“They say—they say that the lost heir of Jötunheim has slain his father and laid claim to the throne.” Sif dropped her voice as a guard passed them, and beckoned the others to follow her into an alcove. “With King Odin dead and the council still undecided as to your place on the throne, it is only a matter of time before Loki Laufeyson seeks to take Asgard. We are without out leader, and Thor—Thor, you have yet to be named the new king. Your power is limited in the worst way possible.”
She bit her lip, as though afraid she had said too much. Thor shook his head, not in disagreement, but to sooth the worry bright in her eyes.
“My father’s death could not have been more ill-timed. Even my mother has said as much. It falls to me to save our people nonetheless.”
Volstagg cleared his throat. “What would you have us do?”
“Yes, you need only say the word and we will ride with you at once.” Fandral dropped his hand to his sword and straightened.
“I would not have us ride anywhere,” Thor said. He watched the disbelief pass over the faces of his friends and stalled their protests with a raised hand. “I have already sent a messenger to Jötunheim’s new king to see where the treaty of old stands. He was due back before nightfall yesterday. Heimdall swore that he would not allow the messenger’s return should it mean danger to the kingdom, but as far as he can see, nothing of great concern has occurred.” Thor frowned, and his tone was grim as he continued. “Until word is received or a body delivered, we wait.”
He closed his eyes, remembering how close he had come once before to ending the tentative peace between his kingdom and the Jötunns. It was the very reason Thor was still struggling to prove to his father that he was fit to lead their people.
Volstagg growled, one hand fisted tight at his side. “This is all well and good, Thor, but should we receive word that the treaty is to be dissolved?”
“Then we ride... into battle.”
Just saying the words was exhausting, and Thor wished desperately that his father would wake and take this burden from his shoulders. Since he was a boy, Thor had wanted nothing more than to carry the power of King of Asgard. Now he understood the lines on his father’s face, and the gray that colored his hair. If this was what it meant to be a king, Thor found himself wondering if he was truly ready.
The sound of approaching footsteps was a welcome interruption to the empty assurances Thor had been prepared to utter. He shifted out of the shadows just as his mother came around the corner, and he opened his arms to her. The youth that had seemed so eternal upon his mother’s face was beginning to fade, and Thor’s heart ached at the thought of losing her as well, so soon after his father’s death.
“What brings you out so early this morning, mother?”
Frigga hugged him tight, then stepped back to frame his face with her hands. He knew before she opened her mouth that word had come at last, and he braced himself for the worst.
“Is our herald yet alive?”
She nodded, her gaze moving past Thor’s shoulder to his friends. “Alive and well, it would seem. He was treated with kindness by King Loki, but his news is disheartening.”
Thor tensed. “It cannot be so terrible if he is alive to tell it.”
Where his mother gripped his shoulders, she began to shake. The tremors, fine though they were, traveled up the length of her arms, and within the space of a breath, brought with them tears and a choked sob. Only when she had regained her composure did Frigga step away, and from the pouch at her hip, withdrew a small orb that glowed blue in the dimly lit corridor.
“The king’s message was contained in this, and it is best you hear it yourself.” As she spoke, the orb began to shift and grow. Seconds later, a young man close to Thor’s age stood before them, his skin pale and his eyes a shade that seemed to shift constantly between green and blue; he looked unlike any Jötunn Thor had ever seen.
“The time of treaties has ended. Though Asgard is great, her power is of no match to Jötunheim’s alone. Though my own kingdom is great, we are no match against the strength of Svartalfheim, let alone the undecided realm of Muspelheim. Already, Svartalfheim has declared that they are no friend to Jötunheim, no matter who the leader may be, and should they rise against my people, Alfheim will be required to rise with them, regardless of our own ties. Even if I am successful in convincing those of Nidavellir to ally themselves with my kingdom, we would not last long in a battle against the elves.
“Therefore, I feel it is in the best interest of both our kingdoms to unite as one. Together, we could bring a permanent peace to our people. To this end, I ask the hand of King Odin’s most eligible child in marriage. Should Asgard consent, you need not send a messenger, only the heir and a small accompaniment. I will give you three weeks to make your decision known to me by way of your arrival in Jötunheim. Should Asgard choose to refuse, then I shall be forced to make a similar offer to Muspelheim, and I can assure you that Asgard would not have long to regret her decision should that happen.”
The threat was unmistakable, and King Loki’s mouth curled up into a smile that bordered on cruel as he bowed low. Then he was gone, the orb once more suspended in the air between them for a long moment before it disappeared with the softest whisper.
“Of course you will refuse!” Volstagg stepped forward, his hand heavy where it landed on Thor’s shoulder. “To demand a marriage to one of the sons of Odin! What sort of bastard would do such a thing?”
