In her mind, she'd planned this moment a hundred and a hundred times again.
Though he thought himself clever with his occultations, with his enchantments designed to conceal and his spells of misdirection, Sif had long been able to peel back his magicks like a scab to reveal the tender wounds smarting beneath. As she had not in so long, she did now, gravely bowing her head before her shield and biding: north, as far north as you may. Even before the thought was formed to completion, the vast everything and nothing of the cosmos rose and swallowed her whole.
Her shield pulsed with golden light as she focused on her destination; it listened to her command and obeyed her will. It shuddered only once more, as if hesitating, before she felt a flush of cold pulse from the steel – a cold sharp enough to rend flesh from bones and still blood within veins - but she set her mouth into a grim line against the wards seeking to hold her back. She insisted.
At length, the spells of old listened to her. At long last, they yielded.
Once, she recalled, after the final battle that had placed Thor on the throne he'd long struggled to avoid, he'd sent two dozen of Asgard's finest seiðrmanðr to accomplish this very task. None had succeeded, and those twelve were different for what they had encountered and survived, for what their spells had struggled and failed to subdue. In an unexpected gesture of of mercy, each mage was returned to their own minds the first full moon following their attempt to seek the Worldslayer out . . . but only just.
Thor, tender as his heart was, had seen his brother's leniency and hoped. Sif merely set her jaw.
Yet, it was her memory of that open, bruised look on Thor's face that set her path now. Her clinging to that recollection opened the way before her; it made her determination unmovable, her will absolute. She would not turn from the path set before her.
The cosmos shifted to reveal the iridescent limbs of the Mother in all her glory. There before her wide open eyes were Yggdrasil's branches, stretching onwards to infinity. In the small way she could comprehend, she was shown both familiar stars and far off worlds, all hanging on the myriads of celestial strands that made up the realms of the universe. The awesome glory of the cosmos shifted – pressing – protesting – for her presence, but she merely bowed her head and pushed on. She would not be swayed and convinced to turn back; her will was stronger than that.
“The wards are bound by blood,” the head mage had explained the reason for his failure. “We cannot breach so powerful an enchantment.”
Yet, set upon the weapon she bore were Loki's own spells . . . Loki's own wards of protection and runes of power. Now, she called upon a force she had not touched since before his fall – his first fall – and asked them to aid her anew, just as they once had so long ago.
The wards concealing his hiding place on the Branches let her through suddenly, without warning - dropping her as if miffed they were required to do so in the first place. The tremulous spin of starlight simply vanished, and she was left in the same kneeling position she had begun with on Asgard. A heartbeat passed while she gathered herself, and she looked up to take in her surroundings. Instead of the gilded floor of her suite in the palace, she now knelt upon the cold ground out of doors. There was a fresh layer of untouched snow, clean and cold and white to her senses, blanketing the world around her. She was surrounded by a forest of tall evergreens; the scent of cedar was thick and spicy in her nose alongside the towering shapes of the more familiar fir and spruce. Ice delicately frosted the trees, turning them to bleak guardians watching over a land that slept in want for spring.
Sif peered through the trees, drawn by the sound of water. A wide river ran through the landscape. Its surface was mostly frozen, although water still rushed underneath, flowing from a great waterfall that dominated just to the west of her vision. Only the crest of the plunge had frozen over; no matter the winter, the mighty cascade still rumbled as muffled thunder, calling her senses back from where they still walked the byways beyond.
Inhaling, she stood from her crouch; her boots were loud to break on the fresh, untouched snow. She followed the course of the river downstream, and spied a clearing on the bank, dominated by a simple structure of wooden logs. The small dwelling was familiar to her eyes, being not unlike those they would use to break their hunt in the north of Asgard's wild. She felt an unwanted pang, wondering if he had unconsciously recreated the memory here, before recalling that Loki had never much cared for the hunt. Her joy had not been his own.
At the thought, the corners of her mouth turned down, and a part of her (the part that was Sif the woman, not Sif who was and called to War) whispered that she could still turn back. She could run – flee, retreat – and leave this place before her presence was found. But she had succeeded in silencing that voice for centuries; she would not begin heeding it now.
Besides, she thought darkly, he is already aware of my presence . . . he knows I am here.
Just as the thought crossed her mind, heavy in its certainty, a dagger embedded itself in the wood of the tree closest to her head. Wafting in a telling haze around what was visible of the blade and hilt, seiðr was a pop of verdant green against the icy blue and grey tones of the winter-swept land. Sif was alert, but she heard no telling step in the snow. There had been no indrawn breath or hiss of drawn steel giving his place away – only the flying of the dagger and its flare of green. Instinctively, she held herself still in anticipation of another blow.
“That was a warning,” a cold voice bit out from behind her. His voice was as dry as dead leaves, hoarse, she could imagine, from long disuse. “The next one shall not be.”
Her shield pulsed in her hands, warning her of the further build of seiðr upon the air. For a moment she reflected on the irony of his spells protecting her from himself, before brushing the thought aside. The enchantments whispered that she could still go back, that she could still return the way she had come . . . but, she was not here for herself.
