“As you will.” Loki shivered under Thor’s tongue. “I am not stopping you.”
Thor groaned, almost incoherent with lust. “Please!”
He scrabbled helplessly at the fastenings of Loki’s surcoat. He wasn’t drunk, or at least not very drunk. He was at the pleasantest state of tipsiness when salt was the best spice but his fingers weren’t clever enough for Loki’s elaborate kit. And Loki’s collar was so wretchedly high seemingly in direct proportion to how delicious his neck was. It was maddening.
“Loki, I want you.” Thor mumbled into the back of Loki’s collar, his hands firmly tangled in the slashed leather sleeves that opened to thick woven silk underneath. There seemed to be as many buttons and buckles as stars in the sky above them. And Loki was still pretending to be more interested in his telescoping glass and the faraway stars than Thor’s mouth under his ear.
“Not stopping you.” Loki repeated and then shuddered again as Thor bit down on his earlobe and tugged gently.
“You could help, you know.” Thor muttered grumpily as he wrapped his arms around Loki’s waist and attempted the clasps from what was technically the ‘right’ side. He squinted over Loki’s shoulder and fumbled with the infuriating fastenings.
“Help?” Loki raised his chin and importuned the heavens. “Help he requires. The mighty Thor. Defeated by tailoring.”
But he twitched his hips in a way that made Thor’s mouth water. Thor narrowed his eyes and thought fine.
Thor growled and took firmer hold of Loki’s collar. “Hope you won’t miss this.”
Leather made an odd whine when it was wrenched in two. Loki laughed in pleasure as Thor succumbed to his baser instincts and rent the finely embroidered silk into rags. Buttons and buckles went flying as Thor stripped Loki down to his ivory underneath. Thor moaned with satisfaction, mouthing Loki’s warm flesh, breathing in his scent.
And Loki was helping, finally, shrugging free of his layers, turning to shove Thor back through the balcony doors. “What a drunken lout I’m blessed with. Surely there are tipsy wenches aplenty…”
“None sweet as you.” Thor breathed, pulling Loki up off of the floor for the last steps before he collapsed onto the bed with Loki writhing on top.
“Oh ho.” Loki smirked as he wrestled Thor quiescent underneath him with kisses, caresses and tugs on his hair. “Sweet! Sweet, am I? I think you are in the wrong room entirely, Odinson, there’s nothing sweet about me.”
“Mmmmmm.” Thor might’ve been agreeing or disagreeing, he didn’t know now with Loki’s nipple peaking under his tongue. He let Loki mutter some incantation that left them both stripped bare. He groaned again, glutted with pleasure, letting his thighs spread to draw Loki yet closer. He wanted to rub his scent all over Loki’s smooth flesh. He wove his hand into Loki’s hair and let Loki’s grasping fingers slip into his mouth.
Loki grinned devilishly, tilted his chin up to bare his long neck and murmured. “My king?”
It wasn’t a loud voice, in fact it was quite timorous for the halls of Asgard. But in the silence of the great hall even the most timid noise sounded loud, like a tiny pebble left ripples on the vastest ocean.
Thor stirred uneasily. He blinked. “Did you speak?”
The page had gone white with terror under Thor’s gaze. “My king, your war chief returns…”
It was Sif, Sif, of course, his finest general. She strode up through the silent crowd, dark and pale and…he beckoned her quickly so that she might report without needless ceremony.
She brought her fist to her breast, making a hurried obeisance. “Thor-king, their forces are consolidating even as they retreat.”
“But they do retreat.” Thor swallowed and drew his mind back to the matter at hand.
Sif bowed her head. She was too thin and still travel-stained. He found he could only glance a moment at the black wash of her hair. “I mistrust that it is their final act, my king. Their numbers have grown significantly since…”
She trailed off.
“You suspect that they will attack again after some succor?” Thor said quietly. He had no idea how their enemy rejuvenated and re-victualed themselves, only that it did happen somehow.
“Undoubtedly.” Sif bowed and he noted that Volstagg had accompanied her. That left Hogun and Fandral leading his east and west divisions, Tyr in the north and Freyr to the south. He nodded unconsciously. Good hands. Strong, capable hands. He looked down at his own trembling hand, at the ring on it and clenched his fist to stop it shaking.
“When will you need me again?” Thor tried to speak normally, both hoping and dreading that she should say ‘at once’.
She sighed and looked up at him, brow still furrowed. “We can spare some time, my king, but we cannot…”
Fall headlong into grief. Was he doomed for the rest of his days to have all sentences addressed to him trail off into embarrassed, fearful silence? He rubbed his mouth, trying to feel how deeply he’d been scowling at her without realizing it.
“You will stay for the…” He trailed off himself, cursing his inability to shape the word.
“Of course I will.” But he could see dread in her eyes, veiling the sorrow.
Heid entered the back of the hall and folded her hands, bowing in Thor’s direction.
“Walk with me.” Thor strode off the dais, making no courteous leave-taking from the rest of his officers and advisors. Sif fell into step behind him and then drew beside him as they left the hall, trailing Heid’s tiny figure.
“I thought their back was broken.” Thor spoke shortly.
“They were deeply crippled.” Sif acknowledged. “Perhaps I am being over-cautious, but a crippled man may still strike a death-blow.”
“It is well, Sif.” Thor snorted. “I will relish the chance to send a few more into the ether.”
She bobbed her head. “And I.”
“Once it was suggested…” Thor did not say by whom, that would soon be obvious. “That Heimdall might open the Bifrost on Muspelheim.” Thor said soft enough for her ears only. “And leave it open.”