Thor turned a wry smile on his friend. “The kind of bastard who was left to die by his father and adopted by the fair but unusual Queen of Alfheim. She has taught him well, for he appears as formidable as their queen, and I would not dare to cross her on even the best of days.” Thor looked to his mother, and saw the resignation in her eyes. He wished he could offer her some assurance that all would be well, but he found it hard to convince even himself.
“He underestimates us, my son. If we were to reach out to Vanaheim—”
Thor reached for Frigga, taking her hands within his own. “We would still be no match for Jötunheim. Vanaheim’s magic is great, to be certain, but they will not go to war for us. You forget, mother, that we are not at true peace with your people, and now that father is dead, it is only a matter of time before they realize just how vulnerable we are. If Jötunheim rose against us, they would see it as a means of taking back from Asgard what we have come to treasure most.” He gave her hands a gentle squeeze to emphasis his point before releasing her.
Behind him, Thor’s friends rushed to share their thoughts on the matter. He let them speak, but after a few moments, he silenced them once more.
“If there were any other way, I would not choose this path, but it is for the good of all Asgard that I must accept King Loki’s offer. As the oldest, it is my duty to put Asgard’s well-being before even my own. I will not send Baldur, nor will I recall Váli from Midgard. As it is, Asgard cannot hope to defeat Jötunheim right now. Even if the Council chooses tonight to name me king, we would be as lacking in defenses and allies.”
Frigga let out a soft noise of distress, but the tilt of her head and the sharp gleam in her eye was confirmation enough that she would stand by Thor’s decision.
“It is as you say, my son, and though I do not send you willingly into the arms of those we have considered the enemy for so long, I know the truth of what you say. Your father would be proud of you, were he here.” She hugged him close once more, then nodded to his friends. “King Loki has agreed to a small accompaniment. It would be a comfort to me if you would take your friends with you. At the very least, you would not be alone, and at the very best, should he prove untrustworthy, they will see that you are protected.”
Thor ignored the slight to his own capabilities, and moved to face the group as a whole. “It is decided, then, if you are all agreeable.” At their nod, he continued. “Tonight, we announce to the kingdom the decision to unite our kingdom with Jötunheim, and in two weeks’ time, we leave for King Loki’s castle.”
His mother’s distress weighed heavily upon Thor’s heart, but he knew that to delay their arrival in Jötunheim was too great a risk.
“Fear not, mother. This parting is only temporary. Once our kingdoms are united, we will see each other often.” He prayed there was some truth in his words. “Has the Council been notified of King Loki’s demands?”
Frigga shook her head. “I thought it best to let you hear the message first.”
Thor sighed and met Fandral’s gaze over his mother’s head. “See that no one else speaks of the matter until this evening. I must meet with the Council now to discuss this offer from Jötunheim.” He offered them a smile that he knew lacked conviction. “I will see you all later.”
With his mother at his side, Thor headed for the council chambers. He stopped along the way to send one servant to fetch the members, including Thor’s brother, Baldur. After a moment of deliberation, he sent another to have food and drink brought up to the room. It was still early enough that many were probably abed yet, and Thor knew that the forethought would be much appreciated.
The room was empty when they arrived, and Thor took his usual spot in the seat to the right of what had been his father’s chair, and his mother to the left. Baldur arrived next, and his face was tight with concern as he sat beside Thor.
“Something has happened. What is it?”
As quietly and quickly as possible, Thor explained the situation. It had been his initial plan to say nothing until everyone had arrived, but he did not like the idea of Baldur being caught unaware with the rest of the castle. The sight of his brother’s face gone pale with worry was a reminder that Loki’s demand could very well affect Baldur, as well. Though Thor was older by four years, should Loki find Thor an unfit consort, then it was possible he would set his sights on Baldur. The very idea had Thor rigid with unspoken fury.
The arrival of the Council members dragged Thor from his thoughts. He waited in silence as they shuffled into the room and found their seats, then allowed them a few moments more for food to be passed around. When all eyes were on him, Thor stood and began to explain once more the demands of Jötunheim’s new ruler.
As he spoke, people began to set their food aside, and the full attention of each Council member fixed on him. When he finished speaking, Thor sank back down in his chair and let the sound of their voices, rising with anger, wash over him. He was so unaware of what was going on around him that it was not until Baldur gripped his shoulder that Thor realized someone was speaking to him.
Councilwoman Bestla cleared her throat, her eyes kind as she repeated her question. “And you have decided to accept King Loki’s offer, I take it?”
Thor nodded. “Asgard has been a peaceful realm for nearly a century. I would not wish to send Her into battle now, when there is an alternative already being offered.”
