are beyond his internal scale – but Laufey helps to correct the ears, which are too round, and the face, which is not quite sharp enough, and the tail, which is not slender enough to be a recollection of those particular creatures he keeps in his memories.

They shape three more stags, give them names, give them places, never mind the proper number of points upon their antlers.

A snake to coil round the roots, little and banded in strange scales, with tiny, curling horns and a long, forked tongue.

The whole of the cosmos, here in the ever growing not-garden of Prince Loki, under King Laufey of Jotunheim's soaring halls, for no better reason than the sheer audacity of the act.

Laufey watches his son flicker through the bright, fractal shapes of this place and thinks only this: Ah, my son, you shall be a Terror; you shall be Great. You shall be a thousand different shapes, a thousand different hands and weapons and intentions. You will bring the Aesir such regret at having left you safe within the halls of your father's fathers. For the first time in a great span of ages, Laufey permits himself to indulge in believing good things of the future spooling out before the First House of Jotunheim like so much fine thread.

“Loki,” he calls, “we are for the evening meal. Come.” His son drifts towards him on silent feet, and together they depart from the garden with the long shadow of the ash tree stretching out behind them.

~ * ~

Loki slides betwixt the thick shadows of Angrboða's chambers, desperate to snatch the little violet book from atop the high shelves of this would-be mage's not insignificant collection. His scalp itches fiercely, so much so he hasn't quite picked all the blood from beneath his sharp fingernails.

Has that accursed Naŕþengill cast a glamour over him, some little twist of words to make the Crown-Prince of Jotunheim claw at himself till he ceases to steal from the foremost of corpse-kings?

Loki would laugh, save that it might disrupt the shade veil he has taken a stitch from. Heimdall has grown no less observant as the green-ringed moon passed its cycles above the blackest quadrant of Jotunheim's skies, simply less...forceful. But he would not rest on assumptions and that fickle, changeable creature called luck. That is a poor master indeed.

His feet are silent as he vaults up to the first of the long, heavy shelves, his fingers digging deep into the ice to pull his little, lithe frame up, up to the highest reaches; a word and a drop of his blood breaks the seal the corpse-king has set over the tomes, as if to remind the Crown-Prince that his thievery does not go un-noticed. Loki chuckles, a thin, hushed sound within the threads of the veil, and wraps his fingers round the little book.

The noise of his descent is less than the noise a valdyr makes gliding under the high new moon.

Loki spares a moment to study his prize, breathing in the acrid scent of its bindings, its words. What use did a Naŕþengill, even one such as Angrboða, have for a book concerning transcendental energies, never mind Ouroborus chains? If Loki knows his own reach, he most certainly knows Angrboða's, and it is not a thousand els near what is his own.

Six risings of the Eldingstjarna sees Loki return to Angrboða's library, little violet book tucked under his arm, with the name of another he needs bright upon his tongue. When he has climbed to the apex of the shelves he nearly slips from his perch. There, in the space where the little violet tome belongs, is the book he knows was kept on another shelf entirely, the book he has come back to steal. Put there for him. Waiting.

Loki scrambles from the corpse-king's high ceilinged chambers, his tongue bit to pieces and his chest shivering like a hare's little heart.

This happens often.

He finds ancient scrolls so poorly used they are soot and bleached bones in his hands, all over covered with secrets and words and shapes he has never dared to imagine. He finds them in all the places that he haunts: neath the ash tree, between his little fox's paws, left atop the window sills in the high towers he frequents to match his little reach against Helblindi's ever longer one.

Not for one moment does he believe that it is Naŕþengill Angrboða's doing. Laufey would never permit such liberty in one of his Naŕþengill, not where Loki is concerned. The four who remain hold themselves fortunate to be given the freedom to dwell in the same halls as their Prince, and none but Angrboða have yet dared to meet his gaze with their own. Loki would say it is because they remember what he did to them, what he worked against them for their pride and insolence. But he is all too aware of just how Terrible is his father's own Gaze.

But if it is not Angrboða, then why does his skin itch so, why does he wake to the Eldingstjarna with black spots bursting neath his thin eyelids? There are days wherein he feels as if he not wearing the skin he is meant to, and it drives him half mad with uncertainty. Rarely, very rarely, if he holds still enough, there comes an understanding that if he were only to become more still, he would slip from this form and into another.

He meets only terror at the thought.

What if he cannot turn back?

What is it that unsettles him so?

*

“Am I cursed?” The words fall off his tongue in an ungainly tumble, and Loki finds his hands have been sewn together in their nervous twitching. “I-I cannot stop scratching! And,” Loki untangles his hands and shows his father the old blood beneath his nails. “And...I do not know. I hurt!”

Laufey regards his son, who has grown taller of late, but still so small and whipcord lean, with a sudden stone of laughter weighting down his tongue. “Cursed?” Laufey chuckles. “The first son of Jotunheim, cursed? Never.”

“But father!” Loki wails, a frustrated noise dying in his throat.

“Come here child,” Laufey sighs. It does not take Loki long to close up what distance there was between them, though Laufey is surprised at how meekly his son waits for his words. That is his first hint as to the truth of what so disturbs the Prince.

Loki stills as his father's sharp, long fingers part the gleaming net of yellow sapphires he wears to card through his hair; he finds his eyes falling shut, a strange warmth pervading his frame till his father touches upon a spot crusted a sour red with dried blood.

Loki shrieks as if he has just caught a blade between his ribs; Laufey throws back his head and laughs, not entirely heedless of his son's brightly shining distress.

“It is only your horns,” Laufey speaks, offering a little comfort masquerading as an apology. “They are well beyond late, but that is hardly of any account.”

Blinking away the water gathering in his eyes, Loki buries his face into the cold silver chasing upon the ceremonial Reði wrapped over the sharp point of his father's hip. “But I thought I would not...” Helblindi has had a fine pair of horns since he saw eight turnings of the green-ringed moon. Loki has collected nearly twelve of his own turnings. Twelve.

Plucking up the scant weight of his son to set up upon the high table of the war-room, Laufey finds a gentle reprimand on his tongue, but not afore hiding away the collection of maps. “Think you the first son of Laufey would get no horns?”

Loki only half hears his father's question – from the very edge of his vision, Loki can see the shadow of the great plain of Thrym stretched out beneath a blank scaffold of parchment, his father's knife-fine scrawl marking out shapes against the little beacons of the tjalds stretching westward to the Ocean.

“I did not know what I thought.” Is his naked reply.

*

The next rising of the Eldingstjarna finds Loki returned to the war-room in the vain hope that at least one map was left behind, or perhaps he might beguile the table to speak what has been writ upon it, or....there is a dark green book resting upon the high frame. A book from Asgard, with all the warm stink of an Aesir's touch still clinging to its pages. He snatches the book from the table and flees before the shadow of his father can fall across him, but he does not remember to breathe till he is locked away in the needle fine spire of his tower chambers.

Loki thinks better of asking who's book it once was that he has stolen, well, been given. The answer is most likely one he would not care to have. He is beginning to understand something, and it only makes his racing mind surer, swifter.

His father is leaving these books for Loki to find. He is leaving them with a purpose in mind. Which means, surely, that Laufey is all too aware of Loki's widening appetite; the scrolls and tomes stolen from Midgard are not enough to satisfy any longer. Most of all, Laufey knows what it is that lives in Loki's bones. Loki would bet his own breath it is only his own unasked-for need for time that keeps the King of Jotunheim's plans between his teeth. He is not a fool, not wilfully ignorant as some Jotun prefer to be, and he can see the shadow of something great, magnificent even, hiding beneath his father's every word, every silence.

He knows Laufey no longer needs to seek him out to know when he has disappeared neath a scrap of the shade veil to test some new incantation; it is very like Laufey is waiting for something in particular, some sign. Loki would give it freely, if his father would deign to tell him what it was.

The King of Jotunheim's unparalleled Sight is both a boon and a curse, for now Loki understands his father and King as what he is now, a shape approaching adulthood, whereas afore he understood him only as a child understands: comfort, safety, warmth, certainty. A Titan, with a strangely gentle shadow. Now Laufey is a thousand shapes and forms; a tangle of memories and purposes and intentions that Loki will never, never truly see the length of.

But none of this matters.

Loki will abide in patience till Laufey finds what he is searching for. That thing which stills the plans of a King, and the tongue of a father.

He will wait.

~ * ~

Loki does not wait.

The Green-ringed moon has given Jotunheim its face twice since Harvetrtjald rose up from the rubble and the ruin in its new, brightly cutting shapes, bringing Loki a finely crowning pair of horns not unlike his brother's. Laufey bands them in gold, each ring a year, a marker, and gives back the skald emeralds to be plaited into his son's hair. A gift and an admission, though he never speaks words to Loki when he gives over the fat gems into his waiting palm.

Thirteen years has Loki now accumulated unto himself; it took from his eighth to eleventh years to learn how to cut a heart from a victim's chest, how to bind flesh and call runes, how to pull at nothing more than bones and memories till there is a Voice howling in his ears. Since he stole that book, that little violet book, he has learned more about his own strength within the immutable arts in the first six months than he has in all those years spent hiding his workings and watching his brother take wounds on his behalf.

And still he is waiting for his father to speak of what plans, what dreams, what horizons he is keeping from him.

He keeps nine books hailing from the libraries of Valhöll beside his soft pallet; he does not even bother to hide them neath all the fur. Laufey sees the books upon each rising of the Eldingstjarna, when he comes to retrieve his son from his high chambers. Loki finds he is bitterly disappointed each time his father's eyes settle upon the neat tower of books, only to slide away like water.

What is it you wish of me? Loki would like to shout. Why can you not tell me? But he is unused to being held at arm's length by his father, and so he is left to flounder in an unfamiliar Ocean. Loki tries his utmost not to recall that terrible night-terror he'd had all those years ago, that black night under which he'd accomplished his first truly grand working. He is lost nonetheless, and this feeling of loneliness eats at him in ways both strange and cruel.

It is that wretched divide again, that thing that bears no name, but plants itself between he and his father when Loki is turned away. That thing built of what ever it was that passed between Laufey and that vicious old Aesir with the neat, white teeth.

*

“The Crown-Prince of Jotunheim should not be so poorly used; he should not be treated like a child.” Loki cries out, smashing the nearest hawthorne bush into gleaming scraps against the black earth of his not-garden.

The Eldingstjarna is perched at its zenith, and it casts long, heavy shadows in this place.

“Does he think I cannot see what is wrong? I Hear as he does!” Loki spits, bares his teeth. “I know the western tjalds are in shambles, and the southern tjalds are a thread's breadth from starvation and ruin, and yet...yet he will not tell me what it is that keeps us here! We are the First House of Jotunheim, and we are watching our People suffer!”

Helblindi rolls his eyes towards the brightness of the star, and howls with laughter. It is all too easy to reach into his dish to flick pink salt at his raging Prince. The first hits Loki square between the eyes; Helblindi spares a moment to admire the sudden flush of violet under his brother's skin where the crystal hit, afore he braces to feel his brother's weight come crashing down upon him.

“Helblindi!” Loki snarls with what he knows is undue anger. “Are you deaf? Have you heard a single word I've said this meal-time or...why are you still laughing?” He digs his sharp fingers into his brother's broad shoulders, and is grateful he has left his little blade buried up to its hilt in an equally blameless oak tree.

The silence is so sudden that Loki finds his ears are ringing; Helblindi is very still beneath his hands.

“Have you not thought, my Prince, that perhaps our father is waiting for you to tell him so?” Helblindi's reply is as soft as he dares, but he is not so cowed as to turn from his brother's sharp eyes. Ofttimes it is easier to speak no words between themselves. “Think you perhaps, that the King of Jotunheim is waiting for you to prove yourself a Prince first and foremost above all other things?” For all his honesty, Helblindi earns a fist smashed against his fangs.

Loki rolls away, fingers painted with a shock of red blood, and mutters something that might be fool.

Helblindi knows exactly who his brother is referring to, and it is none other than Loki himself. There is no dampening of his humour despite the wound, and even with his hand covering over the new furrow at his mouth Helblindi's guffaw is loud. He watches his elder brother, pulling at his bleeding lip to taste the blood, and wonders at how he has caught something Loki has overlooked.

“How embarrassing.” Loki growls, and pauses to licks his brother's blood from his knuckles.

~ * ~

The doors to the war-room are heavy, in very nearly the same shape as the titan doors leading unto the high seat of Winter, and Loki has to struggle – if only for a moment – to throw them open enough to slip between.

King Laufey is bent over the heavy scrolls of his maps, brow furrowed and eyes speaking of just how far, far away his Gaze stretches. He does not raise his head at the sounds of footfall; Laufey knows there is only one who would dare come unto his presence unannounced.

“We are for Utgarð first,” Loki proclaims, and buries his fine, thin blade into the high table so deep it shivers in the refracted light of the sol moored above their heads.

“Are We now?” Laufey replies. He does not look up, only continuing to make notations upon the flat plain of Thrym; the little nub of charcoal in his fingers scratching gently across parchment is the only noise in the silence.

“Yes,” Loki hisses, fingers touching upon the cold haft of his blade. “For you must see what I worked there. Chieftain Arngrìmr's missive was clearly not enough to convince you, father, that I ceased to be a child long before I was gifted my horns.”

“You are not a child, Loki.” It pains him greatly to speak these words, though he will never breathe even the smallest truth of it to any living creature. “I was waiting for the Crown-Prince of Jotunheim to show himself to me.”

Loki will not make himself the fool any more than he already has by shouting further questions at the shape of his father above him.

“Utgarð was an action you took not simply to prove yourself to me, my little mage, but to prove to yourself what was your own strength. It was curiosity and pride what first moved your hand, your mind.” Laufey plucks his son's fine blade from the meat of the high-table, and lays it flat against its gleaming surface, hilt towards Loki and blade towards his own heart. “I do not require a Prince who shapes his actions upon his own whims. I require a Prince of whom I can ask anything of, because it his right and his duty to be so used.”

“But,” Loki nearly wails, “I do not understand! I gave thee Utgarð and Harvetrtjald, not for myself...”

“Do not lie to me, Loki.”

At his father's hard words, Loki nearly bites his tongue in twain. Every time that Loki believes he has managed to hide a piece of himself from his father, Laufey turns that calciferous red gaze upon him and Loki is undone. There is nothing he might hide from his father.

“You gave those things freely out of your own curiosity, your own pride. Now I am asking these same things of you because it is your duty. You are my Prince, my Heir, and you are strong enough to bear these burdens that I give to you.”

Loki finds his neck is bent; the weight of Odin Ginnarr's eye against his chest calling up the memory of Harvetrtjald falling in bitter silence round them, and his father's long, brilliant blade-arm raised high against the tides of War and Ruin.

Should every last Jotun standing against these Aesir fall beneath the sword and you were to survive, then so too would Jotunheim survive.

Would that he could forget. Loki knows what he is built for, and he very much doubts it is forgetfulness. It is likely that memory will never, never leave him. Nor will it leave Laufey. More than any of this, Loki understands what has passed between he and his father, and it is the thread of Loki's own childhood.

Thirteen faces of the green-ringed moon, and now it is time to be a Prince.

Without giving it much thought, Loki snatches up his little blade to lay its cold, gleaning edge against his cheek. A little pressure and there is the scent of blood, but afore he can begin the line, he finds his father's fingers closed round his wrist like the Blood-eagle's talons; Laufey has more speed in him than any sea-snake.

“You will not give me my scars.” Loki breathes, confusion putting stones in his mouth. It is not a question, for already does he read the answer in Laufey's iron-boned grip.

“No.” It would be the greatest shame to mar his son's face with the proof of his maturity, even though he is all too aware that Loki will consider himself deprived if he does not receive his markings. “There is so little beauty in our race,” Laufey offers up as comfort, even as he slips the knife from Loki's grasp. “I will not steal from what there is in you.”

“You will scar Helblindi's.” Loki watches his father beneath hooded lids, eyes tracking all the many threads that compose the shifting of his father's intentions, dim road signs to his father's truer emotions.

“Aye.”

“He is to be your mirror, then?” Loki replies, with a sour frown touching upon his mouth.

Perhaps it is in poor taste, but Laufey finds a scrap of humour in all this, that his eldest might be jealous of his second son. Of all the many things – silly, inconsequential and great – that divide Loki from Helblindi, it is scars that set Loki to growling and griping? “Yes. That is what your brother is.”

“Well, then who's mirror am I?” His words are a resounding demand, and he only thinks to bite his tongue after the words have fled from his mouth.

“None, my son. No mirror, no reflection. You will be unto yourself, whatever you please.”

Laufey watches the grin bloom upon his firstborn's lips, and it is a red, proud thing that touches even his sharp, knowing eyes. The Norns have been kind to him in this age, to give him one such as Loki, thusly will he not mind overmuch when they come to collect their price.

“Tell me.”

Laufey spreads his hands, the whole of Thrym is enclosed in his reach, and says: “We shall make another road. A new road. We shall be Great again, and Terrible.”

Loki's fingers trace an arrow straight and fine, running out from the gates of Harvetrtjald to the western reaches, to the dragon-toothed coast and the tjalds that sit upon the Ocean's shore like survivors clinging to rocks against the storm. Thirty seven tjalds, each a gear and a pin in the machine that is Jotunheim, irreplaceable in their own manner, and all shattered by Odin Spear-Breaker and his Thanes. And at the sharpest point of his father's charcoal arrow, the cairns of Jotunheim's Kings ringing round the mouth of the Dýr's Cradle – great black mountains against the shifting, sea-born horizon – as this new road's penultimate conclusion.

When Loki raises his head, he finds his hands have wandered to the eye above his heart; he meets his father's gaze and understands.

“A promise,” Laufey smiles, white teeth flashing in the light, and finishes the last threads of his long, long line unto the distant edges of the map.

~ * ~

The world above Harvetrtjald is wide and limitless, with only two portions of the Eldingstjarna gone from mantle of sky. Loki permits himself a moment to feel small and content; it will likely be his last moment of genuine solitude for many a long stretch of turnings. Beneath him his wolf growls, a note of impatience, and Loki cards a hand through the warm, sharply scented tangle of the valdyr's heavy fur. Perhaps the beast does not like smelling its smaller brother wrapped round Loki's shoulders. The thought sparks a twist of laughter upon his tongue but Loki bites it away.

There are gathered here fifty members of the highest, oldest families in Jotunheim, the best and so far most loyal scions of his father's court. Some might yet be made Naŕþengill, if they survive the journey.

As if the thought itself calls them up, Loki watches the four remaining Naŕþengill come out from the horn gates of Harvetrtjald to stand afore their own wolves. They each of them are silent, towering shapes against the thickly falling snow; and though Loki knows they will not mount their valdyrs till the King is astride his own, he cannot keep his fingers from curling around the hilt of his blade. Threescore turnings of the green-ringed moon and still he cannot banish his wish to understand his father's Naŕþengill as nothing more than his own dearest enemies, no matter how solicitous Angrboða has been, nor how much Naŕþengill Einarr has freely given over to Helblindi of his own skill in the songs of War and Combat. Nine were the worst of snakes; Loki refuses to believe those that remain are not hatched from the self-same eggs.

A new, knife-bright silence – entirely different from the quiet of waiting beneath a snow heavy sky – folds itself out over the gathered Princes and Scions and Corpse-Kings; it is the particular silence only Laufey Fárbautison, King of Jotunheim commands. The King is dressed as he ought to be, bare save for the knotted, labyrinthine Reði wrapped round his waist, and a heavy, slate-grey cloak to hide away the War Lines on his shoulders. It would not do to come into the sight of a tjald's high-reaching Erms showing the call to arms, the intent to make War, to any who have eyes to see.

The King is not leaving the high walls of Harvetrtjald to bring War to the people of Jotunheim, not this time. He is leaving to bring them back their strength, their pride, their Voice.

Loki regards the shape his father cuts against the earth, and feels nothing but pride. It has been a long, long time since Laufey cared to make a show of what and who he has never ceased to be, and Loki cannot help but glory in it, in the power so easily held in his father's titan hands. Would that the Aesir had come now, when there are enough years gathered between he and Helblindi to make War a joyous thing, rather than a painful, unhappy memory.

Loki Laufeyson is glad to see this spectacle, and to know his part in its conclusion.

It is not until Laufey has set himself upon the back of forty four hands tall wolf Mánagarmr that Loki finds he can breathe again; the excitement, the elation, is nearly suffocating. The King raises high his arm, and Loki feels Garmr tense beneath him; he digs his fingers into the knot of fur at the wolf's massive shoulder blades, and waits. The King's arm falls, and the sudden thunder of fifty seven wolves racing out from beneath the frozen shadow of Harvetrtjald nearly shakes Loki's lungs to pieces.

Loki cannot keep behind his teeth a high shriek of joy; Helblindi is beside him, racing as if Gungir's golden fire were pursuing them both, the same howl of freedom on his own lips.

The horizon is wide and unmarked, the first of Thrym's eight thousand el reach; Loki turns his gaze towards the face of the day-star, and recalls the long, long thread of his father's charcoal arrow. Even upon the map, the distance seemed impossible.

First it shall be South, to Utgarð. Then, it will be towards the tjalds of Rusk and Iþrótt, to Hvítna and Geuð, from the Inner plains of Thrym to the very edges of Jotunheim itself.

West unto the grave of the Eldindstjarna, to the graves of his father's fathers, to the great cradle of the Undertide.

To the Ocean.

To ending of the King's reach, and the very edge of all things.

Chapter Text

~ * ~

The high court of Jotunheim is stretched out across the plains of Thrym in a long, gleaming river of wolves and high, silver banded horns. The noise of so many Jotun voices in such a place is as much the kin to rolling thunder as the pounding of the valdyrs against the shattered earth; there are echoes enough to wake the dead, great enough to stir up even those that live along the utmost bounds of Jotunheim's laws. But the four Naŕþengill riding at the very point of the river are deterrent enough under any day's light, never mind that it is the God-King himself who rides afore even their long shadows.

King Laufey and his Princes are far, far ahead.

Loki shifts to catch a glimpse of his father and brother, judging the els he might put between them afore Laufey ceases to be amused by the length of the leash he has given his children. Loki judges that there is still some distance left, and urges Garmr on to a greater speed. Helblindi's answer is an eagle's cry, a challenge torn away by the wind, and Loki presses himself flat against the great back of his wolf.

Loki can hardly breathe for the pace of their racing. His eyes burn in the wind; the world is filled with whistling and the thunder of his own heart. Filled with noise and howling and... Oh how easily does this laughter touch upon his lips? There has never been such freedom breathing against his skin.

Helblindi's mount eats up the distance quickly.

Loki turns his head to see his brother grinning like a mad prophet, and the best he can think of as a reply is to shout faster till it looks as if Helblindi will be nearly devoured by his own elation, his own freedom.

Faster.

Suddenly, Ullr is alongside Garmr and there is no room for either wolf to falter. Loki grits his teeth and watches as Helblindi's fingers begin to reach for the scrap of red cloth he has tucked at his waist. Loki waits till Helblindi has stretched himself just that hair's breadth too far before digging his heels into Garmr's sides; they peel away like a bird in free-fall.

Helblindi follows.

They trade roles as easily as air, sliding from prey to victim and then back again in spaces so small they cannot be called moments. Twice does Loki wrap his fingers round his brother's own red cloth, only to have Helblindi's longer reach thwart his attempt.

Both know how far their wolves can run, and it is much farther than they have yet done, so they race on, and on.

The first and second Princes of Jotunheim race and jostle and shout against each other till they are nearly hoarse with exertion. But neither of them has won the other's red scrap, and they will race till one has triumphed over the other.

Loki braces himself low upon Garmr's back, working his hands against the bones of the wolf's rib cage to hold his body as low to the shapeless earth as he might dare. A tug and Garmr sweeps against Ullr and Loki reaches out to wrap his hand over Helblindi's leg to give a wrenching tug. It is just enough to upset his younger brother's balance and Helblindi is forced to compensate by leaning into Loki's reach to begin to swing the weight of his body round to right himself.

Loki reaches out, long fingers trembling in the effort.

The red scrap is in his hand when suddenly there is a sound like ice shearing into the Ocean, and the Princes of Jotunheim meet their father's boundaries: a wall of gleaming ice sprung up from nowhere, and as good a command to stop as any spoken words.

Garmr and Ullr howl their displeasure at being checked; in the confusion and noise, Loki snatches away his brother's scrap, and holds it high.

“That is cheating! Foul!” Helblindi shrieks, though he knows the complaint is fruitless. He knows what Loki's reply will be: dead is dead, winning is winning. “þuk,” Helblindi spits. “I shall never win with you.”

“Nai,” Loki chuckles, though he must suck in great gouts of air to make the sound. They do not have long till father eats up the distance between them, and there is a part of him that would keep this victory between he and his brother alone.

“We have many more els to go,” Laufey reprimands when the distance between he and his sons is little enough that he does not have to raise his voice to bellow over the pace set by the wolves. “You would do well to remember it is unwise to kill one who has agreed to carry you on their back.”

Looking up into his father's face, Loki can see with perfect clarity that Laufey is not any more angered by their actions than the wolves are. In fact, Loki knows it is taking a great effort on Laufey's part not to give voice to the laughter hiding behind his teeth; there is an immeasurable brightness in his father's far seeing gaze. Something he has so few memories of ever witnessing. Contentedness? Peace? That particular security in knowing where one is placing one's feet? Loki would like to know, but he will not ask. A King is a creature unto himself, and Loki is in no hurry to meet his father in that place in which he dwells, alone.

“Onwards,” Laufey speaks, and with a flick of his hand the wall shears away into vapour and tiny, fractal shards of ice.

Thrym is a place of boundless edges, and is endowed with all the wonder owed to such a thing; the horizon bleeds so easily into the flat expanse of the earth, marring the borders between places, and scouring the plains of anything that might be a path. But the way to Utgarð is as familiar to Laufey as his own skin, and there is no need to take a meandering route, though it does not escape his notice that the tundra has crept farther and farther into the heart of Thrym since the Vetrljós was torn from the high temple. It is unsettling to see so much red, brown, gold, purple strewn across the black earth and the white snow. The flecks of dull green scrub are the worst, for it is one thing to plait emeralds into his son's hair and another to find that particular colour which once belonged solely to those warm-blooded peoples and their home worlds scattered round his own.

The Eldindstjarna gives up six of its portions in the daytime sky before any speak again.

It is Helblindi who first breaks the silence, who calls up the first notes. Loki takes up the rhythm, feeling his lungs shiver through the deeper tones, and together they sing of ludicrous things.

A wolf pup lost on the tundra. A fish lost in the Sea. A Snake in love with a Bird.

They sing to mimic the thundering of their journey, and the sounds of the very plain they are attempting to cross – its whistling wind, rolling earth, boundless edges, all mimicked in the cavern of their chests. The Princes sing of Jotunheim, in all its many shapes.

If there are some moments wherein each thinks they have heard their father's voice joined with their own, neither of them speak of it.

~ * ~

Utgarð is not the same as Loki left it; three turnings have been kinder by far than he might have hoped for. The first sign of this is the Erms, for they are not broken fingers left to rot in the snow any longer. Each has their crowning spire of ice, each carved to bear the face of an old one that Loki is only distantly familiar with – after all, the legends of Utgarð are not the legends of Harvetrtjald, and they do not share the same ancestors save for First Father Ymir.

Though, it is magnificent to ride beneath that ancient Titan's face once more.

Fifty six wolves stop at the edge of the great ring encircling the summoning bell of Utgarð; the King rides on, till he dismounts the hulking shape of Mánagarmr to swing the hammer against the bright skin of the bell. The deep, ringing peal of Utgarð's clarion call echoes against the plains and in the little span of a few moments' silence, nearly eleven hundred Jotun pull themselves out from beneath the stone lintels of their Houses, from the barren fields and the noisome chalk circles in which the young fight and jostle for victory.

Laufey sets the hammer swinging upon its cord, and in the silence of his presence there comes to him a bitter understanding: how great a price has even the mightiest of his tjalds paid to see his Wars fought? There were once ten thousand Jotun dwelling within the sight and shadows of the Erms of Utgarð – now he can Hear little more than one third of that number.

Chieftain Arngrìmr casts a long, long shadow, one that Laufey would know even amongst the wreckage and terror of the worst of battles, or the most clinging darkness. Such a crown of horns, and so sharp against the blank face of the snow.

“Hail to thee, High One, Lord of Thrym, King of All,
Laufey Sword Breaker, Aesir Bane, Nightmare.
I, Arngrìmr, Chieftain of tjald Utgarð greet thee
and welcome thee to the First of your cities,”
cries the great master of Utgarð, lowering his tall frame till his high, heavily-ringed horns scour deep furrows into the black earth.

“Rise,” Laufey thunders. “I have come to see what Our Crown-Prince has worked for thee.”

Arngrìmr finds that the words upon his tongue are wonder, miracle, but it has been so many, many turnings of the green-ringed moon since he has walked beside the shape of the King, and he will not overstep what boundaries there have been, and will always be, between himself and Laufey.

“A great thing, my King,” Arngrìmr offers up, and throws wide his hands to take all of Utgarð into his reach. “Crown-Prince Loki has returned unto Utgarð the voices of our old ones, the songs of Jotunheim, the breath of the Ice.” As if to show the truth of his words, the Chieftain calls upon his blade-arms. Each becomes a heavy, long curve; a gleaning edge flickering brightly under the violent, red ringed descent of the Eldindstjarna.

Laufey parts his lips and shows his teeth; he accepts what it is that Chieftain Arngrìmr has spoken to the King. It not as if he had forgotten what had been written upon the parchment.

I write you no lie. Your son made us live again, when we were nothing more than dead things with some little breath in our shackled bodies. I owe your son very nearly all that I owe thee.

When the King raises his hand, the wolves creep into the tjald – a long river of fur and horns and voices – to seek rest and hear what it is that their Crown-Prince has crafted with his little, all too violent hands. They none of them have forgotten that once it was thirteen Naŕþengill who stood round their King like the Dýr's long, white nightmare teeth. Only four remain, but the nightmares have not lessened.

*

The dens strung against the ancestral hall of Utgarð are emptied of Jotun save for the King and the Chieftain; the scent of wolf fur and melting snow is thick in the air, mixing with the sour tang of fresh blood and red meat. Laufey holds himself still, in mimic of the black Undertide, watching the tumult gathering afore the dens.

It has been five turnings of the green-ringed moon since the God-King of Jotunheim travelled beyond his own halls, and the last great excursion he undertook was to bring War, Desolation and Surrender. Laufey thinks this is what sours his mind so profoundly. He cannot seem to wipe away the memories that paint themselves over his eyes, the ones that drape Utgarð in the blood of his people; the ones that let him see the broken necks of the Erms, and the sight of the Chieftain awash in violence and his own blood.

And all brought by his own hand, though he will, never, never, speak of the burden of this understanding, nor will he ever accept that it is regret that stirs in him. He would rather hang.

Ah, but these are the shapes and weights of his Crown, and he has long since grown used to their cutting into his flesh.

“Arngrìmr,” Laufey speaks, and the long sweep of his cloak – clinging round him like a troubled winter sky – hisses across the bare, cold floor at the mouth of the dens. “Do not hide from me.”

The Chieftain's reply is a heavy, familiar sigh: a thing born of an old, old alliance. An old understanding.

“I would not dare.”

Laufey finds laughter upon his tongue, but it is strangely threaded with an unlooked-for bitterness. “Good.”

Arngrìmr walks to take his place beside his King, and the length of his shadow laid along the King is gratifying. It has been far, far too long.

“Your people, my people,” Laufey murmurs, as his hand drifts to the edge of the nearest den mouth. “They are so very reduced.”

“Odin Ginnarr and his Thanes,” Arngrìmr interjects, a vain, foolhardy attempt to spare his King some little, old pain. “Without the Vetrljós, things go hard for all we gathered here. The other tjalds fare no better – I have had words from Breja of Geuð, and Skyrimr of Hvítna. They are going lean to keep us Plains dwellers from starvation.” I would not blame thee, even if that Aesir Warlord put his blade against my throat.

“What of the oxen that feed on the Tundra, can you not feed yourselves upon their fat?” Laufey questions; it takes every scrap of the pride he bled for under Fárbauti, all the strength he killed for, sacrificed for, and deceived for in all the eight thousand years of his life to keep his neck from bending. Should you blame me, I would take your neck between my teeth. But I would understand.

“No,” is the Chieftain's simple reply. “The wolves are as naked as we are. They hunt and herd the oxen now, and we do not dare to encroach on what is theirs. My own mount, Skiðar, does her utmost to keep her kin from preying upon the little ones who wander from their fathers' sight, but it is hardly enough. We have,” his tongue struggles against the sudden stones put into his mouth. “We have lost more than I would have dared fear.”

“Then we must see the tjalds of the coast restored.” Laufey forces out, though the words cut his tongue into red ribbons. “Or my House will be all that remains.” He sets his gaze out, away from the shape of Arngrìmr at his side, and watches the Jotun of Utgarð talk and jostle amongst themselves; Laufey watches them watch his Princes – both sat atop their brother's massive shoulders and exchanging quiet words with one another – as one might look upon a pack of wild, prideful wolves come stalking round the fire.

The Jotun are wary, curious, grateful, terrified; the voices of Utgarð are torn in too many directions for Laufey to catch the tail of, no matter how patiently he listens.

Arngrìmr finds his breath stilled in his throat. Should he dare? Eight thousand forty seven years worth of rings upon his horns, and it is a tongue as steady as the Undertide what has earned him those rings. What has kept his head atop his shoulders and his hide unmarked save by the hands of his own father on his Rising Day.

“Speak.” Laufey growls, his voice hoarse and sharp; he is suddenly, violently angered. “Thou knows't I did not come here have you bowing and scraping, cowering, as all the others do.”

“Your son, and my Prince, he paid for what he gave to Utgarð,” Arngrìmr begins, though he feels just how pointed are his own teeth against his tongue. “I am in ignorance of what it is that he paid, but I am certain the cost must have been terrible to surrender.”

A shiver of his neck, an acquiescence so small it is for Arngrìmr's familiar eyes alone, and Laufey shows what is in his hands. Nothing. “Thou art not far from the truth, Chieftain. My son made payment with the heart of one of my thirteen Naŕþengill – Svartr, I believe – and I have now only four left to me. My second Prince is wearing those eight remaining hearts round his neck like each is a prize of war.” The King of Jotunheim pauses to take in the taste of the silence between he and his greatest Chieftain.

“What say you?”

“I say the Crown-Prince has only enough coin for Geuð, Íþrótt, Vigar, Nós, Bregja, Harīsavarði, þuigr and Raðliedr. Though he will have to sacrifice two of these cities so that there is some coin by which to return Hvítna and Rusk. Those tjalds are imperative, they are everything.”

“Aye, but do you understand, my Chieftain, what will happen when the coins are spent?” Laufey watches as Arngrìmr's shadow flickers and warps, shock and too-bright understanding filling the space between their forms. “Do you see what I must do?”

There is a low, piercing whistle-cry that cuts Laufey's ear, and skins him of his royal seat atop the world; the dens take up the call and it shivers against itself till the Jotun and his echo are indistinguishable. Laufey would know that sound anywhere, and that is the noise of mourning, of grief. From Arngrìmr's throat.

The silence between them is an animal with its own mind; a shape that bites, and knows.

What small liberty Arngrìmr has earned in regards to Laufey's person, he freely spends. If the King wishes something of him, he will give it without complaint, so it is not courage but duty touched with remembrance which moves his hand.

Laufey makes not one noise of protest at the first, cautious ghost of Arngrìmr's hand upon his body; he makes no admission when the heavy, broad plane of his Chieftain's palm comes to rest in the sharp, blade-like valley between his shoulders.

Utgarð's greatest son traces with his fingers the long, labyrinthine War Lines of his King, and for a short while the King is still, and the silence is not so knowing.

*

“What is that?” Loki hisses from his perch atop one of the larger stones ringing round the chalk circles of Utgarð's sparing grounds.

“That is a question beneath you, my Prince.” Helblindi replies, scrambling up to sit next to his brother, with an infant resting patiently in his arm. “Clearly, it is Naŕþengill Einarr's child.”

“Helblindi, that is not,” Loki is interrupted by the sudden, high shriek of the child in his brother's arms, and turns to see what has drawn the creature's eyes. There is a burst of annoyance as Loki realizes the fight has been won, and with only a broken arm as a reward. “Why do you have it?”

“Einarr is attending to the wolves, and to father's business with the Jotun here.” Helblindi sighs, turning his gaze to the chalk and the noise and the Jotun who might have been his age-mates had he a different Blood in his frame. “I heard evil things stalk at the boarders of Utgarð of late, so I took him rather than leave him to his own devices. I do not think Einarr wishes to see that our King cannot keep watch over this tjald as he keeps watch over ours.”

“Aye,” Loki snorts, pointedly disregarding the infant clapping and squirming in his brother's lap. “I shall not argue with you over the qualities of Naŕþengill.” He does not remember well what was his life afore Helblindi, though there is a far distant, profoundly quiet memory of walking with his father along the thin spire of a path which snakes its way up into the farthest outyards of Harvetrtjald, up into a ridge of cliffs, and then waking to the faint scent of blood and a new shape in Laufey's arms.

It had been different with Býleistr.

Laufey had locked both his Princes in Loki's high tower with enough food to see them through five passings of the Eldingstjarna, and had not returned till the day-star had risen for the third time.

Loki remembers just how bright his fear had been, for those three days had been the first time he had truly tasted of that particular animal call terror. Needless to say, there had been no more siblings brought unto the high walls of Harvetrtjald.

“You take too many liberties with Einarr, brother,” Loki scolds, picking at the seam of ice running through the face of the rock he is sat upon, if only to distract his hands. “Never mind that it is not your place to mind another's get.”

Helblindi chuckles and says no more. He knows better than to stick his fingers in the mouth of an angry wolf – there is only one result for that sort of stupidity. Helblindi will keep his tongue between his teeth, even as his fingers touch the little, pale white furrow still marking his lip.

“Do you know whom gave Hulda his other half?” Loki murmurs, picking at the thread of his brother's unintentional ignorance; he does not look again at the little child.

“What?” Helblindi laughs with sudden brightness. “Does that matter? It is of no import.”

“It matters. The smallest things, Helblindi, can matter a great deal. You know this.”

“What have you Heard, brother mine?” Is Helblindi's offered comfort. “Where have you been wandering?” He watches his Prince, though he is struck by the falling light of the Eldingstjarna spinning strange webs of green into Loki's stranger hair. It is unpleasant to be reminded that he does not understand his brother half so well as he would prefer.

“Many places,” Loki replies; burying his little, fine blade in the slender fissure of rock, it is the force of the blow which satisfies him most: the shiver it sends into his bones.

“Then you should not range so far. The farther your distance, the farther you shall have to travel home.” It seems a simple thing to say, but Helblindi knows all too well that nothing is simple with Loki, which is most of the fun.

The Crown-Prince of Jotunheim keeps his tongue between his teeth, and his eyes upon the tall, tall form of another he has spotted, stood far out in one of the rings meant for combatants willing to spill blood, to risk their breath to take a victory. He has Heard what, who, is in that Jotun's bones, and it sits ill with him. Very ill indeed.

*

The long table set upon the high dais of Utgarð's ancestral hall is as full as Arngrìmr might dare to make it, with the King and his knowing eyes at the head of that table. He is all too aware of what are the limits of Laufey's patience, and he is certain that if he were to give a feast to his King – he would reap a reward of blood for the stupidity of his act.

Arngrìmr has eyes, after all, and though he is rightly considered more perceptive than most, he finds it troubling that none see what he believes he sees: Laufey had been as sharp as any blade all the long while the high-ones of Utgarð had intoned the rituals that were the oldest form of obeisance in Jotunheim, as brittle as new Ice while he had given over the hearts and guts of the evening meal to the high biers upon which the shades of the old one's dined.

There is little joy in the King, save for when he is left to the peace of his children.

Arngrìmr holds himself to have been given an un-looked for gift; so few Jotun see with their own eyes the First House of Jotunheim, never mind do they sit at a table with its children. The Princes are as Princes should be: quiet, proud, aware of what divides them, but not so tall as to keep themselves above all others.

Arngrìmr turns his gaze first to the younger one: he is a mirror and a reflection, a child shape with all the markers of his father upon his face, but young and still unset.

The elder is a thing unto himself: lithe and so very strange, with a crown of dark hair and a pair of curling, gold banded horns. Yet Arngrìmr finds he must still his neck to keep his frame from betraying his thoughts; never did he think to use this word in reference to any Jotun, but the Crown-Prince of Jotunheim is beautiful. That same beauty there is in a naked blade, or in the narrow, vulpine face of a valdyr. Something fit to put an Aesir to shame, and not yet grown to the hard, gleaning shape of adulthood.

A strange, beguiling form indeed, and a worthy son for such a father as King Laufey.

The evening meal passes in cycles of roaring laughter and sombre quiet, and though there are a good few who are brave enough to attempt a kenning, Arngrìmr knows his people are wavering on the knife's bright edge. The King has not come unto them since the War, and each Jotun so gathered here has both a hope for action and a loathing of further suffering writ across their frames.

Tis a difficult thing, to forget the Silence, to forget what was done to a million, for the sake of one, though all have suffered in equal portion.

At least the wrestling match will be enjoyable.

~ * ~

The hall is so full of that particular quiet brought by eventide that Laufey finds he is loath to break the stillness. He has already sent his Princes away to their pallets in the highest, furthest reaches of his Cheiftain's tjald, and there is in him an understanding and an acceptance, though they be strange things burrowing new, and uncomfortable lines beneath his skin.

He is more than prepared to ask this of his people.

Laufey watches, his gaze as stooped as an eagle's, as Arngrìmr sends away a tall, broad shouldered Jotun youth with no more than sixteen, perhaps seventeen, rings upon his horns. And yet, to Laufey's eyes, there is something so deeply familiar in the child's wide stride that the King finds he is rising up to watch that familiarity depart from the high halls.

In the little span of time it takes Arngrìmr to return to his side, Laufey is confident in the truth of what he has seen. Arngrìmr makes as if to speak, but Laufey will be first in all things between them.

“Your Scion then?”

“Aye,” The Chieftain replies, a sudden awareness stealing over his frame to creep into the rings of his red eyes. It is not difficult to meet his King's gaze, but it costs him a sliver of his pride, which is no small thing.

“Mine.” Laufey speaks, and raises his chin to bait and to challenge and to remind.

“Yes. Three turnings afore the War.” It is not quite an admission, and absolutely not a confession, which is utterly alien to what and who Arngrìmr is, but above all, not a thing of regret.

Laufey stills, a grin dashed from his sharp face. Understanding cuts as easily as does Love. “That was a close thing indeed, my Chieftain. With whom did you leave the child?” He questions, for it is unimaginable to him to trust another with the life of a child that is not theirs. “Whom might you have trusted?”

“None,” Arngrìmr answers with an uncomplicated shrug of his heavy shoulders. “I trusted in the hills and cliff-sides to see to my son's survival, in whose care I left him. He did.”

“Despite knowing you might not get another?” Laufey questions, a certain pride putting a red satisfaction between his teeth.

Arngrìmr chuckles, a low, clarion reverberation; with hooded eyes, he watches the noise touch his King. “Perhaps it was arrogant of me, but did not think our threads were measured out for that War alone.”

“Good. His name?” The King can ask that much, where no other might dare to so intrude.

“Ágæti. He is a proud creature, sure of himself. He will be as good a sword to you and yours as I have been, and Utgarð shall not be left naked when the Norns come to cut my thread.”

“No others?” It is a strange thing, for a Jotun of Arngrìmr's forging to have only one child of his body, and Laufey cannot help but wonder at this deficiency. After all, he had been set on more than the three of his own, but that was not to be. So he shall remain well in abeyance of what his father had brought unto Harvetrtjald.

Arngrìmr shakes his head, the little threads of silver and bones of black basalt stone strung round his horns chiming and rattling together. “Who would I have chosen to give me another, when the first was a King? Ágæti is more than enough. After all, he has those same royal markings upon his back as you, my King.” There is more than a little pride sewn into Arngrìmr's reply.

“Those are Fárbauti's lines,” Laufey sighs, though there is the ghost of humour lurking beneath his tongue. “Býleistr bears them as well.”

The silence that stalks back into the high, dark feasting hall speaks of how there has been enough spilled between the Chieftain and the King. Arngrìmr seeks to break from Laufey's orbit afore more is dragged from either of them; he cannot expect Laufey to bare any part of himself if for no better reason than Arngrìmr is curious. No matter how entangled their threads have been, will be, might be, he cannot ask anything of the God-King of Jotunheim. Not unless that same King gives it freely unto him.

When he turns to go, the first son of Utargð finds himself caught by the wrist, his bones being crushed in the grip of two of Laufey's long fingers.

“I will stay,” is the only reply open to him, and though Arngrìmr bows his head, it is only to hide the wide, white curve of his mouth.

 

*

The chambers of the Chieftain of Utgarð are as Laufey remembers, save that there is a softer curvature to some of the shapes, being worn by age and salt and bitter winds. He takes in the wide, low sweep of Arngrìmr's pallet and finds a distaste for softness burning in his throat. He is altogether too sharp for such a thing.

When he turns to catch the Chieftain in his gaze, he finds in the air a familiar resonance; Arngrìmr is shifting, slipping like water from one shape to the next, diminishing and softening. It is so sudden, his anger, that he feels every spark of red bursting beneath the thin lids of his eyes.

There is so little space between them; Laufey gives Arngrìmr the open blade of his palm, his voice strange and hoarse and thin as bitter smoke.

“Did I ask for your submission?” Laufey snarls and bites, his fangs bright in the clinging darkness. “What makes you think I wish you beneath me?”

Arngrìmr stills, his tall form wavering in the spaces between, neither one shape nor the other. He shakes his head, the music of his horns resounding loudly in the silence. “Nai, Laufey, you did not ask such a thing of me.”

“Then do not give me what I have not asked for! I am sick unto death of all this scraping, and I will not have it from thee. I would have that we meet as what we once were.” Laufey will not beg, never that, but he will not be petted and soothed like some spoilt creature. “You will meet me as an equal or I will break open your bones!”

Arngrìmr gives his answer by stealing blood from Laufey's tongue, his teeth sharp against the King's mouth. Laufey snarls into the blade-fine space between their lips, and Arngrìmr shivers, revels in the taste of his King.

With all the speed of a sea-snake lashing out from the silt of the Ocean, Laufey grips Arngrìmr's shoulders in his hands and hurls the Chieftain to the cold stone floor. “We shall fight for the rest, first son of Utgarð. We shall be warriors again.”

Staring up into the violence of Laufey's gaze, Arngrìmr finds that the shadow of the King is not so heavy a thing to have falling across his frame. It is a shadow he has missed. The growl he offers unto Laufey is all the answer he need give. He has every intention of triumphing over the King, and so the laughter is bright upon his face, mixed with all the familiar red shapes of battle and rolling in the chalk circles of Utgarð to wrest victory from another's frame.

Arngrìmr sweeps out a long leg to catch against Laufey's ankles and finds he is surprised the King does not evade his strike: it is a child's fruitless lashing out, not the brutal efficiency of a fight for breath. He rights himself with a sinuous twist, knocking into Laufey. It is like hurling himself into a mountain, and hoping to shift it on the strength of his feet alone.

The King of Jotunheim hums, a deep, hoarse scraping, and pushes against the Chieftain, sharp fingers drawing blood. He bites, he takes, he refuses. Arngrìmr meets him blow for blow, leaves his own trails in kin to the War Lines, in kin to Fárbauti's lines. Laufey hisses and snarls and bares his fangs in wordless howling. Not one thing is asked of him. It is simply taken, given.

Suddenly Arngrìmr is above, Laufey's wrists are high and bent beyond his head; the burn of muscles pulled taut and unbending is glorious, and all the air chased from his lungs. There is a little moment spent in admiration of his Chieftain's daring, for Laufey knows this move well – saw it be the end of nine score Aesir who had been foolish enough to believe that Jotun had no flexibility in their frames. Next would come sharp, gleaning teeth at his throat, or the vice like strength of Arngrìmr's legs to snap his spine. But Laufey is no Aesir. This is all pleasure and remembrance and the best kind of violence.

“My King,” Arngrìmr speaks, voice rough and un-gentle, as he pushes his sharp knee up to spread Laufey's legs, forcing away the knotted labyrinthine Reði . In all the long years of his life, and in years of his understanding with Laufey, Arngrìmr cannot think of but more than a bare half dozen times he has managed to put the King of Jotunheim beneath him. Each memory is one he will carry to his own black cairn, for they are the best and the brightest.

Laufey feels the hard length of Arngrìmr's cock pressed between his thighs, and it is nothing for him to shift to take in the length of the Chieftain, for he takes up and discards pieces of himself as easily as some might change their blades. The noise of desperation his acquiescence pulls from Arngrìmr is worth the surrender. It puts ungentle fingers of need against the length of Laufey's bent spine.

Arngrìmr finds there is no patience in him, with Laufey ungentle and wet and snarling beneath him. He pushes in, with only half a thought to be slow, till Laufey wraps terribly strong legs rough his waist and slams the sharp points of their hips together.

“No quarter,” Laufey snarls, though the pace of the Chieftain's movement within him is tearing all manner of noise from Laufey's throat. He cannot feel his arms, but Laufey knows how to correct that: he tips his head back to give Arngrìmr the sweep of his neck. “No softness.”

Arngrìmr growls his surprise, and lets go his King's wrists to put fangs upon his throat, the great bellows heaving of his breath against Laufey's skin. A dýr fit enough to chase Laufey's own away.

Laufey wraps his arms round the broad plane of Arngrìmr's back and digs his sharp fingers in deep, the scent of blood and heat sitting heavily in his mouth.The red violence of their coupling pleases and soothes Laufey beyond what he had hoped for, but it is not enough. Tightening his grip round the other Jotun's waist, Laufey rocks Arngrìmr in as deep as he dares, and quickens their pace.

Arngrìmr bites off a thick, half strangled noise in his throat and gives over to Laufey's urging without reservation. It does not take long till he feels the the heavy, familiar coil of his own release tightening in his belly, but it is not till he catches the steady, nearly fevered gasping of Laufey's own completion that he spills into the body of his King. As Arngrìmr's shudders through his release he finds on his lips a cry of triumph that is in equal measure a breath of gratitude.

Whatever is Laufey's intent here, Arngrìmr will remain grateful to have been given his King's surrender for the seventh time. Even if he knows he has only half wrested that surrender from Laufey, and the rest been the King's own desire. It is to be expected. Laufey cannot ever give such privilege freely, so it must alway bear the appearance of being taken in violence.

A King cannot give his own surrender.

Laufey is content to simply ease himself from Arngrìmr's length, but makes no effort to depart from the chambers. He will stretch himself out beside the Chieftain of Utgarð because he is the King of Jotunheim, and because he is tired in ways that have aught to do with his aching, quieted body.

He is tired and he will have his rest.

Arngrìmr accepts with silence, and lays himself out along the tall shape of his King. Sleep will find them soon enough, and he will not have to think overmuch upon what it is that has passed beneath all their violence.

~ * ~

Eldingstjarna rises bright, its outermost edges burning orange and heavy with new light; the long, thin bones of the dead comets are only just touching upon its first portion. Loki turns his gaze upwards, and waits for the signal from his father. It had been a strange thing indeed to sleep under Chieftain Arngrìmr's ancestral hall again, with all the voices of Utgarð's old ones murmuring just beyond the door, breathing as gently against the silence of deep night as Helblindi beside him.

Even stranger to at last see that he had been right. Arngrìmr rides with them to the cairns, to Geuð, Íþrótt, Vigar, Nós, Bregja, Harīsavarði, þuigr and Raðliedr, and a dozen more than that. To Hvítna and Rusk. He had been right to gamble upon the foremost of his father's tjalds.

When the King throws down his arm and the high court of Jotunheim races out from the circles of Utgarð towards the spires of her proud, titan Erms, Loki does not look back at the tall shape holding still at the very edges of the rings round the summoning bell, for it is the Chieftain's son, come to see his father from the borders of their tjald.

He knows who else lives in that son's bones.

Garmr takes advantage of Loki's distraction, and soon enough he and the valdyr are flying across the white face of Thrym with a clean, untroubled sky hanging above them, and Helblindi chasing their shadow.

*

Three days of travel see them to the Erms of Geuð, and to Chieftain Breja, who throws open the high gates of his city to welcome the King of Jotunheim, no matter that there is the uneasy ghost of a people inured to suffering clinging round the proud stones and halls of this tjald. The Jotun here have accepted their silence, which is both a fortunate and an unhappy thing for the Crown-Prince. Now all will be glad of what he shall do for them, no matter that other tjalds shall have to pay a greater price than these first eight.

No time is given to long-winded formalities, for Loki can read Chieftain Breja's need upon his rough face even from his distance atop Býleistr's shoulders. There are some few words between the King and Geuð's first son, afore Laufey is calling his Princes down to begin their working.

Loki suspects that Angrboða would prefer to be the one permitted to carve the runes round the summoning bell of Geuð, but Loki will not give his back to a Naŕþengill when Helblindi is perfectly suited to being used in this working. It is senseless to use more than one conduit.

The Princes of Harvetrtjald do not begin their carving till the King has sat himself at the edge of the stone circle, with the baleful shadow of Arngrìmr falling at his side.

For a long stretch of the Eldingstjarna's time above the skies of Jotunheim there is only the quiet, bright sound two sharp knives being cut against the stones and the earth of Geuð; the Jotun cannot hear the runes, cannot hear the thin, mournful voices that come to shiver at the outermost ring of the circle round the summoning bell. Loki can, as can Laufey, and for a moment Loki fears his father will simply pull him from the circle and refuse this great endeavour they are undertaking. But, Loki knows, his father has learned to trust him as a Prince in equal measure to a son, and so he can only hope that the King will win out over the father.

Near the last breathes of the Eldingstjarna upon the distant, red limned horizon, Helblindi passes his brother a hard, glittering heart to bury in the hole they have dug neath dais of the bell. He watches as his Prince calls up the runes, the strange beguiling shapes that still feel alien under his ungainly blade, and waits for the magick to take its price from Loki's blood.

He knows how it must hurt, but he also understands that it would be the worst of insults to his brother to be refused the paths of his power simply because they were dangerous paths to walk. Some things are greater than any one Jotun, even if that Jotun be a Prince, and a treasured one at that.

Loki spits a mouthful of blood upon the black earth and smiles.

The scent of his child's blood leaves a bitter taste in the back of Laufey's throat, but he does not go to his son; Loki would ne'er forgive him if he so unseated his image of quiet endurance afore so public an audience. No. Laufey would wait till Breja sent his people to their rest, and left the King and his children to theirs.

After all, he had spoken those words to his son, the ones that had freed Loki from his claim on childhood, and he could not go back now. So again he shall have to trust in his son, which is no small thing for a father who is first a King to do.

When the first House of Jotunheim is away within the chambers of Breja's ancestral hall, away from curious red eyes and tongue wagging in shock and uncertainty, Loki permits himself to fall apart, to be swept up in his father's arms and carried round like some half dead thing; he eats because Laufey is watching; he goes to his rest because Helblindi is watching, but there is in him an old fear.

He lays out his pallet and furs as close to the lee of his younger brother's body as he dares, and does not move to curl into Helblindi's arms till his father's shadow is gone from the chambers.

The dream finds him, that same terrible night-terror that put such unkind fingers of panic and vivid desperation through his mind all those turnings ago.

Loki dreams of drowning; he dreams of that alien voice calling to him, and that wicked black tide filling his lungs. It does not leave him, but claws and bites and circles, till the day-star rises and the night creeps back unto the edges of Jotunheim's horizon. Three turnings of the green-ringed moon, and it has not changed its skin at all.

“You will tell father,” Helblindi snarls, even as he struggles to bind up their furs for travel and recover the little blade still buried in the floor between he and his brother. “You will or I shall. That is no dream, my Prince. Something is calling you.”

“No,” is Loki's tired, unbending reply. “You will not. I will not. Let me be my own keeper, Helblindi, just this once.”

The second Prince of Jotunheim spits his anger onto the stone floor, and bites his tongue.

When the Royal House emerges, it is to a tjald only just awakened, and four hundred score Jotun ringing round the steps of Chieftain Breja's hall like the stones planted by the First Fathers, Breja himself at the forefront.

It costs Breja nothing to put his knees in the snow, costs him nothing to touch his forehead to the white face of the earth, and all afore the little, lithe shadow of the Crown-Prince, Jotunheim's greatest treasure, for what else might he call a creature who has brought back what the Aesir took from them?

Loki watches this display of fealty, of submission, with a fierce and crowning joy, with pride and a high reaching sense of vindication. It is all and more than what he had hoped to wrest unto himself.

When the deep, deep notes of four hundred Jotun voices taking up the resonance of supplication and the thunder of victory begins to fill the air, Loki breathes in and lets the sound shiver through his lungs.

He is prepared for what he must do; what he must ask.

~ * ~

In his mind's eye Laufey traces the long, long charcoal line he had drawn unto the every edges of his Kingdom, and watches the string of hearts kept round his younger son's neck diminish with dread and resignation weighing down his frame. Each tjald they depart from, leaving it whole once more, is another el nearer the end of the easy road, so much so that it takes little effort to see what breed of violence may bit sitting just over the far, far distant horizon.

King Laufey of Jotunheim has asked much of his people these twenty odd turnings of the green-ringed moon, first to bear the burden of his wars, his hunger for all that lay beyond his own planet's neat, regular orbit, then to trust in the unthinkable: his choice to keep a strange, black haired child no stronger than a bird as his Crown-Prince, and last, but above all not least, to abide in silence and in desperation and shame under the peace he bought for the sake of that small child.

If Laufey has asked too much, there may be no returning to Harvetrtjald in the end. He knows his own strength, he knows the strength of his four Naŕþengill, no matter how reduced they are, and the blade-arms of the other fifty scions so gathered round him. But he is, no matter his towering height over and above all others upon Jotunheim's black earth, only one.

Only one.

*

It is like being caught upon the spokes of a great wheel which is ceaselessly turning round and round till Loki cannot distinguish one tjald from the other; till all is a cold, stinging blur beneath his hands; the night-terrors remain the sharpest, brightest shapes in his mind, for they never change. He sleeps with his naked blade clutched to his chest – wrapped in the stone of his brother's embrace – and hides his eyes from his father as best he can, but it is a poor deception, one that leaves him feeling as if he is committing a great wrong by his silence.

But the Crown-Prince of Jotunheim is not a child. He will not go running to cling to his father's knees because he cannot sleep. He will seek this voice out, and he will either meet it, or silence it.

Helblindi will guard and watch as best he can, for Loki trusts his younger brother with everything that he is, all that makes him who and what he is. His shame is safe in Helblindi's keeping.

This goes on and on, and on. Till Loki wakes and finds he is staring down at the heart in his hands and realization slides a fine, keen blade between his ribs. This is the last one, the very last of his coins. He plunges the cold, gleaming heart into the earth and when he raises his gaze, he finds that Laufey's eyes are a mirror and an echo:

The King of Jotunheim holds the same bitter, implacable understanding in his calciferous red gaze: to reach for something greater than oneself is to climb without heed of the fall, of the price. In spite of the price.

I am asking these same things of you because it is your duty. You are my Prince, my Heir, and you are strong enough to bear these burdens that I give to you.

Loki lifts his head and forces his shoulders into a straight, firm line. He bares his teeth in what should be a smile, and tries to see it in any other light but lying to his father.

~ * ~

The First House of Jotunheim rides into the reach of Öxará's Erms with no hearts strung round the neck of it's second Prince. Perversely, the sky above them is as clear and boundless as any high winter day; a good day.

Garmr is shivering beneath Loki's hands. They've ridden hard to reach this tjald, with only twenty nine days till they must be at the shores of the Dýr's Cradle to celebrate First Father Ymir's cairn day. Loki keeps that distant sweep of shoreline at the centre of his thoughts, the line and the relief that he and his father are racing towards. The very tip of that charcoal arrow.

All these thoughts flee from him when he is forced to wait at the outermost edges of Öxará's summoning bell as Laufey goes unto the Chieftain to speak the price of his tjald's restoration.

A sacrifice.

A life: freely given and never to be returned.

When Laufey sweeps from the high steps of the ancestral hall – the lines of his troubled winter sky cloak falling round like some strange river – with the heavy shape of the Chieftain following in his orbit, Loki knows the answer was yes, I accept.

*

From his place in the centre of the stone circle, Loki can see every Jotun face in Öxará turned towards he and the King, as if they are all balanced upon the same fine, thin blade edge. A shift of the wind and they all of them will come tumbling down, and the blood the Crown-Prince and the King are about to spill will be as nothing under the violence and fear breathing in the spaces between Laufey and his people.

This is the height, and the pit.

Loki sucks in a quiet, pained lungful of air, and understands, with no room for that shameful weight of self pity, what it is that he is asking of a stranger who's life has already afore this hour been much touched upon by the King and his House: the Crown-Prince of Jotunheim is asking for more. As is the King.

Laufey is a tall, ungentle shadow thrown over a Jotun who has freely given his life and his name to the King and the King alone. It is not for Loki to hear what passes between the two. It is for Laufey to keep that name.

Loki finds his breath is a miserable tangle as he watches his father raise his titan hands to touch upon the head of the Jotun knelt at his feet. He swallows away the bile at the awful noise made by the sudden, deft snapping of the Jotun's neck. He grips his familiar little blade in his fingers and watches his father lay down the lifeless shape with as much tenderness as there lives in the bones of a God-King, and tries, in vain, not to think upon how easily his father had broken that Jotun's neck.

Laufey has turned a hand to this breed of violence afore, surely.

It is a feat he should thank his Ancestors for that he walks to the side of his father without one note of his distress showing itself in his steps. If his hands shake as he makes the first deep, gleaning cut, it is of no import. There is a warm, empty heart held within the cradle of his hands soon enough, and that is all that matters.

But the colour!

Oh how bright is all this blood upon the clean snow.

And not one drop belongs to a creature Loki might have called an enemy.

Laufey's shadow is replaced by Helblindi's, and Loki begins their now familiar working by rote and memory and the iron-boned need to be done.

He finishes, and falls under the Wheel again.

~ * ~

 

Twenty nine tjalds require sacrifice.

 

~ * ~

Loki cannot bear to see in his father's eyes that same guilt which abides in his own, but if it gnaws at Laufey as viciously as it does Loki, he does not see it. The Prince would guess that the King is keeping such weakness, such shame, for the Chieftain of Utgarð alone. He would wager his breath upon this. Yet he is sure in equal measure that Laufey holds no regret, would call such a thing alien to his person, for this is necessary, and it would be the greatest of insults to those who have bought Jotunheim's restoration with their own lives to call it anything less.

If they are ever to stand against Asgard again, then this is the road each must walk.

So Loki and Helblindi work and bind and cut away; Laufey asks and then takes. They live in each other's silences, and wait for the dragon-toothed valley that leads unto the dragon-toothed shore, to the black mountains of Jotunheim's dead, and yet never silent Kings.

Of course, Loki lives with his dreams and his terrors. With that black voice and its dark waters; with Helblindi's brightly burning worry, and Laufey's knowing touch, given in comfort and in reassurance.

It is a furious race to the Cradle, and everything falls away under the thunder of Loki's relief as he raises his knife for the last time, in the circle of the summoning bell of tjald Hvítna, under the gaze of Chieftain Skyrimr. When he is finished, and has spit out his blood upon the white snow, Loki finds himself in his father's strong arms, in full view of every Jotun living neath Hvítna's Erms.

He gives not one word of protest.

*

Laufey does not seek out Arngrìmr, though he would dearly like to do so.

