Balder carefully etched the final line on the shield he had been working on for the past four years. He held it out at arms length to study his handiwork. He angled in to the left and then to the right checking all of the lines. Was that part in the upper left corner too shallow? It looked weird. He ran his hands over it and it felt fine.
It was done.
Maybe he should go over the entire thing again. He could add a few more etchings to that one area slightly left of the middle. It would help add a triple redundancy to the way the field would repel unknown metals.
He had worked with his mentor Velentr with the original plan before the much esteemed Smith had passed on. This shield was partially done in hopes to honor the man who despite being the most amazing being and Smith had no hopes of Valhalla for he had not died in battle nor had he been designated a Warrior.
Instead Velentr had died of old age and was destined to Hel.
Balder was quite torn about this. It was just that the ones who die in battle were revered and deserved a higher place in the afterlife, but was it fair that men like Velentr who had lived brave, full, and just lives dined in the dreary world of Hel? Balder himself preferred to think of Hel as a more cheerful place. A peaceful place where those who had managed to live and die in peace could continue to do so.
Balder took up the shield and shook the thoughts out of his head. These were not the thoughts of a man who had just finished a masterwork such as this shield. Balder needed to go share his triumph with those who could appreciate it starting with Hoder.
Balder looked over at the timepiece on the mantle. It was midmorning which meant that he had managed to work all night straight. He wondered why Hoder or his mother had not interrupted him or forced him to go to bed. He walked over to the door and remembered he had locked it.
Balder opened the door to find a breakfast tray on the doorstep. It was the usual bread and fruit. Everything was cut precisely so it had to have been their mother who had done it. Hoder tended to rush making food such as this. A loaf, an apple and a knife was usually what Hoder left as a morning meal if their mother left him to the preparations. Hoder blamed it on the fact that he was blind, but Balder knew Hoder just did not like preparing food of any kind.
Balder took the fruit in and set it on a small table set aside for such things. He caught a note under the napkin. Balder fished it out and recognized the writing of his brother in an instant.
Hoder wrote in a very controlled pen, much more formal than any sighted person. He also tended to ignore what color of pen he was using as long as it was one that left a raised trail when one used it to write. And it was this tendency that Balder learned to read things like this yellow note written on a yellow scrap of paper that some other being had previously written on in black using regular ink.
One got used to a lot of things when one had to live with a twin like Hoder.
Not that Balder would want to trade in his twin or anything.
At least not today.
Hoder's note was simple. He was going to visit Loki today. Which actually was perfect. Loki and Hoder would be invaluable in testing his shield. Maybe Hoder could even get some of the guards to help. With that pleasant thought he quickly ate his breakfast and headed for the palace.
Balder and Hoder lived with their mother in a pleasant house outside of the walls of the palace. It was modest enough accommodations for the royal bastards that few of the council complained, but it was close enough that the twins could be protected by the might of their unofficial father and his guards.
Their mother, previously one of Frigga's handmaidens before the illicit pregnancy, had come from middle ranking nobility with enough influence that they could demand Odin help support his children, but not high enough for Odin to risk any more than that.
Balder passed by the guards with the barest of nods heading through the side door that lead through the training yards. Balder had never entered the palace through the main gates. When he was a child his mother had let him in through the servant entrances to spend a few stolen moments with their father. Now that Balder was an adult with the ranking of a Warrior he entered through the training yards.
Hoder entered through either door depending on how awkward he wanted to make the guards feel in the training yard.
Balder walked past the first field where the Einherjar were practicing marching drills and into his honored and royal brother Thor's favorite place---the sparring rings. Thor was wrestling with one of his friends while the others cheered them on. It seemed he was wrestling with the larger one with the red hair this time. Balder had forgotten his name, but he knew that the man was an accomplished fighter from a long line of warriors. He was, however, the lowest ranked of Thor's friends. He was also the oldest and as a man who was past his seven hundredth year should not be playing with children.
Sif, of course, as sister of Heimdall was the highest ranked and likely to marry Thor one day. Balder tried to picture this warrior woman shouting obscenities at her friends as the ever graceful All-mother and failed utterly to do so. Balder rather hoped that she would find herself attracted more to the fairer sex and leave Thor to find a queen that would temper the rage of his royal brother rather than feed the flames.
But Thor and his prospective bride were not yet five hundred. Thor had another several decades before even the barest of peach fuzz would grow on his chin. Perhaps in that time they would both grow into their roles.
"Hail, Balder!" Thor shouted from atop his friend. Balder walked over as Thor untangled from his friend.
"Hail, Thor." Balder grinned.
"Have you come to train?" Thor said.
Balder shook his head. "Know you that I train but thrice a week."
"If one does not train daily one's talents will dull." Sif said.
