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The Lindworm Prince

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     When Thor was but a tiny lad, his father, Odin, a prosperous freeholder with many swine, came home from the king's capital with terrible news. Queen Laufey was desperate to produce an heir so King Farbauti would not put her aside for barrenness. She had sought the advice of a fairy to conceive, and conceive she did- bearing twins, even! However, because of fairy magic gone astray, the eldest son was born a lindworm, while the youngest was a beautiful, healthy human boy. Some of the royal councillors tried to convince the queen that the unlucky eldest son should be put out into the wild to live his life as a true lindworm would, but the queen refused, saying that no one would separate her from her child. Other darker rumors claimed that the king was making her keep the child as a punishment for consorting with fairies. But regardless of the real reason, Prince Loki grew up in an old, unused part of the palace where few people went. His silks and tempers were legendary, and only his mother and a handful of devoted servants dared to brave his room and his wrath. Little did they know that one day, someone would come that would change Prince Loki's life forever...

     Each year in the fall, Odin sent a tithe of his swine to the king as required by law. As Thor grew older, he begged to accompany his father on the yearly trip. For many years, his wish was denied, but his fourteenth birthday saw him riding bravely at his father's side on his sturdy mountain pony, the piglets and hogs they brought with them grunting and squealing in the straw-filled cart driven by two of Odin's doughty servants. 

     As they entered the city, Thor marvelled at his first sight of the walls of the king's city. His father's freehold was a long low building with a thatched roof and strong timbers; here, the cut stone walls soared high in the air above Thor's head. Armored men vigilantly watched over the battlements clad in gleaming armor, and Thor was immediately taken by the idea of being one of those guards some day. 

     As they led the wagon into the royal stables, a harried servant met the wagon at the gate. "Greetings, Master Odin. If it's not too much trouble, could you bring one of the larger piglets and come with me? The prince is... hungry."

     Odin paled slightly, but bowed his head and dismounted. As he went to chose the best of the piglets to offer the prince, Thor whispered, "May I come along, Father?" Before Odin could reprimand him for his brashness, the servant stepped closer, looking him over.

     "What is your name, brave one?" the servant asked, smiling at his boldness.

     Thor straightened up proudly in his saddle. "I am Thor, son of Odin. I wish to help bring my father's gift to Prince Loki," he announced, puffing his thin chest out.

     The servant inclined his head politely. "I am Eirik, son of Einar, chief attendant to Prince Loki. Very well, Thor, son of Odin, you may accompany us to the prince's chambers-on one condition. Whatever you see there, you must not show fear, do you understand? The prince hates it and often strikes out if he can scent that you are afraid. It can be dangerous." 

     Nodding in agreement, Thor dismounted and took the heavy piglet from his father. It thrashed and squealed angrily, bound feet vainly attempting to kick out and find freedom, but Thor was a strong farm lad, despite his small size, and he held the struggling piglet tightly to his chest as they entered the palace. 

     They followed Eirik along a dimly lit corridor that seemed almost unused after the initial bustle they had observed when they first entered the palace. At the end of the hall was a plain wooden door, banded with iron. Taller than the guard's head, the door was made of thick oak planks that looked like it could withstand a battering ram; unlike the other doors in the palace, however, there were no carvings or decorations, making it appear out of place amid the gilded opulence of the rest of the palace. 

      Thor glanced up at his father's face and saw a bead of sweat running down his cheek. He's afraid, Thor realized incredulously. How horrible can it be? Thor was secretly delighted to finally see the so-called cursed prince, for he loved snakes and often picked them up on his father's land to admire their beautiful colors and scale patterns. He was positively bursting with questions, but common sense and civility, coupled with the threat of Odin's belt, kept the questions trapped behind his teeth so as not to embarrass his father or get himself kicked out of the palace. 

