This is not what Thor expected when Loki said ‘ride to Thrymstaðr’. But then, nothing in Jotunheim has been what Thor expected, least of all Loki. Still, he thinks, a little warning would have been nice.
The...thing...in front of him is enormous. It is at least eighteen feet at the shoulder with hugely powerful arms, a broad barrel chest and a blunt head with strange bony protrusions either side of its fanged mouth, almost like mandibles. It has a thick, leathery hide, a dull grey colour, with pebble-like nodules across its back and shoulder, and its piggy, blood-red eyes make it seem malicious and brutal. Its long spiked tail and powerful claws only add to its savagery.
They want him to ride it.
Reins have been attached to the creature, wrapped tightly around the mandible-like cheek protrusions and passing through a ring attached to a thick collar. There is no saddle, but at the top of the collar, across the monster’s thick neck, the leather collar has been widened and a cushion of furs lashed to it. Býleistr had sat astride the creature’s neck, his legs tucked behind its cheeks, keeping his balance with an ease born of long practice. But Býleistr is almost twice Thor’s size.
Everything here is too big. There is a rising tide of frustration in Thor, a sullen and lingering anger he has never felt before. He has always had an explosive temper, but his fury is like the storm: it builds, it booms and it passes, leaving him at peace with himself. But he has been off-balance ever since he arrived in Jotunheim and his usual good cheer is nowhere to be found.
He is tired of feeling like a child, only half the size of most of the jötnar, every chair and table just oversized enough to make him feel a fool, legs dangling and arms awkwardly resting on the edge. Walking through the palace yesterday he had been dwarfed by the soaring halls and corridors; of course, Asgard is built on just as grand a scale but at home the huge public spaces give way to smaller, cosier rooms with benches to recline on and fires to gather round. Here, the only space that is actually built for his size is his bedroom, and that is sparse enough: a low bed, a few shelves at waist height and a large chest with a heavy lock.
He had stowed his travelling bag inside it rather than unpack, and he hates that too, that he needs to keep his things hidden and safe for he cannot trust that the conniving Frost Giants will not steal something of value. Granted, he has been treated well so far, bar the outrageous arrogance of Helblindi, but he is all too aware of the undercurrents of hostility and unease whenever he is in the presence of the hrimthurs.
That is another difficulty for him: he is lonely and helpless, utterly reliant on the kindness of the strangers he is with, and the Frost Giants do not strike him as a merciful folk. It has only been a day and already he is sick of ice and snow, of fish and seaweed and other slimy things of the deep; sick of being an honoured guest that no-one really wants to be there.
Except Loki. He has offered friendship to Thor and Thor desperately needs a friend and guide. But can he trust this son of Laufey? His seduction in the pool had been blatant and yes, alluring; Thor will not deny that the Prince is beautiful and seeing him naked and openly interested had stirred Thor’s own desire. His words are just as fair and so far he has proved a true and faithful friend, for he had stepped in to try and help Thor when Helblindi had been so provoking, and it was clear that there was no love lost between the two. But Thor does not know what in his mind, much less his heart, and he cannot forget that this welcoming stranger is, as far as their parents and peoples are concerned, his future consort. How can Thor be his friend if he is to reject him at the end of the season?
For now though, he is the only person in Jotunheim who seems to welcome Thor’s presence and have any care for his comfort. It had been Loki’s plan for the two of them to leave on this tour, which he insists will please Thor more than the confines of the palace. Thor can see the wisdom in removing the both of them from daily contact with Helblindi, though he mislikes that they might be thought to be fleeing as if they were afraid. Helblindi had not been present when they took their leave of Laufey-King, and Thor can only hope he is in disgrace somewhere – but he did not feel he could ask. He can only nod and go along with what Loki and Laufey agree, for he knows near to nothing of the ways of the jötnar and yet must do his best to uphold the honour of Asgard.
Mistrust, frustration and helplessness are not feelings Thor is comfortable with. But he cannot see how anything will change, no matter where he is taken in this inhospitable world.
A snort from the huge creature in front drags his attention back to the scene before him, and the imminent prospect of having to climb aboard it. Býleistr is rubbing its flattened face affectionately, crooning gently to the hulking beast, which is making a rhythmic rumbling sound in return that Thor can feel vibrating in his teeth. He cannot bring himself to call it a purr. He has seen many strange creatures in his travels, but never anything quite like this monster. It would make a more than worthy foe to meet with Mjolnir, but as a beast of burden...
“You spoil her,” Loki says beside him. “She’s getting fat.”
“Snarfari is not fat,” Býleistr says with great dignity. “She just hasn’t shed her winter weight yet.”
“It’s nearly summer,” Loki points out, “and you have been riding her every other day. She is overweight. She’s nearly as big as a male and she’s getting twice as lazy.”
“It’s all muscle.” Býleistr insists, scratching Snarfari under the chin, her huge tongue lolling out in pleasure. “She may not be the fastest but she has the stamina for the longer trips. And she’s not lazy. All the Íssdýr hibernate in the ice when they’re not put to work.”
“Yes, but the last time the Pride were allowed to hunt she stayed behind with Digri, and then the pair of them bullied their way through her sisters to the kill! She needs to be kept lean and hungry,” Loki scolds.
“She’s not a huntress!” Býleistr says. “You’ll be glad of her extra padding after a few hours, believe me. You don’t ride often, Loki, and I doubt the Odinson has much experience of mounts this size. You want to go charging about the southern Staðr, I’ll get you one of her sisters. You want a smooth ride all the way to Thrymstaðr, you go with Snarfari. Trust me.”
“When it comes to the Íssdýr, I really have no choice, do I?” Loki sighs. Býleistr beams.
“She’s my best girl,” he says, slapping her on the flanks. “She’s a sweetheart.”
Thor eyes the drooling monster doubtfully. She looks a brute to him, but he will admit to a certain excitement at the thought of having a beast of that size under his control.
“Come and meet her,” Býleistr urges. “Don’t worry, she’s never smelt an Aesir before. She was born after the war.”
Thor had not even considered that, and he suddenly remembers the wilder tales from his youth, of the Frost Giants’ ravenous hordes and their hunger for Aesir flesh. He has long since dismissed them as stories to scare children with, but perhaps they were born from creatures like these. Perhaps this is a ploy, a trick, a carefully staged ‘unfortunate accident’. Perhaps Býleistr is no more trustworthy than Helblindi, merely cannier in his hatred for Asgardians.
Still, he is Thor, Prince of Asgard, and fears no monster, no matter how huge, so he moves closer.
As he approaches the pair, the huge creature swings its head towards him, nostrils flaring and grimacing peculiarly. Relies on smell, Thor thinks, instinctively assessing it, and probably hearing, since those tiny eyes spread so far apart on its face probably don’t give true binocular vision. A night hunter? Or, given that Jotunheim is a dark, featureless wasteland, perhaps it just doesn’t need to see well to track whatever something this big eats.