Balder tried not to give away anything on his face. That, unfortunately, was the entire reasoning behind the limits on Balder's training. Odin had made it clear two decades ago that Balder was not to continue serving in the army or claim his matriarchal family's position at court. Balder knew this was all to keep the council happy, but it hurt to hear it from his father, nonetheless.
"I have training of my own to do." Balder said holding out his shield. "I have finally finished the shield I was working on."
Thor looked at the shield skeptically.
"I have made a selectively permeable personal shield array." Balder said excitedly. "It will allow harmless things to pass through while blocking weapons of all kinds. It will allow soldiers to be nearly completely protected without the worry of..."
"Bah." Thor interrupted. "A true warrior fears not death. They welcome the opportunity to go to Valhalla."
"Of course warriors desire to win." Balder said. "But there is no cowardice in protecting oneself."
"If one is a feared of death then that means that one has not trained enough." Sif said.
"All of the training in the nine-realms cannot protect one from everything." Balder said.
"I desire no more protection then I can give myself." Sif said. Thor nodded enthusiastically. Balder reaffirmed his desire that the pair of them would not wed and then lead the army to ruin.
"Younglings without beards should not discuss what they do not understand." Tyr walked up. Balder grinned in relief. Tyr was an accomplished warrior, and knew the pain of wounds and the battlefield. "Let me see this new shield."
Balder handed it over so that the one-armed warrior could look it over. Tyr hefted it, and smoothed over the etchings.
"It is a fine looking shield. How does it activate?"
"I need Hoder to finish the final bit." Balder admitted. "But it will be but moments to do so."
"Hoder came and stole Loki from training." Tyr growled.
Balder winced. "Did you see where they went?"
"You would have a clearer idea of where seidermenn gather." Tyr handed back his shield.
"Be careful with your wording. It is not as if my brother had a choice of occupations." Balder snapped.
"I meant no disrespect to your brother. He does as best as he can with the fate that the norns have woven him. I worry of undue influences on the younger prince."
Balder decided not to argue. He too was worried about his youngest brother. Loki was small for his age, something that was only compounded by the fact that the only children that were of a high enough rank to train with him were Thor's age or several decades younger than Loki.
"I will talk to Hoder." Balder said.
"I do not see why he would want to come back." Sif sniffed. "He's such a baby. He's no fun to fight against."
"Training is not supposed to be fun." Tyr snapped. "The army is only as good as your weakest soldier. Now I want you all to go do sword drills until I know that you understand that war is serious!"
The children groaned.
"Warriors don't complain!" Tyr snapped, handing Balder back the shield. "Another noise out of you and you will be running laps!"
The children lined up to work on their sword skills while Tyr lingered to talk in a low voice.
"Loki is not doing well in his training." Tyr murmured. "I've done everything but he's just not cut out for heavy weaponry."
"I know." Balder murmured back.
"He's good at archery." Tyr said. "And I think I can get him to be fair at a blade."
"It's not that he is a bad fighter. He is just not... If he was anything other than the second prince I would send him to train with the Valkyries or the archers. He's good with a horse so I'd even send him to the dragoons."
"Do you not think I know?" Balder hissed.
"I fear this constant failure will cause him to despair and turn completely from the martial arts."
Balder tightened his grip on his shield. He worried that may be why Odin insisted that both sons train in the traditional manner. If Loki could not prove himself a warrior of renown he would never be a threat to the throne. Damn Odin and his manipulations. It never ceased to end.
"I will go find my brother." Balder said.
"Once Hoder has that working bring it back." Tyr said. "It would be a challenge to test it for you."
"That seems like a pleasing past time." Balder grinned. "You will be most surprised at my skill."
"I doubt it not." Tyr said turning to return to his critique of his students.
Balder wandered into the palace towards the library. There was more than a fair chance that his brothers had headed there. And within the third secluded reading room he found them.
Hoder was relaxing on a chair with his arms crossed. He was not wearing any of his assorted eye coverings, but a long scarf was wound on the table. Hoder only uncovered his eyes when he was relaxed. A strange habit, but one that Balder had come to welcome as the easiest way to read his twin's mental state.
Loki was sitting cross-legged on a second chair a large tome open in from of him. Loki had grown up so fast. Was it only a few centuries ago that he was a tiny little bundle in Frigga's arms? Balder knew that his youngest half-brother was only a little over half a century younger than Thor. There was no reason to feel more protective of Loki than Thor, but Balder was and he was unsure how to go about changing it.
Loki's careful reading voice recited the history written in the paper. Loki was still dressed in his training clothes and was a little too dusty and dirty for the librarians to truly welcome his intrusion.
Loki's recitation was stopped when he stumbled over a word. Loki glanced up to look at Hoder and discovered Balder standing in the archway as well.
