Loki lay in the bath, one leg hung over the edge and his head under the water, just enough of his face above the surface so he might breathe. Even this small amount of water, calm as it was, was still enough to bring him to panic unless he focused all of his attention on breathing.
Lying still in his bath chamber, counting his breaths, Loki was terrified. It was the most excitement he’d had since Thor’s exit from the realm.
He hadn’t considered how boring it would be to stay behind. Though they were twins in name only, Loki was expected to take sjálfsmynd at the same time. Now he knew he should have done, if only to stave off the boredom and keep from having to find someone new to annoy. But even that still didn’t change the fact that Loki wanted nothing to do with Æsir traditions, and intended to keep as far away from as many of them as possible.
Right up until Odin would inevitably become fed up with him and personally, physically, remove him from the palace grounds. Again. But Midwinter had only marked Loki’s sixteenth name day. There were still two more years at least before Loki’s shame became too much for Odin to bear.
Loki felt himself slip against the polished silver of the bath and immediately heaved himself up from the water, gasping in as much air as he could. He wasn’t even sure his face at any point had truly dropped beneath the surface, but he could feel the cling of moisture on his skin and that was enough for him to decide he was done with water and any games involving it until wash day came round again.
Still panting and ignoring the shake of his own hands, Loki dried himself with a heavy linen towel. He thought of leaving the realm as he made quick work with his hair. It had been a while since he’d been to Midgard. Will and Thomas might not remain there, but he figured that would make going back easier, lest he find them again and have to explain why he was still barely out of boyhood while they would have certainly reached an impressively old age. But the realm was diverse; perhaps Loki could see more of it. Travel to the lands of those who once worshipped his father as a god.
Mood already bolstered by the prospect, Loki wrapped the towel round his waist and made for his bedchamber. Before going to his wardrobe, Loki stopped to look out at the grounds beneath his windows, but the view was rather spoilt by Fandral and a small flock of maidens beneath one of the small trees. Frowning at the sight of the charade, Loki picked up a small stone from one of his herb boxes and turned it over in his fingers for a few moments. Deciding that yes, this was what he wanted to do, Loki threw the stone out the window in a high arc. When it reached a certain point in the air, it turned back on itself and landed to strike Fandral on the arm. Fandral turned sharply to see who had cast the stone, but the only thing in that direction was a solid wall. By the time he turned his gaze to the direction of Loki’s rooms, the prince was out of sight.
Smiling to himself, Loki dressed quickly, taking little time to preen or groom himself. Where it was going, such actions only made him stand out. He thought of a certain pub in London and went there. The landing wasn’t perfect, as even in London a century brought much change, but it was close enough to act as a starting point.
It had long become expected for Loki to disappear for weeks on end without word nor warning. And if he returned looking a bit more run down and frayed round the edges than usual, it was simply the assumption of any who saw him that whatever trouble he made for himself, he’d deserved it.
Thor was grateful that Loki had at least deigned to dress properly for this trip. He was less grateful for his brother’s insistence that he leave Mjölnir behind. Loki’s reasoning might have been sound — Thor had been the cause for this trip to Nornheimr, and to bring a weapon to their negotiating table would have been a great sleight indeed, but that didn’t mean he had to like the idea of being defenceless in a foreign realm.
He looked over to Loki, watching as he fanned himself as best he could with the open collar of his tunic. The humidity of the realm had begun to make Loki’s hair curl up around his ears, and Thor could see even from several paces away that Loki was bathed in sweat. He was every picture of some wild-eyed madman as they trekked across the realm.
“I hate this,” Loki declared. He pulled a black band from around his wrist and used it to tie his hair into a messy tail.
“Loki, I wish you wouldn’t do that,” Thor said, not slowing in his pace. “It makes you look—”
“Don’t you even start,” Loki snapped quickly. “You’re the idiot who managed to goad Nornheimr into declaring war. I don’t want you to speak to me again, unless it’s to say, ‘Next one’s on me’.”