There is in him a private and unspeakable relief, so much so that he is willing to show a little of that relief to his sons, though it is difficult to bend so far. He would not say that he is astounded to find they have succeeded, for that would make of his pride and confidence a lie; but with the slight weight of his firstborn in his arms, who is so utterly emptied he might as well be sleeping under the hand of Death, Laufey cuts himself from that fear which says he has asked too much of Loki. His first born has proven himself beyond the pale, beyond anything Laufey had dared, and feared, to hope for.

If Laufey had ever shown even the tiniest sliver of that fear which has so roamed through his frame these long, long days of blood and sacrifice – thirty seven risings the King of Jotunheim truly believes will never leave him – Loki would have denied it. Would have been angered and hurt.

His son will tolerate no infractions upon his high place as the Crown-Prince of Jotunheim, not even from his father.

So Laufey will not speak his fear; he rarely does. Instead he will take his rest with his sons, and keep Loki against the broad lee of his chest, and be father afore he is King, just this once.

Loki has not the strength to complain over being cradled to his father's frame as he was when he was a child, for in all truth he would not be anywhere else. In the half waking delirium of waiting for sleep to find him, Loki thinks to be afraid he will dream of that black water again, but it never seeks him out.

When the light of the Eldingstjarna reaches burnt orange fingers neath the thin paper of his eyelids, Loki finds he could cry for all that his silly pride has bought him; if he had gone to his father all those many, many weeks ago, he would not have been held as a willing prisoner to his un-looked for night-terrors.

So much for leaving childish things behind his thin, once hornless shadow.

 

~ * ~

The ride to the cairns is worlds different by far than their long, long ride to Hvítna. For Loki, it is a race again – a thing of freedom and the lightness the comes of having a great stone taken from round his neck. As if to make a clean cut in his own thread, Loki leaves his fine, sharp little blade in the hands of Chieftain Skyrimr; when they return to the long, fractal shapes of Harvetrtjald, he will have Ulfr craft him another one – one that does not carry so many unpleasant things in the flash of its silver skin. He has no desire to make a talisman of that blade, not one that took so much from so many.

Raising his gaze from the frozen earth, Loki turns his eyes towards the dragon-toothed valley he has so longed to see with his own eyes, for it is the very edge of his father's reach, and the last home he will ever know, when the Norns come to cut his thread after the long ages he shall spend as Jotunheim's King. There will he lie stretched out beneath all that black sand, beside his father and his father's fathers in one unbroken ring round the Dýr's great Cradle, under the strange, towering shapes of the Titan's Steps. It is a oddly comforting thought.

The long, thundering river of wolves and their riders spills into the steep edges of the valley, passing under its icy bones and between its piercing, gleaming towers of black basalt stone. Tis a place fit only for the footsteps of Kings, for the first workings of Father Ymir. A place only an old, old God could dream of in his fits of Creation.

Half the Eldingstjarna's portions within the sky are spent afore the high court reaches the end of the valley and King Laufey must dismount from the back of forty four hands tall Mánagarmr to part the great sheaves of ice that bar the way down unto the long, long line of the shore and its black sand. The sound is heavier than thunder, and it shakes Loki's lungs to pieces with its force, but he finds he cannot breathe anyway. Beside him Helblindi laughs – though it is drowned in the crashing and parting of the ice under Laufey's hands – and turns that familiar, wide as a mad prophet smile upon him. Loki has no trouble returning it, just as the last of the ice falls away and they are once more sweeping away towards the cairns.

*

The many great tents of ice and fabric of King Laufey's high court are raised up round the very edges of the shore, at the feet of their Ancestors – each scion responsible for his own House's shelter. Laufey watches the activity with a patience born of a life time spent in the orbits of ritual and unchallenged tradition. He would not change this, for it has always served to rebind that tie which keeps all Jotunheim's Kings bound to one another, though he would dearly like to cut that tie to his own sire.

Alas, but he would not be sundered from Ymir, nor Þrúðgelmir, nor Bergelmir, nor Thrivaldi, nor Vafþrundir. He would give much to have Mimir returned unto his own great black cairn, rather than be bound to that cold stone well deep within Odin Ginnarr's Valhöll, beneath the weight of Hliðskjalf.

When the tents are strung high and set into the cold sand, the court gathers round the King and his sons, and together they walk to the great black mountains of their ancestors; Loki walks at the very point, with the shape of his father and the Chieftain just behind his own thin, fine shadow.

The cairns rise up afore him, and the Voices are as gentle entreaties to him, welcoming him; he cannot speak for all that they whisper to him, for all that they remind him lives in the bones of the First House of Jotunheim.

If he cannot speak, then he shall sing.

A full turning spent in learning this ancient dirge, and now is the day upon him where he might give voice to the oldest of Jotunheim's songs. Pointing his feet to the cairn of First Father Ymir, the yellow sapphires plaited into his hair in that first God's honour, Loki climbs with his father at his back, till he and the King are high above the sweep of the horizon, and all is reduced to horns and silver rings and shapeless shifting under their gaze. Till all there is, is the Ocean, and the Cradle and the stone steps of the Titans.

The first, high, piercing whistle shivers out of the cavern of Loki's chest, and the dirge begins; it falls in waves and rises in sharp points of sorrow, in the mimic of a thousand, thousand cycles of death and life and burying great shapes beneath black cairns.

The Crown-Prince of Jotunheim intones his dirge with King Laufey knelt behind him, holding his hands aloft under the slowly fading light of the Eldingstjarna, and the faint, towering shapes of the Kings of Jotunheim rise up to ring round their own cairns like smoke and dim remembrances.

Loki does not know who it is that hears him.

*

The day-star is little more than a thin slivered point of light against the roiling waters of the horizon, the Ocean casting its dying light out across its waters like so much melted gold and the violent red of spilt blood.

Loki watches the ending of the day from the mouth of the pavilion, tired in a way he has missed feeling: that ease which comes from a day's light well spent in pleasant things, rather than blood and runes and night-terrors. There is a wrestling match just beyond the sweep of the tent, and he suspects both his father and his brother are watching.

The uncomplicated noise of enjoyment is soothing, and he closes his eyes to let his breathing sink into that steady rhythm which brings sleep; he does not meet silence, but a Voice.

That Voice.

The one he had thought his father had chased away.

Come child, it calls, summons. Come to my Shores.

Loki finds he is rising up from the soft furs, rising up to part the long, grey fabric at the mouth of the pavilion to stare out unto the Ocean, and that wide sickle-curved plane of black sand.

I have been waiting for thee some long, long time, child.

Loki takes a step, and then another, his little feet leaving gentle impressions upon the sand.

I have been listening to thee for Ages.

He drops the mantle of his wolf's fletching.

I would teach thee something great.

The cold, cold waters of the Ocean touch his feet. The Voice rises in his mind, a sinuous, subtle calling that he cannot deny. It roars and beckons, folds and divides, and....

Laufey raises his high horns and feels the darkest, blackest creature touch his heart. It is terror and he had forgot what a terrible dýr was its shape. There is a Voice on the wind, and it is not at all the familiar whispering from the cairns. He turns to Helblindi and sees that same terror on his second son's unscarred face.

“Where is your brother?” Laufey breathes.

Helblindi raises one long, sharp finger and points unto the Ocean.

The God-King of Jotunheim cannot run fast enough, for all the speed in his frame.

A great, dark shape touches upon the surface of the water, a thing that might be a thousand different forms; a thing that shifts like ink and shadow and smoke; a thing like bones and teeth cast into a chalk circle; Laufey watches it swallow his first born son just as his feet touch the cold, cold edge of the shoreline.

And there is only the howling despair of his own voice to answer him.

Chapter Text

~ * ~

He is a child of Jotunheim, no less than the first born child of the God-King of Jotunheim, and he has never been so cold . This is no Ocean, no dark depths which have swallowed him bones and all. This is nothing less than precisely what the Voice spoke unto him: a far distant shore.

All is dark, cold, strange.

Silent.

Here he has no hands he can see, nor feet to walk, nor lungs to breathe; it is as if he is shivering beneath the stave of a great pendulum, and one small turning will see him dashed to bloody lines upon some floor he cannot feel beneath his feet.

There is a great, great echo breathing through this vast, horizonless, unanchored pit. Something breathing in the pitiless dark, breathing upon his heart like some fell wind.

Where is the sky?

Where are the cairns?

Where is his father?

“What have I done?” Loki mourns, alone with the ungentle, heavy grip of sorrow closing over his little throat. “Father?” There is no one to hear how biting is his terror, how it is not calling but screaming. “Brother?”

“Please!”

“Father!”

I am frightened.

Child, says the Voice in the darkness. Be still. And there is nothing but a sudden gleam of white, white teeth, brighter than any length of bone should ever be. I am the very least of your enemies.

Loki tumbles down, cutting his palms on stones; he falls to the damp, reeking floor of a high mouthed cave, with all the heavy rot of high tide and the bones of little, moss eaten dead things creeping up to choke him. There is that dry, sharp burst of salt beneath his tongue, and for a moment he believes he has simply wandered too deep into the Ocean, and he is only caught in some strange world of reflections, waking dreams that obscure his father and his brother from his sight.

Surely, oh surely that is his father's distorted voice, calling him back from this dark, vile mouth.

He would wake now, and wake quickly.

Ah, the voice whispers, touching upon Loki like so much black smoke thick with the grime of burnt flesh and devoured wood. This is no dream, Laufeyson. I have called thee here for a purpose, and to remind your proud, high-handed father with whom it is that he shares his Dominion.

Loki shivers, shivers; if he opens his mouth he will cry, and the cold will shake so much from his frame. He will howl for those Titan hands, and that familiar, strangely gentle shadow.

You know my name, child. The Voice croons, slick as blood and fear. Speak it, for thou has't been a Voice in my Dreams for so many, many Ages. And I have dreamt long and dark and deep, of many, many things. You the least, and the greatest.

Loki knows. He has always known. Who else but this beast. This shadow of the Undertide.

“Fafnir.”

The great entropic Voice roars and laughs and shrieks; wind, and smoke and cracking ice; built of all that is better left forgotten. A grotesque mockery and a sibilant wonder. Aye, Laufeyson. Well met, are we. For we are those that walk between.

“I am nothing like you!” Loki cries out, and the sharp edges of his little fangs cut valleys into his tongue.

First there is a claw, cruel and gleaming and ringed round with the bones of Jotun and Fish and other Beasts that cling and eat and die under the waters of the Ocean.

Then is a snout, long and black and fever bright with a million, million scales and scars.

Teeth whiter than Vetrljós, whiter than Fear itself.

Eyes.

Eyes that are dying embers in a forge, like stars breathing their last great gasp of flame and light unto a vast and empty void. It is the knowing, abiding intelligence which is most terrifying. It is the understanding that there is a mind's keen movements in those wicked, half lidded pools, for they take up no reflections.

No false images take root in Fafnir's Terrible gaze; Loki stands afore that gaze and does not see himself in their depths.

Little construct, think you I shall eat your heart, and wear your fine white bones round my littlest claw? Fafnir speaks, rolling his ancient, sinuous body out to bathe in what light creeps into the den he has chosen for this...meeting.

“No!” Loki challenges, for if he is to die so far from his House, from his Father, from his Blood, then he shall be a happy victim, and meet the Norns without complaint. He will not greet his Father's shade neath the cairns with shame and fear as the last memories he carries under his skin. “I am a Prince of Jotunheim, first and greatest son of Laufey, and Death is a little thing for one of my Shape.”

Fafnir chuckles, a thick, vile scraping against bare rock that slips between teeth long enough to make Laufey small. Oh child, you are a liar. But a liar who knows his own lies is better than one who takes such things for truth.

Loki has the bright, brief thought to be insulted, but he would have answers first.

The great beast of the Undertide draws down his head, and opens his mouth. There is a long, heavy thigh bone caught within the sharp cage of his mouth – a scrap of Jotun chalk that he would have this little creature see – for fear is a useful thing, a seed that has a mind of its own once planted.

You would do well to remember that I am what has kept your people from their food, what has stalked their brittle little boats, what has eaten and swallowed and torn and taken, yet seen six God-Kings pass away unto black earth and ancient remembrances. I may be no enemy of yours, Laufeyson, but thou woulds't do well to remember I am no Dragon.

“If you are not a dragon, and you have not called me here to cut my thread,” Loki spits, his little, naked shoulders quivering in what might be terror, or cold or rage. “What have you brought me here for? To torture my father? To speak with a Jotun rather than eat one?”

Both, neither.

The silence is wretched to Loki, for even as he holds still he shakes – catching again that dry, heavy scent of salt in the air, mixed with rot and Death and black, black scales – and thinks of the tall shape of his father standing upon the shore.

Oh, oh what have I done to my father?

What pain has my stupid, foolish silence wrought for him? He will not know where to look. He will think me dead.

Loki finds that his cheeks are wet; there is such a wrenching pain in his throat, such a fist clasped round his heart that he cannot keep his silence, when now he has a true need of it. Despite the grit and filth covering his hands, he digs his palms against his burning eyes and leaves great streaks of black to mark the lines of his tears. How shameful. How fruitless. How childish.

“Father?” Loki screams, though he stands neath the shadow of a dragon. “Please, I am sorry I told you nothing of this Voice, please. Please hear me! First Father Ymir? Father Vafþrúðnir?” His feet have carried him out to the very, very edge of the cavern's wide mouth.

“Father, please, Father I have a need of thee!”

Loki stares out from the great mouth of the cave, and cannot breathe.

The distant shoreline is bare of the high black cairns of his ancestors, bare of the tents and the shifting, silver horned masses of Jotunheim's high court. There is a light striking down upon his head that is hot and unkind and heavy handed. Far upon the thin, pale line of the shore, which is a colour he has never seen aside from the rings upon his horns, are faint smudges against a blue, blue sky. Tall shapes that sway in the biting wind, a whistling music passing through green, bending fingers.

Trees. Green, living trees.

This is not Jotunheim.

If the Crown-Prince of Jotunheim screams, the wind tears it away quickly enough.

Now you see, Fafnir rumbles, the wicked curvature of his claws and their great chalky rings of bone gleaming under the light of this world's first star. Thou art far, far from home, fledgling.

Loki buries his head in his hands, puts his knees against the cutting, salt strewn rocks, and howls his despair into his palms.

So, little Trickster, little mage, come and dwell within the darkness once more. You'll find no escape, calls the shadow of the Undertide, and his voice is all the more terrible for its strength against the wind. That fair Jotun skin of yours shall burn if you linger under Midgard's sun any longer.

Midgard. That sad little world his father had been first shackled and then strung up for plundering.

Loki stares at the far distant shore, and does not understand. “Ginnarr sealed Jotunheim from the other Nine Realms, dragon. What lies are these, that I am standing here?” He must look up and up and up to catch the black curve of Fafnir's jaw in his sight, but he will not be reduced to speaking to claws and bones and rocks.

All Oceans are as but one Ocean, child. Fafnir replies, tongue tasting the salt air like some nightmare snake. I am bound by no laws that Odin Hoàrr might make. I am not a thing of any world, but a thing of many – as you are.

The dragon retreats into the cave, just as Loki's skin begins to heat and sting, a sensation he has ne'er felt afore.

“I do not understand.” Loki calls, shivering neath the moss and the shadows again.

You are not meant to.

With a great, curling, roiling twist, the beast brings his mouth to the little trickster again, and opens his maw.

Loki stares at a red tongue between great towers of white; a throat and a gullet and...

There is a dwarf staring back at him – dry, clean and unblinking – with a golden coin in each hand. There is a dwarf in the belly of this terrible Dragon.

“I – I do not, what is that?” Loki breathes, his little fingers grasping for a blade he no longer possesses, and it suddenly feels as if he is lacking an arm.

That is I. Fafnir replies, drawing down his rows of teeth to shut the sight away.

“You are a dwarf?” It is so ludicrous, so obscene, that Loki laughs, though there is more the sound of terror than laughter. He cannot meet the creature's gaze again. “How are you a dwarf?”

A curse, as curses go. I was a greedy shape, and earned my changed thread with no help from others. But that is not what is of import, Laufeyson.

Loki wipes at his cheeks again, leaving more black to mingle with the salt. “Then what is of import, Dýr?”

Thou art a creature like myself, child. I am no Dragon, no Dwarf, no living thing but a thing of memory and shadow and legend. In these impossibilities I am unbound to any laws, any realms, any borders. You are no Jotun, no boy, no child. Nor art thou an Aesir, or woman, or King.

The Crown-Prince of Jotunheim opens his mouth, his little, sharp teeth bright against thin lips, and finds no voice in his throat. It is shameful, but...he is so very naked in his ignorance, for surely this creature, this monster is mad.

“I do not understand!”

You are Loki. You have never been aught but that, no matter whose skin you wear.

Loki finds enough courage to scoff, and the exclamation echoes like jealous laughter in the empty, moss and bones thick cave. “I have never worn another skin but this one. Why would I wish to wear any skin but the one I was gifted by my father?”

That silver tongue of yours is the only part of you that never changes, child. Would you dare stand afore me and say thou has't never felt how thin – how changeable – is thine own shape?

A lump of true fear puts cruel, ungentle fingers through his innards; Loki stares up at Fafnir and remembers, no more than a turning ago, how he had felt when he had stood still and unmoving, how he understood if he were only to become more still... His mind rebels from the thought, recoils from that same terror he had felt not so long ago.

The wicked serpent, twisted dwarf, shifts and coils about the Prince of Jotunheim till all around him is high black ridges and gleaming scales. The world has grown too small for creatures of our shape, Liesmith. I would have thee out and roaming free. I would have thee make the world a little wider neath your hands – which is something you have always had such a talent for.

“You have not answered even one of my questions!” Loki roars, and falls upon the gleaming scales with all the force his little, sharp hands and teeth do possess. Dragon blood is not a thing he will ever wish to taste again.

I do not wish to answer any, child. Ignorance will serve you some long time yet, and there are better things to teach. Fafnir sighs, reaching up to pluck the biting, needling little Prince from his great black hide. When he sets the child back upon the cold, wet, ugly stones of this cave, he finds a knowing, keen pair of red eyes seeking out his own gaze. Impertinent creature, no matter who it is that brings him up. I should like to know who your father angered to be given you as you are.

“My father has spilled much blood for my sake, Creature,” Loki hisses, his fingers bright and warm and red. “You know nothing of him, nor of me.”

I know thou has't dreamt of being a fox, a stag, a wolf. A King.

Loki regrets it now, here in this dark cave, that he did not cling to his father's knees when first he had the chance.

I told thee, when you were stood upon Jotunheim's shores, that I would teach thee something great. I gave you no lie. Fafnir rumbles, his voice a queer lilting thunder neath the stones and the teeth of the high ceiling, neath the ungentle sun of Midgard. I shall teach thee to slip not only thine own shape, but how to walk the paths between these Nine Realms.

“Why? Why would you do such a thing?” No thing is given without a price, and yet Loki hears no cost of blood or scraps of his own flesh in Fafnir's offer. “What is it that you seek?”

An end. The great dragon who is and is not a Dragon replies. And to be relieved of an old, old debt.

There is only the slither-hiss rustling of a million, million scales across the wet cave floor to answer Loki's shout; he would have more, but there is no Voice, and no shape he can follow. Only the dark, and the bright water at the edge of the cave, and the little bones scattered round the floor.

When the vast echo of Fafnir's breathing becomes as faint as whispering, Loki creeps to the bright line Midgard's day-star draws at the mouth of the cave; it is the water which draws his eye first, then the colours, then the trees. Jotunheim is a thousand shades of blue, black, grey and white, only sometimes purple or gold or red and only when the Eldginstjarna is in its final portions above the horizon. Always does his home wear the face of Winter, but here, in this place...

Loki breathes in deeply and a hundred scents come to clamour for his attention: salt and bitter sea-spray, green threads of sea-weed, dead fish, smoke that is little more than a ghostly curl at the far edge of the distant, golden shore. He smells things he cannot place – fresh and bright and strange upon his tongue.

Once, when he had been very young, his father had given to him a little Dýr carved from a block of wood. It had been smooth, with dark, knotted eyes and a clean, sharp scent.

Pine.

He smells pine.

The lost Prince of Jotunheim remains at the mouth of the cave, watching the day-star set, and does not move till all is dark around him; he slinks to the highest, cleanest pile of rocks and lays himself out on their cold, wet surface.

He shivers all night long, with no wolf's fletching to keep his thin frame warm, and no familiar blade to keep the terrors away. If he cries for his father, for Helblindi, well, at least there is no soul here with a mouth to give a record of it, nor eyes to remember.

~ * ~

Arngrìmr stands as near the King as he dares; the second Prince is just beyond the edges of his vision, in the broad lee of his shadow. The Chieftain does not need to turn to know that there is a terrible, miserable thing in that child's eyes, but there is not even some poor scrap of comfort left for Arngrìmr to give unto Prince Helblindi; he very much doubts the sharp, proud reflection of Laufey would ever accept such a thing from the first son of Utgarð, when Laufey himself has not...

Watching the bowed, too still frame of his King, Arngrìmr finds in himself a courage he had thought best left buried with the last great War, for it is the courage of the stupid and the confident and the reckless.

He cannot abide to bear witness to Laufey's suffering, with only his own body to cover over Laufey's shame.

“Father?” Helblindi speaks, with every scrap of courage that he has managed to drag from himself being but a poor, thin mask for his terror and pain. “I would, I would....give,” He brings his hands up, and in the space between each palm rests his heart. “Anything.”

Laufey rises up, up to meet his second son, though there are a scant few rings between their heights, and fixes him within his sight. “Helblindi,” Laufey hisses, growls, for there is a wound beneath his ribs, a wound he had not known he carried. “Second Prince of Jotunheim, you anger me with your words.”

Helblindi opens his mouth to protest, to plead, to question. He does not pull away, even as the King takes his hands in his ungentle grip, and forces his palms to his sides. There is no softness in Laufey's eyes, no gentleness. Only grief and disappointment, and the ghost of confusion. Anger.

“It troubles me that you think yourself of a lesser worth than your brother. What separates you from he is great and impossible to bridge, but you are still my child.” He does not speak the language of confession, but it is as good an answer as he finds, lying so heavily beneath his sorrow and his rage. Laufey knows what is the bond between he and Helblindi: it is the familiar, the reflective, the uncomplicated. It is what grows between all those children of the body and their parent: the satisfaction of a pain suffered for a good working, a child of an agreeable shape. Laufey cannot change this, but perhaps he should offer a little more.

Helblindi stares at his father and feels as if he has cut out his own tongue. What might he say to such a thing?

“Go, I have had my fill of sacrifice.” Laufey speaks, though the words are as dry and white as shaman's knuckles against chalk. “Go, now.”

The second prince of Jotunheim bows low to the black sand, and flees on silent feet; an arrow straight and fine and no longer half so sure.

He is lost without his brother. He is naked in the wilderness, and all that he has suffered, has been prepared to suffer, is now for naught.

Loki is gone. Swallowed, stolen, eaten, dead, drowned. Taken. Nothing but bones and scraps of once bright flesh left to become so much chalk neath the great waters of the Ocean. His brother, oh his brother is with the Dýr of the Undertide now, and that Shadow ne'er gives back what it takes.

Never.

Helblindi stumbles upon the rocks, cuts his feet and bruises his palms, but he creeps and climbs till there are two els between he and the high court of Jotunheim, between himself and the shape of his father at the mouth of their tent, with eyes unmoving from the limitless, roiling line of the sea-born horizon. He scrambles and trips and nearly breaks an arm, but he finds a place to bury his grief.

A low tide pool, and a horn of sand stretching out into the Ocean.

A silent, distant place, since now there is no one he might give his shame to and trust to keep it safe. He puts his knees to the cold sand, grips his horns with shaking fingers, and mourns, with no body stretched out upon a bier to easy his cutting, killing grief.

He has killed his brother, without ever knowing there was a knife in his hand.

~ * ~

Hold still, Fafnir hisses, raising a claw to dig a thick furrow from the rocks. You must understand that if Death can take your shape, and yet leave you with another, then you can change it. You are a godling as fit as any other, and all that need remain of you is a vague outline in your own heart. If you wish to be a rock, you must forget you are soft flesh; if you wish to be a bird, you must forget how heavy are your bones; if you wish to be a fox, then you must forget you are not an animal.

Loki stills, Fafnir's shadow falling over him to make of him an unwilling prisoner, yet a willing student. He thinks of the not-fox in his garden, of its sharply pointed ears and narrow, intelligent face. He thinks of red fur and snuffling in the dirt for little mice, and worms. He thinks of a soft den, heavy with the scent of earth and tree roots and his own musk.

It is not pain.

It is like peeling away from himself, as when he had stood in his father's walled mind and put in his grasp the great plans for Harvetrtjald. It is like forgetting what he is, and losing himself in the ice. It is like breathing air, and drinking water. It is nothing less than freedom.

Six days pass afore he can be Loki again.

*

When he shifts into a stag, he gets only the horns.

*

When he races from the mouth of the cave to fly from the dragon and his great white teeth, he tucks the tiny bones of his wings too close to his little, shivering chest and falls unto the Ocean.

*

Fafnir gives him fire on the eleventh day of his confinement, on the eleventh of his wanderings in the spaces between. The flame burns and kisses and touches with greedy, ungentle fingers. He wears blisters upon his palms for days, and sleeps with a flickering bundle of orange tongues and salvaged, smoke heavy wood.

*

Oh how he longs for his father, for his brother.

The silence of Midgard is deafening, and he cannot chase the ringing from his ears, no matter how sharp is Fafnir's laughter.

*

Midgard's sun – as the Beast calls it – rises for the seventeenth time, though Loki feels as if a thousand years have passed with him abiding beneath this wet, stinking cave with this terrible, terrible creature as his guide and his only company. A guard he cannot yet be parted from, for all that knowledge which is being poured into the deep well of his mind.

He thinks today he has had enough.

“I would return to Jotunheim now.” Loki cries, though it is in the voice of a little fox, just in case he must escape those great black claws. “Thou has't tortured my father enough for one lifetime, and I grow weary of all this rot, and all these bones.”

Fafnir turns his dying ember eyes upon the little, well loved Treasure of Jotunheim and laughs, and laughs and laughs.

~ * ~

Laufey watches the horizon, tracks the shifting waters and the falling day-star. He Hears his fathers, hears their sorrow drown out Fárbauti's high laughter, and understands only a little.

Not even Ymir can speak of what has taken his son, but there is only one creature dwelling within the bounds of all the Nine Realms who has the power to take from the God-King Jotunheim.

“My King,” Arngrìmr murmurs, with half his gaze still upon the tall shape of the second prince being driven away by his own too heavy grief. “I can think of no other responsible for this...violation than the Crown-Prince's other half.” This may very well end with his own blood cast to the sand, but Arngrìmr will not desert his King, he will not play false, he will not hide. He will not cower and scrape and flatter, but take up his blade and go unto whatever War this act has brought down upon them all.

He will give his life, as so many others have, and give it freely, happily – for the King has kept his name many, many turnings now, and Laufey shall keep it for many, many more.

“And what would the first son of Utgarð know of my child's other half?” Laufey snarls, thinking to rise from his seat upon the cold black sand and put his teeth against Arngrìmr's neck. There would be a brief, sour pleasure in such red violence, and for a moment it might soothe the pitiless rage that has put its claws into the meat of his heart. But it would be a little, costly act – hardly worth the loss.

“I do not presume to know your wanderings, Laufey, but there could have been no other but that creature. No other but...” The master of Utgarð puts a finger to the black sand and draws a bundle of lines, mountains, a swatch of tall, bending shapes, trees and a set of calculations.

“Silence!” Laufey hisses, dragging a hand through the sand to wipe away the evidence. “You presume too much.” He curls his long fingers against his thighs and breathes deeply of his ever more fleeting patience. “I shared little with you in that Age.”

Arngrìmr finds he has grown tired of this unspeakable grief, this unborn horror walking across his King's proud frame. He leans into Laufey's orbit and puts his teeth against the fine, savage sweep of the King's neck. “Perhaps not, but it was nothing so great, what it was that spoke where you kept your silence. Your father may have been a keen eyed Dýr, but even he was...blind...to certain things.”

Laufey snorts, and all becomes a hard, ugly knot of memories and old pain mixed just enough with that bitter, shambling creature that is regret to put a towering rage beneath his hands.

“You wandered far, my King. And lo, when you returned unto Harvetrtjald, to Utgarð, always was there the scents of shapes I knew nothing of.

Pine”, Arngrìmr murmurs.

“And warm earth,

And Sunlight.” His tongue falters on the last word, because Jotunheim possesses something like it, but the divide between one and the other is vast, and a mystery to him. Were this any other day, under any other rising of the Eldingstjarna, he would ask more of the King, offer him the relief of joining. But he is, for all his presumption, not a fool. It would be little better than throwing himself upon the King's blade-arm, and expecting not to be cut.

“No other shape in all of Thrym has dared to suggest what you have, my Chieftain.” The King raises his head, flings up the high shadows of his horns, and knows what a sight he makes. “I will cut your throat if ever another does learn.”

Arngrìmr bows his head and keeps his teeth behind his lips. “My life has been yours long afore this rising, Laufey. In this I have never wavered. I shall be buried neath Death's hand, and still what is left to me will be yours.”

“Pretty words,” Laufey mocks, and does not mean the sharpness of his reply, but there is nothing left to him but cruelty and rage and desperation. “But I doubt them not.”

No laughter passes between them, not even the little, poor comfort of touch. This is Laufey's greatest secret, his greatest shame bound to his greatest triumph, and it is not for others to know or to understand. Not even his sire knew all there was, no matter how the shade-King bespoke that he did.

“My son has kept a shade veil over all the corners of Jotunheim for nearly six turnings now. Do not forget that We have been sealed away from the Nine Realms.” The King offers up to the Chieftain. “No creature, no matter how high their throne, can break our exile. No shape may touch our Borders, nor hang above our Stars, nor hide in our Ocean, nor slip across our Plains.”

“Laufey,” Arngrìmr interjects, raising his broad hand to touch upon familiar War Lines. “What God abides by his own rules? What Aesir keeps his own Oaths? Who else?” He will not simply accept that the jewel of the first House of Jotunheim is drowned by some dýr of the deeper Ocean. Some poor trick played by the Norns to the great ruin of the King.

“I know who else,” Laufey replies, though his voice is thin and bitter as smoke. “I have been feeding him for centuries, though I knew it not. The Beast, the Shadow, the very shape of the Ocean itself.”

“That is a children's tale,” Arngrìmr scoffs, shaking his head, though all the little black basalt knuckles wound round his horns are suddenly loud against the quiet. “A story we tell our young ones so they do not go wandering too far across the waters. A thing to keep their silence when they are small enough to be bought by fear.”

Laufey does not seek out Arngrìmr's red gaze, for there are some parts of himself that cannot be shown under any day's light. “I would have known, were it the other.”

If the Chieftain of Utgarð had any, any words to offer unto Laufey, he would not speak them for all the world. There is a clear, echoing divide between them, made by who and what is the King, made by all that he has won in this life, and all that he has lost. He is certain he will never know even one small third portion of these things.

“Fafnir will return what is mine, or I shall drive the Dýr from his Kingdom, so that I might keep his broken teeth round my throne.” The Undertide will get no more Jotun flesh from the hands of the King, not one scrap more.

Laufey does not take his eyes from the shore, from the horizon, from the black water and the falling day-star; if he must dwell upon these shores till Ragnarök, then so be it, even if it is only to take his son's bones from the Ocean to be buried with him neath his own black cairn. He will abide in this sorrow and pain, treat it as a beloved shape, and know aught else but those companions.

He knows this much:

The Norns are cruel, just as easily as they are kind.

No God moves their hearts, nor their hands.

He will wait; a titan shadow against so much black sand.

~ * ~

One of the twelve portions of the green-ringed moon has passed, surely; Loki has only a stick and a sheave of golden sand to make his calculations, but he is as sure as he can be under the heavy, stinging hand of Midgard's sun.

It has been far, far too long, and he is tired of all this darkness, and all those slithering, creeping noises that follow in Fafnir's wake.

When he drops the form of his little fox, he slips towards the great, hulking mountain, and brings up the spear he has fashioned from whale bone and two week's scraping against hard rock.

“Fafnir!” The Crown-Prince of Jotunheim summons, challenges. “Fafnir I would be gone from here, with out without your leave.”

The wicked serpent peels back one great lid, and regards the little Jotun with a quiet breed of amusement. Aye then, Laufeyson. I am weary of your Voice dwelling so close to mine own. With a sudden, horrific burst of speed, the dragon rears up and down comes his gleaming head to snap the little bone spear between two white, serrated teeth. I do not know which it is I find more amusing, your misplaced bravery or your quick, slippery mind. Both will bring you and your father trouble in equal measure.

“That is not for you to decide,” Loki hisses, and for spite he casts his broken spear against the thick black hide of the Dragon who is not a dragon. “Send me Home. Send me back to my Father!”

With a little effort, Fafnir coils upon himself to grasp a thick, heavy tome between his bone ringed claws, and deposits in afore the little, blue skinned terror. That immutable creature who is a thousand shapes and yet never truly different. This is my last...gift...to thee. Take it and learn, learn the shadow roads and secret paths. Learn how to break bonds and walk in the spaces between all things. Make of yourself a long, long shadow, Laufeyson. And cast it where you please.

Loki's fingers close round the great, faceless tome, and there is no warning for what comes save for a Terrible roaring and the sudden, blinding darkness that swallows him whole. He would scream, had he the voice to make such a noise.

The shore, think only of the shore and the bones of the Kings ringing round in one eternal, unbroken circle. Think of the tents and the silver banded horns and your father's shape upon the black waters.

Think only of the shore.

*

Loki is drowning.

He struggles against the weight of the water, the burning in his lungs, the cold in his bones. The book is an anchor, and a prize he will not release. A mighty kick, the last of his strength, and he is breaking upon the surface, gasping for air; howling.

There is a noise, a great cry, from the wavering, tremulous shoreline; Loki shakes his head, casting water and his own tangled hair about, but he sees no more than a thin line of sand and the high, high tents peaking against a clear, wide sky.

He screams – water choking him, mingling with the faint, sour taste of blood hiding between his teeth – and grips the great tome tighter. Oh how he does not want to die only a few els from Home. How sad and foolish and senseless.

Suddenly there are terribly strong arms pulling Loki from the water, and a achingly familiar, dearly missed shadow falling over him.

“Father!” Loki cries, unashamed of the terror and relief singing brightly through his voice. The book is still clutched in his hands, and he is shaking apart. Too long alone, too long cold and frightened.

Too long away.

A moment, nothing more than a breath, and he and his father are swept towards the shore, carried by a sinuous wave of ice and Laufey's own hand.

The King and the Prince come to rest upon the sand, Laufey's knees in the sand and Loki clinging to his shoulders. Fifty high horned Jotun wait at the mouths of their tents; four Naŕþengill and one Prince are as tall shades at the very edges of the royal pavilion.

One Chieftain stands as a bridge between, neither near enough to hear, nor far enough to be spared a sight he should not take such privilege in witnessing.

“Child,” Laufey speaks, though it is hard indeed to push a voice beyond his teeth, for all the miserable, unbearable relief bleeding away from his sorrow. “Oh my child. My Prince.”

Loki sucks in great gouts of air, coughing up water and a little blood and all of his high reaching joy. He cannot speak, cannot give his father anything but his own shape to ease the suffering burning brightly under the lids of Laufey's eyes. Unshed tears and a ghost of shame and a Love as like no other. All the things he should never bear witness to, and yet freely given under this day's light.

“Father,” Loki smiles round his pain. “Father I...” The touch upon his face is far, far too gentle. Too welcome. Too missed. “I am so sorry, please forgive me.”

Laufey makes no reply, only rising up from the sand to carry the slight, shivering weight of his son back to safety of the Royal pavilion, back to his people and his grief-stricken brothers and his Home.

This is the height, and the pit.

“Brother!” Helblindi cries out, and oh how bright is his joy.

*

Loki cannot see beyond the heavy fall of the grey swaths of fabric which shut out the Ocean and the cairns and a little of the wind. He has been sleeping for hours – for days, years, ages – tucked against his father's strong frame and wrapped in so much fur he thought he had, unbidden, become a wolf the first time he woke. But he is still Loki, and still tired and still frightened and cold.

Laufey has asked him no questions yet, only cut the length of his hair and coiled the black braid round his hand. Loki is relieved, though it is strange to have his hair curling against the nape of his neck, rather than neatly pinned by gems and hairpins in a shining knot. It was the tangles and nests of matted strands that forced Laufey's hand, but Loki is no less glad, for he would be rid of all that might remind him of his weeks in Fafnir's company.

They do not speak till Helblindi has fallen into his own rest. Till the Eldingstjarna is fallen beneath the horizon and the field of tents is empty of Jotun voices but not the calling of their wolves.

“Show me,” Laufey murmurs, plucking up his son and his strange, faceless book; they move away from the pallets, away from Helblindi and the softness of sleep. Neither is content to abide under that obscuring veil tonight – too sharp, too relieved, too torn by their un-looked for separation. “Fafnir took you for no little reason...always does that Dragon have some purpose.”

“He is not a Dragon.” Loki replies, setting the heavy tome in front of him and turning to curl against his father. “He is a dwarf, and a shadow and a legend. He is not of any world.”

“The Dýr of the Undertide stole my son to make idle conversation!” Laufey snarls, a black and vicious rage spilling out to smother the breath in his lungs. “That creature struck out at the House of Laufey for...for nothing?”

There is a sudden, damning brightness held in Loki's slender, deceptively fragile hands. A flame, red in colour, and possessing all the tongues of heat it should were it fed by wood rather than magick. There is even smoke, thin and blue and strange in the silent tent of the King.

Laufey thinks to strike that bright nest from the cradle of his son's palms for no better reason than it is wretched to see the warmth of Asgard burning in Loki's grip. He thinks better of it. “How strange,” he murmurs, “to see a Prince of the Ice call up flame and heat. Strange that a Dragon who is only playing at being a dragon should teach it him with no payment taken.”

Loki laughs at that, but it is sharp and altogether too bitter to be true laughter. “The price was thirty days in a cave on Midgard. Thirty days from Jotunheim,” Loki stops, swallowing his grief and his memories and his fear. “Thirty days from you, from Home, believing I would never return.”

Laufey takes his little Prince's shoulder in his hand, and casts the fire to the sand with the other. “We will not allow such a thing again. We will watch better, and you will keep that shade-veil darker still.” The fire glows and shifts, a creature all its own, burning brighter under Loki's flashing gaze, under the curiosity crowning his sharp, unscarred face.

“You thought Ginnarr took me.” There is no question in his voice.

“For a little while.” The King murmurs, drawing away from the warmth of the blaze. If Loki stays near such heat, there is a risk... “But I would have known it, had that Lord of War and Slaughter and Riddles come unto the borders of Our Kingdom.”

Loki finds any reply he might have given stolen by the colour creeping up his arm; pale as the heart of the green-ringed moon, it spreads like spilled ink over his frame, touching every part of him, even the great labyrinths etched across his chest, back and legs – even his face. Panic takes hold, for he had not called up any magick to change his skin. Loki shrieks, clawing at his arms to bring back the familiar blue, and suddenly finds himself being held aloft in his father's arms.

A bare half a breath and Laufey is smothering the fire with the heel of his foot; Loki's eyes are green, green like leaves and trees and grass; green like a woad-dragon, green like the cloth of Asgard and the House of his...

The King of Jotunheim would rather spend eight lifetimes or more, afore he would ever be forced to see that colour pushing away the fine, bright Jotun red of his dearest child's eyes. Tis always the fire which draws in he and his people, his son, though it does aught but burn. Well does Laufey know this, and it is shameful that he has never been able to put it behind him like so much of his long shadow.

What is worse is the terror in those wide green eyes, for the Aesir colour has touched Laufey as well, and here in the tent is he revealed to his son, in a shape he would have forever kept from the boy.

Loki stares up into his father's gaze and meets eyes like those of the great thunderbird, like the gaze of Thiazi: a bitter, vicious yellow that cries out for snatching lesser creatures from soaring heights. Every el as proud and high as the familiar red. He opens his mouth, as if words might come out if he gives them the space to show themselves, but nothing collects between his teeth save his own breath.

“I – I do not understand,” Loki pleads, struggling in his father's grip. “Why, why do I look like an,” he chokes on the word, that hateful word, “Aesir.” Why do you?

“Tis nothing,” Laufey replies, tucking his son's head under his chin. “Nothing but a consequence of too much heat. It will pass.”

Loki begins to protest, forgetting the book and the Dragon and all the other things he learned from Fafnir under that black cave. He forgets about Midgard, and trees, and sunlight. “Please, I – I would know if there is...” Something is hiding in the little spaces between his father's words. Something of a shape he has no knowledge of, something he lacks words to express. Loki understands this much: Laufey will not surrender it for any pretty words Loki might offer up.

“No more words,” the King murmurs. “We of the Ice are not meant to touch Fire. We are water, and change and shifting, we are forever in one shape or another, but never destroyed. Fire devours where we slip away, where we survive. Be more careful, my treasure, and it will not happen again.” He should have put the damned fire out the moment it sprung up between Loki's hands; he should have dragged Fafnir from the depths and skinned the beast alive, to hang the scales and horns in his son's tower chambers.

He should have done many, many things.

The book lies only half forgotten in the sand, next to the black remains of the fire, and Loki does not bring it up again. If what Fafnir spoke is true, then that tome will gift him a freedom like no other, and he will find his own truth. Better to beg forgiveness than to grovel for permission.

Better to be always reaching for something more, than to wait for time and dust to bring what it will.

“You should understand, Loki, that it is dangerous to shift one's form. Easy to forget, easy to drink too deeply of your own lie. Easy to lose your way back to your first shape.” Laufey knows what are the pleasures of a form unchained from its reality, has revelled in his own freedom, in the slide between one shape to another – in the power to keep one's truth to one's self, and make a mockery of the limitations of others.

He knows.

But Loki is Loki, and he knows just as well that it is only his own great frame that stands between his son and the Eight Realms beyond Jotunheim's untidy orbit. The King, and the father, knows it is only Love and Words which bind his strange little mage. And those things, those things are easily broken, easily forgotten.

As is so much in this universe.

~ * ~

The road back to the fractal, soaring shapes of Harvetrtjald's titan gates is a long, long blur of joy and freedom and that strange, fleeting creature called peace.

Loki keeps his tongue between his teeth when the Chieftain takes his wolf and turns her towards his own Erms. He is sure Laufey bid the first son of Utgarð farewell long afore this jointure in their own roads. He does not look to see if the King's eyes follow the high-horned shape as it flies across the great plains, alone; that is too much, even for the Crown-Prince.

Helblindi has not left his side in days, weeks.

Loki does not mind, and would have it no other way, for though he could speak it to no one, he cannot imagine a day where he will not lay down to sleep without the stone of his younger brother's arms around his little frame. They both of them suffered in their separation, and if they cling to one another, well, it is no one's concern.

Twenty risings of the Eldingstjarna see them riding beneath the black stone gates, and then beneath the horn gates; Loki thinks of his father's long, long charcoal arrow, and wonders what lines of his own he shall draw from this place, and where they shall lead him.

When the King dismounts and those who remained behind come to lead the wolves to their rest, Loki stands in the shadow of his tjald and waits for his family to join him, so that they may go unto the high throne of Winter together; there is such a heady, singing relief in him that he can hardly breathe.

Too long away.

Oh how he has missed the Voices of the First House of Jotunheim.

~ * ~

From the narrow lip of his tower window, Loki can see the great bowl of the horizon upturned before him, and the far distant line of black that marks out the shores of Járnviðr. Beneath him is the long shadow of Harvetrtjald, and the clean, unblemished beginnings of Thrym.

Laufey is behind him, watching with keen, knowing eyes. If this were any other moment between them, Loki would be cautious of the stillness in his father, but they are both here for a purpose: to test the limits of his shifting, while under his father's patient watch. Laufey will allow no more secrets to be kept by his son, so Loki will abide by the King's demands till he is able to break them with no consequences, not only for himself, but for Helblindi as well.

The Crown-Prince of Jotunheim will range within his father's sight for a little while longer; the curiosity he tangles with is too great a beast to be contented with scraps. Not when it knows how much more is waiting just beyond Jotunheim's cold circles.

Perhaps he owes thanks to the Dragon for that.

“Do not think of the ground,” Laufey speaks, and the moment his fingers touch the whorls upon his son's back, Loki spreads his arms and hurls himself from the tower.

A terrible six heart beats pass afore Laufey sees a little, white fletched eagle framed in the narrow mouth of the window. It flies on unsteady wings, but it flies nonetheless. There is a sudden, piercing cry, high and echoing in the emptiness of Thrym, and Laufey finds that he is wearing a wolf's red grin.

What a Nightmare, what a Terror, what a Reward.

His pride has never known any limits; he doubts it ever shall.

~ * ~

“I have a need of your help,” Loki says, head held high, one hand on the fine, golden dragon that shapes the haft of his new blade.

“The Crown-Prince need not ask one such as myself. It is yours, whatever it is that you seek,” Naŕþengill Angrboða replies. Strange to see the little Prince so far from the King, but it is not his to question, only to remember, and keep his tongue still.

It is unnerving to come into the corpse-king's chambers without his jealous green cloak wrapped round his frame, but Loki has greater needs now than his own distaste for his father's best warriors. Unceremoniously, he drops the book given from the claws of Fafnir on the great plinth of a table, cluttered with Angrboða's own scrolls and tomes and things Loki surpassed many, many turnings ago.

Angrboða's long, sharp fingers touch upon faceless grey covering of the book, a question in the tilt of his mouth.

“The problem lies not in my understanding,” Loki murmurs, climbing up to stand above the corpse-king on the high table. “It is the working I need assistance with. Two are needed to force a new shape into existence, and this is the only means to effect the desired results without,” Loki waves his hands, unsure for only a moment, “chancing some disastrous miscalculation on my part.” There is of course no means of attempting this working without the risk of physical dangers, but this is the path of least resistance.

He opens the book, crackling pages the only sound in the high ceilinged rooms. Angrboða does not need to know it took him weeks to learn to read the words, never mind grasp what they were offering to him. He knows this dýr is more than he shows to the King.

Angrboða shadow falls across the pages, and in his gaze Loki reads first a sharp denial, followed by a swift-footed wonder. The corpse-king cannot accept what it is that his Prince has brought unto him.

“You would do this? You would defy our King? You would seek to defy even that warmonger Odin Viðurr and his terms?” The Naŕþengill scoffs.

“Do not speak to me as if we are equals!” Loki bellows, drawing his fine, bright blade. “I will do as I please, and you, you will remember what I did to the nine.” No creature may intrude upon his privileges, nor gainsay his demands. He will be King in a span of Ages or so, and they all must learn.

Angrboða finds a snarl on his thin lips; loyalty to this child's father will only move him so far.

The hiss of his knife is loud in the silence between he and the Naŕþengill.

“If you speak a word of this to my father,” he shows its gleaning edge to the would-be mage, “I will cut your heart out, as I did to the others.” Fafnir has taught him much, and he will not play in the shadows out of sight of the King when it comes to those he takes as enemies.

A little, red thread of violence is unraveling in the space between the Naŕþengill and the Crown-Prince, and only Loki's high place spares him what might be the end of this impasse.

“Very well,” Angrboða speaks, bending under his Prince's proud, high-handed gaze. “I will keep my silence. I will ask nothing in return.”

“Good,” Loki replies; the wide, white smile he gives to the corpse-king is a terrible thing.

*

Half a turning of the green-ringed moon passes away across Jotunheim's darkest quadrant to find Loki standing beneath the tall shape of the horn gate with Angrboða at his side. In his hands is a steaming bowl of blood and an icon carved from basalt stone.

It is only the shade-veil that keeps the Voices of his father's fathers from creeping unto to the King to speak of Loki's workings this day. He knows they would betray him without a thought, no matter that he gave them a Heart to tie their bones to.

Angrboða begins, his great chest rising and falling with each biting rune shape he speaks with his tongue; the magick is not of Jotunheim, not of Asgard, not of Midgard, not of any Realm save that one which none but Jotun ever have the strength to return from, and even then they come only as poor shades and bitter voices.

This is Death, that shape which falls across all creatures in all universes; that entity which shall endure through all ages and all times and all fates; what no Ragnarök can subsume or destroy or change. Kings and Gods and little, creeping things shall all one day know its touch, no matter how they struggle against it.

Loki closes his eyes against the brightness of the snow, and tips the bowl into the deep, deep trench he and the Naŕþengill have dug. The blood splashes his feet, and the little icon makes a heavy, dull thud when it reaches the bottom of the furrow.

He joins his voice to Angrboða's, and the runes wrap their bridges round and round till Loki feels thin and stretched against the bitter wind, till he thinks to fly apart and be no more than what his ancestors are: a shade in the halls of his father.

The last of the shapes fall from his lips and there is a sudden, terrible crack which first he thinks is thunder, but upon opening his eyes, finds it is the earth itself that has split apart like a fish half gone to rot left upon the shore.

From the ugly, clotted pit rises up a form, a shape, a creature.

Eight legs and a proud, towering body; strangely soft and gentle eyes.

A thing that only plays at being a horse.

A thing which knows no borders, no bonds, nor chains; no laws but immutable Death, which throws its great Hands across all creatures in every universe.

Loki puts a trembling hand to the great beast's warm muzzle, feeling the bellows heaving of its new breath.

Sleipnir.

He will carry Loki as like a funeral procession unto the cairns of his father's fathers; he will carry Loki between the stars, along the shadow paths that bury themselves between the Realms like sea-snakes in the silt of the Ocean.

Loki will enjoy spitting in Odin Ginnarr's face.

Chapter Text

~ * ~

Odin has not stood upon the Bifröst in four risings of Asgard's third sun; he has not looked out upon the milky, spiralling arms of Yggdrasil in such a number of days that he finds an unexpected anger waiting for him, that he could so turn away from the universe and its peoples.

Jotunheim is as dark as ever: a cold shell, a voiceless rock; a great, writhing shadow-veil draped over all that was once far too familiar to his eyes. He had not thought any power in the universe capable of hiding those teeth from his gaze, from Heimdall's own no less. Odin knows how wide is his own Sight, and it is poor in comparison to the Son of Nine Mothers.

Odin sees how this rift in his horizonless sight galls the All-Watcher, how it stings his pride and keeps his keen, far flung gaze firmly bound to shade and cold and silence. It is not a height Odin envies, for nine days strung upon that ash tree had been pain and coin enough for him, never mind an eternity bound by duty and choice indistinguishable, watching upon the walls for the end of all things to come by any Road.

No hearth, no home, no wife. No lover. No sons, no daughters.

Aught but Space and Time and Understanding, unrelenting Understanding.

And yet, as he has well learned, always does the universe ask some scrap of flesh or heart or soul in return for its gifts. Always. The All-Father is no exception to this inviolable principle. Nor is Heimdall.

“Tell me, my son, what is it that you see?” Odin asks, though he might save himself the trouble and speak for his son. He knows Thor's answer; Tilkváma is a bright skinned fish leaping at the edge of his blinkered horizon.

“I see the branches of Yggdrasil holding aloft the Nine Realms,” Thor replies; he makes his own work, tossing his hammer from hand to hand. “I see Niðavellir, Álfheimr, Vanaheim, Midgard and Múspellsheim; I see Niflheim and Helheim and...Jotunheim.”

“What else?” Odin hounds; the shriek of the hammer makes Odin clench his jaw, all the better to grind his teeth to dust.

“Nothing. The great black of Space; stars, so many stars. Heimdall's eyes on my back.” Thor murmurs, unwilling to turn his gaze upon his father. There is a strange, vicious gleam sewn into Odin's one eye, and for all the riches of Asgard, Thor cannot place its origins. His father had been cheerful at this morning's meal; stern and yet wholly patient with him as they had done again the first sixty four verses of the Völuspá, though that same patience had not turned itself to accepting his crude solution to the squabbles Asgard has been having with Niðavellir. It is, apparently, not the purpose of a King to wield a weapon afore he wields words.

Those Eyes are not upon your back, foolish boy. Must the entirety of the Universe rest in your orbit? Odin should like to snap, but he thinks better of unmanning his son twice in one day. “What shall it take to make you see as you should?” This is the kindest reply he can find upon his tongue.

Thor shifts, leaving Tilkváma to swing against its cord, and meets his father's blade fine gaze. Not even the sweep of gold his mother gave to cover over the old wound softens his father's face. “I do not understand, what more is there?”

“Always is there more,” Odin sighs, raising up a hand to point unto the coldest, thinest, palest branch of the Great Tree. “Look you there, boy, and tell me what you see.” He knows just how heavy is his hand upon his son's shoulder.

Heimdall's golden horns catch in the light of a wayward string of red shift stars; he makes no signs that he wishes to be included in the All-Father's lesson. The Crown-Prince is a willful young ǫ́ss, and not a problem he need concern himself with in this hour. Time enough to wait, to watch, to cleave to himself a better understanding of the vagaries of that petty creature called Fate.

He will not tell any Aesir how he misses Jarnaxa's shade, how even here upon the edge of all things, upon the walls of the Realm that is called Eternal, but is no more lasting than a Sun or a Star or a Breath, he is touched by that false crown of silence the last great war wrought for so many, many creatures, least of all himself.

“Jotunheim.” Thor offers, face blank and tongue bare of any greater implications. “As it always has been. Cold, dark, dead. A home of Monsters and Plunderers. A cruel, unhappy world.” What else might he say? I see the planet shattered by Asgard. I see the greatest triumph of Odin Sigföðr, Odin Fráríðr, Odin who is Harri Hliðskjálfar. I see my proving grounds, those grounds you keep me from. Thor is no fool, though he shall ne'er admit how loose is his tongue when he is caught in the brightness of a sudden cry to action. Moreover, these words would anger his father, who never speaks of War or Ruin or Victory in his presence. His father the King of All, who refuses to see how the Nine Realms is forgetting again the glory and might of Asgard.

Tis the only explanation for how rude and over-reaching were those dwarves in the High Gatherer's market. No Utlánðr may tell an Aesir how to behave in his own Realm. Let the dwarves keep their own quarrels, and bring them not to Asgard to trouble Aesir with the dealings and short-comings of little, stone eating peoples.

“See you the branch upon which the Realm is set?” Odin hisses, digging his fingers into the meat of Thor's shoulder. “See how it is weaker than the rest? See how thin is its connection to our Realm, to all other Realms? Has it always been thus?” He does not ask these questions for his own edification – those answers have dwelt in the darker chambers of his heart for many a year now.

Thor again turns to the cold, cold world flickering upon the highest, farthest branch of Yggdrasil, and sees what it is that his father urges him to see. Such a thin, poor thread. A little thing easily snapped from the great shade of the Tree; easy to watch it tumble down unto the jaws of Niðhogg, unto Oblivion. “Has it not always been thus?” Thor questions, searching his dim memories for the long years in which his father had been an unfamiliar shape passing in and out of his life with all the stink and glory of War wrapped round his proud frame. He remembers little enough save for the day his father had returned less an eye, but with the heart of a Realm in his hands.

“Think.” Odin grits out, knocking Gungnir upon the shivering Bifröst.

And Thor remembers.

As if unbidden, his mind drags a wide net through the bright shapes of his youth, and pulls up memories of a planet spinning in a neat, tidy orbit. A Realm over-bright with deepest blue, cloaked in searing bands of white, and held between the dark horns of a sprawling Ocean. A Face meant for harshness and violence and an ungentle Beauty which he could ne'er give words to describe.

To weaken one Realm is to weaken all Realms. To strike at one House is to strike at all. Warmongering cannot be forgiven. The Tree grows strong in the inviolability of its crowns, and if any seek to break one of those crowns...

Has his father been lying? Is this some weighted test, meant to drag his ignorance from his tongue? Thor would pay dearly to understand half of what his father wishes of him, since Odin will not simply tell him.

“Jotunheim has not always been so dark,” Thor replies, eyes stuck to the wandering planet, ringed round with the bones of comets and the tidal ebb and flow of some great shadow. “Once it was bright and strange. Whole.” He turns to his father, putting away the sight of Jotunheim, and there is a sharp question waiting to be given to his father. Will Odin think it a blade?

“Yes?” The All-Father waits.

“Did you yourself not tell me once, when I was young, that no Realm should be cast down for the sake of another? Did you not tell me these things, and many others, as proof of what evils live under the banner of War?” More than anything it is anger which sharpens his words. A warrior's patience? What idle nonsense! When here, by Odin's own words, is the evidence of how best a King might buy Peace: Ruin, and utter Submission.

Odin has half the words, and their implicit understanding, that he was hoping to get from Thor, but there is time enough to wait for the rest. “Aye, I told you no lie. It is wrong to break one world to spare another. Yet as a King...” he finds, for only a moment, a weakness which comes creeping into the cage of his ribs, one that stops his tongue and bends his neck. “As a King there are days wherein you must choose one evil in place of another. Choose the lesser wickedness.”

“That is Woman's talk,” Thor murmurs, Tilkváma swaying upon the cord at his wrist. “We must always be Right, or there will be no defending ourselves against the other Realms, when they can truthfully cast stones at Asgard and her Judges.”

“Woman's talk?” Odin roars, Gungnir humming in his hands. Oh how easy it would be to let the great, golden voice of the Spear of Heaven slip its leash. “What know you of a woman's heart, boy?” He spits, thinking to bend his son's knees for this insolence. “What know you of any creature's heart, when you are young to your own?”

“I know enough to see how the other Realms have begun to laugh at us, that we have been chased from the Universe by some low Jotun King and his armies!” Thor bellows, flinging his words in his father's face, heedless of where their lances strike. “I know what truth there is in...”

“Truth?” Odin breathes, a sudden, ugly laughter twisting his lips. “And what, child, do you comprehend of Truth? You know no more than does a bird, or snake or a frog.” His teeth are sharp against his tongue; there is such an outrage in him, such a sense of true insult that only violence will be its cure.

“I know I am free enough to make my own. Free enough to judge others by their own.”

“Silence!” Ginnarr hisses, raising high his hand to give a threat that needs no words to give it weight. “You are no more free than I. We both are bound to the high seat of Hliðskjálf, so thusly are we more chained than any other shapes in this universe. You should know this.” Odin barks, anger and disappointment and the early sting of resignation thinning out his voice. “How is it that you still do not know this?” The All-Father does not expect, nor need, any reply. “Freedom is not a privilege given to any under the halls of the House of Odin; you are no more free to keep your own morality than you are free to marry whom you please, or wage War as you please, or Learn as you please.”

“A King must serve a million, million others afore he serves himself. He is Last, in worth and import, to all the peoples of his Kingdom. Last in all things.”

Thor raises his chin, and refuses to bend; all those years in the mud, all that blood against Tilkváma's bright skin; all those ropes and stones and Deaths wherein he watched another shape fly unseen to the Halls of his Fathers, to dwell, if only for one final moment, under the light of a better day. What has that been for, if not to teach him how to judge others? He narrows his eyes, and watches an animal which bears no name stalk beneath the All-Father's skin.

“Think you thus? That you may have what pleases you, regardless of the consequences? Think you I wished to break my own strings, and cast Jotunheim to the pit? We must seem to be Right, even when our hearts know it is Wrong. So is the price of the Throne you wish to sit upon – that it will take so much more from thee than thou woulds't ever have believed it could.”

“When I am King...” Thor scoffs, unafraid, if only for the running of his pride.

“But you are not King!” Odin mocks, and Gungnir's multitudinous voice rings out, even touching upon the great Void that spreads itself out beneath the gleaming ribbon of Bifröst. “Not yet.”

Thor opens his mouth, ready to fight with his father till one is forced to give a scrap of their own pride, till one draws blood, but...

Odin is as still as deep waters, a sudden fire in his one eye burning brighter than any rage Thor has ever seen.

“All-Father?” Thor questions, reaching out to lay a hand on his father's forearm.

“Jotun.” Odin Spear-Breaker, Warlord, Far-Rider, breathes. “A son of Winter come to Valhöll.”

And they are racing towards the Palace like the great roiling anvil of a thunder heavy storm.

Odin leaves Thor far, far behind.

*

A drop of blood and a hallowed word is all that is needed to break open the soaring Rune-doors to the great Vault of Asgard. To the great frame of þyrstrbeitr, which carries all the spoils of all the Ages, even unto the shores of Ragnarök.

Odin takes in the sprawling, torchlit hallway, and sees no foreign shape flitting in between the wide columns which house the greatest of Asgard's weapons. Even half blind he can seen no artifact has been disturbed.

That is not what makes his blood run cold.

At the crown of the chamber, a bare fourteen metres from the plinth that keeps Vetrljós from the hands of others, from the hands of thieves and plotters of War, is a mighty, mighty shadow creeping up from the Well. A whispering as thin and cold as spider's silk pulled too far.

Mimir Once-King is rising up from his watery prison, but it is not the heart of his planet that he is reaching out to reclaim.

It is his own head.

The Titan shade drips great ropes of black water upon the clean, gleaming floors of þyrstrbeitr; it smokes like acid and hisses so loudly Odin cannot help but think of a cornered beast with bright fangs, ready to fight to the bitter end.

It is a Terrible sight.

“Mimir! Stop!” Odin roars, and he flies to the Well with Gungnir in his hands. As if any weapon could part the Hands of Death, as if he might hurt shadow and memory with nothing more than fire. “None leave Valhöll save by my Hand.”

The Shade grows ever longer, and the smoke thicker.

“Is that Truth on your tongue, Skollvaldr?” a cold, cold voice murmurs.

That Voice. Oh, not that Voice.

Odin has never heard any other creature in all the universe keep such a voice; A voice he has not heard in seven turnings of the green-ringed moon: the resonant, resplendent tongue of the First Son of Winter.

His greatest enemy, his only equal: the punishment and the goad and the prize.

The unnavigable labyrinth.

There is a shape in the reflection upon the floor, sat atop the chill stones of the Well, with one ankle resting on one knee, as if he has only stopped a moment along some familiar Road in his wanderings. As if he is not shamelessly violating every term the All-Father issued to him to buy the Peace the All-Father so longed for, and the ending of War.

“Laufey.”

“Ginnarr.”

His first thought is violence; he brings up Gungnir, swinging the spear in a great, cutting arc, only to watch it pass through the God-King's faintly glowing chest like a blade through water, or smoke.

The voice is only an echo.

“You have come unto my halls as nothing more than an eidolon?” Odin snarls, fighting with every baser memory under his heart not to mourn the fact that it is not flesh seated before him, but a ghost. A ghost he cannot touch.

Laufey smiles, and it is of such painful brightness that Odin must look away, if only for a moment. Oh how sharp are his teeth.

“Why have you come?”

“To have back what is mine.” Laufey offers, his long, long fingers giving off a strange phosphorescence under the molten orange torchlight of þyrstrbeitr's lamps. “What you and yours stole from my House.”

Odin laughs, but it is such a grating, bitter thing that he finds a distaste for his own voice spring up; has he always been thus? “Surely you are not so foolish as to think to take Vetrljós from my keeping? That was the price to end my slaughter of your people, King of Jotunheim. You cannot have forgotten what Ruin I wrought upon your Realm in just these seven turnings.”

“Forget?” Laufey hisses, still seated upon the lip of his great, great old Father's prison. “I should live and die in a hundred cycles and yet a hundred more, and still I would not forget.” Even as nothing more than an echo, his horns are high and proud; their shapes fall across the Aesir Lord like a declaration.

“I am here for Mimir. I am here for what no Aesir should keep under Asgard's Halls.”

“And what is that?” Odin speaks, even as his mind is cleaving itself in two. One portion for Laufey, for all that his image stirs in Odin, and another for the hulking shade of the Once-King spreading across the floor like a contagion. Every moment spent with Laufey is another given to Mimir; oh how it bites at Odin, to be bound by that little, fleeting, towering God called Time.