Councilman Sindri stood. As the most senior member of the council, all eyes moved to him. “The Council would like to request time to deliberate over this new information. When we have come to a decision, we will call you back into the room.”
His tone was flat and dismissive, but Thor was no longer fooled by Councilman Sindri’s less than pleasant demeanor. He could see the worry in the older man’s eyes, and he nodded as he stood.
“My brother and I will retire to my mother’s solar room. When you are ready, we can be found there.”
He expected the closed session to last at least a day to come to a unanimous decision, so he was surprised when, just after the noon hour, a servant arrived to summon the three of them back to the council room. The moment Thor crossed the threshold, he knew that they had done more than simply discuss the offer made my King Loki, and his suspicions were confirmed minutes later, when Councilman Sindri stood to speak.
“Since your father’s passing a month ago, the Council has been in debate as to whether Prince Thor was ready to assume the throne. It is clear to us now that not only is he ready, he is more than capable. Therefore, the Council had come to the agreement that in four days’ time, Prince Thor is to be crowned Asgard’s king.
“However, in regard to the offer made by King Loki of Jötunheim, it is the Council’s belief that allowing a marriage between the two kingdoms would be beneficial. In the absence of Crown Prince Thor, the weight of the crown will fall to his brother, Baldur, until such a time as Thor is able to return to Asgard as her true ruler.”
From his place beside Thor, Baldur let out a noise of discontent. He was careful not to voice his thoughts until the session ended and they were alone once more. Even then, Baldur waited until their mother left before speaking.
“I have no desire to rule when you are the true king,” he stated.
Thor smiled and reached out to pull his brother into an embrace. “And were our positions reversed, I would say the same. But the Council has deemed it so, and you are not unprepared to fill this role. There is more, though. If anything should happen to me in Jötunheim, Asgard cannot be left without a ruler. You will need to protect our people.”
“How?” Baldur all but snarled the word, and he looked ready to storm away.
“If, after three days’ time, you have not heard from me, send a messenger to Nidavellir. They swore an allegiance to our people many centuries ago, and the dwarves will not have forgotten it. Send word to them that Jötunheim has declared war upon Asgard. Through them, you will find allies in the Svartalfheim.”
Thor shook his head. “No. They will first align themselves with King Loki for he is the adopted son of their queen. Only when you have gained the aid of the dwarves and the dark elves will Vanaheim consider fighting at our side.”
A shadow passed over Baldur’s face. “You do not think the Jötunns will seek the aid of Hel? It is rumored that their queen is the daughter of King Loki.”
“I have no doubt that they will appeal to the—people of Hel, but Hela bows to no man or woman unless it pleases her to do so. Do as I have said and Asgard may very well survive this. Alfheim will be forced to withdraw from any battle once it is made known that Svartalfheim has chosen our side for they cannot raise arms against their own kind. That will leave only Jötunheim and Muspelheim. Midgard has no part in our wars, and that will not change even now.”
Baldur stroked a hand over his beard. “You sound as though the war has already been decided.”
“No, but it as father once said: A wise king never seeks out war, but he must always be ready for it. Now, brother, let us put aside such serious discussions. I should like to enjoy these next few days without such heavy talk.”
He did not add, ‘for they may very well be my last,’ but he knew that Baldur shared the same thought.
They walked together to Thor’s room so that he could change, and after that, headed for the armory to practice. Within an hour, Thor’s friends joined them, and he shoved aside all his worries. He passed the next few days much the same, breaking away for brief periods of time to meet with the Council. Though the coronation ceremony was rushed, it was clear that Council intended for it to be a formal affair.
On the eve following Thor’s crowning, he found himself not with his friends in the great hall, but in his mother’s rooms. She had disappeared just after the coronation, and Thor had been forced to wait until now to seek her out. Now that they were alone, he found himself broaching the very subject he wished never to think about.
“Though they have said nothing yet, we have only a week until it is time for me to leave. If the worst should happen—if the worst should happen, Asgard will need a new king.”
“Do not say such things,” his mother pleaded.
Thor pulled her into a hug, willing some of his strength into her. In the last few days alone she had grown more drawn and tired, to say nothing of all the weight she had lost since his father’s passing.
“Though the kingdom celebrates their newly-crowned king tonight, tomorrow, they will feast for Crown Prince Baldur. Should anything happen to me, he will take the throne, and the duty to protect Asgard will fall to him. I have already discussed the matter with him, and together, we have for formulated a plan to secure Asgard’s safety. But that is enough on the matter. Let us not dwell on the future until it is time for me to leave.”
Frigga looked ready to disagree, but after another moment, nodded. “You are correct. I would not wish to waste what precious time we have. Come, my son. Let us return to your feast. We will deal with the tomorrows as they come.”