Thor gave Loki a puzzled look, wondering just when it was the Alltongue stopped properly translating the human languages, and why Loki insisted on using them so much.
Loki paused in his step, and without warning began to pull his tunic over his head.
“Loki, no!” Thor hissed. He reached for Loki but was too slow to catch him as his brother dodged out of the way. “That is forbidden here!”
Loki pulled his tunic off anyway, and Thor was at least relieved to see that Loki had not completely bared his chest on Nornir soil. He wore a white, short-sleeved tunic, upon which was emblazoned the image of an almost whimsical chimera: a smiling dragon with equine features and mismatched antlers.
“I’ll put it back on when we near the city,” Loki said, vanishing the divested tunic into one of his secret pockets.
“What is that?” Thor asked, pointing at the image on Loki’s chest.
Loki actually managed something of a smile.
“It’s what the humans think I would be, were I an animated pony.”
Thor shook his head and focused on getting up the steep trail that seemed longer every time he travelled it. Eventually, the path levelled out, widening at a large plain atop the hill. Loki stopped again, bending over with his hands on his knees as he struggled to regain his breath.
“I spent four months in New Mexico, but this is worse,” he complained. “Much worse. Granted, it was the dead of winter, but still. New Mexico.”
Thor ignored his brother’s nonsense, instead looking across the land to gauge how far they still had to travel. As he scanned back across the area, he saw a woman who hadn’t been there before. Warily, he tapped Loki on the arm and nodded in the woman’s direction. Loki too looked up at her, startled by what he saw. The woman sat tending to some small bit of weaving as if this were a perfectly normal place for her to be doing so. While her skin was the dark, earthen colour of the Norns, her size was anything but typical for her race. Even sitting, it was plain she was at least a head taller than Thor, and perhaps wider at the shoulders as well. Loki recognised her at once for what she was.
“You’re a long way from Jötunheimr, little one,” the woman said, not ever looking up.
Loki stood straight, managing to seem relaxed despite being anything but.
“And you as well,” he said.
Finally, the woman stood, turning her gaze upon the two of them. “You should come inside,” she said. “This heat isn’t good for you.”
Loki refrained from sticking his tongue out at Thor, if only because Thor was too confused to have noticed any sort of juvenile gesture.
“Thank you,” Loki said, nodding graciously.
With the wave of a hand, the woman turned to a squat sod and thatch dwelling that appeared several paces from the trail, and led Thor and Loki inside.
“Sit,” she said, gesturing to a long sofa made of piled furs. “Please. Make yourselves comfortable.”
Thor nodded stiffly and sat while Loki peeled off his Midgardian tunic and kicked off his boots.
“Loki!” Thor hissed, certain that the only reason Loki had come along at all was to sabotage the peace-building efforts.
The woman handed a large, wet rag to Loki and turned away to pour some ale from a large jug.
“My Lady, I would like to apologise for my brother’s behaviour,” Thor said quickly. “He—”
“I told him to make himself comfortable,” she said simply as she handed Thor a small chalice filled with chilled ale.
Thor looked over to Loki, seeing that he had since dropped his Æsir glamour. He sat so far down into the pile of furs that he practically lay on them, with the rag draped over his chest, now frozen on his skin. Thor did have to admit, Loki did look far more comfortable than he had outside.
Loki was then handed a chalice of his own, for which he nodded his thanks.
“She’s like me, Thor,” Loki said. “Just take three seconds to look at her.”
Thor did, and frowned.
“But you’re a runt,” he said.
Loki ignored Thor’s comment for as long as it took to drain half his chalice.
“And she’s bigger than you are, so watch your mouth.”
Seeing that so much time on Midgard had done Loki’s manners no good, Thor decided to ignore him, turning his attention back to the old Nornir woman.
“And who is our gracious hostess?” he asked. “I would like to know to whom we owe our thanks.”
“I am Grid, and you should listen to your brother,” she said. “I was born to Jötunheimr, but came here in my early years.”
“Oh. You are a shape-changer, then,” Thor said.