“Jotun.” Laufey spits, baring his fangs. “Jotun are not meant to dwell in the Realms of others. Least of all this pit of snakes and flatterers and ignorant deceivers. And under the hand of an Aesir such as you, no less.”

“I paid in kind for his head, Laufey. You know that.”

“It was not yours to pay, Bölverkr!” Laufey roars, his sharp fingers digging furrows into his bare thighs. “Return my Father to me. He has been your prisoner for too many of these long, long Ages.”

“Will you return what you have stolen from me?” Odin murmurs, Ginnarr shining brightly upon his face; his teeth are in equal sharpness to Laufey's. “One relative of the Blood for another.”

The eidolon seated before him laughs and laughs and laughs.

“What Blood do you speak of, Viðurr?”

“Do not trade petty cruelties with me, Laufey. We are above that disservice.” Odin snaps and hisses, ungentle with his words, though he knows he would not win anything no matter the care in his voice. “The child. The child fleeing to Thiazivarði.” It is that accursed crown again; that understanding of how he has never wrested anything from Laufey, not even his victory, without first cutting out some piece of himself. “You will give me a scrap of truth, King of Jotunheim. Now.”

Laufey tilts his head, a great cat with a heavy, fat deer beneath its paws, and gives Odin silence in reply.

“Do not think of it as kindness.” Odin presses, heedless and racing to the summit of that knowledge which had been kept from him these long, bitter fourteen years now. “Only what is owed.”

“What arrogance!” The King replies, anger and outrage and a naked refusal hiding in the whorls of his red eyes, though he himself is nothing more than vapour and air and Thought.”You truly are a fool, Bölverkr, if you ever thought yourself worthy of such an honour. What you speak of is the greatest test and highest power that any Jotun might give to another. I would never have given such a thing to you.”

Mimir is nearly upon the plinth.

“Nál,” Odin sighs. “Nál I would know. I would know,” his tongue is thick in his mouth, heavy with uncertainty and that ugly shape he might call regret, but is more likely shame at being so deceived. “If the child, the rune-speaker, is my son...”

Laufey stills, his Form beginning to pull apart on unseen winds; a thing of vapour and air and the breath of Winter itself. Oh that name, that first, true Name.

“Do not,” Odin breathes, reaching out to touch nothing; it is fruitless and vain, senseless, but he cannot kill the need as quickly as he might be prepared to live with.

“Always it is the impossible with you, Odin.” Laufey gives, though it is a little nothing, and just as the Aesir's scarred, battle roughened fingers reach out to touch what is not there, to trace familiar Rising Lines upon his cheek, Laufey sees his Father grasp his own horns.

There is a sudden hammering upon the rune-doors, and a fractious ringing fills up the halls, a young thunder booming under the sacred halls of Þyrstrbeitr. Minutes remain to the Lord of the Universe and the God-King of Jotunheim, who is wandering so far from his Ice and his Fathers and his House.

Seconds.

Odin finds the runes on his tongue afore he understands what it is that he doing. The bridges sing and Mimir howls, his spider silk voice rising, rising to screaming and bitter cursing. His shade arms have been broken and the head cast to the far corner of the Treasury.

Mimir is spread upon the gleaming floors like the shadow of Thiazi cast down from the sky, and there is such an un-looked for sorrow in Laufey's blood red eyes that Odin feels every inch of his trespass creep across his heart. He had not thought he would live to see the King of Jotunheim so naked, so careless with his truth.

“I have taken nothing from you, Aesir.” How strange, how terrible, that even as nothing more than a Thought sent hurtling through the vagaries of Space, Laufey's voice echoes as deeply as any mountain's unseen roots.

Odin's fingers touch upon the eidolon's cheek, nothing more than the ghost of a ghost. “Is that not all you have ever done to me, Jotun?”

Laufey shows his teeth, and, sparing one final glance at his defeated ancestor, tips his air and vapour body towards the deep, deep Well.

He falls to the water with that unbearable smile upon his sharp, proud face.

Odin knows what hides behind Laufey's hard, unbending denial, for it is a truth Odin has long since learned to content himself with.

What the King of Jotunheim truly meant was: I will take yet more from you. And you have not the strength to End it.

“Father!”

There is no heavy splash to mark the King's passing from Asgard to Jotunheim. Not even a ripple upon the water.

Without warning the high Rune-doors split apart like rotten fruit and Thor is standing in the golden breach, Tilkváma held as a prey-bird in his hands, breathing hard and flushed with anger, with that familiar excitement Odin has so grown to loathe like the bitterest of his enemies: Bloodlust. Thor has seen the shadow of the Jotun upon the Well; he will not think it no more than a spectre. An illusion given too much breath.

“My son,” Odin calls; he is miserably grateful for the long length of the Treasury. It will give him the moment he needs to sew himself back into his skin, time to twist himself back into the false shape of Odin All-Father, Odin Fráriðr, Odin Sigföðr; Odin Killer and Deceiver and Evil-Worker, those faces are not for Thor to see. Not yet.

Time to make himself the King of Asgard again, and not the ǫ́ss who once wandered with strange creatures under stranger skies. Not the man so ruled by those memories that he cannot be parted from, not even to win for himself the foresight to have known better.

“Was that a Jotun?” Thor shouts, as if there is not already enough screaming under the Treasury's high ceiling. As if he cannot see the Terrible clot of black remembrance drying to ash upon the floor. Nor hear the wicked, wicked Voice hurling curses and obscenities and bitter truths at Odin from the depth of the well.

The screaming is so violent Thor finds he must clap his hands over his ears and grit his teeth against all that red threaded rage poisoning the air and choking off his father's reply.

Mimir.

You ignorant snake, you false-King, you fool! Twice-Murderer, Kin-slayer, I say my body was not yours to mutilate! And to think, your Mother was of our Race, and yet you spit on her Shade with your cruelty. Burr Bor, Burr Bestla, do these so gathered here have ignorance in such abundance as to call you wisest of all Gods? Mimir howls and curses and rages.

Such utter condemnation Odin has never heard, least of all from the voice of a Jotun, a memory of living and nothing more substantial than that, for in all the long Ages he has kept Mimir here in the Well, the All-Father has never taken such a pitiless savaging at what teeth remain to the Once-King.

Bölverkr, Skollvaldr, Ginnarr, Gizurr and a hundred other Names. I curse thee, Odin Haptaguð. Odin who is the God of Prisoners! How dare you deny my Son the right to his own Father's bones. How dare you keep me from my Children!

“Enough!” Odin commands; he has had his fill of being torn at by Jotun this day. The seid comes whispering unto his bones as easily as breathing, and as familiar as Gungnir's own voice.

Coward.

“Þegja,” the All-Father speaks, and Mimir Once-King is silenced.

“Yes.” Odin replies, turning to his son and giving the ash upon the floor his back. “That was a son of Winter.” It is not for his arrogant, hot-headed son to know it was the First Son, the God-King, the very lodestone of Jotunheim. Odin will keep that knowledge.

Thor raises Tilkváma and points the hammer to the plinth upon which Vetrljós rests. “Then, has Jotunheim declared war? Did the beast seek the Casket?” He does not like the hesitation that creeps into his words – worse than he must ask a question of his father after so arguing with him only moments ago.

“Hardly,” the All-Father replies, missing the fact that he cannot dig his thumbs into both his eyes to push away the weary shadows that have sprung up under his gaze. “One wayward Jotun far from his Realm is not a just cause upon which to wage a War.”

Thor opens his mouth, a dozen rebuttals and more crowding between his teeth. He cannot believe these words from his father, for surely the King of Asgard must see how this permits the other Realms to paint the Aesir with the broad brush of cowardice; how the Dvergr and the Álfar and the Vanir, perhaps even the titans of Múspellhiem, will see the rulers of the universe as cowed by Jotunheim – by that crippled, exiled world.

“All-Father, you cannot mean to say we will take no action? The Jotun have broken your commandment of Exile, they have crossed our borders! That monster” Thor spits, raising his hammer again, as if to embolden his hard, glinting words, “has made a mockery of the Gate-Keeper, of your own Rune-doors. These are all good, just causes to raise up the Einherjar.”

Odin finds only anger waiting for him; no softness, no compassion, just the bright, gleaning edge of his outrage. He has played enough at Peace and Justice and Virtue for a hundred lifetimes, and still must he stand afore his son and deny every baser instinct he keeps in the clutches of his heart. The parts of himself he has had to put away to be a King before he is a Man.

He would glory in another War, he would make such Ruin as to shame the exploits of his father's fathers. He would ride to Jotunheim and make it bones and ghosts and two shapes yet alive, two to bring to Asgard as his reward. For what Warlord takes his leave of the battlefield with no war-prize to keep in his Halls?

Laufey and that little starling; that child who may be a lost Odinson, kept far from his father's Halls.

Instead, what he gives to Thor is this: “The House of Odin is no nest of Warmongers.” A lie, of course, but one Thor shall have to learn to abide by.

Odin is an old, old god; he is tired.

“You cannot be serious?” Thor hurls back, and his bright, sun touched hair is a poor veil for the reaching pride in his eyes; it covers not his desire for war.

Odin spares a moment to wish his only legitimate son had been born more in mirror of his shape, and not taken so much of his mother's colouring; it is very like a slap in the face, to see Frigga's kind, magnificent eyes wearing his own lusts.

“Jotunheim is a threat!” The Crown-Prince of the Aesir challenges. “And Asgard is the only Realm strong enough to meet that threat. We must teach these Jotun to respect that power, for clearly they have forgotten.”

“Do not mistake the actions of one for the desires of all,” Odin returns; his knuckles are bloodless against Gungnir's golden skin. “Thor, heed me now, boy, for I will not speak it twice!”

Thor stills, and Tilkváma swings on its cord.

“Your words – these are the words of arrogance, of ignorance. You know nothing of War, and I will hear no more of it from thee. You know nothing of Pain; nothing of Suffering, nor of the agony that is sending Men to their Deaths, all while assuring them the shall return to their own Halls, and knowing it a Lie.”

Tilkváma sways, an object not quite knocked out of its natural motion.

“I will hear not one word more,” Odin presses. “Not now, nor under any other day's light.” The King of Asgard is far beyond the circles of rage or bellowing; he is passed sparing a mere boy the measures of his own childishness.

The Norns have indeed been cruel to leave no space for a God such as Thor to learn as he should. No hard lessons, or costly mistakes; no chance for true regrets, or bitter separations. But such is the reward for those born after great conflicts: to come to strength and surety with no knowledge of what those who came before suffered to gift them that privilege.

Thor opens his mouth, but no words come to him. What is there for him to give to his father but his anger? “I – you – cannot truly...”

“Hie!” Odin roars, cutting his hand through the air like a blade; it bisects Thor's armoured chest, or it would, were it truly a blade.

“Husband!” Frigga speaks, though her tone is as cold as naked steel. “What is this here?”

The Queen of Asgard stands in the golden divide, Nothung unsheathed and pointed to the Treasury floor, the tip of the blade between her green silk shoes.

Odin would give his wife some comfort for her troubles, but he sees no need for softness in the high, proud set of her shoulders, in the flashing of her winter-sky eyes. It is the comfort of her skin he seeks – the golden sweep of sun warmed flesh that has never known Winter, but he knows she would deny him.

“I come to see what has breached our defences and here I find not an enemy but my son and my husband warring with each other like spoilt children!” She hisses, her face as opaque as fine sandstone; Nothung gleams over-bright as she makes her way towards her family, the Royal family that is currently making asses of themselves in full view of forty seven Einherjar and half a dozen Treasury guards. “The King and the Crown-Prince, biting at one another like hungry woad-dragons.” Frigga scoffs, pinning Thor with her gaze.

The golden Crown-Prince steps towards his mother, his hammer forgotten and cheeks stung by a keenly felt embarrassment. “Mother, I cannot say how sorry I – ”

“Out,” the Queen murmurs. “Away with you to your chambers. When I have grown a taste for conversing with foolhardy boys, I will speak with thee.”

Thor makes as if to protest, but the fierce outrage in his mother's proud face, in the white-knuckled grip she keeps on her sword, persuades him better.

“Aye, Mother, as you wish.”

Her son's footsteps are loud in the silence, but Frigga will not give Odin her back. If he guesses at what she knows, she doubts he would have permitted their son to leave him so alone. Frigga will have no audience for this – it is well overdue. “All of you may go, Asgard is safe and no theft has occurred. Nothing was taken.” Save what has already been lost long afore this day.

The Einherjar take their leave, though four of the Queen's not-daughters linger a moment with questions on their faces and swords in their hands.

Skuld remains the longest.

“Mother?” The Valkryja murmurs. “Is all well with you?”

Odin's eyes regard the Queen from beneath a fall of tree-bark coloured hair, and a sharp, too-expressive face. The Norns know how Frigga loves her first, but there are some things no child need hear. “All is well, dearest. Go with your sisters, I will speak with you at a later hour.”

Skuld is kind enough to leave her not-mother with one of her boisterous, cock-sure grins, and the simplicity of an absolute understanding. Her retreat is far quieter than Thor's, but no less appreciated.

“Wife,” Odin says, though he knows it will spare him nothing of what he sees lurking in Frigga's eyes. “I beg of you a little understanding. Thor is...unruly...of late, and I can find no better recourse than...”

“And you,” Frigga hisses. “Keep company with your ghost. I'll have no more sight of you this day.”

“Frigga, what is this?” Odin replies, mouth agape like some simple creature. “I do not know what I have done to anger you so, but what ever the insult...”

The Queen of Asgard, the Goddess of Marriage and Childbirth, she who speaks with Norns and weaves the Threads of all women who dwell in the sphere of her power, skewers her husband with all the biting grief she feels she has been given at his hands. Un-looked for, unintentional, mistakenly given or not, sorrow is still sorrow. The heart knows no reason but its own.

“Think you I do not know who has come to our Halls, my King?” She reads every inch of Odin All-Father's defeat in the collapsing of his brow, in the trampling of his surety under her words. She has brought him low, and needed no blade finer than her tongue to have it thus. “The Norns are his kin, and they are jealous creatures. They do not share their space with another of their shape in a Realm they have claimed as their own.”

“Oh wife...” Odin interjects, but Frigga cuts a hand through the air, and he knows how he owes her this silence.

“Leave the little starling be, husband.” Frigga commands; her slippered feet make no noise upon the gleaming floors, but she circles her husband as any bird of prey would. There are some little scraps she would have from his bones. “What concern is it of yours?”

“Oh mín Vegvísir, it is every concern of mine. Forgive me, these many unintentional slights against thee.” It is as good and true a confession as Odin's tongue shall ever make, even to his wife.

The silence in the Treasury is the killing kind. The animal that bites, and knows.

“I will not lie to you, Borson, as you so often have to me.” Frigga smiles, though the act is a bitter pain to her. This is a wound she has long been expecting but had been unwilling to collect. “I had hoped for a different answer.”

“I know, my Heart. I know.” This should be an old pain to Odin, but it is so fresh and vivid he cannot think he is not somehow bleeding out his shame across the bright floors. The worst is not that he has given his beloved Queen this wound, but that despite all the hurt she must feel, he cannot – will not – be made to regret what has led them here.

“Go,” Frigga commands, giving her Lord and Husband her straight back, her unbent neck. “Get thee away from my sight.” She pauses a moment, as if breathing in all that has just spilt between them; as if there is another voice but hers and her husband's in the high chambers. “I would speak with Mimir alone.”

A spider's silk murmuring rises up from the Well.

Seid knows its true masters, and no web of Odin's weaving can outmatch his wife's.

“As my Compass and Road demands,” Odin bows, if only to cover over his brightly shining dismay; he does not dare to touch her. He knows how far is Nothung's reach.

If she wrings secrets from Mimir's broken form, the All-Father will not be privy to those secrets.

When she can no longer hear the All-Father's heavy footfalls, Frigga wipes at her eyes and takes herself to the mouth of the Well. She is bitterly relieved to see nothing save her own face gazing up at her.

The Norns are first and foremost Frigga's allies, not the creatures of Odin Harri Hliðskjálfar. So she will spit on Odin and his aims afore she simply waits for him to set his scheme in motion. She will not allow Odin to sacrifice the happiness of two children for the sake of whatever game he is playing with the universe.

She will defend the Starling and the Thunderer from their fathers.

It is her duty, and her honour to do so.

“Mimir Once-King?” Frigga speaks.

Queen.

“I have a need of thee.”

Chapter Text

~ * ~

It is a difficult thing to walk these paths, to wander so very far from the untidy orbit of his Realm; it is more dangerous than treading on snakes, more trying than following waves upon an unanchored boat; returning home is easier than drawing breath. But, to slip the bonds of Asgard's Realm with Odin's perversely sorrowful, half-blind gaze following him down, down into the Well, into the Void...

Laufey does not wander long.

Even Nothing has a Name, a Face, a Voice.

He has no love for the emptiness, for the echo, for the breathing in the dark that follows all who walk with the shine of their living heart under its immeasurable Gaze, but that is to be expected when one wanders Death's own Roads between the worlds.

He falls for a century, for only a moment, and listens for the tongue of the universe, for the rune-shapes he has never understood, for the bones of all matter and the great yawning abyss of Ginnungagap. Here in this strung between place, in this fractious void, the King sees the cold, pitiless teeth of Niflheim, and the burning mouth of Múspellhiem pouring its fiery rivers into the bowl of the empty valley.

The never ending violence of creation.

Laufey wonders, at this moment, if he should hold it a privilege to see with his own eyes a naked universe. He wonders who but Death has looked on these sights with living eyes.

He wonders if Odin has passed this way afore, and seen what he has seen.

A shiver of breath between his lips, a cold so true it burns, and Laufey living-King is gathered up by Jotunheim as gently as a stone breaking through old ice. First are the Voices, his Fathers come to see if he succeeded. Their disappointment is a bitter thing to carry, here in this tiny, tiny moment between the Paths and his son's little hand on his shoulder, pushing the Void from his shape.

Mimir, they lament, they cry. MimirMimirMimir lost one

Why, living-King, why no SonFather hiding in the shadow beneath your feet?

Laufey cannot bear to say it is because Odin speaks a language he cannot even form the bridges of upon his own tongue. He cannot say 'because I forgot, sitting upon that Well, how great a Pain his image throws upon my heart. How great is my Hate, in equal to my....'

Even in the silence of the mighty walls he has built to keep his Fathers from his secrets, Laufey can no more think of that creature called Love than he can willingly cut his own throat. How many Ages since he learned that word? How many more till he understands it without first feeling all the wounds he has taken at its Hands?

“Father?” Loki murmurs.

Laufey opens his eyes, the voices of his Fathers slither-hissing away, and his first sight is Odin's accursed eye hung round Loki's little, bare neck. How fittingly cruel, that un-looked for goad to a wound he had spitefully deluded himself into believing sealed up by these intervening Ages.

“I wish you had let me send you upon Sleipnir. Would his anchor not have aided you in pulling Father Mimir home?” It stabs at Loki that his father has risked so much for no gain, that his father has returned with blood in his mouth and a new weight thrown across his shoulders. “Why go as nothing more than an eidolon?”

“And start a War?” Laufey laughs, a sharp, singular burst of bitter mirth. “No, my child, that would have been the height of stupidity. We are not ready to make War on Asgard. We are not strong enough. Had I, and not my ghost, gone to that House of Traitors...” It takes every thick ring upon his horns that the ages have gifted him not to turn away from Loki and his question, not to look down to the gleaming floor of Harvetrtjald to see in its face the image of Ginnarr and his great, golden spear and his triumph over Laufey. “What do you think Odin would have done to keep a King hostage in his Realm? A King he knows will take up the red song of War in an Age or so?” He must know, surely Ginnarr must know.

Loki's eyes flicker from his father, to the shadow and the clot of blood upon the floor. “I see, I had not considered...” He waves his hands, leaves his little blade in its scabbard. “You are right, as always, Father. We are not ready.”

“No we are not.” The King replies, crouching down to look his son in the eyes; he will have to band another pair of rings upon Loki's horns afore the green-ringed moon turns again. “And I would have you listen to me now.”

There is warmth in his father's eyes, but also too much of the King to make Loki eager to have what words he is to be given. It is never a happy thing, to watch his proud, proud father slip from one place of loneliness to the next, from one heart to another. “What is it, my King?”

“I know you, my Treasure. I know what that creature of yours can do. Where I have wandered...no living form should trespass, no matter their purpose. Those Roads are dangerous, and they will take you farther from Jotunheim than you should ever care to wander.”

Loki opens his mouth, for there are words he would speak, bright, fine words to make his father reconsider his declarations; he is not given the chance.

“Do not go wandering in the spaces between the worlds.” Laufey King commands. “Do not break our Exile by taking your physical self from Jotunheim's orbit. Never. I will brook no disobedience in this.”

“Surely I can be of help to our Restoration?” Loki pleads, reaching out to take Laufey's hand, though it swallows his own little fingers completely. Though it makes him feel like a child. “Please, can I not take Sleipnir to that vault in which Ginnarr has sealed away the Vetrljós?”

“A King or the son of a King, it will not matter to the Aesir.” Laufey replies; the shadow Roads have not yet dropped all their clinging shapes from his gaze, and if he holds still...there is the well, and Odin and the great tower of his ancestor cast to the gleaming floors.

Laufey blinks, and Jotunheim lays its reality back over his sight.

“Asgard has hostages enough to buy the peace of every Realm upon Yggdrasil. But no Jotun, no Child of Winter. Never. You will not be the first. I will not allow you to take that risk.” Laufey knows how fruitless are his warnings; Loki is Loki, and he can no more keep his son than he can keep a flame in his hands, nor a bird who has ever known the pain of a cage, or a tongue of wind.

No.

This is a little hope, and a poor one at that, that he might – by words and threats and Love – forestall the day he finds his child ranging far from the thin safety of his own Realm; freedom is in the very marrow of Loki's bones, as it is in his father's.

Loki would not be his son if it were otherwise.

“The danger you would bring to Jotunheim...the danger to your brothers, to all the tjalds whose restoration we so dearly bought...” It is the finest blade Laufey can summon, and he spares only the littlest of his regrets to so turn it against his son. “Ruin is the only outcome. The only shape waiting at the end of that Thread.”

“Aye, father,” Loki murmurs, bowing his little crown of horns to the length of the floor, and keeps his hand in Laufey's though he must stand upon the points of his toes. “As you wish, I shall trust.”

He knows.

He understands.

If he speaks no words, gives no promises, then none may call it Lying.

Fafnir spoke the truth, that terrible, lonely half-turning ago: The world has grown too small for creatures of our shape. I would have thee make the world a little wider under you hands.

The universe beyond the cold stars and dark skies of Jotunheim is a test beyond any other, and he will not shrink from its vast horizon. To roam, to wander on a long, long cord, is the Crown-Prince of Jotunheim's very first step towards a greater game than any he has every played with his brothers, greater than any working he has done not just for himself, but for his beloved father as well. He is doing this for his father.

Laufey shall understand, when the time comes, for Loki is assured of this one, singular fact: Laufey will always understand. Laufey will always love him above all others. And by this Love is Loki protected, even from his own self, even from his own choices.

There is no better leash to run on. No greater freedom.

Loki Laufeyson will make his father Great again, no matter the cost.

~ * ~

“Brother?”

“Mhn,” Helblindi mutters, swatting at the hissing noise in his ear; he has only just fallen asleep, and it is especially cold beneath the ash tree in his brother's garden; it is always so quiet here, even when the ice is singing. “No. Go away.”

“Brother!” Loki hisses, throwing his little shadow over Helblindi's tall shape, and knocks his palm against the rock of his younger brother's shoulder. “Get up, I need your eyes.”

“You can't have my eyes,” Helblindi grouses, turning away to curl into the roots of the tree, though his cheek presses against the little, banded snake's snout. “I need them. You have three of your own. Prince.”

“Silly creature.” Loki replies, churlish and sour faced. “If you will not wake up I shall sit on you, and then perhaps turn you into a frog.” It is not an idle threat, though Helblindi is unlikely to be moved by the threat of being sat upon; Loki knows he weighs as much as sack of bird bones.

“Don't know what a frog looks like.” Comes the strange echo of his brother's voice, since he is speaking to the tree, rather than Loki. “Besides, what good are frog eyes to you?”

“Helblindi!”

The second Prince opens his eyes, meets the snake in the roots, and rolls towards the indignant caterwauling of his elder brother. Could Loki not have found him four portions of Eldingstjarna early, when he had been genuinely bored, and more than willing to make some mischief at a scion's expense. Perhaps he should have spent the hours napping in the wide, wide windows of Býleistr's room, at least then he would have been assured of the silence – though his younger brother did breathe like a thunder storm rolling over a low hanging sky.

Helblindi shrieks, and nearly scrapes the skin off all his knuckles in his pinwheeling under the thick, gnarled roots of the ash tree.

There are two Loki's in the not-garden, one whispering in his ear for him to open his eyes, and the other lounging high in the branches of a not-oak, long fingers weaving new magick in the still, shivering air, with a fox's little, needling grin on his unscarred face.

“What, what is this? What are you doing?” Helblindi babbles, clutching his bleeding fingers to his chest, eyes bright with embarrassment and clean, cold shock. He shakes his head, the little red chips of pyrite Loki has begun to twine round his rings knocking against one another – because every Jotun should make their own noise, or so said Loki, and Helblindi was not disinclined to believe him – in the sudden quiet.

The two little mirrors laugh; one waves his hand in front of Helblindi's face, slender fingers rippling the light that filters through the branches of the ash tree to turn his brother's skin into a wild cat's spotted coat; one stretches himself out along the thickest limb of the not-oak, and yawns.

“Do you think it good enough to fool anyone?” Loki smiles, though his teeth are altogether too sharp for humour. Do you think it good enough to fool our father?

Helblindi blinks, and then blinks again.

“Oh, brother, why?” He murmurs, reaching out to find a pale green mist wrapping tendrils round his sharp wrist bone. “Who is this glamour, this eidolon, for?” If he gives himself a moment, Helblindi is already sure of his Prince's answer, though he has this foolish wish to hear otherwise.

“For my self.” Loki chuckles, and his spectre's eyes shine like high new moons.

“Liar,” Helblindi quips, pausing a moment to clean away the blood that is dripping to collect in the lines of his palms. “But it is a pretty trick nonetheless.”

The eidolon smiles, and it wears Loki's smile, keeps Loki's voice in its throat, but...

Helblindi laughs, a high, nervous exclamation in the silence. “Brother! Brother your eyes are green! Why such a strange colour?”

The Loki who is not a ghost pales and both narrow, sharp faces turn to regard one another; vicious red, and jealous green. He raises his hands, covers over his eyes, and feels his lashes brush against the soft planes of his palms.

He opens his eyes, and is bitterly disappointed to see green, with not one whorl of red in the wide rings of his irises.

“I do not know,” Loki replies, whispering away the spectre, and the memory of that first night he had lain in the protective stone of his father's arms and sworn to himself never to lie to him again. Perhaps he should not make himself promises any more. “But I will correct it. Perhaps I shouldn't keep the eidolon in an emerald.” He lies, as if the thought is one he has been toying with for more than a single moment. No gem has the strength to keep such an illusion in its facets.

“Do not go,” Helblindi mourns, though his brother has not moved at all. “What ever you are doing, planning...” the words falter on his tongue; Helblindi watches his brother's secrets turn and bite and snap at one another before being swallowed by the pale moon of his inscrutable face. “Please, Loki, do not leave Harvetrtjald. Not again.”

“When did you get so nimble of mind, little brother?” Loki speaks, his affection shot through with a bright thread of irritation.

“You are my brother,” Helblindi replies, as if it is the only answer he need give. “It was almost inevitable.” He pins his beloved brother with all the unhappy questions that are gathering between his teeth, all the troubles he would give voice to, if not for his understanding of what manner of Prince his brother has become. What lessons he is sure his brother learned neath that black, rotted Midgardian cave, with that Dýr as his teacher.

“I am not going anywhere, Helblindi.”

Helblindi's shoulders sag in relief, a giddy, half born smile creeping over his face. “Forgive me my foolishness then, my Prince. I, when you were gone, when Fafnir had you...I thought it was...”

“No,” Loki interjects, dropping down from the branch to make his way towards his brother with far too much silence in his light step. “I said I was not going anywhere. I said nothing of us both.”

“Nai!” Helblindi snarls, reaching out to shake some sense into his elder brother, though he knows just how quick and cutting is that fine blade at his brother's hip. He does not have the time to fear it's sting. “You cannot, cannot be asking what I think you are asking. You cannot.”

Loki turns, the edge of his heavy furs shining in the dappled light beneath the not-garden's trees, and behind him stands another eidolon.

It laughs and smiles and shakes the little red pyrite beads threaded round it's horns; Helblindi finds himself in some crude shadow play, shaking his own horns to see if the music of the little beads is identical. It is; the second Prince stands in the garden and shivers and grieves, though he knows not what for, not yet.

“Why?” The younger questions the elder, turning to watch as Loki flickers through the gnarled underbrush of a towering hawthorne bracket. “Why do you want to leave? Why do you need me?” It is not quite pleading, but it is certainly too bare a need to be called princely resignation that runs through Helblindi's voice.

“Because,” comes his brother's distant reply. “I want you to see what I am going to see. Why not, brother?” Loki crows, scrambling up a tall, tall not-tree to mock and call. “Why should Jotunheim's Princes be bound to our own Realm's orbit like low beasts, when all the universe is at our disposal?”

“Because...” Helblindi shouts, but Loki's angry hissing silences him.

“If you say because that creature, that Deceiver, commanded it thus, oh, I will take your words from the tip of your tongue with my blade, brother!” Loki howls; the knotted dragon head is a cold shape between his fingers.

“Because our King and Father commanded it so! I am not deaf, brother. I accept what our father tells us, for he always tells us the truth. Always does he have a purpose.” Helblindi snarls, curling his sharp nails into the meat of his palms. He will not chase Loki through the garden, nor be baited into making a further fool of himself.

“You accept too easily, Helblindi.” Loki replies, pulling himself out from the trunk of the great ash tree to stand beside his brother. “Do you truly wish to abide by the declarations of an Aesir?”

“Nai,” Helblindi confesses, though he refuses to look his Prince in the eye. The ghost of his own shape chuckles and bares its teeth. “I do not.”

“Then trust me, brother. We need to be see the other Realms for ourselves. We need time to make ourself more than what we are now. The Aesir will return, and we must be ready for them, we must give them War, when the time comes.”

“How do you know those warmongering beasts will return?” Helblindi mutters, finally catching his brother's gaze in his own. “What makes you so sure?”

“Nothing.” Loki shrugs. “I just...” he shivers, though he is warm beneath his furs. “I know Ginnarr and his Thanes will come to Jotunheim again.” If his hand is over his heart, as if his fingers are seeking to pluck some ancient memory from its strings, Loki takes no note of it.

Helblindi does.

What is left unspoken by Loki sits like a little beast with too many claws between the shadows cast by the brothers: They always do.

“Come,” Loki commands, holding out his little hand for Helblindi to grasp. “We have much work to do afore our own ghosts are ready to trick anyone but ourselves.”

Helblindi takes his elder brother's hand, mindful of how much Loki's fingers are very like a bird's little wings, though he knows even this frailty is a lie. He watches his own shadow laid out alongside his Prince's, as they climb through the window to walk the labyrinth of Harvetrtjald, and wonders if just this once he should choose to betray that trust which binds them so tightly to one another.

Should he break his brother's heart? Should he speak to the King – to spare them both the cost in blood and pride and love their father would take in payment for this betrayal?

Loyalty is a cruel, unhappy creature, to sit so high in his heart.

“Trust me, Helblindi.” Loki murmurs. “As I have always trusted you.”

Helblindi feels Loki's little fingers curl round his raw, red knuckles, curling over the stinging, scraped skin. Bird bones against cold stone.

Loyalty is a whore to so taunt him with its rewards, in equal to its consequences.

~ * ~

"Mimir Once-KIng?" Frigga speaks.

Queen.

“I have a need of thee.”

Do ye now? What use is a Shade to a Queen who speaks with Norns?

“Of every use, wise one. Every use.” If her hands grip the cold stones with all the force she had gripped Nothung, well, it matters not. She will tear stones and foundations and many other things if only to know more than her husband. Just this once.

Who am I to deny the wife of Odin Haptaguð?

“You are Mimir Bölþornson, Mimir Once-King. You are a God, no matter where it is that you dwell, or who it is that keeps your bones.” Frigga replies, watching her own face fracture and mourn against the still planes of the well's deep water.

Aye Lady, but that is not for thee to decide. I am Dead, and keep no love in my prison for any creatures. No Love but for my Children. Sorrow is an ugly, misshapen companion, one that eats and eats till there is nothing left by bitterness. And oh how long are the threads of his Voice?

“Please, I ask not for my husband's benefit, but for the preservation of one of your own.” It is costly to her to ask so much of a Jotun, to put her trust in a dead thing clinging to the stones and magicks of Valhöll's anchor, Þyrstrbeitr. Yet for her son she would give this shade her blood, her breath. Anything he asked.

Which child? Mimir demands, the water rippling in mimic of a tongue he has long lost to rot and cold waters. All Jotun are my Children, as I am their Father. Tis only Bölverkr's prison that so keeps me from them, for not even Death breaks a God-King from his House. No shape in this universe but that Úlfr, that Coward, has the strength to do what has been done to me.

Mimir laughs: a bright, bitter keening that grabs at Frigga's heart; such claws, this shade keeps in his Voice.

“Your grandson's child, Once-King.” The Dead feel wounds as readily as the Living, and Frigga has no doubt this will hurt the Jotun titan far more than she might suppose. She grieves for him nonetheless.

You keep a great Dýr in your bed, Queen of Asgard. Thou art a brave woman, and a fine man. Mimir sighs, thin and thinner still.

“Then you are not so ignorant as you have led Odin to believe?” Frigga smiles, though it is a grim, unhappy thing, even against the soft mirror of the water.

He has not asked the right questions. Tis not lying if I have no good question to give an answer.

“The I will ask, and you will answer.” Frigga speaks, her head held high again. “And we will shape this thread as our own, as it pleases Us.”

What scrap of my poor knowledge do you seek, Queen?

“Your grandson's child, the little starling,” Frigga falters, her own pain bleeding brightly across her tongue. “I would know if thou thinks't the child half an Aesir. If there is the smallest chance...” Oh how it costs her to ask this question, worse to even think it, never mind to speak it aloud. Oh how it shames her. Odin has always walked such strange Roads, but she had not thought he would wander as far and as profoundly as she has come to suspect he has.

I have not spoken with my grandson as you call him, in more Ages than I care to remember, my Lady. His son is... I do not know the Child as I should. I can given you little better understanding.

“Surely you have thoughts of your own, Once-King. Thoughts older than this War we have only just concluded, suspicions older even than that miserable Ruin we perpetrated with the Vanir.” Frigga knows she is pressing Mimir – racing heedless, mindless, of the consequences to that one bright blade she might wield against her husband for all the secrets he has kept, and will yet keep from her.

Queen, you know very well what it was that killed me. You know when my Thread was cut, and by whom.

There is a great silence in the halls of Odin's treasury, and for a little while the Queen of Asgard and the Once-King of Jotunheim wander between its teeth.

Some things are best left to the keeping of the Dead; some things are best left in the Dust.

I was a Shade when Laufey was a babe; I was a Shade when he slipped from my Sight; I was a Shade when he bore his first child; I was a Shade when my Children were slaughtered in payment for the blood of little worms that I could have broken with one sweep of my arm. Mimir intones, as if he is just beginning a great lament.

Even dead, it is so very cruel that he can still feel such rage, such Hate; it matters not that he has been waiting to Die for ages now, ages upon ages, and a little suffering is now his only kin, his only solace against the Void he cannot reach, though he is strung between its teeth like so much thin silk thread.

Frigga finds that Name is like a bitter lance through the unsuspecting meat of her heart; the barb shivers between her fingers, and she feels herself seize round its spines, fearful of the pain it will bring her. For only a moment, she cannot speak. She does not even have a Face to put to that Name; not even the littlest of scraps.

I had not thought to feel this again, this great weariness that clings to me, though I have no heart to tire, no bones to loosen, no body to rest. How can I be as such, when I am nearly Dead and half Gone. When I am nothing more than remembrance. How can I be weary?

“The universe is a cruel place, Father Mimir.” Frigga sighs, leaning Nothung against the well to sit upon its edge, to rest her own body, for it is not that she is tired, but that she is Tired. She gives Mimir her back, only to meet the sad sight of his head upon the floor, his great horns curved like sickle blades, like high new moons. Those long needles of ringed bone have scratched the floor.

She would laugh at this, save that head should not be on the floor, but down the well and far, far from Asgard.

Father? Mimir laughs, cold and thing again. Why do you Aesir insist on using that confounding All-Tongue? It is gibberish to me. Father? What is Father?

“Do you not call yourself Father of all Jotun?” Frigga replies, troubled by her sudden, un-looked for confusion.

You hear Father, my Lady, not I. Father, Mother, Son, Daughter...it matters not, not to we Jotun. We know only that the one who bears the child is its keeper, its protector, its champion, its nurse and its comfort. If there are memories dear to the Shade he is now, Mimir makes no show of it in the warp and weft of his replies.

You hear Father because there is Power in that Word for your people, and for us it is Power to bear a child.

There are barbs by the hundreds in Mimir's too-thin voice; Frigga slips her tongue between her teeth, for she would have all that the dead thing might say, no matter the pain it might bring her.

The Aesir hear as they please, as they Understand. Jotun simply Accept.

Frigga understands perfectly well. “So the King of Jotunheim is Mother and Father. The little starling is his and no other's. No other may put forth a claim on that child?”

None. My Son would not allow it, would cut throats to silence it. See you now, my brave Queen how it is with we Jotun?

Frigga will not bend her neck, she will not be ruled by this trespass; she will not permit Asgard to be ruled by this trespass. It matters not if Ginnarr is the child's other half, Mimir whispers, fine as spider's silk and twice as cold as the cut of a wicked skinning knife. Skollvaldr has no claim. He will never have a claim. Never.

“That matters not to Odin, Mimir Once-King.” There is something shaped like what might be acceptance in her, but it will take more than a few centuries to bloom into forgiveness. “What I wish to know is if you believe he will go to War to make that claim? Do you see my husband, and your jailer, as a creature prideful enough to take up the Spear of Heaven just to have all the Nine Realms over which he rules know that he has gotten a child on the God-King of Jotunheim?”

Yes. Is Mimir's sad, sad reply.

Frigga finds her eyes falling shut, finds her fingers twisting over her heart. Oh how long has it been since she has felt such a weight of grief falling across her shoulders? Too long, so long indeed that she had nearly forgotten what pain there was in its burden.

Odin waged a war with all the great sons and daughters of Vanaheim for no better reason than he and his people were shamed by the wiles of Gullveig. Think you he would not make War on my People because my Son has what you Aesir think is the possession of a Father, afore the claim of a Mother?

Two hundred Names, my Lady, and how many of them speak of War? Which can you trust to be the one your King wears in the folds of his heart on any rising of your day-star?

Mimir does not expect an answer, Frigga knows he wants nothing more from her than to be left to his half-Death in peace and solitude. The Shade wishes to be left with his memories, and the little, weak hope his Son had brought to him for those brief, bright moments wherein Jotunheim was no more than a a thin, thin thread's distance from taking back its Once-King's Shape.

“Thank you, Mother Mimir, Father Mimir.” Frigga manages to scrape up from the underside of her heart; no matter how battered her thanks sound, it is genuine, it is honest.

Bestla would have thought highly of you, Queen of Asgard. Most highly indeed.

Frigga sweeps the fruitless salt of a grief she has knowingly chased after from her eyes and bows low to the cold Well and its colder Voice. The stones touch her forehead and she breathes in a scent she has so rarely known: nothing less than Winter itself. Clean and harsh and unforgiving; brittle and unbending; so very Alive.

Keep a good grip on that Úlfr's tail, and ye shall not fail.

These are the last of Mimir's words.

No more.

No more.

The Queen of Asgard plucks up her shoulders, grips her bright sword once more and goes to seek out the peace of her halls. She goes to find herself once more, to find her courage and her outrage and her own Threads.

In a little while, she will go out from her high halls, from her own little Kingdom called Fensalir, and seek her high-handed Husband.

She will find her Wolf, and she will have his Tail.

~ * ~

“You have been grinding that sword for half an hour, brother,” Skuld calls from the edge of the doorway. The day has been a long one, hot and heavy with unspent rain, and she is not surprised to find the Crown-Prince scowling away his troubles in the quiet of the weapon's room; Skuld would venture to guess that those four familiar companions so often at her brother's side are somewhere nearby, no doubt in the training rings not far from here. Aside from Odin's own chambers, and mother Frigga's rooms high in the heart of Fensalir, this is one of the only cool places left in all of Valhöll. “Are your friends not terribly bored, waiting for you turn that blade into a little knife?”

“Then you did not see the tables in the mead hall, sister?” Thor replies; he does not bother to put the whetstone down, nor look up to meet his sister's question.

“Thor, you did not! Please, my Prince, tell me you did not set to rampaging about the mead hall like some dragon in its first molt?” Skuld laughs, picking her way across the hall to sit beside her half-brother.

“Tyr intends to make new ones,” Thor mutters. “I did him a favour, in all honesty.” The whetstone is hot against the pads of his fingers, and he is tired of scraping this length of steel – it is so fine an edge now it gleams like silver thread. “And I was not rampaging,” he scoffs, holding his head high. “I was, was -

“Rampaging,” Skuld intones flatly, a wisp of resignation colouring her reply.

“Fine, split hairs if you like, sister Valkryja.”

Skuld sighs a great exclamation of air that ruffles the little wayward strands of hair that have escaped from the heavy braids hanging down past her chin. She puts a hand over her brother's knee, the leather warm and sticky beneath her palm, and waits for Thor to offer up the information that she is lacking. Frigga has not come to see her yet, and they have spoken only a handful of words, though it has been nearly a day since the Prince and the King fought so viciously with one another. Skuld has never seen her father quite so high-handed with his rage, nor so cutting with his tongue.

She cannot blame her young brother for showing Odin the mirror of his own anger.

“Mother,” Thor begins, swallowing past the ugly clot of regret lodged in his throat. “Mother was so angry with me. I cannot, I never intended to upset her.”

“Oh brother, I know.” Skuld murmurs, taking her hand from Thor's knee to wrap it round his shoulder in some little, simple comfort. “And so does she.” She follows the line of Thor's gaze, out to the burning white sands of the training grounds and the cluster of his companions laughing beneath the heavy shade of an ash tree. Sif's white arms flash as she waves to the pair sitting near the wide sickle curve of sunlight spilling into the room, and Thor turns back to his sister's patient face.

“Why are you not with the others?”

“Tis hard, sometimes, to speak to them of what it means to be a Prince.” Thor shrugs, making no effort to cast off his half-sister's gentle touch. “I know they are all eager to help me, to give me their words of advice, their council, but...”

“None of them is Royalty.” Skuld finishes quietly, with only a little gleam of sadness in her voice. “What might they tell you that you do not already know. Aside from not making one's mother cry.”

“Skuld!” Thor cries, holding his hands above his heart as if mortally wounded. “I did not, did I? Oh please tell me I did not make mother cry!” He puts his head in his hands; he cannot bear to meet Odin's first valkryja's eyes.

“It would take more than your foolishness to make mother cry,” Skuld reproves, aware that Thor has missed her point entirely. “And therein lies the problem, brother.”

“Problem?” Thor hisses, bolting to his feet to pace, if only to keep his sudden anger from snapping up what sense there is on his tongue. “What is this that you speak to me, sister?”

“Do you consider Sif to be wrong in her desire to be a great warrior?” Skuld presses, standing to hound her brother's heels with her own questions.

“No!” is his immediate, uncomplicated reply. “She is better even than Thane Brekkr, and a worthy daughter to her father.” He does not know why he is defending Sif from a Valkryja, when Skuld is herself first and foremost the strangest Ásynja in all of Asgard. “But what does Sif have to do with mother?”

“I do not know what passed between you and the All-Father, but mother told me a little.” She does not mean to brow-beat her Prince, as he has taken much scolding this day already, but there are things she would speak to him about, things she, nor mother, cannot simply let lie. “Did you truly imply compromise was a woman's business, and not the craft of 'Men'?” Skuld permits her voice to carry all the derision and bitterness she feels at this thought coming from her dear, sweet little brother. “What ever the 'craft of Men' means.” There is no little scorn in her words.

“Is it not a woman's business to seek the middle road? Isn't Mother our peacemaker, when I have fought with Father, or with you, or with another óss? Why should I not speak the truth of Father's choices?” Thor rales, waving his arms about as if to bat away any contradictions.

“Brother!” Skuld scoffs, her mouth pulling down into an unhappy curve.

“It is womanish to wait, to put off conflict for another day, to say we must make ourselves wicked in order to do good, that we must show a false face to others, but keep the truth to ourselves. Is it not the common practice of every young maiden in Asgard to wear one face to catch herself a lover, but keep another for herself?” Thor interjects hotly. “Asgard cannot be the highest seat of Justice in all the Nine Realms if we are ourselves guilty of wrong-doing. How am I to live with such contradictions? How does Father?”

“He is King.” Skuld speaks, cold and bare of tongue. “He is King, and he knows what price there is to pay for that seat.”

Thor opens his mouth, a dozen reprimands waiting like eager hawks on little cords.

“Ask yourself this, brother,” Skuld pushes, holding up her hands for patience and for peace. “Why does a King need to be a liar?” Better yet, why does a woman need to be a liar?

“No creature need be a liar, Skuld!” Thor hurls back, a snarl curling the edges of his mouth, baring his fine teeth. “What possible evil is there in honesty? What?”

“The All-Father had to choose between the safety of all the Nine Realms, or the preservation of just One,” Skuld reminds, once again settling her hand on Thor's broad shoulder. “To tell the truth, to say there was no reason but fear that motivated him, would make his decision a wicked punishment thinly disguised as Justice. But if Odin lies, and says he acted against his conscience than it is the hard decision of a King seeking the only conclusion open to him. Honesty has its place, but it has little place when Hliðskjálf is the throne our father sits upon.”

“I think you speak too easily of our King's motivations, which have always been a mystery to me,” Thor concludes, suddenly tired and ill at ease. “I do not think father meant me to understand that he lied about how wrong it was to break Jotunheim so, but that I would have to choose what I valued more: my own heart, or the safety and comfort and peace of others.”

“Perhaps that is why he did not speak frankly with you brother,” Skuld concludes, well aware that she no more understands Odin than does Thor. It is not wrong to shatter a world home to creatures so near monsters as Jotun, so she cannot imagine it is aught but pretence that makes Odin appear...sorrowful...at the cost of his choice. Her father cannot possibly mourn, never mind regret Jotunheim's fall.

Thor is silent, his gaze wandering back to the trees who shade his companions are reclining beneath; he wonders if any would understand what it is that eats at him, that he must compromise what he believes is right and good and true, to serve the Throne he will one day command.

Why must he flatter and lie and pretend?

Why can he simply not Take?

Why can he not simply be Right?

“My Prince?” A voice calls from behind Thor and his sister. He turns to find a Einherjar standing in the frame of the door, the oss' high-horned helmet gleaming in the gentle sunlight filtering into the chambers.

“Valkryja Skuld.” The warrior bows his neck, and sweeps a hand across his heart.

“What,” Thor interrupts; he is in no mood for watching his sister make idle conversation with one of the warriors raised up to Valhöll by her own hands, and the teeth of her wolf. “Is your message?”

“The Queen wishes to speak with thee, my Prince,” the Einherjar replies. “She awaits thee in the halls of Fensalir.”

Thor does not wait for further instruction, nor even a parting word from his oldest sister; his mother has not deigned to speak to him in nearly a rising and a half of Asgard's first sun, and he will not tarry when she calls.

It slips his mind, that he and his sister have yet more words to speak to one another, that they have not finished their conversation, nor tracked out all the strange threads they so pulled upon.

~ * ~

“What will you tell him, my Queen?” Sága murmurs, bringing the golden sweep of her wine cup to her lips; it is a good vintage, the last of that pressing from the vineyards of Eleusis. “I can see no benefit to turning him against his father, though it would be the most – effective – means of achieving your ends.”

“Friend I would not choose such, no matter how angered I was with my husband.” Frigga confesses; her wine is mostly un-drunk, but she feels the flush of anger as like the heat of wine sitting in her belly. “Odin is no more or less than what he is, and I cannot shift that óss for all the profit in this universe.”

“He is a poor father!” Sága implores, and her wine cup rings sharply against the the wood of Frigga's table. “Surely you wish to ameliorate this, failing, my Queen? I may not See as clearly as you do, but what I have Seen...”

“So little of the future is ever good, dearest.” Frigga replies, finally taking up her cup. “We must do our best, but to meddle is to risk being the agent, rather than the defender. Only the Norns are unmatched, only the Norns know.” If her eyes cut to the low, whispering pond shimmering beneath the great oak tree of Fensalir, Frigga leaves the gesture to carry their own words. The Weavers have not spoken to her since their kinsman came unto the halls of Asgard; she suspects they are unhappy Mimir was not returned to his House, thusly denying them that they might finally call all Asgard their realm, and have no other Jotun shape touching upon their borders.

The Norns are jealous creatures, and their anger is fierce when any dare tread on their threads, spun or un-spun it matters not. Frigga wonders how they have not yet clapped a mighty curse on the All-Father for so boldly tangling the greater weft of their weaving.

“Still, Frigga, do you truly think it shall be War? The All-Father surely cannot be so wounded by one Jotun's trespass?” Sága knows her Queen will answer little, but she makes the attempt regardless of its futility. Frigga is the keeper of secrets and understandings that none save the All-Father is privy to – most especially when it comes to the very secrets of the All-Father himself.

“I can see no other reason behind Odin's choices, so I must take this as the prelude to conflict, a conflict my son will have to ride at the fore of regardless of what his father might plot for him.” She cannot know for certain, no Seer ever knows beyond a pale, thin grasping at what might or might not be, but when she Gazes, well, she sees more clearly than most.

“My Queen,” little Nana interrupts, her hands knotted together anxiously.

Ah, Frigga knows that blush; it belongs to childish admiration, and high summer days filled with idle, innocent dreaming. Her son is at the edge of the high rune-doors.

“The Prince is here. Waiting to be called in.”

The poor young thing, Frigga should like to laugh, she will be disabused of her fantasies in no little span of time.

At her side, Frigga hears a sharp, singular note of laughter; Sága rises up, leaving her cup and her Queens company, but not afore she leans down to speak her parting words into the honey coloured tangle of hair brushing Frigga's ear.

“At least my Queen shall always have Valkryja Skuld as proof of her mother's quality.” It is not a kind thing to say, but that makes it no less true. That is not to say the Queen of Asgard should be disappointed in her only son, but she has great cause to worry. Sága admires her Lady's unbending determination to keep a firm hold on that wolf's tail the Prince is growing. “I trust you shall win out with the Prince.”

“Go now,” Frigga smiles, though it is tight and painful upon her face. “Your words are like a vice, my Lady.” She gestures to her heart, fingers curling into claws of their own volition. “But no less understood, or appreciated.”

Sága bows low, suddenly unhappy, and sweeps from the high windowed hall of Fensalir; it is ever bright in the sphere of her Queen's realm, but by that same brightness do the longest of shadows grow.

Frigga waits for her son, who is no less a foolhardy boy than he was under yesterday's sun, but still young enough to be taught hard lessons, unlike his father.

“Mother?” Comes Thor's voice, quiet and apologetic, and strangely sad. He has not brought Tilkváma, nor his helm, nor his great red cape. “Mother I – ”

“Sit,” the Queen commands, waving her son into the low couch Sága had only just abandoned. “I will not speak to you as if you are some silly maid of my court, come to beg my indulgence for a little misstep in judgment.”

Thor nearly stumbles up the long stairs to get to couch he is being offered, so great is his haste to be reconciled with his mother; he will fight again with father for many years hence this day, but it was never his intention to cause his mother the slightest of hurt.

“Do you know anything of the great horn that resides in your father's Treasury?” Frigga begins, watching her son's bright, unguarded face as like a hawk regards a little mouse. She would see every small scrap that touches upon his eyes; that marks itself in his smile; that bends his neck and colours his cheeks.

“I was going to apologize first, mother, afore we get to some lesson!” Thor replies, though he feels his attempt at levity rather poorly. “Please, may I not make my regrets heard.”

“What is the nature of the horn in your father's treasury?” Frigga demands, as gently as she dares to speak to her son.

“It is the horn of Kvasir, the first poet. He was a Vanir, and gave the horn to my father when it came time to give over Lady Freyja and Lord Freyr.” Why a history lesson? he wishes to lament, for he has always been terrible at the quibbling little details of Asgard's storied past. He knows it, no thanks to Muninn, but he does not so much care to speak it with any greater acuity.

“The horn is merely a token, a gift to cover over un-healed wounds,” Frigga offers back, trying valiantly not to give her wayward son so much of the frown that is resolutely pulling down her lips. “What is represents is entirely different. Kvasir sang his best whilst our Realm was at war, and once the war ceased to rage, so too did Kvasir's words. He died at the hands of dvergr eager to steal his tongue, but it was the Jotun who guarded Kvasir's voice. It was the Jotun, those monsters as you so happily call them, who kept safe the shade of the greatest voice in all the Nine Realms.”

“Mother, you cannot be serious?” Thor retorts, and suddenly he feels the emptiness of his hands as a cold stone of violence dropped into the pit of his chest; he does not have anything to temper that stone against. “What is this, that you speak of those creatures as if they are, as if they are...”

“As if they are beings unto themselves? As if they are just as much the children of mighty Yggdrasil as we Aesir?” It is the Queen in Frigga who uses her tongue's sharpness against her son; she had thought she looked away for no more than a moment, but now she finds a strange man shape wearing her beautiful little son's kind features.

This cannot be the King Odin wished to create.

“Thor, my sweet boy, my dear son, you will see sense in this.” When she holds out her hands, and her child takes them in his own broad paws, delicately and with all the care she might hope for, Frigga feels a knot un-work itself beneath her chest. “War twists every Realm it touches, and Asgard has fought many. Vanaheim and Jotunheim are no more unscathed than we. Here in these bright halls we have forgotten the days before the wars, when there was what might be called peace between Asgard and those Realms.”

“I do not remember,” Thor mutters darkly, thinking of the horns of a black Ocean, and a thin, thin thread left to sway in the winds of the Void. “I hear only that the Jotun are beasts, slaves to their lust for battle and plunder. That their King is a snake and a deceiver, who made war on little creatures because it was his pleasure to do so. Is that wickedness not deserving of punishment, of Asgard's eternal enmity?” He does not mean to be so forceful, but he thinks his mother has forgotten that in the moss eaten ring of the Hólmganga he has been a judge of men's characters for many years now.

“Oh dearest, if only the universe were as simple as what is good and what is evil.” Frigga mourns, genuinely mourns. “You will find that age will take that surety from you, and it will be a hard loss for you to suffer. It was for your father.”

“No, mother, I have no intention of walking that grey Road, as father calls it. Compromise is what lead us here, to this threat hanging over all the Nine Realms. If my father had been Odin Viðurr that day, rather than Odin Spear-Breaker, we might not now be...”

“Where did you hear that name?” Frigga breathes, gripping her son's rough fingers in her own; she will put him on his knees, if needs be so.

“Thane Brekkr!” Thor yelps, shocked half into silence by the fierceness of his mother's grip. “I asked to hear of the War against the Jotun, and the Thane gave me stories of his exploits there.”

“Do not listen to the idle talk of Thanes, Thor Odinson!” Frigga shouts, just loud enough to send little Welthau running from the base of the stairs. “You father is no warlord, not any more, and that Name is not to touch your lips as long as you draw breath. Do you understand?”

“Yes mother.” And again Thor is left feeling as if he has given his mother a slight he had not come to her halls to give. “Forgive me, I do not ever intend to anger you thus.”

Frigga regards her son, the son who wears every part of his being on his skin, as if he has not a care in the world for mystery or self-protection, and wonders at herself – that she allowed Asgard and its Men to sully that openness with their love of battle and war and that particular mindset which comes only with being always a Victor, and never a Victim.

“Come now my brave Prince, I will tell you the story you should hear, and not the idle noise of a braggart Thane. I will tell you about Suttungr and his child, Gunnlöð. I will show you how it is that your father is not always right.”

Thor allows himself to be sat upon the floor by his mother's gentle hands; permits himself to lean his head upon her knees, and her fingers to card through his hair as when he was small and the entirety of his world was her garden full of redolent flowers and the chittering, birdsong voices of her maidens in their work.

“It was the Jotun who sung the best, the truest poetry,” Frigga begins. “For it was they that knew how fine was the knife's edge between Life, and Death. Between Joy and Sorrow.”

Thor closes his eyes, and thinks of the garden and the sunshine; he thinks upon the perfection of his mother's gentle laughter, and all the private little moments he cannot imagine ever being parted from.

Frigga's thoughts are far less sentimental.

If your father wishes a War to claim what is his, well, then I will get myself a Champion greater than any he might find. I will get myself the Champion he thinks is his. And when he cries war upon Jotunheim, you will be my answer, not his.

It does not occur to her that War is the farthest shape from the All-Father's mind.

She does not think it is more than the shame of being deceived that moves her husband's hand. She only thinks of Freyja and Freyr, and what was asked of them to buy the peace of their own people.

Looking back upon this quiet, golden hour, always with that perverse clarity called hindsight, Frigga does not understand how she failed to see what other answer Odin might be threading into Gungnir's needle.

She does not understand how she failed to see the elegant cruelty of the simpler solution.

Chains are chains, no matter if they are steel cuffs, leather cords or alliances or blood.

Chains are chains.

~ * ~

Loki turns his gaze to the great, long plane of the mirror bright floor beneath his bare feet; the Eldingstjarna is a bloody suggestion upon the ferment of the horizon, a bleak low-Winter wind howling through the narrow slits of the windows which ring round his high tower chambers.

He takes a breath, quick and sharp, and opens his mind the shadows that dance and chitter at the ever edges of his vision. Death's messengers, those wicked little beasts that cling to the ankles of all that are walking ever closer to the mighty grip of Death's cold hands. He sees them now, now that Sleipnir is a shape that lives under the warm, shivering meat of his own heart.

Child, Loki summons, a clarion howl in the binding dark. Sleipnir.

Come now, I would walk with thee.

It begins not with blood, for he has already given more than his share, but with little, little needles of liquid as grey as a heavy winter sky. The needles shiver and sway and peak, rising up from the black mirror plane to build a Shape unlike any other.

Loki sucks in another breath, and watches Sleipnir pull itself from the basalt beneath his bare feet; Helblindi keeps a heavy hand on Loki's shoulder, as if to anchor his brother to this world, and not that Realm whose borders they are both about to trespass upon. There should be no in between, no both Dead and Alive, just one or the other – the universe is often unkind to those who violate its highest of Laws.

In this moment, the Princes of Jotunheim are neither, both.

Sleipnir does not answer to runes, he does not answer to blood – save for that first, costly act of creation – and he does not answer to Angrboða.

When a little time has passes, there is a towering, gentle-eyed grey horse standing where once there was a thousand shifting needles of liquid Form and no shape at all but a many faceted multitude.

Sleipnir answers to Loki alone, to one creature alone in all the great scope, in all the many multitudes, of the Nine Realms. Loki takes far too much pride in this: that Sleipnir is, for all Loki's own poor attempts to classify the beast, Loki's child in a manner of understanding.

“Hello, my pride.” Loki murmurs, that all too familiar grin so full of brightness and danger twisting his lips. “Are you ready?”

Helblindi only snorts, and goes back to stroking the grey nightmare's silk soft muzzle. “You should thank all our many Ancestors that he is not your child, brother. Can you imagine what father would have thought? You first child, and it is a Horse? The King would have your guts, well, what was left of them I suppose.”

Loki makes a face, and bites off the little burst of humour sitting upon his tongue. Now is hardly the time for his younger brother's sharply cutting wit.

Soon the eidolons will be in the garden eating their noon-day meal and chittering away just as he and his brother are wont to do; they will laugh and wrestle; they will sleep away the weak heat of the day under the great, dappled shade of the ash tree; they will take up their playing at war and combat in one of Loki's high towers.

Those mirror bright ghosts are all that stand between the Princes and their father's towering, implacable rage, should he ever discover just how boldly, how profoundly they each have betrayed him, and his inviolable commands.

Loki knows how terrible a risk he is taking, and how selfish it is to ask Helblindi to share in that risk, but he cannot leave the crumbling grace of Jotunheim's orbit without his tall, arrow fine brother at his side. He cannot leave, knowing his wanderings might condemn his brother to death, were he not here to protect Helblindi with his own life.

If they go together, then they shall be caught and punished together. Each in equal measure for his crimes.

“Sleipnir is my child,” Loki replies, a wide smile blooming across his face as if to cover over the unbearable tightness, that vice which is fear, closing up his chest. “He is my creation, and he deigns to come to me and me alone.”

Helblindi only gives back a grin of his own, though his eyes are wide and bright with their own fear. “Brother, you know how I love you, yes?”

“Yes.” Loki answers, keeping horns high and proud. He'll not bow. “I know.”

“Please,” Helblindi begins, reaching out to snatch his Prince's hands out of the air, to catch the little birds and keep them in the cages of his fingers. “Please do not this. Are-are you not frightened?”

“No.”

“Well I am!” He cries; honesty has always been so very easy between them, and it is only now that Helblindi understands how much that sword cuts him as readily as it cuts those he and his brother turn it against. “We know nothing of the other Realms but what you have gleaned from blood spattered books and tattered old scrolls! There are enemies beyond our Home greater than any we have ever had to match swords with here, greater even than the Dýr of the Undertide. Who would come for us, should Heimdall mark our trespass?”

“I do not care if it is Skollvaldr himself waiting upon the shores, brother. Nor should you care! Let that wicked thief swing upon his Tree, let him walk where he will Walk, he shall never have power of me, over you. Soon he shall not even have power of Jotunheim.”

“You speak as if we have already succeeded my Prince!” Helblindi snarls; he does not care to think how cutting is his dissent to Loki, he does not care for anything save the preservation of his brother's life. Nearly eight turnings since the Aesir came with their fire and their slaughter and their King, and Helblindi has not forgotten what was asked of him by his own King and father.

He would die to see Loki endure; Loki shall never have to even ask.

Helblindi meets his brother's gaze with no care for what unhappy truths he is leaving utterly bare for Loki to see: that Loki is being foolish, that for once Helblindi is afraid of so many things other than Loki and his shining bridges and his blood. That there will be no good profit to be found in this exercise, nothing but pain and regret.

Without any warning Loki breaks from Helblindi's gaze and swings himself up atop Sleipnir; the horse makes a little motion, pawing at the planes of Loki's tower room with three of his eight hooves. Perhaps he is impatient to be gone.

“Get on the horse, brother,” Loki all but orders, though he offers a smile to soften the blow. “One has to risk much to gain much in return. We are only doing what is necessary.”

Helblindi hides his snarl between his teeth and throws himself up behind his brother. He wraps his longer, stone heavy arms round Loki's little, blade fine frame and waits; he gives not one word of agreement or reproach, not one note of encouragement or despair.

Loki will learn, or he will not. There is nothing Helblindi can do to change this.

“Ready?” Loki murmurs. For reasons beyond his desire to understand, Loki finds his gaze drawn like an arrow towards the coming dawn that is trembling upon the edge of the horizon. From his tower windows he can see so much of his father's tjald; eight thousand els, in any direction he might turn towards. That he might never again see these shapes so dear to him, those shapes that are so much like the outer facets of his bones, does not occur to Loki. If he does not think it, it shall not happen – the Norns do not pick up Threads without that Thread being given a Voice. He will not be so foolish as to invite their meddling.

