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The Reign of Lodbrok

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One night in his cups, Thor visits the cell block where Loki was held before their last quest together – the one from which Loki did not return.

When Thor came home alone from that adventure, he found that the cell had already been cleared of the debris of Loki’s effects – which had been the gifts of Frigga, later broken in the storm of Loki’s grief. Thor could have killed the warden who had told him the debris had been discarded. He had a vision of throttling him with his bare hands, and in the vision he was filled with certainty as he had not felt since he was a callow fool of a youth who had just come into his power.

But he only said, ‘Very well,’ and did nothing.

No prisoner has been placed in that cell since Loki, at Thor’s orders. But there are inmates further down the row, and he can see their shapes stirring, noticing someone abroad in the hall. It is probably for the best that he knows himself to be observed. It may keep him from making too much the fool of himself, when he knows he is drunk and maudlin.

He operates the control to withdraw the membrane across the face of the cell, and steps within.

The cell is pristine, featureless. There is nothing to say that there is the place Loki slumped against the wall, bleeding from wounds of his own infliction. But Thor remembers well where it was.

Could there not be some trace of Loki – microscopic, as Jane’s people might call it – still there on the wall or the floor, some minuscule fragment still drifting in the air? He has an urge to sit down there himself, to arrange his limbs the way he remembers Loki’s arranged. The urge seems perilous, but works on him strong as gravity. He barely resists.

He permits himself to touch the wall, about where Loki’s head rested. He observes in himself the wish that something about that spot should be palpably different – still warm, perhaps?

He feels for himself both pity and contempt, and turns to leave.

Something moves.

It’s a little black cat, peering in at the door of the cell. He has seen it around before. He grins. ‘Don’t get caught in here!’

He makes a shooing gesture, to which the cat flicks its ear disdainfully.

Thor takes an aggressive stride towards it, hands outstretched, and then it does flee.

When he saw it before, he was walking in the hall of monuments to his fallen fathers, contemplating the gap Odin has left for himself in their company – where perhaps Frigga deserves to stand, or Loki, but surely never will. A shadow moved in the corner of his eye. It was the cat, on the corner of a plinth, upright and perfect as a figurine. It stared at him, comically alert. When he turned to look at it fully, it spooked, launching itself derangedly sideways and zipping away. This made him laugh, which was enough to break his sorry mood.

He worries for the cat, roaming at will as it does. What if it were locked in a cell? Or fell into the hands of a prisoner? He will look out for it in future. It should perhaps be caught, and given to some child. Fandral has a niece, he recalls.

There is a tournament. Coloured draperies float from columns, and golden lights drift above the crowd, turning the dust stirred up from the sand to a bright haze.

Thor fells three opponents. Then a fourth, with a mighty hammer’s blow to the jaw, that sends the youth crumpling to the sand. The boy is dark-haired, slenderly built beneath the condition he has clearly worked hard to lay on his bones. The way his body lies inert, limp as a wilted leaf, seems sickeningly familiar. Thor has no further taste for glory that day.

He withdraws with the customary gesture of tapping his own shoulder – making the movement large and clear for the crowd to see – then takes a seat. A great sigh of surprise moves through the company. At its tail are a few tentative boos. He straightens his spine and looks straight ahead. He could silence them in an instant, he knows, if he stood up and invited the culprits to show themselves. But the thought wearies him.

That night they feast the tournament champion, who is – quite rightfully – not Thor. Thor has a moment of confusion as he enters, finding himself making for the champion’s pride of place beside the king. He thinks he stops himself in time, so that no-one can have noticed.

Odin is quiet among the boisterous toasting, as often he is in these days, and withdraws when the last dishes have only just been tasted. This leaves Thor as the host. He must make several more rounds of toasts before he can leave himself, though he yearns for the quiet of his rooms.

At last his duty is done, and he takes his leave for the night. Sif and the Warriors Three farewell him merrily enough, but Sif’s gaze follows him as he goes. When he glances back from the door, she is saying something to Hogun and Volstagg, who both now look at Thor too. Thor raises his hand. Their smiles in response are effortful.

Thor wakes in the early hours of the morning. The sleepless lights of Asgard gleam through the drapery at his window, casting the room in deep twilight. He has never slept in true dark here.

All night the lights will glimmer, brighter than stars, while his people sleep snug and safe among their kin. But nowhere in all the Nine Realms do Thor’s mother or brother safely sleep.

He has wept openly in public all his life, at the wake of a fallen warrior, or at great tales of heroes’ deeds when the night is long and the mead flows freely. But private grief is new to him: this slow wasting of the spirit, these quiet tears that drain him till he can barely lift his hand to wipe them away.

Something moves near his shoulder. He is stupefied with sorrow, and cannot stir himself.

A treacherous thought: what a relief that it comes now. For he was taught to anticipate an assassin before he finished learning his tally tables.