Sif blanched and looked directly up at him, eyes hard. She also spoke low, but firmly. “I shall not give that order, Thor, you must do it yourself. If you have lost all honor as well as…”
Again, she was too kind or too clever to say the name aloud. But she at least, did not seem to fear that he might suddenly go mad. He was struck by the realization that this late circumstance had seen the strength of Asgard’s women far outweighing that of their men. Heid and Frigga awaited them in the dim room at the end of the corridor.
“We don’t need to.” Sif’s voice came to him from what felt like a long distance. “We can go back.”
Thor blinked and realized that he had slowed from a stride to a shuffle. He straightened. This was unworthy of him. He entered the dark room and stopped in front of the broad golden bed where his father slept, renewing himself. Wake up. Thor thought for the thousandth time. My need is dire, father.
Heid and Freya had labored as fast as they were able to replicate Odin’s great bed. But the duplicate was longer and narrower; the design more closely resembled that of a longship. Thor steeled himself to look at the wood, the linens, the scintillating gold that protected…
“Thor.” Sif was at his elbow and Heid tilted her face up with a fatalistic expression as thunder shook the hall.
“It is well done, Heid.” Thor rasped, feeling like he was suffocating. Frigga wrapped her hand around his waist and they stood between the two gilded beds. “I can hardly tell the difference.”
She nodded even as she knew it for a lie. The difference was palpable. Because Odin was sleeping and Loki was dead.
“Are you going to pout all day?” Loki asked, not raising his head from his book.
Thor threw a boot at him and when Loki looked up at him with an arched eyebrow, he made the face that meant Loki was lucky it wasn’t Mjölnir. “I do not pout.”
“Yes, you do.” Loki returned infuriatingly. “Your nostrils flare out like this.”
Loki flared his nostrils and set his chin in an almost perfect approximation of Thor’s pout.
“Why will you not simply come with me?” Thor hoped it sounded like a measured request and not like a whine.
Loki sighed and threw his head back to bang it on the top of his chair. “Would you go if you didn’t have to? It’s going to be frightfully dull. And I’m not the Prince of Asgard, so…”
“No, of course I wouldn’t go if I didn’t have to. But I never asked to be Prince of Asgard either.” Thor folded his arms and scowled in earnest.
Loki blinked slowly. “And it looks as though the weather might be stormy with a good chance of self-pity.”
“What I did choose.” Thor pointed an accusing finger. “The one thing I have chosen was who I could have by my side as I was being slowly bored to death. But apparently I am to be abandoned in my hour of need.”
He folded his arms again and turned away, hunching his shoulders.
Loki said something very slangy in some jötunn dialect that he probably thought Thor didn’t understand.
Thor whirled and threw his other boot. “I am not!”
Loki sighed and didn’t say anything for a long moment. “The first part is just waving and smiling, right?”
“There’s a processional.” Thor said shortly, feeling very put upon.
“Hmmmmmm.” Loki’s chair creaked. When Thor turned to look at him hopefully, Loki had doubled. He was examining his mirror image, twisting tendrils of seið to make him more solid and perfect. Thor’s twin blinked at him over Loki’s shoulder, smiling blandly.
“Loki…” Thor was truly never, ever going to get used to this.
“These fellows can see to the nodding and smiling.” Loki twitched his fingers and Thor’s duplicate cocked his head and looked less slow-witted. Loki made a shooing motion and they left, bowing politely. “They can even exchange a few pleasantries in a pinch. We’ll switch places with them before the banquet.”
“So you will come?” Thor sagged in relief. Loki stepped to him and twisted fingers through Thor’s beard.
“Oh, I wouldn’t miss it.” Loki purred. “But when you stick your lower lip out like that, it gives me all kinds of ideas.”
Heid spread her hands and the glittering golden glow that surrounded the bodies sparkled before fading to a gentle luminescence.
“Will it keep him?” Thor asked, trying not to choke on his despair. It was a torment now, but he could dimly imagine a future moment when looking at Loki’s still form might give him a small modicum of…something.
“I don’t know.” Heid sighed. “I’m no frost giant…I’m not even Aesir, lest you forget.”
“Heid.” Thor growled.
“Loki was always so betwixt and between.” Heid folded her arms into her black robe. “I have done my best for you, Thor. I believe it will keep him until you’ve decided what you want to do.”
What he wanted to do was crawl into the casket and hide under Loki’s hair, but all their eyes on him kept him upright. “Odin’s law decrees that we must put him on a pyre within ten days.” Thor sighed heavily. “But by my lights, Loki will never be devoured by fire.”
“No.” Sif agreed at once.
“Has anyone sent to Jötunheim?” He thought he’d given the order to do that, but perhaps he’d just dreamed doing it.
Frigga nodded into his shoulder. “They have not returned any message, but it is only half a day.”
Thor clenched his fists. Time was turning oddly mercurial lately. He felt it rushing around him like a great river while he was anchored to the ground.
“They may have some rituals that we know nothing of,” Sif said.
Thor closed his eyes and concentrated on breathing as he nodded. Any excuse not to have to do something unequivocal, anything that kept Loki out in the open air was a blessing, a rope he would snatch at. “A vigil then, until we have word from them. Sew slowly, mother.”
“His garb shall be the finest I can muster, my darling.” Frigga’s voice thinned at the last and her eyes glistened. He turned away from her but still felt the weight of her gaze as it turned to Heid.
Heid nodded and started gently urging him out of the room. She seemed to share a speaking glance with Sif who started to chivvy him down the hallway. “We will be well-attended soon. Many have already sent condolence and more will come with gifts. You should bathe and dress.”
“I am dressed. I am bathed.” Thor returned, after her words worked their way through his maze of thoughts.
“Again.” Frigga said firmly.
Thor stopped. “Why?”
“Because there’s blood all over your tunic, Thor.” Sif said softly. “You broke Hermod’s nose for talking too loudly.”
