1. The Hangman
The squirrel runs towards him, gabbles something at incomprehensible speed, and luffs excited its sorrel tail twice, thrice – just to disappear again somewhere in the giant plant way above Loki's crown of blazes.
Well, it's been a while since he has been here.
The leaves are rustling incessantly like a rainstorm's lullaby, enveloping everything. The dull greyness shrouds all colours.
And the god hangs from the tree, which is all bole here, and the branches beyond are moaning. Gungnir lies propped up against the ash, the mighty weapon looking like the tiniest splinter of a toothpick. His cloak of relentless winds and the slouch hat are scattered around him, who is clad in nothing but his breeches. The god's hair is fluttering like ravens' wings around him, and a remnant of goat milk trickles upside down through his short cut beard.
His eye-lids are closed. Dangling with one of his feet fastened to the dark wood he's silent.
Not so Loki, he can't. He's impressed, at least. So he takes a seat and rambles and rambles, and it takes some moments, hours until Hangatýr's consciousness starts to acknowledge the other: there is a deep sigh in the air between the two.
The visitor leans forward over his crossed legs. He cackles a laugh full of vim that billows through the late autumn serenity around them.
"There you are," Loki states.
Another sigh. Then: "What? Why?" Odin sounds all split lips and dry throat.
"I thought I'd pay you a visit, brother." Laufey's son clicks his tongue. "The others obviously don't care as much. I wonder if they noticed your absence at all."
Odin growls in a disparaging manner. He clearly doesn't care about them either. Although he'd never say so, of course. His closest kin, well maybe. But seriously: Loki doesn't know why one of the other's names was 'Allfather'. He has never seen another one being less a father than him.
Gone from everybody, eluding them. The hunter, the wanderer. Experiencing things, learning more. Patiently waiting for the right moment, the right source. Hoarding knowledge and information.
"What are you seeing?" Loki whispers slowly.
Then his eyes bulge out, because Odin rattles his last breath right in front of him.
2. The Womb
The servant who announces Loki's arrival is clearly in disarray. He had probably heard about it a lot, but nobody has seen the fire spirit of doubtful divinity since Svaðilfari's keeper was slain and the stallion had disappeared.
Odin feels a surge of long absent mirth bubble in his throat. He knows things others don't. Yet this... Nothing could have prepared him for this when Loki enters the great hall.
"You're insane, truly," he eventually manages somewhat composed, shaking his head.
Loki smirks, his enormous belly is only half-covered by his precious plaid made of late spring. His eyebrows are ruffled and blazing, the gaze is shifting here and there. The two irises are fresh peat bog.
When Odin had heard the news, he forbid him to enter here as a pregnant mare. That was just... too much.
"Maybe I am," Loki concedes. "But it worked." His entire body gleams mischievously.
"I'm sure that I don't want to know more." The ravens on his shoulder titter and exchange colourful details until Odin grips his spear tighter and shoos them away with a hiss. He feels a headache looming.
Loki sips from the mead the cupbearer maiden offers him shyly. The way he examines her outline and coy eyes, it's clear he didn't have her yet. Maybe he won't even wait till the parturition. Loki's sly tongue is feared and renowned amongst the females of all nine worlds. It's said to be particularly versatile and Odin knows no woman, who ever regretted opening her arms and legs for him.
The jewels they robe themselves in afterwards are glistering pearls of sweat and semen, forged by Loki's nimble fingers in the hearth of his hungry chest. There are necklaces and bracelets, brooches and girdles, rings and clasps.
And the women aren't hiding them.
It's sure that his debauchery knows no bounds. If anyone asked for a final proof, show them Loki's abdomen.
Loki takes his usual seat in a quite cumbersome way: he has to manoeuvre around the belly and finally settles it groaningly on his thighs. "You look disgusted, brother." His small figure looks overstrained and now Odin sees the deep shadows beneath his eyes. "Haven't you seen anything like this on one of your countless journeys?"
Odin clears his throat. "No, I haven't. I'm sorry if I looked disgusted. I didn't want to seem disrespectful. In fact I must thank you for what you did: without you we would have had a problem." He indicates a bow.
Loki's right brow flickers. "Is that so? Oh, Skollvaldr: would it have been that bad to give the builder what was his to receive? He performed his part of your contract, didn't he?"
"He was a Thurse," Odin monishes him. Thursar aren't put on a par with the Æsir and Vanir; a pact negotiated with one of them is worth less than the spit you sealed it with. That's nothing but common-sense.
Loki shakes his head astounded. "I forgot you're not only a fickle patron, brother. Your favourableness changes faster than Freyja replaces the linen of her bed sheets." A laugh erupts from between his thin lips, his slender frame shakes and his crown of hair flares.