So, Sif stuck the hilt of her glaive in the ground, and leaned her weight on the weapon to show a strength that she did not quite feel. She squared her shoulders so that they were parallel to the ground, and proudly tilted up her chin. The leather covering her fingers made a strained sound in the cold as she clenched her hands more firmly about her weapon; the steel plates covering her body clinked as she steadied herself. The fur from the collar of her cloak tickled against the vulnerable skin of her throat, and it was such a discordant sensation against the potential violence of that moment that she fought the urge she had to darkly smile. Instead, she focused on the weight of her shield, on the glint of the Ivaldi-forged wings of her helm as they caught the winter-light, and then, finally -
- she turned to meet his eyes.
“I would not doubt your aim should you wish to try.” Her voice too was a strained sound, forced and unnatural to her ears. “Yet, you would find me no easy target.”
Loki's reply was swift: “You,” he gave on a hiss. Sif merely raised a brow in reply.
“Me,” her voice was dry – purposely so, then. She made a gesture to the small cabin in the clearing beyond. “Are you going to play the gracious host and invite me in, Loki? It is quite chilly outside, as I'm sure you know.”
His look, she thought with some satisfaction, was touched with no small amount of incredulity. The pupils of his eyes were blown wide, openly showing his surprise. Yet, she took no comfort in his confusion; she knew him to be capable of his worst when he felt as an animal backed into a corner and ready to bite in order to hide a wound. She forced herself to meet his eyes, and found them to be more green than she last remembered; his gaze was piercing, reflecting the cold of the land and the winter. He was thinner, she thought. The lines of his face were harsh and sharp; if she but reached out to touch him, she could place her hand in the hollow of his cheekbone. He wore no armor, safe as he assumed himself to be where none could touch him. Instead, he wore a simple dress of black leathers and a heavy white fur cloak about his shoulders. His hair was long now, and hung down his back in a simple, messy queue. No doubt he had tied it away out of annoyance for the black tresses constantly hanging in his face, she imagined, rather than any conscious decision for vanity. His common, almost rough appearance was so very different from what she had so long known of him that she stared, unwittingly taken aback.
Sif next noticed the cord he wore about his neck, decorated with various different odds and ends. Even her unfamiliar eye could espy talismans and tokens, the likes of which he would not have dared to wear openly in Asgard before. That, she forced a pang aside to acknowledge. The tips of his fingers were stained with ink from whatever project had his attention before she interrupted, and that small, seemingly inconsequential detail was so very familiar that, for a moment . . .
“I do not believe that the rules of etiquette require me to give shelter to an assassin,” Loki remarked. It did not take him long to recover his voice. He moved across the snow as a whisper, taking a threatening step towards her. “I anticipated Thor ordering forth a stronger force than the incompetent lackeys he first sent, but I never imagined that he would send his sharpest blade.”
“If I was here with death in mind,” her voice was low to promise, “you would not have been able to throw your first dagger.” War whispered through her words, and he tilted his head as if to better hear its sound.
When he smiled, she could see his teeth. “Perhaps,” he gave tonelessly, but his eyes glittered. “Yet, for now, I have already tired of your visit. I would ask – politely, of course – that you return from whence you came.”
She shook her head. "I cannot do that, Loki."
“Forgive me for first implying a choice,” the thin line of his mouth turned unkind. “Leave. Now. Before I force you to.”
Yet, she was unmoved. Defiantly, she struck the end of her glaive against the ground and met his eyes without blinking. “No,” she repeated. "I shall not; not until you hear what I have to say."
“What, precisely, makes you think that your words are welcome? I,” his speech was hissed from between his teeth, as if he was something wild to match the untamed land around him, “have served my exile well here. None have suffered by my hand, and none - ”
“ - none have benefited, either,” she interrupted, little caring for his speech. “You serve a sentence of your own writing, but within its parameters there is no penance, no effort to redress the wounds you have inflicted. You - ”
“ - I only desire to be left in peace. After what I have done – which can indeed be counted as payment enough for my great many wrongs – that is not so much to ask.”
“Then you would let this pass without seeing that blood is paid for blood?” her voice dripped with scorn as her hands clenched about her glaive. “Of everything I had thought to know about you – even the you of these past years . . . you would not let this go unaddressed.”
Sif saw where his eyes narrowed. Curiosity flickered through his gaze before he shoved the emotion aside with a clear scowl of annoyance, yet it was too late. The damage was done.
“Of what do you refer to?” his voice was dangerously hushed. Everything steel-sharp about her could hear the deadly edge lining his syllables, a more true warning than any snarled word or thrown blade ever could have been.
“You have not heard?” she asked. She widened her eyes to feign exaggerated surprise, a part of her viciously enjoying the annoyance that flickered across his expression in response.
“If you have not noticed,” Loki retorted dryly, “this is not a place that word reaches often . . . or quickly.”
This was her moment, then. And so, she braced herself. She tilted her head back to meet his eyes, refusing to blink and look away.
“Thor . . . “ your brother, she almost said before seeing the way his gaze narrowed with a look that was colder than the wild and the evergreens standing tall in the winter. “Thor . . .” but for all of her strength, she could not force the simple syllables to pass from her mouth. She had long rehearsed her speech, but found it all for naught when the moment was upon her. Her tongue was full of words, yet she could not speak a single one aloud.
And so, like pressing a knife into flesh, she forced her thoughts to shape quickly and cleanly. She made her wound.
“Thor is dead,” she let the words fall between them. “Thor is dead, and his murderer still walks free.”