     As they neared the door, Eirik looked gravely at Thor and motioned for him to come closer. "Do you wish for your father to come with you?" Thor shook his head, and the servant continued. "Before you proceed into the room, announce your name and gift to the prince. Then, put the piglet down on the star sigil on the floor. Once the offering is in place, back away slowly towards the door, and do not turn your back on the room. If the prince is displeased for any reason, he may strike out and injure you."

     "Is he poisonous?" queried Thor, genuinely curious about the prince's abilities.

     "No, but he's large enough now that he can break bones if he strikes hard enough," replied the prince's servant. "And for mercy's sake, don't let him wrap around you. He injured a kitchen girl badly last month doing that."

     "Well, if he's as hungry as you say, I'd better get this piglet in to him so he can eat," Thor said briskly, holding the piglet tight to his chest. He couldn't wait to see Prince Loki with his own eyes.

*********

     The guard's eyes flickered over Thor's slight form as he walked up to the door with the wriggling piglet in his arms. "Are ye sure about what yer doing, laddie? The prince is no' one tae be trifled with. If he be hungry enow, he might eat ye as well as yer wee pig."

     Thor looked up at the guard with a calm, resolute face. His bright blue eyes took in the warrior's massive girth and wild red hair and beard, realizing quickly that his brawn was here specifically here to keep the cursed prince in check, should some unforeseen calamity occur.
"I am honored to present my father's gift to Prince Loki. If you please, open the door that I may proceed."

     The huge man chuckled warmly. "Yer a brave lad. Not many men dare tae look Himself in th' eyes, when the hunger be on him. I'm Volstagg. What d' they call ye, lad?"

     "I am Thor, son of Odin. It's a pleasure to meet you, Volstagg." 

     Suddenly, a loud thump rattled the door on its hinges, and Volstagg shook his head wearily. "Best I gae ahead and let ye in before he gets in a rare dither." He turned the ornate key in the massive iron lock and heaved the heavy door open just wide enough for Thor to slip through with the wiggling piglet in his arms.

     As the door boomed shut behind him, Thor's first impressions of Loki's chambers were of darkness and heat. A large fire roared on a hearth nearly large enough to roast an ox, and the narrow windows were swathed in heavy drapery, creating deep pockets of shadow in the corners of the room. A half-glimpsed pool of water steamed gently at the back of the room, surrounded by large potted plants and hissing braziers. A high earthen hill covered a large section of the floor, making Thor wonder if the prince had made a den in it, but try as he might, Thor couldn't see any sign of the prince nearby. Remembering Eirik's instructions, Thor spoke clearly. "My name is Thor, son of Odin, and I bring you tribute from my family." Looking down, he saw an inlaid pattern on the floor near the center of the room that looked like a starburst. He walked out, laid the piglet down, and began backing towards the door. A slight rustling to his left was all the warning he got before a long emerald and ebony snout appeared out of the shadows, weaving from side to side on a long scaly neck, dainty head crowned by small golden horns. Thor was startled, but instinct told him not to flinch; instead, he made a small bow in the creature's direction. "Greetings, Prince Loki. I am Thor, son of Odin. I hope you're feeling well today." The lindworm cocked his head as if he were listening intently to Thor's words. He cautiously scooted forward, tongue tasting the air, as Thor watched excitedly. He decided that he would try talking to the prince as if he were another boy like himself.

     "I hope you like the piglet I brought you. He's one of our best, nice and fat. If you ate cooked meat, I wager he'd roast up nicely, but I suppose he'll taste fine to you the way he is." Thor looked at the lindworm's narrow snout, mentally comparing it to the snakes he was familiar with on his father's land. "Hmmm, I imagine you probably have to squeeze your food first before you eat it. I don't know if I'm supposed to stay in here now, but it won't bother me if you go ahead and eat. Your servant, Eirik didn't really say what I should do if you popped up before I left, but you seem very nice, Your Highness, and your scales are lovely. I've never seen a pattern quite like yours before."

     As Thor was speaking, the prince kept inching closer until he was only an arm's length away from his visitor. Thor slowly extended his hand towards the lindworm, who sniffed it cautiously before carefully sliding his head under Thor's fingers. Thor gasped in delight at the feel of the warm smooth scales against his skin. He gently rubbed the lindworm's brow ridges and scratched under his jaw, smiling happily at the prince's acceptance of his touches. 