“It is time to pack, my friends. Know now that should you choose to remain behind, I would not fault you.”
Sif shook her head. “My mother has four other daughters to keep in line. Though I shall be missed, she knows that my place is by the side of Asgard’s King.”
“And I am the middle son, loved but not required to remain home. My father sends his best wishes to you, Thor.” Fandral yawned midway through his small speech, his jaw cracking loudly in the empty hall.
Volstagg made no response, though Thor had not thought he would. Hogun, to his credit, offered only a small smile, and a brief, “I am fortunate in this instance to have no family to worry after. We will meet you in the courtyard at noon.”
They parted ways, and Thor walked the hallways of his home for what was possibly the last time. His words to his mother the night before had been meant to comfort, but there was a part of him that worried he would not return to Asgard after this. That he would arrive in Jötunheim only to meet his death. The thought had his stomach twisting in on itself, and by the time Thor reached the door to his quarters, he was ready to change his mind.
When he stepped inside, it was to find Frigga seated in one of his chairs, her hair down around her shoulders and feet tucked up beneath her. In her lap was a book, and she snapped it shut as Thor closed the door behind him.
“You are looking well for someone who passed the night drinking with companions.”
“Then that is by some miracle produced not by me. What brings you here so early?”
Her smile, when she stood, was brittle, and Thor felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise.
“I came to speak with you on the matter of your—your marriage.” She glanced down at the book in her hand, then back up at Thor. “It is possible that King Loki has not yet heard of you, and as such, may not know that you are male. He could very well be unaware that you are unable to produce an heir of both your bloodlines. My fear is that he will decide to...correct the oversight himself. To that end, I wished to offer you an alternative.”
“Correct the oversight how?” Thor demanded.
Frigga sighed and looked toward the dying embers in the hearth. “The Jötunns are not strictly a male race, but there are far fewer females among them. So few, in fact, that quite often, the Jötunns are forced to look outside their kingdom to reproduce. It is said that the women taken by Jötunns are kept until the child reaches the age of two, and then they are killed. There are rumors, however, that a few of the most powerful Jötunns were able to take male consorts and alter their physical beings enough to bear a child, but only one. The toll for such magic came with the price of the male mother. I would not have that be your fate.”
“And so what would you offer instead?” Even as Thor spoke, he knew what his mother’s reply would be.
“That we change your gender completely. It would not be an illusion, Thor, and from what I have read, the spell cannot be undone. It will not fade, even after death. You would forever remain a woman, though who you are will not change. Your strength, your heart—those are a part of you that cannot be altered, no matter what shape your body takes.”
Thor stepped away from her to sink down onto the edge of a chair, and his head swam as he took into consideration what she was offering. A large part of him rebelled at the very idea of giving up even so small a part of him, but he saw no alternative.
“I cannot leave Asgard as a woman. I will not let that be my peoples’ last sight of me.”
His mother sat beside him, and she gripped both his hands within her own. “It is a sacrifice, my son, but your people will not think you less for it. Leave Asgard as Thor, heir to Asgard’s throne, and care not that your body is no longer what it once was.”
“Will come to understand with time. Thor, if you do not wish to do so, I will understand. Say the word and it will be as though I never spoke of it.”
Tempting though the thought was, Thor knew he had little choice. If death was the result of bearing a child, King Loki would not make the mistake of being the one to carry his own offspring. That task would fall to Thor, and he would rather do so in a manner that would not end with him dying in a foreign land.
He let out a deep breath and stood. “I will need clothes, and a bath first, I should think.”
“Sif—Sif should be the first to know. You will need her assistance the most for the first few months. You prepare for your bath and I will see that your friends are made aware of the new plan. When I return, we will begin the spell.”
Thor had a thought, and he grasped her wrist when she made to stand. “It will be painful, will it not?”
Frigga shook her head. “I will put you into a temporary sleep first. Awake, the pain would be tremendous, but asleep, the change will pass unnoticed by you.”
She pressed a kiss to his forehead and stood. She was gone before Thor could think of anything else to ask, and he busied himself with filling a copper tub and fetching a blade and mirror. He knew there was little point in shaving his beard and mustache when the spell would no doubt take care of that, but it felt awkward to become a woman while still wearing one. As the heated water began to fill the tub, Thor sat at his table and set a looking glass before him. He worked the soap into a thick lather, then set about covering his face.
The first swipe of the blade along his throat was the hardest, and when he caught a glimpse of the bare skin left behind, his hand shook. Not since his sixteenth birthday had he been without a beard, and he mourned the loss of it already. Taking a deep breath, Thor willed his hand to steady and returned to his task, not stopping again until the job was done. When he wiped away the last of the soap, he grimaced at his reflection.