The Eldingstjarna is rising, and rising fast; its baleful, pernicious satellites trail across the purple teeth of Thiazivarði to leave wicked shadows against the very edges of the flat heart of Thrym. Beneath the needle fine towers of Harvetrtjald the scions of the high houses of Jotunheim are stirring; Loki can see there is already the flickering orange flames of the crafter's forges at the eastern tip of the complex, and that four households have taken to their morning meals, just from the smoke that rises from the biers upon which the household has no doubt left the guts of the first meal.

He spares a moment to wonder if Angrboða will feel their departure, since he was the other portion of blood Loki spilled to force Sleipnir into existence.

It matters not.

Above the slowly colouring skies are the wide, spiralling green rings of the great moon, and above even that mighty shape is the veil that Loki has fed since he had no collected no more than eight of his own turnings.

He knows what he is doing.

“We must go the instant the shade veil weakens,” Loki urges, leaning forward to speak into Sleipnir's ear. “I cannot trick Heimdall for long, but,” he chuckles as brightly as the gleaning edge of his own blade, “I should think eight tears in the veil will distract that insufferable gate-Keeper long enough to give us time to disappear.”

Of course the Prince gets no reply.

“Now!” And Helblindi is shrieking his familiar eagle's cry that belongs as much to his own throat as it does to his father's. “Now, brother!”

Sleipnir bucks, rising up with a noise that sounds like an animal's dying scream, and plunges into the spaces between as easily as a living creature draws breath.

Helblindi can feel his Prince's heart beating beneath his palm, racing and racing, and he cannot see, cannot hear, cannot breathe. All is a shrieking, howling roar; all is like black waves breaking upon black cliffs; like teeth cracking white bone; all is kin to that wretched, glorious music he heard those eight turnings ago, when the Aesir broke down the gates of his father's tjald and made slaughter look as if it were nothing more than a game to be won in the dirt.

He clings; he shuts his mouth and swallows his burning fear, though it is hot enough to drag claws down the length of his throat.

They are falling, rising, flying, breaking apart into a hundred fold pieces of a hundred fold memories. They are nothing, and there is no horse beneath him and the shivering pulse Helblindi feels beneath his hand is not his brother's heart at all.

“Open your eyes.” Loki whispers, and his voice sounds so near that Helblindi waits to feel his brother's little fangs against the curl of his ear. “Brother, look.”

Helblindi cracks open one eye, tasting his own blood on his tongue.

Beneath him, beneath Sleipnir's flashing hooves, is a yawning void filled with snakes of mist and worms of fire: a great, great plane over which they are soaring as if there is some Road to follow, as if there are threads so thin they put spider webs to shame beneath the Princes and their mount.

There is only Ginnungagap beneath them, and the strange sky above their heads: black and pricked with far distant points of incandescence, great milky arms spiralling to touch the edges of the Void like some great Dýr's coils.

Helblindi turns his neck, though he feels brittle enough to snap like thin ice. To one edge of the Void he sees a land of cold and darkness, a land of mountains not unlike Thiazivarði's own gleaming teeth; to the other great edge he sees rivers of fire, great coiling winds of heat that make him shiver and pull away. He does not wish to be burned.

Loki's fingernails are sharp in soft spot between the bones of his wrist; the pain anchors him, keeps him atop the horse.

“Keep breathing!” Loki howls, joy shining out in the darkness and the violence. “Helblindi look!”

Sleipnir races on, and Helblindi closes his eyes.

*

Time means nothing on those Roads, on Death's Roads.

*

Shadows fall away like great sheaves of ice, parting round Sleipnir to let the light of another world's first star pour in over the trembling frames of the Princes of Jotunheim, so very far from their own Realm.

Helblindi falls from Sleipnir's great height, his knees cracking against unfamiliar earth; Loki slips from his child's withers and pads round to sit in the sand by his little brother's side. He puts a long fingered hand on Helblindi's shuddering back, tracing War Lines and the trails of shock carving their way through his brother's tall frame.

“What is this?” The second Prince croaks, grabbing handfuls of infinitely tiny white grains to watch these grains escape from his between his fingers and make little mountains in their accumulation. “Where are we, Loki?”

“Look.”

Helblindi raises his head, little pyrite beads clinking together in the silence, and follows his brother's arm, his palm upturned and flashing in the heavy, striking light that is falling down upon them like some vengeful hammer.

A coast fit enough to match the Dyr's Cradle curves round before Helblindi's eyes, fine as a high new moon and just as blisteringly white; but no black, Terrible Ocean sighs against these shores but instead there is...

“Is this purple, brother?” Helblindi finds himself babbling, fists to the ground to push his body up despite the bone deep ache that is winding itself through every scrap of his flesh.

“Aye,” Loki breathes, eyes wide and unblinking and greedy. “Aye it is.”

“What is it?” He has never seen such colour afore. Never. “I do not...I cannot.” He draws in a shaking, tremulous breath and turns to Loki's familiar little shadow at his side. To see that same wondrous ignorance shining on his brother's face is a little relief, but it is nothing more than the comfort to be found it in echo, and that is not enough.

Loki turns back to the water, to the sighing curvature of this searing violet Ocean unfolding itself beneath his eyes for the very first time. He had not truly thought he would ever reach this place, not with all of himself intact; he had thought it would have cost him a much higher price to trespass here.

“This, brother, is the great Ocean of Vanaheim.” Beside him, Loki can hear Helblindi's sharp, involuntary exclamation. “This is the home of the Vanir, the Realm of the Aesir's first true enemies. And that is sand beneath our feet.”

Helblindi finds that he is laughing; laughing and laughing and oh he cannot breathe. He puts his hands on the sharp points of his knees and sucks in great heaving lungfuls of air as if he were drowning with no hope of rescue in sight. Even the air is different. It has a texture, a taste, a presence.

The best Helblindi can grasp it as, is green; that strange colour his brother wears in his hair, that strange colour that creeps out over the once barren plains of Thrym when the grip of Winter is weakened by the nearness of the Eldingstjarna and Jotunheim is filled with the roaring of rivers of ice and water and the pounding of thunderstorms in the pale night.

“What if we are seen?” Helblindi urges, tipping his gaze up into the wide, wide sky. “What if Heimdall...”

Loki sniggers and quick as a little snake grabs onto his brother's thick, sharp wrist. “Think you I am a fool?” It costs him nothing to lay a glamour over his tall, tall little brother. It costs nothing to give Helblindi pink skin and to hide his curling horns. “You are yourself, but to others, ah to others you are a Vanir, and Aesir. A Boy.”

“What is a Boy?” Helblindi shivers, twisting his skin beneath his hands, searching for blue, for the markings of his House and the labyrinths Laufey had gifted to his second son. He does not like this, this lying. He does not like not being himself.

“Never mind,” Loki huffs, turning back again to the Ocean and the sand, though he has not let go of Helblindi's wrist. “There are greater things to speak upon. Greater things to see.”

The Princes of Jotunheim stand side by side for a little while, under the sun, and they let lie what is left unspoken between them. Neither will be the one to say: have we gone too far?

Suddenly Loki's wolf fur is in a heap upon the sand and he is calling, shouting a challenge to his brother to be brave, to come and see, to know. Racing away from Helblindi like the bird he sometimes is, when he is restless and the sky is high and clear.

“Come, brother!”

Helblindi sends a prayer to his father's father, though he doubts even those great Shades can hear him now, when he is so very far from home, and gathers up his courage to follow his Prince unto that strange, searing violet Ocean.

They know not who is watching.

*

The Eldingstjarna has spent barely one third of its portions in the sky afore Laufey notices just how many holes there are in the great shade veil; he leaves Angrboða and six elder scions standing round the high table in the War Room with not one word as to where he is going.

What is the business of a King is not their concern.

Laufey walks the corridors and flies down the twisting stairs, slips through great windows and races beneath soaring halls hung with great teeth of Ice fit enough to put the Beast of the Undertide to shame. He does not go to the garden, for he know what sort of tricks his child has planted in the soil of that place; it is the safest in all of Harvetrtjald, and no harm will come to either of his Princes while they are in its borders.

He races to the first of the tears, one growing directly above the sprawling complex of his crafters' forges. They are burning brightly today – iron to be sent to the coastal tjalds to repair wharves and docks, to make new gates and new spines for crumbling Erms. But to another's eye, oh to that damned gate-Keeper's eyes, it will look like something so much worse.

Laufey stands in the crux of the widening hole and turns his face unto the sky; if he is to be Seen, then he will not hide, he will not turn away. The King will stand here in the snow, so near the heat of his tjald's forges that it makes his skin shiver and his War Lines gleam in the rising light of the day-star, and he will keep that Aesir's Gaze firmly trained on his shape, and no others.

If Heimdall has forgotten Jarnaxa, Laufey will stand here and remind him who was his Mother, and what Shape she wore.

The gate-Keeper of Asgard will look down upon Jotunheim and meet the God-King staring back at him; the gate-Keeper will not look upon the garden. Better still...

Laufey turns his palm up and draws one sharp nails across the longest line; he does not even bare his teeth at the little sting of pain. A fat welt of blood beads up in the mouth of the wound and he waits patiently for the valley of his palm to fill up, the heat of it sending thin curls of steam into the bitter, blissful cold.

It is not hard to bend his fingers just so, it is not hard to scatter the blood across the clean white canvas of the snow in a shape that both Heimdall and Odin will understand.

The King of Jotunheim spills his own blood to the greedy earth, and writes for those who would Watch and Plot and Chain one word and one word only.

Coward.

Laufey raises a bloody finger to the sky, and shows just how sharp are his teeth.

Coward.

*

Odin finds his gaze drawn to the cold metalwork knots trailing and coiling away upon the bright floor of the empty training grounds and knows he has no strength left to chase the fatigue away; anger is such a bitter, sapping beast to carry upon his back, never mind that he keeps its siblings close to his skin as well.

Denial, Outrage, Fear.

Greed.

Without much thought he grasps the heavy silver pitcher and upends its contents over his bowed head, as if a little cold water could wash away all that Heimdall has just spoken to him, what he has just been shown.

As if he could forget that bloody taunt scrawled across all that clean snow.

He regrets quickly enough that he did not keep his shirt on to wash, no matter how sweat soaked it might be, for he would not have all all these ungentle chills putting shivers upon his skin. There are too many memories bound up in the touch of Cold. Memories that are hard and bright and painful, memories that are his gifts as much as they are his burdens to carry.

“All-Father.”

Odin's shoulders collapse, and he passes a hand through his wet hair with a savage curl to his fingers; the relief that burns in him is towering, for she has not deigned to speak to him, nor share a bed with him, nor dine with him for three risings of Asgard's first sun. He had thought, foolishly so, rightly so, that this was at last the very limits of her grace towards him.

“Mín Vegvísir.”

“Aye,” Frigga replies, sweeping into the shadowed training room with no sword in her hands and no shoes on her feet. “I am that still, though you have done your best to turn my heart from yours.”

“I will not deny it,” Odin speaks, though his voice is as scrapped bare as bones, as miserably harsh as two stones grinding together. “But, my Heart, can you not see how I might...” Even to speak this her, to his wife, Odin feels the words are costly, and dearly bought. Too much of all that he has for so long kept beneath the willing cage of his ribs. To hide is to deny, and in many ways, to deny is to forget. Odin has forgotten some things that he should not have allowed himself to deny.

“No, husband, I do not see.” She means every coldness that makes sharp her tongue; there is no forgiveness for this trespass, not yet. “For all your words, do you think I am fool enough to take each for truth?”

“No.” Is the best, the kindest answer he has on his tongue.

Frigga takes herself to the edge of the little pool of water spreading round her husband's strong frame; her eyes linger upon the great inky, knotted Tree upon his back, and the long scars upon his shoulders. He is a warlord, she knew it the day she accepted him as her husband, she knew it when she had been little more complicated than a girl and he little more than a boy, and nothing like the King and Queen they are now.

She has come to accept that she cannot change this fact. Odin would not be Odin if he were stripped of his darker heart, for it is what makes his goodness great, ere he manages to find that goodness.

“Husband, you may say to our son that Asgard shall not go to War, that you shall not go to war, but I know you. I know many more of your faces than does our son. Think you I cannot see your desire for what you wish to be yours, though there is not one scrap of truth to that wish save what you would imagine to be there?”

“Tis not my imagination Frigga.” Odin replies, though it is only half as gentle as he had intended it to be. “I know what I did.”

Frigga laughs, slides one foot into the chill water running over the gleaming surface of the floor. “And what is it that you have done, Harri Hliðskjálfar? What was the exact nature of your trespass?” She stops just beyond his reach, just beyond the feeling of his fingers touching against her hip, or her thigh, of his mouth against her neck, or his hands at small of her back. Odin has his familiar ways, and she'll have none of it yet.

As if she does not know, or cannot guess, at just how profoundly he betrayed her, and with a King whom Odin himself had dared to publicly call his own enemy no less.

Odin grits his teeth, their sharpness pressed against his unruly tongue, and thinks instead of all that he owes his wife, rather than what he would have from another.

“The child is not yours to claim, and do not be so cruel to me as to deny you have not thought of War as the surest answer to what you see as being robbed,” Frigga hisses, seeking out her husband's single remaining eye. She'll not read much, but any little truth will suffice. “Nothing was taken from you, hsuband.”

“Frigga,” Odin begins, rising up from his battered old stool, “why is this so different from all the others? You keep my heart, that has always been enough for thee. But I see it is this trespass among all those afore is the one that truly wounds you. Why?” If it is cruel to turn the tide of his wife's questioning in this manner, Odin has no room for its care in his own mind. He cannot give her anymore of his thoughts than what she has already wrested from him. If he chooses War, or some other Road made in violence, then it will be his choice, and hers to accept.

That is the sole gift of being bound to Hliðskjálf and its unchallenged height: for the greater part of things, Asgard moves on a pendulum set swinging by Odin's hand. One day he may be Odin Peacemaker, and upon another day he may be Odin Warlord, Odin Far Rider, who is moved not by his own petty desires but by the demands of a million, million others. At least, that is how it shall seem.

The Queen of Asgard is not given the opportunity to reply.

An Einherjar is standing at the very edge of the training room, the heavy noise of his armour signalling his presence to the King and Queen.

“All-Father,” the honoured warrior begins, “I bring a message from Njörðr, Lord of Vanaheim and Ruler of the Sea.” If the óss is troubled by the sight of his King and Queen so naked in body and in expression, he would not speak for any reward. Even here, at this distance from them, he can see anger and old wounds sitting on both their shoulders.

“What is the message?” Odin does not bother to even make a pretence of looking for his discarded shirt; he does not care if others see just how greatly all his many wars have marked his body.

“The Lord of Vanaheim requests an audience with thee, my King. He says it is urgent, and that he brings strange news.”

Njörðr has not come to Asgard since his daughter and son were given over as hostages to end the violence between their two people. The ruler of the Sea has never come to stand afore the long river of stairs leading unto Hliðskjálf; he has only once bowed to Odin, and even that little act cost him far more than he was likely willing to part with.

“So be it,” Odin All-Father intones. “You may tell the Lord of Vanaheim he may come to Valhöll, and that I will be awaiting his news.” He does not bother to tell the Einherjar to go, the man knows well enough how to deal with the commandments of his King. None of those honoured warriors would be residing in the halls of the Aesir were it otherwise.

“Njörðr has not been a guest in our halls for millennia,” Frigga murmurs, stepping away from her husband to better gather her thoughts, to better gather his. “Shall I go to the Lady Freyja and tell her of his news? He is her father, and she has not seen him in all that great length of Time.”

“Freyja will not come,” is Odin's distant reply, for already is his mind spinning upon what news the Vanir Lord will unwittingly bring to him, what new threads he might grasp in his hands. If the King of the Sea has left Nóatún to speak with him, then it can be for no small reason.

Odin cannot help but wonder if Njörðr has ever seen a Jotun before.

“She is an Aesir now.”

“We shall see,” Frigga snaps, plucking up the hem of her honey coloured gown to take her leave of her husband and his twisting, troubled gaze. Let the All-Father plot, she has plots of her own, and she has confidence enough to say hers are far, far quieter than his, whatever they may be. When will Men learn that it is not a cutting sword but a subtle hand that reaps the greatest rewards, for the littlest of effort.

~ * ~

The Royal Family of Asgard is stood upon the stairs of Hliðskjálf, the lateness of the hour casting over all the great hall a molten, fractious light, as if each gleaming rope of golden, knotted rune work had first been dipped in ungentle fire.

It is fitting that the Ruler of the Sea should come to Valhöll just as Asgard's first sun is making its magnificent descent into the black edged horizon, when the Aesir are about their feasting and their jesting and their wrestling. Asgard is noisy and bright, full of old tales of War and adventure; they keep little quiet, and are even less given to respect Útlandrs who have come unto their halls.

Odin doubts Njörðr will tarry long. His nine Valkryja ringing round their father's throne would dissuade all but the bravest, the most reckless of supplicants to Hliðskjálf's power. Those nine bright swords speak a language all their own, and it is one as well understood as the All-Tongue, but needs no words to make its voice heard.

The great, soaring rune-doors of Valhöll swing open and from beneath the shadows cast by their length, comes one lone shape, and in his wake is all the many voices of the sighing seas, kept in the folds of a cloak as fine and thin as early morning mist, yet as free flowing as any water. Njörðr is taller even than Odin, with a wealth of shining, heavy braids bound by shells and chips of coral and dark green sea rope, and yet more of the same twisted into the length of his beard.

A strange god indeed, and one without malice or guile – only the bitter understanding of the expenditures of War.

“Good King Njörðr, we here welcome you to Asgard,” Thor speaks first, keeping Tilkváma at his feet, rather than swinging upon his wrist. Father had been very clear about that, though Thor did not fail to mark that Odin kept Gungnir ever by his side. “And do hope it is nothing too troubling which has brought you to Us.”

“Aye, well met are we, Thor Odinson, First Prince of Asgard.” Njörðr replies, raising one fine, gleaming hand in greeting; his skin is bright under Valhöll's fires, bright as silver fish scales. “I have come to speak to your father, the King.”

“Well met, Njörðr, Ruler of the Sea and Lord of Vanaheim,” Odin takes up, rising from his seat upon Hliðskjálf to begin his descent from the high throne. Huginn and Muninn alight upon his shoulders and he goes to the Sea with his birds and his plans and his eye kept firmly on the over-eager shape of his golden son. “What news is it that you have brought to me?”

“A strange occurrence, All-Father,” the sea god replies, thin brows knit together in mild consternation; he does not like the cold fire of Asgard, nor the loud voices that do not belong to the rough comfort of the Sea; Valhöll is many miles distant and dissimilar to Nóatún. “I heard word of two young Aesir waylaid upon Vanaheim's shore, near the Ocean it seems. My people lost sight of them shortly afore our first star reached its zenith, apparently they rode away on fine grey horse. I could not ascertain if the young things were lost or injured or simply wandering much too far from their parents.” The sea god sighs and rolls his eyes, as if to say: ah, the impertinence of youth. Of course, this is nothing like what he truly means, but it is the simplest means of confronting the All-Father and his edicts.

Odin finds he must bite own tongue, that he must smother the wide wolf's grin that is creeping upon his lips. “Two Aesir you say? I had not thought any of my own people cared to wander through Vanaheim, not since the War was concluded. We Aesir have taken our leave of the Realms, and I find it strange indeed that two children would so carelessly journey over so great a border alone.”

Njörðr does not flinch at the All-Father's clever words, but gives back a smile of his own, ever patient, and takes up the thread of his questioning again. “They appeared, for all that I may rely on my own Thanes, Lost, King of Asgard. Vanir do not stare at the Sea, and think themselves Lost.”

“And what is it that you suggest, sea-son? I cannot very well run about all the Nine Realms searching for two lost Aesir. Nor can Heimdall.” Only Frigga knows why he is protesting this action, and only Frigga will suspect him of anything other than a trifling annoyance.

“I gave you my children to keep your people from my Realm, All-Father.” Njörðr answers, eyes narrowing as like a snake about to strike, now that its tail has been treaded upon. “I would ask that you respect what I have paid to Asgard, respect what scars are yet unhealed between our two worlds, and let them lie. Keep your people from my shores!” If he is angry, if he is short with his tongue and his words, he has yet more answers to give to Odin All-Father, should there be conflict here.

“No, no,” Odin laughs, knocking Gungnir against the stair he stands upon, “there is no need for anger between us, Lord of Vanaheim. I understand your distress, and I have a...solution...to your qualms.” He keeps his gaze firmly upon the sea god, firmly away from Frigga and Thor.

“And what solution is that, All-Father? Surely you cannot exile another Realm from the reach of the Bifröst?” That is a wound well struck, Njörðr sees, and it pleases him to see it. Tis good to know he can hurt the King of All, even if it is only with words.

“No,” Odin replies; he would give Njörðr a dragon's greedy smile, but that would be too much honesty indeed. “I shall send my son, Thor.”

Thor opens his mouth, a noise of protest on his tongue, but the shock of being suddenly bound into the scuffling of two Kings has stolen his voice.

“He is in need of a finer education in the greater scope of these Nine Realms, so he will find our two little lost Aesir, and we shall no more worry about old wounds or rash decisions.” Odin turns from the tall shape of the sea god to meet his son and his son's hammer. He knows what this will get him with Frigga, but it is worth a little pain to finally have good reason to show Thor all that he lacks in subtlety and diplomacy.

“Amuse yourself, my son.” Odin laughs, clapping his Prince on the shoulders as if they had not just four days hence fought bitterly with one another over the road to War. “Find me these wayward Aesir. I would have words with them.”

Chapter Text

~ * ~

Vanaheim's sun is nearing its zenith, as best Loki can discern, and that means the hour is late indeed. The woods and fields must be left for another day's wandering; after that, it is the great libraries that flourish beneath that burning, shifting Ocean Loki cannot tear his gaze from.

Perhaps he should thank whomever had the foresight to steal so many scrolls and books from beneath Skollvaldr's nose, for each has proven most useful to him in his hunger for a greater understanding. If Jotunheim's libraries are vast halls of words and spells and observations that belong solely to Jotun minds, well, then it may be assumed that the Vanir keep worlds of knowledge for their own people as well. Knowledge of the Aesir, of the Wars, of what it means to steal the heart of a Realm, leaving it to silence and misery for some reason that Loki cannot yet grasp. It cannot simply be no more than base cruelty on the part of the Aesir. Surely there is a reason.

Midgard may be the answer, but he does not yet know the question. After all, what care does a god as towering as Odin All-Father have towards such little creatures as those who dwell in Midgard? They are no more profound than the animals Loki mimics: quick to live, quick to die, quick to leave no trace on their Realm save for their bones and their little stone tjalds.

How is it that their petty, fragile threads were strong enough to bind the God-King of Jotunheim to the humiliation of exile and surrender?

Vanaheim and its libraries are the beginning, just the first in a long, long Road.

“Brother?” Helblindi murmurs, raising a hand to shade his eyes from the striking sun and the blazing of the Ocean. Now that this Realm's day-star is at its highest portion, the violet Ocean is alive with a million, million flecks of white brilliance and deepest swathes of dark, dark purple. Like the flush of embarrassment that sometimes touches his own cheeks. “Should we not be returning home now? If we tarry any longer there is a risk a Vanr shall see us, and mark us for trespassers.”

Loki stands upon the shore for a moment longer, though Helblindi's long shadow falls across the sand like some great arrow he cannot follow, reminding him of the punishment they have risked for this venture. If it be worth the risk, then he cares not to spend a few more moments bound to this searing white beach; he may ne'er see this great bowl of a horizon ever again. He may never see this colour ever again. How sad that it took betrayal to gift him this sight, for he has never seen such colour, such burning magnificence as this strange violet ocean.

But his arms and shoulders are burning under Vanaheim's sun, and an uncomfortable second skin of heat clings to his skin and he feels his breath too hot against his own tongue. From the shivers he can see in the flickering of Helblindi's shadow against the sand, it goes the same with his brother.

Father gave him no lie: Jotun are not meant to dwell beyond the reach of Winter.

He does not spare a moment to wonder of he will wear the evidence of his wandering far longer than he thinks he might; Loki does not think he shall wear any evidence.

Sleipnir carries them home as easily as he had carried them away.

If his skin prickles with a warning only half felt, well, there is not the space between the world he is sinking from and the Roads he is falling upon to give it much thought. The Crown-Prince of Jotunheim is well used to eyes upon him, to furtive glances kept neath shaded halls.

*

Ginnungagap breathes upon them with especial bitterness, so much so Loki clings to Helblindi as fiercely as Helblindi clings to him; they are as the should be here, and no more wear the lies of pink skin and green eyes, or baleful yellow on Helblindi's part, rather than horns and Lines and that colour which belongs to Jotun and to Jotun alone.

“I am cold?” Helblindi chatters, his fangs bright in the darkness. “Why am I cold?” He had not thought to ever understand the touch of the void as something unpleasant, as something he could share with his brother, who is often cold – when they are racing through Harvetrtjald's great snake knotted halls and the wind is high and howling. “Is this what it feels like to you, when you forget your furs in the garden?”

“Aye,” Loki breathes, “but this is worse.”

Helblindi holds a thin keening sound between his teeth, and wraps his arms round his brother as tightly as he dares.

Ginnungagap and its eternal carnage passes beneath Sleipnir's hooves, and Helblindi thinks that perhaps he shall tell his brother of his utter lack of a desire to ever do this again. Jotun are not Aesir, and he cannot imagine why Loki would wish to do this ceaseless roaming in-between the worlds, nor why the Crown-Prince would wish to ask so much, for so apparently little a reward.

“You have not told me why we did this,” Helblindi thinks to rebuke, just as the shadows part and the heavy eye of Death is torn from them like sinew from bone, with a sudden, easy violence. “And do not do me the disservice of asking me for patience. I have given you enough of that, and now I am burnt and cold and frightened, and I did not ask to be any of these things!”

Loki slithers down from his perch upon Sleipnir's withers and drops to the black earth of his garden; the little eidolons raise their horns high, and their red eyes flash like little knives, as if to say welcome back.

“Loki?” Helblindi calls sharply, though he has not quite got both of his stinging, bare feet upon the ground. The Eldingstjarna has spent half its portions across the slate-grey sky, and the wind is keen as a skinning blade. Helblindi shivers and thinks himself sick, or touched by some strange magick that has ridden back with him to Jotunheim, most likely by hiding in the length of his shadow.

“I am looking for something.” Loki snaps, tucking his chin into the high collar of his wolf's fletching. “You have always trusted me before,” he murmurs, fixing his little brother with a hard stare. “What is so very different about this bit of mischief?”

“It is not mischief, Prince!” Helblindi snarls, throwing his shoulders back despite the strange crackling he can feel upon his skin; it is the same for all the parts of his body that were so long exposed to the sun. “It is treason, it is dangerous! There is no Road back from this day.” His voice breaks upon that last word, and just as suddenly as he felt anger he now finds a creeping, un-kind sorrow gripping his shivering heart.

“I know little brother, I know.” Loki mourns, though it is only to give Helblindi some poor scrap of comfort. His brother does not understand all that they have to lose, all that may already be lost, and all for want of a few years searching for his own bravery. “But spare me a little of your wit and listen to what I am going to tell you.”

Helblindi folds his arms across his chest; when Sleipnir slips from horse to grey pinpricks in the noonday light, into those multitudinous little needles that rebuff any knowledge of just one Shape, Helblindi finds he has patience enough, but little desire. He wishes only to go to their father, to sit at his feet and forget that for a little while he was not the second son of Laufey King, but some pink-skinned boy with no horns upon his head.

“Have you looked out over Thrym in recent risings?” Loki quips, moving deeper into the garden, towards the ghosts and their inane chatter and their new moon eyes. “Have you stood upon father's highest balcony to search out the black Erms of Útgarð? Truly looked?”

“No,” Helblindi admits, watching as his brother snaps his long, thin fingers to pull the threads of the spectres back into the nothingness from whence they came; it is no small relief to once again be the only Helblindi in the Prince's not-garden. The eidolon is a reflection he'd rather not see. “There is too much to see, and it is very bright.”

“The tundra is creeping in.” Loki snarls, motioning for his brother to climb up the great, great oak that has been fed so assiduously by Loki's own magick; it towers over all the other not-trees, and from it's highest branches one can see over the thick walls of the not-garden, between the soaring needles of Harvetrtjald's spires and out to the mighty, shattered sprawl of the plains.

Helblindi climbs and climbs till he and his prince are clinging to branches at the very crown of the not-tree, and there is a great swath of gleaming, brittle leaves upon the black earth.

“See, out beyond the towers of the Erms, just where the horizon becomes the edge of the plains?” Loki points, and Helblindi's eyes follow the arrow of his brother's finger till he is hunting in the weeds of the distance for that invading tundra. He finds it: a long, wavering line of purple and red and sour yellow.

For a moment he cannot breathe.

“It has never come this far!” Helblindi shrieks, twisting round to catch Loki's attention, only to find his brother's eyes already waiting for him; there is a defeat in those eyes, a bitterness Helblindi has never seen touching upon Loki's face with such strength. “I do not understand, did we not, did you not give back Útgarð to its old ones? Did you not buy back our Voice with all those hearts?”

“I did.” Loki grieves, willing the salt not to gather, willing the shame from his stinging cheeks. “I did, we all did, my dearest brother.”

“Then, oh then was it not enough?” Helblindi questions, with far too much desperation in his rock hewn voice. He cannot breath half so well as he would like, and for a moment he takes no shame at having to tuck his head between his knees to find some means of stopping the fear that has set his world to burning down around his ears. “What was the purpose then, if it was all for not?”

Loki hears his little brother's voice as like some distant echo, muffled by Loki's own anger, his own hard-edged pain at gazing out upon what his own dearly bought sacrifices should have prevented. “No, it was not enough. What we did was, was nothing more than a little scrap of binding cloth against a wound far deeper than we ever thought.” He does not look to his brother's sharp, sudden noise of mourning, that long, thin whistle-keening that is the very tongue of grief.

“What does it mean?”

Helblindi is not an idiot, Loki will not insult him by giving him pretty words to ease the blow.

“It means we are to die.”

“No, it cannot mean that!”

Such fear, such pain.

“Aye, that is what it means, but it will take years Helblindi.” Loki spits, rage and sorrow warring with one another like birds of prey carelessly drawing blood they cannot afford to lose. “Centuries upon centuries, and I do not know how to stop it. We shall fall from our orbit and crumble away, and I cannot...in this I am,” Loki shivers, finding that word a heavy stone in his mouth. “I am ignorant of so much in this universe.”

“The Vetrljós? Oh, brother, the Vetrljós is surely the answer!” Helblindi finds a bright thread of hope unfurling before him, and he clings to it as if he were drowning. “We must get it back.”

“And how are we to get it back, little brother?” There is a scrap of laughter on his tongue, and it is strangely not half so bitter as Loki fears it should be. “That creature, that one-eyed old Beast will not simply sit down with our father to trade away our Realm's heart for some little coin, what ever that coin may be.”

“So you think to sneak and to wander and to learn is a better answer than to simply walk between and take back what is our?” Helblindi does his best not to cry out his disbelief. How is it that Loki, daring, heedless Loki, would ever follow the quieter plan of action? “I, why would we wait? What might you learn?”

“You misunderstand,” Loki replies, suddenly tired of his great height above the not-garden and the earth; he is tired of bearing witness to such colours creeping towards the first tjald in his great chain racing down to the Dýr's Cradle. He cannot turn his mind to imagining the distress of the great master of Útgarð: to be brought out of silence and shackles, only to find oneself again ignorant and uncertain when walking to the very edges of the Erms. Torture, and aught else but that. Loki wonders if Chieftain Arngrìmr has sent any more missives in his surprisingly elegant scrawl. He would like to know, but he will not ask quite so much of Laufey as that, no matter how greatly he would like to ask about that same Chieftain's son.

“I do not wish to wait. We must wait. If we are not prepared, then when our exile ends two turnings from now, Jotunheim will face Viðurr and his Thanes as a Realm already on the road to defeat, to a final surrender.”

Helblindi opens his mouth as if to protest, but finds he lacks the fine words his Prince wields as easily as he does his little blade. For a moment, he pretends the shadows creeping upon the wall of the not-garden are fit enough to hold his attention. “Does father know?” If any know the answer, it will be Loki.

“Yes.” Is the kindest reply Loki can find for his little brother. “How could the King of Jotunheim not know?” Ofttimes Loki finds that himself believing that his father is as keen a watcher as Heimdall, and that nothing which walks across the plains, nor climbs the mountains, nor flies above Jotunheim's skies is free from Laufey's unrivalled gaze.

“Do you think he knows what we have done?” Helblindi whispers, hating what shame there is in his fear, but the thought of his father's rage, the King's rage, is terrible enough to make him free with his tongue, free with his worries. “If our father can see a little green upon the edges of Thrym, then wherefore should I believe that he does not know we have broken our exile?”

“We will find out soon enough,” Loki sighs, bringing up his bare knees to lay his head upon them. “But do not fear, I will protect you.”

“That is a foolish thing to say,” Helblindi mourns, turning his gaze to the black earth and the broken leaves. “You think to say it was your choice alone, but I chose to go with you. There is no difference in our betrayals. Father will see no great difference.”

Loki does not reply; when it begins to snow, great wet flakes that sting his skin and mat his hair, he makes no effort to brush the chill from his frame. Loki sits perched in the arms of his towering not-tree and listens to the restless music of his brother's horns, and wonders how it is that he shall Lie to their father. Never once does he wonder why. Nor does Helblindi.

If he makes no promises, speaks no words, then none may call it Lying.

What a foolish, foolish thing to think.

~ * ~

Vanaheim is a place of sunshine and the lingering, sweet scent of heat soaked summer wheat. The Realm is given over fully to the bounty of fertile, black earth: seas of wheat and grass tall enough to swallow giants whole. Trees that break the sky as easily as any of Valhöll’s watchtowers. An entire world governed by the Vanir, a Realm devoted to the abiding worship of a thousand fold universal cycles. All things that grew and died, rose up and were cast down; all that first flushed with the heat of youth and then turned to wintry agedness was under the rule of the Vanir.

Thor has never seen a world so much a reflection of its people, though he suspects he would feel the same were he standing upon Jotunheim's frozen wastes.

“I had not thought,” Thor murmurs, “how lush and wondrous a world is Vanaheim.” His gaze is distant and, if one was to split hairs, a shade's breath from wistful. Asgard is home and hearth, yet sometimes Thor finds that he wishes for a home less given over to all the gleaming, cold resplendence of his ancestors’ designs. He would like more freedom, and there is, as plain as his eyes might allow him to see, nothing but that in Vanaheim. He gathers a deep breath, filling his chest with the tumescent riot of high summer, the vivid scent of earth painting over his tongue. It is always the first day of spring in Asgard, or if not the gentleness of spring, than Asgard is glorying in the stultifying heat of high summer and ofttimes Thor thinks how it might be enjoyable to see all the faces of a season, and not just the best of two. He would like the cold touch of Winter; the uncertainty of autumn.

The violet Ocean of Vanaheim is a sight he is oddly enthralled by, though he would tell no one it was thus. Tis no one's business, what moves his heart, and he is not here to make idle talk with stone-faced Vanr who look at him with poorly veiled distaste.

The War was an Age ago, why should it still sour so much? Surely both did wrong, and with hostages and amendments made, there is no profit in further anger, further quarrelling. After all, it is not as if the Vanir are like the beasts of Jotunheim, who preyed upon the little creatures for no better reason than the whim of their King.

The Vanir have long since accept the judgement of Asgard and its King; the Jotun have not, and therein lies the danger. Perhaps when he returns, Thor will speak to his father again, and make a better case for War against Jotunheim, armed with his better understanding of what a peace-bound Realm should be.

“Prince of Asgard, the beach will offer few answers,” speaks a tall, red-haired Vanr, one of Njörðr's Thanes. “The tide has come in, and all that is left to search are the woods.” The Thane points to the thick, wildly tangled underbrush, and Thor bites back an oath.

Thor is not so ignorant of his father's ways as Odin would prefer to believe; this is no true Hunt, but a game, a chase, his father has sent him on to get him out from underfoot. A little distraction to keep his mind from spinning upon War, upon those cold, desolate proving grounds that Odin All-Father's commandment of banishment will keep him from for another two risings of Asgard's first sun.

Old fool, Thor mutters darkly, and sets off into the verdant, lush forest with Sif and the Warriors Three nipping at his heels like hounds who lack a scent to follow. Perhaps this will not be the grand adventure they were all hoping for, but it shall be amusement enough for some little while. He would very much like to catch these two children by the scruff of their necks and give them both a good shaking. Who in Asgard ranges farther than the Son of Odin? Who would dare? And what sort of children wandered about foreign shores without the protection of their parents?

In all truth, he should like to meet these wanderers, and congratulate them on their blatant disregard for the laws of Odin All-Father. That is an admirable feat indeed.

He should like to be so free.

It does not take long to recognize the signs of a large animal moving quickly through the woods; there are bent branches and mangled hawthorne brambles, even a tuft of grey fur shivering fitfully in the rough bark of a pine tree.

“My friends!” Thor calls, crouching down to touch a finger to the deep, clear impressions in the earth; whatever manner of horse those Aesir children were riding, it was a great, great beast indeed. They could not be a minor Aesir's sons, but the children of a Thane, or a member of Odin's high court. Only a Thane would keep so fine a horse as the one these tracks belonged to.

“Aye, Thor?” Fandral replies, crashing through the brush with a twitch to his usually irrepressible grin; his hair is snarled by a dozen or more errant twigs and scraps of pine, and there is mud on his boots. The others are hot upon his heels, and they will no doubt tease him for his aggravation, and his dishevelled clothing.

No doubt Fandral shall be the scourge of Vanaheim by the end of this day, once they retire to the great mead-halls of Nóatún; no doubt the ǫ́ss shall make a name for himself soon enough, one that has aught to do with dirtied boots and traipsing over hill and dale in search of wayward children. Thor forgets that Fandral is swordsman afore he is an adventurer, and not one to go wandering the wilderness; there are no women in the forest, and no soft beds either.

“Look here,” Thor points, Tilkváma gleaming briefly under the spotted light of the soaring, tangled canopy of trees. “The tracks are so clear, so clear a blind man could follow, then,” Thor frowns, confusion slowing his tongue. “those same tracks simply vanish.”

“What?” Fandral laughs, just as Sif's bright javelin cuts a swath of clinging branches from her path to make way for her through the woods. “Oh, hello Sif, come and look at these curious things. I should think our Prince has lost his touch for Hunting, save that he is entirely right.”

Sif snorts; Thor may be her Prince, but he is rarely right. She plants her javelin in the soft earth and leans down to join her Prince in his fascination with dirt. “Ah, I see. Very clear, so clear a child could follow, and then nothing. How strange.”

“Magic?” Hogun murmurs, melting out of the undergrowth with an enviable softness of step; Thor should like to be so quiet when sneaking up on his enemies, or his game.

“Aye.” Volstagg replies, thumping the grim-faced Einherjar on the shoulder. “I should think that was rather obvious. You young ones need to broaden your horizons, that,” the great, ale cask of a warrior chuckles, “is magic if I ever understood it, which is not half so well as I ought. Would have saved us a great deal of...loss...had any ǫ́ss spoken the rune-tounge.”

“That's women's working,” Thor snorts. “The Thanes of Asgard keep no faith with spells and webs and words. Nor do Asgard's Princes.”

Volstagg is glad said Prince of Asgard does not lift his gaze from the dirt, so Thor cannot see the crooked grin he is giving to Sif, nor the young ásynja's sour faced amusement at her Prince's ignorant words. Volstagg would like to ask what was it that Thor knew of women aside from rutting and whittling away the hours of eventide in the company of pretty arms, in conversations no more substantial than sweat-damp sheets and a hasty thank you afterwards, if that at all. He is most grateful his own daughters are ages from being old enough to catch Thor's eye. Ah, the pleasures of being Odin All-Father's only legitimate son, or so Volstagg supposed.

“We should not be arguing over the merits of magic,” Hogun reproves. “But thinking on how we can capture two children who can so easily hide themselves from Asgard's best.” He is an Einherjar, chosen by Valkryja Skuld herself, raised up from the violence of his first death by the first daughter of Odin Fráríðr to dwell under the soaring rune-halls of Valhöll, and he takes no pleasure at being sent out like a wolf among sheep, to play the part of a sheep no less. And all for children who are making a mockery of the King of Asgard and his edicts. “There is no reason to think the Aesir we are sent to find shall not simply return here once more.”

“A camp?” Thor replies, erasing the tracks in dirt with the flat of his palm; there is no need to permit Njörðr's Thanes the same understanding as he has. It would look poorly if the pair of wayward Aesir were caught not by their Prince, but by these strange, over-tall Vanir, who keep a disturbing quiet in all their gazes – as if they know some great mystery that Thor does not. Perhaps it is their nature to be as stones in the tumult of these Nine Realms, since they are gods of growth and renewal, keepers of cycles greater even than Odin All-Father might master. He does not truly care to ask, but he suspects that is the sole reason he is here, crouching in the dirt on the shores of Vanaheim's searing Ocean: to learn the ways of others, to get for himself a better understanding.

Thor thinks his father is a fool.

The old ways are dying, and it is not the business of Kings to know all the shapes in the universe. Asgard needs not a ruler who keeps a gaze wider than the borders of his own Realm, Asgard needs a ruler who will protect her people no matter the cost to others. The Jotun in the vault was proof enough of that need, and one day Thor does not doubt he will make his father understand.

“Aye,” Sif speaks, knocking her javelin against her boot to shake the dirt away. “Tis a good idea, brother Hogun. If these young Aesir are somehow wielding magic they should not possess, well, I think it wise to be cautious, to wait for their return.”

“As the Lady says!” Thor laughs, rising up from the warm, black earth of Vanaheim with Tilkváma swinging upon its leather cord. “For once, just this once,” he smiles, crooking a finger as if to ward of any chance of such a thing ever being suggested again, “we will wait, and let them come to us. How dangerous can a pair of children be, magic or no magic?”

None of his companions care to disagree, not today at least.

There is a mead-hall to be sat under, and a evening's pleasure to be had; no Aesir has set foot upon Vanaheim's shores in an Age or so, and to drink with the Vanir, to feast with them and hear their tales, well, tis encouragement enough to make haste from the burning white beach, and down towards the great halls of Nóatún, far beneath the waves.

Thor Odinson would make a Name for himself.

~ * ~

Helblindi scratches and hisses and wrings his hands; the skin round his shoulders is flaking and white as bone against his War Lines; his nose is peeling and he hasn't slept in days not since returning from that foolhardy roaming for which he willingly allowed himself to be dragged along.

It is driving him mad, all his fear; all this silence and sneaking about in dark corridors. Worse, he has not gone to his father since he and Loki returned, since he learned how terrible was that knife's edge all of Jotunheim was perched upon. To know there was that same bitter acceptance in his father's gaze as there was in Loki's would be as the very worst pain, the most wretched misery. Helblindi wants no part of his father's truths, as Loki does, but turns away and wishes for that great titan, that mighty King, to be all that his father is, and not the creature as ruled by fear and uncertainty as any other Jotun who walks upon the plains of Thrym.

He does not desire to see as Loki does – he never has. After all, ignorance has pleasures all its own.

Perhaps this is why he does not hear his father come into the not-garden until it is far too late to creep neath the trees to hide in the wilds of the hawthorne brambles.

“Helblindi.”

When Helblindi looks up, his horns gouging the not-tree at his back, and does his very best not to flinch, not to give in to the hard edged, soaring fear that has gripped his heart with iron hands. Oh, oh how Terrible is his father's gaze? He shivers, and opens his mouth to reply, fangs bright against his red tongue.

“Child,” Laufey speaks from between his teeth, “I know what has been done. What it is that your Prince has done.” The pain that crowds out the fear, the regret that outshines the shame, is so naked in Helblindi's eyes that the sight takes Laufey's vicious rage and smashes it into ugly, sharply cutting pieces. He had ne'er thought to witness such biting truth on his second child's bright, arrow fine face.

For a brief and ugly moment, just a little span of breath, he thinks of Fárbauti. And oh what a weight that is to carry on his shoulders for so long, and so unknowingly.

Is he so cruel?

Laufey stares down at his tall mirror child and desperately wishes he could cleave himself from this un-looked for understanding. So this is what his his distance has wrought? Though he would cling to that familiarity, to that safety which spares him the cost of the weight of that Love which so binds him to Loki. Perhaps it is unwise, but he has already given to others of himself more foolishly than ever he should have.

“Forgive me, my King,” Helblindi stammers, his long fingers drawing blood they are so viciously dug into the meat of his thighs. He can think of nothing better to do than keep high his horns and plot how best to keep the worst of his wounds from his Prince's eyes. “I...”

“No,” Laufey sighs, bending his knees to sit in the dirt with his son, beneath the shivering light of the ash tree; the little not-fox grins its wild, senseless grin at him, and Laufey does not think of who else wears grins as sharp and wise as that ice born mimic. “I can no more punish you in place of your brother. It is clear he takes no care for what his disobedience costs you.”

“Yes.” Helblindi replies, proud and sure if only for a little moment. “It matters nothing to Loki.”

“That is nothing to take pride in, my child.” Laufey barks, raising his hand to grip Helblindi's shoulder; he is expecting his son to yelp, to howl. He knows that colour, has worn it himself for more years than he cares to recall.

Helblindi yowls, and bites his thin lip to bloody pieces in his fruitless effort to keep the little noises of his pain from his father's ears.

“Should you not be angry with your brother for leading you so far from home, for burning your skin? Lies are heavy burdens to bear, Helblindi, you should not so readily accept their weight.” He would have his middle child take reason to heart, if he can get no restraint from Loki; he will not be as water against stone, if his old ways will no longer bring his firstborn to heel.

“Aye,” is the best reply Helblindi has upon his blood streaked tongue. “But my anger means nothing to him, and I do not hold this against him. He is my Prince, and I will go where he asks.”

“Thou art a fool, Helblindi.” Laufey mourns; he had not thought such a divide in purpose was growing between his children; one a wanderer, heedless of the cost, and the other a willing victim to that wandering, to that Prince and his whims. “But an honest fool at least.” The great Lines beneath his fingers are hobbled by the flaking white skin peeling away from Helblindi's shoulders, and Laufey finds a sharp, familiar misery in his guts.

Jotun are not meant to dwell in the Realms of others – it is an impossibility.

“Cover yourself, when your brother calls upon you again and takes you from our halls. You will damage your Lines if you go so bare in the sun for so long.” If his touch is too gentle, if his words cause more damage than good, well, then so be it. There is no other road to take.

“What?” Helblindi breathes, his frame still as black water, his fingers curling into his palms to hide their trembling. “You cannot, father you cannot...”

“Cannot what?” Laufey laughs, though it carries a knowing shade of resignation. “If your brother refuses to range under my gaze, then you will do all that I cannot. You will keep him safe, you will keep him from ranging too far, you will come to me if ever he is so foolish as to breach the borders of Asgard. You will be the Prince I know you are, and do my commandments as much justice as you did all those turnings ago, when the Aesir tore down our gates and smashed our tjald.”

Helblindi bows his head, feeling every hidden weight in his father's words laid out along the length of his neck like stones. Loyalty is a whore, and Helblindi is tired of its games. This is all that he has ever desired – his father's trust, his father's Love. And now to find these things were simply given to him in ways different from his brother...

Helblindi feels cut adrift in his own memories, searching with a new understanding, and a clearer sight.

Laufey regrets that he must part with yet more of himself, for Helblindi is not so well armed as he should be, if he is to outwit all those who will be drawn to what shadows Loki will fling over the Nine Realms, what Names he shall make for himself. “I would have thee understand something, second Prince of Jotunheim.”

“Aye,” Helblindi whispers, fighting the urge to lean into his father's touch, to ask for anything more than what he has already been given. “As you wish, my King.”

“There are those who would seek to take your brother from our Realm, those like the gate-keeper of Asgard.” Those like the King of Asgard, but no threat is great enough to drag that admission from between Laufey's teeth. He thinks to be shamed by what he is prepared to give over in order to buy for his sons the chance to survive, no matter where they roam, nor what Fate comes stalking along the lengths of their Threads, but he has not the luxury for such a trivial emotion. “We cannot hope to stand against Asgard yet, and if Loki is made a hostage then we will have no Road to walk but that of War.”

“But, I do not understand!” Helblindi cries out, daring to put his hands upon his father's knees. “Is that not what must happen? Is that not the only means of restoring our Realm?”

“Ah,” Laufey murmurs, eyes cast beyond the sharp, red stone wrapped points of his his young child's horns. “So you have seen the tundra – the first signs of our crumbling.”

Helblindi hangs his head, and cannot bear to look his father in the face. He does not shy away when Laufey's rough fingers hook under his chin, lifting his gaze back to the ungentle scrutiny of his father's red, red eyes.

“I will give you Rising Lines soon enough, Laufeyson.” The King smiles, though it is brittle and touches not his eyes. “Do not fall short of your Name, your Blood. I cared for none of my own brothers, but I would have been glad of a sword of your making at my side, had I had such a privilege.” There is so little time left afore all these tangled Threads are pulled from his grasp by the ending of Jotunheim's exile; Ginnarr will return, no matter the path Laufey chooses, and if the First House is not utterly prepared for this day, well, Laufey knows what will be the result.

Jotunheim will fall, and the House of Laufey will be no more.

“Watch your brother,” Laufey commands, his fingers still curled neath his son's chin. “Let him think I know nothing, and keep him from Asgard. The Vetrljós is not his to take, it is mine.”

Helblindi is simply relieved he shall not have to betray his brother after all. He is not lying to Loki, nor running to cling to their father's knees and confess what they had done, but standing upon the middle ground, in the space between those two great shapes that rule over his own life and heart.

Helblindi will be Laufey's eyes, and Loki's sword – and there is only a contradiction if he so chooses.

“Father?” He murmurs, the shape of his question feeling ungainly and foreign upon his tongue. “Is the Vetrljós the only answer?” There is a part of him that does not truly wish for an answer, and yet if he is to range with Loki down whatever paths his Prince will take, then he would know if there is any purpose to that roaming aside from Loki's great, great curiosity.

“That is not an answer you would like to have.” Laufey replies, turning away from the honesty in his second Prince's gaze.

Helblindi says no more and is content, for a little while, to sit with his father beneath the shade of the not-garden, and think nothing of what manner of Dýr stalks Jotunheim once more, nor of all their wasted effort, nor of all the blood they have spilled.

He does not think to ask of Midgard, as Loki might; he does not think to ask if his father believes this a cost worth Jotunheim's savagery against the mortal Realm. Nor if Laufey thought there would be any other consequences to those actions aside from equal retaliation.

Perhaps if Helblindi had thought to ask these things of his father, then it would not have ended as it did. But he is not Loki. He never will be.

~ * ~

The green-ringed moon rises on Loki's fifteenth year, it's bone white face filling the darkest portions of the western horizon; from his perch atop Sleipnir, Loki waits for the arrow fine shadow of his brother to fall upon the great black plane of the high balcony, the one that shows him the dark, snow-capped teeth of Thiazivarði. The memory of racing to that jagged chain is still a bitter, unhappy thing, but it is not so cutting as it once was.

“Helblindi?” Loki hisses, half his mind caught up in watching for their father, in listening for his too-silent footsteps. “What are you...”

Helblindi slips from the shadows that paint themselves upon the gleaming floors and with a strange and subtle grace. The little pyrite beads make little noise, and the silver banded upon his horns is covered by strips of braided fabric.

Loki finds a frown dragged down the corners of his lips; when did his little brother become something other than his awkward, earnest self? He half expects to see Rising Lines upon Helblindi's cheeks, but their father would not give those without Loki and all the high court in attendance.

There is a bundle of cloth in Helblindi's arms, and when he swings himself up to sit behind Loki upon Sleipnir's back he sets the bundle between them and puts a smile against Loki's ear. “We are for Vanaheim again, brother?”

“Aye,” Loki replies, curiosity sharpening his tongue.

“I'll not be burnt again, and nor will you.” Helblindi chuckles, knocking his fist against his brother's narrow shoulder. “It will make this much easier, if we do not have to slink around for a week's worth of the day-star's risings to be spared the risk of being seen with peeling skin. Or getting knocked about, and do not tell me you could not feel how hot was our skin for days after we first came home.”

“I'll not deny it,” Loki laughs, twisting round to snatch the bundle up. “Wherever did you get such things, Helblindi?”

“From the Library, in one of the chests. I stole the key from Naŕþengill Einarr, well, Hulda stole the key for me, so I am not truly at fault, should any discover my theft.” This is the best clever ruse he could think up on such little notice; Laufey had given him the clothes nearly three weeks ago, and Helblindi had rather foolishly spent the intervening time convincing himself that Loki would not ask him to travel Death's Roads again.

Loki lifts an eyebrow, a crooked, hooked grin baring his teeth in the waning light of the Eldingstjarna. “So it is Einarr who kept the key?”

“He keeps all the keys, my Prince. Hulda took the one he hoped would match, the one with the same little bird – ”

“Raven,” Loki interrupts, all to aware of what creatures are carved into which chests. “That chest has a raven upon its lock.” He has only ever seen Laufey open that chest once, and it was to give him the first of his gold bands, though he cannot place the weight behind the gesture, for surely Laufey does nothing without reason. He is so pleased with his brother's little scheme that he does not bother to reprove him for the wasted time spent in forging a friendship with the child of a Naŕþengill, even if that Naŕþengill is Einarr.

“Aye, aye a raven,” Helblindi draws out the last syllables, feigning disinterest to cover over the faint ghost of nervousness that he feels is sat upon his lungs, squeezing and mocking in equal measure. “The point is, brother, that we have guards against the sun, and I haven't spent any blood to get it.”

Loki laughs, high and bright as a blade, just as the shade-veil begins to shiver and open – eight more holes to distract Heimdall, but not in the same places as afore, Loki is not that foolhardy – and the two eidolons dash away to whatever business it is that spectres have when they are nothing more than mirrors.

Sleipnir drops down into the dark Roads, slipping between the cold, clean horizon of Jotunheim to the yawning maw of Ginunngagap and beyond. Loki holds in his mind the thick, verdant woods that crowd round the white sand of the violet Ocean, and waits for the shore, and the heat and the heavy hand of Vanaheim's day-star.

*

The day is warm, the salt heavy scent of of the ocean settling in the back of Thor's throat with a sharp, sour burn; three weeks idling on Vanaheim's white sand has done little to temper his impatience. Three weeks with no more sighting than those first tracks in the dirt, and he is ready to beg the assistance of Heimdall, even to ask the help of his mother and her Norns. He draws the line at his father's birds, though they leave their feathers about his campsite. It sets his teeth on edge, knowing that his father is watching, but is offering no aid other than the reminder that he is watching.

Thor knows there is a lesson in this, but it is a mystery to him what that lesson might be.

A great crackling noise sends up the little hairs on the back of his neck, a prickling of alarm scattering gooseflesh across his skin; Thor gropes blindly for Tilkváma, keeping his eyes upon the dark underbrush. It cannot be one of his friends, for all but Sif and Hogun make a great deal of noise when crashing through the woods that has nothing to do with snapping twigs and bending branches.

In the dappled, half shadow of the forrest, Thor can see the outline of a horse, a horse as grey as early thunder clouds – and sat atop that horse are two figures who wear shade colours as closely as Thor wears his own armour. The horse and it's riders make no move to come out from beneath the canopy of the woods, and Thor finds himself rising up from his seat upon the scrubby grass nearest the tents, Tilkváma swaying upon its short cord. He cannot see their faces, nor mark them Aesir or Vanir, but there are two and one is tall and broad shouldered, and the other spare and nearly as tall as the shape at its back.

Curiosity bites at him like a hungry woad-dragon.

“You, boy!” Thor calls out, though he only thinks, just as the words leave his mouth, that perhaps shouting at a child who speaks the rune-tongue is not the wisest course of action. “Asgard summons you, come and let us speak together. You have many great Aesir well worried for you.” He will not give his name so rashly, but that does not mean he cannot offer some little enticement afore rushing into the underbrush to chase the youths from their perch atop their mount.

The horse takes a meagre few steps forward, just enough to bare the first youth's face to Vanaheim's bright sun; Thor meets a pair of jealous, viper green eyes which seem to laugh at him from a very great height, and a grin as red as a wolf's snout. A handsome face, though soft with youth. Proud. Very proud.

There is a fierce hissing, a rough exchange of words that Thor cannot catch, no matter how he holds still to listen; a large, long-fingered hand curls over the narrow shoulder of the green-eyed young man in the fore, but the second face does not reveal itself as readily as the first, and Thor is left with no map to go by save for that one hand.

The boy smiles again, sharpening his wolf's grin into a bright burst of laughter.

“Hail Aesir, thou art far from home.”

And the horse is gone, slipping into the heavy shade of Vanaheim's soaring woods as if it could call up a cloak of darkness as it pleased, as if its riders were familiars of the night roads and the dark haunts that Thor has never understood half so well as his father would like.

Before he can shout the insult that is sitting like a hot coal upon his tongue, Thor is calling the twelve Einherjar to arms, calling his friends from their game of sheep's knuckles and bird bones at the edge of the camp. It takes no more than the space of a little moment to have all the Aesir gathered upon Vanaheim's white shores standing afore him, it takes even less time to have them all mounted and racing for the great curve of shoreline that will take them down, down to the shining, shifting capital of Vanaheim.

“To Nóatún.” Thor bellows, and the thunder of the horses hooves is like familiar music, and a mirror of his own beating heart. If he were a brazen youth, wandering where he should not, he would go to the greatest city in all of Vanaheim; he would mingle with the Vanir, and seek out the treasures of a land foreign to his own. If the boy, and his companion, is an óss like any other his age, well, then there will soon enough be whispers enough beneath the halls of Nóatún to give Thor as good a map to the pair as any he might hope to get.

*

“Brother that was – ”

“Amusing?” Loki quips, that wide, dangerous grin fixed upon his face. “Yes it was.”

“Foolhardy, irresponsible, mad...” Helblindi gestures wildly, just as the shadows part for the second time, revealing a roiling sea of golden, swaying stalks that Helblindi has no word for – Jotunheim has nothing in its likeness – and a great, great slope of earth coloured like the bands in his elder brother's horns. A ramp that flies like a golden arrow unto the Ocean, into the Ocean. His breath catches in his throat and the world stills beneath the heavy-handed scent of sunlight and those strange golden stalks rustling together like dry palms and parchment. The heat slides into his bones as if it were a blade, and against the chittering of little creatures and the silence of the waves, Helblindi finds there is a great cavern within his chest – and upon one high peak is his longing for Jotunheim, and upon the other, hunger for what more there is in this cacophonous universe.

“Where are we going Loki?”

“To the tjald beneath the waves, to the halls of King Njörðr, ruler of Vanaheim.” Loki replies, eyes trained upon the distant horizon, and the ceaselessly shifting Ocean, with its high crown of a piercing day-star. Such a magnificent Realm, so full of shapes he longs to mimic, full of creeping, soaring, racing creatures he longs to wear as easily as he wears his horns. When Helblindi's long, stone heavy arms wrap round his waist, tangling in the red threaded belt he has twined round his hips, Loki puts his heels to Sleipnir's sides and the Princes of Jotunheim ride for the edge of the violet Ocean. If both are smiling, neither cares to say. Touch is enough.

When the sea spray splashes his face, salt curling his tongue and stinging his eyes, Loki grabs his little brother's hands and calls the air from the sky to walk down with them into the deep. To the great sea-city of Nóatún.

Loki thinks no other Jotun has ever walked the halls he and his brother are riding towards.

Tis funny, how much it stings to be relieved of one's own ignorance.

*

Sleipnir collapses into a bristle of needles held together by nothing more powerful than its own desires, and permits Loki to wrap its shape round his wrist like some little bauble.

They walk the bright, torch lit pathways of Nóatún, which appear to shift and sway in the fractured light smashing down through the violet Ocean soaring above their heads. The high, multifaceted ceilings are braced with stone hawsers fit enough to be the cage of a dragon's chest, to be a dragon's teeth.

Loki has never seen such colours: a thousand shades of blue and green and yellow, gold and silver chasing twisted into alien shapes he has no Name to put to sight; all this is so bright, even against the munificence of purple and red and some other, burning colour that looks like red dyed in the orange of a falling day-star.

But he is not here to admire colours, nor the mighty shape of this sea-city the Vanir call Home. He is here to learn what he can, to steal what he can, to wander as he can.

They roam for no little span of time, till Loki catches the scent he has been searching for: old seid, dry, bitter, acrid seid that has had no one tongue to speak its words in Ages as old as the titans who built this wonder beneath the Ocean.

“We risked our lives, you spoke, actually spoke, to an Aesir with a hammer in its hands, and all to visit a library?” Helblindi shrieks, eyes wild and hot against Loki's magicked skin. There are some noises that sound as if he is drowning, or choking, and then silence, nothing but silence.

“And where did you think we were going to find our different Path, Helblindi?” Loki snaps, proud as a hawk and twice as over-bearing, with all the goring talons held in the shape of his little smile. “Simply waiting for us down some seldom used road, sitting on some dusty shelf in a distant Treasury? We cannot go to Asgard yet, not till we understand better.”

Helblindi snorts, quiet enough not to draw the eyes of the rivers of Vanir they have already slipped between; tis good he and his brother speak a language unlike the tongues of other Realms, and that tongue is not heard so well by those with no Winter in their hearts.

When he swings open the great doors, a great pair of sea monsters biting and twisting across the wooden surface, he finds he must bite the soft insides of his cheeks to keep from groaning. If Jotunheim's library was a labyrinth of books and scrolls and forgotten, dusty things, then Nóatún's library is a City of labyrinths. He hears his Prince's sharp, low gasp of breath, laced through with bright wonder, and knows this day will be long and arduous – and that there will be many others just the same.

Loki dashes ahead, and Helblindi does his best not to drag his feet along the shining floors too loudly; his protests would go unheeded even if he were to stand in curvature of the great door frame and bellow his displeasure for all so gathered to hear.

Loki is Loki, and there is not a force in this universe strong enough to stand in his brother's way.

*

“Cognate?” Loki huffs, scratching out his last line with an unwarranted violence. He can hardly see his brother over the great stacks and hills of books they have piled between themselves upon the one of the many low tables, the one farthest from the high doors. “Helblindi, what does that last rune's genitive have as a cognate? Brother!” Loki gets up on his knees, peering over the books and scrolls to the find shape of his brother; it is so strange to see Laufey's violent, bird of prey eyes in his little brother's face, to see an unruly mess of brown hair and fine, thick eyebrows. Helblindi is better suited to his true shape.

Helblindi has buried his face in the crook of his elbow, the soft murmur of his breathing speaks of easy sleep. There is even a faint rumbling coming from his slack mouth; he is snoring, whilst Loki is fracturing his wrists with all this scribbling and his back is sore form all this hunching over his parchment rolls.

Loki does not have the heart to wake him. They have ridden far and fast today, they have walked beneath the waves and crept through the halls of a people none too dissimilar from those bestial, pink-skinned Aesir. The Vanir do not smell of steel and woodsmoke and leather as the Aesir do, but of things Loki has no names for – bright, sharp scents that make his mouth water for things he has never tasted, and this makes wandering amongst them nearly bearable, despite the heat that seems to radiate from their very bones.

Helblindi, Loki suspects, cares for none of this strangeness, but his care for his Prince is greater by far than his own discomfort.

He slips away from the table with a step as quiet as a snake in the shallow waters of the Dýr's Cradle; if he would not wake his brother, he would rouse a nearby Vanr even less. Mercifully enough, it is not hard to charm the eyes of many to slide from his shape as if he were air and vapour under their gaze. He would not go so naked afore strangers and enemies, though none have yet to rise to such heights.