Up close, Snarfari seems even bigger – and even uglier, her huge fangs and short jaw giving her a pronounced overbite. But she certainly seems docile enough, snuffling at Thor enthusiastically while Býleistr scratches at the lumpy protrusions on her head.
“Good girl,” Býleistr says fondly. “Give her a stroke,” he urges Thor, “get her used to you.” Thor carefully does so, reaching out to lay his palm against her blunt nose. Her skin has a rough texture, with a sponginess that must come from layers of blubber. She is cool to the touch, as everything seems to be in Jotunheim, but when she exhales noisily her breath is warm.
Snarfari’s enormous tongue flickers out briefly to slobber over Thor’s hand and despite his bad mood Thor cannot help laughing. Big, ugly and monstrous she may be, but Býleistr is right: she’s a sweetheart, just like Volstagg’s family mutts, just on a massive scale. And whatever misgivings he still holds about the Frost Giants in general, it is hard to imagine that Býleistr means him any harm, not when the youngest Prince stands next to him and lets Snarfari enthusiastically lick his face.
“That is a disgusting habit,” Loki observes disdainfully as Thor wipes the drool from his hands onto his cloak. He has swapped his usual red cape for a dark travelling cloak of soft wool trimmed with fur. Longer and looser than his cape, it will provide more comfort during the long ride. He has, however, chosen to keep his armour on.
Loki is also dressed for travelling, although it is not an outfit Thor could ever envision wearing himself. His stiff leather kjalta has been replaced with dark leggings that cling to his long legs and are attached to a wide, embroidered belt that sits low on his slim hips, with two panels of a thick velvet-like fabric, one at the front and one at the back, the green so dark it seems almost black. Scrolling, sinuous patterns are picked out in gold thread and shimmer as he moves, perhaps to compensate for the lack of his bangles and cuffs. The huge torc is gone as well, replaced by a slimmer, crescent moon shaped design that hangs suspended from delicate links of beaten gold that twist around his throat and cascade down his back. His long hair is still plaited with gold and gems and rings, but he has swept it all up high and twisted it into a topknot. Instead of a cloak he wears a white pelt, creamy and immaculate, held in place by a leather strap across his torso, attached to a bronze shoulder piece and decorated with stylised knotwork animals: wolves, falcons, snakes.
Thor does not stare. Loki is more dressed, not less, and so there is no need to stare, to notice how the white pelt and dark leggings make the blue of his exposed chest more striking, or that his cheekbones and facial markings seem even finer with his hair pulled up and away from his face. Thor has seen no-one like him, not in Jotunheim and not in any of the realms. Anyone would look, and so he does, but he does not stare. He has seen many beauties in his long life, and though more women than boys have caught his eye over the centuries, Loki is not the first handsome man to catch his eye...although, of course, Loki is not quite a man.
Loki catches him not-staring and lifts an eyebrow, his crimson eyes bright with amusement, and Thor hastily turns his attention back to Býleistr, who is checking the fit of Snarfari’s collar now he has attached their travelling packs to it. He is no callow youth, to be swayed by a shapely leg and exotic garb. But it is...intriguing, somehow, in a way that Býleistr’s simple almost-nakedness is not.
“Are you sure you don’t want a saddle?” Býleistr is asking Loki, frowning in concern. “The collar is not meant for smallfolk riders. We could shape a seat of some kind...”
“No,” Loki snaps. “I am not a child and I do not require swaddling to ride an issdyr.”
“Will you not shift then -”
“No,” Loki says curtly, cutting Býleistr off. Thor is intrigued; does the six-foot Loki too feel out of place in the giants world? Or is it that his relationship with both his brothers is a strained one? Loki flicks his eyes to Thor and gives him a conspiratorial grin. “We will ride as we are.”
“I am sure you know best,” Býleistr says, although he does not look convinced.
“I always do,” Loki replies mockingly and turns to Thor. “I had thought to give you the reins,” he says, still grinning. “Do you think you can handle her?”
Thor looks at Snarfari, waiting patiently beside them and feels excitement bubbling up inside him. At last, a challenge he can meet.
“Yes,” he says, matching Loki’s grin. “But I need to know where we are headed.”
“Loki -” Býleistr starts, sounding dismayed, but Loki waves him off irritably and the younger Prince subsides. For all his size, Býleistr seems no more formidable than Snarfari, Thor thinks in surprise.
Loki places his palms together and then slowly draws them apart; as he does so, ice crystallises between them, forming a sheet almost a foot wide and perfectly flat. He balances it on his hip with his left hand and begins to sketch on it with his right forefinger, green light flickering as he works his enchantment. It takes only minutes, but when he turns the tablet to Thor there is a map of Jotunheim picked out on its surface, green witchfire glowing faintly against the translucent ice. He offers it to Thor, who takes it in his hands, utterly fascinated. The ice feels brittle, so he is careful with his grip, but it does not melt under his hands, nor does his own skin stick to it.
He has seen maps of Jotunheim before, but only old, dusty scrolls, scrawled with troop numbers and landing sites for the Bifrost. This is entirely different: it is a topographical map, showing mountains, rivers, plains and beaches, with no markings for settlements of any kind. Faint blue lines mark out what Thor assumes are the borders of the Staðr Loki has mentioned, splitting Jotunheim into eight distinct regions.
Jotunheim’s sole continent is shaped like a double-headed battle-axe, with two horizontal crescent moon –shaped areas split into north and south by the central mountains. In the southern half, the map shows four distinct areas: the palace, occupying the centre of the landmass, a curving territory to either side, and a scattering of islands out in the bay. To the north, it is as if the battle-axe’s blade is broken, the western curve of land abruptly ending in a blunt peninsula. This is marked out as one territory, covered by some kind of forest, and the large island sitting off the coastline like a broken tip is another; to the east, the unbroken curve is split into two provinces, one showing a huge expanse of tundra and the other what looks like a wooded lowland. The eastern and western territories are split from each other by a huge glacier, swallowing up the land from the mountain to the sea.
“It is an easy enough route to understand,” Loki says, leaning across Thor’s arm to tap the centre of the southern hemisphere. “We are here, in the Konungsgarðr. We are going to Thrymstaðr, here in the north.” He taps the centre of the large plain to the east of the northern glacier. “We need to travel through the mountain pass – here – and along the edge of the glacier until we reach the Uplands. I have travelled this path many times; it is a long journey but not an arduous one.”
“So we just stay on the road?” Thor says, although he cannot see one on Loki’s map.
Loki laughs. “There are no roads in Jotunheim, Thor. The wind and the snow wear away any trails we make, so each journey requires us to forge a new path.” He takes the ice-map from Thor’s hands and collapses it, the delicate picture shattering into loose shards that are carried away on the wind.
“How will I know if we are going the right way?” Thor asks, a little disappointed he cannot keep the map for future use. He has ranged across country many times when questing or hunting, but there are no landmarks here, and it would be all too easy to get lost amid the endless ice.
“Head north, and when I tell you, head east,” Loki says slowly, as if Thor if being dense.