He looked much younger with his face so bare, and he wondered what Fandral would say. Thor set aside the mirror and crossed to the tub, shutting off the flow of water. He shed his clothes quickly and stepped into the steaming basin with little regard for the sting of too-hot water against his skin. He soaked until the water grew tepid, then washed quickly and stood once more.
By the time Thor was wrapped in his robe, his mother had returned. She was seated at his eating table, the book open in front of her and a bundle of herbs on a platter to her left. Thor swallowed hard and nodded to them.
“Part of a potion?” he asked, almost afraid of the answer.
“No,” she replied. “They are simply to calm your nerves. Lavender for relaxation, rosemary to clear the senses, and sage for positive energy. You will overcome all the obstacles that stand in your way, my darling. Now go put this on, then lie on your bed. I will be there in a moment.”
She handed him an amulet made of twisted wire and a dull, purple stone. It was pretty, in a vague, unfinished way, and as Thor padded into his sleeping chambers, he undid the clasp and fastened it around his neck. The necklace was cool against his skin, and he shivered as he climbed onto his bed and lay down. No sooner than his head hit the pillow than unconsciousness came.
Shock coursed through him even as the memory of his earlier conversation with Frigga surfaced. The hands molded over the mounds of his breasts were slim, dainty and unfamiliar though they still bore his calluses. The nails were sharper than they had been before, and they left deep scratches that began to well with blood almost immediately. As though hearing from a great distance, Thor could make out his mother’s voice as she called his name, but he could not look away from the evidence of what he had become.
Hands caught hold of his wrists, pinning them to the bed as Frigga sat beside him. Her cheeks were stained with tears and she shook her head.
“Darling, you must not. You were due to meet in the courtyard an hour ago. I have been much afraid that you would not wake when you lingered in sleep.”
“Undo—,” Thor began to demand. At the sound of his—now her, and he would have to get used to that if this was to succeed—voice, she closed her eyes and fought off an urge to be sick. Thor tried to tug free but gave up under her unrelenting grip. When he spoke again, he kept his voice deliberately low. “Undo the spell. I cannot live like this.”
“Thor, it is impossible. You know this. The spell is permanent.”
Thor went still, rage making his tone go flat. “Then kill me, for death would be far more merciful than this.”
Frigga let out a sob that tore at Thor’s heart as she gathered him into her arms. “I am so sorry, my son.”
Like that, all of Thor’s anger fled, and he sagged into the welcome circle of his mother’s arms. “It is not your fault, mother.” He took a deep breath, then closed the robe over his body as he pulled away. “I should get ready. All will be for naught if we do not leave for Jötunheim.” He offered her a wan smile before he slid from the bed. “Where are my clothes?”
It was not Thor’s mother who replied, but Sif, and he realized with a start that she must have been in the room the whole time. She stepped forward, her eyes never straying from his face, and when he made no move to retrieve the clothing in her arms, pressed them into his hands. Her gaze was steady as she reached up with one hand to touch his hair.
“It is like the wheat fields at sunset; when you turn your head just so, it is as though your hair has turned to molten gold. I am envious of the color.” She let the strands slip through her fingers, and Thor resisted the urge to flinch away. Sif withdrew, and she glanced down at her hands as she added, “We should tie it back so it does not get in your way.”
“When I am dressed,” Thor said.
Though Thor had never been shy about his body before, he found the idea of disrobing in front of his mother and Sif unsettling given his new body. He stepped behind the screen and stared straight at the wall, resolute not to see more than necessary. Once the shock of it all wore away, Thor knew he would find no end of delights in the body he now wore, but at the moment, it was all he could do not to be sick on the floor.
The clothes Sif had brought him were a perfect fit, molding over the curves of his body without feeling too constrictive. It was thick as well, two layers sewn together to form one, and it took Thor a moment to understand why.
“I had forgotten that Jötunheim is a realm that lives entirely in winter.” He reached for the fur-lined vest and secured it across his chest and waist. Last was the heavy cloak, and he swung it up onto his shoulders to fasten at his throat. When he stepped back into the main room, he met Sif’s gaze head on. “I would not blame you if you chose to change your mind.”
The look Sif sent him was enough to send even the mightiest of warriors ducking for cover. “Do not be an idiot. My place is, as I said, by your side. The others have said the same. I am going to go say my farewells one last time, and then we should go. Heimdall stands ready to open the Bifrost to us.”
She disappeared through the door, leaving Thor alone with his mother. Frigga nodded toward the sofa and Thor took a seat beside her, twisting around so that she comb back his hair and work it into a tight braid. After a long moment of uncomfortable silence, Frigga cleared her throat.
“I will send a message to my father in Vanaheim. If there is a way to reverse the spell, they will know of it. As soon as I have an answer, I will send word.”