Odin is his only enemy; that golden haired Aesir does not so much enter his mind as that he picks up the thread of that meeting, and discards it again, thinking nothing so important of the hammer, nor the voice, nor the commandments. What creature in this universe commands of Loki Laufeyson anything? That right belongs to Laufey alone. No others have proved themselves worthy.

The library's shelves are high, higher than any in Jotunheim, though it is the result of a thousand years peace from the Aesir and their meddling; Loki has only gathered that a price was paid, and that the price had been great, unwelcome and painful to none other than Njörðr himself. Loki would very much like to know if the coin with which these Vanir were asked to pay their debt was as great as being forced to surrender the heart of their own Realm.

He very much doubts it could have been so great as that horror which was visited upon Jotunheim, and all for the saving of Midgard – as if that strange, dark little Realm was half so glorious as Jotunheim, as if such a transient people were greater in value than gods.

The little, ancient trails of seid magick lead him through the towering shelves, though he does stop to stick his fingers in the mouth of a little silver sea-beast that is crafted of silver and coiled upon the borders of of shelf as if it is trying to devour all that it encircles. Every shelf is decorated thusly, though some with great profusions of silver leaves, and others with odd little shapes that are round and tiny and clustered together. Fruit, if his memory serves him, though he cannot recall Names.

Seid has such a wild and unruly scent, a deep and binding touch, that Loki nearly does not see that his thread gathering has lead him to the long, long shape of another, of a Vanr. He stands there a moment, eyes fixed on the shadow cast upon the floor, and does not wish to meet the eyes of the Vanr standing afore him. If he runs, well, why should a Vanr lad run from a library he has wandered through all his life? Loki spares a little space of breath to hope this Lie is true seeming enough to hide his ignorance of this place, of these people.

He raises his eyes and knows a moment of despair; Laufey is Jotunheim's first-son for no little reason, and Loki knows a King made in the image of his Realm when he sees one. This here, this tall, tall creature standing afore him with a gentle, piercing understanding in his sea-storm eyes, is none other than Njörðr sea-son; Njörðr King; Njörðr, who is as bound to Asgard as Laufey.

“Hail, wanderer.” The sea-god calls, and his voice is as harsh as fine spring rain. “Thou art not quite tall enough to pass for a Vanr lad, but thou art tall enough to make a fair mockery of an Aesir, where I not so familiar with their ways.”

How? Loki wishes to shriek, but his wide eyed silence takes the words from between his teeth with no need for his voice to speak them.

“You are far too quiet for an Aesir, child, and I have had enough of their long shadow falling over my people.” Njörðr laughs, bitter and bright. His skin gleams like silver fish scales and his great cloak pools upon the ground like mist unmoving upon water.

Loki thinks the King beautiful – in the manner that all things strange are wondrous, and beguiling. He has never seen such a creature, nor so much hair, nor so many, many of the Ocean's cast-offs worn like he would his own poison-coloured emeralds. His fingers itch to touch the rainbow coloured sickle curves of a sea-creature's carapace woven into the King's beard, or the great, black-green ropes of sea-weed used to make a wealth of shining braids of the King's long hair.

“I am strange to you, yes?” Njörðr says, lifting a hand to show bright, scaled palms and rows of fine white spines that break the skin along his wrists. “But I would wager that you would be as strange to my eyes, were you not wearing another's skin.”

“Are you of a likeness to Heimdall?” Loki croaks, and the empty space at his hip is a burning rebuke; he has left his dragon haft blade tucked beneath Helblindi's hand, as his sleeping brother's last scrap of protection, as a silly precaution. “For I cannot think of any better reason for thee to know what I am, and what I am not.”

“I have a wife, wanderer, and she is from the ancient tjald that lies between the great teeth of Thiazivarði.” Njörðr replies, spreading his hands in that universal gesture of peace, of blades left in sheaths and no intent to spill blood.

“The Queen of Vanaheim is a Jotun?” Loki snarls, a vicious, sour fear curling his tongue; he tastes ash, and his own violent disbelief. “How, how can that be? We do not dwell in the realms of others.”

“She and I are creatures of habit, creatures after our own comfort,” the sea god murmurs, eyes firmly upon the little, dangerous Jotun he has found wandering the library of Nóatún as if he were a welcome guest, or worse, a citizen. “But we found our worlds growing small, and we longed for that impossibility that was having all we desired, while sacrificing nothing in return.”

“Ah,” Loki laughs, though it is fine and thin as his absent blade. “Did you succeed in that impossibility, King Njörðr?”

“For a little while.” Njörðr mourns, his voice dry as old grief found fresh.

“Then you have moved worlds,” Loki offers up, an un-looked for bitterness sharpening between his teeth like a bone awl. “Been given more than most.”

“We know.”

The silence is an easy, abiding thing; in the distance, Loki can hear the rumbling of Helblindi's breath, and the dry rustling of the book he had left upon upon the table.

“How long, Njörðr King, have you known Jotun walked beneath Vanaheim's skies?” There is a part of him that desires not the answer to his question, but wishes to preserve his sense of pride at having stolen across so many once inviolable borders on nothing more than his own power. Sleipnir is still banded upon his wrist – it would take nothing to raise a cry to his brother and vanish back down to the Roads Between. Easy indeed.

“Since you first broke our self-imposed exile,” the King answers back, wearing a brittle grin. “But it was by chance, or the hands of the Norns, if you wish to understand it as such.”

Loki snorts.

“It would be most unwise to be so dismissive of your own kind, son of Winter. If my Thanes had not espied you and your companion upon the beach, then I would not be standing here warning you of the forces arrayed against you,” Njörðr sighs, sea sharp, sea gentle, full of salt and longing – for what, Loki cannot quite imagine.

“Warn me, Sea-King? Warn me of what? And of what purpose is this warning to you? Why should you care?” Loki cares not for the anger in voice, nor for the fear, nor the scorn. None have ever offered him aid freely, none save his father and his brother. Who is this Vanr god to offer him such help?

“Tis good you ask such fine questions,” Njörðr chuckles, drawing his cloak tighter round his frame to better hear what the Sea has to say of the Aesir gathered not far from this place. “But I fear I shall not give you finer answers.”

Loki shakes his head, his clever, biting reply stolen by the honesty he can read in the Vanr's grey eyes.

“The Aesir know there is a rune-speaker wandering out amongst the Nine Realms, they have sent their Prince to find you, but they know nothing of what you are. Do not let them think otherwise. I do not believe your King would desire another of his people to be kept neath Valhöll's shadow.”

“Mimir,” Loki hisses, and claps a hand over his mouth, shocked at his own foolish admission.

“Aye the Once-King,” Njörðr frowns. “He is a prisoner, no matter that Odin calls him a boon rightly won. There is no such thing as a boon rightly won when it was the bitter gift of a War, and not some honest wager between allies.”

“I am not afraid of Ginnarr and his Thanes,” Loki barks, chin held high and Laufey's voice in his throat. “I refuse.”

“Tis nothing so simple as fear, child!” Njörðr snaps back, impatience colouring his face for only a moment. “Tis understanding that thou hast set thine own self, thine own Realm, against the most Terrible warlord in all the Nine Realms! Against all of Asgard and her warriors.

The Aesir shattered your Realm once, do not make the mistake in thinking they shall not do it again.”

Loki opens his mouth as if to protest, but the fierce ire, and concern in the sea god's gaze silences him as quickly as those same things do when Laufey wears them in his own eyes.

“My wife was upon Jotunheim the day Odin All-Father exiled it from the reach of the Bifröst, go and speak to her if you wish to be rid of your ignorance upon the greater matters at hand. Go to Thiazivarði, and ask those same questions of her – she'll give you far better answers.”

If there is an old, old grief in Njörðr's words, if there is a dull flicker of pain in his sea-grey eyes, Loki makes not word of it, but bends his neck and gives his thanks.

The sea-born King of Vanaheim is gone afore Loki can finish his thank you.

When he finally has the will to return to the table, when his hands have ceased to shake and his heart to shiver like a hare's desperate running, there is that tall, broad shouldered Aesir and his bright-skinned hammer standing near the table. Standing where Loki had sat, leafing through the book that Loki had left open upon the table, turning his sky-blue gaze to Loki's little brother, who sleeps and knows nothing of the danger he is in.

For a moment, Loki fears his heart has stopped; he cannot breath, and the world is burning down round him and he is howling without making a single, wretched sound.

“Greetings, Aesir. I apologize for my brother, I've worked him too hard today, all this research Fróði Sæmundr has us doing has turned us both simple.” Loki does not hold his breath, but smiles and prays he can weave a web fine enough to trick this Aesir into leaving this place with his breath in his body, rather than his blood spilt upon the floor. The little dragon head gleams beneath Helblindi's palm, and Loki knows just how many seconds it would take to spring across the table to stick that blade in this thunder-voiced Aesir's heart. He is fast, and his quiet, and he has killed greater snakes than the one standing afore him.

“Hail, ah,” Thor pauses, for he does not know this boy's name. “Your name?”

Loki does not stumble. “Hulda, Aesir.” He bends his neck, though it grates on him to give no vent to his rage; to be stood afore an Aesir at long last, yet but for the safety of his brother he can do nothing to this creature save jape and lie and charm, where he would rather bring low, make dead.

“Strange name, Hulda, but well met.” Thor replies, setting Tilkváma upon the table, but not so near this young boy's brother as to cause alarm. He cannot be sure if this is the same youth as the one he nearly caught in the woods. The eyes, oh the eyes are the same, but the face is not. Where that face in the shifting light of the woods was sharp and proud, full of that especial arrogance all children of great men wear, this face is soft and unremarkable. Pretty, in the gentle way of green youth that has not turned to adult hardness. “I should wonder if you have heard of a waylaid pair of Aesir roaming your shores., for you look much like the boy I saw upon the beach at noonday.”

Loki laughs; has no one taught this creature he should not ask such leading questions? Tis easy to lie, when there is so much information in each question's thread. His answers are practically taken from this blonde beast's mouth. “Who hasn't? I find it strange indeed, for I have never met an Aesir and cannot imagine why one –

“Two,” Thor interrupts. It could not be the same pair, for this Vanr is pale and quiet, a scholar in training set down in the library upon his master's commands no doubt, with his brother-apprentice and a stack of books thick enough to send the sanest of adults into fits of irreversible boredom. “I met two upon the shore.”

“Well,” Loki sighs, “I think it strange however many Aesir there were. We Vanr do not leave the borders of our Realm, and I cannot imagine why an Aesir should wish to leave the borders of his.” He is Lying, oh he is Lying through his teeth, and what fun, what fun to play this great lout like a bowstring. A game where he is as he always is, the little bird of prey with vicious, able claws.

“Ah, but the universe is wide and grand, full of adventure,” Thor chuckles in reply; he thinks to put a hand upon this lad's shoulder, for the boy is not so much small, but lean as a naked blade, strong shouldered and nearly as tall as he had been when he was younger. But he knows not who this boy's father is, and it would not do to insult some well placed Thane's son by taking liberties. Vanr are as warm with their affection as Aesir, but they hold it rude to touch where none was asked.

'You will forgive me...” Loki trails off, catching his brother's burning yellow-gold eye, open just enough for him to read Helblindi's violent alarm.

“Thor.” Odinson is not for this Vanr to know, not yet.

“Thor,” Loki grins, quick as a fox and twice as sharp. “I fear I must return to my work, afore Master Sæmundr returns to scold me for idling away the time in conversation.”

“You speak runes, yes?” Thor interrupts, glancing down at the reams of messy, scratched out and re-written note littered across the table in Hulda's neat, confident hand.

“No,” Loki lies, tasting ash again. “My master does, but I am too young to learn just yet, and it is a dangerous magick. Or so I am told. These notes are for my own learning, and to show him I am capable.”

“Ah,” Thor laughs, rueful and curious in the same breath. “I forget that all must prove themselves in the field of their own choosing. My father was my tutor, and he did well enough by me, though it was a long, long learning. I know nothing of runes, so I shall take your words as they are.”

Loki opens his mouth, eager to pick up on that thread of dissatisfaction he heard woven through the Aesir's reply; how curious, that Odin's son seems to be a son divided from his father. Perhaps this will be useful. But Thor, Thor Odinson speaks in his place.

“I wish you luck, Hulda of Vanaheim. Perhaps we shall meet again.” Thor offers his hand and is pleased when Hulda takes it in his own; the boy's grip is firm and sure; the sharpness of his viper-green eyes turning Thor's thoughts to deep woods and forgotten realms. A profound gaze, for one who sits at a table for the pleasure of a master scholar and his runes.

“Aye, Thor,” Loki calls, just as the Aesir turns his back, the sweep of his great red cloak recalling in Loki the pyrite beads strung round Helblindi's horns, and the blood he has so often given to the snow and the shades. “We shall meet again.”

Thor gives him a crooked smile, and departs from the library with laugh.

Loki does not even bother to give himself the dignity of collapsing into a chair, but drags himself to his brother and sinks to the ground, to lean his head upon Helblindi's knee. He sucks in great gouts of air, shivering and laughing all in one ugly, unbecoming gasp. When he feels the cold haft of his little knife being pressed into his hand, his brother's cold fingers wrapping round his own, Loki tips back his head and howls, howl with laughter.

“There!” He shrieks with laughter, though it is sharp and black with unspent fear. “There is that not proof enough we can do anything?”

Helblindi has the good sense not to reply, but clings to Loki, all whilst thinking of Laufey, and the promises he made, the word he gave; Helblindi thinks of his father, and of the inevitable.

 

~ * ~

“How dare you send our son out amongst the Realms as if he is to be a hunter chasing after some poor stag, and nothing more than that.” Frigga hisses, her patience as thin as the silk of her night dress. As thin as the edge of Nothung. “Husband, I have spoken of this to you time and time again. Thor is a Prince unrivalled, and yet you expect him to behave as like the son of some village Thane.”

“I expect no such thing,” Odin protests, banishing Gungnir to the spaces between and taking his wife's bare shoulders in his hands; there is much reproach in the set of her shoulders, though she permits him the touch. “I treat him as a Prince should be treated. As is his right.”

“That is the problem, husband.”

Odin moves away, his boots ringing against the cool marble floors like an ungentle challenge; he knows what troubles his wife, what makes her sharp and cold, cold to him. That he deserves it is not of import. Frigga has her rights, and he will give her what space she needs to take that payment he so owes her, as long as it touches not his greater plans.

“Is it wrong to give him his privileges, to ask him to use those privileges as he should?” Odin murmurs, sinking down into the great, golden curve of the couch facing his wife and her fine, moon wide mirror. This is an old argument worn thin, but it is one they have not yet managed to set aside. “He is a Prince, and in good time a King. If he cannot rule himself now...”

“You shall be to blame for that,” Frigga snaps, setting down her comb; the hair pins are so sharp, but she curls her fingers away, and turns back to her great mirror, to the reflection of her husband. “Asking and asking, yet so rarely telling. No firm instructions save for when he has displeased you in some fashion, but riddles and questions and...” She finds herself tired, shoulders bent but not bowed. Odin cannot be changed, she knows this, but she would like more from him than apologies and quick, knowing smiles. Affections that hide far more than they have ever revealed.

“That is why he is out amongst the Realms!” Odin retorts, biting back the anger that paints bitterness upon his tongue. He does not wish to argue, he does not wish to fight, to bite at one another with no greater desire than to see who might best wound the other. He knows he is doing wrong by his wife, by his Queen, by his ally and his companion – the woman who is the truest Voice in the kindest chambers of his heart, but that cannot alter his plans, as it should were he a better ǫ́ss. “Peace, mín Vegvísir, I would have you know.” His wife's lovely face turns wry and sharp, the bow of her mouth drawn and ready to sting him. “I understand.”

Frigga watches the All-Father, watches his face slip from that high throne he sits upon, watches as he struggles to drop the weighty mantle that is Kingship and be, if only for a little while, her husband and nothing more. A Man: weak and easily beset by his own ignorance, arrogance; a Man led by his pettiness and spite, by his desire for things beyond his reach.

“What is it that you would have me understand?” There are words she would have from him, confessions that she has long wished to be given, though already does she know how it shall hurt to hear such naked truth. But that is a laughable desire. Odin shall never confess.

Odin bristles, King and ǫ́ss warring with one another for a brief, infinitely fragile moment; questions are ever like blades, and he has always felt them defter in his own hands, though well he knows how cutting is Frigga's tongue. How she has always cast her own Threads. “I know it is cruel of me to ask for faith where I have given such betrayal as I have. I understand you believe I have no reason for sending Thor from Asgard but for my own designs.”

Frigga peers at him from the mirror; the flash of gold covering his eye is like a brand, a vivid, blatant refutation of all his protests to sincerity and shame. The eye is gone, not lost, but gone. Taken in payment, and she cannot forget who took it from her husband. Nor why.

“But Thor does not learn by words or scrolls,” Odin sighs, rueful and regretful and unable to bury that sliver of disappointment which so shames him for its continued presence. He cannot be rid of it, it seems. “Thor has no head for the patient teachings of all those fine scholars whom we have endeavoured to provide for his education. What he learns in a hour is ruined in a moment of rashness.”

“He is young!” Frigga snarls, rising up from her mirror with a cry of outrage, her ivory chip nails digging red half-moons into her palms. “You were young once, and concerned only with your own pleasures, your own thoughts, as I remember. As I cannot ever forget.” She can only bend so far afore there is no more give in her, afore she is drawn to the very edge of her patience. Odin would not like the consequences, should he test her further. Only she knows his heart, only she knows just how unspeakably far he has wandered, and with whom he has wandered.

“Aye, I was.” Odin concedes, “and a fool.”

Frigga snorts, bitter and unkind, yet near enough to her husband to show to him her love, that love she cannot cut from her heart. It hides in her eyes, softens the hard line of her shoulders, makes her his in ways that she loathes; she would not give him such power over her, but they have Loved one another too many Ages to be sundered now.

She would not leave Asgard to him, not even for her own freedom.

She would not leave her son.

“Thor is rough, and wild of heart, but he is true, strong, good.” Odin speaks, pride creeping into his voice like the gleaming stitches of his son's first cradle blanket, that great green woad-dragon which had lain over Thor till he had grown enough to think it silly to sleep with dragons woven by his mother. He is all that I am not, all that I never shall be. “Trust in him to find his own way.”

“It is not that I do not trust him, husband. I fear we are too free with him, too accepting of his faults, with no means of curtailing that...pride...he wears so well.” Thor is every part of her heart not given to Odin, but she is not so blinded by her mother's heart to see what hinders her son.

He is arrogant.

Prideful.

Hot tempered.

He is an Aesir, and Man.

“My Heart,” Odin demurs, offering her his hand with half a breath bitten between his teeth. “I ask too much of you, but you are far greater a blade than I. You shall see my son set right.”

“Aye, Váfuðr I am. I will.” By hook or crook, by blade or teaching or sharp tongue, she will have that wolf's tail shorn; Thor is no warlord, not like his father. Oh never like his father; not unless she is Dead will such a thing happen.

Odin gives his wife his finest wolf's grin, born of all that he has done, all that he shall do, all that sparks and heats between them, no matter the wounds they give one another. No matter the wounds he has given. As his wife comes into his orbit – her gleaming curls warm with the last of evening's light and bright with the sweetness of Iðunn's sprawling orchard – he thinks only of her.

He does not think of others.

It is the least he can do.

When Muninn's inky thoughts come crackling o'er the cool evening winds to jape and chitter in Odin's ear, he tells his wife: Thor has returned.

Frigga calls him Thief, calls him Wicked Old Man, and takes his mouth, her fingers twisting through the silver threads of Odin's hair, to bite his tongue for him. A little payment; not nearly enough.

Harri Hliðskjálfar indeed.

*

Thor returns under the burning orange conflagration of Asgard's setting sun, Heimdall's golden carapace striking his eyes like thunder; the soaring titan forests of Vanaheim have left his eyes missing green, and everywhere he sees how bright and gleaning are the colours of Asgard: gold and orange and burnished bronze; fire and wealth and power.

“Hail Odinson,” The Gate-keeper murmurs. A knowing pair of prey-bird eyes turns fast upon Thor like talons, searching for something, for some little scrap, for some little shadow hiding beneath his Prince's feet. “You have travelled well, for good is a journey which leads one Home.”
I see you, little construct. Wherefore so quiet, Memory?

Memory keeps its tongue.

“Are there any other journeys, good Heimdall?” Thor laughs, bright and sure and bursting with the un-looked for pleasure of being Home. He is full well glad not to be camped upon some white beach, watching the violet tide rule his days and nights, hearing the sigh of a foreign Sea rather than the voices of Asgard's Thanes as his nightly revels.

The Vanir had been fine hosts; cold, but warm in their words, if not in their gazes. Strange people, always distant in their being, as if they were listening to some thing greater than just words, as if they were listening to the good black earth, to the great wide Sea, to the high, golden wheat. Thor had found himself lonely in their company, no matter how sweet their mead had been, nor how grand their own winding, mighty tales had enchanted him so.

The Vanir suffered at the hands of the Aesir, and he was not permitted to forget those wounds, though given long ago, and by another's hands. By his father's hands.

“Aye, Prince. There are many, many journeys, and few Roads end as they begin.” Hǫfuð slides from the crux of the Bifrost's pedestal, and Heimdall spares a moment to wonder what sight he must make in eyes of Odin's young Thunderer. Is it a fearful sight, as it had been for his father, once he had learned just how far-flung was Heimdall's gaze?

“You are a strange ǫ́ss, Heimdall. Like my father.” Thor replies, forgetting that his companions are in the lee of his shadow, and that he is not a child. Heimdall has a wide, wide Gaze, and it knows no boundaries, not even those of flesh, nor the secrets kept beneath the heart. The Son of Nine Mothers is not an ǫ́ss to lie to, nor to hide from, nor to befriend.

Odin's Gate-keeper is a creature apart.

“So it is,” Heimdall speaks; Odin's first Valkryja is approaching, and he has only just caught that Thread he has so long been searching for, that little starling in the over-bright garden, in that forest of ice and mirror shapes, and all from Memory's silence. “When you stand at the Edge, young Prince, you shall be a strange creature afore long.”

Thor does not understand. So he smiles, and then his sister is laughing and gripping his hand in hers like a vice, a great laughter in her sharp, All-Father eyes.

“Skuld!”

“Brother, I should take a cut from your hide, going away with no Valkyrja to guard you.” She will not say she is jealous, for she has travelled o'er all the wide world, taken Men and Women in her fine white hands, and raised them up by her wolf's red teeth to the great halls of her mighty Father as if they were her children, her sons and daughters. Some her lovers.

“Valkryja,” Hogun murmurs, and Skuld feels her teeth sharp between her lips; she remembers his death best of all.

“Grim One,” is her reply. “How fared you amongst the Vanir?”

Thor finds his smile has slipped.

“Well enough.”

And then it is gone and his sister is laughing again, taking his forearm to lead him from the Bifröst and its shining, golden horizon chamber, over which Heimdall's long, long shadow has always fallen.

Thor permits himself to be lead; for once he is eager to speak with his father, to tell the All-Father of his thoughts, of what he has learned and who he has met. What other purpose was there in sending him into such a Realm? To dine and converse in the heart of a race once so divided from the Aesir was not some merry jaunt, but a lesson.

Thor hates Lessons.

A pair of bright, viper quick green eyes comes unbidden to his mind and he finds a quiet, personal chuckle touching his lips. If young Hulda of Vanaheim can write eight scrolls of rune-magick he cannot even speak, and all in one day, then Thor can quiet himself long enough to learn a lesson at his father's bidding.

Or at least pretend to do so, for his mother's sake.

*

The All-Father's private chambers are chill with evening's creeping wind, torch-light transmogrifying all that it touches into burning, leaping shapes that paint themselves along the walls; rune ropes that dance and shiver across the floors, that cling to the shadowed corners and high, high ceilings. Odin's works, his little, sharp toothed guarantors of good behaviour.

When his son's foot steps over the threshold of his father's chambers, Muninn is aught but a another little shadow come to join so many others;Thor took no note of the shape that had clung to the soles of his boots for these few weeks now, for it was not his to see.

“Father,” Thor grins, satisfaction making an ever wider display of his teeth. “I have come back from Vanaheim, though not as successfully as I had hoped. I endeavoured to find these wayward youths, but no sight of them I found, no trail, not even the tiniest of whispers.”

“Thor, my boy,” Odin speaks, thinking to be stern and reproving, but ah, Muninn has been returned to him, and it comes bearing fruit between its cruel, hooked beak. Memory is ever true, ever reliable. “You have done more than you know. Have no fear my son, we shall find these misguided Aesir soon enough.”

“Have you some knowledge I do not?” Thor laughs, though it is only to cover over his stinging pride, his sudden, spiteful annoyance. Why must his father bait him so? Why must it always be that he must blunder into his father's traps of tongue and mind like some simple bear, only to have Odin pat him on the shoulder and make some play at cozening him with words of 'ah but you are young', 'ah but you will learn'.

Nonsense.

Thor squares his shoulders; Tilkváma swaying on its cord. Odin regards him quietly, a knowing mirth in his single eye; an old ghost clings to the lines round his mouth, so full of humour, but bitter and black all the same. For a moment, Thor finds his father a stranger. He finds his skin pulled tight, his teeth barer than before, and his lungs stiff with some unshaped fear.

“Muninn,” Odin speaks, holding a hand aloft for the bird-beast to alight upon. “What have you seen?”

“You sent that bird?” Thor roars, thunders. “You sent that little monster to watch me, as if I were no more than some half-witted child sent to play the fool afore old enemies! And for no better reason than your own gain.”

“Aye I sent the bird,” Odin replies, flat as a mirror pane. “And you should be glad of it, young and untried as you are.”

“We did could not find them!” Thor spits, feeling the leather bite into his palm, sweat-damp and scarred by its long use. “And not for lack of trying, old man.” He has never been so enraged, save for that day in the Treasury, when Odin had called him a fool for his desire to defend Asgard, for his desire to maintain their people in their strength and glory.

“Did I say you had not done well?” Odin retorts, smooth and still as deep water in the face of his son's young thunder; Thor has been gone from Valhöll just long enough for Odin to find his return refreshing. It had been far too quiet. He leans forward, Muninn shifting with him like some gyre on a little string, and spills a few runes from his tongue in a bare, ancient whisper.

Muninn japes and jeers, his little claws bright despite the enclosing darkness, and flies to dig those same claws into Thor's shoulder. The bird whispers, shrills, shrieks and sings and divulges; Thor must make fists of his fingers, else he would strangle the bird, if only to silence its language, that tongue which belongs to the spaces between, to that world of grey roads and old bones; dead Gods.

Muninn pours its visions into Thor's ear, and there springs up a memory fresh and yet wholly alien to Thor's own: it is Vanaheim, it is the great library, and there he stands in red cloak and gleaming armour, every inch the only Prince of Asgard, and there, where stood a boy with poison-coloured eyes, is a shadow with winter coloured hands, and teeth as white as the high, hoary moon.

Thor finds his breath twisted between his own teeth, a bleak and bitter wind ghosting over his heart.

He has been deceived.

The boy with his head pillowed upon his arms had not been asleep; his burnt yellow eyes regard the Shade with familiarity, with fear, with trust. The boy had not been some brother-apprentice set down in Njörðr King's great library by a froði intent on putting his students to use.

“Hulda.” Thor hisses, anger mixing with an un-looked for hurt.

Odin laughs, a sharp and singular exclamation; a wolf's sudden bark. “Is that so?” He is glad for his son's outrage. It saps his own, draws away his towering, shackling bitterness at the sight.

How cruel is the truth?

How cruel is the horizon of an unchallenged Gaze?

If the child wrapped in shadows is his little rune-speaker, his little starling, then the sight of the other is all but the very last of the threads he has so long been seeking after, no matter the hurt it will gain him, no matter the wretched cost.

If the shade has winter's hands, then his brother has Laufey's eyes.

And that is the bitterest sight of all.

“What is he?” Thor hisses, a peal of sudden violence lurking neath his tongue.

“A rune-speaker.” This is the truest reply Odin cares to give; he has spun greater lies out of lesser thread, and it is nothing to speak these half-truths to Thor. What good might be had in telling the Prince of Asgard that the quarry he seeks is the Enemy? Asgard has built itself a great nightmare, a wicked creature who haunts the dreams of children, and fills the mouths of their parents with bitter ash.

Enemies are useful ghosts, to keep the ugly visage of War first and foremost in all heats, all memories.

Jotun is not a word Thor need hear hung round an Odinson's neck, no matter if that Odinson has not been raised as he should have been. It would do more damage than benefit, when Thor has spent years upon years at the hearths and mead-benches of Asgard's finest Thanes, licking their tales from their fingers as a wolf laps blood.

After all, a Lie to glean some little peace from the bare bones of War's carcass, from a War fought for his own reasons, for all the reasons he cannot now find words for again, is hardly an easy thing to dispel. Once planted it spreads like fire, like poison, and there is no ending its ravaging save by cutting away that which has been ravaged.

Odin would have to burn Asgard to the ground, salt the good copper earth, knock down every tower, scatter every hearth stone, to have as good a chance as any of amending the ways of the Aesir by his force of will alone. He is too old, too tired, too weak and hobbled by the Threads that bind him, by the Past that haunts his steps and dogs his mind like vengeful old ones seeking blood, seeking reparations.

Thor opens his mouth, red faced and wounded, searching his own memories for signs, for useless little gestures, for glances, for the secret motions of long-fingered hands and a fine white neck. Searching bird of prey eyes that hold nothing but his own reflection, nothing but his own desires, all their ugly truths, all his own denial...

It is so familiar Odin feels naked afore his son in ways so unspeakably shameful he cannot breathe but for the weight of it. Oh how far has he wandered that this is his reward? To watch his son struggle with shapes he cannot ever know, with a creature that should be forever denied to him, and over all this is an echo to mirror Odin's own distant memories of days long, long passed into bitter reflection.

How sad.

How fruitless.

How expected.

No ǫ́ss worth his measure in mead and sword notches could want any less in a conquest.

Odin had wanted no less than the very greatest, and what a price he asked, what a price he had paid. One wound for another, one shame for another; cruelty for cruelty, till there was aught between them but that pain, that fruitless need to bite and bite till there was nothing left save violence. Nothing spared but regret.

“You did not tell me a rune-speaker could trick the eye!” Thor bellows, cutting Odin's selfish mourning to ribbons and dust. “You told me I was chasing a pair of children, not a magick wielder. I would not have let the boy in the library alone had I known...”

“Known what, Thor?” Odin queries. “What would you have done, had you known?” He fixes his son with a hard stare, careful to tear out his compassion at the roots. Thor needs no coddling now, only hard words and harder consequences, if he is to be the King Odin shall never be. Thor must be led to a better path, though it shall be thick with lie upon lie, sour, choking weeds Odin cannot do without, for years to come. But lo, that is the way of the Universe, that one is made a fool by those he Loves, by those he Hates simply because he has the audacity to Love or Hate. Because one can choose, and there is no simplicity in choosing – there never has been.

“I would have kept him there, with his brother.” Thor retorts hotly, Tilkváma flashing like a silver-skinned fish under the All-Father's knotted shadows. “I would have...”

“Sit.”

“What?” Thor sneers, though his father's gleaming eye-patch blinds him with its brightness, with the golden spider webs it weaves over his eyes. “Have you gone soft, Father?”

“Sit,” Odin bares his teeth, and finds he longs for the shadows of his high horned helmet.

Thor leaves Tilkvama upon the lowest step, needing no warning from the dire shape of his father and King; there is true anger in his father's eyes, true regret, though he knows not why he would find such things in his King's implacable gaze; his father has ne'er regretted aught, so far as Thor has ever known. It is an alien sight: a frightening, too-still creature that creeps beneath the storms of Odin's gaze with no regard for his father's dignity, nor the Throne upon which he sits.

That is why Thor bends his knee.

“No.”

Thor frowns, half seated upon the highest step, his head not a hair's breadth from Odin's wide, ship's prow couch.

“Up, my son. No more of that.” The violence has fled from him, poured through his fingers like smoke and sand to leave him with aught but that familiar sense of having been robbed. He has never ceased to believe, but now, now he must choose. “Sit here,” he waves a hand, motioning for Thor to sit next to him, rather than at his feet. “You are not a boy, you have not been thus for many years.” If there is more to say, more to give, he cannot now find tongue to speak it, so great is the divide that has sprung up beneath the white old dragon bones of his chest.

Here is the path, the other Road.

War, or something else entirely.

Something worse.

Here is the Thread.

“I have not said I am displeased with thee,” Odin sighs, and he itches to press his fingers to his eyes; it is no pleasant, happy thing to feel the loss again, again after all these long, long years. But one does not forget, when it is a mark of shame, of his own folly. “So listen here, my son.”

Thor bites his tongue.

“Thor, I did not send you out from our Halls to hunt a rune-speaker as if you were no better than an ulfr after young blood. Think! Think not with that hammer of yours, but with that King's heart I gave to thee.” Tis cruel, what he is doing, but it must be done.

Oh, there is no other way, no other Road.

Lose one son he has never known, or lose both to War.

What a poor choice indeed; no choice at all.

“Why would I send you out amongst our oldest enemies, with a handful of Eniherjar and your four companions? Why would I ask you to track down a boy and his brother?” Odin is weary of these games, these webs, these riddles and shadows that he cannot pluck from his tongue, for such is his way, and he is far too old to put Ginnarr aside.

That Name is one of his truest, since long afore the War.

“How should I know?” Thor retorts, “When all the aid I am given is a pat on the shoulder and a commandment to do my best! What is my best, father? I found you a sight of the boy, though I have no reason to see why a King might care for a rune-speaker, for where there is rune magick there is always seid, and that manner of trickery, a King should not touch.”

“So you would cut off your right hand, to spite your left?”

For a moment, Thor cannot meet his father's weighty gaze. There are truths in it he cannot bear to see. Always there have been rumours, but never any proof, never any bold enough to speak such slander in the presence of the All-Father. But from the All-Father's mouth, oh from his father's mouth, Thor finds he is beaten into the dust; Thor finds he is staring at a stranger, a wanderer, and he knows not who is his father.

He often forgets his father is a Man like any other.

“Thor, Thor Odinson, you will be Asgard's King in a span of Ages or so. I would have you understand that it is the best of Kings who leave their Kingdom greater than when they took them from their father's hands.” Odin would bend his neck, but Thor is still too young to see the humility, the honesty in such a gesture; Thor would see only submission, and the bitter, bright gleam of his silver hair. “I would have you be such a King.”

Perhaps he should have also said: in payment for all my many failures, though I shall keep those secrets till Death takes my breath. But Odin is not a ǫ́ss who has the good fortune to possess an open heart, nor a god who knows that to show ugliness to others is not just a weakness, but a great strength. If he were to bare the blacker chambers of his heart to his son, perhaps he would not be so shamed by what he keeps in their shadows; perhaps his son would trust him, would Love him, and not just some poor eidolon of him, some spectral King he has made to show the Nine Realms that Odin Borson is more than just a petty tyrant.

All tricks, all lies.

But the very best of lies, from which spring much good, much peace.

Tis a shame Odin has kept none for himself, nor for his family.

“You wish me to find this rune-speaker, for the sake of Asgard?” Thor asks, voice thin and stretched by what he thinks he has understood, though it is aught but the tiniest of truths. “Why would you wish such a thing?”

“A King is nothing without allies, without the finest, most subtle of weapons. Find me a Man who is alone in these great Realms, Thor. Find me a creature that needs no aid, no shelter, no wiser men to guide his steps.” This here should have been his first lesson to his son, but Time and wounds and War seem to have stolen his sense, and left him as blind as he always been.

“Is it because there are so few sorcerers in Asgard? Do you fear without one I shall be vulnerable?” Thor cannot imagine why his father might wish him to make his bed with snakes and weavers; with liars, with Women, with cowards.

“No.”

Thor will never know.

“Then what?” Thor snaps, confusion lapping at him like some ungentle tide. “What is my purpose to you?”

He cannot ever, ever know.

It could be no better sword, this Truth Odin would die to keep to his breast.

“Allies, my son, are not always ours to choose. We must understand that We are not privileged to live free lives, to have our heart's wishes no matter the cost.” It feels as if he has worn away at this argument for so many ages he is nothing more than the wind attempting to carve a rock by its senseless howling.

Thor still does not understand.

“A King must be a bridge, as must be his wife.” There is the taste of ash, the sour taint of blood, copper bright and heavy on his tongue. “If ever peace is to be more than just a fleeting, fickle memory, We must...we must do better.”

The silence is fraught with words unspoken, with questions, with recriminations, with all that always seems to divide father from son, when the son is no longer an eager child at his father's knee. Thor cannot see how he might look his father in the face, nor how he shall again find Odin King afore he sees Odin Borson. Tis easier to accept.

“I will do as you ask, father,” Thor murmurs, drawing in a poorly felt breath. “I understand what it is you are asking of me. The boy is a danger and a boon, and I must bring him home to Asgard, where he belongs.”

“Aye, my boy. My son.” It is Ginnarr who smiles, while Odin grieves. “For the sake of your Throne, for the sake of Asgard, bring the little wanderer Home to Valhöll – where he belongs.” He is far, far too old to despair at how easily he spins such webs, such lies. It matters not that he is leading his son by the nose, sending him out to be ensnared by a creature every bit as deadly as his father – and all whilst already knowing the outcome.

Thor Odinson did not simply earn his Name by luck, but by Odin's blood; he is his father's son, and so Odin knows what Thor shall do, what Thor shall desire. It will be as Odin had done, as Odin had desired.

One mirror held up to the first certainly cannot be expected to produce a different reflection.

“You will make the right choice,” Odin laughs, clapping his golden Prince upon the shoulder, proud of the strength he can feel, proud of the rigid, unbending line that keeps his son's head held high, no matter the fault or folly. “I trust that you shall.”

“Father,” Thor returns, an echoing warmth hiding beneath his confusion, and his anger, now quickly fled. “Thank you.”

“Aye.” His fingers have curled into his palms; a bitter iron ring encircles his heart. “But the hour is late, Thor, and I have not yet concluded my tasks." A hand held aloft is as good a signal as any; Muninn is first. Both inky constructs shriek as if to remind, or perhaps to rebuke; they have not finished yet and Odin feels no joy in what is to come.

Thor snarls, baring his teeth, eyes fixated upon Muninn's inky, livid wings, shining corpse blue beneath the strange, twisting shapes of Odin's seid fire. “Little beast,” he hisses, “next time I'll pluck thee myself for such audacity.” He should like to cut the creature's wings, but it would ne'er allow him such proximity.

Muninn trills: a sour, curdling jeer that is as near to laughter as Memory might ever get, and cocks its head, beady black-pearl eyes all too full of a true understanding.

“Good evening father,” Thor replies; he is sharp as a nest of needles, his mind as restless as a fox beneath the poor cover of a high moon. He would bet Tilkváma back to the dvergr who crafted her that there is some great plan, some subtler design, lurking beneath all his father's fine words. After all, if a boy with poison bright eyes was clever enough to trick him so, what hope does he have of outsmarting his father?

The answer is none, and it is a disheartening answer indeed.

When he can no longer hear the sound of his son's boots ringing against the floors, Odin knots his fingers in his hair, and bows his neck to the weight of his own plans. Frigga would take up arms to prevent what is to come, so there can be no comfort from her this eve, nor from the bed of another: he is too much the King of winter years to find pleasure in a young, guileless Ásynja's arms. It would be too cruel by far, and he has learned enough, though so late is the hour of his repentance it is nearly laughable. This is a back handed kindness at best, but it is the best of which he is capable.

If this is the path he must turn Asgard towards, then he must remain a King robbed, a father robbed, and never speak those words he spoke in small hours after Thor's birth.

I, Odin Borson, I Odin All-Father, do hereby claim and proclaim this child as my son. Flesh of my flesh, Blood of my Blood. First born Prince of Asgard.

There will never be a second Prince, and that shall be his shame to bear – no other's. This is as it should be, for it is his fault.

He has denied too much, for too long; the thought of his mother is a barb, a vicious arrow stuck in his heart's flesh by his own foolhardy hand, but he cannot pull it out, for that would be the last of her gone from him.

The storms ride high beneath her shadow land, and he cannot trespass there lest he has walked that final Road, and can turn no more for Home. But Death has not called unto him yet, and there are many, many long ages left to him, so he cannot mourn for what may never be.

When he stands beneath those same shadows, beneath those great black cairns he has such dim, towering memories of, she may not be waiting there.

Alas, but those are the choices of a King, not the choices of a son. She will understand, or she will not.

“Once you were a Man,” Muninn whispers, his little claws piercing Odin's shoulder, drawing bright blood like spring flowers from good earth. “Once you were nothing like a King.”

“You cannot go back now,” Huginn replies, and his beak clacks like tiny shears. “No more Thread left to you for that, and this you know. No time left for regrets, no purpose but a selfish sympathy. We are yours because you chose the Tree, the Rope, do not make a mockery of your wisdom.”

“You little monsters speak hard truths,” Odin growls. “Most especially when thee have no tongues to speak with.”

“Unwelcome?” Thought jeers, cocking his dark head. He is a blade as sure as any length of steel, and he knows for what purpose he was formed. “Are you not Odin All-Father? Did you not hang from Yggdrasil to be Odin Galdraföðr, Odin Glapsviðr? Well, He who Reigns, what say you?”

“Aye, aye I am those Names; I am all that thou hast said. To what end are these ruminations, Thought? Hast thee traded tongues with Muninn for my amusement?” He has never kept much patience in him, and now is there even less than afore. Tis hard to be patient when all the universe lays beneath the height of Hliðskjálf, and to his hands fly the very shapes of Memory and Thought.

“You are selfish.” Huginn cackles, a dire insult given with laughter.

Muninn japes and caws, hoarse with derision; he keeps all Memories, even Odin's, and he knows how very true are Huginn's words. He remembers what strange skies Odin Borson wandered neath, and with whom. He remembers why.

Odin feels his teeth sharp against his tongue, white and flashing in the twisting, mocking dark.

“You are a Liar.”

And there is bright in Odin's mind the planted Memory of that little starling in the snow; the tiny, blue skinned child and Thane Brekkr's sword high above its dark, hornless head as like some great, vicious bird of prey about to claim its victim.

“You are no more than a Man.”

A fool chasing the horizon, staring down the cold well to meet the face of his mother's brother.

“And no less than a King.” Thought concludes, his little claws as sharp as Memory's.

Odin sighs, feeling every trespass he has committed against others, every joy he has brought by his costly choices, every wound he has taken for the sake of many, every folly for the sake of his own towering pride. “Ofttimes,” he snarls, fingers itching to wring little, soft necks. “I find I wish thee dead, both of thee.”

“Aye, but then thou woulds't be Tvíblindi, Odin Hoàrr. Is it your wish to be so Blinded?” Huginn gibes, bitter-voiced and beady eyed, hopping along the All-Father's arm with no mortal fear in any part of his false body.

Odin knows that Huginn knows, that Muninn knows; his answer is a formality at best, a joke at worst.

“A King is all those things, as he should be, and thou art the best of Kings. You have learned to rule thine own self, All-Father. Do not forget that now, when we all are hanging at thine own pleasure above such a pit as this.” Huginn hears all the Nine Realms between his little ears, even those who dwell in winter's high house, but they speak in tongues alien to him, with minds hostile to his shadow.

“Tis no jest!” Memory shrieks. “Tis our saving, or our destruction, and well ye know it!”

“So that is to be my choice?” Odin intones, wooden and whispering like the dead. His words are half a question and half the ugliness of a forced acceptance. Always in the spaces uncertain, in the places between, does he find himself truest, cruelest; regretful and prideful. “Make one son a bit of flesh to sacrifice to the first, who might share half his blood. To give my Kingdom and my Throne to my own sons, King and Consort both.”

“It is still a choice,” Huginn replies.

“Now that,” Odin laughs, a dark and bitter sound so sour it turns his stomach to think himself some wicked old man plotting neath obscuring shadows, “is no choice at all. Do not play the fool with me, creature.”

When he raises his head, he spies a gleam of golden braids, a flash of silk coloured like cream and honey; a pair of winter grey eyes, and in their heights he sees enough to put a cold finger of fear up the length of his spine.

Frigga is standing in the doorway.

Perhaps he will meet his mother sooner than he thought.

“Bölverkr.”

“Wife.”

No matter how great his folly, Odin Loves more fiercely than he Hates, and that is his weakness; Frigga has always known this. She knows he will make no move against her, make no effort to preserve himself from her rage. If he has hurt her, she will take its cost from him, whether in blood or pride or peace of mind. As is her right.

She walks with a softness of step that would shame the cleverest of hunters, but Odin knows Frigga shall not be silent long. When he can see the whites of her eyes, the finer emotions stalking beneath her frigid gaze, he finds himself simply waiting. Frigga will do as she is wont to do, and he will not gainsay any of it.

The flat of her palm connects with his cheek; he finds a spark of laughter upon his tongue; the ravens are screaming, and there is the taste of blood in his mouth.

“Good.”

“Is that your best, King of Asgard?” Frigga mocks, all sweetness and gentle of voice, wrapped round a poisoned barb. “A marriage? A shameful jest?”

“Aye,” Odin replies, touching the fine hilt of his wife's sword. “That is the best.”

Silence is a terrible Beast.

The Queen of Asgard raises one white hand again, and a part of her relishes the acceptance of her anger that she can see shining in her husband's eyes. It is so rare she is privy to the airing of his shame, that past which he keeps so very, very close to his breast – as if to give her only the tiniest portion of it would be tantamount to giving her slices of his own beating heart.

“Would you rather it be War, mín Vegvísir?”

She lowers her hand, and thinks of chains as thin as spider's silk; chains of blood and the bitter, ancient wounds of Violence and Hate.

“Nothing good will come of it.”

Odin does not believe her, but he will not tell her thusly; another little, inconsequential cruelty, though it is not one he has the strength to regret.

“How could any good be had?” Frigga challenges, all too aware that she is trespassing upon her husband's sphere, that realm of weighty choices and poisonous decisions, the twisting paths and treacherous roads that lead all the Nine Realms like dogs on leashes afore Odin and his whims, his plans, his desires, though he is greatly enamoured of believing it otherwise. “You would risk condemning your son to the shame of incest, to get yourself the son you would ne'er be able to claim as your own?” There is such a rage her as she cannot understand: she shakes, finding in herself a desire to see Odin All-Father's blood paint these rune knotted walls, and what a wicked thing to think of her husband, no matter how greatly he might deserve such a thing. “You would make that poor little child a servant to the Throne you wish yourself free of?”

Odin finds he has no good answers for his wife. His wits have fled him at the violence of Frigga's words, as if by speaking his plans aloud she has transmogrified them into wicked, jeering little beasts that cling to his shadow with their ugly, un-looked for truths.

He would do all those things to get himself what he has been denied.

He would do all those things to keep himself from that War which haunts his waking thoughts with so many promises of easy victory; of a little blood spent for greater rewards than Peace and Kindness and Alliances.

Better the darker corners of his being whisper, to be Odin Viðurr again, and to take what pleases thee, lest it range too far from your grasp. Better to make monsters out of an entire Realm, than force others to see what they have become. Easier. Are you not weary of your fruitless quest to be something more than just the King of Asgard, more than just a creature of two worlds, denying your first?

“Sympathy for a boy you know nothing of?” Odin laughs, a sharp, singular bark. “Aye Goddess, Mother to all children, you are what you are. As am I. We cannot pretend to think War will not march to our own gates, if we do not clip that little starling's wings.”

“Too cruel.” Frigga snarls, her eyes bright with a newfound hate, a newfound understanding. “Too cruel by far, and well ye know it!”

“Then I say again,” Odin roars. “Will ye have this, or will ye have War? Oh wife, I shall give thee either, it matters not.”

“I would have thee give them Love. Give them Freedom.” Frigga pleads, though it chafes at her to do so, to speak with deference upon her tongue, rather than her black ire. “Give your son the right to choose his own wife! Give Winter's Prince his own choices, what ever those choices might be. Let the Norns work upon the Threads, and do not interfere so!”

“I cannot risk War. I will not.”

Frigga throws back her head and laughs, her long, wheat and honey hair swaying with her voice. “And here I had thought I was to be the one to speak against going to War. Here I thought you were eager for such a conflict.”

Odin frowns, his wife's gleaning tongue skinning him of his surety.

“Are you not eager to claim your bastard? To show to the Nine Realms that even the mighty, wild-hearted Jotun are not immune to your wiles, Váfuðr?” She smiles, cruel and sharp. cold as the Winter she has rarely known. “Not even their King was too great a conquest for thee, or was he more than that, my Love?”

Odin would rather bite his tongue to pieces than be so revealed; he has never been a creature of fidelity, save that he has never given his heart to another save Frigga, bitter comfort that it might be to her in the face of all his many failings.

But Laufey was not like the others.

“I am the Goddess of Marriage, Odin Ginnarr. The Goddess of Love sits at my table, and drinks from my cups. She spins at my side, and weaves my patterns. She tends my flowers, and braids my maids' hair, and laughs with me over bitter, unhappy memories we have worked so very hard to make not quite so bitter.”

He would not show her his teeth, but he knows what she is to say next.

“You cannot Lie to me.”

For the first time in a long, long recounting of ages, Odin bends his neck, and hides his face from his wife and her clever, clever words, so deeply struck, and as painful as any arrow barb.

“We will see what comes of your plans.” Her laughter is high and bright as any summer's day, but pricked with her distaste, dark and vivid in its surety. “Hostages you have, All-Father, and Asgard has had its fill of those.”

“Has it?” Odin queries, and tells himself he is not preparing for War, no matter what he speaks to his wife or his birds or his son. Tis hard indeed to be one thing for so many ages, only to then spurn that familiar shape for one so poorly fitting he feels every hindrance like the pull of old, old scars against new skin. “Are hostages not far more pliable than Queens?”

Frigga holds her chin up high, that same thin smile upon her lips. “Spend but an hour with the Lady Freyja, my husband, and you will find that opinion greatly changed.” She knows he is not speaking of Freyja; she knows, despite all the wounds and bitter words, he would not be parted from her for anything – not even for Winter's first son.

“It matters not, wife. Laufey made war on the mortal realm, and I could not let them all be slaughtered like rabbits, like sheep.” Odin finds a weary, dry rattle of breath between his teeth; it is maddening that he cannot do good without doing wrong; it is worse there is so little difference. “I could not give another the leash to do to weak, innocent creatures what we did to gods, what we continue to do to gods, for the sake of others. Justice is a shadow we are all chasing, and if it were easy in the catching,”Odin laughs, sour and all to aware, “t'would not be so grand an effort.”

“All children love their father's, husband,” Frigga replies; she feels as if she should be wearing a mourning shroud, and she is weary of these excuses, no matter that they are justified, even if it is only in manners weak and petty. “Do not take that away from him.”

For a moment, Odin is entirely convinced she is speaking of his lost Odinson.

Tis only later that he truly understands.

~ * ~

The day is half spent, Asgard's first sun high and spring-gentle above her head; she makes no shadow neath the tree, but sets her great ropes of thread aside and thinks of the Norns in the mirror clear waters of her little pond high in the halls of Fensalir.

Perhaps this is why the grey ladies gave me my son's Thread. After all these ages, they are at long last weary of my husband's careless meddling.

Even if it is wishful thinking, she cannot help but hope, despairingly, for some little part of her thoughts to be true.

Nana is weaving a bird's nest, her little, bare feet tucked neath her Queen's pale green gown; the sparrow-larks are new to her garden, and Frigga would provide for them as best she can. Nana loves to make things with her hands, and Frigga loves the young girl's bright, warbling songs.

So few of Asgard's daughters might be as her first not-daughter, and that is a great shame.

"Daughter, I have a boon to ask of thee," Frigga speaks, hard-eyed and as giving as stone; she cannot pluck out the black weeds of her bitter argument with Odin, and she does not like to be so forced into action.

War or Marriage.

What a poor choice indeed.

The valkryja is stood at the edge of the great gardens that sprawl beneath Odin's high windows, the hilt of her sword spinning silver moonshine in Frigga's eyes. Lounging on the Goddess' stone gate as if she had all the privilege in the world to do so, Skuld presents the very epitome of 'wolf at rest' and Frigga shan't fault her for the strange picture she paints. Tis one too rare by far to be anything other than treasured; all her not-daughters are as such.

"Mother?" Skuld replies, her sharp-edged smile folding into a thin frown. When she had been roused from her chambers she had not thought it would be to greet her grey-eyed mother wearing such a sour, crackling anger so openly. It is rare to see the lesser, cruder emotions haunting her mother - so rare that Skuld can find no newer memories of such a thing save for the earliest of her years, when Father had been distant and her own first mother had given her over to the Queen's full care.

Frigga has always been grace and patience above all other things, but the years since the ending of the war with Jotunheim has worn away that fine cloak to little more than a thin silk shroud; Skuld would be first to call herself fool if she did not understand why.

“Your father has great plans for Asgard. For your brother.” Frigga sighs; there is no shame in allowing her not-daughter to see how naked is her gaze: regret, sorrow, a helpless outrage at all the indignities she has suffered as the Queen of Asgard, as an ásynja. Goddess or not, no creature is spared the lathe of those who would keep their privilege dearer than their wives, their lovers; dearer than any sense of justice.

Asgard is the Realm Eternal, the great compass, the Shining Halls, but it keeps a little heart, poor and misused by those who also keep her Throne.

Tis a great shame.

Kings and Gods and Men; they have ruled these Nine Realms for too long, and with so little change.

Bor was an old, old Beast when Frigga had pledged herself and her House to Odin's. She had seen the cost of grief, the violence done to those who endure that final separation, for all Death's roads lead loved ones away whether they be little, creeping creature or mighty god. Death snaps all Threads, even those of Queens, well afore it might have been expected.

She had felt pity then, though it was a silly, misplaced thing to harbour neath her breast.

Odin had kept his thoughts to himself and rarely spoke of his father as anything more than a passing shadow. Yet when his father's Thread had at last been cut and the pyre heaped high, Odin had bedecked Bor's dragon boat – gleaming in kin to the brightness of the dvergr hoards of Niðavellir – as lovingly as any ǫ́ss of his forging might have managed. And for some little while Frigga had marvelled at the weight of the sorrow her new husband had freely shared with her; she had felt it a privilege to see how he bore such a loss with all grace.

Strange, but she had never understood grief to be a thing of Beauty, of pained splendour, till she had seen Odin not yet All-Father grieve. Now she finds her memories to be cruel mirrors for her own young ignorance. How much might she trust of her own recollections, when they are of an ǫ́ss she cannot now, in all good faith, trust with even half her heart?

“It would be most strange to consider that father has no plans for Asgard,” Skuld replies, though she feels her attempt at levity fall flat in her own mouth. “But it cannot be so terrible as to cause you such distress, mother?” She cannot say that she is frightened, she is far, far too old for that nonsense, but it is the worst manner of disquiet to see how troubled is her Queen.

“I cannot leave Asgard as readily as you can, my dear.” The wind is high and sweet, carrying Frigga's words beyond the cluster of silver birch trees under which she sits with the girl who would be her daughter, and her little maid, who weaves and sings and hears nothing. Odin may have the greatest of all seats, but Frigga is a master as much as he, and she rules her sphere as unchallenged as he. Nana will hear gentle murmurs, and take no memory of what transpires here from neath these green bowers.

"Where would you have me go?" Her bold, ungentle grin finds it's way back to her lips; Skuld makes no effort to conceal it: she knows how her mother loves her disregard for her woman's shape.

"To Vanaheim."

Skuld's eyebrow creeps up into a high arch, a sudden laughter trembling on her tongue. "What are you planning, my Queen?"

"A lesson in humility, dearest."

"For father?" Today, it is not wise to call Odin King in her mother's presence. "That is a dangerous lesson indeed."

"Aye, but it is long, long overdue."

"Whom am I to seek out upon Vanaheim's shores?"

Frigga finds a sour humour twining through her thoughts, colouring her words with a false levity. "I would have you speak to Njörðr King. A message from one constrained ruler to another."

"Constrained?" The look on her mother's face is enough to silence the rest of her question.

"You must tell the King to warn the little rune-speaker who is haunting his library…"

"The missing Aesir child? The one my brother has been sent to return to our father's halls?" The surprise in her voice is very much an echo of Thor's young thunder, and Frigga cannot help but find a rueful chuckle between her teeth. Children are both easy and hard to love, but one never forgets who they are. One never forgets who their fathers are.

"Aye that one, but the child is no Aesir, my brave Valkryja," Frigga replies; it is foolish to keep secrets in the company of loved ones, and she will not be as Odin is - she will be honest, and choose to believe that the goodness of her not-daughter will win out over all the arrogance and entitlement. Skuld has been taught to uphold, no matter the cost to others, the prominence of Asgard and she will not take kindly to what must come next.

Skuld keeps her tongue firmly between her teeth, her heart thrumming like some wild creature running neath the underbrush.

"The child is a wanderer, and not of any Realm. A Prince who should not be constrained, as your father would wish."

"Is he dangerous?"

"Oh very much so."

Aught but the slender tongue of the wind moves in the garden; Frigga cannot fault her eldest for her silence. Some things must always be a mystery, and she would be doing the little starling no favours by speaking in haste to those who cannot, could not, be moved to his defence.

"Mother, is father not acting prudently in wishing this strange boy brought to a place where he can be watched?" It is rare indeed that she questions her Queen, and the little query sits poorly upon her lips.

“Would you wish to be chased from Asgard because you are not as like your counterparts?” Skuld stands apart from her, her boots touching upon the great shadow of the tree neath which Frigga sits. It is no distance at all, but Frigga feels every inch of it, for there are things she would impress upon Odin's valkryja that would be better served with a mother's touch, before the words of a Queen.

“No.” A singular denial, bitten red at the edges and oh so cutting.

“Dearest, you are given your freedom by your Blood,” Frigga continues sadly, motioning for the proud, unbending warrior to sit in the grass beside her. “Were you another's daughter, you would not be what you are now, not without a great personal cost.”

“Sif.”

“Aye, like Sif.” That poor, brave, magnificent girl.

“What is this message then, that you would send me to the King of Vanaheim for some útlanðr's sake?” The valkryja murmurs, settling down to the grass with her mother, as if in this moment there was no Queen, no goddess, no wolf rider, no gatherer of dead men, but two women come to each other in friendship and nothing more.

A child's wish, but a wish nonetheless.

“I would have thee tell the King this: Odin knows. There is no other Road for those who were robbed, but to become thieves themselves.”

"Who has been robbed, Mother?" She does not want to ask this question, but she cannot help but see in her mother's words some dark and unknown danger. If she takes this message to Vanaheim, will she be leading wolves to Asgard?

"Too many to give a voice to, though some did earn that theft." The words are distasteful to her, but it is the truth; the King of Jotunheim made war on innocents for some reason she is not privy to, but that does not spare Odin the reaping of his own actions. To murder and plunder a den of rabbits is not so terrible as breaking the high houses of fellow gods, and blinding a whole Race to their own world.

Tis that old, old phrase they teach to every bright-eyed Aesir child afore the roles into which they were born pull boys and girls apart to their separate worlds: two evils do not make one good.

Nothing good comes from spite, from conflict, from denial. History cannot touch the present, or it will taint far more than just that moment. She cannot help but wonder how Winter's first son understands this exile, this shame. Does he take responsibility for his war and what it brought to his people, as Odin does? Does it beguile and twist his judgement as it does Odin's?

To have these answers would require she meet that King, and that is not something she desires to do, no matter her curiosity. Too much pain, though none of it likely given with an intentional malice.

Men, even men who are not Men, do not stop to wonder how their actions might wound others. It is not in their nature, but she has the right to fault them for it nonetheless.

"Mother?"

"I wish I could tell you more, min ulfr, but it would help nothing."

Rarely does Skuld find she wishes for a simpler existence, but now is one of those moments. “Mother, were it any other, I would not do this. But you are my Queen afore father is my King, so I will do as thou has't asked of me, though I see great danger in this lesson.”

"Thank you, my child." Frigga sighs, a gentle, strangely dark humour lacing through her breath. “You are a source of great pride to me, an unlooked for gift I would ne'er give up. I am glad to call you a daughter of my House, no matter what your first mother thinks."

Skuld does her best to smile, and ignores the salt that stings her eyes.

Drawing herself up, Frigga bids little Nana go back to the cool, quiet halls of Fensalir, and clasps her not-daughters hands in hers. A little fidelity is a greater weapon than any sword, or any charm. “I must go and speak to your brother, else this is all for aught." She does not say this without purpose; one day soon, Odin's first valkryja will understand all that has just been gambled beneath the abiding shade of her Queen's gardens – and Frigga can only hope Skuld will recall this moment here, and forgive her the outcome of that gamble.

"Thor? What does our Prince have to do with any of this?"

"Everything, my darling, everything."

Chapter Text

A piercing, resonant wailing is rising up behind him: the sound of joy, mixed so heavily with mourning there is no separating the two, though no Jotun would dare think one might have just one of these pains, and not the other. How can one not mourn the death of one's childhood? How can one not glory in rising up from a bitter, terrifying knowledge that now are the ages of testing, of learning what it means to stand alone with no great titan hand at one's back, to be a titan in their own right?

There is no sorrow without joy, no peace without war, no death without life, that is the way of the Universe, and that is the Jotun way as well.

No gain without a loss.

The little blade is as thin as a sickle moon in Laufey's hand, and Helblindi cannot tear his eyes from its smile. That gleaning blade and its bright skin is a testament to all the moons he has seen rise, how many green-ringed years he has endured in the shelter of his father's House as a child, as a Prince.

Tis proof he has survived.

Most earn their Lines in private. Most are gifted markings that mean something only to the father in whose hand the blade resides; it is not thus for Princes, and Helblindi finds he is breathless, terrified, of wearing those same Lines that twist and slash and twine about his father's body. He is not afraid to be Laufey's mirror, he is afraid to be found wanting – as Loki never has been. Loki wears no Lines, for he was worthy long, long afore he might have earned them.

Helblindi feels small in his brother's little, clever shadow, but the light is a punishing place in which to always dwell. He is glad for the quiet, for the space to breathe, though now that is falling away from him with every moment the high, soaring voices behind him strike out their incandescent mourning.

The air is alive with voices, and Helblindi cannot think but for their power: the grief of the sky, the earth, of every Jotun who has ever surrendered a child to the pains and dangers of adulthood. A simple plea to see their own sacrifice made worthy, made into more than a little blood lost in birthing, and an age given over in raising.

His father's face draws nearer, and Helblindi finds he is staring up into Laufey's gaze, though it is a fiction of his mind, for there are not three horn rings between he and his father now, but a lifetime of being a child, and knowing not if he was valued, or worthy.

There is no room for doubt now, not when Helblindi can see the ghost of an old and sturdy pride haunting his father's baleful, blood bright gaze.

Here is the little, frayed thread of his childhood, and there is the blade that will cut him from that thread. He will not cower, he will not shiver like some little creature hiding from the teeth of a wolf, nor flinch at the first cut. Tis the least he can do, since he has not earned these scars by deeds or blood spilled, but by age. No War-Lines will he wear, for he will not be King.

Laufey's fingers are like talons; he cannot afford to have Helblindi flinch. No matter how deftly the blade is put to Helblindi's skin, there is alway pain, and pain is hard to endure for those who are young and untried.

The first cut is short and shallow, like a gentle touch, but quick and stinging. Laufey turns the sickle curve of the little blade to the court and shows his Lesser Houses just how bright is his second son's blood.

His hands are steady because he knows how well Helblindi will wear these Lines, these ancient markers of the First House of Jotunheim, no matter who sits upon the Throne.