“There are no stars and no sun here,” Thor says, just as slowly. “How can I track north?”
Loki blinks, as if Thor has said something truly remarkable. “Can you not feel it?”
“No,” Thor says, frowning. Is Loki making of fun of him?
“Ah.” Loki pauses to think a minute, brow furrowing. “Well, I will be sitting behind you; I will correct you if you stray too far off course.” He smiles disarmingly. “It will be an adventure for us.”
Thor regards him carefully, but can detect no hint of malice. “An adventure,” he echoes thoughtfully. Monsters, mountains and no hostile hrimthurs watching them: it sounds an excellent plan.
Býleistr looks like he would dearly like to give Loki a piece of his mind, but he is not bold enough to do so. “Snarfari, niðr!” he says instead, and she lowers herself to the floor, crouching as low as she can, her chin resting on the ice, grumbling as she does so.
With her lying flat, mounting is not as much of a problem as Thor had anticipated, and he scrambles up onto her neck easily enough, using the rings in the collar to pull himself up. He settles himself as far forward as he can manage. The padded cushion is surprisingly comfortable, but he has to sit with his legs much wider apart than he is used to, and his feet dangle awkwardly to the side instead of tucking neatly behind her mandibles like Býleistr’s had.
This is not going to work. He can keep his balance easily enough while she is still, but when she runs...she is simply too big for him to grip with his knees as he would with a horse. Frustration and disappointment war within him. But before he can say anything, Loki climbs up behind him and settles himself close, chest pressed to Thor’s back and knees tucked in behind his. They fit together perfectly.
Thor shakes his head a little, for that is a dangerous thought.
“It will be fine,” Loki says quietly, resting his chin on Thor’s shoulder. “Trust me.” His hands skim down to Thor’s thighs and he taps them lightly, pushing his own legs against Thor’s. Thor takes the hint and closes his legs slightly, bringing his knees up until he is comfortable, but hopelessly unbalanced.
There is a sensation of creeping cold and he glances down to see ice spreading from Loki’s fingers, encasing both their legs and then flowing over the cushion and collar. Snarfari snorts but seems otherwise unconcerned by the block of ice that has formed around her neck. Thor shifts his weight left and then right, pushing a little and then pushing hard but to no avail: he is frozen solid, locked in place with Loki pressed against him.
Well, he is not going to fall. But this is the strangest method of riding he has ever experienced.
Býleistr throws his hands up in mock-surrender. “I should know better than to doubt you,” he says exasperatedly, “but would it not have been simpler to tell me this is how you intended to ride?”
“Where is the fun in that?” Loki replies, moving his hands up to Thor’s waist, ice following him as he does so.
Býleistr sighs. “I would tell you to be safe, but you will only mock me more for it,” he says, reaching over Snarfari’s massive head to pass the reins to Thor. “So I shall only say that I will miss you, and that I wish you well on your travels.”
“Such sentiment,” Loki says drily, but Thor meets Býleistr’s gaze and smiles. He cannot help but like the youngest Prince, who is strangely good-natured for a Frost Giant. He obviously takes after Agmundr rather than Laufey, he thinks, and is all the better for it.
“Are you ready?” Loki asks. In response, Thor tugs on the reins and Snarfari rises up, lifting them high off the ground. Býleistr gently turns her head, gripping her by the mandible, until she is facing the mountains that rise behind the palace. She lifts her head and snuffles the air, seeming to recognise what is being asked of her.
“Farewell, eldsibb!” Býleistr booms as he steps back, waving them off. “Good hunting, Odinson!”
“Snarfari, rás!” Loki shouts behind him, his hands closing around Thor, and the Íssdýr’s rumbling response vibrates through Thor’s legs and up his spine. She whirls on the spot, impossibly nimble for a creature of her size, and then she is off, racing away from the palace and Býleistr, her massively muscled forearms propelling her along the uneven ice at unbelievable speed.
Hela’s teats but she is fast! Thor whoops in surprised glee as they head towards the black shadows of the mountains, Snarfari’s lolloping gait more like the rising and falling of a longship as it skims across the waves than any horse Thor has ever ridden. All Thor can hear is the rushing of the wind in his ears and the Íssdýr’s steady breathing, hoarse but even, her stride steady and sure.
She is surprisingly responsive, turning at the slightest tug on the reins, but she needs little guidance as they leave the palace behind, heading unerringly for the looming mountain pass. Thor’s teeth are bared in a wild grin, for this is glorious, pure glorious speed, almost like flying with Mjolnir, but much more rooted, for he feels every footstep, every time her heavy feet thump into the ice and the long moments between as she races northward. It is fun, and he wishes desperately Sif and the Warriors Three were here, to race alongside him on their own beasts. But since it is just him and Loki and the approaching slope that leads through the mountains he lets go of the thought and lets himself enjoy the simple pleasure of riding such an enormous creature through this bleak and frozen world.
Hours later, the pass gives way a landscape even more forbidding than the one they have just left. They are perhaps halfway up the mountains, high above the palace, and in front of them stretches the biggest glacier Thor has ever seen.
“The Élivágar,” Loki says, his breath ghosting across Thor’s ear as he leans in. “The Ice Waves.” Loki has sat quiet and calm while Thor howled with joy, urging the Íssdýr on to greater and greater speeds, his hands firm on Thor’s waist but never tightening in fear or anger. It would be impossible to speak while Snarfari runs, but Thor is not sure quite what to make of Loki’s stillness. He had been half expecting Loki’s hands to start wandering or some other small mischief, but he has not interfered with Thor’s enjoyment. “Best to let Snarfari have her head. If she pauses, give her a nudge right. She’s done this often enough she’ll figure out where we want to go.”
“Aye,” Thor says, looking out over the immense glacier. “Ras!” he shouts, the syllables unfamiliar in his mouth, and tugs sharply on the right-hand rein. The Íssdýr roars in response and he can feel her gathering herself under him, huge muscles clenching as she launches herself forward, heading what Thor assumes is north-east.
Now Thor understands why the jotun have chosen these creatures as mounts, for no horse or dog or oxen could traverse this nightmarish surface. No carriage or sled could possibly cross the plunging crevasses and treacherous ascents, and while it might be possible to cross on foot, it would soon prove exhausting, even for a giant.
But Snarfari tackles the broken surface of the glacier with ease, her thick claws acting like crampons, digging deep into the ice to give her grip, and her heavy tail acting as a counterweight, swinging from side to side and pivoting her as she corners, occasionally using the fearsome spikes to anchor herself. She races across it, her massive bulk skidding across the smooth patches and setting off ominous moans deep with the glacier as she leaps and clings or simply bulldozers her way through the fractured landscape.
It would be folly to try and pick a route for her, for she navigates with ease and blinding speed. At certain points she hesitates for no reason Thor can see, head swinging back and forth, and each time Thor guides her eastwards with the lightest of touches. Perhaps they are waypoints for other destinations that she remembers from other journeys, or perhaps she is sensing some hidden danger and looking for a safe route.