"Brother!" Loki said happily.
"Balder." Hoder waved Balder toward him. "Loki was just helping me with some research I was doing."
"He's supposed to be out training." Balder glared at Loki. Loki looked down at his book.
"He was losing anyway." Hoder said bluntly. "What's he going to learn getting beat up by a girl over and over again."
"I was not loosing to a girl!" Loki said. "Sif is no girl."
"What is she then?" Balder asked.
"She's a monster in a skin of a girl."
Hoder laughed. Balder tried to glower harder, but glowering never did seem to work.
"You need to learn how to fight properly." Balder said.
"I know." Loki shrunk in his seat. "It just...I just can not do it. I hate it. I hate everyone! And Tyr is so mean. He makes me run more laps than everyone and do more push-ups and drills and..."
"Tyr is just trying to help you build muscle. Have you been eating properly?"
"YES!" Loki said. "I eat tons and tons but it does not help!"
"I believe you. I beg you not to give up." Balder said. "We only do this so that you will be eligible for the throne should anything happen to Thor."
"Throne, throne--why is that all anyone ever talks about." Hoder interjected. "Loki and I care not about the throne. We are too busy learning about Bor right now. I am currently planning to write an article on---"
"I finished it." Balder finally remembered why he was looking for his brothers. Nothing made Balder focus more than Hoder starting to lecture on his current topic of research.
"Finished what?" Hoder said.
"The shield is done?" Loki held out his hands and uncrossed his legs. Balder grinned and passed his youngest brother the finished work. Loki laid the shield down on the table to get more support to run his hands on it. "It's beautiful. The runes are so intricately carved."
"Where is it?" Hoder said. "I'm guessing you want me to finish it."
"I've got some warriors outside who want to try it out." Balder said picking up the shield and moving it to where his twin was trying the scarf around his eyes.
"Can I watch?" Loki jumped up.
"Only if Hoder clears it."
Hoder was tracing the pattern in a much more deliberate way than Loki had been doing previously. He traced the loops while muttering the appropriate words. Hoder had finished his part of this project months ago and had been annoying Balder for the physical aspect ever since.
Loki stared and watched Hoder for nearly fifteen minutes as the talented seidermann layered the protection spell into the shield.
"It is done." Hoder said. "I trust you will be careful with the testing?"
"I always am." Balder grinned. "Hey, Loki. Want to come shoot an arrow at me?"
"Be careful." Hoder said. "Loki come here and help lead me to observe this testing."
"It's going to be a moment of history!" Loki said walking to Hoder's side and waiting until Hoder placed his hand on his shoulder. "I bet that soon every warrior is going to be holding a shield like this. Balder is going to be so awesome--like Velentr, but not old and grouchy."
"He will have yet to outdo the dwarves."
"Balder is better than the dwarves." Loki said. "Dwarves suck at fighting. Balder can make himself a weapon and then five seconds later use it to cut off someone's head."
Balder could not deny that he did like the adoration of his younger brothers. There was nothing quite like it.
"I thought we had agreed to split." Hoder said in mock anger. "Loki is my younger brother and you have to make due with Thor."
"You are quite a jester." Balder said. "It is not my fault that I am the favorite brother?"
"You? I fear Loki and Thor have assured me that they tell you that only to keep you keep you from pining away from sadness, for surely I, Hoder, the magnificent, am the better older brother."
"I think you are both good." Loki said.
"Hush now." Hoder shook Loki's shoulder gently. "We both know that neither one of us will be swayed by such measly things as facts and logic."
"It is true then that all of my older brothers are the same then." Loki said mournfully. "I shall have to inform the council that as the only one with a working grasp on reality that the throne should fall to me."
Balder and Hoder chuckled.
"If only it were that easy." Balder murmured. They joked a little more until they reached the training grounds. Balder placed the shield on a dummy. He grinned and tossed the dagger he kept in his belt. It bounced off.
Balder took his second dagger and a piece of bread he had not eaten from breakfast and walked closer. He tossed the dagger and the piece of bread. The uneven weights and shape made it so they did not land in the same place or at the exact same time, but it was close enough for a first test in public.
The crowd clapped loud enough that it was probably not just being polite to the bastard son of Odin.
"We all know that the reason we cannot use force fields in war is because they are absolute boundaries that cannot tell friend from foe. I have created a shield that will block the weapons of our enemies while allowing allies access to our space. We will be better protected without having to change the noble way of the Asir warrior."
The crowd cheered loudly.
"Let us begin the testing!"
. . .
