The Thurs wears thick pelts, his face is hidden underneath a fur-lined hood. All by himself, he sits beside a small fire that crackles along poorly. He lifts his head as Loki approaches, wading through snow crust. During the day, when the builder rests, the topmost layer begins to melt; but at night, when the builder works, it freezes over again.
"Greetings," he says and spits grime, darkened by leftovers of his last meal.
Loki nods and draws closer to the flames. Slowly, they are flaring higher. "They say you must have someone helping you, builder."
The Thurs snorts. "Well, they say many a thing. Your kind." His fair eyes are blazing from beneath the hood. "Don't they?"
They also said, Make him stop. We don't care how you manage. But make sure you do, otherwise we'll put your head on a pole. Loki's gaze wanders over the building site. He tries again, "I don't see any tools, builder." Or the horse, for that matter.
The Æsir, of course, filled to the rim with mead and roasted boar, wouldn't crawl out of their cozy lodges. No, they would say, Loki, you shall go outside and look how he's faring with his pony, and garnish it with more roaring laughter. Like they couldn't wait to see the Thurs failing.
And so Loki found himself wandering the site where their settlement is supposed to grow-- not exactly because Odin had looked at him, really looked at him, and whispered, "Come back and report to me all you see," before returning to staring into his cup, no. He was curious himself.
Now the other's eyes narrow. "Are you accusing me of fraud, Laufeyson?" Another snort. "That's cheap, considering I'm almost done."
The flames lick fiercely at the brittle wood. "They are. I'm just the messenger."
"Oh, I see," the Thurs suddenly bursts out laughing. It's a clear and brisk sound. "That must be that famous vim of yours!" His eyes are full of mirth. "Come here, tiny Laufeyson. I'm sharing my wine with you." He extracts a leather bottle from his robes and waves it in Loki's direction. "Maybe this liberates your true wits."
He sensed the upheaval in his forge instantly: while the dwarves should have been scuttling around him, busy like bees, they were now obviously drawn towards the antechamber. Suddenly even the last, worst apprentice had something unbelievably important to conduct there.
And when he heard them giggling loudly, Loki sighed and put the hammer and the piece of iron down. The fires were cooling; he couldn't concentrate like this. He picked up his discarded shirt and managed to mop most of the sweat and soot from his neck and breast.
"By the hairy balls of Thor's favoured ram," he croaked at the bustling mass of dwarves as he wove through them. "That's not what I'm paying you for!"
"Now, now," the woman standing in the doorway drawled. "Is that how your tongue behaves when you're out of All-father's earshot?" The patches of ember closest to her started breathing brighter, illuminating her gracious form.
Loki huffed and fastened the shirt at the strap of his heavy leather apron, wiping his hands with it. "Well, I could show you how my tongue behaves when it's around you, Freyja. I bet you would welcome its versatility."
Unlike the surprisingly easy to disparage Ásynjur Freyja only laughed with a booming sound that made her bosom jiggle-- and the poor dwarves almost pass out. She shooed them away to get closer to Loki. Bounteousness radiated from her in gentle pulses. "I'll remind you if we ever got there, silver-tongued master." Loki could have sworn she winked.
"Why then do you grace these dusty halls with your bright presence, froûwe? Sessrúmnir is such a lighter and more cheerful place." Two claps of his hands made the nosy dwarves dissolve. "Can I offer you anything?" he asked after the last one has shuffled grumbling away.
"In fact you can." Her rosy face became coy, and she loosened the feathery coat around her bare shoulders. "Here," she said, and Loki stared at the countless freckles cast over most of her pale skin. "Have a really close look and tell me that you know how to adorn me further." Her smile was not too wide, as if she were holding back something. Behind her lips must lie some of her secrets, some of her knowledge, Loki was sure.
The other Æsir didn't care that Odin hoarded any advantage he could get a hold on, and let himself taught by Freyja all the sorceries she would share. But Loki wanted them, too.
He cleared his throat. "Do you have something special in mind?"
She looked as if she considered it only now, then quickly said, "No. I should trust you, I think."
"Very well," Loki said lightly. "Come back tomorrow, I'll show you what I will have thought of." He had never dared to hope to be that close any time soon.
"You want me to come here and pay you?" Her eyelids became heavy.
"Here or anywhere else," Loki said nonchalantly, stepping closer. "Wherever you want to teach me the ways of your secret knowledge." Understanding dawned in her eyes; all of a sudden they were wide awake again and she watched him closely. "Let me have a taste of your favors, Gefn."
She leaned towards Loki, almost half a head taller than him. Her chest was proud and wide, and adorned with bronze brooches and silver clasps. Jeweled amulets were diving into the bottomless cleft of her bosom. Bracelets jingled from her milky arms as she reached for Loki's jawline and stroked the groomed vermillion there. "Well, I shall warn you: the insides of my thighs are quite ticklish," she murmured. "The closer you draw towards my mound the worse it gets." Her breath smelled of rich, dark honey harvested during ripe late summer weeks.
Loki's gaze bored into her sky-lit eyes. "Then I shall prepare my beard with amber-scented oils to lessen its coarseness, mistress." He imitated a courtly bow.
"What are you going to do with Freyja, and the Sun and Moon, once you got them?" The payment sounds… particular in Loki's ears.
Freyja, well, yes: who wouldn't want to lay with her? But the rest sounds like a riddle, like something the mason additionally thought of. It only stresses the absurdity of wanting the proud froûwe at all. Loki fondly remembers the episode where she didn't want to be married to Thrym, and how her bristling anger made all the male gods flinch, for they dared to even think about it.