Nothing happens. A cautious assassin, if it is one. He shifts on the pillow at last, curious.

A black shape on the corner of the mattress, by his head.

It’s the cat. He almost laughs.

The creature is accustomed to the run of the room while he sleeps, perhaps, and he has put it out by waking. It is still, crouched in affront now. The surface of its eyes reflects opaque silver.

Slowly he raises one hand, and leaves it in the air a while for inspection.

He lets it fall toward the cat, until at last it is close enough that the creature can smell him – he can feel tiny puffs of air in the hair of the back of his hand.

It lets him run the back of two fingers down the velvet edge of its ear, and nudge his knuckles into the fluff at its neck. The tips of its whiskers tickle his wrist.

When he flips his hand over to deliver a full-body stroke, it takes fright and leaps from the bed. Instantly it is invisible in the gloom. A faint patter of paws across the floor, and then it’s as though it was never there.

Odin summons Thor to his library to discuss the correspondence of the realm – a summons he has not issued in months, since Thor refused the throne. Thor, puzzled, arrives to a scene like a statecraft lesson that his father used to stage when he was a boy: Odin at his writing desk, with several sheafs of parchment before him, bundled with wooden pins, and a single, smaller, less comfortable chair pulled up facing the other side. Though previously there were two chairs, for two sons.

When they were boys, Loki once said to Thor that these lessons were lies; he claimed that Odin had falsified parts of the correspondence he showed them, so as to make it teach the lesson he wished it to teach more perfectly. They quarrelled. Thor conceded the correspondence sometimes showed no trace of official seals, and was in a hand that could conceivably be a version of their father’s, but maintained this might just mean their father had made a copy for them to learn with, lest the original be lost or damaged – like being given practice swords. Revisiting this now, Thor is almost certain Loki was right.

Thor takes his seat. There seems to be a light of mischief in Odin’s eye, as he performs his old, ponderous, ritual gesture of lifting a sheaf of parchment, removing the pin and setting it down precisely parallel to the edge of the other sheafs, spinning out the moment before he begins to speak. It is indeed as though Thor is a boy again. He is confused and annoyed.

Odin speaks to him of a farmer who has written to him inappropriately – it should have been to the lord of the village – to complain of the corruption of a tax collector. It is a perfect exemplar of the double-bind of rulership by vassalage. The matter is the lord’s to resolve and Odin would be insulting his vassal by taking it up himself. But if it is true, the lord is likely implicated, and referring it to him risks alerting him to hide the evidence of his corruption, or worse, to retaliate unjustly against the farmer. In short, everything Odin can do risks being wrong.

‘Father,’ Thor says, ‘you have many scribes. And many, many advisors far wiser than I. Why do you ask me this?’

‘Are you not my son and only heir?’ Odin replies.

‘I understood when I refused the throne, I did so with your blessing.’

‘You did, you did! But is it fair that I be left alone with these people?’ Odin flaps the sheaf of parchment. ‘Do you have any idea of the volume of sheer complaint? The burden of it?’

‘I had no idea you considered it a burden,’ Thor stammers. ‘I am sorry to hear it.’

‘No, no,’ Odin says, brows pinching together. He puts his head in his hands.

‘I fear I can be of little use to you.’ Thor could have wished the abjection were less audible in his voice. ‘I am not myself.’

‘Something ails you?’

A beat passes, in which Thor considers and reconsiders his reply. ‘Grief.’

‘It troubles you?’

Again Thor is unsure if he should reply. But he is a stone rolling downhill now, gathering speed. ‘I am sick with it.’

‘For your mother,’ Odin says.

As simply as that, Thor is crushingly angry. Since the day his brother fell from the Bifrost, Thor has never once recriminated with his father for anything to do with Loki, though Odin’s fault upon fault upon fault has become devastatingly clear. In this moment it feels as though Thor could start – as though, if he started, he might never stop.

‘For Loki. And our mother,’ he says, and barely contains himself from saying more.

Odin looks at him a long while, his hands steepled.

A crash of thunder sounds outside, which Thor has summoned inadvertently. Odin blinks.

‘Very well,’ Odin says coolly. ‘I release you from this duty.’

Thor takes his leave.

It has been one of the most perplexing conversations he has ever had with his father.

He strides back to his chambers as if pursued.

At the turning near his mother’s old rooms, something dark moves in his peripheral vision. He stops. Reluctantly, he walks the handful of steps till her door comes in view – the door to the place where he failed to prevent her death.

The cat is at the very seam of the gilded double doors, as if it thinks someone will let it in. Something about its poised, alert little head, shape sharp as a summer shadow, is amusing.

‘What are you doing?’ he says, warm and fatuous – the way, he realises upon hearing himself, that he usually speaks to strangers’ children.

