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Wild Ambition Fortune's Ice Prefers

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“This is what you wanted to show me?” Thor says incredulously. “A rock?”

Loki clicks his tongue at him. “It is more than just a rock,” he says, waving expansively at the worn, pitted surface of what is most definitely a rock. “This is one of the most secret and magical places in Jötunheimr.”

Thor looks at Loki and then back at the rock. They are deep within the Ironwood, far from the castle, and have reached a dead end in the forest, for the way is blocked by a craggy escarpment, a solid, sheer rock face with a huge boulder at its base, broken and misshapen from its fall somewhere higher up in the cliffs. The boulder has no markings or carvings of any kind, only a hairline crack snaking from top to bottom, and apart from some doggedly persistent lichen, is clearly devoid of life or interest.

“You know I do not mind your games, Loki,” Thor says with what he feels is great patience, “but I do not see why you had to drag me all the way out here just to make fun of me.”

He does not see why Loki has dragged them out at all; it has been a hectic few days of hunting and fishing and chores, since Angrboða and Járnsaxa have left on some sort of training, and are currently making a slow circuit of Útgarðar’s borders, leaving Thor and Loki to fend for themselves. A day in the castle, idling away their time in talk and games was all he wanted today, and so he found himself somewhat irked when Loki tossed him a heavy pack and told him to prepare for a day’s exploring.

Útgarðar has changed many things for Thor, and an appreciation for a quiet afternoon with good company is only one example. He has been in Jotunheim a month now, and he is quietly amazed at how quickly the time with Loki has flown, and just how well they have settled into a rather domestic routine. Waking together; breakfasting together; making plans for their day while Loki rebraids his hair: it should be startlingly strange and yet it is not, and Thor wakes every day happy and content and looking forward to the new adventures he will have with Loki.

So far, though, this adventure is not ranking as one of their most exciting.

“I am not making fun of you,” Loki says, sounding horrified at the very idea, and Thor rolls his eyes. He knows now that Loki is at his most innocent-sounding when he is just about to spring the jaws of a trap shut.

 “You know, your grandmother once walked with Borr in these woods,” Loki continues with feigned casualness, watching Thor’s reaction from out of the corner of his eye. “I wonder if they ever came here as part of their courtship.”

“What?” Thor asks, completely nonplussed.

“Your grandmother? Your father’s mother? Is that not the right word? Odin’s bera, I would say, but that is not how you reckon kinship, is it?”

“You mean Bestla?” Thor says, wondering where Loki is going with this. “I never met her. She and Borr died long before I was born.”

“But you know of her? Bestla, born of Jotunheim, wooed by many and won by Borr, the great warlord of the Aesir? Bestla was an íviðja, like me, and so she made her home here, in Útgarðar, before she was taken to Ásgarðr. Surely you know this?”

Thor has never thought much on his grandparents – having never met them, they are merely characters in his mother’s tales, figures from a time unimaginably long ago. He has been told before that Bestla was of Jotunheim, but that she died well before Laufey’s conflict with Odin, and he has never dwelt on it, never thought through what it meant for his father or for him. Of course she was an íviðja; how else could she have lived happily in Asgard?

“Aesir men have no more seidr than our own hrimthursar,” Loki continues, and Thor really cannot follow him in all this. What does this have to do with the stupid rock? “Where did you think your father’s power came from?”

“Freyja of the Vanir taught him spellcraft,” Thor answers sharply; Odin’s magic is not something he likes to discuss.

“Yes, but the reason he could learn it was because of Bestla, because of the íviðja blood in his veins. And it is because of that blood that you have some power of your own.”

“I need Mjolnir to summon the storm,” Thor says uneasily. “I have no magic.”

“You are no seiðmaðr, no, but without your jötnar blood Mjolnir would be no more than a hammer to you: a great and unique weapon, but nothing else. Tell me, what other man of Asgard wields a power like yours? There are dozens of enchanted blades, spears and staffs scattered through the nine realms, but what warrior summons blazing fire or the fury of the oceans? Is it not only you who brings the thunder to the battlefield, who uses his weapon as a conduit for an elemental force?”

Thor is silent, for he has no answer to these questions. No, there is no other man in Asgard who has a power like his, but he has always thought it a gift of Odin’s, something bound up in Mjolnir’s forging, not in his own flesh and blood. He does not like to think of his father as a sorcerer, but it is true that he is the only man in Asgard to wield both magic and spear, to be both a warrior and a spellworker. His father rarely uses magic in public and so Thor had thought it a secret part of kingship, a distasteful necessity, and one he had hoped to avoid. But if this is true, then magic is in his blood, a legacy from his jötunn grandmother. It is a peculiar thought.

Loki seems determined to make his point. “There is magic in you, as there is in me,” he says. “Mjolnir is a wondrous tool, yes, but you embody the storm – you are a vessel for the thunder and lightning, just as she is.”

“Get to the point,” Thor says, exasperated, and Loki flashes a grin at him.

“I can use that power,” Loki says, wild-eyed and gleeful, reaching out to seize Thor by the hand. “I am certain of it. We can leave Jötunheimr.”

“Leave?” Thor says, wary of the manic gleam in Loki’s eye. “What do you mean, leave? You want to go to Asgard now?”

“No, no,” Loki says, fingers tightening around Thor’s; “you misunderstand. This rock marks one of the weak points between the worlds, and I am saying that if you are with me, I can open one of the hidden paths to another realm – we can sneak out, you and I, and sneak back, quite unseen.”

“Why?” Thor says bluntly.

“For adventure,” Loki replies, radiating excitement. “You can show me something of the other Realms you have told me so much about. We can go, not as Princes, bound by tradition and protocol and so on, but just as ourselves. Come on, Thor, let us have some fun, before -” He stops and for a heartbeat, something wavers in his face, something too complex for Thor to identify. But it is only for a heartbeat, and then he smiles again, eager and engaging. “Oh, let us have some fun,” he repeats. “Because we can.”

Thor regards him, all too aware of the murky undercurrent to Loki’s words, in which he can see only a flicker of truth, like a silver fish glimmering amid dark waters. Loki does not fully trust him, and that is a sore thing for Thor, for he has certainly given him no cause to doubt. But he can see that it is something in Loki that has unsettled him and he finds – he finds he wants to soothe, wants to help, and above all, wants to have as much of Loki as he is willing to give.

Besides, he thinks, as Loki’s excitement bubbles over him, sending a shiver of anticipation along his spine, this sounds like a grand plan, and he very much likes the idea of showing Loki something utterly new.

“You are certain you can keep us hidden?” he says and Loki makes a high keening noise that seems to be some kind of assent – or a victory cry, Thor thinks ruefully, as Loki beams at him.

“You will not regret trusting me,” Loki promises, far too glibly for comfort, but Thor lets it slide. He wants to trust Loki, and their little spats aside, has been well served by doing so. Besides, how much more trouble can he get into for trespassing in other Realms? He can only be offered up as a husband to one foreign royal at a time, after all.

“So, where do you want to go?” he asks, squeezing Loki’s hand.

“Álfheimr,” Loki replies promptly. “Show me sunlight, my golden Prince.”

Thor laughs at his over-the-top flattery, but is somewhat relieved by Loki’s choice. There can be no danger in going to Alfheim – there is nothing there but forest and sunshine, and the Light Elves are an inward-looking people, unconcerned with the affairs of Jotunheim or Asgard. And Ymir’s stones, but it will be good to see daylight again!

“Show me the way and I will show you the best of the Realm,” Thor boasts, pleased and happy, and entirely unsurprised when it turns out Loki has just about everything they need for his magic already packed in Thor’s bag.

***

The preparations are brief; clearly, Loki has been working out how to circumvent the closure of Jotunheim’s borders for some time. Loki produces two hooded cloaks, which have a soft, almost furred texture, like velvet rubbed the wrong way, but which are feather light, with none of the familiar weight and sweep of Thor’s cape. They are dove grey and feel entirely too insubstantial for Thor’s liking, but he settles one over his shoulders and notes that it is far too short and too small to cover either of them properly. Obviously not jötunn made then.

“These are shadow-cloaks, from Svartálfheimr, gifted to us for something or other, long before the war,” Loki explains as he bends to grab the hem of the cloak, currently hanging just past Thor’s knees, and tugs sharply; to Thor’s amazement, instead of ripping, the seemingly flimsy fabric just stretches and stretches until it brushes the ground. He inspects Thor carefully, tugging and stretching the cloak out, until it covers Thor from head to foot, and has enough excess for Loki to gather the one of the front panels and sweep it over Thor’s shoulder. “They’ve been tucked away for centuries, but I’ve re-warded them, and the original spells are still strong.”

“These will make us invisible?” Thor guesses, reaching out to help Loki stretch his own cloak. The Svartalfar are a smaller people than the Asgardians or the jötnar, and it seems these cloaks have never been worn before.