A shrug, and the fur heap silently releases most of the snow that has settled in the past few minutes. The Thurs rises, pats more snow off his coat. "Let's see about that when the time has come."
"She's the most beautiful of them, but most of all she is skilled in many crafts-- and possessed of great knowledge." Loki's eyes slit. He catches the mason's fast, alarmed eyes on him. "What is it you want from her?" Because one can learn so much from her: wisdom that is not written on the insides of her thighs or onto her supple flanks. Nor along each single rib, or around her vertebrae. Loki has looked for it there.
But there are spells and incantations engraved in Freyja's teeth, they are carved across her cheeks. Etched into the softness of the inside of her lips; when you pull them apart you can read them. Or you can run the tip of your tongue over them, which is the way she prefers it.
A small laugh then from the Thurs, snowflakes clinging to the tip of his eyelashes. Amusement glistens on his lips. "You're good, Laufeyson. There is no use fooling you."
"You have no reason to," Loki lies effortless.
Her eyes were full of satisfaction as she looked up and down his frame. Then she tilted her head slightly. Her half-loosened braids were flowing with shiny clasps and needles; as she was crouching above him they tickled his belly. "I wonder how eager you are to learn how to shift your shape," she said eventually. Her gaze fixed his twitching feet. "I heard you were a curious creature, Loki."
"Quite eager, mistress," he assured calmly, yet alert. His palms cradled the back of his head on the cushions of Freyja's bedding.
She murmured vowels of slightly bored approval and the graceful wings of her brows rose slightly. "I don't have much use for men like you," she then said, rather out of nowhere. He stared at her surprised. "Like this, I should maybe particularize."
Loki swallowed. "Then, what do I have to do?" He straightened his back, reclined on his elbows now. "What is your price?" If Odin has managed it, I can do it as well, he thought. I won't be shaken off that easily. I'll be on a par with him again.
The Vanr's smile widened, her teeth were showing. "Let me get you something different to wear," she grinned. "Wash off your sweat and juices lest you ruin my best robes."
"Well," Loki says and fakes a yawn. The night comes fast these days, and Loki's time is running out; the light of the fire licks at both their figures. "I think it's not very polite that you know who I am, but I don't know your name and where you come from."
There's a gap, bigger than the missing gate. The walls are glistening beautifully in the dark, northern night. As if the builder had taken stars from the skies to ground and scatter them over the bricks. Loki imagines him flourishing them over the walls, with a rapt face.
The Thurs snorts a little laugh and turns his leather bottle upside down. There is no wine left. "I'm from the east and go here and there, wherever one might need my expertise. Now I'm here, but I'll be gone soon." He looks directly at Loki. "You can call me Svaðilfari, because that's what I am."
"An unlucky traveller, huh?" Loki leans forward to check if the Thurs is, in fact, one-eyed. But no, the other has two good eyes, looking back expectantly. "Why are you unlucky?"
As Svaðilfari clears his throat, he sounds raspy and weary. "You wouldn't think I'd be here if I could lead a decent life among my kinsmen, are you?" He snorts again. "Of course not. I wouldn't seek trade with the Old Raven himself."
"Yet you did."
"Yes, I did."
"Like you have nothing to lose."
But they both have everything to lose: Loki can lose his head (and find it back on a pole) and everything else if he can’t stop the builder in time. Also, Thor is more than due; Loki can sense him drawing nearer and nearer. Maybe he's still half a day away, but he's definitely returning home from his latest Thursar Slaying Feast in the East.
"Who says I'll lose, Laufeyson?" Svaðilfari then smiles. His teeth are even, and within the blink of an eye they are growing and growing. His whole frame and flickering shadows are sucked into turmoil-- until suddenly he stands on all fours, as proud as the first time Loki laid eyes on him: the stallion, the real builder of Asgard.
Svaðilfari's pelt seems cast in white gold. The stars and the crescent moon are bathing him in the glory of this freezing night between the years. He rises on his hind legs, bristles and trots the few yards over to the heap of icily glistening ashlar blocks.
And then he goes to work.
This is it, this is it. Loki's mouth goes dry; he hastens to grab a handful of untouched snow and puts it into his mouth, fiercely sucking it to water down the wine. He has to be fast now, he better has to have a good idea, or else they'll hunt him down like his son, the wolf.
He rummages in the pouch dangling from his belt. His mind has to be clear for this; he mustn't fuck this up.
Loki's hair isn't quite long enough to be braided properly, but he has cast himself a pair of brass combs after Freyja's instructions, and she has bestowed upon him one of her favourite girdles. At first his seiðr has worked best when he also wore dresses and a matron's belt with tools and needles and keys. But then they had learned that he could omit the skirts and veils.
Loki wonders that his fingers work as deftly as ever as he guides the combs over his skull until they catch enough hair to stay put. Then he sheds his cloak and boots, his trousers and shirt.
Naked, he fastens the girdle around his waist. He can feel the first hum and shiver as the bronze pearls wound around the leather begin to resonate in his skin.
He starts murmuring the secret rhymes taught by Freyja herself, and turns the pouch inside out until the small jar of lip colour lands in the heap at his feet. He scrambles for it, applies it in an experienced manner, and sits down with his legs folded.
Eventually Loki shuts his eyes, dampens the murmur and continues to sing in his belly only. His body sways, the world around him becomes vast, shifts and wavers, and snow banks threaten to engulf him; his eye lids flutter and his breathing becomes so very slow…
And when he rises, he rises as a sorrel mare and she is neighing loudly and prancing elegantly. Across the plain she can see Svaðilfari coming to a halt, throwing his head into the clear air and snuffling; instant yearning makes him prance nervously.
This would be her masterpiece.