“And if it is too late?”
Thor stared down at his hands. Now that some of the shock had worn off, he could see that they were not quite as different as he had first thought. Though more slender than now than prior to the change, they were still broader than his mother’s, his wrists only moderately more narrow.
“I love you, and no matter what, you are my son. Now and go say goodbye to your brother. I told him earlier what we had done and he has been waiting to see you.”
With a final hug and a whispered, ‘I love you, too,’ Thor went in search of his brother, unsurprised when he found him in the armory standing beside Mjölnir. Baldur, to his credit, did not so much as flinch away at the sight of Thor.
“You make a handsome woman,” he said, his tone soft and a little sad. “I will explain your decision to the Council before your return. The throne of Asgard is still yours, never doubt that.”
Thor glanced down at where his hammer rested, more than a little afraid to reach for it. It was Baldur’s fingers on his wrist, tugging his hand closer, that prompted him to grip the handle, though he made no further move to lift it.
“It is yours, still.” Baldur paused. “It is a gift I inherited from our mother’s side, I think, but I can hear her hum, Mjölnir, and it is your name that echoes in my head when I am near. See for yourself.”
His gaze locked on Baldur’s, Thor tensed. He imagined he would need to use more strength now, and almost tipped over at how easy it was to pick Mjölnir up. Startled, he looked down at the glowing runes etched along the sides.
“She feels no different.”
“It is not you that has changed, Thor, just how you appear. When you next visit—and you will, or I shall ride into Jötunheim with an army and steal you back—it will be the same.”
Thor set Mjölnir down back on the low pedestal, then reached for his brother, dragging him into a tight embrace. “Thank you, brother,” he whispered, the words half-lodged in his throat.
Baldur returned the hug, drawing it out until Thor’s heart no longer pounded hard enough to break through his chest, then stepped back. “Now let us go. You have a young king to conquer and two realms to unite. I will see you to the courtyard.”
Thor pulled on his cloak then, lifting the hood to hide his face. As they made their way through the castle, he kept his head down and his eyes averted. It was not until he was seated upon his horse that Thor looked up again, and then it was to see his mother and brother standing at his knee.
“Take care of Asgard in my absence,” he instructed.
Thor nudged his horse into a trot, and he led the way to the rainbow bridge with his friends falling into step behind him. When they reached Heimdall, they dismounted and took hold of the horses’ reins. To travel with them was not an easy feat, but Thor had been unsure when making the decision as to whether the Jötunns would have beasts suitable for the Aesir.
With a final glimpse back over his shoulder, Thor took a deep breath and stepped into the dome.
Thor lowered his voice as far as it could go and still carry and said, “I am Thor of Asgard, here on behalf of my kingdom in answer to a request set before us by King Loki Laufeyson.”
A great rumble went up amongst the Jötunns, but no advance was made. Just when Thor was beginning to think they would be left out in the cold to freeze, someone began to clap.
“A fine, yet simple, speech. Thor of Asgard, I am Loki, lost son of Laufey and king of Jötunheim. It is something we have in common, our recent crownings.”
The two Jötunns standing closest shifted, and from behind them appeared their king. He lacked the impressive stature of the frost giants and instead stood at a height no greater than that of the tallest Aesir. His dark hair was slicked back, and his eyes, the palest shade of green, were sharp as they moved over the faces of Thor and his friends.
Thor straightened, and he watched through narrowed eyes as the Jötunn king drew close to the group. He was careful not to flinch under the assessing gaze, and he did not relax until Loki smiled. Even then, he was on his guard.
“You are not what I expected, Thor of Asgard.” Loki arched a single eyebrow as he circled Thor and his friends. “To be certain, I believed you would come with a guard of no less than twenty warriors given that you were entering into enemy lands.”
“That is hardly a small accompaniment. But if it pleases you to know, those with me are Asgard’s finest.”
Loki smirked as he took a half-step forward, but he moved back to meet Thor’s gaze dead on. “And I would have expected a face of great beauty from the daughter of Lady Frigga.”
“How dare you!”
Though it was Fandral who spoke, it was Volstagg who stepped forward. Thor stayed him with a hand to Volstagg’s arm.
“Oh, do not mistake my meaning. You are very striking, Thor of Asgard. Marriage to you will be of no great hardship on my part.” He glanced over his shoulder at the giants still lingering, then turned on his heel. “Come. It is far too cold out for your Aesir blood. Let us move this conversation inside.”
With a nod to Thor and his friends, Loki led the way into the depths of Jötunheim. They walked in silence, Thor keeping stride with the king as his friends slowed their paces to take in all the icy cavern walls. As they moved further away from the surface, the air became a more comfortable temperature. Thor wondered how far they would go. When he voiced the question aloud, Loki turned to peer at him over his shoulder.