“Not exactly,” Loki says, peeping out at Thor from the shadow of his hood. “We’d need a helm for that. Anyone physically close to us will see us as we are – two hooded figures – but from a distance, whether a few yards or even from the fabled Observatory of the Bifrost, we will appear like shadows, just blurred darkness of no particular shape or interest. If your Heimdall happens to look to Alfheim this day, he will see two mysterious travellers, but there will be nothing to indicate that it is two Princes under these hoods. And the beauty of this plan is that even if he is looking for us, he will no doubt be watching the borders of Útgarðar, not the elven forests.”

“So we will be stuck in these all day?” Thor says, feeling swaddled already.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Loki says. “To be safe, we will need to stay mostly hidden at least.”

“It is very hot in Alfheim,” Thor warns him, as Loki bundles himself up entirely in the grey cloak. “And if we cannot take these off -”

“I will be fine,” Loki says confidently. “It will be a good learning experience for me.”

Thor is not entirely convinced by this, but at least if he is with Loki, he can look after him if anything goes wrong, and if the worst happens, he can always throw off the cloak and call for Heimdall.

“Ready?” Loki asks and Thor nods.

The knife is sharp and the wound shallow: three drops of Thor’s blood is apparently all Loki needs from him, and Thor gives them freely. One is for Loki’s forehead, dabbed on to his Kynlines; another Thor presses to where his pulse flutters at his throat, acutely aware of how Loki swallows hard at his touch there; the third, worse still, must sit on Loki’s tongue as he casts his spell, and Thor does his best not to focus on Loki’s lips closing around his forefinger as he licks the bright bead into his mouth.

He rather fails at that, and Loki’s gaze is still too bright to ignore.

After that little display, the rest of the spell is anti-climactic in the extreme. Loki draws some rune shapes in the air and makes some strange sounds, though whether they are words or not, Thor cannot tell, and with that done, takes Thor by the hand and makes to step forward – straight into the thin crack in the boulder, which is just as solid and unmagical looking as before.

“Loki -” Thor starts but he is tugged forward insistently and before he can get another word out, Loki is pushing him against the rock and suddenly, the crack is not a mere sliver but a yawning chasm and there is blast of hot air against his face and a relentless pulling: he is being dragged forward, the world tilting and twisting, almost like he is falling, gravity a sick tug low in his belly. He instinctively reaches back for Loki, managing to get a solid grip on what must be his shoulders, and he holds him close as they tumble forward, down, away – he cannot tell, for there is only darkness, but then, suddenly, a light, blindingly bright after so long in the twilight, and he screws his eyes shut against it –

Only to find himself stumbling, standing in the fresh air, the sun warm on his face, and as he blinks his eyes open, he is met with a sea of green leaves and the buzzing of a thousand busy insects. He is standing in another forest, a different large, misshapen rock behind him, and he tilts his face up to feel the bright sun of Alfheim beat down on him.

“It worked!” Loki gasps, sounding almost as shocked as Thor feels, slumping heavily in Thor’s arms.

“Aye,” Thor says, grinning, as he looks about and gets his bearings. “We did it!”

***

Alfheim is a warm and sunkissed land, of rolling hills and olive groves, luscious figs and tall cypress firs standing proud against the horizon. If Asgard enjoys an eternal spring morning, Alfheim embodies an endless, lazy summer’s afternoon, the light breeze bringing the scent of wildflowers and the sharp tang of the sea into the shade and shadows of the forest. The very air seems drenched in a living, honeyed gold quite unlike the bronze glamour of Odin’s city, and it is all too easy to while away day upon day roaming the endless rise and fall of the hills, wandering from valley to valley, emerging from shaded slopes to the undulating grasses of the flood plains and then following the slow, meandering rivers to where they met the warm and vibrant sea.

There are no cities of any kind to be found in the land of the Light Elves, and precious few towns. There is the great palace of Freyr, perched atop a rocky outcrop, Gerda’s graceful tower soaring into the sky, made of a warm sand coloured stone that glows in the evening sun. Instead of the hall that is the heart of most lords’ homes, Freyr’s sprawling state- and guest-rooms are organised around an open square with a fountain at its centre, a huge gathering space for the rare occasions the Light Elves find themselves in need of counsel, or the far more frequent times they come together to dance and sing and celebrate.

For the Light Elves do not farm or fish, but live on the fruits and wild vegetation of their bountiful land, and devote themselves to the arts, to music and poetry and all manner of beauty, in stone and paint and canvas. They have only one real industry and that is the care of the enormous vineyards and the fermentation of their wine, the best in all the nine realms. Each vine-master will trade as much or as little wine as they choose, for jewellery, or cloth, or trinkets, or whatever they find themselves in need of, and that is the extent of their care for the business and politics that shape the other kingdoms. All that has changed since Odin decreed Alfheim was now conquered, and a Lordship under Vanaheim’s exiled Prince, is that some of that wine is now bound for Freyr’s stone haven, from whence it is given to Asgard as tribute.

For Thor, it is inextricably linked with memories of his youth, for Alfheim was the first realm he explored with Sif and the Warriors Three, crashing through the stillness of the forests and plunging into every pool and stream they could find. It is a good country for small game, and an excellent one for boar-hunting, although Lord Freyr’s permission must be sought to kill one of the huge, golden-bristled barrow-boar that roam the woods. The elves themselves were friendly enough when encountered, although liable to appear suddenly and then slip away without warning, retreating at night into the heart of the hills, where no outsider was ever brought. Thor and his friends slept out under the stars, finding the night air pleasantly warm, or returned to Freyr’s palace for the feriae vinalia, the wild summer festival, where they drank and danced and were careless in their pleasures.

It has been a relaxed and relaxing land for a young Prince and his companions, but for many years now, an overly familiar one. But with Loki at his side, Thor sees it again as if for the first time.

It is quite something to see Jotunheim’s poised and smirking Prince lost for words, but it is not in Thor’s heart to mock as he watches Loki walk through the dappled sunlight of the wood. It is spring here, as it is in Jotunheim, but the difference could not be more stark: here, the broad-leaved trees soaks up the exuberant sunshine, spreading a canopy of verdant green over the forest floor, and the whole wood is bursting with the colour, emerald and jade and peridot, interspersed with tawny bark and flashes of the blue sky.

Loki ought to look out of place here, a creature of sharp sapphire angles amid the riot of colour and honey-thick sunlight, but it feels natural to have him here at Thor’s side as they wander through the woods, retracing the old paths Thor dimly remembers from his youth. Back then, he had charged about in great haste, forever looking for the next adventure, and even a few weeks ago he would have scoffed at the idea of simply walking around in another realm.

Yet now, he is more than happy to amble at Loki’s slow pace, watching him stop to marvel at the moss on the trees, to trail his fingers over the rough bark and pluck at the green leaves, clearly fascinated by the texture of the plant life. He holds a huge oak leaf up to the light, examining the tracery of veins on the underside, and the sun throws the rich green over his fingers, tinting them an extraordinary turquoise colour that Thor finds himself equally fascinated by.

As they continue on and the tree cover breaks, the rolling hillside is carpeted with flowers, an impossible tapestry of bright blue chicory, pink, white and red mallows, poppies and oxeye daisies and almond-scented bindweed. They come to a halt at the edge of one such clearing, and stand at the brow of the hill, gazing out at the view before them.

“It is beautiful,” Loki says, pushing his hood back, and there is a wonder and simple joy in his voice Thor has never heard before. Thor looks at him, a tall, slim figure in a silver cloak, surrounded by a thousand springtime blooms, wide-eyed and with parted lips, and his heart swells with a great rush of pride and affection.

“Yes,” Thor agrees, and, thinking of gifts given and received, and all he has been offered in Jotunheim, he bends to pick a messy bunch of wildflowers. He offers them to Loki, who inhales their faint scent greedily, dusting his nose and cheeks with golden pollen in the process. Thor reaches out to brush it away as Loki gazes at him over the flowers, but only succeeds in smearing streaks of gold across Loki’s faintly indigo cheeks.

The wind picks up and Thor shivers, glancing up; a blue-black cloud is rolling over the sun and he can feel the promise of rainfall in the sky and the air, the familiar sensation skittering over his skin.

“We should look for shelter,” he calls, moving back towards the trees, but Loki ignores him, watching the dark cloud sweep towards them. In seconds the heavens open, a sharp sudden deluge, one of the many heavy showers that keep Alfheim green and fertile. He unfastens the drape of his cloak and holds it over his head in a futile attempt to keep dry before looking to Loki.

Loki is standing out in the open, face upturned, smiling beatifically as the rain beats down on him. The loose strands of his hair are plastered to his face and his travelling cloak is utterly soaked, but he looks blissfully happy. Thor watches him, wondering, until as abruptly as it started, the cloudburst passes and the sun remerges, a sudden burst of heat and light that hits the sodden landscape like a blow.

Loki turns to him, still smiling. “So that is rain,” he says conversationally as Thor approaches.

“Surely you have rain on Jotunheim,” Thor says, though even as the words leave his mouth he realises it has not rained during his entire stay.

