I am Loki, of Asgard, son of none.
For the father I knew not is dead by my own hand, and he whom I no longer claim rules the Nine Realms from the High Seat of Hlidskjalf.
I have walked the far roads, the deep paths, the darkened trailways through Yggdrasil’s branches. I have followed the ley lines down evil’s black throat, and traced my way back through fire and pain. I bear the scars.
I wield the weapons of truth and lies, honor and expedience, magic and misdirection, frost and flame. Around me swirl the howling winds engendered by my own double nature. I welcome them. I inhale the winds and exhale the storm.
Do you scoff? Do you laugh at the storm, thinking it a little thing, soon past?
For when the screaming gale is anchored, when the wildly tangled winds join hands and caper around a calm central eye, does not their power grow? None can stand before them.
And who will brave the tempest, stand in its eye, and watch the winds of my chaos dance with arms thrown wide and face uplifted?
Odin’s stables, and, later, the city wall. . .
See a dark horse running, legs flashing, mane streaming in an endless wave across the rider’s quiet hand. He’s a tall man clad in black save for a crescent-shaped torque on his breast; he rides with easy grace, free hand resting on his thigh. Above and before him, the towers of Asgard glitter in the sun, and the green field of Ida stretches behind, slung between the mountains’ raven-haunted peaks.
Horse and rider sweep through the city’s outer gate, past a guard who bows, fist to chest. His companion, inside the guardhouse, looks up, startled, at the crash of hooves striking the pavement. “Who was that?” he calls out.
“Prince Loki,” comes the reply. “Riding hard.”
As he reined in and dismounted, Loki scanned the yard for the new stableman; the bruising ride had left Hrafn’s black shoulders streaked with lather. But the yard remained empty, and after a few moments, Loki’s mouth tightened. He glanced back at Hrafn, whose eyes watched him with close attention, and then walked forward through the stable’s arched entrance. The horse followed.
Inside, silhouetted against the bright sunlight of the far doors, he saw the errant stableman, engaged in discussion with a white-cloaked maiden. He gestured to Hrafn, and, when the horse drew near and gently nosed his shoulder, tethered him to a nearby post, his eyes still on the distant conversation. He strode toward them, a sharp rebuke on his lips for the stableman’s inattentiveness. But as he approached and their words became audible, his attention was caught by the lady. When she turned slightly, he recognized her: one of Frigga’s handmaidens, dressed to ride in slim breeches and a short leather jerkin. A frisson of amusement rippled through him, then; for it was clear that she was furious, though her voice remained low and pleasant and her face calm, and yet the stableman seemed oblivious to the fire in her eyes.
“My lady, I’m responsible for the safety of those who use these mounts. Let me choose for you. . .”
“I assure you, sir, I understand your position. But I have used these stables long, and I ride the stallion Bruni. Please fetch him to me.”
“Bruni is too large and strong for you, Lady.”
“He is not. I assure you. Again.”
“I would be flogged if you were to be injured.”
Loki’s smile broadened as he watched the stableman lift his chin and glare down his nose at her, and the lady’s lips press into a tight line. Her voice grew more soft and yet bitingly clear.
“Sir, please, if you will bring Bruni out, I think you will find that the stallion and I have a good understanding of one another. He has always been my chosen mount. You’re new to your position here, and, forgive me, you know neither the horse nor myself well enough to cavalierly forbid me to ride.”
‘I’m sure you’re an excellent rider, but that stallion. . .”
Loki cleared his throat, and was rewarded with two startled faces. The stableman bowed deeply, at once, though not before Loki noticed the sudden stiff tension in his face. The fear.
A wolf in your stable, yes?
When the man straightened, Loki nodded toward the woman and said, “This is Lady Sigunn, handmaiden to the Queen. If she says that she prefers the stallion, I suggest that you go and saddle the beast. Now.”
The command in his voice drove the man into another nervous bow, and then, without a word, he scurried down a side passage, into the depths of the stable.
Loki turned to Sigunn. He had seen her often, serving the queen among a crowd of other maidens; he had spoken with her once or twice. And he knew that if he had been tasked with choosing a mount for her, he would have selected a gentle palfrey. Studying her now, as she lowered her gaze and bent the neck to him, he felt a tug of annoyance. His judgements of people were rarely so inaccurate.