The cat startles, and looks at him, very directly. Then, with lordly disdain, it stalks behind a pillar. He steps forth to follow, and there is a sudden scuffling sound – it has launched itself into a bolt. By the time he has a line of sight behind the pillar, it is long gone.

The cat, he has realised, is at present his only source of untroubled pleasure. How did it even get into his room the other night? The door is locked and guarded. Whatever its arts are, it must have great prowess in them.

He is determined that he must be allowed to stroke it. Indeed, why would it seek him out, if it did not wish him to stroke it? The withholding is a game, and he must win.

He lies awake that night and waits.

It is a subtle business. He must prop his head up uncomfortably high on a pillow, and lie half on his side, to allow a sufficiently commanding view of the floor. He flings one arm out as if carelessly. Between his fingers is a sliver of leathery dried fish.

He narrows his eyes to slits and tries to make his breathing deep and even.

It is a tiresome process, and the warmth of his skin soon begins to make the fish smell.

He is reminded of the vigil he undertook the night before his father gave him Mjölnir. He was supposed to be meditating on the virtues of a true warrior, but was diverted instead by thoughts of the virtues of mead and good company, which seemed horribly distant as he knelt in the dark on the cold stone.

Lying uncomfortably alert while pretending to be relaxed, he cycles between feeling terribly persecuted by all of existence, then beginning to fall asleep and having to wrench himself back to wakefulness.

Time passes.

When he first thinks he sees something, he presumes it’s wishful thinking – when you wait too long in ambush for an enemy, the first alarm is always false. He opens his eyes a fraction wider.

The shape of the cat is on the floor. From the way its head is tilted, alert, Thor is infuriatingly sure it can tell he is not really asleep. Nonetheless, he remains still.

The cat shape is still, also.        

Thor slouches over a little further onto his side, inching his fingers, and the sliver of fish, to the edge of the bed.

He waits for an enragingly long time, till he’s on the verge of shouting and just hurling the fish at the blasted creature.

At last: a feather of breath on his fingertips. Then a brush from the fuzz of its muzzle – it is trying to take the fish away, the cheeky thing. He tightens his fingers.

The feel of its tongue – like Midgardian Velcro, but moist – is peculiar.

He withdraws his hand a fraction.

Silence – and no further sensations.

Just when he has begun to despair, he hears it: the prick of claws in the bed covers. Now breath on his fingers again. He inches his hand back a little again; the cat advances again.

At last it has climbed the side of the bed fully, and brought its back paws up behind it.

Gradually he has been easing his unoccupied hand forward as the other retreats, keeping it lax and unthreatening.

He twitches the fish in his fingers. The cat, provoked too far at last, surges forward and clamps its teeth into it with a small, wet snap. Instantly, Thor clamps his other hand over its slim back. ‘Got you!’ he cries.

It yowls low, lashing its tail like a serpent. But his hand is too large, too strong. He strokes the cat all over, enjoying his victory. He particularly likes the fuzzy belly fur, like duck down. And the tufts between the little toe-pads! Though he can only touch those a second before they are withdrawn reproachfully. Between the legs, he laughs to see two small, furry stones. ‘An admirable pair, brother!’ he cries.

‘All right,’ he says, ‘all right now. I won’t hurt you.’ He tries to stroke the cat smoothly now, soothingly. Still tension zips through its little ribcage and spine. What if he tried to hold its tail, to persuade it to stop thrashing it? But this only makes the part of the tail he’s not clasping thrash ever more wildly.

He is beginning to feel guilty, aware of himself as a larger creature dominating a smaller for his amusement.

‘I only want to be friends,’ he says. The pert, irritable shape of its head delights him. He tries to stroke the side of its muzzle with his finger. It bites him in warning, with pinpricks of teeth.

‘Oh, I give up!’ He lets it go.

It’s off like lightning, four paws hitting the floor out of time, inelegant with haste.

But it doesn’t run away. Well beyond arm’s reach, it sits on the floor and looks at him, head cocked. Still the shape of that head entertains him.

‘You’re worse than my brother,’ he says. ‘Why do you keep coming to see me if you don’t want to be friends?’

He subsides back into bed and pulls the covers up.

In the middle of that night, Thor wakes to a faint, unpleasant smell. He lies still, trying to think what it is.

Just at the edge of audibility, there is a tiny, sticky sound.

He opens his eyes. The cat is curled on the other end of his pillow, its black shape round as a pudding. It has found the sliver of dried fish again, and it is chewing on it – wafting its breath directly into his face.

‘You are exactly like my brother,’ he whispers.

The sound stops, and the cat raises its head in alert – he sees the points of its ears appear in silhouette.

When he does not move, or speak further, it carries on chewing.

He brings his hand up slowly to the pillow and lays it there, so the cat can see it.

He raises one finger.

The cat allows him to stroke the perpetually tufted fur at the point of its shoulder bone.