“Sleet, hail, driving snow – but not rain, not like that. Not as a sudden reprieve from the sunlight,” Loki replies, swinging the long rope of his hair to his front so he can squeeze the excess water from it. “It is…surprisingly invigorating.”

Invigorating is the last word Thor would use to describe Alfheim’s sudden and vicious showers, but his reply dies in his mouth as Loki licks at his fingers, tasting the rainwater that glistens on his skin.

“At least water is still water,” Loki murmurs quietly; it seems a peculiar observation but then, as the meadow begins to steam in the sunlight, the multitude of colours and scents all the richer for their sudden soaking, he thinks that Alfheim really is nothing like Jotunheim. If he finds the hammer-blow of heat and light a vivid change after the darkness of the Winter Realm, Loki must find Alfheim strange beyond all reckoning.

 “Is Asgard like this?” Loki asks, as Thor looks around and picks a relatively dry spot to sit down on.

“Not really,” Thor allows, “It is less hot, for one thing, and our forests are different – more pine and conifers, and they cluster more thickly on the mountains. Most of Asgard now has become part of the city – there are outlying farmsteads, obviously, but it is not as wild as this.”

“But still a land of green and gold,” Loki says. “And heat and light.”

“How are you finding ‘hot and green’?” Thor asks, remembering that first true moment of friendship between them.

“I think I could get used to it,” Loki says with a faint smile.

“I came here often when I was younger,” Thor says, looking out over the rolling hills to where, at the very edge of the vista, a patch of the cobalt-blue sea can just be seen winking in the dazzling sunlight. “I think we are in the west, the most remote and least visited part of the great forests. It is a shame, for you would like Freyr’s palace, and the marketplace in the piazza below. And Gerda’s Tower is a truly wondrous sight.”

Loki settles beside him, fastidiously arranging his cloak to best protect himself from the damp earth, and for a long moment says nothing at all, focusing all his attention on plucking the petals from the soggy flowers in his hands. “Have you ever met Gerðr?” he asks, when there is only one bloom left intact, studying the crimson markings as if they contain the answer to his question instead of Thor.

 “Many times,” Thor answers, idly playing with the fallen petals.

“What does - she look like?”

“She is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen,” Thor answers honestly and Loki snorts with laughter.

“Well, of course she is,” he says, cradling his last flower; “no íviðja would settle for less. But what, exactly, does she look like?”

“She is tall,” Thor starts, trying to remember the last time he saw her. “She has long black hair – at least, I think it is long. It was curled and piled up on her head, in the style of the Vanir. She has dark eyes, I think, and is dark-skinned, like Freyr and Freyja -”

“I imagine she looks a lot like Freyja,” Loki says and Thor frowns, dragging up his memories. In truth, he has not had much to do with Gerda, and when he has seen her, it has been at feasts and festivals, at which he was usually drunk and looking for other entertainment than talking with the Lord and Lady of Alfheim. Freyr travels back and forth between Asgard and Alfheim quite frequently, but almost always comes with a contingent of elves, and not his wife.

“Yes,” he says after a moment. “There is a likeness in the face between them, and they are both, ah, voluptuous women. I have not seen them together, but they are both great beauties. Why do you ask?” he adds curiously.

Loki looks at him as if he is stupid. It is a look Thor has come to know well over the past few weeks, and he is not any fonder of it now than he was the first time Loki looked at him so.

“Gerðr was one of the last íviðja to be given away in marriage for the sake of peace,” Loki says. “Freyr was exiled here after the war with Vanaheim, and Gerðr was banished with him, as recompense from being parted from his sister, who should have been his wife.”

“So?” Thor asks, for this is old history, from far before even of them were born.

“So, I wonder how she has survived here, in this heat and light,” Loki says. “No-one in Jotunheim has seen her since she left, and I wanted to know if she took the form of a Ljósálfar, for comfort, or of a Vanir, to please her husband.”

Thor thinks on Gerda as he last saw her, smiling politely at the Asgardian delegation, sumptuously dressed in a cloth-of-gold gown that draped over one shoulder and clung to her curves, offset by a wide girdle studded with fat ruby grapes and enamelled leaves. He remembers her careful manners and her stillness, her quiet reserve, so different to Freyja’s quick wit and temper.

But that was not really her, he realises, looking at the curling lines that decorate Loki’s blue skin. That was a form she had put on, to cope with the climate of a land utterly foreign to her, and now that Loki has pointed it out, he can see it is one designed to be a reflection of the sister Freyr lost to Asgard.

“I wonder if she is happy here,” Loki says thoughtfully. “She left Jotunheim before I was born, and has never returned. Perhaps it is easier for her that way.”

“She and Freyr are very happy together,” Thor says, feeling a little defensive, though of whom or what he is not quite sure.

“Oh, yes,” Loki says, still not looking at him. “Even in Jotunheim we have heard so. She has stayed here, after all, unlike Skadi.”

“Is Thrymr’s Skadi the same one who was married to Njord?” Thor asks; he had assumed so, but there had never been a good time to ask in Thrymstaðr, given how prickly both Loki and Thrymr were whenever the name came up. “The one who could not bear to be parted from the snow and ice, and so left her husband to return to her homeland?”

“Well, that is the story that is told,” Loki answers with a small smile. “Yes, Skadi Snowstrider is Thrymr’s child. This was all before I was born, you understand, but Thrymr says his heart broke the day Skadi was taken to Vanaheimr, and only healed when he found his way back. Skadi is the image of Thrymr’s sváss, Thjazi, and is all he has left of him.”

“What happened?” Thor asks; he dimly remembers being told about the trouble with Njord and Freyr’s jötunn brides at some point, but history and such studies have never been of much interest to him, and so he remembers few details.

“It is not a happy story,” Loki says, “and not a short one either. Perhaps another time?”

“We have time now,” Thor says, letting himself fall back into the grass, the crush of his body releasing a cloud of scent and scattered pollen. “And I enjoy listening to your stories.”

“Very well then,” Loki says, laying down beside him, but on his belly so his face remains shadowed by his hood. “This tale begins in the aftermath of the war with Vanaheimr, when Njord and Nerthus, brother-King and sister-Queen of the Summer Realm, were defeated by Odin, King of Asgard. The land was war-torn and with the death of Queen Nerthus in battle, King Njord was broken by grief, and could only stand by as the Allfather claimed his realm and his people, to do with as he pleased.”

Thor closes his eyes as the sun beats down on his exposed face, revelling in the warmth and the softness of Loki’s voice as he spins his tale, slipping into his easy storytelling rhythm. He has often heard stories of Asgard’s victory over Vanaheim, their first great victory back when the realms were more fractious, before Asgard brought peace and order to the universe. But already he can tell that Loki’s tale will be a little different to the versions he knows.

“The Allfather split the royal family apart, so that no vengeance or rebellion might be planned between them. Njord was left in the ruins of his palace, an empty figurehead, to mourn his sister-wife, and his children were taken from him, as hostages for his good behaviour. His son Freyr was given the Lordship of Alfheim, a position of great honour and little use, for the Ljósálfar needed no governing and would not be stirred to war, no matter what Freyr might do. His daughter Freyja was taken to Asgard and given her own great hall, where she might teach magic to the Aesir women and to the Allfather himself, and where she would be watched, night and day, to see she did no harm.

“Now, in Jötunheimr, Laufey-King looked on his old allies brought low, and sought to heal some of their wounds, without attracting the ire of the Allfather. There was little he could do to help Njord, desolate and grieving, but he saw that Freyr and Freyja had been separated before they could marry each other, and that would likely to be lonely and afraid in their exiles, and Laufey-King bent his mind to how he might bring them some comfort and help build new bonds for the future.

“After much thought, Laufey-King offered a threefold gift.  First, the íviðja Gerðr would be given in marriage to Freyr, for only a shapeshifter could withstand the heat of Alfheim, and no Vanir woman would take Freyja’s place at his side. Freyr had long looked fondly on Gerðr, and Laufey strove to show that despite their terrible losses, Jötunheimr still had great respect for the Vanir, and hoped to continue as their allies, even though they were now brokered to Asgard.

 Second, for much the same reasons, the mighty Thrymr of Thrymstaðr was offered to Freyja as a husband, for as a seidkona herself she could come to Jotunheim to live, and so would not have to live alone in the house of those who killed her mother. The jötnar and the Vanir share similar views on Asgardian marriage laws, and since Thrymr already had his sváss, Thjazi, living with him in Thrymstaðr, he would make a most gracious and easy-going husband, and the marriage would be one in name only. Freyja would have something of her old freedom, and could make her own home close to Útgarðar, who would welcome a seidkona of such power with open arms.

“Third, to ensure that Thrymr and Freyja made no mischief together, an íviðja of Útgarðar would go to Asgard in Freyja’s place, to teach magic and to be matched to an Aesir of Odin’s choosing, so that Asgard would lose nothing in this bargain, and also to show that Laufey-King desired peace with all realms and an alliance with both the Vanir and Aesir.