“We are not as deep as you would think. The tunnels were constructed at a gentle slope, but while Jötunheim lacks Asgard’s great volume, it is larger than many assume.”
Thor nodded as his gaze roved over the walls. “How is it so much warmer down here? I would expect it to be as cold, if not colder, than the surface.”
Loki slowed his pace until they were walking side-by-side. “From my estimation, the core of Jötunheim lies in the atmosphere surrounding, hence the great mountains of ice. It should be as cold here, but the magic of the Jötunns is what keeps the temperature lower. There are few of my kind who travel beneath the surface, and when they do, they stay for only a brief period of time.”
“Then why have it this warm at all?”
As Thor spoke, they drew up to two very tall doors, almost twice the size of any Jötunn. Loki laid one hand against the door, and he pushed it open, he said,
“This is why.”
The city within the walls—for it was very much a city—was dense with small houses. There were a few animals as well: dogs thick with winter fur and large felines like those bred in Asgard. More surprising than that, however, were the people who stopped to look up from what they were doing to stare at the new arrivals. From behind him, Sif and the others gasped.
Thor stepped past Loki for a better view, unable to process just what he was seeing. “But we were told...” He trailed off at the sight of a young child—blue of skin and red of eyes but otherwise Aesir in appearance—ran by.
“That the Jötunns kill their mates if taken from another realm?” Loki sneered as he spoke, his tone dripping with disdain. “You were misinformed. King Laufey was not a kind or just ruler, of that you may be certain, and he was quick to kill the wives he took for their blood fed his power, but he would not force the hand of his people to do the same. Our kind is not as cruel as you have been led to believe, young princess.”
Thor glanced over, startled. “I can see that I was wrong in my assumptions concerning Jötunheim.”
“As I was in my assumptions of you. The tales that reached my ears as a child had me believing you were a man of great strength and courage.”
A hint of disbelief colored Loki’s words, and Thor found himself moving away.
“It is a common enough occurrence. There are many ballads that have my brothers Baldur and Váli confused.” Thor shifted his gaze back to the city and tilted his chin in that direction. “And we are to live here?”
“If it suits you. I did not think you would wish to live above ground.”
A loud rumble filled the air and Loki closed his eyes as he, to all appearances, listened. After another moment, he opened them again, and there was the faintest suggestion of red to his eyes.
“I shall leave you now. Follow the path to the center of town. Housing has already been arranged.” There was something cool and assessing in his gaze when he looked at Thor. “I can imagine you will need some time to adjust. To that end, I shall leave you here for now to settle. I will return this evening for dinner, but I regret to inform you that the binding ceremony must take place within two days’ time.”
The reminder of why Thor was there had his stomach in knots. “So soon, when we hardly know one another?”
“It is at the behest of both my people and your own. For too long our people have been at war. If the Jötunns are to accept me as their king once and for all, then I must prove to them that I will rule in their best interests. Believe me when I say that I do not wish this any more than you.”
He was gone before Thor could formulate a response, the heavy doors closing behind him. When Thor turned toward the path Loki had indicated, it was to find a woman waiting for them.
“My Lady,” she said as she bowed.
It took Thor a second to realize she was addressing him, and his hands fisted at his side at the reminder of what he was now. Who he was; no longer a prince of Asgard, but a princess.
“King Loki spoke of your arrival.” She looked past him at his friends. “We did not know how many to anticipate. It would seem that we will have more than enough room for your companions. If you would follow me.”
“You are not elf, demon or Jötunn. What realm are you from? Asgard?”
She laughed and shook her head. “Where I am from is of little concern, but do not be deceived by appearances.”
She led the way down the winding path and into the city. Thor marveled at just how vast it was, at the lights that reflected off the cavern walls. He would not have believed such beauty could exist in a world like Jötunheim, and felt ashamed of his misconceptions.
“It is quite beautiful here,” he said to their guide.
“It was not always thus. The Jötunns magic is great, but much of this was done by women of Svartalfheim. They are quite powerful, and it is because of them that we can live so comfortably. When King Loki took the throne three months ago, though, it was still quite cold down here. It is he who brought us warmth.” She spared Thor a glance. “You will be well-kept by the prince. He is not as unkind as he would perhaps lead you to believe. To be sure, he is not the most forthcoming in his care, but that fault lies in his raising. The elves, both light and dark, are not known for their affection. You, however, look to be a woman who could melt the ice that lines his heart.”
“I think you expect too much of me,” Thor murmured into the dark.
Their guide said nothing more until they reached the small cluster of houses where Thor and his friends would live. She directed the others inside, but stayed him with a touch, drawing him out of hearing range.