Unsurprisingly, it was a woman who was first to find the courage to approach him as he stood at the head of the hall, staring down into Loki’s open coffin. There was a constant current of low murmur as his vassals came with funereal tributes.
“Thank you for coming, my lady.” Thor dipped his head, acknowledging Grimhild.
“I could do no less, Thor-King.” Grimhild dropped a low curtsy. “You and…you were so kind to us when we lost brave Sigurd, I could not do otherwise in this dark hour.”
“I thank you.” Thor tried to say something less inane and then shut his mouth with a click.
“You have battled so hard to keep this realm safe.” Grimhild pressed her hands together in a respectful obeisance.
And made myriad sacrifices. Thor thought, taking a long swallow of mead.
“He looks very peaceful.”
Grimhild had long been matriarch and queen of the mist lands and doubtless her courtesy was honed to a fine edge. Thus she did not gasp when Thor squeezed his chalice until it shattered in his hand. She just pulled her skirts back from the spill that a cringing attendant quickly swept away.
“Forgive me, lady.” Thor shaped the words very carefully. “Indeed, he does look peaceful.”
Grimhild had clasped her hands tightly. Her rings clicked as her grip tightened and she lowered her voice to a less-than-regal tone.
“I could…” She trailed off. “I know you Aesir profess to have no great love of sorcery, but surely the gift must be the best of the giver.”
Thor managed to shift his gaze to her for a moment.
“Death offers the great forgetting, but leaves those left behind struggling. Memories.” She sighed. “Truly it is kinder indeed to be among the dead.”
“Lady.” Thor beckoned and a pale servant brought him another chalice. “I would take it for a great boon if you would speak plainly.”
She did not quail, but grew mercifully businesslike. “I have the skill to make a potion that will make your memory…selective, shall we say? There is no need for you to suffer so, in thrall to the memory of your love.”
Thor considered for a moment as soon as the sense of her offer penetrated. Forget Loki? Marry the beautiful, yellow-haired Gudrun perhaps? He imagined himself with a golden, glowing wife and a handful of rosy-cheeked toddlers.
“A potion such as you gave to Sigurd.” Thor said flatly. Ensorcelled to forget his beloved Brunhild until the moment she ate meat in his house as his sister-in-law.
She inclined her head, even as she stiffened.
“Because that worked so well?” Thor asked in an even duller tone. “For Sigurd, Brunhild and your dear daughter, Gudrun?”
She bowed her head again, with either shame or genuine humility. “Memory is an almost incurable malady, Thor-King. My efforts are meager compared to the food of heaven, but I can promise you a fair few years of peace.”
There was that word again ‘peace’.
“I know how painful this must be.” She looked up at him and he thought perhaps that she was sincere and she did just want to spare him.
“It is like walking on blades, Lady. It is like breathing shards of glass.” Thor folded his arms. “…but I will not give it over, for anything.”
“Loki, Loki, Loki!” Thor blundered toward the bed, alerted by the unconscious whimper. Loki was moaning, facedown and drooling on the blankets, like one taken in a fit. Thor shook him fiercely and then jerked back as Loki flailed out, butting his head up and back. Thor tightened his hands over Loki’s wrists as he fought back up into wakefulness, afraid that Loki would claw at his face or injure himself. “Wake up!”
“Oh, oh, oh,” Loki panted. “Fornjotnr’s cock…I just…” Thor could feel Loki’s heart pounding in his limbs as Loki struggled in the covers. “Just a…nightmare.” Loki’s freed hands clutched the mattress; then he scraped the hair off his face harshly. He looked as wild and breathless as if he’d been fighting half a dozen warriors and he muttered: “That wasn’t real, that wasn’t real.”
Thor cautiously unpeeled the coverlet from its tangle around Loki’s shoulders and waist. Loki was almost bound by a heavy jumble of blankets, imprisoning him as he writhed. “Tell me what happened…not the spiders again?”
“No, it was…You were saying…” Loki caught his breath. It almost sounded like a sob. “Such cruel things to me, Thor.”
Thor swallowed. Loki slept so rarely….and he was only ever vulnerable when he slept. Thor could remember every time that Loki woke him, not screaming or struggling, but simply trembling and moaning as if some dread jailor had already stolen his wits and will. If Thor caught him just on waking he might deign to share the vaguest details and this one was new.
“What did I say?” Thor dared to come close enough to rub shoulders with Loki, thinking that he could rebut this dream-self, argue with him in Loki’s memory, slay him.
“Ah, I…” Loki turned his face up to the moonlight. He cracked into a bitter laugh. “I don’t remember now.”
That had to be true. Loki blinked, looking almost bewildered. “It’s just…gone.”
They sat for a moment etched in the silver light, as Loki’s harsh, heaving breath slowed.
“It was just a dream. Nothing in it was real.” Thor leaned in to nudge his chin against Loki’s jaw and Loki clasped his bicep, seeming unsure if he wanted to pull Thor close or push him away. “Hard for me to imagine that my tongue could ever let your icy blood, magpie.”
Loki shuddered once. Already he was cooling, quieting, now he seemed armored and girt with invisible weapons. “It was…just a dream.”
Thor put his arm around Loki’s shoulders delicately.
“Dark night yet.” Thor murmured into the fall of Loki’s hair. “You could be more comfortable.”
Loki pushed Thor down to the bed and slumped on top of him. Thor felt the chill as Loki shifted to his jötunn form; he relaxed as the hot bedding cooled. He breathed into Loki’s hair as Loki traced fingernails lightly through the hair on Thor’s chest and whispered once like a command: ‘just a dream’.