“And so, once the armies had disbanded, and the peace with Vanaheimr was settled, Laufey-King sent a delegation to Asgard, to put his offers were put to the Allfather, with every point carefully explained and many assurances given. Laufey-King and all the realms awaited his response most eagerly, and yet, when it came, it was not what any had hoped for.

“Odin agreed that Freyr was due a wife as well as a realm, having being deprived of both, and since this seemed a good bargain to all parties, this one offer was sworn and vowed ahead of the others, and Gerðr went to Alfheim, to live in exile with the Vanir prince. Some say that she went willing, head held high, for she had seen Freyr before and thought well of him, and looked forward to having a power and place in Alfheim she had never thought to have in Jötunheimr. Some say she went weeping, feet dragging, for she knew that she would never be allowed to return to Jötunheimr, and would live out her days in another skin, under a fierce sun and in the company of strangers, and that it took the command of Laufey-King in person to make her go.

“But whichever is the truth, all say now that she does well in the land of the Ljósálfar, that she is a good and gracious Lady to them, and that she welcomes that title and holds it in her heart, alongside a true fondness for the Vanir Prince. While he will always love his Freyja, and she will always mourn the ones she left behind, they have forged a respectful partnership, and they have both found comfort in each other, and in the company of the Ljósálfar.”

Thor grins to himself; the stories of Freyr and Gerda and their mutual fondness for the Light Elves Faradei and Aeltri are one of Fandral’s favourites. This isn’t quite what he meant when he asked for Skadi’s story, but he is happy to lie here, in the first sunshine he has seen in a month, and listen to whatever tale Loki wants to tell him.

“But Odin Spearbreaker did not agree to the other matches. He would not give Freyja up, for she was too valuable to him as a seidkona and daughter of Vanaheimr, and he judged the íviðja willing to come to Asgard unworthy of taking her place. The delegations went back and forth, back and forth, and the negotiations dragged on and on as Laufey strove to find someone else to exchange for Freyja, for no jötunn of high enough rank wished to go to Asgard to live among the Aesir. Likewise, Odin offered other women of Asgard to be given to Thrymr-Jarl, saying he truly did wish an alliance with Jötunheimr, but Laufey-King would not sacrifice an íviðja for anyone other than Freyja.

“But all this time Thrymr’s sváss, the íviðja Thjazi, was looking desperately for a way to have Freyja in Jötunheimr that would not see her married to Thrymr. It is said that he was mad with fear and jealousy, for all agree that Freyja is the most beautiful of all women, and he feared that despite the marriage being in name only, she would steal Thrymr’s heart and he would no longer be his sváss. As time dragged on, this foolishness grew in his heart, and his sense and reason broke. Thjazi transformed himself into a giant eagle and flew along a hidden path to Asgard with the intent of seizing Freyja and transporting her to Jötunheimr, thinking that if he brought her to Laufey-King, there would be no more talk of marriages, for it would then be a matter of defending Freyja in sanctuary, for he truly believed, as did all the jötnar, that Freyja would freely choose Jötunheimr over Asgard for her exile.

“It was madness, utter madness, and had he succeeded, would have meant war, for Odin would never have allowed such a theft to go unpunished. But as it happened Freyja was too well guarded and so Thjazi snatched instead the Aesir Idunn, keeper of the golden apples, and brought her unwilling to Thrymstaðr. Who can say what pitiful scheme was in his mind? All in Jötunheimr were horrified at his recklessness, but the damage was done.

“Of course the Allfather pursued them, and in the chaos that followed, Thjazi was slain and Idunn returned to Asgard. To avoid the war now on the brink of erupting between them, Odin and Laufey finally came to terms: to appease Odin, Thjazi’s child, the íviðja Skadi, would be given to Njord, a hostage and a punishment for what Thjazi had done, and Freyja would remain alone in Asgard. In return, the Allfather promised his as-yet-unborn heir would be wed to a child of Laufey-King, so that in the fullness of time Jötunheimr and Asgard would be united through marriage and not conquest.

“It was a poor bargain. But when one of his own had kidnapped an Aesir, for reasons none could properly explain, what choice did Laufey-King have? So Skadi went to Vanaheim, to be wife to Njord, an outcome desired by none in any of the realms. And of course the marriage failed, as all knew it would, for Skadi could not bear the heat and noise of Vanaheim, and Njord wanted no new wife, but still mourned for his beloved Nerthus and for the loss of his children. Skadi soon returned to the silence and snows of Jötunheimr, to live in Thrymstaðr and provide some comfort to Thrymr after the loss of his sváss, but in so doing, many treaties were broken and pledges undone. Odin Allfather and Laufey-King went to war soon after, though on other pretexts, and Jötunheimr has suffered for it ever since.

“As I said,” Loki finishes quietly, “it is not a happy tale, although Gerðr, at least, is said to be happy here, and Freyja too in Asgard. The rest of it is just old foolishness and pride. It is a sad story of little glory and many mistakes, and perhaps one best forgotten.”

Thor is silent. He has never heard this version of events before, and while he recognises that of course the skalds of Jotunheim would think differently on the war with Vanaheim than his own tutors, his history certainly never mentioned Laufey’s offers of marriage alliances as a way to broker peace between Asgard and the other realms.

More worryingly, it has never before crossed his mind that a jötunn would rather stay in Jotunheim than be consort to a foreign king. It seems foolish now that he thinks on it properly, but he has always believed that as Asgard is the greatest realm, all peoples would long to live there, and that the jötnar were envious of their beauty and wealth and wished it for themselves.

That the jötnar might want instead only to be free of Asgard’s control, and might prefer their icy winter to the warm spring of the Realm Eternal is a new and troubling thought. Does Loki want to go to Asgard, or would he, like Skadi, rather stay in his homeland and serve his people there? If he goes through with his plan to bring Loki to Asgard is he condemning him to a life of exile, surrounded by hostile strangers in a land too hot and bright and strange for him to bear?

Does Loki have a choice? Thor thinks, suddenly horror-struck. There has been much talk of exchange, of giving and receiving; Loki for the Casket, Loki as the price of peace. Thor has his mother’s word he can choose freely whether to accept Loki in marriage, but has Loki had the same choice? Is he choosing to marry Thor, to help his people or please his father, or is he being forced, being literally given to Thor, like the battle-axe from Thrymr?

Thor does not know. Loki has certainly seemed willing all this time; in fact, it was Loki who made the effort to bridge the gap between them, to forge a truce and a trust between them. But is that all because he must wed Thor and so seeks to protect himself by winning Thor’s affection before he is exiled to Asgard, where he will be friendless and alone?

Thor would be a brute indeed if such a thought did not disturb him. “Loki,” Thor says, propping himself up on an elbow and leaning towards him. “Do you want to go to Asgard?”

Loki looks at him, faintly surprised. “Yes,” he says. “Is this because of the story? It is only history, and was over and done with before either of us was born.”

“I know,” Thor allows. “But we have not spoken of our future much -”

“We have not spoken of it at all,” Loki points out, and Thor grimaces a little.

“Well, I am speaking of it now. If you would rather stay in Jotunheim, like Skadi, I will understand, and I can speak to my father -”

“No,” Loki says quickly. “No, I want to go to Asgard.”

“Truly?” Thor asks, needing to hear Loki’s answer. “You are certain you would not rather stay in your home, with your family? With Angrboða and Thrymr?”

“Of course not,” Loki says, as if it is a foregone conclusion. “I want you to take me to Asgard, Thor. I have spent a thousand years exploring Jötunheimr – I know every nook and cranny, every mountain and plain, every sea and shore. I want more. I want to walk in Asgard’s sunlight at your side. I want – oh, there is so much that I want, and Asgard is where it will all begin.”

“I am glad,” Thor says, feeling a weight lift from his chest. Loki’s enthusiasm is too vibrant, his excitement too palpable to be a lie. He does want to go to Asgard; there is certainly pressure on him to agree to the marriage, as there is on Thor, but he is not being forced into leaving his home, and Thor can rest easy.

“Truly?” Loki says, leaning in even closer. “Then you will not leave me at the end of the season?”

Leave you?” Thor says. “No, I – I would like to have you with me when I go home. I just wanted to be sure that you wanted the same, since we have not talked about it.”

“Oh, yes,” Loki says, eyes shining. “I cannot wait for you to take me to your home.”

Thor can see the faint traces of pollen still clinging to Loki’s Kynlines, the violet flush of his cheeks, and the rich ruby red of his eyes, so much deeper and more vibrant than the poppies that surround them, his cool, crisp scent tantalisingly sharp against the marzipan sweetness of the crushed bindweed they are lying on. Once, he would have seemed exotic and strange to Thor, a living embodiment of the fantasies revealed by warriors too deep in their cups to know what they were talking about. But now? Now, he is no stranger, not an enemy sporting a pretty face, but Loki, proud, prickly and utterly captivating, and Thor cannot imagine his life without him in it.

Thor is kissing him before he even realises he means to do it.