The court must see, must acknowledge; the roaring is deafening, sublime.

It reaches unto the high ceilings, to the great toothy spires of ice that hang sing and groan above all their heads like daggers. Even in their misery Jotun understand what it means to revel in the joy of a single moment, no matter how bittersweet or brief.

Laufey would be proud of this strength – save that there is always more misery than joy under which they must take shelter in this endurance of theirs. A little balance would be dearly loved indeed, though as rare as green grass and warm skies. Jotunheim gives much to her children, but easy lives are not one of her gifts.

Helblindi watches his father's finer emotions rise up within the red-rings of his eyes, and cannot follow their trails half so well as he suspects Loki might. But, rightly or wrongly, Loki will wear no scars upon his cheeks, though he shall one Rising far, far gone from this hour earn his War-Lines by Laufey's hand. When Death stalks the king, Laufey will turn his hand to the last task any ruler must endure afore he is carried to the high black cairns of his Fathers: he will carve the Lines of War, the unspoken language by which all Jotunheim knows the tongue of battle and victory, even defeat.

They will belong to Loki, and only Loki. As it should be.

Yet there may be no time to wait for the Ages to pass away - the Tundra is creeping in, and there is only so much waiting to be done afore a choice must be made.

Choices are terrible, terrible things. Cruel. Capricious.

Helblindi wishes he could see anything other than an uncomplicated welcome in his father's gaze. Perhaps it is foolhardy for a King to take public pride in all his sons, when the first towers over all despite his little shadow. Helblindi cannot help but wonder: would the Norns would disapprove, and punish the King for his pride, for his Love?

The blade cuts again; three lines on his other cheek; two below each corner of his mouth, making thin trails down to his chin; against his forehead, up to the rings of his curling horns. Arrows upon his chest and stomach to remind him of each death his long gone kin have suffered. One empty space above his heart for his own death-line, one his own son will give to him afore he himself passes unto that great dragon-toothed shore to dwell in the last Home he will ever know.

In Laufey's hand the blade flashes like white teeth, steady and sure and biting; it wears his child's blood like a second skin, and he is forbidden to show how this cuts him too. If there is pain, Helblindi is far too proud to let it's hot touch colour his skin.

As true a mirror as he could have hoped for; it costs Laufey so little to care for Helblindi, and for this he feels strangely indebted to his mirror child. Helblindi has asked almost nothing of him, and he cannot help but wonder if there is ought his second son desires but to dwell in his own brother's shadow, and by Laufey's side. Tis not so impossible a desire, and he finds he wishes to give that to his tall, arrow-lean child without complaint or cost.

When the last bit of blood is drawn, Laufey grips the blade in the palm of his hand and offers the clean, ivory hilt to his son.

Fárbauti had not been so foolish as to offer the same on Laufey's own Rising day.

“I, Laufey, Fárbautison, First Son of Winter and King of Jotunheim, call upon my father's Fathers to bear witness to this Death.”

Helblindi shivers, and lowers his horns to the floor.

In winter's High House the Shades always hear; in winter's house the dead are not dead, but Shapes and Shadows and Memory given breath, if only for a little while...

“My child is dead.” Laufey intones, cold and bitter of voice. “Here is Helblindi Laufeyson. Do you recognize my child?”

“Nai, Living-King, We do not.” No mouths but one Voice and seven shapes, seven titan shadows. “Who do you recognize, fathers?” Laufey's words are cold and grand, fit for a King. He will grieve in private and in silence, as it always has been done.

“We recognize Helblindi Laufeyson. He was once your Son. Now, here, we say he is ours.”

Laufey bows his head, and the shadows clean the blade of its skin of blood.

If he must surrender the second, he will not be moved to surrender the first. A free shape cannot be free if he is chained by his own Blood. Never mind that Loki earned his own adulthood years ago, and paid a far greater price than a few cuts and some reluctantly spoken words.

Let his fathers, these dead kings and eidolons ringed round the Throne they all once sat upon, be satisfied with one familiar child. They'll not get another.

The rings are in Loki's hands, silver and carved with runes done by his own weaving. Runes for strength, runes for perseverance, runes for subtlety and a clever blade arm. Should he and his brother ever be separated, Helblindi will not walk alone, will not face his enemies naked but for his own strength. It is the least he can do, given all that his brother has done for him. Loki tells himself that his hands are not shaking as he slips the fine silver rings upon his little brother's crown of curling horns, but this is the last, the very last moment of Helblindi's childhood, and for some strange, sharp-toothed reason Loki finds he is grieved by this fact.

As the last ring is set, chiming over the thin bone ridges that have begun to creep up each spiral horn like a multitude of tiny clarion summoning bells, the Lesser Houses gathered behind the royal House begin to roar and stamp their feet, welcoming the new-born Prince into the realm of those who have survived.

Child, where have you gone, oh child
From my flesh have you wandered, oh child
My little mirror you are now a mountain
and I revel in your fine shadow.
Welcome my child, to the darker fields.

“Father,” Loki whispers, “is there a good reason all our songs are so full of bitterness and sorrow? Were we ever happy?” This question is perhaps too simple, too contrite for his age, but Loki has so rarely been the one looking in, watching another move through the same understanding that he had been rocked by. Helblindi is an equal now, as Loki is, and now there is aught between them save memories as bright-skinned as the creatures of the deeper Sea.

Laufey hears his Prince's question, but there is no good answer save one that would cost him dearly to give. “Happiness is for lesser creatures, Loki. We are made strong in our suffering.” It is cruel, too cruel, for there is happiness, but it is as easily lost as one's own breath, so it is not something a wise Jotun ever trusts to keep for long. “There is grace in it.”

Loki frowns, a little bend of his lips so as not to spoil his brother's ceremony, and keeps his thoughts to himself. There are better moments to ask such questions.

Above the horns of the gathered court, the Eldingstjarna marks its passage through the high-ceilinged sky, and far, far beyond that magnificent curvature there is the stars and the Gate-keeper's gaze, as sure and as unwavering as the moon's green rings.

~ * ~

Time is a cruel god; it will be be cruel long after there is nothing left to be cruel to, for it flies afore all creatures in these Realms, on feet swifter than light, swifter than Death.

Exile implies a return, a day when the bridge opens again and al things become as they once were, or once wished to be – no matter the consequences.

Heimdall knows how swiftly that day is approaching; he has no doubt as to the All-Father's awareness as well. He cannot help but wonder if the little starling with the little crown of horns know this also – or is he busy with the bright, troubled shapes of his green youth, and his young magic?

Standing upon the Edge of All Things, with all the glittering Universe as his sole Companion, Heimdall finds himself with els and els of Time to spare.

Questions are the natural result.

The greatest question is this: with all the Realms unfurled beneath the spread of his golden sight, why is it he finds such a wealth of questions when he turns it towards Home, towards Asgard?

Alas! But he has greater Threads to parse, and only so much Time to spare in a Realm that fits so neatly into the palm of his King, with no room for Heimdall and his understandings, his hard-won visions. Ragnarök always walks on soft feet, and comes in shapes both Familiar and Strange – no matter the cycle, the hour, the hand that breaks or the heart that blackens, it is always the same. That is what he guards against.

If it is different...

Worlds hang on the sweep of his eyes through the Void, and he will not fail them.

~

The day is warm, and near its ending hours – a rain-heavy wind blowing through Asgard's farther training rings, carrying upon its back the salt of Asgard's Farther Sea, and a little of the royal kitchens; Thor finds he cannot sit still.

“I do not know what to make of his words, Sif!” If he is perhaps a little too honest, a little too bitter in his declarations, he has all faith that Sif shall keep his secrets better than any. Skuld would, but she is with Mother, and has not come to speak to him since he returned home those few risings ago.

Were his sister anything other than a Valkryja, he would be hurt by her absence, but that is the reality of their high places. They cannot come down, and be as all the others of Odin's great and glittering court.

“Thor,” Sif chuckles, scouring little paths in the good copper-coloured earth of the training grounds with the tip of her javelin, “I cannot see that our King has given you a task so insurmountable you cannot accomplish it. What exactly did he ask of you?”

“To find this little rune-speaker. Do you not remember? The one I told you of, the boy in the library...”

“Ah,” Sif sighs. “The scholar boy, with the viper-green eyes.” She will say no more, but she doubt she has hidden away enough of her own private amusement at Thor's expense.

“Aye that one.” Thor cannot quite meet her smiling gaze, her laughing mouth. “You know I have loved thee best, Sif, so please spare me your feminine intuition.”

“Feminine intuition!” She snaps, tongue dripping with a snide derision. “Thor Odinson, my Prince, when have I ever shown 'feminine intuition'? Do not insult me so.” If her hands have curled into fists, and her mouth fallen into a hard line, Thor makes no noise at her anger. Perhaps she should give him a greater portion of admiration – even when he is behaving as a boor, he does it with the kindest smile, the brightest laughter.

It would be hard to love him otherwise.

Thor stares at the space between his shadow and Sif's and thinks of nothing good to say that might alleviate this biting silence.

A faint rustling catches his attention, and Thor clings to the noise like a man drowning. Anything but having to face Sif and her hard gaze.

“Mother?” Thor grins, catching sight of Frigga's burnt umber gown in the searing orange light of the fading day. “What brings you here?”

Sif smiles, and bows her head to her Queen; there is dirt on her neck, and day-old blood on her cuffs, but she feels not one inch inappropriate under the scrutiny of Frigga's quiet appraisal. After all, Sif has only just thrown the Queen's son to the dirt, or so says the red flush burning on Thor's face.

“My Queen,” Sif murmurs, catching the shadow of the Valkryja and her wolf at the edge of the training ring. Skuld gives Sif a wide, white grin, wide as the smile of the wolf sitting at her side; Sif replies with one of her own.

“Dear girl,” Frigga replies, touching the blood on Sif's cuffs. “How does this day find thee?”

“Well enough, my Lady.” Today has been a good day and Sif is eager for this evening's swiftly approaching feast; she plans to leave the cuffs unwashed. She looks back to the wolf and the warrior, and when she sees Skuld tip her head just so – Sif knows her time with Thor is at an end. One does not ask the Queen of Asgard if one may idle in her company. One waits to be invited.

Taking her javelin in her hand, Sif follows Skuld's trail down from the rings, back towards the gleaming peaks of Asgard and her fine, golden roads.

Frigga does her best not to watch her not-daughter and Sif take their leave.

Poor brave girl.

“Come my dear boy,” she laughs, taking Thor by the arm to twine his hand with hers. “I would speak with thee.”

“Of course, mother.” Thor replies, his impossibly wide smile returning like the sun through grey clouds. “Where shall we go?”

“It matters not,” Frigga replies. “So long as we go together.” Her son's honesty slays her, makes her profoundly grateful, profoundly worried. Such a naked heart worn so openly is a dangerous thing. But how might she shield him from himself, if not by closing off that honesty, no matter how misguided? Better for him to remain as he is, and simply work to weed away the things that turn that honesty into impatience and brutishness.

“Aye mother, wherever your heart desires, we shall go.” Thor offers up in a murmur against the golden curls of her braided hair, his thunder bright voice crackling with humour, with Love. He has not quite divested himself of that fear he once entertained: that she had been grievously wounded by his incessant quarrelling with father, and had somehow managed to lessen himself in her eyes.

Frigga loops her free hand into the crook of her son's elbow and leads him from the dusty circles of war and mimicked violence, their shadows making long arrows agains the copper dirt of the arena.

The path Frigga walks is meandering, taking them past the training rings, past the great sickle curve of the white shoreline and it's gentle blue waters. She leads her son to farther glens and haunts she has not made use of since she was no more than a child, and her horizons were far, far greater than her marriage.

The grassy slopes near the tumbled remains of an ancient stone icon seem like as good a place as any to have this conversation. Frigga has always felt it best to make an opportunity for one's self, rather than simply wait for one to gifted.

“Sit.” It is a hard battle indeed – to let none of her worry touch her voice, nor mar her quiet smile; Thor is best led to a wide road by a gentle hand, and from there left to his own truthful goodness, no mater how tarnished his arrogance or his fellow Thanes have made that goodness. “We have much to discuss, you and I, my dear.”

Thor seats himself near his mother, mindful of the wide bronze pool of her gown; the season is turning as cold as Asgard ever gets and he does not wish to spoil the fine, heavy cloth his mother favours in this short, crisp punctuation to the ending of one lesser year. He turns his gaze outward to the distant, magnificent orange spilling out from the clouds banding round the sinking first sun and wonders what could have moved his mother to lead him so far from home.

“What did you father ask of thee?” Frigga begins, willing her hands not to shake, not to twist up the fabric pooling at her knees and shred it like so much fine, thin parchment.

Ah, Thor thinks, a little, bitter laugh curling up his lips. Shall it always be thus? These games, these little ruses played in the darkness of others, of his, ignorance is not he wishes to see growing between his parents.

“Did he not consult with you first, mother?” Thor does not attempt to him his surprise, for that much is genuine. No matter the anger that sometimes sparks between his mother and father, he knows nothing is more true than the abiding Love that binds them together, that Love which has build up the House of Odin to such a grand, grand height.

“I would like to hear his request from you mouth, dearest.”

“Ah,” Thor chuckles, not quite so bitter as afore, something loosening in his chest. For a moment he had thought...

“The All-Father asked me to go out amongst the Realms once more, to find the boy who has been gone from Asgard.” Thor frowns, the sour memory of being deceived making his words taste like ash upon his tongue – full of grit and things lost. “For it seems the boy is a rune-speaker, a magic weaver, and Father thinks it best he be here in Asgard.”

His mother laughs – a sudden vicious exclamation, and Thor is robbed of his words, if only for a moment.

“Apparently the boy will make a useful ally to me as King, and I should not spite one hand for the other, or so says Father.”

“And so I see,” Frigga sighs, a terribly sensation of being cut adrift in her own realm washing down her spine like cold, cold water; the simplicity of Odin's instructions, and his deceptions, steals her breath from her lungs and leaves her with nothing but a fruitless anger worn thin. So simple are the All-Father's commands that they excise the need for questions. How very clever, ye wicked old man.

“Is there something Father is not telling me?” Thor fishes; he does not enjoy the shadow that crosses his mother's face like an aberrant cloud upon an otherwise sunny day.

“No,” she is forced to say; Frigga is certain she will regret this, if nothing else. “Only that I would have you understand something.” If only there was the freedom to tell Thor everything, but she could not live with herself if her honesty cost the Prince of Jotunheim his life, or worse, his freedom. Thor must find his own path beyond Hate and Enmity, but she can lead him towards Kindness and Understanding, towards Grace and Humility.

“Mother?” Thor prompts, watching his mother's thoughts wander beneath the subtle expressions upon her lovely face.

“Treat the boy with kindness, Thor, when you meet him again.” Frigga replies, seeking out her son's beautiful blue eyes, for there she has always found the immediacy of Thor's heart held in his gaze.

Thor finds his mouth has fallen open, and he must suck in a great lungful of air to keep himself from looking the fool. “But mother,” he hurries his words, embarrassed at the implication held in his mother's voice. “I was told to bring him home! Surely something must have driven him from these halls to wander so far from our shores...so what is there to say he shall return willingly?”

“Oh my dear boy, you must understand that some choose to wander, no matter how fine a home they possess.” If Frigga thinks of Odin she shan't be the one to speak it aloud. “You cannot ask those who fly from you to give up that freedom.”

“Tis not as if I am making Hulda a prisoner!” Thor snaps, a thin skein of anger colouring his sudden cry of outrage. To think his mother believes him little more than some rampaging warlord blazing through the Nine Realms in search of fine women and finer treasures. As if he shall come back to Valhöll one eve with four dozen mortals as chattel and a Vanir woman for a bed-slave. As if...

Frigga arches one fine eyebrow and offers up her son a bright smile and a knowing gleam in her eyes. “So the boy has a name?” She cannot help but chuckle; as if the King of Jotunheim would give his child such an obvious, shining as like a beacon for the All-Father and his Gate-keeper, name. It is a wonder of wonders Thor did not figure it out sooner.

Thor feels his stomach twist, a burning heat touching his cheeks; for a moment he is a small child again, clinging to his mother's skirts. “Aye me mother! Tis nothing like that, only he told me his name...”

Frigga seizes upon this. Any little thread will do, any little spark of gentleness. A thousand, thousand marriages has she woven; a thousand, thousand young women's hearts given over to young men's hands. T'would be nothing to open the gates to let the little starling in. Better an equal than a concubine. A war-prize. For if she does not move quickly that is what the first-born Prince of Jotunheim shall be, and never anything more than that shame, that prison.

“There is nothing to be ashamed of, Thor,” Frigga soothes, placing a hand upon her son's forearm to chase the blush away, no matter how sweet it might be upon his cheeks. “You made a connection, and that is far more worthwhile than doing as your father bids you act.”

“So you would have me befriend Hulda?” Thor murmurs, staring down at his skinned knuckles and the copper dirt beneath his nails. Green forests and clever, toothy smiles fill his thought, though he cares not to ponder too much upon why. Perhaps he has been enchanted, ensnared, and the only relief is to move between the stars again, wrapped in the Bifröst's splendorous colours. Tis not a thought he finds unwelcome.

Vanaheim was a strange, far distant shore.

“I would have ye make an ally of the boy, learn from him, see him to Asgard because it is his wish to come, and not your father's command; be kind.” Frigga offers up, aware that she must shore up her words, make them unassailable for the day Thor must have the truth from her, and from Jotunheim's Prince. “Offer your hand in friendship, as the Son of Odin, as Thor, as a Prince. But leave Hulda his freedom.”

“You seem to think I shall make him a cage!” Thor laughs, and lays his hand atop his mother's, still able to marvel at how fine and slender are her own bones in comparison to his own, yet never can he forget how quick and sure is Nothung's bite.

Frigga pins her tongue between her teeth and tastes ash. Oh my son, my boy, if only you knew. If only it were safe to tell thee all that thou deserves't to know. No matter how great her love for her only child is, Frigga knows who he is – and what dangers lurk in his naked heart. All the fault of Asgard and its Men.

One cannot struggle against the tide; better to twist it into a river of her making than fight and lose strength when it matters most.

“Long gone is the Age of hostages, dearest. Asgard needs no more sons and daughters from the other realms to make itself safe.” Frigga speaks, willing Thor to understand that no matter Odin's words or requests, there shall always be other choices, other roads. “Asgard needs allies, friends. Marriages.”

At this Thor smiles and Frigga cannot help but wonder to herself if her son is thinking of Sif, or of a pair of vicious green eyes and a wolf's red grin.

What a shame indeed, to suffer a husband with such a wide Gaze, and such a wandering Heart.

But I am Queen, Frigga thinks, and the knowledge warms her like the dim coals of a once great fire. A single memory is all she needs: that first moment she took Odin's hand and asked of him one boon. She has never forgotten what she asked of him, and nor, she doubts, has he.

~ * ~

“Brother do not pick at your scars” Loki snarls, slapping away Helblindi's hands though he must stretch himself to his limit. “You will ruin the Lines, and father will look like he gave those honours to you with his eyes closed.” He does not mean to be so harsh; he does not mean to be jealous. He is not.

As the the Eldingstjarna begins its burning descent into the distant bowl of the horizon, Loki must admit that he is a Liar. Of course he is jealous. His cheeks are bare, and only the bowed lines of his House touch his skin, though he was born wearing these Lines, as all Princes are. Loki had drawn Laufey's blood to get them; Laufey had drawn Helblindi's to gift him his own. Blood for Blood, in payment of the agonies of birth.

“You are not jealous are you?” Helblindi mourns, forgetting his scars for a bare sliver of a moment, they sting so fiercely. “Oh brother....”

Loki binds Helblindi's fingers with a strip of cloth; bright red cloth for bright red blood, and bright red beads.

“If you pick at your Lines again I shall tie your hands behind your back.” Loki hisses, knotting the fabric tight as he dares. To be jealous is one thing, but to speak of it aloud is hardly fair, nor flattering. He is not lessened by this Rising, but there is always discomfort when one of them changes and the other does not. Tis only a few Lines, and nothing so little as that could ever break asunder the threads that bind Loki to Helblindi.

Helblindi looks away, as if to give his Prince some little scrap of privacy by which he might let go his anger, and that black snake called jealousy and envy which so readily buries into so many hearts with no regard for what destruction it causes. He cannot say he has lived his life without that terrible little creature under his ribs, and for that reason he has not the right to rebuke or to mourn where it resides in Loki. They each of them have a right to their grievances, their own private shame.

Loki has not become a Jotun in his own right, and so there is merit to his sour discontent. But Helblindi cannot gainsay their father any more than Loki can, and this they both know. Laufey has his reasons, and those reasons are his to keep.

Helblindi will be the first to say that Loki has always been a Shape in his own right, and he cannot think his dear brother would ever deign to so much as submit himself to such a common practice. Loki needs no scars to be the first son of Laufey. He proved himself the King's greatest treasure years and years ago, when the green-ringed moon was how they counted their ages; when they had been children, young and arrogant and over-reaching. None of this has changed, save that now they are Grown, and cannot play so loudly through the labyrinths of Harvetrtjald.

“Helblindi I am not jealous.” Loki murmurs, keeping his little brother's enormous hands in his own; the fabric is rough beneath his palms and he is glad for the distraction, to play this game a little while longer. “I am upset we cannot be mirrors of the same.”

Helblindi laughs and embraces his Prince with no care for the little bones between them. He knows Loki is lying, but it hardly matters. “I could never be your mirror brother, and you know it.” All joy and wide grins, that is what Loki needs. “But I will be your sword.”

Loki finds the sour, black discontent that had been haunting his thoughts and twisting his insides lessen enough for him to bury it away. Helblindi is right. Loki cannot make himself a reflection of his brother, just as Helblindi cannot be Loki's own, so he must be content with knowing they shall ne'er be separated. A sword as fine as Helblindi's is are greater treasure than some mirror to flatter and deceive.

“Where is father?” Helblindi asks, curiosity waring with the terrible need to tear the cloth from his fingers and scratch till he draws fresh blood. If he disturbs the compound that Laufey pressed into the scars he will not get raised Lines by shallow valleys. The best his mind can offer as a distraction is the reprimand that if Laufey suffered this little torture, than so too will Helblindi.

“Father is...” Loki turns from his brother, from the sight of their father's empty throne to the emptied halls of the greater chamber. The hight-court dissolved back to their own ancient tjalds many portions of the Eldingstjarna ago, and now all is silence and gentle snowfall. Evening colours and evening noises.

He cannot bring himself to say grieving.

Helblindi might not understand.

Laufey has a right to his sorrow, and Loki is not so foolish as to think it is easy to cut your child form his childhood, to know the days of his safety under the high, soaring halls of Harvetrtjald are drawing to a close; that one must let that child go with not one word in protest, but a silent, bitterly fragile hope that he will survive the trials of adulthood.

“Father is consulting with Hirmoð about the new road to Hvítna and Geud, remember?”

Helblindi frowns, searching his memories.

“Never mind!” Loki laughs, suddenly turning from Helblindi to race down the great stairs of their father's throne like a stone across still water. “Come away and we shall find some fun, yes?”

“Fun?” Helblindi grumbles, an answering grin stealing away his chances for an air of grim endurance towards his brother's sharp, too clever mind and its wild adventures. “Do you mean 'come away brother and we shall go find some poor scion to enrage this evening?”

“Aye.”

No reply is necessary, save a quicksilver grin passed between the both of them as like some secret reminder, some touchstone they could not be parted from. What was one without the other? What was Mischief without Steadiness?

“Scion Hrothrun did not give genuflection as he profusely as he should have, would you not agree?” Helblindi states imperiously, mimicking his father's ice cold lathe of a tongue. “Might we work some mischief upon him and his House? I should like to see that arrogant old titan reduced just enough to be tolerable.”

Loki slaps his knees and shakes his gold-banded horns. “Aye! Oh indeed let's.” That haughty creature has a shipment of sea-beast bones and ocean glass arriving from Rusk tonight.” He knows what he is proposing, and what it he and his brother might reap from this sowing – it is not devoid of merit to teach others to fear them both, though most who kept court with Laufey had learned to fear his shadow long ago, as Loki would have it.

“Luxury, eh?” Helblindi sneers. “What does a good liegeman need with pretty trinkets and pearls?”

“We should show him how little he needs these treasures, brother.” Loki crows, already to the great, towering doors that will take him from Laufey's gleaming, shadowed throne room. “Don't you agree?”

Helblindi gives his answer by some how beating Loki to the end of the first high-ceilinged river-snake hallway.

He is first to the Outyards too.

Damn Helblindi and his long legs. It is a small comfort to Loki to know he could alter this if he so desired, but that would only allow him to win a race, and nothing more than that.

Hardly worth the effort.

Tonight they will play their trick and tomorrow, oh tomorrow Loki will make for Thiazivarði – alone. He cannot bring Helblindi, for if he truly understood the King of Vanaheim there is something he must learn, and someone he must meet, and none of things he can do with Helblindi throwing his shadow over Loki's own. If knowing what secrets Thiazivarði keeps will put Helblindi in danger, Loki could not bear to carry that responsibility with him. He cannot force such understandings upon his little brother when he himself has the luxury of choice, for Njörðr spoke of hard answers, of bitter questions, of separations and exile without e'er once saying more than 'go'. Such is the power of the Sea-Son, that he speaks where no voice is needed, for he keeps every voice in his fine grey cloak.

Loki will return to him again afore the year is out, and tell that strange, aggrieved King what it was he learned, and whether or not it was worth the coin exchanged.

Strange, but one only remembers choice when it is absent, and then one feels that absence like the worst of wounds.

~

Beneath his cloak Loki has a King's ransom in fine, glittering sea-treasure, but when he touches upon one flat plane of his tower room doors he finds himself falling still and quiet. There is another in his rooms. Angrboða and his hooded eyes comes unbidden to Loki's mind, but he dismisses the thought. No Nárþengil would ever dare behave with such presumptuous familiarity with him, not even the would-be mage with his skilled weaver's tongue and high, well-ringed horns. Even Angrboða knows his place, for who would have such a reckless desire to meet the little sickle grin of Loki's little blade?

With an armful of stolen bounty, Loki walks into his tower rooms with a pointed defiance in every inch of his frame.

Laufey laughs, a singular burst of dry black mirth. “Loki, have you been gleaning fat from Hrothrun again?”

Loki places his treasures upon the bed and lifts his face to meet his father's quiet, calculating gaze. Surprise washes over him, tightening his smile; Loki had not thought his father would be so soon from the privacy of his own high chambers. He had thought the King would crave more time to cut his grief away.

Not so.

“You did not spoil your brother's Rising day.” Laufey states, neither cold nor pleased, but painfully bare of any inflection. He cannot afford such sorrow as now pressing down upon him, for it is hardest to bear when he has not gone looking to find it. There is no doubt Loki understands far, far too much already, when he has said so little.

Loki catches hold of the truer question lurking behind Laufey's words: Do you feel I have robbed you? Despite his inclination to a high-handed pride, to a surety of his place in Laufey's twin hearts, Loki need not ponder his answer for more than the little space of a breath.

“No.”

Laufey turns away, forcing himself back to the knife-wound horizon spilling its morning colours out across the peaks of Thiazivarði; he has not had cause to remember all the many roads to that ancient tjald in more ages than he cares to recall, and it is a poor and biting understanding in him that he must do so now when he would rather cut away all that those mountains stir up in him.

“I have other means of maintaining my place.”

Another clot of laughter bitten to the bone.

“Father?” Loki calls, his voice no more than a thin dry whisper that does not cover over his alarm, walking quickly to Laufey's side and heedless of his dignity as Prince, as an adult. There is room enough for them both to share the wide mouth of the window, and Loki finds himself growing still and quiet as a small animal in fear of some hungry shadow. When his father's heavy, enormous hand settles atop his head, fingers touching upon the gold bands as if each one were some vital totem, Loki feels a different breed of fear – an understanding that here is something painful, something old, and he does not wish to have its truths.

He cannot abide dragging such things from his father.

“Child, you understand that all things must end.”

“Is that a question?” Loki breathes, fighting with the urge to bury his face against Laufey's hip and cling as if he were drowning. But he is no more a child than Helblindi is, not any longer.

Laufey smiles, a twist of his lips neither joyous nor wholly pleasant, weaving the tips of his fingers through the black ink of his son's fine hair. He spares a moment to be thankful Loki was gifted with such a colour, and not the one he could have worn. “A year remains to us afore our exile is ended and I have searched long and well beyond my own strengths for any other Road...”

“The Vetrljós?” Loki nearly cries out, certain that what is passing between he and Laufey is not the admission of some great failure but the understanding that Laufey has always known just how far Loki has chosen to throw his shadow. “You cannot mean War?” He will do anything to turn this knife, to not be forced to confess how poorly he wore his father's trust and Love. “Surely not.”

“Peace ends.” Laufey continues, turning his gaze down to catch the bright red gleam of his son's eyes, bright with magic, with youth, with things that were lost to him Ages upon Ages ago. “War ends. Life ends. We cannot ask these Realms to be what they are not, and what they are not is Eternal.”

“But I am not ready to watch Jotunheim die!” Loki finds himself pleading, his hands being cut by the sharp, golden scales upon Laufey's ceremonial reði.

“I am not asking thee to be.” Laufey snaps in reply, his teeth too-sharp against his own tongue. Oh how he hates this; oh this cuts him, this Love, this hard understanding that he cannot permit Loki to dwell neath the shelter of his arms forever, but must stand aside and be left with nothing but a dim and bitter hope.

“Then,” Loki grieves, his breath an ugly, tangled creature resting in the snare beneath his heart. “Then what?”

“We must learn to forgive one another, no mater the choices we must make, or shall be forced to make.” Of all the answers he had thought to be given, Laufey is shocked to find Loki's are tears and mangled sobbing; he had hoped for something less painful, but alas it is rarely thus. Loki's cheeks are tinged violet with his shame at being so undone, little rivers of salt marking and steaming upon the wolf's fletching he is never without. His son is not so far gone from his childhood as he would like to think, though Laufey cannot think less of Loki for these tears.

Age has stolen away what might have once wept in him; there is nothing to squeeze from a stone, nothing.

“Oh my Treasure, my first-born,” Laufey mourns, though he keeps the worst of his biting grief from settling too heavily upon his tongue. “Do not shed your water for what you cannot change.”

“I can do as I please!” Loki wails, wishing he could catch his cries between his teeth and bite them off his lips. “Why must it be so? Why can I not steal the Vetrljós and keep the Aesir from breaching our borders once more?”

Laufey had know he would one day be driven to have these words with Loki, but he had not thought they would come so soon, nor be so costly to him. “Ai my son, but the Aesir do not know how to dwell Between, as we Jotun do,” he replies, once more stripping his voice of any inflection, any little, wretched memory. “For their kind it must be Peace or War, and to be caught between the two is something they cannot abide. A Jotunheim restored will be as like a great sword held o'er all their heads, forever. Asgard cannot forget, will not forget, the War I...” Laufey falters, tasting blood upon his tongue, and ash. “The War I caused.”

There.

There.

He has said it.

Laufey can only beg the unkind Universe he ne'er bleeds so much before his child's eyes ever again.

Worse that he cannot say how it was not all his fault alone, but Laufey will not tell his child it was a simple, costly miscalculation of of his own import in the eyes of another. Freedom is a hard thing to judge when measuring it by standards not your own.

Such things as this cannot be communicated in words.

Loki is miserably grateful Laufey allows him his tears, and makes no further noise til the desire to weep has drained from his body like so much bad blood.

“This is the price of your Throne, child.” Laufey sighs, watching the last of morning's first violence pass away, leaving a clean, shining sky above his tjald's needle-thin towers. “Your choices will not always be your own, and when they are you shall have to live with the consequences – should there be pain, destruction or death by those choices. When you have cost others by your actions it shall be the hardest, most especially when it is a cost in blood.”

Laufey is only guessing, but it is not hard to see, as Loki might, the most probable Road his son would have walked from Jotunheim.

Loki sucks in a wild breath, his eyes wide as the face of the moon. Does his father know? Oh, oh please not that.

Laufey's titan hand falls to the thin, blade-like valley between Loki's shoulders. It rests there for some little time – a wordless comfort and a solid, unbreakable reminder: you are my child, my flesh, and nothing you do is without my knowledge or my permission. “Be on your way, the spring season will melt the roads and you will have to fly farther than you might care to.”

“Father?!”

Loki looks up to his father and back to the wide mouth of the window.

Thiazivarði.

“Go on child, I will see that your brother does not want for company whilst you are gone.” No matter the hard, unyielding stone in his voice, Laufey knows Loki will understand. King and Father both.

“Where will you send him?” Loki croaks, craning his neck up to meet his father with his questions. The hand has not moved, but simply keeps still, as if it were an anchor, and a boon and a reluctant encouragement. For a moment, Loki is at a loss, robbed of words, of certainty, of that belief in himself and all his assembled wiles; robbed of his high-horned ghosts. What good are these things against Laufey and his unchallenged gaze?

“To Útgarð of course.” Laufey chuckles, sharp and sour and not wholly convinced of the truths he is giving; if he is once more asking too much of his beloved child he has no means by which to measure the risk. Loki has always risen so very far above what he might ever have believed possible, but a day will come where he does not. That is for the Norns to decide. “Age-mates are few here, but the children of Útgarð would do well to have a Prince in their circles.” Arngrìmr will take all care of his second son, and see that loneliness does not bite at Helblindi too terribly, as it is wont to do.

“No.” Loki hisses, thinking of the tall shape standing in the shadow of Útgarð's Erms.

“The Chieftain's son is no threat to your place, my jealous little dragon,” Laufey reprimands, fixing Loki with a hard look. “Helblindi will still be yours when you return, regardless of who crosses his path.”

“Why was he not raised here with us?” Perhaps it is an impertinent question unbefitting of a Prince and a Son to ask his Father and King about the business of his own Bed, perhaps even his Heart – but Loki has never loved caution, or humility or niceties. For his boldness he receives a bark of laughter and a flick to one of the highest rings upon his horns; the sound of Laufey's nail upon the golden band peals like a bell.

“Ágæti is not my son.” Of course, by blood, the next Chieftain of Útgarð is his as Loki is his, but Laufey did not carry the boy in his belly so no claim but the Love he bears for Arngrìmr does Laufey have.

“I think that is foolish.” Loki sniffs, for no matter his jealousy, his desire to keep Helblindi to himself like some impossibly rare trinket – he cannot say he would not have wished for other siblings, other allies to make plans and mischief with. “So you did not bear him, he is still yours. Just like Hulda.”

Laufey wishes, if only for a moment, to bury his head in his hands and shake his horns in utter frustration. “How is it that I have raised such a greedy child?”

Loki finds his answer is a wide, wide grin.

“Einarr's child is his own. Arngrìmr's child is his own. That will never change, for that understanding has protected our Houses and strengthened our Blood all these long millennia.” Laufey will teach this lesson one more time and then be forever done with it – regardless of Loki's complaints. “Only those that suffer the pains of childbirth have claim; only those that risk death have a right to the fruits of that great risk. This keeps great Houses from being wrested into the hands of Lesser Houses, this makes allies of families who might first choose to be enemies; ties of blood are as good as swords in hand to every King, and easy debts to collect.”

Loki huffs and turns again to the horizon.

“Tis passed the day-star's rising now, my child.” Laufey speaks unwillingly, after a silence as empty as his House is bare of Shades. “And the wind is fine. I would ask you make your farewell swift, or make no farewell at all.” He turns to go, wholly incapable of watching his son leap from the bowers of his tjald to race across the sprawling sky. Tis difficult to gaze so long into a mirror without longing for a different reflection.

Loki watches his father take his leave with a wrenching, blinding terror eating out of the red meat of his heart; his trespassing upon Vanaheim's soil carried none of this pain, none of this fear. Why, why does it hurt now?

“I will return.”

He shouts, as if to bind himself to something that need never be a promise, save the fear that it one day might be that and nothing more.

Laufey turns back to his son, feeling as if in his bending to his child's cry so too does all of Jotunheim bend, like a child's toy pulled upon a thin string. He can do aught else, when so much of him is bound up in so surprising a creature as his first-born, his little rune-speaker.

“As always.” Laufey gives.

He will keep his doubts to himself.

Loki smiles, a thin, hesitant curve upon his lips, and manages to keep his silence as his father's shadow grows smaller and smaller, till Laufey is gone from the tower and Loki is left alone with the remains of some great silence.

“Always.” He speaks to that silence, to the wind and the shadows and his own poor guilt.

The wind is high and fine; the outyards below him are dotted with gleaming horns and bands of thin blue smoke, a handful of Houses making their offerings and morning rites; he care not to count the many times he has stood here and watched the warp and weft of Harvetrtjald unspool beneath his high windows. He will do anything, anything to ensure he will never have to face a rising wherein he cannot to this.

When he spreads his arms his fingers become pinions, his feet talons, his heart a little, shivering pulse tucked against his hollow ribs. He leaps and hopes Helblindi will forgive him this great slight, but he cannot speak parting words to his little brother. He will not.

As Loki climbs, races to the hilt of the sky, he shrieks his parting cry, and chooses to believe it is enough.

~ * ~

Two days flight sees him to a maze of serpentine gravel roads that cut through the heart of Thiazivarði like wounds. Loki beats his wings and turns into a dive, the wind a joyous roaring in his ears, and drops to the black earth like a stone.

There are trees here, so many trees.

Loki twists and flickers, slipping from eagle to Jotun like water from ice.

Great dark spires, the tops of ancient towers and older trees, soar above his head; standing alongside are smaller ash, oak and willow. The air is crisp and bright, rich with the scent of pine and decay – old wood and rotting mushrooms; lichen as sweet as clear water. Loki finds his mouth us watering – Harvetrtjald feeds its King and his Princes well but with so many roads smashed and trails and tjalds obliterated it has been hard indeed to reach the bounty of Thiazivarði.

It is like wandering the borders of another Realm, though all above him, and all below him, and all below him is as of Jotunheim as he is.

Loki spends an hour filling his ration bundle, and wonders if perhaps it was unwise to keep his wolf's fletching round his frame. He loops the satchel round his neck and choose to wear the pelt instead; he will cover more ground as a wolf, and he has always wanted to catch a rabbit between his teeth.

~

Four days he runs, sleeping under the heavy hand of the day-star neath his wolf's white fur; the roads grow well travelled, and the scent of woodsmoke thicker.

Storm Jotun, the people who dwell in the Thunderer's shadow.

Loki has ne'er met one, though he is seeking one and one alone. Just one.

On the sixth day he spies a band of hunters, and a pair of young, wild voiced twins wrestling in the dirt. The hunters have caught their meal and have gathered round the leaping, crackling fire, pale blue skin unlined and shaded with the ghost of Loki's own violet flush.

They are strange, strangely familiar creatures. One of the Jotun has hair as Loki does, and it tumbles down in odd braids of dull copper; these Jotun wear horns as well, but as far as Loki can tell they are small and curling, tucked close to each Jotun's head. To his eyes, these crowns of horns are not half so proud as even the youngest of Winter's children.

One of the hunters so gathered round the fire is a woman.

Loki regards her with curiosity unbecoming of a Prince his age and standing, but he has ne'er seen a Jotun choose to be one shape over another, and he has no understanding of why one might choose such a form. To see her look up from the fire, as if to find his eyes in the dark enclosure of the forest, Loki stills and presses his wolf's body closer to the cold, damp earth. The smells of the forest are nearly overwhelming here, but he cannot abide her eyes on him, searching out his shape in the black tangle of the thicket.

It would be foolish to remain.

Loki melts into the great, muffling embrace of the forest, his movements as soft as falling leaves, and does not seek out another campfire that night.

~

Thrymheimr is, by the distance he can judge, no more than tow days travel from the last still-warm campfire he had come across; the roads are ringing with the strange voices of the not so dissimilar storm Jotun – traders and merchants, hunters and families travelling upon the bright grey rivers that cut through this high mountain range in greater numbers than Loki has ever seen upon the invisible pathways of the Plains. He feels as if he is being tracked, though he has met no one on the wooded trails he has kept too, nor sought out to speak to any of the travellers who've flickered in and out of his sight as he races beneath the trees.

Soon it will be a fortnight gone, and that insignificant accumulation of time and distance is more than enough to leave Loki with a hollow hunger for home, for familiar shapes and the music of high horns and pyrite beads. If there is shame in this, he cares not examine it more closely.

But as the trailing edge of the Eldingstjarna begins to breath its last upon the horizon there comes a scent on the wind: animal hide and soap, dried summer fruit and the salt of skin. Spices that Loki has no name for, and...

“Hail, little one.” A voice cries out, hidden by the shivering trees and muffling lichen. “Have you lost your horns, or do you think the wolf your true shape?”

Rather than a voice spoken with a tongue, Loki finds a growl is his only answer; he will not give up his fur before some strange voice on the wind, some unfamiliar scent that creeps into his nostrils and stings his throat in its alien composition. So far from home and safety, it is almost too easy to let the wolf ride high upon his senses, muddying his thoughts with the need to flee into the friendly dark. Laufey had not raised a fool.

“I'll not play games with thee, Prince.” The voice continues, just soft enough for Loki to believe it a woman who is calling to him, though he cannot trust even this; a Woman is a distant abstraction to his mind, something he cannot quite understand. “Tis my husband who sent ye to me. It could be no other.”

He will not come out from beneath the arms of the forest, not for anything. Not so far from Home and help, with only his own blade in his hand. Loki will wait, and let the woman come to him; it does not matter if she is Njörðr's Queen, for Loki obliges no one save his father.

From the copse of thick brambles Loki watches the storm Jotun hold her hand high in greeting, her chill blue face unmarked and her horns little, from just beyond the ridge of the far road. She is tall, wrapped in fine leather and finer bones, with a cap of dark hair cut savagely short. Her eyes are as red as Loki's own; he is strangely comforted that there is that much between their shapes. A rope of fabric is tied round her hips, and a dozen strange totems and little pouches knock together in the wind.

Loki smells herbs, and blood; seid.

The woman from the campfire; his erstwhile shadow.

“You are Njörðr's wife.” Loki states, though it sounds to full of wolfish violence; he will not let go this safe, quick tongue just yet. “Thiazi's daughter?”

“Aye,” the woman replies, fixing the wolf between the moss heavy trees with hard look, meant to chastise, to rebuke one she knows has been raised a Prince, especially when he stinks so much of Winter's cold hand she cannot breathe but for the sharpness of his scent. “Though it would be easier if you were not a wolf, should you wish to ask me those questions you have travelled such a long way to have answers by.”

If Loki could frown he would have given this creature a sour, cutting face. As it stands, he shall simply have to comply. He watches the woman carefully, watches as he slips from one shape to another as ice melts to water, his horns growing long shadows upon the soft forest floor.

“Ah, I see the hand of the First House on thee.” She smiles, her eyes tracing familiar Lines and features she has not seen in an Age or more. She has been a long time gone from the heart of Jotunheim and she cannot help but wear that loss in the bitterness of her gaze. “A little Princeling of Laufey's body – though I cannot guess your other half.”

Loki is tempted to simply give her some name, better than to say he is ignorant and knows nothing of who Laufey lay with to bear him. It hardly matters, but the lack of this little scrap is a sudden, sharp void, a sting to his pride.

“I'll give you my name first, if that is what shall keep you a Jotun and not a wolf,” she bares her teeth, a bright peal of laughter ringing out in the over-quiet forest. “I am Skaði,” she speaks, dipping her horns, a bare, thin note of respect.

“You may call me Loki,” he replies, as if it were a gift to give away his name.

“Laufeyson.”

Loki finds his little blade is in his hands, his heart in his throat, and his teeth too sharp against his tongue. How would this wanderer from the woods and roads of Thiazivarði know anything of the King who bore him, aside from his name? How might she know what a child of Laufey would look like, what Lines they might wear? She knows too much, guesses too much, a distinction Loki does not care for here, now. He studies her again, searching for signs she is not what she says, this woman called Skaði. Her clothes are strange, layers of leather and fabric tucked round a well-fleshed body; all curves and valleys Loki has no kindred image to recall them to, not even when his father had carried his brothers, and Loki had finally been thoughtful enough to to understand, to remember, change.

“We have a ways to go, Prince.” Skaði murmurs, taking up a pair of wooden poles again. “Follow on four or on two, whatever you please, but follow.”

Skaði sets off at a brusque pace, her sled laden down with goods; Loki follows on four, sure of his swiftness on these thin legs than on his own two, if there be trickery beneath this Jotun's pointed smile.

Too far from home to trust in the kindness of others.

They travel under the green-ringed moon as swiftly as they do beneath the Eldingstjarna, they travel o'er unfriendly rocks and through stinging gasps of snow; Skaði moves with a surety of foot that Loki has never seen afore, as if she was born to race between dragons teeth and monstrous chasms. Loki struggles to keep up, but half way up he must admit defeat and relinquish his wolf's fur for his own two feet, his own hands, and as he climbs in his furred mantle he is grateful, miserably so, that he cannot sweat.

Hours pass, the disappearance of these little notes of time marked by the length of shadows upon the ground, till Loki looks up to see the day-star has nearly been swallowed up by the jagged, sour-red horizon and there is stretching out before his eyes a great ribbon of lit torches and the hulking, mighty profile of a stone tjald every el as ancient as Harvetrtjald. Yet where his father's House is bright and cutting – a sharp, proud knife-blade planted between the ice and the horizon – this place sprawls like a sleeping dragon, with all its scales and gems and finery growing from its skin like some terrible, multitudinous forest. A dragon made of mud and green stones and all the ancient plunder of some great fallen city crusted along its serpentine length; a sprawling cluster of smaller shrines and homes fanned out around the great beast like a glittering train of brightly decorated attendants.

Loki's eyes follow the bright orange flames, a river leading down to the vague, imposing sight of high, thick doors and the wandering shapes of guards; the faint clank of swords and murmur of rough voices carries on the vicious wind, and Loki shivers, though not for the cold.

“There's no danger here, Laufeyson.” Skaði laughs, starting down the familiar path to the mouth of her father's House. “Your Blood is all the protection one might ever desire beneath the roof of another's tjald. None here would put a blade to the throat of Mimir's great grandson.”

Tis odd, naive perhaps, but he had not thought these distant, pale Jotun would know anything of Laufey, nor of his unbroken Line, save for his Name and the Throne he sat upon. What use is Laufey to this people? He cannot imagine how it is that this creature knows even the smallest scrap of truth concerning his father – but perhaps that is why he is here, why Laufey gave his blessing when afore Loki would have sooner lied and kept that poor illusion to spare him his father's bitter disappointment.

When the tall storm Jotun begins to race down the path to her great stone House, Loki resists the urge to curse her as her skis carry her farther away than he can run, the sound of her movement over the road a bright, strange susurus upon hard-packed, dirty snow.

A well traveled road.

Loki feels a prick of outrage, of desolation at the understanding of what bounty there is here, yet how cold and unforgiving are the shattered plains of Thrym, the shores of the Dýr's Cradle. How bare. He does not like to think his people must scrape and claw and fight for some fat upon their bones; without the Bifröst there is no trade, without the roads from the mountains and the ocean there are no merchants, no foodstuffs, no fat in lean years.

What breed of violence had his father done to Midgard to warrant such a profound dissolution of his Realm? If the Norns are kinder than they are wont to be, perhaps when he returns there will be bravery enough in him to ask what treasures Midgard held that were grand enough to risk all this sorrow, all this ruin and breaking apart. It is not the first time Loki wishes his memories of the years afore the Aesir came were lit with a greater comprehension than racing through dark halls, or weaving bright gardens, or laying in his father;s embrace. Something a little less profound than the comfort of childhood.

Suddenly Loki is before the doors to Skaði's tjald, and when he raises his head, the rings around his horns spinning fractal, golden webs upon the twisting, coiling knots of wood that shape an unknown creature, he finds the sight of these high doors have stolen his breath.

“Níðhögg.” Skaði offers up, though she knows this Prince of ice and leafy, green isles asked her no question. “We are at the bottom of the world, as far as Jotunheim is concerned, and my House has embraced our place with all good humour.”

Loki has little desire to give an answer; the great snake roars and gnaws upon the high doors and he cannot help but think of his own garden, his own ash tree, and the little banded snake tucked neath its roots. He swallows past the un-looked for grief, past the sudden, cruelly bright longing for home, and does his utmost not to think upon how furious, how miserable, his little brother has been all these long days now.

Helblindi will have been under the Chieftain's care for weeks now, and Loki cannot help but wonder if his brother will forgive him this slight, when Loki himself cannot now understand what had pushed him to leave Helblindi behind to begin with.

Perhaps Skaði shall be kind enough to remind him afore the night has faded away.

The doors swing wide, the guards pulling upon great wooden fins that groan and shriek like dying creatures; Loki walks between them and cannot understand why no one has spoken to him, nor acknowledged his presence. Perhaps the Storm Jotun have manners in extreme, and speak not to those who have not spoken for themselves first; perhaps it is because Lady Skaði is by his side, and in her presence his is already explained.

He keeps his tongue between his teeth as the guards dwindle into small points, as he and the Sea-King's wife make their way down the great, many-windowed corridor flowing like a dark, wooden river to the height of further doors.

A throne room.

“Is your father's House still a warren of stone and green ice?” Skaði murmurs, her gaze distant and touched with ages Loki will never know. “As I remember it.”

“No.”

Skaði laughs, soft and coloured with a welcome-surprise; there many things she might hope to hear from Laufey's little half-blood son, but the clever gleam in that child's eyes tells her he is as much a fox as he is a Jotun, or a bird. Best to step carefully, and let the little, fox-faced Prince ask his questions first.

“Where are we going?” Loki means every note of Princely condescension in his voice, for believing in one's place is often enough to stay the mightiest of hands, or so his tussling with Angrboða has taught him.

“To see my father,” Skaði replies. “He will be most interested to meet thee. It has been a long, long time since a Child of Winter has come to our halls, and I believe he misses the shadow of his own horns.”

Loki does not know how to answer these words, and the silence that creeps between their travelling is full of thorns and unspoken questions; the noise of his feet upon the floors makes sighs and groans of his step, which is noise enough. He does not mind, but it is hard to keep his tongue still, as has ne'er seen so much wood, nor smelt such cooking fires; he has never been bathed in such gentle light, nor felt such quiet wind. This is a strange place, and he cannot seem to trust that all the long, heavy shadows that lay about this House are nothing more than shadows.

Skaði speaks nothing, content to let this wanderer into her tjald in part to quench her own bright, ungentle curiosity, and because she has not seen his familiar Shape in so many cycles she cares not to remember. They may never have loved one another, but she had not cared enough to hate him; she has missed him – his fire, his lies, his truth.

The snake is not always a choice she is free to make, and she cannot help but wonder if any memories remain to him, or if this lean, proud young creature walking beside her is truly bare and new. It is a distressing thought.

“Here, Prince, is my Father.” Skaði says, flinging wide a set of doors inlayed in burnished gold and cutting silver, Níðhögg writhing in the confines of its golden lines. “You may ask him what questions you wish, but tis his to answer as he pleases.”

“But I came to speak with thee!” Loki hisses, just as he catches sight of the Lord in his hall, and all sense is fled from him as if his brains had been dashed upon sharp rocks.

“Aye,” Skaði replies, a bitter, needle thin grin upon her lips. “But it suits me not in this hour. I will fetch you when I am ready.”

“Wait!” Loki very nearly pleads, a flush of shame touching his cheeks. “Why, what is...”

He turns his gaze upon ancient Thiazi, the Thunder Bird, the Shadow Above, and finally understands why none speak of him in voices higher than a thin whisper. Loki had not thought the stories true, but nonsense crafted from idle tongues and idle minds.

Wrong.

A shadow falls across Loki's face, the light from the windows flickering before his eyes, between the pinions Thiazi's sky-spanning wings, turning Loki's skin into a stripped wild cat's fur.

“My father forgot his shape before Jotunheim was young.” Skaði intones, and there is nothing shaped like regret or anger in her voice, nothing but an uncomplicated acceptance. “But he has not lost his tongue, if that is what concerns you.”

The Thunderer's child does not give Laufey's son a breath in which to make his reply, but slips away, the vast wooden floors singing of her quick retreat.

Loki is alone, and only the sound of rustling feathers and clicking talons fills the great, great hall soaring above his head, nothing and everything like Winter's high House.

“Welcome, Laufeyson. You have travelled many els to reach my doorstep.”

The Lord of Thrymheim is an eagle so large Loki cannot help but shiver against an animal fear that sets his heart to racing, racing against great shadows and wicked talons. Should Thiazi desire, he could tear Loki into red ribbons of flesh with no more effort than to lean down and bite. For a moment, Loki stands before the Keeper of the Thunderer's Grave and knows nothing but fear.

“Oh you are Laufey's son indeed, such a quiet snake that child was when he first came to my lands. My teeth.” Thiazi keeps a voice like great mountains crumbling to dust, like roaring of a hundred Jotun voices and the pounding of a hundred feet. “So I can only assume you have come to speak with me for some greater reason than idle wandering, as your father did.”

Loki nods, sharp and as eager as a wolf after catching the scent of blood. He creeps closer to the titan eagle, though the shifting of Thiazi's wings stir up the wind fiercely enough to nearly throw Loki to the floor. This giant is spilling secrets as if they were not akin to gold, as if he were a dragon devoid of jealousy or concern.

“I have come to ask thee, oh mighty Lord of Thrymheim, what thou knows't of the Vetrljós.”

“Ah,” the eagle laughs, his talons sounding like sword points upon the floor, “you have come all this long way to ask me that?”

Loki ducks his head, the shadow of his horns wavering in the rising light of the Eldingstjarna, if only to hide away his snarling. “I have found no good answers in my farther travels, Lord, and you are of the old world, the old ways. I could think of no wiser creature.”

Thiazi laughs, a piercing cry that is the high shriek of a bird about to descend upon its prey, and mantles his wings as if to take flight. “You would not bandy such words with me had you the shade of Mimir neath your ancestral halls. As you should, were it not for that Deceiver, that God of Prisoners.”

“I did not travel so far from my ancestor's hearth to speak of Odin Ginnarr and his injuries to Us!” Loki calls out, a sudden anger creeping upon him. He is weary of walking across Jotunheim with nothing but the markers of Odin's destruction as his guides; he will have no more of it here, in this distant place. “I came to ask thee if Jotunheim is doomed to shattering without the Vetrljós, or if there is another way, another vessel...anything!”

Desperation is an ugly thing – it sits upon his shoulders like two misshapen creatures, weighing him down with their needle sharp fingers, their words of doubt and death and fruitless attempts made in the face of certain failure.

“No.” Thiazi replies, with no trace of compassion; there is rarely any sense in lying, not when there is so little worth hiding from a child of Laufey's. He cannot help but wonder if the boy knows who is other half is, if Laufey has had the courage, or perhaps the stupidity to tell the child who his father lay down with to get him. Thiazi doubts this. What good might be had from telling the Crown-Prince he is only half a son of Winter, and the other half a son of that accursed, eternal Realm?

Laufey is no fool. He never has been. Rash and proud and over sure, but never a fool.

“I do not mean this with cruelty, little Prince,” Thiazi continues, though the shape of the child's horns upon the floor of his throne room recall in him some far distant memory that reeks of walking beneath an unbroken sky, of ranging through deep woods and fallow fields, of being less than a creature of the mighty horizon above, yet more. “Only that you might cease your searching for what does not exist.”

Loki raises his head; grief spills his finer emotions into his hands and he is left standing before the Thunderer with such a sudden, overwhelming sorrow chewing upon his heart that he is empty of aught else but that first, ugly bloom of understanding.

He had been right; all these months, all these travels, all these silly hopes that had filled his head and steadied his hand – nothing more than a second-hand kindness. A self-indulgent ignorance.

“Would you ask any living shape in this Universe to live without its heart? Might you command the living to cut their lungs from their chests, or spill their blood upon the ground, and promise them life as you rob them of its very foundations?”

Loki shakes his head; he cannot breathe but for grief's thick fingers wrapped round his throat.

Thiazi sighs, a rasp like the slither of a blade from its sheath, and steps down from his golden, knotted stave of a throne to hunch his wings and peer into the little Trickster's jasper eyes. “Forgive me, Laufeyson, but there is no answer which might spare thee the truth of what your father's war has cost us all. Such knowledge is often bitter for the young, but there is no luxury for the Old, we have no sentimentality to be disabused of.”

“So you hold the King responsible?” Loki challenges, though he has only just had from Laufey himself a confession; let his father speak of his failings in private, but those failings are not for others to speak of, for others to dwell upon, no matter how proud their own height above more ordinary shapes. “Yet you have made no challenge. No call to see our Blood, my Blood, cast down from Winter's High House.”

Thiazi's answering laughter puts ungentle fingers upon Loki's spine, little, cold blades that dig into his skin and caution him against such wielding such a rash tongue; he chooses to ignore his lesser, childish fears. “Long ago a young son of Winter asked me the same question, save that it was a different King he had come to ask my opinion upon. I gave him an answer, and I shall give the like to you.”

Loki waits in the shadow of the eagle, wondering if time has stolen his wits as it has stolen his first shape, or if this towering monster is as wise as the grey feathers round his neck suggest, and as sharp-minded as his sickle moon talons.

“One learns that to challenge a King of Jotunheim is to challenge the Realm herself. No King sits upon his throne because he is simply the last child of the dead King left alive. It is not his Blood that makes him our King.” Thiazi speaks, his words rolling like thunder clouds. “It is not the King who gave him his Rising Lines, nor his War Lines. Your father sits upon his throne because he cut throats to do so, because he is strong and terrible and no better Dýr existed to challenge him for that place atop the world.”

A thin, vicious smile creeps upon his lips; it is rare that there might be an audience for his father's violence, for is own pride in who and what his father is, but to come to a hall so distant from his own and here how terrible his Shape is, even in another's eyes.

“Are those the words you gave my father?”

Thiazi's talons clatter upon the floor, like Fafnir's wicked white teeth, and if a bird of prey could smile, that is what Loki would call a grin built of nightmares. “So, boy, you have not changed all that much, despite the horns you wear so proudly. Still a clever little snake with an impertinent tongue.”

“Fafnir spoke the same, Thunder-Eagle.” Loki hisses, wishing he could make his fingers forget the need for his little blade. “I grow tired of this ignorance.”

“Of that I am sure, but it is hardly my place to relieve you of that ignorance. If you do not remember, than it is for a reason.” Thiazi is old, old and great of shadow, but he is no fool and he is not so weary of this universe that he would rile the serpent into remembering his fangs; if this Laufeyson is a blank parchment, a thing made new and strange, then he would not alter it for any trifling, little reason.

“So,” Loki growls,

“Come, Prince, the dinner hour is well past now, and you must be hungry. No more talk today.”

One does not gainsay a Lord in his own hall.

Loki drifts away with a grand and oppressive sense of dissatisfaction.

He is trite and sharp with the servants who bring him his meal in the high-beamed dining hall; when Skaði joins him, he watches her from the corner of his eye, half his attention on the meat he cannot identify, and the vegetables he has never had the luxury of eating.

“I should say, by the look on your face, that you did not get answers worth having.” Skaði questions, breaking the clinging silence with a sharp bark of laughter.

It would be rude to curse in the halls of another, especially with food in one's mouth, but Loki would sorely like to speak his mind, and have rough words with this Storm Jotun who's knife-bright grin sets his teeth on edge, and makes his thoughts jump and twist. He cannot follow her thoughts, cannot mark her expressions, has no guideposts to place the things that creep into her gaze.

Loki does not understand Skaði; he cannot help but wonder if Njörðr knows her better, or if she is a vague shape, an unfamiliar land. A sentimental memory that bears not close scrutiny.

“But my husband sent you for more than just an answer to Jotunheim's crumbling. He would not have sent you so far from your own House to learn that the Vetrljós is our only hope.” Skaði is unsure if she is speaking to Njörðr's ghost, to her memory of his face, his voice, as if she hopes her own remembrances will bring him here, or if she is speaking to the boy for some manner of consolation.

“My father has been here, has crossed over these mountains.” Loki does not intend for this to become a question, but he cannot tear the hesitancy from his voice, that lilt which turns his words to uncertain markers on an unfamiliar road.

Skaði frowns, her knife poised over a thick cut of meat. “Aye,” she replies, her little knife descending with a shocking violence. “Many, many ages ago.”

“Why?'

“Hate does strange things to children, Prince. Shelter is rare and not easily sought by a Jotun of your father's disposition.” She does not know what prompts her, save that she had kept a love of freedom in her heart all her long ages of existence, and she can see its marks upon this green wanderer, as she saw it upon his father, when she and Laufey were both young shapes. Ofttimes it is hard to see others struggle with what has driven her, what had driven Laufey, but she doubts that Loki is being driven by much more than curiosity and desperation. “Though I doubt you are here because you hate your father.”

“And why do you think I am here, Thiazison?” Loki mutters, sour and wavering in his dislocation.

“You have come for permission. Another cry to add to your own. The only road is war, the only choice is thievery and violence.” Skaði intones, her voice rising like the shiver of a drum.

Loki hides his face, hides his wide, wide wolf's grin.

“You have come to spy on your father, and the old memories he has left in his wake. To discover if he wandered alone, and where he wandered to. It would surprise me if you told him thus, but I have no doubt he suspects without your clever tongue to put the thought between his ears.” If she is harsh, if she is cold, there is not enough in her left to soften her harshness; exile is a strange thing, for though she is as free as she has ever wished to be, here in the teeth of her mountains, it is not a true freedom. There is no leaving, no returning; trapped and free, this is a difficult contradiction to live under.

“Will you tell me?”

Skaði pauses a moment, turning her gaze to the windows, to the falling day-star and the spine of her mountains stretching on into the distance like the ridges upon a Dýr's back. “You are not my child,” she begins, her eyes still caught between the rivers and the roads, the snow and the bloody sunlight. “And I cannot give over the secrets of others. Yet I will say this: your father did not always travel alone. His chosen company was a creature he should not have tarried with for any reason.”

Loki buried his knife to the hilt into the meat of the table, the wood groaning and creaking beneath the force of his strike. For a moment, he could think of nothing to say.

Skaði tips her head back and roars with laughter, a bitter smattering of silver bells, and fixes Loki was a hard, hard stare. “By Fafnir's Teeth boy, you are a haughty one!”

“What did my father do?” Loki finds he cannot keep the violence from his voice, cannot keep his fingers from itching to spill blood. “What could have been so terrible?”

“I believe, little snake, you are intelligent enough to discover that for yourself.” Skaði replies, pushing aside her silver platter to drain her cup in one neat motion. Wine flushed her cheeks a dark, livid purple, and for a moment she let the Prince look. He could be this as easily as she could be him, but she will not ask a child if he has slipped his shape in that manner. “But I shall not send you back to your own halls unsatisfied.”

“Oh,” Loki pressed his tongue to his teeth, tasting blood.

“Your father chose Midgard for a reason, for resources, for pleasure, but it was not in idle spite.” Skaði hummed; the images came to her, utterly un-looked for, eager beasts roaming behind her vision. “The Aesir are war-like race, they always have been.”

Loki frowns, prying his dinner knife from the table.

“So too are the Jotun. This makes for a poor balance of power, when the two most vicious races share the same height in strength. It was inevitable. Fated.” Her voice is sour now, threaded with old regrets and un-welcome memories.

“So I am to blame the Norns?” A jeer, a bitter splash of disgust. “I do not believe in them.”

“Of course you do not.” Skaði shrieks, howls with laughter, her eyes alight with a disturbing apology, and the ghost of pity. “But they know you, child. They know your father. They know Odin Spear-Breaker.”