It is yet another question Thor cannot answer, but it is hard to feel frustrated as they race along the ice at the top of the world, leaping across the milky-blue rivers that slide through the glacier like veins and plunge into the unfathomable depths of its heart. Thor’s world has become the rushing wind, the inky darkness of the overcast sky and the shimmering blues, whites and glittering silver of the ice-waves as they ride on across the great white waste.
Without sun or stars Thor cannot say how long it is until Snarfari slows, but he soon sees why she does so. They have reached the outer edge of the glacier, a cliff edge thousands of miles high and continuing on as far as he can see. Snarfari approaches the edge warily, and with good reason, for he can hear the groaning and wrenching cracks as huge slabs break free of the glacier’s main body and plunge to the ground, throwing up clouds of freezing dust as they shatter on impact. But she picks out a safe route and makes her way to the very edge, affording Thor an unparalleled perspective to gaze out over the borders of what must be Thrymstaðr.
Thor stares and stares.
The Uplands are a great swathe of ice and snow, as is all of Jotunheim. But unlike the glacier and the rugged southlands, Thrymstaðr is a vast open plain, flat and even, stretching out to the horizon.
It is alive.
Beneath them is a vast swarm of life, an enormous herd of thousands upon thousands of milling animals spread out over the landscape. They look a little like elk, and a little like the caribou he has seen on Midgard, but more powerfully built and with huge, branching antlers. They have pale silver fur, with creamy patches splashed across their faces, chests and bellies, and swirling patterns of lines and rosettes picked out in deep blue, like the markings of his mother’s tabby cats.
It would be impossible to try and count them, but they must be half a million strong at the least, adults, yearlings and calves, all on the move. Interspersed between them are groups of Frost Giants, some guiding small groups of the beasts with the help of lean, brindled hounds. It takes Thor a moment to grasp the true scale of the scene in this huge landscape, but he soon realises that the deer-like creatures are just as tall as the jötnar herding them, which means the accompanying hounds must be the size of a small pony.
“What are they?” he asks, awe-struck. Everything is oversized in Jotunheim, the giants’ home, but he had never imagined this kind of vibrant life could exist in the cold and darkness.
“The hjörth and their herders,” Loki replies. “The Clans are moving south, to the summer feeding grounds closer to the mountains. That is why we must stay on the glacier instead of crossing the plain, for Snarfari would send the entire Herd into a panic.”
“What do they eat?” Thor asks, for there is no grass to be seen, nor vegetation of any kind.
“They feed on the drífablōmi,” Loki says. “Look to the ice. Can you see the blue – the intense, bright blue – that swirls around their feet?”
Thor looks and sure enough, the ice is stained with a huge slick of rich, royal blue, brightly luminous. He had taken it for a trick for the light but as he watches it does indeed move slowly, bleeding across the ice and scattering and reforming as the hjörth crunch huge slabs of faintly glowing ice, swallowing it and the blue stain alike.
“That is the drífablōmi – the tiny creatures that swim through the ice, feeding on the algae and bacteria that give it its glow,” Loki continues. “From the huge hjörth and Fjallmáttr to the tiny snow lemmings and hares…all graze on the drífablōmi, and in their turn, feed the hunters and the herdfolk. We have no green and growing things as you do; it is the drífablōmi in the ice and the krill in the sea that feed all of Jotunheim, one way or another.”
They watch the scene, Thor fascinated both by the hypnotic mass of the hjörth and the industrious jötnar, who follow the beasts on foot in family groups, carrying bundles wrapped in intricately decorated furs and hides, sometimes on poles and sometimes dragged on long ice-runners. These giants are dressed quite differently to the uniformity of the hirdverr and the simple dress of the court; while the northern jötnar still wear the leather skirt Loki had called a kjalta, theirs are decorated with bone and horn ornaments, painted patterns and animals. Many of them wear fur cloaks, fastened around the neck, or open vests with fluttering fringes and feathers.
When he asks, Loki points out the Clan heads, the elders, instantly recognisable by the heavy necklaces they wear: thick loops of gold studded with gemstones, sudden flashes of colour amidst the wintery tones. Red seems popular, with a multitude of rubies and garnets, and the younger members of wealthier families often sport a bracelet or armcuff in silver or bronze, or an intricate brooch, set with a single precious stone.
It is not what Thor expected, for although he has often thought on Jotunheim, it has always been in terms of its armies, its warriors and its grim King. What the ordinary folk of the realm might be like, or how they might live, is not a question that has ever troubled him, but looking out over the bright and bustling crowd, with children playing, oldfolk gossiping and lovers walking hand in hand, it is hard to imagine that every giant present is the treacherous and bloodthirsty monster he had assumed them all to be.
Their presence on the glacier does not go unnoticed, with many eyes turning to them, silhouetted on the high cliff of ice. A few of the smaller children wave, but most of the adults seem content just to look and move on, satisfied that they are not predators or rivals.
“Come,” Loki says after a time. “Thrymr has his hall in the centre of the plain, the midpoint between the summer heights and the winter lowlands. We still have a long way to travel. Keep to the glacier’s edge until we are well past the herd, and then just head for the horizon. You cannot miss Thrymr’s Hall.”
Hours pass, and the thrill of plunging across the glacier has long since worn off, when at last Thor spies buildings out on the plain and guides Snarfari down the crumbling cliff face and onto flat land. As the only permanent structure Thor has seen on the Uplands, it would indeed be impossible to miss, and he is intensely grateful for this, for he can no longer feel his legs. They had stopped briefly on the glacier, for food and relief, but it has been a long day’s ride and he is desperate for a proper meal, a bath and bed.
Snarfari slows as they approach the granite wall that surrounds Thrymr’s Hall, the dark stone covered in fluid, sinuous carvings. The wall surrounds the settlement, which is not just one hall, but a collection of strange stone buildings, built with no windows and only one door, but topped with glittering ice roofs that arch into fantastic shapes.
Before the wall sits a solitary jötunn on a mound. There are long strips of leather around him, along with brass rings and, oddly, tangled knots of small golden bells, tied up like bunches of grapes. He is focused on the task in hand, carefully braiding the leather into what looks like a large collar held together by the rings.
“Thrymr-Jarl!” Loki calls out as they approach.
The giant turns. “Silvertongue!” he booms, delighted. Thor pulls Snarfari to a halt just before him and she ponderously lowers herself to the ground, tongue lolling out as she pants. Loki shatters the ice holding them in place and slips free to greet the beaming jotun. Thor dismounts more carefully, stretching his aching legs.
“Mirkyn’s blood but tis good t’see you,” Thrymr says with a noticeable accent, slapping Loki on the back with an almighty crack. And then, “yer Íssdýr is a fat fucker, isn’t she?”
“She is,” Loki says, “and so are you. You’ll be too fat to run after fresh younglings soon.”