Loki gives a faint mewl of surprise but he kisses back, shifting awkwardly until Thor wraps his arms around him and hefts him bodily, settling Loki on top of him. He cannot feel much through the tangled folds of their cloaks, but Loki is a pleasantly heavy weight on his chest and across his hips, his legs tangling with Thor’s, and Loki slides one palm over Loki’s cheek and cradles his jaw and runs a thumb over the soft skin behind his ear, keeping his other arm slung over Loki’s back, the brushed velvet of the cloak bunching under his fingers as he squeezes Loki tight.

He is captivated by the feel of Loki’s Kynlines under his fingers, raised from his skin and yet soft, almost like scar tissue, and the low, vibrating moans rising from the back of Loki’s throat even as he kisses him. Loki is clutching at his arms, though whether it is to keep his balance or to keep Thor close, he does not know, and he can think of nothing but the taste of Loki, strange and yet familiar, his lips cool but his breath and tongue hot.

Desire roars through him at the knowledge that though Loki is but a swaddled form pressed against him, they are in perfect alignment, bodies fitting together just as neatly as their lips do, as if they were made for each other. Thor has wanted this since he first saw Loki, wanted far more than simple kisses; there is no sense in denying it, and yet, now he has Loki in his arms, he finds not only lust rising within him, but something richer, deeper, and it gentles him, keeps him languid and slow as he kisses Loki softly and sweetly.

When they finally part, Loki cannot seem to stop staring at him, and he remains still and relaxed within the span of Thor’s arms, regarding him with a quiet delight that Thor is sure also shows on his face. There is a single strand of loose hair falling across his face, loosely curled after the rain earlier, and Thor tucks it behind Loki’s ear in a gesture that feels more intimate than the hand on Loki’s waist.

“Well, well,” Loki says, voice thick, “it took you long enough, Asgardian.”

Thor laughs and Loki lowers his face even closer, rubbing his cheek against Thor’s, his Kynlines rasping against Thor’s beard as he nips lightly at Thor’s ear and tracks kisses along his jaw and down and over his throat. There, he presses a wet, open-mouthed kiss to where Thor’s jugular beats below his adam’s apple, and he is practically purring his approval and happiness, his chest buzzing with the sound as he stretches out, tucking his face into the crook of Thor’s neck.

Thor holds him close, heart swelling with joy, and kisses him on the crown of his head, indifferent to the harshness of the jewels amidst Loki’s dark hair.

He loves him.

There ought to be a great thunderclap at such a revelation; this new knowledge should burst over him like a wave, sweeping away all his certainties, for after all it should have been impossible for Thor, Prince of Asgard, to fall in love with a jötunn sorcerer and Laufey’s child to boot. And yet, as the words sink into his mind, there is no sudden shock, no fear or horror or unwanted surprise. Rather, it feels like the first time he hefted Mjolnir and felt her singing in his palm: a deep and profound peace, the sensation of finding a piece of himself he never knew was missing.

He loves Loki, and as he breathes, calmly and evenly, Loki rising and falling with his chest, he feels it expanding with each breath, feels the width and breadth of the new force that has grown within him, not a storm but a living tree, rooted deep at the heart of him and even know springing into new life at his fingertips. An Yggdrasil of his own making, picked out in shimmering joy.

A delighted chuckle falls from his lips and Loki stirs, shifting imperceptibly closer, his own fading rumblings still vibrating through them both.

“Something amuses you?” he asks, stroking Thor’s beard, dragging his fingers over the bristles to fluff them out and then smoothing back down.

“Only myself,” Thor answers. Months of fretting and planning, of worrying over how to escape his fate, and it turns out he was fighting the wrong battle all along. He will marry Loki, and forge a peace between their peoples, just as his parents want, but he will do so with a glad heart, and not for duty or honour, but because he wants to, wants Loki, and would have him whether he were a Prince of Jotunheim or the most wretched of outcasts.

I am going to marry you, he thinks, excitement fizzing inside him like sparkling wine, and you will be mine and I will be yours, always. It is on the tip of his tongue to speak the words, to roll Loki over and continue what they have started, to take what Loki has been offering him all this time…ah. No.

Loki is strange to him no longer, but their ways are not the same, and Thor does not want to misstep now. He wants Loki, desperately, now, but it would not mean to him what it would mean to Thor. The jötnar do not court the way Asgardians do, and Thor needs Loki to understand how much he loves him, that he wants more than just two friends sharing a pleasant interlude on a spring day.

It is a wrench to do it, but he catches Loki’s hand with his own and stills it before rolling over, gently easing Loki away from his body. Loki goes willingly, the tip of his tongue pressed to his upper lip, but Thor looks away and pushes himself to his feet, suddenly glad of the constricting cloaks, for it hides both his and Loki’s reactions to their aborted embrace.

Thor clears his throat as Loki slowly gets to his feet and stands by him, his face a perfect mask of calm. “Loki,” he begins, proud at how collected he sounds despite his tumult of emotions. “I give you my word I will take you to Asgard. But I want you to understand that -”

“Oh, do not fret,” Loki says with a slightly forced laugh bending down to brush petals and grass from his cloak, hood falling over his face as he does so. “I understand perfectly.”

“Let me explain,” Thor says, not at all sure that he does, wondering how best to explain the difference between bedding a friend and courting one’s beloved, and why the latter takes longer and involves more restraint. “You are dear to me, and I -”

“Yes, yes,” Loki says as he straightens back up. “But surely now is not the time to speak of such things? We have an afternoon of adventure to plan instead.”

Thor blinks. Is this – did their kiss mean so little to him? Does he already know how Thor feels – or does he think that Thor kissed him on a whim? And what does he feel? “I think we should talk now,” Thor says, keen to make himself clear. “Loki, I -”

Swift as an arrow Loki is before him, brushing a feather-light kiss over his lips before dancing away. “Later,” he says, eyes gleaming in the shadow of his hood. “Let us just have this afternoon? Please, Thor?”

Thor looks at him for a long moment before deciding. “If that is what you want,” he says with a shrug. He still cannot follow the twists and turns of Loki’s mind, but what does it matter so long as Loki is smiling and happy? They have time, after all, and if Loki does not yet love him, well, he will just have to try harder to prove himself a worthy mate, starting here and now.

 “So what do you want to do here?” Thor asks, fully expecting Loki to have some scheme in mind; Loki likes to chastise him for his restlessness, but he has yet to spend a day with Loki without being subject to one of Loki’s plans.

“Well, since you ask,” Loki starts, radiating innocence, and Thor tamps down his knowing grin; “Before you…side-tracked me, I was thinking that we might look for a gullinbursti.”

“You want to hunt a barrow-boar?”

“Not hunt, exactly; it would call too much attention to us, and besides, spring is a poor time for baiting. But I am keen to have some of the golden bristles from the boar’s back, and I think that together, we could manage it.”

“What do you want with pig’s bristles, of all things?”

“I mean to make a gift of them,” Loki says mischievously, and Thor has no idea if he is serious or not. Ah, well, what does it matter? Plucking bristles from the mane of a boar sounds like an exciting test of skill and courage and an excellent way to impress Loki and win him a token – however peculiar.

“I have not hunted boar here in years,” Thor says thoughtfully, “but from what I remember, the gullinbursti favour the thickest parts of the wood.”

“Excellent,” Loki says briskly, obviously setting their interlude in the meadow aside. “We shall start there.”

***

Thor fancies himself a good tracker, and Loki’s eyes are sharp, even in this unfamiliar and brightly lit terrain, and yet it still takes them some hours to pick up the trail of a small family of boar and stealthily creep up on them. He and Loki crouch in the bushes upwind of the group, and look for a target. It is a very small group of only two adult females, heavy set and covered in golden fur, with a thick ridged mane of bristles so bright they almost seem to glow, currently sleeping side by side and surrounded by their plump, marbled young.

Thor has often hunted boar here, but always with dogs and spears and a great company; he has not ever had the chance to face one of the legendary golden barrow-boars with only one companion, and certainly not unarmed. He cannot kill the beasts, not without causing enormous offence to Freyr and the Light Elves, and he has no intention of starting any more inter-realm conflicts. A solitary male would be easier to outflank, and less vicious than the breeding sows, but Thor is raring for a challenge and more than happy to try his luck with this pair.

“I want a good handful of bristles,” Loki whispers, mouth pressed against Thor’s ear so as not to wake the snoring sows. Even in the blistering heat, Thor shivers a little before nodding his assent and moving away. He begins to circle around the group as Loki melts away, moving almost silently despite the inconvenience of the damn cloaks. Once Thor is in position he waits, counting off the beats in his head, and then leaps out, bellowing a war-cry that has the startled animals scrambling to their feet in seconds.

Thor rushes forward to make a grab at a female, but manages little more than knocking her snout away as she opens her mouth and screams at him. She may not have a male’s curved tusks, but her teeth are still sharp and her jaws snap at Thor’s arms as she lunges for him, stinking of animal musk. It is pandemonium after that, the rotund piglets exploding outwards in all directions, squealing in terror, and Thor is whooping in savage pleasure as both females round on him, gnashing their teeth just before they charge, terrifyingly swift for such big, stocky animals and utterly fearless in defending their young.