“Get out, get out, get OUT!” Faces were blurred now; he had no idea if he was bellowing at thralls or foreign kings. Their eyes were unpleasantly shiny, the gold glinting at him made his head hurt. He stumbled and kicked a casket of treasure meant for grave goods. He tried to breathe and not touch anything breakable which left him twisting his hands round Mjölnir’s haft. Within moments the vast hall was empty, but he still…there was no air in here. Thor wanted to press his face against the cold marble of the floor but Heid was sidling his way.
“Why are you left to me, you flame-haired witch?” Thor groaned.
“Just lucky I guess.” Heid wrinkled her nose. “I suppose others are not wont to forget that they are speaking to one who can open the heavens and strike them to ash with a thunderbolt at his ever-more-capricious whim.”
Thor took another draught, despairing. He would not do that, he would never do that…but then he had just roared like a hurricane at a huddle of innocents for daring to be in the same room as his lover’s corpse.
“And you, the Phoenix of the Vanir?” Thor grated. “You believe you shall rise from your ashes?”
She laughed quietly, with only a hint of bitterness. “Ah, Thor, Thor…Loki stole all the glory in that vein, did he not? You never get proper credit for your wit.”
“Meager though it be.” Thor mumbled. Loki gave …had given him all the acknowledgment he desired. Thor was skewered unexpectedly by a memory of Loki laughing helplessly, holding his stomach, snorting and choking as Thor related former exploits in Alfheim in the dignified, studied language of a saga. There had been tears in Loki’s eyes by the time Thor had spoken of cuckolding some elf-prince, he had begged for mercy.
“You might not believe me.” Heid said without looking at him. “I know protesting my constancy would not move you. But I swore to serve the king in Asgard, and that means even if some fire demon sorcerer has cut the legs out from under him.”
Thor snorted in surprise and drained another tankard. “Am I so obviously lamed?”
“Well, not to them.” Heid shrugged. The sky of Asgard had gone black for two days as Thor’s insatiable wrath had claimed three quarters of the remaining fire-demon invasion. By striking at Loki, the enemy had sounded their own death knell. But it had forced his own troops to retreat hastily as Thor’s blind agony hadn’t been very discerning.
“Where is he?”
Heid looked very wary. “What are you asking me?”
“I haven’t gone completely mad, Heid” Thor sighed. Yet. “The frost giants are not soulless.”
“Oh.” She paused and seemed to collect her thoughts. “Ah yes, well I imagine that Loki’s gone the way of all frosty flesh and…”
“Speak with a little more care, Bright One.” Thor warned her.
“He’s not a draugr.” Heid theorized. “He must be in their hereafter. They have their own, as do the dwarves, they are Ymir’s children too. Perhaps it looks like Utgard made whole.”
“Perhaps.” Thor upended his tankard and called for another. There was a tiny, whispered debate before the youngest page of all staggered over to him, his whole body taut under the weight of Thor’s mug. He handed it off without mishap and hared off back to the shadows.
“I really am very sorry, Thor.” When he could look at her again, he was surprised to see that her own pale green eyes looked so crestfallen. Seeing Heid without her cynicism was rather like seeing Loki without his malice…they both looked almost naked. “After all these long years, I truly was almost starting to like him.”
“If another person tells me he looks ‘peaceful’, I will rip up the Yggdrasil, Heid. I will shatter this realm and all to follow.” Thor promised grimly. “Loki’s not supposed to be peaceful. He wasn’t peaceful even when he slept. Loki never looked peaceful, except for when….”
He coughed. Heid looked askance at him and he cleared his throat. “Well, that’s…personal. Any road….”
Heid’s eyebrows did a little jumping jig. “I will send so all know to refrain from using that term.”
“That’s not enough!” Thor barked. He wrenched his fingers through his hair. “I cannot do what I am supposed to do; I cannot be who I am supposed to be anymore.”
He looked despairingly up at the lofty ceiling, feeling the full weight of the citadel as if it had been dropped on him. You had no notion, did you father, that Asgard rested on such fragile foundations?
“Thor-king, we can forgive much.” Heid said kindly, pushing her own chalice into his hands. “Just keep drinking.”
Thor lurched across to the feasting hall, which instantly hushed as soon as the torchlight caught his glower.
“Begone from my sight, Ketill Óspakr.” Thor growled. “I doubt not your fealty, but I have cause to doubt your sorrow.”
The warrior bowed his head and backed to the doorway. It seemed that others looked after him enviously. An abandoned bench somehow shuffled into Thor’s path and paid dearly for its crime. When he stood unimpeded again, the silence was absolute.
“Why do you not sing?” Thor roared as he set his weight wrong and stumbled to the floor. “Why do you not mourn as befits a warrior of Asgard and the king’s consort?” He was flecked with saliva by the time he got that last bit out. His mouth was so full of bitterness; he could not wash it away with an ocean of ale. He had tried. He felt numb up to his chin, but it wasn’t the right kind of numbness, he needed to be frozen, if only…
“Because, my king.” Volstagg panted around his shoulders as he tried to heft Thor back on to his feet. “It is not so long ago that you nearly beat a man to death for saying his name with less than what you deemed perfect respect.”
“Ymir’s icy tits,” is what Thor tried to say. It came out as a bereaved animal howl. Which is better, his father’s voice tormented him…mad king, dead king, no king?
“Shhhh.” Volstagg abandoned his attempt to get Thor fully upright. Instead he cradled Thor half-sitting, stroking Thor’s hair as if Thor were one of his own children. Thor wept, lashed by thoughts of his subjects’ terror. How his fell warriors now crept around the edges of the halls as their king paced the floors with less reason than a mad, snorting bull. He had been snatching tankards out of other men’s hands in the last hours, he had quaffed until he choked.
He beat his fist against the stone floor until it cracked, even as Volstagg tried so valiantly to quiet him.