Grid smiled oddly, but said nothing to either confirm or refute Thor’s conclusion. Rather than question it deeper, Thor drank from his chalice.
“How long before we reach the þing?” Loki asked.
“Not long,” Grid said. “But you would not want to arrive so exhausted. Nor unprepared. Rest here until you’ve regained your strength.”
“What do you mean, unprepared?” Thor asked.
Grid regarded him for a long moment, looking at something that wasn’t there.
“You are without your hammer,” she said finally. “Surely, you will need it.”
“This is a peaceful journey,” Thor insisted, casting an accusing eye to Loki. “We are here to prevent bloodshed; not ensure it.”
“As your father has done before, yes,” Grid said. “And he never once did take either of you to do so, did he?”
Loki slowly sat up in his seat, studying the old woman for any signs of deception.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
Grid turned her attention to Loki. “You’ve studied the treaties, boy,” she said. “Have your records nothing on how such treaties are formed?”
Loki had to admit that they did not, though he kept as much to himself. Grid knew the truth anyway.
Her face remained soft and impassive as she pulled a long, tangled Ash branch from the corner of the room.
“Take this with you,” she said, passing it to Thor. “It may not be uru, but it will help.”
Thor nodded, unsure how to voice his scepticism without insulting Grid. “Thank you,” he said instead.
She then handed him a pair of nålbinded mittens and a length of twine cord.
“These should help you as well,” she said. “Take care not to lose them. I shall want them back one day.”
Again, Thor nodded, though his confusion was plain on his face. “Thank you,” he repeated.
Finally, Grid turned back to the door. “You may stay as long as you like,” she said. “Gather your strength and arrive fresh at the þing.”
“We thank you for your hospitality, Grid,” Loki said. “And shall return your items as soon as we can.”
She smiled at him. “Yes, you will,” she said before slipping out the door.
Once it was closed and Grid out of earshot, Thor grinned and nudged Loki.
“She seemed your type, brother,” he said.
Loki rolled his eyes and sunk back into his seat. “Shut up,” he said. “I’m not even divorced yet.”
Karnilla was nothing like either of them had expected, and her behaviour even less so. Like many of her sisters, she spoke with more information than she gave, letting slip only the weakest clues. All Loki was able to glean from the discussion was that if they were to mend relations between Nornheimr and Asgard, they were expected to right an ancient wrong.
Before either could ask which wrong they were meant to right, the ambassador placed her hands to their chests and gave a hard shove, sending both of them reeling backwards to fall in the snow. Snow which wasn’t present anywhere on Nornheimr.
“What did that crazy bitch do to us?” Loki groaned as he cradled his spinning head.
“Loki,” Thor scolded. “Speak with respect. She may yet be listening.”
“I don’t care,” Loki said.
He stood to survey their surroundings, recognising at once the realm as Jötunheimr. But the landscape there changed dramatically between the seasons, making it difficult for him to tell where on Jötunheimr they were. They could have stood anywhere, left open for an ambush by those who knew the terrain through living on it. All around them towered ancient trees, many of them broken and dead from harsh winds and heavy snows. Somewhere in the distance, Loki thought he could hear water. Before them, the faintest traces of lights.
“That old crone could have given us something useful,” Thor said as he rose to stand by Loki’s side. Loki smirked at Thor’s sudden change in attitude toward speaking with respect.
“I have no plans to die on Jötunheimr today,” Thor continued.
Loki didn’t turn to face him, still studying the landscape for anything familiar. Somewhere in the distance behind them, he could hear running water, swift and deadly in the icy ground. Around them, massive snowbanks that sloped down to the banks of a frozen fjord.
“Put the mittens on, you idiot,” he said.
“Yes. My fingers shall be warm while the rest of me freezes,” Thor said bitterly. “I shall die wearing moth-eaten wool on my hands and any who might find me in fifty years will laugh at the king who froze while wearing an old woman’s mittens.”
Now, Loki did turn to face him. “She was a sorceress. Put the mittens on.”
Shrugging dramatically, Thor handed Loki the ash branch while he fought the mittens over his shaking hands.