There is no possibility of Thor capturing one of them now, but then, he had no particular intention of doing so: his job is to be a distraction and he is managing it wonderfully well, if he does say so himself, for both sows are intent of wreaking vengeance on his flesh and rush in again and again, twisting their heads to gore and bite, spittle streaming from their jaws and eyes burning with a fierce porcine cunning. Thor is somewhat hampered by the long cloak, and almost trips on a trailing edge; the moment he is unbalanced a sow is there, battering against his knees, and he grins and throws his weight squarely back against her, bowling her over in a flurry of screeching fury.

He’ll be in real trouble if he goes down, but he’s faced far worse than a pair of maddened mother pigs. Loki is somewhere overhead, perched in the branches awaiting a chance to swing down and pluck at the bristling manes, and the thought of Loki watching him spurs Thor to far greater effort than he would normally bring to bear in so light-hearted a game.

It is rather silly to use his battle skills against a couple of boars, but it is sure to make Loki smile and hopefully impress him, just a little, and so Thor puts some real thought into his ducking and weaving, actually managing to get a good grip on one of the sows as she barrels past, and with a grunt lifts her off the ground and fairly flings her away – she skids across the ground, screaming defiance, but is a little warier in approaching Thor now, feinting and bluffing, moving to try and put herself between him and the few remaining piglets.

It is a shame that he only has a handful of her regular fur for his pains, but as the sows snort and shuffle just out of his reach, they are in the perfect position for Loki to unfurl himself from an overhanging branch, legs locked tight, and reach out to pluck a thick tuft of the golden bristles from the boar’s neck.

The boar whirls nimbly on her back trotters and snaps at Loki, but he twists away and up, out of her reach, and she can only roar her outrage at him before deciding this is an indignity too far and bolting for the undergrowth, her companion hustling the last piglets away.

Thor is dripping with sweat and stinks like a pig, but he cannot stop laughing. What a mad thing to do!

“I trust you have your bristles?” he calls and a few moments later there is a thump as Loki lands from the trees, clutching his clump of golden hair.

“This is – thirsty work,” he says, breathing laboriously, and Thor is about to tease him –clambering about in the branches is not work, not next to Thor’s scuffles with the angry swine – when Loki’s pants turn to heaving gasps, and he slumps to the floor, shoulders heaving with the effort of simply breathing.

“Loki?” Thor says, rushing over; did the boar gore him somehow?

“I am – I am just overwarm,” Loki manages, struggling to stand, and as his hood falls back Thor can see he has flushed a strange purple colour, though his lips are pale and drawing back from his teeth as he pants.

Belatedly, Thor realises they have been walking and tracking for hours, and while it is cooler in the forest than out in the clearings, it is still very hot, even by Asgard’s standards. They have not paused for food or drink and now Loki is trembling violently as he tries to push the golden bristles into Thor’s pack.

“You have heatstroke,” Thor tells him, taking the bristles from him, worry and guilt roiling within him. “Why did you not say you were suffering?”

“I am fine,” Loki insists, swatting ineffectually at Thor’s hands, but even that effort is too much for him, and he is limp and listless as Thor hunts through the pack and offers the water skin to him.

“We need to go back to Jotunheim,” Thor says sternly, as Loki drinks half the contents and pours the rest over his overheated skin. “We can return another time.”

“I suppose so,” Loki grumbles weakly, and he is so groggy that he does not put up a fight as Thor scoops him up. His skin is warm against Thor’s, almost as warm as his own, which cannot be a good thing for a jötunn. “I do not need to be carried like a babe,” he hisses, but Thor ignores his blatant lying and simply sets off back the way they came, too concerned over Loki’s shallow breathing to find any enjoyment in carrying him so.

Thor has a few false starts, but manages to find roughly the area they arrived in, and thankfully Loki is awake enough to guide him back to the unassuming rock that marks the path between the worlds. It takes Loki much, much longer to cast his spell this time, and Thor must steady him as he stands, one arm around his waist, leaning him against his chest and supporting his head as he struggles to speak the words and sketch the runes. As soon as Loki is done, Thor picks him up again, and carries him through the breach, and this time Loki makes no complaint at all, but lets his head loll against Thor’s chest.

Thor cradles him close as the light fades away and they remerge into the cool gloom of the Ironwood, the cold like a shock of water as they fall to their knees in the snow. Thor hurries to lay Loki down, stripping them both of their bulky cloak and stuffing them into his pack. He watches Loki anxiously until his breathing slows and his colour returns to normal, silently cursing himself for thinking only of showing off, and not keeping an eye on how Loki was coping with the heat. It is a mistake he will not make again.

“What can I do for you?” Thor asks when Loki blinks and makes to sit up.

“Nothing,” Loki says quickly, affecting nonchalance as badly as an offended cat. “I am fine. I do not need help.”

“There is no shame in accepting aid from a friend,” Thor tells him pointedly, grasping him by the forearm and helping him to stand. Loki looks like he is trying to think of a reason to argue, but he stumbles the moment Thor lets go of his arm, and seems to think better of protesting.

“Thank you,” he says stiffly as Thor loops one arm around his waist and lets Loki lean on him.

“Well, apart from this little mishap, I would call that trip a success,” Thor says as they slowly make their back to the castle, hoping to tease Loki out of his embarrassment. “Would you agree?”

“Perhaps,” Loki says, but he is smiling slightly, and he remains pressed tightly against Thor even as he regains his strength, and that’ll do for now; their talk can wait until they are both rested and fresh.

***

Loki remains tucked in to his side all the way back to the castle, but as they walk through the main doors he stiffens suddenly and makes to pull away.

“Loki?” Thor asks, alarmed at the look on Loki’s face. “What is wrong?”

“Skrýmir-Erilar,” Loki says, but he is looking past Thor, to the grand sweeping staircase they have rarely bothered to use. Thor follows his gaze and blinks in surprise at the jötunn standing at the top, watching them both with an entirely flat expression.

“It is good to see you again, Erilar,” Loki says, carefully formal, inclining his head and Thor takes his cue as Skrýmir begins to descend.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Skrýmir-Erilar,” Thor says politely, letting Loki put a little space between them without a fuss. “I am honoured to be a guest here in Útgarðar.”

“Thor Odinson,” Skrýmir says, entirely without inflection, and even if Thor couldn’t see the likeness in the face, it would be patently obvious this was Angrboða’s bera simply from his attitude. “Welcome to my castle.”

As he comes closer, Thor realises that despite obviously being an íviðja, with one thick braid starting from the crown of his head and forming a tightly-knotted rope of hair down his back, Skrýmir is tall – very tall for an íviðja – a little over seven foot, and as such he seems slightly out of place in the castle, looming like a father in a nursery, able to perch on the children’s furniture but clearly too big for it. Like Angrboða, he favours plainer dress, with his kjalta closer to the plain leather of the hrimthurs than Loki and Járnsaxa’s elaborate fabrics, and he has a warrior’s look to him, with the sides of his head clean shaven and his jewellery restricted to dull copper and silver rings in his hair and on his fingers, and a thick but plain torc around his neck.

All in all, he is far fiercer-looking and more intimidating than the íviðjur Thor has met so far, but what is most noticeable about him is the way he lifts his head so he can look down his nose at Thor and Loki, and the curl of his lip has Thor’s hands itching for Mjolnir in the same way they did for Helblindi.

“Loki,” Skrýmir says, once the silence has stretched into uncomfortableness. “We have much to discuss.”

“Yes, Erilar,” Loki replies, almost meekly, and Thor cannot help glancing at him in astonishment. “If I might have a moment to freshen up -”

“No,” Skrýmir says bluntly. “I have been waiting for you too long already. You may have time to jaunt about in the woods, but I have much to do. Come, now.”

Loki darts a look at Thor before nodding. “Yes, Erilar,” he says, and Thor cannot quite believe what he is seeing. Why, Loki was not so cowed even when he was with Laufey-King and his sibja back in the south.

“I would like to speak to you, also,” Skrýmir says, turning his attention to Thor, who can feel a hot prickle of anger creeping up his spine. “Once I am done with Loki. You might wish to bathe in the meantime.”

Thor feels the insult, but he can sense Loki’s pleading eyes on him, and lets it go, choosing to remain silent since he has no fair response to offer such a poor host. He watches Loki trail up the stairs behind the Erilar and wishes dearly that Járnsaxa or even Angrboða were here, so he could ask something more of this lord. He had been curious about an íviðja Jarl, wondering if he would be warm and friendly like Thrymr, or stiff and cold, like Laufey, but nothing any Loki and his friends have said about Útgarðar’s master mentioned his insufferable arrogance.

Thor seriously contemplates not washing simply to annoy the Erilar, but since yes, he does rather stink of sweat and boar, he does make his way to the baths, where he scrubs himself quickly, quietly seething and rather worried about Loki. This done, he filches some dried meat from the kitchens – why should he change his habits simply because the Erilar is here, he thinks mutinously, willing someone to catch him – but there is no sign of anyone anywhere, and so he ends up kicking his heels in the library reading room, black mood growing with every minute he must spend waiting to be summoned.