“Lies!” the giant says cheerfully, although he is, in fact, noticeably heavyset, but with a great deal of power in his wide frame . “Lies and slander! Don’t listen t’a word he says,” he says confidentially to Thor, in a whisper that could likely be heard a mile away. “He’ll have ye eating out of his hand if yer not careful!”
Thor laughs and Thrymr rewards him with a friendly shoulder squeeze that would likely leave bruises on a frailer man.
“Thor, this is Thrymr, Jarl of Thrymstaðr. Thrymr, meet Thor Odinson, Prince of Asgard.” Loki says formally.
“Yes, yes, all know the Thunderer!” Thrymr says. “Welcome t’my lands and t’my hall, Odinson. There’s hot food and a fresh bed for ye both. They’ll be a feast for after the hunt tomorrow, so you’ll be left t’yourselves tonight. You’ll have t’put up with a few gawpers in the baths. The younglings are very excited at the thought of seeing an Aesir.”
Loki sighs. “Can you not keep your little harem under control?” he asks waspishly. “The Prince of Asgard is not here to be pawed at by over-excited hrimthurs.”
“Well, aren’t we possessive?” Thrymr says, grinning broadly. “Afraid one of ‘em will tempt him away?”
“Hardly,” Loki says dryly.
“They know their place,” Thrymr says. “But I’d rather the next generation of Jotunheim’s warriors be giggling behind their hands than sharpening their blades at the thought of Odin’s son in their home. So I’ve not forbidden ‘em the baths tonight. Unless the Odinson is a shy ‘un?”
They both turn their attention to Thor, who has been wrongfooted by the sudden turn in the conversation. Thrymr-Jarl makes a fair point, and he is aware that since this is supposedly a diplomatic visit to Jotunheim, building bridges with the younger giants is probably exactly what his father wants him to do. But he has no taste for being talked about like a prize stallion, yet again, and certainly no desire to be stared at in the baths by young jotnar.
“Not tonight,” Loki says, before Thor can frame an appropriate response. “We are tired and in no mood for company. It will do the younglings no harm to wait one more night to see an Aesir. You can tell them I do not wish for their presence.”
Thrymr sighs. “Yer a cruel one,” he says in a mockingly mournful tone. “Breaking their little hearts like that. No Aesir, no íviðja...they’ll be crushed.”
“I’m sure you can manage to...raise them up,” Loki says, lip quirking. “Tomorrow, Thrymr. The hunt, the baths, a feast...it’ll be excitement enough to keep them talking for years. But tonight, let us keep ourselves to ourselves.”
“Aye, fair enough,” Thrymr says. “I know better than t’argue with ye. I’ll chase ‘em out and have the food put in yer room.”
“Are we in my usual quarters?” Loki asks and Thrymr nods. He and Loki banter easily as they remove the travelling packs from Snarfari and turn her loose; she promptly flops down outside the settlement and goes to sleep, her snore an uneven mixture of blorts and grunts.
Thor trails silently behind Thrymr and Loki as they wind through the settlement. There are dozens of giants here, peering out of doorways and loitering by the buildings, but as Thrymr said, they seem more intrigued than hostile, a refreshing change after the tense Court. But it is not the northern jotnar that have Thor’s attention: he is watching the way Loki smirks up at Thrymr, the continual teasing, the deliberate pauses. Thrymr does not touch Loki, does not so much as brush against him as they walk but it seems obvious to Thor that what Helblindi said was true. They have been lovers.
Are they still? Thor wonders, unwilling to put a name to the uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. Does it matter if they are, since he had refused Loki last night? The thought of Loki, beautiful and elegant, with this crass and fat old giant is repulsive to him, however friendly and good-natured Thrymr seems. But no, as far as Thrymr and the others are concerned, Loki and Thor are to be betrothed. Surely the Jarl would not try to sleep with Loki now that Thor is here? Not even a Frost Giant could be so careless or rude.
Eventually they reach a small building at some distance from the others. It is as tall as the other one-storey cottages, and the doorway large enough for a hrimthurs, but inside the furniture and furnishings are sized for guests from other realms – no, Thor realises, watching Loki smile and thank Thrymr for keeping his things in such good condition, for an íviðja, and one who is a regular guest here.
His mood soured again by his suspicions, Thor barely pays any attention to Thrymr and Loki’s discussion of the preparations for the hunt tomorrow, his eyes drawn unwillingly to the single large bed at the back of the room, which seems perfectly designed to accommodate both an ividja and a hrimthurs. It is not until they both turn to him expectantly that he realises he has been asked a question.
“I said,” Loki says with a slight edge as he realises Thor has not been listening, “that I would prefer to bathe before eating, and that I would like to do so alone tonight, provided you have no objections?”
“None,” Thor says, although in truth he is disappointed. He had not quite acknowledged it to himself, but he had been looking forward to bathing with Loki again – purely to see how far Loki would go in his teasing, of course. At least Loki had said alone; Thor would not have been pleased if Loki had chosen to bathe with Thrymr and not him. “Will you go now?”
“Yes,” Loki says, “and then shall we eat together?”
“Aye,” Thor says; he feels a little better for the brief walk, and can certainly wait for food and a bath. He would rather not be left alone with his bitterness and bad mood, but it cannot be helped.
“If that be the case, Odinson, I would have a word with ye,” Thrymr says suddenly. “Shall we take a walk while the Silvertongue relaxes?”
“I think -” Loki begins but Thor is tired of being treated like a child. He can speak for himself.
“Gladly,” he interrupts, stepping forward. “Loki, I shall see you later.” He doesn’t turn to see Loki’s expression but he does see the sly grin flicker across Thrymr’s face and is perversely glad. He is tired of being continually surprised; let Loki be the one wondering what he wants with Thrymr for a change.
He and the Jarl wander through the settlement, exchanging the most basic of small talk as Thrymr points out the large Hall for entertaining and feasting, the smaller one-room buildings for those who wish to sleep in private, the huge storehouses for the winter and the vast kennel, a small complex of its own, oddly quiet compared to Asgard’s kennels. “I love my hounds,” Thrymr says cheerfully. “You’ll see ‘em tomorrow, when we hunt. I breed ‘em myself – champion trackers, every one.”
Thor makes the appropriate noises and they continue on. But once they reach the mound outside, Thrymr collects his collars and turns to face Thor, who braces himself in readiness.
“Don’t look so fierce,” Thrymr says, grinning. “I mean no harm. I would just know ye a little without ye worrying what the Silvertongue will make of yer answers. I have known the elder Prince a long time. He wants to keep ye close, but sometimes, tis good for a warrior t’talk t’other warriors, eh? So what do ye think of the Uplands?”
“I did not expect to find such a welcome,” Thor says honestly, relaxing a little.
Thrymr lets out a bark of laughter. “The southerners treat ye like brittle sea-ice, did they?”
Thor thinks of Helblindi, looming and angry. “Something like that.”