For a moment, the dizziness cleared and he struggled to his feet. He jerked away from Volstagg’s embracing arm and rushed out of the hall. It was the deepest part of night and the corridors and galleries were mercifully unpeopled as he blundered through. Down to the gardens, out the eastern gate, he could not bear another wet, sympathetic eye upon him.
Outside the citadel the air was mercifully cool and smelt neither of incense and magic or sulfur and death. He kept moving, stripping off his ceremonial garb.
He was stumbling now, waist deep in bramble and he swung Mjölnir like a scythe before him. She seemed heavier than she’d ever been before, as if all his strength was leaking out.
He was screaming suddenly, bellowing at the black sky and cold stars. If his hands had been free he would have torn at his own flesh, jerked out his hair. Mjölnir was suddenly anchor-heavy and her weight pulled him first into a stumble and then to a sprawl.
Grit scraped his cheek, mud oozed into his mouth.
And then merciful blackness.
“Hi, ho, hallllooo, barrel-creature!” A voice seemed to be coming from close by: a crooning, babbling voice.
Thor blinked up at the blue sky, and then squeezed his eyes shut and groaned. His head…all his bones felt like they were made of bronze, stiff and brittle and blazing hot in this bright sun. His brain felt all gooey like sticky soup in a copper basin.
“Yoooou are going to be making my nearer acquaintance very soon, yellow barrel.” The voice seemed to have some urgency as it spouted nonsense. “Might leave you sputtering, yes, yes.”
Thor gasped as his booted feet suddenly gave way to an icy chill and gushing wetness. He sat up with a stifled yelp. His vision exploded into a burst of dazzling, starfire brightness. He clapped his hands over his abused eyes and found that this two-pronged attack was simply that his weight had dragged him slowly down the sandy bank of a river and the sunlight on the water reflected the cheer of mid-morning. His boots had defended him as well as they could but the water…
The water had bunched itself up somehow; its constant flow seemed to have collected itself into a vaguely feminine shape. It was looking at him with an oddly liquid display of sympathy and alarm.
“Do you wish to rinse yourself, yellow barrel?” The water spirit offered kindly. “Or gasp and sink and turn blue?” She spoke as if either choice were equally fine.
“Uh.” Thor blinked very slowly. “I don’t…”
“Here.” A sudden clout of water struck him full in the face. “You seem to need a freshening.”
Thor squinted and delicately sluiced the water off his face and beard the best he could. “Ah…I…thank…you.”
Epically hungover and soaking wet did not seem the most auspicious start to the day, but he’d surely had worse…then he remembered and muffled a sob into his swiping hand.
“There, there…” The water spirit hoisted herself a little higher, becoming more feminine and human-like for a moment. “You’ve gone all salty.”
She reached out an appendage and brushed him lightly. Her strange fluid touch left him cooler and without his crust of sweat and tears. His headache receded by inches.
“Thank…mmmph.” Thor coughed as some of her trickled into his mouth. “Thank you, kind…uh.”
He sat up straighter and regarded his benefactress. Though he got the sense that this creature was feminine as much as Loki was masculine, rather something of an outward gloss that made a deeper mystery more explicable.
“You are very kind, dear…” Thor rasped. “I do beg your pardon, but what is your name?”
The woman-like column of water collapsed back into the river and then flirted up again. “Always with the confounding questions, barrel creatures are. You know my taste, surely and I know yours…”
She frothed to herself a moment. “Very…fermented, malty and salty both.”
Thor grimaced and buried his face in his folded arms and bent knees. For the first time he noticed his own sour reek like vinegar and burnt bread mixed, a vile drunken brew. The river spirit didn’t seem to be holding it against him though, she was smacking her watery lips. “So we know each other, what need of these ‘name’ things?”
“But…were I to speak of you later…to one who doesn’t know your taste?” Thor asked as he slowly puzzled out the rationale for a name. He gazed out dully at the vast plain around them. From above, the Ifingr river would be a long silver line tracked through a golden delta of swaying grass. “Why do you call me a barrel creature?”
She tilted her watery girth sideways in an eddying swirl. “Not fish, not otter, not frog…usually cast round in worked wood?”
Thor realized she meant boats or rafts. “Do you often speak with…barrel creatures like me? We call our kind Aesir.”
“Some.” She grew suddenly coy and moved off to loosen a clot of flotsam caught up by a sunken log. She turned suddenly and rushed up to him on a wave. “Do you know any stories?”
Thor took an unsteady breath. “Uhm.”
“Truly I don’t often speak to you barr-, ah, Aesir.” She sounded the word carefully in her melodious voice. “Always in such a hurry you are.”
Thor twitched a tiny shrug. “That does seem discourteous.”
“But, but, but! The last barrel creature who stopped and spoke to me told me some lovely stories. Not to say…” She rippled shyly. “I didn’t understand all of them.”
Thor nodded encouragingly. Here at least was one who wasn’t moved to cover him in pity.
“He looked like you. I mean…longish. Didn’t taste like you though.” She smacked her lips appraisingly. “Very distinctive taste. Stayed in me a lot longer than most of you Aesir-barrels can stand.”
Thor squeezed his eyes shut and pursed his lips. “A dark barrel?”
“Perhaps.” She seemed uncertain. “He also wanted me to have one of these ‘name’ things so he gave me one. I tried to help him too, but I don’t know if I did.”
“How did you help him?” It had been a sunny morning so, so, so long ago. Loki had sat here, blue-lipped and shivering, arguing with Thor. I do have a reason, Odinson…but you shall not know it.
“Uhm.” The Ifingr spirit curved uncertain little waves toward the shore. “He said his ‘heart’ was on fire and he wanted to drown it. Make it cold again.”