At last, Loki appears, looking ill at ease, and Thor bolts upright from his chair and hastens over to him.

“Are you well?” he asks, and Loki nods, glancing over his shoulder.

“Yes,” he says, “yes, I’m fine, it’s fine, but Thor -”

“Odinson,” Skrýmir says, looming behind him, cold and imperious, yet again looking down his nose at Thor. “I would have words with you alone. Now.”

Loki’s gaze darts between them and Thor can practically see the wheels turning in his head, spinning lies to get Thor out of the impending confrontation. But he is not one to run from a fight, of any kind, and so he steps forward and lays a stilling hand on the small of Loki’s back.

“Very well,” he says, holding himself tall before Skrýmir. He is a Prince of a greater realm, and if this sorcerer-lord thinks he can treat him like an underling he is sorely mistaken. “Do you have a solar?”

Skrýmir’s eyes flash at Thor’s tone but he gives a curt nod and turns on his heel, clearly expecting Thor to tag along behind him. “I will meet there you in a moment,” Thor says to his back, and grins at how Skrýmir’s gait stiffens as he stalks away without a response.

Beside him, Loki swats him on the arm. “Must you antagonise him?” he says testily, tension strumming through his frame. “I know the Erilar can be gruff, but he holds great power here, and it would be wise to make a friend of him, as you did Thrymr.”

Unlikely, Thor thinks, given that Thrymr had a good heart and an easy manner, whereas this puffed-up jötunn seems made of naught but pride. “What does he want with me?”

Loki pauses and then smiles over-brightly. “To discuss our wedding,” he says lightly, teeth bared. “It is the talk of the realm, after all.”

“Loki,” Thor starts, heart racing a little, “we need to -”

“I know,” Loki says, serious again, his whole body turning towards Thor. “But you cannot keep the Erilar waiting. Speak to him first, and then we will talk.”

Thor grumbles a little, for he knows which conversation he feels is more important, but Loki has been oddly skittish around the Erilar, and for once, rank and precedence seem to matter. “Fine,” he says with bad grace. “But if I have not reappeared in ten minutes, I want you to come and rescue me. I am no conversationalist without you.”

Loki seems pleased by that, and so Thor takes his leave, confidently moving through the castle to the suite of rooms Loki has told him belong to the Erilar. While he cannot say he feels exactly at home in Útgarðar, the open parts are of the castle are now familiar to him, though the doors to the east wing have remained locked while Skrýmir has been away. Now they stand open, and Skrýmir is waiting impatiently by the large window of his solar. Skrýmir personal hall is less cosy than the reading room of the library Thor and Loki have been using, but is finely furnished and spacious, with everything on a slightly larger scale than Thor has become accustomed to. The furniture must all have been made to Skrýmir’s exact specifications, for it is too small for a hrimthurs, but slightly too big for Thor and the other íviðja.

Skrýmir is standing in the open space by the window, arms crossed, and he makes no attempt to invite Thor to sit in any of the half dozen or so chairs scattered around the room. A battle it is, then; Thor takes his place standing opposite the Erilar and offers neither greeting nor pleasantries.

Skrýmir slowly looks him and down and Thor returns his scrutiny with insolent ease.

“Odinson,” Skrýmir begins, mouthing Thor’s name like a curse. “I never thought to see you in my Staðr, much less my castle.”

“I never thought to be here,” Thor replies honestly. This is important to Loki, he tells himself; he cannot fathom why, but Loki puts great stock in this jötunn. He will try to be diplomatic at least.

“I have spoken to Loki about all this,” Skrýmir says, making a broad sweep with one hand, presumably encompassing Thor’s presence in Jotunheim, their proposed marriage, and who knows what else, “and I am not entirely pleased with his answers. I am not convinced this is the right path for him or for Jötunheimr.”

“I am here at Laufey-King’s request,” Thor points out sharply; who is this Skrýmir to decide what is the right path?

Skrýmir snorts. “Laufey may have borne him, but I have raised Loki since his magic first showed, and I love him as dearly as my own children. Loki is my sib’s child and the only thing I have left of him. Laufey has other children, two great warriors, two Öthlingr for the throne. I have my Angrboða and Loki, both rich in power and skill, true jewels of our realm. They have had their futures mapped out for centuries, and I have raised them, trained and taught them in preparation for their roles, so that they might bring glory and honour to Jötunheimr, and help to tend the wounds inflicted on her by your kind. Yet now my Loki is to be sacrificed? Now I am to accept that we must exile our greatest treasure to Asgard, simply to get back what is rightfully ours?”

“I understand that this is hard for you,” Thor says, temper rising in the face of Skrýmir’s contempt and his casual claiming of Loki. “It was a shock to me too, when my father told me of the marriage -”

“Your father?” Skrýmir barks. “Oh yes, Odinson, let us speak of your father and what he has done for the íviðja of Jötunheimr. Your father killed my sibb. Your father killed Thrymr’s sváss Thjazi and took Thrymr’s child as payment for what Thjazi had done. Your father gave Gerda to Freyr of Vanaheimr as payment for taking his sister from him, and exiled them both to Alfheim. Your father -”

“I am not my father,” Thor interrupts angrily, aware of the importance of this sea of names and old grudges, but refusing to tolerate such disrespect. Skrýmir only sneers in response.

“No. You are as much a playing piece for him to control as the rest of us. Or will you tell me you came to Jötunheimr of your own free will and not because he commanded it? That you would have chosen Laufey’s child for your bride without the Allfather forcing it upon you?”

“Laufey first suggested the marriage, not my father,” Thor counters, since he has no answer to the rest of it.

“Laufey pins his hopes on you,” Skrýmir says in disgust. “He looks to the future and sees you both as founders of a new dynasty. But I see no King here, only Odin’s son, as much a pawn as a Prince. I can well believe you have no thoughts beyond getting your hands on one as beautiful as the Silvertongue. But in giving you a bride we are delivering our greatest treasure into Odin’s hands. Do you expect me to believe that the Spearbreaker wants my Loki in Asgard solely to be your consort and bearer of your children? That he has no other plans for an íviðja of the royal blood so conveniently close at hand and shackled to his house?”

Thor is silent for a moment, mind racing. He has not thought anything of his father’s insistence that he marry Loki beyond what it means for him, but could Skrýmir be right? Is there something more that Odin wants from Loki than a settled peace with Jotunheim?

“When I take Loki to Asgard, he will be under my protection,” he says slowly, “I will protect him from any who would do him harm. Whoever they might be.”

Skrýmir snorts. “Oh, yes, Odinson. I can just see you defying your father and your King for the sake of a jötunn.”

“For Loki I would,” Thor says hotly. “I may not be his sváss yet, but I -”

“You dare,” Skrýmir snarls, stepping forward, and Thor instinctively braces himself, settles his weight forward and squares his shoulders. “Do not bandy that word about as if it means nothing. You are in Jotunheim, Asgardian. You do not name someone your sváss unless you would die for them. I may not be able to stop you taking Loki as your wife or husband or whatever empty word you call your enslaved broodmares. But I will not stand here and listen to you make a mockery of real love.”

“I do not know where you have gained such a twisted view of marriage,” Thor growls, “nor of my character. But I am telling you that Loki will be safe with me.”

“And you think that is enough?” Skrýmir says, and there is a fine white mist stirring over him, a sudden cold emanating from his body that Thor can feel even with the magic of his mother protecting him. “This is the love you offer him? You will make him a slave, but tell him he is safe as such, and think the word outweighs the shackles?”

“I am not making him my slave!” Thor shouts, temper snapping at the sheer injustice of Skrýmir accusations. “I am no tyrant, and will not stand to be named so. It is your people who talk of selling Loki to me – I am trying to do him honour and see him happy.”

“Words are cheap,” Skrýmir shouts back, his voice becoming deeper, louder, and the mist and bitter cold seem to deepen with it. “As is your bride-price. We do not muddy what is with empty air and hollow promises. Loki is worth as much as the Vetrformen to us and that is why we offer him up – to Asgard, to your damnable father and his greedy, grasping avarice. But what are you worth, little Princeling? Why should we give Loki to you?”

Thor grits his teeth and tries to remember that he is an ambassador for peace and that this is someone who is dear to Loki, though at this moment he really cannot imagine why. “I am his friend. I would be his -”

“Friends and sibja he has here,” Skrýmir snarls, and as he steps forward, Thor suddenly realises he is taller and broader, and growing more so every minute, his body swelling and thickening with every breath – he is becoming like a hrimthurs, towering over Thor as Helblindi had done, trying to overshadow and intimidate him. Thor is not impressed.

“You can give him nothing of value,” Skrýmir finishes, now as tall as Laufey and looking down at Thor with a sneer. “You are worth nothing to him, Asgardian.”

Thor punches him in the face.

It’s not as effective as he would like it to be, given that he must jump a little to reach, and he dearly wishes he had Mjolnir to properly smash the bastard’s face in. But it is gloriously, wonderfully satisfying, and though Skrýmir does not stagger back, he does rock with the impact, and there is a great spray of blood as Thor’s fist crushes his nose.