“Ah, that’s the Konungskyn for ye. Fancy manners to yer face and whispers behind yer back. You won’t find their kind up north. We speak as we find. But the hirðverr has a long memory all of its own, and I don’t think it’ll ever forget what yer father did t’Laufey-King.”
“To Laufey-King?” Thor says warily. “Not to Jotunheim?”
“We were beaten,” Thrymr says bluntly. “Every war has a victor and it weren’t us. That’s in the hands of the Norns. But Odin-King put Laufey-King on his back and walked away and that, well, that were something else. Better he’d killed him. Better he’d had him on his knees. But on his back? The hirðverr won’t forgive him that.”
“I don’t understand.”
Thrymr’s gaze slides over Thor and Thor shifts uncomfortably. “Has the Silvertongue not explained it t’ye?”
“We haven’t – we haven’t talked much,” Thor says awkwardly, wondering how he has – yet again – managed to blunder into a conversation he isn’t sure he wants to have.
“Oh, really?” Thrymr leers, winking at him. “Well, I remember how that goes.”
A wave of heat sweeps up Thor’s neck. He would dearly like to correct Thrymr’s assumptions but he has a strong sense that anything he says at this point will only make this worse.
“Well, I don’t know how the Aesir do things -” Thrymr pauses expectantly, but Thor is not walking into that one, and after a long moment he continues. “But here, with us, tis the stronger that puts the weaker on his back when -”
“Yes, I see,” Thor interrupts quickly. “Laufey-King was made to look like a woman – like the weaker jotun, I mean. He was shamed.”
Thrymr looks at him oddly. “There’s no shame in being put on yer back,” he says slowly. “There’s great pride in giving yer seed t’a strong mate, and besides, it only means you have to wait for yer own turn on top. Laufey and the Allfather are both Kings, both equals. When Odin-King put him on his back, well, all that means is that the Allfather proved stronger that day. But then he walked away. He left Laufey-King lying in the snow, before all of Jotunheim and that – that be a great insult.”
“Oh,” Thor says weakly. Did Laufey want – did the jotnar expect his father to –
“How Laufey let go of the hate for that I’ll never know,” Thrymr muses, oblivious to Thor’s burning desire to talk about something else, anything else. “If it were me, I’d want to kill him. I’d want to put him on his back and press a blade to his throat. I’d want him t’know it were me. Yet Laufey-King has let you come here, and has even offered ye his firstborn. Ye! The son of Odin! I don’t know how he can do it. But that’s why he’s King and I’m only a Jarl.”
Thrymr grins suddenly and slaps Thor on the back.
“But that’s the past! Yer here t’court the Silvertongue, aye, and the rest of us if ye can. Laufey-King like as not wants us t’be courting ye, and not mentioning the fact that the last Aesir to come here was yer father, and he was here t’crush us.”
Thor blinks and says nothing.
“Ye and the Silvertongue, you’re the future. I’m old and I’m fat and I want peace, Odinson. A real peace, not this – this stalemate. So yer welcome here, and if ye don’t like me and mine, well, that’s too bad, but I’m not going to start a war over it. Yer my guest, and I’ll treat ye like any other. That’s the way forward.”
“I agree,” Thor says, when it becomes apparent that Thrymr has finished at last. “And I appreciate your...directness.”
“That’s me,” Thrymr says, his jolly smile clashing with his clever, focused eyes. “Blunt as a club t’the face. But I think we understand each other a little better now.”
“Indeed,” Thor says and now he is getting over the shock of the thought of Laufey and his father...fighting...he thinks he does understand why Thrymr has told him this story. And he would rather deal with Thrymr and his bluntness than the cold, suspicious gazes of Laufey’s court, for at least Thrymr is helping him to understand what his presence here means to the jotnar.
He looks at Thrymr, confident and relaxed, and decides to take a risk. “You and Loki…” he says slowly and Thrymr exhales.
“The Silvertongue has often been a guest at my Hall,” Thrymr answers calmly. “Tis a short distance from here t’Útgarðar and he be curious and fond of travel. I like t’think of myself as a friend t’him, though he might not like to hear me say so.” He sighs, and his ever-present smile slips away, leaving him looking suddenly old. “He’s not my sváss, if that’s what yer after. I lost my Thjazi a long time ago and no-one’s ever taken his place. No-one ever will.”
Thor is quiet, conscious that he has likely overstepped his bounds. He is not rude enough to pry further, but the question nevertheless remains lodged in his mind. He has picked up enough to see there is a difference between a sváss and a bedmate, though he does not quite understand it. Bedding and breeding, Helblindi’s voice sneers in his memories. That’s what he’s good for. Loki and Thrymr may not have been lovers as the jotnar see it, but have they slept together? He does not know why it matters so much to him, but it does.
“Tis about time we found out what yer betrothed has been up t’all this time, eh?” Thrymr says, interrupting Thor’s thoughts, and Thor does not miss the emphasis on your betrothed. They are not betrothed, not yet, and Thor has no intention of actually going through with it, but there is no need to antagonise Thrymr by pointing this out. He forces a smile.
“Oh, some kind of mischief, I imagine,” he says and Thrymr flashes him a proper grin.
“Yer learning fast, Odinson.”
By the time they make their way back to the sleeping quarters, Loki has finished his bath and is waiting for them, wrapped up in plush white furs and reading a book with an air of pointed indifference. There are many books and scrolls in the room, now that Thor looks properly, and he wonders how they survive the cold, damp climate. More magic, he supposes.
“All talked out, are we?” Loki says icily, not bothering to look up and Thor feels a grin spreading across his features. It will not help matters, but he is more than a little pleased to have triggered such a reaction in Loki. What had Loki said last night? What’s the harm in a little mischief between friends?
“Just about,” he says cheerfully, just to see Loki scowl. Ever since Loki’s teasing in the pool he’d suspected there was more to this jotun Prince than the sunny good-nature he’d shown so far. “I am going to wash up before dinner – if you have no objections.”
“None,” Loki says silkily and turns the page. “I am perfectly content as I am. Take as long as you like.”
“Well,” Thrymr says from the doorway, clearly enjoying himself, “I’ll go and keep the younglings entertained, so ye may bathe in peace. I’ll send some food up shortly. Enjoy yer evening, Silvertongue, Odinson.”
Loki sniffs and offers a lacklustre “Good night,” as Thor and Thrymr leave again. Thrymr eyes Thor with open amusement as he points out the bathing chamber, thankfully free of any giants, but offers no comment beyond bidding him farewell.
The bath is nothing like the pool in Konungsgarðr, being merely a huge tub in the centre of a roofed structure. The enormous, roughly circular bath is made from granite, large enough for Thor to swim in and surely big enough to hold half a dozen jötnar. Water flows from a stone spout high above one end and overflows the tub to drain into the surrounding grate, but where it comes from Thor has no idea, for it does not have the heat of the hot springs, nor the icy cold of the glacial rivers. It is lukewarm at best, and frankly, not very pleasant to sit in and so Thor washes himself quickly, having no desire to linger.