She paused for a long moment. “You are all over in salt, yellow-Aesir-barrel. I think it must tickle your surface. You have gone quite red now.”
“I’m sorry.” Thor gasped.
“Why?” She trilled innocently.
“Where I come from….among the Aesir.” Thor tried to get a hold of himself. “It’s considered quite rude to get…liquid in front of someone who’s not an intimate friend.”
“Oh. How strange.” She collapsed into a deep pool and then churned up again. “But I know your taste. Tell me your ‘name’.”
“My name is Thor. Odinson.” Thor said gravely. “I am the god of thunder and king in Asgard.”
“So now we are friends!” The river spirit twirled happily. “You can be as wet as you like! Do you know any stories like the other barrel?”
Thor shook his head and then reconsidered.
“The only story I really know well concerns him directly.” Thor swallowed another sob. “It is the story of how we met and the adventures we had together.”
“Please.” She sparkled with myriad facets of sunlight on her gushing waterfall form. “I would like so very much to hear it.”
“Well, listen closely then.” Thor sniffed and huffed a long breath out. He’d never been much of a storyteller. But this was going to be all he had now, this saga, he should try to do it justice. “This story has never been told. This song has gone unsung.”
She curled herself into a happy little maelstrom, flipping splashes everywhere as she settled in to listen, her glassy eyes alight.
The sun was starting to slant when he finished, quite hoarse from speaking so long. The Ifingr spirit had interrupted him often with questions at the beginning of the tale, as she wasn’t familiar with much other than what touched her banks. But as the saga wore on, she grew silent.
“Hmmmmm.” She finally said when he had run out of words. “Hmmmmmm. No.”
Thor blinked at the sparkling water. “No?”
“No, the ending needs…work.” She shook her head, flinging droplets everywhere. “I mean, it was flowing along so well and then…killed by fire demons? No, it doesn’t suit.”
Thor wondered if he was mad or she was. “They had a sorcerer and…”
“Yes, yes, yes…I heard, it sounded very regrettable and unlucky.” She frowned transparently. “You must change it, Thorodinsongodofthunderandkinginasgard.”
Thor shifted and straightened his bent legs, rubbing away the pins and needles. “Change it?”
“Yes.” Little waves lapped the shore; he realized that she was nodding. “It wants a new episode.”
“But he’s dead.” Thor thought about her earlier offer, he could just slip down, a few painful gasps and…
“I know not of this ‘dead’.” The Ifingr spirit spouted up a great flume. “But it sounds about as useful as a ‘name’. You say he still lies in your golden ‘city’, he is with you surely?”
She quivered in a cascade of tiny ripples. Doubtless she was anticipating more stories from a resurrected Loki.
“I…forgive me, bright spirit, but surely…” Thor cleared his throat. “I know that you have been here just as long as the river and will remain as long as it flows, but the Aesir and the frost giants have souls and…we can be riven from our…barrels. And thereafter we are not to be re-united.”
“Who says so?” She asked pertly.
“Ah…it is the way of all things.” Thor started. “To do otherwise is impossible.”
“Well, I understand that it may seem very difficult and very daunting to a small one such as you.” She said condescendingly as she rose up in a sudden geyser of water. “But impossible? Truly? Were you not just telling me a story of incredible deeds? As if it were true?”
“Yes, but that was…” Thor sipped a handful of her water out of his palm, feeling dizzy. “He’s much cleverer than I am. He…was.”
“Well, then you must ask others who are cleverer yet.” She explained kindly. “You bring me his barrel and I will keep him for you…I have a little magic under my surface, I can protect him. And then it wants only for you to find the rest of him and return here.”
Thor took a deep breath and stood up, ankle-deep in the frigid water. No one had ever pierced the veil, not that he had ever heard. But she made it sound…simple. He blinked and suddenly didn’t feel his headache.
It was said that the river flowed over the edge of Asgard and cascaded into Jötunheim. There were surely a few wise ones left in Jötunheim, and if they didn’t want to help him, he would make them.
Such a simple word. He murmured under his breath, ‘no’.
‘Til death do us part was weak stuff, for mortals. If it had been he who had fallen, in all likelihood Loki would now be halfway to discovering some scheme to reunite them. And so he was not as clever as Loki but surely he could…try. “I find you are right, kind river. It wants a new chapter, this story.”
Already it was a fire in his vitals. Loki wouldn’t stand for this, why should Thor Odinson, God of Thunder, King in Asgard?
“I will return soon, bright…” Thor brought himself up short. “You said he gave you a name.”
She had spread herself out to her banks again, but she quirked her head aloft. “Who?”
“Loki…the barrel with the strange taste?” Thor wondered how deep her memory flowed. “You said he gave you a name, what was it?”
“Ah…” She burbled to herself, cheerily sparkling in the sun. “It was perfect. S-s-s-sigyn.”
“That’s my ‘name’.” She chortled to herself. “Sigyn.”
“I am not mad.” Thor said as quietly and reasonably as he could.
“Thor-king, forgive me.” Heid said, strangely formal. “But you are surely aware that that is always the first thing that mad people say.”
Sif looked very grave. Frigga wouldn’t look at him at all; she only squeezed Odin’s limp hand while he slept.
“You will leave Asgard at war without her king?” Sif said quietly but the words, even in her soft voice, were fledged and steel-tipped. There was no argument to be made to that; it was exactly what he meant to do. No use protesting that he was hardly a king now, not with all his vital parts torn out.
He should have lied. It occurred to him suddenly that lying would have easily spared all these shocked and reproachful looks. Loki would have crafted some plausible but vague tale about needing the corpse to rest in state in Jötunheim and would have already vanished before objections could be mustered.