“I will give him everything,” Thor bellows, ducking to avoid Skrýmir’s incoming fist, dancing nimbly to the side and delivering a solid blow to Skrýmir’s vulnerable flank, just as he learnt to do while sparring with Bergfinnr in Thrymstaðr. “He will be my Loki, not yours!”

Skrýmir roars, the sound oddly musical but weighted with fury and power, and comes straight for Thor, slamming into him heavily. But Thor has been expecting it and rolls with the impact, not even trying to brace against Skrýmir’s superior size and weight, and instead uses that force to roll him clean over and get another good punch in as well.

Battle-fever roars through Thor’s blood, the fever prickling over his skin, and he loses all track of time and effort after that, aware of nothing more than the foe before him and the sudden coppery taste of his own blood as Skrýmir head-butts him, the crunch and crack of the furniture as they smash into it, the sensation of pure righteousness as he deals out punishment for the insults made against him –

But suddenly, there is another figure flickering at the edge of his vision as he strikes out at the Erilar, a flurry of dark hair and movement, and he comes back to himself in a rush.

“What is this madness?” Loki shouts, darting between them, flinging up great curved shields of ice on either side. Thor cannot stop his swing, but pulls the blow, and it glances off the shield, throwing up a flurry of shards; Skrýmir does the same, and Loki stands between them in a cloud of glinting icedust, glaring ferociously from one to the other. “Please tell me the Erilar of Útgarðar and the Prince of Asgard are not brawling like children!”

“Watch your tongue,” Skrýmir growls, looming huge and angry over Loki, though looking distinctly battered. “I am Master here.”

“Do not speak to him so,” Thor snarls, moving closer to Loki, reaching out to pull him behind him.

“Thor, enough!” Loki snaps, though he lets Thor pull him to his side. He looks up at Skrýmir and slowly, deliberately, bows his head and then tilts it back, exposing his throat. “Erilar, the Odinson has guestright here, and this is perilously close to violating it. Whatever the cause, this fight must end.”

Skrýmir makes a hissing sound of displeasure, surprisingly low and deep, but after a moment he steps back and gives the two of them some space.

“Thor, come,” Loki says, threading his fingers through Thor’s. “Please,” he adds, turning from Skrýmir to Thor, and though Thor would dearly like  wipe the contemptuous expression from Skrýmir’s face, given a moment to pause and breath, he knows that he must not. Skrýmir is not worth it.

And so he turns, squeezing Loki’s hand tightly, and walks away, doing his best to ignore how Loki keeps looking back over his shoulder.

***

Loki leads him from the hall down yet another of the castle’s twisting passageways until they emerge into the fresh air, threading swiftly through the castle grounds and out into the Ironwood. It is not until Útgarðar has vanished from sight, and Loki has led them to a clearing high up in the hills, that he stops and lets out a deep sigh.

“Oh, Thor,” he says, sounding disappointed. “What happened?”

“It was not my fault,” Thor replies angrily, wiping the blood from his mouth. Beyond such superficial scratches, he has come away from this just about unscathed, and he thanks his training with the Thrymkyn for honing his skills. “He insulted me!”

 “Skrýmir-Erilar insulted you?” Loki says in surprise. “What did he say?”

“He -” Thor stops, struggling to recall the words, licking at his swelling and bleeding lip. Loki comes in closer and lifts his hands to Thor’s face, ice thickening over his palms and fingers as he does so, and he gently applies the makeshift icepack to Thor’s bruises and split lip. Thor can barely feel the cold, but a pleasant numbing sensation soon spreads through his injuries, and it helps his head clear a little.  “He said I was no friend to you, and that I was taking you as my slave; he said – it was something about -”

“Me?” Loki finishes, sounding confused as he moves his hands over Thor’s exposed arms and places firm pressure against where the worst of the bruises are likely to be on his chest. “But Skrýmir is in favour of our marriage. All the north is.”

“No, he is not. He thinks me a brute, thinks that you will come to harm in Asgard, that I would not protect you -”

“Oh, I see,” Loki says; “Well, you must understand, Skrýmir has looked after me since I was very young, and thinks of me as his own. He is just worried. I am sure he meant no real insult.”

“He called me worthless!” Thor explodes, frustrated with Loki’s reasonable tone. “He said I was too weak to protect you, that I am my father’s pawn and nothing more!”

“Oh,” Loki says again, a small, flat sound that does nothing to soothe Thor’s sense of unjustness in this entire affair. Why is Loki not angry? How can he be taking the damned Erilar’s side in this?

“I was insulted,” Thor says again, sticking to what he is certain of. “I was well within my rights to defend myself.”

“Yes, of course,” Loki says, still infuriatingly calm. “Still, it is a shame you and the Erilar came to blows. It will make the rest our stay somewhat awkward, and I am in no hurry to return to the Konungsgarðr before our season is up.”

Thor’s temper snaps. “Awkward?” he bellows; Loki’s cool hands move away, but Loki himself stands his ground, right in front of Thor. “A lord of Jotunheim calls me a slave-master, sneers at my feelings for you, and all you care about is whether we will be welcome in his castle? Od’s blood, Loki, but I am beginning to think he is right, and I mean nothing to you at all!”

You doubt me?” Loki’s reasonable façade splits as he barks a laugh. “You have been here for nearly half the season now, Thor, and while all of Jötunheimr gossips about our upcoming marriage, you have said nothing to me! Why, until today, I did not even know if you meant to take me with you when you leave!”

“You have said nothing either!” Thor snaps. “Until today, I did not know if you even wanted to come to Asgard!”

“Don’t you dare blame me,” Loki flares, jabbing at Thor’s chest with his forefinger, the ice cracking and splintering away. “You are the one who does not wish to marry me! You made that quite clear! Do you know how hard I had to work just to get you to talk to me?”

“That was months ago!” Thor shouts, knocking Loki’s hand away. “And I was wrong!”

“Yes! Yes, you were!” Loki shouts back, resuming his jabbing, fingers mercilessly driving into Thor’s weak spots. “And so we are friends! But that is all!”

“You are more than my friend, you insufferable bastard!” Thor roars, seizing Loki by the arms and pinning him in place.

“Am I?” Loki spits, eyes gleaming with unshed tears, thrashing in Thor’s grip. “You talk of taking me to Asgard, but you shy like a spooked cub when I come close to you! You have kissed me twice and yet when I come to your arms, you want only to lie on your back and do nothing! What I am to make of this?” 

“I have only kissed you once,” Thor says, well tired of false accusations, “and I stopped because I am trying to court you properly!”

“Court me? What is this nonsense of courting? Our Kings have commanded we marry! We are Princes, not lovesick younglings!”

“I will not marry for duty! Only for love!”

Loki jerks as if slapped. “And I am not worthy of your love? Is that it? You could never love a jötunn, and so no matter what I do, you will not marry me?”

 “Of course I’m going to marry you! I love you! That’s why I want to court you -”

What?”

“What?” Thor echoes, wrong-footed by Loki’s disbelief.

“You love me?” Loki says suspiciously, eyes narrowed.

 “Yes,” Thor replies, tasting the truth of it. “I – yes.”

“And you do mean to marry me?”

“If you wish it,” Thor says, the words awkward on his tongue. He has not thought it through himself, but it feels important to be clear now, to lay out what is still only half-formed in his own mind. “I know it is an arranged marriage, and that being married does not mean to you what it means to me. You do not – I mean, I do not expect you to feel the same. I understand that ‘husband’ is not the same as ‘sváss’, but I think we could find a way to make it work together, like Gerda and Freyr, if that is what you want.”

“You mean take other lovers?” Loki says, eyes narrowing, and Thor’s stomach turns over at the thought of Loki with someone else.

“If you wanted them,” he says, trying to tamp down the jealousy that flares in him just at the thought of it. “I would not chain you to me, Loki, not when you might – you might find a sváss of your own, someday.”

 “You idiot,” Loki snarls, “you stupid, ignorant, selfish idiot. You are my sváss. I am already chained to you, whether I will it or no.”

“What?”

Habjakk,” Loki hisses, and the tone conveys what the Allspeak struggles to parse. Thor opens his mouth to protest, but Loki lunges at him, arrow-swift, twisting in his grip like a snake, freeing his hands so they can tighten cruelly in Thor’s hair as he drags his face down for a kiss, fiercer and wilder than before, as if he is trying to steal the very breath from Thor’s lungs, and Thor meets it, kisses him furiously, holding him as close as he can, their bodies pressed together until the only space between them is where their lips part to gasp raggedly for air.

“You love me,” Loki pants, trembling with emotion, eyes bright and teeth bared. “Say it.”

“I love you,” Thor says with a smile that threatens to split his face in two. “My Loki. My sváss.”

“Your betrothed,” Loki prompts, low and intense.

“Yes,” Thor says, and Loki tosses his head back and screams his victory to Jotunheim’s dim and clouded sky.