It is not until he climbs out and down the stone steps that he realises there are no towels and remembers Loki’s trick of drying himself with ice. Obviously it is something all the jotnar can do and Thor immediately regrets leaving his travelling cloak in the guest room. He has just about resigned himself to using his clothes when he spots a thick white fur tucked away in the corner, identical to the ones Loki had swaddled himself with. He dries himself off with it, feeling guilty at his poor temper earlier. Loki has been nothing but kind to him, and he has repaid him with irritation and suspicion. He will do better, he tells himself as he dresses, starting with a proper conversation over dinner.
It is a short walk back to their quarters and he is pleased to see that their meal has already arrived. He is famished and the plates of steaks and ribs and cheeses are far more appetising than anything he was presented with in Konungsgarðr. Loki seems to have forgiven him for his earlier daring and has put his book away in favour of explaining the new foodstuffs to Thor.
“This is hjörth,” he says, pointing out the marbled steaks and marinated ribs, “and the cheeses are made from hjörth milk. This is a stew, made with snarinna meat, druse and the eggs of the Snow Geese. I am sorry there is no whey drink, but the warriors likely finished it this morning. I could heat your kumis if you wished?”
Thor shakes his head; the kumis reminds him of small beer and is pleasant at room temperature. He attacks the rich meat with gusto, finding it to be not unlike venison or particularly good beef, and the stew tastes strongly of rabbit. This is more like it, he thinks, spirits lifting with the good food and drink.
Loki is also in a better temper, telling Thor amusing stories of mishaps that have befallen the hirðverr and Thrymr’s own hirð on various occasions; he does not say as much but hints heavily that the pranks were of his instigation and design. Thor cannot help but laugh, for Loki is a gifted storyteller, his eyes bright and smile wide as he describes the misfortunes of the large and dim-witted victims of his tale.
Thor is so enthralled in Loki’s stories that it takes him quite by surprise when Loki breaks off to eat the bones left on his plate, crunching them up with ease as Thor stares. He knows it is rude for him to do so but it is just so…strange. Loki and the jotnar do not seem as peculiar to him as they had when he first arrived, but seeing him eat is an unwelcome reminder of just how different they are.
Loki seems to sense his unease and stops. “My apologies,” he says, face placid, and Thor hates that, is coming to know it is a mask.
“No,” Thor says hastily, wanting to preserve the camaraderie they have shared. “No, please, continue. It is I who must apologise for my rudeness.”
Loki looks at him carefully before picking up another bone and biting down on it with an ear-splitting crunch. Thor grins and tears off another rib. It is not so strange, really, he tells himself. There are no plants here, and so the jotnar must eat what they can. It is only like the dogs that roam the halls of Asgard being fed sneaky table scraps, eating up the leftover bones and gristle and less choice cuts of meat.
Loki takes the pause in the conversation to ask Thor for a tale of his own, and Thor is happy to oblige, deciding on the time he and his friends snuck into Vanaheim for a little mischief of their own. It is a long story and he feels he tells it well; at least, Loki seems happy enough to listen and makes no attempt to interrupt as he describes at length Sif’s ingenuity, Fandral’s quick wit, Hogun’s determination and Volstagg’s steady reliability in both feasting and fighting. As he talks, Loki leans forward to steal the rib-bone from Thor’s platter, his cocoon of furs slipping from his shoulders as he moves, exposing his slender shoulders and bare chest. Thor abruptly realises Loki’s travelling clothes and jewellery are piled on a shelf on a shelf behind him. He stalls in his story-telling, gaze skittering over the furs wrapped around Loki. He has been naked all this time?
It does not matter, he tells himself firmly. He has already seen Loki naked and alright, yes, he will admit that he would rather like to see him naked again. But attractive as Loki may be, hair swept high, skin so very blue against the pale furs, it would not be fair to act on it. Loki is not just a beautiful stranger but a fellow Prince. After all, Thor cannot just tumble him and then refuse the betrothal, not without starting a war that could last another thousand years. Better to just befriend him, in the hope that their amicable relationship may go some way in helping forge a peace without a marriage.
It is hard, though, to hold on to that thought when Loki looks up at him from under his eyelashes, licking his fingers, one fur slithering from his body to pool on the floor, exposing yet more of long, lean legs and flat stomach. Thor coughs and resumes a much shorter version of his story with the sneaking suspicion that Loki knows exactly what he is thinking.
He finishes his tale and Loki thanks him for it politely. There is a gleam in his eye that worries Thor and so he casts about for further conversation.
“If I may ask,” he says, “what are ‘younglings’? Do you mean children?” It has been bothering him since it was mentioned.
“Oh, no,” Loki says, pushing their platter aside as Thor finishes his drink. “Younglings are adults. Hrimthursar children stay with their Clan until they become mature and are given their hjalmr – their helm, the hrimthursar headpiece, you understand? - and then they leave for a time, to live on their own, to learn new skills and to meet others. Some join the hirðverr, some wander the Staðr, and some come to their Jarl’s hall. They do this for a few years and then they go home, or they find a place for themselves. But while they’re in their travelling phase, the older jötnar call them younglings. You can recognise them easily enough; they are adult, but not quite fully grown. Most of them are our height or perhaps a foot or so taller, and they all wear wrist cuffs with the bindrunes for safe travelling on them.” Loki grins wickedly. “They are great favourites of certain older jötnar, because they are curious and fresh and very, very eager to learn.”
“Ah,” Thor says. “And they want to...watch us bathe?”
“I imagine they want a great deal more than that,” Loki says impishly, “but I am not in the habit of indulging them. You need not concern yourself with what they or Thrymr want. You are the Odinson and a guest. You may do as you choose.”
Thor nods but he knows it is not as simple as that, else he would not be in Jotunheim at all. But something about the wording strikes him as odd. “So if I wanted to, ah, indulge them, you would not mind?” he asks, incredulousness creeping into his voice.
Loki does not seem to mind the question at least. “You are not my sváss,” he says, “and despite the assumptions of our peoples, we are not yet tied together, by your laws or mine. I have no claim on you. If you wish to take a lover here, none would prevent it. Indeed, I believe many would be delighted, for it would show a great deal of trust and open-mindedness in both parties.”
“Surely there would be consequences?” Thor says, looking for a reaction. He should not be pursuing this line of questioning, not with Loki naked and teasing opposite him, but he cannot seem to stop himself. “For me to take a lover right under your nose?”
“It could be seen as something of an insult,” Loki says, and surely his indifference is a façade? “For you to spurn me and choose another. It would be assumed that you did so with my blessing, for it would be inconceivable to most that you would prefer a hrimthurs over an íviðja, or that you would risk the proposed alliance by dallying with a youngling instead of pledging yourself to a child of Laufey-King’s. But you are Aesir. Your ways are no doubt different. Much would be forgiven you for the sake of peace.”
“I am asking what you would think,” Thor says, exasperated with Loki’s calm, looking for a sign that he is not the only one wrestling with the awkwardness of their situation. “Are we not friends? Did you not offer more?”