He hears it swallow. It gets up, and he is surprised by the strength of his disappointment.

It doesn’t leave. It stretches, its back an improbable arch. Then it steps down off the pillow and curls up next to him on the sheet, spine against his chest.

The fur tickles his bare skin, rising and falling slightly with the creature’s breath. He is afraid to relax at all, lest he go to sleep and roll over on it.

The cat begins to snore very faintly through its nose.

The next day, Thor goes down to the training yard to watch his warriors spar, that they might see he takes an interest in their progress. On a bench within the sandstone colonnade of the viewing gallery, he seats himself, and lets the clash and thump of the action wash over him.

In truth, he feels a great resistance to watching men and women practicing to slay and maim. His eye wanders into the distance: through a far archway, he can see another archway, and through that, a tiny thumbnail of the shining sea.

A small, strange movement at his flank. The cat. It has leapt up on the bench beside him, and somehow got itself between his cloak and his side.

He lays a hand on its narrow, sleek back. It tenses, as if to flee, and he pushes the side of its body into his hip, to prevent its escape. ‘You!’ he says. Wriggly as an eel, it bends its neck in two to nip his finger.

He rolls it onto its back, enjoying the way his hand spans its torso. It thrashes its tail and kicks. Its littleness delights him – and its fury, too. It is chewing on one finger like a bone now, not quite hard enough with its little needling teeth to pierce the callus. Its eyes are rolled aside, its ears jaunty. Then it wraps all four legs around his wrist and hand, kicking lazily.

He rocks his hand rhythmically to and fro within the creature’s grip, thumbing through its belly fur as he goes. It is this rhythmic touch, as last, that awards him his prize. A purring has begun, like the sound of a distant Midgardian motor. Soon the motor is in full throttle, so that he can feel the vibrations right up into his wrist.

He laughs, softly, for the joy of it. ‘Oh, you like me, really,’ he says under his breath.

The cat gives him a kick.

It is for the best that the creature remains concealed by Thor’s cloak. His pretence at interest in the training is too thin already. Indeed, when one of the men on the ground calls out to him, to ask an opinion on some point of form, the cat seems to understand. It stops purring and stills itself almost at once, allowing Thor to withdraw his hand without a fight.

When Thor – without rising from his seat – has advised the man, and the man has turned and left in the direction of the weapons hall, Thor lifts his cloak to gaze upon the cat directly. It has rolled itself up into a more dignified lying position, on its belly, and now leans proprietorially along the length of his thigh. It allows its whiskered cheeks and sleek forehead to be stroked, now, quite placidly.

He does not wish it to be seen that he is paying attention to something on the seat beside him, so he stares off on the diagonal, into the middle distance. The cat is soon purring loudly again. It likes a long, slow stroke from head to tail, he learns, and also to have its head cupped while he scratches gently behind its ears.

Eventually he registers that there is no longer any sound but the cat’s purring. The training has finished for the day, and the yard has been empty for some time.

In private, Thor and the cat are now constant companions; he has named it Lodbrok, for its furry breeches. One night he is drunk and contented, playing with the creature in bed. He touches his nose very gently to its tiny, damp one, and says, ‘There!’ It begins to lick his beard with its strange, rough tongue, and he must try to control his laughter lest he startle it. He rolls it over and rubs his face in its belly, while it bats at his temples and chin with its paws. It is strange: he almost has the urge to eat it.

He seizes it and rolls onto his back, laying it on his chest so he may give it the long strokes with a full hand, forehead to tail, that it likes so much.

The cat purrs almost violently, swishing its tail lazily, as Thor rocks a little from side to side, stroking it all the while. He is saying, ‘Yes, I shall slay you! There is no escape!’

He would like to think that had he not been so intent on this discourse, he might have noticed the other sounds in the room sooner.

As it is, a play in which he was not aware he was a player is already rushing towards its climax. There is a man in a mask by the bed, with a drawn knife.

Thor’s instinct, absurdly, is to roll away to protect Lodbrok.

The fabric of reality erupts, inverts. The world is crockery on a kicked table.

A naked man falls on top on Thor.

He’s slimmer than Thor, but strong and heavy. His black hair is in Thor’s mouth.

Thor kicks and flails, bleating.

The naked man rolls off Thor at speed. He throws the masked man to the floor, scuffles with him, takes the knife off him and drives it savagely into the masked man’s heart.

The naked man stands again, and looks at Thor.

Thor is blowing like a galloped horse.

The naked man is Loki. His hair is wild. There’s blood spatter on his face and bare shoulder.

Also, his cock is at attention.

Loki sees Thor see it. Loki’s face takes an expression of mortification.

A distant sound of running – the guards.

Loki twitches. The world goes wrong again – for a second, things sliding down some hole in the air, like a plug has been pulled.

The world rights itself. Loki is gone.