Loki shrugs, as if by by the gesture he is shedding Skaði's hard words, her maddening jabs in the darkness of his ignorance. “Why are we speaking of Ginnarr?” That name is like a beacon in his mind, bright and bitter as a witch-light. “I see only revenge in his designs, his choices. He wishes us to die, because my father crushed a few of his little insects. Because the Jotun offered a challenge, and Ginnarr could not tolerate that.”

“There are more to Odin's actions than the revenge of a King.”

“What?”

No.

No.

His mind plucks up the threads as easily as he had plucked up his knife.

“How?”

Skaði does not smile, no flash of teeth or slice of humour in her pale jasper eyes. “Our Realms are nothing but circles, Loki,” her eyes light as she speaks his name, as if touching some secret. “And some take no pleasure in these circles. These spheres into which we are all bound.”

“That is hardly a justification,” Loki snaps; he is bruised, wounded, stumbling round his thoughts with no direction, no end but circling, circling this offence he cannot put into words. There is not a mark on his skin, or against his Lines, but there is something painful and his chest it full of thorns. “Why would Laufey King keep such vile company? For what purpose?”

“Because Laufey King was Laufey Prince, and I am not so foolish as to hand you your father's secrets upon this here platter,” Skaði gestures to the dishes before her; in the wavering of that moment her face gone cold and clean, as untroubled at thick ice.

The silence that enfolds the Jotun Prince and the woman who is not wholly a woman, is something akin to a bloody wound neither will admit they share.

“Seek you my husband, Loki, and let him tell you what the Aesir are truly like. Ask him of the war for Vanaheim, and what price he paid to buy his Realm's security. Perhaps then you will understand your father better.” Skaði does not mean to send the boy out along the shadow roads but she cannot be the hand that gives out what is not hers to give; Laufey has not left Harvetrtjald in many, many years, but that does not mean he is deaf to those who dwell outside the shadows of his Erms. She is no fool; it would shatter the Prince, to know who was his other half, that in the clutches of his heart beat two bloods, two worlds, two acts of violence.

It is not her place.

“I have travelled a long way, Skaði,” Loki begins, “and I cannot help but feel I have little to show for my wandering. I wished to know if there was any other means of restoring our world, and I was told to be a thief. That is hardly the answer I was looking for.”

“Aye?” The storm Jotun replies with a cool lift of her brow. “I suppose I can see where you might find disappointment. Surely, Prince, you did not think some ancient tome or wickedly woven spell would be fit enough to be our Realm's salvation.”

Loki finds he must look away. “What great folly is there in wishing for an easier Road?”

“It distracts one from the truth.” Skaði ventures, rising up from the bench to draw the young creature to his feet; she cannot help but admire his horns, and the golden rings that gleam like molten thread round ivory towers – so like Laufey to show his child's difference to any who have eyes to look, to understand.

Odinson.

Laufeyson.

It matters not whose Blood Loki chooses as his own, nor what face he wears. If he is here in this form, then she can only wait for him to shake the Nine Realms apart as he always does. Perhaps this time it will be for a reason. But that in itself is laughable.

Chaos knows no Reason.

Chaos needs no Reason.

Loki throws back his head, his chin held high; his horns are proud shadows in the red sliver of light bleeding across the teeth of Thiazivarði's mountains, Skaði's face held between their span. “What truth is that?”

“There are other Roads to Asgard that have nothing to do with thievery. Other roads to the Vetrljós.”

For some unfathomable reason, Loki thinks of golden hair and a blood red cloak; a pair of frigid blue eyes warmer than any touch he has every felt. A violet flush touches his cheeks; Skaði smiles, and this time she gives the little Princeling all her teeth.

Chapter Text

Loki flies home low on the wind, the clarion rattle of Skaði's laughter striking between his ears; so many teeth in just one small, bowed mouth. He cannot forget her father either. The thunder bird is shadow and the clacking of sickle moon talons; a great black blot that crowds beneath the horizon of his eyelids.

Loki has no love for a secret kept from him so openly, and the knowledge that Laufey is the locus, the needle round which these guarded threads are kept, is far worse a bitter sting than the refusal of the House at the bottom of the world. Ignorance is no fine and useful sate, no matter what the Dýr of the Undertide and the Lord of Thrymheimer might speak to him; Loki has no love of lies if they are not his own.

His thoughts are best kept to mighty eagles and coiling dragons, rather than the brother he has abandoned with no words or reasons save his own pleasure. It does not do to remember how he had not even given the smallest of courtesies to Helblindi, and told him why he must be left behind. Some times, in the quiet, rough edged moments he devotes to the wilder thoughts that stalk within his mind, Loki cannot put reason to action, nor divine why he spoke as he did, nor acted as he did.

Blind instinct, self-serving needs.

He cares not to discover further, which crown it is that he has set atop his own head.

Helblindi must be furious. Will this slight be an unlooked for wound, now that the green-ringed moon has given up one of its twelve faces? Will Helblindi be angry, bitter, full of questions Loki has no capable tongue to offer up an answer? An ugly welt of unhappiness lays its stripe across his shoulders, and for a little hammering of his bird heart, Loki's wings falter and the wind gasps in his ears. He wonders if it is natural for all siblings to feel this way, when one has done the other wrong. His stomach twists, a slick, unpleasant roiling that he could sooner do without; ugly and sour, even though he wears the feathers of a hawk.

The hearts of thinking creatures are harder to change than skin.

~ * ~

With the great red-rimmed disc of the Eldingstjarna warm upon his back, Loki tracks south, and climbs higher; all the faster to Útgarð's Erms, and whatever words, or swords, his brother chooses to give to him. Better to face Helblindi than to go racing home to the gleaming, sea-snake labyrinths of Harvetrtjald and be tempted to pick away at the spindle of his father's best kept secrets.

Better anger than silence.

~ * ~

Útgarð's Erms cast long shadows, but it is the dull green shoots marring the clean, moon-bright face of the snow beneath each erm that is most jarring. Green, tenacious, and wholly unwelcome, this grass that creeps ever closer to the fragile heart of Jotunheim, to the God-King and his newly mended throne as if it were some duplicitous supplicant, some creature wrongly seeking mercy.

What a bitter sight indeed.

Loki dips his wings and the eagle folds into the Jotun as like a sheaf of parchment tossed into flame. The wind is a familiar knife's edge against his skin, and he falls like a stone to the viciously white line of the earth.

There is no purpose in delaying this further.

The Erms are tall and proud, weathered grey faces staring down upon him with twenty thousand years of indifference; familiar shapes that put his racing heart to ease, though only a little.

Loki walks round the chalky ring of the summoning bell, the memory of that hammer's weight in his hand, and all the reasons behind that first swing, is reason enough to leave the striker where it sways in the wind. The long shadows of Útgarð children pass beneath his gaze, murmurs and questions touching his shoulders like the faint shades of old ones.

The first son of Útgarð is waiting for the crown prince at the pinnacle of his high house's stairs, his great curling horns a bitterly pleasant reminder of all that Laufey has never spoken of to Loki, all the things Loki has had to pry from unwilling glances and dangerous assumptions.

A King cares for aught but his own sons; Loki would stake his breath that Arngrìmr knows this, knows his place.

It seems cruel.

“Crown Prince.” The Chieftain greets, deference and familiarity make strange bed fellows upon his tongue, but he cannot say that long journey to the cairns did not strip away some few els of distance between them. He has seen the child bleed, and it is hard to see a Prince afore he sees an awkward, haughty little dragon, as Laufey calls the boy. “Your brother will be anxious to greet thee.”

It is not a reprimand, there is not even the thinest thread of such a thing in the Chieftain's words, but Loki feels Arngrìmr's words like the sting of a bright blade against his cheek. He bites off a growl between the points of his teeth, and thinks better of a sour reply. “Where is my brother, Master of Útgarð?”

“Prince Helblindi is beyond the House, likely throwing his shadow round the fourth training ring. There has been little here for him aside from a few weeks tossing others to the chalk.” The child is a wilful one, so like his father, and yet not; the crown prince moves in the spaces between, neither wholly Jotun nor wholly of the other, but a strange, flickering amalgam of two worlds, two shapes, that should never have met in the first place.

Tis a hard thing, knowing enough of Laufey's wanderings to see the truth in every oddity of his first born's frame, in every bone of that Prince's body.

Loki finds he cannot tolerate the silence in Arngrìmr's gaze, and he is glad to seek out the path to the training rings, rather than stand beneath the Chieftain's shadow and read far too much in all the spaces between his words.

The sound of wrestling greets him: the dry rasp of feet through chalk and dirt, the bright clamour of blade-arms singing on the wind, growls and oaths as hard as old ice. There is a small crowd, young children gathered round older sons, scars and lines greeting him rather than smooth, unmarked shoulders. A show? Loki's own gold ringed horns are enough to part the taller shapes before him, the sons of Utgard falling away, revealing the pair in the grasp of the white stones ringing round the chalk.

Ágæti, and Prince Helblindi.

The Chieftain's son is taller, older – just a breath faster than Helblindi – and they are circling one another like two wolves over the same scrap of meat, save with none of the viciousness. Loki grips the haft of his his little blade and finds he cares nothing for pretence or patience; there is work to be done, worlds to walk between and no time now for tussling in the dirt. Helblindi needs no allies save Loki, and Loki cares for none save Helblindi, despite what their father has told him about those who share the blood of the First House. One good sword is all a Prince needs.

“Brother!” Loki summons, and the fight goes out of Helblindi in one great rushing; Arngrìmr's child is left staring at the space where his opponent had been, looking for all the world as if he had been frozen in place by the shockingly familiar figure standing in the midst of the crowd. He has never seen his blood brother, his Prince, in such close quarters afore and the effect is jarring.

Helblindi stares at the lean shape of his brother, and finds only a blade of heavy, bitter outrage lurking beneath his tongue, carving his words. “Two fortnights!” And the blade on his arm dissolves into chill water, Ágæti forgotten and the chalk beneath his feet nothing more than a slight irritation in his lungs. “You did not even have the courtesy to speak to me of your departure.” His anger covers so little of his hurt Helblindi would feel shame to be so naked afore so many others, but there is no room for that in this moment.

“For good reasons,” Loki hurls back, shocked and wounded, though he knows this is less than he has earned from his brother; the crowd has disappeared, flown away on silent feet, and for that Loki spares a bit of his relief. “Brother.”

Ágæti has not moved, and stands still as his tjald's weathered Erms, too much the Chieftain’s son to melt away out of some misplaced sense of shame.

“No!” Helblindi retorts, a finger raised like an arrow, vicious in its aim beneath Loki's heart. “Do not insult me, Prince. I have walked the same paths you have, so what on Jotunheim could be more dangerous than those Roads?”

Why did you not trust me?

The words lay between them like small birds with shattered wings, ugly and useless for all the accusations they held beneath their pinions.

Loki cannot say 'because you would love our father less'. That would be no better than sliding a knife between Helblindi's ribs without even the soothing cover of darkness, of ignorance. Skaði's riddles were not for his younger brother's ears, they were for no one's ears save Loki's, and there could be no change in that surety. Too much was left unanswered, and if he could not unravel this snare, he would not have another do so in his place.

Of course this does not remedy the fact that Helblindi is throwing his shadow across Loki, that there is no more space between them than a single span of horns and jasper. Loki has always been taller than his brother, though now it seems they have both forgotten it is only an illusion that Loki gazes up, whilst Helblindi gazes down.

“You left me, brother,” Helblindi snarls; he has felt lost for so long now, it is strange that he can find only anger, rather than relief. To be given no words, no reasons, just the quiet acceptance of his father's hand upon his shoulder and a long, joyless ride to Útgarð with no further explanations than now was the time for him to be Prince with no shadow behind which he might take shelter. Time to meet his brother of blood, rather than body, and know what it meant to be an arm, a blade, of another.

He will not tell this to Loki, but Ágæti has been a good companion; Arngrìmr an uncommon well of patience, and a quiet understanding. Helblindi had not enjoyed the feeling, finding himself so far from Harvetrtjald, and yet not so far from a welcome comfort.

“I know.”

Helblindi frowns, searching his Prince's face for any sign of remorse, for any little threads that might tell him where his brother has gone, and who his brother has met. It has always been hard to read Loki, but there is enough honest regret in those blood and shadow eyes for Helblindi to take some bitter comfort; if he was patient, Loki would spill those secrets in due time – perhaps when there was one less brother in their midst.

“That is the best you have for me then?”

Loki bares his teeth, tips his horns higher and steels himself.

“Yes.”

So bare a word, so complicated, and yet it spent not more than a fraction of a breath upon his tongue. Nearly a month and a half away, and he had not thought to return with such a weight upon his shoulders, and no one to give over even a pittance of that burden to lessen its strength. Not to Helblindi, and above all not to Laufey; Loki cannot forget all that he has asked of his father, all that he has gleaned without permission.

“A poor gift indeed,” he mourns, all too aware that nothing has changed between them, no matter the months apart – Loki is still their father's heart, and Helblindi is still the second son. These weights and anchors cannot change, cannot be shifted; the audacity of asking for more is akin to asking for the pale rings round the moon to be set atop his own head. Helblindi understands, and it is very like a slender needle of pain pushed through an old and well healed gash in his own bones.

Such is the reality of his station. And so, though he must struggle to remember there is often a greater portion of joy than pain, he must not look to bitterness, but to the rings round his horns and the silver threaded beads he still wears. He must remember whose hands did twine those beads through their silver webs, whose hands wrapped those great strands round his horns, whose blood has put fire and power in the agemarkers gifted by those same hands.

One moment of hurt should not be enough to tear asunder all the many passings of the green ringed moon that have faded from the mighty sky wherein he and Loki have been more than brothers to one another, more than just creatures who share a father and a tjald. They have saved one another's lives, and Helblindi can only hope there is no force in this universe terrible enough to shatter their close orbits, their intertwined fate.

He cannot imagine what force save Death could yoke such violence upon their necks.

“Nigh on five weeks brother, and all you are willing to give me in return for the slight you yourself gave me is...is a handful of words? Words are not enough! You did not trust me.”

There, oh there is the wound Loki has been waiting for, the fine blade he has by his absence given his brother. A fine blade with which to be cut, and full well does he deserve each cut, shallow or deep it matters not in the slightest: each will have been earned in equal measure. “Aye, aye I left thee, brother, but it was not without reason.”

“By the Dyr's Teeth, what great reason could there possibly be, that you would leave with no regard for my company, nor my understanding?” Words are rash, foolhardy, hot and unsteady creatures with no more sense in them than the tongue that wields them; Helblindi feels drunk on rage, on the hurts he has kept so near his skin for these many portions of the moon, and he knows not what to do with all these needles working their way from the meat of his heart. “In shadows we have walked, my Prince; on shifting seas and monsters' teeth have we tarried, and yet you cannot pay me the simple courtesy of farewell?"

A hundred odd outcomes is Loki expecting when Helblindi's feet touch outside the chalky stones of the fourth training ring: a blow, a knock upon his shoulder, a motion of violence, a flash of that fine blade-arm. He is not expecting to be given the back of his little brother, and the hiss of breath between bared fangs.

Loki watches Helblindi flee to the warren of stone that is Utgarð's lesser Houses, and knows it is not anger that has broken the young mountains of his shoulders: grief has marred the proud lines of Helblindi's frame, and it is Loki who has set those weights upon that flesh.

By his own hands; it is always by his own hands.

Ágæti is a tall, tall shadow caught in the chalky teeth of the ring; unmoving, silent as the Erms of his greater Dead, Loki cannot see where the son of his father's blood has laid his gaze, nor what thoughts touch his face.

Loki cannot bear to look.

Jealousy, anger, bitterness; Loki would not be so naked afore any creature not of his own heart's family, not even one who shares his blood. Blood may be a trifle or an iron chain, but it has always been his choice to be bound. That will never change. Never.

~

The evening meal is not half so spare as it was but a few turnings ago, and the halls of the Chieftain are bright with noise, bright with song. A strange feeling, a prickling thread of unwelcome memory spools through Loki's thoughts, and suddenly he is a child again, ringless and stone-faced at his father's side beneath the misery of Útgarð; eating Arngrìmr's offered food as if the grief it cost the Chieftain was the finest fare in all the Nine Realms. So long ago it seems, though that be a little trick of Great Time.

Beneath Loki's gaze is whitefish, greens from Rusk, rosy salt and thick curls of black mushrooms, dearly bought from Thiazivarði no doubt: a table meant for a King, but kept for the comfort of a Prince. He understands that Helblindi has been here a good long while, but it is not to his pleasure that he can see how well the First House of Útgarð provided for the second son of the King. Tis hard indeed to hold onto one's anger in the face of such kindness; hard to be outraged when his brother sits knee to knee with Ágæti Arngrìmrson, shoulders still hollowed toward his chest, and gives him aught but the weakest of smiles.

Prince or no, this is no time to be casting challenges to the black stone floor afore all the assembled Houses of Utgarð. Now is not the time to twist his tongue into a clever shape and spin for Arngrìmr's child a new, unfamiliar shape – perhaps a blackeel, or a snow ox. Something stupid and slow, something ignoble.

With knife in hand, Loki turns to his meal, and meets the Chieftain's eyes; in a wordless, wrenching space of breath, he finds not pity but compassion, patience and understanding in coin enough to be spent as he pleased. A father's gaze, wherein words are crutches and the song of a silent tongue is more a weapon than hard words and a heavy hand.

Perhaps this is what all fathers are.

For a moment, only a moment, Loki has no true desire to ever be informed otherwise.

Arngrìmr wishes to speak with him after the hours of kenning and meal-sharing are passed away beneath the moon's clear, bright veil.

A song of the great black Ocean is taken up by a old, old Jotun of the western tjalds – a hostage-son from days long passed and bound now in children, bound in the roots that only Time may lay down – and Loki allows the melody to carry him off to that far distant shore. Beneath his eyes are mountains black, and sand curved like a horned young moon, a voice of nightmares and a pair of vicious, bitter yellow eyes.

Ages and ages ago it seems, yet right here beneath his heart.

No matter the breach between them, there is no Time in all the leaves, all the bowers, all the roots of Yggdrasil that might be too mean in span for Loki to sew up what has gone rotten between himself and his finest sword, his dearest brother. There is always a way, a road, a choice.

Helblindi will forgive, but neither shall forget.

Cold be wind and cruel be rain
Cold be my hands, and narrow be my sight
Cold be shore I may not reach again
A Dyr's teeth to touch my heart
Aye in the this realm of cold and dark
Should I these waters touch tonight

Are all our songs so full of misery? Were we ever happy? It had been a foolish question those few months ago, and it was a foolish question still; time might make no better of its root, but Loki cannot chase the thought away. He never can. Such questions curl up with thorns and memories and idle ruminations to make of themselves a knot he cannot dislodge, for the problem truly is this: no matter the foolishness of the question itself, the crown prince of Jotunheim still would have an answer.

Were the Jotun ever happy? Was there ever joy unmixed with sorrow. Was there Peace? Was there grace and comfort and a good long life lived well? Was there for each alive the choice to die in their own beds, stiff with age and rich in memories good and untouched by this howling desperation, this wailing ululation of doom that presses down on him in the blackest hours of eventide?

Loki doubts the answer could be yes. He does not wish for the answer to be yes, for then, oh then, this is all the harder to endure.

Oh then, tis Laufey who is to blame.

~ * ~

“Stamp your feet, child.” Arngrìmr speaks, a note of glass in his throat. “We are creatures of grief.”

Through the stones of Útgarð blows a cold wind; Loki shakes his head, horns flashing in the dying light, and lets the salt of his sorrow wet his cheek. “Ai, ai,” he cries, his voice a bird with shattered wings. “Ai, ai.”

“He will forgive you. Blood is the iron, the chain. We are all but messengers, prisoners, willing and true, to that most immoveable of bonds. You share a father. You share a heart.”

Loki ceases his sour ululation and tips his chin to the sky: the moon has turned its leering, green-ringed face to Jotunheim, and she is cradled between the Chieftain's horns. “I understand why my father loves you, First Son.”

“Ah,” the great master of Útgarð chuckles, “there is no Love. Such pain we endure only for the sake of our children, never for one another.”

“A liar knows a liar, father of my brother.”

Arngrìmr frowns, and the shape brings pain, old memories. “There is respect, and long ages spent living neath one same shadow. There is War and the chains which that creature gives all those who survive its grasp. There are remembrances. Not Love.”

A musical spool of laughter touches the bitter stone of Arngrìmr's heart: the little dragon knows.

“You Love our King.”

But he does not Love you, not as you would have him Love.

“Love is a foreign object. An abstraction not made for Us.”

Wind caresses Loki's cheeks, and he regards the shadows of Arngrìmr's high horns with a sudden welt of trepidation burning on his tongue. How strange, to have such kindness bred so near to terror; those horns are terrible, and it is hard indeed to put away the little, animal fear that shivers neath his breath.

“Do not make me repeat myself, Chieftain.” A harsh, sour bolt of laughter strikes the ground between first son and and crown prince; a curious silence shapes itself in that same crater, with no regard for the height of those gathered round its impact.

“Little dragon you know not when to leave old wounds alone. Think you our King has no old histories better left to scars?” Wiser creatures would have kept their tongue, but Arngrìmr has a child who shares blood and temper with this strange, viciously curious Prince, and he knows when a firm hand is truer than a stifled tongue.

“Is the truth such a wicked thing to speak?” murmurs Loki, tearing his gaze from the span between his father's beloved Chieftain's horns. Tonight, should the older Jotun turn but a little, the whole green ringed flower of the moon would sit as like Odin's eye between Fafnir's jealous claws; a singular drop of burning white held between two great spires of bone.

There is no trouble in understanding why his father got a child on this son of Útgarð. What he does not understand is why Laufey cannot Love as Arngrìmr Loves.

“Little one, if I may?” He has never spoken to a king's son in this manner – not in many, many long ages. Laufey's face rises to touch upon his memories, young and unlined, his eyes wide and his tongue indignant. Angry at Utgarð's finest scion for his own liberal, presumptuous tongue. It is a good remembrance, one untouched by the bitterness of all that was to come from that same haughty gaze, those same prideful lips. A shake of his horns and the image shifts from his mind like black grains against a relentless tide; there is not the time for idle ruminations.

With his breath pinned by the sharpness of his throat, Loki gives his consent. After all, the consent of Princes is the only currency royalty hoards as jealously as a dragon gathers up golden trinkets beneath their scales. Kings would be nothing without their pride, without their ability to give and deny their approval. Loki would be nothing, were it not for that coin. Some say kings are worse than dragons, and tonight Loki would believe it wholeheartedly.

He knows what he is buying here, what he is trading away.

“Truth is a fickle creature, easily twisted, easily turned against those who think it a sword with which to defend themselves.” The scent of fresh blood and the stink of newly dead Aesir flesh rises as like a gasp of ocean salt from distant, ragged shores; for only a moment, Arngrìmr revels in these sudden scraps of vivid recollection, these old horrors that have not troubled him in spans of time longer than this child's whole life's thread. Some ages never peel themselves from one's skin, one's heart; he will never be free, never be relieved of those unlooked for burdens. War has its own especial magnificence in equal to its savagery and he has lived in both those states. “Some truths are best left to dust and the mercy of memory's winnowing hands. At the worst, it is best to forget, and find some means of dwelling in the silence, no matter the pain it will cause.”

“You know!” A sudden wind courses through the towering forest of Erms, striking the two figures standing in those long, long shadows like a hammer from the great height of the slate blank sky. Loki rocks back on the balls of his feet and bears his teeth to the moon, to the first son, to his own iron threaded ignorance. How weary he is of its bindings. “You have always known!” The familiar shriek of pre-emptive grief bubbles up in Loki's throat, sour and slick and desperately unwanted. Green edged and brittle-bright is his anger. A hand every bit as heavy as his father's grasps his shoulder and for a moment Loki can think of nothing save tearing that weight away with all the violence his Blood allows.

“My Prince, child of my King, what my heart knows would bring this realm crashing down unto the Dýr's terrible domain. Your father from his throne, you and your brother cast to the wolves. This truth would End so much I scarce dare breathe even one note of half one word.”

Loki opens his mouth, hisses.

“All the blood thou didst spill for our people, all the aged spirits whose voices sing in cause of your willing sacrifices, all would be made meaningless. The blood I have spilt, meaningless.” The words are steady, heavy blows from a pitiless hand. Mercy is for fools who have nothing of value to protect, and there is nothing shaped like mercy in Arngrìmr.

“You have kept these words neath your heart for a long time Chieftain?” Questions are for fools, or children, but Loki find less pain in the fool's path in this dire, blade-bright moment. A rare thing indeed.

“Aye,” is the master of Utgarð's bone white reply. “A long, long collection of days.”

The wind returns, hammers against the Erms and the sky and the unbending children of Jotunheim; a mournful ululation covering o'er the horizonless mirror of white earth. A wicked wind, howling o'er the rough, red edges of Arngrìmr's ancient heart. Time is a cruel god, merciless.

“Would I forgive him?” Loki murmurs, the words cutting his tongue to ribbons; neath his ribs his breath shivers like a tiny, tiny bird shorn of all its feathers, left naked to the bitterest of Winter's hours. Distantly, he feels his fingers curl, brittle sickle blades against his palms; the great wheel of the night sky pressing down upon him, trembling in the sweep of his gaze. Arngrìmr's chalk white teeth catch in the heavy handed moonlight, and Loki cares not to understand if he has been given a wicked smile, or a black, black grimace of pain. Tis so very hard to read a creature with all the guile of Father Ymir's death mask.

The answer is no.

In his darkest of hearts, the one he uses rarely and warmed with blood not his own, Loki has always known this to be true. Some times there truly is no better shield than ignorance.

“The children of Ymir are built for such sadness, my Prince.” Arngrìmr offers up these few, poorly felt words, though his mighty hands hover like Thiazi's shadow above Loki's thin, narrow shoulders. “You will endure.”

But for the great many els between their heights atop the world, Loki does not doubt Arngrìmr would have preferred to embrace him as a parent in comfort to their own grieving child. Alas, such is they way of Kings and Princes, of Chieftains and scions great in blood, in might. Not all spans may be bridged, no matter the threads Loki spins. Yet words and ages and a great many other things stand in the divide, and each syllable from the Chieftain's unsmiling mouth is very like a quick flick of a needle fine blade against Loki's skin.

He is full well tired of being told to endure.

“I have no wish to do little more than survive, Chieftain. Survival is for mean, unintelligent creatures, and I am none of those things.” Loki plucks his heart from the chalky embrace of his ribs, plucks out the despair and the anguish laid flush against its red meat; such emotions are weaknesses to be torn out by the roots. Such things will not endure. “I intend to prosper, to conquer.”

“You are your father's child,” Arngrìmr mourns.

~ * ~

Helblindi hears his brother creep into the chambers he has occupied for the past five fortnights, the lintels and hawsers shivering beneath Loki's rune tongue; Utgarð's ancient masters were wary old titans with little love of the red and twisting roads that cut through all the universe, as Helblindi has learned, as he has seen by Loki's hand. Skald emeralds whisper in sliver netting, the ghost of Loki's shadow roads dwelling in the silence of the high-ceilinged bedroom.

“Brother.” Loki breathes, his earlier misery still twists in the heat of his belly, making him sharp and sour: desperate and snappish as a lesser Dýr in a binding net. “Are you awake?” A flush crawls up his neck, hot as Vanaheim's blistering, white day-star, and Loki hangs his head in the darkness. The whole of his universe is reduced to sheets of ink and stars of jealous green, a sea of fur and a long, long shape lying still in a great bed.

He has been asking forgiveness far too often of late, though this be better than asking for permission. He will ask that of no one, not even the King.

What a foolish question to ask, Helblindi thinks to himself while he lies under the obscuring hand of feigned sleep. Loki is a thin, golden horned shade at the foot of the pallet and even in the darkness Helblindi can read the misery in his elder brother's bones. What a strange beast misery is, that Loki permits it to lap up his blood.

“I am awake if you wish me to be, brother.” Anger is a hard stone to be rid of, especially since Helblindi received it from Loki's own hands.

“Helblindi...”

“Oh,” Helblindi breathes, finding a sudden, phantom weight cast upon his chest, that neath all this darkness he can hear, oh he can hear, with most wretched clarity, the pleading note in Loki's low murmur. He had not thought...well...he had not thought of many things. “It hurts me, that you must ask,” is his truest reply, and he gives it with such speed he fears to feel blisters upon his tongue. Oh, oh to think his earlier outrage had caused some subtle fracture to splinter between the great threads that tie and bind their hearts to one another is unbearable, intolerable.

“Nothing, nothing should ever divide us from one another, Helblindi.” Despite the forest of sharp regret closing up his throat, Loki manages this small scrap of comfort, freely and willingly given to sew up the woulds his brother wears all too well. “Not even if I bear all guilt.”

A low, familiar thread of grief twists through the bitter shades of eventide, spooling between the two sons of Laufey to catch the eldest by his fine, long throat; in the darkness they reach for one another, in the darkness they shiver together, and wonder at this oppressive shadow that has come to hang its blindness round their eyes and hearts. Neither will speak it, but there is something living neath the wind, some fell voice in every fractured groan of the ice that lives in each child of mighty, hard-hearted Winter.

It is an Ending song; a gasp of one last mourning rite afore the black earth is thrown over their eyes and the dead come with stones in their mouths and truth in their eager hands.

Strange, but long ago, in another life, when he was young and bright and not so brittle, a great beast of the Ocean told him all the wide Universe sought an End. The Dragon sought an End.

What End, oh what End is waiting for Jotunheim?

A solitary cry on the wings of night is carried back to the chambers, to the pallet two princes share as if neither lies wounded next to the other, and Loki feels Sleep overtake him: a wolf with too-white teeth.

 

~ * ~

The Eldingstjarna dawns wearing a coronae of burning red, and a mantle of deepest, sour orange: a shriek of outraged colour against a boundless white vault of sky.

Loki is first to wake, the scant warmth of his brother's body easing out a splinter of loneliness he had not known he carried. Such is the truth of his actions, that he did willfully separate himself from his brother for no better reason that to have a few more tangled threads placed into his scarred palms. Damn that storm Jotun and her terrible Sire; there is in his mind a finite mote of time left to him, left to Jotunheim afore the only choice remaining to his father is War.

War has been stalking all of Jotunheim as like Loki's own troublesome shadow, though he has long ago learned how to make even breathless shadows dance to music of his own making. But this spectre of bloodshed, of terror and breaking asunder is not a creature with heart or breath enough to be caught by any twist of Loki's clever tongue.

“To Vanaheim,” that familiar voice calls out, fine and deep as young thunder against dark clouds. “I can think of no other place we might walk with purpose.”

“Brother,” Loki smiles, white teeth and steady hands in the rising light, all the world laid hush beneath their words. “What makes you think I seek the Roads again?” Skaði and her clever threads had plagued him through the night, twisting and cutting in his dream-addled grasp like snakes, like little dragons with voices only silent to his ears.

There are other roads, there must be; War cannot be the only answer.

A flash of gold, and Loki thinks of a great sky towering o'er him, blue and marked neither by clouds nor birds nor bands of snow.

“You may have wished to spare me some wound by your absence, but I am no fool, brother. I can see what moves you,” replies Helblindi, a knowing sliver of a grin on his slate-blank face. “You are thinking, how may I move the worlds of the Tree to suit my needs? How may I do what is good and right, without it seeming so?”

If Loki is insulted, he keeps the offence flush to his skin. “Brother, you know me too well.”

“We seek the Vetrljós. We seek it without bringing the Aesir to our Realm.” Helblindi sighs, confusion burning through every syllable of his words. Raising his horns, he turns his his gaze out to the sprawl of the horizon, to the pale, distant fire of the Eldingstjarna and the great shadowed spires of the Erms that throw their lines out across the earth to fly like arrows, home to Harvetrtjald. Wherever he and his brother are going, whatever Road is awaiting them, he will regret leaving this place, though regret mixed with the happiness of a return is not so biting as it might be without that to gentle its cutting edge.

“Yes.” Loki is beginning to loathe that singular syllable. That one, solitary admission which always costs him more than he is willing to offer up.

“How? I see no way brother, none but the Bone Road, that song of shrieking red.” Child or not, he remembers what it was like to live upon that Road, to fear its end, to know therein lay a sunrise where his father would not return from that howling tide of death and blade-arms raised in the roil of War. He does not wish for it again.

“ Ágæti, how liked you his company?” Loki murmured, sharp and quick as his little blade. Better to wound lightly, and dwell not on the answer. The answer, after all, is not what he is driving for.

A stiffness that feels a slight kinship with shame creeps over Helblindi, and he tastes blood in the spaces between his teeth, for only a moment. “Well enough. He is a competent warrior, a Chieftain's son.”

“Yes, yes,” Loki huffs, feigning indifference, boredom. “But that is not what matters is it, brother?”

Helblindi cocks his head, jasper rattling brightly in the breaching daystar's light. “I do not see what it matters to thee. I had thought you would rather never hear of him again.”

“When you took his offer of friendship, he showed you round his father's tjald, did he not?”

“Aye,” Helblindi drawls, the right words, the words his brother is pulling from him, sit on his tongue like ropes of seagreens, sticky and oppressive beneath his tongue. “But again, I see not why you should care...”

Loki gives his full attention to Helblindi, turning away from the bloody sprawl of the sun and the great line of the horizon; the ghost of his Realm stays shivering beneath his sight, and Helblindi is painted over in echoes, in bloody afterimages of red, orange, white. “There are other Roads to the tjalds of others, others who would walk where we cannot, though they would not know it was so.”

And suddenly Helblindi finds his head in his hands, jasper bitter-cold against his skin. “You are mad, brother,” he whispers to the earth, to the clean white snow. “You cannot mean...”

Odinson

“Aye.” Loki replies, and draws in a great breath, trembling, blood singing through his young heart; there is not one tiny el of doubt in his eyes, not one red scrap of hesitation, or fear. “Aye brother.”

“I -- ” All that lies on his tongue is that mourning, that ululation so familiar, too familiar, to him it is no harder to call up than his own voice.

“Trust me,” Loki vibrates with certainty, his shadow roads clinging like sheaves of silk, like clouds of black ocean under a starless sky. His hands are clawed; viciously, wrongly gentle, laid upon his brother's forearm. “Please, brother.”

Though I deserve not to ask, and yea, you have all right to refuse.

Helblindi stares down at his Prince's hand: not the hand of a warrior, but no less the hand of a cutter of thread, and for one tiny, infinitesimal moment, one fractious gasp of breath, he feels he would not know that hand from a stranger's.

And yet.

Yet there is nothing more familiar to his eyes than this hand, this form, this shape by his side who has ordered all his days and kept safe his nights. Nothing more vital to his existence than the one he calls brother, prince, Loki, though he knows Loki is no more defined by those names than he is the height of his horns or the reach of his arm.

With a bright, disorganized smile, Helblindi replies: “ and so I will.”

To Vanaheim, to that white shore and that great white road leading down to that violet Sea. To that world of small, fair skinned creatures not so far removed from the Aesir that I do not see an enemy behind each bright smile, each pair of strangely coloured eyes.

Helblindi cannot imagine speaking these words aloud, not even as he watches Loki call up that shade being from the roads between the realms, and those grey spires of needles unfurl into that ever-shifting, ever strange beast his brother has the heart to call Child.

“Greetings,” and the crown-prince's grin is unbearably wide. “Child we have been neglectful of thee, and for that I am sorry.”

Tis a long, red thread that binds them all together, to ruin, to triumph, to Death.

Helblindi can think of no worse future than to see an Aesir bound by that same thread.

No worser fate than that, to be bound to one's enemy for the sake of one's Realm.

The shadow roads swallow up the Eldingstjarna and her violent dawning; Helblindi closes his eyes, and when he opens them again, he knows they are no longer kin to that fine jasper he wears round his horns.

"You will not tell me brother, why you left? Not even now, here?"

"Nai. Tis nothing of great merit, nothing I would care to have learned, had I known."

Baleful yellow light washes over him, and he hears Loki's bright, high laughter upon the wind.

No worser fate indeed.

Chapter Text

“You search in vain, brother.”

Thor snorts, a wry twist of lips darkening the bright gleam in his eyes; Vanaheim is a riot of colour, and the air is thick with the multifarious scent of high autumn: apples, bright and crisp, the dry musk of fallen leaves, and the soft, sour scent of wheat left to bleach in the heat of the sun. Asgard rarely wears such splendour, though she burns with an equal magnificence.

“Sister, what makes you so sure?” He turns away from the towering steppes of Vanaheim's fields, layered green and golden bright as if in mimic of a woad dragon's scales. Sights like these are few and far between, and though Asgard grows food enough for its peoples, there is not the love, the unrestrained worship of all things that grow and flourish, to mark to the long tracts of the Realm Eternal as there is here, in Vanaheim. “I seek nothing here save a word or two with the King, and a cask or two of the finest mead in all the Nine Realms.”

“If the boy wishes to be found, he'll make himself known.” A wisp of gentle mockery held firmly between her teeth, Skuld regards her half-brother with no modesty to cover over her bald curiosity. She knows why Thor is here, and it is not to speak to the Sea-Son. Or to drink some unsuspecting Vanir tavern master out of his hard-won stores.

“I am not here to be idle, sister.”

A bolt of laughter catches Thor squarely in the chest, and Skuld gives him her reddest grin. “Aye brother, we none of us ever are, but that is how the Nine Realms works.”

~ * ~

Mead carries few memories for Thor: a rimur or six, sung in the high halls of his father on the feast days, a cool spring night in the sheltering, redolent bowers of his mother's moon-touched gardens. Realms between each memory, but none more dear than the other, only different.

A pale hand lays a polished horn afore him, a little dragon biting round the hollow mouth; the Vanir is tall – long braids of burnished red and eyes as pale as a winter's chill sky – and aware of who it is he serves. Thor knows they none of them care for him, for his red cloak and his great, ancient hammer. None would have the son of Odin Spear-Breaker sitting neath their halls, drinking their mead, muddying the waters of their bitterly won isolation. And so it is that he is sharing a bench with Odin's first Valkyrie, and his own sword-brothers: a sea of stiff, cold Vanir faces regarding the Aesir as if a knot of snakes had been dropped into their warm nest.

“You would think we had come to steal their women and burn their fields,” Fandral murmurs, his eyes sweeping over Vanir matron and maiden alike; all fair, all with great ropes of braid in all the colours of high autumn, warm and sweet in all the ways a high lady of Asgard was not. But not for him, for him cold eyes and still hands; hushed voices like nervous birds watching a ranging cat.

“As like it was in the old days, Fandral the Dashing?” Skuld snaps, and at her side her wolf-shadow whines, low and piercing.

“We are not all of the old days, Valdyrsdottir.” Nothing more than the barest of touches, and Hogun withdraws, his fingers quick and his smile bare. All in Asgard know their place, and he ever knows his, no matter the thread she has put in his hands. Skuld quiets, but her teeth are bright in the honeyed light of Ubsola.

“Aye, not all.”

Thor turns away from his sister, a tiny frown bending his lips. Who she speaks of, he is not sure he wishes to know, but that is the privilege of Odin's first-born daughter: she keeps her own heart, her own council.

“I hear the Vanir are breaking bread with their honoured dead tonight,” Volstagg barks out, laughter echoing beneath the great black beams of the hall. “We should pay our respects in Asgard's name.” An empty horn and a good half-dozen eyes on his back make for a heavy, dolorous cloud hanging above all their heads, and he likes not how his friends wear their silence. Tis a recipe for disaster, most especially if Thor is hemmed in any further.

Six greater cycles of our third sun have we been at peace with Vanaheim. You would think it time enough to bury all our dead. Volstagg cannot keep the thought from his mind, but it is easier to keep it from his tongue.

Suddenly there is in place of Volstagg's unspoken thought the snap of wings, and the clacking of beaks; two dusty, razor-fine voices come a'muttering into Ubsola's halls.Thor watches, his fingers tightening round his mead-horn. Not a handful of hours away from Asgard; tis not as if he has only gone some meagre distance from his father's sight, but that he has put a Realm between himself and those damnable birds, and still...

kaldri vetrar nóttu á,
verður margt að meini;
verður margt að meini;

Thor sings the rude little rhyme with the understanding that his father is watching. He finds he does not care, not with any manner of honesty. “Why must you hound my steps?” is his reply, and for the ravens he shows more teeth than smile. “You are no more dogs than I, so why is it you screech and cackle for Odin All-Father's pleasure alone?”

Huginn's laughter rattles through Ubsola like bones in a rusted coffer. “We are here to keep eye on the Prince. Ignorance and youth oft compete to outstrip the other.”

“Hand in hand, father like son.” Muninn chimes, his little eyes bright and steady. The only hand to trust is Odin's, so he'll not wander any nearer the Far-Rider's red-cloaked son.

What are those damnable birds japing on about? Thor wonders, the words are snide, full of venom and an old disregard, even to his own mind. He has never liked these black, rustling monsters who only wear the feathers of ravens to keep the lesser creatures from the terror of their true shapes falling o'er all the wide Universe.

“When one is seeking treasure, son of Odin, it is often best to range through places wherein treasures grow,” Huginn snaps, his wings mantled, blades for pinion feathers and a snide, cackling beak for armour. “Not tarry in places of drink and dead songs.”

Thor growls, and Memory alights from the rafters like a fell wind.

Hogun must bite the smile from his lips; he dares not look at the wolf by his side, for she must be a ruin of laughter at her brother's expense.

“Aye that is all well and good,” Fandral bellows, watching Thought follow on darker wings. “But what in the name of Urðr is that to mean? Damn birds and their damn riddles. It's a wonder our Queen is so tolerant of their nonsense.”

“Mother hates them,” Thor murmurs. He turns his gaze to his hands: rough, and strong, large enough to seem to swallow whole the horn and its golden drink. A sudden dislike wells up in him, and he leaves the drink and the chatter of his friends, his sister's eyes hot upon the back of his neck. It is likely only the stern set of her mouth that keeps the others from following. She will understand, she always does, though he cannot fathom how it is always thus. Perhaps he does wear his heart too proudly upon his face.

Skuld watches her brother's shadow grow small and thin, like a spool of thread being winnowed out for some strange purpose. If those little monsters have set him to flight, tis for no little reason. But alas, the hand of Odin is a heavy one, and ever does it fall across his Realm, and the Realms of others, for none may deny Hliðskjálfar. None save Jotunheim, but that will not endure much longer. The thought sends an indelicate finger of dread along the curve of her spine, and she must not look to the nearness of Hogun's fingers upon the tabletop, nor the quiet questions held in Sif's fine, bright eyes.

This is Thor's puzzle, and they are not welcome to its rewards.

~ * ~

“Brother,” Helblindi sighs, “what are we doing?” Rough against his back, the bark of this strange, pliant tree is a puzzle to him. So green and strange, soft and yielding, though he uses not his true strength. Beneath its leaves is cool, quiet, and from above the savage sunlight of Vanaheim falls upon the tree as gently as rain, dappling his skin with flickering, golden coins. This moon-touched skin he wears bothers him, makes him clench his teeth and hide his hands beneath his robes.

“We are waiting.” Is Loki's quiet, mischief bright reply.

Helblindi resists the urge to dig up this soft green grass by the roots and fling it at his brother in a fit of childish annoyance. “So we are waiting for danger to find us?”

“Oh,” Loki chuckles, low and ever so haughty, “no dearest brother. Trouble flew overhead some few hours ago. It shan't be long now.” From his cradle in the bowers of this old, gnarled apple tree, Loki can spy the great vault of the sky above him, and the thin white striations of clouds weaving through that endless blue sprawl. He has the mind to be jealous of all these colours, all these scents, but he finds his eyes searching for white, for that burning, blistering slate of untouched snow stretching out eight thousand els in any direction he should turn. Too much beauty in one place robs the one who gazes upon it, for it is easy to forget, to relish true grace, with so much to treasure.

Below, neath the flecked shading of the tree, Helblindi growls. There is no blade upon his arm, no voice of Winter in his ear, and he wonders, pained, if he will prove as true a sword to his Prince with no ice to call upon. Steel is a poor substitute, and he likes not the weight of it in his hands – more like a clumsy bludgeon than a malleable weapon. At least the hilt is pretty, though why Loki would choose a hawk, Helblindi has no good reason to understand.

A sudden breath of this strange Realm rattles through the green bowers, and Helblindi tastes a hundred unknown things beneath his tongue: red fruit, a dry, sweet welter of golden stalks swaying in the breeze, black earth, green leaves. He closes his eyes, and lets the heat pull apart his bones.

~ * ~

The sun has reached its zenith, and all of Vanaheim is filled with the sonorous hum of insects and the sighing of wheat and of leaves, the murmur of waters deep and valleys wide. Thor has forgotten where he is wandering to, only that this red-dirt road seemed as good as any other, and that there are no rustling of wings dogging his steps.

Treasure? What manner of treasure was he meant to search for? Surely they could not mean, could not have meant...

Thor finds his hands have become fists.

Damn his father.

There is an orchard at the end of this road; he spies a great archway made soft by the weathering of ages and the touch of moss, white slabs of stone peeking out from between green fingers. As he passes beneath its bower, Thor touches the rough face, and beneath his fingers is porous chalk and old stone; for some strange reason, he smiles, and slips into the garden.

The trees are tall, old and gnarled as the men of Midgard; the grass is long and high, swayed by the whims of the wind. Strange that the Vanir would let an orchard run to ruin like this, Thor wonders, passing beneath wild, snake twisted branches heavy with blossoms and green fruit. Perhaps the owner is simply forgetful.

There is a boy beneath a tree, and there is a sword laid across his lap.

From nowhere, from everywhere, a voice picks up a thread of song.

When I see the lark break

its wings against a sunbeam, 

forget itself, 

and fall 
from that sweet joy 
that pierces the heart, 

O—my own could melt,

envying all those I see rejoicing.

The boy beneath the tree opens his eyes, eyes the colour of a dragon's hoard, and tilts his strange, proud face up to the gnarled bows above; from the tree, the voice is coming from the tree. Thor takes a step forward, Tilkváma swaying on its cord, and the boy's head snaps down; a look of outrage touches upon the boy's face, and the sword laid across his lap flashes in the sunlight.

“Hail, stranger,” the voice from the tree laughs, its song gone away with the sighing of the wind. “You seem far from home.” A pale white hand reaches down to snatch a green apple from a branch, and retreats back into the shade of the tree's leaves.

“Aye, perhaps.” Thor will not let that sword leave the line of his sight, it would be a fool's mistake. “But might I not say the same for you, stranger? Or are you Vanir, minding all that grows here?”

“I might be, wanderer.”

Musical, dark and strange; woodsmoke and ice against thin glass, that is what the voice sounded like, though it made no sense to think as such. Thor searches amongst the branches for any sign of the creature in its bowers. Perhaps...

“Are thou Hulda? The boy in the Sea-King's library?”

The boy with the sword raises himself up from the grass, and Thor cannot help but note just how very tall the lad is, and just how like a bird of prey are his eyes.

“Peace brother,” the sibilant, darkling voice continues. “No need to spill blood.”

Thor sets Tilkváma down upon the soft grasses, and give up a smile to the voice and his tall brother. “Will you come down from the tree, Hulda, son of Vanaheim?”

A face appears, two fine hands part the maze of leaves and green apples, and Thor is given an answer in a red, wolf-shadow grin.

“Aye, Thunderer. I will come down.”

Before his eyes, from the bowers of this gnarled old tree, slips out a lean, tall young man, with all the colours of high-crowned autumn wrapped round a body as fine as a bright blade. Not a boy, not any longer. Not the same boy who'd hidden in the shadows on that great monster of a horse, not the soft-mouthed scholar who'd given him that gentle smile in and amongst the dusty light of Vanaheim's library.

“Rune-speaker.” Thor rumbles; young thunder peals in the distance, and the boy with the wolf-red grin laughs. A hundred chiming needles swaying on thin threads, pushed by a none too gentle breeze. Heat bleeds into Thor's belly, and the boy's teeth put a fine iron band round his lungs. Oh, oh what a strange, lovely face.

Proud. So very proud.

“And who taught you those words, Thunderer?” says the boy, with all the breath of a snake's subtle hiss; the sound glides up Thor's spine, to nest between his rubs. Jealous green eyes watch every little twitch, every inflection, as if to pluck out something Thor has kept hidden away, and all for the boy's own use.

“Tis how we speak of those who know the wyrd ways, in Asgard.” His tongue is unruly, and he knows himself a fool to be so careless with his words. But what harm is there in a boy, in Hulda? “Few have the skill.”

“And your realm is all the poorer for it.” The boy laughs, that same cutting, shifting peal of mirth that still crowds round Thor's ears. Insults rarely come from such a fine mouth, and for a moment Thor is unsure if he is insulted, or merely annoyed. Few dare to speak of Asgard in such bare-faced terms, fewer still would dare do so in front of Odin's son. Perhaps the boy knows not who he is, nor why most fear the hammer set down in the long, shifting grass.

“I am Hulda, if you must have my name again.” His mind is spinning, cutting, shuffling, knotting: a hundred threads of possibility on the tip of his red tongue, and all be truth or lies upon his whims. All be in his hands, and his to do with as he pleases. This golden son of Asgard will be King some long ages from this day, and there are things to build and to take and to plant afore that old, one-eyed carrion bird returns to pick what little flesh still clings to Jotunheim's bones. “You must forgive me, but I have forgot yours.”

Thor frowns, and holds out his hand as if it were a natural thing to give to a strange creature crept down from a broad, green bower. Were his sister here, she would bare her teeth and keep her hand upon her blade. There is not quite the same species of distrust in him, though sense tells him he would be wise to change this failing. Alas, but he has never been good at following the example of others, for those are well-beaten paths, and there is no adventure on well-beaten paths.

From the crown of the apple tree's long shadow, though it hardly brushes against Thor's boot, he can see every stitch of indelicate apprehension cross the eagle-eyed Vanir boy's face, but looks not upon him long. “I mean no harm, son of Vanaheim,” Thor placates, his hands spread wide in mimic of that tree's branches. “But it would seem we have been chasing one another for quite some time.”

It is the boy with the vicious green eyes that calls to him. Hulda. Though if he must, Thor would treat first with this tall eagle boy for access to the other. Protecting one's sibling is a fine and noble task, but it is no less a hurdle.

The boy's golden eyes narrow, thin nostrils flaring; he wears his disdain with pride, and an iron-boned surety, as if no matter the colour of Thor's cloak, nor the force of his hammer, the boy will never see aught but a creature come creeping round the fire. The siblings are alike: both wear a royal height in the touch of their gaze, in the tilt of their mouths.

Loki wraps a hand round his brother's arm, and Helblindi shivers. No matter if this is necessary, if this is some great plan of Loki's to tear out the stones of that red road that is drawing ever closer to Jotunheim, tis hard indeed to step aside and leave his brother to the company of this brightly-burning Aesir. Laufey would have his head, and be right to do so. This is a fool's game, surely, and played to the greatest risk: one wrong step, one unintentional word, and this will all come crashing down. And Odin's son will have for Asgard a prize and a sword to turn against the whole of Jotunheim.

A prisoner of their quiet war, carried off to a distant, savage land where all is dipped in fire and gold, where all is laid bare under an unkind sun.

Helblindi shivers, and steps aside to let his Prince beguile another. There is some small part of him that wishes for a mourning song, but it would not be wise to lament for something he has not yet lost. That would only encourage the Norns, and only fools lift their voices to those maidens.

“Hulda of Vanaheim, why are you so far from Nóatún? And where is that fine horse of yours?” It is not good manners to throw questions at a stranger's feet, but Thor would wager this stranger more than capable of answering them, should the fancy strike the boy.

Loki arches one thin, black brow, and regards the Thunderer with the same face is wont to give to Angrboða: I tolerate thee out of use, nothing more. Such bold questions, and from such an honest face. How ever did this Prince reach past adulthood? Laufey's court would have eaten the golden haired creature alive at the first scent of this tenderness. “The horse is conducting his own business. As for Nóatún, well, books will only teach us so much.” He reaches out to pluck another apple from the lowest branch, green and sweetly-sour as his voice, and tosses it to the son of Odin. “Ofttimes it is better to go a'roaming than wait for adventure to find thee.”

Thor finds a curious grin has stolen upon his face, too-wide and ungentle in its shape. “Aye, Hulda, that is true enough.”

“I might ask the same of you, son of Asgard. Why are thou so far from those bright halls?” Loki continues, feeling his tongue as like a blade between his teeth. “Surely there is nothing in Vanaheim that could hold the interest of a Prince.” Threads in his hand, wrapped round his fingers; it is only too easy to wrap those same threads round another.

“Ah,” Thor laughs, thinking to be disturbed by Hulda's clever words, “I see I am discovered. You know who I am, who my father is.” Being perturbed would hardly suit keeping this lean, green-eyed Vanir with him for but an hour's passing. Some times it is best to be silent, and let others talk.

“I know,” comes Loki's reply. A thousand little breathes it takes him not to hiss that acquiescence, for he would rather cut his own throat than speak that name in any shape other than kindness, or respect. “And well amazed am I, that you wander so far from Asgard. Does your father not worry?” Ah, there it is. Hesitation laid flush against sour dislike, rebellion. Were he away, alone, now would be the moment to fling his voice to sky, to revel. Such a naked, guileless face.

“Princes keep their own rights. Mine is freedom.” Thor snarls as softly as he might, not wishing to give Hulda a row of white teeth bared in anger. Odin strides over all the Nine Realms with but a whisper and a word. His name alone is enough to leave the echoes of his footsteps ringing through the redolent, blazing orchard. Damnable old man and his wicked servants; not a moment's peace for any creature now alive, not while Hliðskjálfar is his to rule.

Is it, Thunderer? Loki cannot help but wonder, watching the anger slip away from that strange, golden countenance. “Then I should count myself fortunate to have met thee. Freedom is the greatest prize in all the Nine Realms, and I should expect a Prince would hold nothing dearer.” There is an art to this, this trading of blades till one or the other is cut, and the truth comes spilling out; lying is a similar game, for the best of lies always ring with the smallest note of truth. That is why lies are as dangerous: all flow from some unattractive truth.

“Yes.” Such a rough, raw reply. Thor cannot abide that it is, for the better part of honesty, a bald faced lie. He has no freedom but the circles of the Nine Realms through which his father has first walked, through which his father had first tamed. What joy is there, in a land already sewn? In a people already made quiet and forgetful? Or worse, bitter and full of sharp memories? Like the Vanir.

There is no thought for the Jotun. Nothing but the memory of that black-horned Realm and its cold, cold vistas, its white, shattered plains, and the weight of Odin's hand on his shoulder. Lessons learned and not learned, riddles and old stories that could never truly be jus that – stories.

Loki smiles, thin and swift as an arrow, and raises his hand to the sea of verdant leaves, to the sun quivering above the stone walls of the garden, and knows a moment of...dislocation. That first step, that first stone, here, in his hands, at his feet. This will be his road, and no other's. He is tired of walking the paths set by others, by his father and his war, by the histories he cannot read – the ones that wrote themselves on his father's skin.

“Thunderer, would you like to know what it is your father has sent you to catch?” Here. Right here. No faltering now. He will build, stone upon stone, until he is the tower, and Odin aught but the bitterest of winds.

Shock paints itself over Thor's face, and for a moment he is not sure how to pick his words out of the dust on his tongue. How could this Vanir know anything of Odin, or his plans? “My father has not sent me for anything.” Clumsy, but the best he can scrape up, standing here in this green bower, with this green-eyed charmer and his eagle-eyed brother. “Why do you think thusly?”

“I speak the language of the world between.” Loki replies, a singular note of magic resting on the tip of one white finger. “Runes.”

“Aye,” Thor breathes, watching the rosy blush of the apple tree bend towards the boy and his long shadow. The boy suddenly wears a crown of branches, horns of green and brittle brown, mirth bright on his lips. A strange creature, with a knowing, darkling gaze. “That I can see.”

“Can you?” Laughter rings, fine and silvery. “There is much more to the old tongue than tricks and illusions.”

“Such as?” By no will of his own, Thor moves through the long grass with a steady hum beneath his skin. The golden-eyed brother watches him with a row of white teeth bared to the sun, mistrust sparking on every angle of his frame. “Surely there is great fun to be had in little tricks. But no really use.”

“Ah.” Loki shakes his head, and forgets his horns make no music here. “That is where you would be wrong, Thunderer.”

Thor frowns, coming to stand, too-still and wary, in the lee of the boy's long shadow.

“Illusions are the best swords of all. In them you see whatever you wish to see. They are dangerous.” So easy, too easy. Pluck one thread to shake another, one line of contention to bring another to the fore. A word and a look, a thread and a little,clever shearing. “Such as your father's illusion of the freedom given to you.”

What? A question hisses in the bite of his teeth; Thor has no response, no clever words to pary back. For a moment, he is simply stunned into an incredulous silence. Did a son of Nóatún truly just speak of his freedom as a Prince of Asgard as an illusion? A lie? And yet, was it not entirely true? “Boy you go too far.” Thor snarled, the question, he pushed from his mind. “None should speak to a Prince of Asgard with such a bold tongue.”

“Perhaps they should not,” Loki chuckles, and the breath between his teeth is as hot as any fire he has held in his hands. “But I hardly care for should, or should not.”

“Who are you?” Thor blurts the question out, awkward and undignified in his ignorance. He feels as if he is stumbling about in a sudden darkness, with only the smoke of the boy's voice to mark his path; it is not a good feeling, not one that inspires safety, or certainty. “I demand to know! As the Prince of Asgard, I demand to know.”

From beneath the bent tree, Loki laughs, fine and silvery, and turns to go. The first stone has been laid; he will lay another tomorrow, or the tomorrow after that tomorrow. It does not matter. “If you have your freedom, Thunderer, than you have nothing to demand.”

Helblindi follows, close as any shade, the heat of his outrage bright and brightly burning. To play tricks and games with a son of Asgard was foolishness beyond measure, but the first son of Asgard? Too far, and with no good reason he could yet pry from Loki's twisting grasp.

“Wait,” Thor barks, though he does not reach for Tilkváma's leather cord, nor call his father's birds from their post at the weathered, chalk-soft gate. “We have not finished speaking.”

“Come find me, Thunderer,” the wind carries back to him, “when you are ready to see true freedom. A real adventure.” A sweetly-sour taunt, born on the winds of high-crowned summer, in the heat of a fading day. A good way to hook a fool, golden and without guile.

Jealous green eyes peer back at him for only a moment, and Thor finds the warm wind cold against his teeth. He watched as the boy and his brother seemed to embrace deep shadows, the world bending around their tall frames, the scent of a bitter, bloody magic filling the air, sticking in the back of Thor's throat.

What would he tell his mother, when she asked him where his travels took him today?

I met a boy and his brother, in a garden dark and strange. He told me things I did not wish to hear. He moved through shadows and trees, and kept a too-clever tongue.

Thor bent down to pull his hammer from the grass, and by the weathered, chalk-soft gate waited Huginn and Muninn. Two inky voices japing and jeering.

Well, son of Odin?

Princes kept their own counsel.

Tomorrow, he would return tomorrow.

Odin would not be master in all Realms, nor in all moments.

He knew what his sister would say.

An adventure, brother? Only fools and mortals have those. But then again, Valhöll's stories are getting old, and the honoured dead know only one song, sung a hundred different ways.

Thor found a wolfish grin on his lips; down the little, copper-dirt road, stood Sif, and Fandral, and Hogun, and Volstaag. Friends, shield siblings, companions. It would not hurt to add another to that number.

Tomorrow.

~ * ~

My King,

An age or more has passed since first I bent my knee to your Blood, and it will another age or more before I would betray that oath. It is my duty to give over to you a troubling thought I have kept close of late.
Your Princes may do as they please, as is their right, but even the highest must understand that some roads are better left untravelled. Though I know Kings and Princes keep their own orbits, I cannot imagine, oh mighty first son of winter, that it would please your own orbit to know how far beyond Jotunheim some dragons may reach.

The charcoal feels as brittle as an eel's spine between his fingers, and Arngrìmr cannot imagine an hour at which his King should find this letter, and its contents, any less an insult than if he were to be as frank as the accumulated secrets between them might have permitted. To write in the tongue of the Court, all galling, scraping obeisance, is the first, perhaps the worst, insult the Chieftain could give. And yet, there is no choice. What hides between the words is far more dangerous than the words themselves.

A hundred cycles could pass beneath his weary gaze, and still would Arngrìmr remember the scent of pine, and the bright, clean touch of sunlight on skin.

He drags the charcoal through the words.

Speak to a King with the words of a servant, and he will treat you as such. They are, they should be past such pettiness. What the Chieftain of Útgarð knows of Laufey is what Arngrìmr knows of Nàl. Much more than any creature ought to know, but far too late to set aside, and feign ignorance like the lesser beasts of Court and tjald.

Nàl,

Time is never as gentle a scour as we would wish it to be; children often remember what a parent wishes to forget. You would think the universe would have scars enough to seam over certain roads, but that seems to be a childish wish. I write to warn you, though I know you will think it not my place. As I understand it, there is little reason to let the Norns work as they will – their weaving has brought no good to Jotunheim for many a long, long year.
Your sons wander farther than they should.
Do you not fear where those roads may lead?
I do.

Parchment is always too white for his taste, too blank. And once used, it is somehow made into an ugly scrawling of all that its writer has no tongue to give voice to, at least one one that would spare him his life, or his sleep. Dramatics, Arngrimr understands, have their place, but he is old, old as the stones that shiver above his head, and worn as the black slate at his feet; he is tired of the expenditures of rank, and the cost of Laufey's pride.

He should like to write, at the close of this foolhardy letter, is this: have we all not suffered enough? Is there no better way?

Some risings, when the eldingstjarna is bathed in a bloody light, he finds he does not even know what way he is seeking, nor where he hopes to go. It is a poor thing indeed, to wander so in a land once more filled with the voices of the old ones, and the breath of Winter ever on the wind. A poor thing indeed, to still wear that blindness called ignorance, and all for the sake of days long gone to dust, and the stupidity of youth.

The words are brittle on his lips: the runes have never been his ally, and they can be temperamental, slippery beasts of the deep as far as he is concerned. But, some words are not for the hands of others, and he'd not have this be magicked into a blade to stick between Laufey's ribs.

A rune burns on his tongue; Arngrìmr digs the sharp nail of his thumb through corners of the folded letter, and gathers a twist of red thread to seal up his words.

He calls for a wolf and a rider to bear his words away across the flats of Thrym, and finds his heart a heavy stone to carry beneath the cage of his ribs. This will either go well, and all his fear shall be for naught, or this will, like the great Serpent of old, turn round and bite the hand that feeds.

For a moment, he nearly bends a knee in favour of the Serpent – that beast is better by far than the one-eyed Geirvaldr that sits on Asgard's throne. If there is only one fate woven for Jotunheim and all her children, the Chieftain would rather it be at the hands of a god that knows no compassion, no pity, no kindness with with to check a wanton cruelty, a god who knows no drive but to eat, to devour, to consume. If it is Ginnar who holds Jotunheim in his hands, and Ginnar alone, it shall be the worst of ends, for Argnrimr knows, as surely as he knows what lies in his own heart, that those softer emotions once dwelt in that accursed Aesir's heart.

Once, those gentling creatures dwelt in Laufey too, but that was so long, long ago.

He does not leave the stone halls of his ancestor's tjald, he does not watch the wolf and the ride track out across the scoured, wind-torn plains.

It is out of his hands now, and it was never his to hold in the first place.

Let the little dragon twist his way out of his father's grasp, Arngrimr has done more than any Chieftain ought.

No less than what a father should have done, had this been a better world, or a kinder fate.

~ * ~

The night is washed in green, vivid and sour in its creeping across the planes of Harvetrtjald's war-room. Sleep eludes the King, and memories make him sharp, vicious. Beneath his hands he traces his sons' wanderings: a polished stone from Vanaheim's white shores, a delicate Vegvisír that smelled of Alfheim's rare, honeyed ash wood, a chipped blackstone flint from the belly of Muspelheim.