     Behind them, the door to Loki's chamber groaned open and the lindworm swiftly darted back into the shadows. Thor turned around, hiding his disappointment at being interrupted while making friends with the prince.

     Eirik's concerned voice echoed through the prince's chamber. "Thor, are you alright?" 

     Thor turned to face the worried servant hovering in the doorway. "Yes, Eirik, I'm fine."

     The older man smiled, relieved that Thor was unhurt. "Your father and I were concerned when you didn't come back out right away."

     "I'm sorry to have worried you. The prince and I were just getting acquainted. He seems quite nice," Thor replied politely. 

     Eirik's eyebrows shot up. "Well, maybe you should stay here at the palace and be his companion. He usually drives everyone away with his misbehavior." 

     Thor knew that wasn't possible, but he was flattered that Eirik thought he would be a good friend to the prince. "Thank you, Eirik. Sadly, I really can't stay, though I'd dearly love to spend more time with Prince Loki. My father is not a young man, as you know, and he is preparing me to take over our holding one day. I do hope I'll be able to bring the tithe to His Highness next year."

     Eirik smiled warmly. "I'm sure Prince Loki would enjoy spending time with you again. You and your father are welcome to dine in the great hall this evening. Perhaps you could even visit the prince in the morning before you leave."

     Thor bowed his head gravely. "We'd be honored to accept your hospitality, Eirik. And it would be my pleasure to come say farewell to Prince Loki tomorrow."

******

     Although Odin was an early riser, Thor was awake well before his father, keyed up at the thought of getting to see Prince Loki again. He dressed as quietly as he could, not wanting to anger Odin and lose the chance to say goodbye to his new friend. Before he left, he wrote his father a short note explaining that Eirik had invited him back to speak with the prince again. Leaving the note on the table in plain sight, Thor slipped silently from the room and made his way back to the prince's hallway. Apparently Eirik was also an early riser, because Thor had only been waiting a for few minutes before the servant arrived. 

     "Good morning, Thor. Does your father know you're here?"

     Thor shrugged and smiled innocently. "I left him a note, but as long as I don't dawdle, it shouldn't be an issue."

     Eirik hid his own smile behind his hand. "Very well then, let's go in and give your regards to the prince. Volstagg, if you would please?"

     The burly guard opened the door for the two of them, and Eirik motioned for Thor to precede him. Looking around, Thor didn't see Loki, so he decided to go ahead and start speaking in the hopes that the prince would make an appearance. "Greetings again, Prince Loki. My father and I must depart for home, but I wanted to come tell you goodbye. I hope I'll see you next year at harvest time."

      Eirik was shocked when Loki slid out of the shadows and tucked his snout under Thor's arm like an overgrown puppy. Thor laughed and rubbed the lindworm's neck, scratching the place under his jaw that he had liked so much yesterday. After a few minutes, Thor patted him regretfully. 

     "I have to go now, Your Highness. If I'm late, my father may forbid me from coming with him next year." 

     The lindworm pulled his head out from under Thor's arm and butted him playfully in the chest. Then he raced off into the shadows at the back of the room, slithering back with something in his mouth. Thor put out his hand, and Loki dropped a smooth green stone into his palm.

     "Thank you Prince Loki, " Thor said gravely. He opened the pouch on his belt and put the stone inside. As he pulled his fingers out, they touched sleek wood, and he took out a little carving he had made of his favorite snake all coiled up. Smiling, he held it out to Loki, who took it delicately with his teeth. Thor bowed, saying, "Goodbye Your Highness. Until next year." The lindworm bobbed his head in return, then retreated back into the shadows. Slowly, Thor turned and followed Eirik out of the prince's chamber. Looking back, he smiled and raised a hand in farewell to the glittering green and gold eyes he saw peeking out from under the greenery by the pool.