In a whirlwind of bowel-clutching sensations Odin recalls the arcane skills she taught him, and only him amongst the Æsir. He never forewent opportunities to gain knowledge, or at least her tools. Never underestimate the importance of being as prepared as possible. Never.
His guest tilts his head, leaning back on his stool. The pregnant belly is clothed in simple light brown wool, and adorned with small charms of luck. Loki sheds his trademark garish red leather boots creakingly; his ankles are swollen and look maimed.
"Can I bring you something else?" Odin asks after staring at them for a few moments.
"You don't happen to have any grapes here?" Loki sounds genuinely hopeful. "Your taste in wine is fantastic, but since I'm pregnant I have this craving for grapes. It's not that easy to get some here, I know." His stomach rumbles as a confirmation.
With a curt nod the host sends away the maiden next to the larder. Propitiating Loki beforehand can't be wrong.
"See, I know we don't always agree with each other on a lot of things anymore," Loki eventually says.
This is true. "Things have changed ineluctably," Odin remarks.
Freki sniffles at the bowl of grapes the maid puts on the table in front of her master, who shoves them over to his guest. Geri watches like he is actually starving.
Loki plucks a handful of thick purple grapes from the far south east, and shoves them into his mouth. Juice dribbles over his chin. "Mindful of the manners in which you got rid of my children before, and mindful of the way you and me are connected – ah, let me finish, brother," he chides when Odin's good eye narrows dangerously and the mother-to-be goes on: "This one I bestow upon you." Loki's eyes are cast down, staring at his belly. "He will be the best and strong, the fastest steed in all nine worlds. With hanks of grey rain and eight hooves like hammers to the anvils in the sky."
Odin stares at Loki, takes a sip from his wine. He's not sure if he's touched or surprised at all. Or what the implications are exactly. But there is his long lost companion sitting in front of him, and despite all that has happened before, and the fact that they are drifting apart more and more, he is offering him the most important thing at this very moment.
Loki, creature of all present-days – his is not the past, nor any of the futures. He is now, and he is here.
Odin knows more, knows of next week, the next centuries.
The ravens return and peck at the left over grape stems with the squashed ones; they squabble and prattle about the things outside. Their master doesn't listen, he's staring into Loki's eyes, searching.
But he cannot see anything. He's not used to the present.
So he says, "He will be the best steed, like I am the best Æsir." Loki looks up, a surprisingly candid smile graces his slender face. Odin bends forward to pet the belly awkwardly. "Thank you."
Loki beams at him. "You're welcome, brother."
3. The Venom
Loki stares at the sky. Dozens of corvids are circling above them, crying abuzzed.
"Tell them that they are too soon," he rasps.
Hrafnáss doesn't even tilt his hat upwards, only grunts. A damp breeze makes his cloak and stringy hair flutter like weeping willow branches during a cold autumn gale.
Sleipnir prances fondly when he smells his father's sweat.
"Why do you know?"
"There are several ways to gain knowledge. Some which don't include seiðr." Loki wrinkles his nose in a manner that doesn't betray whether he really disapproves the other's techniques. "Just because I don't travel the nine worlds waking the dead or pestering the dying, doesn't mean I'm untaught."
"It's hard for you to travel now," Odin remarks not even with a hint of sarcasm.
Loki smiles shadows. They are becoming more and more. The shadows in the corner of Loki's eyes, at the edge of his teeth. Shadows lurking between his words and laughter.
Odin sees shadows everywhere. Since he had to bury his son, the light of his wife's life, they didn't leave him. Sometimes they claw at his clothes, at his horse.
They won't leave him until things are over.
"Why are you here?" Loki's posture doesn't look anything near comfortable. He's tied to the ground, his spouse is beside him in silence. Odin can't remember her talking before. Maybe he had just never listened to her. "Are you really gloating over my fate?"
"I thought I'd pay you a visit, brother," Odin says gripping Sleipnir's mane tighter.
Loki's stare drifts from the skies towards him. "You're afraid," he remarks coldly. "Things are starting to fall apart, and you can't stop it. Now you'll see if the things you did will suffice."
"I'm not sure," Odin quietly admits.
"And I'm not sure that you know what's your goal actually." Loki can't turn over; he's splayed out on the rocks. Sigyn's endurance is impressive, but the basin is almost full again. She'll have to empty it soon.
A flock of cinders wafts past Odin's head. Maybe he's afraid indeed. Afraid of Loki's son, who will engulf him and everything he represented. Afraid of the things afterwards. He had been there once, hanging from the tree and wounded – but the force of the Runes whipped him back to life. And for what?
With an apologizing sigh Sigyn rises and tips out the venom somewhere behind her.
Loki coils and squirms and wails. Curses and laughs.
Odin slackens the reins and clicks his tongue. He draws his hat deeper into his face and lets his steed break into a trot, speeding up soon at a full gallop.
He needs to be away again, he needs to be somewhere else.