Nothing from Asgard. And for that, Laufey is perversely grateful.

Helblindi has been leaving these scraps in his brother's own garden, for Laufey to find when Loki runs wild and far in his stride. Always buried beneath the brittle thorns of a gnarled shrub, some desgin of Loki's clever mind, Laufey finds these little markers bu which to map out the trails his child is forging. Tis not to difficult to guess at his purpose, each token moving an orbit or so close to Asgard, closer the that echoing vault, and the heart of Odin's sprawling dominion.

Laufey knows who Loki is leading on this merry chase, this game within a game. Only a son of Odin would be so foolhardy, so sure in his seat atop the world, as to consort with a face made for lies and pretty words.

That had once been he, when Nàl had been his name; it should have been the first of many warnings, when the son of a beast like Fárbauti kept only two names, where Odin kept a thousand – each with an equal place in his heart. What did that say of fathers? That each was three-fold worse than the other? That all are guilty of a father's crimes, raised by their fathers' wars?

He does not wonder if his own children have escaped such a doom.

A noise draws the King from his musing, bitter though it is, and he finds a messenger waiting in the thin shadows of the war room's great doors: a wolf and a rider have come to the gates.

From Utgarð.

Waving the messenger forward, Laufey plucks the sealed letter from the Jotun's hand, and gives his dismissal.

Red thread binds the letter closed, one knot in each corner; Laufey slices the threads with the nail of his thumb, and tastes the scent of Arngrìmr's rune-speak on the parchment. Words whisper to him: faint traces of a deep distress, old memories, and older loves, gone soft and bitterly dull with Time, and Distance.

Nàl.

Laufey shakes his head, even the music of his horns sharp, angry in the silence: rings of gold and chips of stone shivering together in a misplaced rage.

There are so many threads, so many, many tangled threads. He stares at the red, trailing strings, thinks of blood, and ropes of flesh.

Here is his choice: trust his first born child to pull their Realm from the pit of this yawning destruction, or trust that Odin has grown kinder in the long years of Jotunheim's exile. Laufey snorts, and feeds the letter to one of Loki's too-bright witchlights, the little burst of magic devouring the parchment with eager tongues of not-flame. He does not think too hard on what it is that burns, only that it does.

Nal.

That name, that damned Name.

It has been nothing less than an age an half that he has written to anyone, never mind to the best of his Chieftains. But he must, he should, and there is no time left to wait for the Norns, or the Stars, or the Dýr of the Deep.

The charcoal stains his hands, gathers in the great lines of his palm, but does not break. A moment passes, in which he has no sense of what to write. No words come to him from the hard wind of the falling day-star, no clues skitter round the shadows at his doors. How do you tell the keeper of your Blood that he must trust a young shape above that of a King? That this is a long game they play, and the outcome is poor no matter the choices made. To Laufey, it seems a breed of discourtesy. But that cannot be avoided, not now.

Arngrimr,

I have asked much of you. I will ask more of you yet.
Some things are not best left to the Weavers and their loom, and if those who weave thread were to know they were being watched, perhaps the work would not be as they wished it to be.
There is no greater force in this universe than Freedom.
We must trust in it.

Laufey seals his letter in the same manner that the Chieftain had sealed his, and sends it off with the wolf and the rider waiting at his gates. Ofttimes it is best not to dwell on moments which, to his great discomfort, feel as if he has been stood upon the edge of a vicious blade, and all he has done is chosen the edge upon which to be cut.

It is not a good letter, nor a kind letter. It is not filled with comfort, or honesty, or any other little trifle that one might owe another who has for so long been the only creature on the great sprawl of Thrym that he might trust. But such are the circumstances, and such is life.

Loki will come wandering back soon enough, and then will there be consequences to be had, plans to begin, worlds shift or destroy. All on the tricky, twisting smile of a child who is more fire than cold, more dragon than snake; not a Jotun, nor an Aesir, nor any other shape in this wide universe than whatever he so wishes to be.

Not for the first time, Laufey wonders what would have been the end of his struggle with Odin, were not for Loki, and Loki's clever, clever mind. There is little chance it could have been worse, for what brightness is there in choosing war, or the fleeting, fickle spectre of pity and heavy-heartedness to save a Realm from the yoke of the Aesir?

Would it be best to fight, to die, rather than watch Jotunheim and her children become as like the Vanir?

Skaði's high, clarion laughter haunts Laufey, neath the shades and the witch-lights, old memories and older alliances laid bare beneath his scarred, long-fingered hands. She had been the brightest, strangest creature. And then a wife. A hostage sent to distant lands.

And yet she loves her children, as Laufey loves his.

It is a hard thing indeed, to stare into the face of one's child, and see the stranger lurking beneath.

The valley between he and the daughter of the Thunder Bird is not so wide, nor so vast, that they could not see one another reflected out across that divide. Few lives are different, when there is so much that bleeds between, when there is no one shape denied to any who draw breath on these Realm's shores.

What a great shame, that none save the Jotun e'er learn such a lesson.

~ * ~

“Brother.” Jotunheim embraces its second prince, and the fulsome heat of Vanaheim slips away from Helblindi's skin like water over polished stone. “You play a dangerous game.”

A burst of wind, high and sharp, knocks Loki's reply into nothing more than an equally fine-edged smile.

“That is the son of Odin you are leading about by the nose!” Indignant, Helblindi wishes to grab his Prince by the shoulders and shake, shake till there is no thought greater than concern for the meal hour they will shortly miss. No more thoughts of Aesir, bright and golden. No more pretty, slippery words that coil about his teeth like snakes near the heat of a fire. “He is not some low, stupid creature. His kind wear our horns for decoration.”

“I know,” Loki replies, and takes the wound where it is deserved.

“Then why?” Helblindi hisses, baring his teeth.

Answers are flighty, insubstantial whispers in Loki's mind, hardly fit to be given breath. He could say that it is for nothing more than sport, for a bit of entertainment, but that will only cause anger, distrust. The answer is simple: brother, I can find no other way, save this one small chance to to trick this King's son into giving me back what was stolen from us. It is a poor chance at best, and a foolhardy gamble at worst. This little game is all the choice I have, lest we accept that war is the only answer.

Rather than speak all that, Loki chooses something else.

“Would we survive a war, brother?”

Helblindi jerks away as if stung, red stones chiming together; his horns flash in the falling light, and Loki cannot help but grimace. “What sort of question is that?”

“One that must be answered,” Loki replies. He puts his tongue between his sharp teeth, and waits.

“I,” Helblindi sighs, bitterness touching his eyes, “I do not know.”

“Nor do I.”

From the mean height of the eldingstjarna, there is but an hour afore the last meal is to be served, and neither brother has eaten at the Chieftain’s table in some time – roaming too far and too wide for the use of meals, or the company of others.

The shadow of Arngrìmr's ancient hall is growing longer, and the distance sewn between not so much a physical thing, but a valley built of intent, and all the paths that must be discarded.

Neither prince has ventured home in half a rising of the green-ringed moon; Loki imagines his garden has run wild, the magic in his not-trees and his not-birds, his not-deer, turning all to tangles and brambles. Laufey will not keep it sharp, only bright. Whether king, or father, Laufey has never been one to show just how fine a voice he keeps for the rune-tongue; it is not his way.

“Come,” murmurs Helblindi, reaching out to catch his brother's hand. “We will ride for Harvetrtjald on the next rising. Tonight, we will break bones and share meat with the Chieftain and his son.”

Loki does his best to shut away his laughter, behind his teeth where it will not make Helblindi scowl, or hide his eyes in a vain effort to not be flayed open by Loki's knowing smile.

Few things go unmarked by the First Prince of Jotunheim, few things that creep, or crawl, or smell of chalk circles, and time spent alone.

The Chieftain is waiting for them at the crown of the stairs, and his smile is thin, and warm, and worn.

Tomorrow, Loki thinks, tomorrow the game will begin in earnest.

Tomorrow he will meet Thor Odinson on some shaded path of his choosing, under some strange sun, neath a wide sky. The first born son of the House of Laufey will twist and murmur and beguile till the first born son of Odin Ginnarr willingly returns the heart of Jotunheim.

The Vetrljós will sing in the high temple again, and Loki will make no war to have it so.

Jotunheim cannot afford such an expense, and he is sure the House of Laufey would not survive, should Odin ride down the Bone Road, straight to the heart of Winter's Realm.

The Red Road, the Bone Road: war.

Loki spares a moment to wonder if Thor walked that Road as he had, when they were young and their fathers nearly tore to two realms asunder for some cause now lost to half-healed wounds and the merciful blunting of Time.

Had Thor feared Death, and Ruin, as Loki had? Somehow, Loki doubts the answer is yes.

All Roads lead to Asgard, in the end.

Chapter Text

“Where are you wandering too, little starling?” Murmurs Odin, the pinch of Huginn's talons but a twinge in the noise of his thoughts. He cannot take his gaze from the boy, from the tall, wolf-lean shadow that gives his son a smile more fit for wile beasts than Princes.

Bright white teeth, and Winter coloured hands.

The boy has grown into a fine young dragon; Odin cannot help but wonder at the godling's face, at whose hand has played strongest upon the boy's features. Is it Laufey: proud and sharp, haughty as any bird of prey with a small, shivering creature beneath its talons? Or is it the House of Odin that shape his son's brow. Does Laufey's little starling wear a noble, staid face, fit for the golden halls of his father's fathers? Fit for the weight of Asgard's throne?

Perhaps...

No.

Odin could not bear such a thought. Could not imagine. What if it were Bestla's blood. Mouth like an upturned bow, yet twice as sharp; eyes bright and quick as any fox. It would be his luck: to wrest back what Laufey has so denied him, only to live with the echo of the face he so willfully chose to set aside.

No King of Asgard would put a Jotun upon the sprawl of Hliðskjálfar. Bor put his son upon the throne, not Bestla's. And yet, here does Odin Borson conspire to tie Asgard, golden and terrible, to that green-ringed moon, and those fine, proud horns.

In Odin, the warlord cries that he has every right to do with his own get as he pleases; the father, well, the father bows with grief, with shame. The King...the King knows all the Nine realms sit as stones upon his shoulders, and he is ever in their service. What the tender heart, the tired mind, desires is but a fleeting, foolish sentiment.

Odin wishes for nothing more than to see his son's face.

“What are you planning, my little dragon?”

Huginn shakes his wings, an inky blot in the narrows of Odin's vision. “That little dragon is roaming wide and far, All-Father.” Muninn takes up a trilling echo, voice laden with the red dirt of distant roads. “He goes where he pleases. Your son is at his heels, ever seeking his shadow.”

Odin hisses, bares his teeth and curls his tongue.

“Who is it that waits for me?” Memory cries, high and wailing. “Who sits beneath the shade of this ash tree?” So worn, so old is this remembrance that Muninn's sibilance is aught but the whisper of dust, and half forgotten roads.

“Silence, little beast,” Odin roars. “I'll not be reminded. Those memories are not for your tongue.” What is worse: that he cannot keep his own past beneath his breath, or that through this little, winged shape does he know the memories of a million, million others, and still are there lives more wretched than his own?

Nàl.

That name, that damned name.

All that fire, gone to ash and hate. So many regrets, oh so many regrets. Alas that all Kings must learn to trade in that coin.

Odin rises from his wide, soft couch, and searches out the only thread he has left to tie him to his mother's Realm.

Mimir.

~ * ~

“Ah, Odinson, well met are we.”

The day is fine, and not yet passed the first blush of dawn; in the quiet, the great green vaults of the library are softened, its knotted shapes made into gentle pools of root and vine. “Alfheim is an odd place indeed, for our paths to cross.”

“No,” Thor laughs, it is not, Hulda of Vanaheim.” Taking in the sight of the young man and his brother, dressed in colours as muted as the heavy scrolls that surround the pair. He cannot help but wonder if the golden-eyed boy does not get bored; there is is so little adventure all this dust and silence. “Alfheim has a very fine library.” A little, fleeting smile touches his lips. “Or so I have heard.”

A silvery peal of laughter catches on Loki's teeth, and he watches Helblindi tense.

Play the game, Loki wishes to whisper. Play the game brother.

“A wise gamble indeed, Thunderer.”

Thor's smile widens, and his eyes are as clear as the great vault of the sky that the knotted beams of Alfheim's library has hidden away. Loki has never met a creature who delights so in showing his own joy. Such honesty, such disregard for the privacy of one's finer emotions is...disconcerting.

“Why is it libraries, Hulda of Vanaheim?” Thor cannot say that he takes no pleasure from books, but nothing caught between the pages of a book is quite as thrilling as what he may catch between his hunter's net.

“Libraries are Old Houses, Odinson,” sighs, Loki, folding his hands atop his sharp knees. “Old Houses keep good wisdom, and it is right and proper to seek that wisdom out.”

Without asking some pretence at decorum or permission, Thor seat himself in the soft grass betwixt the shaded lees of the towering, shivering scroll shelves. Close enough to feel a little heat curl from the young man's body. Such an odd, proud face, and such a sharp, knowing smile. Even the stone-faced brother is a cipher, a knot Thor cannot untangle. Vanaheim must keep such fine, fair blood in its ancient halls well hidden, for Thor has ne'er met the likes of these high-blooded creatures.

“Old Houses keep great treasures, in equal to their knowledge.” Of what he is truly asking, Loki is well aware. There is the treasure of the mind, and the treasure of the hand, of the war lord whose shadow towers over all but the Norns themselves. Not all are as well versed in subtlety as he, and there is a moment spent in wondering whether or not the aesir will pick out the brighter stitching Loki has sewn into his words.

“Ah,” Thor laughs, plucking aimlessly at the grass beneath his fingers. “My father keeps a great many treasures in the belly of Þyrstrbeitr.”

“Yes,” a little note of amusement colours Loki's answer, “the vault of Odin All-Father is famed throughout the Nine Realms.” And all, each priceless artifact, wrested from a nation thrown down by that Far-Rider and his Thanes. The House of a conquerer is never in want of gifts.

Thor has learned to hear the most delicate of rebukes, and beneath the rune-speaker's sharp tongue lies a sharper note. He cannot imagine what it is that troubles the boy. “Does my father's collection trouble you, Son of Vanaheim?' Only the Hammer has ever mattered to him, and he is in ignorance of much of what lines the walls of Þyrstrbeitr. Mother would be angered by his pointed indifference, but use has always had the upper hand in Thor's mind.

Loki smiles, a thin, brittle bend to his mouth. “Not all treasures may be sealed away in a vault.”

Thor snorts, running a hand through his hair. How often has he heard Odin speak those same words?

“Not all treasures should.” Tis hardly a matter of telling lies, nothing quite so simple, or of wringing answers from an unguarded mind. Any fool with the least sense can do that. No. Tis better by far to plant a spark, to sew a little tongue of fire into an empty space, and watch it grow into a conflagration. A great, burning tower of mistrust, and unanswered questions.

After all, Loki guards his truths as he sews his lies; he doubts that Odin is any different.

Ignorance is the finest of swords: it cuts both victim, and wielder.

“And what do you mean by that?” Thor grins, though there is a tightness to his cheer.

From between the pages of a thick, yellowed tome, Helblindi growls; smoke trapped beneath thin ice. Just how close is the Prince of Jotunheim going to get to that particular truth? Your father stole from us, Aesir, Helblindi wishes to howl. Give it back.

Loki's eyes flash: a little, gleaning reprimand.

Helblindi returns to his book

Picking up the corners of his mouth, Loki adheres his grin with steel. “I mean nothing by it, Aesir.”

Thor lifts an eyebrow, and reaches out to pluck the book from Loki's grasp. He scans the brittle, weathered pages, ignoring the Vanir's protesting hiss, and the shiver it sends up his spine.

Loki grasps at air, and hides his smile with a little frown.

Old tales are Thor's familiar grounds, for he has heard many of them in halls of his father, from the tongues of the honoured dead, from his sister and her sisters, from his mother. Old tales are the meat shared between good companions, the fine mead passed round the cackling fire; he has lived more lives through soaring rimurs than any adventure he might ever have expected to find, as Odin's only son. It is not a difficult text to read, but why a rune-speaker from the sea-swathed halls of Nóatún would care for an old tale of the plunder of the Járnviðr is beyond his ken. What use might this odd, sibilant, honey-tongued mage have for the forgings of giants, or the teeth of valdyr?

The Odinson wears his curiosity so nakedly, and no matter than Loki has invited it, he cannot help but feel a welt of unease crack between his shoulder blades. What sort of creature wears so naked a face? What benefit is there in presenting to the Realms one's utter lack of guile, or the ease with which emotions rule the flesh? A mystery indeed, Loki thinks, as he tips the edge of the book, and watches Thor's gaze greedily devour all those worn grey words.

“If it is adventure you seek,” Thor murmurs, his fingers drifting across the sprawl of page to rest near Hulda's warm fingers, “then the Járnviðr is nigh on the finest one might seek.”

His reward his a wealth of bright laughter, and a wicked, wicked grin.

It is only then that his mind catches up with his mouth, as always. “Wait,” Thor ventures, “surely it is most unwise. Rune-speaker or no, Hulda, there is no means by which to reach the Járnviðr. My father has torn that Realm from the reach of the Bifröst.”

When the brother finally speaks, it is with such a mountain of voice that Thor finds he cannot help but startle, just a little.

“Well then, Aesir, you do not know my brother.”

“Indeed,” is Loki's measured reply, and in his jealous-green eyes, Thor cannot catch his breath.

~ * ~

“No, brother, it is madness!” With no better target for his rage, it is a delicate, blameless copse of brambles he has smashed, the scent of seidr heavy in the back of his throat. A little sparrow, beak open in song, falls from the shattered brambles and lies insensate on the white earth, its ice-sharp wings gleaming in the light of the eldingstjarna like fire. Helblindi stares at the tiny not-bird and feels a bitter lance through his guts, a sour omen dancing on the wind. “You cannot bring him here, to play some clever little game of your design.”

“Why not?” Loki puts forth. He plucks a nub of pink salt from his bowl, and cracks it between his fangs; the noise, oh the noise makes his dear brother flinch. “Do you doubt I have wit and guile enough to string along that tender-hearted fool about like a snow-ox?”

Helblindi does his utmost to keep his shoulders unbent, though his feet have a mind of their own, and he is as restless as a beast in a little, thorny cage. Turn one way, speak one truth, and he has insulted and belittled his Prince, turn down another path, and he has betrayed their father, their King. No good may come from a game in which all stand to lose, no matter the outcome.

“Brother,” says Loki, careful to sew just enough hurt into his voice to make Helblindi cease his restless, vicious pacing – it is beginning to make him nauseous, all this fear and anxiety beneath the bowers of his not-garden. Seidr drinks down emotions as earth devours water, and what grows here should not be fed by fear, by pain. The tangles here are thick enough, and watered well by other means. “This is no different than our first ride to Útgarð, nor to the heart beneath Harvetrtjald.”

At Loki's words, Helblindi stills; the garden is so quiet, so full of animal sounds that will never fly from throats of ice, nor wind that sighs through brittle branches. He cannot imagine this place gone, smashed, left to grow, left to sour. Tis so very hard to live with all this fear, all this terror.

“Helblindi, we have conquered Naŕþengill!” And the joy in his voice is vicious in its brightness, savage and proud, and as fresh as the day they both drew first blood. To cradle a warm heart in one's hand is not a memory that may be dulled by Time. “We brought back our old ones' voices,” Loki recounts, fire in the reach of his voice, pride in the tilt of his lips, “we have seen from the plains of Thrym to the dragon-toothed shore of the Titan's Steps, to the Cradle of the Dýr himself!”

“We can lead one Aesir prince astray,” Helblindi finishes.

“Yes.”

This time, Helblindi will not not be satisfied with small answers, with little threads to puzzle out of Loki's knotted intentions. “Aye, aye brother, but I will not be kept in the dark this time. If we are to succeed, you must tell me everything.”

From the set of his face, and the height of his shadow falling across him, Loki knows that there is no give in his brother this time. This time it must be honesty. Damn. “I play a long game, my sword, are you sure you wish to know exactly where we are going?”

Loki is given his brother's answer in a singular, keening ululation, a high note of plains scoured by wind, and the beat of wolves over shattered white earth. A red, wide grin full of their particular history, and all that need not be said between their shadows.

“Come with me to the forges.”

The princes of the First House of Jotunheim leave the shaded bowers of ice and little wings caught mid-flight, and race down and down, through rooms that roar like oceans, and halls that sing like mourners washed in the heat of pyre. Labyrinths as old as Jotunheim herself, and as familiar as their own Lines. They pass the great Titan doors of their father's war room, and the long, long shadow of the Throne only one of them will sit upon, one day far distant from this moment.

They do not think, as they race, that they cannot move a Realm from its orbit, that they can shift neither the branches, nor the roots, nor even the leaves. Some orbits were set long before either Prince was given breath, and will endure long after they have both gone down to the mighty House beneath the Dyr's Cradle. Some things must run their course, and it is only in the little, fragile details that there is any difference.

Loki will always remember, this was the hardest of lessons to learn.

The forges are quite on this rising, with only a few carts of iron tithes, quartzite tiles, and other building materials to be sent out neath the next face of the green-ringed moon. Loki knows which forge-master he is looking for: the same that crafted the beast wrapped round his neck. It is a gift, of sorts, that the Odinson cannot see the trophy Loki wears, for how can a son not see the likeness: thunderous blue skies, washed clean of humility. Dead flesh or not, the eye has never quite lost its power.

“Master Ulfr, are you within?” Loki summons, noting the long, chitinous shadow that paints itself upon the high walls; the heat makes his skin itch, but there is no green breeze, no clear skies, to alleviate the oppression. How do the forge-masters bear such unkind environs? For Need, and the will of the King, he supposes.

“Aye, First Son, I am within,” comes the rumble of Ulfr's reply. Many risings have passed since first the rune-tongued blade had ventured down into Harvetrtjald's warren of smelters, forges and crafting tables, and now it is a strange echo, to kneel before this boy who is not a child, who has never been a child. To see the second Prince is no shock.

Both have grown; so much like the great spires of Winter's High House, so much like the King, and yet not; Ulfr cannot help but feel the touch of age upon his brow. “What need brings you here, my Prince?” To work the forges is to be half mad in the first place, and it is never without purpose that one would venture into such heat.

“Forgemaster, I need a spear.” Such is the note of command on his tongue, Ulfr can only offer an bowing of neck in reply; Loki is unsurprised, not no less pleased.

“And what, First Son, is the purpose of this spear?”

A frown cuts Loki's sharp grin in twain, an unruly irritation colouring his gaze. “Of what concern is my need to you, Flame-Worker?”

“All weapons must have a purpose, or they are merely tools, as with the lives we gather to us, so must a weapon have something to define its existence.”

For the smallest of moments, Loki thinks of Helblindi; Angrboða had said much the same, when first he had brought the crude shape of this design to the Naŕþengill. No matter the glint of disbelief, of insolence ever in his eyes, Loki needed a creature as capable of the red, binding tongue of seidr as he, and Angrboða is unmatched.

~

Prince, this is madness.

Oh come now, King of Corpses, surely you are not so cowed by the boot of the Aesir that you cannot see the merit in this scheme?

Tis not that it lacks merit, Laufeyson, tis that it lacks reason! Little stands between you and failure, and the cost of that failure would be the end of this Realm. Your father...

My father is not a fool, nor is he a King who knows not what his sons do in his Name. He allows me my freedom for no less than this reason: I will move worlds, to preserve this one, even unto the ruin of others.

And you believe the Golden Realm will take pity on a rune-tongued child's desperate weavings?

No. But the Odinson is little more than a child himself. Children are malleable, and I intend to twist, to bend. After all, a father's love is the greatest of motivators, and the greatest of deceivers.

And what a fine dragon you have become.

Such a fierce, high-handed pride had Angrboða's words; their steel pushed betwix the bones of Loki's chest, and made for themselves a fine, red mess.

~

“First-Son?” Ulfr ventures forth, the height of his audience giving him pause; it is, and always shall be, unwise to interrupt princes.

Loki blinks, and the world comes rushing back in, the roar of furnaces and the graceless lurching of his pulse overloud in the silence. “The weapon has a purpose, Forge-master,” he pronounces, a show of teeth to accompany the flourish of a scroll being rolled out. Loki would not be without a little show, even if only for his own amusement. “All that I need from thee is a clarification.”

Ulfr remains quiet; tis no great stretch of the mind to catch the hard, glinting shiver of his Prince's particular breed of pride, and that is never without some danger.

“I have designed this to be...”

In the silence, in that tiny, fractious moment between the Prince's words and Ulfr's understanding, there is a bright bolt of fear; he touches upon the curling parchment, soft as ox wool between the scarred pads of his fingers, and knows that no matter Loki Laufeyson's hand in this monstrosity it is Naŕþengill Angrboða who has given this thing its true intent, and terrible shape.

“Greedy,” Ulfr finishes, his breath a sodden red mass beneath his tongue. “You wish this weapon to leech, to devour, to glean flesh from bone, and soul from breath.”

Only a King of Corpses could scrawl such a thing into existence. When the Prince raises his chin, Ulfr nearly shies from the golden webs refracting in the sour orange light of his forges: King Laufey chose well when he set such age-rings upon his son's horns. Yet the master smith cannot help but think how few are those rings, when stacked against such cruelty as displayed across this fine, bone white parchment.

And yet, and yet this is no Realm for kindness. That age died a bitter death long, long ago; he himself had watched it die long, long ago. All such grief is irrelevant, and does nothing to amend the situation, regardless of what he remembers, and what he chooses to forget.

There is a strange distance crowding in Master Ulfr's grim gaze and Loki cares not for the greater implications; he knows the jotun is old, as old as the Naŕþengill and the remaining heads of the Old Houses, the rings upon his horns tell him so. If Loki cared to make an honest reckoning, he might find a handful more rings upon those horns than upon his own father's.

“I have a goal, Forge-master. I have a task that stretches across worlds, and I need a weapon that can feed that task as well as the Dýr of the Deep feeds in the darkness of our oceans.” The words are lit with an ugly sort of joy, as if they have been living neath his tongue for so long they are well soaked in the unspeakable secrets the first prince keeps sewn to his chest. “Greed is a creature that touches all who dwell in these Realms. Not even the dead can escape its teeth.”

Of course it would be wise to simply bend his neck and acquiesce to his prince's choice, but age buys much in the realms of cold and patient ice, and Ulfr knows that greed is the last, the very last force that any should want to drive their actions.

But he has chosen fire and heat and the steady drip of molten metal over black iron, has chosen to bring no breathing child into this thickly shadowed hall, and he cannot gainsay the one who brought his sire's shade back to the dark slab upon which Ulfr places each morning's offerings of bones and glistening fat.

“Greed cuts both ways, my Prince,” is the entirety of what he dares reprove.

“I am well aware,” Loki challenges, and raps his knuckles on the soft parchment between he and Ulfr. “Think of it as a reminder, Forge-master. As a failsafe.”

Ulfr glances up, and even the second prince looks at his brother as if he were mad. There is no guarding against greed, against the avarice of that particular dragon which dwells in all creatures, regardless of life or hearth or station or realm. You cannot draw out a poison that has rooted in your bones since your first breath. Helblindi shakes his head, and the silvered peal of his beads cuts up the silence into manageable segments of inaction; Ulfr wonders if perhaps the second Laufeyson would speak differently, or perhaps speak at all, were he alone in the warren of the forges. He doubts the younger prince could be so utterly devoid of opinion.

No one speaks, not even the shades.

“If this is what you desire,” speaks the forge-master, “then I shall give it to thee, First Prince. But there are things I need, things that cannot be got from a well-kept treasury, nor traded upon the glittering of some rare luxury.”

“I know the roads to every Realm strung upon Yggdrasil's branches,” Loki reprimands, fingers curling in the sooty lines of the spear's outline. “You shall have what you need, no matter how distant.”

The Flame-Worker sighs, a shearing of ice touched suddenly by heat, and bows his head over the sheaf of parchment, studying the vicious lines, the violent curves of cutting edges, and knows he'll regret this making. “I need wood and iron.”

“Wood and iron?” Helblindi frowns. “We have that.”

“No, it cannot be just any wood, any scrap of iron.”

Standing between the two mighty shadows, Loki begins to laugh, and laugh and laugh. He puts his hands on his knees, bends his frame and touches his horns to the earth, and laughs.

~ * ~

A little voice is whispering beneath his white ribs, a little darkling voice, green as fresh young vines sprung from wet earth. Today, it whispers. Today. Standing at the cusp of a wide, sighing plane of lovingly tended Vanir farm land, Thor hears the voice again, twined through the sharp, heated drag of his breath against his tongue.

Not a soul in Asgard knows he stands here now. Not one.

The sky above is thunderously clear, a vault of scathing blue neath the sun's bright anvil; Thor hear the insects hum, and catches a welt of laughter drifting down upon the tumid wind.

“I see you are not as cautious as I had presumed,” Hulda smiles, a great show of teeth not meant to impart comfort, and knocks his staff against the hard-packed earth. Ulfr had been so kind as to dress up Gridavolr in the best of disguises, and Loki has no fear of the Odinson turning wise to their little adventure. Foolish golden creature, he thinks. “Your father...”

“Has little to do with my choices, Hulda.” Thor interrupts with a forceful note, his gaze turning dark as a blot of iron banded clouds. Whatever mirth he had felt in that moment fades with a little breath of anger. Always, always is it that he walks beneath his father's skies, his father's hands; no place in these Realms is free of Odin's mighty tread, no place save one.

Loki lifts a brow, a sharp question held in his bitterly green eyes. No doubt this is truly what the Odinson believes – and it will be the height of pleasure to strip this foolishness from the golden son of Asgard. To slice away the falsehoods, the clever quirks of duplicitous tongues, the concessions made for treaty, for pride, for peace, all to plant newer, subtler shapes that make a mockery of what grew before: this universe is wicked, and cruel, and there are no exceptions to this rule. Asgard has forgotten that rule. One cannot always be good, one cannot always be just, and it is high time Thor Odinson learned what is the true shape of the nation he calls home and hearth. As with all things, one must learn to accept ugliness in the same breath as one accepts beauty.

Loki will teach Thor how to read the true face of Asgard, and in the end, when Odin rides down upon Jotunheim, Thor will be a clear eyed snake in abeyance of a thoughtless, golden Prince.

Silence slips between them, replete with the ringing noonday song of Vanaheim, and Thor notices that one is absent: the eagle-eyed tower of a brother Hulda is never without.

“Where is your brother, green-eyed shade?” He questions, the sudden rumble of his voice snapping Hulda from some private thought whose thread he cannot parse.

“I am here, aesir,” comes a stony reply, followed by the noise of feet against dirt, and the sharp chiming of a sword in its scabbard.

“If you have such a profound dislike of my people, why keep company with me at all?” Though it is not meant to seem little more than an after-thought, Thor adds, rather bluntly: “I would not harm your brother, if that is what you fear.”

Laughter is the only reply that Helblindi can summon up, but it is not so much a bolt of mirth as a quiet hiss between sharpening teeth. “My brother can protect himself, aesir. He has never had any real need of my breed of violence.” Somewhere behind the bright crackling of amusement there is an equally polished threat, strung between the two princes by the thinnest of threads. “We are not to be parted, it is as simple as that.”

Unbidden, an image of his sister – red mouthed and copper dusted from her sparing in the ring – pushed itself to the fore of this thoughts. For a moment, Thor chooses to keep his peace, and thinks upon how vastly different this joinder in the road would be, had there been nothing but years separating he and Skuld. Young or not, Thor has known, and still can trace all the many year it had taken his mother to best those unexpected wounds. The nine daughters of Odin are his sisters, and there would always be love in his heart for each of them – but the shadows that haunted his mother's proud fae are hard to forget. Though time is a great forgiver of wrongs not your own.

“That is as it should be,” Thor offers back, searching out those vicious, shaded eyes; when he meets that calm, far-flung gaze, he is gladdened to see that strange, bitter fire burn a little gentler, if only for a moment.

“Come brother, Odinson, it is high time we departed,” Loki interrupts, an unwelcome stone of nervousness burning in the pit of his belly. Such a thing almost pushes a smile upon his lips; it has been some time since he felt the keen blade of fear, and it is a welcome reminder of one thing: he has the power to do this, the force to reach beyond his own realm and grasp. No matter the outcome, no matter how red the consequences, he is prepared.

When his father had returned home from the war with Jotunheim, Thor had been young, truly young, and all the more awed by the All-Father's triumph. It takes but a little push, and he is washed in the hard-edged golden revelry that swept through Asgard's bitingly hollow courtyards and hearths. He remembers, so clearly it comes weighted with the strength of scent, how his father had borne back to his own brightly-burning hearth the sour, stinging traces of the mighty act of cutting a realm from the branches of Yggdrasil. Yet here stands a green-eyed child of the greener earth, confidently telling him that it is no trouble at all to make a mockery of that memory which holds in Thor's mind with such an unexpected force.

Jotunheim has not known the touch of Bifröst in nearly ten ages, ten unbroken ages where no soul in all the Realms has seen, heard, or had dealings with the jotun, the terrible creatures of ice and bitter winter winds. And, no matter its true origin, neither has the Járnviðr. To defy the All-Father and his workings, with a rune-tongued Vanir and his brother as his guides, would be the height of offence, and a bold declaration of his ascent unto the rank which he will one day hold: future Lord of the Golden Halls.

If he could not make war upon the Cold Realm, he would leave his mark across Jotunheim's white continent in another manner.

Seeking out Hulda's gaze, Thor turned form the long shadow of the lone tree to meet a wide, endless sea of autumn browned grass; Vanaheim shall always be a place of good, green memories to him, and the sight of this ocean of shivering grass is another he will carry away from this day.

“How shall we break the All-Father's decree?”

“Ah,” Loki trills in reply, offering up a grin replete with a fearsome, naked pride. “Odinson, that is half the fun.”

“Is it?” Thor returned, walking with the wind, and Hulda's silent brother, at his back.

“Do you remember when you first set foot on Vanaheim's shores?” Loki does not have a love for the many questions on his tongue, but trust is a delicate thing, and he has only so much time.

Thor's brow furrows, thoughts flying back upon salt-ladden wings: he and his shield companions stood upon a burning white shore, a sea fit enough to dye a King's robe resplendent eating up the great sprawl of a cloudless horizon. “Aye, son of Vanaheim, I do.”

“You saw me in the shadows, in the dark of the forest along that shore.”

Suddenly, Thor laughs, a rolling thunder stripped of its harsher violence. “Have we been chasing one another for so long, Hulda?”

For a moment, Loki's reply sticks in his throat – a bird that will not fly. “You have been seeking me, Odinson.” He lowers his gaze, but does not bend his neck. A thin, think wisp of a smile flits across his lips, a slice of his white teeth in a dark mouth. “It was not my intention to be noticed by you.” A fleeting emotion that bears no name passes through his ribs clean enough to leave no trace. “I have been chasing knowledge.”

Helblindi wants to rolls his eyes to the great vault of the sky; he wants to put his fist through the Odinson's teeth, peel that quiet, bright with promise grin off his pale, too-expressive face. How does anyone on Asgard keep their secrets close to their hearts when their faces carry their intentions like fire through brittle wood? Frustrating, too-warm creatures; he cares little for their sort.

Thor laughs again, a softer sound, and comes to rest at the young man's side; here, the silence is shaped more like quiet. “My mother would like thee very much, scholar,” he offers up. “She is the keeper of a formidable wisdom.”

“Asgard's wealth is her Queen,” Loki murmurs, and he must bite off the half formed questions at their roots. Even the oldest Vanir, well used to the bitter fruit of a war lost a hundred, hundred ages gone, knows much of the Queen of Asgard. Jotunheim has preferred to forget, and has taken to that silence exceedingly well. Loki receives a burning, loving, prideful smile as a reply, and the force of it steals the breath from his throat.

Thor loves his mother.

And it is time to be gone from this place.

“Wisdom is indeed a mighty currency,” Loki begins; he prefers to believe that Thor cannot see the slight shiver in his steps, nor hear the sour roil of nervousness in his voice, “but I would wager none know the Roads I walk.”

“My father knows All.” Thor counters, words falling off his tongue in an ungainly rush. He had not mean to speak, but that singular fact, that immoveable stone, has been the crux of his universe for as long as his memory can reach back.

If there is any truth to be had in all the sprawling limbs of Yggdrasil shade, it is this and this alone: Odin knows all.

A fallow wind soaks up Loki's mirth; laughter mixes with the scent of wheat and wild herbs, and distant salt. There is an unbearable lightness in his chest, and he knows not what to make of the width between his ribs. “I assure you, Prince of Asgard, Harri Hliðskjálfar does not know all.”

A challenge? Thor wonders, watching as Hulda's brother circles round to stand at his sharp-mouthed sibling's back. “Will you be the one to show me, Son of Vanaheim?”A boast is nothing more than that, and Thor has long loved to trade one outrageous claim for another of his own. If this boy believes he knows more than the All-Father, Thor will more than happily disabuse Hulda of such a notion.

Loki feels his lips peel back, tastes the swelter of Vanaheim's winds, and know what a red picture it is he paints: red as a wolf's snout.

Taking in a thin sliver of breath, Loki brings the runes up from the meat of his bones, from the bite of his teeth and the weft of the air – spaces between bursting open under the sweep of his gaze – and Calls. Sleipnir, he croons. Come to me, Child.

Magic is a rare thing in Asgard, kept behind doors and women's hands, but Thor knows its particular taste. His mother's garden drinks deep of more than just rain and sunlight. Seidr creeps across his skin, wraps hot fingers round his heart, sparks on the tip of his tongue.

“Hulda?”

Without warning, this is a might clap of thunder, a gleaning coruscation gathering atop the wide sea of grass. Above, the sky is cloudless and utterly blank; beneath his feet Thor can feel the earth shivering: there is a pulse in the air, a hammering that is seeping into his blood. A circle of stones flashes in his mind, the weight of his hammer in his hands, red mud on his forearms and a long, thin shadow pressing down upon the earth.

Up, boy!

Hulda parts the silence with a curl of his tongue, and the earth peels open like soured fruit. A mass of fractal edges and twisting grey planes rises up from the tear in the earth. Thor flinches, a feeling none too distant from terror stopping up the heady rushing of his blood.

“Sleipnir,” the Vanr summons, and in that Name is a Shape. A horse. Six legs and a frame as grey as the most barren winter's day.

“I – ” Thor stutters, grasping for words like a fool reaching for smoke. “I have not a word to say.”

“Of course not!” Loki chuckles, leaning forward to press his cheek to his child's soft muzzle. Forgive me for inflicting an aesir upon you, dear one, he whispers in Winter's Tongue.

“Tis a horse,” Helblindi barks, sour faced. In all truth, he hopes this is not a fruitless endeavour, that there is great profit to be had from this one singularly outrageous gamble. For all that he loves his brother, Helblindi is no gambler.

“Aye, plainly,” Thor snaps, caution and confusion warring in his brittle tone. “But not a moment before, he was not a horse.”

“No experience with shifting your shape, Prince of Asgard?” comes Helblindi's hooked reply, a spark of silvered mirth burning in his gaze.

Thor snorts, raking a hand through wind-tangled hair; his eyes do not leave the hulking grey beast being pet like child by the Vanr who summoned it here, to this green rolling of grass and sprawling sky.

How strange has this moment turned? He cares not to pick apart his concerns, thinking only of how rare, how curious, is this sight afore him. “No, that breed of magic is frowned upon in the Realm Eternal.”

Helblindi bites his tongue, his shoulders shaking; laughter is often the rarest coin in Jotunheim, and though it is no such thing on Vanaheim's shores, Helblindi knows that his laughter shifting through fragile, illusory Vanir lungs he wears would be too much the stuff of rocks and thunder. Silence is no mean feat, nonetheless.

“In fact, most magic is discouraged in Asgard,” Thor continues, shifting his gaze to find the darkling rune-worker. He would see what this creature thinks of Asgard and her proscriptions. “To know the rune-tongue is to do a woman's work.” Spine wrapped in steel, he awaits whatever answer the boy will deign to give over.

Poison-green eyes roll to the vault of the sky, and, with a face as blank as stone, Loki replies with a flint-edged tongue: “So Asgard values strength of arm over strength of mind?”

Thor cracks open his mouth to growl out a reply, yer the best he can muster is a brittle warning. “That is as close as you may come to calling me a brute, son of Noatun.”

“It is most unwise to put words in my mouth, Odinson.” Long fingers curling into fists, Loki slips the words from the sharpness of his teeth, and it occurs to him that Thor is without censor. There is nothing to stay whatever thought comes flying into that tow-headed idiot's mind, not when pride is the bone over which they are both snarling.

“Peace, the both of you!” Helblindi growls, a long suffering sigh bubbling up in his throat. At this rate, fool and charmer both shall open the other's windpipe afore the day is even half done. “We should be away. Any more of this scraping and those damn ravens will follow us as wolves after blood.”

Loki finds his eyebrows crept nearly to his hairline, mouth bending into a little frown. Thor laughs, bright and burred warm at the edges; the sound set's Loki's teeth on edge.

“That is the most I have ever hear thee speak,” chuckles Thor; his humour has always been easy to recover. Suddenly, he is left grasping at the tail of his words, realising that he has no name to put to the stone-faced sibling who seems to live in his wolfish brother's shadow. Frigga would have his head for such rudness, for he has asked for it no more readily than it has been offered.

“I have never asked your name.” A bold statement, threaded with a shade of apology. It would appear that all those lessons with Asa were not without their use. Save for that feast day he nearly kicked a dwarf into the cooking fire for his obdurate behaviour, Thor has never had much use for courtly graces.

A silence built of a fresh uncertainty winds through the gathered adventurers; meadow sounds roar back to life, and the weight of the dying summer day presses rough fingers into the spaces between their shadows.

With a disorganised twist of his lips, Helblindi offers up: “my name is his.” A stark and undecorated refusal. Loki may be bold enough to dole out little scraps of his true self, but Helblindi is jealous of what is his, and he'll not share even that much of himself.

Thor turns to Hulda and the young Vanir gives a shrug of his fine shoulders, as if to say the argument is not worth the breath expended.

“My brother values his privacy, and the security that comes with a name held close to one's heart.” He catches the Odinson's eyes with a particular steel of his own, and wills the questions to wither on the aesir's tongue.

“Perhaps,” Thor chuckles, moving round to plant himself at the grey horse's withers, near enough to lay his fingers near Hulda's own strange, sleek hands. “When we have come to the end of this venture, one of you will tell me. Few have I met who bear such a devotion to their kin.”

Helblindi flings his gaze from Loki, and the Prince feels his heart clench, an utterly alien chill bleeding into the marrow of his bones; the loss cuts so finely, deep as an spear of ice.

Aye, Odinson, tis all we have.

Loki must force the words out, the questions that will distract Thor form further inserting himself into all that lays between the first and second princes of Jotunheim, lest something more terrible fly out from between his pursed lips.

“Do you have any siblings, Thunderer?” Forcing this unadorned question out has mangled something in Loki's chest, and they are all over red-edged. Perhaps Thor is not so skilled in the art of nuances as he thinks.

The aesir's answer is quick, bright and piercing as the sun above, worn by the gentleness of a well built affection. “Aye, I have nine sisters, though the eldest is my most unwavering companion.” There are many a goodly reason Thor did not bring Skuld down that dusty copper road those few weeks ago, but that does not keep him from wishing the wolf rider were here at his side.

“Ah,” Loki replies, and without permeable, swings himself up upon Sleipnir, motioning for Helblindi to do the same. “That is a surprise indeed. The All-Father keeps a crowded hearth.” His smile is all together too sharp.

Thor sucks in a breath, a certain and wholly unexpected fire wicking up between the splay of his ribs. It has been some time since he has had a true adventure, a journey towards some unknown, alien landscape. He tell himself it is not fear that moves him, but a sudden rushing of excitement.

Helblindi throws himself up behind Loki with a practiced ease, grateful these odd, pink, stunted limbs of his no longer tangle quite so frequently. Wearing a different shape is not so much fun as one might assume.

“Odinson,” calls Loki, motioning for the aesir to come nearer to his side. From Sleipnir's great height, Loki stares down at the warrior Prince, and pulls out from the space between a long swath of red cloth. Thor gazes up at him, a wealth of questions gathering in weedy profusion upon his face.

“Give me your arm,” he commands, a little, poorly felt smile touching not his eyes. He leans down, near enough to feel the discomforting shiver of the aesir's warmth press into his skin. “Your education in the rune-tongue is sadly lacking,” Loki's teeth are sharp, and there is so little breath between he and the son of Odin. “I should amend that.” Thor's eyes are narrow, over-bright, lit with an unfamiliar fire; Loki finds more humour under his tongue, sees well enough what might be hiding in the thunderer's gaze. “Not all magic is to be feared.”

Hulda is so close; Thor gulps in a welt of air, thick with the tumid roil of Vanaheim, and that bitter, burning skein all mages wear upon their skin. The young Vanir paints himself across Thor's senses with no effort of his own. “Tis best to be wary of the unknown,” he grits out, restraint a thin twist of thread worn bare.

“Aye,” Loki laughs, “That is a wise choice.” Slowly, as if Thor were a wild thing with teeth, Loki reaches out and ties the red rope around the aesir's wrist. Without a thought for comfort, he ties the knot enough to bite into skin, smiling all the while. “But then how would we ever learn what moves beyond our own small horizons?”

Thor can find no trace of that quiet, guarded apprentice who walked the cavernous halls of Noatun's ancient library, and he cannot decide whether he is pleased by this turn of events, or oddly bereft. No matter, there is time a plenty afore he must coax this wolfish young Vanir to Asgard – time enough to learn the landscapes of this beguiling creature.

“You think very much like someone I know.” Thor offers up, a tacit acceptance of Hulda's actions.

“Oh?”

Thor only grins in return, he does not think the young Vanir would take kindly to knowing his words echoed Odin All-Father. Hulda lifts one finely shaped brow, a shiver of humour on his lips, and only then does Thor notice the red rope has been securely tied round the boy's own wrist as well.

With a click of his tongue, Loki turns from the aesir and falls deep within himself, the runes in his bones shrilling out to the creature beneath him. Sleipnir rears up and Vanaheim dissolves around them, bleeding into spires of shapes and colours that have no place beneath the light of reality.

Rather than ride through the void, out across the eternal trench of Ginnungagap, Loki chooses to simply fall between the realms like so much sand between parted fingers.

Thor feels the void yawn beneath his feet, and suddenly he understands the red cloth tied fast round his wrist. Tis an anchor, and there is nothing more than this binding him to realms of the living, nothing more than Hulda's red thread.

The universe pitches before his eyes: sky and earth, stars and blackness, branches made of roaring nebulae muddying the sprawl of his vision. Bile sours in the back of his throat, and the rope goes taut. In one singular moment, one bare exhalation, the world tree pushes through his bones, its limbs scraping away his innards to fill them with fire and the thunder of nothingness, and in the other there is earth beneath his feet, and a shivering wind against his cheek.

Lungs burning for air, Thor stands in an ungentle darkness, waiting for the world to come creeping back into his sight; the bite of the rope is a comfort unlooked for. His thoughts run together as if they are leaking from a hair-fine crack in his skull: never has the universe been so bare, opened up before his eyes as if it were nothing more than a segment of fruit to share. As if the act of peeling it apart was no more shattering than drawing breath.

Perhaps under Hulda's fine tongue the universe is just that: a thing to be peeled apart. Thor hopes the Vanir does not intend to devour what he has just split open. The thought of that boy's sharp teeth pushes a shiver through Thor's aching bones.

“Welcome, Odinson, to the Járnviðr!” Loki proclaims, his fingers twisting savagely into Sleipnir's mane. Elation creeps up like a sudden flame, wicking between heart and lungs to unfurl in his chest; he cannot keep his teeth behind his lips, a breath of towering pride puts a savage howling in his mouth, silent and all his own to keep. Taking in great gouts of air, he waits for that savage roaming creature that is his baser note of triumph to fade away, as if he is cleaning away the red success of a good hunt.

Thor cracks one eye open, and then the other, impatient for the world to settle back into some semblance of reality. The sight that greets him steals his breath away.

Above his head is a soaring horizon washed in the gentle, abiding hues of early evening, and above even that is a fierce white moon, ringed in a shade of green as vicious as Hulda's own hooded gaze. No words come to his tongue, and the taste of the air is unlike anything he has ever known: wet earth and the rich, sour tang of thickly plaited moss; tundra scrub and mushrooms, white fleshy roots grown to profusion under the great canopy of this tangled sprawl of wood and shade, and quiet.

Thor realises, with a dull twist of alarm, that he cannot see the forest through the tree. Tis as if a mighty hand has swept across this place, each clever finger knotting each branch, each scaly gnarled branch till all was a riotous snarl of aged green and brown, and murky, sulphurous yellow. He watches the sprawl, taking note of al that his reeling mind can process: here, unlike Vanaheim, these trees seem overwrought, grasping at the pale ghost of a vanishing day as if hungry for something they once received in profusion.

“Do you know the story of the Járnviðr, Odinson?” Loki asks, his voice oddly, willfully blank.

Hulda's ringing query startles Thor from his increasingly troubled thoughts, and he stumbles over his reply, each new concern o'er leaping the last in an unbecoming tangle.

“Yes, I know the story.” One of his tutors, a sallow faced scholar from the labyrinthine monolith of Asgard's library had told it to him in a pinched and discomforted tone, as if they whole of the tale were beyond the young Prince's concern.

“This patch of dirt was the first action which drew all Asgard down the Bifröst to war.” There is no need to elaborate upon which war he is referring to – after all, he is not such an insensitive brute as to discuss the conflict that once seethed between his golden realm and Hulda's palace beneath the violet sea storms.

“Aye.” The singular syllable drags across Loki's palette, catching on the rage he holds between his teeth with a fearsome determination. Now is not the time for anger, but a little education is never harmful.

“Yes this place was what began the war between Asgard and Jotunheim. Farbauti made motions, centuries before that moment, in the belief that all wild things made by the blood of Yimr should reside in the same Realm.”

Thor pivots around to stare at the Vanir, watching as the young man climbs down from the creature he is sure is only pretending to be a horse. Only when the boy's feet touch the moss laden earth does Thor feel a gentle tug upon his wrist: he and Hulda are still bound by that red rope, a note of surprise wells up in his chest, strangely warm round the edges.

Distantly, distinctly, Loki knows he is still tethered to the aesir, but he finds in himself a certain species of hesitation – the golden son of Asgard is always warm to the touch, and even in this Vanir skin it is a prickling discomfort to lay hands on the Odinson for longer than a fleeting moment. He does not care to examine this disconnect further; with steady fingers he unties the knot linking his shape to Thor's. The cloth is cold to the touch, heavy with the weight of seidr only just beginning to slip back into the spaces from which it had been called forth.

Loki makes a noise in the back of his throat, and Thor's brightly burnished eyes meet his, a mote of uncertainty marring the clear stretch of blue.

Hulda's gaze moves down to the red knot tied firm round his wrist, and for a moment Thor is unsure what is being asked of him.

“You must untie the rope with your own hands, Odinson,” is offered up, a little breath of humour invading the hard set of Loki's lips, softening the shade of anxiety colouring his gaze.

“Why?” Thor questions, fingers curling over the well tied binding. By all appearances, his question is most poorly felt, and Hulda heaves a great sigh, as if he is about to explain something terribly, obviously simple to a child.

“This binds you and I together.”

Thor lifts one brown, a singular bark of laughter bubbling up in the confines of his chest. He finds a familiar grin creeping across his features. Eyes turning bright as the Further Sea. “Does it now, little starling?”

The young, towering shadow of Hulda's brother draws nearer, and Thor is struck by how very much the boy moves like a shadow, like a beast of the darker waters. Silent and full of fine, cutting teeth.

“You cannot travel the roads between on your own power,” Loki replies, stalking nearer, a wolf come to a strange fire. “Without this,” he gives the rope a hard tug, “you would have floundered in the dark, and the beasts that roam the violence of Ginungaggap would have caught you up in their teeth.”

I could drag him home to Asgard by this thread. Thor muses to himself, but a little of his wondering must have crept to his eyes, for Hulda gives a throaty growl, and there is an answering fire in those viper-green eyes. Forthwith he regrets his notions; his mother's unadorned cautions push to the fore of his tangled thoughts.

Do not bring him here in chains, my son. Let him come here to our halls because it pleases him to do so.

A long shadow falls over Hulda, and there is again the viciousness of an eagle striking amongst lesser creatures in that boy's yellow gaze.

With a steady hand, Thor undoes the knot and walks till he has coiled the length of red thread in Hulda's open hands.

Loki is shamefully, wretchedly grateful for the immoveable wight of Helblindi's hand laid against the sharp valley between his shoulder blades. Here, neath the ungentle gleaming of the green-ringed moon has Loki brought a creature of the Realm Eternal. Here, to Jotunheim, has he lead the son of Odin Ginnarr, the only Prince of Harri Hliðskjálfar, Lord of the Gallows. Not in nearly ten ages has a warm-blooded, pink skinned aesir tread upon the earth of Winter, and the shock of his triumph pierces Loki cleanly; pride is a stone that cuts, and his cuts deep, true.

“Ready to see the Iron Forest, Odinson?” Is murmured into the little space between he and the aesir. “They say King Laufey's rune-workers bent Yggdrasil itself to bring this land here, and even now there are places where the world of Men bleeds into the realm of the Jotun.” Loki says, careful to watch, to gauge how much of his speech is old news, or fresh knowledge. He tucks the red rope into a pouch on his belt, and motions for his staff, pulling it from the grasp of the Nameless Road they had all just travelled down.

“Truly?” Thor wonders, a far from subtle disbelief touching upon his features. “My tutors made sure I knew in detail what caused the War, Hulda, but I was not taught why, or how.” Gesturing to the gnarled sea of trees, to the fading light pushing through creeping sheaves of hanging moss and spiralling branches. “Why would a king risk so much for such a...” Thor searches for the right word; this place puts the heady heat of caution against his spine, and he cannot shake the sensation of too many eyes tracking across his skin. “Such a violent landscape?”

Turning his attention to the Járnviðr, Loki nearly cleaves his tongue in two, sour copper stinging the back of his throat. He knows the answer, oh does he know that answer, but that knowledge lies in no book in all the Nine Realms, well beyond the reach of red-tongued, green-eyed Hulda Sea Son.

Only a child of Laufey-King would know why there is a great horizon of trees, of monsters and rootless lakes hailing from Midgard here upon such cold and inhospitable shores.

“If there was a reason, Odinson, no Vanir knows it, and I have found no trace in any tome I have ever read.” Words chosen as carefully as red-edged runes, Loki considers speaking the truth of Laufey's choice to the aesir, but when that particular blade is in his hands, he desires to be certain of its edge. Thor's understanding of the Realms is built atop soft sand, and there needs be a greater length of weathering afore Loki chooses to knock the golden son from his high perch.

“Aye,” snorts Thor, a wry grin lighting up his face, “tis not often that the motivations of such savage creatures are clear to those with some reason in their heads.”

The wind blows sudden and sharp, carrying in its bite the familiar burn of salt, and the roil of black waters. Loki raises a silent, sibilant paean to the dead titans of Jotunheim, and begs Helblindi has learned an iron-boned control. Were it not for his oath, Loki is well certain that Thor would be drawing breath through a clean red gash across his throat; Helblindi has quite the talent with his blade arm.

“Reason has little bearing on the choices of Kings,” mutters Loki, white teeth sharp against drawn lips.

Thor scents another argument on the salt-ridden wind; he knows the wise men of Asgard think him brash, a hot-headed pup with the bite of a young berserker, but Thor has nine sisters – when to shut his mouth had been his first, and roughest lesson.

A moment passes, wherein all the words are eaten up by the landscape, and the sinuous howl of the wind through twisted branches. Such a wild place they have come to, such a stretch of dark earth washed in seidr, and old, festering wounds. Thor feels as if his skin is stretched too tightly across his bones, an alien taste coating his tongue; at least Alfheim had the comfort of a true sun, and the beauty of its people to distract him from the lurching oddness of its horizons. The Járnviðr has none of these things, and he cannot bear to think how strange is Jotunheim in comparison.

“Have those books of yours imparted the secret of our destination, Hulda?” He is unsure how wide these lands sprawl, but cannot think horses find this place a good land in which to roam.

“Of course,” Loki replies, drawing away from the Odinson. These trees are alive, as the trees that shift and sway across Vanaheim are alive. He lays a hand upon the nearest one, bare feet rasping against prickling moss and rough bark.

A sudden bark of laughter fills his chest, and Loki croons in a silent tongue: the trees drink seidr as readily as they do water.

Thor lifts an eyebrow, Tilkváma swaying on its cord. Helblindi moves through the dense crush with only half Loki's easy, thoughtless grace, a question on his lips.

“Brother?”

“This Ironwood is savage and old, but it remembers. Seidr moved it, and seidr stirs it still,” Loki whispers, fingers gliding and eyes roaming. Glancing over his shoulder, he smiles wide and feral, “a home for wolves and giants: children of the first wilderness before Time and Order. Made by Father Ymir's blood.”

“I think my tutors left that bit out of my lessons, Hulda.” Thor laughs, young thunder overloud in the darkling snarl of wood and gloaming light.

“Can you hear them, Odinson?” Loki says. “The trees, the wind, the earth. Each has such a roaring to them, I cannot imagine you are insensate.”

“Hie,” Thor mouths back, feeling Tilkváma sway on its cord. “I am a warrior of Asgard. We are taught the song of metal, of steel and fire, and intent. I know little of green things, or of the rune-tongue that seems to make such things all the greener for its singing.”

Helblindi snorts, lowering his shoulders to push aside a great tree limb, thick with moss and groaning with age; Loki covers his derision with a wide grin, shaking his head. The motion tosses great spools of green refraction about, a careless riot of seidr-touched green against a landscape of muted browns and soured light.

“Perhaps,” he begins, tongue caught between his teeth, “you should consider listening. The music of a place such as this is not something one wishes to overlook. Tis part of the adventure,” Loki barks, laughter finally winning out over better sense. “Do you not have forests upon the shores of the Realm Eternal?” He adds, though the question is soft at the edges, as if it is only an after-thought.

“We have forests,” Thor sighs, a dozen memories and more crowding over him in a rush of racing hooves and baying dogs, the slap of steel and arrow shafts, and the pungent perfume of smoke and roasting meat. “We have great tracts of wild woods, and a hundred breeds of wild things to hunt within, but it is for sport, and training, not for an idle walk. We keep gardens as large as forests for that activity.”

Loki is plain astonished. “Do you pen everything in, aesir?”

Thor frowns, and with a bright, disorganised smile replies: “No, not everything.” The answer is yes, of course, but he would have it be no, for the boy's sake. If there is one thing Thor has begun to understand about the Vanir, it is how much he prizes the wilderness, the wildness of his own freedom. Put a forest-born bird in a cage, and surely it shall sicken an die. Thor does not want a broken, penned in creature on his hands.

Helblindi snorts, coming to stand in Loki's narrow shade. Where to, my Prince, say his eyes, arms loose and mouth bright with mirth.

“Odinson,” Loki calls. “Have you any knowledge of wolves?”

“Aye.” Thor speaks, stepping cautiously over the forest bed; it would be most embarrassing to let one of these gnarled, wicked looking trees trip him up. “My sisters are the Nine Valkryja, and they carry the souls of the brave in their wolf's jaws, to the halls of my father.”

“Good,” Loki replies, shrugging out of the thin slate-grey cloak to lay it across the arms of the tree he has just twisted his way through. “This is the hearth of all wolf-clans, and here they do grow large and savage in their isolation. It shall be fun to give chase: a worthy challenge, do you think?”

“Catch them?” Shock wars with naked delight, and Thor finds his cheeks stinging with the force of his grin. “How large do these wolves grow, Hulda? I have fought bilgesnipe, I have hunted trolls under Midgard's skies, and svartálfar in the dark realm, even the sons of Múspell have I tangled with in circles of combat. I like a challenge.”

“They put my horse to shame.”

Thor laughs in response, a resplendent fire caught in endless blue eyes; he grins, white teeth gleaming, and shakes his golden head. “I enjoy hunting the hunters, there is much to be said about the satisfaction of surviving a creature intelligent enough to know to crack your bones where it matters.”
Loki rolls his eyes and crosses his arms. “We are not hunting them to shed their blood, Odinson.” Thor frowns, and Loki again feels the bite of irritation. “We are hunting them to tame them, to ride them into the heart of the Járnviðr afore the moon above us gives up one of its faces.” When no reply comes, Loki spares a moment to wonder if the Odinson has some how swallowed his own tongue.

“Now, now,” Loki laughs, sudden and sharp, “I thought you were the Golden Prince of Asgard, the young lion. Are you, perhaps, afraid?”

The young, golden prince rolls his eyes skyward and snarls as fiercely as any lion ought. “No, Sea-Son, I am not afraid.” He puts a little force into the sway of his step towards the boy, and the dying light catches upon the surface of Tilkváma, spinning silver webs round Hulda's feet like the fine thread his mother uses to weave stars into her finer dresses. Sometimes it is best to let one's intent go unspoken, to give it over in action rather than awkward words. “It is simply that I was not expecting you to ask me to tame a feral beast, Hulda. Wolves make quick work of much that creeps through a shaded forest.”

Loki shrugs, rolls his shoulders with an effortless air of disinterest, and thinks, briefly, of telling the Thunderer that he has cut hearts from ancient chests, and pressed those same hearts deep into thick, black earth; that he has lain down to sleep with a beast far more terrible than a wolf, and learned from him the secrets of replacing one skeletal shape with another. He would do it, if for no other reason than to watch the Odinson battle with his full-hearted, unchecked emotions. Loki imagines, with dizzying clarity, that Thor would be the finest picture of disbelief and horror Loki has ever had the pleasure of observing.

Heat creeps upon him, touches at the edge of his senses; Thor has drawn close, closer than Loki is wont to permit him, and together they are both staring into the tangled, distant reaches of the Járnviðr as if a fall of honey'd light through thick branches will offer up what each is searching for.

“Brother,” comes from behind, and Loki lifts his chin high: fear and wonder, pride and old, old vengeance unfurl with such crushing strength that he can do aught but drown, sink under the roil with no thought for air or relief. He gives himself a moment to drown. Only a moment.

“Come now!” Loki speaks, and his voice is as fine and sure as a little knife's blue edge. “Let us find some wild thing beneath this Ironwood, and make of him a friend.”

Thor nods, a grin cracking apart his features, and finds he is pulled inexorably onward as Hulda darts out ahead, black hair flying behind like a battle standard. The instinct is old and true: a hundred hundred summer days, a thousand days of brightly-burning sun above, and the clarion music of his sisters and his friends racing through green woods and golden fields, through halls high and heavy with gilt light, through copper dirt rings and wide, white beaches. Like a bird, Thor's heart races in his chest, races out to meet the coming stars and the chill in the wind that takes a strip from his skin.

“It has been a long, long time since I have felt so alive,” Thor shouts into the wind, heedless, reckless, and utterly unconcerned with the consequences. Beside him, Hulda crows, a burst of wild, green-crowned joy, and behind the eagle-eyed brother laughs, a great peal of laughter fit enough to shame a mountain.

In this moment, all the world is good and golden and true; in this moment there are no shadows.

If this is augury of what is yet to come, Thor can only imagine how grand a thread the Norns have laid out for him, and for this young, wild creature racing beside him.

Thor cannot help but wonder just how grand shall this tale be?

 

 

We defy augury.
There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.
If it be now, ’tis not to come.
If it be not to come, it will be now.
If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.
Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes?
Let be.
Hamlet, act 5, sc. 2, l. 219-22.