When her eyes returned to his face, he said, “One has only to look at you to see that you are a rider of stallions.”
He meant it to be an easy jest, but he saw at once that it did not strike her as such. Her brows lowered.
“You would be the first to say so, my lord.”
She tilted her head to look down the passage the stableman had taken, and she murmured, “I may be their mare, but I will not choose to ride one!”
She hadn’t meant for him to hear that, Loki was certain. “Excuse me?” he asked.
When she turned back, he realized that she was still violently, desperately angry, though not with him, not even with the ignorant stableman. He watched as she visibly took rein on her fury, swallowing it until she could raise clear eyes to his face.
“I . . .” she shook her head. “Forgive me, my lord. I am speaking nonsense."
There was a moment of silence while Loki digested this obvious untruth. A muscle in her jaw trembled unsteadily, and her eyes left him, to study the stable wall beyond his right shoulder.
“Well,” he spread his hands, watching her eyes. “I have often found nonsense to be a useful mode of expression.”
A smile escaped her, and her eyes lightened. As she pulled a pair of leather gloves from the belt at her waist, she said, “Perhaps I should give it more credence."
“Consider it, at least. Nonsense charms the ally, or disarms the enemy.” He decided to push, just a little. “It can be a potent weapon.”
“I expect it is, for you, my lord.” The light in her face faded. “But I don’t suppose I possess your skill in wielding it.”
“I’m flattered, Lady, that you attribute my nonsense to skill and not innate nature.”
She began drawing on the gloves. “You are a man of many skills. Anyone who spends any time in your presence would recognize that.”
Loki blinked, and paused, studying her more sharply. From anyone else, in any other conversation, such a sally would have been base flattery, if not blatant flirtation. But her mind was so obviously elsewhere, her desperation to be away from him, from here, so patent, that he knew he could not read any heat into it. A pity, that. He was enjoying the conversation, the easy way that she followed his thought, and he was suddenly very aware of the lovely line of her collarbone and the curve of her breast under the jerkin.
She looked away and murmured, “As for me, I need a less ethereal weapon.”
“Are you going into battle this morning? Is that why you ride a stallion?” He kept his voice light.
“I am no warrior,” she said quietly, bitterly.
Relief crossed her face then as the stableman emerged from a side passage leading a huge, blood-red horse. “I merely seek a morning’s diversion. Bruni will provide it.”
Her voice caressed the horse’s name, and his ears pricked eagerly toward her. She turned back to Loki; suddenly her hands twisted awkwardly together as she peered up at him. He could almost hear her thoughts replaying the words they had just shared, and a wince crossed her face.
“Your pardon, my lord. I am . . .I am not really fit company for a prince of Asgard this morning.”
“No matter. I am not really a prince of Asgard,” Loki had taken to telling the exact truth, for the acrid amusement it afforded him: watching people of all stripes as they heard his truths, agreed with them completely in their hearts, and yet denied them flatly to his face.
She eyed him quizzically for a moment. Then, she dropped him a quick and very inadequate curtsey and said, “As you wish. Good day, Loki.”
A breath of laughter was startled from his throat. To be given-named by this slip of a girl! Then she compounded the impertinence by pivoting away without waiting for his acknowledgement, whispering words of greeting to the giant horse, who stretched out his neck to rub his muzzle against her hair, pulling several soft waves out of their bindings.
The stableman stooped, clasping his hands to receive her knee and then tossing her up into the saddle. She gave both he and Loki an equally cursory nod of farewell, and then, whirling the stallion about, she sent him out the far door at a brisk trot.
Loki watched her go, face thoughtful. Then he beckoned sharply to the stableman. “Hrafn needs attention. He’s had a hard ride.”
“At once, my lord.” The servant bobbed his head, and Loki saw, with some exasperation, that the man’s hands were shaking.
I truly am a monster in my own house.
After waiting just a moment, to be certain that the man was attending properly to the horse, he turned on his heel and left the stable in a swirl of black cloak.
For some minutes, the stable was quiet but for the muted clink of metal and rustle of leather as the stableman divested Hrafn of his tack. Taking extra care, he shipped the stirrups and looped the reins; this was the prince’s personal gear, and he did not wish to risk a reprimand.