“Better?” Loki asked.
Thor nodded slowly. “Yes,” he said. “But why could you not use your magic?”
“She gave you magic mittens,” Loki reasoned. “Why should I bother?”
Thor frowned heavily at him, but Loki ignored it. Instead, he pointed north, toward a low valley.
“Come,” Loki said. “I think I’ve been this way before.”
Thor nodded and followed. The terrain was easier to walk than it had been on Nornheimr, even despite the ankle-deep snow on the ground. But the weather was far less forgiving. Harsh winds kicked up icy salt from the nearby seas and threatened to knock the travellers from their feet. Finally, they reached the flat bed of sea ice, and Loki stopped suddenly in his tracks.
“Oh,” he said. “Oh, we really should not be here. At all,” he said.
“Why?” asked Thor. “What have you done this time?”
“Uh.” Loki pushed against Thor, trying to get him to turn and leave. “Nothing that you need to know anything about.”
Off in the distance, on the other side of the narrow fjord, Thor could make out a large dwelling of ice and stone.
“We could at least get out of this weather,” he reasoned, pointing.
“No, we really can’t,” Loki said. “We really must be going. Now.”
Thor snatched the ash branch from Loki’s grasp and began trudging across the hard ice of the fjord.
“Ymir’s tits,” Loki growled, following after. This was exactly the sort of thing that got them in trouble, and exactly the sort of thing Odin had trusted him to prevent.
Suddenly, a figure appeared on the ice, and Loki reached for Thor more frantically.
“You do not want him to see your face,” Loki insisted, pulling Thor’s arm. “Let’s just go. Before this gets us killed.”
Thor shook him off and out of spite, waved down the man on the ice.
“Ho, there!” he called over the winds. “I am Thor Odinson of Asgard. My brother and I have been stranded in your realm by trickery.”
“I hate you,” Loki said flatly.
The man on the ice began running toward them, and it was only as he drew nearer that Thor could see the blade of ice on his arm.
“Loki, what did you do?” Thor demanded. Lacking any other weapon, Thor stood ready with the ash branch in both his hands.
“You know those gaps between the worlds? Like that one we found in Álfheimr?” Loki asked as he took his brother’s side. He called forth Lævateinn from its place in his study and prepared to stand his ground. “You can be on Midgard one moment, tasting every poisonous berry and blossom Lappland has to offer, and the next moment, find yourself on Jötunheimr, pissing off some farmer because it seemed funny at the time.”
Thor looked to him incredulously. “What is wrong with you?” he demanded.
Loki shrugged, for the moment ignoring the Jötun drawing ever nearer toward them. “You were on your Rite. I was bored. He was… there.”
“And you were drugged to the Nine skies,” Thor filled in, irritated, but somehow not surprised.
Before Loki could admit to that, the Jötun called Gerriöd was nearly upon them, having crossed the fjord in mere seconds. Thor swung wide with the ash branch, expected to confuse the Jötun through sheer audacity, in order to open an attack for Loki. But when the branch struck Gerriöd in the head, he was launched far across the ice, grinding to a tumbling halt against the rough surface.
“Tell me what you did,” Thor commanded.
“Me?” Loki asked. “Nothing. Well. I did tell him I’d bring you to Jötunheimr so he could kill you, but I never planned on actually—”
“You what?” Thor had to resist the urge to strike Loki as well.
“He thought you’d killed someone!” Loki said. “Did you?”
“No-one that he should care about,” Thor said, turning back as Gerriöd returned.
His swing was dodged, and while he and Thor recovered their stances, Loki brought Lævateinn down in a high arc. Magnificent though the sword was, Loki never had mastered it properly, and he managed only a glancing blow, slicing Gerriöd’s shoulder open while missing every vital artery and tendon in that area. Annoyed with himself, Loki resorted to less-honourable ways of combat and forced a surge of magic through the blade, firing raw energy through the air and at Gerriöd. The blast struck the Jötun in the chest, and he went down to the ice once more. This time, Loki wasn’t about to see if he’d get back up. He turned and ran back toward the bank and up the slop to where they had started.