The testing went better than Balder had hoped. The shield flawlessly kept out only the weapons thrown at it. It was perfect. Balder could see the praise coming in now. Not even Odin would be able to ignore how Balder's shields had cut down the casualties. If civilians agreed to wear the shield it might even help cut down on the number of murders and attacks. It could be better than anything.
Towards the ending of the testing on the practice target Odin even came down to watch. Balder could not manage to stop staring at Odin's face searching for a reaction. Anything at all. Could Odin be proud of what Balder had done today. What would it take for Odin to publicly praise Balder?
. . .
"I think I found a flaw." Loki murmured next to Hoder. Hoder had retreated from the crowd and the loud boisterous noise and shoving that came with it. He generally was not comfortable in large groups. Mobs tended to forget how difficult it was to move quickly when one cannot see the ground. Or other people. Or well anything at all.
"What is it?"
"What if one makes a weapon out of something that is harmless?"
"What do you mean?" Hoder said.
"I made this arrow leaves and green twigs from a tree. I may also have used a little bit of string." Loki said. "It's not super sharp and probably not fatal separately, but I think it might confuse the spell."
Balder held the arrow carefully. It was hastily crafted and would not fly far. It would need a lot of momentum to launch it hard enough to be a true threat to anything. Loki might be coming to be a fair archer, but he still drew at a child's weight. Balder might have the draw strength, but he have never actually used a bow except as a joke or a dare. Balder had always helped with the aim in those cases.
"Loki." Balder said. "I need you to get an adult sized bow. I'll work on improving this arrow and then we can test it."
"Will not Balder be mad if we embarrass him in front of everyone?"
"It is better to now then have it revealed in battle. Go get me that bow."
. . .
Balder was sick of watching for a reaction from Odin. The test was not impressive enough it would seem. Odin valued bravery in his sons. Balder would show Odin some bravery. Show him that despite the fact he was forced out of the army he was still braver than everyone else.
Balder shouted for the match to stop. He walked towards the shield. He carefully stepped through broken arrows, rocks and daggers as well as pieces of fabric, leather and oddly enough a number of coins.
Balder reached the shield and then picked it up. He turned toward the crowd.
The crowd roared their approval.
. . .
"Get me as clear a shot to the shield as possible." Hoder said. Loki helped lead him through the crowd.
"Um...it looks like they've started to line up."
"Ignore them." Hoder said.
"You are the second prince and I am blind. Lines do not matter to us."
Loki hesitated and then started to go a different way.
"It's easier to a shot from the back."
"That is fine."
Loki and Balder managed to get through the crowd. Loki helped position Hoder who was about to loose as reasonably an aimed arrow as a blind man led by a child could aim. Hoder froze as he heard his brother call for a cease-fire. Perhaps the shield had failed already? Hoder held his pose for a while waiting for confirmation.
"Uh--Hoder?" Loki said.
"Please continue." Balder's voice said.
The crowd roared. Hoder loosed his arrow and turned where his younger brother was.
"Balder!" Loki shouted.
The crowd's excitement turned to shock. Hoder turned his head toward where he had shot, trying to make sense of the sound.
"Loki, what happened?"
"We shot Balder!"
. . .
"And that is how Hoder and Loki shot Balder in the ass in front of the entire army." The very drunk man said. "Balder could not sit down for days because it turned out he was allergic to the plants used in the arrow. It was hilarious. For a while not a feast went by without someone saying here tell us the story about how Balder got hit by Hoder. Which is even funnier cause Hoder is blind see? Can't usually hit anything 'cept by accident."
"Yes. Yes. I can see how funny that could be." The poet said. He had lucked to this stranger and his camp by accident. The stranger had been drinking some mead that the poet found far to potent to even sip, but the poet had learned a lot of great new stories about the gods.
Even this one had potential, but maybe not as a comedy. The poet would have to work on it. It had a great potential to be a story about the perils of excess pride. It might even be able to be set to a nice tune.
The poet tuned out the rest of the drunken ramblings where Loki and Hoder apologized and Balder forgave them. He also missed about how Balder was still working on perfecting the shield and hoped to be done sometime in the next millennia.
Instead the poet reworked the story into a tale in which Balder died for his pride. It was most popular and grew more detailed in the telling.
The next poet decided that the arrow was made of mistletoe because it had appropriately symbolic for the piece.
A few poets and decades later it made a great entry point for a story that another poet was writing. It was going to include such crowdpleasers as death, torture, snakes, wolves and it stared all of the gods on the ultimate backdrop--the end of the universe.
It was going be the poem that everyone would tell.
. . .
"By the nine realms where do the mortals get these ideas from?" Hoder said horrified as Loki concluded reading the next story in the collection that the librarian had obtained from Midgard for them.
"I have no idea, brother." Loki said. "Mortals have such the most twisted minds to they not? Shall we read the next story? I want to know if I escape."