A subtle movement caught his eye and he spun about, feeling the bridle slip from his grasp and fumbling clumsily to catch it. A man stood there, cloaked and hooded. As he stepped forward the cloak parted enough for the stableman to recognize the distinctive armor of the Allfather’s bodyguard. Swallowing nervously, he bowed and asked, “How may I serve you, sir?”
“The lady who rode out just now. . .”
The voice sharpened. “You know her name?”
“The prince told me.”
The figure before him went utterly still for a moment. Then the voice asked softly, “The prince?”
“Prince Loki, sir.”
A longer silence. “She was here with him?"
“They were speaking together.”
“He went with her?”
“Oh, no, sir. She rode out alone.”
“I see. Where does she ride this morning?"
The stableman’s vague disquiet was growing. Reluctantly he answered, “I know not, sir. She did not say.”
“But she was alone.”
Without another word, the cloaked figure turned and strode out the door. The stableman stood there, with the prince’s tack bundled in his arms, staring uneasily after him. In the air there was a faint scent of stale ashes and distant smoke.
Beyond the city gates lay the broad valley of Ida, carpeted with a swath of waving grass and green reeds. A paved road snaked its way along the path of a meandering stream, bridged here and there with stone arches.
As they left the city behind, Bruni’s strides lengthened toward the open path before him. One ear twitched back, waiting. Sigunn smiled and whispered, “Stikla, Bruni. Run.”
Like a thrown spear the red stallion leaped into the green, and Sigunn stretched herself along his neck. She opened her eyes wide, welcoming the sting of the cold air on her face, for then she could pretend that the tears wetting her cheeks were caused only by the wind of Bruni’s swift passage.
In the lee shadow of the city wall, a man watched her, until she was a tiny, fleeing mote of dust on the far edge of vision. Steps sounded behind him, and a royal bodyguard joined him, cloak thrown back from his shoulders now. The first man ignored him, his eyes fixed on the distant end of the valley.
Finally, unable to bear the oppressive silence, the bodyguard muttered, “She came this way, then.”
“Ten minutes ago.”
Slowly, the older man turned to the younger, his voice mild. “And how is it, my son, that you were not with her?”
The guard was not deceived by the gentle tone. His shoulders tightened and his voice flattened as he said, “I cannot dog her steps every moment, Father! And she is making extraordinary efforts to avoid me. As it was, I only missed her by a few minutes.
“A few minutes, only? A mere trifle!” The guard scowled. The older man’s eyes grew colder still. “But let me assure you, boy, that soon these few minutes, here and there, will add up into disaster. She received the message from her father this morning.”
“How can you be sure of that?”
The older man’s lips twisted. “I am deep in her father’s counsel.”
The guard looked away, jaw tight. “Of course. How could I forget?”
“You must find a way to have private speech with her.”
“She will not speak with me.” A sneer marred the young man’s face. “She will speak with Prince Loki, but not speak with me."
The older man raised a brow. “You will find a way.”
“Will I?” The guard’s voice rose. “And how will I? She slips through the palace like a ghost, and she is never alone, except in her rooms or on that cursed stallion. Would you have me hamstring the horse, or break down the doors of her bedchamber?”
“I would have you do what is necessary! You will find a way to see her and you will. . .force the issue.”
The guard leaned closer, glaring into his father’s face. “She will never agree. Not now. Your interference has seen to that.”
There was a ringing slap as his father struck him, hard, across the cheekbone. In the breathless silence that followed, the older man hissed, “And what sort of mewling pup are you, that you require her consent before you act?”
The guard raised a hand, a sheen of hot red filming his eyes, but the older man shook his head and his narrowed eyes held his son’s gaze until slowly, reluctantly, his arm lowered.
“That’s right. Don’t be any more of a fool today.”
He leaned forward, lifting his own hand, a deformed hand, the fingers clenched and warped into a permanent claw. The son shied away from it, but his father reached out and slid the twisted hand around the younger man’s neck, holding him. It was not a kindly gesture.
“Tonight, during the feasting, find her and bring her to me. I will reason with her.”
He looked away then, back down the length of the valley. His voice dropped to a guttural whisper as he said, “We will secure her, Theoric. We must. And then she will yield up the fire.”
There was a long pause. Then, slowly, the old man said, “Now tell me: what is this about Prince Loki?”