“Loki!” Thor called out.
The idea of running from an unfinished fight made him see red, but the knowledge that everything Loki touched turned to disaster sooner or later compelled Thor to give chase and make sure Loki found no further trouble for them. He quickly caught up with Loki and ran with him, now determined to put as much distance between them and Gerriöd as possible.
“Why does he think I killed someone?” Thor demanded breathlessly.
Loki turned to look over his shoulder, but even though he saw none pursuing them, he maintained his speed.
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask,” he said.
“You promised to betray me!” Thor shouted. He now ran to catch up with Loki, and possibly throttle him.
Loki willed himself to run even faster, knowing Thor would throttle him if he managed to catch up. He twisted through the rime-covered trees, ignoring the prime ambush-opportunities they offered. “He chained me to a box! I’d have said anything to escape,” he shouted back.
Thor once more had to stop himself from spilling Loki’s blood over the snow.
“You are a coward, brother. You always have been,” he growled.
“I don’t care!”
They both stopped suddenly as they came to a wide, half-frozen river that drained into one of the nearby fjords. Behind them, Gerriöd drew nearer, now with two more men by his side, taller still than he was. Thor turned to them, ready to strike them dead where they stood. Loki saw none of it, his own eyes fixed in terror at the water before them.
“Loki, fight with me and redeem yourself,” Thor said.
When he turned back to his brother, he saw the way Loki stood still as stone. Only then did he truly notice the reason they had stopped at all, and he remembered Loki all those years ago after Hogun had dragged him from the water. The look he wore now was the same one he wore then; vacant and terrified all at once.
Thor shook his head at the decision he was forced to make.
“Loki, you will restore my honour, or I will cast you from Asgard myself.”
Loki’s attention shifted only slightly, but his eyes never left the water before them. Rather than explain himself, Thor turned to the river and pulled Grid’s twine cord from his belt. There was no longer any time to think about what he was doing. Thor quickly swung the cord above his head, lashing one end to a low-hung branch that stuck out over the water, and wrapped one arm around Loki’s waist. With Gerriöd nearly at their heels once more, Thor swung over the rushing water, hoping the cord and the branch held. The movement was enough to break Loki from his paralysis, but now he panicked, clutching to Thor’s side and screaming obscenities and curses alike. Thor ignored Loki at his side and focused instead on landing them on the ground, rather than drowning both of them. The length of twine wasn’t quite long enough, and the branch they swung on not close enough to the centre of the river, and instead of ground they landed in the water near the other side. The water only came to their waists, but the current was swift and threatened to push their feet out from beneath them.
Determined, Thor hauled Loki to the shore and looked behind them to the trio of Jötnar on the other side. Gerriöd howled with rage, and one of his companions leapt into the water after them. Even his height wasn’t enough to keep him above the surface, and when he slipped on the rocks below, he disappeared almost instantly beneath the dark waters. Watching as the Jötun man drowned, Loki cried out in fear and bemusement.
“Screw this!” he shouted.
He grabbed hold of Thor and thought of Asgard. He thought of his neglected chambers in the palace. He thought of home.
A moment later, they were there, lying on the heavy woollen rug in his bedchamber.
“I told you never to do that to me again,” Thor said, sounding suspiciously like he was about to be ill.
“And I told you never to make me fly again, so we’re even,” he said.
“You said you would restore my honour,” Thor said, though the bite was gone from his voice.
Loki had no sympathy.
“If I stayed there, I’d have been killed and then where would your honour be?” he asked, staring up at the ceiling. “I’ll go back tomorrow and I don’t know. Think of something amazing.”
“That is your problem, brother. You are always thinking,” Thor said.
“Better than not thinking at all,” Loki returned.
Thor finally rose to his feet, using Loki’s head for leverage and crushing him into the ground. As he left the room, it was to the sound of Loki’s cracked, half-mad cackling. It was a sound Thor rather missed hearing around the palace, even if it was more often than not aimed at him.