Already this mission was slipping away from him. Thor took a tight breath and hardened his resolve. “It will not be for long and…”
“No, it will certainly not take long, since it is impossible.” Heid countered, and he clenched Mjölnir’s haft and pressed his lips against her cool head to keep from taking a swipe at the red-headed sorceress. He took ten deep breaths that seemed loud in the silence.
“I can still lift this hammer.” He said very slowly. “I have not lost all reason. I have done much for this realm and I never begrudged any of my duty. Is it too much that I might simply attempt to preserve one thing for myself?”
Sif bowed her shoulders inward as if she’d taken a body blow.
“Thor, you cannot go.” Heid said, almost sounding disconsolate. “Sif says the fire demons are massing…”
Thor blinked at her. Speaking of fire demons now felt like warning a drowning man against a plague contagion. Heid was wrapping up her appeal, “…And they are all expecting you to receive their obeisance.”
“I am speaking of Loki’s life and you prattle at me of court protocol?” Thor tried to keep his voice measured but he wasn’t very successful. Heid did not quail but her tiny fists clenched and seemed to glow yellow for a moment.
“Thor, it is not only for this realm that I would ask you not to go thus.” Sif said quietly. “But for your own health also. You are grieving, we all are, and it leaves us prey to odd thoughts and fancies that will lead us nowhere but to more and greater grief.”
You mistake me greatly if you think I am asking your leave. Thor took another breath to speak even as words fled him. But then Heid’s eyes were widening and Sif was straightening as they looked at him.
No, not at him. Behind him. Thor turned and almost flinched.
“My king, I crave a word with you.” Heimdall looked as composed as ever even as Thor boggled to see him absent the Bifrost. Of course, Heimdall’s sight went with him everywhere, but Thor had never seen the guardian away from the gate.
“Speak, Heimdall.” Thor’s heart sank as he anticipated another voice lifted in argument against him.
“You undertake to retrieve Loki’s spirit from the spirit world of the frost giants. You would go against nature, the way of all things with an arrogance that even the Allfather never dared.”
Thor paused wondering if he was being asked a question or simply harangued. “Yes?”
“Good.” Heimdall inclined his head once, turned on his heel and left.
Thor turned to see Heid and Sif exchange a wide-eyed look. He took two hesitant steps and then trotted after the guardian. Heimdall was leaving a horde of slack-jawed servants and sentries in his wake as he strode back to the Bifrost.
“Heimdall, what are you…?” Thor caught him up at the portcullis of the citadel. “I would know your meaning.”
Heimdall was silent for three long strides. Thor waited as patiently as he could. He was unsure if it was Heimdall’s blessing or curse that he could unravel himself from his deep, all-seeing awareness to speak power to a singular plane, a singular time…it must be ever like explaining to children Loki’s voice purred in his ear.
“I told you once that Loki’s threads crossed my own. Thus my knowledge of his fate was hindered.” Heimdall began and Thor nodded. He remembered it well.
“There are those in Asgard who yet contend that Loki was a dark force among us.” Heimdall continued and spoke over Thor’s protest. “But since his spirit has been absent this realm, the future I have to foretell has grown very dark indeed.”
Thor gripped Mjölnir but it failed to be at all comforting.
“His passing was not as intended.” Heimdall said evenly and Thor’s mouth went dry. He had a sudden flash of that final battle, Loki’s pale, gasping face, the scarlet slash of his trembling mouth and…Thor quashed the memory ruthlessly to keep on his feet.
Heimdall slowly unsheathed his sword and took up his usual stationary stance on the dais of the Bifrost.
“It has left that which is to come greatly unsettled. I do not know if your proposed course of action will bear fruit.” Heimdall paused delicately. “But be the attempt worthy or not, you must undertake it, Thor-king. For the sake of the Nine.”
Thor’s blood went cold and sluggish as he tried to parse the command. It was not lost on him that Heimdall spoke of more than Asgard’s future. Dire foreboding made him shiver as the wind screeched around the rainbow bridge.
“The fire demons…” Thor began slowly.
“The fire demons may be far from the worst entity to trouble this realm.” Heimdall said.
“So it is with your blessing that I leave Asgard unguarded.” Thor squared his shoulders and lifted his chin.
“My king, I must contradict you.” Heimdall said sonorously. “Asgard is not now, nor will be unguarded.”
Thor glanced over his shoulder to the Bifrost and was brought up short by the sight of Sif, Heid and Frigga ranged along it, looking at him with different iterations of concern. Sif still wore the breastplate that Loki had made for her; these days she seldom took it off even after it had grown scarred and seared. There was Heid, buoyant and resourceful as ever even in the face of this protracted war, her auburn hair massing up over her shoulders like the mane of a fierce creature. And his calm, regal mother who had borne far worse hurts than this surely in the course of her long life and remained unbowed.
He turned to look back into the golden eye of the gatekeeper. “Forgive my rash words, Heimdall. You know my arrogance is legend. But I see that you are right.”
Thor had not been back to his own chambers since returning from the front line of the last skirmish. He had changed his battle-stained clothing in an anteroom of the baths and slept, insofar as he was able, on a low couch in his father’s smaller council chamber. Standing alone in the quiet space, it felt like the room had been bricked up, that it was dust-covered, stale-aired…when in reality it was no such thing.
Sif had helped him get his finest armor on. There had been a tacit agreement that they should not expose themselves to any more gossip than they had to and that meant no servants. Thor had expected to have to steel himself against the feel of one of Loki’s many gifts, one of his most prized possessions. But it was more comforting and less distressing than he had any right to expect.
“What are you fussing with?” He growled at Heid who was fidgeting with aught she had wrapped in a broad leather skin.
“That sword I gave you, the one that glows in the presence of warriors?” Heid prompted and Thor nodded.