“Ah,” Loki says, but remains silent for a long moment. It is not until Thor opens his mouth to ask again that he replies. “I would wonder why,” he says thoughtfully. “Why you would choose another and not me. You must know I am a shapeshifter, and so if it my body that is displeasing to you, I could easily become another. I would wonder why you would choose a stranger, unknown and unproven, when I am your friend and, I hope, have gone some way in earning your trust. But more than anything, I would be disappointed.”
“That I had not had the pleasure of your body,” Loki says with breath-taking casualness. “And that another had. I would dearly like you to fuck me, and I confess that I cannot understand why you will not. But as you say, I am your friend. Whatever you choose to do, I will accept.”
Thor makes a strangled noise that he tries to turn into a cough. Loki smiles gently at him.
“Are all Aesir as shy as you?” he asks and he sounds so genuine Thor cannot think how to respond. “Or do I make you nervous?”
“No,” Thor manages, “not nervous,” and he speaks the truth. It is not fear or coyness that has him shying away from Loki even as he cannot help but glance at where the furs sit loosely across Loki’s lap.
“Good,” Loki says brightly and he stands, holding the furs in place. “Shall we to bed, Thor? Much as I am enjoying our conversation, I find I am quite exhausted.”
“Yes,” Thor agrees, head spinning. Going to bed sounds wonderful. He would dearly like to not think or talk for a while.
But as it turns out, going to bed is not the solution he thought it would be. He hadn’t thought much of it until this point, but they are in a one room, single storey building. No partitions, no hidden spaces, bar the small adjacent toilet area. One large living space with just the shelves, chests, table and chairs and large bed in it. The one large bed he had noticed earlier.
Loki throws his furs onto the bed and looks over his shoulder at Thor, one hand on his hip. “Nervous?” he asks again, smirking.
Thor silently curses the Norns, his parents, Laufey-King, himself and especially his treacherous body which has a distinctively different response to the prospect of sleeping in the nest of furs with Loki than his frantic brain.
Loki laughs at his consternation and climbs into the bed. He makes two distinct heaps of fur with a visible gap between them, and curls up one side, leaving Thor plenty of room on the other. “You may trust me, Thor,” he says, once safely covered up again. “I am your friend.”
“You keep saying that,” Thor grumbles. He cannot keep up with this slippery Prince and it is worrying how much he enjoys the unpredictability.
“And I will continue to do so until you believe me,” Loki says, burrowing so deeply into his bedding that only his eyes peek out at Thor. “I have few friends. You should be honoured.”
“Should I?” Thor says, amused. “Is not Thrymr your friend also?”
“For his part,” Loki says, yawning. “But to him I will always be Laufey’s child and an íviðja of Útgarðar. Whereas to you I am Loki, and Loki only. That is worth much to me.”
Thor hums thoughtfully. That he can understand. And if Loki will insist on teasing him, well, there is no malice in it. And it is refreshing to be able to tease back, to have an equal at his side whom he need not fear agreeing with him out of fear of his father.
He is being too slow; Loki rolls his eyes and then rolls over. Thor actually has no qualms about undressing in front of Loki; he has been naked before his fellow warriors and friends all his life and he knows with no small pride he is good to look on. It is not Loki he distrusts as he slides naked into bed and carefully shapes the furs into a barrier between him and the huddle that is his companion. It is himself.
Loki’s hand emerges and as he sketches a shape in the air the faint light suffusing the ice-roof fades and vanishes, leaving them in the dim evening light. They lay side by side but worlds apart, and Thor stares up at the crystalline arches of the roof in silence, wondering at how he has found himself in such a strange place and with such company.
“What is Vanaheimr like?” Loki asks after a moment, a soft voice in the shadows.
“Hot. And green,” Thor answers, somewhat confused. Had Loki not understood his tale? Why ask now and not during his telling?
“And what is hot and green like?” Loki asks.
Thor shoots a glance at him, for he has had enough of being made fun of for one day. But Loki is not looking at him at all, instead playing idly with a corner of the bedding, rubbing the fur the wrong way and then smoothing it out, and Thor suddenly remembers that ever since the War, Jotunheim has been a closed and crippled world. Travel to the other realms is forbidden, and there is nothing hot or of a living green to be found on the ice fields or in the frigid oceans of Winter’s kingdom. How could Loki know anything of either?
But how is he to describe something that Loki has no reference for? He vividly remembers the intense, damp heat of Vanaheim’s rainforests, of how the lush jungle seemed to swallow you up and hold you tightly in it smothering embrace. He remembers the feeling of being surrounded by life, with shrieking animals, calling birds and great swarms of insects; the turquoise seas teeming with coral and flashing fish. He remembers Nóatún, the white city, rising elegantly from an outcrop of rock and coral, only reached by the delicate guest-boats that bob along the shore, a glorious jumble of tiny winding streets and white buildings with precarious extensions and balconies clinging to the island’s stone, wildly decorated with bright shells and feathers.
There is nothing at all like it in either Asgard or Jotunheim. But this is the first time since he arrived here that he has known something Loki hasn’t, and he finds he wants desperately to share his memories. He casts his mind about for something he can equate it to, and suddenly has a flash of inspiration.
“It is – it is like being in your volcanic pools,” he begins, remembering the warmth of the thermal bath Loki had taken him to. Loki does not glance at him but does nod, which is a reassuring sign.
“The air is damp and humid, but it is not from the pools of water. Instead, it is from the jungle – from the trees and vines and leaf mould.” He pauses, but cannot think of a better way to frame the question he needs to ask. “Have you ever seen a jungle? Or a green leaf?”
“I have read many books, and seen many illustrations,” Loki replies with a perfect calm, “including many fine colour plates of Vanaheimr’s tropical rainforests and great cities. But I do not know what it feels like to stand in the forest and feel the heat of the sun through the canopy. I had hoped that a seasoned traveller such as the great Odinson might be able to describe these strange lands to me in a way my books cannot. But I fear I am to be disappointed.”
Thor feels a great fool, but he knows a challenge when he hears one, and for all the arch tone of Loki’s rebuke he did not miss the way that Loki’s hands stilled when he was speaking. He may be no skald, nor a Silvertongue like this maddening Frost Giant prince, but he thinks he knows what Loki wants to hear.
“It is like being swallowed up by a great beast,” he tries, and this time, Loki turns to face him, edging closer. “The jungle feels alive, and if you listen closely, you are sure you can hear it breathing, hear its heart beating all around you...”
Loki listens raptly as Thor describes Vanaheim to him, striving to recall everything he saw and felt in that lush and tropical world. The more he speaks the closer Loki gets, until they are lying alongside each other, Loki now idly braiding and unbraiding sections of Thor’s hair where it spills beyond the fur barrier, prompting Thor with questions whenever he begins to run out of steam. It is pleasant, and strangely peaceful, and he talks and talks and talks, slowly and drowsily, until sleep claims him and Loki both.