“I am not so long to this life, my lady, so I am not as deceived by your appearance as the king was. Whatever your reasons were for coming here as such, I can only guess—and do understand. But I would urge you not to continue this lie for too long. The king does not take to deception well, and he will think you have done him a great disservice when the truth is discovered.”
“It was not meant to be an act of deception, but one of self-preservation.”
“Because you could not marry a man as you were before?”
Though her tone was one of curiosity, there was something dark and unnerving in her gaze. Thor shivered and looked away.
“No. It is because though I am willing to marry for the benefit of my people, I will not subject myself to certain death to provide a true heir for our two thrones.”
When he turned to look at her once more, it was find pity darkening her eyes.
“Our king would not have asked that of you.” She reached out and laid a hand over his chest. “The magic used to do this—it is quite powerful. A spell that has long since been lost to many of the realms.”
Thor nodded. “It was my mother who cast it, and she said there was to be no undoing. She spoke of a possible way to break it, but if that is true, the secret lies in Vanaheim, and they will deny her the spell once they learn upon whom it was used. They have little love for Asgard, less so for the offspring of the man who stole their princess.”
The woman stepped back. “I am sorry to hear that, my lady. Should you find yourself in need of anything, ask for me. My name is Ahmah. Speak it and I shall come to you.”
She bowed once more before heading back up the path, but Thor did not move for several minutes. It was the sound of someone approaching that drew him from his thoughts, and he turned to find Hogun watching him from the shadows.
“How fare you, brother?” Hogun asked.
Thor flinched and shook his head. “You cannot address me as such here. Who I was before we came here—that Thor no longer exists.”
Hogun stepped forward. “Perhaps, but I can see in your eyes that you have not given up hope of returning. Besides, it is only your body that has changed, nothing more. You did not answer my question, though.”
“I am…uncertain. There was a time when I thought to enter Jötunheim to show the giants that Asgard’s power is mightier. I am glad, now, that you made me see reason, if for no other reason than that my deception would have been seen through immediately.” He sighed and turned toward the small cottage Ahmah had indicated was for him. “I think I shall retire for the time being.”
A part of Thor was disappointed when Hogun allowed him to pass with no comment, but a larger part was relieved. He stepped into the cottage, uncertain of what he would find. He had thought perhaps simple furnishings, but the richness of the cottage suggested some thought. The front room was split between a sitting room and a dining room, the table set close to the far left wall. There were two doors, and he followed one into the kitchen, then another into the bedchamber.
The bed was large, bigger even than the one back in Asgard. The color scheme was green and black, and with a start, he realized it matched the clothing Loki had been wearing earlier. It was then that he realized that they would be sharing this cottage. Panic washed through him, and Thor reached for something to grab onto, only to lose his grip the moment his fingers closed around the edge of the doorframe.
He slid to the ground and remained there, his hands splayed out against the soft fur protecting him from the stone floor. Each breath he took felt too large for his lungs, and he feared that he would lose consciousness because of it. As he struggled to regain his composure, he shoved away thoughts of sharing his marriage bed not only with a stranger, but as a woman. The idea repulsed him in a way it did not at the thought of sex as a man with as a man.
For the first time since his mother had approached him, Thor saw the folly in their actions. In their defense, had it been King Laufey to suggest the proposal, Thor’s life would have been in grave danger for certain, but not even becoming a woman would have changed that. It had not been unreasonable for them to assume something similar from the kinslayer son, but he could see now that Thor had misjudged the new king gravely.
Thor stood and moved to stand beside the bed, his hand shaking almost violently. He did not wonder what it would be like, for already his mind refused to accept such thoughts. He was curious as whether Loki would come to him nightly, or if Thor would be allowed some peace. As though summoned by the thought, there was a whisper of sound and then Loki was standing across from him.
“It is time to eat. If you are concerned after your maidenhood, do not be. I will make no advances until after the binding. If it is privacy that is the issue, then know this: though I am quite content beneath the surface, I do enjoy my time above ground as well.”
The smile Loki sent Thor’s was both mocking and amused, a combination that had Thor itching to show Loki just to whom he was talking. Instead, he turned away, a deliberate slight.
“I shall join you in a moment.”
Thor looked into the looking glass on the table set before him and felt smug at the irritated expression on Loki’s face. It was a petty move to say the least, but Thor was of no mind to play nice, not when he was still reeling from Ahmah’s revelation.
“As you wish it. But, Princess?” Loki smirked at Thor’s flinch and continued. “My patience will last only so long.”
Loki’s words held both promise and threat, and the echoed through the room long after his departure. Thor’s stomach twisted, and with a last glance in the mirror at the woman staring back at him, Thor followed, swearing that he would forget the man he used to be and embrace the woman he had become, if only to better survive his new life.