“I re-forged it.” Heid held up two daggers that seemed to glow faintly with more than reflected torchlight. They blazed when she turned them toward Sif. “These will be easier to carry.”
He bent and sheathed them in his boots. Sif handed him something that looked like an ordinary hunting horn and Heid continued. “I have never created a spell such as this, so it may not work, or might work…unexpectedly. It is a pale copy of the Gjallarhorn; it should resound in all realms.”
“Ah.” Thor said and took it from her. It was very small in his hand.
“I cannot even tell you to ‘have a care’, Thor-king.” He felt almost grateful as he regarded the pale figure of the Vanir witch. Now that he was unwaveringly committed; she was just as adamant. Heid, for all her cynicism, could have taught lessons in loyalty. “You are heading far beyond the realms of reason, much less caution.”
“But do have a care anyway, my king.” Sif chimed in with the ghost of a smile.
“If you could wait just a few more hours,” Heid wheedled. “With just a little more time for research, I could…”
“No.” Thor swallowed as his mother came into the room. “No, it must be now.”
Sif and Heid nodded slowly, recognizing his need.
“You must take this, my darling.” Frigga murmured as she fastened a new cape to his pauldrons. It was thicker than his usual garb, densely embroidered, yet soft. He could imagine that it might block even the iciest winds of Jötunheim.
“Thank you, Mother, I…” Thor tried to say more but his throat seemed to twist closed and he could not force even a whisper out.
“It has never seemed to avail much.” Frigga said with the faintest hint of a pained smile. “Urging caution upon you, my dear heart. But you must come back to me.”
Heid had helped him move the casket out to the nearest balcony. Under the moonlight, Loki’s deathly pallor was not so obvious and Thor found himself oddly soothed. He spared a glance up at the familiar stars and tried to slow his racing heart.
“What are you doing?” Thor watched Heid trace runes on the air and make a pass over Loki’s still face.
“Just a moment.” Heid had stuck her tongue between her teeth and she spoke out of the side of her mouth. “I will send him to the Ifingr, if you can spare me one moment.”
“No, no more magic.” Thor shook his head, feeling suddenly superstitious. “There’s already been too much done.”
“Thor, it’s….” Heid squinted at him. “I can’t carry him and I very much doubt that you want to. If you are determined to leave him with this river spirit…”
“There’s an easier way.” Thor shot back tersely. He clicked his tongue, and whistled and quite soon the moons were blotted out by Jormungandr’s broad wings.
“Gently, girl.” It was dark, so he dared to lay his head against her smooth side and feel her great muscles move under her skin as she breathed. She flicked her tongue sadly at Loki and the windows rattled and the curtains twisted as she beat her great wings to grasp the carved sarcophagus in her enormous curved claws. Thor leapt up to his perch below where her neck met her shoulder and beckoned at Heid impatiently.
She folded her arms. “Oh, yes, I see, this seems much less prone to mishap than a little painless magic.”
“You need not come.” Thor clasped his hands over Jormungandr’s neck spines and started to click his tongue. Heid huffed angrily and then pushed her sleeves up so she could lift a hand to Thor. As they flew east, Thor took one glance back at Asgard, which had become just a sparkling array of flickering golden light in the vast darkness.
Sigyn bubbled and burbled enthusiastically at them in the faint light of dawn. “Hi, what a great lizard! I have seen the like, but never quite so fine! Come have a drink of me, scaly one!”
Jormungandr obligingly lowered her head to drink as Thor rearranged the linens covering Loki that had gotten somewhat disarrayed in flight. He could be so solicitous now, now when it didn’t matter…guarding against chill that Loki didn’t feel, would never have felt, yet he couldn’t seem to stop himself fidgeting with the covers.
“Here.” Sigyn flittered up in a cascade of cool droplets. “Here is where I’m deepest, ThorgodofthunderkinginAsgard.”
Thor nodded grimly and waded in until he was waist deep in the rushing water. Jormungandr had backed up on her haunches, looking uncertain, but she nudged the edge of Loki’s longship casket down the sandy bank adeptly. Thor caught the end and stared down at Loki’s still face for a long moment. You will not rest while I cannot, magpie. I will find you.
Sigyn helped him, steadying the clinkered wooden planks while he pulled gently but inexorably down until the water swirled up over Loki, sending his hair eddying around his face. Sigyn made the water unnaturally clear so he could see where she held the casket firmly wedged between her rocks and stones.
“When are you for Jötunheim?” Heid asked quietly.
Thor grunted. “At once.”
Sigyn assured him that her route to Jötunheim would get him to Utgard fasterthanfast.
He looked up at Jormungandr who had wrapped her tail around her long body anxiously. “Wait me here, girl and guard him. You can hunt this plain for a good while.”
She cocked her head and tightened her tail as if she were settling down for a nap. Her smoky breath slowed while her golden eyes stayed wide open.
Thor set a steadying hand on Mjölnir. He tightened the straps on his daggers, and drew Mistilsteinn four inches free to ensure that the scabbard was oiled.
“Any last words of advice?” Thor asked as he waded out for the second time.
Heid shivered. “Don’t assume everyone you meet loves you, Thor. And should you by some chance venture into the realm of the dead, don’t eat their food for any reason.”
Thor nodded and picked up his satchel. He tucked the horn and the cloak his mother had made in beside five of Iðunn’s golden apples before heaving himself on the rickety raft that he’d woven together out of alder branches.
Heid scrambled back up onto the bank and gawked at him. “How did you ever get Iðunn to give you so many apples?”
Thor balanced himself on his flimsy raft and pushed out into mid-stream.
“I just did what Loki would do.” He waved at Heid, wondering vaguely if he’d ever see her again. “I stole them.”